Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cloud Nine


Churchill, Caryl. Plays:1. Cloud Nine. London: Methuen Drama, 1996.

As a feminist and a person who cares about political theater and writers concerned with social justice, I appreciate the work of Caryl Churchill. Cloud Nine explores ideas of patriarchy and colonialism that I think are very important to put onstage. I agree with her political views and I appreciate her commitment to theatrical experimentation. I read Cloud Nine many years ago, and my impression of the play was very different then— I liked the text and I was very happy that writers like her were getting international recognition. It was exciting after all these years to have a chance to read the play again to analyze it. To my surprise I was a bit disappointed. I found that even though I still agree with the ideas that she is conveying, now I see the play as an illustration of progressive ideas more than an experimental theater piece that deals with political ideas. I appreciated the change of gender and race of the actors who play the different characters with the intention to stress the expectations that were put on them. I found that to be a clever and effective way of subverting gender paradigms. Her use of humor helps build an entertaining satire, which challenges the stereotype of feminist or political theater as being boring and taking itself too seriously.
Act one is set in Victorian times in the 1950s, at the height of colonialism. The power dynamics between men and women, servant and master are shown through characters resembling caricatures—in that their positions are very extreme. Each one of the characters represents a ‘big idea’: The wife, “women’s oppression”; the husband, “patriarchy”; the servant, “colonialism”. The picture she is painting is huge and general. The characters and the situations are not specific, they lack the complexity of the particular.
Almost every line in this play then, becomes a political statement, since every character conveys a specific meaning and represents a particular group. In this kind of carefully designed illustration, where political ideas will find their way to the audience through the lines of the characters, I find it surprising that child abuse would be thrown casually in the landscape. I doubt that something as important and serious as child molestation was not written into the play with a particular intention. I believe that the scene where Edward is molested by his uncle is part of the ideas that Churchill wants to communicate to us. In that case, I wonder, what exactly is she communicating? Edward seems to enjoy being molested by his uncle Harry, and asks him. “You know what we did when you were here before. I want to do it again. I think about it all the time. I try to do it to myself but it’s not as good. Don’t you want to any more? (270).
The second act is set in London in 1979, when in fact 100 years have passed. It is a difficult task to show in a play how much of the sexism and racism of that society was resolved (or not) after 100 years. So again, the characters carry a similarly heavy weight. They represent “the lesbian”, “the gay”, “the liberated woman”, and “the modern husband”. Churchill makes her point, with a very optimistic view. She shows us some improvement in the power dynamics between the characters. Betty divorces Clive, she begins a new life, now she works and she also masturbates. Martin, Victoria’s husband is a good guy who tries to be supportive and understanding of her desires. Edward is now an adult and he is out gay—he became the housewife his mother would want Victoria to be. Victoria comes out as a lesbian and she has more intellectual interests than her mother ever had. The only issue that remains unresolved is Edward. He doesn’t mention or remember that uncle Harry molested him when he was a child. We know that it happened, but we don’t see the damage, which I believe is the hidden part of this issue, and the one that never gets discussed.
Churchill has been compared to Bertolt Brecht in her style and the way her plays convey a clear political message. But if Brecht was accused of sacrificing artistic value at the service of political commitment, then Cloud Nine is a more extreme case of that. Brecht’s plays display stronger images and metaphors—the narrative is more conventional than hers in a way, but his writing transcends the political message. In Cloud Nine it appears as if the message was already digested before it was given to us.