happy endings

A woman laughs at a baby that has just died in her arms. Behind her a soldier is slumped on the floor, his brain splattered across the bottom of the wall. Close by, the woman’s abusive lover is shuffling on his knees, his arms stretched out in front of him reaching desperately for the touch of her body. He is blind. His eyes were sucked out by the soldier, who swallowed them and then raped this rapist using first a gun and then a part of his own body, and then stuck the gun in his gob and pulled the trigger. Later the woman buries the baby in a hole in the floor, and then leaves the room to hunt for food. While she is out her blind lover eats the dead child and shortly after that he, too, dies. The woman returns. She is humming and singing. She sits down, swinging her legs, gazing out at the emptiness.
This is how Blasted, written by the late Sarah Kane, ends. The play is a hopeless reflection on war; its achievement is to show the truly miserable detail of conflict and how acts of great violence are within us all. The individual quest for survival will in the end always defeat our dreamy desire to be humane. This month the play was performed brilliantly by three members of the Graeae Theatre Company at London’s Soho Theatre, and several things struck me about the performance (which was followed by a Q & A session). The audience – at least those who spoke – seemed determined to censor Kane’s insights into conflict. One woman insisted that Kane was always hopeful, always looking for methods in which she could offer us a way through the misery towards some great light. Another was sure that the survival of the abused woman showed that she had somehow defeated both her abuser and the soldier, revealing her character to be one of optimism, female courage and strength. Even Graeae’s director, the delightful Jenny Sealey (who offered us infectious humour and humility during the uncomfortably earnest questioning and answering), agreed that Kane was ultimately giving us hope.
This is perplexing. Kane offers us no personal optimism: she committed suicide. There is no doubt that she achieved much in her short life (she didn’t get beyond her twenties) nor that her talent is incredibly inspiring, but eventually she chose to end her life, to leave the world. I never knew Kane and would not want to assume any knowledge about her decision to kill herself, but each act of suicide tells us at the very least that the individual could not bear to continue living.
In Kane’s case, the least living audiences can do is to respect her decision to die and more importantly, respect her work. Attempting to revise her plays with soft pink clouds of hopefulness only lets Kane down. The only female character in Blasted survives, yes, but she is neither strong nor victorious. By the end of the play, she has become insane and is little more than a deeply traumatised survivor of war. She is lost, alone and abandoned, in a bombed out hotel in a bombed out city of Leeds. I find no optimism here – unless one takes the view that staying alive is in itself optimistic.
Watching Blasted in central London was not simply depressing because of the contents of the play. The contradictory responses of us, the London audience, left me pessimistic. On the one hand there seemed to be a general consensus that ‘we’ need to be dragged from our slumber and be forced to think about the real consequences of conflict. I would not disagree. On the other hand, there was a complete refusal to accept these real consequences, instead insisting that in the end everything is usually ok, in the end there is a silver lining to the clouds of violence, that in the end much goodness can be produced from this evil. It is here, surely, that those of us who are fortunate enough to live in countries where war is absent are kidding ourselves. We sleepwalk our way through life believing that the nastiness of war can and will always be glossed with goodness in the end.
I found myself thinking about the role of the media in portraying conflicts. Blasted, I felt, told me far more about war than many newspaper articles, and certainly far more than most television news items. I’m not sure what the answer is to all of this, but at the time I did certainly catch myself muttering, ‘Perhaps you should write a play instead… ‘
A very final word on Blasted, specifically the Graeae production. One topic that was never raised during the Q&A was the actors’ physical and sensory impairments. The soldier, for example, had no legs. Given how many soldiers do, in the end, lose their legs, I thought this was intentional and brilliant casting. But no-one, and I shamefully include myself, said a word about this. At the end of the performance, I leant across to my neighbour and whispered, ‘Wasn’t it amazing how you didn’t notice their disabilities after a few minutes!’ It was only later, indeed after I had found myself talking to the very same soldier in the bar downstairs, that I wondered if I too was falling into the same trap as the (rest of the) audience. Always looking for happy endings. But the man who acted the part of the soldier had no legs. In real life, he had no legs. And yet my initial response was to delight in the forgetting of that fact, the delight perhaps, in imagining that really, he did have legs somewhere down there. I just couldn’t quite see them.