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Rachel Zerihan



Rachel Zerihan


Revealing the Obscene: Sarah Kane and Catharsis






“ Increasingly, I'm finding performance much more interesting than acting; theatre more compelling than plays…Performance is visceral. It puts you in direct physical contact with thought and feeling. ” (1)

This paper will draw on critical analysis of Sarah Kane's playwrighting (un)covered in my examination of her works in PhD study, together with the practical experience of directing her second play; Phaedra's Love in Derry, 2000. Through formal displacement of her audience's corporeal and psychic securities, Kane re-figures the spectator's role to that of witness. The (ob)scene we are invited to bear testimony to emerges as one of heightened response due, I will argue, to Kane's phenomenological evocation of (in)humanity. In examining Kane's works I refer to the healing potential of (therapeutic) catharsis together with the less-examined role of the violation of philia relationships (kinship, friendship, love) as (political) catharsis also defined in Aristotelian tragedy. My paper proposes an analysis of Kane's image-works as traumatic embodiments of conceptual readings of catharsis.

As inferred in Kane's words above, a radical experimentation with traditional theatrical form was implicit throughout the trajectory of her playwriting, as her concern and approach towards performance is revealed. Considering the complete collection of Kane's four stage plays, I will argue that throughout the trajectory of her career, familiar ‘ theatrical ' counterpoints such as linear plot, character and narrative are consumed (or overtaken) by hyper-surreal imagery, non-narrative, indistinguishable characters and text not dissimilar to performance poetry. I examine Kane's theatre works as traces of this formal exploration that makes experimental use of spatial, temporal and visual systems of thought more closely associated with (image) pieces of live and performance art rather than realist or naturalistic theatre. This trend will be revealed in my paper and will include references to Kane's use of episodic scenes, her creation of images not dissimilar to pieces of art installation, her explicit use of performance as a forum for encouraging dialogue around urgent socio-political, gender and mental health matters, her increasing inclusion of text that acknowledges the audience (breaking any illusion of fourth-wall theatre) promoting a (more) truthful interaction between mise-en-scene and spectator and the candid inclusion in her works of personal concerns Kane had her-self. My argument suggests the necessity of a shift in our approach to Kane's play-writing which I will explore theoretically and illustrate practically through my adoption of a trans-disciplinary performance/live art approach in staging Phaedra's Love .

Metaphorical and literal depictions of disembodiment and inter-corporeality illustrate phenomenological issues that point towards Kane's continuous examinations of the troubling relationship of sensing (or not sensing) connections between mind and body, self and other. This concern is taken direct to the audience. The suggestion of the autobiographical in Kane's work is developed through her severe concern with suffering; from states of war, through the effect of institutional repression, from pained love through the loss of hope. Kane's ability to write out these obscene concerns are suggested as an effect of the impact of her life narrative on her work's narrative as a progressive and multi-layered catharsis.


(1) Kane, Sarah “ Drama With Balls ” The Guardian , 20 August 1998 p.12



Rachel Zerihan is working on a PhD that examines catharsis in contemporary female performance. Based at the Performance and Live Art Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, Rachel is drawn to performances that play in hybrid spaces that emerge from explicit experiments in theatre and body art. Other research interests include One to One performance, permutations of intimacy and the agency of risk in contemporary performance.



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