Saxon Violence and Social Decay in Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love and Tony Harrison's Prometheus

By Marshall, Hallie Rebecca | Helios, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Saxon Violence and Social Decay in Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love and Tony Harrison's Prometheus


Marshall, Hallie Rebecca, Helios


At first glance the dramatic works of Sarah Kane have little in common with those of Tony Harrison beyond their rejection of social realist drama. Even the history of their critical reception is completely at odds with one another. When Sarah Kane's first play, Blasted, was staged at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1995, the critical response was so vicious that it made headlines. jack Tinker (1995) wrote in the Daily Mail: "For utterly and entirely disgusted I was by a play which appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey by way of excuse." When her second play, Phaedra's Love, with which this paper is concerned, was staged at London's Gate Theatre in 1996, the critical reception was no warmer. In contrast, Harrison's first play in London, The Misanthrope, was effusively praised by critics. The "Commentary" section of the Times Literary Supplement (16 March 1973) wrote:

  It must be many years since London's dramatic critics went out to
  praise the translation of a classic--the usual ploy is to insist how
  much has been lost in the process. This time, though, Tony Harrison
  has seen himself turned into the golden boy of theatre by his
  brilliant and concise rendition of Moliere into rhyming couplets.

Leaving aside the view of critics--though it should be noted that the reputations of both authors have been subjected to the shifting tides of critical opinion--these snippets of reviews point to the fundamental differences in approach that each author is known for. Harrison's work in the theatre is associated with classical drama and traditional verse forms that have long since fallen out of fashion on the British stage. His drama depends upon form, language, and intertextual engagement with canonical texts of the Western theatrical tradition for its dramatic power. Kane's plays on the other hand were on the forefront of what has become known as "In-Yer-Face Theatre" "or "New Brutalism," which is marked by the rejection of the norms of the contemporary British stage in terms of language and form while embracing explicit sexual and violent content.

Despite the differences in the works of these two authors, this paper will argue that there is substantial overlap between two works produced in the 990s: Kane's Phaedra's Love and Harrison's Prometheus. Both works are built upon classical models; Phaedra's Love took Seneca's Phaedra as its starting point, while Prometheus takes the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound as its primary intertext. While the ways in which the two authors engage with their classical models are very different, both use their work to engage with issues of social decay in post-Thatcherite Britain.

That Harrison would choose a classical model comes as no surprise. Since his translation of Aeschylus's Oresteia for Peter Hall's production at the National Theatre in 1981, most of Harrison's dramatic works have engaged with classical literature. Prometheus is Harrison's first, and to date only, feature length film/poem. He had originally conceived of it, however, as a theatrical work. Michael Kustow (1999) has written of the original conception: "Tony wanted to do Aeschylus's play in the open air, on the slag heaps of a Yorkshire coalfield. Ferrybridge was his site, with its coal mountains and cooling towers. The slag would become the Caucasus to which Prometheus would be chained."

When the play became instead a film, its geographical scope was expanded to well beyond the slag heaps and cooling towers of Ferry-bridge. Unlike the Aeschylean original, which takes place in a single location, Harrison's film/poem ranges across Western and Eastern Europe, beginning at the slag heaps and cooling towers of Yorkshire and ending on the shores of Eleusis, birthplace of Aeschylus. The locations are unified by their all having been blighted by the destructive power of Prometheus's gift to humankind, from the coalmines of Northern England to the decaying infrastructure of postindustrial Eastern Europe, from Dresden to Auschwitz. …

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