Who is she and where did she come from?
Caryl Churchill is one of England’s most premier female, post-modern playwrights. She has strived throughout her career as theatrical personality to make the world question roles, stereotypes and issues that are dealt with everyday, like, violence, and political and sexual oppression. She has been part of many facets of performance throughout her almost sixty year career. Not only has she been a strong force on the stage, but has also had strong influences with radio and television. She is truly a talented woman dabbling in not only a Brechtian style of theatre that has been commented on time and time again, but also musicals of a sort.
Churchill was born in London on September 3, 1938. She lived in England until the age of ten when her family moved to Canada. There she attended Trafalgar School in Montreal until 1955. At this time she moved back to England to attend Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. This is the key place that her career began. While studying English at Oxford she took an interest in theatre. She wrote her first three plays while at the university.
When her career in theatre and performance started at Oxford she began the first phase in her career. She was very focused on sounds and voice. Her first three plays, Downstairs, 1958; You’ve No Need to be Frightened, 1959; and Having a Wonderful Time, 1959. All three of these plays, extremely focused on sound, propelled her career into radio. For the next ten years she concentrated her energy solely on radio plays, starting off with The Ants, which she, herself, “thought of it as a TV play, but my agent Margaret Ramsey sensibly sent it to radio” (Kritzner16). This focal point gave her many advantages in this time in her career. “Most important, of course, was its openness to new playwrights. In addition, it offered an unusual freedom in that it placed few limits on lengthFinally, radio had already proved its potential for serious drama” (Kritzner 16). During the time of her writing for the theatre and her “sounds phase,” she was looking outward, investigating new places for her to take her art. She wrote a few stage plays during her radio stint, none of them being produced. She re-wrote some of her radio plays and eight of them were produced between the years of 1962 and 1973. She then moved on to television plays. She became very unsatisfied with it very quickly, commenting that
Televisionattracts me very much lessIt has the attraction of a large audiences and being the ordinary peoples’ medium and not being the sort of effete cultural thing that no one ever pays any attention to anyway. But as an actual medium, as a physical thing that happens, I don’t find it anything like as exciting myself as the stage. I do like things that actually happen. (Kritzner 45).
It was then time for her to make a change.
After a dozen years of writing primarily for the radio, Churchill finally made her move to the mainstage. She wrote Owners for Micheal Codron. The play was produced by the Royal Court Theatre in 1972. Her career went uphill from there. She became associated with a “sphere of the sometimes conflict-ridden but always politically daring and artistically committed theatre often referred to simply as ‘the Court’ (Kritzner 61). Churchill’s reputation became paired with the Royal Court. She became the first female resident dramatist, and later help with the Young Writer’s Group program. During her time at the Royal Court she wrote many plays, still focusing a great deal on sound and voice. At the same time as she held position of resident dramatist, she also worked at other theatres and with other groups. She founded the Theatre Writers’ Group, now known as the Theatre Writers Union, and had works produced by Joint Stock Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment.
During her previous playwriting time she had been very centered in time around her present. Starting a new phase in her career in the mid-1970’s, she began to look at history and place her plots in appropriate time frames to make her objective, within each play, more vivid. Paired with the Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock, Churchill “multiplied her ideas, intensified her energy, expanded the range of viewpoints she was able to encompass, presented fresh avenues for theatrical experiment, and helped her develop an integrated feminist-socialist critique of society” (Fitzsimmons 29). From this position she wrote many plays such as Vinegar Tom and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. During this time the Brechtian influences came out full force. She went, in this time, full scale from emulating him to pointing out bold differences between herself and the heavily influential force of Brecht. Her historical plays did not only show an overview of the set period but “subjected traditional versions of the historical phenomenon to critical revision” ( Kritzner 84). She also uses this movement of her career to empower her audiences to take an active role in the play by reclaiming their own history. The plays challenge not only the thoughts and practices of the past and of her present, but also that the reputations of history be “regarded as sealed records not amenable to change in the present. ” (Kritzner 84).
The next move that Churchill made in her career was to attack the ideas of gender in her society. This is the area she was in while she wrote Cloud Nine. She discarded her previous focus of Brecht, but still took some of the fundamental teachings with her. In an introduction to the play, written by Churchill herself, she describes her thought process during the writing of the play.
“Originally I thought it would all be set in the present like the second act; 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” (Churchill viii).
The use of cross gendering as well as cross-culturalizing in the first act has completely changed our current ways of production. This device is not used out of sheer conventionality, but out of necessity for the characters and the impact of the plot.
“By mismatching the performers with their stage roles, Churchill underscores the artificiality and conventionality of the characters’ sex roles. A clever theatrical idea thus serves a dramatic purpose, and the sexual shenanigans that result give rise to more than just the predictable cheap laughs” (Asahina 565).
In this play we see two very distinct acts, a style in which later in Churchill’s career she will use incessantly. In one act we are in colonial Africa in 1880. Act two we are in London in 1980, but for the characters, they have only aged 25 years. “The ideology of the Victorian family is shown to interweave class and male superiority, and hence to suppress female sexuality and homosexuality.the second half is merely a series of isolated portraits of more libertarian sexual relationships in the 1970’s” (Wandor 7). During the entire introduction of the characters to the audience we hear an actual echo of the characters trying to be what Clive wants. Joshua, the Black servant, says “What white men want is what I want to be.” Clive’s wife, Betty, states “I live for Clive. The whole aim of my life is to be what he looks for in a wife.” Other characters resonate the same. The actual introduction of the characters is presented in the form of a song. This leads us to believe that these characters never question their roles because they believe it and it is so ingrained within them, that they could never think differently, especially with the strong force of Clive present. In the second act the characters are also played by their appropriate sex with the exception of Lin’s 5-year-old daughter played by a man. Once again it takes the role of a dramatic device to further the action and the thoughts of the audience. The characters, without Clive, in the second act try to find out their own roles pertaining to themselves instead of dependent on a White, male figure telling them who they are.. This play is steeped with qualities and devices that help Churchill’s point ring with clarity.
After the acclaim of Cloud Nine Churchill made yet another change to her
style. She became focused on a broader range, dealing now with social critique instead of the feminist-socialist approach of earlier in her career. Her works during this phase, namely Top Girls, Fen, and Serious Money, showed her revisiting past personal styles and revising them. It showed her “extracting elements from both the epic and personal areas of theatre, reshaping traditional devices, and melding all of these factors into a truly original style” (Kritzner 138). These plays tend to have a lesser approach of optimism than those previous in her career, but she continues to question the set up of society.
Revision of myth, as I have found, is a typical element in most feminist writings. The analysis and re-analysis of the construction of modern day thought is a device widely used. This was Churchill’s next implement. She wrote A Mouthful of Birds and Ice Cream under this style. Alicia Ostriker, a writer of mythical poetry, wrote that there are three main reasons why women writers go towards the mythological side of life. ” to be taken seriously as a writer, to get at something very deep in herself, and to release an imprisoned meaning not yet discovered in the previous versions of the myth” (Kritzner 172). As far as many critics have found, this shows Churchill’s renewal of interest in the combination of personal experience and political analysis and the knowledge of there “inseparability of reason and emotion” (Kritzner 172).
Since her last known “movement” Churchill is still writing plays and changing her style. She has written musicals and many plays with two unrelated acts that somehow are intertwined. She continues to question society with such works as Blue Heart, Hotel, and Hot Fudge.
Asahina, Robert. The Hudson Review, XXXIV 1981.
Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. Pluto Press, Ltd. London, 1979.
Kritzner, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill. St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1991.
Wandor, Michelene. “Free Collective Bargaining”, Time Out, 30. March-4 April 1979.