Critical Context

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Unlike lesser feminist playwrights, Caryl Churchill resists cliches in characterization and plot development. She willingly risks disapprobation, even misunderstanding, from within the feminist movement and outside it to explore new relationships and possibilities for feminist expression. She experiments in her writing to broaden the context of feminist issues. Indeed, believing economic and feminist factors to be inextricably linked, Churchill continues to search out strategies for holding them in balance in her plays. Yet—and this is characteristic of her defiance at being pigeonholed—she is wary of political labels and avoids ideological discussions.

Nevertheless, her career has been deeply influenced by the feminist-socialist theater group Monstrous Regiment, which works as a collective to shape its productions. Her ongoing relationship with the Joint Stock Theatre has been a continuation of this collective process, since the group as a whole works out ideas for potential projects in exploratory workshops. Like Monstrous Regiment, the members of Joint Stock discuss their reading in preparation for the production. Then they broaden their views through improvisation, storytelling, and other theatrical games. The playwright takes notes on all phases of the process and returns weeks later with a draft that is reworked in rehearsal. Although Top Girls was not written using this process, some aspects of its thematic content and form seem to be forecasted by Cloud Nine (pr., pb. 1979), which was shaped by the Joint Stock in 1979. Churchill continues to be influenced by a close working relationship with Joint Stock co-director Max Stafford-Clark, but she realized shortly after writing Cloud Nine that she should experiment more with the form and expand the function of her characters to break away from traditional male-dominated theater. In a revelation while writing Top Girls, she suddenly said to herself: “Wait a minute, my whole concept of what plays might be is from plays written by men. . . . [H]ow far do I assume things that have been defined by men?” In a later interview she added, “There isn’t a simple answer to that. And I remember long before that thinking of the ‘maleness’ of the traditional structure of plays, with conflict and building in a certain way to a climax.” Churchill has continued to seek a distinctively “female” structure for drama.

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Critical Evaluation