Caryl Churchill Churchill, Caryl (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Irving Wardle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harold Hobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. W. Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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W Stephen Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.


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Anthony Curtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Irving Wardle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Robert Asahina

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Giles Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Rosalind Carne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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