Caryl Churchill has become well known for her willingness to experiment with dramatic structure. Her innovations in this regard are sometimes so startling and compelling that reviewers tend to focus on the novelty of her works to the exclusion of her ideas. Churchill, however, is a playwright of ideas, ideas that are often difficult and, despite her bold theatricality, surprisingly subtle and elusive. Her principal concern is with the issues attendant on the individual’s struggle to emerge from the ensnarements of culture, class, economic systems, and the imperatives of the past. Each of these impediments to the development and happiness of the individual is explored in her works. Not surprisingly for a contemporary female writer, many times she makes use of female characters to explore such themes.
Churchill has openly proclaimed herself a feminist and a socialist. She is also emphatic in her position that the two are not one and the same. Indeed, her plays do not attempt to confound the two issues, although Top Girls does investigate the influence that capitalism can have on women and their willingness to forsake their humanity for economic gain. Churchill has examined with great sympathy, in works such as Fen and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the plight of the male, or of both genders, caught up in the destructiveness of inhuman economic forces. Churchill herself has argued that both issues are so important to her—the plight of women and the need for a socialist world—that she could not choose between them and would not have one problem alleviated without a concurrent solution to the other. In another sense, Churchill is interested in the greater issues of gender and the games of power played with gender at stake. Just so, she is equally committed to considering the individual and the power drained from that individual by the forces of modern economic and social systems.
Whatever her politics and philosophy, Churchill brings a fire and an energy, a special eye and ear, to the postmodern English drama. She is an inspiration to the feminist movement and to women intellectuals around the world. She remains a force crying out for the release of the individual of either gender from the oppressive imperatives of past practices and present expectations. To her art, she contributes an inventive mind and a willingness to invest great energies in wedding the play to the performance. She has continuously rejected linear structure and the use of the master narratives of socialist realism to present her themes. She has also rejected the Brechtean epic theater in favor of using “found objects,” such as various couples in a hotel room or snatches of everyday speech, and re-contextualizing these found objects into new situations that emphasize new meanings. In this way she is much like the famous avant-garde artist Gaston Duchamp who made a fountain of a toilet bowl.
An important factor in Churchill’s proclivity for structural experimentation is her long and close association with workshop groups, whose aim is the collective creation of theater pieces through the interaction of actors, writers, directors, choreographers, and other artists. Two such groups have been especially influential on Churchill’s artistic development: The first is the Monstrous Regiment, a feminist theater union that helped Churchill create Vinegar Tom; the other is the Joint Stock Theatre Group, with whose help she fashioned several important works, including Cloud Nine, Fen, and A Mouthful of Birds.
The Joint Stock Theatre Group, with directors such as Max Stafford-Clark, Les Waters, and David Lan, and choreographer Ian Fink, operates with suggestions that come from any group member. For example, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Churchill’s first venture with the group, began with a member’s suggestion concerning the motives for the mass immigration of villagers in seventeenth century England. After the initial proposal of the idea, the group set out to research the topic, following it with a theatrical workshop in which the group improvised scenes based on that research. These workshop scenes were interrupted by a “writing gap” during which Churchill wrote the script. Rehearsals came next, with more group interaction and improvisation on the script. Fen followed virtually the same process and was based on a suggestion to explore what it must have been like, in a rural English village, to have the social and agricultural habits of centuries suddenly overturned by the intrusion of modern capitalism, brought in the persona of a Japanese businessman who buys all the village’s farmland. In another example, the group’s director, Lan, was interested in the politics of possession, while Churchill was interested in the theme of women becoming violent and rebellious rather than submitting to their traditionally assigned, passive role. The Joint Stock Theatre Group went to work with these ideas, and A Mouthful of Birds was born. This creative method, which gives a privilege to experimentation and outright and frank theatricalism, seems to serve Churchill well.
Churchill also has a special relationship with London’s Royal Court Theatre, where she was resident dramatist in 1974-1975 and where she has had many of her plays performed in the main playhouse and the experimental Upstairs Theatre. Churchill’s radio and television works are often broadcast by the BBC, and her plays are frequently staged outside Great Britain, especially in the United States, where she was first introduced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre of New York City.
Churchill has also worked with educational institutions such as the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She and school director Mark Wing-Davey took a group of ten graduate students to Bucharest, where they worked with students at the Romanian Institute of Theatre and Cinema on the creation of Mad Forest.
Woman as Cultural Concept
In four of her best-known works—Cloud Nine, Top Girls, A Mouthful of...
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