4.48 Psychosis

I had intended to do a post looking at Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. I was going to try to explain it to people, and then try to explain why it had such an impact on me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this would be a bit pointless. Kane’s work is not easy to assess and analyse: everyone will read it differently, and I really don’t think that she would have wanted her work to be reduced to simplistic summaries.

Having said that, I will explain a little about how I encountered her and her work, and why 4.48 Psychosis had such an impact on me personally.

I did an English degree at Manchester Metropolitan University between 2001 and 2004. The very last text I studied before taking my finals was 4.48 Psychosis, and the studying of it happened to coincide with the initial drafts of chapters 46, 47, and 48 – a trio of chapters I’ve always thought of as ‘The Nervous Breakdown Chapters’. Given that 4.48 Psychosis is also about mental illness, the coincidence of the two things was rather unnerving to say the least.

Kane apparently took inspiration from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and C.S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ in writing the play, which – when read rather than performed – comes across more as a stream of consciousness piece than actual theatre. Much has been made of the fact that Kane killed herself prior to it’s theatrical debut in 2000, and this fact, and the subject of mental illness, resulted in a number of critics viewing the play purely as an extended suicide note. This was not how I read it: I read it as a very honest account of the mental processes of, the treatment of, and societies reactions to mental illness and mental health patients. I also saw it as a searing critique of mental health services in Britain in the late 1990’s.

Rather than try to analyse the play further, I shall type in an extract of it. If Kane’s estate object to me doing this I will, of course, take it down:

It wasn’t for long, I wasn’t there long. But drinking bitter black coffee I catch that medicinal smell in a cloud of ancient tobacco and something touches me in that still sobbing place and a wound from two years ago opens like a cadaver and long buried shame roars its foul decaying grief.

 A room of expressionless faces staring blankly at my pain, so devoid of  meaning there must be evil intent.

Dr This and Dr That and Dr Whatsit who’s just passing and thought he’d pop in to take the piss as well. Burning in a hot tunnel of dismay, my humiliation complete as I shake without reason and stumble over words and have nothing to say about my ‘illness’ which anyway only amounts to knowing that there’s no point in anything because I’m going to die. And I am deadlocked by that smooth psychiatric voice of reason which tells me there is an objective reality in which my body and mind are one. But I am not here and never have been. Dr This writes it down and Dr That attempts a sympathetic murmur. Watching me, judging me, smelling the crippling failure oozing from my skin, my desperation clawing and all-consuming panic drenching me as I gape in horror at the world and wonder why everyone is smiling and looking at me with secret knowledge of my aching shame.

Shame shame shame.

Drown in your fucking shame.

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