Scott Fitzgerald located the dark night of the soul at three o’clock in the morning, but Sarah Kane was more precise: it is a seventy-two minute window of lucidity that begins at 4:48 a.m. and ends at six – the darkest hour before a dawn that never comes.
In her final play, now receiving a magnificent, profoundly knowing production by Factory 449 at the Warehouse, Kane was not ambiguous about what this period is. It is an interlude of sanity in a day otherwise filled with incoherence. It is her moment of clarity, and perforce her moment of despair. It is the time in which she – to use the metaphor with which she opens the play – sees the cockroaches scurrying across the floor.
I use the present tense but, as you doubtlessly know, Kane committed suicide ten years ago. The great wonder about suicide is not that some people commit it but that we don’t all, especially after confronting home truths at 4:48 in the morning – that we will some day die, extinguished like a match, after having little impact on the world, and in a hundred years or less no one will remember us, or know who we were; and eventually our whole species will die out, our artifacts surviving us on an indifferent globe; and after that will come entropy, and the disintegration of the universe. There is no narrative arc to time, no conclusion, no story, and thus no purpose. As the old adage goes, life sucks, and then you die.
The unnamed protagonist (Sara Barker) has promised to kill herself by taking an overdose of pills, slitting her wrists and hanging herself – a triple whammy brought about, she sardonically observes, “so you won’t think it’s a cry for help.” What follows is an extended howl of pain; a fifty-minute suicide note as art form. Our protagonist – let’s call her Sarah – cries out an indictment of her life, and all life. Her past has been a sea of agony. Her present is an ocean of self-loathing (“I’m fat…I can’t write…I hate my genitals.”) Her future – there is no future.
In Factory 449’s and Director John Moletross’ inspired staging, this hymn of despair is delivered not by Barker alone but by an army of fine actors, standing (except for Mary Suib, who is in a wheelchair) on chairs in a half-light (credit Eric Grims) which makes them appear damaged, remote and grotesque. They are young and old, male and female, black and white, just like all of us. They sometimes speak chorally; at other times, individual actors deliver searing monologues. They are surrounded by televisions which broadcast nonsensical (but real) commercials for anti-depressants and the like. Periodically a man, walking rapidly through what seems to be a hospital corridor, appears on the television screens.
Those who saw 4.48 Psychosis in the Capital Fringe Festival, where it won several awards including a DC Theatre Scene Favorite Festival Play, will see something which is different in form but not in degree or kind. Six of the ten actors are new to the production, but at no loss of art or energy. It is good to hear pain expressed in Brian Hemmingsen’s rounded tones, and David Lamont Wilson is exquisite in an obscenity-laced denunciation of those closest to Sarah, culminating in a diatribe against God, who let it all happen. The set (Greg Stevens) is tidier than it was at the Fringe, and Grims’ lighting is to greater effect. It appears to me that in this production Barker has less lines and more of the play is distributed to the other actors and that the video (fabulous work by Jesse Achtenberg) plays a smaller role, but this is just my impression. I have no independent verification from the company.
What is absolutely clear the second time around is Kane’s unalloyed belief that to be lucid, and honest, is to feel despair. The narrative thread which runs through 4.48 Psychosis is Sarah’s developing love for the physician (Lisa Hodsoll) who guides Sarah through one of her worst psychotic episodes. “You saw me at my worst,” Sarah says, oblivious to the fact that everyone, including her lover and her close friends, had seen her at her worst. When the physician rejects her advances in the bluntest way possible – “I need friends who are sane,” she says – it is a bitter truth which adds another color to her palette of agony. “When I am eighty years old…you will still be dead,” she says, meaning dead to her but ironically inverting the truth.
Sarah instinctively knows that the way out of her inward-looking desert is through love, but by choosing to seek it only from a person who cannot give it she assures herself that she will not succeed, and that she can therefore give in to despair. This is thus a play about the failure of love, which is in Kane’s vision also the triumph of truth and clarity. It is a happy coincidence that this production is in DC at the same time another great play, Angels in America, also considers the failure of love. But in Kushner’s play, now at Forum Theatre, love is stronger than death and its failure is sin, not truth. Of course, Psychosis is fifty minutes long while Angels is seven hours and takes two days toperform, but the triumph of love is always more complicated than the triumph of death.
There is a trick of the mind called persistence of vision, which is why it is possible to watch a film. As much as twenty percent of what is shown on a movie screen is frame – the line between one still picture and the next – but although the eye sees it the human mind refuses to let it in. The mind, in a tactic fundamental to our survival, orders life in a way which makes it make sense. Another word for this phenomenon is optimism.
In 4.48 Psychosis, Kane shows us life in the raw, without persistence of vision, or optimism, or the possibility of redemption. It is an indelible experience, and if you react afterward by putting your arm around your beloved, and talking about your children’s progress in school, or the health of the cat, well, who could blame you?
And if you’re curious about which of the three methods Kane eventually used to kill herself, it was by hanging, with shoelaces, at a hospital.
4.48 Psychosis – TOP PICK!
By Sarah Kane
Directed by John Moletross
Produced by Factory 449
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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DCTS review – TOP PICK!