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Sarah Kane Made Me Want to Be a Theatre Critic. I Am One. Now What?

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Sarah Kane, in black and white, looking up to the right and sweater. Her left hand reaches up to tousle her own short hair. A gold speckled background behind her.
/By / Feb 20, 2023
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Content warning: this essay discusses sexual assault and suicide.


I’ll get over her someday. 

It’s a comforting thought. 

As recently as a year ago, some things felt certain: I’d be in a theatre again, perhaps even as a reviewer. I’d finish my play about Sarah Kane, which wasn’t really about Sarah Kane anymore, not really. I’d move out of the basement apartment in midtown and finally, finally figure out how Toronto’s streetcars work.

Well. 

Theatres re-opened, and I sat in over 160 of them, writing, crying, loving. To be back in a dark room was electric and gratifyingly normal. Seeing the same faces at each opening night quickly became routine. I spotted critics by their winter hats and coats and texted them on Uber rides home.

I finished Feast, my Kane-not-Kane play. I read portions of it out loud over Zoom to a group of my professors and peers at the University of Toronto. I graduated and closed the PDF for good.

I moved out of my midtown cave. And in retrospect, it wasn’t so bad, and didn’t Hannah Moscovitch once say that young playwrights should live in cheap apartments, and wasn’t living alone in Toronto under a groaning pile of books just thrilling? 

I don’t think about Sarah much anymore.

You probably can’t tell. This Artist Perspective might indicate I think about her lots, obsessively, longingly, nostalgically.

You can take my word for it. 

Or, between editing reviews for the week, I can explain.

The press didn’t kill Sarah Kane, and it would be reductive to say they did, but they didn’t much advocate for her, either.

When I started writing letters to Sarah Kane in 2021, I thought they’d go on forever. It never occurred to me I’d run out of things to say. Why get over the person you miss most, the English playwright you never met, never knew? The young woman whose abuse at the hands of world-famous theatre critics made you hungry to write, and to write better? The press didn’t kill her, and it would be reductive to say they did, but they didn’t much advocate for her, either. 

Years passed. Her mental health got better, and worse, and better again, then worse — you can see echoes of her mental state in the plays. She took her own life on February 20, 1999, leaving behind five plays, a screenplay, and a legacy as an enfant terrible.

Twenty-four years later, it still stings.


I met Sarah Kane and theatre criticism in the same breath. 

2019 began with a dramaturgy project at the University of Ottawa, one which would eventually bloom into a verbatim play about Kane. Deep in the throes of a broken heart, I wrote the outline, read the plays, slept little, ate less. The plays were the thing worth doing at a time when other things felt pointless.

When Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, made its debut in 1993, London theatre critics attacked it mercilessly, I soon learned. Blasted takes place in a Leeds hotel room, which deteriorates into a desolate, apocalyptic battle zone. It’s tough stuff: rape, suicide, war. But for many, it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century due to its experimentation with form — its progression from Ibsenish stage directions to Brechtian social commentary to Beckettian emptiness.

“A disgusting feast of filth,” the play was called by the Daily Mail. According to critics, the funds used to present the play might have been better spent on getting Kane some therapy — a petty jab which has lived on in the Kane lore. The play was immoral, indecent, reprehensible, critics said. Tabloid journalists searched for her, hoping for a quote that wouldn’t come; she hid well.

Multiply by five, and you have the canon of Sarah Kane. Bright works, tough ideas, and brave images, chewed to bits by snarky men in ill-fitting jackets at newspapers across London.

The history stuck with me. 

Reading Sarah Kane’s plays was the thing worth doing at a time when other things felt pointless.

I had embarked on my project wanting to learn about Kane’s plays — how they were staged, textures of costumes, inventiveness of directors — and instead found the more permanent archive of theatre criticism. Important details were left out in favour of moralistic outrage. As such, I don’t know the runtime of that first production of Blasted, or if the actors had believable Leeds accents. I don’t know the colour of Cate’s underwear, or Ian’s jacket, or the Soldier’s uniform. Maybe those critics didn’t feel it was their job to write such things. But the lack of documentation elsewhere perhaps suggests no one did.

I wanted to learn more about Kane. Instead, I was learning more about reviews, and getting angry.

That quickly became complicated, given I was starting to review theatre in Ottawa.

When I first started reviewing, it was as an artist. It was as an archivist. It was as a playwright frightened by what reviews meant, and what they could do. It was as a theatre person hoping to give back to my community: I tried to call out harm where I saw it — missed content warnings, omissions in representation — but I also tried to understand what the art was trying to do, and celebrate when plays achieved what it seemed like they were trying to achieve. Reviews were important for artists applying for grants, and for marketing staff making ads, and for artists trying to get their friends to buy a ticket. My colleagues, theatre students and playwrights mostly, talked about reviews often, and how seemingly broken they were in Ottawa.

Reviews were crucial to the theatrical ecosystem, but they were in short supply. I wanted to help fix that.

To my twenty-year-old self: the metamorphosis from disaster to playwright to critic will be slow. At times, it will hurt.

So I kept going. I took classes on criticism, and learned how to write better ledes, and immersed myself in the history of this thing that now pays my bills. I kept chipping away at Feast — through Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit, a formative experience which all but ensured I’d move to Toronto someday — but I kept reviewing theatre, too.

There was a pandemic, as you may have heard. Everything — playwriting, reviews, life — crashed to a halt for a while.

But the Kane thing kept eating at me. The first letter I wrote to her was as an artist.

The second was as an artist, too, but it was weeks before live theatre came rumbling back in Toronto. I wrote to Sarah last year knowing my time as artist-critic hyphenate was coming to an end. Within a month of that letter, I was reviewing theatre multiple times per week at Intermission. And not long after that, the Toronto Star.

This third entry is as a journalist. 

To my twenty-year-old self: the metamorphosis from disaster to playwright to critic will be slow. At times, it will hurt. You’ll read Sarah’s unpublished drafts. You’ll wish you’d done things differently, that the Kane obsession had been a more manageable burn. You will not write a single review without thinking about her.

But slowly, carefully, you’ll get over her. 

As a critic, you’re a bridge between the art and its contemporary audience, and you have a job to do. You have obligations — to the artists, of course, always, but to the audiences, too.

You’ll start thinking about the audiences reading your words. Should they spend their hard-earned time and money on a theatre ticket? Your review might hold the answer to that question. You’re not just a fly on the walls of Canadian Stage or Soulpepper, watching on behalf of future eyes. You’re a bridge between the art and its contemporary audience, and you have a job to do. You have obligations — to the artists, of course, always, but to the audiences, too.

Theatre criticism has come a long way since 1993, and I know that. But work remains to be done. Some reviews say more about the critics than they do about the art in question. Some are racist. Some are needlessly catty. Surely, there’s a way to write about theatre both honestly and safely, a manner of discussing the work being done without burning it to the ground even if it doesn’t align with the critic’s own tastes.

It’s a conversation I desperately wish I could have with Sarah, this cat-and-mouse of critic-and-art. For what it’s worth, I think she’d have loved the recent dog feces incident.

“Theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts,” she once said.

“No doubt that is why I keep coming back, in the hope that someone in a dark room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind, leaving a mark more permanent than the moment itself.”

Spoken like a true theatre critic.


Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, CBC Arts, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June. She was a 2024 fellow at the National Critics Institute in Waterford, CT.

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