Know your past live your future

Sarah Kane by Bob Chicalors

Sarah Kane by Bob Chicalors

Illustration by Elena Durey

Artist and writer Bob Chicalors is a former deputy editor of Gay Times magazine, now producing the Margate queer zine Rumours and responsible for the deceased drag alter-ego Tracey Ermine. He’s not on social media and has a dumb phone, but does occasionally reply to emails.   

To butcher the very own words of Sarah Kane, I’ve fallen in love with a playwright who doesn’t exist. She stumbled into the British public consciousness in 1995 with her spectacular and notorious debut Blasted and took her own life just four years later, leaving behind five complete theatrical plays and a wildly speculative mythology. The Sarah Kane who is my queer hero doesn’t exist, because I’ve concocted her as completely as I can from these five plays. All the academia and proselytising gets in the way, and so from here on in I only want to talk about why she deserves a place in a queer bible. The Sarah Kane I fell in love with would get a kick out of this. If you know her work, it might resonate and if you don’t, I hope it makes you want to read it for yourself.

Sarah Kane’s Complete Plays is like a stretched, over-played mixtape in my bookshelf, one that I return to again and again and tend to read in one sitting like a novel. I’ve bought multiple copies over the years and give them out to lovers with the fervour of an evangelical preacher. Read this, then we’ll fuck. It’s riddled with the terrifying violence of intimacy (and there’s actual violence too if that’s your thing). To return to Kane’s work is to embrace a barbed comfort blanket, in the same way that I repeatedly go to watch Mommie Dearest for some campy laughs only to remember that underneath the big eyebrows is a two hour treatise on child abuse. It doesn’t stop me laughing or finding comfort.

I first came across Kane when I was an undergraduate in the early 2000s, the same time I was having my mind blown by queer theory and the anarchist squatters who were putting theory into practise. As my favourite DIY banner put it, “NOT GAY AS IN HAPPY, QUEER AS IN FUCK YOU”. My kind of queer. The kind of queer I think of as my version of Sarah Kane. Dark, aggressive, unhappy but not in the way you might have assumed - someone who knows the pleasure of misery.

Her debut Blasted is a horrible play that taught me how tightly constructed an idea can be to its own medium. Even in the reading my skin crawls at the bile that runs through Ian’s hateful words and there’s little cathartis when he gets his comeuppance. You get mixed messages because I have mixed feelings. That last line is Kane’s, not mine, but then I’ve pinched so many of her lines purposefully and accidentally over the years I sometimes forget. I idolise the version of her that I’ve picked out of her writing, the fragments that I’ve stuck together from the picture that has been torn up by life, by tragedy, by the failings to recognise her, help her, the violence inflicted on queers that tore through her work. My Sarah is a stuck-together collage of a person I can see myself in.

I’m not sure if I’m glad Sarah Kane wasn’t around to see what social media could do to her work. Crave can come off like reading a Twitter feed, it’s so packed full of terse one liners and endlessly quotable material (so nothing like Twitter really). As you read through the complete works you can see how she gradually breaks apart the form and structure of what playwriting, or of what writing, could be. Kane was queer, like her work. She was the first playwright in my world who blew apart notions of gender, of the slavish devotion to character - in her play Crave replacing them with a single letter, by 4:48 Psychosis not even conforming to the tyranny of allocating character at all. It wasn’t just gender, character, time and place she dispensed with but all the bullshit notions of how theatre is ‘supposed’ to be presented. It’s poetry and although it’s meant for the stage it has an audience in my head and haunts me at inopportune moments. Rats trail off with your train of thought, weeds blossom and you can’t quite work out where you heard that lyric before.

It’s tempting to always end where Kane’s life did, with her last play 4:48 Psychosis - I can say that around 2004 I was in a pretty terrible amateur production that went to Edinburgh Festival (there have been and undoubtedly continue to be plenty of student theatre groups mawkishly knocking out Kane’s work), so I think I’ve done enough damage there. Instead I want to leave off with Cleansed and think of all the relationships I’ve fucked up and how I never want to get married for love. It’s great that some queers in some parts of the world can but it’s such an inadequate default relationship model. In Cleased, a play where almost all the characters are systematically tortured, pushing relationships to their bloodiest extremes, when Rod puts a ring on Carl’s finger and makes the following speech it’s possibly the most romantic thing ever written.  

Rod: “I love you now.

I’m with you now.

I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you.


That’s it. No more. Don’t make me lie to you.”

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t get better.

Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.

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