Caryl Churchill Churchill, Caryl (Vol. 157) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Downstairs (play) 1958

Having a Wonderful Time (play) 1960

The Ants (play) 1962

Easy Death (play) 1962

Owners (play) 1972

Schreber's Nervous Illness (play) 1972

Perfect Happiness (play) 1974

Moving Clocks Go Slow (play) 1975

Objections to Sex and Violence (play) 1975

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (play) 1976

Vinegar Tom (play) 1976

Floorshow [with David Bradford, Bryony Lavery, and Michelene Wandor] (play) 1977

Traps (play) 1977

Cloud Nine (play) 1979

Three More Sleepless Nights (play) 1980

Top Girls (play) 1982

Fen (play) 1983

Midday Sun [with Geraldine Pilgrim, Pete Brooks, and John Ashford] (play) 1984

Softcops (play) 1984

*Plays: One (plays) 1985

A Mouthful of Birds [with David Lan] (play) 1986

Serious Money (play) 1987

Hot Fudge (play) 1989

Ice Cream (play) 1989

Churchill Shorts: Short Plays (plays) 1990

Mad Forest (play) 1990

Plays: Two (plays) 1990

Lives of the Great Poisoners [with Orlando Gough and Ian Spiak] (play) 1991

The Skriker (play) 1994

Thyestes [with Lucius Annaeus Seneca] (play) 1995

Blue Heart (play) 1997

Hotel: In a Room Anything Can Happen (play) 1997

§Plays: Three (plays) 1997

This Is a Chair (play) 1999

Far Away (play) 2000

*Includes Owners, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom, Traps, and Cloud Nine.

†Includes The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, Seagulls, Lovesick, Abortive, Schreber's Nervous Illness, The Judge's Wife, The After-Dinner Joke, Three More Sleepless Nights, Hot Fudge, and Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen.

‡Includes Softcops, Top Girls, Fen, and Serious Money.

§Includes Ice Cream, Mad Forest, Thyestes, The Skriker, A Mouthful of Birds, and Lives of the Great Poisoners.

Helene Keyssar (essay date spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keyssar, Helene. “The Dramas of Caryl Churchill: The Politics of Possibility.” Massachusetts Review 24, no. 1 (spring 1983): 198–216.

[In the following essay, Keyssar analyzes the unconventional political and gender-based aspects of Churchill's plays and examines the influences and collaboration Churchill received during the writing of these works.]

Tall, lithe Caryl Churchill moves through the world with the same brisk and graceful angularity that propels her plays. When I first met her, in the Spring of 1980 at Smith College, neither she nor her work were known to more than a handful of people in the United States. Within a year of this visit,...

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Joseph Marohl (essay date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marohl, Joseph. “De-realised Women: Performance and Identity in Top Girls.Modern Drama 30, no. 3 (September 1987): 376–88.

[In the following essay, Marohl discusses the class discrimination that exists amongst workers of varying rank and wage levels in Churchill's Top Girls.]

For a decade now, deliberate confusion of dramatic roles and playfulness about otherwise serious concepts of gender and history have distinguished Caryl Churchill's plays from the work of mainstream playwrights in Great Britain and the United States. For instance, six performers in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire play twenty-four different dramatis personae...

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Mark Thacker Brown (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Mark Thacker. “‘Constantly Coming Back’: Eastern Thought and the Plays of Caryl Churchill.” In Caryl Churchill: A Casebook, edited by Phyllis R. Randall, pp. 25–47. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the influence that the Taoist yin and yang principles, Theravada and Zen Buddhist ideologies, and Jain beliefs each have on Churchill's writing.]

In an interview in 1982 Caryl Churchill admitted that while she attended Oxford she was “‘strongly influenced by Buddhism, and that sort of thing,’ to which she finds herself ‘constantly coming back’” (Thurman 54). Yet only three of her plays,...

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Robert Brustein (review date 9 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of Hot Fudge with Ice Cream, by Caryl Churchill. New Republic 203, no. 3938 (9 July 1990): 34.

[In the following laudatory review, Brustein praises Churchill's coupling of two plays Hot Fudge with Ice Cream.]

Ice Cream with Hot Fudge at the New York Public's Newman Theater is actually two short plays, the second of which is as nourishing as the title. The opener, Hot Fudge, more a topping than a full dessert, is about bored rich people who meet around drinks at various locations, talking about money scams, real estate, image-making, careers—and above all, vacations. (“Where can we go where...

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Klaus Peter Müller (essay date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Müller, Klaus Peter. “A Serious City Comedy: Fe-/Male History and Value Judgments in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money.Modern Drama 33, no. 3 (September 1990): 347–62.

[In the following essay, Müller asserts that Churchill's Serious Money fits the definition of a “City Comedy,” a genre established in the early seventeenth century referring to plays that satirize events and expose vices of London's financial district, its workers, and their practices.]

Caryl Churchill's recent play, Serious Money, has been a great success both with the supporters of the City of London and those who are highly critical of the financial world....

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Richard Crane (review date 19 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Crane, Richard. “A Young People's Revolution.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4568 (19 October 1990): 1129.

[In the following mixed review of Mad Forest, Crane compliments Churchill's imagery and control yet contends that key information is missing from the play.]

The subject of Mad Forest is the Romanian revolution of last December, the build-up to it and its continuing aftermath, as experienced by ordinary people. Caryl Churchill, Mark Wing-Davey and the cast of students from the Central School of Speech and Drama had been to Romania to glean at first hand, not the front-line heroics and power struggles as seen on television, but the little...

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Gerald Weales (review date 15 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. Review of Mad Forest, by Caryl Churchill. Commonweal 120, no. 1 (15 January 1993): 20.

[In the following review, Weales lauds the political satire evident in Churchill's Mad Forest.]

In one of the most unusual and quietly theatrical scenes in Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, a vampire, suavely menacing in his stereotypical black cape, carries on a conversation with a dog, played impressively by a naked actor on all fours. These characters—like the Archangel Michael, who appears to a priest, and the dead grandmother with whom one of the characters communicates—are Churchillian reminders that this is not a realistic play although...

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Tony Mitchell (essay date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Tony. “Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest: Polyphonic Representations of Southeastern Europe.”1Modern Drama 36, no. 4 (December 1993): 499–511.

[In the following essay, Mitchell argues that the multi-character perspectives in Mad Forest enable Churchill to manifest the emotional and political undercurrents, distrust in a postcolonial society, and a well-rounded picture of working- and middle-class Romanians before, during, and after the Revolution of 1989.]

Caryl Churchill has often been designated a socialist feminist in her work as a playwright, and associated with a theoretical perspective which, in Michelene Wandor's...

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Amelia Howe Kritzer (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kritzer, Amelia Howe. “Madness and Political Change in the Plays of Caryl Churchill.” In Madness in Drama, pp. 203–16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kritzer analyzes the theme of insanity in relation to self-identity and oppression in Churchill's Lovesick, Schreber's Nervous Illness, The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, and several other plays.]

‘The unitary self,’ as Toril Moi observes, is ‘the central concept of Western male humanism.’ Moi argues that this concept is ‘in effect part of patriarchal ideology,’ because it constructs the ideal self as ‘a phallic self … gloriously...

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Betty Caplan (review date 4 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Caplan, Betty. “The Duel in the Crone.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 288 (4 February 1994): 43–44.

[In the following review, Caplan praises Churchill's writing and Kathryn Hunter's acting in The Skriker, but complains that the staging is too small in scale and that the direction and choreography seem at odds with each other.]

Perhaps it's surprising to discover that after all the hype about physical theatre that preceded the premiere of Caryl Churchill's new play, The Skriker (at the Cottesloe Theatre) is more inventive with language than ever. She has been moving steadily, not away from words, but towards a new freedom in which, it...

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Barbara Norden (review date 4 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Norden, Barbara. “When the Kelpie Rides and the Spriggan Stalks.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4740 (4 February 1994): 18.

[In the following review, Norden praises Churchill's imagination and dialogue in The Skriker but finds the staging disappointing and at times distracting.]

Even in her apparently most naturalistic work, staged at the Royal Court throughout the 1970s and 80s, Caryl Churchill has had the ability to startle audiences. In Serious Money, she pushed the emotional temperature up to create the sense of frenzy of City dealing rooms. In Top Girls, she had a 1980s career woman sitting down to dinner with an array of women...

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Sheila Rabillard (essay date spring–summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabillard, Sheila. “Fen and the Production of a Feminist Ecotheater.” Theater 25, no. 1 (spring–summer 1994): 62–71.

[In the following essay, Rabillard examines the concepts of feminism, ecology, and socialism in Churchill's Fen.]


Caryl Churchill is, in the best sense, a playwright of ideas. In her early works, she took inspiration from the theories of such writers as Sigmund Freud (Schreber's Nervous Illness), Frantz Fanon and R. D. Laing (The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution), and Michel Foucault (Softcops). Speaking of one of the dramas that made her name, she remarked that “Fanon's...

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Maggie Gee (review date 2 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gee, Maggie. “Rooms of Their Own.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4909 (2 May 1997): 21.

[In the following mixed review of Hotel, a coupling of Churchill's two short plays Eight Rooms and Two Nights, Gee applauds the seamless and imaginative Eight Rooms, but describes Two Nights as confusing and disorganized.]

Caryl Churchill is Britain's best known living female playwright, author of two plays which helped define the hard edge of the 1980s, Top Girls and Serious Money. 1997 has already seen revivals of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and of the ground-breaking 1979 gender comedy Cloud Nine;...

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Elaine Aston (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aston, Elaine. “Communities in Dramatic Dialogue.” In Caryl Churchill, edited by Elaine Aston, pp. 64–79, 114–15. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1997.

[In the following essay, Aston discusses the collaboration and research techniques Churchill employed while writing Fen, Serious Money, and Mad Forest.]

Research has always been important to Caryl Churchill's theatre-making. In prefaces, introductions, afterwords and interviews where she discusses her work, Churchill cites sources and publications which have helped to shape her drama, and, in this way, she permits the reader access to the thinking and making process of her work and...

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Matt Wolf (review date February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. “True Blue and Dreamy.” American Theatre 16, no. 2 (February 1999): 51–53.

[In the following review of Blue Heart, a double-bill of Churchill's one-act plays Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle, Wolf highly commends Churchill's ingenuity as a writer and her vision as a playwright.]

I can't speak,” goes the opening line of Blue Kettle, the Caryl Churchill one-act that forms the second half of her extraordinary double-bill, Blue Heart. But as the 1997 plays (the opening one is called Heart's Desire) arrive this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in their original Out of Joint production directed by Max...

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Apollo Amoko (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Amoko, Apollo. “Casting Aside Colonial Occupation: Intersections of Race, Sex, and Gender in Cloud Nine and Cloud Nine Criticism.”1Modern Drama 42, no. 1 (spring 1999): 45–58.

[In the following essay, Amoko argues that Churchill's Cloud Nine repeatedly equates gender and sexual oppression with racial and colonial oppression.]

… colonialism has long served as a metaphor for a wide range of dominations, collapsing the specific hierarchies of time and place into a seamless whole. In this scenario, “to colonize” is an evocative and active verb accounting for a range of inequities and exclusions—that...

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Jeffrey A. Barber (essay date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barber, Jeffrey A. “Churchill's Cloud Nine.Explicator 57, no. 4 (summer 1999): 242–44.

[In the following essay, Barber examines masculinity and conformity in Cloud Nine.]

Caryl Churchill introduces readers of her play Cloud Nine to the concept that men “understand” their role as men and their individual responsibility to manliness through a vague sense of learned or patterned behavior established by another male viewed as “successfully” masculine. As illustration, Clive, a Victorian colonial governor, explains respect to his son Edward as a manly duty:

You should always respect and love me,...

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Robert Shore (review date 22 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shore, Robert. “Prophecy off the Back of the Lorry.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5099 (22 December 2000): 18.

[In the following review, Shore expresses his disappointment with Churchill's Far Away, describing the play as incohesive and lackluster.]

It is no insult to say that it is difficult to think of Caryl Churchill without also thinking of Margaret Thatcher, or at least of “Thatcher's Britain.” Top Girls (1982) and Serious Money (1987) are among the most dynamic portraits of that fast-moving, fractious decade. Serious Money in particular is a dark satire on what Churchill describes as the “appalling and exciting...

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Janelle Reinelt (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reinelt, Janelle. “Caryl Churchill and the Politics of Style.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights, edited by Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, pp. 174–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Reinelt analyzes the various theatrical forms and styles Churchill uses to challenge accepted norms in politics, economics, and race relations.]

Caryl Churchill is arguably the most successful and best-known socialist-feminist playwright to have emerged from Second Wave feminism. Her plays have been performed all over the world, from the UK and the United States to Korea and Japan. She is routinely included...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Clum, John M. “‘The Work of Culture’: Cloud Nine and Sex/Gender Theory.” In Caryl Churchill: A Casebook, edited by Phyllis R. Randall, pp. 91–116. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.

Clum studies the traditional sexual roles and varying sexual revolutions that the characters of Cloud Nine experience.

Cousin, Geraldine. “Possibilities Realized and Denied.” In Churchill: The Playwright, edited by Geraldine Cousin, pp. 82–103, 128–29. London and New York: Methuen, 1989.

Cousin examines the recurring themes of monetary greed, ownership, passage of time, ambition, and gender roles...

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