A posh hotel room in Leeds, England. The door opens and Cate bounds in. She’s a young woman, 21 at most, clearly enthralled by what she sees. She exudes energy, positivity, and innocence.
Soon Ian enters. He’s middle-aged, 45 at most. He is confident, even a little snide, as he judges his surroundings.
Who are these people, and why are they here together?
Before long we learn that Ian has invited Cate to spend the night with him in this room. They’d had a relationship that ended several years earlier, when Cate was just a teenager, a relationship that ended when one day, without explanation, Ian stopped calling her. Cate agreed to meet Ian here because he sounded unhappy when he finally called again. She’s worried about him. Ian called her because he wanted to rekindle their relationship, even if only for a moment, before it’s too late.
Immediately we can tell that Cate and Ian are two very different people. Cate is open-minded, accepting, and charitable. Ian is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic. Cate doesn’t have a job, perhaps she never has, though she’s recently applied for work. Ian is a tabloid journalist and . . . something else, something that haunts him. Whereas Cate is carefree, Ian is jumpy – anxious, even paranoid. Cate is vegetarian. Ian is carnivorous.
We notice things as we watch them interact. Cate has brought luggage. Ian has not. Ian carries a pistol in a shoulder holster, which he checks frequently to make sure it’s loaded. We learn that war is coming. The armies of an unnamed enemy are moving in. Cate is unperturbed by this. Ian seems resigned to accept it and concerned about what could happen.
As Cate and Ian become re-acquainted, the rituals and habits of their former relationship emerge. Ian is quick to anger, insecure, and sometimes cruel when he feels attacked or rejected – though he seems to back off for a while whenever Cate tells him no. Even though Cate, too, is lured into these old rituals, she’s clearly changed and grown since they last saw each other. There’s a confidence and self-possession to her now that takes Ian by surprise. She isn’t a teenager anymore. She’s been helping out, perhaps even caring for, her mother and special-needs brother.
Yet Cate has also started to have fits since her father returned to the family, in which she passes out and wakes in a daze, as though channeling something or someone from another world. She describes these fits, which can last for minutes or weeks, as akin to being trapped in a dream in which time stands still.
To Ian, Cate’s fits are terrifying. They remind him of death. And we learn he is, in fact, dying. Is that why he wanted to see Cate again? Or is it because of the approaching war? Or both?
At first their banter is playful, and we can feel genuine affection between them. But after Ian repeatedly confesses his love for Cate, Cate finally tells him she doesn’t love him. Something changes in Ian. He does something terrible that traumatizes Cate and leaves him feeling confused and worthless. He knows he’s done wrong –- he knows he’s been doing wrong for many years –- but he doesn’t seem to understand how to escape from his own patterns of behavior. He worries about who he is and who he is becoming.
The next morning Cate’s demeanor has changed. The carefree spirit has been replaced by anger and fear and betrayal. She announces she’s leaving. At first Ian tries to stop her, but eventually gives in. Cate enters the washroom to take a bath before going home.
That’s when a soldier arrives – and the story of Blasted becomes more complicated, more universal, and more disturbing.
Cate and Ian, surely, both suffer from the effects of trauma, which manifests in different ways. Ian is clearly responsible for some of Cate’s trauma. The effects of trauma on the soldier, however, are far more extreme. He has witnessed and participated in atrocities. War has dehumanized him to the point where he no longer understands or even recognizes what constitutes “normal” behavior. But he remembers that he used to. He remembers who he was. He remembers being a person. And he wants Ian, a journalist, to tell his story to the world so people understand the horrors war has inflicted on him. And so many others. Maybe if people understood, they wouldn’t allow this to keep happening.
“No one’s interested,” Ian replies. This is where Sarah Kane reveals the bold purpose of her play.
Blasted is about a lot of things – or a lot of different facets of one thing. It’s about how the political violence of the public world is mirrored in the domestic violence of the private world, the cycle of victimization that leads victims to become perpetrators, always creating more victims – and thus more perpetrators – and it’s about how each of us is a victim, a bystander, and a perpetrator. It’s about the use and misuse of power.
All of these threads converge at the same destination: we must open our eyes to the violence that’s all around us and step away from it by choosing compassion, mercy, and kindness instead. It isn’t easy – Kane makes sure we see how difficult it is to choose to treat the person who victimized you with compassion – but it’s the only way out. Ian, Cate, and the soldier are united not only by violence and trauma, but also by tender traits that all human beings share – loneliness, a longing to connect with other people, a desire to love and be loved, and of course fear. These are facets of everyone’s life, to some extent, and in these we can find commonalities. We can use them to build and refine empathy.
Blasted is not an easy play to watch. It isn’t intended to be. Kane was an originator of In-Yer-Face Theatre, determined to confront audiences with realities they’d rather avoid – in as bold, raw, and explicit a manner as possible.
The horrors of violence are easy for many people to ignore. We can turn away. We can say to ourselves, “That’s something that happens somewhere else, to other people” and feel comfortable in our refusal to see and understand. For many people, however, violence is an everyday facet of their lives that cannot be ignored. That probably should not be ignored, by anyone, for only when we look it square in the eye can we finally be compelled to understand – and act.
Although Kane was inspired, partially, by news of atrocities committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the points she’s making about violence in Blasted are more general and universal, which is why the enemy forces in the play are never named. The realities of war are hidden from us – deliberately so since footage of the Vietnam War turned the American public against it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. War is sanitized for “civilized” audiences. Many people don’t even want to know what really happens in war, what it really does to people. They want war to be a righteous, heroic affair, as it is in nearly every war movie. War movies are jingoistic, dishonest propaganda that present war as a backdrop for heroic narratives about good triumphing over evil. Kane wanted to confront audiences with the terrible, horrifying reality of war – and she wanted us to see that it’s rooted in the everyday violence of our private lives. Maybe one reason we don’t want to know what war is really like is that subconsciously we realize how much violence we accept in our domestic, civilized fantasies, what we call “normal life”. Violence and trauma are all around us.
The Black Lives Matter protests last year forced some people to confront the ongoing horror of systemic racism, the violence it excuses, and the toll it exacts on racialized people – as did the discovery of so many First Nations victims at residential school sites in Canada. Add to that the violence of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. Violence permeates our cultures, yet we’ve been raised not to question it, even not to acknowledge it. The machinery of culture and civilization renders the violence of everyday life so invisible that we’re often unaware we’re bystanders to it. Sometimes we’re even unaware we’re perpetrators.
I’m writing this article on Canada’s first national day of Truth and Reconciliation, on which we’re asked to remember the myriad ways in which First Nations people have been victimized in Canada, the violence that has been done to them, the suffering they’ve endured – and still endure. The point is not simply to acknowledge that these atrocities occurred, but to learn about them, take them in, reckon with what they were and are and how their consequences reverberate forward in time. And then to commit to action that can start to make things right. Here we find the universality of Kane’s purpose reflected in something particularly Canadian.
Blasted by Sarah Kane is produced by Post Productions at The Shadowbox Theatre (103 – 1501 Howard Ave) Oct 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16. 8 PM (doors open 7:30). Tickets available online-only through postproductionswindsor.ca. All patrons must be masked and fully-vaccinated against Covid-19.