Every Tuesday through Sunday night for the past six weeks, unspeakable brutalities have been taking place onstage at the Soho Repertory Theatre: Rape, sodomy, sexual violation with a handgun and the cannibalization of a dead infant are just a few of the horrors. And people have been packing in to see it.
The play is Blasted. Written by the late avant-garde provocateur Sarah Kane, the play had its premiere in London 13 years ago but only just made it to New York last month. What took so long, you ask? Well, as Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson told the Village Voice, “it’s not a barrel of laughs.”
Indeed. But whereas the London premiere in 1995 sparked an outcry (one critic proclaimed it a “disgusting feast of filth”), the reception in Manhattan has been nothing short of ecstatic. Critics here gushed over the “astounding drama” and declared the production “worth the wait.” New Yorkers snatched up tickets like taxis in a downpour, prompting the theater to extend its run twice — meanwhile, performances continue to sell out, and people hoping for cancellation tickets queue up outside the theater night after night.
The Producers it’s not. So what’s driving audiences to these nightly torture sessions? We decided to investigate.
Blasted takes place in a hotel room in Leeds, where a racist, middle-aged tabloid writer (Ian) has come to spend the night with his much younger former lover (Cate), who appears to be mentally impaired. The two spend the evening sparring, and Ian rapes Cate during the night. Things get even uglier in the play’s second half, when a starving, machine gun-wielding soldier with an indeterminate accent bursts in, and a bomb blast rips the room apart.
When the soldier tells Ian about the wartime atrocities he’s witnessed and begs him to write about it, Ian brushes him off. People are hungry for sex scandals and other salacious dramas, he argues. War isn’t personal enough to pique their interest. Ian spends the rest of the play learning just how personal it is, and, in the too-close-for-comfort space of the 74-seat Soho Rep, so does the audience.
We’ll admit that we were relieved to be sitting in the back row.
But feeling uncomfortable is the point. Kane was part a new wave of young British playwrights in the 1990s who used extreme language and images to question social and moral norms. Sometimes called “in-yer-face” or experiential theater, the purpose is to make the audience feel what’s taking place on stage rather than allowing them to sit back and observe it.
In the years since Blasted caused such a stink, a lot has changed. Kane committed suicide in 1999 at age 28, and critics began to revise their early opinions of her work. Today, Blasted and the four other plays Kane wrote before her death are considered part of the contemporary canon.
So in a sense, we New Yorkers are seeing a different play from the one London saw in 1995. Back then it was the scandalous work of an unknown 23-year-old; now it’s a “masterpiece.” We now know that Kane’s influences were Pinter and Beckett; the violence in her plays has drawn comparisons to Jacobean tragedies. Perhaps that validation makes the experience safer in a way, more palatable to people who otherwise might not be into plays with anal rape scenes.
It’s not that the play is no longer shocking, but we’re prepared to be shocked. Not only that, we want to be. The play’s notoriety is undoubtedly part of the appeal. Ashamed as you may feel about it, the fact is when you hear that a play involves a character gouging out and eating someone’s eyeballs, there’s a part of you that has a desire to see that.
On a deeper level, there’s also a desire to be shocked into feeling. Kane believed in resensitizing people to violence, offering an antidote to the cartoonish stuff we see on TV and in the movies. Blasted allows us to experience how we might feel if we suddenly were thrust into one of those distant conflicts that seem to have so little to do with us. Kane further suggests, by juxtaposing Ian’s behavior in the hotel room with the behavior of soldiers in wartime, that humans’ capacity for cruelty is all part of the same continuum. We can’t really judge the characters because we see how easily we could be just like them.
Blasted isn’t enjoyable by any means, but it is riveting. As much as you want to cover your eyes, you can’t seem to look away. Was Kane a genius? We’re not sure. Maybe it will take another few days for us to collect our wits enough to figure it out.
We do know this: Blasted will likely shake you out of complacency, at least for a little while.