Two letters to Sarah Kane on the anniversary of her death

The photo of you taped above my bed frame. IMAGE: Jane Brown/The Observer.

February 2020: before the pandemic, while developing a structurally muddy play about a very dead playwright at a very important regional theatre in a very important regional city

Dear Sarah,

You don’t know me, I don’t think—all logic says you shouldn’t, being dead, and from another country and, well, dead.

But I have to tell you.

Bloor Street’s probably the longest street in the whole world.

This hasn’t been confirmed (yet), but as I trudge from my dramaturg’s gorgeous two-bedroom flat to the office spaces at Tarragon, I feel there cannot possibly be a more endless road to wander on a Sunday morning.

I wish you were here, that we could sight-see, leave footprints in High Park, shriek Beatles lyrics and look for rats in the snow banks, slug coffee from portable vats.

To me, a visitor to Toronto, a Baltimorean-turned-Ottawan, the TTC is still intimidating and vast, a swamp of noise and Canada Geese and red paper coffee cups. The buses are even less decipherable—learning even the basics of Ottawa’s OC Transpo has taken me the better part of my four years in Canada, so Toronto’s TTC seems a way off—and the fabled streetcars of the city are still myths in my mind.

Like you.

And so I walk.

It’s about four miles—sorry, six-ish kilometers—from Paula’s apartment with the spare bedroom and the soul-restoring late-night chats on theatre and academia and, yes, the dead and British playwright Sarah Kane.

You. 

Paula lets me ramble for hours, doesn’t even get irritated.

We sip tea, burn our tongues. You linger in the corner, watching, smirking, deceased.

My life is perfect and I don’t care who knows.

I wish you were here.

I’m writing a play about you.

And it’s going to get workshopped at Tarragon—yes, Tarragon, that one!—and then it will be workshopped even more in the UK over the summer, and then I will finally feel like I’ve paid my pittance to the artist who made me believe in the power of the staged image, in the poetry of the female psyche, in the gore and the goo of the human condition.

You made me reconsider the stigma of the brown rat, its disease and its murk. You made me see the beauty in plague, and, simultaneously, the rot at the edges of Canadian dramaturgical sentimentality.

You changed the wiring of my brain, and I tell everyone, and they laugh, because building a persona around a dead British playwright is a silly thing to do, and not at all the coping mechanism people love to presume I think it is.

2020 will be the year I stop missing you more and more with each passing day.

Sarah, wherever you rest now – you’ll understand that some theatre critics want to support the art, want to remember it all on behalf of the larger ‘scape. 

You’ll know that I’m trying my best to preserve your legacy, to keep you at the forefront of the critical conversations of my chosen cities. 

You’ll sense the sheer gratitude I have for Cleansed, for 4.48 Psychosis, for Phaedra’s Love.

And how could you not? I visited your university, your student apartment, your 1990’s haunts. I scribbled notes on your school-aged monologues in pencil in a powder-yellow notebook at a desk in the library of the University of Bristol. 

I stumbled across the Bristol corner store, stocked with cigarettes and tabloids – tabloids that, maybe, in the mid-’90s, recoiled at the violence and imagery and slimes of Blasted

You’d have had to see the papers every day on your walk from the uni to your black-doored apartment.

Maybe you watched me make that connection. Maybe you sneered at the pretentiousness of it all.

My play is called Feast (because Jack Tinker was an awful critic, we’re agreed on that, he was wrong and so was Billington) and it’s going to turn heads.

It’s February, and I’m twenty-one, and nothing will stop me from paying my respects to you this year.

2020 will be the year I stop missing you more and more with each passing day.

Until next year,
Aisling

February 2021: very much during the pandemic, while wondering what the hell my life has become when not centred on finishing a play about a dead playwright in Toronto

Dear Sarah,

The promises of success disappeared quickly.

Wherever you are, you’re laughing at me, and I’m laughing back, because it’s all just so terribly stupid, isn’t it?

First, my university in Ottawa closed. I made peace with not being able to see my research supervisor and OG Feast advocate, Dr. Yana Meerzon, until the pandemic subsided. (Little did I know that a full calendar year later, I’ll still be wondering when we might hotly debate Canadian theatre criticism in person once more.)

You’ve watched from your perch, sneering at your own graduate studies. You’ve smoked like a chimney and it’s barely mattered, being dead and all.

Then, my program at Tarragon migrated online. Yay, no more weekly round-trips to Toronto, I guess, but I even started to miss the Greyhound and its smelly charm. The Tarragon YPU did its best, and my fellow playwrights and I stayed in touch, clinging to the fiber-thin thread of someday reuniting in downtown Toronto. 

You watched me befriend them, Dhanish and Augusta, watched us scuttle to the Tim Hortons near the theatre on lunch breaks.

We still send each other memes and lowercase snark on occasion.

Feast had its final session of Zoom feedback, and the summer descended with crushing humidity.

I thought about you less. 

I relished trips to Costco and Dairy Queen. 

I cried in parks with professors-turned-confidants.

I pretended to find romanticism in Canadian suburbia.

The grant for Feast’s UK development dried up—pandemics aren’t especially conducive to dramaturgy that demands international travel—and with it went any energy I had left to perfect and protect my play.

Feast sat on a hard drive, atrophying.

It’s still there.

You couldn’t have predicted a pandemic, or Trump’s America, or the politics of Facebook etiquette. I don’t know if you’d understand the dread I felt when your brother came up as a suggested friend on Facebook, or when your friends offered to supervise my play in Glasgow.

You didn’t leave a blueprint for enduring how strange things have become.

But you knew how to handle chaos and uncertainty. You, the trail-blazing playwright, fundamentally understood trauma and calamity and the survival tactics there within.

You fundamentally understood trauma and calamity and the survival tactics there within.

In this time of immense sadness and grief for the play to whom I dedicated years of my life, I’ve revisited your work. I’ve plummeted in love with a Russian translation of 4.48 Psychosis

I’ve thought about Cleansed and the resonance of the rats, the way the characters are each so existentially trapped (and in my shoebox Ottawa apartment, I feel as if I know their pain). I’ve wondered if you’d go on drives with me to the waters of Southern Ontario, alone and reeking of cigarettes and bad wine. I’ve wondered if we’d be friends, the version of you taped to the wall above my IKEA bed and pinned to the text of this article.

I’ve allowed my academic interests to stretch beyond you, to things like interculturalism and semiotic resonance and Marxism. 

I’ve left you in your corner, and you’ve watched, waiting for my inevitable return.

It came. You knew it would.

The virus, for all its power, could not rob me of the discoveries I made in the university glow of your lasting canon of work, could not leech from me my reverence for you.

I’ve become a better theatre critic. I started as an editor at Intermission. I improved my Russian and let my French get worse. I lost and regained the same ten pounds over and over again. I got a Prozac prescription.

The summer faded and metamorphized into autumn, and then it was winter, and then it was February, it’s now, the anniversary, fuck.

And the grief’s come flooding back.

It feels strange to say I miss you – it feels stranger to say I don’t.

You died on February 20, 1999 at age twenty-eight, and not once since my first encounter with your work has it seemed fair that theatre should have to drudge on without your voice at its helm. I continue to be perplexed by how we document and archive the theatre of our times. I re-read your first reviews of Blasted and become angry all over again; I feel radioactive in the shadow of your imprint on English drama.

It feels strange to say I miss you – it feels stranger to say I don’t.

Feast is a verbatim play about knowing how things end – about understanding that theatre criticism as we know it is flawed at its capitalistic core, about mental illness’ ability to reductively overshadow the rest of one’s personality. It’s about legacy – about how people talk about you at memorial services. Paula told me how Pinter eulogized you, how your brother roasted him publicly at your memorial service. I laughed and laughed when she told me: I still do when I remember.

This February 2021, I know how things end. I know better now how relationships splinter, how plays fall off rosters.

The pandemic has aged me—has aged my discipline, too.

The best I can do is pay tribute. The best I can do is love the theatre with all of my being, praying that someday it loves me back, or at least tolerates me and my feedback. The best I can do is feel your absence, honour it, and continue the work of making the theatre a safer and more equitable playground. I can advocate for better criticism, and for better plays.

I can advocate for better criticism, and for better plays.

Bloor Street is probably the longest in the world, Sarah—the path I had to traverse between sleep and developmental workshops at Tarragon, the road dotted with Starbucks and manga shops, testaments to a capitalism stretched beyond what even Phaedra’s Love could critique.

In my memory, it is endless—because to reach its conclusion is to lay Feast to permanent rest, to bid you, Sarah, a final goodbye.

It’s easier to think it goes on forever.

Until next year,
Aisling


One response to “Two letters to Sarah Kane on the anniversary of her death”

  1. Wow. This is so introspective and challenging. One might think that at the tender age of 22 it would be impossible for these insights, but, of course, one would be wrong. The last year has aged us all, and not necessarily in bad ways. But it has certainly taken an awful toll on the world of theatre, in all aspects. I applaud you voicing your story aloud and sharing your experiences. I am truly blessed to have seen you grow up from a cat-eared little girl to a beautiful and talented young woman with words and thoughts so deep and moving.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's Senior Editor and a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She has bylines at Maclean's, The Fulcrum, The Theatre Times, and Critical Stages, and is a board member for the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cat, Fig.