Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
Caryl Churchill has the rare distinction of being a woman playwright with an international reputation. Her plays are both politically charged and technically original. Churchill was born in London in 1938, the only child of Robert Churchill, a political cartoonist, and his wife, a model. In 1948, her family moved to Montreal, Canada, where she attended Trafalgar School. Returning to England, she earned a B.A. in English from Oxford University. While at Oxford, she produced her play Downstairs in 1958. She had other student productions, among them Easy Death in 1962.
During the 1960’s, Churchill had to balance the demands of raising three sons with her career as a radio playwright. Her radio plays, which reflect her depression, dissatisfaction with family life, and a series of miscarriages, are about the destruction of bourgeois middle-class life.
In 1972, Churchill decided to have no more children, her husband gave up his law practice to become a legal aid counselor, and she wrote Owners, her first stage play to be produced professionally. Owners was produced by the Royal Court Theatre and won acclaim for Churchill as a promising new playwright. Owners explores two of Churchill’s constant themes: gender distinctions and capitalist greed. Marion, a real-estate entrepreneur, represents the active, achieving form of Christianity, and Alec, the man she wants to possess, represents Eastern passivity. As well as exploring the gender reversal between the aggressive woman and the passive man, the play juxtaposes the realistic and the grotesque in throwing a new light on conventional attitudes about individualism and capitalism.
In 1974, Churchill and her family took a six-month hiatus, traveling to Africa and Dartmoor (in southwestern England). Churchill came back with the play Objections to Sex and Violence, produced on the main stage of the Royal Court in 1975. The unsuccessful play questions rationales for the use of violence and explores the relationship between sex and violence.
In the mid-1970’s, Churchill aligned herself with two experimental theater groups, Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock Company. In their approach to producing drama, both companies started with concepts or subjects which they investigated through reading and group theatrical workshops. Then the playwright went off to write a play based on the concept and the group work. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, produced in 1976, shows the English Civil War from the viewpoint of groups searching for an egalitarian society and a new millennium; they are betrayed by Parliament, which favors the propertied class and the new capitalist state. Churchill experimented with a montage approach, combining short scenes with hymns and sermons. She used actors playing multiple characters and had the same character played by different actors. Using similar approaches, Vinegar Tom, produced in 1976, shows how the witch hunts of the seventeenth century scapegoated women who were different.
In 1979, the Royal Court produced Cloud Nine, which was produced in New York in 1981 and established Churchill as a playwright of note on both sides of the Atlantic. In Cloud Nine, Churchill links colonialism and gender bias. Act 1 takes place in the Victorian era in an African colony and creates a series of sexual stereotypes that unravel the hypocritical structure of Victorian society. Act 2 takes place a century later, but the characters have only aged twenty-five years. They find themselves caught between bewildering choices in an age of sexual liberation. In Cloud Nine, a man plays a woman, a woman plays a male child, and a white man plays a black man, reversing gender and racial distinctions.
Churchill’s next major play, Top Girls, was highly acclaimed in London and New York in 1982. The play shows how Marlene, in her attempt to climb the corporate ladder, abandons her slow-witted daughter who has no hope for success. The action includes a dinner party where Marlene meets women from history and literature, and it reverses time sequences. Whereas Top Girls depicts betrayal by successful women, Fen, produced in 1983, investigates women at the bottom of the social spectrum and shows, through the use of ghosts and dreamlike sequences, the fortitude of farm women who survive exploitation. Produced in 1987, Serious Money depicts financial trading and back-room deals involving corporate takeovers. Written in rhyming verse that combines financial jargon with street vulgarity, this zany play satirizes the world of high finance and a capitalist society based on greed.
In Mad Forest, produced in 1990, Churchill explores the problems of a socialist country by depicting the Romanian revolution through the lives of two families. It combines documentary and surreal elements, bringing in angels and vampires. Produced in 1993, Skriker follows the adventures of a female spirit who transforms herself through a series of guises. The play combines music, dance, and cryptic language into a dreamlike spectacle. Churchill’s dramas combine socialist and feminist themes in an experimental theater that shatters the realms of time and space, examines the shifting transformations of character, and creates a spectacle that shocks the audience into a new awareness.
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