Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

Cloud Nine is a play about the residues of Victorian sex-stereotyping and political chauvinism in the modern obsession with sex. The psychic and emotional experiences of Caryl Churchill’s characters result from their sociopolitical environment, forcing the audience to understand that gender identity is a historical and cultural construction.

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On one level, colonization serves as a metaphor for the sexual repression that leads to obsession. Clive claims, “I am a father to the natives here./ And father to my family so dear.” When Clive controls the Africans by murdering the disloyal, the loyal servant draws his gun in revenge. When Clive spends his time with a widow, his wife’s drive for sexual fulfillment overcomes her sense of duty.

Solutions to political problems such as colonization or social problems such as sexual politics are very complex. Although the fixed sexual taboos of act 1 are removed in act 2, Churchill reveals that finding suitable individual sexual levels brings greater insecurity, evident in talk unsupported by action. Gerry says that he is willing to settle for a quick sexual release on a train but seeks the security of Edward as mate at the end. Lin says that she chooses a world of women but ends with a loving mother-daughter family relationship. Edward lives as a homosexual, then moves in with Lin because he enjoys caring for her child. Victoria likes sitting with her husband watching their son play but tries lesbianism and orgies. All these confused characters live together, sleeping in one bed. Betty says that she prefers the company of men but becomes financially independent working as a doctor’s receptionist. She consoles herself with masturbation, though she still seeks the occasional dinner companion.

The play’s humor, evoked by the juxtaposition of sexual scenes to myths, and its clever use of language mirror the audience’s cultural heritage. For example, Clive claims to be saving Mrs. Saunders from being raped by cannibals as he slips under her skirts for his sexual release while the family sings “The First Noel!” in the background. He labels Harry depraved, however, for preferring Clive to Betty, and he reproaches his wife for her attention to Harry. In an effort to fit cultural expectations, he has Harry marry Ellen (who has made advances to his wife).

The contemporary answers do not fare much better. In act 2, the women make a beginning of relating to each other successfully, and Edward, with some of their traits, apparently relates to Cathy well. The play seems to indicate that further social change for men and women can come only if both rely less on paternalistic family structures and culture. The change will be slow, for everyday expressions and even childhood limericks reinforce the paternalistic culture.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229

Colonialism and Sexism
Churchill wrote in her introduction to the play that she wanted to show ‘‘the parallel between colonial and sexual oppression.’’ She meant that it is the same mentality of the colonial power, reflecting male values, that also results in the oppression of women.

The colonial attitude can be seen in Clive, who has contempt for those he refers to as the ‘‘natives.’’ His attitude is paternalistic. He thinks of himself as a father to the natives, just as he is a father to his family. He also has a low opinion of the natives’ capabilities. After praising his black servant, Joshua, as a jewel, he adds, ‘‘You’d hardly notice that the fellow’s black.’’ Clive regards the local African population as little better than savages, commenting that he knows three different tribal leaders who ‘‘would all gladly chop off each other’s heads and wear them round their waists.’’ He exerts harsh discipline on the black stable boys when he learns that they cannot be trusted to be loyal servants of his interests.

The point Churchill wishes to make is that Joshua, the only black man in the play, has internalized the values of his white colonial masters and therefore cooperates in his own oppression. As he says at the beginning of the play, ‘‘My skin is black but oh my soul is white.’’ His goal is to become what white men want him to be; he says he lives only for his master, a comment that clearly echoes the way Clive’s wife Betty regards her own life.

Betty’s own attitude contributes to a sexism that pervades the play, especially in act one. Men such as Clive and Harry Bagley go out and have adventures, but the women (Betty, Maud, Ellen) lead dull, monotonous lives. Betty’s place is in the home, reading poetry, playing the piano, and waiting for Clive, around whom her life revolves, to return. Gender roles are clearly defined, and the women accept them as part of the nature of things. ‘‘The men have their duties and we have ours,’’ says Maud, and Betty regards her own loneliness as a form of service not only to her husband but also to the British Empire. She believes that she is perfectly happy, although she has little understanding of what her true nature and capabilities might be. She has allowed herself to be formed entirely to fit a male image of what a woman should be.

The men have very patronizing ideas about women. Clive regards his wife, and most likely all women, as delicate, sensitive creatures given to fainting and hysteria. But he may prefer things this way, since the weakness of women enables him to feel strong and chivalrous. He regards any sign of independence in a woman as an insult; it is he who must be the protector. Similarly, Harry, when he declares his love for Betty, reserves for himself the active life and allocates to her a purely passive role: ‘‘I need you, and I need you where you are, I need you to be Clive’s wife. I need to go up rivers and know you are sitting here thinking of me.’’

The sexism of the men extends to other areas. In act one, scene two, Ellen and Betty begin to play catch, and the men express surprise and congratulations whenever the women manage to catch the ball. Obviously, women are not expected to possess such an ability. Then Edward, who is only nine years old but has learned well from his father, tells his mother, and then Ellen, that they shouldn’t play ball because they cannot catch. It is a judgment that Betty is all too ready to agree with. Then the men take over. Edward cannot catch and is mocked by Harry and Clive; it appears that this is a test of masculinity. And when Betty informs Clive that he has hurt Edward’s feelings, Clive reveals another of his unconscious gender stereotypes: ‘‘A boy has no business having feelings.’’

The aim of the play is to deconstruct these gender stereotypes. Edward, for example, although a boy, likes to play with dolls, even though he is told by his elders that such behavior is not considered masculine. The playwright invites the audience to question this and other assumptions, such as the passivity of women. Mrs. Saunders, for example, shows that a woman can enjoy sex for its own sake, just as a man may, and this is in contrast to Betty’s dreamy, romantic notions of love.

The theme of liberation from the false, socially induced constraints of gender becomes even more pronounced in act two, which shows how the characters, especially Betty and Edward, break free of the rigid roles that were formerly prescribed for them. Society has changed, too, making it easier for them to do so. Betty is able to acquire a real job of her own, and she also relearns the pleasures of autoeroticism, initially as an act of rebellion against her husband and her mother. Betty’s discovery shows how women are now more able to accept their bodies and sexual desires as natural, not something to be ashamed of or repressed. This theme is also apparent in act two, scene three, when Victoria and Lin chant in praise of ancient female goddesses.

In addition to the liberation of women, in the world portrayed in act two, homosexuality is not the shameful thing it was to Clive or Harry. Edward and Gerry can live as an openly gay couple, and Betty is not distressed at her knowledge that her son is gay or that her daughter is involved in a sexual relationship with her girlfriend, Lin.

There are changes in the way the family is constructed, too. If act one is a satire on the Victorian family, in which desires and sexual orientation are repressed in order to present a false appearance, act two shows the forming of alternative family structures. For example, a gay man, Edward, lives with two women and their two children. One of the women, Lin, is a confirmed lesbian, while the other, Victoria, is experimenting with bisexuality. This is a long way from the image of the family that Clive presents in the first scene of the play.

Churchill also sets out to undermine the ideology of colonialism. Since such a system is based on exploitation, violence, and the belief in the inferiority of the colonized people, it can only result in resentment and, ultimately, violence, as is apparent several times in the play. Joshua, for example, for all his dutiful attempts to act as his master wants him to, brazenly defies Betty’s orders (which also reveals the powerless position of women). When Joshua aims a gun at Clive’s head in the final scene in act one, it hardly comes as a surprise. Whatever surface appearances might suggest, Joshua will never wholly succeed in becoming ‘‘white.’’ (The specter of colonialism returns in act two, when Lin’s brother, Bill, a British soldier, is killed in Northern Ireland, where the British are fighting a guerrilla war against Irish nationalists. This time the emphasis is on the dispiriting life led by the soldiers who serve in the British army, which the Irish nationalists believe to be the arm of a colonizing, oppressive power.)

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