A soldier soaks some white bed sheets with piss until they’re stained yellow. Bright red vaginal blood runs down the inner thighs of a young woman — and not just once. The third character in Sarah Kane’s Blasted fondles his gun with more affection than he does his own cock (he jacks that off like a demented rabbit). Despite the graphic content, the play, set during an unnamed war, doesn’t set out to shock for its own sake. But that was the criticism leveled against it following its theatrical premiere in 1995, in London.
Those initial, contentious interpretations have since been recanted in the intervening years. Kane’s depictions of violence now seem predictive of what was to come — a societal tack towards chaos. But in comparison with mass shootings, actual ongoing wars and brutal video games and movies, Blasted’s vision of an ugly old world now feels muted. You can see that the playwright is screaming at the top of her lungs but the sound and fury doesn’t signify in the way it must have done at first. It’s harder to distinguish her voice from all the terrible clamor that’s on the rise.
Kane, who committed suicide in 1999, said that the idea for Blasted came to her while she was writing in a hotel room. Suffering from a temporary bout of writer’s block, she turned on the TV to distract herself. A news report showed a woman begging for help during the Bosnian War. The playwright was already at work on a play in which a couple was fighting. Instead of abandoning the idea, she found an imaginative way to merge her inert domestic melodrama with the war crimes she’d seen on the news.
Her artistic solution was to cut out the middleman, the TV screen, with its numbing ability to normalize violence. In Blasted, she erases the distance between a bourgeois viewer and a far-off war by bringing the conflict to life on the stage. She posits a philosophical formula: Emotional violence at home begets a discontent in the populace at large. The harmful things that people do and say to each other might start out small but they’re the seeds that grow into rancor and distrust for your neighbors. One couple’s psychic disintegration is reflected back to itself when the warring, outside world intrudes and reduces everything around them to rubble.
The play begins when Ian (Robert Parsons) and Cate (Adrienne Kaori Walters) enter his hotel room. She’s much younger than he is and seems impressed by a nice but ordinary hotel room. But what starts as a possible tryst quickly devolves into an aggressive, disturbing game. It turns out they’re not lovers. They’re former lovers but Ian can’t accept that distinction and won’t take no for an answer. Describing Ian as a misanthrope is an overly polite way of saying he’s engorged with hate, both for himself and everyone else.
Why were these two ever together in the first place? They’re stuck in a repetitive cycle of sadomasochism. He abuses and takes advantage of her. She resists him, is violated, and then retaliates. We don’t really find out the root of their psychological disturbances — the madness that binds them — because a bomb explodes and destroys their joyless idyll. Kane then introduces the Soldier (Joe Estlack), a sociopath irreparably harmed by the horrors of war.
He’s an avenging angel who punishes Ian savagely. The soldier doesn’t intervene on Cate’s behalf, nor does he ever interact with her — yet his actions turn the story into a revenge play. He rapes Ian the way that Ian rapes Cate. His barbarity may correlate directly with real world atrocities but he’s an abstraction in comparison with Ian and Cate. Once the last civilized walls fall down, he’s the nightmarish end version of Ian, a man whose conscience has ceased to exist.
When the actors take their curtain call at the end of Blasted, they look appropriately shellshocked. They must have asked themselves and found a meaningful answer to the question, “Do the ends justify the means?” Not everyone in the audience will reply with an unequivocal yes.
Blasted, through Oct. 22, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org/Online/