Caryl Churchill 1938-
Churchill is one of Britain's foremost female playwrights. Her works are distinguished by unconventional dramatic methods, such as the manipulation of time sequence, a flexible approach to characterization, and the incorporation of elements of prominent literary works or historical events. Acknowledging herself to be both a socialist and feminist, Churchill illustrates the hypocrisy and conflicts inherent within society and culture in works that analyze conventions of behavior and gender roles, the capitalist and class system, the institution of the nuclear family, and most prominently, the status of women in a patriarchal society.
Churchill was born in London, the only child of a political cartoonist and an actress. In the late 1940s her family emigrated to Canada, where Churchill completed her primary and secondary education. Returning to England after high school, she attended college at Oxford where she received a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1960. While at Oxford, Churchill's first play, the oneact Downstairs, was produced at the National Union of Students Drama Festival. She subsequently married and began to raise a family, but she found the role of suburban wife and mother restrictive. Although she continued writing—mainly radio plays—Churchill has described this period as a frustrating one: "During that time I felt isolated. I had small children and was having miscarriages. It was an extremely solitary life. What politicized me was being discontent with my own way of life—with being a barrister's wife and just being at home with small children." Churchill's first major stage play, Owners, reflects some of the author's growing political and feminist concerns in its examination of both material and sexual "ownership." The success of this play led to Churchill's appointment in 1974 as the firstever woman playwright-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre. In 1976 Churchill began working with the feminist theater company Monstrous Regiment, a collaboration which was to permanently influence the content and method of her writing. That same year Churchill commenced an association with another alternative company, Joint Stock, with which she produced a number of her most successful works, including Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the Obie award-winning Cloud Nine, Fen, and A Mouthful of Birds. A prolific writer, Churchill has consistently published and produced at least one play per year since the early 1970s. In 1987, she won a second Obie for Serious Money.
Churchill's body of work represents the evolution of the author's own personal and political awareness. Her early radio plays, as she herself has described them, "tended to be about bourgeois middle-class life and the destruction of it." Churchill's emerging feminism is evident in her plays of the 1970s, such as Objections to Sex and Violence, Vinegar Tom (produced with Monstrous Regiment), and Cloud Nine. This last work examines the interconnectedness of sexual, racial, and political repression. The first act presents a Victorian family in colonial Africa; the second act takes place a century later but features the same characters, who have aged only twenty-five years. Actors from the first act assume new roles in the second, crossing racial and gender lines. In the 1980s, Churchill continued to focus on women's issues with works such as Top Girls and Fen, but also began to address other social and political issues. Top Girls employs mythical, historical, and contemporary female characters to examine the loss of feminine identity that women suffer as they strive for economic, social, or professional status. Fen, described by Sheila Rabillard as a study in "ecofeminism," is comprised of a series of vignettes focusing on the lives of poor women sharecroppers. Exploring other issues, Churchill offered a seriocomic investigation of crime, punishment, and social responsibility in Softcops, in which the characters represent various approaches to the deterrence of crime. Serious Money, patterned after Thomas Shadwell's 1662 play The Stockjobbers, satirizes the London stock exchange and involves murder, drug smuggling, and greed. The Skriker, Churchill's most recent work, is a multimedia production incorporating dance, music, and elaborate sets. In this work she returns to the theme of witchcraft and female persecution—also addressed in Vinegar Tom—as a skriker haunts the lives of two women who are social outcasts in medieval England.
Response to Churchill's works has been largely mixed, and Churchill herself has observed the sometimes contradictory interpretations of her plays: "I'm accused of being both too optimistic and too pessimistic … and of being too philosophical and aesthetic and not sufficiently political." Initial reactions to her plays have at times been negative, with reviewers judging the disjointed time sequences, reversals of gender roles, and abrupt shifts in tone to be pointless and confusing. Later critics, however, have been able to discover underlying connections and congruences among the seemingly disparate elements in the plays. They have noted provocative juxtapositions, which may be ironic or poignant or both. For example, as Austin E. Quigley has observed regarding the unconventional role changing in Cloud Nine, "the double approach to character … opens up a realm in which not just double, but multiple, options are available. The performers and the audience, not just the dramatist, must make choices among them."
Objections to Sex and Violence 1975
Vinegar Tom 1976
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire 1976
Cloud Nine 1979; revised with the subtitle A Comedy of Multiple Organisms 1984
Top Girls 1982; revised 1984
A Mouthful of Birds [with David Lan] 1986
Serious Money 1987; revised with the subtitle A City Comedy 1990
Lives of the Great Poisoners 1991
The Skriker 1994
The Ants 1962
Identical Twins 1968
Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen 1971
Henry's Past 1972
Schreber's Nervous Illness 1972
Perfect Happiness 1973
The Judge's Wife 1972
Turkish Delight 1974
The After Dinner Joke 1978
The Legion Hall Bombing 1978
Plays 1 [includes Owners, Vinegar Tom, Traps, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Cloud Nine] 1985
Plays 2 [includes Top Girls, Fen, Softcops, Serious Money] 1990
Shorts [includes Lovesick; Abortive; Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen; Schreber's Nervous Illness; The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution; The Judge's Wife; The After Dinner Joke; Seagulls; Three More Sleepless Nights; Hot Fudge] 1991
Overviews And General Studies
Alisa Solomon (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Witches, Ranters and the Middle Class: The Plays of Caryl Churchill," in Theater, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 49-55.
[Below, Solomon provides an overview of Churchill's writing career, her dramatic technique, and her incorporation of socialist-feminist politics into her works.]
Whether Caryl Churchill writes about frighteningly familiar middle-class life, 17th Century witches, Levellers and Ranters of the 1640's, or 1960's burnouts, her plays challenge our most basic assumptions, those that make it possible for us to function in the most mundane and necessary ways. Forcing us to take a second look...
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Peter Jenkins (review date 7 April 1979)
SOURCE: "Sex Puzzle," in The Spectator, Vol. 242, No. 7865, 7 April 1979, pp. 25-6.
[Cloud Nine was a collaborative effort between Churchill and the Joint Stock Company, whose director was Max Stafford-Clark. It received its first performances in the English provinces before moving to London's Royal Court Theatre; later, a slightly revised version of the play was presented in a New York production directed by Tommy Tune. In the following evaluation of a London performance, Jenkins offers a mixed opinion of the play, finding it moving at times but obscure in its overall...
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Bryan Robertson (review date 11 September 1982)
SOURCE: "Top-Notch Churchill," in The Spectator, Vol. 249, No. 8044, 11 September 1982, p. 25.
[Top Girls premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre, transferred to New York for a run at the Newman Theatre, and then returned to London for further performances. In the following review of a performance during the first London run, Robertson extols the play as "brilliantly conceived with considerable wit to illuminate the underlying deep human seriousness of [Churchill's] theme."]
When the curtain rises on the first of Peter Hartwell's resourceful and...
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Frank Rich (review date 31 May 1983)
SOURCE: "Fen, New Work By Caryl Churchill," in The New York Times, 31 May 1983, p. 10.
[The Joint Stock production of Fen debuted in London in February 1983 and played at the Almeida Theatre until March, when it began a tour that included a run at New York's Public Theatre. In the following New York production review. Rich asserts that although the play is "at times the most off-putting" of Churchill's works, it is nevertheless "another confirmation that its author possesses one of the boldest theatrical imaginations to emerge in this decade. "]
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Victoria Radin (review date 3 April 1987)
SOURCE: "Cash, Bang, Wallop," in New Statesman, Vol. 113, No. 2923, 3 April 1987, pp. 25-6.
[As with many other Churchill plays, Serious Money was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre. It later moved to Wyndham 's in London's West End theater district and then, with some cast changes, to New York's Public Theatre. Early in 1988, a Broadway production was mounted with an entirely American cast. In the following review of a Royal Court performance, Radin maintains that Serious Money is not "a lasting work, but its quality of cheap immediacy, an inky newness like this...
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Cousin, Geraldine. "The Common Imagination and the Individual Voice." New Theatre Quarterly IV, No. 13 (February 1988): 3-16.
Interview in which Churchill discusses the genesis and development of her writing career. She also elaborates on the making of Serious Money and audience responses to her work.
Truss, Lynn. "A Fair Cop." Plays & Players No. 364, (January 1984): 8-10.
Interview in which Churchill recounts the conception, themes, and technique of such works as Top Girls, Cloud Nine, and Softcops.
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
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