Churchill has stated in interviews that two of the books that influenced her writing of Cloud Nine were Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Millett’s book was published in 1970 and became something of a bible for the emerging women’s movement. Although today Sexual Politics is less well known than the work of other feminists of the period, such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, it was in its time a revolutionary work that awakened many American and European women to an awareness of the nature of the patriarchal society in which they lived.
Fanon was a black psychiatrist from Martinique, a French colony, who wrote about his own experience of how the psychology of black people had been warped by the culture of the white colonizers. Churchill had already used Fanon’s work as a basis for her play The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (first published in Churchill: Shorts: Short Plays in 1990), in which Fanon himself appears as a character. The two books together (Sexual Politics and Black Skin, White Masks) helped Churchill make the link between colonial oppression and gender oppression, a connection that she noticed had also been made by the French playwright Jean Genet, who called it ‘‘the colonial or feminine mentality of interiorised repression’’ (quoted by Churchill in her introduction to Cloud Nine).
Fanon’s study was first published half a century ago, in 1952. He wrote of the various ways in which the colonizing white man treated the black man as inferior. He noticed this operating in his own profession: the doctors in the public health service usually spoke pidgin English to their black or Arab patients in a way that was demeaning. They did not treat people of color as equals. This kind of attitude on the part of whites led blacks to a mentality that accepted their own inferiority. They believed that if they were to become fully human, they had to bring themselves as quickly as possible into step with the white world. Fanon characterizes the typical thought process: ‘‘I will quite simply try to make myself white: that is, I will compel the white man to acknowledge that I am human.’’ Fanon describes a dream reported by one of his black patients who was having problems in his career. The man dreamed that he was in a roomful of white men, and he too was white. Fanon concluded that this was simply wish fulfillment; the man wanted to be white. This was because ‘‘he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race.’’ The black man in the colonized world thus is faced with a choice: ‘‘turn white or disappear.’’
In the play, Joshua, the black servant, has chosen to ‘‘turn white’’ rather than disappear. Those who choose the opposite are either flogged (like the stable boys) or run the risk of being the victims of a punitive raid by British soldiers, their lives considered of no importance. Joshua’s words, ‘‘My skin is black but oh my soul is white’’ are an allusion to ‘‘The Little Black Boy,’’ a poem by William Blake that carries the same theme:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white.
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
In ‘‘turning white,’’ Joshua renounces his own parents and regards Clive as both his mother and father, an illustration of the paternalism at the heart of the colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples. Joshua is treated as a dependent; he is regarded as being like a child—Clive refers to him as his ‘‘boy’’—or a woman.
The legacy of colonialism also appears in act two, in the reference to Lin’s brother Bill, a British soldier who is killed in Northern Ireland. The struggle in Northern Ireland was the legacy of centuries of British rule. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many British soldiers were killed by the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization fighting to free Northern Ireland from British rule. Churchill noted that when the actors in Cloud Nine conducted workshops about the play, they suggested that Britain’s relations with Ireland were much the same as a stereotypical male/female relationship. ‘‘The traditional view of the Irish is that they’re charming, irresponsible, close to...
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