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Kane in Babel: notes

A few weeks ago I decided to read Isaac Babel. I read Justice in Brackets, Evening, The Sun of Italy. Two things happened: first, I began to feel as if I had been in an invisible accident (or in an accident with the invisible), specifically that in walking through a brilliantly clear, bright, freezing day, I had, because it was hidden by the freezing clarity—part and parcel of it—hit a wall of ice suddenly and with tremendous force. Second, I jumped up from the table at which I was reading and started looking around at my body and then the floor; after a minute I realized that my body had sent the same message to the brain that it does when it is cut by a very sharp knife, so sharp it can’t be felt, and that I was looking for the cut and the tell tale signs of blood.

As I was obviously having a very strong and somewhat odd reaction to this work I decided I better take a break from the unbearable energy and beauty of it, from the grief-stricken psychic lawlessness of it, and in lieu of taking a tranquilizer read the preface.

Since the book contained Lionel Trilling’s introduction to the first English translation of Babel’s collected stories, I decided perhaps I should read that. I have no idea if the Trilling preface would have served the purpose I hoped it would—that of placing me at the right angle to the world I had entered in reading Babel’s stories—as I only got through the first few pages. This is how Trilling begins his introduction:

A good many years ago, I chanced to read a book which disturbed me in a way I can still remember…and part of my disturbance was the natural shock we feel, when suddenly and without warning, we confront a new talent of energy and boldness.

And then a few pages later:

Babel was not a political man…Except too, as every man of talent or genius is political who makes his heart a battleground for conflicting tendencies of culture.

A good many years ago I chanced to a read a play, Blasted by Sarah Kane, which disturbed me in a way I can still remember, and part of my disturbance was the natural shock we feel, when suddenly and without warning, we confront a new talent of energy and boldness. Kane was not a political person, except too, as every woman of talent or genius is political who makes her heart a battleground for conflicting tendencies of culture.

As I write this the Taj Hotel in Mumbai is still under siege, an unknown amount of people trapped inside. Blasted was always true, and it also keeps coming true.

I met Sarah Kane when she came over to New Dramatists (where I was at the time serving as Director of Artistic Programming) on the Royal Court Exchange in 1995. As it turned out we were both trying to quit smoking. We talked about this. She told me the story of a man who had been chain smoking for decades, who had one day just quit cold turkey, and then suddenly dropped dead a week later.

This was worrisome. It was also mysterious.

Had he been able to stop because he was actually already dying and something in his body chemistry had changed, or had the shock to the body of quitting so suddenly, even the quitting of something which was poisoning him, killed him?

Perhaps this is the only way of explaining the irrational rage directed at Kane personally, and at her work, by the press when Blasted opened in London, and also for the inappropriate, and what I can only call incredibly odd and defensive ways many people (never having met her before and only knowing her play) acted towards her during her Exchange in NYC.

The first sign of the utter oddness to come in terms of the reactions that I witnessed was during a workshop of her new play, which took place very soon after her arrival, perhaps the next day. I popped by to see if there was anything anyone wanted that I could actually provide and stayed to look on for a while. At a certain point Sarah said she was feeling a little ill and needed some air, so the director called for a break. Sarah left the room at which point the director turned to me and rolled her eyes.

This is a very small gesture, but in the context of an institution such as New Dramatists, which is dedicated to the playwright and the development of new plays, it was startling—akin to Khrushchev and his shoe. No one rolls their eyes about playwrights in that building, and certainly not during rehearsal and not to anyone on the staff. It was one of the absolute, if unspoken, rules of the building. If there was any eye rolling to be done, people did it in private, in dark corners of which there were plenty as at that time the building was still going through its Soviet era brought on by the funding cuts of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

This gesture was disrespectful, certainly unkind (every writer gets nervous when bringing a new project into the light for the first time, and after what Sarah had just been through with the opening of Blasted in London she had every reason to feel a little apprehensive) but also—and this is what came to disturb me as I saw more and more of it—completely irrational. It didn’t make sense. The director was experienced and talented (probably not even aware of having made this gesture) and had worked many times at New Dramatists and knew the rules of the place as well as anyone.

As time went on I could only think that there was something about the material that Sarah was dealing with—with the way that she dealt with it—that seemed to make many people (not all—but enough to make it rough going) lose their boundaries, their balance, and project onto her like mad. In short, much of the time when she was around peoples’ defenses were on parade—whether expressed as a sort of hostile indifference, a bizarre “buddying up,” or a supposed, slightly creepy intimacy—and a tawdry and depressing parade it was.

I had facilitated many exchanges and other programs for writers during my tenure at New Dramatists and seen my share of odd behavior (and I’m sure often acted oddly myself) but I had never seen anything along these proportions. I was, by the end of the first week a little disturbed for her, because of the extent to which what was being reflected back to her about herself and her work was distorted, and I felt this to be unfair, especially as the person I met was a lovely young woman, extremely intelligent, and sensitive, not careerist in the least, and with the kind of truly good manners—unaffected and with a real concern for how others feel—one rarely encounters.

What had she done except written a genuinely great play—formally breathtaking, showing a deep understanding (and a compassion I have only encountered before in Oscar Wilde’s and Tennessee William’s work) of how certain kinds of violence, abuse, and disrespect for the individual’s sense of her/his own humanity, if not condoned by society then certainly for whatever reasons perpetuated by it, eventually turns into horrific violence on a mass scale.

This is by no means a new thought. Thinkers throughout the 20th Century in half a dozen disciplines have written in some way about this idea/phenomenon.

In writing it she had wandered unintentionally—from what I know, she wrote what she saw just how she saw it (all any artist does) and the fact is she did not dwell in that territory but quickly moved on in her work—into what is usually male territory, and then turned the rules of the territory on its head.

She took the glamour and titillation out of the construct, out of the relationship as it’s often presented, between sex and violence, and showed it for what it is, a horror, and even more impressively in her play, she managed to present the linking of sex and violence as a lamentable and pathetic perversion of the human longing for kindness and perhaps love.

She deprived people point blank of their daily poison and I guess they were afraid they were going to die.

The construct itself is a pack of lies, and it is a construct that the press and certainly Tabloids often use, this is a fact—I’m seeing it on CNN right now even as I watch the tragedy in Mumbai unfold. And yet for showing the construct for what it is, anger was turned against her, she was accused personally of being a moral deviant, her work of being filth—not the construct.

Again, nothing new.

Derrida said that we will all, at some point, end up talking in clichés. I never thought I would ever write this next sentence, but in this case I believe it to be true, and yet I still don’t like writing it, but I like even less that it occurred: a young man writing such a play (and the odds are just as slim that a young man would have written such a play, as that a young woman would have: the odds are simply slim that anyone writes a great play) would not have had the kind of anger, outrage, and personal accusations heaped on him by the press, nor have been met with the same level of personal discomfort that Sarah was often met with.

Sarah was not thick skinned and I came to be amazed by how well she held on to her equilibrium, and I was also always aware that under similar circumstances at her age (she was 24) and so far from home I would not have been able to hold on to mine. It was too jarring: to be so misperceived for your work which is your heart.

I should mention that during the exchange I think Sarah was enjoying NYC, glad to be away from London (as it gave her something of a break), writing (questionably enjoyable) and learning to juggle from her neighbor on the third floor of New Dramatists—where most visiting writers stayed—a young actor who was rooming there in exchange for helping us in our efforts to keep the building from falling all together into disrepair. And she was working on her repertoire of Jewish jokes, specifically on achieving the correct intonation—totally at odds with her natural one, which made it incredibly funny—and most importantly it seems working on mastering the famous “Jewish Shrug”. One of the only moments of true comedic genius I have personally witnessed was her painstaking execution of this movement—and like all great comedy it was both physical and intellectual—the exaggeration with which she expressed the awkwardness of The Shrug meeting centuries of genetic training (and stiff upper lips) by the non-shrugging nations.

I would run into her sometimes in the building, and she would launch into her newest Jewish joke with the intonations all rising and falling just off where they should be rising and falling, and ending it with her piece de resistance: the Jewish Shrug. Then looking very pleased with herself and the world she would go off to meet with another artistic director who had no intention of producing her work and come back looking a little less pleased and somewhat disheartened.

I have no idea where her interest in Jewish humor came from. It was certainly greater than mine, and embarrassingly enough it was she who not only had to tell me that Jackie Mason had a show on Broadway at that time, but had to tell me who he was. She had, I knew, visited Israel as a young teenager on a trip organized by her family’s church. As I had grown up in Israel we immediately compared notes on how many camels and sheep had been offered in return for us at the market in the Old City of Jerusalem. If it had been a fair price. If one could ever really know how many camels and sheep one was intrinsically worth. And was it really a good deal for the seller, as what would they have done with all those camel and sheep—in Sarah’s case—back in Brixton.

As I have been thinking about it it seems to me that the best encounter Sarah had during her exchange in NYC came about by chance, and unfortunately had nothing to do with New Dramatists’ efforts on her behalf, except in that the New Dramatists building is located near the Westway Diner on 9th Avenue where she had become a habitué.

On this particular day it seems she had made plans to meet a German journalist or perhaps it was a photographer at the Westway for a story that was being done about her. She had promised herself that if she ever ran into Jackie Mason she would walk right up to him and present him with her Jewish jokes and do The Shrug for him and see if he approved. And like in a movie—it happened. It seems somehow that day she not only met the German journalist /photographer at the Westway, but Jackie Mason as well. Not having been there I have no idea how this all took place. But I do remember that she looked just about as happy as I’ve ever seen anyone look when she returned, and a few days later she submitted this “report” to me telling me to feel free to pass it on to funders as I saw fit.

As at this time her play Blasted is finally being seen in NYC in a really good production and one I think she would like, I thought I’d include, as a tribute to her, her “report.” Now that she is gone nothing is sure—and never will be—but I am pretty convinced, almost sure that recorded here is one of, if not the best encounter of her exchange in NYC, one in which she was understood and seen.

It is accompanied by her own text and has never to date been submitted to a funder.

Blasted by Sarah Kane, directed by Sarah Benson, produced by SoHo Rep, plays through December 21st (extended run) at 46 Walker Street in Manhattan. For further info, visit

NOTE: Sarah Kane's "report" can be viewed in the print copy of the Dec/Jan issue of the Rail.


Elana Greenfield

Elana Greenfield's book At the Damascus Gate: Short Hallucinations is published by Green Integer (2003); she is a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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