Caryl Churchill 1938-
English playwright and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Churchill's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 31 and 55.
Churchill is among the most widely performed and published female playwrights in contemporary British theater. In her works, Churchill employs unconventional dramatic methods to challenge traditional social and political beliefs. Stylistically complex, Churchill's plays are noted for their poetically resonant language and innovative techniques, including cross-gender casting and non-linear chronology.
Churchill was born in London, England, on September 3, 1938. She began writing short stories as a youth, and was involved in painting backdrops for a summer theater program but did not focus on drama as a career choice until she was an undergraduate at Oxford University. Her first two plays, Downstairs (1958) and Having a Wonderful Time (1960), were produced at Oxford, where she received a B.A. degree in English in 1960. In 1961 Churchill married David Harter, and during the 1960s, she composed radio and television plays while spending time at home raising her three sons. With the rise of the Fringe Theatre, a group of British dramatists who produced experimental plays in the late 1960s and 1970s, Churchill found outlets for theatrical performances of her work. Many of her plays were performed at the Royal Court, a subsidized alternative theater, and in 1974, she became the venue's first female resident playwright. In 1976 Churchill began her collaboration with the Joint Stock Company, an alternative political theater group, which produced Light Shining in Buckinghamshire that same year. Through the group's workshop-style creation process, Churchill produced several esteemed plays, and the majority of her works during the 1970s and 1980s were collective efforts written with the Joint Stock Company, or with Monstrous Regiment, a women's theater workshop. The insights Churchill gained while working with these companies have helped shape her solo efforts and refine her social-feminist voice. Churchill has received numerous prizes for her dramas, including several Obie Awards for her plays such as Cloud Nine (1979), Top Girls (1982), and Serious Money (1987).
Churchill's first major stage play, Owners (1972), focuses on a real estate agent's ruthless drive for success which causes hardships for both her marriage and the residents of a working-class neighborhood. The play challenges audiences to rethink traditional gender roles and social interactions. In Objections to Sex and Violence (1975), Churchill pursues her interest in feminist ideology by exploring some of the relationships between sexuality, violence, and power. The play centers around a middle-class woman who tries to appease her awakened political consciousness by taking a janitorial job and involving herself with terrorists committed to indiscriminate civilian bombings. In Vinegar Tom (1976), Churchill explores society's victimization of strong and independent women in a dramatization of the persecution of suspected “witches” during the seventeenth century. The women accused of witchcraft are legitimate healers who are made scapegoats of poverty, victims of religious persecution, superstition, and sexual repression. A farce in which rampant sexual activity underlies genteel manners, Cloud Nine is alternately set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era and present-day London. The same characters appear in both time periods; however, they only age twenty-five years, reflecting Churchill's view of the slow progress of social change. With actors portraying several characters and a number of “cross-cast” roles—when an actor portrays a character of a gender or race other than their own—Churchill underscores what she perceives as the artificiality of conventional sex roles. Churchill employs similar devices in Top Girls, a satire in which the only way women can succeed professionally is to adopt the worst traits possessed by men. The play begins with a dinner party at which a group of prominent female historical figures congratulate a present-day businesswoman on her success, while subsequent scenes relate the tensions of the woman's daily life. In Fen (1983), Churchill draws parallels between the Earth and women—both are exploited and treated as objects to be tamed in a patriarchal and capitalistic society. Serious Money is set in the financial district of London after the “Big Bang,” a term describing the surge in stock acquisition and trading following the 1986 deregulation of the London stock market. The play follows a wealthy young stock trader as she investigates the suicide of her brother. She discovers that he might have been murdered because he had information concerning a takeover bid, and her inquiry uncovers various unsavory business practices. Depicting a group of characters who have dedicated their lives to making money by exploiting the economic structure of society, Churchill examines such topical issues as corruption, international finance, and drug smuggling. Churchill shifted gears in Mad Forest (1990), by writing a quasi-documentary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989. The play is an amalgam of widely divergent theatrical techniques, ranging from a wordless family tableau to verbatim monologues culled from interviews with real survivors of the Romanian government's overthrow. The play examines such issues as oppression, poverty, and the plight of postcolonial societies. In Blue Heart (1997) and Hotel (1997), Churchill returned to exploring some of her favorite recurring themes such as sexuality, sexual politics, and insanity, while further experimenting with language and visual representation.
While Churchill's plays have been praised for their wit, originality, and intelligence, her innovative theatrical techniques have received a mixed response from critics. Many commentators have lauded her use of such demanding innovations; others have found that such experimental techniques make her works difficult for audiences to grasp and lend a flavor of the absurd to her drama. Some critics have harshly judged the parallels between sexual oppression and racial oppression as portrayed in Cloud Nine, noting that the play contains women and minority characters, but does not feature minority women, and thus does not present an accurate depiction of a modern society. In general, critics have agreed that Churchill's plays have constituted insightful examinations of the many problems and issues associated with sexuality, gender roles, and economics.