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. Personal 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. She amuses herself with her money, and when that does not work anymore, with people. She wants Hippolytus to be her project. She wants to fix him. It is not as if Phaedra has no other options.
As Strophe says, she can have any man she wants. She has just fixated on Hippolytus in such a way that no other man will do. She is almost childishly stubborn in this way. Her innocent hopefulness that they might one day fall in love and have a relationship is extremely naive. She closes herself off from all other possibilities because she believes that Hippolytus is not beyond redemption and that he will eventually love her back. Physical The scene takes place in Strophe’s room. It is the middle of the day. At the top of the scene, Strophe is working at her desk, taking care of matters that her mother should be dealing with but never will.
Phaedra enters specifically because she wants to talk about Hippolytus and tell Strophe of her intention to have sex with him and hopefully get her approval. It is the end of summer. Strophe is casual and comfortably dressed for the weather but Phaedra, as always, is overdressed in a formal dress, full makeup and hair, and expensive jewelry. She is dressed like a queen. Though she does very little as queen, dressing the part is her most important job. She focuses much of her energy on her appearance, and the rest on Hippolytus. In fact, she picked out this outfit for him, so that he could see her in it.
Ever since she started to have feelings for Hippolytus, Phaedra has been dressing for him. She has been putting more effort into looking younger and more like someone he would fall in love with. When she walks in, Phaedra wants to talk about Hippolytus, but she does not want to be the one to bring him up, so she hovers around Strophe. She speaks slowly, struggling to find the right words to describe what she’s feeling specifically enough while still dancing around the subject of Hippolytus. However, as soon as his name comes up, she engages in the conversation almost violently. She sits down, she faces Strophe, and she leans in.
The pace of her speech is faster and more excited. Political Power really comes into question with this scene. On the surface, it seems that Phaedra is in power. She is a queen. She is older. She is Strophe’s mother. Her power is tangible and thus easier to define. However, the premise of this scene is her coming to Strophe for advice. So that places Strophe in a position of power. She has more control in the scene. Essentially, Phaedra is in the position of power, but Strophe does not respect it. And, by going to her daughter for advice, Phaedra herself is not really respecting her own power.
The government is a monarchy, with Phaedra as queen. Strophe is a princess. Despite her royal position, Phaedra has never really attended to her obligations as queen, and is simply a symbol of her power. Much of the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Strophe. Phaedra does little to assert her power as queen and mother in the palace. But, when she talks to people outside the palace, such as the doctor in the first scene, she uses her power and fully asserts it. Also, Phaedra’s obvious love for Hippolytus makes her much more vulnerable, and makes it harder for her to validate her power.
When she is with him, she does not assert her power as his stepmother. She equalizes herself with him in an attempt to get him to relate to her. When it comes to Hippolytus, Phaedra has no problem with lowering her status. She almost does it subconsciously. She eventually gives up all of her power to Hippolytus when she commits suicide over him. Philosophical Phaedra’s main dilemma is her unrequited love for Hippolytus, and her ignorance to the fact that any relationship between them would just end in disaster, as it does in the play.
She pines and pines after him, thinking that he will come around and reciprocate her feelings, but he does not. He was never going to. She is foolishly blind to his incurable state. Phaedra is also restless. This is why she latches onto Hippolytus and obsesses over him in the first place. She feels trapped in the palace, knowing her husband is off having another affair and not paying any attention to her. She is very needy, and a life stuck sitting around a royal palace with no one but her daughter and stepson for company does not suit her. She craves love and affection, which she cannot find in the lonely palace.
Phaedra’s journey is dominated by the theme of love. Most of Phaedra’s actions in the play are driven by love. Other themes of her journey are lust, sex, and in the end, suicide. As an actor, I can relate to Phaedra’s intense desire. Many times in my life, I have wanted something so badly and so strongly that I have been unable to forget about it and move on. I am familiar with the feeling of wanting something so much that it turns to needing it. A desire so strong, it can be felt physically. I can also relate to the way it feels to find out that you can never have the thing you so desperately want.
Strophe’s warnings of imminent disaster should Phaedra begin a sexual relationship with Hippolytus are discouraging and frustrating. It is hard to be warned against chasing your dreams. My parents were skeptical of my plans to begin a career in theatre. Their doubts were extremely hurtful, and even caused me to second-guess myself. I can imagine how Phaedra feels after pouring out her heart to Strophe only to have her daughter tell that she cannot ever have the one thing she wants. The final realization that Hippolytus will never love her back brings back painful memories for me.
I have faced my fair share of disappointments in life. Nothing compares to the pain of realizing you will never get something you have wanted so much for so long. At one point, I was forced to question the life path I had chosen for myself. In the end, the play provides no answers. Phaedra cannot have Hippolytus, so she kills herself, and frames him for raping her. The answer here cannot simply be, “If you do not get what you want then you must commit suicide. ” Phaedra’s suicide makes her seem weak, unable to deal with the disappointment of Hippolytus, but I do not believe she is weak. To me, Hippolytus is the weak one.