4:48 Psychosis

Kane, Sarah

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Dec-15-2015
  • Last revised: Dec-15-2015


4:48 Psychosis was the last work of controversial British playwright Sarah Kane.  In 1999, soon after her twenty-eighth birthday, having completed the play, she took her own life.  

Naturally, these tragic circumstances can never be far from the reader’s mind. But to dismiss 4:48 Psychosis as a suicide note is to negate Kane’s achievement.  The play was, in fact, meticulously researched and carefully written. Kane’s first play, Blasted, had considerable shock value, and throughout her short career she pushed the boundaries of what might be considered stageworthy. 4:48 Psychosis is both the final product of a life marked by recurrent episodes of depression (the play gets its name from the time she found herself waking up every day during the last episode) and the final chapter in her writing’s progression towards disintegration. It represents her deteriorating mental state, but is also a conscious stylistic decision. 

The text of 4:48 Psychosis is unrecognizable as a conventional play.  The author has left neither stage directions nor an indication of the number or gender of performers. Words and numbers appear to be arranged ornamentally on the page. However, meaning that is not apparent emerges from the chaos, as in the way that sense may be made from a psychotic mind.  The numbers are not random, but “serial 7’s” from the mental status exam.  Quotations from the Book of Revelations appear side by side with excerpts from a medical chart, and extracts from self-help books are interspersed with dialogue between a patient and her psychiatrist.  The latter provides an illustration of the patient’s attempt to reconcile her anger with her neediness: “I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel nothing” (p. 214). We learn too of her struggle with self-mutilation and her suicidal impulses, and follow her moods from dark humor to despair to hopefulness.  Indeed, the last line of the play, “Please open the curtains” (p. 245) appears to leave open the possibility that she will pull through.  That option was unfortunately not the one the author chose for herself. 


4:48 Psychosis raises the question of what constitutes theater.  Is this a case study in psychotic depression, a work of art, or both?  Can one call language without boundaries a play?  What direction remains for contemporary theater to take following total fragmentation?  

These concerns have not stood in the way of 4:48 Psychosis being produced - if anything, it seems to be gaining in popularity.  What could be stumbling blocks are seen by directors as a challenge to be met creatively.  The play’s initial production, at London’s Royal Court (2000) divided the words among three performers.  All three initially learned the whole text, and although most lines were eventually allocated, others were voiced spontaneously by different actors from performance to performance.  The “action” appeared to take place within the mind of the protagonist.  Projections onto a mirror helped create a Rorschach-like effect.  As evidence that the play encourages a wide variety of interpretations, in the celebrated TR Warszawa production, six actors embodied discrete characters, creating encounters between a central character and her doctor, family members, or friends.  This production, brought to New York in 2014, employed a Polish translation with English surtitles.  

In conclusion, 4:48 Psychosis is clearly not everyone’s idea of entertainment (one critic likened watching it to being locked in a freezer).  However, it provides a beautiful, albeit brutal, window into the depressed, suicidal mind.


Graham Saunders’s book ‘Love me or kill me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (Manchester U Press, 2002) contains interviews with theater artists who knew Sarah Kane, and is an invaluable resource. 

Primary Source

Sarah Kane: Complete Plays


Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Place Published

New York

Page Count