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Lector dr. Diana PRESADĂ Universitatea Petrol-Gaze din Ploieşti Since her emergence onto the international theatre scene with Cloud Nine in 1979, Caryl Churchill has challenged the bourgeois ideology within theatre. The main objective of this paper is to illustrate the best of her provocative plays. Acknowledged as a leading playwright for more than thirty years, Caryl Churchill has consolidated her position in contemporary drama by combining a wide range of social issues with theatrical experimentation. Alongside Pam Gems, Mary O’Malley and Michelene Wander, she has given feminist theatre considerable prominence, accomplishing what the noteworthy women playwrights such as Shelagh Delaney and Anne Jellicoe initiated in the late fifties. As she has promoted feminist performance theory and dramatized women’s experiences, feminist critics have acclaimed Churchill as a prestigious representative of the new theatrical trend. Caryl Churchill commenced her remarkable career while studying English at Oxford University. Her first three plays, Downstairs (1958), You’ve No Need to be Frightened (1959), and Having a Wonderful Time (1959) date from that promising beginning. Soon afterwards, she focused her creative urge on radio plays, including The Ants (1962), Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen (1971) and Schreber’s Nervous Illness (1972). Special mention should be made of The Ants, where a single metaphor provides the main theme which stands for human relationships. The emphasis laid on the insignificance of the human being in a cruel and indifferent world also sets the tone for her later work. The Churchillian short play proved to be artistically fruitful because the coordinates of her dramaturgy were established during the radio phase. The concern with “bourgeois middleclass life and the destruction of it”, as she has put it, the conflict between the individual and mass society, as well as the great leaps in time and space, can be traced back to that period of effervescent creation. Churchill’s reputation as a playwright rests on her stage plays. Her first full length drama, Owners, was premièred at the Royal Court Theatre in 1972 and brought her wide recognition. The play is both a coruscating farce and a bleak representation of capitalist society. Here she eminently resorts to Orton’s overt manner of satirizing anti-social behaviour in order to lash out against the unscrupulous materialism which degrades human nature. At the same time, the comic treatment of the concept of ownership echoes her socialist views. Although the characters’ attitude to ownership is the most incriminated evil in the play, Churchill also takes great delight in ridiculing conventional gender roles by inverting the traditional pattern. Consequently, women are more active than men and become the stigmatized symbol of mercantilism. For instance, the male protagonist of the play, Clegg, is dominated by his selfish wife, Marion, who would stoop to anything to carry out her devilish plans, including the murder of the man she has seduced. Her petrified heartlessness is apparent in the following confession: I’m not sorry at all, Alec… I never knew I could do a thing like that. I might be capable of anything. I’m just beginning to find out what’s possible. Finding rapacious behaviour intolerable, the playwright takes a critical look at the characters’ desire to own everything:
Edward. Joshua. The following historical plays. and A Mouthful of Birds (1986). between the 1970s and 1980s she took up writing for left-wing and feminist companies. Churchill’s debate about the past lacks McGrath’s comic counterpoints. Furthermore. In spite of the fact that at first Caryl Churchill was not a politically committed dramatist.things. I am a father to the natives here. represents a lively and witty comedy of manners against the background of British imperialism. the black servant. . deal with current social-political problems and sexual stereotypes conveyed through anachronistic theatrical devices. With Vinegar Tom Caryl Churchill redefines history from a feminist angle. were the ones who failed in their political ideal. Set in Victorian Africa and contemporary England. Vinegar Tom (1976) Cloud Nine (1979). whereas the British dramatist shows them as victims pointing out the fact that. Clive. and so on. who loves playing with his sister Victoria and her dolls. The alienation effect (Vinegar Tom is a play with songs) maintains the suspense so that the spectators should draw an ironic moral from the action. Betty. The use of cliché in the beginning excerpt from Act I serves as moral metaphor for fake human relationships: Clive: This is my family. being single. as in the scene A Butcher Talks to his Customers. who despises himself for being black. Clive’s wife. The play is dedicated to the Lancashire witch hunting in 1612 and just as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. his adolescent effeminate son. we serve the Queen wherever we may roam. But whilst the American playwright hints at McCarthy’s methods and his anticommunist campaign condemning society’s inability to distinguish between good and evil. a play that provides a deep scrutiny into the miserable lives of a large number of women working in agriculture in a low marshy area of East Anglia called the Fens. Though far from home. It was during this period that she wrote several of her best plays. Like in Vinegar Tom. There are points of similarity between these dramas and Fen. such as Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment. bullies his family and the natives into accepting his own ideas of moral values. Clegg’s own words illustrate the distorted values that capitalist society holds: She is mine. Miller portrays women as mischief-makers and treacherous accusers. Cloud Nine (1978). The equality that the Ranters and the Levellers demanded will become the keynote of Churchill’s entire work. Consequently. in actual fact. is played by a woman. Both Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Vinegar Tom are set in seventeenth-century England and tackle resonant historical subjects that challenge the reputation of history itself. Churchill is chiefly interested in denouncing a male world which regards women as inferior beings. they were punished only because they did not follow in the pattern society laid down for them. the play draws an analogy between colonial and sexual oppression. The Wildean farce. Cloud Nine and Top Girls. and father to my family so dear. from a socialist viewpoint. meant the beginning of social doubt – the factor that set the process of change in motion. Churchill displays an astonishing command of the comic resources by using racial and cross-gender casting. Neither Light Shining nor Vinegar Tom revolves around a central protagonist because Churchill aims at analysing the repercussions of events on groups of people. poor and sexually unconventional. is performed by a man. the persecution of the witches is comparable with the practices of the present. where her austere rhetoric bears the stamp of Swift’s bitter tone. pamphlets by the Diggers and Levellers) intermingles with fragments from the Old Testament and fictional dialogues providing a glimpse into a revolutionary epoch which. a self-praising clerk of the British Colonial Office. The comedy of hypocrisy is at its best in the first act that depicts Clive’s efforts to maintain his concept of order in the world around him. I have invested heavily in Marion and don’t intend to lose any part of my profit…. who undervalues herself as a woman. is played by a white man. Documentary material of the period (the Putney debates. like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976). In the first mentioned play the dramatization of the English Civil War offers the pretext for discussing human rights and the principles of democracy starting from the so-called radicalism of those ‘left of Parliament’ who. people and human relationships.
the Victorian explorer. a meditation on criminality during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. the mediaeval courtesan of a Japanese emperor. the cross-sexual casting. As you can see. and everything she is she owes to me. He is played by a woman. the symbol of the obedient wife praised by Petrarch. where she reconstructs the fall of Ceausescu from the perspective of the common people. Unlike Cloud Nine. I find it rather hard as you can see. My master is my light. Clive: My boy’s a jewel. oppression and subservience to men. the travestied female pope. If the first act provides an insight into a male dominated world. Caryl Churchill’s outstanding career has continued to develop to this very day. which is laid in London in 1979. As fixed sexual norms have been abolished. Half the action takes place at a London restaurant (suggestively named Prima Donna). frustrations. which points to the characters’ ambiguous identities. Hotel and Hot Fudge (1997) still dwell on social themes. where Marlene will be involved with the tales of achievement of these prominent figures: Isabella Bird. hollows out the notion of respectability. a fantasy whose hero is a kind of northern goblin that follows two teenage girls to London. what white men want is what I want to be. the comparison between history and the present in Top Girls (1982) draws our attention to the fact that there are no significant changes as regards the position of women in society. Betty: I live for Clive. He is played by a white. the new managing director of ‘Top Girls’ employment agency. She is played by a man. and what men want is what I want to be. Besides. and Patient Griselda. I only live for him. Indeed. Here the combination of music-hall and history is handled with dexterity and with an astonishing sense of humour that reminds us of her earlier dark farce.He presents Betty. whereas A Number (2002) shifts the focus to the controversial subject of human cloning. she resorts to the theatrical style of her first period of creation in order to provide a satirical commentary on the London stock market crash of October 1987. I’m doing all I can to teach him to grow up to be a man. their accounts reveal an endless repetition of awful experiences: rapes. the women and the homosexuals gain ground in accordance with the changing sexuality of the epoch. Lady Nijo. Her attempt to understand the significance of present history is obvious in Mad Forest: A Play from Romania (1990). Ironically contradicting the title. the ludicrous treatment of the characters’ cliché-ridden speech reinforces the dramatist’s attack on Victorian values. The whole aim of my life is to be what he looks for in a wife. Blue Heart. a figure taken from a Bruegel painting. Joshua: My skin is black but my soul is white. Owners. in Serious Money. Churchill rejects the traditional function of theatre and the standard dramatic forms. My wife is all I dream a wife should be. preferring Joe Orton’s exuberant farcical techniques that reveal sex obsession humorously. Edward: What father wants I’d dearly like to be. The atmosphere changes completely in The Skriker (1994). Clive presents Edward. For example. Five famous heroines from different ages gather together at a dinner party to celebrate the promotion of their modern counterpart. in the second act. encompassing a large variety of issues and dramatic methods. mischievously playing with their wishes. as their stories unfold. Yet. the characters have to rethink their identity in terms of homosexuality or bisexuality. The list of the unconventional historical plays can be completed with Softcops (produced in 1984). Clive presents Joshua. The equality of women to men seems to be an illusion within the existing economic system which turns women into ‘surrogate men’ if they hanker for power in a man’s world. You’d hardly notice that the fellow’s black. . Dull Gret. Clive: My son is young. The high principles that Clive haughtily proclaims are obviously denied by his chauvinistic and misogynic attitudes which transform him into the concrete embodiment of perverted morality. which is a verse play. Really has the knack. Boccaccio and Chaucer. I hate my tribe. Her most recent plays to date. Pope Joan. Marlene. the significance of the celebrated moment is undermined by the startling disclosures of the sacrifices that all these women have made in their struggle for success. I am a man’s creation as you see.
as well as in Top Girls. Richard Allen. New British Drama in Performance on the British Stage 1970-1985. Like many other playwrights of her generation. but. namely the nineteenth century Africa and contemporary London. they have been integrated into a brilliant theatrical view which combines the grotesque with documentary detail and symbolic devices. London: Heinemann Educational Books Cave. political and sexual oppression have been sustained by consistent stylistic experimentation and non-realistic theatrical formulae that provoke the spectators’ preconceptions. 1992. Christopher. 1981. Contemporary English Drama. Katharine. the alienation effect and the seemingly disconnected scenes which are subordinated to a general theme certainly derive from epic theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Worth. seeming to put Artaud’s well-known theory into practice. As a matter of fact. John Russel. Modern English Drama 1980-1990. 1982. 1987. One particular example is the alternation between the settings in Cloud Nine. A Short Guide to Modern British Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Bradbury. Churchill has continuously diversified her dramatic strategies and now has turned more and more to a complete theatrical form that blends music with dance. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Churchill is indebted to Bertolt Brecht. London: Methuen London Ltd . theatre can do without language. London: Colin Smythe Gerrards Cross Innes. Martin (editor). class ideologies. Her concerns with historical contradictions. References: Banham. 1988. in all cases. she is second to none in the handling of space and time on the stage. 1973. Revolutions in Modern English Drama. The episodic structure of her dramas. Malcom (editor). Her favourite technique lies in the juxtaposition of two different fictional epochs whose sharp contrast keeps the audience alert. Stratford: Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies Brown.To sum up. Caryl Churchill has come to be ranked with the British dramatists of international stature who have contributed to the refashioning of contemporary theatre with new concepts of subject matter. Indeed. where the opening fantasy differs from the ordinary life in the subsequent scenes.
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