Phaedra’s Love is British playwright Sarah Kane’s second work. In it, she takes the story of Phaedra from Greek mythology and strips it down to a raw, brutal, bleakly humorous portrait of a contemporary dysfunctional modern family. In the first portion of my statement as dramaturg for a production of this work at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, I will explore the play’s relation to its source material, analyze its structure and use of language, and discuss where it fits into the context of its historical time and place. In part two, I will explore the larger significance of the play and its message, and its relation to Kane’s other works.
Phaedra’s Love takes the essential elements of the Phaedra Greek myth and turns the story into a contemporary tale of desire, familial disfunction, and existence. Kane sets the story of Phaedra and her children in a historical void, removing them from the mythical history of her family. In mythology, Phaedra is the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete. Her mother was cursed by Poseidon to fall in love and mate with a white bull, causing her to give birth to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Phaedra marries Theseus, the King of Athens who had slain the Minotaur with the help of her sister, Ariadne. Kane knew this story, and though it does not literally figure into her play, the influences are clear.
First of all, Pasiphae’s desire for the bull is not unlike Phaedra’s for Hippolytus: forbidden, taboo, and against the laws of nature. The similarities are heightened by the fact that Hippolytus, in the beginning at least, is portrayed as more animal than human. All he does is eat, sleep, and have sex–three animal instincts. And yet Phaedra cannot resist him. In mythology, both Pasiphae and Phaedra’s desires are the result of a god’s punishment. The women are literally powerless to resist. In Phaedra’s Love, the cosmology of the universe is different: there are no gods, and it’s debated by Hippolytus and the priest whether there is even one God. Phaedra’s lust does not come from a higher power as punishment, then. There is still a sense, though, that she is battling something that comes from outside of herself. “There’s this thing between us, an awesome fucking thing, can you feel it? It burns. Meant to be. We were. Meant to be…Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t,” she says to Strophe in Scene Three, expressing her feeling of powerlessness. Her feelings are not within her control. Though Kane never explicitly mentioned Pasiphe, her influence on her daughter is tangible.
Another major change Kane makes from the myth is to the character of Hippolytus. In Seneca’s play Phaedra, he is uninterested in his stepmother because he has devoted himself to Artemis, the virginal goddess of the hunt, and taken a vow of chastity. He actually gives an incredibly misogynistic rant about why it is best to have nothing to do with women. Kane makes Hippolytus’ rejection of Phaedra much more personal, though. He has sex with a lot of women, though it doesn’t mean anything to him; he just doesn’t want to have sex with her.
Kane also adds the character of Strophe, Phaedra’s daughter from a pervious marriage. There is no mythical basis for this marriage or child. In Phaedra’s Love, Phaedra learns that Strophe slept with both Hippolytus and her stepfather Theseus, and the shock of this betrayal, compounded with Hippolytus’ rejection, leads her to commit suicide. Kane adds an extra layer to the tragedy by adding Strophe.
The most dramatic departure from Kane’s source material is her use of extensive violence. The way in which Phaedra commits suicide–hanging–is the same in both the myth and her play, but the deaths of the other characters are different. In the myth, Hippolytus is killed because Poseidon sends a sea monster to scare his horses as he is riding along the beach, causing them to get scared and wreck the carriage. In Phaedra’s Love, however, he is literally ripped apart by an angry mob. He is strangled, castrated, disemboweled, and stoned. This makes his death much more immediate and violent. It also reflects the shift in cosmology in Kane’s play: as I mentioned earlier, there are no gods here. It is the people, the collective, who have the power. Kane clearly demonstrates the danger of mob mentality, as no specific person acts alone–they all drive each other into a frenzy of violence. The idea of the collective is actually very much a feature of the Classical mode–the Greeks were not particularly interested in the individual. Here, Kane takes that idea and turns it into a negative force: the collective causing the destruction of the individual.
Kane’s extensive stage violence not only alters her source material in terms of content, but structurally as well. In Greek drama, all violent actions took place off stage. Kane inverts that convention, however, with her incredibly graphic stage directions. In the last two scenes, we see a body burned on a pyre, a strangling, a rape, two cut throats, a castration, a penis thrown on a barbeque and then to a dog, a disemboweling, and a vulture eating a body. Kane has very specific reasons for using the extreme violence that she does in her plays. In an interview with The Independent shortly after the premiere of Blasted, Kane said, “There isn’t anything you can’t represent on stage. If you are saying you can’t represent something, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence, and that’s an extraordinarily ignorant thing to do.” She was using her plays to address the violence she saw in the world around her, rather than hiding from it. Though this brought her criticism and controversy at the beginning of her career, it also ushered in a new movement in British theatre, which I will address shortly.
Kane’s use of language is also a departure from the image-laden poetry of the Greek drama. In Phaedra’s Love, the characters speak in short, blunt statements where their thoughts and desires are laid bare. Her language is often raw and brutal; fragmented to just the essential ideas. An exchange between Phaedra and Strophe in Scene Three is typical of the style:
Phaedra: Have you ever thought, thought your heart would break?
Phaedra: Wished you could cut open your chest tear it out to stop the pain?
Strophe: That would kill you.
Phaedra: This is killing me.
Strophe: No. Just feels like it.
Phaedra: A spear in my side, burning.
This is one of my favorite passages in the play, because it is classic Kane. It starts with a fairly straightforward question using what has become a cliche idea: a heart breaking. But Phaedra’s next line takes the idea to a new place. “Cut” and “tear” are visceral, intense words that immediately evoke the very specific kind of love that Phaedra is experiencing. Strophe’s “That would kill you” is an attempt to bring her mother back into the literal realm, but Phaedra isn’t speaking metaphorically when she answers “this is killing me.” Her love will kill her. When she describes the pain as “a spear in [her] side,” it evokes the Greek origins of her story, since spears are weapons often used in their tales. Her use of the word “burning” will come up again later in this scene, and in the following one with Hippolytus, when he twice claims that no one burns him. Finally, in one of my favorite moments of the play, Phaedra responds to Hippolytus’ name by screaming. Language fails her, there is nothing she can say, she simply responds with an animalistic intensity of emotion. This is part of Kane’s brilliance: she knows how to use language to express drama, but she also recognizes the times when language is not the proper tool.
Kane’s stripped-down prose mean there is not a lot of poetic imagery or devices in her play, but she does utilize some repeating motifs. The most interesting and pervasive one is the image of consumption. Hippolytus is eating when we first see him, and he snacks through his scene with Phaedra as well. Phaedra and the priest both perform oral sex on Hippolytus, as opposed to some other kind of sex act. A barbeque, typically used for preparing food, figures prominently into the last scene. Finally, the last stage direction of the play is “A vulture descends and begins to eat his body.” Huger and consumption are major themes in this work.
One of the main ideas in Phaedra’s Love is the public’s fascination with and adoration of the monarchy. In this way, it was very much a product of its time. “I was struck that it is about a sexually corrupt royal family, which makes it totally contemporary,” Kane said in an interview with The Independent in 1996, shortly before the premiere of Phaedra’s Love, speaking about why she chose the Phaedra story.That year, the exploits of Princess Diana and Prince Charles were constant tabloid fodder, as they officially divorced that summer. The public and the media were obsessed with the personal details of their lives and relationships. They were hounded by paparazzi in a way which actually seems tame when compared to what people do today, but which was still invasive and damaging. When Hippolytus says to Phaedra in Scene Four that they are “the only popular royals ever,” it must have had a double meaning in 1996. Charles and Diana were incredibly “popular” in the sense that many people were rabidly interested in them, but at the same time many disapproved of the choices they had made, as details kept emerging about their infidelities. In this sense, the play very much comes out of a specific historical moment in a specific place. However, as the production I am working on at The Geffen seeks to point out, the play has a message and factor of relatability that goes far beyond a specific royal family. In our country, we don’t have a monarchy, but our celebrities are often treated as royalty. This play speaks to the danger of that kind of thinking.
Sarah Kane wrote Phaedra’s Love as a commission for the Gate theatre. As described on its website, “The Gate is the UK’s only small-scale theatre dedicated to producing a repertoire with a wholly international focus.” It specializes in European works in translation and supporting new works by young directors and playwrights. In his introduction to Kane’s Complete Plays, Greig writes that the Gate “provided a natural refuge for her writing to develop” (x). A refuge was necessary for Kane at that point in her career, since her first and only play up to that point, Blasted, had been so viscously torn apart by some critics. It was called “naive tosh” by The Guardian, “a truly terrible little play” by The Spectator, and “a play which appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey by way of excuse” by The Daily Mail. Greig writes, “Her simple premise…had been critically misunderstood as a childish attempt to shock” (x). Luckily, though Kane found this reaction “difficult and depressing,” she pressed on with her work (x).
One of the strengths of Phaedra’s Love is that it is an adaptable text; it lends itself well to productions which want to emphasize specific aspects. In the first production, which Kane directed herself, the barriers between the audience and the performers were broken down. Saunders describes how “seating was dispersed around the theatre, and no single playing space was selected. Nowhere was this more apparent than the bloody climax of the play, when members of the audience suddenly found that their up to then silent neighbor turned out to be from the cast” (80). In staging her work in this manner, Kane made it literally in the audience’s faces. She also underscored her point about collective mob violence: people who act in that way can come from anywhere. In 2001, the Royal Court Theatre programmed a season of productions or readings of all of Kane’s plays. Phaedra’s Love was given a staged reading in the main, downstairs theatre. This version of the play placed the emphasis squarely on Kane’s use of language, since there were no visual effects. An interesting production in 2011 at the Arcola Theatre in London incorporated projections above the stage with images of the London riots that summer, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Princess Diana. They used this footage to bring the play’s message directly London in that year. Since the play is set in a void without a specific time or place, this production was very concerned with making it immediate to their audience. Another innovative production at the Australia’s Siren Theatre Company in 208 set the play in a boxing ring, drawing attention to the way in which the characters literally and symbolically cause each other pain. There have been many more innovated productions of this work as well. These incredibly varied approaches to the text demonstrate its beauty and skill.
In an interview with Nils Tabert, quoted by Grahm Saunders in ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes,Kane called Phaedra’s Love “my comedy”, and it is a darkly funny piece (emphasis on the “dark”). It is a satire about celebrity, explored specifically through royalty. Saunders writes that “Much of the humour resides in the cynical retorts and that Hippolytus uses to cut through the defences and pretensions of the other characters” (78). In Scene Four, he tells Phaedra, “Women find me more attractive since I’ve become fat. They think I must have a secret” (77-78). It’s funny in its honesty, self-awareness, and lack of logic.
Phaedra’s Love is also an exploration of the meaningless of modern life. In a time when we are no longer guided by religion, what are we guided by? Our desires, Kane seems to be answering. The two central characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, have the same desire: sex. And yet they desire it for completely different reasons, and use it to opposite ends. For Hippolytus, it is an empty urge driven purely by biology. For Phaedra, it is the ultimate expression of love. She wants to use it to get close to him; he sees it as distancing (“If we fuck we’ll never talk again” (80)). This is the irony Kane is presenting: two people are involved in one act, but beyond that they have nothing in common. It is the distancing and disconnect of our modern age. The Collective has no place in the Modern Mode, at least no positive one. We are individuals, and we are on our own.
The themes of love, brutality and the intersection of the two can be seen throughout Kane’s ouvre. In an interview with Dan Rebellato in 1998, she said, “I write about love almost all the time.” Blasted does not deal with romantic love, but it does explore the possibility of redemption through human connection. Though the play is filled with rape and violence, it ends on a note of something like hope. Kane’s third and fourth plays, Cleansed and Crave, deal with love more explicitly. in Greig’s words, Cleansed asks “What is the most that one lover can truthfully promise another?” and Crave is about “love’s assault upon the wholeness of the self” (xii, xiv). From just these simple descriptions, it is clear that these are not simple stories about love; they are exploring the dark side of emotions and relationships.
Kane’s work is also well-known for upending theatrical forms. Blasted starts out as what seems to be a straightforward drama with two characters in a hotel room. Around halfway through, however, the room explodes, and suddenly the world has splintered into civil war and senseless violence. Kane begins by luring her audience into feeling safe and secure with the type of show they are used to seeing, but then promptly upends all expectations. In her later works, Kane explodes theatrical structure even further. Her fourth play, Crave, has four characters identified only as C, M, B, and A. Even this seems traditional and secure, however, when compared to her final work, 4.48 Psychosis. In this play, there are no characters and no plots. It reads more like an abstract poem than a performance outline. Directors have traditionally broken the text into three separate characters, but there is no set way of doing so.
The original director used the concept of “victim, perpetrator, and bystander” as the characteristics of the three distinct voices. The idea of these three roles is common in Kane’s work. In Blasted, each of the three characters embodies each of these roles in relation to each other at different moments. This dynamic can be seen in Phaedra’s Love as well, though the characters’ roles are much less clear. Is Hippolytus a perpetrator for causing Phaedra pain? Or is he a bystander, for not stepping in when he could have helped her? Is Phaedra a victim if she inflicts pain on herself? This concept could be the topic of an essay in itself.
Kane’s work will be perhaps best remembered in the world of British drama as one of the prime examples of “In-Yer-Face” theatre. Ken Urban, in “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” writes that “Kane’s Blasted remains the defining moment of British theatre in the 1990s…because it was a wake-up call: the critics had to recognize changes occurring in British playwriting” (37). Aleks Sierz, who coined the phrase “in-yer-face” in In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today in 2001, writes,
“In-yer-face theatre shocks audiences by the extremism of its language and images; unsettles them by its emotional frankness and disturbs them by its acute questioning of moral norms. It not only sums up the zeitgeist, but criticises it as well. Most in-yer-face plays are not interested in showing events in a detached way and allowing audiences to speculate about them; instead, they are experiential – they want audiences to feel the extreme emotions that are being shown on stage.”
Kane is considered one of the “big three” in the genre, along with Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Though the movement was very much tied to its time, the 1990s, its influences are still clear.
All of Kane’s works stand on their own, since they all radicalize a different aspect of theatrical form. When one reads them all in chronological order, a clear picture emerges of a young artist finding her voice, clarifying her thematic interests, and becoming comfortable with her untraditional voice. Perhaps Kane herself said it best, in the interview with Rebellato: “For me there’s a very clear line from Blasted through Phaedra’s Love to Cleansed and Crave and this one [4.48 Psychosis]. Where is goes after that I’m not quite sure.” It is a loss for the world that we never got to see where her work would go, but she left behind a body of work that few could match in four times her lifespan.
“About the Gate.” http://www.gatetheatre.co.uk/about-the-gate.aspx
Bayley, Clare. “A Very Angry Young Woman.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Jan. 1995. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/a-very-angry-young-woman-1569281.html
Benedict, David. “What Sarah Did Next.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 15 May 1996. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/what-sarah-did-next-1347390.html
Kane, Sarah. Complete Plays. Introduced by David Greig. London: Methuen Publishing LTD, 2001.
Kane, Sarah. Interview with Dan Rebellato. Studio Theatre, 3 November 1998.
Saunders, Graham. ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes. Manchester: Machester UP, 2002.
Sierz, Aleks. “In-Yer-Face Theatre.” http://www.inyerface-theatre.com/what.html
“Timeline: Diana, Princess of Wales.” BBC News. BBC, 07 May 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3868403.stm
Urban, Ken. “An Ethics of Catastrophe.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art , Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 36-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3246332
by Ramona Ostrowski