One of the things I wanted very much to do, in Cloud Nine . . . was to write a play about sexual politics that would not just be a woman’s thing. I felt there were quite a few women’s groups doing plays from that point of view. And gay groups. . . . There was nothing that also involved straight men. Max [Stafford Clark], the director, even said, at the beginning “Well shouldn’t you perhaps be doing this with a woman director?” He didn’t see that it was his subject as well.
—Caryl Churchill, Interview in Ms., May 1982
Of all the plays of the 1970s and 1980s that offered a radical and daring reassessment of sex, race, and gender, Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill is certainly one of the most innovative and timeless in treating its subjects in the widest possible context of power politics, patriarchy, and modern identity. Churchill would emerge from a group of politically engaged British playwrights working in the radical theater movement who challenged the dominance of the social realistic drama pioneered by John Osborne and the psychological theater of Harold Pinter to become one of the most performed and admired con-temporary playwrights. With Churchill, as critic Benedict Nightingale once commented, “We can no longer patronise women playwrights as peripheral.” Cloud Nine, first performed in Britain in 1979 and in New York in 1981, was Churchill’s breakout play, gaining her international recognition as an accomplished and unavoidable force in modern drama. A succession of powerful and challenging plays have followed, including Top Girls (1982), Fen (1983), Serious Money (1987), Mad Forest (1990), and Far Away (2000), but Cloud Nine has retained its lead position as essential Churchill: a summary statement of the playwright’s amazing theatrical resources and brilliant repossession of the Shavian drama of ideas.
Churchill was born in 1938 in London. Her father, a cartoonist, would have a major impact on her future dramatic work. “Cartoons are really so much like plays,” Churchill has said, “an image with somebody saying something. I grew up with his cartoons of the war—of Goebbels and Mussolini.” Her mother, who left school at 14, worked as a secretary, model, and fi lm actress. Churchill’s first exposure to the theater was the Christmas pantomimes she attended and then imitated to entertain her parents at home. After spending the war years in London, when she was 10 Churchill and her family moved to Montreal, where she was educated in a private school before returning to England in 1957 to attend Oxford. Having begun writing short stories as a schoolgirl, Churchill would spend one summer helping to paint sets for a summer theater, but she did not “put the two things together”—writing and the stage—until her studies at Oxford and exposure to the works of Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, T. S. Eliot, and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom she has acknowledged as important influences. She wrote her first play in response to a friend’s need for something to direct. “It was a turning point,” as she recalled. “I realized I preferred things as plays. It has something to do with . . . liking things actually happening.” Churchill has attributed the relative scarcity of women playwrights to the upbringing of girls, who are encouraged to be passive rather than active and are taught to avoid confl ict, which “lends itself much more readily to the letter, the diary—to the reflective form.” Churchill’s first two plays, Downstairs (1958) and Having a Wonderful Time (1960), were produced at Oxford, where she received a B.A. in English in 1960.
Churchill married the barrister David Harter in 1961 and spent the decade at home raising three sons. As she recalled, “I didn’t really feel a part of what was happening in the sixties. During that time I felt isolated. I had small children and was having miscarriages. It was an extremely solitary life. What politicised me was being discontent with my own way of life—of being a barrister’s wife and just being at home.” During the period Churchill wrote radio dramas, but a new life of engagement in social issues began when her husband left his job to work for a legal aid group in 1972. “We did not want to shore up a capitalist system we did not like,” Churchill has asserted. The same year Churchill’s first major stage play was produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Owners, about a woman’s growth toward independence from her coarse husband that incorporates issues of gender and class. “I wrote it in three days,” she said. “I’d just come out of the hospital after a particularly gruesome late miscarriage, still quite groggy and my arm ached because they’d given me an injection that didn’t work. Into [the play] went for the first time a lot of things that had been building up in me over a long time, political attitudes as well as personal ones.” Objections to Sex and Violence, exploring the connection of sexuality, violence, and power followed in 1975. The next year the feminist company, Monstrous Regiment, commissioned Churchill to write a play about witches. The result was Vinegar Tom, set in England in the 17th century. This would initiate a period of working closely with others in a workshop setting that resulted in some of Churchill’s fi nest work. “You don’t collaborate on writing the play,” she has explained, “you still go away and write it your-self. . . . What’s different is that you’ve had a period of researching something together, not just information, but your attitudes to it, and possible ways of showing things.” Also in 1976 Churchill began an association with London’s Joint Stock Theatre Group, a corps of actors, directors, and playwrights committed to the creation of experimental drama, which resulted in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a play depicting the ordinary men and women who made the English revolution in the 17th century, and Cloud Nine.
The usual production method of Joint Stock was for the writer, director, and actors to spend three to four weeks in a workshop researching a subject, followed by the writer completing the play and six weeks of rehearsal and revisions before performances. The starting point for Cloud Nine was the topic of “sexual politics” suggested by Churchill. “We formed a company considering their sexual as well as acting experience. . . . [W]ith Cloud Nine we started from ourselves, moving out from that to a more general context.” The company was selected on the basis of sexual diversity, gender, sexual orientation, and marital and sexual history. Improvising scenes dramatizing characteristic expressions of sexual and gender relations, the company deliberately tested assumptions by having men’s parts played by women, and vice versa, straight roles played by gay actors, and vice versa. Gathering insights from these sessions Churchill then wrote the play. “I originally thought it would all be set in the present like the second act,” she has explained, “but the idea of colonialism as a parallel to sexual oppression, which I first came across in Genet, had been briefly touched on in the workshop. When I thought of the colonial setting the whole thing fell quite quickly into place. Though no character is based on anyone in the company, the play draws deeply on our experiences, and would not have been written without the workshop.” First performed at Dartington College of Arts in 1979, a revised version of Cloud Nine opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1980 and then in New York in 1981. It would become the most popular and most performed “feminist” drama of the decade.
The play’s exploration of sexual politics commences in act 1 in a British African colony “in Victorian times.” Clive, the colonial administrator and pater familias who represents the conjunction of the patriarchal values of the empire and Victorian family, supplies the opening introductions:
This is my family. Though far from home
We serve the Queen wherever we may roam
I am father to the natives here,
And father to my family so dear.
Intoning the fundamental gender assumptions of the Victorians, Clive’s wife, Betty, declares: “I am a man’s creation as you see, / And what men want is what I want to be.” Clive’s “boy,” the African servant Joshua, proclaims, “What white men want is what I want to be,” while Clive’s son Edward asserts, “What father wants I’d dearly like to be.” Having sounded the patriarchal credo, the play proceeds to exploit the difference between the Victorian sexual and gender norm and its reality as expressed by who these characters truly are and what they do: Clive is committing adultery; Betty yearns for masculine adventure and is in love with the glamorous visiting explorer Harry Bagley; the governess, Ellen, is a closet lesbian in love with Betty; Edward who would rather play with the doll of his sister, Victoria (who is actually played by a doll), has a crush on Harry, who in turn will proposition both Joshua and Clive. The conflict and confusion between code and violation, appearance and reality, are further underscored by the play’s cross-racial and cross-gender casting. Betty, who longs to experience the world of adventure open only to men, is played by a man; Joshua, who longs to be white, is played by a Caucasian actor; Edward, whose inclinations are conventionally attributed to females and repressed in males, is played by a woman. Each therefore reflects the race and gender of his or her aspiration and inner nature. The casting, moreover, challenges the artificially restrictive demarcation of gender and power roles that the play explores generally. As the act proceeds the conflict between enforced roles and actual identities causes both the family and the colonial outpost to fall apart at the seams. As each character moves closer to his or her true self and actual desires, Clive, who is disgusted by Harry’s sexual advance, tries to enforce a return to normalcy by contriving the traditional comedic happy ending in arranging a marriage between the homosexual Harry and the lesbian Ellen. As the act concludes Clive proposes the wedding toast:
Harry, my friend. So brave and strong and supple.
Ellen, from neath her veil so shyly peeking.
I wish you joy. A toast—the happy couple.
Dangers are past. Our enemies are killed.—
Put your arm round her, Harry, have a kiss—
All murmuring of discontent is stilled.
Long may you live in peace and joy and bliss.
Clive’s proclamation is vividly undercut by the long repressed and self-hating Joshua who raises a gun to shoot Clive. He is seen only by Edward, who does nothing to warn the others but puts his hands over his ears before the stage goes black.
Act 2 takes place 100 years later in London with some of the same characters from the first act, who have aged only 25 years. Betty is preparing to leave Clive, who appears only for the play’s final words. Edward is a gay park gardener with a lover named Gerry; Victoria, no longer a doll, is a theoretical feminist, married to Martin. Victoria’s lesbian friend Lin is divorced with a five-year-old named Cathy, who is played by a man (the only cross-gender casting in the act). Clive’s absence and the return of the appropriate gender casting suggest that the Victorian standards have been swept away. The gen-der and sexual frustrations under the restrictions exposed in act 1, now seem poised in the more enlightened present-day world for fulfillment to reach the sexual utopia suggested in the play’s title, Cloud Nine. However, the struggle for sexual freedom and self-definition of the two principal characters of act 1—Betty and Edward—continue unabated, now joined by Victoria. They confront many of the same sexual and gender role restrictions, complexity, and contradictions in different forms. In the utopia of true gender equality that the modern age nominally accepts, what gender assumptions should now apply? Lin, rejecting feminine stereotyping, encourages her daughter, Cathy, to act in stereotypically masculine ways by playing with toy guns and beating up boys (this gender reversal is intensified by having Cathy played by a man). Lin is therefore shown imposing her views of gender and sexuality on Cathy in the same way that Clive had imposed them on Betty and Edward. Neither Edward, Victoria, nor Betty reaches Cloud Nine despite the progress they have made toward independence and gender and sexual empowerment. Edward struggles to achieve the domestic security of marriage with his lover, Gerry, who prefers a lifestyle of casual sex rather than commitment to Edward. Victoria and her husband have similar problems despite their open and seemingly liberated relationship. The newly independent Betty, having always depended on men to define her, faces the terrifying world of singledom and self-determination. The closest to Cloud Nine that Churchill imagines is when Betty in a remarkable closing monologue expresses her satisfaction and empowerment in her rediscovery of the joy of masturbation and the self-knowledge it brings. Recalling her shame and pleasure at touching herself, Betty declares:
I felt myself gathering together more and more and I felt angry with Clive and angry with my mother and I went on and on defying them, and there was this vast feeling growing in me and all round me and they couldn’t stop me and no one could stop me and I was there and coming and coming. Afterwards I thought I’d betrayed Clive. My mother would kill me. But I felt triumphant because I was a separate person from them. And I cried because I didn’t want to be. But I don’t cry about it any more.
Betty is able to claim sexual pleasure without guilt, a first step in accepting herself on her own terms and reconciling her past and her present. Her triumph and consummation of her newly integrated identity is played out under Clive’s disproving critique:
You are not that sort of woman, Betty. I can’t believe you are. I can’t feel the same about you as I did. And Africa is to be communist I suppose. I used to be proud to be British. There was a high ideal. I came out onto the verandah and looked at the stars.
As Clive exits, the actor who had played the past Betty from the first act enters and embraces the actress playing the present Betty in a new gender synthesis resolving the polarities of Victorian / contemporary, passive / active, male / female. The play’s ingenious time and gender bending have produced a remarkable reassessment both of past and present sexual assumptions and the challenges that persist even when patriarchy gives way to liberation. The strength of Cloud Nine rests on its going beyond the polemical tendency to illustrate gender, racial, and power conflict by shallow categories of victim and victimizer. The play is far more knowing in its ability to stretch the conventions of both stagecraft and ideology into a new synthesis of possibilities.