play twenty seven: cleansed


Author: Sarah Kane

Published: 1998

Synopsis: this is the first Kane that I have read and I find it difficult to articulate the explosion of images that it created within me. I’m going to fall back upon Mark Ravenhill’s fantastic Guardian article about his relationship with her as a writer, in which he said the following about Cleansed.

“[It] had been triggered in Kane’s imagination after reading Roland Barthes’s line that “being in love was like being in Auschwitz”. She had found his comparison morally repugnant but discovered that it stayed with her, and decided to write a play that explored her reactions to the idea. Cleansed draws a group of characters – a twin brother and sister, a gay couple, a peepshow dancer – into a concentration camp, overseen by the figure of Tinker, who is part Prospero, part Nazi commandant.”

I will note, though, that because of my understanding of Kane’s life I presumed that the framework was a psychiatric institution and that Tinker was the sadistic head doctor. I guess the beauty of theatre is that both of these understandings can rub shoulders comfortably.

What moved me: I have never read anything like this. I’ve never encountered a work that makes the idea of taboo seem superficial and unimportant. I’ve never read a text in which its theatricality exists on such a challenging scale: make a field of daffodils appear, or a giant sunflower; perform backyard transsexual surgery; have an army of rats carry human limbs offstage. What a dark dream to have to deliver.

play seventeen: how i learned to drive

the cadillac el dorado.
the cadillac el dorado.

Author: Paula Vogel

Published: 1997 (won Pulitzer in 1998)

Synopsis: Our narrator Li’l Bit takes us along the mainline of her difficult life and her fraught relationship with her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck. A series of purported driving lessons that extend from the cusp of pre-adolescence into adulthood explore the role that our rampant cultural misogyny plays in creating a social framework for psycho-sexual abuse.

What moved me: perhaps what I found most distressing about this work was the sympathy I felt for Uncle Peck. His manipulation of Li’l Bit is inexcusable – the abusive power that adults may hold over children is perhaps the most vile manifestation of control. However. Vogel gives him a monologue in which he makes his nephew promise that he will never be ashamed of his emotions, and we see his own suppression of whatever terrible demons (from his time as a soldier in the Pacific) force him to sometimes stand still, silent, choking so that this emotion does not spew out of his mouth. My sympathy led to self-disgust. How could I identify with this man’s trauma when his behaviour is so reprehensible? But that is the power of Vogel’s work. Humans are messy, complicated, loving, destructive beasts, and she forces us to encounter them fully.