16 Mar 2010, 2:12pm
leave a comment

4.48 psychosis

on friday i went to see defunkt theatre’s production of 4.48 psychosis, by sarah kane, a play i know very well. sarah kane was a british playwright in the 1990’s who wrote vulgar, violent plays that a critic described (along with works by some other playwrights of the era) as “in-yer-face theatre.” i mostly disliked her early plays when i read them (after reading 4.48), but 4.48 i love, and it feels important to me. it was kane’s last play, and she wrote it shortly before committing suicide. it doesn’t look like a play. there are no stage directions (except perhaps a few “(silence.)”s) and no specified characters whatsoever. some parts are marked as dialogue by dashes, while others look like poems splashed across the page (or stage?). it is deep, dark, and sometimes opaque and maybe incomprehensible. it is very human and parts of it are even funny.

i first read it during my junior year of college for a directing class. it took me four days to read it and i thought it was crazy and fascinating and i wrote, while directing a ten-minute section (including “to be forgiven / to be loved / to be free” and “i fucking hate this job and i need my friends to be sane”): “it’s such an interesting text to work with. i wrote in my notes: ‘i keep wanting to analyze this to death instead of figuring out how to stage it!!’ but it was the things i learned by trying to stage it that made me want to analyze it further, and vice versa.” the next year i wrote my undergrad thesis on women and psychiatry, sort of. here’s my not-very-exciting abstract, probably written in the wee hours a few day before the thing was due, after i’d spent way too many hours thinking about it to really know what it was about anymore:

In this thesis, I examine the function of creativity in madness (and vice versa), especially its relationship to decision and paralysis in The Bell Jar. I also explore embodiment in The Bell Jar and 4.48 Psychosis. My original play, Light At Night, which explores these themes dramatically, is included here as the second chapter. Finally, the third chapter recounts my experiences writing and directing Light At Night.

in the spring of my senior year, three years ago this month!, in the midst of producing and directing light at night, i also produced a production of 4.48 psychosis for reed arts week. from my application to the r.a.w. committee:

This project will try to include as many directors, actors and designers as possible, each of whom will interpret a section of the play as they did fit. The resulting production will be a whole with sharply contradicting parts—much like the human psyche.

it worked out all right. i divided the play into six sections of roughly equal length and gave each to a different director. i took one section myself (including “last in a long line of literary kleptomaniacs” and “did it relieve the tension?”) and directed myself and a friend in it to see what it was like to direct myself (the answer: it is difficult). we got everyone together once for a dress rehearsal the night before our one-show-only performance but otherwise worked separately. i found out at the dress rehearsal that the director responsible for the last section had found herself too busy and overwhelmed by other things to so much as get actors together, so myself and a few other participants got together and quickly divvied up the lines—for the performance we scattered ourselves throughout our venue, turned off all the lights and read the lines into the darkness with flashlights. at “please open the curtains,” all the lights came up again abruptly and we took a curtain call. it was actually sort of wonderful.

a lot of the time that year i was either miserable and convinced i was crazy, reading about how fucked up the psychiatric industry is, its history of abuses, etc, while simultaneously searching for myself in the d.s.m. (sitting on the floor in the library at night with the big book open in my lap. usually i thought i was cyclothymic, sometimes full-on bipolar)—or i felt high on my youth and my friends and my lovers and the sort of sexy mystique of the madness i was spending so much time reading about… i don’t know. it was confusing and beautiful and messy. i saw a counselor at the health center who asked me once what made me a good friend, echoing the first lines of 4.48: “what do you offer your friends to make you so supportive?” i couldn’t answer that question and it did not make me feel better. i liked to joke about how my thesis made me crazy, which everyone always said about their thesis, but i felt like i had some extra credibility w/r/t craziness ’cause i was reading and writing about suicide and stuff.

mostly i was writing about self-actualization, really, and sometimes i think that’s what i was reading about, too. that is a pretty recent realization, though, even though my favorite reading of 4.48 is the one given my graham saunders, who wrote what was basically the only book about sarah kane’s work that was out there when i was writing my thesis (maybe there’s more now), called ‘love me or kill me’: sarah kane and the theatre of extremes. saunders says,

it is almost the last line of the play—‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind’—that sets up the implication of not only all those voices belonging to one person, but that the ‘awful physical aching fucking longing’, in fact constitutes the search for self-hood…. One of the speakers asserts, ‘Body and soul can never be married’… For Kane…, ‘the only way back to any kind of sanity is to connect physically with who you are emotionally, spiritually and mentally.’

(that is a blockquote straight out of my thesis!)

in my thesis i talked a little about embodiment and performativity and also drew a connection between this reading of 4.48 and the bell jar’s esther greenwood’s own struggle against her body and eventual integration with it. i wrote:

Esther conceptualizes her suicide attempts as a battle between herself (“I”) and her body (“it”). She realizes, “I would simply have to ambush it with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all.” Her body’s stubborn refusal to cease existing is emphasized by its own mocking chant: “I thought I would swim out until I was too tired to swim back. As I paddled on, my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears…. I am I am I am.” After the attempt that lands her in a hospital, the vocabulary of Esther’s internal battle changes slightly; and rather than fighting her body, she acknowledges that something is wrong with her head: “if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head.” The disconnect remains, though, and is not fully resolved until the last chapter, a page from the end of the novel. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart…. I am, I am, I am.” The same repetition of “I am” seen earlier in the novel now plays a very different role. Where once it was her body’s inability and unwillingness to shut up and leave Esther to her peace—“I” meant “me, the body, mocking you, Esther”—it is now a reassuring mantra, in which “I” is the integrated self, body and mind, reminding Esther of her concrete existence in the world. This is the self that the speaker in 4.48 Psychosis struggles to arrive at without success.

incidentally it took me months after i graduated to really internalize the things i was writing about and break out of my own mind-body dichotomy and start getting sun and exercise and eating good food and feeling a lot saner.

in early 2008 i saw an excellent production of 4.48 at psu that i think took a different, more literal approach to the text. there was one central character, a leading actor, who was clearly institutionalized and suicidal. the other actors played doctors and nurses and so forth as needed, and the play as a whole was as straightforward as such a play can be made to be. textual nonsequitors like “RSVP ASAP” were seamlessly and beautifully incorporated—i think for that one it was an incongruous invite to an institution social club type event, sort of hilarious and banal… on the whole, that production was, in my opinion, incredibly successful. it was also a different play than the one i saw at the backdoor theatre on friday. i think it’s 4.48 that really taught me that theatre is a collaborative art, writer(s) + director(s) + actor(s) + designer(s) + audience + culture +…

i guess all of that is to say that i can’t write a review of the show i saw on friday, not really. i can write about the play and about what that particular production made me think and feel. i think that what i felt while watching the performance reflects more on me (and my history with the play) than it does on the production.

defunkt’s understanding of the script felt to me more like saunders’ reading. the lines were shared among three actors who sometimes spoke simultaneously and sometimes dialogued and spoke sometimes as though unaware of the others and sometimes as though painfully or tenderly or distantly aware of them.

(at least) two of the actors were wearing long-sleeved shirts with many zippers sewn into the inside sleeves. just before “oh dear, what’s happened to your arm?” they slowly pulled open a zipper each. it sounds a little cheesy but their sleeves gaped open and i was struck by that, by the opening. i thought about: letting what is inside out, and letting what is outside in. not too long after that point are the lines:

I can fill my space
fill my time
but nothing can fill this void in my heart

The vital need for which I would die

that last line parses weirdly for me, usually, but on friday i heard it for the first time as: i would die for that need. i would die to feel need. (as opposed to an awkward way to say: i would die to get my need to fill the void in my heart met.) later, close to the end of the play:

this vital need for which I would die

                                       to be loved
I’m dying for one who doesn’t care
I’m dying for one who doesn’t know

if “one” is herself, the pain here seems to me to be both that she does not/cannot love herself, and also that she does not/cannot care about not loving herself.

watching the three actors onstage move fluidly from one kind of relationship among themselves to another, i started thinking of even the most straightforward dialogue in the script—the dialogue between the speaker and a doctor figure of some sort—as a kind of self-creation or self-exploration process for the speaker. we as humans do this storytelling thing with ourselves (and with others), feeling out our responses to situations, rehearsing our reactions. while i acknowledged that possibility in my thesis (which i am sort of reviewing as i write this), in defunkt’s production, every conversation took on that quality for me.

where am i?

Sometimes I turn around and catch the smell of you and I cannot go on I cannot fucking go on without expressing this terrible so fucking awful physical aching fucking longing I have for you. And I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel nothing. Do you feel nothing?


Do you feel nothing?


And I go out at six in the morning and start my search for you. If I’ve dreamt a message of a street or a pub or a station I go there. And I wait for you.


You know, I really feel like I’m being manipulated.

What does she look like?
And how will I know her when I see her?
She’ll die, she’ll die, she’ll only fucking die.

it feels wrenching and familiar, human and maybe universal, to hear the speaker calling for this person—herself, i think—who is mortal… with whom any relationship is inevitably temporary and so difficult (because we all carry darkness inside us)… how do we put ourselves together? how do we identify ourselves? by our pasts, by what we do? how do we know ourselves? how do we love ourselves?

to be forgiven

to be loved

to be free

the production runs through april tenth; info at defunkt’s website here.



web site

leave a comment

tree landscapes  march