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Sarah Kane and Roland Barthes talk about Love

The human condition includes a complex range of emotions. One of the most common experiences people have throughout history is love. Many philosophers have endeavoured to find an explanation of what it means to love: Bell Hooks, who is a theorist of race, feminism and class, used a specific definition in her book All About Love (2018) claiming that ‘it is the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth’ (p.4). The continental philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (2018) mentioned that ‘love is the power to see the similar in the dissimilar’(p.191). Roland Barthes, instead, does not give a specific definition but believes that there is no structure when it comes to love.


Sarah Kane was a playwright that also approached the subject of love in her tender and poetic play Crave. Her previous work Cleansed was inspired by Roland Barthes statement that ‘when one is in love, one is in Dachau’ (Gardner, 2021), which means that there is a direct influence of Barthes’ ideas of love in Kane’s plays. Kane created a dystopian setting that was inspired by Dachau, in which an institution was trying to get rid of the people society considered undesirable, but a few inmates endeavoured to save themselves through love. Roland Barthes’ book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is a combination of theory, philosophy, literature, and personal experience and it constitutes a monumental analysis of the subject of love and the common universal themes normally following it. This article will examine how Barthes’ work has affected the structure, the language, and the way the experience of love is portrayed in Sarah Kane’s Crave.

Figure 1: Passage from 'A Lover's Discourse: Fragments'

First Person Narration

Firstly, Kane and Barthes make similar linguistic choices in presenting the characters of the lover and the beloved. In Barthes’ book A Lover's Discourse: Fragments the person who is in love uses first person narration to emphasize the importance of their experience and to avoid creating a psychological analysis of themselves. He mentions in the introduction of his text that this choice was made to create ‘the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the beloved object) who does not speak’ (Barthes, 1990, p.3). Barthes did not make this decision to describe his personal experience: he uses first-person narration in order to make readers identify with the various experiences that are innate to love. The theatrical first-person is also incorporated in Sarah Kane's Crave, whose characters talk about their experiences without having a direct dialogue with each other.


The Protagonists' Perspective

The narrators of the play Crave do not have specific names but are rather called with the single letters: C, M, B, A. The choice to not use names denotes that Kane did not want to present their personality and narrative function: she used single letters to create symbolic people whose narration does not seem like an individual instance to the audience, but rather as an exploration of the universal experience of love. In Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse, the person who is described as the object of desire is referred to as X, which also happens in Crave, where the characters speak about their experiences, using only abstract characterisations for their objects of desire and mainly focusing on what it means for them to feel love. For example, when M says ‘And now I have found you’ (Kane, 1998, p.5) they do not refer to one of the other characters, they are talking about the person they are in love with. This creates an image of love as a solitary experience that does not necessarily focus on the true nature of the other. Both in Crave and in A Lover's Discourse the lover mainly concentrates on their own idea of the desired person and experience love in an introspective way.


Structure

Moreover, the structure of Crave is deeply influenced by A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Barthes divided his book in chapters, and in each one he developed an idea of love or a thought that appears in a lover’s mind. ‘Each fragment is remarkably precise in its analysis: in an unstructured flow of hopes and frustrations Barthes finds clear motifs’ (A philosophical exploration of a lover’s inner monologue, n.d.) and this is how he creates a coherent exploration of the overall experience of love. In his explanation of the book’s structure he mentions that ‘the lover’s discourse exists only in outbursts of language, which occur at the whim of trivial circumstances’ (Barthes, 1990, p.3). In other words, the lover's communication is not consciously constructed, but rather comes out in outbursts of language that are influenced by chance or unpredictable events. These outbursts may reflect the lover's intense emotions or desires, but they may not necessarily be coherent or meaningful in a broader sense. This is also exactly how Kane approaches the topic, by creating a play whose characters’ substance and emotional depth is only shown through incoherent expressions of their thoughts and outbursts of language. The alternating lines of the characters in Crave also create an unstructured collection of precise thoughts surrounding love. For example, the sequence of the characters' lines seems trivial, for example: ‘A Japanese man in love with his virtual reality girlfriend’ (Kane, 1998, p.9) and ‘You look reasonably happy for someone who’s not’ (Kane, 1998, p.9). Both these lines reveal the essence of loneliness and a deep desire to connect.


Figure 2: From a performance of Crave

Connecting Love to Waiting and Death

In Crave Kane has incorporated multiple themes that are presented in Barthes' A Lover’s Discourse as characteristics of love. The elements that are repeated in Crave are the act of waiting and death. Barthes (1990) mentions that the lover waits for ‘an arrival, a return, a promised sign’ (p.37) and claims that this process is a definite sign of love and filled with anxiety. This happens because the lover loses their sense of proportion and importance when it comes to expecting signs of presence of the beloved. This is also evident in Crave, since the practice of waiting is included in A’s monologue, a text which serves as an expression of a character's intense desire. Character A directly describes their longing by saying ‘I want to sit on the steps smoking till you come home and worry when you’re late and be amazed when you’re early’ (Kane,1998, p.11). Both Kane's Crave and Barthes' A Lover's Discourse state that the way a lover experiences time is altered through the absence and the yearning of the desired other. Furthermore, both Barthes and Kane believe that love is followed by the recurring theme of death. Other theorists of love have also found a connection between these two themes such as Bell Hooks, who claims that ‘love empowers us to live fully and die well. Death becomes, then, not an end to life but a part of living’ (Hooks,2018, p. 197). She thought that love helps people come to terms with the mortal nature of humans. Barthes mentions that ‘in the amorous realm, the desire for suicide is frequent: a trifle provokes it’ (Barthes, 1990, p.218) and later explains the concept through this ‘the lover is reborn and dyes this idea with the colours of life, directing it in fantasy uniting with their loved object in death’ (Barthes, 1990, pp.218-219), which means that the thought of death helps the lover to reconcile with the idea of death. These theories are evident across Kane's work, who uses the theme of death in her play. The characters in Crave state that: ‘three summers ago I was bereaved’ (Kane,1998, p.4), ‘I don’t want to stay’ (Kane, 1998, p.9), ‘I’m having a breakdown because I’m going to die’ (Kane, 1998,p.12). These quotes reveal that these people who are in love are actively thinking about death and find a connection between the two.

Figure 3: Roland Barthes Waiting

In conclusion, the texts Crave and A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments approach the topic of love in a similar manner. Both are structured in a way that appears chaotic in order to make an additional commentary on the disorderly essence of love. They incorporate similar linguistic choices and have connected the main subject to similar themes such as death and waiting. The two books work in harmony with each other, clearly showing the influence Barthes had on Kane.


Bibliography

Adorno, T. (2018). Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Verso Books.

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. (n.d.). Garage. https://garagemca.org/en/programs/publishing/roland-barthes-a-lover-s-discourse-fragments

Barthes, R. (1990). A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Penguin Group.

Gardner, L. (2021, May 19). Of love and outrage: Sarah Kane obituary. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/1999/feb/23/guardianobituaries.lyngardner

Hooks, B. (2018). All About Love: New Visions. HarperCollins.

Kane, S. (1998c). Crave. Methuen Drama.



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Sofa Blum
Sofa Blum
May 09, 2023

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