Caryl Churchill (1686 words) Essay

Caryl Churchill
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. Where has she been? Radio plays 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
length…Finally, 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
Television…attracts me very much less…It 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. Stage plays 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. Historical plays 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.

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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).

Where was she? Sex and Gender 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. Where did
she go? Revisiting the Past 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. Revising Myth 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). Now 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

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.


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