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Caryl Churchill 1938–
English dramatist and scriptwriter.
Churchill is the most widely performed and published female dramatist in contemporary British theater. Her works challenge social and dramatic conventions and are informed by a strong commitment to socialism and feminism. Churchill is often linked with Britain's "Fringe Theater" movement, which includes such political playwrights as David Hare and Edward Bond. Stylistically complex, Churchill's plays are noted for their innovative techniques, including the manipulation of casting and chronology.
Churchill wrote plays for radio and television during the 1960s. With the rise of the Fringe Theater in the 1970s she found outlets for theatrical performance of her work. Many of her plays were produced at the Royal Court, a subsidized alternative theater, where Churchill became the first female resident playwright.
Churchill first drew significant critical attention with Objections to Sex and Violence (1975), which introduced feminist ideology into her work. A female terrorist is the central character in this exploration of the relationship between sexuality, violence, and power. Her next play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), explores the combination of religious and revolutionary fervor that contributed to rebellion during the Cromwellian era.
Churchill became recognized as an accomplished playwright in both Britain and the United States with Cloud Nine (1979), a critical and popular success. Critics praised her wit and inventiveness and several proclaimed her a major talent. The play, set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era and then in present-day London, is a farce in which rampant sexual activity is exposed against a background of genteel Victorian manners. Churchill uses several theatrical devices in Cloud Nine to underscore what she believes to be the artificiality of conventional sex roles. Churchill stated that her goal in Cloud Nine was to write a play about sexual politics that would not be simply feminist but would reveal how sexual repression, like colonial repression, dehumanizes everyone. She has commented, "I brought together two preoccupations of mine—people's internal states of being and the external political structures which affect them, which make them insane."
Churchill employed similar devices in Top Girls (1982), a satire of a society in which the only way for women to succeed professionally is to adopt the worst qualities of men. Her next play, Fen (1983), was jokingly referred to as "Bottom Girls" by Frank Rich because it portrays lower-class women whom the women's liberation movement has left behind. In Fen, Churchill explores both the political problem of economic exploitation of farm workers and such personal problems as one woman's dilemma of choosing between her lover and her children. Her recent play Softcops (1984), an occasionally humorous but predominantly serious work about crime, punishment, and social responsibility, relies heavily on Michel Foucault's Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish).
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)
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In a short-lived curiosity from England—"Owners," by Caryl Churchill—we had on hand a promising dramatist…. The play is a farce about hatred, power, despair, baby-selling, arson, and murder (Joe Orton certainly released something in the British psyche) among some working-class people in a North London development. Marion, the despotic wife of a butcher, has very recently made a lot of money in real estate, and the story of her machinations and the anguish she causes those around her is told in a series of short scenes, almost like animated horror comics. The resultant confusion was not necessarily transatlantic, or necessarily a matter of direction; Miss Churchill is not a very firm or clear playwright. She is, however, occasionally clever, although she sounds as if she had learned about the lower orders entirely from old bound volumes of Punch; her characters talk like captions. (p. 56)
Edith Oliver, "Suffer, Little Children," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 14, May 26, 1973, pp. 54, 56.∗
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Like Owners, Caryl Churchill's [Objections to Sex and Violence] carries a portmanteau title. It is a danger sign. Ownership is a fascinating and timely theme, opening up a perspective of multiple ironies on the possession of property and the possession of people. Likewise sex and violence…. But meanwhile, who are the people in the play and what happens to them?
To this question Miss Churchill returns a flimsy and long-winded answer. We are on a beach … where Jule, a taciturn urban terrorist, has retired with a boyfriend after being named in a conspiracy charge. What makes a nice girl start blowing people up? I imagine this question was on the author's mind at some stage of the play's composition; but we never find out. Nor do we discover why, having gone into hiding, Jule should have peppered her acquaintances with holiday postcards.
But however improbable their arrival, all the visitors come under the umbrella of the title. To start with, there is sister Annie, who seems to be living the kind of life that caused Jule's rebellion; an executive sex-object, who gets even more inanimate treatment when she junks the typewriter and enrolls as a house cleaner for Mr Big's wife….
Annie, fresh from five years of marital battering, is accompanied by a docile lover who responds to every verbal challenge with dithering equivocation. Others on the scene are a miserable pair of middle-aged Festival of Lighters, the woman scanning the seascape for likely rapists, the man diving into a porno magazine as soon as she turns her back. Then there is a lonely old lady from Watford … against whom the husband directs a furtive assault: and, right at the end, Jule's Communist husband, who arrives primed with ideological weapons.
It is all there: liberalism, the National Front, hard-line Socialism, and the terrorist ethic (if that is the word). But theatrically speaking who cares? I suspect that even Miss Churchill does not care very much, as what gets spoken about on stage differs totally from what happens. So far as events and immediate feelings are concerned we are back in the traditional feminine world where personal relationships are all and everything would work out satisfactorily if men would only behave properly….
Jule is confined to holding the rest of the company at arm's length and striding about masterfully in a bathing suit, until faced with the recurring question: "Do you remember how …?" at which, unfortunately, her defences are apt to crumble. This is a difficult time for playwrights; but I doubt whether anything is to be gained from going through the motions of writing about important issues when one has nothing to say.
Irving Wardle, "An Unfilled Portmanteau," in The Times, London, January 3, 1975, p. 7.
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A shabby seaside lodging house; a meek little man bitterly hurt when as a birthday present he is given a child's toy drum; two visitors, one fast-talking, the other viciously sinister; these things, when Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" received its famous first production, sent through one a surge of joy and wonder and awe at the revelation of a new dramatist of indisputable genius….
One has something of the same excitement in watching Caryl Churchill's "Objections to Sex and Violence."… Neither Miss Churchill nor Mr Pinter believes that it is necessary, nor even possible, to explain everything. In "The Birthday Party" we know neither why Stanley is persecuted, nor why everything that Goldberg does to Stanley will eventually be done to Goldberg. In "Objections to Sex and Violence" the bikini-clad girl on the beach never gives an adequate explanation of her implacable resolution to say No to society.
This sense of obscurity, this feeling that we live, precariously, in a world beyond rational explanation, is one of the most powerful factors in the work of both authors. Mr Pinter exploits the verbally concrete and ideologically amorphous: "Who watered the wicket at Melbourne?" And Miss Churchill goes so far, in a fascinating disquisition on the possible meanings of the phrase "I believe," as to show that the very words which we use to disperse obscurity are themselves obscure.
Harold Hobson, "In Search of Happiness," in The Times, London, January 12, 1975, p. 32.∗
W Stephen Gilbert
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Knowing her apprenticeship in radio, I hope it doesn't seem too easy a cavil to say that Caryl Churchill's [Objections to Sex and Violence] feels more like a chamber work for voices than a fully realised dramatic event in a medium-sized theatre. Several commentators have noted an uneasiness about the setting up of the duologues which are the play's mode, a lack of conviction in the sheer mechanics of pushing a pair of speakers on and off. Conceived as a radio work, the play would easily shed these minor impediments and the more elusive, perhaps more fundamental problem of its not fully resolved dependence on a setting that is and is not formalised, particular. The lack of conviction that I find is spatial.
The text itself takes the form of a sort of double lobster-quadrille around two Alices, one a young woman extricated from marriage to a down-the-line CP drone and integrating with a small group who may or may not be about to plant bombs, the other an old woman returned to what may or may not be the scene of a sexual adventure that memory and loneliness have rendered idyllic….
Ms Churchill does nothing so crude as to write in parallel lines. The connections are there to be picked up or not. She avoids clearly pinning her characters down with issues. She has a way of sidling up to her themes and giving them a nudge which is both fascinating and maddening. (p. 24)
In the most theatrical image of the evening (and the play's most important lack is the visual realisation of the verbal motifs), Annie has rendered Jule a talking head by burying her up to the neck in the sand, as she used to do in childhood. Mocked for her threat of violence, she stuffs sand in Jule's mouth and flounces off. The image is a small miracle of compression and evocation. Jule is, as it were, raped and murdered. Abandoned in the sand, silenced, violated, she provides a link between the desperate search of Miss Forbes for an unexorcised ghost and the desperate inarticulate, dead end of anarchic action….
There are many telling moments in the dialogue—Madge's resolute equation of service and force, Eric's merry relation of accident to justice, Jule's husband Terry's careful distinction between passion and action. Ms Churchill is excellent on the instability of words like 'hurt' and 'belief', the absurdity of concepts like 'happiness' and 'non-violence'. But of course these things make for a largely static and wordy piece of theatre…. Objections to Sex and Violence is less funny, more schematic than Caryl Churchill's previous stage play Owners, but it marks a considerable advance. It reminds me at times of the work of Edward Bond, by which I mean the highest praise. The sheer economy and resonance of Bond's stagecraft is unsurpassed amongst contemporary dramatists. Ms Churchill may be going to alter that assessment. At any rate, she's going to be a major dramatist. (p. 25)
W Stephen Gilbert, in a review of "Objections to Sex and Violence," in Plays and Players, Vol. 22, No. 6, March, 1975, pp. 24-5.
J. W. Lambert
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Objections to Sex and Violence was … something of a morality play without a moral. Its characters, that is to say, are all firmly representative of some class or attitude of mind, rather too much so for the good of the play, yet deployed with a short-term intelligence which makes them interesting moment-by-moment without leaving behind any clear impression of what Miss Churchill is saying, or indirectly expressing by their interplay. The scene is a rocky beach…. It is for some a place of escape, for others a familiar alternative to everyday life or a possible means to recapture lost happiness. (p. 44)
In the background of the play Arthur and Madge, a solid couple in lower-middle-class late-middle-age, brighten their dim routines by expressing disapproval of almost everything, she leading their chorus of disapproval, he echoing, and consoling himself with glum sexual fantasy which suddenly takes an active form when he finds himself sheltering with an old woman if possible even lonelier than he is; she is horrified by his flash of folly—but won't take action against him…. Odd that Miss Churchill should write with such essential truth about these two, yet give Madge lines of such crudity…. So much, however, for the older generation, a mere chorus of failure. The play is really about a group in their early thirties, some would say leftovers from the Sixties…. [Jule, the] figure round whom they revolve—is she a failure too? Well, no—she is an enigma: one of those girls—and they certainly exist in real life—whose sole stock-in-trade seems to be sexuality and contempt, both of which of course exert considerable power on those susceptible to them. We have so often been given impotence as a specious explanation of sadistic authoritarianism that at least it makes a change for Miss Churchill to draw this brutal girl as the only character in her play to have, and make no bones about, a satisfactory sex life. That she is cruel is clear; that she is also an active terrorist is not. Certainly she is also the only character in the play who might become one; and Miss Churchill's conclusion would seem to be that the connection between sex and violence is that both can be satisfactorily exercised at someone else's expense, but that people who don't so exercise them are all failures…. (pp. 44-5)
J. W. Lambert, in a review of "Objections to Sex and Violence," in Drama, No. 116, Spring, 1975, pp. 44-5.
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If I were to be asked to list the plays which have given me most satisfaction this year, [Light Shining in Buckinghamshire] would come pretty high on the list. Two features of this production impressed me very much. First of all, there was the complexity of its concern; many important questions were raised and no trite answers offered. On the face of it an account of the English Revolution, this is in fact a genuine study of revolution itself, any revolution. When, towards the end, one of the actors suggests that a great opportunity has been lost, one is not given the feeling that a point is being made, but that a question has been seriously asked. Moreover, an even more important question is asked by the religious beliefs and expectations of the characters—is there a direct correlation between the efficiency of a revolution and the nature of the society that creates it? In other words, what kind of omelette do you get when you break rotten eggs? Parallels with our own time exist in plenty … but they operate at several levels and do not exist merely as parallels. The second feature which impresses is the language: spare, uncluttered, colourful when it needs to be, usually low-keyed and neutral, the awareness of the importance of the language is always evident. (pp. 20-1)
Donald Campbell, "Traditional Movement," in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 2, November, 1976, pp. 20-1.∗
David Zane Mairowitz
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In the opening moments of Light Shining In Buckinghamshire Caryl Churchill gets her sharpened hook into God—the God who first supports Charles I against Parliament, then sides with Parliament against the monarchy and, at all points, backs Property against the common people—and does not relent until she has pulled Him (decidedly Him in this case) down to face the social outcasts of the misfired English Revolution….
One of the dramatic virtues of this magnificent play is that it can assume a certain given historical foundation and proceed to de-emphasise specific characters and events. In fact the play's history is rooted wholly in a collective consciousness which is its protagonist and hero. This is neither a group of specified individuals moving together or even a defined community experiencing the raising of armies or the aftermath of civil war, but an interweaving of historical and fictional persons appearing and disappearing, together and independently, through the middle of the 17th century, seeking parallel roads to freedom, paths occasionally crossing, reaching similar (if not cohesive) conclusions. Churchill works against their identification: 'there is no need for the audience to know each time which character they are seeing'. Consequently, roles are interchanged so that no one player carries the same character throughout, thereby stressing the collective vision of history even in the staging of the play. Initially this is confusing, but Churchill does not feel constrained by the pre-eminence 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….
Isaiah has the first prophetic word: 'The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly'. Churchill now proceeds to take the world to pieces. With the anticipation of the Millennium (worked out as likely to come in 1650), an army of Christ is raised to fight for Parliament against the monarchy. The poor march and die to justify the overturning of the world's perfect order. Yet this upsets the clerical hierarchy and brings forth a new generation of preachers who even permit questions in church. In one of the play's best scenes, a woman disrupts the service to contradict the preacher, exposing the hollowness of the new 'liberty'….
She is of course ejected and beaten because the preacher cannot go so far as to allow a woman to speak up in church.
So, through the eyes of those who have been misled, we see the revolution backtracking even before it has gone its full progress. Using documentary material, Churchill gives us the Putney Debates of 1647, with a not over-significant Cromwell in the chair, and shows that Property will inevitably rule the day, that Parliament has no intention of stretching its new liberties to embrace common people, and that those who fought with God have been deceived. The only recourse is to upset the pattern of social relations yet again….
The long-range result is an intensification of class awareness, if not yet class warfare. But Churchill's handling of it avoids any trite political traps. Standing old Isaiah on his head, she seems to suggest a possible reconstruction of the broken world, solely from the viewpoint of the downtrodden….
This is no 1967-Instant God-Package, but the existential logic of a dramatic world determined by the social moves of those who have nothing. The result is not a realised political or even social revolution—as it was not in 1647—but the harvest of a revolutionary experience, the collapse of fixed hierarchy, the recognition of betrayal, the beginnings of social doubt. Those who have gathered at the final prayer meeting learn not to expect their freedom to be granted them … but that it must be taken, by them, and not in false solidarity with any other class. They are left with an ecstatic solidarity of their own—'all things in common'—and a sense of power (both men and women) for common future use…. (p. 24)
Emerging from successful combat with God, Churchill now takes on the devil, and shows him to be a convenient tool in the historical oppression of women. In Vinegar Tom, the witches are those women of all classes who have acted rebelliously or lustily and thereby gained the wrath of the emotionally suppressed community. The women who are unmarried, for one reason or another, are social outcasts and therefore perfect targets for simple jealousy and for religious and political exploitation. (pp. 24-5)
The scenario is more or less familiar. The equation of witchery with social nonconformity has been used before dramatically, reaching a pinnacle perhaps with Miller's The Crucible. There are threads in Vinegar Tom which provide new feminist dimensions. Miss Betty … refuses to marry a man of her father's choice and is in danger of hanging as a witch. But because of her status, her rebellion can be construed as 'sickness' and, in the end, she saves herself by capitulating to the marriage—only a less painful form of woman's torture.
Equally, [a] farmer's wife is as loveless and debased as any of the other women, but she is never a candidate for hanging because she suppresses her anguish and maintains her 'expected' role, instead of protesting. But this side of the play seems only sketched, as are the more dynamic later scenes of actual witchfinding. Instead of dramatic elaboration these themes are expanded by way of song interruptions, to place the problems in a contemporary voice….
The impact is one of estrangement, especially when the lyrics become medically and physically graphic, or when a male Music Hall act … [expounds] on the inferior qualities of women. But the playtext is not strong enough to withstand the breaking of its rhythm and antagonism of the musical interludes. Where Light Shining In Buckinghamshire gains in power from episodic shots gathering in momentum,… [Vinegar Tom] does not override the conflict of its dramatic and musical pitches. Nonetheless, even the pieces of Vinegar Tom confirm Caryl Churchill's writing strength, and leave sharp scars if failing to deliver the coup de grace.
It is [Churchill's] good fortune—and ours—that she has found two companies (Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment) who are wholly sympathetic not only with her work, but with her working methods. Both plays were born out of direct textual improvisation with groups of actors who do not fear this kind of laborious give-and-take experience. That this collaboration can produce not just the usual good will, but powerful writing, can bode nothing but good for the dismal, entrenched English theatre. In the case of Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, the effort has given us one of the finest pieces of English playwriting for years. (p. 25)
David Zane Mairowitz, "God and the Devil," in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 5, February, 1977, pp. 24-5.
W Stephen Gilbert
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[Traps] has a title which seems to promise more than the play delivers—or possibly less than the play delivers. Elliptically structured, it features one returning and three regular communards plus a visiting couple. It also features a clock set at real time throughout and a setting … which is sited variously in town and country. I take it these things are not gratuitous; Churchill's purpose nonetheless remains obscure. Thus a character accounted dead soon returns without provocation of comment, another entering in a flourish of anal complex repeats the performance later almost word for word before things turn ugly—ludicrously ugly. After the interval, a destroyed plant is restored.
A fascinating script, always several pages ahead of the audience, especially on critics' night, offers plenty of sinewy lines and joyous juxtapositions and Churchill's most confident and creative deployment of stagecraft to date. The result is that one regrets the feeling of exclusion from an enigma where one might have resented being subjected to arbitrary mystification. The clearest thread, on which a repressed bourgeois … comes to reclaim his wife and stays to discover with a brittle chirpiness the wonders of communal living ('I only just begin to appreciate how the sun shines on the moon'), works well though it could not be said to astonish. (p. 33)
W Stephen Gilbert, "'Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi' … and 'Traps'," in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 6, March, 1977, pp. 32-3.∗
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[Cloud Nine] takes a leaf or two out of what used to be called our island's story and tears them up into shreds. We begin on an outpost of empire in the African jungle circa 1900; we end in a London park and a recreation hut circa 1979. To highlight the caricature a black is played by a white, a woman by a man, an infant by a grown person. The result is a little bit like an extended Farjeon revue sketch….
Ms. Churchill gives an adroit and amusing exposure of what goes on behind the masks of conventional behaviour. Playwrights who readily avail themselves of the freedom to show things that used to be regarded as disgusting and to mention things that used to be regarded as unmentionable are nearly always utterly humourless about it; or else they have a 'black' sense of humour that leaves me white with boredom. It is refreshing to find in Cloud Nine a genuinely funny play arising out of this freedom.
Anthony Curtis, in a review of "Cloud Nine," in Drama, No. 133, Summer, 1979, p. 57.
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If any liberationist purpose underlies this diptych of British sexuality under the reign of two dear Queens, Caryl Churchill has wisely left it well concealed. The only didactic point that occurred to me after [viewing Cloud Nine] … was that its abrupt contrast between seething lust in a Kiplingesque colonial outpost and polymorphous experimentation in modern London illustrated the decline of farce writing in direct proportion to the relaxation of moral taboo.
That begs the question that Miss Churchill wanted to write a farce in the first place. It is a fine piece …, but I think Miss Churchill disregards the crude facts of audience psychology by starting the evening with some uproariously coarse jokes at the expense of Victorian pieties, and then modulating into something altogether gentler and non-satirical. Long into last night's the second half, there were uneasy giggles from spectators trying to view a study in sexual evolution as if it were another ludicrous chapter in the history of the White Man's Burden.
However, one can see why Miss Churchill has settled for this arrangement, and why she defies chronology by bringing back her Victorian characters in no more than middle-age in the second act. Cloud Nine is an exercize on the theme of ghosts; of the persistence of supposedly discarded moral imperatives. And it makes the point by showing them at the height of their power before examining the variety of modern rebellion against them.
To put that another way, it is about role-playing. Everyone at Clive's African outpost, from his docile wife and commanding mother-in-law to the native houseboy (the most rigidly British of the lot) has a fixed role. In the second act—which moves out of doors into a public park—the characters have to make up their own roles….
[Beyond] the laughs, the real dramatic interest lies in the double approach to character as a fixed or fluid thing. The triumph of the play … is that this point is inscribed in the casting.
Roles are doubled, and they change hands from the first to the second acts…. The production reaches a brief poetic point of rest in its … title [song]. Otherwise it points the way to Cloud Nine with a gentle playfulness, satiric without ever becoming censorious, in which sex always retains a human face.
Irving Wardle, in a review of "Cloud Nine," in The Times, London, September 10, 1980, p. 10.
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[Cloud 9 is] a very funny play full of odd dramatic spasms. It probably helps to have an interest in England and its former empire with its setting sun. Yet beyond this, it is fundamentally a play about love relationships to which that fading Empire merely provides the backcloth.
The play is in two distinct parts. The first is Africa in 1880…. The second part is London in 1980, although as the playwright Caryl Churchill is at ambiguous pains to point out, "… but for the characters it is only 25 years later."
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—a concept that other British playwrights such as David Storey and Peter Nichols have also hinted at. Possible—but probably irrelevant to one's ultimate enjoyment of the play.
Miss Churchill is saying here—despite the imperial background—that all human relationships, if genuine, have their validity. Her fantastic parade of heterosexuals, homosexuals and bisexuals, the relationship of parents with children, the relationships of people with servants, the entire kaleidoscope of relationships, particularly sexual relationships, come under her hilarious yet loving scrutiny.
What I really like about Miss Churchill is not merely her sweetly deft writing skills, although they do help, but her moral inability to put anyone or anything down. She makes judgments on relations and relationships, but she is never judgmental. Perhaps it is actually the quality of discreet acceptance that made the British Empire what it was, and is still maintained in some shadowed shape in British society today….
This is a zany play, but one with terrific wit and humanity to it. It is far from perfect—in fact, it is sometimes positively disorganized. Yet it is a play that has something to say to us today about kindness, affection, perversion and most of all, love.
Clive Barnes, "Zany 'Cloud' Has a Bright Silver Lining," in New York Post, May 19, 1981. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XLIV, No. 14, September 7-13, 1981, p. 192.
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["Cloud 9"] may not transport the audience all the way to Cloud 9—but it surely keeps us on our toes. The evening's subject is sexual confusion, and Miss Churchill has found a theatrical method that is easily as dizzying as her theme. Not only does she examine a cornucopia of sexual permutations—from heterosexual adultery right up to bisexual incest—but she does so with a wild array of dramatic styles and tricks….
Miss Churchill, as you might gather, is one daft writer. "Cloud 9" … has real failings, but intelligence and inventiveness aren't among them; we're always interested in what the playwright is up to, no matter what the outcome….
[The first] half of "Cloud 9" is about what happens when a very proper colonial British family receives a visit from a pith-helmeted explorer named Harry Bagley…. While the natives outside the camp are getting restless, they have nothing on the rakish Harry. He's really been too long in the bush. Grabbing every clandestine opportunity he can, this explorer seduces the household's wife (played by a man), schoolboy son (played by a woman) and obsequious black servant (played by a white)—all before getting married to the governess, a lesbian.
What makes this carnal circus funny is the contrast between the characters' manners and deeds. No matter what they do, Miss Churchill's colonials act and talk like true-blue, genteel Victorians. When Harry is caught in a homosexual act, he apologizes by explaining that he is merely the helpless victim of "a disease worse than diphtheria."
The joke does wear thin too quickly. Once we understand that Miss Churchill is stripping bare the hypocrisies of an oversatirized era, Act I becomes stalled. The transsexual casting is also problematic: though the male and female impersonations are amusing, not smirky, they nonetheless serve the unwanted function of announcing the jokes. Nor is the story's farcical structure so strong that it pulls up the slack. Instead of the ingenious clockwork of, say, an Alan Ayckbourn play, Miss Churchill provides a progression of overly similar scenes that steadily reveal each character's particular proclivity.
Act II has its own problems—and pleasures. We re-encounter three members of the 1880 family, as well as four new characters, and find that, in 1980, they are as liberated as their predecessors were repressed. But progress presents its own difficulties. The homosexual schoolboy of 1880, now hitting middle age, is so confused by his love for both his sister and an insolent young male lover that he worries that he might be a lesbian….
Miss Churchill covers this and much more territory by relying on tender monologues. The speeches are very well written, but one hungers for stronger interchanges between the characters. An element of ideological Polyanna-ism also creeps in, for the playwright provides most of her lost souls with happy endings. Is everyone really so much better off in the swinging 1980's? It seems a waste that Act II's wittiest conceit—the ghostly return of characters from Act I—is mainly used to draw mawkish parallels between now and then….
[Betty] delivers a beautiful closing speech in which she graphically describes how she overcame her sheltered 1880 upbringing to take her rightful place in a modern, feminist world of infinite possibilities. "If there isn't a right way to do things," she explains, "you just have to invent one."
By the end, we're terribly moved by this middle-aged woman's brave attempt to reinvent herself—just as we're moved by Caryl Churchill's attempt to reinvent the comedy of manners so that it might do such a heroine justice.
Frank Rich, "Sexual Confusion on 'Cloud 9'," in The New York Times, May 20, 1981, p. C30.
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[Act One of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 is] a dizzying and delectable farce….
Her emphasis is on both "white" and "man"—on race and sex, though particularly on the latter. From the first scene, Churchill … is clearly intent on upsetting our preconceptions about both. (p. 564)
By mismatching the performers with their stage roles, Churchill underscores the artificiality and conventionality of the characters' sex roles. A clever theatrical idea thus serves a dramatic purpose, and the sexual shenanigans that result give rise to more than just the predictable cheap laughs…. [When] the timid Edward finally shows some spunk by dressing down Joshua, his mother cheers …, while we are plunged into a jungle of conflicting feelings about what it means for a "boy" (with the quotation marks very much supplied by the casting) to become a man, when masculinity is defined in terms of sexual as well as racial superiority.
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. (pp. 564-65)
Sound confusing? Well, it is, but Act Two unfortunately lacks the delightful and profoundly disturbing satirical quality of Act One. The second act begins, for example, with Gerry's earnest and explicit monologue about a very brief encounter (homosexual) on a train, and ends with Betty's equally humorless and unembarrassed paean to the joys of masturbation. In between, rather than writing (and casting) against type to jar our expectations and expose the shallowness of sexual stereotypes, Churchill has the characters and the performers fulfill them in the dreariest possible way. (p. 565)
To be sure, it is perfectly legitimate for Churchill to try to impart some seriousness retrospectively by bringing the characters off Cloud 9 to earth after the intermission. We should not expect that the second act will continue in the farcical vein of the first, which is broader than it is deep. But the plodding realism of Act Two seems to be motivated more by political than by aesthetic considerations. Churchill belongs to the loose coalition of vaguely Marxist playwrights in England who emerged in the mid-seventies from the radical theater movement called The Fringe, which arose during the late sixties in reaction against the psychologistic tradition that had dominated the British stage since the appearance of Osborne and Pinter. Along with Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, David Hare and others, Churchill has written plays (several others before Cloud 9, which is her first to be produced in America) that are sweepingly critical not only of capitalist society but of the conventions of the bourgeois stage, with its alleged privatization of experience (as in the works of the so-called "angry young men," whose problems, or so it is charged, are more personal than political).
Although the first act of Cloud 9 is very much in accordance, aesthetically and politically, with this ambitious critique, it nonetheless succeeds as a rather old-fashioned satire, because there is very little at stake. No one today would defend the racist and sexist attitudes of Victorian colonials; the only problem facing a contemporary playwright is coming up with clever new ways of savaging those old beliefs, and Churchill certainly succeeds in doing so.
To oversimplify somewhat, her problem in Act Two, by contrast, is to show how (or whether) sexual behavior is just as entangled with the fate of Empire today as it was a hundred years ago. Yet the blurring of the boundary between public and private over the past century has eliminated the easiest target of the satirist—hypocrisy. Sex is hardly the "dirty little secret" that it was to the Victorians; indeed, there are precious few secrets regarding sexual behavior these days.
So Churchill is seemingly stuck with presenting her characters more or less at face value. Indeed, her avowed liberationist convictions almost force her to take seriously their behavior and attitudes (feminism, radical lesbianism, gay liberation), which seem—regardless of one's personal politics—as richly deserving of satire as any of a century ago (or any others found today). So the caustic witticisms of Act One give way to the didactic exhortations of Act Two, and ideology triumphs over sensibility. (p. 566)
Robert Asahina, in a review of "Cloud 9," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1981–82, pp. 564-66.
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[Cloud Nine] and Top Girls, taken together, show that [Caryl Churchill] has evolved into a playwright of genuine audacity and assurance, able to use her considerable wit and intelligence in ways at once unusual, resonant and dramatically riveting.
Top Girls itself opens with the sort of dinner-party you might conjure up in some spectacularly fanciful game of Consequences. In the Prima Donna restaurant, Pope Joan, who supposedly spread her skirts over St Peter's throne in 854, is hobnobbing with a Japanese courtesan, a Victorian lady-traveller, Chaucer's ultra-patient Griselda, and Dulle Griet, whom Brueghel painted invading hell in apron and armour. All suffered, either personally or through the abuse of their children, and all coped with the buffeting of their eras, with extraordinary courage. Each tells her tale, sometimes in excitedly overlapping sentences: a device I first thought was supposed to add realism to [the] … production, but later suspected was meant to imply some lack of mutual attention. Women don't listen to each other enough, don't learn sufficiently from their accumulated experience.
Why else should they now be using the limited freedoms they have painfully won as gruesomely as they too often do? That's the question implicitly raised by the dinner-party's hostess, who is celebrating her appointment as managing director of an employment agency staffed by women as tough and callous as herself, if not quite as adept at slotting girls into a male-dominated business universe. Triumph for Marlene, as she's called, has been bought at the cost of great personal mutilation: meaning the loss of love, and specifically of motherhood, through the odd abortion and one big act of rejection. At this point Ms Churchill sensationally but successfully links the world of the employment agency with that of its boss-woman's sister, who toils in a council house to bring up a backward teenager. Unknown to her, this girl is Marlene's daughter. She handed her over, left for London, and now offhandedly dismisses her as 'a bit thick—she's not going to make it'. What use is female emancipation, Churchill asks, if it transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, weak and helpless? Does freedom, and feminism, consist of aggressively adopting the very values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?
The question becomes plonkingly explicit in a climactic row between Marlene and her sister, the one raving about Thatcher and the success-ethic, the other grimly demurring. That exchange sounds too much like mandatory Royal Court indignation, and could safely be toned down. After all, the play as a whole, arguing through and by human observation, leaves us in no doubt that a quivering finger is being pointed at a society whose highest good is 'making it'. It is articulate, eloquent, alive, proof in itself that we can no longer patronise women playwrights as peripheral. I think Caryl Churchill is well on the way to being a major talent.
Benedict Nightingale, "Women's Playtime," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2686, September 10, 1982, p. 27.
John Russell Taylor
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In Cloud Nine you could not always quite produce a logical reason why one thing followed another, but somehow you never doubted that it did. Top Girls … progresses in a similar zigzag way between present and past, realism and outrageous fantasy. The connections are just as much (and just as little) there for the reason to apprehend. And yet, to me at least, the pieces in the puzzle remain determinedly separate, never quite adding up to more than, well, so many fascinating pieces in a fascinating puzzle.
One thing about Caryl Churchill, you are never bored. Or hardly ever. Even the scene that sets the attention drifting here, the short glimpse of a present day rustic childhood which concludes a first half primarily taken up with very different things, is not so much boring in itself as too much of a let down after the long first scene, a real virtuoso piece if ever there was one. (p. 22)
[The first] scene is, to begin with, very funny. It also rehearses, directly and indirectly, the themes which will run through the rest of the play: woman's role in relation to men, children lost, stolen or strayed, the question of whether equal is the same as the same in the balance of the sexes. The whole discussion is so bizarre that you actually want to hear all of it—something which the structure of the play's overlapping dialogue effectually prevents…. Churchill manages particularly well the sudden transition of tone, as when Joan concludes an hilarious account of how she was caught short in childbirth during a papal procession with the bland observation that of course then she was dragged off into the country and stoned to death: yes indeed, things like that can put a damper on a jolly social evening.
At least, for all its oddity and obscurity, we know what this scene is about. It is difficult to be so sure about the rest. Like most of Churchill's work, it is about nothing simple and easily capsulated. It is not even plugging a simple feminist line. Clearly she must be on the side of women, and all for their escaping from the ridiculous position of total dependency in which Griselda and Nijo in particular are trapped. But her modern career-girls seem to have settled instead for what Osborne calls 'the Brave-New-Nothing-very-much-thank-you'. They have, in a very real sense, taken the place of men, but only so that they can ape men's least appealing traits…. Is that what it was all for?…
And as for Marlene—well, is she a heroine or isn't she? She seems to start as the model of a woman who can handle herself in a man's world, but gradually, as revelation follows revelation, we begin to wonder. So she has made it, but at what human price? And revelation does follow revelation: the rest of the play after the first scene proves to be fundamentally a good, old-fashioned piece with clues planted and secrets kept and revealed, climaxing in a splendidly sustained session of kitchen-sink drama which puts a situation … into Wesker country (literally rustic East Anglia) and lets it rip until we find out all there is to know. The result is achieved, in typical Churchill fashion, by putting the chronologically earliest scene at the end….
Anyway, it is a play which sends you out asking questions and trying to work out, not disagreeably, just what it is you have been watching. Not quite Cloud Nine, but it leaves no doubt that Caryl Churchill is a big talent, still developing. (p. 23)
John Russell Taylor, in a review of "Top Girls," in Plays and Players, No. 350, November, 1982, pp. 22-3.
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["Top Girls"] is no match for its predecessor ["Cloud 9"], but, happily, it is every bit as intent on breaking rules…. The actresses in the company keep popping up in new roles; the setting switches abruptly and at first inexplicably between London and a dreary working-class home in provincial Suffolk; the evening ends with a scene that predates the rest of the action by a year. Miss Churchill also makes abundant use of overlapping, intentionally indecipherable dialogue, Robert Altman-style, as well as of lengthy pauses and stage waits that would make any Pinter play seem as frantic as a Marx Brothers sketch by comparison.
One cannot be too thankful for all these brave gambles, the strangely compelling and somehow moving silences included. Miss Churchill sees the theater as an open frontier where lives can be burst apart and explored, rather than as a cage that flattens out experience and diminishes it. Because of the startling technique and several passages of dazzling writing, "Top Girls" is almost always fascinating, even when it is considerably less than involving.
Some of the play's slippage does occur, it's true, when Miss Churchill's experiments run on self-indulgently. It seems unduly perverse that almost every scene must trail off before ending. The fantasy prologue, fun as it may be, is seriously overlong; later on, the author has trouble resisting the urge to lecture. Yet the major difficulty in "Top Girls" is a matter of content, not form. To these male American ears, Miss Churchill's new statement about women and men seems far more simplistic and obvious than the fervent pansexuality of "Cloud 9."
The message announces itself in that first scene, which proves an almost anthropological search for the ties that bind history's strongest sisters. Like Marlene, the famous icons at her table are "top girls"—courageous women who have "come a long way" by accomplishing "extraordinary achievements." But they've all paid a price for success: They've sacrificed their personal lives and children, been abused by men and lost contact with women who did not become "top girls." And we soon learn that Marlene, the present-day inheritor of their hard struggles for independent womanhood, is worse off yet. In order to fight her way up from her backwater proletarian roots to the executive suite, she has become, figuratively speaking, a male oppressor….
No one can deny that women like Marlene exist. As Miss Churchill ultimately makes too clear, her heroine is partly a caricature of the ultimate British "top girl," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But the playwright seems to beg her complicated issues by showing us only her monstrous heroine at one extreme, and, at the other, the victimized women that the Marlenes of this world exploit and betray. The absence of the middle range—of women who achieve without imitating power-crazed men and denying their own humanity—is an artificial polemical contrivance that cuts the play off at the heart. We're never quite convinced that women's choices are as limited and, in the play's final word, "frightening" as the stacked case of "Top Girls" suggests. Even in England, one assumes, not every woman must be either an iron maiden or a downtrodden serf.
Still, we're often carried along by the author's unpredictable stagecraft, her observant flashes of angry wit and pathos.
Frank Rich, "Caryl Churchill's 'Top Girls,' at the Public: Lady and the Tiger," in The New York Times, December 29, 1982, p. C17.
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One of the questions Caryl Churchill put to her fellow-feminists in Top Girls … was this. What have you, or indeed anyone, to offer the woman who hasn't the mental wherewithal ever to overtake the men on the promotion ladder, run her own office, jet off to New York for meetings and California for holidays, and do all the greater and lesser things associated with 'making it' in our sabre-toothed society? By way of illustrating the problem, she introduced a podgy, dim Ipswich schoolgirl, Angie, the unwanted daughter of her high-achieving protagonist, Marlene; and, by way of expanding and expatiating upon it, she now takes us [in Fen] to the opposite end of the East Anglian peninsular, to a fen village where Angies are to be found over every other sink, and thwarted and sometimes embittered Marlenes in every second potato patch….
The village girls may, and do, sing little ditties about becoming hairdressers and nurses, but their likely destination is always out there in the wind and rough weather, toiling for the farmers as their grandmothers did and their granddaughters presumably will. Since the five-woman, one-man cast doubles, trebles, even quadruples its roles, we meet a fair spread of such victims, most resigned to being half-buried by the local sod ('what you after, bluebird of happiness?') and one or two putting up some fragile show of resistance ('don't start on me, just because you had nothing yourself').
In the latter category is Angela, who persistently torments her stepdaughter, partly out of personal frustration, partly to goad the girl out of her maddening submissiveness; and in it, too, is Val, who has left husband and children for a farm-labourer, Frank…. It would be wrong to give away the precise denouement of a play that powerfully demonstrates Ms Churchill's gift for crispness and tension, for vivid, succinct dialogue that keeps you alert and guessing; but you will hardly be surprised to learn that among these glum tillers and doleful sowers there should eventually appear a Grim Reaper.
You could of course argue that what destroys Val is not so much imprisonment-with-hard-labour in the village, rather an inner conflict that could be found in Kensington, the Cayman Islands, or anywhere else women are trying and failing to reconcile the claims of the sexual and the maternal. In fact, there were several times when I myself wondered whether Ms Churchill wasn't over-simplifying the nature and degree of the blame to be apportioned for the wasted and blasted lives she was showing us. If the City conglomerates gave back the land to the farmers, and the farmers were then forced to distribute it among their serfs, as no doubt should in justice happen, would the quality of life in far-off Fen country really improve as thoroughly as the play implies? Is it so much less paralysing to the mind and spirit to drudge from sun to sun in a potato field which happens to belong to you?
Yet Ms Churchill would no doubt expect us to ask such questions. Her distaste for the economic and social status quo doesn't mean she's relentlessly deterministic when she comes to analyse character and conduct; nor is her play without its complexities, its acknowledged contradictions and uncertainties, its beguiling quirks and intriguing oddities. Top Girls is probably the finer work, because it possesses those selfsame qualities in greater abundance and because it has a more unusual and arresting point to make: liberation is only a subtler, uglier form of enslavement if women have to maim; mutilate and be Thatcher themselves in order to achieve it. But Fen offers proof enough of the assurance and skill, intelligence and passion of a dramatist who must surely be rated among the half-dozen best now writing.
Benedict Nightingale, "Hard Labour," in New Statesman, Vol. 105, No. 2710, February 25, 1983, p. 30.∗
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[Churchill] is probably more popular in London than in N.Y. and—despite her strong political impulses—at times, accents and places apart, she proves more like an American playwright than most British. For her technique is firmly based on that kind of symbolic realism favored by so many American writers.
Where most playwrights produce a form of dramatic portrait, Miss Churchill, and it can be seen in Cloud Nine and Top Girls as well as Fen, is attempting to suggest a landscape with figures. The background to her plays, their descriptions of the specific worlds outside the players, is extremely important.
Never more than in this richly dense Fen, which offers a perfectly straightforward account of a domestic tragedy—the sort of stuff that newspapers as much as dreams are made of—but this story is set against a wonderful psychogeographic picture of the life, times and legends, history, and ecology, of the Fens. (pp. 209-10)
It is a rich, complex tragic picture, often very funny. Because while Churchill is placing her play in its special location, she is telling bizarre anecdotes that all have a strict if peculiar, ring of truth to them.
What is being told means more than what is being said. Churchill seems to beguile us with her technique and then transfix with her passion. We think we know what she is doing—we can understand her minor, placatory gestures to keep us interested with wit, quaintness and comforting cleverness, when like an axe-blow, something hits us. (p. 210)
Clive Barnes, "'Fen' Unearths Passion & Potatoes," in New York Post, May 31, 1983. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XLIV, No. 10, June 13-19, 1983, pp. 209-10.
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["Fen"] could well be called "Bottom Girls." As the author's "Top Girls" told of Marlene, a self-made businesswoman who sells out her provincial working-class roots and humanity for corporate success in London, so the new one examines the less privileged sisters such top girls leave behind….
As befits the shift in focus, the new play contains little of its predecessor's laughter: even as the audience enters …, it is swept up in a gloomy mist that pours out from the stage. "Fen" is dour, difficult and, unlike either "Top Girls" or "Cloud 9," never coy about its rather stridently doctrinaire socialism: it's the most stylistically consistent of Miss Churchill's plays and at times the most off-putting. It is also yet another confirmation that its author possesses one of the boldest theatrical imaginations to emerge in this decade….
As an impressionistic, class-conscious portrait of an agrarian community, the play recalls David Hare's … piece about a similar village in nascent revolutionary China, "Fanshen."…
The action unfolds on a stunning set …: the stage floor is carpeted with the dirt of the potato fields and surrealistically bordered by walls and furnishings suggesting the women's dreary homes. In … [the] eerie lighting—all shades of Thomas Hardy dankness, no sunlight—the 90 minutes of scenes loom in the icy dark like fragmented nightmares. One minute the women are picking potatoes in a thunderstorm; then, through startlingly sharp transitions, that dominant image gives way to the sight of two illicit lovers dancing in moonlight or a madonna-like portrait of mother and child or a forlorn Baptist revival meeting.
"We're all rubbish," says one of the suffering Baptists, "but Jesus still loves us, so it's all right." As in "Top Girls," Miss Churchill sees one and all as helpless, exploited victims of a dehumanizing capitalistic system. She further feels that women can only escape its clutches, as Marlene did, by adopting that system's most selfish, ruthless traits….
Most of the women in "Fen," however, are laborers, bound to the land by an age-old, oppressive tradition that enslaves them from birth to grave. As Miss Churchill presents these sad serfs, they can only ameliorate their misery in self-destructive ways: by drinking in a pub or gossiping or taking Valium or betraying one another or going mad. Yet if the playwright's definition of these women's choices is rigidly deterministic her concentrated dramatization of their lives has an open, poetic intensity that transcends the flat tendentiousness of mere agitprop….
"The earth's awake!," says one of [the characters at the conclusion of "Fen"]—and it's Miss Churchill who has awakened it. Here's a writer, amazingly enough, who is plowing new ground in the theater with every new play.
Frank Rich, "'Fen,' New York by Caryl Churchill," in The New York Times, May 31, 1983, p. C10.
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The unsuccessful work of a gifted and pungent playwright, [Fen] is eminently watchable, full of sharp, stinging, tragicomic moments that, however, refuse to coalesce. Shapeliness, to be sure, is seldom what Miss Churchill is after; topsy-turvy jaggedness and intricately lacerating jests are her game. But however you go about it, impact is needed—particularly when political agitation for socialism is the purpose. Yet Fen, which examines the lives of a score of women and couple of men in East Anglia's fen, or marsh, country, dilutes its effect doubly: by trying to do too much and do it with far too little.
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. Then there is the nonmeshing of the political overplot and the personal stories: a married woman torn between her children and her lover; a stepchild bullied by her stepmother until the two form a sadomasochist couple. Miss Churchill wishes to make the private miseries hinge on social injustice, but the two don't blend compellingly, especially as the play tries to be in so many places simultaneously that it ends up tearing itself to shreds. Provocative shreds, but insubstantial and unsustaining ones. (p. 77)
John Simon, "Soft Centers," in New York Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 24, June 13, 1983, pp. 76-8.∗
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[Softcops is] a desperately serious treatise, (and to emphasise that, there's no interval) about crime, punishment and male society. Set in 19th-century France, it features our old, ambiguous friend Vidocq …, master-crook turned top cop, and thus Miss Churchill—one of our very best playwrights—can debate as she will whether hierarchical society is responsible for the criminal, or the criminal for forcing society to punish him.
The trouble is that the play is more illustrated lecture than drama, though lots of 'dramatic' things happen. A thief is obliged to hold up for the mob to see, his right hand, painted red; then it's cut off. (p. 27)
Miss Churchill, I suspect unfortunately, read Michel Foucault's Surveiller et Punir and so impressed was she by Foucault's ideas that they have taken over and devoured the play she might have written. The book, apparently, analyses the way in which we used to brutalise, torture and physically destroy the criminal classes whereas today we merely observe them. If you believe that, it seems to me, you'll believe anything. Yet Miss Churchill is as sophisticated a writer as we have (there's a nice dig at Brecht: because there are no placards, nobody knows what to think), so dexterous with language and argument, that even the horrors … disturb rather than merely disgust. (pp. 27-8)
Giles Gordon, "No Soft Option," in The Spectator, Vol. 252, No. 8115, January 21, 1984, pp. 27-8.∗
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So intent is [Churchill in Softcops] on stating her message that every whiff of humour is imbued with a grim sense of its sinister implications…. [The] result is one of the least enjoyable evenings I can remember in three years' regular theatregoing. Enjoyment may not be mandatory, but there are few compensatory factors in Softcops; it keeps you guessing, and hoping, but consistently fails to provide what it promises…. [When] I left the theatre I felt as if I'd been mentally battered with a blunt instrument. (pp. 30-1)
In a succession of loosely connected episodes, which acts like an ironic moral pageant, the treatment of crime is seen as a form of mass entertainment, part of a government plan to mystify and depoliticise the criminal process. The cast of 12 men take turns at representing the many faces of Vidocq in short sketches, supplemented with cabaret-style exhibitions of torture, execution, incarceration and so forth.
Ms Churchill pays tribute to Michel Foucault's Surveiller et Punir for some of the ideas in the play, but she appears to be too enamoured of her source material to see the pitfalls of its dramatic reconstruction. The content is too tortuous and intellectual to work as agit-prop which, in any case, needs much stronger links between auditorium and stage, while a drama of ideologies needs fuller personalities, especially in the theatre of words. (p. 31)
Rosalind Carne, "Punishment," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2758, January 27, 1984, pp. 30-1.∗