Performing the Abject: Volatile Moments of Identity in Sarah Kane’s ‘Phaedra’s Love’

  • Abstract:

    The plays of British dramatist Sarah Kane (1971-1999) confront the problem of subject identity in a postmodern fragmented world in a radical and unsettling way. Within a reality that widely negates the traditional ways of experiencing identity (as well as its representation) in relationship, narration, or in notions such as character and continuity, her dramatis personae are endangered by a dispersal of self. Seemingly recurring to a Cartesian idea of a strict dichotomy between body and mind Kane shows her characters as driven by a strong desire to overcome the same. This aim, however, proves to be obtainable only in rare moments of suffering and in drastic ‘re-enactments’ at the threshold between life and death. Applying Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as well as Victor Turner’s concept of liminality in ritual performance, the paper sets out to explore Kane’s concept of identity, especially focusing on her second play, Phaedra’s Love. Analysing the protagonist Hippolytus’ radical and repulsive crave for authenticity within a consumerist society of spectacle it discusses the importance of the abject as a realm of self-encounter with the experience of disgust and nausea as means of self-perception. Furthermore, the paper argues that although in the corrupt society depicted in Kane’s play the idea of ritual has become distorted and dysfunctional, in voluntarily adopting the role of a perpetrator her protagonist (becoming the victim in a cruel performance) experiences identity, albeit in the moment of utmost torture and, ultimately, death. On a larger plane, Kane’s plays open up possibilities to theatrically overcome the fragmentation of the subject in the acceptance of its abject condition as “mortal and speaking” and for audiences to perceive identity through the means of performance on stage.