Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
In Cloud Nine, Churchill carefully examines the effect of rigid gender roles learned by both men and women in Western society. The difficulty that people can have in learning these roles is evident in the experiences of the three children in the play. To dramatize her point, Churchill has the young Edward played by a woman, Cathy played by a man, and the child Victoria represented in the first act by a dummy or doll.
Edward demonstrates the most difficulty adjusting to the male role. He has an affinity for dolls and necklaces, and he is unable to perform well in the male arena, whether he is playing ball or watching servants begin flogged. He nevertheless internalizes these rigid gender roles, for even in the second act, when he is openly homosexual, he wants to be the “perfect wife” and turn his lover, Gerry, into the “perfect husband.” Following the attempt to call up the goddess, he lives with Victoria and Lin. Here he learns to stretch the prescribed roles; even though he is doing the housework, he tells Gerry that he no longer thinks in terms of the wifely role.
Cathy, the modern child, should be freer than the Victorian Edward. She is being reared by her mother, a lesbian who dislikes men and encourages Cathy’s free expression, even when it includes an affinity for guns. Yet Cathy is not immune to peer pressure, and she insists on wearing dresses to school after she is called a boy.
Restrictive gender roles continue to be trouble for adults. Betty, who appears to be the perfect wife, longs to betray her husband and family by running off with the dashing explorer. Maud, her mother, still serves as an enforcer of what is proper, reminding her daughter of her duty. Betty does not escape until she leaves Clive in act 2 for her own journey of self-discovery, including sexual experimentation. When she talks about the joys of masturbation, she finally rejects the control of her mother and Clive and is able to accept herself. This acceptance is dramatized by the embrace shared by the Betty from act 1 (played by a man) and the Betty from act 2 at the end of the play.
Homosexuality complicates the already difficult task of dealing with prescribed gender roles. Harry Bagley is a man in conflict, viewing his homosexuality as a sin and trying to project the image of the virile man that society expects him to be. Out of his self-hatred, he engages in sexual relations with two powerless males—Edward and Joshua—and accepts marriage to Ellen as the proper solution for him. Ellen seems more positive about her homosexual desires, but as a lesbian in Victorian times, she is invisible. She accepts marriage reluctantly—not out of a sense of sin, as Harry does, but out of a sense of having no other real alternatives.
The absurdity of sexual politics, which causes people to limit themselves in terms of relationships and sexual pleasure, is amply illustrated in the first act of Cloud Nine. With the exception of Edward, the characters are two-dimensional and elicit little sympathy. The game of hide-and-seek is a metaphor for the lives of these adults, who are without exception hiding from the reality of their lives—and attempting to hide from one another as well.
In choosing a colonial setting for the first act, Churchill was influenced by French playwright Jean Genet, a homosexual who saw a parallel between colonial oppression and sexual oppression. This is illustrated in the position of Joshua, who is totally alienated from his own culture...
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and thus his own identity. He is abused sexually by Harry and used by Clive in the role of a eunuch, spying on others’ escapades and informing the master. His impotence evidently extends to his inability to use his gun effectively, for Clive survives for act 2.
Though Churchill does not answer all the questions raised in the play, she clearly favors an openness in defining sexual roles and sexual relationships. The focus on Betty at the end of the play suggests the need for self-acceptance as the key. Betty is at a point where she can see possibilities in her future. The restriction of high ideals belongs to the rigid Clive; in this play, being on cloud nine means confusing your life, turning things upside down, choosing to explore and to accept freedom and possibility.