The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Cloud Nine opens with a Victorian family in Africa singing an anthem to the British Union Jack. Between stanzas, Clive introduces his perfect family of dutiful wife, son, daughter, mother-in-law, governess, and black servant.

In act 1, scene 1, Clive returns from a foray into the bush to investigate threatening drumbeats and tells Betty that Harry Bagley is coming to visit. As Maud reminds Betty of her duty to her husband, he brings in another caller, the widow Saunders. Next, Harry arrives and at first resists Betty’s overtures as those of a dangerous woman; when he begins to take her in his arms, however, she runs off. He then departs for a sexual interlude with Joshua in the barn.

In scene 2, Clive dallies with Mrs. Saunders before the family Christmas picnic and then toasts Queen Victoria and all of her dear children. During their games, Harry comments that the empire is one big happy family. Edward, meanwhile, attempts to renew their sexual relationship. When Harry resists Betty’s renewed overtures, Ellen reveals to the audience her physical attraction for Betty. Harry then conjures a string of British flags from up his sleeve as Joshua sings an English Christmas carol.

In scene 3, Clive has the stable boys flogged because they are related to the rebellious Africans. As Edward is coached in proper male behavior, Clive voices clichés about family loyalty to justify his distance from Betty for her overtures to Harry. Edward supports his mother by demanding that Joshua do her bidding, and Joshua finally obeys.

In scene 4, Clive reports that he burned a village the previous evening. Edward declares his attraction to Harry, Ellen hers to Betty; as Clive speaks of the dark side of women, Harry makes an overture to him. To save Harry from depravity, Clive insists that he must marry. Mrs. Saunders comes out, turns down Harry’s proposal and reveals that Clive has killed Joshua’s parents. When...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Cloud Nine directs the playgoer’s attention to the parallels between colonial and sexual oppression through a variety of dramatic devices. In the first act, for example, Betty is played by a man because she wants to be what men want her to be. Joshua, the black servant, is played by a white man because he wants to be what whites want him to be. Clive’s son, Edward, is played by a woman to highlight Clive’s attempt to impose traditional male values on him.

By act 2, one hundred years have passed, although the characters are only twenty-five years older. Martin dominates Victoria despite his voiced sympathy for feminism. The bitter end of colonialism continues as Lin’s brother dies in Northern Ireland. Betty is played by a woman as she gradually becomes real to herself. Cathy is played by a man to show clearly the issues involved in learning what is correct behavior for a girl.

Songs highlight the dialogue. For example, the Christmas celebration with the singing of “The First Noel” provides a humorous sound effect as Clive is teasing Mrs. Saunders. It also highlights, however, the colonial attitude—of fighting for Christmas, England, games, and women singing—of which Harry speaks. Joshua’s later singing of an English carol shows that colonization is deadly; it deprives him of any local culture.

Four-year-old Cathy (played by a man) sings, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick. Silly Jack he should jump higher, Goodness gracious, great balls of fire,” and other such rhymes. These songs create audience awareness of how culture even prescribes the language that is appropriate for men and women. For one dressed in a frilly pink dress to utter such words is humorous commentary on contemporary adults who claim to be liberated while responding according to Victorian sex-role stereotypes. To have Edward say that catching the ball is a male game and to laugh at the way women catch, or to have a little girl’s tears wiped away by the promise of an ice cream, mirrors myths that rule the lives of the audience.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The central focus of Cloud Nine is sexual politics, an admittedly general topic that Caryl Churchill suggested to a Joint Stock Theater Group workshop, which became the inspiration for her play. The work is divided into two very different acts. The first is set in Africa in Victorian times, with the patriarch Clive trying to maintain control of his section of the British Empire and of his family, the members of which demonstrate difficulty staying within the boundaries of accepted gender roles. Clive introduces them: himself as father to both the African natives and his family; his wife, Betty, whose aim is to be what Clive wants in a wife; their servant, Joshua, who lives only for his white master; and their son, Edward, who confesses that he finds it difficult to be what his father wants him to be. The marginalization of women is clear when Clive declares that his daughter (literally a doll), his mother-in-law, and the governess do not need to speak.

With the arrival of the explorer Harry Bagley and the widow Mrs. Saunders, the sexual games begin, with Harry romancing Betty and then taking Joshua to the barn. Clive disappears under Mrs. Saunders’ skirt for a farcical sexual encounter interrupted when the others arrive for the Christmas picnic. Betty tries to convince Harry to take her away, but he says that he needs her where she is. Harry and Edward reveal a sexual encounter together that Harry insists was a sin. Ellen confesses her love to an uncomprehending Betty.

The games are interrupted by a native uprising, and the women, in a darkened room,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Cloud Nine, Churchill focuses on an important feminist topic—sexual politics. She views the subject from a wide range of points of view and with humor and sensitivity. Expanding the feminist concern that restrictive gender roles rob women of power, she includes homosexuals and those oppressed by colonialism, connecting their powerlessness to the “feminization” of women. This approach is consistent with Churchill’s socialist feminism, for certainly colonialism is the most ruthless extension of capitalism. Churchill allows patriarchy and capitalism to dominate the first act of Cloud Nine, primarily through the character of Clive, but the second act belongs to Victoria and Betty, both of whom are stretching the boundaries of their sex-related roles.

Churchill breaks important ground in several areas. She deals with gay and feminist politics and the relationship between them. She presents a socialist feminist’s perspective of the sexual revolution of the 1970’s. She goes beyond viewing sexuality as an area of oppression to see it as a place where, with some effort, gains can be made. Yet the play has been criticized by a number of reviewers, including some feminists, for its failure to arrive at a solution for the problems that it delineates. The second act has been seen as devoid of struggle. It may be, however, that these critics are looking for the same sort of “right” answer hoped for by men such as Clive.

What Churchill has offered in this play is a series of portraits of women—and others—struggling with prescribed roles, looking for ways out, and finally committing themselves to a continued search, based on self-acceptance and an openness to myriad possibilities, as opposed to a right answer. As Churchill herself has said, “Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions.” Churchill’s contribution, in this play as in others, is to ask questions that challenge assumptions and to leave her audiences and critics with vivid stage pictures that present strong images of those questions.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Women’s Liberation Movement
Britain in the 1970s was marked by vigorous and politically effective campaigns for women’s...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Gender Reversals
The play uses a number of unconventional techniques to create its effects. One of these is for some of the...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1880: The British Empire is at the height of its power. More than a quarter of the world’s landmass is under British rule, including...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Are there innate differences between men and women, in terms of their interest in or aptitude for certain careers or leisure pursuits, or are...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Rites (1970), by British playwright Maureen Duffy, is an imaginative recasting of The Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Aston, Elaine, Caryl Churchill, Northcote House, 1997, pp. 31–37.

Churchill, Caryl, Cloud...

(The entire section is 275 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Aston, Elaine. Caryl Churchill. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1996.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, eds. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. In an interview, Churchill discusses the necessity of feminism being connected to socialist goals and decries feminism tied to “getting ahead,” or to capitalist goals. She also discusses the differences between the London and New York productions of Cloud Nine.

Churchill, Caryl. “A Fair Cop.” Interview by Lynne Truss. Plays and Players, no. 364 (January, 1984): 8-10. Churchill discusses the...

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