The play Phaedra’s Love, by Sarah Kane, takes the classic Greek tragedy, Phaedra, and retells it in a modern-day setting. The play, which features incredibly violent and visceral scenes of sex, brutality, rape, and murder, is reflective of Sarah Kane’s writing style. Kane’s plays are known for being disturbingly violent and visual. As a playwright, Kane seeks to show rather than tell, taking inspiration from such playwrights as Edward Bond, Samuel Beckett, Howard Brenton, and Georg Buchner. Kane’s personal life highly influenced her plays and writing style. The central themes of her plays; sex, violence, death, and mental illness, are issues that Kane dealt with herself.
Though Sarah Kane’s theatre career was short (only four years) she was able to accomplish much that helped her to develop her style and grow in popularity as a playwright. Kane was an excellent student, graduating with first class honors from Bristol University, where she studied drama, and going on to receive her MA from Birmingham University. Kane first exploded onto the London theatre scene in 1995 with her play, Blasted, which had scenes of rape, eye gauging, and cannibalism, conveyed with a brutalism similar to the final scene in Phaedra’s Love. The violence of Kane’s plays is directly influenced by her life in Brixton, where she was both a witness and a victim of extreme racism and homophobia.
Phaedra’s Love was only Sarah Kane’s second play, but it followed many of the patterns already set by her previous work. Phaedra’s Love debuted on May 15, 1996, at the Golden Gate Theatre in London. Kane herself directed the debut production. The play features intense scenes of violence and brutality. The play also takes place in a setting designed to be dark, depressing, and hopeless. The play’s protagonist, Hippolytus, is unapologetically repulsive and sexually depraved. Kane however, attempts to paint him as a tragic hero by making him completely honest despite his enormous flaws. When discussing his extremely graphic and violent death, Kane said, “If I can accept that if not being completely honest doesn’t matter then I’d feel much better. But somehow I couldn’t and so Hippolytus can’t. And that’s what kills him in the end.” (Saunders, 79-80) Though Phaedra’s Love was probably Kane’s least popular play, it is crucial to her writing as a whole because it was the first instance in which she wrote about love, which would become a central theme of her subsequent work.
Throughout her life, Kane battled with depression and was in and out of the hospital periodically. More than once, Kane attempted to commit suicide, and on February 20, 1999 her attempts proved successful when she hanged herself in a hospital, dying at the age of twenty-eight. Her struggle with depression is similar to the inner struggles of Phaedra over her love for Hippolytus. It is also an eerie coincidence that Kane died in the same manner as Phaedra. The frequent occurrence of suicide in her plays is disturbingly foreboding of Kane’s death.
Phaedra is the wife of Theseus, mother of Strophe, stepmother of Hippolytus, and a queen. Before Theseus, she was married to another man, Strophe’s father. She married Theseus after his first wife died and became Hippolytus’s stepmother. She embodies her royal status and is the perfect queen, on the outside. She always looks put-together and in control, but that is only to mask the extremely mixed-up feelings she is hiding underneath. Theseus spends very little time at home and in his absence Phaedra has begun to develop feelings for Hippolytus. She sees him in his state, and wants so desperately to help him. She thinks she is the cure he needs, and that when she does cure him, he will fall in love with her. She is delusional.
It is possible that Phaedra’s feelings for Hippolytus stem from her boredom. She is a stereotypical housewife, trapped at home while her husband is away....