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Written by Sarah Kane
Date premiered30 April 1998 (1998-04-30)
Place premiered Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, London
Original languageEnglish
Genre In-yer-face theatre
SettingA university

Cleansed is the third play by the English playwright Sarah Kane. It was first performed in 1998 at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs in London. The play is set in a university which (according to the blurb of the published script) is operating as "an institution designed to rid society of its undesirables" where "a group of inmates try to save themselves through love" while under the rule of the sadistic Tinker. [1] [2] When the play premiered at the Royal Court in April 1998, Kane played the part of Grace for the last three performances because of an injury that the original actress suffered. [1]


It is sometimes claimed that Tinker was named after the theatre critic for British newspaper The Daily Mail , Jack Tinker, whose review of Kane's first play Blasted was headlined "this disgusting feast of filth", but there does not appear to be any evidence of Kane confirming this. [1]

Sarah Kane's brother and executor of her estate, Simon Kane, in 2005 remarked that "overseas many, many people think that Cleansed is Sarah's best play." [3]


In the first scene, a timid Graham approaches Tinker, who appears to be a drug dealer. He says he 'wants out' and also asks for drugs. Tinker refuses. They then have an argument about whether or not they are friends. Tinker eventually injects Graham with drugs and he overdoses and dies.

Rod and Carl sit in a room together, Carl asks Rod if he can have his ring as a proposal of marriage. Rod initially refuses. Carl promises to always love him, never betray him, and never lie to him. Rod is cynical. Rod claims that Carl does not even know his real name, and states that he would never die for Carl. Carl is not fazed and keeps asking for the ring. Rod doesn't surrender the ring but admits that he loves him. They kiss.

Grace enters the hospital demanding her brother, Graham's, clothes. The dialogue between her and Tinker imply that her twin brother, Graham, has died. Tinker brings Robin in, who is wearing Graham's clothes. The two switch clothing, with Grace wearing her brother's clothes and Robin wearing the dress Grace came in with (Robin was originally written as a boy but is sometimes played by a girl). After a psychotic break triggered by her brother's lingering scent, Grace is admitted into the hospital. Gracie asks Robin to write her father for her, but Robin reveals he cannot write.

In the next scene, Tinker beats Carl, wanting him to admit that he and Rod are romantically involved. He sodomizes Carl with a long pole, threatening to shove it through his body entirely. Carl gives up Rod's name and apologizes to Rod for it. Tinker then cuts out Carl's tongue and makes him swallow Rod's ring.

Grace has begun to hallucinate her brother. Stage directions and dialogue between them throughout the play imply that they had an incestuous relationship. Haunted by Graham, Grace tries to teach Robin how to read. Robin states his love for her, but Grace rejects it. Tinker comes into the room, tears out the writing in Robin's notebook, and leaves again. He goes and cuts off Carl's hands in front of Rod, who lays there and comforts him.

Tinker goes to see an exotic dancer, known simply as Woman, in a booth. He attempts to masturbate, but gets upset and leaves.

Rod sits in a room with Carl, remorsefully crying. Tinker enters and cuts off Carl's feet.

Robin buys a box of chocolates for Grace, who had mentioned that her previous boyfriend had bought her chocolates. Tinker confiscates the box of chocolates and questions Robin about them, who says they are for Grace. Tinker stands above him and throws chocolates on the ground towards him, demanding that he eats them. Crying, Robin is force-fed the whole box of chocolates.

In the next scene, Rod is crying, still, as Carl crawls up to him. They embrace, and then have sex. Rod vows never to lie to him, never to betray him, and to always love him. Tinker enters the room after they are finished, and slits Rod's throat in front of Carl, who holds him as he dies.

Grace and Robin sit together with Graham looking on. Robin works on counting the number of days in his 30-year sentence. Upset that Grace is not listening, Robin takes off the stockings he has been wearing and ties them around his neck. Grace continues not to pay attention, and Robin hangs himself.

Grace gets a sex change while in the hospital. She arrives onstage with bandages on her groin and breasts. Tinker says she's a lovely man, just like her brother. Carl awakes from the bed behind her, touching his groin. Upon the realization that his genitals were cut off and grafted onto Grace, he starts to cry. Tinker goes and has sex with the Woman, declaring his love for her.

In the final scene, Grace sits on stage with Carl, who is now wearing her dress. She speaks to Graham until she realizes he is not there. She thanks Tinker as Carl begins to cry again. Grace and Carl are alone on stage, when, finally, the sun comes out.


The play was partly inspired by Roland Barthes' work A Lover’s Discourse . [4] Kane commented that "There's a point in A Lover’s Discourse when he says the situation of a rejected lover is not unlike the situation of a prisoner in Dachau. And when I read it I was just appalled and thought how can he possibly suggest the pain of love is as bad as that. But then the more I thought about it I thought actually I do know what he is saying. It's about the loss of self. And when you lose yourself where do you go? There's nowhere to go, it's actually a kind of madness. And thinking about it I made the connection with Cleansed." [5]

Kane claimed that she based the structure of Cleansed on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner. [6] She had previously directed a production of Woyzeck at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill in 1997. [7]

Kane stated that she based the character of Robin on "a young black man who was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. He was eighteen years old; he was put in Robben Island and told he was going to be there for forty-five years. Didn't mean anything to him, he was illiterate. Didn't mean a thing. Nelson Mandela and some of the other prisoners taught him to read and write. He learnt to count, realised what forty-five years was and hung himself." [6] However, the professors Graham Saunders and Aleks Sierz (who have analysed all of Kane's plays) have found no evidence to backup Kane's claim about the prisoner on Robben Island to be true, and instead believe it to be an apocryphal story. [8]

In Cleansed Tinker threatens to insert a pole into Carl's anus "avoiding all major organs, until it emerges" through his right shoulder. [9] When Kane was asked if such a thing was possible she explained that "It's a form of crucifixion which Serbian soldiers used against Muslims in Bosnia. And they would do it to hundreds and hundreds of Muslims and hang them all up and leave them there and it would take them about five days to die. It's possible and unfortunately it happens." [6]

Graham Saunders has written that "the choice of acknowledged sources that informed Cleansed" is "the widest and more disparate of all of Kane's work". [10]

At one point Kane planned for Cleansed to form the second part of a loose trilogy on the subject of war, with the first part being Blasted . [4] However, according to Simon Kane (who is Sarah's brother and the executor of her estate) she only wrote "a very rough first draft" of the third play under the working title of "Viva Death" but she "abandoned the idea" as she thought it had too many similarities to her previous work and "she didn't want to repeat herself". [3]


The Guardian 's Michael Billington reported that Cleansed exhausted him, and the critic listed the play as evidence that "shock is a vital weapon in a dramatist’s armoury that only becomes counter-productive when over-used and triggers the law of diminishing returns." [11]

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  1. 1 2 3 Saunders, Graham (2002). Love me or kill me: Sarah Kane and the theatre of extremes. Manchester ; Manchester University Press : 2002. p. 224. ISBN   0-7190-5956-9.
  2. "Cleansed" Literary Encyclopedia
  3. 1 2 Audio recording of the post-show discussion of the 2005 production of Cleansed at the Arcola theatre. Hosted by Aleks Sierz with discussion from directors Dominic Dromgoole and Sean Holmes, academic Graham Saunders and Sarah Kane's brother Simon Kane.
  4. 1 2 Ravenhill, Mark (28 October 2006). "The beauty of brutality". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  5. Saunders, Graham (2002). 'Love Me Or Kill Me': Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes. Manchester University Press. p. 93. ISBN   0-7190-5955-0 . Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  6. 1 2 3 Kane, Sarah (3 November 1998). "Sarah Kane Interview" (Interview: Audio). Interviewed by Dan Rebellato. Royal Holloway University. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  7. Cavendish, Dominic (5 November 1997). "Sarah Kane on Woyzeck at the Gate, Notting Hill". The Big Issue. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  8. Saunders, Graham (27 August 2009). "ACADEMIC GRAHAM SAUNDERS ASSESSES SARAH KANE" (Interview: Audio). Interviewed by Aleks Sierz. Dewynters, London. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  9. Kane, Sarah (2001). Sarah Kane: Complete Plays. Methuen. p. 116. ISBN   0-413-74260-1 . Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  10. Saunders, Graham (2002). 'Love Me Or Kill Me': Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes. Manchester University Press. p. 87. ISBN   0-7190-5955-0 . Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  11. Billington, Michael (13 May 2016). "Torture and baby-stonings: why we need shock theatre ... in small doses". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2 July 2020.