Caryl Churchill Essay - Churchill, Caryl

Churchill, Caryl


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works


Downstairs 1958

Owners 1972

Objections to Sex and Violence 1975

Vinegar Tom 1976

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire 1976

Traps 1977

Cloud Nine 1979; revised with the subtitle A Comedy of Multiple Organisms 1984

Top Girls 1982; revised 1984

Fen 1983

Softcops 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

Lovesick 1967

Identical Twins 1968

Abortive 1971

Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen 1971

Henry's Past 1972

Schreber's Nervous Illness 1972

Perfect Happiness 1973

Crimes 1982


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

Author Commentary

Interview with Churchill (1984)

SOURCE: Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 75-84.

[The interviewers Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig are both American drama critics; Emily Mann is an American playwright. The following is taken from a two-part interview, first with Betsko and Koenig in February 1984, and then with Mann in November of that year. Churchill discusses her association with Joint Stock Theatre in London, her politics, and her writing career.]

[Interviewer]: Is there a female aesthetic? And we'd like you to wrap this question up once and for all. [Laughter]

[Churchill]: I don't see how you can tell until there are so many plays by women that you can begin to see what they have in common that's different from the way men have written, and there are still relatively so few. And we have things in common with male playwrights who are worried about similar things in their particular country and who have worked in the same theaters with the same directors. So it's hard to separate out and think of "women playwrights" rather than just "playwrights." Though I do remember before I wrote Top Girls thinking about women barristers—how they were in a minority and had to imitate men to succeed—and I was thinking of them as different from me. And then I thought, "Wait a minute, my whole concept of what plays might be is from plays written by men. I don't have to put on a wig, speak in a special voice, but how far do I assume things that have been defined by men?" There isn't a simple answer to that. And I remember long before that thinking of the "maleness" of the traditional structure of plays, with conflict and building in a certain way to a climax. But it's not something I think about very often. Playwriting will change not just because more women are doing it but because more women are doing other things as well. And of course men will be influenced by that too. So maybe you'll still be no nearer to defining a female aesthetic.

Some of the playwrights we 've interviewed suggest there are no "lost masterpieces " and that "the cream will rise to the top" in terms of women's writing for the stage.

Most theaters are still controlled by men and people do tend to be able to see promise in people who are like themselves. Women directors have pointed out to me how established men tend to take a young male director under their wing, and seem to feel more uncomfortable with a woman director because they can't quite see where she is, because they weren't like that at her age. I think the same thing can happen with writers: If you're at the stage where you are promising but not doing it all that well yet, it's perhaps easier for a man choosing plays to see the potential in a man writer. I don't know about "lost masterpieces" but people don't usually start out writing masterpieces and women may have less chance of getting started. Having productions does seem to make people write better.

Has the political climate for women dramatists changed drastically since you began writing plays?

I began writing plays in 1958, and I don't think I knew of any other women playwrights then. Luckily, I didn't think about it. Do you know Tillie Olsen's book Silences? She says that at different times, whole categories of people are enabled to write. You tend to think of your own development only having to do with yourself and it's exciting to discover it in a historical context. When I began it was quite hard for any playwrights to get started in London. The English Stage Company had just started a policy of doing new writing at the Royal Court, but that was almost the only place. I had student productions at first, and then wrote for radio. In the late sixties and early seventies there was a surge of fringe theaters and interest in new writing, starting with the Theatre Upstairs and the Royal Court, and that was the first place to do a professional stage production of one of my plays, Owners, in 1972. For a while, a lot of writers were getting produced for the first time, though far fewer women than men. Gradually during the seventies the number of women increased, coming partly through fringe theaters and partly through women's theater groups. In the last five years there seem to be far more women playwrights and some theaters are more open to them, though others still aren't. At the moment, because of the financial cuts, it's again become quite hard for all playwrights. Theaters are having to do co-productions with other theaters because they haven't enough money to do a whole year's work on their grants, so it means one new play gets done instead of two. The Royal Court, for instance, can now only afford to do four new plays in the main house instead of eight. But I get the impression life is even harder for playwrights in the United States than in England because of there not being a subsidized theater.

In Laurie Stone's Village Voice interview [March 1, 1983], you talked about women becoming Coca-Cola executives and you said, "Well, that's not what I mean by feminism. " What exactly do you mean by feminism?

When I was in the States in '79 I talked to some women who were saying how well things were going for women in America now with far more top executives being women, and I was struck by the difference between that and the feminism I was used to in England, which is far more closely connected with socialism. And that was one of the ideas behind writing Top Girls, mat achieving things isn't necessarily good; it matters what you achieve.

Thatcher had just become prime minister; there was talk about whether it was an advance to have a woman prime minister if it was someone with policies like hers: She may be a woman but she isn't a sister, she may be a sister but she isn't a comrade. And, in fact, things have got much worse for women under Thatcher. So that's the context of that remark. I do find it hard to conceive of a right-wing feminism. Of course, socialism and feminism aren't synonymous, but I feel strongly about both and wouldn't be interested in a form of one that didn't include the other.

Do you think it's odd, given the fact that there is at best indifference, at worst hostility, [to] political plays in America, that your works are so popular here?

Is it true that on the whole plays here tend to be more family-centered, personal, individual-centered?

Yes, more psychological.

Whereas I've been quite heavily exposed to a tradition of looking at the larger context of groups of people. It doesn't mean you don't look at families or individuals within that, but you are also looking at bigger things. Like with the kind of work Joint Stock Theatre Group has done, where you go and research a subject and where you have a lot of characters, even if played by only a few people. It tends to open things out.

The critics do ask, "Where are the American plays with the larger social issues?" Unfortunately, when one comes along our own critics usually turn thumbs down if the politics are overt. An overt political position is considered poor craft or preaching.

When I was in San Francisco I was talking to the people at the Eureka Theatre [where Richard Seyd directed a production of Cloud Nine in 1983] and they were talking about developing a school of playwriting which would break away from family-centered plays, and write about other issues.

Could you talk a little about working with Joint Stock?

I've worked with them three times, on Light Shining in Buckinghamshire [1976], Cloud Nine [1979] and Fen [1983]. The company was started in 1974 by several people, including Max Stafford-Clark, who directed Light Shining and Cloud Nine. There's usually a workshop of three or four weeks when the writer, director and actors research a subject, then about ten weeks when the writer goes off and writes the play, then a six-week rehearsal when you're usually finishing writing the play. Everyone's paid the same wage each week they're working and everyone makes decisions about the budget and the affairs of the company, and because of that responsibility and the workshop everyone is much more involved than usual in the final play. It's not perfect, but it is good, and I do notice the contrast with more hierarchical organizations and feel uncomfortable in them. Because everyone is involved it's taken for granted that everyone will have good parts, so you can't write a couple of main characters and give everyone else very little to do. And usually because of the subject matter, the plays tend to have a large cast of characters, although the company is about six or eight, and the actors double. It's very pressured because the tour's booked and the posters printed long before the play is finished. It's a very intense way of working.

Do you find collaboration difficult?

No, I like it. I'd always been very solitary as a writer before and I like working that closely with other people. You don't collaborate on writing the play, you still go away and write it yourself, so to that extent it's the same as usual. What's different is that you've had a period of researching something together, not just information, but your attitudes...

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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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Cloud Nine


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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Top Girls


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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Serious Money


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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Further Reading


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.



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