Two plays, Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, although written almost two decades apart and dramaturgically different – the former a mid-seventies commission for television broadcast, BBC’s Play for Today, the latter selected for the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs’ 1994/5 season, where as ‘few as 1,100 people in total’ saw the original production – both pose a challenge to the cultural norms of their time. The challenge they pose is immediately evident when one considers their initial reception: Potter’s play was banned from transmission by Director of Programmes Alasdair Milne and not broadcast until 1987, with Milne fearing that ‘real outrage would be widely felt’ in the absence of communicating ‘a point of serious importance’ that would justify the controversy, and Blasted was branded a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ – the infamous headline of critic Jack Tinker’s Daily Mail review – and not revived at the Royal Court Theatre until 2001. This study will analyse how these different but equally divisive plays challenge the cultural zeitgeist through two features they share, the loose formal structure of a visitation drama and the depiction of rape, and finally explore just why they’re so challenging.
To begin, both works are a variation on the visitation drama. Glen Creeber’s definition of the form as one ‘characterised by the arrival of a mysterious stranger into a repressed and sterile home’ pertains to Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, but expansion that denotes the kind of drama that ‘take[s] place usually within the confines of […] a single room and involve[s] no characters other than the stranger and a small family or domestic couple’, with a ‘morally ambiguous set of circumstances […] set in motion’ by ‘the arrival of an outsider [that] disrupts the normality and everyday perceptions of the visited’ could be appropriated to Kane’s Blasted.
Although the setting, a ‘very expensive hotel room in Leeds – the kind that is so expensive it could be anywhere’, is far from the relative ‘normality’ of the ‘living-room of a middle-aged, middle class couple in a north London suburb’ that the Bates’ occupy in Brimstone and Treacle, Ian’s visitor in Blasted, the Soldier, does disrupt the norms of the dramatic space Kane has constructed in the opening scenes. Principally, Ian is the dominant figure in the play until the Soldier arrives in Scene Two. This is illuminated in his brazenly bigoted language – ‘W*gs and P*kis taking over’ (SK, p.212), ‘speak the Queen’s English fucking n****r’ (SK, p.244) – and his physical command of, and assumed entitlement to, Cate’s body: ‘I didn’t want to do it. / Thought you liked that […] made enough noise. / It was hurting. / Went down on Stella all the time, didn’t hurt her. / You bit me. It’s still bleeding.’ (SK, p.239-40), ‘you sleep with someone holding hands and kissing you wank me off then say we can’t fuck […] don’t want me to touch you what’s wrong with you’ (SK, p.240).
The Soldier destroys these so-far established norms of Ian’s role by triggering Cate’s escape (‘Gone’ (SK, p.246)) and thereby removing Ian’s dominance as he becomes the dominated. Kane equips the Soldier with language to unsettle Ian, particularly following his recall of ‘fuck[ing] the women’ (SK, p.251) against their will as a weapon of warfare, whereby he propositions Ian in disbelief that he’d ‘never done that’ (SK, p.251) himself. Ian’s retort that he ‘wouldn’t forget’ (SK, p.251) and the Soldier’s assertion – ‘you would’ (SK, p.251) – in response exposes the irony that Ian has forgotten his sexual exploitation of Cate, as she states she ‘didn’t want’ (SK, p.239) to engage in sexual activity with him. Kane further challenges the norms of her dramatic landscape in Ian’s forced admission of implied rape. His statement that the Soldier ‘did four in one go, I’ve only ever done one’ (SK, p. 252) is one that quantifies Ian as the inferior abuser, which is exploited to its fullest in the Soldier’s rape of Ian: the sexual dominance of the predominantly sexually dominant.
Many critics interpret the Soldier as what Kane identifies as the play’s ‘direct link between domestic violence in Britain and civil war in the former Yugoslavia’, contemporary warfare at the time of her writing. Zhurba argues that ‘the war emphasizes the importance of “power” aspect to rape through the figure of the raper in the military uniform with a gun, representing absolute domination of the strong over the weak’, thus functioning to forge an uncomfortable, consequential link between domestic and military violence. Yet, within the structure of a visitation drama, the Soldier is ‘representing’ something else, defined by Creeber as ‘something latent or repressed in the people he visits’, namely Ian’s capacity for vulnerability and inferiority. Cate’s act of sexual defiance, to ‘bite his penis as hard as she can’ (SK, p.239) is a desperate emulation of Ian’s power over her, ‘you bit me […] it’s still bleeding’ (SK, p.240), and Kane mirrors this when Ian attempts to equal the Soldier’s power by suggesting he is also a soldier ‘of sorts’ (SK, p.248), despite being a ‘home journalist’ (SK, p.256).
The Soldier is both a representation of Ian’s repressed inferiority, and the catalyst for formal collapse, as domestic realism dissipates into what critic Clare Bayley terms ‘chaos and random events’; apt to describe the ‘huge explosion’ (SK, p.247), the Soldier ‘suck[ing …] out’ and ‘eat[ing]’ (SK, p.258) Ian’s eyes, and Ian ‘eat[ing] the baby’ (SK, p.268). This is culturally challenging because it confronts the audience with a collision of two styles and two occurrences that are expected to be distinct from one another: realism and non-realism, and domesticity and foreign warfare; even Kane ‘suspect[ing that] if Blasted [had] been a piece of social realism it wouldn’t have been so harshly received’.
Similarly, Potter was also forced to defend the form of Brimstone and Treacle, arguing that ‘this plot […] was simply an inversion of his previous visitation dramas’, and had the visitor ‘been “an angel”, the play would not have met with so much trouble.’ Although Martin, the ‘young man from a distant drawing-room comedy’ whom ‘imagines himself to be a demon’ (DP, p.7) is markedly dissimilar to Kane’s Soldier, he shares two distinguishing characteristics: he is both a visitor and a rapist. Martin’s non-consensual ‘copulation’ (DP, p.26) with Pattie, denounced as a ‘cabbage’ (DP, p.36) by her father, and her consequently miraculous revival and ‘rememb[rance]’ (DP, p.48) is the play’s most culturally challenging facet. Potter presents rape – illicit, illegal and immoral – with its victim at the ‘mercy’ of ‘the Devil’ (DP, p.25), as a curative and cleansing act.
In this way, dramatist Antonin Artaud’s conception of theatre, although often cited by critics as an inspiration to Kane rather than Potter, appears to be influential. Owing to his assertion that theatre is a ‘crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic purification’, one can argue that Pattie’s restoration as a result of rape is a form of ‘drastic purification’ after a ‘crisis’. A crisis both of form, with Potter’s inversion of the visitation drama replacing an angelic visitor with a demonic one, and of content, as the correlation between Pattie’s rape and recovery challenges the norms of a culture that condemns rape legally, morally, and socially. The conclusion of Kane’s crisis is the opposite; her visitor is the catalyst for the collision of domestic rape and realism with military brutality and extremism, ‘after which there is nothing left except death’, as the visiting Soldier ‘blow[s] his own brain out’ (SK, p.258) and Ian, the visited, ‘dies with relief’ (SK, p.268), leaving Cate to an unknown fate.
Brimstone and Treacle’s conclusion in purification rather than death, in a visitation drama’s structure, allows the visitor, as Creeber notes, to ‘force[…] the visited to reassess their previous[…] existence’. Martin, like the Soldier, challenges the constructed cultural norms of Bates, who shares Ian’s political bigotry – ‘especially [towards] the blacks’ (DP, p.44) in his desire to ‘send them back to their own countries’ (DP, p.44) – by forcing it to its ‘logical’ (DP, p.45) conclusion, to put those who ‘don’t want to go’ (DP, p.44) to another country into ‘holding camps’ (DP, p.45). Martin’s ‘glee[ful]’ (DP, p.45) delivery of this manifesto, evoking regression to the Holocaust and Nazi politics in Potter’s use of ‘ghettos’ and ‘swastikas’ (DP, p.45), seems to scandalise Bates as he admits Martin’s solution is ‘too much’ (DP, p.45). Thus, by presenting Martin as the superior political radical, despite Bates’ naive insistence that he is ‘no extremist’ (DP, p.42), Potter uses his visitor to force Bates to reconsider his extremist views in the same way Kane introduces a superior abuser, the Soldier, to force Ian to recognise his sexually abusive behaviour towards Cate. Once again, however, the plays part as Blasted ends in the death of the visited, and Brimstone and Treacle in another purification, this time of morals, as Bates resolves that he ‘shan’t be renewing [his] subscription’ (DP, p.46) ‘if what [Martin] said is to be the consequence of National Front politics’ (DP, p.46).
Therefore, there exists a suggestion that Potter’s visitor, at least politically, represents in the visited a latent capacity for moral goodness. This presents a challenge, particularly to the norms of a Western, Christian culture, as it suggests that good can be catalysed by evil, as Bates’ repressed morality is unearthed by its opposite: evil as manifested in the devilish Martin. Additionally, Potter’s use of dramatic irony, with Bates’ qualm that Martin ‘might be […] a devil […] for all we know’ (DP, p.16), challenges further as the audience recognise its truth and expect tragic consequences, yet are confronted with purification both of Pattie’s condition and Bates’ morals.
Yet, Martin also represents an uncomfortable parallel between visitor and visited, as the ‘act of liberating […] sex’ he performs on Pattie frees her to ‘remember’ (DP, p.48) something else repressed by Bates: his sexual relationship with Susan and its role in Pattie’s accident. This is implicit in the text – Bates’ desperate claims that he ‘didn’t see her’ (DP, p.38) and Pattie’s cries of ‘No, Daddy!’ (DP, p.48) – but explicitly shown in a flashback cutaway shot in the original 1976 television recording. Potter links Martin’s rape of Pattie, the accident, and Bates’ sexual relationship with Susan aurally: the rape at the close of Act II is accompanied by the ‘sound effect of [a] car accident’ and a ‘scream’ (DP, p.26); the rape in Act IV is interrupted as Pattie ‘starts to scream’ (DP, p.47); and her ambiguous remembrance of the implied affair is accompanied by ‘screaming’ (DP, p.48). This challenges once more, as it questions if Martin’s role is to merely play devil’s advocate, and expose Bates as the evildoer.
Nevertheless, both this play and Kane’s Blasted pose a challenge to culture, arguably because, as Matthew Arnold defines in Culture and Anarchy, culture is ‘a study of perfection’. As this study has explored, neither Potter nor Kane aspire to this formally or in content, as both depict skewed variations of the visitation drama and reveal their visitors to be morally ambiguous rapists. Rather, perhaps they are what Arnold deems ‘the disparagers of culture [who] make its motive curiosity’. Curiosity challenges cultural norms because it implies a desire to discover, and with new discovery comes criticism, and changing, of what went before. Kane’s brand of ‘experiential’, In-Yer-Face Theatre appears a reaction to the now formally unchallenging theatre that Potter practised: Bates’ ‘wish [for] someone [… to] come and blow us all up’ (DP, p.5) must be realised in Blasted’s ‘huge explosion’ (KS, p.247) in order to shock and sensationalise a culture accustomed to the challenges of two decades before. Indeed, even Brimstone and Treacle’s challenge seemed to have diminished by the late-80s, when the 1976 recording was broadcast. Ian ironically states in Blasted that ‘this isn’t a story anyone wants to hear’ (Kane, p.256), yet, curiously, audiences do, because the challenging and curious disparaging of culture is not limited to dramatists.