Caryl Churchill

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Helene Keyssar (essay date spring 1983)

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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, Churchill's Cloud Nine would take many of the most coveted prizes given to off-Broadway theater productions and become one of the longest running plays by a woman ever presented in New York. By the winter of 1982, she had become the only playwright with two plays—Cloud Nine and Top Girls—running simultaneously in New York. Directors and theater companies all over the United States now clamor to produce Churchill's work.

A critical discussion of Churchill's drama therefore needs no defense. But there is also a more particular reason for this essay. I was initially drawn to Churchill's plays because they surprised me more than any work I had encountered in years, and they surprised me especially as dramatic illuminations of the relationships of men and women. Here was an unquestionably feminist consciousness that neither hid its rage nor reduced complexities to dogma or polarities. Only in one other person had I encountered a similarly intricate point of view, in my friend and colleague, Liz Bruss. There was in both women the same combination of self-assurance and vulnerability, of generosity of spirit and intellectual insatiety. It is difficult today to know how to be a woman in the world, and few women I have known have taught me as much about that dilemma, its triumphs and failures, as these two women.

In Caryl Churchill's plays, neither the sequence nor the unraveling of events is central to the drama since she rejects the temptations of narrative and exploits the ability of the live stage to provoke our acknowledgement of the vulnerability and plasticity of human lives. In each of her plays, she directs this understanding particularly and vehemently to our acknowledgment of ourselves as sexual beings; in the world she offers, we are urged to be erotically present not only as men or women but as distinct human beings. My conversations with Churchill in Northampton, Massachusetts and at a later date in London, illuminated both the coherence and generation of the complex vision of men and women that she presents in her plays.

In archetypically modernist fashion, both Caryl Churchill's life and work embrace the challenge of paradox. As the author of more than thirty-five plays, many of which have been produced on radio, television and in the “live” theater, and all of which challenge conventional assumptions about the roles of women and men, she can lay claim to an achieved stature as a playwright and as a feminist. But to call her a major feminist playwright may be a contradiction in terms. The whole notion of a major or leading playwright is inseparable from traditional habits of theater criticism, dominated by men, by a male notion of work, and by an acceptance of hierarchical estimations of value; lists of major modern playwrights are not the loci of names of women playwrights. Feminist theater was born in part as a rejection of the continuing tendency in theater to name and elevate some artists—almost always...

(This entire section contains 8520 words.)

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men—to positions of leadership while minimizing the important contributions of others, of women in particular. In addition, feminist theater has consistently encouraged collaborative script-writing and the emergence of productions from the interaction of performers, writers, designers and directors, thus changing the very nature and definition of the activity of the playwright.

The more prominent Churchill's work becomes, the more it is caught in a variety of critical traps. Her plays have provoked far less public recognition than those of a dozen male playwrights with comparable, but lesser, bodies of work. Nothing of hers has thus far been produced on the West End or at the National Theater, measures of “success” that, while as dubious as a Broadway production in the United States, nevertheless provide access to both audiences and financial support. Yet, in contrast to the plays of some other British women playwrights, Churchill's work has been consistently produced and a number of her plays have been published. The support Churchill has received from Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court Theater, as well as from publishers, sometimes provokes unease rather than applause or relief, both because it is unique and because it implies a continuing dependence on men.

Churchill's work and its reception also raise complicated questions about the relationship of a playwright—especially a feminist playwright—to companies with whom she collaborates.1 Although Caryl acknowledges in interviews and published texts her debts to the companies with whom she has created many of her plays, is that sufficient distribution of “credit” since playbills and publications still bear only Churchill's name? And is it convention, entrenched social-aesthetic structures, or the playwright which is responsible for whatever injustices may thus occur?

Caryl Churchill herself is deeply aware of these multiple binds. In 1982, two years after our first meeting, I met Caryl again, this time on her home terrain, in Convent Garden, London. She was as aware as any of her critics and admirers of the complexities of her role and her work in relation to that role. The success of the New York production of Cloud Nine had had little effect on the style of Caryl's life, although she admitted with an irrepressible grin that she was now going to get production pictures from her shows, something she had not been able to afford in previous years. But public acclaim did complicate questions about her particular role as a woman playwright concerned with feminist issues. She worried, she said, that she would be exploited as the token woman: “Ah, but we publish/produce Caryl Churchill,” would be the excuse of those who ignored other work by women. And she asked with what seemed authentic uncertainty whether I thought that publishers and producers actually rejected good work by women or whether it simply did not exist in great plentitude. Were there women today “buried at some crossroads,” like Virginia Woolf's fictional Judith Shakespeare, because their minds had been scorned and/or their bodies usurped (as if, indeed the mind and body could in fact be separated)? Part of the answer, of course, was yes—we both could cite instances—and only later, going over my interview notes, did I realize that she had half-consciously provided a response by giving me names of other women playwrights and directors whom I should contact.

How, then, is it possible to be a feminist playwright in this time and culture? Caryl's own history as a woman playwright reveals the shape of the maze, if not pointing the way out for other women. Born in London in 1938, the only child of middle-class parents, she began writing at an early age, and was well-educated by both family and schools. After living with her parents for seven years in Montreal, she returned to England, and in 1956 entered Lady Margaret Hall College, Oxford University. Churchill's first plays (Downstairs,Having a Wonderful Time, and Easy Death) were, like many plays by Oxford-educated playwrights, produced by Oxford theaters. And, as C. W. E. Bigsby has pointed out about many contemporary British playwrights,2 that meant not only that she had audiences for early work but that she had better access to London theaters, since not only playwrights but a remarkable number of theater directors and reviewers continue to pay attention to their Oxford and Cambridge alma maters. Equally important, although eventually a source of distrust for some of her detractors, the evidence of Churchill's Oxford education immediately appeared in the care and control she devoted to the language of her plays. (I suspect, too, that the persistence in her drama of a satiric tone and of interruptive songs springs as much from the abundance of musical revues in Oxford as from the inclination in feminist theater towards musical commentary.)

When Caryl left Oxford, she was prepared to attempt the established path to London's theaters. A decade later, in 1972, she did arrive at the Royal Court Theater, a haven since 1956 for aspiring playwrights. But unlike her male colleagues, she took a long detour enroute. She married David Harter, a struggling barrister, moved to the suburbs of London, had three sons, a series of difficult miscarriages, and began to write radio plays. Caryl is candid about the difficult decisions she and her husband made in shaping their lives. Yet, while she perceives the social-sexual significance of constraints created by her roles as a wife and mother, her voice contains neither bitterness nor regret. “Living in the London suburbs was lousy,” she recalls, but, at the time, she hated London even more. If she was going to be outside the city, she would have preferred to be in a genuinely rural area. “I felt as if I was no place,” she said. But her husband's career limited their choices of location, particularly once he made a key decision to reject the conventional professional route and financial security of the barrister and devote himself to public law in a law center.

Had Caryl Churchill not, however, had a husband and children, she would not have become the kind of playwright she is today. It was precisely that sensation of being isolated and “cooped up,” of defining her life essentially in terms of motherhood and marriage, rather than the external events of the sixties, that gradually politicized her.3 Like many women, Caryl was engaged in a worklife more complex than even she acknowledged. She continued to write, turning to radio plays both because they demanded less time away from home and because for the “Fringe” playwright in a period before there actually was a Fringe theater in London, radio was a good and respectable venue. “Beckett was on the radio,” Caryl commented wryly and reminded me that at the time there were no lunch theaters, no socialist or feminist theater companies, “no Joint Stock Company or Monstrous Regiment” (companies with which she would work in the seventies). “Radio was the way to break in,” she asserted. Or at least it was one way for a woman at home with three children who had little time to make contacts, meet with agents, attend rehearsals, and revise scripts because of budget requirements. The relatively low costs and complexities of radio production meant fewer tensions and distractions from the businesses of writing and bringing up children.

Her first radio play, The Ants, was aired on Radio 3 in 1962. As in many of her later works, the insects in this play are a resonant image of the oppressed individuals of a capitalist society. Ants was followed by more than a dozen other radio plays including Lovesick (1966), Identical Twins (1968), Not … not … not Enough Oxygen (1971), Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972) and Henry's Past (1972). The corrupting power of ownership—of human beings as well as of property—is a persistent concern in these plays, many of which include astute and critical female voices. These were plays, Caryl said in an interview with Catherine Itzen, that “tended to be about a bourgeois middle-class life and the destruction of it” (Itzen, p. 281). But, at the time, it was not a matter of giving dramatic form to a coherent ideology or political stance: “My attitude then was entirely to do with self-expression of my own personal pain and anger. It wasn't thought out” (Itzen, p. 279).

The necessity of writing for the radio instead of for theater turned out to be the mother of invention and pleasure, as it has for a number of American and English women playwrights for whom the dominantly female radio audience as well as the relative ease of production has proved to be a release rather than a constraint. Churchill spoke with unabashed passion of her satisfaction with the radio plays, her desire to have them published in a collection, and her sense of the special power of the medium. This power became clear to her, she said, when some of her radio plays were reproduced for live theater or television and did not prove as effective. The play she particularly recalled, Perfect Happiness, was one in which three women sit around a kitchen table talking about how one of them has killed her husband. On the radio, Caryl said, “the unreality of it all blended. One had to use one's imagination equally to get characters and murder.” Once the spectator saw the women, however, only the murder had to be imagined by the audience, and, from Churchill's perspective, the play no longer worked.

The “pain and anger” that Caryl experienced during the sixties was not, then, a matter of working within an unsatisfactory medium. The more troubling tensions arose because of the conflicts among the various roles she was attempting to sustain. Writing with three small boys in the house was difficult, and eventually she hired a woman to help with the children so that she could write for a few hours a day. But still she would be torn “about paying someone else to take care of my children, about the feeling that I could do it better.” She wrote at home; her youngest child would accompany the nanny when she brought her tea in mid-morning, and she would want to stay with him. The pressure she imposed on herself to produce was also a strain: “I felt guilty if I did not accomplish something while I was paying someone else to baby-sit.” Then, when her youngest child was two, the nanny moved away; Caryl decided not to hire a new sitter: “All the old nagging questions [reappeared] of what's really important. Are plays more important than raising kids?” She did not resolve the questions but continued to grab moments to write on week-ends and occasional evenings. As a result of these constraints, she often wrote very quickly. “Now that I have time it is taking much longer to write my plays.” Many of Churchill's plays grapple with the nature and valorization of work and suggest that what emerged from this period in her life was the understanding that a key problem for women is what we allow ourselves to call work.

For Caryl, the pattern began to change after the production of Owners by the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972. She wrote Owners in three days: “I'd just come out of hospital after a particularly gruesome late miscarriage. Still quite groggy and my arm ached because they'd given me an injection that didn't work. Into it went for the first time a lot of things that had been building up in me over a long time, political attitudes as well as personal ones” (Itzen, p. 282).

Owners was and remains an elegant, terrifyingly dark comedy. The double epigraph to the script aptly remarks the opposing and equally vital forces in the world of the play: aggression and passivity, the Christian work ethic and Buddhist tranquility, destruction and creation, struggle for the same terrain:

Onward Christian Soldiers
Marching as to war.


Sitting quietly, doing nothing.
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.


In these citations, as in the dramatic worlds Churchill persistently creates, modes of experience that we usually deem distinct or antithetical converge within one frame. As she asserts in the preface to Traps (1976), the main attraction of theater for Churchill is its ability to realize the impossible. That she reinvents this old magic is in itself remarkable, but in addition, her inventions are resolutely political actions.

Aesthetically and politically, Owners is a discomforting play. After twenty-five years, Clegg, a butcher, is reluctantly closing his shop, yielding to the success of both a nearby supermarket and his wife's career in real estate. His opening lines are addressed to a woman customer:

Lovely day dear. Been sitting in the park in the sun? I know you ladies. Twelve ounces of mince. And what else? Some nice rump steak dear? You don't keep a man with mince. No? Twenty p, thank you very much. Bye-bye dear, mind how you go.

The conventional paternalism of these lines and the nostalgic familiarity of the butcher shop are immediately undermined by the entrance of Worsely, whose most striking feature is his heavily bandaged wrists. With a casualness that must bewilder any spectator, the two men discuss Clegg's plans to kill his wife and Worsely's most recent, unsuccessful attempt to kill himself (he has tried to slit his wrists and done what he labels a “B-minus” job). The dialogue yields no clues to the audience as to whether Clegg will actually attempt the murder, but there is no doubt that the conversation itself is serious and threatening. Clegg voices unselfconsciously what most women would dismiss as their most exaggerated fantasies of male attitudes. His wife, Marion, he declares to Worsely, is his property: “It's very like having a talking dog, and it's on the front page at breakfast, the radio at dinner, the television at night—that's mine, look, that's my clever dog. But a time comes when you say, Heel. Home. Lie down.”

Enter Marion, well-heeled and talking, but certainly no one's dog. She takes over the scene and the men with such assurance and relish that any conventional sympathy for her we might have anticipated instantly vanishes. “I know very well it's a sad moment,” she tells Clegg as they close the doors for the last time to his shop, then adds, “I can't be a failure just to help.”

Scene two of Owners abruptly shifts to a small disheveled room in the damp, crowded flat of a couple named Alec and Lisa. Moments before, a burglar has left the flat in chaos. (As with the other six settings called for in Owners, each of these locations is minimally indicated and permanently on stage as adjacent pieces of what we will come to see as a whole world.) In Alec and Lisa, we meet the inverse of Clegg and Marion. Marion and Clegg are childless; Lisa and Alec have two children, with a third conspicuously on the way, and Alec's senile mother lives with them. Lisa at first appears to fulfill a stereotype of a sentimental, nagging, working-class woman, although as the play unravels, her conflicts about mothering and her challenges to Marion and Clegg's callousness make her a potent character whom we cannot dismiss as parody or cliche. But if Lisa is initially the female counterpart to Clegg's male beast, Alec is the antithesis not only of Marion but of any available male types. Educated and a skilled glazier, he holds no salaried job, not because he is unable to find outside work, but because he prefers to stay at home taking care of the family and domestic chores. He is a man with a perfect absence of desire either for property or to wield control over others. Attempts by others in the play to reveal Alec's passivity as inherently aggressive are repeatedly thwarted. Alec retains his moral autonomy while rejecting all obligations to social convention.

The entanglements of these characters explode on the audience in a series of small bursts: Marion persuades Alec to make love; later, in full view of the audience, Clegg and Lisa take their revenge in a grotesque scene of copulation; Lisa gives her baby to Marion and Clegg, then retrieves it; Worsely sets fire to Lisa and Alec's apartment building, and Alec and the baby die in the fire as Worsely shoots himself in the head but remains unscathed. Perhaps because both class consciousness and farce are more familiar objects and modes of discourse in England than in the United States, London reviewers found considerable merit in Owners while the short-lived American production was consistently dismissed as another derivative “absurdist” play. Although both Edith Oliver in The New Yorker and Clive Barnes in The New York Times admitted that the play suffered from a weak production, there is a disturbing narrowness of vision in these reviews best exemplified by Barnes closing assertion that “Absurdity needs to have its roots in reality to be dramatically viable.”

The wonder of Owners' mad collection of improbable characters and events is that they constitute a reconfiguration of meaning, not merely an absurdist view of an insane world. Owners has neither the despair nor the hollow cynicism so characteristic of much modern theater, nor is its presentation of the contiguity of possession of persons and property, of capitalism and sexism, so far removed from “real” life. The wit and sense of humor in Churchill's dialogue and the playful punctuation created by Worsely's repeated appearances in the bandages of his unsuccessful suicide attempts may disguise the work Churchill demands of the audience but it would be a mistake to underestimate her challenge. The script avoids psychological explanations. Like Samuel Beckett's, Churchill's perspective is phenomono-logical; she shows us what people do, not why they do any particular act. This means that we are not allowed the superiority of greater knowledge than those on stage and that we are asked to pay attention despite the absence of the familiar dramaturgical conventions of irony or suspense.

There is no space in this play for sentimental empathy for women or working-class people nor are we allowed the satisfaction of rage at easy polarities. In a dramaturgical gesture characteristic of feminist dramas, Churchill divides our attention among the five characters, refusing a hierarchy of interest or role; she also curtails each scene so as to avoid sustained concern for any character. Owners leads the spectator to admit that our interest in the characters is dependent on our own limited and embedded expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman and what it means to be a woman and a man in a relationship. Were Marion a man, her aggressive authoritarianism would be admired by most of those within the plays as well as many in the audience; were Alec a woman, his lack of aggression and contented domesticity would hardly be thought of, as it is by those within the play, as mental illness. Churchill is not urging that women take on men's roles but that men and women respect and care for each other as other, not as extensions or reflections of themselves. It is not gender that distinguishes each character from another in Owners but the essential state of being human and the particularities of the individual.

This is a tricky political stance, vulnerable to criticism like that of Michelene Wandor who remarks that Marion “appears to validate male fears of female sexual power.”4 Churchill is taking a risk similar to that of Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, the risk of repeatedly asserting that “the pressures [the old gender arrangement] imposes on men are at least as mutilating, distorting and debasing as those it imposes on us.”5 Churchill then takes the further step of presenting a man, framed as unusual but nevertheless imaginable, who does find the present arrangement “intolerable.” But in a society with values more like those of Alec, Marion's greed and narcissism would be as despicable in a woman as they are in a man. That Alec dies in the course of behaving as if such a society could exist is an admission that, even in the theater, a new kind of hero is a fragile creation. But that he exists at all is a sign of possibility.

In part because Churchill leads us to measure conventionally female gestures enacted by a man, she does not insure feminist admirers. The most heroic figure in the play is a man, and neither of the women is easy to like. The vision of Owners is of a society in which the prison of sexism can only be eliminated by radical changes in men as well as in women. Respect and equality for women is shown as an insufficient change in a world in which men do exist and are the fathers of our children.

The London and New York productions of Owners elevated Churchill to the status of “promising playwright,” but did not significantly alter her work or work habits. During the next two years, she wrote the successful radio drama, Perfect Happiness, and a television drama, Turkish Delight, but she was increasingly frustrated with the distractions in her life. Painful miscarriages led her and her husband to decide that he would have a vasectomy. Then, in 1974, they agreed to try a radical change in their environment to give Caryl a chance to focus on her writing. The entire family packed up for a six-month trip to Africa and Dartmoor: “me living with David and coping with things so that he could work for ten years, so why didn't he take time off to do what I wanted to do?” Caryl returned from their exodus with a script of Objections to Sex and Violence, which was produced in January 1975 at the Royal Court Theatre. In its focus on two middle-class sisters, one of whom rebels against her background by becoming involved in political terrorism, the play reveals the frustrations of many middle-class women, including Churchill herself, in their attempts to shatter the sexual and political repression under which they were reared. Unlike Owners, however, Objections to Sex and Violence has little theatrical life of its own and never comes together as a whole piece.

Churchill was less satisfied with this play than with any of her other scripts. Rather than retreating to more conventional dramaturgy, however, she pressed even more firmly against the boundaries of theatrical illusion with her next play, Traps, in which two women and four men live in a communal relationship that has few constraints and a continually plastic structure. The title of the play is ironic, for the characters are paralyzed by the anarchy of the totally communal and therefore relativistic society they have created. The “random permutations” of the relationships are evidence of the multiplicity of simultaneously available roles so central to Churchill's vision, but the deliberately contradictory messages in the play are so unrelieved that the drama has difficulty escaping its own spinning. We are not caught within Traps, but remain outside it and excluded from it.

Still searching for a context for her work that would be aesthetically challenging and allow her political integrity, Caryl joined with an alternative theater company, the Joint Stock Company, in 1976 to create Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1974 by Max Stafford-Clark, William Gaskill and David Hare, Joint Stock was committed to a collective, ensemble rehearsal process and to creating a theater that was unquestionably political without being doctrinaire. Actors and designers as well as playwrights and directors were expected to think and talk about the texts and about themselves. In their first production, an adaptation of William Hinton's Fanshen, the company made the decision to evolve activities for rehearsal that involved the playwright with the actors in the evolution of the script. In what might seem to be an obvious gesture, but one that is decidedly rare in theater, actors were repeatedly asked to describe and then show what they thought was the political point of a scene (Itzen, p. 221). Once actors extended their interest from the conventional modern focus on what the character desires or does to the balances of power, authority and obligation in a given framework, the style of performance moved toward a Brechtian epic theater mode. Such a context was ideal for the uncompromising non-naturalistic approach of Caryl Churchill.

In her introduction to the published text of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Churchill describes how the play evolved:

First of all, Max Stafford-Clark and I read and talked till we had found a subject in the millenial movement in the civil war. There was then a three-week workshop with the actors in which, through talk, reading, games and improvisation, we tried to get closer to the issues and the people. During the next six weeks I wrote a script and went on working on it with the company during the five-week rehearsal period.

It is hard to explain exactly the relationship between the workshop and the text. The play is not improvised: it is a written text and the actors did not make up its lines. But many of the characters and scenes were based on ideas that came from improvisation at the workshop and during rehearsal. … Just as important, though harder to define, was the effect on the writing of the way the actors worked, their accuracy and commitment. I worked very closely with Max, and though I wrote the text the play is something we both imagined.6

Four years later, Churchill told me that this process was both exhilarating and exhausting, “much harder work in most ways than writing alone.” The effort paid off, however, for both the production and the play were consistently applauded for their clarity of vision and commitment. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire retained many of the stylistic elements of Owners and Objections to Sex and Violence—short, self-enclosed Brechtian scenes, furniture reduced to a table and six chairs and minimal hand-props, a non-psychological depiction of characters, and company songs that interrupt and comment on the action. But it also gave its audience a coherent experience of historical change that raised serious questions about the past and the present.

Paradoxically, while both the seventeenth-century civil war setting for Light Shining … and the Joint Stock Company were male-dominated, it was with this play that Caryl was first unqualifiedly commended as a feminist. The most obvious source of this response was Churchill's emphatic attention to the sexual and political oppression of women in a historical period—the late 1640's in England—that is often described as revolutionary and liberating. In a cast of twenty-five characters, only five are women. But the women in the play ably claim their space.

The most extraordinary of these women, Hoskins, is a Ranter who believes that the millennium is at hand and that with it will come both economic and sexual freedom. Transcendent in her faith, she names falsehood and hypocrisy as she see them in language that respects neither sexual nor social convention; her outrageous assertions repeatedly deflate the manipulative and deceiving rhetoric of the men of state. Margaret Brotherton, a vagrant beggar, functions as our reminder of what Hoskins might be without her illusory belief in the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ. And Hoskins' faith is far from orthodox; when Brotherton protests entering a holy meeting, saying, “No, I'm wicked, all women are wicked, and I'm—” Hoskins retorts, “It's a man wrote the Bible.” Brotherton is a victim of poverty and her own acceptance of her servile status as a woman; Hoskins is a victim of her ideology, but, at least for a time, her commitment gives her a strength unavailable to Brotherton.

Equally striking are characters identified only as 1st Woman and 2nd Woman who reveal the particular sufferings of poor women in an emerging capitalist society; precisely because of their anonymity, these women make an unsentimental appeal to our sympathy. In contrast to other images of women during periods of war, Churchill's women do not suffer because of the deaths or defeats of their men, but because they have lost the most by the defeat of a genuinely egalitarian movement. In this play, as in Owners, there is no separating the evil that ensues from the ownership of property from the impoverishment of the lives of women. In Hoskins' vision of the world about to dawn, “we'll have no property in the flesh. My wife, that's property. My husband, that's property.” The message is clear, more in tune with the epigrammatic assertions of other feminist plays of the seventies, and with studies of the biases of ordinary language, than with Churchill's earlier dramas.

Churchill distinguishes her feminism in the theatrical approach to this play and in its historical perspective. To emphasize the distinct angle of her vision, Churchill urged that the characters not be played by the same actors each time they appeared. In the original production presented at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1976, six actors played all of the twenty-five roles, and characters were presented by one actor in one scene and another in the next. Churchill's most immediate intention in using this device was “to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience (Churchill, “Note on Production”). In addition, however, the device politicizes the theatrical convention of transformations, initiated in experimental theater in the sixties and potently adapted by many feminist playwrights in the seventies. In theatrical transformations, actors paradoxically deny and reinform the magic of what Michael Goldman has called the actor-as-character by revealing rather than concealing change.7 In transformational exercises and episodes, actors gradually and subtly alter their facial masks, vocal tones, mimed objects. In Light Shining …, as in Ntzoske Shange's For Colored Girls … or Megan Terry's Comings and Goings, the script requires role transformations to emphasize the commonality of the stories told and to reject the old hierarchies of theater. Theatrical transformations demand intense focus and precision and remind us that our awe of the actor derives at least in part from the confirmation that we can become other, that we can change. But transformations also assert the collective nature of theatrical performance, the interdependency of all those on stage, and undermine our often desperate desire to hook our empathy and admiration to a star, or leader. That it has been feminist theater groups and women playwrights who have sustained, explored and extended this gesture is consistent with a more widespread struggle against male authoritarianism.

Many of the heralded gestures of Churchill's recent work can be traced back to the historical vision and transformations of Light Shining …, yet it is in Vinegar Tom, her next play and the companion piece to Light Shining, that the perspicuity of her vision becomes most apparent. Turning again to seventeenth-century England for her setting, Churchill this time shines her light on a society whose misogyny is grotesquely expressed in its condemnation of certain women as witches. In Vinegar Tom, a pervasive and complex terror of women by both men and women, what Dinnerstein asserts as “the crucial psychological fact … that all of us, female as well as male, fear the will of woman,”8 defines the informing center of the persecution of women as witches. The women accused in Vinegar Tom are “guilty” of healing, choosing to live without men, aborting a fetus, and taking pleasure in sexual intercourse. For these crimes they are first shunned and made objects of horror in the community; later, they are tortured and finally hanged.

Like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, but in a significant departure from her earlier work, Vinegar Tom was a collaborative effort. Before 1976, all of Churchill's work had been created in seclusion: “I never discussed my ideas while I was writing or showed anyone anything earlier than a final polished draft.”9 In contrast, Vinegar Tom was, from its early stages, a work created in collaboration with Monstrous Regiment, a feminist-socialist theatre company formed in 1975 (dominated by women but including men) with the goal of “shifting consciousness in the area of women's relation to society” (Itzen, p. 279). (Monstrous Regiment had taken its name from a sixteenth-century pamphlet by John Knox entitled, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”) Caryl was eager for the opportunity of creating with others as well as for the chance to reach a different audience than that of the Royal Court where most of her previous plays had been performed.

In the Spring of 1976, Caryl researched the history and theory of witchcraft, met again with the company, then went off and wrote a first draft in three days. After working with Joint Stock throughout the summer on Light Shining … she returned to Monstrous Regiment and continued to revise and expand Vinegar Tom in rehearsals with the company. The process was easier than she had imagined, and she thrived on the mutual support that made rewriting a pleasure and a response to concrete needs of both the story and the performers.

The result was Churchill's most accessible play and her most straightforwardly feminist work. Evidence she found in her research of “the extent of Christian teaching against women and … the connections between medieval attitudes to witches and continuing attitudes to women in general” became fiercely present in the play's depiction of the suffering of each of the female characters who attempts to defy established conventions for women's behavior. In contrast to her other plays, Vinegar Tom evokes empathy for a limited number of fully-wrought characters, and, throughout most of the play, sexual identity is not only unambiguous but vividly polarized: women are victims of male oppression, scapegoats for the failures and impotencies that men cannot acknowledge as their own. The best chance women have, one woman in the play advises another, is to “marry a rich man, because it's part of his honor to have a wife who does nothing.” “Whatever you do, you must pay,” warns one of the play's songs, “If You Float”:

You may be a mother, a child or a whore.
If you complain you're a witch
Or you're lame you're a witch
Any marks or deviations count for more.
Got big tits you're a witch
Fall to bits you're a witch
He likes them young, concupiscent and poor.
Fingers are pointed, a knock at the door,
They're coming to get you, do you know what for?

Songs similar to “If You Float,” and a final scene in which two male professors of theology expound their Biblically-derived thesis that witches are predominantly female because “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman,” are the script's only attempts to disrupt an otherwise narrative and realistic style. Churchill asks that the “professors” be played by women as Edwardian music hall gents, a gesture that at once satirizes and publicizes absurd convictions about women's “nature” propagated by figures of authority. This device amuses as a coda; but much more rests, uneasily, on the songs, to be performed in contemporary dress, as a link between past and present and a means to keep the spectator at some intellectual distance from the characters. The songs, written in collaboration with Helen Glavin, succeed in shifting attention from the horror of the events unraveling on stage to the contemporary oppression of women, but are inappropriately didactic if not properly performed. Churchill attributes the failure of the songs, in productions in Northampton, Mass. and San Francisco, to their presentation by characters in seventeenth-century costume. It is important for her—as it may well be for us—to hear the songs as the personal urgings of the women playing these roles. The voices of these actresses would then defy an assumption in theater that the off-stage politics of the performers are irrelevant.

Implicitly throughout the play and explicitly in its final song, addressed, sardonically, to “evil women,” Vinegar Tom is not only about women but is addressed to women. A similar strategy was apparent in the next production on which Churchill worked, Floorshow, a Monstrous Regiment cabaret presentation composed by Churchill, Michelene Wandor, David Bradford, and Bryony Lavery. With these productions as groundings, Churchill began in 1978 to work on still another collaborative project that was to become her most commercially successful work, Cloud Nine.

For Cloud Nine, Churchill returned to the Joint Stock company. From its inception, the play was as much a challenge to the men and women creating it as it was to become for audiences. Actors were selected not only in the traditional terms of their appropriateness for projected roles or their professional skills, but on the basis of interviews in which they were asked to discuss their own sexual identities. The original notion was to choose a group of actors who represented a broad spectrum of sexual experience and identity; thus they wanted men and women who were gay, lesbian, married, single, and heterosexual. Yet, once the company began to talk, read texts on sexual politics, and work through exercises created to explore gender and sexuality, they began to educate each other and to unfix their sexual identities.

A shared assumption that power most frequently resides with men became a key issue for the group. They created a game in which numbers and images (jacks, queens, etc.) on playing cards represented varying degrees of power; red and black respectively represented male and female. Players arbitrarily received cards assigning them numerical power as well as a sexual identity; they were then to improvise situations and interact according to their given power. Repeatedly, actors who received cards identifying them as males would assert more power than those who received cards identifying them as females; assigned gender outweighed off-stage sexual identity as well as numerical scores. The game confirmed Churchill's own tendency to avoid differentiation between interior and exterior actions. In her plays, inner “psychological” conflicts and outer “social” conflicts walk together.

From these games and discussions as well as from the particular stories of members of the company, Churchill created a script that asserts the inseparability of class and sexual oppression and calls into question the rigidity of our perceptions of human beings as men and women. The first act of Cloud Nine is set in a British colony in Africa in Victorian times; Act Two occurs in a London park in the present. The characters we meet in Act One comprise an extended family, ordered and controlled by Clive, who introduces himself as “a father to the natives here, / and father to my family so dear.” Clive also introduces his wife, Betty: “My wife is all I dreamt a wife should be. / And everything she is she owes to me.” Clive, Betty, their children, black servant, governess and friends are all grossly exaggerated stereotypes of their given roles, or so it seems at the beginning of the play. But as the act develops, only Clive continues to behave predictably: Betty, the “dutiful” wife, literally throws herself at Clive's best friend, Harry Bagley; Harry agonizes over his loyalty to his friend and his love for Betty, then makes love to both the black male servant and Betty and Clive's son; Ellen, the governess, reveals that her devotion to Betty is not a matter of obligation but erotic attraction; the widow, Mrs. Saunders, makes love with Clive but insists on her independence in the face of Clive's endless lust. In good comedic form, Act One ends with a wedding, but, continuing the assault on our expectations, the bride and groom are Harry, the gay family friend, and Ellen, the lesbian governess. Both socially and dramaturgically, traditional structures have been at once upheld and exploded.

Churchill's requirements for casting these roles teaches us anew the power of theater. In Cloud Nine, some actors are to play roles antithetical to their “real-world” identities or appearances. Thus in Act I, Betty is to be played by a man; Edward, her son, is to be played by a woman; and the black servant is to be played by a white man. The young daughter, Victoria, exists on stage in the first act as a doll. Churchill's stated intent is to “physicalize the characters' psychologically ambivalent identities.” In performance, this startling casting is not simply a momentary symbolic gesture. In keeping with Churchill's strategy, Tommy Tune, director of the New York production, firmly resisted a campy or caricatured presentation of characters. The actors cast counter to their racial or sexual identities were directed to play their parts with authenticity and commitment. At one point during rehearsals, Caryl recalls, she had “forgotten” that the actor playing Betty was a man, despite the fact that he was dressed in jeans and sweatshirt and sporting a full beard.

Less and more is asked of the spectator in Act Two of Cloud Nine. Each of the actors takes on a new role, but only one character, Victoria's daughter, Cathy, is played by the “opposite sex.” (Not coincidentally, he is played by the white male who was the black servant in Act One.) In addition, in Act Two, the audience is asked to leap a hundred years in time while accepting the illusion that the characters who were in Act One have only aged twenty-five years. Betty reappears as a middle-aged woman in the process of divorcing Clive; her daughter Victoria is now a mother herself, married to a “liberated” man named Martin; Betty and Clive's son, Edward, has grown up to be a park gardener and aspiring novelist who lives, initially, with his male friend, Gerry. By retaining essentially the same family, though placed in an ostensibly different world, Churchill provides some genuine continuity for the spectator; she also extends our political understanding that over the course of the last hundred years, family structure has altered but at a slower pace than have the ornamental aspects of social life. In 1982, Victoria can end up living in a menage of five with her woman friend, Lin, her brother, Edward, her own child and Lin's child, all of them sharing a bed together, but parent-children relationships, domestic roles, attitudes towards work, and assertions of power remain remarkably similar to those of Victorian England.

In its imposition of metaphor on history, its condemnation of ownership and its assertion of the ability of theater to reframe the world counter to ordinary experience, Cloud Nine unites many of the dramaturgical and political actions of Churchill's earlier work. Like Owners,Cloud Nine is also a comedy of manners that makes us laugh repeatedly at the recognition of our own hypocrisies and pratfalls. The precision of Churchill's language bites, and there is never a verbal action we cannot understand unless we refuse to. We learn from being spectators to Cloud Nine that it is what we do, not how we appear, that best identifies us as men and women, and we learn that we can accept men and women as human beings much more easily than we might have suspected.

Churchill's most recent play, Top Girls, Performed at the Royal Court Theater in the fall of 1982 and in New York by the same company, and subsequently by an American company, continues to disrupt the audience's expectations of time and history while returning to her earlier attempts to confront us with the complexities of women's lives. A marriage of two plays that had been struggling for life in Churchill's head, Top Girls complicates and extends questions about women's roles. For years, she says, she has been haunted by an odd collection of dead women drawn from history, paintings, and literature: A thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan, a figure from a Breughel painting, a Victorian traveler, and Chaucer's Patient Griselda have been ghosts at the playwright's table and are now the dinner guests of Marlene, the head of a high-powered employment agency. The other drama, that has now become the center of the play, was inspired, Caryl remarked, by women she met on her visit to Northampton, Mass.; it concerns Marlene's relationships with her working-class sister, the sister's “thick” sixteen-year-old daughter (who is eventually revealed to be Marlene's daughter), and the “tough, high-energy” women in Marlene's employ. All of the characters in Top Girls are women and are to be played by women.

Top Girls has been praised by some reviewers for its innovative dramaturgy and denounced by others for creating too much confusion for the audience. With Cloud Nine, even spectators made uncomfortable by the play's polymorphous sexuality were moved by Betty's struggle to recreate herself and by her encounter, near the end of the play, with the ghost of her old self from Act One. In Top Girls, not only is the narrative chronology even more problematic than in Cloud Nine, but we are left again without a transcendent female figure. Like Marion in Owners, Marlene is a woman we must take seriously and a woman whom we can neither simply condemn nor simply admire. Despite the affection of audiences for Betty, it is clear from my conversations with Caryl that the women characters who most intrigue her have no easy victory over their own constraints and terrors. Indeed, she was disturbed by a script-change in the New York production of Cloud Nine that moved Betty's most poignant speech of self-discovery from a non-conclusive context to the end of the play where it suggests a much surer affirmation of future possibilities for women than she had intended. When I saw Caryl in London, she was struggling again with a similar issue. The two sisters of Top Girls are able to resolve their own conflicts over their “daughter,” but the girl herself, Caryl admitted, is doomed to a miserable life in which she can achieve nothing. The daughter stumbles from her bed to center stage in the last image of the play, and her final cry is a terrifying shriek of isolation and need. The class issues apparent in the play are also presented as irresolvable. Was Top Girls too pessimistic, Caryl wondered; should she add another act that allowed the spectator more room to hope for change?

Churchill admits to being troubled by some reviewers' responses to her work. “I'm accused of being both too optimistic and too pessimistic … and of being too philosophical and aesthetic and not sufficiently political.” But she also feels increasingly confident that her plays are political, and importantly so. What she wants to do, she continues, is what she sees feminism as doing—revising history of the past and in the present. But then, she adds, she wants to do something more; what that is exactly, she will only know when she writes her next play. That such a project at once appears to reveal a pessimistic and an optimistic view of the world is not only consistent with Churchill's own acceptance of paradox but with the poignant clarity of her vision. It will have to be, as Caryl tells us, “Upside down when you reach Cloud Nine.”


  1. Feminist playwright and critic, Michelene Wandor, for example, admires Churchill's work but sees a significant difference between the plays Churchill writes alone and those written in collaboration with theater companies. (Interview with Michelene Wandor, March, 1982, London.)

  2. C. W. E. Bigsby, Contemporary English Drama (London, 1981, Edward Arnold Ltd.) p. 13–18.

  3. Conversation with Caryl Churchill in London, March, 1982 and Catherine Itzen, Stages of the Revolution (London, Methuen, 1980), p. 279. All quotations and paraphrases of Churchill's comments are from my 1982 interview unless otherwise noted.

  4. Michelene Wandor, Understudies (London, 1981, Methuen), p. 66.

  5. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York, Harper and Row, 1976), p. 234.

  6. Caryl Churchill, “A Note on the Production” in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (London, 1978, Pluto Plays).

  7. Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom (New York, 1975).

  8. Dinnerstein, p. 161.

  9. Michelene Wandor, ed., Plays by Women (London, 1982, Methuen), p. 39.


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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.

Joseph Marohl (essay date September 1987)

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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 with individual role assignments which vary from scene to scene and are unrelated to the performers' actual sexes. In the finale of Vinegar Tom, her “sequel” to Light Shining, two female performers portray two seventeenth-century theologians in the top hat and tails of music hall entertainers, singing with great irony the song “Evil Women.” In a prefatory note to Traps, Churchill describes the play as an “impossible object,” like an Escher drawing: “In the play, the time, the place, the characters' motives and relationships cannot all be reconciled—they can happen on stage, but there is no other reality for them. … The characters can be thought of as living many of their possibilities at once.”1 The cast of seven performers in Cloud Nine, Churchill's first bona-fide commercial hit, play thirteen roles of varying age, gender, and race. In Act One, a white performer plays a black servant, a male performer plays the role of a woman, a female performer plays a boy, and a small dummy represents an infant girl. Act Two brings a degree of naturalism as women play women and men play men, with the exception of Cathy, a five-year-old girl played by a man. A stage note explains that “Act One takes place in a British colony in Africa in Victorian times. Act Two takes place in London in 1979. But for the characters it is twenty-five years later.”2 Only three characters appear in both acts, and in all three instances the actors portraying them in the second act are not the same persons portraying them in the first. In Top Girls, an all-female cast of seven play a total of sixteen different characters, five of whom do not exist in the present. Even more recently, in Fen, five women and one man play twenty-two characters in an ambiguous setting which is simultaneously interior and exterior: in Annie Smart's 1983 stage design, “a field in a room.”

Multiple casting and transvestite role-playing, which modern directors of the 1940s and 1950s practiced deliberately in several experimental productions of Shakespeare and other standard dramatists, reflect the many possibilities inherent in the real world and subvert conventional ideas about the individuality or integrity of character. The theatrical inventiveness of Churchill's comedies suggests, in particular, that the individual self, as the audience recognizes it, is an ideological construct and the “real world,” the world as it is recast by the performers, klieg lights, and chicken wire on the stage, consists of people and events which are individual only in so far as they are rhetorically defined in contrast to others. Her plays conceive character and event as paradoxes. People in her plays are not whole, though sometimes they are ignorant of their own fragmentation; they exist only in tension with their environment (time and space), the other people in the environment, and with the “others” who they themselves used to be at an earlier age (their former “selves”). Churchill describes the condition more vividly in dramatic terms in the closing image of Cloud Nine, when a character in Act Two confronts the version of herself from Act One: “BettyandBettyembrace.3

In performance, the plays assume obvious political importance, espousing the social concerns of contemporary feminism: gender stereotyping, the division of labor according to sex, the proprietary family, the oppression of sexual variety through compulsory heterosexuality, class struggle, ageism, and ethnocentrism. The dramatic events raise the audience's consciousness about social principles through the actions depicted and, more importantly, through the actual events of the performance: woman playing man, man playing woman, one person playing two (or more) persons, two persons playing one, the deconstruction of history and geography (and the related unities of time, place, and action) in order to dramatize the cyclical progress of political and social events in history. What the audience experiences during the performance, then, is defamiliarization of the ordinary (alienation effect) and the subversion of positive ideologues about gender, social hierarchies, and chronology. The comedies are parodic enactments and satires of prevalent, middle-class belief-systems and values, i.e., mythologies.

In Top Girls, the one continuous character, Marlene, embodies the characteristics of the popular myth of career woman as castrating female and barren mother. The play uses the myth in order to undermine it, to supplant radical and bourgeois feminist styles with a socially conscious feminism, to “trick” the audience into condemning the “feminist hero” for, in the end, practicing a too-conventional role in the existing power structure. In this, the play succeeds brilliantly and unconsciously. The purpose of the present reading is to discover the political practice of the play as it works through the performance, particularly of the first scene, but a summary of the play's successive parts is necessary first.

Top Girls begins at a restaurant, with a dinner party celebrating the protagonist Marlene's promotion to managing director of the “Top Girls” Employment Agency. Joining her at the party are five ghost characters drawn from history, painting, and fiction: the nineteenth-century Scottish lady-traveler Isabella Bird; the thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan-turned-nun Lady Nijo; Dull Gret, whom Bruegel pictured storming hell in apron and armor; the legendary Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, headed the Church in the ninth century; and Patient Griselda, ironically arriving late and last, the incredibly long-suffering hero of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale. The group ostensibly represents women of outstanding courage and achievement, but the dialogue, often cast as a series of overlapping narrative monologues, reveals pointed differences in ideology and practice. The scene is unique in that it is the only scene in which the play's seven actors appear together and the only scene which does not portray a naturalistic event. It is also the longest scene of the play. The women playing the ghost characters and the waitress appear in subsequent scenes as Marlene's clients, fellow workers, sister, and daughter.

Immediately following the dinner party scene is a brief scene at the employment agency, where Marlene interviews a secretary who aspires to a better position with a new company. There follows a long scene at Marlene's sister Joyce's back yard, where Marlene's sixteen-year-old daughter Angie, whom Joyce has raised as her own daughter, and Angie's younger friend Kit discuss violence on television, money, matricide, death in general, and menstruation, with Angie announcing at the end her intent to visit Marlene in London. The scene sets up the argument for the play's final scene, in which Marlene and Joyce quarrel about politics and family. More important, the scene reveals the complex disturbed psychology of the slow-witted Angie, whose sex, class, appearance, and low intelligence present a multiple threat to her eventual employability and welfare. The girl's resolution to travel to London to her successful “aunt” hints of Sophoclean tragedy. But her threats of matricide and her Oedipal attachment to Marlene do not effect catastrophe or catharsis in the end; Churchill's play is neither tragic nor obvious. The tragic implications of the scene are not, however, wasted, for, as subsequent events prove, Angie, like Oedipus or Antigone, is a victim of history and fate.

Act Two opens at an office of the “Top Girls” Employment Agency. In the first scene, Win and Nell, two employment agents with the firm, arrive for work and discuss Marlene's promotion, aware that now, as one of them remarks, “There's not a lot of room upward.” To which the other one responds, “Marlene's filled it up.”4 Both women agree, nevertheless, that they had rather see a woman promoted than Howard Kidd, a male employee at the agency. Between interviews conducted by Win and Nell, Marlene receives two unexpected visitors at work: Angie, whose surprise visit is treated less than enthusiastically by her mother, and Mrs Kidd, Howard's wife, who asks Marlene to turn down the promotion so that her husband will not be reduced to “working for a woman” (p. 58). The scene ends with news that Howard is in the hospital after a heart attack. The women in the office greet the news with deadpan irony, remarking, “Lucky he didn't get the job if that's what his health's like” (p. 66). Marlene then turns towards her daughter, who has fallen asleep at Win's desk, and prophesies: “She's not going to make it” (p. 66). The line is the end of the story but not the end of the play.

The last scene occurs one year before the scenes preceding it in the play. Once again, the scene is Joyce's house, the kitchen this time. The use of flashback allows the audience to observe a number of changes that will occur over the year in Marlene's character. In the last scene, Marlene, drunk and guiltily maudlin, argues that Angie will “be all right” someday (p. 86). She regards her career advancement as beneficial to women everywhere and herself as an independent, self-made person, in the same mold as Margaret Thatcher, much to the annoyance of her sister, who reminds her that she could have accomplished nothing had not Joyce been willing years before to take the burden of Angie off her hands. Marlene asserts her belief in middle-class individualism; she is, she says, “an original,” a supporter of Ronald Reagan and a “free world.” Joyce, whose politics are Marxist and pro-Labour, criticizes her successful sister's priggishness and egotism. She reminds Marlene about her parents, common workers who lived wasted lives and died without happiness or meaningful employment, and about their daughter Angie, who will also be a victim of monetarism and class prejudice. Nevertheless, Marlene persists blindly to endorse a system that values profits over the needs of people, and in the end she seems to accept that Angie, Joyce, and her mother are reasonable sacrifices to make in order to realize her own success in the business world. Abandoned by Joyce, Marlene sits alone in the kitchen until Angie stumbles in, half-awake after a nightmare, and utters the last line of the play, the single word “Frightening,” an unknowing indictment of her mother's self-interested individualism or perhaps an apprehension of her own miserable future.

Taken as a whole, the play demonstrates several larger formal devices which appear immediately to be significant. The central image of the story related to Marlene is the employment agency, a company which locates meaningful and profitable work for its clients. Employment is likewise the central action of the play. All the characters are involved in the assessment of their own work and the division of labor in general: Marlene's promotion to managing director, Angie's unsuitability for the work force, Joyce's unpaid labor as wife and mother, and, of course, the employees and clients of the agency. Work, promotion, money, and success are topics of conversation among the characters throughout the play. The three interviews conducted in turn by Marlene, Win, and Nell in the course of the performance do not, however, indicate that much real change is possible for the status of women in the existing labor system. For Jeanine, the secretary looking for “better prospects” in Act One, Marlene is able to suggest only other secretarial positions. Jeanine wants more money and prestige, a job like Marlene's, for instance, but Marlene urges her to lower her sights. In the end, Marlene convinces Jeanine to interview for a secretarial position with a lampshade company, which pays no better than the job she already has. Marlene attempts to make the new job more enticing by assuring the client that “the job's going to grow with the concern and then you'll be in at the top with new girls coming in underneath you” (p. 31). In a small firm operated by a man and his two sons, Jeanine's chances for a real promotion to the “top” are practically non-existent; her best bets are longevity and the chance someday to manage new girls in even more subordinate positions. Louise, an older client looking for a change from her middle-management position of twenty years, succeeds only in stirring up the ire of Win, her interviewer. Louise complains that newer male employees move up the ranks much more speedily than her, but admits that she has difficulty with other female employees. Win develops an instant dislike for the client, who in some respects represents her own limitations in advancing at “Top Girls.” She tells Louise that in most situations she will be forced into competition with younger men and encourages her to accept a position with a cosmetics company, a field that is “easier for a woman,” but probably with a reduction in salary. The most pathetic case of all, however, is Shona, whom Nell interviews. She aspires to employment in a “top field” such as computers but seems willing to settle for a lesser position at the “Top Girls” agency. For all her ambition and energy, Shona cannot conceal the disadvantages of her class: poor education, an unrealistic and naive concept of the business world, and lack of connections or experience. She fails in her attempt to bluff Nell into placing her in a position with management status. Together, the three interviews challenge the idea of individual achievement, so important in Marlene's ideology and in the ideology of the English middle-classes who deny the existence of class. The three interviews depict the world of business as a vertical progress from bottom to top, hence “Top Girls,” which, intentionally or not, affirms the class distinctions which Marlene ignores: “I don't believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they've got what it takes” (p. 86). The changes Jeanine, Louise, and Shona attempt to make in their social situations, in which the “Top Girls” agency professes to give assistance, prove to be impossible within the establishment. Despite all the talk of advancement, Top Girls dramatizes the economic stasis of women in business and, more important, the impossibility of genuine social reform of any kind within a system maintaining vertical class distinctions.

The same circular, self-consuming logic can be traced in other parts of the play. The audience's attention is drawn towards a particular line of discourse only to see it totter and collapse anticlimactically later on, its premises shattered. The play moves backwards, negating its “arguments” as it proceeds. It begins in a place of consumption (a restaurant) and ends in a place of production (a kitchen). It begins with a celebration for a promotion and ends anti-chronologically with a drunken reunion which occurred one year before the promotion. The progress of the principal character Marlene proves to be illusory, and, in the end, she is no more morally advanced than the other characters and seems unusually dependent upon the sacrifices of others. Marlene's solicitousness about Angie in Act Two, Scene Two, which initially resembles “womb envy” (before the audience is aware that Angie is Marlene's daughter), ends up being little more than feelings of guilt for having abandoned her, years before. Contrary to one's usual sense of dramatic cause and effect, Marlene's guilty conscience is not redemptive; she repeats the abandonment of her daughter at the end of the scene and resumes her original course. The first scene, moreover, celebrates a promotion which the audience comes to realize was achieved at the high cost of the displacement of a number of other women of equal worth. In the end, Marlene lacks the transcendent quality of heroism the audience had come to expect of her at the beginning. Neither is she as reprehensible as her antagonists Mrs Kidd and Joyce (both played by the same actor) would have the audience believe. Marlene, too, is a victim of the hierarchy in which she operates. Even though Top Girls lacks faith in individualism as a vehicle for social reform, it is not entirely pessimistic in its outlook. Its faith resides in the revolutionary processes of history, which a theatrical performance can duplicate.

The most obvious device of the play, that the performers are all women, allows the drama to take a number of directions which would otherwise have been impossible. Playwright and theater analyst Micheline Wandor says that the “single-gendered play may be ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that we all inhabit a world which consists of men and women, but it does provide an imaginative opportunity to explore the nature of the gendered perspective (male or female) without the complexities and displacements of the ‘mixed’ play.”5 Ironically, by the exclusion of active male characters, Top Girls manages to escape the pitfall of sexism, that is, allowing the audience to mistake the class struggle which is the basis of the dramatic plot for a “battle of the sexes,” which is exactly the mistake Marlene, Win, Nell, Mrs Kidd, and Angie make, Joyce being exceptional. The action of the play indicates that the female perspective is capable, too, of drawing class distinctions and enforcing a patriarch-like matriarchy based on tyranny and division. The issue of plural feminisms as opposed to homogeneous (i.e., authoritarian) Feminism emerges in the play through the demonstration of differences of class and history among members of the same sex, a demonstration which begins in the opening scene.

Before moving to a more particular reading of the play, it is important to recognize the multiple natures of the women in the play. They are first of all, obviously, real women—actors performing roles. They are also female characters—fictions and dramatis personae. On yet another level, they enact roles of gender—cultural codes by which “female/feminine” defines itself as different from “male/masculine” codes. The absence of male characters on stage diminishes the obvious importance of this third level of significance, even though it plays a major part in the discourse of some of the characters. The play in performance de-realizes the women in two ways: one, by being “framed” or abstracted by the theatrical event, their sex becomes a signifier within the dramatic discourse; and two, by performing assigned roles in the drama, their characters contribute to the dramatic discourse through action and dialogue. Thus, one can call Top Girls a “women's play” because all of its actors and characters are women, and, at least initially, gender appears to be the dramatic focal point. Gender, however, is de-centered as the real subject of the play almost as soon as the performance begins. The first scene, in which women of different historical periods and different cultures convene to celebrate Marlene's promotion, dramatizes the lack of unity among persons of the same sex, effected by the lack of ideological unity. The six women at the dinner party represent diverse cultural attitudes towards class, religion, family, ethics, and gender; gender is given only an equal footing with other matters of cultural identity. Apart from its definition in the context of a specific culture, male or female gender does not exist. Only by the reformation of entire social systems, then, can gender roles be changed (or dispensed with) and authentic liberation of the sexes occur. Marlene's bourgeois style of feminism is proved in the course of the play to be culturally conditioned, for her success does not really challenge patriarchal authority but appropriates it, conforming, as it does, to the existing hierarchy. Joyce's argument with Marlene in the last scene makes this criticism explicit:

And for the country, come to that. Get the economy back on its feet and whoosh. She's a tough lady, Maggie. I'd give her a job. / She just needs to hang in there. This country
You voted for them, did you?
needs to stop whining. / Monetarism is not stupid.
Drink your tea and shut up, pet.
It takes time, determination. No more slop. / And
Well I think they're filthy bastards.
who's got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. / You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.
What good's first woman if it's her? I suppose you'd have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. / Great adventures.
Bosses still walking on the workers' faces? Still Dadda's little parrot? Haven't you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.
I am looking at you.

(pp. 83–84)

It is our cultural prejudice, perhaps, that women should be political only about “women's issues,” and Top Girls uses the prejudice against its audience by deceptively foregrounding gender in order to displace it with Joyce's class-conscious politics in the last scene. Marlene's mistaken concept of female homogeneity in the first scenes, then, parallels the mistake the audience makes about the play's message: to overestimate the importance of sex in feminist politics.

The writing of the French semiotician Julia Kristeva has done much to demonstrate how the opposition of male and female, upon which much of Western thought rides, is constructed by the social hierarchy which it supports. It is ideologically circular; patriarchy invents a myth to justify and perpetuate its own existence. A concept of feminism, like Marlene's, which defines itself in the context of a polarity of the sexes (i.e., female versus male/male versus female) cannot transcend the inherently man-centered or phallocentric assumptions of the ruling power system. (The problem is portrayed imaginatively in the “Top Girls” Employment Agency, which cannot place women into high levels of corporations which are designed especially to exclude women.) Top Girls circumvents the cultural polarity with its single sex cast. The dramatic conflict arises not out of a battle of the sexes but out of class struggle as it persists through many generations of history. The first scene functions as the medium whereby certain lines are drawn so that the subsequent political discourse will be clear and understandable.

The play opens with a simple and familiar theatrical image, a table set for six. Marlene and the waitress enter or are discovered as the lights go up. They are costumed in familiar contemporary dress befitting their status and occupation. Enter Isabella Bird in Victorian blouse and skirt. Immediately, Isabella's appearance estranges the setting. As each successive character enters in costume (Lady Nijo in kimono and geta, Dull Gret in apron and armor, Pope Joan in cassock and cope, and later Patient Griselda in medieval dress), the audience becomes aware, perhaps only dimly, of the process of history the costumes represents. Given the new context, what Marlene and the waitress wear is peculiarly historical and cultural, too. Modern dress is another form of period costume. The visual lesson of the opening scene, if taken, is to recognize the cultural relativity of certain norms.

Little is learned about Marlene in the first scene except that she has received a promotion at the employment agency where she works. Her function at the beginning is to serve as interviewer and interlocutor for the five ghost characters. Each of the characters delivers a personal narrative which, like her costume, distinguishes her from the others in the group by identifying her with the ideology of her culture. Each woman, moreover, has a distinctive manner of speaking appropriate to her class, the more extreme examples being Isabella's chatty and anecdotal monologues and Gret's monosyllabic grunts. Despite Marlene's frequent affirmation of a unity based on gender, the ghost characters do not discover much common ground among themselves. For Isabella, the others seem to lack civilization and education. Nijo perceives the others as barbarians, and Joan sees them as heretics and pagans. In fact, the common denominator of the group, besides sex, is zealous regard for their distinct cultural identities. Only Marlene perceives herself primarily as an individual apart and as a woman; the others view themselves as members of other collective enterprises: for Gret, it is a battle with her townspeople against the devils; for Griselda, it is her marriage to the Marquis; for Joan, it is the Church of Rome; for Nijo, it is her father's household and the Emperor's court; and for Isabella, it is the British Empire. Only Marlene feels a bond with the others based on sexual identity. Only she senses an allegiance to a subculture contradistinctive to the dominant culture in which she lives.

Parallels of situation do exist between the ghost characters' narratives, but the differences are more significant. Most of the women have survived tragic love affairs with weaker men. At one point, Joan asks rather unemotionally, “Have we all got dead lovers?” (p. 10). Nijo lost her lover, the poet-priest Ariake, before she bore their son. Isabella's American lover, the mountain man Jim Nugent, died of a gun-shot wound to the head. In later life, Isabella married John Bishop, because of his resemblance and devotion to her beloved sister Hennie, but he died shortly after the marriage. Joan's lover died in the midst of a debate with her over the theology of John the Scot.

Their narratives reveal also that many of them have borne children. Gret had ten children, whom either war or pestilence killed. Nijo gave birth to children by the Emperor and her lovers Akebono and Ariake. Griselda bore the Marquis a daughter and a son, which he removed from her in order to test her allegiance to him. Pope Joan narrates the grotesque nativity of her baby in the middle of a papal procession and their joint executions at the hands of the Roman cardinals. Only Isabella is childless, which she compensated for, she claims, by a fondness for horses. Marlene does not mention her daughter.

All the women left home, several at an early age, but for different purposes. Isabella traveled the world in search of adventure and a variety of experiences. Nijo wandered as a vagabond nun in Japan in obedience to her father's wishes and in penance for losing the Emperor's favor. At age twelve, Joan went with her comrade and lover to Athens to study theology. Gret made an epic descent into hell to avenge the death of her family and to rob the devil's storehouses. And Griselda was carried away, in fairytale fashion, to marry the Marquis, Walter.

Although, as Marlene says of them, the ghost characters are women distinguished by their courage and accomplishments, they have made obvious and often extreme concessions to their various patriarchies, against which they utter no word of condemnation or complaint. In order to study science and philosophy in the library, Joan disguised herself as a boy and continued to pass for male for the rest of her life. She moved to Italy because Italian men were beardless and became Pope after Pope Leo died. So strong was her identification with the male sex that she was unable to interpret obvious signs that she was pregnant, which failure led to her downfall and death. By way of explanation, she says she “wasn't used to having a woman's body” (p. 16). There is a hint of irony, perhaps, when later in the play Louise (whom the same actor plays) remarks during her interview with Win, “I don't care greatly for working with women, I think I pass as a man at work” (p. 52). What is more remarkable is Joan's lack of outrage against the vicious hegemony of the man-centered government of the Church. She even joins in the condemnation of herself and her sex, saying, “I'm a heresy myself” (p. 6) and “I shouldn't have been a woman. Women, children and lunatics can't be Pope” (p. 15).

Griselda submitted to paternal oppression in a different fashion. As part of a marriage contract, she agreed to obey her husband unconditionally. She then “patiently” allowed her husband to separate her from her own daughter and son and later to send her back barefoot to her father's house so that he could marry another woman. At the end of the story, the Marquis revealed that all this was only a test of her love and loyalty towards him, welcomed her back to his house, and reunited her with their children. All the women, except Nijo, seem shocked at the Marquis's tyrannical treatment of her, but like Joan, Griselda defends the hand that oppresses her. Explaining her own reluctance to interfere when the daughter was taken from her, ostensibly to be killed, she says, “It was Walter's child to do what he liked with” (p. 23).

Nijo's accomplishments in life were the result of strict adherence to the wishes first of her father and then of the Emperor of Japan. In every respect, she judges herself and the other women at the dinner party according to man-imposed standards, especially those of her father, even her decision to wander Japan as a penitent nun:

Oh, my father was a very religious man. Just before he died he said to me, ‘Serve His Majesty, be respectful, if you lose his favour enter holy orders.’
But he meant stay in a convent, not go wandering round the country.
Priests were often vagrants, so why not a nun? You think I shouldn't? / I still did what my father wanted.

(p. 3)

Isabella Bird's concern to be known as a “lady,” despite her wanderlust and sense of adventure, is a milder, less obvious form of submission to male authority. Only Gret, who remains silent for most of the scene, gives less evidence of paternal domination. Isabella is less successful in her acquiescence to the standards nineteenth-century English society had set down for women, but her spirit was nevertheless willing. “I tried to do what my father wanted” (p. 3), she laments shortly after Nijo's speech above. And later in response to Griselda's strange tale of marital perseverance, she says, “I swore to obey dear John, of course, but it didn't seem to arise. Naturally I wouldn't have wanted to go abroad while I was married” (p. 21). Of all the characters present at the party, Isabella most closely resembles Marlene, an effect, no doubt, of their relative closeness in history and culture.

All the women at the dinner party are able to detect areas of intolerance and sexual tyranny in the cultures of the other women present; their blind spots are the inequities of their own cultures. Joan expresses shock and disgust at Griselda's servile obedience of the Marquis: “I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me” (p. 21); but she does not comprehend how her own denial of her sex was also a concession to anti-feminist hegemony. Isabella decries the “superstition” of the Church during Joan's lifetime, but she is ignorant that the Victorian woman's obsession with being a proper lady was another form of female subjugation. Marlene does not approve of Nijo's acquiescence to her rape in the Emperor's palace, but later in the play she encourages a client to adapt herself to a certain professional image to please male employers. Only near the end of the scene, after the women have begun to be drunkenly boisterous, do some of them guardedly criticize their cultures. “How can people live in this dim pale island and wear our hideous clothes?” Isabella wonders. “I cannot and will not live the life of a lady” (p. 26). Nijo complains about the Emperor's granting permission to his attendants to flog his concubines (pp. 26–27). Patient Griselda ventures to comment aloud, “I do think—I do wonder—it would have been nicer if Walter hadn't had to” (p. 27). Marlene's awakening comes much later, when she sees her daughter sleeping in the office and acknowledges, after everything, very little has really changed in the world: “She's not going to make it.”

The first scene prepares the audience to perceive the play's subsequent scenes in the light of culturally-conditioned ideology. Like the ghost characters, Marlene has accomplished much in her life, and like them too, she has done so by making concessions to a phallocentric system oppressive to women. Although she expresses disapproval of the extreme, vicious acts of Griselda's Marquis, for instance, or the more intolerant doctrines of the medieval Church, she often praises the ghost characters for their pragmatic manipulation of the patriarchy to further their own ends, a compliment which, needless to say, baffles its recipients. Unwilling to be tyrannized herself, Marlene has joined the powers-that-be and, like Pope Joan, seeks to be obeyed rather than to obey. Nijo perceptively uncovers the secret significance of the promotion to managing director when she adds the phrase “Over all the women you work with. And the men” (p. 13), to Marlene's new title. Marlene's advancement helps no one but herself, however much she would like to believe in a right-wing feminism, and, as the following scenes reveal, she endorses a hierarchical system oppressive to the less fortunate women and men in her society.

Gender fails to be a rallying point in Act One, Scene One, because it is a signifier distinctive to the ideologies which encode it. The conceptions of gender differ culturally and historically as do the costumes. When Marlene proposes a toast “to you all,” Isabella responds, “To yourself surely, we're here to celebrate your success.” Pleased at the compliment to her promotion, Marlene nevertheless attempts to turn around Isabella's toast, “To Marlene,” by adding, “And all of us.” She says, “We've all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements” (pp. 12–13; italics mine). Marlene wants her promotion to be a sign of progress for women collectively, but the others perceive her success as peculiarly Marlene's own. Because of her blindness to class and ideology, Marlene persists in her naive belief that what she individually accomplishes for herself will automatically redound to the common good. Her separation from her sister Joyce in the last scene duplicates her separation from the five ghost characters in the first. In the quarrel which marks the end of the drama, the use of pronouns to demarcate the characters' opposing points of view becomes an explicit element of the discourse.:

Them, them. / Us and them?
And you're one of them.
And you're us, wonderful us, and Angie's us / and Mum and Dad's us.
Yes, that's right, and you're them.

(p. 86; italics mine)

Whereas the cultural divisions of the dinner party scene are somewhat blurred by the amicable situation, the bluntness of the sibling quarrel at the end of the play effectively splits Marlene and Joyce into separate classes, in spite of apparent shared features such as sex, family, and a common interest in the well-being of their daughter Angie. Gender fails to be a rallying point in Act Two, Scene Two, because Joyce, unlike Marlene, does not see the perpetuation of class differences within a hegemonic patriarchy (or matriarchy) as an acceptable feminist model for society. Joyce's argumentative point, which in effect is the political statement of the play, is that Marlene has misperceived the lines of conflict. Inadvertently, Marlene has become “them,” the tyrants, even as she endeavors, on the basis of gender, to identify herself with “us” (a sisterhood of all women) in the first and last scenes.

The play in performance moves the audience from the apparent dichotomy of “female/male,” which Marlene's discourse asserts, to the underlying dichotomy of “oppressor/oppressed” which is the effect of phallocentric hierarchism and which operates outside of the classifications of sex and gender. Within the society of the play, which includes only women, hegemony continues to exist even as women gain token power within the system. Given the context of the whole play, the expression “top girls” becomes, of course, ironic in as much as it implies a middle and a bottom, that is, hierarchy and class tyranny. The drama which the process of scenes enacts is the decentering of Marlene as “top girl” and the deconstruction of the ideology encoding the expression.

Churchill's comedy is disloyal to the historical process of civilization it chronicles in the opening scene. The apparent feminist front at the dinner party proves to be neither unified nor really feminist in any social or political sense. The five women present are as unconscious of Marlene's concept of sisterhood as they are of her concept of the individual. In their own ways, they endorse the several tyrannies under which they lived: Joan, Isabella, and Marlene by emulating the oppressor; Nijo and Griselda by conceding to him. Dull Gret's naive assault upon hell and its he-devils in an attempt to steal infernal wealth parodies radical and bourgeois forms of feminism, which either reverse or capitalize on existing inequalities rather than remove them. In Gret's army, the women-invaders stop to gather the money that the “big devil” shits upon their heads and bludgeon the “little devils, our size,” an action which offers the satisfaction of victimization to those who themselves once suffered as victims (p. 28). The ideology of these actions is not explicitly challenged until Joyce pronounces her judgment on it in the final scene: “Nothing's changed for most people / has it?” (p. 85). Marlene's feminism, defined by paternal models for dominating the weak, fails to envision “alternative, non-oppressive ways of living.”6 It is the presence of “stupid, lazy, and frightened” Angie, however, who disturbs Marlene's ideology from the beginning. Angie, whose presence once posed a threat to Marlene's career, threatens at the end her sense of moral equilibrium—Marlene's world cannot account for or accommodate her. The world continuing to be what it is, Angie, like most women, can never be a “top girl.”


  1. Caryl Churchill, Plays: One (London, 1985), p. 71.

  2. Ibid., p. 248.

  3. Ibid., p. 320.

  4. Churchill, Top Girls (London, 1984), p. 46. The play was first published in 1982: all references are to the later edition, and are included in the text.

  5. Carry On, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics (London, 1986), p. 69.

  6. Rosemary K. Curb, “Re/cognition, Re/presentation, Re/creation in Woman-Conscious Drama: The Seer, The Seen, The Scene, The Obscene,” Theatre Journal, 37 (1985), 303.

Principal Works

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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.

Mark Thacker Brown (essay date 1989)

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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, Owners,Not … not … not … not … not Enough Oxygen, and Top Girls, contain overt references to Buddhism. Even in these plays, the allusions to Buddhism seem merely tangential to the more important issues of ownership, ecology, and sexual identity. So what are we to make of Churchill's claim that she keeps returning to “‘Buddhism and that sort of thing’”? A closer look at Churchill's plays reveals that although they are not “about” Buddhism, they are infused with assumptions and implications that can be linked to counterparts in Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and Jain thought. Caryl Churchill is not a practitioner of any of these religions, but her plays can be better understood when viewed in light of Eastern traditions and assumptions.

The cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy is that a desire for permanence in this world will inevitably lead to sorrow.

The [Theravada Buddhist] monks taught a dynamic phenomenalism, maintaining that everything in the universe, including the gods and the souls of living beings, was in a state of flux. Resistance to the cosmic flux of phenomena, and craving for permanence where permanence could not be found, led to inevitable sorrow. Salvation was to be obtained by the progressive abandonment of the sense of individuality, until it was lost completely in the indescribable state known as Nirvana.

(de Bary, Indian Tradition 92)

Buddhism and Taoism agree that individuality is an illusion and that permanence in this world is unattainable. The Taoists, however, explain continual flux as the alternation of two primal forces, the yin and the yang. This concept, which first became an important factor in Chinese thought during the Han dynasties (202 BC–9 AD and 25–220 AD), grew to include correspondences of yin and yang to all areas of nature.

Thus yang came to connote male, the sun, fire, heat, Heaven, creation, dominance, spring and summer, etc., while yin was related to the idea of female, the moon, cold, water, earth, nourishing and sustaining, recessiveness, autumn and winter, etc. Each force as it reaches its extreme produces its opposite and the two continue to succeed each other in a never-ending cycle. This constant reaction of the two forces on the metaphysical and physical planes was used to explain all processes of growth and change in the natural world.

(de Bary, Chinese Tradition 207)

Although such a brief and general overview cannot do justice to such concepts, perhaps a discussion of their application in specific plays will help clarify them.

Churchill's comment that she was strongly influenced by Eastern thought while an undergraduate at Oxford can be verified in two plays written during those undergraduate days and presented in student productions. The first, Having a Wonderful Time, clearly but subtly uses imagery, characterization, dialogue, and staging techniques that echo or suggest Eastern philosophy. In this play, Paul has come from Paris to spend two weeks at a resort hotel in the south of France, where he becomes involved with the members of the staff. Several of the people he meets represent opposites reminiscent of yin/yang, and their interaction causes continuous changes in their relationships. For example, John, the son of a local farmer, is in love with Anne, a waitress in the hotel run by her family. John's domination of Anne and his emphasis on ownership are apparent from the beginning of the play. In his first lines John discusses his prospective ownership of some land and his chance meeting with its current owner. Significantly, this interview involving John's efforts to stabilize his life, to fulfill his desire for permanence by buying land, occurs on a hill beneath a rising moon. The ideograms for yin and yang indicate the shady and sunny sides of a hill, fou. The reference to the rising moon is one of many examples throughout the play which allude to the alternation of light and dark. Later, when the hillside John dreamed of buying is sold to someone else, the rising moon has turned to daylight. As the hard reality of daylight approaches, John tells us that his dream is vanishing. Change, it would seem, is inevitable; life is an endless series of recurring cycles punctuated daily by intervals of dark and light.

Paul's opening speech first establishes this cyclical idea. He tells us that every year he takes a vacation at the same kind of seaside resort and does the same things while he is there. As he continues, Paul alludes to the daily flux and change of human relationships that will dominate the play. What might seem like a lover's treachery in the dark of night looks entirely different by high noon of the next day. When he speaks to the waitress, Jeanine, it is of the stars and the lights of the town at night, lights that seem to have an attraction for him. He also emphasizes, for no apparent reason, that the action takes place on a hill. Later, when the discussion of owning land has come up, Paul admits that every summer he considers giving up his life in Paris and settling down on his own land, but that every autumn he gives up this idea. Paul's whimsical aspiration to own some cicadas and sunshine reinforces the cyclical motif, and his admission that he changes his mind about this idea seasonally undercuts the notion that ownership can lead to stability. Also, the change from summer to autumn in Taoism is a change from a season of yang dominance to one of yin recessiveness. It is, therefore, appropriate that he gives up the idea of ownership every autumn.

As we have seen, the desire for such worldly stability is the root cause of suffering in both the Buddhist and the Taoist traditions. John's desire to possess and control and dominate creates a chain of causation. Rather than becoming a part of nature, John wishes to change it to suit him. The land is not even his, yet he has made elaborate plans for its “improvement.” He must clear the wood, terrace the hillside, dig a well, irrigate, select the best variety of grapes, and build a house. John's thirst for control includes making rules for Anne. When he hears that Anne has taken a walk through an old abandoned villa, he accuses her of trespassing, and he dismisses the protests of Anne, Charles, and Paul by saying that they would understand if they were land owners. He also forbids Anne to walk with her cousin Charles on the path across the hill because John considers it his personal path. Anne reminds him testily that he does not own the wood, and implicitly she wishes him to understand that he does not own her either. Paul realizes that John's rules are unnatural and unfair. By making Anne feel guilty for breaking these rules, John has robbed Anne of her innocence and forced her to feel an unnatural sense of obligation to him. John wishes to establish control over Charles as well, mainly to limit Charles's access to Anne.

In contrast to John's dreams of “owning” Anne and a specific tract of land on a hillside is Charles's apparent lack of desire. Charles never seems to notice anything; according to Anne's father, Charles would not even notice if the entire hotel were to burn down. Later in the play, Anne confesses that in anger she threw a glass at the wall of the restaurant and contrasts herself with Charles, who would probably just sit passively and uncomplainingly even in hell itself. Charles's lack of interest in the world of ownership and dominance, his apparent indifference to the flames of passion and desire, is interpreted by several of the other characters as stupidity. Yet this apparent dullness and inaction are advanced as positive moods in Taoist thought. “Taking no action” to influence the natural flux of things and being “dull and unwitting” in the world's eyes indicate a kind of insight into the eternal cycle of yin and yang:

A gentleman who profoundly penetrates all things and is in harmony with their transformations will be contented with whatever time may bring. He follows the course of nature in whatever situation he may be. He will be intuitively united with creation.

(de Bary, Chinese Tradition 285)

Thus when Anne and Paul become attracted to each other, Charles rejects Jeanine's suggestion that he somehow intervene, saying that moths would be easier to distract from the flame of a candle. He understands that Anne and Paul's attraction to each other is natural, and he even seems pleased when Jeanine calls him stupid for not doing anything to influence them.

Charles's metaphor of a moth's attraction to a candle flame is a recurrent image in Buddhist literature and in this play. The flames of desire have an almost hypnotic effect on mankind, yet sexual desire is the basis for much of the world's suffering. Consider this typical Buddhist verse, an exhortation to withstand the attractions of women:

As a moth in a fire
Is singed,
Insects set afire
Have no refuge.
Confused by women
One is burnt by passion.
Because of them
One falls into evil ways.
There is no refuge.

(Paul 44)

Churchill makes her use of this same metaphor explicit by re-emphasizing it throughout the play. Paul is continually attracted to the lights of the town and suggests early in the play that they all go to town to the lights; Charles comments that Paul is drawn to them like a moth. Later, after talking at length about the changing moon and the stars, Paul decides to follow the car's headlights to the illuminated town. After this decision the stage directions call for a blackout followed by an interval of darkness and then the bright morning light. As the lights come up, we see Jeanine and Anne primping in front of a mirror while Jeanine applies “Moonlight Tangerine” lipstick, which promises to make women devastatingly alluring. Again, when Paul admits to the audience that he is attracted to Anne, he expresses his fascination in terms of light. He says that he is fearful of Anne just as he is of the heavenly lights, the ones that never go out even when the lights of the town are extinguished. His cryptic confessions to Anne are also couched in light imagery and the contrast of light and shade: for Paul, Anne's face is like much-needed shade on a day when bright sun is all around him. Still later, when Paul gains Anne's confidence, she admits that she wants to be free from the constant change, the constant tug of John on one side (yang) and Charles on the other (yin). Paul assures her that she is free and again uses the dominant metaphor when he says that she is a candle flame and they are all moths.

Although Paul tells her she is free and can act of her own volition, Anne repeatedly begs him to help her “make them stop.” At certain times she feels as if she has risen above the constant tug-of-war in a kind of astral travel, and she sees them all below her, unable to influence her. When Anne asks Charles if she has not succeeded in breaking away from the ebb and flow, Charles's eventual answer is a poetic evocation of yin and yang, an apparent reminder of the folly of resisting such primal forces. He tells her that the sun sets, the moon rises over the hillside, that no matter what one does, time continues. Tomorrow will come, and moths will continue to flit toward the flame. That this reminder results in Anne's total capitulation to John's demands signals her acknowledgment of these forces. She becomes, much to Paul's dissatisfaction, the perfect, passive, yin complement to John's yang dominance. Charles, showing keen insight, refuses to resist or act to influence this turn of events.

Another aspect of Charles's insight is his apparent indifference to individuality. Thus, early in the play Charles tells Anne that he rarely notices any distinctions between people. They are all the same, like air. In his indifference Charles seems to treat all living creatures with equal respect, combining three beliefs: the Jain belief that all living things (and even some inanimate objects) have souls; the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs that even insects participate in the endless cycle of rebirth and that how we treat them can affect our own prospects for a future life; and the Taoist belief that one must not tamper with the natural order of things. So, when Charles catches a moth, he takes great care to be gentle, and he resists Anne's requests to give it to her, lest it come to any harm. While this quiet action transpires, John speaks earnestly about his projected improvements of the property he covets, and Paul tells a story about a woman who found that getting the man she had long desired did not make her happy. Charles responds to Paul's story by saying that both the man and the woman should have remained indifferent. Jeeringly, John responds that playing with moths does not interest everyone as it does Charles.

The play seems to take Charles's side in this dispute. Moths and humans are both inevitably doomed to be attracted to the flames of their desires. The need to desire someone or something and then to strive to attain it seems almost more important than what is desired. Thus the endless round of new “objects” of desire is revealed in the continual change of partners in the play: Paul and Jeanine, Anne and John, Charles and Anne, Paul and Anne, Charles and Jeanine, and back to Anne and John. Unlike John, Charles sees through this flux with the penetration of a Zen sage, and the contrast is nowhere more apparent than when John comes to say goodbye before he goes off to the factory to earn money for his campaign of acquisition and “improvement.” Before he goes, John bullies Anne, accuses her of misconduct with Charles, and sets down rules for her behavior. During this entire scene Charles is lying on the floor, unable to move because an ant is crawling on his leg. He dares not disturb it, and he is totally engrossed in watching it.

Clearly, Churchill's exposure to Eastern concepts had a profound effect on this play. The characters themselves are conceived with the yin/yang polarity in mind, and the continual references to the hill, the rising sun or moon, the changing seasons, the moth's inevitable attraction to the lights, and the apparent illusion of individuality are all explicable in terms of Eastern assumptions and traditions. Having a Wonderful Time is only the first of many plays that are influenced in this manner, but it is the one in which this influence is most pervasive.

Easy Death (written in 1960 and first performed at Oxford) focuses mainly on the pernicious effects of desire or craving. Desire causes suffering and leads to despair, and reliance on gadgets or contrivances to save labor or to conquer nature destroys one's ability to become one with nature's rhythms. Moreover, individual desire can be the root cause of aggregate desire, which results in strife between nations. At the beginning of the play Steve speaks briefly at a rally for Speak for Peace, indicating that, if we could overcome our urge to want things, we would not have any reason to fight wars. Yet, he acknowledges, any form of desire, even desire for such worthwhile ends as peace and social justice, leads to pain and despair, and therefore his own desires seem to be bent on self-annihilation. Indeed, when one of the other Speak-for-Peace speakers contends that in a nuclear war all life would end, Steve seems pleased with that prospect. Because of his realization, he supports the Fanatic's apocalyptic “Kill for Peace” campaign and, indeed, wants to be the Fanatic's first victim: “I might not have chosen it [life] if I could have started wandering from life to death and back; I might have settled somewhere else, in nothing out of life, not nothing in it” (42). Although committing suicide to avoid the endless cycles of rebirth (Buddhism, Hinduism) or yin/yang (Taoism) is frowned upon, Steve's desire to settle “somewhere in nothing out of life,” beyond desire, is, broadly speaking, the goal of all three religions.

As in later Churchill plays, Easy Death presents two characters, Steve and Jack, meant to contrast with each other. Whereas Steve is a drifter without possessions and without a home, Jack has risen, through power-hungry perseverance, from a life of poverty to become an influential capitalist, part owner of the Ezy-life conglomerate, which makes a stunning array of products for virtually any need: Ezy-sleep, Ezy-build, Ezy-eat, Ezy-kleen, Ezy-pep, Ezy-love, etc. This intervention into every sphere with contrivances to make life easier runs counter to the Taoist social ideal of a primitive farming community unselfconsciously living within the symbiotic cycles of nature. Chuang-tzu, one of the foremost authorities in Taoism, wanted people to avoid all artificial contrivances, because the Tao would not dwell in the agitated souls and the cunning hearts of those who used such devices. Churchill shows how craving these devices leads to greater and greater complexity as one desire causes the next. Jack and his wife Jennifer lament that each material need suggests or spawns another in a seemingly endless parade of washing machines, dishwashers, furniture, floor polishers, hoovers, and gadgets of every description. The gadgets eventually become the reason that Jack must work so hard. They have to be paid for, and then more gadgets must be obtained so that the time saved by the earlier gadgets can be filled up with entertainment. Truly, in Western culture the desire for material things can set in motion an unending causal chain of insatiable craving.

Jack's career is another apt illustration of this process. Despite his meteoric rise in the company, Jack is not happy. At various junctures in the play he tells us what would make him happy, but when he gets what he desires he simply finds something else to crave, some obstacle to his happiness. Thus, when he finds out that his wife is not cheating on him and when his son returns from Europe to announce that he has decided after all to join Jack's company, his happiness should be complete. Instead, he immediately gives his old girlfriend a call, goes to visit her, and asks her to help him figure out what his life lacks. She tells him that he never allows himself to be satisfied, and, indeed, is rather juvenile in that regard, but her diagnosis goes unheeded. Eventually, as the lives of Jack and Steve intertwine, both men come to the same realization: Life brings nothing but despair, and in the end everything that seems to give life permanence and meaning is lost. Self-annihilation seems to be the only alternative. Jack asks Steve to kill him, just as Steve had asked the Fanatic to make him his first victim. Even though Steve refuses, Jack plans to kill himself, a decision that brings him a kind of peace outside the realm of desire. Not wanting leaves him nothing more to do, and he experiences a kind of blissful passivity.

Later, at Jack's house, when the subject of suicide again emerges, both men seem to agree that life is an endless round of illusive desires, an endless search to discover what is missing. One feels that one is making progress, but then realizes that progress itself is an illusion. Nothing helps to end the craving. After this agreement, Jack and Steve seem more hopeful. They have found a comradeship that might ease their sense of despair. However, this upbeat moment is soon dissipated by mistrust that leads to a confrontation that costs both men their lives. In the end, the play seems to concur with Steve that despair is the knowledge that everyone and everything are meaningless. We do not know why anything happens, even if science has told us the how of natural phenomena and has helped us to “conquer” nature with gadgets.

Our assumptions that our lives have meaning and that we are individually significant are again under attack in The Ants, (radio production, 1962). As the play begins, Tim, a small boy, detachedly observes what is apparently a great many ants. He picks a favorite ant and names him Bill, but he soon realizes that he cannot keep track of Bill—he keeps losing him in the mass of ants who all look alike. During the course of the play the ants are equated with the mass of humanity. When Tim declares that he likes ants, his grandfather responds: “They've no imagination, just like people. … Look at them from the top of a tall building some time, just funny patterns of people …” (95).

Whereas Charles in Having a Wonderful Time treats insects with the greatest respect and allows an ant to crawl on him for hours rather than interrupt the course of nature, Tim decides to annihilate the ants by dousing them with gasoline and setting fire to them, an idea gleaned from his mother, who wants to “do” something about the ants (91). The resulting destruction of all the ants is analogous to the “bomb” that has been dropped on “the enemy,” and has been the subject of discussion earlier in the play. Churchill's message seems to be that we are not as significant, individually or as a species, as we would like to think we are. We could be annihilated as easily as the ants. Indeed, the headline in the paper above the bomb article reads simply, “Ten-thousand Dead,” precisely the number of ants that Grandfather tells Tim there are in the ant colony.

Churchill has not chosen this number randomly. In Taoism, the number ten thousand symbolizes totality; indeed, the Taoists call the universe wan wu, “the ten thousand things.” Thus when Lao-tzu wishes to express the feeling of standing outside of the flux of the entire world as a detached onlooker, he says, “Having attained perfect emptiness, holding fast to stillness, I can watch the return of the ever active Ten Thousand Beings” (quoted in Watts 34). Therefore, the killing of ten thousand is a Taoist metaphor for total destruction. Although Tim's detached viewpoint offers him a chance to make a profound discovery about human activity as he watches the ants, Tim prefers to destroy them, to dominate them, to control them.

In her first commercially produced stage play, Owners (1972), Churchill again contrasts Western and Eastern attitudes. Such a contrast is evident in the epigrams she places at the beginning of the play's text, one from a Christian hymn—“Onward Christian Soldiers, / Marching as to war”—and one from a Zen poem—“Sitting quietly, doing nothing. / Spring comes and the grass grows by itself” (Owners 3).

In a note written in 1984 for Methuen's first volume of her collected plays, Churchill explains that she wanted

one character with the active achieving attitude of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the other the “sitting quietly, doing nothing” of the Zen poem. The active one had to be a woman, the passive one a man, for their attitudes to show up clearly as what they believed rather than as conventional male and female behavior. So Marion and Alec developed from that train of thought.


In an interview concerning Owners Churchill further described the difference between Western and Eastern attitudes, the passivity of oriental versus the activity of Western culture with its emphasis on control and acquisitiveness. Asked if the term “emotional capitalism” was an accurate assessment of the theme, Churchill responded:

Yes, I mean on a simple political level I think owning is stupid. It would be better to have land nationalised. But taking everything back to the abstract ideas in the play, it's to do with the whole thing of western capitalistic individualism, puritanism, and everything which came out of Christianity, as opposed for example, to Chinese philosophical mysticism, Taoism and so on. The thing of a man being totally passive and walking through fire and jumping into water and not being affected because he doesn't expect to be. Just going with things. Going with the fire and the water. And then when people say afterwards “How did you walk through fire?” he says, “What fire?” … The complete opposite of the feeling of tremendous striving and getting and owning, and feeling one must be in control of one's property, one's family, one's self, one's life.

(Gooch 41)

To illustrate this dichotomy in Owners, the Western yang characters, Marion and her husband Clegg, exhibit the desire to control everything in their respective paths. The more despicable of these “owners,” Clegg the butcher, shows his stripes in this dialogue with Alec, who has resumed an affair with Marion:

You make a big mistake about Marion. She's not like other women in just one important respect. She is mine. I have invested heavily in Marion and don't intend to lose any part of my profit. She is my flesh. And touching her you touch me. And I will not let myself be touched.


Clegg's attitude contrasts sharply with that of Alec, whose wife, Lisa, notices that he is “very nice to me all the time. But I sometimes wonder if he knows who I am. I think he'd be nice to anyone” (24). Confronted by his lover Marion about his love for her compared to his love for Lisa, Alec responds: “I don't think I could say I loved anyone more than anyone else. … I can say I love you and Lisa. But it wouldn't matter if I never saw you again” (46–7).

Although Alec and Marion have in the past had a rather lengthy affair, Alec is now a total mystery to Marion, and Churchill seems to be saying that Alec's desirelessness, his yin passivity, is a personality trait foreign to Western culture. Her inclusion of such yin personalities in so many of her early plays represents a challenge to the assumptions of the West. In summing up the significance of Alec's character in the play, Helene Keyssar emphasizes that he is an alternative to the dominant culture:

Alec is the antithesis not only of Marion but of any available male types. Educated and a skilled glazier, he holds no salaried job, not because he is unable to find outside work, but because he prefers to stay at home. … He is a man with perfect absence of desire either for property or to wield control over others. Attempts by others in the play to reveal Alec's passivity as inherently aggressive are repeatedly thwarted. Alec retains his moral autonomy while rejecting all obligations to social convention.


Later in the play Alec exhibits the traits of a holy man who can walk through fire, oblivious to danger. Having led his own family to safety, Alec re-enters his burning house to save a neighbor's child. It is clear that Churchill wants him to symbolize a higher level of consciousness, free from cravings for permanence, willing to “go with” the natural cycles of an Eastern view of reality. Alec's calm death in the inferno ennobles him because it shows us that he has meant what he has said earlier about loving all children equally. (The Buddhist practice of self-immolation to protest war or injustice also comes to mind. Churchill addresses this practice in Not … not … not … not … not Enough Oxygen, a radio play that includes ecologists who decide to use this method of protest.)

Churchill's assault on basic Western assumptions continues in Moving Clocks Go Slow and in Traps. The former, a science fiction drama set in the not-terribly-distant future, involves an alien invasion of earth. The aliens must enter some living or newly dead body in order to survive, and their difficulties in adjusting to human concepts and limitations seem to verify many Eastern assumptions. For example, an alien tells his new acquaintances that their concepts of individuality and personality are not valid because one alien can occupy one cell, and therefore what seems to be one human actually can be a collection of millions of aliens. The alien treats each separate cell as an individual creature and each human as a mass of these creatures. Rocket reacts against such talk and angrily asserts that he is one separate individual made up of cells, but Stella seems to see the truth in the alien's idea. She likes to think that she exists only as a collection of cells, her personality an illusion. Also, because every creature, even the apparently most insignificant cell of a creature, is inhabitable by an alien, a levelling effect takes place. Humans are no longer the dominant or superior species. This pan-soul idea seems to be a dramatic glimpse of the world as the Jains envision it, for the Jains believe that everything has a soul:

In every stone on the highway a soul is locked, so tightly enchained by matter that it cannot escape the careless foot that kicks it or cry out in pain, but capable of suffering nevertheless. When a match is struck a fire-being, with a soul which may one day be reborn in a human body, is born, only to die a few moments afterwards. In every drop of rain, in every breath of wind, in every lump of clay, is a living soul.

(de Bary, Indian Tradition 47)

To a Westerner this idea of the whole earth alive and teeming is frightening. This fright is Rocket's problem, and he confesses his fear to Kay that every tree or shrub, every abandoned piece of machinery, every bird and every stone seems to threaten him and his long-held views of the world.

Other Western concepts that are called into question in this play and in Traps are our ideas of space and time. In Moving Clocks Q, the “Special” who runs earth, claims that he can transport himself instantaneously through space without any time elapsing and that his only barriers are those he places on himself. Similarly, Apollo, the alien, subverts the notion that time is linear. Where he comes from, events do not occur in a sequence because all of time is accessible simultaneously, just as space is on earth. Later, we are treated to a dramatic rendering of a slippage in time. Mrs. Provis, the elderly grandmother, points to a little girl waving from the back window of a car and realizes it is she herself as a little girl, existing in the same space and at the same time. Kay acknowledges this slippage and tells us that at any single moment the flowers around her could go through all the processes of their life cycle at once. Soon after Kay makes this discovery, there are four repetitions of the same section of dialogue and action. In her stage directions Churchill notes that these sections are supposed to mirror each other exactly, and the characters are to be unaware that they have done these things before. Finally, Kay indicates that her linear progress in time has stopped. Not long after these unaccountable repetitions, Stella regresses in time, and Kay begins to treat Stella more and more as a little girl as Stella's dialogue and manner become more and more childish. Similarly, Kay goes from her role of mother to that of child, and Mrs. Provis too becomes more youthful. In their dialogue during this time, old arguments are rehashed verbatim, and we are meant to believe that time has rippled back on itself. Such aberrations in time strike the Western mind as fantastic, but to a Jain, who believes that time is material, or to a Taoist, who believes that time is cyclical and ever arriving back at its beginning, such notions might seem more plausible.

Eastern assertions that space and linear time are illusions are also given dramatic expression in Traps. Not only do the characters interchange roles with no warning, but the scene shifts, we are told, from the city to the country while the set remains exactly the same. In addition, causation is suspended. For example, one character who has committed suicide simply reappears as if nothing has happened, and the rest of the characters, who have discussed the suicide, show no surprise whatsoever.

Several other aspects of Eastern thought which may have influenced Churchill are the concepts of collective or historical “karma” and individual “karma,” as well as cycles of rebirth. Churchill has written numerous plays which focus the audience's attention on various historical periods. Although a Buddhist would claim that the Hegelian “dialectic” of historical causation (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) which underlies Marxism is illusory, the actions of many individuals at any specific juncture in history can cause a kind of collective karma.

Churchill combines aspects of these ideas in many of her plays. She uses various historical settings in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,Vinegar Tom,Cloud Nine, and Softcops to elucidate contemporary attitudes and assumptions in terms of their historical perspectives. This technique allows her to suggest the evolution of ideas about sexuality, criminality, evil, and religious orthodoxy. Churchill achieves this evolution of ideas in various ways. In Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, she explains in a note at the beginning of the text how she combined the historical events with the concept of the illusoriness of well-defined selfhood or individuality, a Buddhist concept, as we have seen:

The characters are not played by the same actors each time they appear. The audience should not have to worry exactly which character they are seeing. Each scene can be taken as a separate event rather than part of a story. This seems to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience. … When different actors play the parts what comes over is a large event involving many people, whose characters resonate in a way they wouldn't if they were more clearly defined.

(Light ii)

David Mairowitz sees this technique as an innovation which challenges our cultural assumptions about personality and individuality:

One of the dramatic virtues of this magnificent play is that it can assume a certain given historical foundation and proceed to de-emphasize specific characters and events. In fact the play's history is rooted wholly in a collective consciousness which is its protagonist and hero. … Churchill does not feel constrained by the preeminence of personality in our culture (and in our theatre), and twists our comprehension of inter-relationships in her view of events and in her operation of the stage.


By blurring the traditional Western concepts of causation and personality, Churchill gains the freedom to create a vision of history that is not merely limited to specific events and is not merely a cardboard analogue to contemporary issues.

In one of her more famous efforts, Cloud Nine, Churchill again relies on dramatic techniques which have parallels in Eastern philosophy. Although only half of the play takes place in a historical setting, colonial Africa in 1880, Churchill again undermines assumptions about selfhood by requiring members of the cast to change characters for the second act. Also, she employs a time scheme which confuses many critics and audiences: “Act II takes place in London in the present, but for the characters it is twenty-five years later” (1984, 1). Reacting to this tampering with time, Clive Barnes's comment is typical. “I'm not sure what that means either. Presumably Miss Churchill is implying that the British pattern of relationships has been colored by Britain's imperial past …” (85). Similarly, Robert Asahina remarks that

We are still reeling from Act One when Churchill throws us for another loop at the beginning of Act Two. It is now one hundred years later, in contemporary London, but the characters have aged only twenty-five years, thus maintaining a continuity with the past that paradoxically underscores the passage of time and the change in mores. … Sound confusing? Well, it is. …


This dramatic device heightens the contrast between the two periods but reinforces the concept of historical and individual rebirth. The play asks the audience to adjust on so many levels—change of time, location, actor/character relationship, and social “norms”—that the assumptions which underlie modern Western views of reality are again strongly challenged.

Top Girls (1982) represents another challenge. The first act presents an “impossible” dinner party which includes guests, some historical, some created, from several different centuries. The convocation of women from such diverse backgrounds allows Churchill to show a modern audience how our assumptions about roles in society can determine how we think. Though the jokes are sometimes at the expense of the various guests, Churchill offers us a sounding board to test our own unwavering beliefs. The switch in the second act to the offices of the Top Girls Employment Agency, however, leaves us with the same vestigial influences of personality (a Buddhist would say “dormant leanings” from previous lives) that we felt in the second act of Cloud Nine. Padmasiri de Silva explains these leanings in Buddhism as “persistent traits coming down innumerable lives” and notes that such a notion is

alien to most systems of Western psychology, though a rather distant echo of it may be found in the notion of a “collective unconscious,” mentioned by Freud and developed by Jung.


The new role that each actress must play (only Marlene remains constant) is inevitably colored by the role she played in Act I. The transformation of each character into a new character cannot avoid influencing how we view the second character. We cannot help wondering, for example, what the significance is of Dull Gret becoming Angie. Churchill provides no answers, but the characters we meet in the second act are clearly more complex because of their “counterparts” in the first act. Again, the sense that history is always with us because of the endless cycles of rebirth is suggested in the staging of Top Girls.

If Top Girls causes some confusion because of the requirement that some actresses must play more than one character, the permutations in Fen are mindboggling. John Simon objects:

Five actresses and one actor … portray here, as it were, the entire population of a hamlet: the toilers on the earth, the harsh overseers who are themselves exploited, even the ultimate overlord from a Japanese conglomerate. But the subject seems more suited to a semi-documentary film: There are too many characters for us to get truly involved with any (shrewd old Brecht always managed to have a central charismatic figure or two), and played by too few actors, adding to our confusion.


Simon's complaints miss the point: the characters are meant to represent the gamut of personality types that might be found in a small farming village, but the play depends on fluidity of characterization for its effect. The lack of specificity and the quick, impressionistic slices of life which compose the play lead the viewer to a conviction of the truthfulness of the picture of country life it portrays. Churchill does not insist on clearly and deeply defined characters because she does not want us to assume that these are isolated, exceptional examples of oppression under a capitalist system. As in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the characterization must enlarge the scope of the drama, not limit it. Again, this innovative method of staging the drama, using so few actors, may stem from Churchill's interest in Eastern assumptions about personality. Simon's requirement that Churchill include a “central charismatic figure or two,” as Brecht did in his plays, underscores the need of Western audiences for defined personalities, a need that Churchill, as we have seen, occasionally uses against us. She is in the business, especially in Fen, of undermining the audience's assumptions, just as Brecht strove to do.

In these innovative plays, Caryl Churchill challenges assumptions that Western audiences traditionally hold. Although many of her dramatic techniques undoubtedly developed in a workshop setting, I have shown that even from undergraduate days her plays have utilized dramatic devices that are more consistent with Eastern philosophy than with Western. Churchill does not “constantly come back” to Buddhism in any overt way, but she surely has been influenced by Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, and Hindu thought. For her, the enemy is the status quo in Western, bourgeois society, and the tenets of Buddhism, with their emphasis on disciplined denial of the validity of sensory impressions and passive resistance to the cravings of the world, provide formidable opposition to the acquisitiveness of western capitalism.

Works Cited

Asahina, Robert. “Cloud 9.” The Hudson Review 34 (1981–82): 564–66.

Barnes, Clive. “Zany ‘Cloud’ Has a Bright Silver Lining.” New York Post 19 May 1981. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 85.

Churchill, Caryl. The Ants. In New English Dramatists 12: Radio Plays. Ed. Irving Wardle. London: Penguin, 1968. 89–103.

———. Cloud Nine. Revised American Edition. New York: Methuen, 1984.

———. Easy Death. Typescript. 1960.

———. Fen. London: Methuen, 1983.

———. Having a Wonderful Time. Typescript. 1959.

———. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. London: Pluto Plays, 1978.

———. Moving Clocks Go Slow. Typescript. 1973.

———. Owners. In Plays: One. London: Methuen, 1985. 1–76.

———. Top Girls. London: Methuen, 1982.

———. Traps. London: Pluto Press, 1978.

de Bary, William T., ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.

———. Sources of Indian Tradition. Vol. I. New York: Columbia UP, 1970.

de Silva, Padmasiri. An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Gooch, Steve. “Caryl Churchill.” Plays and Players 20.4 (1973): 40–1.

Keyssar, Helene. “The Dreams of Caryl Churchill: The Politics of Possibility.” Massachusetts Review 24 (1983): 198–216.

Mairowitz, David Zane. “God and the Devil.” Plays and Players 24.5 (1977): 24–5.

Paul, Diana Y. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Simon, John. “Soft Centers.” New York Times 17 (24), 13 June 1983, 76–8.

Thurman, Judith. “Caryl Churchill: The Playwright Who Makes You Laugh About Orgasm, Racism, Class Stuggle, Homophobia, Woman-Hating, the British Empire, and the Irrepressible Strangeness of the Human Heart.” Ms. May 1982: 52+.

Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Random House, 1975.

Robert Brustein (review date 9 July 1990)

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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 the beaches aren't full of shit?”) Their accidie, which masks a dangerous inner discontent, erupts at the play's end with a violent spat between one of the characters and his ex-wife. Hot Fudge is only a sketch, but the machine-gun rhythms of Churchill's overlapping dialogue (which owes something to Mamet) outline the form of a forbidding spiritual emptiness.

Ice Cream is more substantial, consisting of ten short scenes in the United Kingdom, followed by ten short scenes in the United States. Within Annie Smart's perspective box setting, triangulated by a geometric green screen, an American couple, Lance and Vera, tour through England, complaining of America's lack of history and antiquity. The Anglophile Lance is tracing his own ancestry to Bristol. But when he meets a distant cousin, Phil, he finds himself implicated in a murder. Phil has killed his landlord and, with the couple's help, dumps the body in Epping Forest.

Back in their own country, Vera and Lance try to forget they are criminal accessories, until Phil and his sister, Jaq, pay them a visit. Run over by a car, Phil dies. The vaguely lobotomized Jaq steals a car from Lance and Vera and takes to the highway, “inciting temptation,” encountering hitchhikers and survivalists, convinced she is in a road movie, meeting “interesting people.” One of these—a professor who blames his wife for her failure to have an inspirational death—tries to rape her, and she pushes him off a cliff. By this time, Vera and Lance have become habituated to violent crime and invite her to stay with them. But Jaq prefers to keep on the move and, at the end, is preparing an escape to South America, which, she feels, already loves her.

Written in a terse, telegraphic style, the play is drenched in bizarre, occasionally psychotic dream imagery. Characters weave in and out of sanity according to their place on the map; geography and psychology are oddly intertwined. It's as if the play existed in the interstices between the scenes or in the folds between the hemispheres of the brain. Churchill insinuates her subtle politics into a stylistics of behavior, and, with Les Waters, her director, draws fine non-declarative performances from (among others) Jane Kaczmarek, Robert Knepper, John Pankow, James Rebhorn, Julianne Moore, and Margaret Whitton. The production jolts one's nervous system like a series of electrical shocks.

Further Reading

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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 in Churchill's plays.

Diamond, Elin. “(In)Visible Bodies in Churchill's Theater.” In Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theater, edited by Linda Hart, pp. 259–81. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

Diamond examines the various emotions and ideals that the human body represents in the plays of Caryl Churchill.

Harding, James M. “Cloud Cover: (Re)Dressing Desire and Comfortable Subversions in Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine.Publications of the Modern Language Association 113, no. 2 (March 1998): 258–71.

Harding argues that although Churchill's Cloud Nine appears to celebrate a person's right to practice their sexual preference, the play actually uses homosexuality to fortify heterosexual behaviors.

Heuvel, Michael Vanden. “Performing Gender(s).” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 4 (winter 1994): 804–813.

Heuvel explores the analysis of gender in the plays of Harold Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, Sam Shepard, and Caryl Churchill, as presented in studies by Victor L. Cahn, Ann C. Hall, and Amelia Howe Kritzer.

Kintz, Linda. “Performing Capital in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money.Theatre Journal 51, no. 3 (October 1999): 251–65.

Kintz examines the gender-based, sexual, cultural, political, and postmodernist aspects of the economic society depicted in Churchill's Serious Money.

Merrill, Lisa. “Monsters and Heroines: Caryl Churchill's Women.” In Caryl Churchill: A Casebook, edited by Phyllis R. Randall, pp. 71–89. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.

Merrill contemplates Churchill's socialist-feminist ideology in Owners, Vinegar Tom, and Top Girls.

Oliver, Edith. “Clouds Seven and Eight.” New Yorker LXIX, no. 9 (19 April 1993): 118.

Oliver praises Churchill's writing and the performance of cast members in both Traps and Owners.

Quigley, Austin E. “Stereotype and Prototype: Character in the Plays of Caryl Churchill.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater, pp. 25–52. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Quigley discusses and praises Churchill's tendency to present political, economic, and gender-based issues in her plays without “solving” the problems these issues introduce.

Wilson, Ann. “Hauntings: Ghosts and the Limits of Realism in Cloud Nine and Fen by Caryl Churchill.” In Drama on Drama: Dimensions of Theatricality on the Contemporary British Stage, edited by Nicole Boireau, pp. 152–67. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Wilson studies Churchill's use of ghosts to give voice to the characters' suppressed ideals and sentiments in Fen and Cloud Nine.

Additional coverage of Churchill's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 46; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; Drama Criticism, Vol. 5; Drama for Students, Vol. 12; Feminist Writers; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to English Literature.

Klaus Peter Müller (essay date September 1990)

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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. Financiers, brokers, jobbers and arbitrageurs came in droves to gleefully watch their life presented on the stages of, first, the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea and then the Wyndham Theatre in the West End of London in 1987–88. Various newspapers and magazines have puzzled over this interesting social and theatrical phenomenon, but no satisfactory explanation for the play's broad appeal has yet been offered.1 Questions have been raised concerning the audiences' responses, such as whether people are blindly dancing on a volcano, or whether we are confronted with a post-modernist variety of conscious indulgence in one's own sins. Perhaps, however, the playwright is just doing her traditional job by putting the shortcomings of her time and society on the stage to be mocked at and laughed about. Churchill's play is deliberately called a “City Comedy,” after all, and it begins with an excerpt from Thomas Shadwell's The Volunteers, or the Stock-Jobbers of 1692.2

Reviews of the play have mainly been very favourable. Neil Collins in the Daily Telegraph of July 8, 1987, for instance, said that Serious Money is “worth a pile of textbooks about how the City really works,” and Frances Cairncross described the play as “a wickedly accurate portrait of the cultural revolution which has been taking place in the City.”3 But there are also repeated statements referring to a dangerous ambiguity in the play: “its message still confuses me”; it is “stuck in some moral no-mans-land,” “its moral focus is as flimsy as its central plot,” “I found it frankly incomprehensible”; “it's a piece that's all things to all wo/men.”4

These confusions, and the resulting criticism, can be resolved by showing how the play is linked with the tradition of the City Comedy, how its interpretation is dependent upon one's concept of that genre and of history, and what Churchill's view of history and human society is like. Northrop Frye's distinction between comedy and satire is helpful for an evaluation of Churchill's play and the audiences' reactions. Comedy represents “the mythos of spring,” where an old destructive order is replaced by a new one which is life-enhancing, fertile and positive in almost all of its aspects. Satire allows the old order to prevail. The dominating negative society is not overcome by a more idealistic new system, but it is shown to be absurd, and there are clear moral norms against which it is measured unfavourably. “Hence satire is irony which is structurally close to the comic: the comic struggle of two societies, one normal and the other absurd, is reflected in its double focus of morality and fantasy. […] Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humour founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack.”5

The audiences' decision to see Serious Money either as comedy or satire may explain their different reactions towards the play. Seen as a satire, the play must provide, however indirectly, moral norms which help to formulate value-judgments on the characters and their actions. As “satire is militant irony,” and as the “satirist commonly takes a high moral line,”6 morality is obviously an important aspect for the difference between comedy and satire in contemporary definitions. It is also the distinctive feature in the differences of the present-day spectator responses. The “moral line” in Serious Money is not so easily detected, however, if it is not seen in connection with the genre, the City Comedy, and its history.

The City Comedy proper was established “by about 1605” with “such plays as Jonson's Volpone, Marston's Dutch Courtezan and Middleton's Michaelmas Term.7 Churchill's use of Shadwell makes it necessary to remember an English tradition that was already a century old in 1692. The link between the past and the present is consciously established in the modern play, when one of Shadwell's characters, at the end of Churchill's first scene which is taken completely from the end of Act Two in Shadwell's The Volunteers, leads the audience into the contemporary world: “Look ye Brethren, hye ye into the city and learn what ye can” (p. 14).8 The introductory scene in Serious Money thus reminds the audience of the tradition of the genre. It also refers to the long history of stockjobbing, which in 1692 was called “the modern Trade, or rather Game.”9 A third effect of the first scene is that it introduces a significant leitmotiv, because one characteristic element of the society of stockjobbers is highlighted, namely that of making use of everything for only one end, “to turn the penny” (p. 13). It is not the utility value of a thing that matters, but only its trade value.

While the first scene has reminded the audience of the links and similarities with the past, Scene Two (pp. 14–20) presents some major differences. These concern the ways in which trading is done today, namely on screens and phones. The means have changed and so have the locations. London is no longer the only or simply the main place of action, as it was in the traditional city comedies.10 Business is done worldwide and on an absolutely international basis: Belgium, New York, Sweden, Japan, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Milan and Zurich are the places mentioned in the “[t]hree different dealing rooms simultaneously” shown on stage (p. 14). The objective, however, is the same as in the past, and it is the only goal that counts: to make a profit. Language serves that end, being either explanatory, when used to describe assets and profit margins, or aggressive, when employed for buying and selling at a great speed.

After the past, as presented in the first scene, and the present in the second, Scene Three (pp. 20–30) demonstrates the changes that have taken place. These are not changes from the 17th century to our day, but the differences that have arisen within two living generations, between the people of around fifty and their children. The first, in this play, are the traditional stockbrokers or bankers who went to public schools and universities and have had much influence in the country. The young generation want that power for themselves and in particular the money connected with it. They are quite different from the “young ‘fashionable men’” of such city comedies as Jonson's Volpone or Middleton's A Mad World My Masters, who “gull the foolish and trick the knavish in order to secure for themselves the style of living—wit allied with money—which was beginning to show itself in the drama as the sole ambition of young gallants about town.”11 The “yuppies” of our time are not characterized by wit or any intellectual quality. They are happy not to have gone “to university and [to] learn to think twice,” they have “no intention of working after […] thirty,” and they are prepared “to fight dirty” (p. 21). They call themselves “oiks” (p. 21) and acknowledge that in their present situation “it's come in quite useful” that they were “too aggressive” for school, and were, therefore, kicked out as “hooligan[s]” (p. 22).

These differences in the generations are shown in connection with changes in two professions, banking and trading. The successful banker Merrison, who sees “man [as] a gambling animal,” is chucked out of his job by Durkfeld, the trader, who does not “deliberate” as much as Merrison, but stresses that he shoots “straight” (p. 23). His personal characteristics are those of all traders who make twice as much money as the bankers, but are still lower in public esteem (p. 24).

The banker Zackerman presents the conclusion to be drawn from the changes: “The financial world won't be the same again / Because the traders are coming down the fast lane. […] [T]he new guys are hungrier and hornier […] It's like Darwin says, survival of the fit” (p. 25). This is the philosophy of the present, and it is shown to be valid over the entire globe. England now is an integrated part of the financial world, no longer the ruler of the British Empire. The changes in British and world politics after the loss of the Empire, and the change in the financial world after the Big Bang in the City of London in October 1986, are all mentioned in Zackerman's monologue on contemporary life.

Socially, London is still regarded as the best place to live, at least if compared with Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. You “have classy friends,” whom you can see “in the country at the weekends” (p. 25). Such a meeting is shown in a “tableau” as [t]he meet of a hunt” (p. 26). The hunt imagery, which has already been used, is here highlighted to reveal the atmosphere and mentality of the society portrayed, the ruthlessness, competitiveness and aggressiveness of predatory people. Only one person, Frosby, a jobber, is on foot. He is the odd one out, an onlooker only, now that he has “been asked to retire early” (p. 29). He again introduces the theme of the entire scene, change: “Some things change, some things don't end. / After all, a friend's a friend” (p. 28). He then reveals, however, that the changes in the political and financial world also affect such a personal thing as friendship. Formerly for him “[t]he stock exchange was a village street. You strolled about and met your friends.” You knew everyone by name and could rely on fair play. But “[s]ince Big Bang,” business has become an anonymous affair taking place on screens, where you never know whether you are still in touch with reality or not, whether people are really there, and tell the truth. Traders now are “barrow boys,” even “no better than a thief” (p. 29). Frosby cannot come to terms with this new situation. He is aggrieved and “very frightened” (p. 30). He also wants revenge, because this is not his world anymore, and he has no real friends left. So he decides to inform the Department of Trade and Industry about insider dealing involving, above all, Jake Todd, the son of Frosby's friend Greville.

The changes presented in Scene Three thus concern all areas of society: the generations, the professions, world politics and economics, the places where people work and live as well as the individual relationships between people at work and in private. Society is more aggressive, more prone to killing and destroying human life than it had been only a generation before. Its main ideology is an aggravated form of the one that dominated the 17th century play: “to turn the penny” has become “to make serious money.” Human culture is being destroyed; the world is becoming a jungle again, where everyone is hunting and being hunted and in which the weakest go to the wall. Human history is in regress, developing from bad to worse.

The direction human life is taking is dramatically shown in the next scene (pp. 30–34), which informs us that Jake Todd is dead. Business is “in no way affected by his death” (p. 31). Two different theories as to how Jake might have died are proposed: Zackerman reports that “[t]hey think it's suicide” (p. 30), whereas Jake's sister Scilla believes “he must have been murdered.” Her reason is that “he treated it all as a game. Can you really imagine him killing himself for shame?” (p. 32). Scilla, trying to find Jake's murderer, talks with her father about the people Jake worked with (Scene Five, pp. 35–37). These are the arbitrageur Marylou Baines, whom Greville Todd compares with the real-life character Ivan Boesky, who became ill-famed in the United States through insider dealings; Jacinta Condor from South America, who rather than use the international financial aid her country receives to help the population, buys “Eurobonds in Swiss banks” for herself (p. 35), so that some reviewers have compared her with Imelda Marcos; and Billy Corman, a corporate raider. They are presented as Jake's “powerful friends,” which in this world “means powerful enemies who'd like to see him dead” (p. 36). A desire to kill, to die or to be killed characterizes the entire society.

In the traditional City Comedy, many characters acted with pervasive cynicism. In Serious Money, selfishness and greed are taken for granted. In either case, people are treated like objects or property, but the modern play no longer shows that objects are sometimes treated like people, as happened in the 17th century. Acts of humanity do not occur. Human feelings, are reduced to “greed or fear” (p. 65); at best they are left on the level of clichá. People are only driven by a completely irrational greed to possess, to “have” as much as possible. Corman, for instance, represents the “takeover mania” (p. 41) that has been going on in real life for quite some time now.12 With him, it is no longer a hunt, but a real war that is going on. Thus the hunt imagery is replaced by concepts from this more aggressive form of killing. Jake Todd was a vital member of Corman's “war cabinet” (p. 38). He, too, was involved in the war on “[o]ld-fashioned and paternal” qualities, such as “loyalty” of employees, “the support of the local community” for a company, the employer's interest in long-term prospects and a healthy industry (pp. 38, 46).

Different but real human feelings seem to arise when Zackerman talks with Jake about the strategies of this war. Only here is a completely new aspect revealed: Jake's dreams and secret wishes. They are related to the English need for land, gardens, and woods (p. 43). Romantic idylls are evoked, almost like the pastoral myths Northrop Frye has identified with all social mythology, where childhood, nature or an earlier social condition is romanticized in a “nostalgia for a world of peace and protection, with a spontaneous response to the nature around it, with a leisure and composure not to be found today.”13 But the idyll elicited in this flashback is always only partly there. It is constantly disrupted, because it is spoken of as something that can be owned and possessed, bought and sold. The idealistic world Jake hints at, but which he cannot really understand anymore and for which he does not have enough words left, becomes reduced to materialism. Ultimately even God, the epitome of the world of ideas and spirituality, is reduced to a materialistic thing: “Oh yes, I'll make you a market in divinity (any day)” (p. 44). If this happens, however, something substantial is missing in human life. Jake comes close to realizing this, but he cannot talk about it (p. 43). The spectator can only assume that Jake has had an intimation of mortality, a vague notion that his existence has lacked substance, meaning and value, while it has been reduced to the material aspects of life. Was it this emptiness which made him afraid and desperate enough to kill himself? The play only suggests this as one possibility (especially here and on pp. 33–34). The suggestion, however, is at least as strong as the other one, namely that Jake was killed.

The overwhelmingly negative moral temper of the City Comedy was made strikingly evident in the depiction of women, who were often bawds, whores, courtesans. The most common type was “the wife whose leisure feeds sensuality and makes time for adultery.”14 In Serious Money adultery is not mentioned as a sin anymore. There is not a single intact family in the play, nor are there any close relationships between people in which faithfulness could become a problem. On the contrary, faithlessness is taken for granted. Children are disloyal to their parents and vice versa. The same applies to brothers and sisters. As soon as Scilla has reasons to assume that her brother “was making serious money,” she is no longer interested in finding his murderer (p. 53). From that moment on she simply tries to lay her hands on the money. She looks upon her endeavour as a game, like “playing cops and robbers” or “a cross between roulette and space invaders.” There are no moral obligations of any sort; “you can make out like a bandit,” or, at least, you have a lot of fun (p. 54).

In fact, Scilla is even greedier than her brother (and she has no fears), while Marylou Baines is the most successful dealer of them all. The stock exchange is no longer “an old boy network” (p. 87). Only as newcomers do women suffer from being reduced to the object of sexual desires, but they soon learn to adopt the same attitude for their own behaviour towards others. In this world, human beings are just means to an end. Everyone is a bawd and a whore, prostituting him—or herself in their efforts to be successful. No one ever asks whether what he/she is doing is “good” in the moral sense of the word. It is always just “good” in the sense of “useful” and “profitable” for oneself.

The relationship between the sexes, a traditional element of the City Comedy, is brought into the foreground in scenes nine and ten (pp. 56–62). The attitude and behaviour of men and women towards each other is characterized pretty bluntly: “It's like animals in a zoo” (p. 54). Vince, a trader, indiscriminately asks each girl, “Coming out with me tonight?” (p. 56), and Terry is a trader all the girls have been out with (p. 55). Everyone is driven by sheer (sexual) desires, not caring for the human beings they are with. Sexual greed is impressively linked with the characters' work in the final scene of Act One, where innuendoes and dirty language culminate in the “Futures Song” (pp. 61f), which constitutes the finale and climax of the first part of the play:

Out you cunt, out in oh fuck it
I've dealt the gelt below the belt and I'm jacking up the ackers
My front's gone short, fuck off old sport, you're standing on my knackers […]
So full of poo I couldn't screw, I fucked it with my backers […]
So L.I.F.F.E. is the life for me and I'll burn out when I'm dead
And this fair exchange is like a rifle range what's the price of flying lead?
When you soil your jeans on soya beans shove some cocoa up your head
You can never hide if your spread's too wide, you'll just fuck yourself instead.

The words are by Ian Dury, the music by Micky Gallagher, two rock and pop musicians. The song emerges out of the furious trading that has been presented on the stage immediately before. It uses words from that trading and is actually triggered off by an insult made by one character, who says to another person, “You're trading like a cunt” (p. 67). It also makes use of imagery and elements from the earlier scenes, in order to create a grotesque picture of the sordid life in LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures Exchange), where lust, sexual desire and excessive greed for money are intertwined. The fast, dynamic and musical performance backs up the grotesqueness and absurdity of what is being sung. The presentation suggests that we are dealing with something that is fun and without any real consequences. Like Scilla's games, however, this song does not reveal innocence at all. Seen in relation with what is happening to people in the play, who, because of this kind of trading, lose their jobs or even their lives, the song is not only hilarious, grotesque and absurd, but also macabre. It is sung by men and women alike. There are no significant differences between the sexes in the modern play.

One character type of the traditional City Comedy is particularly interesting in comparison with Churchill's play: the usurer, regarded as a villain symbolizing “forces of aggression, ruthless materialism, aspiration and anarchy in Jacobean society”:

The usurer is the villain because he embodies a power which is not integrated into the social and political system, which is subversive of hierarchy and divorced from public accountability and from public responsibility. […] The plays focus on the nation's private and public value systems as they are brought out in relation to money.15

Serious Money also focusses on value systems that manifest themselves in relation to money. But there are no usurers in the play. This is not an accidental fact. On the contrary, it has to do with how serious money is being made today. The business no longer primarily involves the person who owns money, lends it and benefits from the interest that has to be paid. The usurer, like the traditional banker, has been replaced by the trader, whose job is buying and selling with a profit. “Anyone who can buy oranges for ten and sell at eleven in a souk or bazaar / Has the same human nature and can go equally far” (p. 63). That is why the “barrow boys” (p. 29) are now so successful in LIFFE, where “the best qualified people are street traders” (p. 54). In the United States it is “Jews from the Bronx and spivs from South California” (p. 25). Corporate raiders like Corman also buy in order to sell again at a profit. Dirty tricks like insider dealing and getting into horrendous debts are just part of this business.

Like the usurer of old, the contemporary characters symbolize “forces of aggression, ruthless materialism, aspiration and anarchy.” But the important difference is that they do not see themselves as villains, nor are they regarded as such by the society they live in. On the contrary, the play shows to what extent they are even totally “integrated into the social and political system.” “Public accountability” and “public responsibility” do not exist. Like the traditional City Comedies, Serious Money is concerned with “private and public value systems as they are brought out in relation to money.” But the focus is no longer on a particular part of a nation, it is on the financial and political world as a whole.

The perspective is also not limited to a certain class, whereas the City Comedy, and in particular the plays of the Restoration Comedy, were basically restricted to portraying an extremely “upper-class” culture.16 Neither education nor pedigree is important when barrow boys replace bankers. The only prerequisite is success. The distinction between “us” and “them,” which has been an important aspect of the classes in England since the 19th century,17 has significantly been changed into a distinction between successful and unsuccessful people, or even between people with and without employment. Workers are no part of this society, except as an entity that must be “[b]etter run, streamlined, rationalised” (p. 38), or sacked altogether. They belong to what is missing in this world, like friendship, loyalty, “research and development” in the industries (p. 46), any long-term prospects and a productive life. Apart from these vital elements, the play portrays all the significant areas of modern society. They are shown to be pervaded by the stockjobbers, corporate raiders and arbitrageurs. These people do not only dominate the financial world, they are also hand in glove with the Government, they are on “the board of the National Theatre,” they run for president, become ambassadors, own great parts of the media, etc. (p. 110). Almost the entire world is shown to be permeated by the attitudes, minds and behaviour of serious money-makers.

The keen interest in the social achievements and follies of society that is noticeable in the City Comedy is also valid in Serious Money. The old form depicted only part of the society, its negative elements and distorted, dangerous aspects. There was still a chance to reform, though. However indirectly it may have been hinted at in the plays, the audience was quite aware of this possibility. Even when some of Jonson's and Middleton's plays showed that “aggressive individualism has become an accepted behavioral norm and reductive conceptions of human nature hold sway,” the reality was regarded as being redeemable.18 There was still a chance of improvement in human life and history.

In Churchill's play there is no sign of hope and possible improvement. Not only do the two acts of her play reveal that the negative elements portrayed are all-pervasive, but the second act clearly shows that everything is in fact deteriorating. Humanity repeats its mistakes all over again, but on an even greater scale. Churchill uses the third-world-motif to make this evident at the beginning of Act Two. Jacinta Condor flies in to London to buy more Eurobonds and invest her country's money most profitably for herself. Zackerman sarcastically comments upon this and the third world's plight: “Pictures of starving babies are misleading and patronising. Because there's plenty of rich people in those countries, it's just the masses that's poor” (p. 64). The South American, Jacinta, is joined by an African, Nigel Ajibala, “a prince and exceedingly rich,” educated at Eton, who expresses his basic education quite simply: “One thing one learned from one's colonial masters, / One makes money from other people's disasters” (p. 69). History thus repeats itself; the former colonies act in the same way as their masters did in the past (and have been doing ever since), or even worse, as they exploit their own people. Nobody is interested in learning from history how the lot of human beings as a whole could be improved; everyone is just madly trying to better his or her personal financial situation. Once again there is no distinction made between men and women.

Is this world only “depicted, not disturbed,” as in the City Comedy? Dr. Johnson said about the playwrights of the 17th century that “they pleas'd their age, and did not aim to mend.” The audience was seen as “ironically contemplating its viciousness,” rather than “‘joyfully contemplating its well-being.’”19 The same can be said about a great number of the spectators of Serious Money. Churchill clearly indulges them, by offering intriguing visual effects, music and rhyme. But she also obviously works with exaggerations. She increases the speed of change in our society. She makes clear that this change is for the worse. It is like cancer. She writes about it in verse, making her sentences rhythmical, seemingly light and funny. But what sounds and looks funny, good-humoured, and easy-going actually describes the loss of all human values and an attitude that brings about death. The frivolities of wit or repartee, the language that constitutes for some critics the “most conspicuous quality” of the City Comedy,20 are found in the modern play with a special destructive macabre twist and often an excessive aggressiveness. The motto in the coat of arms of the London Stock Exchange, Dictum Meum Pactum (My word is my bond), for instance, is changed into: “My word is my junk bond” (p. 105). Because of its offensiveness and violence, the glossy, seemingly light presentation does not distract from the cruel facts lurking behind the amusing performance. Whether Jake killed himself or was murdered, his death is inseparable from the world he lived in, from his job and aspirations. Like him, the society, industry, and human life in general will be destroyed. The characters in the play are indeed dancing on a volcano, for “five more glorious years” (p. 112), i.e., as long as the (Thatcher) Government and the people will support this way of life. It is a dance macabre, ingenuously choreographed by Caryl Churchill and intended to be disturbing.

Jake's death and its possible causes have become irrelevant by the end of the play. Corman's take-over deal has been postponed, as the undertaking is unpopular with the public and might damage the election chances of the Tory government. Both items are of minimal importance compared with the vital question of how the basis for the world portrayed can be secured. Its foundation is shown to be the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and the political atmosphere it provides. Caryl Churchill has written the portrait of a society, not a play about a murder case or a business transaction. Her topics are more or less the same as in the traditional City Comedies. “Moneymaking” is the most important one. It takes up so much of the characters' time that the “pursuit of women” is reduced to dirty language and greedy looks. “Self-interest” and “survival” are necessary aspects of a world that is thoroughly predatory.21

Churchill uses the two-act structure in order to repeat and intensify the images, motifs, topics and themes in her play. The people unscrupulously making serious money continue in their endeavours to be successful. Money and jobs are turned over faster and faster. The speed will increase. The old generation is completely forgotten in the second act (pp. 109f), and life is reduced to the amoral game of having a try at being personally successful. It is like a ride on a merry-go-round. But it is evident that the game will end in catastrophe, because it is based on a senseless, self-indulgent egoism destructive of all human values and long-term prospects of human life. The accelerated development towards destruction is vividly captured in the two acts of Churchill's play. Even those of the audience who do not think that the Thatcher government is responsible for such a development can identify with this phenomenon.

The play's theme is certainly not to “assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men,” as in Milton's Paradise Lost. It is rather “to assert the eternal mechanism of making serious money, how this affects human life and how not to justify the ways of men to men.” If the effect on human life is ignored, the play may be regarded as a light, funny city comedy, partly indulging in the mechanism of Bergson's laughter.22 As a “Serious” City Comedy, however, it encompasses much more than that. Serious Money seems to be a satire rather than a comedy. The situation at the end of the play has not improved but deteriorated, the society presented is death-bound. The play employs hunt and war imagery. Society is playing amoral games that destroy human life. It is the object of a satiric attack which takes its moral norm from the human life excluded from or annihilated in the absurd world of the play.

Why then is this moral norm not generally found in the play, and why do so many spectators not feel disturbed by the performance, but rather amused and exhilarated? It is the history of the modern age, the complexity of the contemporary situation, the human predicament of our time that make it particularly difficult to adopt a moral point of view. The situation presented in the play will not essentially change by replacing a Tory government with a Labour cabinet. The greed disease has too firm a hold. Thus anyone seeing in the play just an attack on the Thatcher government may indeed simply laugh about it and brush it aside as a distortion of reality. The play has a far wider scope. The Conservatives are indeed criticized for supporting the ideology that dominates the play. But it is rather this state of mind as such that the play attacks, the materialistic egoism that destroys all human, life-enhancing values. Although the butt of the satire is shown, nothing is presented that could put an end to the destruction of human life. While the spectator of a traditional City Comedy and of satire was usually presented with, or aware of, a clear view of the remedial system and actual ways of making it real, the contemporary world is largely characterized by the lack of such a system. Neither does our time have anything similar to the concept of the seven deadly sins, i.e., a clear view of evil. Even when basic values are generally acknowledged, there is much disagreement about how to achieve them and what a “normal” and “good” society would actually be like.

Churchill reveals important shortcomings of contemporary (Western?) society, without offering easy solutions. She does not write from a simple feminist position either.23 By satirizing the seemingly easy-going, playful and amoral attitude of the play's characters, she also makes evident that the postmodern position of laissez faire is equally unsatisfactory. Her play requires a modern spectator who is quite conscious of the social and political alternatives at hand. For a self-indulgent yuppie, Serious Money can be pure fun. For anyone with a mind for history and moral concern, it is more than that. It is a satire in the traditional sense which has connected satire with morality. It is, at the same time, a comedy in the traditional sense which attributed three elements (and sub-genres) to comedy: humour, wit and satire.24 Churchill's satirical comedy combines the traditional elements with a typically modern perspective, insofar as her play does not refer to an implicit ideal and a generally accepted morality, but leaves it to the spectator to find ways of improving the present society. For this purpose, knowledge of the history of humanity is required, and knowledge of literary history is helpful.

The term “Serious City Comedy” thus points out the similarities with, and differences from, the traditional genre. The historical awareness needed for an evaluation of the play's effect also helps to place it within the literary tradition. Its place is founded in the history of the modern world, beginning in the Renaissance with its two-sided aspects that we are still wrestling with:

“the Development of the Individual,” “the Revival of Antiquity,” “the Discovery of the World and of Man” [on the one hand, and, on the other hand] the thrust of capitalist enterprise, the rise of economic individualism, the development of an amoral “realism” in political thought and action. We are aware, above all, of a great reorientation of attitude that prepared the way not only for the scientific achievements of the seventeenth century and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but for the materialism of industrial civilization, the spiritual bewilderment of the nineteenth century, and the urgent anxieties of our own time.25

Churchill, evoking this past, is today concerned with humanity's future. For her, there has been no “Advancement of Learning” since Bacon, certainly not in our knowledge of “Natural” and “Civil History,” nor in our “Moral Culture” or “Civil Knowledge,” at least none that has made itself evident in improved living conditions.26 Humanity rather seems to be “bound / Upon a wheel of fire,” with this wheel of human history spinning faster and faster.27 Churchill can no longer believe, like Hobbes, in a Common-Wealth secured by the authority of “the Civil Sovereign” and founded on “Faith in Christ, and Obedience to Laws.28 To her, “civilization” is not a safeguard anymore, it is destroying itself and about to ruin life altogether.

Churchill has shown in her plays, especially in Vinegar Tom,Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,Fen and Top Girls, that this destructive course of human history has again and again been unconsciously chosen out of fear and greed, egoism and, above all, fatal ignorance. Many of her characters could say: “What's wrong with me / the way I am? / I know I'm sad. / I may be sick. / I may be bad. / Please cure me quick, / oh doctor.”29 Most of them do not know that the cure is only within themselves. Many do not want to know, because it is painful knowledge demanding hard work. Ellen, burned as a witch in Vinegar Tom, understands something of this truth and urges people to “think out what [they] want,” to become aware of themselves and their own position. Hoskins in Light Shining … wants people to see the “Light shining from us—.” But they fail, and the world is still “fraught with tidings of the same clamour, strife and contention that abounded when [they] left it.”30

Lack of knowledge and concern are the dominant traits in Churchill's view of human history. There is, therefore, profound truth and dramatic irony in Pope Joan's statement in Top Girls: “Damnation only means ignorance of the truth.” Joan is as ignorant of herself and the world in which she lived as all the other women in the play, those of the past as well as of the present. Ignorance is what they all “have in common” and what makes them “all so miserable.”31 They are also great egoists, which often is a common consequence of ignorance. The least egoistic person, Joyce, is also the least ignorant, and the one most favourably presented in the play.

Only knowledge and humane behaviour could stop humanity's self-destructive progress. This is the history and value-judgment behind the funny, comical, satirical and musical elements of Serious Money, too. Under the surface of a light, though aggressive City Comedy there is the threat of death and complete extinction. That is why the play is serious about the need for an historical perspective, for a moral standard and for adequate human action. If these are not found, Churchill indicates, human history will deteriorate in an accelerating spiral of repetition leading to the ultimate annihilation of humankind.


  1. See the New Statesman, 17 July 1987, pp. 1 of, where Churchill herself talks about the City and her play; the German business magazine Handelsblatt Magazin, 12 November 1987, pp. 24–32; the German weekly Die Zeit, 7 August 1987, p. 40.

  2. See Churchill, Serious Money (London, 1987), pp. 11–14. (All subsequent page numbers refer to this edition.) The Volunteers is Shadwell's last play. He died in 1692; the play was first performed a few weeks later and published in 1693. In the “Prologue,” it is called “good Satyr,” and the “Epilogue” praises Shadwell as “the great Support oth' Comick Stage, / Born to expose the Follies of the Age: / To whip prevailing Vices, and unite / Mirth with Instruction, Profit with Delight” (The Complete Works of Thomas Shadwell, ed. Montague Summers, vol. 5, [London, 1927], pp. 159, 161). Shadwell, regarded as a “prosaic and unflowing writer,” is nevertheless “notable for his sustained interest in social issues.” He is one of the “middle-class moralists” (Donald Bruce, Topics of Restoration Comedy [London, 1974], pp. 32, 33) and states that “the highest aim of all dramatists must be the imitation of Ben Jonson.” His “scenes are all beef and brawn, solid fare,” but “incalculably important as a picture of his times” (Summers in his “Introduction” to The Complete Works, vol. 1, pp. LXII, CCLf). Shadwell's play presents stockjobbing as no “honest Vocation” (p. 173).

  3. Cairncross, “Trading futures,” Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 1987, p. 352. See also the Sunday Express, 29 March 1987: “a timely new play and it's a dazzler”; City Limits, 29 March 1987: “brilliant, unforgiving and furiously funny”; The Observer, 29 March 1987: “a vigorous, aggressive, funny and much-needed attack on British values”; Listener, 2 April 1987: “a raucous, complex, but sublimely theatrical swim against prevailing tides of thought.” See. G. Unwin's comment on Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass: “‘a study of its leading characters would be by far the best introduction to the economic history of the period’” (Shakespeare's England, vol. 1, [London, 1917], p. 340, here quoted from L. C. Knights, “Ben Jonson, Dramatist,” in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. Boris Ford, vol. 2: The Age of Shakespeare [Harmondsworth, 1975], pp. 302–317, here p. 315).

  4. The quotations are from Kenneth Hurren in Mail on Sunday, 12 July 1987, Steve Grant in Time Out, 15 July 1987, and John Connor in City Limits, 16 July 1987. See also Michael Coveney who wonders “what Jake has actually done” (Financial Times, 30 March 1987), and Victoria Radin's statement, “I wouldn't be able to explain the finer points of such plot as there is” (New Statesman, 3 April 1987).

  5. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1971), p. 224.

  6. Ibid., pp. 223, 225.

  7. Brian Gibbons, Jacobean City Comedy: A Study of Satiric Plays by Jonson, Marston and Middleton (Cambridge, 1968), p. 78. See also Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto, 1973), and Gail Kern Paster, The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (Athens, GA, 1985).

  8. Churchill does not subdivide her two-act play into scenes. The divisions made in this article are based on thematic congruity and serve the purpose of delineating the contents and the structure of the play.

  9. The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1971), S.V. “stock-jobbing.”

  10. “Indeed, it is almost true to say that London is, for Jonson and Marston, one of the chief characters.” Gamini Salgado in the “Introduction” to his edition of Four Jacobean City Comedies (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 15.

  11. Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987), p. 162.

  12. See the news of the financial world in recent times. Particularly interesting is the “Guinness affair,” which is also referred to in the play (pp. 27, 47). See e.g. The Guardian, 10 September 1987, p. 25; 2 October 1987, p. 1; and The Times, 2 October 1987, p. 1, on the affair. Simon Jenkins, “Boom Town,” The Sunday Times, 2 November 1986, p. 27, and Roy Hattersley, Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism (London, 1987), pp. 215–228, discuss some of the most relevant financial activities in the City.

  13. Frye, “‘Conclusion’ to A Literary History of Canada,” here taken from Frye, The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism & Society (Ithaca, 1970), p. 301.

  14. Paster, op. cit., p. 153.

  15. Gibbons, op. cit., p. 16. The usurer was, however, integrated into the system as early as 1572, when usury was legalized because of the constant demand for credit and for a freer movement of capital.

  16. See, e.g., P. A. W. Collins, “Restoration Comedy,” in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. Boris Ford, vol. 4: From Dryden to Johnson (Harmondsworth, 1979), pp. 156–172, and Bruce, op. cit., pp. 6off.

  17. See, e.g., chap. 3 in Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of working-class life with special reference to publications and entertainments (Harmondsworth, 1958).

  18. Paster, op. cit., p. 152. See Ben Ross Schneider, The Ethos of Restoration Comedy (Urbana, 1971), about “morality” in the plays of the second half of the 17th century, when “satire [was] moral” (p. 13). Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late 17th Century (Oxford, 1976), maintains that either “poetic justice” or “moral ends will have to be achieved” (p. 58). According to Gibbons, the City Comedy presents “a keen analysis in moral terms” (op. cit., p. 16).

  19. Johnson in his “Prologue spoken at the Opening of the Theatre at Drury Lane, 1747,” l.22 (The Yale Edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 6: Poems, ed. E. L. McAdam [New Haven, 1964], p. 88); and Paster, op. cit., p. 150 (quoting from Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy [New York 1970], p. 244).

  20. Collins, op. cit., p. 160.

  21. See chapter 6 in Paster, op. cit., pp. 150–177: “Parasites and Sub-parasites: The City as Predator in Jonson and Middleton.” A brief survey of topics is provided by Salgado, op. cit., pp. 9–27. See also Bruce, op. cit., and Schneider, op. cit.

  22. See Henri Bergson, Le Rire, in Oeuvres (Paris, 1970), pp. 381–485, where human behaviour that appears as automatic or mechanistic is seen as the cause of laughter (esp. pp. 385–418).

  23. See Michelene Wandor, “Culture, Politics and Values in Plays by Women in the 1980s.” Englisch-Amerikanische Studien, 1986, pp. 441–448; and Helene Keyssar, “Hauntings: Gender and Drama in Contemporary English Theatre,” ibid., pp. 449–468.

  24. See Shadwell's dedication of The Virtuoso: “I have endeavoured, in this Play, at Humour, Wit, and Satyr, which are the three things [… which] are the life of a Comedy,” and Hume's comment on “‘Wit, Humour, and Satyr’ [as] the basic elements which constitute a comedy” (op. cit., pp. 59ff, here quoting from Shadwell's dedication of A True Widow).

  25. Knights, op. cit., p. 309, speaking about the 16th century (and quoting titles of parts of Jacob Burckhardt's book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860).

  26. See Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, chapters I, II, XXII and XXIII in “The Second Book.”

  27. Shakespeare, King Lear 4.7.46f. It is stimulating to compare the elements of the “Serious” City Comedy with G. Wilson Knight's comments on “the Comedy of the Grotesque” and “humour” in The Wheel of Fire (London, 1949), pp. 160–176.

  28. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1973), p. 319. It must be noted here that “Shadwell resists the fashionable Hobbesian view that the instincts of Man, necessarily predatory, are curbed rather than expressed by morality. […] Shadwell puts forward the view that morality is absolute, and not merely incidental to a particular society and situation.” “Shadwell, who considered mankind inherently virtuous but vitiated by society, dissented from Hobbes's widely accepted view and found more good in private impulse than in public expediency. All the heroes and heroines of Shadwell's plays seek to escape from society into a life defined by themselves” (Bruce, op. cit., pp. 97, 99). Whether this was an additional reason for Churchill to choose a scene from Shadwell or not, it is clearly a position very similar to her own by its emphasis on morality and on independence or at least a critical detachment from the dominating society.

  29. From a song in Vinegar Tom (Churchill, Plays: One [London, 1985], p. 149). The song expresses the desire to be cured, which in this case is the same as to know oneself and to understand one's position in the society. See another line from the same song: “I want to see myself” (Ibid., p. 151).

  30. Ibid., pp. 156, 239, 241.

  31. Churchill, Top Girls (London, 1982), pp. 4, 6, 18. Joseph Marohl's article “De-realised Women: Performance and Identity in Top Girls,Modern Drama, 30 (1987), 376–388, does not take sufficient account of this extensive ignorance. He, therefore, thinks that Marlene is different from the rest. For the same reason, Michelene Wandor misses the “moral and political attitude” in the play and wrongly sees it as “apolitical” (in Carry On, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics [London, 1986], p. 173, and in Look Back in Gender: Sexuality and the Family in Post-War British Drama [London, 1987], p. 125). All the women in Top Girls are not only ignorant of their “culturally-conditioned ideology” (Marohl, op. cit., p. 386), but also of their individual needs, fears and desires. Churchill makes this most evident in Marlene, our contemporary, who does not understand why she left her home, her own child and why she needs “adventures more” (Top Girls, p. 83). Marlene just wants to be happy and thinks she will find happiness in wealth. Her dream of happiness, however, is shown to be a nightmare, as “[f]rightening” as (the characters') real life and human history without knowledge and understanding” (Ibid., p. 87).

Richard Crane (review date 19 October 1990)

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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 comedies, tragedies, absurdities, legends, songs and jokes that were the flotsam on the tidal wave.

The play is in three parts: before, during and after. In the first act, we are shown a society forced to sleep-walk through years of darkness and queues. There is no detectable ground-swell of resistance as might have been expected, only the reality of a daily grind deprived of hope and information. Someone whispers “Down with Ceausescu” in the food queue, but no one responds. Someone procures an illegal abortion with the aid of dollars. Someone scrapes an egg off the floor and saves it. There is much candle-light and heavy smoking. When the revolution happens in Act Two, it is as if it came as a total surprise. The events of December 20 to 25 are coldly recalled, in broken English, with hindsight and a shrug, as if in a court of inquiry. This is no climactic eruption of a people so oppressed they could endure no longer; it is a patch-work of reminiscences, mostly from bystanders who were drawn into the gunfire.

The sense of people being taken by surprise and for a ride, comes over most strongly in the third act. Was it a revolution or a putsch? This question, put by a mental patient and dismissed at first, comes to dominate the play. Was the revolution hijacked by politicians? Was it planned in advance? What did the young people die for? The third act also contains the best scenes, but, surprisingly given the company's thoroughness of research and the play's up-to-date semi-documentary style, the text has not developed along with recent events. There is no analysis of Iliescu's landslide victory in the elections, or of the economic dilemma—free enterprise or jobs; most seriously, there is no reference to the miners' invasion of Bucharest in June, at the request of the newly elected President. Most Romanians regard this as a historic counter-revolution, confirming, with clubs, in whose gift the government of Romania lies.

The individual scenes, involving legends, time-leaps, nightmares, “street” acting, are vintage Churchill. The dialogue between a dog and a vampire, both beneficiaries of the blood of the revolution, is a beautifully written cameo and a chillingly dramatic vignette shows the nightmare of the “queen” or mother of Romania, deprived by soldiers of jewels, furs and then limbs, and ending as a terrified torso, mouthing amplified crowd noise.

As a young people's response to a young people's revolution, Churchill's play was more immediate and involving in its first run at the Central School in June. The Royal Court encourages smoother, more assured performances and the stage is further away. The timing of the one-liners in a vacuum of silence, is less sharp, and the long second act seems very long indeed, bringing the revolution almost grinding to a halt.

Gerald Weales (review date 15 January 1993)

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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 the setting and much of the action (it takes place before, during, and after the 1989 revolution in Romania) are real enough. Nor are these fantasy scenes simply theatrical games as some of the more playful doings in Churchill's popular Cloud Nine seemed to be. They reflect the political and moral confusion within the country. The vampire (after all, Transylvania is in Romania) finds the contemporary chaos particularly congenial for him since no one is likely to pay that much attention to a few extra bodies. And who would check for teeth marks on the neck? The dog is one of the victims of the situation, thrown out by owners who can no longer feed him. Hungry and in need of a protective master (Christopher McCann's reiterated high whine, “I'm your dog,” provides one of the memorable moments in the production), he finally convinces the vampire to take him, which the vampire does by biting him on the neck, making him—so far as I know—the first undead dog in vampire literature. The scene is funny, in a skin-crawly way, but watching the two characters do their blood-sucking master/willing slave routine, I saw a metaphor for Nicolas Ceausescu and the Romanians, whom he liked to think of as his loving people. At least, until December 1989.

Perhaps I have given too much space to a single, short scene, but—although Churchill is interested in the overarching sweep of her plays and in the ideas, usually political, that inform them—I find myself thinking of her work in bits and pieces; of a play of hers I saw in London a few years ago, all I remember is that a man was obsessed by a pig that was played by an elegant young dancer, suggesting obsession more than pigginess. With Mad Forest it is easier to keep the big picture in mind. Churchill is concerned with the before and after of the Romanian revolution. In 1990, she and director Mark Wing-Davey took a group of actors to Bucharest, where they interviewed people, studied the revolution and its effects, tried to absorb the atmosphere. The result is this play, clearly a Churchill work, but a product in the Joint Stock Theatre Group tradition, a collective creation. The New York production replaced the original researcher-performers with American actors.

The long second act, which depends heavily on the interviews, is a static affair in which the actors introduce the people for whom they speak and let them tell what they saw, heard, did (or avoided seeing, hearing, doing) during the few days which brought Ceausescu's reign to an end. This documentary-style scene is framed by two acts in each of which there is a wedding involving the same two fictional families. We get to know the characters, to check their animosities, their longings, their distress, and to follow the minimal plot in each case (the marriage of Lucia to an American in act 1, the marriage of her sister and her art-student boyfriend in act 3). The real business of the acts is something else again. In act 1 we get a picture of a society in which people survive by deceit, chicanery, bribery; in act 3, cut loose from the unstable stability of a corrupt world in which they know the limits of possibility, they find not the promised land they assumed lay beyond the dictator, but a morass of suspicion and accusation which turns friend against friend, children against parents, lovers against one another. They live amid questions not answers. Who was responsible for the old regime? Who is running the new one? Was the revolution really a revolution or a staged event which allowed the old rulers (minus Ceausescu, of course) to hold onto power? The play ends with the wedding of Florina and Radu, but the supposedly happy occasion turns into a free-for-all in which all the old hatreds—class, ethnic, and gender differences—re-emerge. Look at any newspaper: Mad Forest may be set in Romania, but it is a play for our time—any place, any day.

Tony Mitchell (essay date December 1993)

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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 words, “aims to analyse and understand the way in which power relations based on class interact with power relations based on gender.”2 Her dramaturgical approach to themes involving women and patriarchy has been distinctively different from that of many of her male peers of socialist persuasion in the British theatre of the past two decades. She uses fragmented, open-ended dramatic structures, and an approach to characterization which is often the result of extensive field-work, workshops and improvisations carried out with her actors before she begins writing her plays. This workshop approach, which frequently dispenses with linear “master narrative” forms altogether, was first developed with the feminist theatre group Monstrous Regiment—with whom she wrote Vinegar Tom (1976), a play about witch-hunts in seventeenth-century England—and extended with Joint Stock, and the director Max Stafford-Clark, in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), Cloud Nine (1979), Top Girls (1982), Fen (1983), and Serious Money (1987).

Churchill's play Mad Forest (1990), which is subtitled A Play from Romania, continues the quasi-ethnographic, but distinctively English approach to playwriting of these previous plays, but extends it into foreign territory. Mad Forest was the result of a workshop project set up by Mark Wing-Davey, a former Joint Stock actor who had become artistic director of the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and “wanted to do a play about Eastern Europe, and Romania seemed particularly suitable, as students had participated in the Revolution to a great extent.”3 He engaged Churchill as the writer on a project that involved eleven graduating students, and he and Churchill went to Bucharest with the students for an eight-day exchange project with the Caragiale Institute. The Romanian students acted as interpreters for the Central students' field-work, which involved extensive interviews, conversations, and character studies based on encounters with relatively “ordinary” people in Bucharest.

Based on these socio-ethnographic exchanges carried out in Romania, Churchill's play differs from the dramatic responses to the collapse of the Communist regimes in the USSR and East-central Europe by fellow British playwrights Howard Brenton and David Edgar in concentrating exclusively on the predicaments and power relations which affect everyday life. David Edgar's play The Shape of the Table (1990) transposes a free interpretation of events around the negotiating table leading up to the assumption of power by Vaclav Havel and Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia to a fictional central European country, but maintains an essentially “social-realist” dramatic format which is primarily concerned with the machinations of political power. In Moscow Gold (1990), Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali portray glasnost and perestroika and the power plays between Gorbachev and Yeltsin in terms of a huge Meyerholdian epic pageant in which “the people” are represented by three caricatured Kremlin cleaning ladies, while Brenton's comedy-thriller Berlin Bertie (1992) jokingly invokes the spectre of Brecht in a social-realist study of a woman social worker in London whose sister is being pursued by a member of the East German Stasi. Mad Forest eschews the “master narratives” of totalizing social-realist paradigms on the one hand and epic pageantry on the other for an open-ended, quasi-cinematic series of cryptic vignettes portraying everyday life in Romania. Political figures are banished to an absent background, albeit one which has direct impact on the play's characters, to the extent that almost every scene functions as a metonym of the broader political scenario. As the play's director, Mark Wing-Davey, told a Village Voice interviewer in December 1991, after he had remounted his production of the play in New York with an American cast: “Romania is not folk-dancing or zither music or even people massing at the barricades. So Mad Forest is mostly about the people who stayed home during the fighting, watching the TV news, not appearing on it. It's about the Euro-pop that plays at weddings—and the damages, the compromises to the human spirit.”4

The Romanian revolution presented considerable appeal as dramatic material owing to the relative lack of media coverage it had received in relation to other East European countries,5 the violence of the clashes between the people in revolt and the Securitate forces, and the spontaneity of the uprising, which was led predominantly by students and young people. The play also deals with the sense of betrayal felt by these young people when the Iliescu regime appeared to be duplicating the political structure of the Ceauşescu regime, partly as a result of Ceauşescu's effective abolition of any institutional structures outside his direct control. This led to suspicions that the revolution was a coup engineered by Iliescu, a scenario which some of Churchill's characters give voice to, but which the play holds back from endorsing. The contradictory features of the Romanian revolution have been described in a book about the eastern European uprisings published by the Observer newspaper: 6

Romania's revolution was altogether different. This was the country seemingly unaffected by the months of change in Eastern Europe. … It won its freedom the hard way, in a bloody, vicious, spectacular and historic battle that nobody had anticipated, nobody even seriously fantasised about.

The conceptual structure within which Churchill drafted Mad Forest bears a strong resemblance to her first Joint Stock play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), which dealt with Cromwell, Winstanley, and the “English revolution” of the 1640s, but focused on the Ranters and other subsidiary figures rather than the major political personalities. In her book on Churchill's plays, Geraldine Cousin, drawing on the playwright's unpublished notebooks, describes how the play became structured according to a “before-during-after idea”:

Light Shining begins with characters imprisoned within tightly confining ideologies and economic and social structures, and shows their elation and amazed excitement as these “rigidities” are challenged and loosened. As the characters take control of their lives the forward momentum of the play leads to an upsurgence of joy, which is then arrested and destroyed. …

The words: “like small chips of film, black and white stills, grainy” evoke [the play's] texture. Each character and episode has the clarity of a snapshot, a brief moment of time arrested: each separate incident has its own meaning and resonance. The “grainy” quality comes from the cross-referencing of images, ideas and action from one scene to another. The “before-during-after” shape is created not as an unbroken line, but as a montage of related fragments.7

This is an equally apt description of the structure and texture of Mad Forest, which Michael Bloom has described as using a “‘prismatic’ technique” with “the dramatic equivalents of the jumpcut and the subjective camera.”8 The play presents a series of brief, elliptical, and sometimes wordless scenes involving the reactions of two families, the working-class Vladus and the middle-class Antonescus, to events before and after the downfall of the Ceauşescu regime. Sandwiched between these two sections, which both culminate in weddings, eleven characters who are completely unrelated to the action of the two families recount their experiences between the aftermath of the Timişoara massacre on the 20th of December 1989 and the execution of the Ceauşescus on Christmas Day.

This second act of the play is taken almost verbatim from interviews the students conducted in Bucharest, and contains lengthy and sometimes overlapping accounts by a painter, three students, a translator, a bulldozer driver, a Securitate officer, a soldier, a student doctor, a flower-seller and a house-painter, whom the student actors play with Romanian accents and language inflections. The discontinuous, interweaving fragments of these monologues construct a “grainy” sequential narrative of events and create a rhythm which builds gradually from fear and anticipation to celebration and joy, and then to fear and bewilderment after the Securitate's “terror shooting” begins. It is virtually a microcosm of the play's overall structure, but its occasional repetitiousness and lengthy, static, and raw documentary nature makes it less dramatically effective than the other two acts. The amount of verbal information it contains makes excessive demands on an audience, and the imitation of Romanian accents by English actors gives rise to an element of caricature which undercuts the documentary aspect of the sequence.9 Act Two begins and ends with speeches by the Painter, whose final words, “Painting doesn't mean just describing, it's a state of spirit. I didn't want to paint for a long time then,”10 have a self-reflexivity which parenthesizes the act. In a diary extract describing Romanian responses to performances of the play in Bucharest in October 1990, Churchill describes how she invoked the Painter's statement in reply to an audience member who expressed shame that there was no Romanian play about the events.11

The play's title, which derives from the name of the forest which used to cover the site of Bucharest, “and was impenetrable to the foreigner who did not know the paths” (5), alludes to the difficulty of access to the “paths” of the subject by the foreign playwright and cast, and emphasizes the tentative, inconclusive shape the play assumes. But this tentativeness gives rise to considerable dramatic power. From the opening scene of the play, Churchill deals shrewdly and effectively with the problem of situating and representing the Romanian characters by prefacing scenes with actors reciting sentences in Romanian and English from a tourist phrasebook. These spoken phrases, which often provide ironic comments on the “gestus” of the scene which follows, function, as Ceridwen Thomas suggested, “in much the same way as Brecht's placards.”12 Mark Wing-Davey has pointed out that this Brechtian distancing device in the play's text was a further acknowledgment of the impossibility of representing the play's Romanian characters and situation naturalistically: “This isn't a documentary … And I wasn't interested in the actors trying to be foreigners. Much of the play is about being a Westerner in a strange place: The phrase-book passages that open the scenes, for instance, are there as a reminder that this is simply a partial view; it's not the truth.”13 The second scene of the play, for example, is prefaced by the phrase “Cine are un chibrit? Who has a match?” (18), which ironically anticipates the power cut that disturbs the Antonescu family's evening work, as well as the lighting of a candle by their son Radu which signals a renewed “flaring up” of an argument about his engagement to the Vladus' daughter Florina. This use of phrasebook expressions recalls Marie Irene Forne's play The Danube (1982), where an American businessman's increasingly odd and disturbing experiences in Budapest are prefaced by a Hungarian language-learning tape containing dialogue in English and Hungarian, which the characters repeat.14 In Fornes's play this is a diegetic device which flows into the dialogue of each scene, and gives the whole play the mannered stiltedness of a language-teaching tape, operating as a stylistic frame of displacement which the actors never acknowledge directly. In Mad Forest, on the other hand, the use of phrasebook expressions is a self-reflexive presentational technique which signals inevitable slippages and displacements in the English students' portrayals of the Romanian characters in the play, where eleven actors play thirty-seven roles with an age range stretching from eight to over seventy. (Fornes's play has the added device of an American protagonist whose outsider status provides a point of entry for the audience into the play's Hungarian setting.)

Fornes's and Churchill's dramaturgical approaches to their Eastern European subjects have other similarities: a marked absence of any direct portrayal of political events and an oblique, “snapshot” approach. Mad Forest parallels The Danube's sense of an accumulating unstated, unknown threat or disease (possibly a nuclear accident) which emerges between the lines of its self-consciously bland phrasebook dialogue. Both plays avoid linear narratives in their discontinuous, mosaic-like portrayal of the disintegrating effects of external disturbances on their characters. They also reject a Hegelian dialectical view of history in favour of a feminist ethnography of the Other, portrayed as subjects of class, ethnic, and gender domination.

In his ethnographic study of the Romanian events of 1989 and 1990, “What Brought Romanians to Revolt,” Sam Beck locates the Other in the Romanian context:

The terrorism utilized by the Ceaucescu regime had a unique feature. Ordinarily, this type of violence is used against a people who are physically identifiable as an Other, normally a pariah ethnic group, and may be scapegoated for evils of the system. In Romania, it appears that the Other was defined more broadly, as anyone outside the Ceausescu regime. … Ceausescu had only 24 years in which he was able to depersonalize the Romanian citizenry and deal with them as sub-human.15

By concentrating exclusively on subjects who are not directly connected to the Ceauşescu regime, Churchill is still able to portray a representative cross-section of Romanian society, which is linked by what she has described as “a whole spectrum of paranoia at one end, stretching through to a very reasonable suspicion at the other.”16 The play also deals with what Beck has identified as four essential aspects of the Romanian revolution which need further investigation. The first is the influence of the media and the prevalance of exaggerated rumours about the number of dead in what Vladimir Tismaneanu has described as “the first successful plebeian revolution in the Soviet empire.”17 The second is the importance of death and martyrdom embodied in the shrines which were set up in the town squares; the third the youthfulness of the participants and victims of the uprising, many of whom were “decree babies” born as a result of Ceauşescu's family-planning policies in the 1970s. The fourth and most dramatic is the deprivation of food, heat, light, decent wages and living conditions, and cultural and ethnic identity suffered by the people of Romania as a result of Ceauşescu's inhuman policies, which culminated in his ordering the army to shoot at civilians.18

The wordless opening scene of the play, which is prefaced by the phrase “Lucia are patru ouă” (“Lucia has four eggs”) (17), sketches with economy and impact the disempowerment, silence, and subjugation of the working-class Vladu family under Ceauşescu's conditions of “actually existing socialism.” Bogdan, an electrician, and his wife Irina, a tram driver, begin an argument which the audience cannot hear because Bogdan has turned up the radio loud. Irina turns down the blaring music when their daughters Irina and Lucia arrive with four eggs and a packet of American cigarettes, which pleases Irina greatly. Bogdan expresses his annoyance and disapproval by breaking one of the eggs on the floor, and when Irina tries to turn the radio back up and starts remonstrating with him, he turns it off. The scene ends with Florina scraping the remains of the egg from the floor into a cup while the rest of the family sit in silence. A number of important facets of the family's predicament are established: their dependence on the radio as an anti-bugging device, conflict over their daughter Lucia (who has been prevented from pursuing her career as a primary school teacher because she is intending to marry Wayne, an American), the luxury of American cigarettes (which also signal Lucia's husband-to-be), and the preciousness of eggs (which were rationed to families at a maximum of twenty per month: one of the first mass protests in Bucharest involved people symbolically throwing egg cartons at Ceauşescu's spring palace). In her diary extract describing the Bucharest performances, Churchill describes the shame expressed by some of the audience at Florina's retrieval of the broken egg,19 which indicates its symbolic resonance. The “stirring Romanian music” (17) which blares from the radio provides an ironic counterpoint to the domestic conflict, and establishes a convention of alternating bursts of noise with periods of silence in the play, aptly illustrating Marcus and Fisher's assertion that “external systems have their thoroughly local definition and penetration and are formative of the symbols and shared meanings within the most intimate life-worlds of ethnographic subjects.”20 The use of the radio also serves a narrative purpose in signalling that the family are under investigation by the Securitate, as is revealed in a later scene where Bogdan is forced into acting as an informer, like an estimated three million of the twenty-three million inhabitants of Romania, from which Beck deduces “in all likelihood every extended family in Romania included at least one person who worked or informed for the Securitate.”21

The fear, chaos, and conflict in the Vladu family are contrasted with the relative serenity and comfort of the Antonescu family, whose calm is disturbed only by a power cut and Radu's expressed wish to marry Florina Vladu. The second scene of the play begins in total silence: Radu's father Mihai, an architect, takes notes, his wife Flavia, a teacher, corrects exercise books, while Radu, an art student, draws. Mihai eventually begins to describe a visit by an important figure to inspect and change the plans he is working on, and Radu's comment, that this is the third change to the plans that has been ordered, elliptically suggests that Mihai is working on Ceauşescu's People's Palace. (As Robert Cullen has reported, “Ceausescu dropped by two or three times a week to supervise the construction, and on almost every visit he ordered design changes.”)22 The Antonescus' relative security and well-being are explained by Mihai's proximity to the Ceauşescu regime, and his disapproval of Radu's association with the Vladus is given a political motivation. These signs, however, are embedded very deeply in the text, and would not necessarily be evident to a first-time audience. Flavia is later shown in action giving her pupils (and the audience) a lesson about “The new history of the motherland” (20), which she identifies directly with Ceauşescu's personality cult, illustrating both her complicity in the ideology of the regime and Tismaneanu's assertion that “scientific socialism … in Romania meant Ceausescu Thought.”23

Radu is quickly and deftly established as a dissenter from his parents' political persuasions in a blackly comic vignette where he shocks a meat queue by whispering “Down with Ceauşescu” (21), the first direct act of resistance in the play, though disguised by Radu's refusal to acknowledge it. His covert rebellion is echoed in Lucia's transgression of Ceauşescu's Pronatalism policy in a scene ironically titled “Ascultaţi?” (“Are You Listening?”) (24), in which Lucia expresses meek agreement with a Doctor who brutally calls her a slut, explains there is no abortion in Romania, and advises her to get married, while they exchange written messages and Lucia hands over a wad of money to pay for the abortion. This play-acting for an assumed bugging device, however, serves only to increase Lucia's sense of subjugation and oppression.

While the first act of the play ends with the muted order of the celebration of Lucia's marriage to the (unseen) American, Wayne, a series of tensions, conflicts and undercurrents—personal and political—have been alluded to in a way which reflects the furtive, submerged way of life to which Ceauşescu's subjects are reduced in a climate where, as Beck has put it, “social death terrified people less than the absence of real life.”24 The open testimonies of actual resistance in the second act are anticipated by a gradual shift from a submissive silence to an empowering speech: Radu and his friends Gabriel and Ianoş exchange jokes mocking Ceauşescu's omnipotence and signalling the inevitability of a revolution, and then, in a long torrent of confused words which his shocked family try unsuccessfully to silence, Gabriel triumphantly describes his refusal to succumb to Securitate pressures on him to act as an informer. Radu and Florina, forbidden by their parents to see each other, make shy small-talk in a trolley-bus queue. Churchill shows her young characters' resistance to the dictates of their parents as a first step towards their resistance against the self-proclaimed Father of Romania.

The third act of Mad Forest, which opens with a Vampire attracted by the revolution's promise of blood, transplants many of the issues, characters, and situations introduced in Act One into a post-revolutionary context. In a dramatic extension of its ethnography of the Other, the play's final act incorporates a number of parodic, surrealistic, and supernatural scenes, in which a Vampire, an Angel, a Dog, Ghosts, and a Sore Throat make appearances, as well as a highly expressionistic scene based on one of the cast members' dream about a cornered Elena Ceauşescu trying to bribe soldiers. These serve to disrupt and undermine logical paradigms, and establish shifts from objective to subjective viewpoints which inscribe the presence of author and cast into the world of the play, offsetting the traces of the documentary realism of the second act.

In one of a series of scenes set in a hospital, where Gabriel is recovering from injuries suffered in the street fighting, a barrage of alarming questions about the reality of the uprising is shouted by a brain-damaged patient:

Did we have a revolution or a putsch? … were the terrorists and the army really fighting or were they only pretending to fight? … Where did the flags come from? Who put loudhailers in the square? How could they publish a newspaper so soon? Why did no one turn off the power at the TV? Who got Ceauşescu to call everyone together? And is he really dead? How many people died at Timişoara? And where are the bodies?


Churchill has affirmed that these and the many other questions in the Patient's speech were asked by people the workshop group spoke to, reflecting a widespread suspicion that the revolution was a coup organized by Iliescu.25 Although this interpretation of events has been rejected by most political commentators, the power of rumour in Romania gave it wide currency, and it was fuelled by a situation where, as Vladimir Tismaneanu has pointed out in an article entitled “New Masks, Old Faces,” “former apparatchiks hold most of the key positions while true opponents of the Communist regime have been assigned to largely ceremonial posts.”26

A mood of disillusionment and a gradual realization that little has changed permeates the final, and longest, section of the play, illustrating the process described by Robert Cullen:

The exhilaration of the uprising gave way to a realisation that—for most people, at least—the transformation of political life did not guarantee more warmth or light, or even food.27

A metaphor used by the poet Ana Blandiana is also particularly appropriate to the rhythm and texture of this section of Mad Forest:

The political situation before seemed as fixed and immovable as an iceberg and the evil was solid. Now that things are changing rapidly and the iceberg is melting, we can see just how dark and dirty the water that constituted it was.28

The Antonescu family realizes that things have actually got worse for them, since Mihai can no longer work on the People's Palace and Flavia's job as a teacher of “Ceauşescu Thought” is in jeopardy. Mihai is confident, however, that he still has enough social contacts to bail them out. In a delicately modulated scene of family conflict, Churchill portrays Mihai's complete insensitivity to Flavia's disillusionment, which she has previously articulated in conversations with her dead grandmother. This is followed by Radu's outspoken opposition to both Iliescu and his parents' anachronistic political position, expressed in terms of language:

Don't say ‘realistic basis.’
It's true, Mihai, you do talk in terrible jargon from before, it's no longer correct.


The need for Mihai to look for a new “realistic basis” in his post-revolutionary predicament is shown by his eventual capitulation to Radu's desire to marry Florina. He initiates an awkward reconciliation with the Vladu family which illustrates more an expedient reaction to his loss of social and economic security than any genuine gesture of social harmony. Throughout the play, linguistic inflections have a strong political and thematic dimension (in the final scene, each character speaks four of his or her “key” lines in Romanian), and the characters are shown coping with an unaccustomed freedom of speech which enables them to reveal their uncensored thoughts and engage in political arguments and discussions. The prevalent questioning of their new situation which ensues reveals an uncertainty and insecurity in which internal ethnic conflicts rise to the surface: Ianoş, Lucia's former boyfriend, becomes a scapegoat for some of the characters' confusion because he is Hungarian. These episodes reflect in a muted way the beating to death of six Hungarians by Romanians in March 1990, which Beck describes as “the reproduction of ethnic hostilities under post-revolutionary but pre-democratic conditions.”29 The wedding reception that concludes the play is disrupted by a farcical fight in which almost all the characters participate, triggered off by an argument between Ianoş and Bogdan. This final image of fractured disunity, compounded by the appearance of the Vampire and the Dog, conveys a lingering sense of chaos, bewilderment, and disruption. A token sense of order is re-established by Flavia, who reminds the other characters of their “programme,” but it is little more than a mask over the emotional turbulence. Flavia also preannounces the dramatic function of the wedding scene, which consists of twenty-seven brief vignettes of terse conversation among different sets of characters:

What's so wonderful about a wedding is everyone laughs and cries and it's like the revolution again. Because everyone's gone back behind their masks. Don't you think so?


Prior to the wedding, a play-within-a-play is set up by Radu, Lucia, Ianoş, and Florina for Gabriel's return home from hospital: a grotesquely caricatured re-enactment of the execution of the Ceauşescus. At once an attempt to reassure themselves and Gabriel that the execution actually took place, a rallying point for their continued opposition to the regime, and a ritual enactment of their increasingly uncertain sense of empowerment, this set piece unleashes an atavistic violence that speaks of frustration and bewilderment:

You can't shoot me. I'm the one who gives the orders to shoot.
We don't recognise being shot.
                                        We've all fucked your wife.
                    We're fucking her now.
                    Let her have it.
They all shoot Elena (Florina), who falls dead at once. Gabriel, who is particularly vicious throughout this, shoots with his crutch. All make gun noises, then cheer. Ceauşescu (Radu) runs back and forth. They shout again.
We fucked your wife.
Your turn now.
                    Bite your throat out.


The combination of racial, sexual, and even bestial violence expressed by the young friends indicates the undercurrents of unresolved anger which the game draws to the surface (the scene ends with Gabriel, “Just joking” (75), making a racist threat against Ianoş). Their symbolic re-enactment of the death of the Mother and Father, which echoes in burlesque key some of the actual phrases of the Ceauşescus' trial, also depicts the sexual, class, and ethnic subjugation they have suffered under a dictator described by the former racist Ceauşescu stooge Corneliu Tudor as “the most bloodthirsty criminal in Romanian history, a monster worse than Stalin and Hitler—a Balkanic Caligula.”30

The trial re-enactment scene contrasts sharply in mood and tone with an earlier scene in which the young friends produce a post-revolutionary wish-list as they doze off on a sunny afternoon in the country (67–68); a confused mixture of the impossible and the whimsically luxurious (a holiday, sleeping late, being famous, making money, living forever, dying young, “Go[ing] on lying here”) which expresses a fragile, evanescent mood of uncertain contentment contrasting in its stillness with the overall chaos and uncertainty of the situation. Both scenes highlight the choral aspect of the play, with its multi-purpose cross-casting and fragmented structure, in which individual characters are less important than the overall mosaic. As Mark Wing-Davey commented, this choral aspect also had a beneficial effect on performances:

The virtue of doing a piece like this … is that the raw material is somehow more important than the individual performer. Yet ironically, from the material you get the best sorts of individual performances.31

The post-revolutionary disillusionment Mad Forest gives expression to in choral form is foregrounded in Lucia's experiences: in coming home from the USA (“I was crying all the time, I was so ashamed not to be here” [55]) and severing her ties with Wayne after the revolution, she has dashed her family's hopes of ever going there. The impressions she retains of the United States are of her amazement at the piles of fruit and vegetables (“somebody has shone every carrot” [55]), garbage (“huge dustbins, people live out of them” [56]), and the more familiar experience of racism:

I think Americans like Hungarians. … they even like the idea of gypsies, they think how quaint. But I said to them you don't like blacks here, you don't like Hispanics, we're talking about lazy greedy people who drink too much and get rich on the black market. That shut them up.


Her decision to stay in Romania involves pursuing a tenuous relationship with her Hungarian boyfriend Ianoş and accepting his adopted, retarded orphan brother Toma, one of the thousands of ill-treated institutionalized children who are a legacy of the Ceauşescu regime. In this way her predicament becomes emblematic of the predicament of post-revolutionary Romania. Her transgression of her family's expectations and still-dominant codes of moral behaviour define her as an assertive, self-determined young woman who is prepared to endure racist taunts and be stigmatized as a “slut” in her desire to discover a fulfilling way of life. Her final words in the play are addressed to Ianoş: “I'm not your slave” (88). She comes closer than any of the characters in this group-devised play to emerging as a protagonist, and to personifying the uncertain, tentative hopes for a better life in post-Ceauşescu Romania. Her refusal to bend to frameworks of behaviour imposed by male authority also mirrors the playwright's refusal to offer any single, totalizing narrative perspective in this fragmented, polyphonic, and important play.


  1. In “What Brought Romanians to Revolt,” Sam Beck, responding to arguments by Milan Kundera, Timothy Garton Ash, and others about divisions between East and Central Europe, includes Poland, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia in Central Eastern Europe, and places Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania in Southeastern Europe. I have retained these distinctions (Critique of Anthropology, 11:1 [1991], 28).

  2. Michelene Wandor, Carry on Understudies (London, 1986), 136.

  3. Ceridwen Thomas, “Not Out of the Wood,” Plays and Players (August 1990), 18. Mad Forest was first performed at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, on 25 June 1990, directed by Mark Wing-Davey. In October 1990, the production, under the name the Quick Change Theatre Company, played at the National Theatre of Bucharest. It then returned to London for a brief season at the Royal Court Theatre from 12 to 27 October 1990. The play was also performed with a professional American cast, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, at the New York Theatre Workshop from 22 November to 29 December 1991. This production was revived at the Manhattan Theatre Club in October 1992, and Wing-Davey mounted another American production in November 1992 at the Berkeley Rep in California. Both US productions were designed by Marina Draghici, with enormous portraits of the Ceauşescus dominating the sets, and instead of visiting Romania, the casts worked with Romanian emigrants in the USA.

  4. Quoted by Marc Robinson, “Bracing Grace: Wing-Davey's ‘Front Foot’ Approach to Mad Forest,Village Voice, 24 December 1991, 127.

  5. In a letter entitled “Romania's suffering is intense,” published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 October 1991, Con Vaitsas, an Australian citizen, described the famine and hardship he witnessed on a visit as a tourist to Romania, in an attempt to “help redress the media silence.” He was subsequently investigated and interrogated by ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the equivalent of the CIA), who claimed they were concerned that some expatriate Romanians in Australia were “pressurising” others. The repercussions of the situation in Romania, and the lack of media coverage, can be seen to extend as far as Australia.

  6. The Observer, staff, Tearing Down the Curtain: The People's Revolution in Eastern Europe (London, 1990), 125.

  7. Geraldine Cousin, Churchill the Playwright (London, 1989), 20–21.

  8. Michael Bloom, “International Flavors Spice Churchill's Works,” American Theatre (November 1990), 64.

  9. In the production of Mad Forest which I directed with students of the University of Technology, Sydney in October 1991, Act Two was performed in corrected English, without Romanian accents, cut fairly extensively, and played with the students coming into a darkened auditorium and sitting in the audience one by one, carrying candles, in a simulation of the shrines which were set up in Romania (and throughout Eastern Europe). Slides of the Romanian uprising were projected, accompanied by a sound tape of gunfire and crowds, mixed with Romanian music. These “atmospheric” additions lent support to what we felt was otherwise a blunt and static documentary scene.

  10. Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest: A Play from Romania (London, 1990), 47. Further page numbers from this play text are indicated in parentheses.

  11. Caryl Churchill, “To Romania with Love,” Guardian, 13–14 October 1990.

  12. Thomas, 18.

  13. Quoted in Robinson, 127.

  14. Marie Irene Fornes, The Danube, in Plays (New York, 1986).

  15. Beck, 17.

  16. Cited by Thomas, 19.

  17. Vladimir Tismeneanu, “New Masks, Old Faces,” New Republic, 5 February 1990, 17.

  18. Beck, 26–27.

  19. Churchill, “To Romania with Love.”

  20. Quoted in Beck, 27.

  21. Beck, 17.

  22. Robert Cullen, “Report from Romania: Down with the Tyrant,” New Yorker, 2 April 1990, 98.

  23. Tismaneanu, 18.

  24. Beck, 25.

  25. Thomas, 19.

  26. Tismaneanu, 20.

  27. Cullen, 110.

  28. Ana Blandiana, “A Sense of Solidarity,” Index on Censorship, 20:1 (1991), 8.

  29. Beck, 20.

  30. Tudor, cited by Tismaneanu, 20.

  31. Quoted in Robinson, 127.

Amelia Howe Kritzer (essay date 1993)

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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 autonomous, [which] banishes from itself all conflict, contradiction and ambiguity.’1 This patriarchal ideal of unitary identity, of course, provides the foundation for the concept of sanity in western societies, as is emphasized in the common description of one major form of insanity as split personality. Thus, definitions of madness and normality function within a system governed by patriarchal assumptions and attitudes.

Caryl Churchill has been acutely critical of the assumptions and attitudes at the basis of patriarchy. In her dissections of traditional relations of power—not only between the sexes but also among different social groups—Churchill uses the multi-dimensionality of theatre to explore both the surface of social structures and the mental territory beneath that surface. Analyzing traditional assumptions and attitudes, Churchill returns again and again to the states of mind that underlie behavior. To Churchill, political change always begins with personal change. The profound change of mind that results in a new consciousness of one's social and political environment often involves a departure from traditional rationality. Though her works testify to a belief in the capacity for change on both personal and societal levels, Churchill also acknowledges the difficulties and potential painfulness of such change. Thus, a number of her plays present attitude change as a mental revolution defined by society and often experienced by the individual as madness.

From her beginnings in radio drama to recent experimental work for the stage, Churchill's view of madness, consistently reflecting a tension between the individual and society, suggests that the change of mind identified as madness be seen as the necessary breakdown of a whole that has been formed through patriarchal coercion. Madness is a powerful, if anarchic, source of energy with the capacity to disrupt, fragment, and overthrow the tyranny of phallic unity—and, by extension, those social structures that have been created to preserve it. Four of the plays examined here are dominated by the tragic voices of doomed patriarchs who cannot maintain their integrity against the assault of fragmenting forces. The final play discussed, A Mouthful of Birds, focuses on those at the margins of patriarchy who reject or fail to conform to its norms, and celebrates the liberatory potential of multiple personae and non-rational states.

In Lovesick (1967), one of her first radio plays, Churchill gives an ironic twist to the familiar dilemma of a character who loves someone but is not loved in return. In this case, the unrequited lover is Hodge, a psychiatrist who specializes in behavior modification. Through aversion therapy, Hodge ‘cures’ people of behavior, ranging from serial murder to homo-sexuality, which is deemed by society to be ‘sick.’ Typical of the middle-class characters created by Churchill during her radio period, Hodge occupies a middle ground of power, serving as the agent and protector of an oppressive power structure and controlling those less powerful than himself while accepting without question the dictates of the system he serves. Hodge experiences a change of mind when he finds himself consumed with desire for Ellen, a young woman who lives on the margins of social acceptance.

Having served as a model as well as an agent of social control, Hodge suddenly finds himself unable to maintain command of his own mental life. In his opening monologue, he half-admits to the similarity between his own use of power and that which society identifies as criminally violent:

When Smith raped he didn't find what he was looking for, so then he dissected with a chopper and was left with a face and meat to stuff in a sack. I cured Smith. But I could dissect Ellen, not so crudely, not even surgically, applying every known stimulus to that organism and getting all her reactions by analysis, by hypnosis, by abreactive drugs, by shaving her red hair and laying bare her brain, yes, surgery perhaps or a chopper.2

Falling back on the only pattern he knows to re-establish control, Hodge dictates clinical case notes on the progress of his obsession with Ellen.

Ellen fascinates Hodge, as his monologues strongly suggest, because she defies unitary identity. Fusing the polar opposites of beauty and ugliness, as Hodge perceives them, Ellen presents a compelling mystery. Hodge does not know how to define, and therefore does not understand how to control her. The socially marginal people with whom Hodge associates as he seeks to spend more time with Ellen display an anarchic disregard for social norms: one young man casually dismisses Hodge's concern about Oedipal tendencies with the comment, ‘I do sleep with her’ (p. 17), while Ellen herself, who is attracted to Kevin, is not at all disturbed by his homosexuality. Hodge experiences this social world as a disturbing threat and cannot even imagine enjoying the freedom it represents. The product of conditioning no less rigid, if less visible, than that to which he subjects his patients, Hodge can only see Ellen and her friends as a special challenge to his methods of behavioral control.

A request from Kevin's mother to make him ‘normal’ gives Hodge justification for taking on the entire group, to reconstruct these individuals who have situated themselves outside the accepted boundaries of the sane and proper while also placing Ellen in a satisfactory relationship to himself. He hospitalizes Kevin for a routine ‘cure’ of homosexuality through aversive techniques and gets Ellen into the hospital on a pretext, so that he will be able to use the same techniques to first ‘cure her of Kevin,’ then ‘addict her’ to himself (p. 16). He explains the process to Kevin's brother Robert, offering to extinguish Robert's sexual desire for his mother. Robert, however, not only refuses to participate, but later, in Hodge's absence, interferes with the process. What was to have been Hodge's most satisfying triumph turns into his total defeat: he returns to find Kevin obsessively attracted to him, and Ellen delighted with her new sexual identity as a lesbian and in love with a nurse she has met at the hospital.

As the brief play ends, Hodge, with photographs of Ellen and supplies of a nausea-producing drug, prepares to ‘cure’ himself of Ellen. He wonders if life will be bearable without her, but then reminds himself, ‘By next week, if I don't turn back, I could be free to concentrate on my work, with no thought of Ellen, whose beauty is great’ (p. 19). Hodge's tragedy is not that he loses Ellen, but that he proves unable to experience his intense attraction to her—and to the anarchic disregard for proper wholeness that she represents—as a liberating change of mind. He cannot respond to Ellen and her friends other than as an agent of social control. That for him the social is the personal means only that he inhabits a world where power dictates meaning. The most powerful segment of society defines as mad that which threatens its position and uses middle-level agents such as Hodge to enforce its standards. Resistance, however, lives on: not only does the previously depressed Ellen find happiness as a lesbian, but also Robert and his mother find in each other a realm of ‘wonder,’ and the lover who loses out to Robert finds satisfaction when he returns to his wife and exchanges roles with her. The play, finally, points to a precarious stalemate between the repressive power structure and the socially stigmatized but irrepressible force of forbidden desire which constantly threatens to disrupt the status quo.

In a later radio play, Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972), Churchill explicitly links the issue of madness with societal gender expectations. Based upon the memoirs of a turn-of-the-century figure, Daniel Paul Schreber, the play focuses intensely on this high court judge who suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to an asylum for ten years. Schreber's vividly descriptive monologues—passages from the memoirs—dominate the play, alternating with occasional clinical reports read by his doctor and by the presiding judge at his eventual appeal for release from confinement. The often arbitrary division between the sane and the mad was suggested in the original stage production by having one actor perform all the parts.

This play uses the unfamiliar territory of madness as reported primarily by the person suffering from it to explore familiar dichotomies that form the basis of traditional assumptions. The most fundamental dichotomy in patriarchal societies, as feminist theorist Hélène Cixous has pointed out, is the binary, hierarchized opposition between masculine and feminine.3 This division so permeates traditional western thought that it separates all oppositions—for example, nature and culture—into masculine-identified and feminine-identified categories. The perceived opposition between rationality and irrationality, too, correlates with the fundamental division between masculine and feminine. Churchill, writing Schreber's Nervous Illness several years before the publication of Cixous's ground-breaking essay, displays an intuitive grasp of the way in which the masculine/feminine opposition structures perceptions and attitudes.

As high court judge, Schreber served as a model of rationality, eschewing even religious faith in his determination to reject all but scientific evidence. He states:

It seems psychologically impossible that I suffer from hallucinations. The hallucination of being in contact with God can only develop in someone who already has faith in God. But I was never a believer. My gift lay in cool intellectual criticism rather than an unbounded imagination. I had occupied myself too much with the doctrine of evolution to believe Christian teaching.4

In his change of mind, however, Schreber becomes obsessed by the passionate conviction that he has become irresistibly attractive to the ‘nerves’ of God:

God is all nerve and his nerves turn into whatever he wishes to create. But although he enjoys what he has created he has to leave it to its own devices, and only rarely make contact with human nerves because they have such an attraction for God's nerves that he might not be able to get free and would endanger his own existence … Nerve contact was made with the Schreber family regardless of the danger …

(p. 61)

Thus Schreber understands God as a supremely powerful but totally irrational force. For Schreber, this perception fuses oppositions and violates the boundaries of the modes of thought in which he has been so thoroughly schooled. Thus, from that point on, Schreber's thought system becomes inconsistent with any external definition of sanity.

Schreber's change of mind propels him from one side of the masculine/feminine opposition to the other. Having committed himself to the feminine-identified mental spheres of faith and imagination, Schreber feels himself to be penetrated by God's nerves. Thus he becomes convinced that he is turning into a woman. While viewing everything through the distorted lens of his madness, he brings his considerable powers of logic to bear on his own experiences—not to question the validity of what he has experienced, but rather to organize it into a system which is, in its own terms, consistent and coherent. Therefore, he concludes that the world has ended, that those he sees around him are only ‘fleeting-improvised men’ (p. 67), and that the ‘Order of the World’ requires that he be ‘unmanned so that he could bear children and repopulate the world’ (p. 65). Schreber goes on to observe, ‘Twice the male genitals have withdrawn into my body and I have felt a quickening like the first sign of life of an embryo’ (p. 65). According to the complex and logically impressive, if unquestionably mad, system of beliefs through which Schreber seeks to explain his experiences, the only ‘unsolved riddle’ (p. 71) is a visit from his wife, whom he knows to have perished when the world ended and left him as the only remaining human.

Schreber, like Hodge conditioned to play a controlling role in society, loses his powerful position as soon as he reveals the breakdown in his unitary identity. In fact, it is Schreber's social position, once he has succumbed to madness, that strongly reinforces the connection between madness and femininity. He is kept in close confinement under strict supervision; he interprets his change in status as evidence that God intends to humiliate him by using him as a whore. Though he complains bitterly of his sufferings, Schreber consistently identifies his feminized state, as well as that of God, with a continual physical pleasure he terms ‘voluptuousness.’

When, after several years in the asylum, Schreber begins to accept his status and to comply with the desires of those around him, he gains a measure of freedom and is allowed to write letters and diary entries. It is not until he finds ways to trivialize his femininity, however, manifesting it only in episodes of posing in front of a mirror wearing ribbons and cheap jewelry, that he succeeds in obtaining release from the asylum. This dressing-up ritual, the writing of diaries and letters, and a wordless crying out—all activities associated with the feminine—form Schreber's only means of expression by the end of the play. Schreber continues to perceive these activities as part of the unique relationship he maintains with God, but acknowledges that anyone who observed him would ‘hardly understand what I was doing and might really think he was seeing a madman’ (p. 93).

Though possibilities for actual political change lie only outside this play, Schreber's Nervous Illness questions patriarchy through its analysis of the link between femininity and madness, both in terms of perceived irrationality and actual powerlessness. It examines what Elaine Showalter has called ‘the female malady’ in her 1985 monograph of that title, by exposing the connected oppositions of masculine/feminine and rational/irrational that underlie common assumptions about order in human minds and human societies. The play shows us that not only does patriarchal society, of which Schreber's turn-of-the-century Germany provides a particularly acute example, construct femininity as an irrational state, but also that it forces an individual defined as mad to accept a status and role similar to that assigned to women.

The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, written by Churchill in the early 1970s, but not performed and only recently published, approaches madness from the perspective of political activism. Crediting the works of Frantz Fanon and R. D. Laing in the introduction, Churchill presents madness in this play as a natural reaction of humans to an inhumanly brutal society. The action of the play takes place in the psychiatric ward of the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria during the Algerian struggle for independence. Fanon, the central character, directs the hospital's attempts to heal the casualties of a society in which an oppressive ruling minority is being challenged and is fighting back with all the violent tactics at its disposal. Though a constant presence on stage, Fanon speaks little; instead he elicits from other characters the brilliantly self-parodying monologues for which Churchill is well known and through which she illustrates clear connections between societal ills and individual illnesses.

In the first scene of the play, a European civil servant and his wife—known only as Madame and Monsieur—bring their teenage daughter Françoise in for treatment. They complain of her behavior to Fanon in a long, self-focused diatribe, the details of which present a compressed picture of the world of wealth and privilege they inhabit, and the form of which demonstrates their pattern of dominating what they see as alien to themselves. The methods of repression and denial by which Monsieur and Madame deal with their daughter's illness mirror those by which they have attempted to put down the growing rebellion: monopolizing the conversation in this and subsequent scenes, they deny that anything is going on, while using force and intimidation to eradicate any sign that something is, indeed, going on. Having forbidden her to see a certain young man, they refuse to accept Françoise's statement, ‘I think of [him] when I touch myself at night,’ insisting:

No you don't … That couldn't possibly happen. You wouldn't want to do that. You can't tell me of a single occasion when it's happened. Can you? No, you see, it obviously never happens at all.5

Similarly, in regard to the revolution in progress, they maintain that ‘except for isolated incidents the whole thing is completely under control,’ and ‘the majority of the natives look to us to protect them and restore order’ (p. 110). Monsieur and Madame represent the standard of sanity in their society. Clearly that standard is warped by the determination of the ruling elite to maintain their position.

When Françoise is permitted, briefly, to speak for herself, she asserts that the food her mother prepares for her is poisoned: ‘All my life she's been trying to poison me. It started in the milk when I was a baby … think how much poison there is in me now’ (p. 112). As the conversation progresses, she accuses her father of killing people and claims that she ‘hears the screams all night.’ The father admits, ‘Yes I bring my work home with me’; his work, as it happens, includes interrogating ‘subversive elements’ and ‘misguided sympathisers’ in ‘the empty wing of our house’ (p. 114). Both parents reveal attitudes that have been, without doubt, poisoning their daughter since she was born; for example, they matter-of-factly state that ‘the Algerian naturally has criminal tendencies’ (p. 110). In this play, as in the later and better-known Cloud Nine (1979), Churchill makes the connections between patriarchy and colonialism unmistakably clear. Monsieur rules both the family and the nation; to do so, he defines both the family and the nation. If those definitions directly contradict the felt experience and identity of the ruled, it means only that the patriarch/colonizer must work harder to suppress any expression of that experience and identity.

The patients with whom Fanon interacts all present illnesses that relate to the conditions in which they are forced to live. A light-skinned Algerian who has tried to ignore politics and pursue a career in engineering obsessively believes that he is viewed as a coward and traitor and fears that he will be subjected to reprisals. A young revolutionary has attempted suicide because he cannot get the consequences of his bombing raid out of his mind—even though he says he would do it again. Another man has become psychotically withdrawn after enduring interrogation under torture. A police inspector who comes to see Fanon as an outpatient, complaining of night terrors and uncontrollable outbursts of violence against his family, speaks of the pride he takes in his ‘flair’ for the ‘specialist work’ of torturing suspected revolutionaries. Fanon recommends that he leave the police force, but the man emphatically rejects that suggestion:

You can't say that. It's not a possibility at all. You'll have to find some other solution. What am I then if I'm not a policeman? I've always been a policeman. You're asking something out of the question.

(p. 144)

On one of his visits, the police inspector encounters the withdrawn man; each recognizes the other. The man who had been tortured attempts to hang himself, believing that the police inspector has come to take him back to the police station, and that dying is the only way to avoid further torture.

The play's evidence of societally induced illness pervades those who have the responsibility of healing as well as those who come to the clinic as patients. In a scene with a young doctor, Fanon confers about a young Algerian brought in for examination after committing a triple murder. Fanon's junior colleague has a simple explanation for the patient's violence:

Since the African doesn't use his frontal lobes it is just as if they had been removed so that the African is like a lobotomised European. It accounts for the impulsive aggression, the laziness, the shallowness of emotional effect, the inability to grasp a whole concept—the African character.

(p. 119)

Later the same young doctor makes it clear that he identifies with and supports the ruling elite. He justifies his decision to report a nurse who was stealing supplies for the revolutionaries with, ‘it's better to keep out of politics’ (p. 131). At the same time, he reacts favorably to the police request that he assist at interrogations, reasoning that ‘it's a very good thing to have a doctor standing by to look after the patient between sessions because otherwise they might kill him’ (p. 131). As for the police superintendent's suggestion that he inject prisoners with a ‘truth drug,’ he hardly hesitates:

It's an opportunity to learn more about how successful these drugs are in liberating the patient from the conflict that prevents him speaking, because a prisoner of course is very highly motivated not to speak.

(p. 132)

He argues that by helping the police he would ‘lessen the suffering of this war and bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible,’ then returns to his previous theme of the inferiority of the African. Finally, he voices his suspicion that Fanon sympathizes with the revolution and says to him, ‘I just hope very much that I never meet you as one of the superintendent's patients’ (p. 133).

The final scene takes place between Fanon and Françoise. She has been brought to the hospital again because of an episode in which she destroyed a special dress her mother had given her as a birthday gift. Françoise says: ‘The dress looked very pretty, but underneath I was rotting away. Bit by bit I was disappearing … that was a poison dress’ (p. 146). Thus Churchill ends the play with a renewed emphasis on the link between colonialism and patriarchy. Not only has Françoise been filled with poisonous racist attitudes, she has also been denied any real sense of self by the feminine role the dress symbolizes.

Fanon does not respond verbally to the anguish that surrounds him. At the same time, his later role in the Algerian revolution is well known and is documented in a brief introduction to the text of the play. The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution presents Fanon, not in a moment of action, but rather in a period of observation during which he gains full awareness of the sickness of the society he inhabits. The view thus afforded of colonialism and patriarchy explains why Fanon the healer of minds must inevitably divide himself and become, in addition, Fanon the revolutionary.

In the stage play Softcops, written in 1978, but revised and first produced in 1983, Churchill begins to move from analyzing the myth of unitary selfhood and identifying the cracks in that myth produced by various changes of mind, to focus on the potential for actively challenging patriarchal power. Beneath its critique of modern methods of state control, Softcops celebrates the power of irrationality. The very form of the play defies rationality in its ironic fusion of seeming opposites: the well-known academic treatise, Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (1977), and the music-hall revue, consisting of comic skits, songs, dancing, and acrobatics.

Softcops identifies the rational mind with the structure of the state. Madness is a socially marginal position separate from and opposed to the power of state authority. Madness disrupts the smooth functioning of the state through its fusion of oppositions. While agents of the power structure attempt to control the populace through the rational means of inducing fear or promising pleasure, the mad condition is one in which fear and pleasure cannot be separated. Thus, madness resists appeals or threats to ordinary self-interest and constitutes a zone of freedom from rational restraint.

The first scene sets the tone for the entire play. It begins with eager preparations for a public event: workmen construct a scaffold and drape it with black cloth, while musicians rehearse, and waiting schoolchildren read explanatory placards. Pierre, the dedicated but comically ineffectual advocate of rationality, who proclaims ‘Reason is my goddess,’6 supervises all this activity. The event, as it happens, is a public execution. Two men are brought forward, the first to have his hand cut off for stealing and the second to be hanged for strangling his employer. The execution takes place after the condemned man has given, with considerable prompting, the required speech of repentance. The second man, however, balks at giving his rehearsed speech and instead shouts defiance: ‘Want to know what I did? Killed my boss … I'm not sorry, I'm glad. It wasn't easy but I did it’ (p. 12). The crowd riots, part of them rescuing the prisoner and attacking the executioner while others beat up the prisoner. Thus the event intended to promote rational behavior in accordance with society's demands instead dissolves into anarchy.

The power of irrationality, emphasized continually in Softcops, lies in its defiance of patriarchy's carefully constructed categories. Like the crowd at the execution which breaks up and battles over the prisoner, each group of people subjected to the power of the state shows a capacity to enact its own contradictions in a way that disrupts the effective exercise of that power. In what is perhaps its most dramatic example, the play demonstrates the paradoxically freeing aspect of imprisonment when Pierre observes a boy being held down and clamped into the iron collar of a chain gang. Impressed by the boy's desperate struggle and frantic screams, and by the warder's explanation that ‘you can't get no lower than the chain gang,’ Pierre thinks exhibition of the chain gang might prove a most effective deterrent of crime:

Who wouldn't weep to see them pass? The man will put back his master's hen, the child will put back the biscuit. The crowd gazes in silent awe. They turn back thankful to their honest toil.

(pp. 33–4)

As soon as the boy is chained, however, he becomes loudly defiant, cursing and bragging about the crimes he has committed. He joins with the other chained prisoners in ecstatic dancing and a song that incites rebellion. As Pierre is forced to acknowledge, the men on the chain gang, who have nothing left to lose, have gained a degree of freedom unavailable to the ordinary citizen.

Pierre, the indefatigable but bumbling bureaucrat whose quest for the perfect method of control connects the play's episodes, undergoes a change of mind in the course of his search. He begins with the naive belief that the power of the state over the individual is perfectly reasonable. Therefore, he feels that law is best served through the establishment of internal control within the average citizen—an end best served by education rather than by brutality. Pierre envisions a ‘garden of laws’ that will make the legitimacy of state power understandable to the masses.

Pierre, in the course of the play, receives an education that exposes contradictions inherent in his original position. When the arch-criminal Vidocq becomes chief of police and proves the effectiveness of criminal tactics in fighting ‘crimes against property’ (p. 19), Pierre learns that the only real difference between being a lawbreaker and a defender of the law may be who profits from your work. When Vidocq encourages the public to make a romantic hero of the petty criminal Lacenaire, he shows Pierre that trivialization of crime may be a more successful means of reducing crime than moralizing about it. Despite all this, Pierre clings to his ideal of some form of moral education until he encounters Jeremy Bentham. Bentham demonstrates his invention, the panopticon, and proves the effectiveness of direct and continual surveillance. Seeing this external control in operation, Pierre agrees that it is ‘like a machine. It's a form of power like the steam engine. I just have to apply it’ (p. 40). By the final episode, all that is left of Pierre's original convictions is the system by which he categorizes different groups under his control. However, as he attempts to compose a speech rationalizing the control of these groups, he becomes confused, and this system, too, breaks down:

I shall just explain quite simply how the criminals are punished, the sick are cured, the workers are supervised, the ignorant are educated, the unemployed are registered, the insane are normalised, the criminals—No, wait a minute. The criminals are supervised. The insane are cured. The sick are normalised. The workers are registered. The unemployed are educated. The ignorant are punished. No. I'll need to rehearse this a little. The ignorant are normalised. Right. The sick are punished. The insane are educated. The workers are cured. The criminals are cured. The unemployed are punished. The criminals are normalised. Something along those lines.

(p. 49)

The play, then, shows us the process through which the power structure rejects indirect methods of control, from spectacles of execution to categorization, in favor of direct application of power. If such application is made feasible through use of Bentham's panopticon, it is no less significant that indirect methods do not suffice to keep the populace under control. Order cannot be maintained through rationality, if order is to be established through state power. Power cannot be rationalized without being diminished. The state cannot maintain power without giving up wholeness. The only reality that remains at the end of the play is the difference between the powerful and the powerless.

Churchill uses the difference between the powerful and the powerless as the starting point of the 1986 A Mouthful of Birds, co-written with David Lan as part of a Joint Stock workshop production. The seven characters around which the play is constructed represent a cross-section of society's powerless—the economically marginal, non-white, unemployed, and sexually or socially nonconformist. These characters prove susceptible to possession—an experience necessarily identified with fragmentation of the self. This play explores the personal disintegration commonly associated with madness and finds in it the capacity not only to disrupt the patriarchal system but also to generate new, non-patriarchal forms of selfhood.

A Mouthful of Birds exposes the artificiality of the unified self. The first image it presents to the audience is one of regeneration through disintegration: a ramshackle house, open to the audience on two levels, is invaded by a live sapling. Dionysos, who initiates the action and links the play with the ancient myth of The Bacchae, shows a striking combination of gender-identified characteristics: played by a bare-chested man, he wears his hair in long braids and is dressed in a ruffled petticoat. The form of the play frustrates audience expectations for a unified and coherent narrative; it unfolds in layers composed of the stories of seven contemporary characters, the primary action of The Bacchae, and wordless sections expressive of common experience. The performance involves the audience in a disconnected sequence of scenes and images associated with dream and madness.

Change of mind for the seven contemporary characters is initiated by the ‘undefended day’—a concept explored in the workshop. After the section titled ‘Excuses,’ in which the characters offer increasingly strange and unlikely excuses (‘I've hurt my hand … the dog's gone missing … my sister's been kidnapped … the army's closed off the street’7), they break from their ‘usual routines’ and experience a period of time in which ‘there is nothing to protect you from forces inside and outside yourself.’8 In the course of this day, they abandon conscious choice and self-control. They split and re-form repeatedly as each becomes possessed by a spirit or passion and then takes part in a violent ritual of dismemberment as the spirit of The Bacchae possesses A Mouthful of Birds.

The non-rational experience of possession frees each of the characters from her or his artificially constructed self and allows for the possibility of creating new selves and a new community. The clearest example of the way in which this happens can be seen in Derek. At the beginning of the play, Derek, an unemployed laborer working out in a gym, voices this memory of his father: ‘He thought he wasn't a man without a job’ (p. 20). Derek becomes possessed by the spirit of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite. Herculine tells Derek the story of her life: reared as a girl and allowed to develop highly pleasurable intimate relationships with girls, she was later forced to live as a man, found this role unbearable, and committed suicide. As she talks, she takes from a suitcase objects and bits of clothing associated with events in her life and gives them to Derek. Accepting the objects and dressing himself in the clothing, Derek becomes Herculine; he then repeats Herculine's narrative as his own and hands the things back to her one by one. As Herculine, Derek experiences the pleasure of non-unitary selfhood and the pain caused by imposition of a unitary, gendered identity upon his naturally multiple self. In the violent climax of The Bacchae's action, Derek, as Pentheus, undergoes dismemberment by the crazed Bacchantes. At the end, when each of the seven characters briefly describes the aftermath of possession, Derek speaks of the happiness he has attained by undergoing sex-change surgery:

My breasts aren't big but I like them. My waist isn't small but it makes me smile. My shoulders are still strong. And my new shape is the least of it. I smell light and sweet. I come into a room, who has been here? Me. My skin used to wrap me up, now it lets the world in.

(p. 71)

Derek's surgery allows him to elude unitary, gendered definitions of the self and, for the first time, to feel comfortable in his body.

While all the characters experience significant change, not all find happiness through their episode of self-abandonment. Paul, a meat exporter who becomes possessed by passion for a pig, ends up depressed and alcoholic; he says, in his final monologue, ‘When you stop being in love the day is very empty. It's not just the one you loved who isn't exciting any more, nothing is exciting. Nothing is even bearable’ (p. 71). Doreen, who starts out with physical pain, inflicts pain during her episode of possession and finishes her narrative with anguished images. It is Doreen's final speech that is echoed in the title of the play:

I can find no rest. My head is filled with horrible images. I can't say I actually see them, it's more that I feel them. It seems my mouth is full of birds which I crunch between my teeth.

(p. 71)

The opportunity to see the self for the artificial construct that it is inevitably brings pain to some, as well as the risk that this pain may be its only legacy.

The most significant outcome of the experience of possession, however, goes beyond the individual stories and involves the possibility of a non-patriarchal society. The play uses the ancient myth transmitted through The Bacchae of Euripides, but also revises it in one important way. In the original, after Agave has led the Bacchantes in their orgy of violence and only too late has realized that the victim is her own son Pentheus, she submits to patriarchal authority and follows the corpse back to the city. In the Churchill and Lan play, Agave arrests the movement of the Bacchantes back toward their everyday responsibilities, stating, ‘There's nothing for me there. There never was. I'm staying here’ (p. 70). Their ecstasy has disrupted the stasis of their personal and political behavior and attitude patterns. Having moved outside their ordinary reality and having tried power, even if the results have been tragic, the women decide to stay on the mountain. Their change of mind has led to rejection of existing society and holds out the possibility of an alternative one. The play thus reverses the meaning of powerlessness. Powerlessness gives the seven characters the capacity to relinquish their old selves, and in the process to change themselves and society.

Churchill's plays give us the opportunity to rethink madness. They allow us to see temporary insanity as the healthy breakup of an artificially constructed self that has served to defend against an inherently fragmented and often self-contradictory reality. Madness is shown as a means through which one may throw off the oppressive blinders kept in place by patriarchal social structures and for once experience a new way of seeing not controlled by social conditioning. Through altered states of consciousness one may find the possibility of alternative political states.


  1. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 7–8.

  2. Caryl Churchill, ‘Lovesick,’ Churchill: Shorts (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), p. 3. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

  3. Hélène Cixous, La Jeune Née (1975). For English translations and interpretations of this essay, see Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., New French Feminisms (New York: Schocken Books, 1981) and Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Methuen, 1985).

  4. Caryl Churchill, Schreber's Nervous Illness in Churchill: Shorts (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), pp. 68–9. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

  5. Caryl Churchill, The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution in Churchill: Shorts (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), p. 108. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

  6. Caryl Churchill, Softcops in Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 6. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

  7. Caryl Churchill and David Lan, A Mouthful of Birds (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 23. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

  8. Caryl Churchill, ‘The Workshop and the Play,’ preface to A Mouthful of Birds (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 5.

Betty Caplan (review date 4 February 1994)

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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 seems, the presence of dancers and musicians has been an enabling force.

Mad Forest,A Mouthful of Birds,The Lives of the Great Poisoners: all have struggled to break their ties with naturalism. Here she reaches another pinnacle. The “real” world is constantly inhabited by spooks; black spirits nestle unseen in corners like tarantulas, earth creatures stalk about on wooden stilts, obsessions lurk about scrubbing floors, cleaning away débris. It is a world of psychology made manifest. Freudians will revel in it.

Most of all, she is a writer's writer. The central figure of the skriker uses language that trips seductively off the tongue, with free association (another source of delight for the analysts) evoking shades of Joyce and Beckett. Churchill knows that the dead are always with us, in one way or another. “Cold comfort me with hot apple pie”; “Freud eggs”; “salmon-ellaphantaisis”; “she's bit off more than she could choose”; “mad as a hitter”: these are just a few examples of the play's linguistic richness, its determination to thwart our every expectation.

Nursery rhyme, dream, fairy tale and fantasy all flow in and out of one another. The figure of the skriker is powerful and dominating, transforming herself constantly into new forms. Kathryn Hunter's skriker (pictured with Sandy McDade) is a shape-shifter who attempts to exert her power on this earth. As witch, fairy, child, businesswoman, beggar, cockney and con man, she disturbs, questions, haunts.

“Tell me how a television works.” “What is sleep? How do you do it?,” she asks, innocently. What anchors her role is the fact that it takes place around a story of everyday folk, the two young women Josie (Sandy McDade) and Lily (Jacqueline Defferary). Lily is pregnant, Josie has killed her child. The skriker comes between the two friends, aiming to take Lily's child away to the underworld where she belongs and where Josie has already paid a fleeting visit. Does she succeed? The ending is as enigmatic as the rest.

There is, however, a real problem. Take the skriker away (particularly in Hunter's compelling performance) and you have nothing. The story of the two women and their children (reminiscent of Top Girls) does not stand on its own, nor does the much-vaunted music and movement.

It all boils down to writer and choreographer operating in isolation; if you're going to “do a Pina Bausch” then surely you need someone equally at home in both worlds? Here, Ian Spink's choreography largely works against Churchill's text in the wrong way—for the most part illustrating it, making it too literal, while Les Waters' direction has failed to bond them.

Furthermore, in Annie Smart's white-box design, the space on the Cottesloe's stage is so small that the elves and fairies appear cramped, as if stuck on the London Underground. Most of all, though, they remain separate, unlike in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where they really impinge on the main characters.

In this psychological world, things remain unintegrated. Objects appear—a beautifully constructed doll's house, lit-up inside, a village in a glass case, an enormous shoe—none of which is given any life. Thus they end up distracting from the drama rather than adding to it. But despite these flaws, The Skriker makes for a riveting evening. Kathryn Hunter fascinates with her ability to change and the release of the writer's imagination also creates an enormous amount of libidinous energy, never squandered by the embarrassing on-stage sex you got in Angels in America.

“Do I smell?,” asks the skriker in her bag-lady guise. “It's my coat and my cunt.” She insists on being hugged and kissed, but her affection has a barbed point: the recipients, Josie and Lily, vomit coins and toads.

Churchill draws extensively on the mythology of the crone, the ancient woman who brings death in her train. Her power is great and arbitrary; she can bring life and take it away. She is voracious and insatiable; even in old age, she exhibits sexual greed. She is like Macbeth's witches, on the earth but not of it. And she stalks our streets nightly, uttering piercing shrieks. Her creation as a dramatic character has been no mean feat.

Barbara Norden (review date 4 February 1994)

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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 from history.

But as The Skriker, her latest play and the first to be produced at the National Theatre, opens—with a wordless roar and rocks hurled against bare white walls—we know we are into something different. The play integrates two worlds. On the one hand, this is the tale of two teenage girls running away to London, Lily, who is pregnant, and Josie, who is in a psychiatric hospital after killing her baby. On the other are the fairies and spirits of English folklore, played by dancers.

Foremost is the Skriker herself, a “shape-shifter and death portent,” who appears in the first scene as a kind of prehistoric giant spider. But, though a portent, the Skriker is never portentous. Played throughout by an incredibly versatile and controlled Kathryn Hunter (a “physically” trained actress who has worked with Théâtre de Complicité), the Skriker latches on to each of the girls in turn, in the form of an old woman, a homeless child, a prostitute, a baglady, a businessman and a Christmas-tree fairy. Each personification has its own character but is also unmistakably the Skriker—always needy, always seeking acceptance, wheedling, threatening and ultimately destructive.

To “skrike” is a Lancashire word meaning to grizzle or complain, and the Skriker's language does seem to provide a line back to old, forgotten words. When not in human form, she speaks in a brilliant stream of automatic writing, disjointed, full of puns and unconscious wordplay. Churchill has compared this to the language used by schizophrenics, constantly losing its intended direction and ending up somewhere else. It is a language full of jokes and incongruous contemporary references, and it is these the audience picks up on and responds to. But in its rhythm, insistent alliteration and vigour, it is also reminiscent of Old English poetry.

This ancient dimension is appropriate, for the fairies of The Skriker have come from a time when England was (according to the Skriker in a rare burst of nostalgia) “a country of snow and wolves where trees sang and birds talked and people knew we mattered.” But far from being kindly or ethereal, these figures (excavated from Katharine Briggs's work on English folktales) are evil and damaged. Often associated with dead children, they are the antithesis of J. M. Barrie's sentimental creations: the Kelpie, who is half-man, half-horse, drowns children; RawheadandBloodyBones (sic) drags them into marlpits; the Spriggan is blamed when they go missing.

In The Skriker, no conversation is simple, no word without its ghost. At its best, the overlaying of different strands of action on stage creates a flickering shadowy world of the unconscious, an expression of the violence and confusion in the minds of the characters. The fairies' presence creates possibilities for unspoken irony: for instance, as Lily tries to persuade Josie that her visit to the underworld was all a dream, RawheadandBloodyBones is splayed against the wall behind them like an outsize daddy-long-legs.

But the design of the production is confusing. Some of the non-speaking characters, such as Yallery Brown, a malevolent fairy on stilts, wear traditional fairytale garb. Others, like the Kelpie, are difficult to identify: dressed in a green lounge suit, the only horse-like thing about him is his long blond mane of hair.

The staging, too, uses the currently fashionable device of a set within a set—a white-walled room with receding perspective within a larger white box—for its own sake rather than to enhance the meaning of the play. It creates a false division between the actors and dancers, the human dialogue and the language of the fairies. The banquet scene is another missed opportunity. A cross between the Mad Hatter's tea party and the devil's banquet in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, this scene should be an apotheosis in which the glamour and rich food offered to Josie in the spirit world turns out to be mixed with “twigs and beetles and blood.” In fact, it is clumsily staged, with trays of plastic food carried on at sharp angles and the costumes misleadingly suggestive of Hollywood. This production is eerie, the presence of dancers teases and prods the mind, but the stage magic doesn't always work.

None of this should detract from the huge achievement of the play itself, particularly in using and subverting fairytale motifs and morals. Lily's kind word to a stranger is rewarded with gold coins coming out of her mouth, Josie's cruel words with toads, but the rewards are only temporary. In “the wide world hurled hurtling hurting hurt very badly” there is little to suggest that virtue will be rewarded or evil punished. Lily accepts the Skriker into her life through good impulses, but this saves neither her, nor the Skriker nor the world. Everyday reality is, as the Skriker puts it, “war zone ozone zany grey” or, according to Josie, merely “flat like a video.” Beneath that is the destruction and dancing and madness of a fairy world which, it is implied, we ignore or confront at our peril.

Sheila Rabillard (essay date spring–summer 1994)

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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 Black Faces, White Masks was one of the things (along with Genet) that led to Joshua, the black servant, being played by a white in Cloud Nine.1 Moreover, Churchill's eclectic reading in philosophy, psychology, and politics informs the structure and production process of her drama, as well as its content. Softcops is not just a witty dramatization of ideas from Discipline and Punish; the play presents itself as a species of enacted theatrical theory, a series of elegant, Foucauldian inquiries into the politics of performance: Can punishment be adequately staged? Can theater function viscerally to arouse and quell the spectator when it exposes the workings of its own controlling mechanisms? In short, Churchill's work is not merely drama concerned with particular intellectual trends, but a linked theatrical practice and poetics—in a sense, a drama that attempts to stage the radical implications of theory. This claim allies Churchill with predecessors as disparate as Gertrude Stein, whose theatrical art constitutes a highly intellectualized criticism of theatrical art, and Brecht, whose alienating dramaturgy exposes the workings of ideology, giving “what is ‘natural’ the force of what is startling.”2 The analogy between Brecht's techniques and those of dramatists strongly influenced by socialism, like Churchill, has often been remarked;3 what I want to emphasize, however, is not continuity of form, or shared political lineage, but a common philosophical interrogation of the theatrical process. Churchill, like Stein, invigorates potentially abstract intellectual discourse by putting it into play.

In certain crucial respects, Fen is typical of Churchill's dramatic practice. Fen engages an emerging body of theory that links a socialist-feminist critique with ecological politics—what has come to be called “ecofeminism.” Churchill strives to bind the theatrical practice of her drama to the theory in which the play is grounded, and this effort lends Fen much of its complexity and interest. The project is far from straightforward, however. For when Churchill attempts, by disclosing the means and methods of dramatic production, to reshape the relation between aesthetic and material culture—to create, figuratively speaking, an ecologically sound process of theatrical production—the inadequacies and inherent contradictions of this processual resolution are exposed by the premises of materialist analysis itself. Moreover, Fen stages a brief but canny critique of its own processes that hints at a broader potential interrogation of socialist-feminist dramatic practice.

The work of a founding practitioner, Vendana Shiva, may help to clarify what I mean by ecofeminism. In Staying Alive, and more recently in The Violence of the Green Revolution, Shiva argues that the productive powers of both nature and women have been devalued and destroyed by the transformation from self-sustaining commons to privatized, revenue-generating land dependent on monoculture, technocracy, and debt. This “maldevelopment” (ongoing since the 17th century in Europe, and increasingly now in the “developing” countries) leaches away the essential wealth of the land—its capacity to renew itself—and destroys the basis of women's productivity, their role in drawing the elements of human subsistence from the land, as resources are removed from their control and incorporated into a patriarchal, capitalist system of ownership and production. As Shiva explains, destruction and devaluation are profoundly linked: “Patriarchal categories which understand destruction as ‘production’ and regeneration of life as ‘passivity’ have generated a crisis of survival. Passivity, as an assumed category of the ‘nature’ of nature and of women, denies the activity of nature and life.”4 Historically, the work of women generated much of the commons' sustaining and sustainable wealth. Shiva terms this mode of intimate and subtly responsive engagement with the natural world “the feminine principle,” which “dies simultaneously in women, men, and nature when violence and aggression become the masculine model of activity, and women and nature are turned into passive objects of violence.”5

Shiva's work helps to illuminate the general praxis of ecofeminist theater and in particular the problematic attempt in Churchill's Fen to merge ecological and socialist-feminist concerns. Ecofeminist theater is a growing body of plays and performance pieces that work to expose the cracks in the apparently seamless, and distinctly gendered, ideological structures governing our relationship to the environment. Such theater strives to disentangle an ideological complex in which masculinist values render “natural” a capitalist approach to the “development” of the world's resources, and capitalism—with its valorization of aggression, competition, possession—in turn reinforces a particular construction of the dominant gender. While ecofeminist theater does not yet constitute a concerted movement, a variety of recent plays employ such strategies: Rona Munro's exploration of gender, violence, and mythic constructions of the Scottish seashore in Piper's Cave; Margaret Hollingsworth's The House That Jack Built, with its slyly comic treatment of the gender stereotypes driving Toronto's suburban sprawl; Monique Mojica's Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, a cabaret-style performance satirizing white conquest of the hearts of Indian Maidens and their land.

While Shiva's work was not a specific source for Fen, it provides a paradigm of the ecofeminist thought that shapes Churchill's play because of the clarity (and poetic vigor) with which Shiva deploys Marxist and feminist critiques in her analysis of environmental use. Churchill clearly shares her commitment to socialism as well as feminism, and has stated that she “wouldn't be interested in a form of one that didn't include the other.”6 The play's provisional title revealed her fundamental concern with the economic basis of women's lives—Strong Girls Always Hoeing, taken from an 1842 agricultural report advising employers that “strong girls who are always hoeing can do the work better than men and they cost only 1/6 instead of 2/.”7 Churchill's final choice of title, however, locates her drama in the land itself; as Shiva does, she strives to place feminist and Marxist concerns within a larger, more elemental frame.

Fen's sequence of 21 scenes offers a series of images that associate exploited land with oppressed women workers, a baseline of misery figured in the conjunction of the bare horizontal line of the fields and the bodies of women literally bent to the earth in toil. Annie Smart, the designer for the original production, created a single set: a surface of furrowed earth bounded on three sides by rough board walls that was at once a field and a domestic interior. As Sylviane Gold commented in her Wall Street Journal review of the 1983 New York production, the furrows “dirty the boots of the laborers, of course; but they also soil a dropped teacup, or the clothing of embracing lovers.” The bond between the lives of the women and the fate of the land is inescapable; in the closing scene Churchill reemphasizes the implications of the set—the women's constant labor, domestic and agricultural, sustaining the agribusiness of the fens—as Shirley irons the field.

The earth that clings to their garments and marks their every move is also a reminder that the lives of these women, vividly characterized though they are, cannot be understood solely in terms of individual choice and psychology; or, rather, that their psyches are themselves touched by the earth. Thus, the close of the play confronts the audience with images of cruelty, rebellion, and pain, with the possibility that to follow one's desires in this flat, limited world is a form of “madness”: Val, who sought romantic love, persuades her lover to kill her; Nell, who intransigently protests exploitation, stalks crazily through the scene on stilts, claiming the sun spoke to her. One grim note of hope is sounded by Shirley—a woman habitually encased in a stoic pride in her own capacity for endurance—who for an instant realizes that it is a greater madness still to accept such a world: “I'd forgotten what it was like to be unhappy. I don't want to.”

At the same time as the stage set linked the women and the land they worked, it created a spatial hierarchy, a visual language that lifted some into power and bent others towards the soil that carpeted the stage. It is hard to imagine a more visceral demonstration of the twinned devaluation of woman and natural world. There are few men in the piece (only one male actor in the original cast of six), and each of them is in some way, if only slightly, elevated above the women (with the exception of Miss Cade, supervisor of the field gang, and the bird-scaring boy, played by a woman). Wilson, a boy of 16 who works the potato fields with them, separates himself from the crew of women by begging to pick Val's rows for her pay when she walks off the job; Frank, though tormented by his affair with Val, rides above the fields on a tractor (composed of chairs); Towson, bought out by a syndicate, still lives a farm owner's comfortable life and influences the economic fate of the farm employees; and the Japanese businessman, Mr. Takai, reflects the divorce from the true nature of the land brought about by ownership, capital investment, “development.” Virtually all the males enjoy a higher status than the women; in terms of the visual economy, likewise, they rise above the lowest common denominator, the rows of dirt—and the greater the power, the more instruments (mechanical and financial) intervene between them and the earth that generates their wealth. Towson, the farmer, is insulated from the land by technological comforts (“You never see a farmer on a bike,” Nell says sarcastically) and by a financing scheme through which he relinquishes ownership and renounces a large degree of responsibility for the fate of the land and its workers in order to avoid death duties. As Nell says, his workers don't know who the boss is: “Who do you have a go at? Acton's was Ross, Ross is Imperial Foods, Imperial Foods is Imperial Tobacco, so where does that stop?”

The greatest distance from the soil, and hence the greatest power, is embodied in Mr. Takai, executive of the vast international corporation that, at many removes, owns the land. It is he, therefore, who addresses the audience in the first speech of the play and welcomes us in a fashion that suggests the land has been transformed utterly into a mere representation, both theatrical and monetary: “Mr. Takai, Tokyo Company, welcomes you to the fen. Most expensive earth in England. Two thousand pounds acre.” There is more than a hint, here, of what Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, has called the Marxist sublime—a linking of representation and exchange value, as in the Eighteenth Brumaire, that implies representation itself must be broken and exceeded. For Mr. Takai, the fens are so foreign as to be realized only in the aesthetic realm: “How beautiful English countryside. I think it is too foggy to take pictures. Now I find teashop, warm fire, old countryman to tell tales.”

Mr. Takai's tourist itinerary evokes something of the vexed relationship between Churchill's critique of production and her own artistic modes of production; but most plainly, his monologue is a history of the destruction of the fenland commons:

Long time ago, under water. Fishes and eels swimming here. Not true people had webbed feet but did walk on stilts. Wild people, fen tigers. In 1630 rich lords planned to drain fen, change swamp into grazing land, far thinking men, brave investors. Fen people wanted to keep fishes and eels to live on, no vision. Refuse work on drainage, smash dikes, broke sluices. Many problems. But in the end we have this beautiful earth. Very efficient, flat land, plough right up to edge, no waste. This farm, one of our twenty-five farms, very good investment. Belongs to Baxter Nolesford Ltd., which belongs to Reindorp Smith Farm Land trust, which belongs 65٪ to our company.

An initial positive image of the “wild people, fen tigers” hovers behind the historic layers of suffering that are shaded into the play by reminiscences, gruesome old tales, and fleeting appearances of figures from the past. As Mr. Takai identifies with the “far thinking men, brave investors” of 17th-century venture-capital development, Churchill provides the opposing images that determine the interpretive frame of the play: commons and capitalism, what Shiva calls the feminine and the masculine principles in human relations to nature and society.

If the majority of the play that follows evokes the ethos of the commons by its absence, the closing scene presents one figure reminiscent of the wild marsh, as if inspired by Mr. Takai's opening history: Nell, walking on stilts across the earth-strewn stage. Churchill employs a structural symmetry here that emphasizes the importance of both “masculine” and “feminine” principles to our understanding of the play: where Mr. Takai's monologue brought the lost commons before the mind's eye inadvertently, as it were, by praising its destruction and rationally advocating the virtues of capitalist development, the closing scene also offers a monologue, though one that strikingly evades the structures of rationality and allows the voices of those who have suffered under “development” to speak through the character of Val.

Val has begged Frank to kill her; finally, he picks up an axe, murders her, puts her body in a wardrobe, and sits on the floor with his back against the wardrobe door. As he sits there, Val comes in through the door on the opposite side of the stage. She now utters a series of dream-like, subtly connected fragments that express her own misery but also describe the lives and fates of suffering figures from the past and present who seem to be pressing themselves on her consciousness:

There's so many of them all at once. He drowned in the river carrying his torch and they saw the light shining up through the water.

There's the girl again, a long time ago when they believed in boggarts.

The boy died of measles in the first war.

After some struggle, Val focuses on one figure—“the girl”—and recites the story of a weak, white child who, in a hard winter when many people died, spoke a wish to see the spring again even if she lived no longer than the cowslips at her gate. (“The mother says, ‘Hush, the boggarts'll hear you.’”) The green mist of spring comes, and with it her strength, but a boy picks the flowers and she dies. “She's a wrinkled white dead thing like the cowslips.” This uncanny folk tale, echoing something of Val's own death-wish, seems to arise from a collective memory of deprivation and speaks of a suffering so cruel that the fenlanders imagined malevolent spirits at work. But Val, who says she has come “back in” from death, is open to the experience of the living as well—especially, it seems, their terrors. The next section of her monologue describes young Becky's mind as she sleeps: “She's having a nightmare. She's running downstairs away from Angela. She's out on the road but she can't run fast enough.” Val's monologue conjures up all that is omitted from Mr. Takai's tidy history of economic conquest, and suggests by its structure—which evokes the upwelling powers of repressed anger, fear, and desire—not simply lives and facts forgotten in his account, but a radically different understanding of the world.

Indeed, even the boundaries of the monologue form, and the subjecthood it implies, become blurred. Val's ability to describe a nightmare as it is being dreamed by another character suggests a strangely permeable, though still tenable, subjectivity; however, when the words of the monologue suddenly conjure Becky herself onto the stage and the girl's own speech takes up the thread of Val's description, divisions between dialogue and monologue, separations on which conventional characterization are based, grow indistinct.

Instead of waking up in bed she's falling into another dream and she's here. Becky is there.
I want to wake up.

Within the destabilizing context created by Val's monologue, Nell makes her appearance too, as do Angela, Shirley, and Meg, in a setting freed from the usual temporal restrictions: dramatic chronology has been disrupted by Val's return; historic past and present mingle in the same stage space; and Meg's “song”—she does not open her lips—disturbs performance time and seems to belong to the time of what might have been and cannot quite be represented (Val: My mother wanted to be a singer. That's why she'd never sing). The audience may read Nell's stilt-walk in a number of ways: as if she is a historic figure from the lost marshes; as a present-day fenlander with an odd and nonconformist streak (the village children call her a hermaphrodite) that makes her a virtual anachronism in a capitalist system designed to render each worker exchangeable for any other; or, in this temporally fluid context, as part of a past that could have been and a future that might be.8 Nell's elevation above the dirt plane of the stage might seem to disrupt the visual hierarchy established earlier in the play, but the ambiguity of her position in space (as well as time) again allows us to read her figure in multiple fashion: as elevated into power, and yet (unlike Frank, Towson, or Mr. Takai) as vitally connected with the soil. The people who walked the marshes on their stilts gathering fish and wild plants walked through the watery meadows, not above them, stepping delicately into the yielding, saturated earth like great wading birds. While Nell's action, like that of the silent/singing Meg, makes us aware of the limits of systems of representation by breaching familiar conventions, it suggests, as well, an alternative to the limitations of a “masculine” power identified with distance from the earth—with the physical and monetary transformation of the natural world into commodity for exchange.


One of the most complex links between Fen and ecofeminist theory lies in the process of the play's composition. As a Joint Stock production, Fen may be said to constitute a kind of creative “commons”—like a great deal of contemporary feminist drama, Fen was created in part collaboratively.9 Moreover, both on the page and in program notes, the play has been framed in such a way as to make the audience aware of the collective nature of its creation. Foregrounding of the production process has come to mark the practice of feminist theater for a variety of reasons. In much radical feminist theater, such gestures may invoke solidarity between audience and actors, and assert a new valuation of the work of women. More generally, the uncovering of the processes of production and performance, including the mutual construction of meaning by stage and audience, serves to expose and render non-natural the performance of gender. As we interrogate the significance of the gesture Fen makes in disclosing its process of production, however, we find a situation made more complex by Churchill's own self-conscious attempt to enact an alternative to the capitalist model of the production and ownership of aesthetic goods—an effort to construct in the aesthetic realm not simply a critique of the capitalist economy but a commons that somehow escapes it. A review of the remarkable process of bringing Fen into being may be helpful here.

Though the Joint Stock company was made up of a constantly changing membership, old hands tried to communicate the values of the group to newcomers, and these values had been shaped by the development and production of David Hare's Fanshen (1975), a play based on William Hinton's sympathetic study of communist land reform in a Chinese village during the 1940s. Joint Stock strove to incorporate democratic and collaborative methods into every stage of the productive process, though various members admitted that the directors still retained a degree of authority and the writers—after a collective workshop period—did retreat into privacy for nine weeks or so in order to produce the dramatic text, which would then be modified to varying degrees during rehearsal.10

While Churchill has produced other dramas by means of the company's characteristic process of isolated writing combined with collaborative research, rehearsal, and revision, she has commented that “Fen is the most documentary of the plays,”11 growing not merely from collaboration among company members, and the influence of Mary Chamberlain's oral history, Fen-women, but through a direct encounter with the people and the land. The company lived for two weeks in a cottage in Upwell, in the heart of the fens. Jennie Stoller, one of the actors, reports in The Joint Stock Book: “Unlike other workshops we did not go our separate ways at the end of the day so there was an added intensity to the work. We cooked together, read together, combed the village for people, stories, ideas, images—and fought like mad to get into the bathroom.” Four of the company spent a day fruit-picking for a local farmer.

As the company tried to organize its work on the model of the communal labor and collective decision-making in the communist village of Fanshen, it also attempted—at least in some degree—to write both from and for the experience of Upwell. Acting exercises included the movements of stoop labor; one of the actors reported she would never eat “crisps” again without thinking of the toil of potato growing. Although they could not perform Fen in Upwell because there was no suitable venue, when one of the villagers they had interviewed, a Mrs. Parrish, traveled to a nearby town with her husband to see the show, the company made certain to ask them what they thought of it. Mr. Parrish informed one of the actors that he had had his hoe the wrong way round. What's important here is not that the production fell short of accuracy in some minor details or that the actors strove to immerse themselves in the arduous experience of Upwell life, but rather that in the company's attempt to enact the rigors of agricultural labor there was a kind of ingenuous desire to elide the gap between production and artistic reproduction, between quotidian existence and representation. Yet at the same time Churchill's feminist socialism provides a frame in which such efforts, which risk being perceived as naive, become cannily ironized.

While Marxist theory taught us that the tangled processes of cultural production are always inscribed unconsciously in the literary text, Churchill deliberately marks the published text of her play with evidence of a collective creativity, eschewing artistic ownership—or what one might call the capitalist model of aesthetic production. Churchill's introduction to Plays: Two announces that “Fen is a play with more direct quotes of things people said to us than any other I've written”; five quotations from fenland villagers are used as epigraphs to the play-text; a note acknowledges the brilliant contribution of the set designer Annie Smart to the effect of the original production. It is this highly self-conscious effort to impose an alternative economy—a species of literary commons—upon the artistic process that generates much of Fen's instructive tension. For Churchill proposes, it would seem, to evade the inescapable, to make conscious the unconscious reproduction of ideology.

There are problems with Churchill's attempt to engage directly with material production both in the subject and the mode of creation of her play. Her rejection of Romantic notions of authorship and private artistic possession in favor of an aesthetic commons may in fact constitute a new leftist romanticization of the author. But more disturbingly, the classic Marxist critique that underlies Churchill's approach as well as Shiva's theory suggests that the relationship between literary “superstructure” and economic “base” is far more subtle and complex than this simple collective transformation may allow. By joining a company that organizes its aesthetic labor in such a fashion, and representing this as a means of transforming the nature of the relation between the literary artifact and its subject, Churchill implies that her collaborative creation can somehow establish a critical position detached from the unconscious, profoundly wedded, economic and cultural processes of her capitalist society. Churchill proposes a restructuring of the bond between aesthetic and material production characteristic of a familiar brand of feminist literary praxis, yet the very self-consciousness with which she pursues this identification between modes of production is potentially subversive of her effort. Churchill here struggles to accomplish a radical rethinking of the processes of ideology. Ironically, it may be her failure that is in the end of most interest, her effort to register the complex ecology of life producing aesthetic consciousness.

Churchill herself seems to acknowledge the difficulty of making overt the workings of the political unconscious. Some of her earlier works have taken for their subject precisely the inescapable and complicated relation of “base” to “superstructure.” (As Raymond Williams reminds us in Marxism and Literature, the metaphor of base and superstructure itself, suggesting the spatial separation of a structure laid atop a foundation, falsifies by dividing what is intrinsically bonded.) Not … not … not … not … not Enough Oxygen, a vision of the future in which the earth's ecosystem has been destroyed by pollution, incorporates within its dystopia the notion of nature technologized and aestheticized. Both science and art are part of the systems of control: oxygen is purchased and sprayed from a bottle when needed; a park provides a glimpse of the “natural” world like an exhibition in a museum. The After Dinner Joke explores in broad, satiric fashion the difficulties of a young woman trying to escape from participation in politics and business as usual. Though she has quit her job to work for an international relief organization, she finds that everything she does in the end contributes to the well-being of established governments and global capitalism. She rejoins her old firm with a valuable line added to her resume: “It's what I like to see, Miss Selby, a young person spending a year or two working for charity,” says her boss. “I'll be able to bring you in at the management level.”

One self-reflexive moment in Fen, in particular, invites a meditation on the complexities of the production of aesthetic consciousness. It is a moment that evokes the various and perhaps contradictory uses that her play might serve for different audiences—rural and urban, bourgeois and working class—as well as the subtlety and indirectness of the nevertheless indissoluble connections between material production, political and cultural institutions and activity, and consciousness. Angela, flirting unsuccessfully with Frank in the pub, complains that he is dull and flat like the fen landscape around them and announces that she wants to live “in the country.” When Frank asks, “What's this then?” she replies “I like more scenery. The Lake District's got scenery. We went there on our honeymoon. He said we were going to live in the country. I wouldn't have come. Real country is romantic. Away from it all. Makes you feel better.” This exchange alludes to a pastoral image of English rural life that Churchill is in the process of destroying for her mostly bourgeois audiences. The persistence of that aesthetic here among the fen dwellers she depicts reminds us that it is her art, her distanced perspective, not deep experience of the material “facts” of fen life, that destroys an ideal still held by some who live in the countryside; and that the art itself uneasily aspires both to express and transform the desires of a deeply divided culture. The moment discloses a disjunction between the material life of the fens and the creative process that Churchill elsewhere attempts to bind to it. In the end, such disjunctions evoke an absent solidarity, a perfect congruence between an ideal material and aesthetic production, a missing commons that escapes the systems of representation.

To return to Mr. Takai, the emblem for Churchill's uneasy and fascinating negotiations may well be this slightly embarrassing stereotype whose single speech yokes a paradigm of capitalist development, the historical memory of a lost commons, and—within the context of the businessman's own production of an aesthetic picturesque—a peculiarly self-conscious allusion to Churchill's creative method of gathering from the common mind of the people: “Now I find teashop, warm fire, old countryman to tell tales.”


  1. In “Introduction,” Churchill: Shorts (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), unnumbered. In the same introduction Churchill comments that Hospital “combined my interest in Fanon and in Laing.” Daniel Paul Schreber, who was a patient of Freud, wrote an account of his peculiar case—Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—on which Churchill's drama is based. Softcops, she recalls, was written in 1978, after reading Foucault's Surveiller et Punir. “It fitted so well with what I was thinking about that I abandoned the play I was groping towards and quickly wrote something that used Foucault's examples as well as his ideas.” In “Introduction,” Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1990), ix.

  2. Bertolt Brecht, “Theater for Pleasure or Theater for Instruction,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 71.

  3. Among many instances, see, for example, Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” The Drama Review 32.1 (1988): 82–94; Janelle Reinelt, “Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama,” Theatre Journal 38.2 (1986): 154–63; or Griselda Pollock's analysis of feminist film-making, “Screening the seventies: sexuality and representation in feminist practice—a Brechtian perspective,” in Vision and Difference (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 155–199.

  4. Vendana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (London: Zed Books, 1989), 3.

  5. Ibid., 53.

  6. In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, eds. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987), 78.

  7. Geraldine Cousin, Churchill the Playwright (London: Methuen, 1989), 47.

  8. Churchill has developed a language of the “Historical Unconscious,” Karl Toepfer argues in “From Imitation to Quotation,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5.2 (1991): 121–136.

  9. Lizbeth Goodman in her study of British feminist theater states that of the 98 groups responding to the Feminist Theatre Survey, 57 used collaborative work and 69 reported using some form of collective devising. She notes that these common working methods are in part the product of financial constraints, since few of such groups could consistently afford to commission scripts, and that “the ways in which these types of working practices intersect with feminist politics in any theatre group varies [sic] significantly, depending upon factors such as group composition and size, and sources and amounts of funding.” Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 88–89.

  10. For a detailed description of Fanshen and its impact, see Rob Ritchie, ed., The Joint Stock Book: the making of a theatre collective (London: Methuen, 1987), in particular the reminiscences of David Hare. It is worth noting that actors were not paid during the nine-week “writing gap,” as it was called, and this sometimes meant not only financial difficulties for them, but necessitated their departure from the company before the rest of the production process (rehearsal, revision, and commercial performance) could go forward. Clearly some important details of this collective artistic production had not been worked out.

  11. In interview with Emily Mann, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, eds. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987), 80. Later in the same interview she states that “the only documentary play I've done was a television play about Northern Ireland, about a trial in the Diplock Courts” (81). The apparent contradiction is easily explainable, I think, if one notes that “documentary” applied to Fen seems to be a loose description of a method of composition that took its inspiration from careful observation of a fenland community, but transmuted the raw material into fiction. She makes it clear that none of the characters was intended as a direct portrait of a particular individual—traits, comments, memories, and incidents derived from various people might contribute to one fictional personage; she says that the members of the Joint Stock company who gathered material in the fen village did not use tape recorders and the actors among them would act out impressions of people who had been interviewed. In contrast, The Legion Hall Bombing was created from actual transcripts from the Diplock courts, much condensed to be sure, and thus Churchill labels it her only documentary play—here using the term more strictly. For descriptions of the research methods used in developing Fen, see The Joint Stock Book, especially 150–152; Geraldine Cousin, Churchill the Playwright, 46–48; Cousin's interview with Churchill, “The Common Imagination and the Individual Voice,” New Theatre Quarterly 4.13 (February, 1988): 3–16; and Amelia Howe Kritzer, The Plays of Caryl Churchill (London: Macmillan, 1991), 150–151.

Maggie Gee (review date 2 May 1997)

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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; this month, her new “dance-opera,” with music by Orlando Gough and choreography by Ian Spink, has opened in Hanover and in London, performed by Second Stride.

Hotel consists of two loosely linked pieces, Eight Rooms and Two Nights.Eight Rooms is a light opera with choreographed movement; Two Nights concentrates more on dance and is much grimmer in tone; the same trio of musicians, piano duettists and double bass, play stage-left in both. Both pieces feature books—in the first, a work of ornithology, Birds As Individuals, in the second, a diary left behind in a hotel room—as isolated objects from which elaborate communal dreams can unfold, just as Churchill's texts are transformed by musical collaboration and performances.

In Eight Rooms, Churchill shows, as she did in Top Girls and Cloud Nine, her gift for inventing non-naturalistic techniques that are genuinely effective on stage. The eight imaginary hotel rooms, with their eight different sets of inhabitants, are superimposed on one literal space, the invisible boundaries between them made physically real to the audience by the carefully interwoven yet insulated actions of the performers, who are oblivious to any room but their own. Thanks to Ian Spink's beautifully paced direction and the stark elegance of Lucy Bevan's Mondrian-inspired set, this never becomes confusing. The cheerful, solitary businessman ritualistically phoning home (“big kiss, bye-bye”) is obviously a world away from the tortured, tender, adulterous lovers unable to sleep at his feet.

The action of Eight Rooms lasts from early evening until morning. Fifteen guests arrive—a robust, optimistic elderly French couple on holiday, two gay women not quite decided whether or not to make love, an American tourist vacuously happy about the view, a single woman lost in her bird book, an explosively drunk and quarrelsome man and woman in evening dress—to enact various small dramas of sexual love or strife or hope for tomorrow, subsiding at last into a night of fitful sleep and dream.

The opera succeeds because of its amalgam of imaginative freedom and minute realism. Bold coups de théâtre, like the decision to make everyone stand on the furniture to sing their dreams, are underpinned by countless believable details of grooming, tooth-brushing, washing, and so on. Men shuffle about “unobserved” with genitals dangling under their shirts; a silver-frocked, champagne-swilling woman persistently spoils the effect by scratching her buttock.

Thus exposed, these people are comic and touching in their littleness. Their isolation is both emphasized and transcended by the communal staging of their separate dramas. Strangers echo each other or briefly sing together, in ignorance of each other's existence but brought closer for a second by the same small currents of loneliness or love, fear or boredom. The predominant mood is one of swift, affectionate light comedy, and the sour-sweet jazz score is pleasantly memorable—a distant relative of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Into this pool of dreamy swimmers, a cold pebble falls with the little death of the early hours. A “Ghost,” sung with perplexed intentness by Angela Elliott, wanders among the sleepers, unsure of who she is, beginning the long process of forgetting why she clings to the living: “I've been dead so long / I've forgotten why / I've not gone away. …” Elliott has a powerfully disturbing, Lotte Lenya-esque presence, and the chilly intrusion of mortality into the amnesiac shallows of life is deeply affecting.

Two Nights is shorter, but seems longer. The company sing, this time in unison, to keening, Messiaen-influenced music, the contents of an abandoned diary, while a male and female dancer portray various kinds of self-destruction: slashed wrists, a gun, pills, sexual humiliation. Churchill says she found some of the narrative elements by trawling the Internet, and the end result is cryptic and unfocussed, despite a strong performance from Mike Poole. Orlando Gough describes Two Nights as “a companion for Eight Rooms—not necessarily a friend.” In fact, Eight Rooms could perfectly well stand alone. It is a small classic which opens up new possibilities for the musical.

Elaine Aston (essay date 1997)

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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 ideas.1 Additionally, she also acknowledges her debt to group work, with companies such as Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock, as detailed in the previous two chapters, and to directors, designers, and so on, who have collaborated with her in the theatrical process.

Research and the sharing of ideas underpin the three plays studied in this chapter in a special kind of way: they are all projects which involved Churchill, and the company she was working with, in oral research with particular communities. The first of these, Fen (1983), was researched by Joint Stock out in a remote East Anglian fen village. Serious Money (1987) took Churchill and actors from the Royal Court into London's world of high finance, and Mad Forest (1990) involved her and students from the Central School of Speech and Drama in a field-trip to Romania to grapple with political upheaval in Eastern Europe. All three projects relied on meeting with and engaging in dialogue with people involved in each community, whether in East Anglia, London, or Bucharest.


In 1983, the year of Fen's production, Mary Chamberlain published a revised edition of her collection of interviews, Fenwomen, which documents the experiences of girlhood, schooling, marriage, work, religion, politics, recreation and ageing of women in a Fen village.2 Churchill acknowledges her debt to this study (from which she took quotations for the “Girls' Song” in Scene Seven),3 but, like Chamberlain, she and Joint Stock, also conducted their own oral research. Through talking to people, the actors learned about the lives, the work, and the history of the Fen community. As Chamberlain explains, researching orally in this way, the representation of “people's words and memories” are “not the silent labours of a solitary archivist, but the result of a dialogue.”4 Moreover, she argues that researching oral history “offers the possibility of creating a democratic history in that it offers the means of expression for the past of the ‘common people’ and offers a participation in that process.”5Fen is “the result of a dialogue” with a community, and, arguably, demonstrates Churchill using theatre to stage “democratic history,” as she did in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

Churchill has described Fen as the “most documentary” of her Joint Stock projects,6 noting that “Fen is a play with more direct quotes of things people said to us than any other I've written” ([Plays: Two, hereafter cited as P2] ix). During the period of research, the actors would not record or write down what people said to them, but would go back to the company to present a person they had met to the group.7 Out of this material Churchill devised a cast of twenty-two characters originally shared between a company of six performers. Reviewing the production, Michelene Wandor criticized the researching and workshopping method for the way in which it was “reflected in the structure of the piece—a large number of characters representing as many different types of people as can be crammed in.”8 However, like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire or Vinegar Tom, as a representation of “democratic history” the emphasis in Fen is on the portrait of a collective rather than the individual; on the representation of a community of ordinary, oppressed people.

The community in Fen is largely, although not exclusively, represented by different generations of women who are shown working the land and looking after their homes and children. It is portrayed as a never-ending cycle of drudgery and oppression, passed on from generation to generation; from mothers to daughters. The monotony of the work cycle is imaged in Scene Two, for example, which shows the women working out in a potato field. Churchill's directions state that they work “in a row … When their buckets are full they tip the potatoes into a potato grave at the top of the field” (P2 148). The young women in the community may have their aspirations, as Churchill represents in the lyrics of the “Girls' Song,” but ultimately their dreams do not take them beyond the village which binds them to harsh work on the land, early marriages and child-rearing: “I want to be a nurse when I grow up / And I want to have children and get married. / But I don't think I'll leave the village when I grow up” (P2 157). The future for them, as for Angie in Top Girls, is “frightening.” It is through the theatricalization of the ordinary lives of the Fenwomen that the documentary style which Churchill argues for Fen is clearly illustrated. Compare Churchill's dramatic documentation, for example, with this brief extract from a factual account of “Everyday Life of the Fen”:

One of the factors is inherent to the fens and it is an attitude of fear; “better not step out of line or the employer will have me out.” This is obviously the result of many years hard work and exploitation. Also the fens are very much closed village communities with little opportunity for employment. Even if the girl does receive a decent education and is encouraged to take it seriously there will be very limited job opportunities at the end of it. Therefore the only way to get a good job is to move out of the area and again the fen attitude tends to want not to leave their home village and family.9

The cycle of oppression is reinforced in Fen by the central figure of Val, who attempts but fails to resist her social destiny. She tries to escape to London with her two daughters and her lover, Frank, but stays tied to the village, recognizing that they do not have the work skills to survive in the city. In order to be with Frank, Val has to give up her daughters. Scene Four, which shows her leaving the children, undercuts the transitory moment of happiness in a wordless Scene Five, in which Val and Frank are seen dancing together: “Old-fashioned, formal, romantic, happy” (P2 153). Romance was not something which, as Mary Chamberlain's research revealed, Fenwomen experienced as part of their lives:

Romance and glamour—the opium of women—had, they felt, passed the fen by. For life on the land is neither romantic nor glamorous. Just hard work, in uncompromising weather, in rough old working clothes padded out with newspaper against the wind. Small chance to catch a young man's fancy. Marriage for convenience or marriage to conform, particularly for the older women. Then back to the soil. Land worker, home servicer.10

When Val is shunned by her community for leaving her children in pursuit of romance and happiness, she takes refuge in religion, which turns out to be a farcical sham of sisterly bonding and comfort, and, ultimately, finding that she can neither live with Frank without her children, nor be with her children without Frank, she invites her lover to kill her as the only means of escaping.

Each time Val turns to women in her family or in her community of friends for help, they preach acceptance rather than resistance. As Shirley, a field-worker and fifty-year-old grandmother counsels, “You've too much time on your hands. You start thinking. Can't think when you're working in the field can you?” (P2 168). Women like Val, who want to change the oppressive patterning of their lives are seen as deviant, are represented as misfits by their community. Nell, for example, who is one of the few women to protest her rights as a worker (P2 150, 180), is taunted by the village girls for her “morphrodite” body (P2 155), and Shirley's rebellious granddaughter Sukey is singled out for comment because of her green hair. Val argues, “Sukey's a freak round here but if she went to a city she wouldn't be, not so much,” adding, “And I wouldn't” (P2 168).

Val, who doubles with the ghost of a nineteenth-century mother and farm-worker whose “baby died starving” (P2 163), and the generations of women dramatized alongside her, represent the silenced history of the Fenwomen. As one reviewer explained, “the mothers, daughters and granddaughters whose voices the play amplifies serve as a Greek chorus for a hitherto silent pageant of female emotion.”11 The focus on the women as representative of the Fen community is significant because it is the women who are doubly oppressed, by their class and by their gender. The ties that bind them to the village, as Val discovers, are financial as well as familial. The double oppression of work and domesticity was visually represented in the set for the original production, for which designer Annie Smart created a field as the “floor” to both exterior and interior scenes. The presence of the flat, bleak, landscape of the fens further served as a visual counterpoint to the linguistic register of dreams, romance, and story-telling which the women use as a means of “escape,” illustrated, for example, in Angela's dream of living in the “romantic” rural landscape of the Lake District (P2 181), or Nell's diversionary tale of passion and murder (which prefigures Val's “murder”), narrated while the women pack onions into boxes (Scene Ten).

Class and gender oppression are also encoded in the ensemble style of playing which Churchill's text invites. The one male performer in the original Joint Stock production, who was assigned four character roles, had to play both the oppressed farm-worker and the landowning farmer, thereby marking the discourse of oppressor and oppressed on and through his body. This is highlighted in Scene Three when the actor playing Frank mimes working on a tractor as he carries on a dialogue with Tewson, the farmer: Frank argues in favour of higher wages, while the farmer argues against him. The split-subject dialogue is visually underlined in the gestural encoding of oppressor and oppressed as Frank hits Tewson, that is, “he hits himself across the face” (P2 151). Similarly, Scene Six stages an oppressor and oppressed relationship between a stepmother, Angela, and her stepdaughter, Becky. The violent nature of their relationship is gesturally represented by Angela forcing Becky to drink a cup of very hot water, while Angela taunts Becky about her absent, dead mother. The absence of the real mother, who signifies comfort and security, and the reality of the stepmother, who represents violence and danger, are gesturally marked in the dual movement from “good” to “bad” mother at the close of the scene, as “Angela strokes Becky's hair then yanks it” (P2 154).

A feel for the violence in the Fen community, and a history of violence in the Fens, such as the nineteenth-century food riots, came out of the oral research. Churchill noted that discontent in the community was the kind that turned itself into aimless violence, rather than being channelled in a political direction.12Fen illustrates the little impact which the political activities of the union, past and present, have had in improving the lives of ordinary workers. The recollections of Fenwoman Ivy on her ninetieth birthday narrate the generations of landowners in the Tewson family who intimidated the workers to try and prevent them joining the unions:

Fellow come round on his bike and made his speech in the empty street and everybody'd be in the house listening because they daren't go out because what old Tewson might say. “Vote for the blues, boys,” he'd say and he'd give them money to drink. They'd pull off the blue ribbons behind the hedge. Still have the drink though.

(P2 177–8)

In the present, scenes of the women working the fields for a nineteenth-century style of gangmaster, empowered to hire, fire and set the level of wages, demonstrate their exploitation and lack of job security or employment rights (Scenes Two and Twelve). By making the gangmaster a woman, Churchill demonstrates, as she does in Top Girls, that it is not just men who abuse women from a position of power. Exploitation is further underlined by the juxtaposition of, for example, Scene Two with Scene One which opens with a Japanese Businessman assigned a monologue detailing the history of capitalist investors in the fens. In the present, landowners like Tewson, selling out to city investors because of taxes on the land (see Scene Nine), perpetuate the history of the capitalist cycle of exploiters and exploited.

Val's “murder” at the close of the play marks a shift in register from sparse realism to a surreal discourse which links past and present suffering in a resistant vision of fen misery. Angela, who inflicts pain on Becky to anaesthetise her own misery is made to feel her own pain. Nell is seen striding out on stilts like her ancestors who rebelled against the draining of the Fens. Shirley, whose class and gender oppression is imaged in the sight of her ironing the field, remembers what it feels like to be unhappy. The boy from the last century who scares the crows crosses the landscape. Finally, Val's mother May, who would never sing because she could never fulfil her dream of becoming a singer, sings. This is not a utopian realization of her dream, but a recognition of missed opportunity, signalled in the closing Brechtian Gestus of May “stand[ing] as if singing,” as the spectator hears “what she would have liked to sing,” in the form, as Churchill notes for the original production, of “a short piece of opera on tape” (P2 145) The dislocation between the voice of the singer and the recorded song signifies the gap between harsh social reality and beautiful dream.


While Fen focused on the rural working-class community in East Anglia, Serious Money looked at the rise of working-class money-makers in London's changing world of high finance. To research the project, Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark and performers from the Court “made daily observational forays to the trading floors and dealing rooms of the City,” and, as with Fen, the performers “then re-enacted their experiences … in an attempt to create a ‘work-study’ of a community.”13 This introduced them to the changing practices of the Stock Exchange, engaged them in dialogue with the new “barrow boy” traders, and taught them the new language of “serious moneyspeak,” “the current City slang.”14 As actress Linda Bassett commented, they met people, most of whom seemed to be aged about 23, who were earning between £40,000 and £50,000, when the performers were, at that time, working for a wage of about £130 a week.15 After the workshopping in the autumn of 1986, Churchill took the research away, spent several months engrossed in the Financial Times, before rehearsals and, finally, in March 1987, the production of her “City comedy” took place. Unlike Fen's sympathetic portrait of an oppressed community, Serious Money emerged as a satirical critique of the greed and corruption driving the London money markets, and, by implication and association, the Conservative government.

Serious Money is a complex and amoral web of wheeling and (insider) dealing, where the money-makers sacrifice relatives, family, friends, and relationships to make a profit. The dramatic narrative is woven out of two criss-crossing threads: the death (murder?) of commercial paper dealer Jake Todd, and the bid by Billy Corman to take over the company Albion Products. Solving the enigma of Jake's death is the task of his sister Scilla, a LIFFE (London International Financial Futures Exchange) dealer, but she quickly becomes more interested in finding out about how Jake was making enormous sums of “serious money,” and, most importantly, where his money is being held, so that she can claim it for herself. Ultimately the precise cause of Jake's death remains unsolved—although the involvement of the British government, MI5, or the CIA, is hinted at (P2 305).

Scilla's investigative drive connects the Albion bid to Jake as she retraces his life through his diary, which contains not events (there's no time for socializing unless business combines with pleasure), but commercial contacts. Through the banker Zackerman (Zac), who supports Corman's bid for Albion, she gets to Corman, and, finally, to the American arbitrageur (a money market speculator), MaryLou Baines. It is Jake's trading in information, enabling speculators like Baines to make their money, which has aroused the suspicions of the DTI—helped by a “phonecall from an embittered, old-fashioned stock exchange dealer, who is disillusioned with current trading ‘standards.” The DTI investigation is, possibly, connected in some way with Jake's death, which, in turn, makes the transatlantic money markets reverberate with fear. As Zac describes, Jake is “the kind of loose thread” that could make “the whole fucking city … unravel” (P2 256). (The same kind of fears arose in the 1990s when Nick Leeson's trading bankrupted Barings Bank and made the international money markets nervous.)

The action is condensed into the immediate aftermath of Jake's death, but mixing past and present is realized through flashback sequences, held together by Zac who functions as a narrative linking-device. Theatrically this demonstrates the corrupt money-making practices before and after the Big Bang deregulation of the Stock Exchange. As one critic described it, “we are in a predatory world where the clubby corruption of the old City is being replaced by the wolfish greed of the deregulated Eighties.”16 Moreover, Churchill opens her play with a scene from Thomas Shadwell's The Volunteers, or The Stock-Jobbers. The imaging of late-seventeenth-century trading among the mercantile classes, seeking to “turn the penny in the way of stockjobbing” (P2 196), provides a historical example which underscores Churchill's critique of capitalism. As Janelle Reinelt summarizes “the play's foundation, then, is the Brechtian historicization of finance.”17

Scilla and Jake are central not only to the dramatic organization of Serious Money, where Jake functions as an enigma and Scilla as investigator, but also to the play's class confrontation between the old boy network and the emergence of the “barrow boys” in the money markets. Brother and sister are marked by the discourses of both classes: by their property-owning, middle-to-upper-class family, and the class of “new market makers.” Jake is described by the uneducated dealer Grimes, who has one CSE in metalwork (P2 207), as “the only public schoolboy what can really deal,” which Jake claims is “because I didn't go to university and learn to think twice” (P2 205).

As a woman, Scilla has twice offended her familial class: firstly, by going out to work, and, secondly, by going to work without “being part of an old boy network” (P2 281). The warring class discourses are gesturally encoded in Scilla's dialogue precisely because she is a woman engaging in masculine power-and language-play. When, for example, Scilla insists that Zac call MaryLou Baines, so that she can finally make contact with the American speculator with a view to getting her hands on her brother's money, his surprise that she is not the “English rose” he thought she was, is met with, “go stick the thorns up your nose, bozo” (P2 295–6). And, when Scilla finally meets with MaryLou, she describes herself as a ruthless combination of having the “cunning and connections of the middle class,” while being as “tough as a yob” (P2 305). As the LIFFE scenes at the close of Act One illustrate, women like Scilla who join the money-makers work in a sexist profession, and surviving means speaking the same language. The women use the same “yob” language about the men as the men do about the women:

Do you call him Dick because he's got spots?
No, I call him Spot because he's a dick.

(P2 24)

The power-play between the “old boys” and the new “barrow boys” is linguistically marked throughout the play. When, for example, the chairman of Albion (England) is under threat from Corman's take-over bid, the “white knight” (someone who comes to the rescue of a company facing a hostile take-over bid) constructs an image of the company as a “good old English firm.” In an Arthurian discourse of knights rescuing maidens from villains, Albion (England) is positioned as the maiden and potential rape victim of the villain, Corman (P2 235). (The artifice of this strategy is, however, immediately exposed by the white knight's switch from Arthurian imagery to his pragmatic “we can talk about closing Scunthorpe later,” P2 235.)

Corman also represents the take-over bid as a sexual act, but not in Arthurian terms, rather as a rapacious act of “screwing.” “Sexy greedy is the late eighties,” argues the PR consultant trying to construct an image for Corman in his fight for Albion (P2 287). Screw others before they screw you is the ethos of the deregulated 1980s, and “moneyspeak” is a language trading in sexual obscenities. To make money is, as Ian Dury's lyrics to the song which brings Act One to a close state, to “do the fucking business” (P2 253). Moreover, “Do[ing] the fucking business” leaves no time for the “business of fucking,” as comically illustrated in the inability of Zac and Jacinta Condor (a Peruvian business woman) in the second act, to find a “window” for pleasure (sex).

Traders no longer buy and sell products, but deal in one commodity: money. As Scilla explains in a direct address to the audience: “You can buy and sell money, you can buy and sell absence of / money, debt, which used to strike me as funny” (P2 244). For economically deprived countries, the act of trading or speaking money is also an act of colonization as Western money markets profit at the expense of the Third World economy. Churchill demonstrates this in the representation of Jacinta, who is both colonized and colonizer. Coming from Peru, she belongs to a country of the oppressed, but money empowers her to colonize by trading in and with the West at the expense of her own nation. As her accomplice, Nigel Abjibala, states: “One thing one learned from one's colonial masters, / One makes money from other people's disasters” (P2 261). When researching the City, Churchill described how “one of the actors … from St. Kitts, was astonished to see that the price of sugar, so important to his country's economy, was determined by what happened in a small room between a few listless young men.” She added, “that was one of the moments when we could connect what we saw in the City with the world outside.”18

Moreover, the colonizing impulse may be read as underpinning the ethos of the corrupt international money markets. Churchill resists any suggestion that the displaced old boys network was somehow morally better than the thoroughly amoral class of new marketeers. All of the characters in her dramatization of the world of high finance are dissolute and espouse the creed of “do others before they can do you” (P2 305). It is the spectator who is positioned as the only potentially moral agent in the performance frame; who is invited through the Brechtian mode of address to cast a critical eye over the world of high finance.

However, reviewers noted that “despite her [Churchill's] stern intentions, she makes the buccaneering atmosphere of the City seem rather attractive.”19 Peter Lewis, commenting on the audiences at the Royal Court production, observed that “at least two City firms booked the entire theatre to take their staff on a kind of Yuppie works outing.”20 After the transfer to Wyndham's, Jeremy Kingston noted that “the show's popularity among exactly the people it set out to condemn is one of its more intriguing features,” adding that it was “rather as though coachloads of Venetian Jews had driven up to applaud Mr Shakespeare's play about a vengeful Jewish usurer.”21 Reported comments from City spectators seemed to indicate that they found it “very true to life.”22 In short, the verve of Churchill's writing combined with the high-energy mode of Joint Stock's physical performance style of ensemble playing enabled the spectator to experience the adrenalin, but not always, it would appear, her satirical view of the money market.

Drama scholar Ruby Cohn, while praising the “demonic energy” of Serious Money, blames this failing on Churchill's use of verse, arguing that she finds the play “hard … to take seriously as satire,” because “the energetic rhymes pound home the repetitive quality of corruption, unredeemed by any direct or honest statement.”23 However, this overlooks the way in which Churchill's satirical purpose is clearly signalled in her verse, which she creates out of City slang and obscene “moneyspeak,” alien to the non-City spectator. The programme for the Wyndham's production, for example, included explanations of City scandals and glossaries of the City slang. While those inside the markets may easily read the signs encoded in the different coloured blazers (uniforms) of the traders and understand the language of “moneyspeak,” the non-City spectator is alienated by visual and linguistic sign-systems; is positioned as “outsider,” as critical observer.

Rather, audience reactions to Serious Money demonstrate that the dramatist—like the semiotician Pierre in Softcops—cannot “fix” meaning or determine audience response. It further references the complex role of the spectator in the reception process; the spectator as active and acting participant in the production of meaning. If the spectator shares in the ethos of greed and corruption encoded in the performance text, she/he may engage in the pleasure of identification, refusing to “see” the signs which position her or him as the satirical subject. For example, Ian Dury's second song which closes the play, “Five More Glorious Years,” critiques the 1987 Conservative re-election, heralding a possible further five years of greed and corruption. But the critique may not be “heard” by those for whom Thatcher's re-election was a cause for celebration; who delighted in the prospect of being “pissed and promiscuous,” earning “ridiculous” money for another five years (P2 308). Ironically, however, if Churchill's socialist critique was overturned in one way, it was served in another: the pleasuring of right-wing City audiences helped to make “serious money” for left-wing theatre.24


Political systems of power and oppression constitute a dominant motif in Mad Forest, Churchill's dramatization of the 1989 Romanian revolution. Having worked with Churchill for Joint Stock, the then artistic director of Central, Mark Wing-Davey, proposed a Joint Stock Style of workshopping for this East European project. This resulted in taking British drama students out to Bucharest to stay with the families of Romanian students with whom they worked and researched. Again, much of the research for Mad Forest was conducted out on the street, talking to ordinary Romanian people.25 For Churchill, taking students out to Romania to research this project was a way of “working away from the mainstream” with young people who were “the same age as the people who made the revolution.”26

The research trip to Romania took place just a few months after the fall of Ceausescu in December 1989, and therefore at a moment of post-revolutionary chaos as Romanian citizens were trying to take stock of what had happened and what the future held for them. While Churchill worked on Mad Forest for its production in June 1990, Romania was struggling to come to terms with the election of Illiescu and the National Salvation Front, associated with the old Ceausescu regime, and, as the play opened, students were again being subjected to violence as miners in Bucharest were brought in to crush anti-Front protesters. Some reviewers were critical of Mad Forest for failing to tackle this latest twist in events, although it is difficult to see how theatre can keep pace with the real life drama of events. Reviewer Benedict Nightingale offered a practical piece of advice: “Churchill should keep Mad Forest in her word-processor, ready to up-date, revise. It could become one of her most striking plays.”27

Nightingale also had praise for the way in which the “unfinished feel” of Mad Forest succeeded in capturing the real-life chaos of revolution and history in the making. The “unfinished feel” is created through the dramatization of fragments from the lives of ordinary people—orally researched by the cast—from before, during and after the revolution. Two weddings frame this three-part structure, situated either side of the second, middle section which represents the revolution of December 1989. The first and third sections trace the lives of two families, one working class (the Vladu family) and one middle class (the Antonescu family), and the ways in which their lives are conditioned by the oppressive Ceausescu regime and post-liberation disorder. The Vladu family are especially affected in the opening section by the marriage of their daughter Lucia, to an American—a “betrayal” which places the whole family under the surveillance of the secret police. Further tensions arise from this wedding, which concludes the first section, as it makes it difficult for the cross-class marriage between Lucia's sister Florina, and Radu, from the Antonescu family, to take place. The revolution is what makes the second wedding possible.

Where Serious Money uses the City language of “moneyspeak” to drive the action on, Mad Forest shows people afraid to communicate, to act through speaking In Part One, revolution can only be whispered in meat-buying queues ([Mad Forest, hereafter cited as MF] 17), or joked about in low voices among trusted friends (MF 20–21). As people are afraid of how their own words might be used against them, familial conversation is either silenced or conducted only when the radio is turned up loud (MF 13). Bogdan's protest over the prospect of his daughter marrying an American is enacted visually rather than verbally: he smashes one of four eggs which Lucia offers to her family with her American cigarettes (MF 13). (The egg is quickly salvaged by Bogdan's wife, Irina. It is too precious to waste.) Public speech is reserved for the praise of Ceausescu, as illustrated in the teacher, Flavia Antonescu, addressing her pupils in a monologue on the merits of the president (MF 16). Privately, however, a dialogue between Flavia and her dead grandmother, reveals the numbness she feels at living a lie; living a life that “nobody's living” (MF 26). That Flavia's thoughts and feelings are shared with a figure who is already dead underlines the risks of speaking openly with the living. Similarly, a priest, seeking comfort from the danger of talking, holds a conversation with an Angel:

This is so sweet, like looking at the colour blue, like looking at the sky when you're a child lying on your back, you stare out at the blue but you're going in, further and further in away from the world, that's what it's like knowing I can talk to you. Someone says something, you say something back, you're called to a police station, that happened to my brother. So it's not safe to go out to people and when you can't go out sometimes you find you can't go in, I'm afraid to go inside myself, perhaps there's nothing there, I just keep still. But I can talk to you, no one's ever known an angel work for the Securitate.

(MF 21)

The gap or contradiction between what is said and what is unspoken is demonstrated in a scene in which Lucia asks a doctor for an abortion. The dialogue involves Lucia making her request and the doctor refusing her request, but, at the same time, they carry on a silent exchange of words (on paper) during which the abortion is agreed to and paid for:

There is no abortion in Romania. I am shocked that you even think of it. I am appalled that you dare suggest I might commit this crime.
Yes, I'm sorry.
Lucia gives the doctor an envelope thick with money and some more money.
Can you get married?
Good. Get married.
The Doctor writes again, Lucia nods.
I can do nothing for you. Goodbye.
Lucia smiles. She makes her face serious again.

(MF 19)

As Janelle Reinelt explains, “these different Brechtian gests of talking (or not) enable the relationship between communication and ideology to become visible.”28

The Brechtian style of Mad Forest is structurally encoded in the three-part montage of scenes, captioned with titles announced in Romanian and English. As Churchill instructs that a performer reads these titles in the manner of an English tourist using a Romanian phrase book (MF 13), the difficulty of expression is again underlined. In Part Two, one is forcefully reminded of Brecht's revolutionary street scene in The Mother. Here, using a technique which recalls the multiple role-switching in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which Churchill used to portray the chaos of a (potentially) revolutionary moment, the performers break with their character roles from Part One to represent different Romanian citizens caught up in the December upheaval from “order” to “unorder.” The performers were instructed for this section to play their parts in the manner of Romanians speaking with English accents. This technique gave “a startlingly vivid sense of real events being recalled in the immediate aftermath.”29 In contrast to Part One, where language has lost its performative function, in Part Two, the revolution is performed through speaking. This was underlined by keeping the performers physically still on stage, posed “as if for a group photograph,” rather than using the revolutionary section of the play as “an obvious chance for characters to rush around the stage waving flags with holes cut out of them.”30

A surreal scene between a vampire and a dog opens the third part, imaging Romania as the poor, starving, ownerless, dog, missing the hated master and looking to the Vampire as a new blood-sucking owner. As the revolution releases the Romanian citizens into speech, confusion and tensions begin to surface. Parents and children are divided over support of new political parties, specifically over whether to be pro- or anti-Front, and racism towards the Hungarians is a source of heated familial debate. Where Lucia created tension in Part One through her marriage to an American, she causes upset in Part Three through the renewal of her relationship with a Hungarian lover. New political “freedoms” bring new oppressions as citizens like Flavia, who kept their jobs under the old regime, now find their positions at risk. In the hospital where Gabriel Vladu, treated as a wounded hero of the revolution, recuperates, a disorientated patient, representative of post-revolution confusion, wanders the wards asking what had really happened: “Did we have a revolution or a putsch?” (MF 50)—a line which was greeted with applause when the play was performed in Bucharest.31

The re-enactment of the revolution is a theatrical device which Churchill uses in Part Three to dramatize the questions and uncertainties which the Romanians need to express. The wedding couple, Florina and Radu, role-play the execution of the Ceausescus, a sequence which releases hatred, sexism and racism (MF 68–71). The wedding, which Flavia compares to the revolution where “everyone laughs and cries” and goes “back behind their masks” (MF 74), re-enacts the before, during and after moments of the revolution, as the polite, public “masks” are shattered by outbreaks of verbal and physical violence, followed by a silent dance—a ritualized moment of enforced social harmony, which gives way to a renewed linguistic outbreak (in Romanian) of political and social discontents. Churchill uses the high-energy technique of overlapping voices, as she did in Serious Money, to demonstrate the passionate and violent release into “freedom” which the revolution brings. She assigns the final lines of Mad Forest to the figure of the blood-sucking Vampire who haunts the wedding dance, and instructs that his last few words should be heard alone: “You begin to want blood. Your limbs ache, your head burns, you have to keep moving faster and faster” (MF 87).

Post-revolutionary “freedom” offers new possibilities, but like the post-murder release of pain and suffering in Fen, or the post-election chorus of “five fucking morious” years of Tory corruption in Serious Money, the future for the Romanian people, trying to find their way through the “Mad (political) Forest” is also “frightening.”


  1. See Select Bibliography, “Source material for plays,” for details of sources relating to certain of the plays studied in this volume.

  2. Mary Chamberlain, Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village (1975; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).

  3. See Chamberlain, 112–14.

  4. Ibid., 3.

  5. Ibid., 2–3.

  6. Omnibus, BBC1, November 1988.

  7. Explained by the director of Fen, Les Waters, ibid.

  8. Plays and Players, October 1983, 39–40; 40.

  9. Liz Bale, “Everyday Life,” Spare Rib, July 1984, 50–3; 52.

  10. Chamberlain, 11–12.

  11. Beverly Hayne, Sunday Times Magazine, 24 July 1983, 31.

  12. Omnibus, BBC1, November 1988.

  13. Peter Lewis, The Times, 30 June 1987, 9.

  14. Explained in the programme notes for the West End, Wyndham's production.

  15. The Times, 30 June 1987, 9.

  16. John Peter, Sunday Times, 29 March 1987, 51.

  17. Janelle Reinelt, After Brecht, 97.

  18. Churchill, “Driven by Greed and Fear,” New Statesman, 17 July 1987, 10–11; 10.

  19. Clare Colvin, Plays and Players, May 1987, 14.

  20. The Times, 30 June 1987, 9.

  21. The Times, 7 July 1987, 18.

  22. The Times, 30 June 1987, 9.

  23. Ruby Cohn, Retreats from Realism in Recent English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 91.

  24. Serious Money made £14,000 a week for the Royal Court, which generated the funds for the West End transfer to Wyndham's. See The Times, 30 June 1987, 9. It is Cloud Nine, however, which is reported to be Churchill's “biggest earner.” See Claire Armistead, “Tale of the Unexpected,” Guardian, Section 2, Arts, 12 January 1994, 4–5; 5.

  25. Details explained by Reva Klein in Times Education Supplement, 29 June 1990, 35.

  26. Jim Hiley interview, The Times, 10 October 1990, 25

  27. The Times, 26 June 1990, 18.

  28. Janelle Reinelt, After Brecht, 103.

  29. Jeremy Kingston, The Times, 11 October 1990, 26.

  30. Ibid.

  31. The Times, 10 October 1990, 25.

Matt Wolf (review date February 1999)

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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 Stafford-Clark, perhaps it's time once more to pay tribute to a playwright—60 this year—who in her own quiet way continues to speak volumes about the ways in which theatre boundaries exist to be pushed, stretched, tantalizingly redefined.

“I always felt she's a true poet, so that she writes from her unconscious, from somewhere deep,” says actor Linda Bassett, who appeared in both the original London and New York companies of Fen and Serious Money. “Even though she's terribly clever, of course, and shapes it all with her brain, it comes up from somewhere else.”

In Britain, where Churchill remains the playwright's playwright (and, perhaps, the actor's playwright as well), she does not command the public profile of, say, David Hare, who is now penning political threnodies (Via Dolorosa) for himself to appear in, and as of April will have had four plays on Broadway in the last 13 months; or Tom Stoppard—a likely Academy Award nominee for his screenplay (with Marc Norman) Shakespeare in Love—who, back in the realm of theatre, continues to feed the National and the West End, currently with The Invention of Love.

Churchill, by contrast, shuns the spotlight with the same avidity with which she refuses to write for the marketplace. (At a rare public Q&A several years back at the National's Cottesloe theatre, during the London run of her Joycean fairy-tale fantasia, The Skriker, Churchill sat away from the microphone, as if willing herself not to be heard.) “I'm not inclined with any of my plays to say, ‘This is about that,’” she told me before the play opened at New York's Public Theatre in May 1996. “Plays are about the whole event that they are.” So perhaps it's appropriate that Churchill's writing almost always constitutes its own quietly charged event.

That writing, it must be said, doesn't necessarily come flooding forth, though even a Churchill miniature is more provocative than most writers' full-tilt efforts. The high point of the last London International Festival of Theatre two summers ago was a 35-minute Churchill piece, This Is a Chair, performed with the audience seated on the Royal Court stage and the performers (Amanda Plummer included) scattered around the house. The text carried through with its own inversions: though projected headlines screamed topics like “The Impact of Capitalism on the Former Soviet Union,” the scenes themselves dealt with domestic crises—a gay squabble, the eating disorder of a daughter plagued by a glowering, threatening father. History may go its momentous way, the play teasingly suggested, but so, less portentously, do our daily lives, where flare-ups and familial spasms contain their own momentousness.

“Lots of people ask, ‘Caryl, why isn't she writing more?’” says Mark Wing-Davey, who directed the New York premieres of both The Skriker and, in 1991, Churchill's play about Ceausescu-era Romania, Mad Forest. “But she's not a 10,000-word-a-day person.” The further truth may be that while Churchill has arguably done as much as any writer since Beckett (one of her avowed heroes) to shift the parameters of what is permissible on stage, there's no sense of her wanting to add to or perpetuate a so-called career. “She doesn't have a sense of herself as an author in some canon in English literature,” says Wing-Davey, who has known the playwright some 25 years. “It's more egalitarian than that. She is a writer, and that has enabled her to have a sense of self—it's not the most important thing every day of her life.”

Indeed, word has it that Blue Heart arose in part out of a sense of the futility of writing, although the dramatist has so far kept characteristically mum about the one-acts' origins. If that is true—if some awareness of the futility of language fueled what she has called “just talking plays”—there's a marvelous irony to the vigor and daring of the plays' own language. Factor in the point that the evening's second half, Blue Kettle, itself concerns the breakdown of language—words and letters as a sort of virus that by play's end have made a mockery of meaning—and you have a play that works as a literal gesture of deconstruction in order to arrive at a startling, theatrically stirring whole.

In lesser hands, Blue Heart could simply be a sustained conceit, not the remarkably moving experiments in form that both plays represent. In outline, Heart's Desire sounds like an Ayckbourn-esque caprice: Husband, wife and the husband's sister await the arrival from Australia of the couple's daughter, Susy, in a stop-and-start scenario that keeps winding back on itself as alternate outcomes develop of who or what may show up at the door (a Muppet-like ostrich appears at one point, as do some unnamed assassins). The pixillated structure allows for the replay of numerous lines and scenes, each of which takes on a different texture as the various interruptions and repetitions accumulate.

The play is fun and funny, to be sure, but in formal terms it's an absurdist gavotte, and, accordingly, comes steeped in a chill that Beckett or Ionesco (not to mention Ayckbourn) would well understand. (In the meantime, the husband's fantasy of gobbling himself whole—“My big mouth turns round and, ahh, there goes my head into my mouth”—is at least as grimly fantastical as anything in The Skriker.) How surprising is it that by the finish, it's not Susy who's running late but something far grimmer—the mother of all visitors, whether late or early, death.

Blue Kettle's audacity is no less assured. Forty-year-old Derek passes himself off to various women as the son they gave up for adoption many years ago, though it's the play's language that marks the real (and bravura) feat of legerdemain: the gradual insertion-turned-invasion of the words blue and kettle (and their component syllables and letters) into the conversation, at first almost facetiously, later quite damagingly. Without giving away the exhilarating sense of surprise that the play (and Stafford-Clark's production) imparts, suffice it to say that so accomplished is Blue Kettle that its oblique closing question (“T b k k k k l?”) not only makes perfect sense but, in context, has a devastating affect as well. It's almost as if in destroying language, Churchill has recaptured its potency in what remains as invigorating a paradox as the British theatre has given rise to in years.

Apollo Amoko (essay date spring 1999)

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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 may have little to do with colonialism at all. As a morality tale of the present the metaphor of colonialism has enormous force but it can also eclipse how varied the subjects are created by different colonialisms.2

A certain personal ambivalence defines my response to Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill's drama in two acts featuring an audacious attempt to parallel sexual and gender oppression with colonial and racial oppression. While the attempt to enact the interrelated nature of these oppressions remains attractive, the apparent ease with which a playwright and company drawn exclusively from and implicated by racial and colonial privilege make direct comparisons and equivalencies between gender/sexual and colonialist oppressions is disturbing. These comparisons and equivalencies are made despite critical material differences in the history of gender and sexual oppression within specific cultural contexts, and the history of colonialism and the peculiar history of gender and sexual oppression within colonialism. As a consequence, certain oppressed identities, for example white women, may have been provided with the prospect of empowering representation at the cost of consigning certain other identities, specifically African women, to further subjection and invisibility.

In a bid to trace a certain coherence of effects in Western feminist practices of writing and reading, this examination of Cloud Nine concerns itself as much with the playtext as with its critical reception. Critical reaction to the play has focused disproportionately on what are perceived to be its “feminist accomplishments” to the near total exclusion of any in-depth or sustained examination of race and colonialism.3 Where passing review of colonialism has been made, it has been merely to point out how racism and sexism occasionally interpenetrate or how racism, the play's “other” concern, illustrates sexism, the play's “central” or “ideal” concern. Critical discourses generated by Cloud Nine seem to imitate the structure of racialized omission inadvertently reproduced in the play. Acts of colonial occupation, mass murder, arson, and violent repression by colonial settlers in Africa depicted in passing in the first act of the play have attracted little critical attention. Virtually no attempt has been made in the critical writing on this play to investigate the manner in which the peculiar experience of African women under British colonial occupation has been effaced in Cloud Nine. Nor has any attempt been made to investigate the ways in which the experiences and struggles of white settler women (complicit, however contradictorily, in the colonial project) have been generalized, in a play set substantially in colonial Africa, to represent the plight of all women in a manner comparable to the way men were historically generalized to represent all humanity.

One article, Elin Diamond's “Closing No Gaps: Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill and Empire,” appears to question the impact of the “foregrounding” by these two feminist playwrights of gender critique at the expense of race and colonization.4 Diamond concludes that “unacceptable gaps” exist in the examination of race and imperialism in the works of the two playwrights, and attributes these “gaps” to their imperialist (British) background. However, despite noting in passing that women make up half the population of colonized nations, Diamond does not proceed to examine specifically the inherent differences between the respective histories of “colonized” and “colonizing” women. In two separate studies that examine Cloud Nine, Diamond herself foregrounds racially marked feminist concerns and almost entirely ignores race and colonialism.5 She seems to exempt feminist critics from critical review at precisely the same instant that she indicts the two playwrights for their implication in imperial ideology, leaving unexplored the sources of her own feminist authority even as she challenges the sources of Churchill's authority.

Against this background of existing feminist examinations of Cloud Nine, it is instructive to trace the ruses of power (both institutional and discursive) that foster the appearance of mutual exclusiveness between the two intertwined economies of white supremacy and phallotocracy. The phallotocratic economy and the colonial economy enacted in Cloud Nine are neither mutually exclusive sites of power that can be used to illustrate each other, nor entirely separable sites of power that occasionally collude and/or collide; rather, they represent interrelated structures of gender, racial, and sexual domination. Churchill's attempt to investigate these two economies therefore enacts (in the theatrical sense of that term) the complicated and contradictory mechanics through which power is (re)produced and exercised. It is vital, however, to situate this play within the context of the Western creative and critical practices from which it emerged and within which it has circulated in the last sixteen years to widespread acclaim. These creative and critical practices, even in their deconstructive and/or feminist configurations, continue to be implicated in colonial discourses and the contemporary exercise of global power.

Claims regarding the interrelatedness of structures of domination ought not, then, to preclude the posing of what Homi K. Bhabha has termed “the colonial question, ‘the ‘other’ question.”6 In his essay “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Bhabha asserts:

To pose the colonial question is to realize that the problematic representation of cultural and racial difference cannot be read off from the signs and designs of social authority that are produced in the analyses of class and gender differentiation. As I was writing in 1982 the conceptual boundaries of the west were being busily reinscribed in a clamor of texts—transgressive, semiotic, semanalytic, deconstructionist—none of which pushed those boundaries to their colonial periphery; to that limit where the west must face a peculiarly displaced and decentered image of itself in “double duty bound,” at once a civilizing mission and a subjugating force.7

Bhabha's insights enable a reconsideration of the ways in which Churchill and her critics may have reproduced an undifferentiated African landscape as the limit text of their critiques of gender and sexual differentiation. They allow, as well, for an examination of the ways in which various empowering white subjectivities seem to materialize against the dark reflection of a generic and stereotypic African man (Joshua). Churchill's feminist critics appear to use colonial and racial difference to produce social and critical authority for Westernized notions of gender and sexual difference.

Cloud Nine enacts a multiple and highly differentiated structure of oppression that constructs the prevailing gender, sexual, and racial definitions. Churchill demonstrates, as much by her silences and contradictions as by effective and self-conscious dramatization, that these categories are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are inextricably interconnected. White patriarchy forms the foundational basis for this structure. Churchill deploys a number of dramatic devices in attempts to disclose and then dispute these oppressive categories and their informing ideology. These include instances of cross-casting, the destabilization of racial, gender, and sexual identities as discrete categories in character development, and Brechtian alienation attained through a non-linear dramatic structure and a historicized plot. As a result of the complex dynamics of power ceaselessly and contradictorily at play, the disruption of these categories is simultaneously facilitated and invalidated throughout the play.

Churchill identifies white patriarchy as the philosophical basis of the multiple structure of social organization early in the play. In his opening statement, Clive, a senior administrator in the colonial Empire in (undifferentiated) Africa, says:

This is my family. Though far from home
We serve the queen wherever we may roam.
I am a father to the natives here.
And a father to my family so dear.(8)

This statement exposes not only a multiply oppressive structure, but also the interrelation between the colonization of Africa (and of African bodies) and (metaphorically) that of white women and children within a patriarchal structure. The social order constructed reveals itself to be white in its dominant racial ideology, masculinist in its dominant gender ideology, and heterosexist and monogamous in its dominant sexual ideology.

Churchill's exposition of the prevailing social hierarchies is enacted most powerfully, in my view, in Act One, scene three (37–46), during which scene Clive and Harry (both white colonial settlers and both males) are supervising the flogging of their native domestic servants. Joshua, Clive's senior domestic servant and trusted ally, flogs the other African workers—“the stable boys”—for not being “trustworthy,” for “whispering,” for “visiting their people,” for “going out at night,” and for “carrying knives.” While the men are administering this punishment the white women are kept indoors; under patriarchy, acts such as flogging (and violent components of colonial empire-building) are constructed as male acts from whose rigors the women and children are shielded. Significantly, the women embody and reinforce their oppression by performing and embodying their apportioned gendered roles: “The men will do it [the flogging] in the right way. … We have our own part to play” (38); “Luckily this house has a head, I am squeamish myself but Clive is not” (39). The “part” the domesticated women have to “play” is the consistent reproduction, in a deeply theatrical sense, of docile, obedient bodies useful in support of the colonial economy. Churchill specifies that the role of Betty be played by a male actor during the first act of the play. This casting choice physicalizes and concretizes the occupation of her body and that of other women by patriarchy. She says in self-introduction: “I am a man's creation as you can see. And what men want is what I want to be” (4). She displays (as, indeed, do all the other women in this scene) a crucial facet of “colonial occupation” as she seems to consent to her oppression, a consent at once authorized and undermined by the glaring inequalities in power. Embodiment and enactment are dramatized early in the play as the principal ways through which an oppressed identity, “woman,” is normalized in a colonial setting. The history of colonialism (both of territories and of bodies) is replete with instances in which it entrenches itself through the materialization of subjects as “oppressed bodies.”

The introduction of Edward into this scene presents the final facet of social construction portrayed in the play—the “colonization” of (white) children by a patriarchal family structure that seeks to script onto their bodies a “natural” bipolar gender identity and a “natural” heterosexual disposition. Edward reveals the ways in which the colonial margin functions as a space for the cultivation of the ideal (white, male) subject. He is beaten for playing with a doll because, as he has been told before, “dolls are for girls.” In a powerful illustration of the intersection of the discourses of race, gender, and class in the colonial arena, Churchill parallels the flogging suffered by the colonized Africans for their “misbehaviour” with the beating suffered by Edward for transgressing prescribed gender roles. The on-stage beating occurs concurrently with the beatings suffered by the Africans off-stage. Cloud Nine demonstrates the non-voluntary manner in which bodies are forcefully compelled to materialize within prescribed gender, racial, and sexual forms. At the very outset of her play, Churchill illustrates some of the multiple but inter-related sites of white patriarchal oppression: the colonization of Africa and the enslavement of African bodies, and the metaphorical colonization of women and children.

A critical facet of social organization that is consigned to invisibility in Cloud Nine—and, more pointedly, in Cloud Nine criticism—is the unique deprivation suffered by African women and children, who are not featured at all in the play. Unlike the gendered materialization of the settler women, which was mitigated (at least in part) by complicity in racial and economic privilege, and that of African men, which was mitigated in some degree by male privilege, the experience of African women under both autogenous and colonial misogyny deserves but fails to receive specific and separate reenactment. One could argue that in the world of Cloud Nine black women do not matter—which is to say, black women fail to materialize.9 The exclusion of African women, especially in Cloud Nine criticism, seems to presume a trans-historical and universal patriarchy and elides important distinctions between women in terms of race and colonial history. The construction and/or disruption of womanhood in Cloud Nine must be understood from a standpoint that takes into account the at once contradictory and complementary discourses of race, gender, and sexuality. This erasure of black women illustrates the problems (as pointed out in the epigraph to this essay) that arise in the use of colonialism as a metaphor for understanding other forms of inequality and exclusion. The erasure of black women from both the creative and critical universes of Cloud Nine seems to constitute a condition of the play's feminist possibilities.

As she exposes—but also replicates—the multiple modes through which a white patriarchal structure variously manifests itself, Churchill deploys a number of dramatic strategies to disrupt the categories inherent in this epistemic regime, including what Diamond10 and Reinelt11 classify as “cross-racial” and “cross-gender” casting. The elaborate use of “cross-casting” in Cloud Nine anticipated and in some instances seems to have triggered debates over gender identity in contemporary Western culture and in Western theatre theory. Such debates would include, for example, the works of Diamond and Butler. In an uncanny sense, Churchill's enactment of gender constitution seems to anticipate Butler's contentions regarding the performativity of gender. In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (as well as in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity), Butler adopts the philosophical doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition in order to demonstrate the performativity of gender.12 (The analysis of the ways bodies materialized as various racialized, sexual, and gendered subjects in Cloud Nine undertaken above drew much of its implicit authority from Butler's work). Basing her argument on Simone de Beauvoir's claim that “one is not born a woman, but, rather, one becomes a woman,” Butler explores the potential for deconstructing and subverting the gender script. She argues:

… gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously instituted through time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.13

Butler's conception of gender affirms de Beauvoir's assertion that “woman” is a historical construction and not a natural fact. Butler makes a firm distinction between “sex as biological facticity and gender as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity,” even as she contests the given-ness of sex as a natural fact.14 She argues that discrete and polar gender identities are punitively regulated cultural fictions whose reproduction sustains a system of compulsory heterosexuality based on a notion of opposing “natural” sexes with “natural” attractions for each other. This argument is forcefully enacted throughout Cloud Nine, particularly in the scene examined above (Act One, scene three). In that scene, such mundane acts as bodily comportment, floggings, playing with dolls, and speech acts are coded in race- and gender-specific ways. These race- and gender-inflected bodily codes are violently enforced in order to ensure that bodies materialize in very specific ways.

Butler's project aims beyond providing women, as oppressed subjects, with the capacity to effect social change. It points to the ontological insufficiency of the falsely essentializing and oppressive category “woman.” It seeks to disrupt the reification of sexual difference as the founding moment of Western culture and calls, in conclusion, for contestation of the gender script, for a different sort of stylized repetition of acts to be accomplished through “performances out of turn” and/or “unwarranted improvisations.” Although the play predates Butler's arguments by nearly a decade, the casting choices and character realizations in Cloud Nine enact Butler's call for constestation of the gender script through myriad gender performances out of turn and unwarranted improvisations.

In a separate attempt to deploy the notion of performance in order to grapple with the problematics of female identity and representation in Western culture, Diamond embarks on an insightful intertextual reading of Brechtian theory and feminist theory in “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards A Gestic Feminist Criticism.”15 This essay seeks “the recovery of the radical potential of the Brechtian critique and a discovery, for feminist theory, of the specificity of the theatre.”16 Diamond envisions the site of performance as simultaneously a site of feminist resistance. She appropriates key Brechtian concepts—Verfremdungseffekt, the “not, but” historicization, and Gestus—and reinterprets them using feminist concepts. Emerging from this intertextual reading is a theatre-specific aesthetic—gestic criticism—that seeks to use the theatre as a site for enactments of feminist resistance. Diamond suggests, for example, that the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung—the defamiliarization, in performance, of words, ideas or gestures in order to provoke fresh appreciation and insights—be deployed to critique gender differentiation. She provides as an example of this feminist Verfremdung the “cross-dressing” (a rather erroneous description) that occurs in Cloud Nine.

The construction of character and the casting choices directed in Cloud Nine ought then to be apprehended against the background of the disparate theorizing outlined above. The use of cross-casting and of other theatrical strategies to demonstrate and subvert the oppressive performativity of racial, gender, and sexual identities would seem to enjoy a fundamental, though admittedly limited, feasibility. Butler writes on the limits of the theatre metaphor and on the susceptibility of theatrical acts of gender subversion to being innocuously (indeed pleasurably) contained within the spectacle of dramatic illusion. Such pleasurable containments may have the reactionary effect of reinforcing the naturalness of real life identities. But perhaps the ultimate limit of the purportedly subversive re-enactments is the ontological status and stability of the notion of the West in the contestations of naturalized subject positions. In Cloud Nine, the attempted destabilization of normative gender and sexual subjectivities may disclose a creative and critical desire, to adopt Gayatri Spivak's argument, to conserve the West as the ideal subject of discourse or, alternately, to conserve the subject of the West.17 The specific efficacy of the casting choices made by Churchill to denaturalize oppressive modes of identity formation is undermined by the Western-ness of these identities.

Cross-racial casting is introduced in Cloud Nine through the character of Joshua. In her cast list Churchill describes Joshua as Clive's black servant who is played by a white actor. This description presents the first level of cross-casting, at which level the concurrent process of facilitation and invalidation of coherent racial subjectivity and an eventual reification of a white episteme is dramatized. Cross-casting challenges the conflation of skin colour and racial identity by dominant ideology and seeks, by portraying a white-skinned actor performing a black racial identity, to destabilize and problematize this conflation. Butler's argument for a different sort of gender performance, a different stylization, can be adopted here with a racial difference. This apparent cross-casting is, however, seemingly invalidated by the very process that facilitates it. In order to disaffirm, in performance, the notion of racial identities immutably defined by skin colour, it must first be stabilized and reified during casting as well as in the perception of the audience. It seems, therefore, to be a strategy that cannot resist containment in the process of its own materialization. Further, the playwright seems to be trapped within dominant racial configurations. She unproblematically describes Joshua as a “black [man]” and the actor playing him as a “white [man]” in her cast list and in her introduction to the play (I discuss the introduction in some detail below), thereby re-conflating skin colour and racial identity and reiterating the existence of discrete and stable polar racial categories.

Confining analysis of the problematization of racial identity to the casting of Joshua would be misleading. Joshua's character construction and development appear to contradict any apparent cross-casting. For cross-casting to occur the racial identity of both the actor and the character in question must, paradoxically, be perceived as stable and clearly defined. This is not quite the case with Joshua. “Cross-casting” is problematic as a description to the extent that Joshua's skin color and his performed racial identity are stricken with indeterminacy. As a result, racial identification has been complicated or made ambivalent; this ambivalence authorizes but also potentially threatens the discourses of colonialism. In Churchill's account of events Joshua, at least in the original production, was played by a white-skinned actor as a matter of practical necessity, there being “no black member of the company [the Joint Stock Company].”18 This led at a deeper level to “the idea of Joshua being so alienated from himself and so much wanting to be what the white man wants him to be that he is played by a white man.”19 Considering the emphasis that has been placed on the fact that the company in the play's first production consisted of actors of “plural sexualities and sexual experiences,” this racial and colonial exclusivity seems odd—or perhaps is instructive.20

The character of Joshua goes beyond obsequiousness and develops an active desire to be white, effectively renouncing claims to a black identity. In his disruptive construction Joshua purports to become a white man with a black skin—black skin, white masks?!21 He seems to embody that form of subjectification that Homi Bhabha classifies as “colonial mimicry.”22 Bhabha defines colonial mimicry as “the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage.”23 Churchill seems to construct Joshua as a “mimic man”: almost the same but not quite; almost white, but not quite; anglicized, but not English. He says in self-description:

My skin is black but oh my soul is white.
I hate my tribe. My master is my light.
I only live for him. As you can see,
What white men want is what I want to be.


He regards Clive as his father and mother, disowning his own parents after their murder by the forces of colonial occupation during an arsonist raid on his native village (54). He asserts that black people are bad people, that they are not his people and that he does not visit them (44). He flogs his African co-workers as part of his duties—this punishment is in fact administered at his instigation. He has been Christianized (he prays to Jesus) and is domesticated. Despite being black, he seems to enjoy considerable power over Betty, Clive's wife. He continually spies on her, reporting her “misbehaviour” (just like that of “the stable boys”) to a grateful Clive. He defies Betty's orders with misogynous insolence and a degree of impunity, with the none-too-subtle connivance of his master. He has become an ingratiating subordinate enforcer—concurrently a target and an instrument of power—of white patriarchy in conspiracy with white men.

Crucially, both Betty and Joshua lend legitimacy to Clive's superiority over them and expend their respective energies battling each other to determine who takes second place and oppresses the other. Any prospect of cooperative struggle is rendered unlikely by the differences in their oppression and in the power they wield. By playing the subjects of colonial occupation against each other, using offers of limited and discriminatory power, Clive entrenches his authority. Churchill dramatizes in this instance a central feature of colonial power—the racialized and gendered diffusion of power—a feature to which her feminist critics appear to fall prey by reifying a white epistemic regime even as they assault a universalized patriarchy.

Through Joshua (not unproblematically), racial identification is presented as a mutable performative, capable of being cast aside or reconfigured. Bhabha contends that the mimic figure, as a crystallization of the exercise of colonial power, marks the discourses of colonialism with their inevitable discursive failure by dramatizing the inability of these discourses to contain difference: “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace.”24 Joshua, in spite of his obsequious conduct in Clive's presence, seems to embody the threat or menace of mimicry in his conduct in Clive's absence. A potent instance of the menace of mimicry is presented when Joshua secretly narrates to Edward (the young “idealizable” white subject) a creation story that directly contradicts the Christian creation story they are both required to proclaim. Asked by Edward to narrate, in the secrecy of early morning, another “bad story,” Joshua replies, “First there was nothing and then there was the great goddess. She was very large and she had golden eyes and she made the sun and the earth. But soon she became miserable and lonely and she cried like a great waterfall and her tears made all the rivers in the world …” (47). At the conclusion of the lengthy recitation of this unauthorized creation story, Edward says, “It is not true, though” (47). Joshua concedes, “Of course it is not true. It is a bad story. Adam and Eve is true. God made man white like him and gave him the bad woman who liked the snake and gave us all trouble” (47). Although Joshua and Edward end their encounter with a reaffirmation of the official creation story, “the bad story” they conspiratorially indulge in powerfully illustrates the menace of mimicry. In Bhabha's terms, Joshua as a mimic figure can be seen simultaneously to cohere to the dominant strategic function of colonial power and to pose an immanent danger to normalized knowledge and disciplinary power.

As if to contain the menace latent in mimicry, Joshua's final and dramatic act in the play (an act that concludes the first act) is a decontextualized act of violence. He unexpectedly shoots at Clive, his erstwhile master. Rather than elaborating the menace of mimicry, this decontextualized act appears to be a contrived re-enactment of the stereotype of the randomly violent and murderous African. A colonial stereotype is seemingly evoked to finally erase the menace immanent in mimicry. Churchill may have intended Joshua's violence at the end of the first act to represent a belated act of native resistance. Indeed, my analysis above of the menace in Joshua's mimicry lends some credence to this reading. However, the completely decontextualized nature of the shooting undermines its dissident potential. In its unexpectedness and unexplainedness, Joshua's shooting of Clive seems to hark back to white supremacist stereotypes that assign a tendency for atavistic violence and incorrigible duplicity to the black character. In its belatedness—and it is not so much the belatedness, as such, as the unexplainedness that is importantly at issue here—this act of native violence seems to legitimate the paranoia that colored many of the actions of the white settlers earlier in the play. These acts of white paranoia include an arsonist raid on a native village, Mrs. Saunders's flight from her home to Clive's, and the racial diatribes of Clive and Harry. This reading may seem unfair and one-sided until one considers the fact that Joshua's shooting of Clive has attracted very little critical attention; as a singular act, this eruption of native violence seems in harmony with the surbordination of race and colonial history to gender and sexuality in the world of the play and its interlocutors.

It is instructive that the one black character portrayed on stage in Cloud Nine does not seek to disrupt the fundamental assumptions of hierarchical racial identification. Joshua self-denigratingly affirms the existence of a racial bipolarity in colonial Africa and idolizes whiteness. It is also instructive that the other Africans in this drama—the “stable boys” as well as the invisible African women and children—who have, presumably, not mimicked whiteness in quite the same fashion as Joshua, are denied representation except on the periphery: off-stage, being flogged. The antithetical (re)production of the colonial subject—the absent but always already criminalized “stable boys”/native villagers in contrast to the obedient and obsequious Joshua—authorize the reproduction of the discourses of colonialism. Further, in view of Diamond's elaborate analysis of the potential in Churchill's plays to remove women from historical and conventional invisibility,25 it is instructive that, while seeming to offer white women the prospect of non-romanticized representation, Cloud Nine, as if in conspiracy with colonizing white power, has sustained the continued invisibility and entrapment of African women. Not only does this play seem to be trapped within an ambivalent bipolar racial identification, it ultimately reifies whiteness as the Ideal Subject and casts blackness as the Other, at best the mimic, even in the heart of Africa. It is instructive that, in an act set in colonial Africa, white existence occupies center stage and black deprivation is stereotyped (on stage), marginalized (off stage), or erased.

Further attesting to the location of this drama in a white epistemic regime is the fact that Churchill, in her cast list and throughout the play, does not feel impelled to specify the racial identities of the (other) characters in the play, with the exception of Joshua, whom she pointedly identifies as “black.” Whiteness, as if by irresistible inference, is the given circumstance to which Joshua provides the lone (in)visible exception of a mimicking inferior. Is the generally laudatory critical reaction to the play's contestation of gender and sexual difference similarly located in a white epistemic regime? Is whiteness, for instance, (in)visibly inscribed on the female bodies purporting, as Diamond puts it, to refuse the romanticism of identity?

Race and colonialism are not as centrally at issue in the second act of the play. The comparison between sexual or gender oppression in contemporary Britain and British colonial settlement in Africa in the nineteenth century is abandoned at the end of the first act, following the uncontextualized and unexplained end of the colonial presence in Africa. The treatment of race and colonialism seems to serve primarily as a backdrop (in Bhabha's terms, as a limit text) that underwrites and sustains a critique of Western gender and sexual difference. Cloud Nine features a sustained attempt to use cross-casting to critique Western gender and sexual ideology. The actors (whose race we know by omission) involved in the out-of-turn gender performances or unwarranted improvisations are all white. The whiteness of all these characters and actors is at once presumed and effaced by Churchill and especially by her critics, who generalize these racially exclusive gender or sexual reconfigurations. An implicit assumption of the West as a primary referent underwrites these readings.

At the level of casting, by assigning “men,” as perceived sexed bodies, to play “female” roles, and “women,” as perceived sexed bodies, to play “male” roles (Betty is, in the first act, played by an actor identified as a “man”; Cathy as a young child is, in the second act, played by a grown actor described as a “man”; and Edward, as a young child, is, in the first act, played by an adult actor identified as a “woman”), Churchill uncouples gender and sexual identities and appears to fulfill Butler's call for disruptive gender performances, for a different sort of stylization of acts. This is accomplished by the presentation of images of actors, as perceived sexed bodies, playing gender roles or repeating performative acts in conflict with the genders that dominant ideology “naturally” and unalterably assigns them—“women” acting “masculine” and “men” acting “feminine.” The uncoupling of gender and sexual identity is reiterated by doubling, where an actor plays more than one role in the course of a performance, in some instances across the boundaries of biological sex. In the first production of the play the following roles, among others, were doubled: the same actor, identified as a “woman,” played Edward in the first act and Betty in the second; and the same actor, identified as a “man,” played Clive in the first act and Cathy in the second. This demonstration of the performativity of gender and the possibility of transformation through gender performances out of turn is contained by its specific theatrical setting. The actors' “real” sex and “real” gender cannot altogether be subverted in the theatre. As in cross-racial casting, the scheme to illustrate theatrically the performativity of gender (and consequently to undermine it) is simultaneously invalidated by the same means that set it in motion. The stability of “masculinity” and “femininity” as discrete and polar categories must first be affirmed and reified, before the seeming disruptiveness of cross-casting can be achieved and appreciated in performance.

Toward the conclusion of Cloud Nine Africa makes an abrupt return into the world of the play. Clive's authority as father to his family has by this point been seriously undermined. In his final failure, his newly liberated wife, Betty, divorces him and begins a life of sexual exploration and self-fulfill-ment. Clive's empire seems to be crumbling. Conceding this, a despairing Clive remarks at the end of the play:

You are not that sort of woman, Betty. I can't believe that you are. And Africa is to be communist, I suppose. I used to be proud to be British. There was a high ideal. I came out of the verandah and looked at the stars.”


The irony in Clive's remark is that the discourses of empire in the play's imagination and in its critical reception continue to be everywhere foundational.


  1. Acknowledgements: Debbie Thompson, Stephen Slemon and Heather Zwicker; Lily Cho, Joanna Falck, Lamia Karim, Jacob Speaks, Suzanne Raitt, Latissia Mitchell, Valerie Moses, Casey Williamson, Guy Beauregard, and the editors of Modern Drama.

  2. Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, SC, and London, 1995), 199.

  3. See, for example, John Clum, “‘The Work of Culture’: Cloud Nine and Sex/Gender Theory,” in Caryl Churchill: A Casebook, ed. Phyllis Randall (New York, 1988), 91–116; Austin Quigley, “Stereotype and Prototype: Character In the Plays of Caryl Churchill,” in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater (Oxford, 1989), 25–52; Janelle Reinelt, “Elaborating Brecht: Churchill's Domestic Drama,” in Communications from the Brecht International Society, 14:2 (1985), 49–56; and Anne Herrman, “Travesty and Transgression: Transvestitism in Shakespeare, Brecht and Churchill,” in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore and London, 1990), 294–316.

  4. Elin Diamond, “Closing No Gaps: Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill and Empire,” in Caryl Churchill: A Casebook, 161–174. See note 3.

  5. Elin Diamond, “(In)visible Bodies in Churchill's Theatre,” Theatre Journal, 40:2 (1988), 188–204; and “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa and Duras,” in Performing Feminisms, 92–102 (see note 3).

  6. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture, ed. Russell Ferguson et al. (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 71.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine, Revised American Edition, (New York, 1994), 3. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  9. I am drawing here on the concept of materialization discussed by Judith Butler in her book Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York and London, 1994). See especially the introduction and chapter 1(“Bodies That Matter”).

  10. Diamond “(In)visible Bodies,” 194. See note 5.

  11. Reinelt, “Elaborating Brecht,” 49. See note 3.

  12. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Gender Feminist Criticism,” in Performing Feminisms, 270–82.

  13. Ibid., 270–71.

  14. Ibid., 273.

  15. Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards A Gestic Feminist Criticism,” Drama Review, 32:1 (1988), 82–94.

  16. Ibid., 82.

  17. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Gary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL, 1988), 271–72.

  18. Churchill, introduction to Cloud Nine, viii. See note 8.

  19. Ibid.

  20. It was not until its nineteenth production, Hanif Kureishi's Borderline in October 1981 (nearly nine years after its founding), that the Joint Stock Company involved non-white practitioners in any of its performances. This is in spite of the fact that the Company had previously confronted issues of racial and cultural appropriation in several of its previous productions, for example, David Hare's Fanshen, a play based on William Hinton's examination of the Chinese Revolution, also entitled Fanshen. First performed to great critical and popular acclaim in Sheffield in March 1975, the production featured an all-white British cast playing (mostly peasant) Chinese characters. For an examination of the racist tendencies within the Joint Stock Company and how these impulses were challenged through the institution of “multicultural policies” in the company's last five years of existence (1984–1989), see Joyce Delvin, “Joint Stock: From Colorless Company to Company of Color,” Theatre Topics, 2 (March 1992), 63–76.

  21. I adopt this phrase from the title of Frantz Fanon's examination of colonialism, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markman (New York, 1967).

  22. Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in The Location of Culture (London and New York, 1994), 85–92, 86.

  23. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry,” 86. See note 22.

  24. Ibid.

  25. See especially Diamond, “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity.” See note 5.

Jeffrey A. Barber (essay date summer 1999)

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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, Edward, not for myself, I may not deserve it, but as I respected and loved my father, because he was my father. Through our father we love our Queen and our God, Edward. Do you understand? It is something men understand.

(Churchill 32)

The concept of “it is something men understand” is a symbolic representation of manliness. Clive is proposing that Edward should respect his father because of their blood relationship and the historic notion created by previous blood relationships. However, it is not the implication of parental privilege that is the focus of their dialogue; rather the focus is on the power hidden beneath this litany of values, which supports any instructed position: “It is something men understand.”

By “understanding,” one's masculine sensibility is affirmed. Accordingly, if the male does not understand, he is not a man. There is no common developmental ground for a man where he may question or qualify that which he believes he understands. Either he understands and is a man, or he does not understand and is other than a man. So when the masculine code is acknowledged as understood, it is seldom truly understood. To the male, the masculine is an area as undiscovered as any other wilderness, yet every traveler must display a facade indicating that he knows the terrain. An admission of ignorance in relation to masculine action can never be made because of the emasculation that accompanies the revelation.

Clive envelops masculinity in a traditional sense of duty. It is the rigidity of duty and Clive's ability to function within duty's confinement that give him security in his own manliness. Clive typifies the emotional and physical strength of the privileged male and manifests his dominance over any other male who does not understand. Offering repeated maxims to his son, Clive provides a framework that enables the boy to reconcile his own understood notions and validate his own masculinity within the vague parameters established by his father. Clive tells Edward: “A boy has no business having feelings” (19); “You spend too much time with the women. You may spend more time with me and Uncle Harry, little man” (32); and “[There] is a disease more dangerous than diphtheria. Effeminacy is contagious” (40). Little is necessarily understood by the son, but the maxims provide a feeble boundary system within which he can practice and gain confidence in his manliness.

The masculine role of husband for Clive is also affirmed through his understanding of duty. The duty is one of authority over the wife and overseer of her service to her husband. He speaks of his wife as “all I dreamt a wife should be” (1) and has selected a woman who serves his desires and ignores her own. Clive is repeatedly lecherous, yet he condemns his wife for kissing another man, explaining to her:

Women can be treacherous and evil. They are darker and more dangerous than men. The family protects us from that, you protect me from that […]. If Harry Bagley was not my friend I would shot him. If I shot you every British man and woman would applaud me. But no. It was a moment of passion such as women are too weak to resist […]. We must resist this dark female lust, Betty, or it will swallow us up.


Clive has little genuine affection for his wife. For Clive, the duty that binds the woman to the man does not similarly apply to the man in relation to the woman. Among the responsibilities to govern, to seek adventure, and to pursue intellectual growth, sexual release is another privilege of a man's life. Clive is mesmerized by the nobility of man. The blatant hypocrisy of his life is not visible to him because he is following the pattern he learned and understands. Clive offers an insight to his friend Harry, the recipient of Clive's wife's kiss:

I know the friendship between us, Harry, is not something that could be spoiled by the weaker sex. Friendship between men is a fine thing. It is the noblest form of relationship. [Although] there is the necessity of reproduction. The family is all important. And there is the pleasure. But what we put ourselves through to get the pleasure, Harry. When I heard about our fine fellows last night fighting those savages to protect us I thought yes, that is what I aspire to. I tell you Harry, in confidence, I suddenly got out of Mrs. Saunders' bed and came out here on the verandah and looked at the stars.


It is Harry Bagley, the explorer, who, on hearing Clive's speech about the noble nature of manly friendship, attempts to embrace Clive in a gesture of homosexual attraction. His own understanding of Clive's masculinity seems remarkably clear, but Harry's action destroys Clive's respect for Harry and leaves him shattered.

What are you doing?
Well, you said—
I said what?
Between men. I'm sorry, I misunderstood, I would never have dreamt, I thought—.
My God, Harry, how disgusting.
You will not betray my confidence.


Within this dialogue, Harry admits to another man his own (mis)understanding of his masculine duty. He does no more than act out of his own understanding, yet his judgment was incorrect, and emasculation results because Harry has deviated from the elusive norm. Harry's response to Clive's reaction is to ask for secrecy in hiding the truth. He does not understand, to Clive's satisfaction, what it is to be a man.

As the first act of Cloud Nine closes, Clive has convinced Harry to marry to avoid a scandal. Clive's toast to the wedding party is “Dangers are past. Our enemies are killed.—Put your arm around her, Harry, have a kiss—All murmuring of discontent be stilled” (47). Clive's toast is consistent with his understanding of masculinity. By securing Harry in a bond of marriage, Clive believes that dangers are past because a weakness in Harry's masculinity has been repaired. For Clive it is perfectly acceptable to practice a masculinity that stems from shared understanding and patterned examples rather than to depart into a realm of personal determination.

Work Cited

Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. Theatre CG, 1994.

Robert Shore (review date 22 December 2000)

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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 world” of the London Stock Exchange. The dramatist clearly doesn't approve of the trading floor, but she is nonetheless sufficiently seduced by its madcap energy—it is both appalling and exciting—for one occasionally to suspect that Churchill is, as Blake said of Milton, “of the devil's party without knowing it.”

Mrs Thatcher has been out of power for ten years now, and Churchill's new play [Far Away] comes stripped of a precise political context. The title suggests that it happens “far away” in time and place, although a heavy irony is intended here, since, horrors apart, the world depicted on stage is recognizably enough our own. The action begins as the forecurtain, which is painted with a peaceful rural scene, rises to reveal a middle-aged woman, Harper, knitting in a chair. A young girl, Joan, enters in her nightie; she has only just arrived in this seeming rural paradise and cannot sleep. But it is not simply the unfamiliarity of her surroundings that is keeping her from slumber—she has just seen something nasty in the woodshed. Though her aunt at first tries to persuade her otherwise, this is no mere childish fantasy; Joan has seen her uncle beating one of the men who arrived in “the lorry.” Harper explains that this must have been a “traitor,” for her uncle helps people flee oppression—Joan should be proud to know that she is “part of a big movement now to make things better.”

The scene changes and Joan, now a simpering maiden, is working in a hatmaking factory. The bench next to hers is occupied by Todd, who like her creates hats for the mysterious “parades.” He alludes to the “trials” and the corruption of the bosses, while Joan pursues her millinery inspiration, a preposterously baroque affair that wouldn't look out of place in an Alexander McQueen fashion show, although it is actually destined for the head of a prisoner on his way to execution.

Admiration shines in Joan's eyes when Todd says he is going to confront the nameless powers that be, but, in the third act, it is Joan herself who has become the activist. Todd and Harper are debating whether she was right to leave the “war” to visit him. The cause of the fighting is not explained, although it is clear that the French and Koreans, not to mention Latvian dentists, Portuguese car salesmen, ants, mallards and the river, have all taken sides. Joan enters and describes briefly the horrors of her cross-country journey, before the curtain drops with a resounding thud and the audience are returned to their initial vision of an idealized bucolic landscape.

Far Away may serve future generations as a classic example of a play with final-act problems, if “act” isn't a bit grand to describe the divisions in a piece that only lasts fifty minutes in total. It is a baffling climax; if the first two parts manage to convince, that is because, despite their surreal flourishes, they are rooted in recognizably universal experiences—a child's nightmare, first love—whereas the third act's vision of global apocalypse seems merely arbitrary, and not a little daft. In the second act, Katherine Tozer excels in offering a portrait of Joan as a wide-eyed ingénue, but, returning as a besmirched and weary warrior in the third, she struggles with lines like “Who's going to mobilise darkness and silence? That's what I wondered in the night.”

It is not her fault; the audience have already begun to titter uncertainly when Linda Bassett's Harper portentously announces that “the cats have come in on the side of the French.” Churchill is a skilful writer of elaborate, overlapping dialogue; the stock-market traders in Serious Money speak a racy demotic that is at once exotic and earthy. But the ebullience of that play's energetic doggerel has been replaced here by sombre and rather po-faced vatic pronouncements. Churchill's millennial prophecy concerns a world that she obviously still finds appalling; what is missing, in dramatic terms, is any compensatory sense of excitement.

Stephen Daldry's production makes light work of the play's temporal jumps and absurdist interruptions. Furniture glides on and off to provide the action with a dreamlike continuity; dozens of floridly bonneted prisoners troop across the tiny upstairs Royal Court stage without entirely capsizing what is essentially a chamber piece. But if Daldry was able in Billy Elliot to breathe life into the mildly surreal story of a miner's son who wants to become a ballet dancer, he can't repeat the trick with Churchill's rather more far-fetched and less involving dystopian fantasy.

Janelle Reinelt (essay date 2000)

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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 in anthologies of contemporary drama and her plays regularly appear on student reading lists. Within theatre studies, her work has provided the basis for five books and numerous articles. Often linked to theoretical debates about representation in feminist performance, Churchill has stimulated and provoked some of the most important feminist thinking about the theatre since coming to critical attention in the mid-1970s. She came to prominence concurrently with the development of Second Wave feminism in Britain, both its activism and its academic thrust; and at the time when Marxism was being re-thought in the academy in light of Althusser and Lacan, and challenged by feminists for ignoring gender and, later, sexuality. She is still writing in the so-called ‘postfeminist,’ ‘postsocialist’ nineties; while not abandoning her commitments, she has reflected the historical transformations of the eighties and nineties in plays which stage the central preoccupations and contradictions of these movements as they have shifted and changed.

Her theatre practice similarly mirrors a series of challenges and changes in hegemonic producing modes over this period. She began as a solitary writer who only came to consider herself a woman writer belatedly: ‘For years and years I thought of myself as a writer before I thought of myself as a woman, but recently [1977] I've found that I would say I was a feminist writer as opposed to other people saying I was.’1 She started writing radio plays in the 1960s [see Chronology] while she was house-bound with young children. She was the first woman to have a residency at the Royal Court (1975), London's premier writers' theatre. In these ways, she appears to be a lone woman breaking through the male-dominated theatre world as an isolated phenomenon.

On the other hand, over the years she has developed a collaborative style of writing which involves making plays with collectives (Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment), working with musicians, choreographers, and directors as equal partners (e.g. David Lan and Ian Spink), and regularly involving actors in workshops which have significantly contributed to the final script (Cloud 9,Fen, and Mad Forest). At the same time, she engaged in activism: in fact she met the women from Monstrous Regiment, a feminist theatre collective, on an abortion march.2 She is a socialist-feminist intellectual; serious historical and philosophical reading forms the background of her work and often enters the workshops. (Acknowledged sources include Marxist historian Christopher Hall, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, and feminist writers Eva Figes, Barbara Ehrenreich, Kate Millett.)

The years 1976 and 1977 mark a watershed in Churchill's work.3 She found a community of artists who shared her intellectual and activist commitments and developed various working methods that created a theatre practice which was democratic and experimental, and which could challenge dominant modes of representation. She worked collaboratively with a group of writers on Floorshow for Monstrous Regiment, with whom she also produced Vinegar Tom. During that time she also worked for the first time with Joint Stock on Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. This company became known for its workshop process in which the group held an initial period of research, exploration, and improvisation followed by a writing interval in which writers typically went away and created a script which was then brought back into rehearsal. While not a feminist company, Joint Stock was arguably socialist, by which I mean the members argued all the time about what was meant by ‘socialist.’4 Indeed, Vinegar Tom and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire remain two of her strongest feminist and socialist plays, benchmarks for the 1970s movements they recall, when the conviction and clarity of these plays seemed intimately connected to a historical moment of great promise.

At a time in the 1970s when many feminist explorations in theatre, literature, and life were preoccupied with personal experience, represented often in realistic terms, Churchill was resilient in developing a social, multivalenced approach to representing women's experiences. Using an epic dramaturgy many have linked to Brecht,5 Churchill placed her characters as social subjects at the intersection of economic, religious, and political forces which disciplined their sexuality and prescribed their gender. Vinegar Tom treated the witch hunts of the seventeenth century as manifestations of a historical conjuncture where the professionalisation of the health industry clashed with midwifery and ‘cunning women's’ curative practices. Combining religious misogyny with emergent capitalism to construct poor women, unmarried women, and old women as scapegoats for this historical enactment of new power configurations, the authorities in this play confine, torture, and ultimately hang women whose unruly bodies/behaviours they cannot control. Churchill intercuts her schematic historical scenes with contemporary songs which mock the proceedings and ensure that the modern parallels to contemporary sexism, ageism, and capitalism cannot be ignored.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was also written with an eye to the link between the English Civil War of the 1640s, when the Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters struggled for an alternative revolution which never happened, and the new social movements of the 1970s which were fuelled by various forms of utopian socialism. In an interview about the play, Churchill noted the similarity of ‘the emergence of many popular movements and small groups on the left today, also concerned about taking control of your own life.’6 Unlike Vinegar Tom, there was no overt reference to the present, but the parallels were obvious to spectators. One hostile critic wrote, ‘A group of free loving, pantheistic communists … set their standard against the false revolution of Cromwell's parliamentarians.’7 Churchill's dramaturgical techniques in both plays eschewed protagonists in favour of multiply cast roles which represented the different subject positions in the depicted society, and historicised the events of the narrative to enable spectators to see how these events were similar to and different from present-day circumstances, similar to and different from received historical traditions. While her narratives constituted logical outcomes of a series of events, these were not portrayed as inevitable—it might have been otherwise: therein lies the ‘hope’ for the future borne on the back of the failure of the past. While less overtly feminist than Vinegar Tom, in Light Shining Churchill again represented the discipline of uppity and poor women by a public flogging, and the internalised oppression of middle-class women through fear and self-hatred.

These productions seemed to signal a watershed in Churchill's work both thematically and theatrically. She developed techniques for staging the multiple intersections of identity caught at historical crossroads which continue to distinguish her writing through the nineties, and she also embarked on creative methods of collaboration and theatrical devising which produced her hybrid identity as a writer, both mainstream and alternative. While she did not work with Monstrous Regiment again after 1977, she has produced fifteen plays at the Royal Court and her association with Joint Stock lasted until its demise in 1989. She has continued to work with Max Stafford-Clark, director of Light Shining, through two decades (her most recent play, Blue Heart, was written for his company, Out of Joint). Her preferred collaborators seem to be men—Churchill has worked with Mark Wing Davies and Les Waters on multiple occasions, and she has co-written with David Lan and worked closely with choreographer Ian Spink. While her only productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre have been in their studio stages (the Barbican Pit and the National Cottesloe), those venues and the Royal Court are not exactly ‘fringe’ theatre, where ‘fringe’ used to imply severely limited resources, adverse material conditions, and rigorous touring schedules. To be sure, Churchill's work has toured regularly and has been staged at such medium-sized and small alternatives venues as the Soho Poly, the Almeida, the Half Moon, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Still, one reason why she has become highly successful and influential is that she has worked at the edge of dominant theatre traditions and networks both inside and outside their primary structures.


To further situate Churchill in the late seventies as part of a feminist-socialist trajectory which intercalated cultural products with theoretical preoccupations, I turn now to the link between her ‘history’ plays and the debates within the academic Left at that time about the methodology of historical research, domestic labour and the labour theory of value, and the relationship of ideology to culture. In the History Workshop Movement, centred at Ruskin College Oxford, a group of feminist historians moved the emphasis of the History Workshop on working-class struggle and labour history towards a feminist historiography which recognised women as discrete subjects, acknowledged the need for an analysis of gender and sexuality which did not simply reduce to class, and provided a theoretical ground for psychoanalytic explorations of sex and gender while retaining a concern for ordinary people and their socio-economic lives. In fact, in 1970, the first Women's Liberation Movement Conference was held at Ruskin College, sponsored by the History Workshop. By 1982, feminist ideas had sufficiently taken hold for their journal, the History Workshop Journal, to be subtitled a journal of feminist and socialist history. At the Birmingham Centre for contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), women reacted against the dominance of men and men's topics of study, forming the Women's Studies Group which eventually published a critique of the Centre in the eleventh issue of Working Papers (1978).8

This and subsequent critiques focused on the excessive emphasis in the Centre's work on ‘public’ and class analysis to the neglect of the domestic sphere differentials, and also the limitations of notions of conceiving subjectivity and identity positions. Applied mainly to media studies and to the subcultures theory developed primarily by Dick Hebdige, women pointed out the exclusion of women's experience from the topics of typical CCCS analysis (pub life, soccer games, work), and also insisted on studying domestic and family life as the source of women's shared experiences of such cultural forms as soap operas, shopping for clothes and make-up, and listening to music. Seeing young women as a ‘subculture,’ they suggested that ‘when the dimension of sexuality is included in the study of youth subcultures, girls can be seen to be negotiating a different space, offering a different type of resistance to what can at least in part be viewed as their sexual subordination.’9 By 1982, another important dimension of feminist and socialist cultural studies was brought to the table by Hazel Carby who, writing in The Empire Strikes Back, criticised white feminists for using the language of universal sisterhood which in fact erased and silenced the history and culture of black women.10 Insisting on a theoretical model which accounted for a history of antagonistic relations of domination and subordination across and among class, gender, and race, Carby also insisted on representations which took account of these contradictions and struggles.

Churchill's plays from this period through the mid-eighties can be seen as a series of contributions to these discussions in theatrical terms. Some theatre scholars have suggested that the plays perform theory, or stage it on the bodies of the actors; I prefer to describe a kind of theatrical discourse which encodes its different sign systems to function as a unique representation of material and intellectual struggles of the times. Journalism, the media, politics and the courts each have a unique form of public discourse, and theatre should be seen as a similar yet different form of such discourse.

Churchill's ability to write short, tightly focused scenes linking personal experience to the deployment of ideology and state power made an argument in theatrical terms for the History Workshop's feminist insistence on incorporating women's domestic life into any comprehensive social analysis. This scene from Vinegar Tom, set at ‘the landowner's house’ begins with the image of a young woman tied to a chair:

Why am I tied? Tied to be bled. Why am I bled? Because I was screaming. Why was I screaming? Because I'm bad. Why was I bad? Because I was happy. Why was I happy? Because I ran out of myself and got away from them and—Why was I screaming? Because I'm bad. Why am I bad? Because I'm tied. Why am I tied? Because I was happy. Why was I happy? Because I was screaming.
Hysteria is a woman's weakness. Hystron, Greek, the womb. Excessive blood causes an imbalance in the humours. The noxious gases that form inwardly every month rise to the brain and cause behaviour quite contrary to the patient's real feelings. After bleeding you must be purged. Tonight you shall be blistered. You will soon be well enough to be married.

(Churchill, Vinegar Tom,Plays One, p. 149)

Betty's subjective conflicts as she tries to understand her condition are represented in circular reasoning, resembling the vicious circle in which she is caught. The doctor uses the power and logic of medicine to label her rebellion (against forced marriage) hysteria, and prescribes torture and punishment masquerading as treatment. The goal of this treatment? Docile acceptance of marriage. When she flees to the ‘cunning woman’ to try to get some relief, she becomes evidence used against this woman's witchery. The contrast between the domestic situation in the landowner's house and other scenes in which unmarried women are poor and destitute (and also persecuted for witchery) etch the class distinctions between forms of control exercised over women at this time. Medicine and the Church team up as powerful and intertwined agents of oppression. Churchill dramatises these connections while also embodying the predicament of the female subject struggling to resist against the odds.

In Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a poor woman is punished for vagrancy by judges who order her to be stripped to the waist and beaten from parish to parish, and an ecstatic Ranter is beaten by a church congregation after she tries to speak during the service. The staging of acts of violence on the bodies of women as forms of social control is a frequent aspect of Churchill's dramaturgy; however, these two plays were written before she had read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Jane Thomas has argued that Foucault is a key to Churchill's often grim endings and lack of prescriptive political closures: ‘The characters in her plays can be seen to be constituted within a web of power relations which they unconsciously perpetuate. Although it is clear that, at particular moments in history, individuals, groups and institutions have been able to take economic, political or sexual advantage of various manifestations of power, they are neither its inventors nor its directors.’11 Thus around the same time that the History Workshop was grappling with Foucault's philosophical history (articles start appearing in their journal in the early 1980s),12 Churchill was staging aspects of his work through scenic pictures of social relations and dialogue which revealed the working of power through subjects and institutions. Churchill's reading of Foucault in 1978 makes a major contribution to her next period of writing, including Softcops (1984) which is a specific response to Discipline and Punish.


Three of Churchill's next plays form the heart of her specifically feminist writing. Cloud 9,Top Girls, and Fen were all produced between 1979 and 1983, in light of the feminist activism and feminist theory of the 1970s, but well within the period of Thatcherism which dominated Britain for a generation. With these plays, Churchill established herself as a major international playwright; in the United States, Cloud 9 and Top Girls won Obie Awards, and Fen won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Translations and productions appeared in many countries.

Cloud 9 took up the relationship between colonialism, sex and gender, and race while Top Girls specifically tackled a bourgeois interpretation of feminism which had become prevalent under Thatcher. Both plays used the historicising device of sharp contrasts between historical scenes and contemporary ones. Fen, on the other hand, used a more realistic dramaturgy (but not completely) based on oral histories of the lives of women living in the Fens where they are among the lowest-paid day labourers.

Top Girls made the most direct address to the contemporary moment of its production. In an often quoted remark, Churchill reported that, on a visit to the USA for a student production of Vinegar Tom, she was surprised to hear young women talking about how well the Women's Movement was doing since more women were getting high-paid and powerful jobs. Thatcher had just been elected Prime Minister, and Churchill felt impelled to a socialist correction of this mistaken emphasis on bourgeois individualism and personal achievement.13 The resulting play took up the price of success for those ‘high fliers’ who embrace traditional male and capitalist values of competitiveness, achievement, and celebrity.

Beginning the play with a Judy Chicago-style luncheon party made up of famous women from the past, Churchill begins with an image of the transhistorical price of certain kinds of fame and distinction. Each culture and time exacted its own methods of control and punishment for unruly female behaviour. While nineteenth-century explorer Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Japanese courtesan Lady Nijo, Breugel's Dull Gret, and Chaucer's Griselda had indeed lived extraordinary lives, they also suffered and compromised and finally had not been happy. They are also shown as self-centred and unable to communicate well with the others, something Churchill demonstrates through her often-used theatrical technique of overlapping speeches so that the women talk on top of each other. The contemporary Thatcher-like character, Marlene, has thrown this party to celebrate a promotion. It ends in drunken disorder.

This short scene is a curtain-raiser for the realistic and contemporary scenes which follow. They take place at Marlene's employment agency and at Marlene's sister Joyce's home, where Joyce takes care of Marlene's illegitimate daughter Angie. Angie adores ‘Auntie Marlene’ and dreams of living with her in London. In the final scene, a long argument between Marlene and Joyce, Churchill stages the class tensions and political differences between the sisters to mount her critique of a feminism without socialism:

She's a tough lady, Maggie. I'd give her a job. / She just needs to hang in there. This country
You voted for them, did you?
needs to stop whining. / Monetarism is not stupid.
Drink your tea and shut up pet.
It takes time, determination. No more slop. / And
Well I think they're filthy bastards.
who's got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. / You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.
What good's first woman if it's her? I suppose you'd have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. / Great adventures.
Bosses still walking on the workers' faces? Still Dadda's little parrot? Haven't you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.
I am looking at you.(14)

This short excerpt shows the alignment of Joyce with their working-class father and the history of sisterly strife (Marlene identifies with the downtrodden and abused mother). The family argument at the kitchen table brings personal issues of success and happiness together with national political issues. Angie, the young fourteen-year-old who yearns for a better life, is the person whose future is caught in this squabble. Standing for a whole generation of young women who will inherit the future their mothers are making, Angie has the last word in the play. Waking up from a bad dream, and mistaking (correctly) her Aunt for her mother, she describes her dream as ‘Frightening.’ This was precisely the kind of focus on teenage girls' experiences which the CCCS women were insisting needed attention and study in the late seventies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this play today is that in its attempt to redress the emerging political conservatism of its day, its own meanings were/are subject to change. Already by the time it was performed in San Francisco in 1985, audiences were arguing about its politics.15 From a family-value frame of American conservatism, Marlene can be seen to stand for all feminists, bringing the play's point of view in the 1990s uncomfortably close to the recent calls for women to stay at home with their children, seeming to support the charges that feminism has failed women by promoting the workplace to the exclusion of marriage and motherhood. Theatrical art makes its meanings within and between the text, the production, and the moment of its reception—all three sides of this triangle contribute to signification.

Elaine Aston's recent study of Churchill emphasises the ‘intense pleasures’ Top Girls provided for women spectators (Caryl Churchill, p. 43). Although other feminist plays created an all-female representational site with all-female characters, few of them succeeded in mainstream venues, and few continue to find a place within the repertory of commercial stages. Cloud 9 also provided intense pleasures for spectators along a range of sexual and gender identifications as it exploded onto the theatre scene in 1979. Here, the pleasure was a response to the inventiveness and outrageousness of then-unfamiliar techniques of cross-casting which Churchill used to theatricalise identity strain in the Victorian era and the then-present.

While there were several other uses of cross-casting in the early 1980s (the films Tootsie and Victor Victoria come to mind as does the television programme Bosom Buddies, which featured Tom Hanks, cross-dressed, in his first starring role), Cloud 9 was the mainstream theatrical event that provoked great interest and a lot of experimentation with cross-casting effects in the theatre. Of course, gay drag had long been a venerable dramatic form, and cross-dressing was as old the Greeks, but it now quickly became highlighted as possessing a variety of possible forms and uses for resistance to the prescribed sex and gender regime of representation. A great deal of scholarship has subsequently been published on this subject; in theatre studies important debates on the subversive potential of cross-dressing, the historically changing meanings it has evoked, and the difference in appropriations of drag for gay, lesbian, and straight spectators has been one of the most lively areas of development in the field.16

Churchill developed the script out of a three-week workshop on sexual politics with cast members of Joint Stock which involved deliberate casting of people with a variety of sexual orientations. She writes:

The starting point for our research was to talk about ourselves and share our very different attitudes and experiences. We also explored stereotypes and role reversals in games and improvisations, read books and talked to other people. Though the play's situations and characters were not developed in the workshop, it draws deeply on this material and I wouldn't have written the same play without it.

(Plays: One, p. 245)

The play's juxtaposition of Victorian times with the present (1979) came from the discovery in the workshop that the participants felt they had inherited Victorian traditions and ways of thinking about sexuality which they struggled to overcome or transform. Thus Churchill set the first act in Victorian Africa and the second in London in 1979. The characters had only aged twenty-five years, however, creating the sense that the characters of Act I had grown up into those in Act II, although, of course, this was impossible. Theatrically, however, Churchill could represent the presence of the past in the lives, minds, and bodies of living human beings.

The celebrated cross-casting in the first act set up the terms of identity struggle. Clive, the patriarch, was played by a man, but his wife Betty was played by a man as well. Edward, his son, was played by a woman and Joshua, his black servant, was played by a white man. Daughter Victoria was played by a rag doll. The exact meanings of these cross-cast roles have been subject to much discussion and, recently, significant revisions. For Churchill and the company, these were means of showing the internalisation of dominant power in the case of Betty and Joshua (both of whom want to be what Clive, the white man, wants them to be). Edward, on the other hand, is demonstrating sex and gender traits opposite to those he is being forced to emulate. Victoria, without voice or agency, might as well be a doll. In the second act, the doubling of the actors changed, and most actors in the present played their own sex, although Cathy, Victoria's daughter, is played by a man, underscoring her own gender struggles (see Churchill, Introduction to Cloud 9 in, Plays One, pp. 245–7).

Beyond this most simple explanation, however, critics have seen many more implications in these stagings. Betty played in drag makes visible the impossibility of ‘real women’ taking a space on the stage of representation (Kristeva).17 Joshua played by a white man refuses but also reinscribes racism through the allusion to minstrel blackface. Based on the biological bodies of the actors, it is difficult to avoid essentialising sex and gender. While the required Victorian/patriarchal behaviours are seen to be arbitrary and oppressive, the ‘underneath’ can be mistaken for the ‘real thing.’ Most recently, James Harding has pointed out that having a woman play Edward offers a visual image of the feminised male of stereotypical derision instead of offering a corrective to the imagination of identity linked to binary sex and gender categories.18

In intention, and I believe in its first wave of viewings, Cloud 9 managed through these strategies to destabilise the normal, to make fun of, but also to critique, the disciplinary methods family and culture use to require compulsory heterosexuality and gender normativity. Anyone reading the reviews of the first production can see how this casting was received and interpreted.19 However, as time moved on, both academic and popular thinking changed significantly as gay and lesbian studies have insisted on a more rigorous deconstruction of hetero-normativity and as technology has repeatedly challenged what counts as ‘normal’ or even possible. Transgendered and transexual discourse has provided alternative and complex ways of reading the relationship between nature and culture, and representation has itself proliferated alternate sexual images and identities in the arts and media which go beyond the historical moment of Cloud 9's conception.

James Harding looks at the stage images created by cross-casting, at the sexual acts actually performed on stage (only heterosexual), and at the liberal attitude of acceptance which he thinks left dominant assumptions intact: ‘When it comes to alternative forms of sexual desire, Cloud 9 makes acceptance easy because it represents homosexual and lesbian desire in terms that reinforce heterosexuality’ (‘Cloud Cover,’ p. 260). He notices, for instance, that the lesbian kiss of the first act is actually, visually, a woman kissing a man dressed as a woman, and so still heterosexual. Joshua and Harry decide to go to the barn to have sex, but instead of witnessing any physical contact between them, the scene takes place off-stage and is covered by a scene of cunnilingus between the heterosexual couple Clive and Mrs Saunders. While it is possible to answer some of Harding's arguments, especially within the transformative politics of the original production, this is undoubtedly a powerful and persuasive critique, one which critics will surely debate in print for some time. It is especially provocative to couple Harding's textual analysis with the question about the limits of representation on mainstream stages: that is, could Cloud 9 only succeed as widely as it did on the stages where it played because it did not cross over some repressive boundary internal to the apparatus of theatre itself—at least that kind of theatre? Ideology is of course natural to those who live it, and may only become apparent in retrospect: what may have looked like a highly provocative and subversive play in 1979 may actually have been capable of being assimilated into a theatre apparatus which was able to contain its most radical contents (something which could be said of Peter Hall's 1997/8 revival, for example). Again, we find the excitement and provocation of witnessing what difference historical context can make to a play's reception.

Of course, a different historical context can make other elements of the play expressive for its production moment. British director Sarah Pia Anderson, who was working as a young woman in the London professional theatre in the 1980s, directed a production of Cloud 9 at the University of California, Davis, in 1998. She found that the sex and gender contradictions of student life still carry a charge when directly expressed, but also that some profound dilemmas for middle-aged spectators emerge as the defining issues of the play:

I think that when the play was performed initially it was partially perceived as a piece about utopia. The theme of sexual liberation, laid out in the second act became the focus for those people in the audience who were looking for a redemptive message. But in 1998, it is significant that the character of Betty, in the second act, is presented as more integrated and accepting of herself, yet simultaneously, she is also firmly into middle age, and facing life with a keen sense of aloneness. I think there is an emblematic poignancy about her situation (mirrored in the lives of all the characters in the play) that speaks keenly and vibrantly to an audience today; there are no utopias and so how do we live together productively with that knowledge? It therefore opens itself to the current ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous attitudes toward ‘sexual liberation’ as a key (in and of itself) to personal and political salvation.20

Fen offered a different kind of response to Thatcherism—an attempt to stage the lives of those whose struggles were becoming invisible. Although based in historical research about the nature of life among working women of several generations, Elin Diamond is able to draw the connections between the play and its initial moment of production:

Fen grows out of a particularly depressing moment in British politics. The Falklands war of 1982 brought unprecedented popularity to the Thatcher government, which in 1983 was returned to power with a landslide majority. In bitter homage to Thatcherite economic policies, Fen opened in January 1983 with a speech by a ‘Japanese businessman’ who praises the ‘beautiful English countryside’ and the fens' ‘beautiful black earth’ and all the multinationals (Esso, Equitable Life, Imperial Tobacco, etc.) that own a piece of them. With this unequivocal reference to global capital fresh in our minds, we meet the fen women ‘working in a row, potato picking down a field,’ an immemorial image of peasant labor.21

This production also grew out of a Joint Stock workshop, and, in this experience, the company was taking up one of the challenges of the History Workshop relative to the necessity to focus on the history of working women. The source for the play is Mary Chamberlain's Fenwomen.22 This oral history documents the lives of agricultural labourers in a fen village, their personal and work experiences, their politics and their dreams. Churchill and director Les Waters read Chamberlain's book, and decided to hold two weeks of their workshop in Upwell, a village in the Fens, observing and talking to people, doing their own oral research.

The result is a taut, realistically specific play which represents the lives of multiple generations of Fen women, though it is set in the present. The original set design produced an actual dirt floor in which the characters picked potatoes but which also served as the floor in indoor scenes as well. Although, like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, this play is about an entire community and the lives of its women (in the original production, one man played all the male parts strengthening the focus on the women's experiences), the central action is the love affair between Val and Frank, ending in the violent murder of Val when she begs Frank to kill her. Torn between her children and her lover, she is unable to imagine a way out of the Fens, or the possibility of a different life. Although this is a dominant through-line, the play also includes stories about union organising on the great-grandmother's ninetieth birthday, and manages to chart out a good deal of the village's past history of toil and struggle through various images and characters.

With such a desperately bleak ending, however, Churchill calls on her dramaturgical inventiveness in the final scenes: in an insistence on the different laws of theatrical illusion, the dead Val walks on stage alive again to start talking as a nineteenth-century ghost, or perhaps a medium, who now summons other voices and images—one of a woman walking on stilts, as ancient Fen people did before the Fens were drained—and provides an alternative space, almost a different play where the linearity of plot gives way to the desires and images of the Fen woman. Diamond has written that ‘Churchill in effect moves the vanishing point. She decisively alters the logic of the illusion-apparatus in which women's desires cannot appear’ (Unmaking Mimesis, p. 93). In the last moments, a character who was always unable to sing stands as if singing and ‘we hear what she would have liked to sing.’23 This alternative closing vision breaks open the closed dramaturgy of the preceding scenes. It is a gesture which links Fen to other moments in Cloud 9 (the embracing of the two Bettys in the last scene), and the fanciful luncheon party in Top Girls. Thus Churchill refuses the finality and closure of stage realism by creating alternative theatrical fictions, parallel universes displaying a different logic and temporal scheme. These ruptures are one element of the politics of style, one of Churchill's means of refusing the closure of representation and the tyranny of the past.


Beginning in 1986 with A Mouthful of Birds, Churchill began a series of formal experiments which seems to take her in new directions. This work, which includes her most recent plays Blue Heart and Hotel (1997), combines her long-time interest in the limits of sanity/madness with the limits of theatrical representation. Thematically, one might say that Churchill desired to dramatise how the past inhabits the bodies and identities of people living in the present, and to demonstrate that repressions released entail violent as well as ecstatic expressions. Brought to the limits of theatrical representation in previous plays, she pushed towards new stylistic means of treating these phenomena.

A Mouthful of Birds was her first collaboration with Ian Spink, the choreographer with whom she has since worked on Lives of the Great Poisoners,The Skriker, and Hotel. She co-wrote the play with David Lan, and Spink co-directed the play with Les Waters. Over the next decade, Churchill gradually moved more and more into using music and dance as alternative languages to dialogue, creating new forms of theatrical movement and an acoustical score of more varied registers. Besides Spink, composer Orlando Gough has also developed an ongoing relationship with Churchill. He created the musical scores for Great Poisoners and Hotel.

These experiments have produced a flexible dramaturgy which is not trapped in linguistic modes of textuality. As Churchill struggled to explore areas at the limits of what could be represented by conventional stage means, she has pushed on the boundaries of her theatrical lexicon. Unlike some of the younger writers who work directly with sources of creativity other than language (see chapter 14 for examples), Churchill seems to deepen her talent and experience as a wordsmith while fostering collaborations with specialists in other forms such as dance and music.

A Mouthful of Birds uses Euripides' The Bacchae as a source, and stages a group of seven people who let down their guards for ‘one undefended day’ and find they are possessed. They are identified by their occupations: a switchboard operator, a mother, a vicar, a secretary, an acupuncturist, a businessman, and an unemployed person. They are possessed in ways that make a certain sense and allow a certain critique: the businessman who makes his livelihood selling meat falls in love with a pig; the mother is urged to kill her baby; Derek, who compensates for his unemployment by weight training and emphasising his manliness, is seduced by the hermaphrodite figure of Herculine Barbin, whom Churchill read about through Foucault. These possessions, then, enable the persons either to experience the full weight of repressed desires or to find themselves in the grip of what they have most tried to avoid. Violence, of course, breaks out, and the enactment of Pentheus, dressed as a woman, torn to pieces by women, joins the play to its source material. In the last part of the play, the characters are no longer possessed and offer monologues about how they are coping (or not) after the experience of possession.

In this play, Churchill seems to be grappling with the desire to represent subjective experience which is often invisible (inner torment, fantasy, contradiction) and also to examine what happens when some of this desire is released. Politically, the play came from two impulses—Churchill's interest in portraying women as potentially violent, against the stereotype of peaceful women and violent men, and Lan's experiences in Zimbabwe where possession became a political act of resistance against the oppressive government.24 Nevertheless, these more straightforward intentions do not do justice to the search in this play to confront ‘irrational’ aspects of ordinary life. It is as if Churchill is trying to stage what happens when a Foucauldian episteme breaks, when regimes of power shift. Jane Thomas, arguing for a Foucauldian reading of Cloud 9, writes: ‘It … exposes as a fallacy the notion of liberation from power through the articulation of our repressed sexual “truths.” The characters in Cloud 9 do not escape the operation of power; they merely succeed in changing the strategic situations they are in’ (‘Plays of Caryl Churchill,’ p. 179).

While Lives of the Great Poisoners and Hotel seem to be technical exercises in developing Churchill's facility with the multiple stage languages of dance and music, it is The Skriker which best illustrates how these thematic and aesthetic concerns continue in her work. The Skriker is a representation of another realm, magic and fearsome, co-present with a recognisable world of everyday. Drawing on fairy stories and folklore in English literature, Churchill creates a shape-shifter figure—a woman described as old and ‘damaged’—who haunts two young contemporary girls, Josie and Lily. Like Angie in Top Girls, they are representative of the underclass of abandoned and damaged children of recent years. In fact, the relationship between Angie and her friend Kit might almost be seen as the prototype for the friendship between Josie and Lily, proof that the CCCS call for attention to female teens' experiences needs to be constantly remembered and re-examined as time passes.

The Skriker is damaged because the world has damaged her. Her image is of ruined nature, ruined motherhood, ruined dreams. Fairy tales have turned nightmarish and she is more than part witch. As representative of a context of danger and malice in which Josie and Lily live, she appears as an adversary from another world who embodies all the damaged goods of the girls' own world. At the beginning of the play, Josie has murdered her baby and is in a mental hospital, and Lily is pregnant. The two girls have their friendship and commitment to each other, but by the end the Skriker will succeed in separating them and pulling them each into her spells. In separate sequences, Churchill breaks time and logic to portray a parallel underworld existence. The Skriker takes Josie away to her Underworld where it seems that she has been gone for years and years, but, on returning, she seems mad to Lily because, of course, Josie never left the room. At the end of the play, the Skriker takes Lily to the Underworld too. This time, Lily thinks it will be like she is only gone a minute but she comes back to find it is actually generations later and her grotesque and damaged granddaughter rages at her. Writing in dance sequences and giving the Skriker a Joycean-like language, part fairy-like, part gibberish, this play transcends all Churchill's previous experiments, figuring the past as a haunting in the present, and making theatrically viable the interior landscape of schizophrenic subjectivity, which has its own logic and representational syntax.

Echoing the insistence that girls' culture deserves to be studied for its own resistances, Churchill writes scenes for children in many of her plays—scenes which allow both the mapping of ideology and the subject's attempt to resist to be graphically and convincingly staged. These scenes about children's subjectivity and its formation are a major through-line in Churchill's work. They exist embedded in the wide-ranging attempts to connect class, race, gender, sexuality to a network of power relations through writing plays about communities. In each case, one might say that the ‘ethos’ of a particular community is seen to shape the ground of experimentation and constraint available to the participants. Thus Victorian Africa juxtaposed to London in 1979, transnational politics in the local Fens, or unnatural nature embodied in the Skriker—all these sites represent certain possibilities and specific constraints. Churchill's gift as a dramatist was/is to make these sites palpable as theatre and, as images of contemporary struggles, to make sense of place and of self in a location of permeable boundaries.

Dissatisfied with language, Churchill nevertheless uses it to advantage. She has continually experimented with its power and its limits. Moving from overlapping speech to the clever ‘nonsense’ of the Skriker, her most recent production, Blue Heart, combines the limits of communication with free-flowing theatrical logic to create one play in which a family is stuck repeating one scene over and over with variations, and a companion play in which one phrase, ‘blue kettle,’ is substituted for the actual words necessary to make sense of the sentences, while the characters' identities and tenuous connections to each other disintegrate. While imaginative and entertaining, and including an element of critique of the bourgeois family, these plays do not seem to achieve the break-through status of The Skriker. They do, however, form a promise of future work in multiple media that embraces impossible but compelling theatrical logics.

One way to understand Churchill's politics is through understanding her use of various theatrical styles. Plays like Light Shining,Vinegar Tom, and more recently Serious Money and Mad Forest show her mastery of epic dramaturgy to portray communities in the midst of epistemic change. Scenes of extreme realism are offset by theatrical breaks in Top Girls,Cloud 9, and Fen to prevent the fixity of traditional plot and characters. Since A Mouthful of Birds, while continuing to work in the styles she has developed, she has used dance and music to expand her theatrical means of breaking through the limits of representation. As she is a living writer, we can expect her work to keep changing along with the times.

In this period of ‘post-feminism,’ it is not surprising that the most recognisable features of feminist theatre seem to be diminished—all women casts, women's history, overt identity politics. Socialism, too, sometimes seems to have dissolved under real historical events and also the pressure post-structuralism and post-modernism exerted on class analysis and on the challenge to the under-theorised idea of ‘experience’ which underlay the foundational texts of British Marxism and cultural analysis (I am thinking of E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams). Yet the concerns of class have not vanished, and identity is still contested, if multiple. In the case of Churchill, The Skriker speaks to a time in the late 1990s when ‘welfare mothers’ like Lily and Josie are daily in the news, and Mad Forest (which I have not discussed here) combines a post-Marxist analysis of life in Romania after communism with the vampiric image of the past as a bourgeois visitor in a long topcoat.25 Churchill's politics continue to be comitted, and to require a constantly evolving theatrical style adequate to the characteristics of life approaching the millennium.

[I know] quite well what kind of society I would like: decentralized, nonauthoritarian, communist, nonsexist—a society in which people can be in touch with their feelings, and in control of their lives. But it always sounds both ridiculous and unattainable when you put it in words.

—Caryl Churchill 198226


Venues are in London unless stated.

1972 Owners, Royal Court Theatre
Schreber's Nervous Illness, King's Head Theatre
1975 Moving Clocks Go Slow, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Objections to Sex and Violence, Royal Court Theatre
Perfect Happiness, Soho Poly
1976 Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Vinegar Tom, Humberside Theatre, Hull
1977 Traps, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
1979 Cloud 9, Joint Stock, Dartington College of Arts, Devon
1980 Three More Sleepless Nights, Soho Poly
1982 Top Girls, Royal Court Theatre
1983 Fen, Joint Stock, University of Essex Theatre, Colchester
1984 Softcops, RSC, Barbican Pit
1986 A Mouthful of Birds, with David Lan, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
1987 Serious Money, Royal Court Theatre
1989 Hot Fudge, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Icecream, Royal Court Theatre
1990 Mad Forest, Central School of Speech and Drama
1991 Lives of the Great Poisoners, with Ian Spink and Orlando Gough, Arnolfi, Bristol
1994 The Skriker, Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre
Thyestes (translation), Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
1997 Blue Heart, Out of Joint, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmund
Hotel, Second Stride, The Place Theatres


  1. Ann McFerran, ‘The Theatre's (Somewhat) Angry Young Women,’ Time Out 28 October–3 November 1977, p. 13.

  2. Elaine Aston, Caryl Churchill (London: Northcote House, 1997), p. 25.

  3. Churchill herself has characterised this period as a watershed, but she meant exclusively in terms of working with companies instead of working alone. I want to extend the range of this watershed to include the developing intellectual and political currents of that time. Caryl Churchill, ‘Introduction,’ Plays One (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. xii.

  4. See Rob Ritchie (ed.) The Joint Stock Book; The Making of a Theatre Collective (London: Methuen, 1987).

  5. See for example, my After Brecht (Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 81–107; and ‘Rethinking Brecht: Deconstruction, Feminism, and the Politics of Form,’ Brecht Yearbook, 15, 1990, pp. 99–107; also Elin Diamond, ‘Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,’ TDR, 32:1, 1988, pp. 82–94; and ‘Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa, Duras,’ Theatre Journal, 37:3, 1985, pp. 273–86; also Amelia Howe Kritzer, The Plays of Caryl Churchill (London: Macmillan, 1991); also Rhonda Blair, ‘“Not … but” “Not-Not-Me”: Musings on Cross-Gender Performance,’ in Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement (eds.) Upstaging Big Daddy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 291–307.

  6. Colin Chambers, interview, Morning Star, 27 September 1976.

  7. Unattributed review, Time Out, 19 November 1976.

  8. For accounts of some of these issues in British feminism, see Terry Lovell (ed.) British Feminist Thought (London: Blackwell, 1990); Joni Lovenduski and Vicky Randall, Contemporary Feminist Politics (London: Oxford University Press, 1993); and Michelene Wandor, Once a Feminist; Interviews (London: Virago, 1990).

  9. Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 79.

  10. Hazel V. Carby, ‘White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood,’ in The Empire Strikes Back, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (London: Hutchinson, 1972), pp. 212–35.

  11. Jane Thomas, ‘The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Essays in Refusal,’ in Adrian Page (ed.) The Death of the Playwright? (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 163.

  12. Dworkin, Cultural Marxism, p. 248.

  13. Amelia Howe Kritzer provides the most detailed account of the play's genesis in The Plays of Caryl Churchill, pp. 138–40.

  14. Caryl Churchill, Top Girls in Plays Two (London and New York: Methuen, 1990), p. 138.

  15. Writing about her 1987 production, Juli Burk explicitly tries to produce the play ‘from the materialist-feminist perspective to question the price of Marlene's success rather than vilify her for her choices’: ‘Top Girls and the Politics of Representation,’ in Donkin and Clement (eds.) Upstaging Big Daddy, p. 74.

  16. See, for example, Sue-Ellen Case, ‘Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,’ in Lynda Hart (ed.) Making a Spectacle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), pp. 282–99; Jill Dolan, Presence and Desire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993); Kate Davy, ‘Reading Past the Heterosexual Imperative: Dress Suits to Hire,TDR 33:1, 1989, pp. 153–70; Moe Meyer (ed.) The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994). Also, of course, Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

  17. Julia Kristeva's early thinking had an impact on theatre scholars in the 1980s. For an account of her importance, see Reinelt ‘Feminist Theory and the Problem of Performance,’ Modern Drama, 32:1, 1989, pp. 48–57.

  18. James Harding, ‘Cloud Cover: (Re) Dressing Desire and Comfortable Subversions in Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9,’PMLA, 113:2, March, 1998, pp. 258–72.

  19. See Linda Fitzsimmons, compiler, File on Churchill (London: Methuen, 1989), for review citations, pp. 40–54.

  20. Personal interview with Sarah Pia Anderson, 2 September 1998.

  21. Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 92.

  22. Mary Chamberlain, Fenwomen: Portrait of Women in an English Village (1975), revised (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).

  23. Caryl Churchill, Fen,Plays Two, p. 145.

  24. See authors' introductions to A Mouthful of Birds (London: Methuen Theatrescript, 1986), pp. 5–6.

  25. Churchill was one of a group of Left-wing playwrights who wrote quickly about the revolutions in Eastern Europe after 1989 (Howard Brenton and David Edgar also wrote major plays at this time). They can be seen as trying to keep a discourse of the Left alive by analysing through theatre both what happened and what the price for market capitalism will be.

  26. Quoted in Aston, Caryl Churchill—in fact, at the beginning of her book, p. 3.

Further Reading

Primary Sources: Plays

Churchill's plays have appeared in many single editions published by Methuen and also by Nick Hern Books in addition to the ones listed below, which anthologise the main plays and a selection of early work.

Churchill, Caryl. Plays One:Owners,Traps,Vinegar Tom,Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,Cloud 9. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

———. Plays Two:Softcops,Top Girls,Fen,Serious Money. London and New York: Methuen, 1990.

———. Shorts: Three More Sleepless Nights,Lovesick,The After-Dinner Joke,Abortive,Schreber's Nervous Illness,The Judge's Wife,The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution,Hot Fudge,Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen,Seagulls. London: Nick Hern, 1990.

———. Plays Three:Icecream,Mad Forest,Thyestes,The Skriker,A Mouthful of Birds,Lives of the Great Poisoners. London: Nick Hern, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Aston, Elaine. Caryl Churchill. London: Northcote House, 1997.

Blair, Rhonda. ‘“Not … but” “Not-Not-Me”: Musings on Cross-Gender Performance.’ In Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement (eds.) Upstaging Big Daddy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993: 291–307.

Burk, Juli. ‘Top Girls and the Politics of Representation.’ In Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement (eds.) Upstaging Big Daddy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993: 67–78.

Carlson, Susan. Women and Comedy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Chamber, Colin, and Mike Prior. ‘Caryl Churchill: Women and the Jigsaw of Time.’ In Chamber and Prior (eds.) Playwrights' Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1987: 198–9.

Cousin, Geraldine. Churchill The Playwright. London: Methuen, 1989.

Diamond, Elin. ‘Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa, Duras.’ Theatre Journal 37.3 (1985): 273–86.

———. ‘Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism.’ TDR 32.1 (Spring 1988): 82–94.

———. ‘(In) Visible Bodies in Churchill's Theater.’ In Lynda Hart (ed.) Making a Spectacle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989: 259–81.

———. Unmaking Mimesis. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Dworkin, Dennis. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Fitzsimmons, Linda (compiler). File on Churchill. London: Methuen, 1989.

Harding, James. ‘Cloud Cover: (Re) Dressing Desire and Comfortable Subversions in Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9.PMLA 113.2 (March 1998): 258–72.

Innes, Christopher. ‘Caryl Churchill: Theatre as a Model for Change.’ In Innes (ed.), Modern British Drama 1890–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992: 460–72.

Keyssar, Helene. ‘The Dramas of Caryl Churchill: The Politics of Possibility.’ In Keyssar (ed.) Feminist Theatre. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984: 77–101.

Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Marohl, Joseph. ‘De-realized Women: Performance and Identity in Top Girls.Modern Drama 30.3 (September 1987): 376–88.

Quigley, Austin E. ‘Stereotype and Prototype: Character in the Plays of Caryl Churchill.’ In Quigley (ed.) Feminine Focus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989: 25–52.

Reinelt, Janelle. ‘Rethinking Brecht: Deconstruction, Feminism, and the Politics of Form.’ Brecht Yearbook 15 (1990): 99–107.

———. After Brecht. Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 1994.

Thomas, Jane. ‘The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Essays in Refusal.’ In Adrian Page (ed.) The Death of the Playwright? London: Macmillan, 1992: 160–85.


Churchill, Caryl


Churchill, Caryl (Vol. 31)