Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938, London) has become well known for her willingness to experiment with dramatic structure. Her innovations in this regard are sometimes so startling and compelling that reviewers tend to focus on the novelty of her works to the exclusion of her ideas. Churchill, however, is a playwright of ideas, ideas that are often difficult and, despite her bold theatricality, surprisingly subtle and elusive. Her principal concern is with the issues attendant on the individual’s struggle to emerge from the ensnarements of culture, class, economic systems, and the imperatives of the past. Each of these impediments to the development and happiness of the individual is explored in her works. Not surprisingly for a contemporary female writer, many times she makes use of female characters to explore such themes.
Churchill has openly proclaimed herself a feminist and a socialist. She is also emphatic in her position that the two are not one and the same. Indeed, her plays do not attempt to confound the two issues, although Top Girls does investigate the influence that capitalism can have on women and their willingness to forsake their humanity for economic gain. Churchill has examined with great sympathy, in works such as Fen and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the plight of the male, or of both genders, caught up in the destructiveness of inhuman economic forces. Churchill herself has argued that both issues are so important to her—the plight of women and the need for a socialist world—that she could not choose between them and would not have one problem alleviated without a concurrent solution to the other. In another sense, Churchill is interested in the greater issues of gender and the games of power played with gender at stake. Just so, she is equally committed to considering the individual and the power drained from that individual by the forces of modern economic and social systems.
Whatever her politics and philosophy, Churchill brings a fire and an energy, a special eye and ear, to the postmodern English drama. She is an inspiration to the feminist movement and to women intellectuals around the world. She remains a force crying out for the release of the individual of either gender from the oppressive imperatives of past practices and present expectations. To her art, she contributes an inventive mind and a willingness to invest great energies in wedding the play to the performance. She has continuously rejected linear structure and the use of the master narratives of socialist realism to present her themes. She has also rejected the Brechtean epic theater in favor of using “found objects,” such as various couples in a hotel room or snatches of everyday speech, and re-contextualizing these found objects into new situations that emphasize new meanings. In this way she is much like the famous avant-garde artist Gaston Duchamp who made a fountain of a toilet bowl.
An important factor in Churchill’s proclivity for structural experimentation is her long and close association with workshop groups, whose aim is the collective creation of theater pieces through the interaction of actors, writers, directors, choreographers, and other artists. Two such groups have been especially influential on Churchill’s artistic development: The first is the Monstrous Regiment, a feminist theater union that helped Churchill create Vinegar Tom; the other is the Joint Stock Theatre Group, with whose help she fashioned several important works, including Cloud Nine, Fen, and A Mouthful of Birds.
The Joint Stock Theatre Group, with directors such as Max Stafford-Clark, LesWaters, and David Lan, and choreographer Ian Fink, operates with suggestions that come from any group member. For example, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Churchill’s first venture with the group, began with a member’s suggestion concerning the motives for the mass immigration of villagers in seventeenth century England. After the initial proposal of the idea, the group set out to research the topic, following it with a theatrical workshop in which the group improvised scenes based on that research. These workshop scenes were interrupted by a “writing gap” during which Churchill wrote the script. Rehearsals came next, with more group interaction and improvisation on the script.
Fen followed virtually the same process and was based on a suggestion to explore what it must have been like, in a rural English village, to have the social and agricultural habits of centuries suddenly overturned by the intrusion of modern capitalism, brought in the persona of a Japanese businessman who buys all the village’s farmland. In another example, the group’s director, Lan, was interested in the politics of possession, while Churchill was interested in the theme of women becoming violent and rebellious rather than submitting to their traditionally assigned, passive role. The Joint Stock Theatre Group went to work with these ideas, and A Mouthful of Birds was born. This creative method, which gives a privilege to experimentation and outright and frank theatricalism, seems to serve Churchill well.
Churchill also has a special relationship with London’s Royal Court Theatre, where she was resident dramatist in 1974-1975 and where she has had many of her plays performed in the main playhouse and the experimental Upstairs Theatre. Churchill’s radio and television works are often broadcast by the BBC, and her plays are frequently staged outside Great Britain, especially in the United States, where she was first introduced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre of New York City.
Churchill has also worked with educational institutions such as the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She and school director Mark Wing-Davey took a group of ten graduate students to Bucharest, where they worked with students at the Romanian Institute of Theatre and Cinema on the creation of Mad Forest.
Woman as Cultural Concept
In four of her best-known works–Cloud Nine, Top Girls, A Mouthful of Birds, and Vinegar Tom—Churchill presents woman as a cultural concept and displays the power of that concept to submerge and smother the individual female. In Cloud Nine, a parallel is suggested between Western colonial oppression and Western sexual oppression. This oppression is seen first in the family organization and then in the power of the past to demand obligations from the present. Although her characters use geographical distance and literally run away from the past, no one in Cloud Nine can exorcise the ghosts of established practices and traditions.
Top Girls is a depiction of the exploitation of women by women, a technique well learned through generations of women being exploited by men. The play portrays a group of friends, all successful women in the fields of literature and the arts, who gather for a dinner to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to an executive position in the Top Girls employment agency. Viewers are introduced to scenes of Marlene’s workplace and to her working-class sister and niece, Angie. In a painful end to Top Girls, Churchill reveals how one woman character is willing to sacrifice her very motherhood to maintain her position in the world of business, a world that the play shows to be created by and for men. Following a bitter argument between Marlene and her lower-class sister, it is also revealed that Marlene’s “niece” is actually her illegitimate daughter.
The issues in Top Girls and Cloud Nine, however startlingly presented, are ones commonly addressed in modern culture, even if usually addressed with an attitude different from that of Churchill. A Mouthful of Birds, however, is altogether different, for it addresses the most sensitive and most taboo of all matters concerning women: sex and violence. Furthermore, in A Mouthful of Birds, Churchill turns the tables and considers sex and violence as perpetrated not by men on women but by women on men, thereby taking one more step into the forbidden matters of gender.
The theme of society’s oppressed females is perhaps most powerfully presented in one of Churchill’s earlier works, Vinegar Tom, a piece created especially for the Monstrous Regiment. Vinegar Tom is a play about witches, but there are no witches in it, only four women accused of being witches. Set in seventeenth century England, the play depicts four women accused by society of the vaguest of crimes: sorcery. Their only crime, however, has been to follow an individual impulse. Joan Nokes is simply poor and old, two conditions that are not supposed to happen simultaneously to Western women. Her daughter, Alice, understands sex as an individual matter and is inclined to enjoy a man if he suits her fancy. When Alice asserts her right to have an illegitimate child, she is labeled a “whore,” since she is neither a virgin nor a wife. Betty, the play’s third woman, is called a witch for refusing to marry the man picked out for her, and Susan, the fourth, is seen as a witch for choosing life over death: When put to the water test (witches float, the innocent sink), Susan elects to swim, thus saving herself but forcing society to find a way to kill her. All four women are emerging, strong-willed individuals whose only crime is to be themselves in an oppressive and conservative society. Because they will not carry out their assigned female roles, they are cast as witches and hanged as a logical consequence of their chosen lifestyles.
Unique Dramatic Structure
It is virtually impossible to discuss thematic issues in Churchill’s work without simultaneously considering her special treatment of dramatic structure. Each of her pieces is a unique construction, innovatively assembled and using unconventional and highly theatrical devices. Furthermore, Churchill’s plays remain compelling, mysterious, and, at the same time, refreshingly accessible. Cloud Nine presents, in part 1, an English family living in colonial Africa. The father, Clive, though far from home, “serves the Queen.” He is father not only to his children but to the natives as well. Churchill has a special device for underscoring this maledominated world. She calls for Billy, Clive’s wife and the mother of the children, to be played by a male. To reinforce her statement, Churchill asks that the black servant, Joshua, be played by a white performer. Thus both characters, despite the race and gender of the performers, become whatever the white father wishes them to be. When a lesbian nanny, Ellen, appears, homosexual orientation is suspected in the children and the “perfect” family is created.
Part 2 has additional surprises. The colonial family returns to England without the father. In England, the grown-up children seek to realize their separate identities, but the freedom to be fully choosing individuals still eludes them. They fret over not having the father to tell them what to do, and the traditions of the past weigh heavily on them, keeping them in their assigned roles. One of the daughters, Lin, a diminutive for Ellen, the lesbian nanny of part 1, had married to fulfill social expectations.
Now divorced and having custody of her child, Lin openly lives with a female lover. Even that important change in sexual orientation, however, is not sufficiently liberating, for as Lin remarks, she can change whom she sleeps with but she cannot change everything. In a wistful scene, she attempts to conjure up a goddess, one she knows will never materialize, begging the deity to give her the history she never had, make her the woman she cannot be. In Cloud Nine, Churchill reverses the traditional immigration pattern. Often parents settle in a new land but bring the past and its old ways with them; in Cloud Nine, however, the children flee their past by returning to the old land, but they are still smothered by ancient habits, expectations, and icons. This preoccupation with the ghosts and hauntings of the past, indeed with the very nature of time itself, is further explored by Churchill in the unusual pieces Traps and Moving Clocks Go Slow.
A recurring structural device in Churchill’s dramaturgy is to have one actor play several roles. Most of her better-known works–Serious Money, Top Girls, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and Cloud Nine—make use of multiple role playing. Although the device may be considered merely idiomatic with her, Churchill usually has a point to make in employing multiple role playing. In Serious Money, for example, the actors are assigned a series of roles that may be summed up in a single universal type, so that one actor, for example, plays a stockbroker or a financier while another plays various women who pander their bodies or their souls to men of high finance.
Even more idiosyncratic in structure is the powerful A Mouthful of Birds, in which the stories of seven contemporary personas are interwoven with the ancient ritualistic events of Euripides’ Bakchai (405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781). Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, appears throughout the piece dancing in a modern woman’s petticoat. Amid ancient scenes of ecstasy and emotional and physical violence, the modern characters appear in their normal daily activities. They each present a monologue in which they attempt to explain why they have failed to meet their obligations. Secret and mysterious problems of possession emerge. The atmosphere of the play is charged with the sensuality of accepted violence, violence intermingled with the irresistible quality of sex. One woman character, for example, who is stereotypically squeamish about skinning a dead rabbit for supper, calmly tells her husband to go to the bathroom, where he will find their baby drowned. Churchill juxtaposes this modern violence against the culminating terror of The Bacchae, the gruesome moment when Agave, in a Dionysian ecstasy, tears apart the body of her son Pentheus.
Hotel represents yet another structural experimentation for Churchill. It is an opera, with music by Orlando Gough, set in eight identical hotel rooms superimposed together on stage, with actors playing multiple roles. A number of different couples occupy the rooms at one time or another, including a couple having an adulterous affair and another couple who are homosexual. A television set also figures as a major character. By doubling and tripling the actors in various roles, Churchill subtly emphasizes the commonality of human oppression and pain.
Typical of Churchill, the story is not linear, but rather occurs in fragments. The dialogue is also presented in fragments. As Churchill points out in the introduction to the play, she has constructed the work in the way we perceive opera in performance, especially classic opera in languages other than English. We hear snatches of dialogue, but the requirements of the music often overshadow the entire line. The use of fragmented dialogue and non-linear story development is also found in plays such as This Is a Chair, where a series of domestic scenes is compared to events about the world through the use of placards naming each scene. Churchill’s use of fragments of dialogue suggests that language can often fail as a means of communication, especially when those using language take little care in its employment. This suggestion is further emphasized in that the fragments are always realistic bits of everyday conversation used in a surrealistic manner.
Downstairs, pr. 1958; Easy Death, pr. 1962; Owners, pr. 1972, pb. 1973; Moving Clocks Go Slow, pr. 1975; Objections to Sex and Violence, pr. 1975, pb. 1985; Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, pr. 1976, pb. 1978; Vinegar Tom, pr. 1976, pb. 1978; Traps, pr. 1977, pb. 1978; Cloud Nine, pr., pb. 1979; Three More Sleepless Nights, pr. 1980, pb. 1990; Top Girls, pr., pb. 1982; Fen, pr., pb. 1983; Softcops, pr., pb. 1984; Plays: One, pb. 1985; A Mouthful of Birds, pr., pb. 1986 (with David Lan); Serious Money, pr., pb. 1987; Ice Cream, pr., pb. 1989; Hot Fudge, pr. 1989, pb. 1990; Mad Forest: A Play from Romania, pr., pb. 1990; Churchill Shorts: Short Plays, pb. 1990; Plays: Two, pb. 1990; Skriker, pr. 1993; Blue Heart, pr., pb. 1997; Hotel: In a Room Anything Can Happen, pr., pb. 1997 (libretto). This Is a Chair, pr. 1997, pb. 1999; Plays: Three, pb. 1998; Far Away, pr. 2000, pb. 2001; A Number, pr., pb. 2002.
Other major works
Teleplays: The Judge’s Wife, 1972; Turkish Delight, 1974; The After-Dinner Joke, 1978; The Legion Hall Bombing, 1978; Crimes, 1981.
Radio plays: The Ants, 1962; Lovesick, 1967; Identical Twins, 1968; Abortive, 1971; Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen, 1971; Schreber’s Nervous Illness, 1972; Henry’s Past, 1972; Perfect Happiness, 1973.
Translation: Thyestes, 1994 (of Seneca).
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, comps. Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Bigsby, C.W. E., ed. Contemporary English Drama. London: Edward Arnold, 1981.
Cousin, Geraldine. Churchill, the Playwright. London:Methuen Drama, 1989.
Fitzsimmons, Linda, comp. File on Churchill. London: Methuen Drama, 1989.
Kaysser, Helen, ed. Feminism and the Theatre. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988.
Kieburzinka, Christine Olga. Intertextual Loops in Modern Drama. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.
Randall, Phyllis, ed. Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1989.