What are the features that make Cloud Nine an absurdist or avant-garde play? What characterizes this play as absurdist drama?
Cloud Nine is an absurdist play in the way in which it satirizes the Victorian era and also comments on modern sexual mores in a manner that was avant-garde when it was written (it premiered in 1979). The play is about a British family in Victorian times who present the facade of being proper colonialists but who are bizarre in their sexual and romantic habits. The wife, Betty, is madly in love with a family friend, Harry Begley, while their nanny, Ellen, is in love with Betty. Clive, the father, has sexual interactions with the family friend, Mrs. Saunders, while their son, Eddy, wants to be a girl. Bagley, for his part, is gay and has dalliances with the servant, Joshua, and comes onto Clive, who rejects him.
The second act takes place in contemporary London (though the characters have only aged about 25 years), where Betty has left Clive and Eddy is playing the part of the woman in his relationship. Betty and her daughter, Victoria, are sexually liberated women. The playwright, Caryl Churchill, is trying to make a connection between the end of British colonialism and the increasing liberation of women. The play is absurdist in nature, as it has several nonsensical turns of plot, and the characters are affected by forces, such as colonialism and sexism in the first act, outside of their control. The play also features a kind of dark humor in its satire of colonialism (such as Clive's off-hand remark about burning a village the night before). The playwright's treatment of sexual liberation and its connection to colonialism were avant-garde for the time when it was written.
Some of the characteristics of absurdist drama, or theatre of the absurd, are a general sense that life has no meaning, a lack of belief in any kind of god, and absurd or unusual characters set in absurd or fantastic situations.
Cloud Nine can be called absurdist, first of all, by the fact that its characters serve more as caricatures, or types of people, rather than fully developed people. Each one serves as a type to portray the ills of colonialism. Just as the characters serve as stereotypes of colonialism, so also they embody elements of the absurd: Edward is played by a woman; Joshua, the black African servant, is played by a white man; Cathy, the four-year-old daughter, is played by a man. Her mother is also played by a man. The play has the element of the fantastic as well in that in Act 2, while being set one hundred years in the future, the characters have aged only twenty or thirty years.
The author uses these absurd elements to make a statement about gender and racial oppression, making them to be what is the true aburdities.