Study Guide

Cloud Nine

by Caryl Churchill

Cloud Nine Summary

Introduction

Cloud Nine, by British playwright Caryl Churchill, was first performed at Dartington College of Arts in February 1979 by the Joint Stock Theatre Group. It was then performed on tour at the Royal Court Theatre in London and was first staged in New York in 1981.

Cloud Nine, which can be found in Churchill’s Plays One (London and New York, 1985), was a popular and critical success. In addition to frequently being very amusing, the play highlights colonial and gender oppression. The first act is set in the nineteenth century in an African country ruled by Britain, and Churchill satirizes the repressive nature of the Victorian family, the rigidity of narrowly prescribed gender roles, and the phenomenon whereby oppressed peoples in colonized countries take on the identity of the colonizers. Act two takes place in London one hundred years later with mostly the same characters, who have aged only twenty- five years. In this act, Churchill explores such topics as women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution, all of which were prominent social movements in Britain, as well as the United States, in the 1970s.

Cloud Nine Summary

Act I, Scene i
Act I of Cloud Nine is set in a British African colony in the nineteenth century. The first scene takes place on the verandah of a house. After an opening song introduces the characters, Clive tells his wife, Betty, that he is expecting a visitor, Harry Bagley, an explorer. Betty tells Clive that their black servant, Joshua, insulted her, and Clive makes Joshua apologize. Then the family gathers: their children Victoria and Edward; the governess, Ellen; and Betty’s mother, Maud. Edward is looking after Victoria’s doll, which annoys his father because he thinks this is unmasculine. Betty is nervous at the thought of entertaining a guest. Mrs. Saunders, a widowed neighbor, arrives to take shelter; the local tribes are preparing for war, and she is afraid to stay in her own house. Harry arrives, and he and Clive speak about the dangerous situation, exhibiting a disdainful view of the indigenous people. Harry and Betty are left alone; they are romantically attracted to each other. The scene ends as Harry, who is bisexual, propositions Joshua for sex.

Act I, Scene ii
A couple of nights later, in an open space some distance from the house, Mrs. Saunders meets with Clive. It is revealed that Clive has already seduced her and has a sexual passion for her, which she goes along with even though she does not like him.

The family gathers for a Christmas picnic. They play a ball game, but the men monopolize it, claiming that the women cannot catch. Then everyone plays hide and seek. Joshua warns Clive that the stable boys are not reliable and are carrying knives. Harry and Betty exchange endearments, and Betty bemoans the fact that they can never be alone. Edward says he loves Harry, and it is clear that they have on former occasions had sex with each other. Betty confides in Ellen that she loves Harry, and Ellen reveals that she is in love with Betty.

Act I, Scene iii
In the house, the women discuss the fact that the stable boys are being flogged, and Mrs. Saunders goes to investigate the situation. Edward is still fond of Victoria’s doll, but Betty takes it away from him and slaps him, and Ellen slaps him also. Edward confesses to the returning Clive that he said bad things about his father, but Clive forgives him because he owned up. Clive reveals that he knows of Betty’s feelings for Harry and is ready to forgive her, but he says she must resist her lustful feelings or they will destroy their marriage.

Act I, Scene iv
On the verandah, Clive tells of a raid by British soldiers on a nearby village. Edward pleads with Harry to stay, while Ellen says she only wants to be with Betty forever. Clive tells Harry that he values male friendship; Harry misinterprets this and makes a sexual advance, which disgusts Clive, who tells Harry that he must save himself by marrying. Mrs. Saunders informs Clive that Joshua’s parents were killed in the British raid, but when Clive offers him a day off, Joshua sides with the British, saying his parents were bad people. Harry proposes marriage to Mrs. Saunders, who is not interested, and then to Ellen.

Act I, Scene v
On the verandah, there...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)