Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Play, 1976
British Playwright ( 1938 -)
Other Names Used: Churchill, Caryl Lesley;
Drama for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 27. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2010. p151-169.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 
Page 151

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

CARYL CHURCHILL
1976

INTRODUCTION

Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire depicts the conflicts surrounding the English Civil War (1641-1651), particularly the years 1647 to 1649. Rather than emphasize the eventual execution of King Charles I or the action of the war itself, Churchill's drama focuses on the lives and struggles of ordinary English citizens.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire explores the themes of collective identity and what it means to be free while illustrating the multifaceted challenge to authority that fueled the English Civil War. These themes are central to Churchill's body of work, and in this particular play, she mixes historical facts and characters with fictional dialogue and characters. Her people speak as they did in seventeenth-century England, and there is sparingly used controversial language toward the end of the play.

Individualism is not important in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire; rather, Churchill's interest lay in the portrayal of groups of people and how they were affected by their circumstances during this major political and religious upheaval under Charles I. Because this drama is based on history, readers and viewers need a working knowledge of that time period in order to understand the significance of the dialogue and perspectives presented.

The play is available as a book published by Theatre Communications Group.

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Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill (Gemma Levine Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Churchill was born on September 3, 1938, in London, England. After World War II, her family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where Churchill lived until the late 1950s. At that time, she returned to England to attend Oxford University, from which she graduated with a degree in English in 1960.

Churchill's first play, Downstairs, was written and performed in 1958, while she was still a student. That play won an award at the Sunday Times National Union of Students Drama Festival. She wrote two more student drama group plays before marrying lawyer David Harter in 1961. She and her husband have three sons.

In 1962, Churchill began writing radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the largest broadcasting corporation in the world. Soon she was writing television plays for the BBC as well. Most of her radio and television plays have been adapted for the stage. Her first professional stage production, Owners, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1972.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most of Churchill's time was spent collaborating with theater companies, such as the Joint Stock Theatre Company and the feminist Monstrous Regiment. It was during this period that she wrote Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (first performed in 1976, published in 1978). She spent a year as resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975.

Churchill's early plays, including Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, reflect her socialist views and explore historical events. She gradually became more focused on gender and feminist themes, and by the mid-1980s she was collaborating with choreographers and composers to incorporate dance-theater techniques into her plays. Churchill's willingness to experiment with dramatic form puts her in the category of postmodern playwrights.

Churchill has received numerous awards for her work, including four Obies (Village Voice off-Broadway Awards).

Churchill has written dozens of radio, television, and stage plays and has translated other plays. Her most recent work, a ten-minute history of Israel that ends with the Israeli attack on Gaza, is titled Seven Jewish Children. After debuting the play at London's Royal Court Theatre, Churchill published it online and approved free download and use as long as the producers include a collection for money to benefit the people of Gaza at the end of the event.

PLOT SUMMARY

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire differs from most stories in that it does not have a plot. Churchill wrote the drama as a series of short scenes, each one intended to be interpreted and understood on its own and without the influence of surrounding scenes.

Act 1

COBBE PRAYS

Cobbe recites a prayer out loud. He repents for feelings of lust and for swearing. Mostly, Cobbe repents for having enough to eat while so many do not, and he regrets kneeling before a "greedy, cruel, hypocritical" king.

THE VICAR TALKS TO HIS SERVANT

The vicar asks his servant how his new baby is faring, and the servant replies that the baby is very ill, no better than before. The vicar claims that suffering is part of life and is the path to heaven.

MARGARET BROTHERTON IS TRIED

Two jailers (JPs) interrogate and try the homeless Margaret Brotherton for begging in a parish other than the one in which she was born. Page 153  |  Top of Article The JPs explain that the parish cannot provide for outside beggars, only for its own. They find her guilty and sentence her to be stripped to the waist and beaten as she leaves the parish.

STAR RECRUITS

Star presides over a prayer meeting. He gives a speech in which he declares the kingdom as belonging to the Antichrist. Star equates fighting against the king with sainthood and gives voice to the belief held by many: When parliament and the king have been defeated, Christ will come in person and rule over England.

In an attempt to recruit men to fight the government, he encourages them by saying:

And who are the saints? You are. The poor people of this country. When Christ came, did he come to the rich? No. He came to the poor. He is coming to you again. If you prepare for him by defeating Antichrist which is the royalists. If you join in the army now, you will be one of the saints. You will rule with Jesus a thousand years.

Thomas Briggs signs up on the spot.

BROTHERTON MEETS THE MAN

Brotherton walks along with bags of things—junk, mostly—that she has collected. She meets a man who encourages her to seek warmth. Brotherton refuses, saying that the warmth will not last and so it is of no value to her. The man wishes he knew when Christ was coming; Brotherton expresses doubt that he is coming at all.

BRIGGS JOINS UP

As Briggs signs up to join the army, he asks Star how long it will be until the fighting ends. Star responds that the Royalists are the Antichrist and that the army will fight as long as it takes for men to be free and own their own land. He informs Briggs that the army values godliness. Star asks Briggs if he can take orders. Briggs states he will take orders if they do not go against God. Briggs tells him the orders cannot be against God in God's army.

HOSKINS INTERRUPTS THE PREACHER

The preacher gives a sermon in which he approves of fighting the king and asks who the saints are. Going against the rule that women do not speak out in church, Hoskins answers that everyone is a saint. The preacher says saints are those who have been chosen by God. Others are eternally damned, and no human can add to or take away from either number.

Hoskins disagrees, and soon the two are publicly arguing several of the beliefs and points that the preacher is trying to explain. When the preacher rebukes Hoskins for speaking out and recites Scripture indicating the submissive role women are expected to take, Hoskins fires back with more Scripture that proves God gives women the power to prophesy.

The preacher eventually has Hoskins thrown out of church and damns her.

CLAXTON BRINGS HOSKINS HOME

Claxton rescues Hoskins after the church people physically beat her. His wife washes her wounds, and the two women begin talking. Hoskins shares her Ranter perspective on sin and Christ's second coming, while Claxton's wife explains the traditional views of women:

We bear children in pain…. And they die. For our sin, Eve's sin. That's why we have pain. We're not clean. We have to obey. The man, whatever he's like. If he beat us that's why. We have blood, we're shameful, our bodies are worse than a man's. All bodies are evil but ours is worst. That's why we can't speak.

Claxton explains that the way things are going, poor folk cannot survive. He likens life in revolutionary England to a sea of salt water. Fish can live in it; men cannot. The gentry are fish and can thrive; poor people are mere men and will die.

COBBE'S VISION

The scene opens with an actor reading actual text from a pamphlet written and published in 1649 by Abiezer Coppe, the man on whom Cobbe's character is based. It is a warning that Christ is returning to earth

TWO WOMEN LOOK IN A MIRROR

A woman comes in with a broken mirror and shows it to another woman, who is mending. The mirror was taken from the squire's (landowner's) house. His house has been ransacked by those who have worked the land for him, now that there is excitement and hope for equality among the classes.

The first woman explains to the second that there is an even bigger mirror still in the house, one in which they can see their entire bodies at once. She says, "They must know what they look like all the time. And now we do."

This is an important scene because it epitomizes (provides a good example of) the lack of Page 154  |  Top of Article self-identity women had in revolutionary England. They did not know themselves, or "see" themselves, completely; the revolution gives them hope of the opportunity to do just that.

BRIGGS RECALLS A BATTLE

Briggs remembers a battle scene in which he could not identify whom he was hitting with his musket. Was it someone from his own side or the enemy? As the smoke from all the gunfire clears, a thought occurs to him: It does not matter who is who because they were not really fighting each other, but the Antichrist, and everyone would be made free to enjoy paradise.

THE PUTNEY DEBATES

This scene marks the turning point in the play. It includes text from the actual debates and is the longest scene in the drama. Act 1 is full of hope and the promise of heaven on earth. For a brief moment, when the king is defeated, it appears as though victory has been reached. People of England were excited at the idea of taking control of their lives.

The Putney Debates were attended by soldiers, their generals and other officers, and civilians who met to negotiate terms for governing a new England. Soldiers of the New Model Army, led by Oliver Cromwell, largely embraced the beliefs and desires of the Levellers. Cromwell and other officers of the army refused to approve any compromise that would involve overthrowing King Charles. By the end of the debates, the Levellers felt betrayed by the very men who led them in battle. Act 2 reflects this sense of betrayal and disappointment.

The demands of the Levellers included universal male suffrage, meaning that every adult male would have the right to vote; the disbanding of the current parliament; an elected parliament that would hold elections every two years; a House of Commons (as opposed to a king and lords) with ultimate authority; freedom of conscience; freedom of forced servitude in the army; and full equality of all in the eyes of the law.

Upon hearing Sexby read the list, Cromwell states the obvious when he comments on the magnitude of alterations the list contains. Those in attendance debate the demands. In particular, General Ireton takes issue with the idea that all men should own land. His concern is that without constraints, people will rise up and take land that belongs to others simply because they want it. Colonel Rainborough, a Leveller, resents Ireton's implication that freedom to own land without limits of birthright implies that the poor are in favor of anarchy. He claims that divine law—the "thou shalt not steal" of the Bible—will keep order. Ireton does not understand why Rainborough is offended. He believes there should be rights to property, but limited rights.

Rainborough wonders aloud what they have all been fighting for, if not laws and liberties. Wildman agrees and reminds everyone in the room that England's laws were made by its conquerors, a fact that led to unjust law. Ireton and Colonel Rich hold that giving all men an equal voice in representation is not in England's best interest. When Ireton continues to insist that property is given not by God or the law of nature but by human constitution, Sexby is disheartened:

We have ventured our lives and it was all for this: to recover our birthrights as Englishmen…. There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in the kingdom…. Except a man hath a fixed estate in the kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived.

Sexby goes further and reminds the officers that the kingdom has been preserved by the very men it has enslaved and wants to continue to enslave. Ireton wants to keep the current constitution that gives property only to a select few. Rainborough counters with the claim that the soldiers have all along, then, fought only to keep themselves enslaved.

The scene and act end with the two parties at odds; Cromwell decides to form a new committee. Those who gave years of their lives to the service of the army are left with betrayal, which sets the tone for Act 2.

Act 2

DIGGERS

This brief scene explains that for the Diggers, land equals freedom.

CLAXTON EXPLAINS

Claxton explains how he became a Ranter.

BRIGGS WRITES A LETTER

Briggs and Star talk about the new council formed by Cromwell at the end of the Putney Debates. The new council does not include anyone but officers. Star wants to see the letter Briggs is writing; it is not really a letter but a list of proposals. Despite the fact that he is no Page 155  |  Top of Article longer invited or allowed to speak at the council to represent the Levellers, he will not give up the effort toward equality. Star tells him he is wasting his time, but Briggs ignores the claim. Star reminds him that the army is executing Levellers now, and Briggs counters that this is happening because the army has given itself absolute power—it is no better than the tyrant king.

Star warns Briggs about going against God's army, and Briggs tells Star that the army is not on God's side.

THE WAR IN IRELAND

The army moves into Ireland to try to take control of its territories.

THE VICAR WELCOMES THE NEW LANDLORD

Star becomes squire of land confiscated during the war. He plans to grow crops, but he is unsure of how to get rid of the beggars and homeless people living on his land.

A WOMAN LEAVES HER BABY

Two women talk after they have journeyed far. One of them had planned to abandon her baby, who is starving to death, on the steps of a house. Now that they have walked a long distance, the woman is having second thoughts and finds she cannot leave her baby behind. The other woman tries to convince her that she is doing the right thing. The baby is dying, not even crying, and there is no food available for the woman to eat so that she can produce milk. The scene ends without the woman making a decision.

A BUTCHER TALKS TO HIS CUSTOMERS

The butcher tells his customers they have had enough meat, that they eat so much of it there is nothing left for other people who are starving. He tells them he will cut no more meat for them because "You've had your meat. You've had their meat…. You cram yourselves with their children's meat. You cram yourselves with their dead children."

LOCKYER'S FUNERAL

Lockyer is a Leveller leader who is executed by the army. Thousands of citizens accompany his body on the funeral march through the town. Several weeks after the funeral, the Leveller movement is crushed.

THE MEETING

Those who were betrayed by and defeated in the revolution—Cobbe, Claxton, Hoskins, Brotherton, Briggs—and a drunk meet in a pub and start drinking as they lament the events that have befallen them. During the course of conversation, each one mentions how he or she was disillusioned over the past seven years. Briggs is a broken man who no longer believes Christ is coming to create heaven on earth. Claxton argues that God will come, that man will be so perfect that the landlords will repent for stealing the land.

Brotherton has come to believe she is wicked because she is weak in the flesh. She claims to be evil and shameful, full of sin. She had a baby and killed him on the day he was born by putting him in a bag and throwing him in a ditch. Even though the bag moved, Brotherton walked away. While Cobbe and Claxton try to convince her she is not with sin, only Briggs understands the seriousness of what she has done and asks God to help her.

The drunk claims to be God.

AFTER

The final scene of the play features the same characters who were at the meeting in the previous scene. They talk about what happened to them after the Restoration (when the king was restored to the throne). The drunk stays drunk. Brotherton continues to be a beggar who steals to eat. Hoskins believes Christ really did return and nobody noticed. Cobbe laments the passing of the Blasphemy Act because he can no longer claim to be God. Briggs lives in a field and eats nothing but grass. Sometimes, people come to watch. Claxton moved to Barbados and recognizes that nothing in England has changed.

CHARACTERS

Briggs

Briggs is a regular man who joined the army for no other reason than to feed his family. He is representative of his entire social class. Initially, he is not overtly political or idealistic, but as the war drags on, he becomes increasingly aware of the underlying political and religious aspects of the conflict and joins the Leveller movement. Briggs becomes more vocal about his discontent when he realizes the New Model Army is not going to make a difference for ordinary families. (This army was formed by Parliamentarians Page 156  |  Top of Article during the war and is available to fight anywhere in the country. Unlike traditional armies, its soldiers are full-time and are not associated with any political seats in Parliament or elsewhere.)

Briggs's newfound ideology leaves him disillusioned, yet he remains in service to the army and continues to hope for a more equal distribution of wealth. By the end of the play, he has stopped eating everything but grass. He is nothing and has nothing.

Margaret Brotherton

Margaret Brotherton is a homeless woman who is tried for vagrancy and found guilty. She is beaten and forced to leave town.

Claxton

Claxton is based on a real person, Laurence Clarkson. He is a Ranter and a traveling preacher. Clarkson eventually turned his back on his Ranter beliefs and published an autobiography called The Lost Sheep Found in 1650. Until the end of the play, however, Claxton remains committed to his belief that human perfection is possible because God is in all things. In the play's last scene, Claxton is sorrowful that the revolution has changed nothing, and he is unwilling to admit the loss of the possibility of spiritual perfection.

Claxton's Wife

Claxton's wife represents the traditionally held idea that women are evil. She believes that women deserve the pain of childbirth, the physical abuse delivered by husbands, and the status of second-class citizens. She holds that women would not be punished so if there were not a good reason. She and Hoskins disagree as to the value of women in society.

Cobbe

Cobbe is based on a real person named Abiezer Coppe. Like Claxton, he is a Ranter. Cobbe claims to experience spiritual visions, and like many of his day, believes the moment of Christ's second coming is near.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell is one of the play's nonfictional characters. Cromwell was a member of Parliament and eventually the leader of the New Model Army. He participated in the Putney Debates and is largely credited with transforming England into a commonwealth (a republic in which people have an impact on the government).

In the play, Cromwell appears in the Putney Debates scene.

First Woman and Second Woman

Women had no voice and virtually no power in society. More than anyone else in the play, they are limited in speech. These two characters appear only in the scene "Two Women Look in a Mirror." The First Woman loots her former squire's home and takes items. The Second Woman is encouraged to steal a blanket for herself.

Hoskins

Hoskins is a vagrant female preacher. She is mistakenly considered by many to be a beggar, an accusation she counters by saying she gets paid in food for her preaching. Hoskins speaks out against the preacher during a sermon and is beaten up and forcibly removed from the town. This character represents the Ranter point of view:God is in everyone and everything, and all people will be saved when Christ returns to create heaven on earth.

General Ireton

Henry Ireton is based on the real Henry Ireton, the son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell and a general in the parliamentary army. He appears in the Putney Debates scene as the voice against extremist views, including the demands of the Levellers, whom he considers dangerous and impractical. Although the historical Ireton favored retaining the constitution of King, Lords, and Commons, he eventually recognized the uselessness in trying to negotiate with Charles I. Ireton signed the king's death warrant.

Preacher

The preacher represents the fire-and-brimstone religious beliefs held by most of seventeenth-century England. He claims there is no sin in fighting against an unjust king in the name of God. God has chosen those people who will be saints and those who will be damned, and no mere human can change the outcome. The preacher denounces Hoskins as eternally damned for her beliefs and for challenging him in public.

Colonel Thomas Rainborough

Thomas Rainborough is another nonfictional character who played an important role in the Putney Debates. A leading spokesman for the Levellers, Rainborough was eventually murdered by four Royalists. He appears in the play only in the Putney Debates scene.

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Colonel Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich is based on the actual Parliamentarian army officer of the same name. In the Putney Debates, Rich was a voice of reason and compromise.

Edward Sexby

Another real-life character, Edward Sexby is a Leveller in the Parliamentarian army. During the Putney Debates, Sexby demanded immediate votes for all Englishmen and opposed any efforts of negotiation with Charles I. Sexby eventually attempted to assassinate Oliver Cromwell and died during his imprisonment for the crime. In the play, Sexby appears in the Putney Debates scene as a voice for the commoner.

Star

Star is a corn merchant whose political leanings are not known. He recruits Briggs into the army. In the second act, once Royalist lands have been confiscated, Star becomes the landlord of an estate, the land of which he wants to plow and plant. He is unsure what to do with the vagrants and beggars squatting on his land.

John Wildman

John Wildman's character is based on a real person who joined the Parliamentarian army in 1646 and helped form the Leveller party. Wildman participated in the Putney Debates and eventually tried to overthrow Oliver Cromwell. He served prison time but was released after Cromwell died. In the play, Wildman is a civilian and writes the Leveller pamphlets. His character appears only during the Putney Debates, where he argues in favor of overthrowing the king.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • With one other person, choose sides: Digger or Ranter. Research each faction and find similarities and differences in beliefs and actions. Together, create a poster illustrating these points.
  • View the fifty-minute movie Brother against Brother: The English Civil War from the DVD boxed set by Kultur Video (2007). Make a list comparing and contrasting how the film version of the war and those it affects differs from the play. What similarities do the two versions share?
  • Pretend you are Charles I. Choose any point during the English Civil War and write a detailed diary entry. Talk about what is going on, your concerns, and the fate of England.
  • Research the clothing and culture of seventeenth-century England. Draw a scene from the Putney Debates, using as much detailed accuracy as possible.
  • Research the music popular in England during the Civil War. Find a copy of a piece and play it for the class on a musical instrument.
  • In small groups, write, design, and produce a pamphlet written from the point of view of a Royalist or a Parliamentarian (any faction) using computer software. Make copies to share with your classmates.
  • With a partner, choose to be either an interviewer or Churchill. Conduct a live interview; asking questions about this play and her other works. Why does she write about the topics she chooses? What influences her work? Research Churchill, but be creative and come up with some of your own answers so that the interview is a mix of fact and fiction.
  • Create a comic strip regarding the English Civil War. The comic can be done by hand or using a computer program.
  • Read Major Sanderson's War: The Diary of a Parliamentary Cavalry Officer in the English Civil War (2009) by P. R. Hill and J.M. Watkinson. Find evidence in the diary to illustrate which side Major Sanderson would have supported in the war. Report your findings in an essay.

Winstanley

Gerrard Winstanley was a failed cloth merchant who played a key role in establishing the Digger

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Women picket outside the Trico factory

Women picket outside the Trico factory in Great West Road, London, during the equal pay for women dispute in 1976. (Popperfoto / Getty Images)

faction. Diggers believed all private property should be confiscated and divided evenly among all citizens.

THEMES

Individualism

Individual identity is important in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Churchill wants the audience or reader to believe that group identity and need are more important than individual identity and desire. She makes this point especially through characterization. Ideally, the play is performed using only six actors to portray twenty-five characters. Her goal here is not to fully develop each character but to show that individuals shared common traits, beliefs, and desires in the transitional and chaotic times of the English Civil War. In her production notes, Churchill states, "When different actors play the parts what comes over is a large event involving many people, whose characters resonate in a way they wouldn't if they were more clearly defined." Understanding exactly who a viewer is seeing is not as important as understanding what that character represents.

Freedom

Throughout the play, discussion between characters ultimately return to what it means to be free. For some, it means having a voice and raising it when necessary. For others, it involves fair representation by those who make laws. But for everyone, freedom is equated with owning property. Through that ownership come independence and the means to provide for one's family. Only by owning land can England's working and peasant classes find freedom.

God

A common religious belief during the English Civil War was that Christ, who had left earth for heaven, was returning to prepare heaven on earth. Preachers warned of this second coming and encouraged all to repent for their sins. Women, according to common biblical Page 159  |  Top of Article interpretation of the day, were sinful, dirty, and shameful. In the play, the female preacher Hoskins portrays the beliefs of the Ranters: God is everywhere and in everything and everyone. Churchill leaves it up to the audience to decide the nature of God as she presents both sets of beliefs but does not provide any easy answers.

STYLE

Dialogue

Churchill's play includes minimal action; the entire play is performed using one table and six chairs for props. If a scene does not require a table or chairs, the actors themselves move the furniture to the sides of the stage and watch the play from there. All progression of the play relies solely on the dialogue between characters.

Epic Theater

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was written in epic theater style. This style was popularized by the playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose works Churchill studied extensively. The play is a collage of smaller scenes, each which can be understood by itself, without the influence of other scenes in the play. In her production notes for the play, Churchill says, "Each scene can be taken as a separate event rather than part of a story. This seems to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience." There is no climax, just a string of scenes, one following the other, but the order would not necessarily matter.

Another aspect of epic theater is simple set design. Actors play multiple roles. In Churchill's play, there are twenty-five characters, but it is suggested that only four male and two female actors play all the parts.

Realism

Churchill's characters use realistic speech common in seventeenth-century England: "we are come," "fain," "hath," and so on. In addition, she incorporates actual text and testimony from the Putney Debates in 1647 and various biblical passages. In doing so, Churchill gives a sense of realism to her play.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The conflict known as the English Civil War is actually a series of three wars (1642-1646; 1648-1649; 1649-1651) fought between the Parliamentarians and Royalists. It is also known as the English Revolution and the Great Rebellion.

Charles I

Earlier civil wars in England were concerned with who ruled the country; this war was more concerned with how the country was ruled. In 1625, England's king was Charles I. He was not well liked by Parliament (the legislative, or law-making, branch of England's government) because he was an autocrat, an absolute ruler with infinite power. He abused that power relentlessly.

By 1639, Charles had lost in the war against Spain, England's primary enemy. At the same time, the Scots rebelled against England for religious reasons and invaded the kingdom. The only way to save it was to request Parliament's help in raising money to fund the conflict. The Scots occupied most of northern England, and soon Ireland joined the revolt. Charles needed Parliament's support, but relations were so strained that Charles was forced to agree to Parliament's demands before its members would come to his rescue.

Charles had no problem with the political reforms. But when Parliament gave him its list of religious reforms, things got worse. Supporters of the king were called Royalists, or Cavaliers. The other side, those who wanted to see an end to or at least a serious reform of the Anglican Church, was called the Parliamentarians, or Roundheads. This group included most Puritans, including an extremist group called the Levellers. This faction demanded annual sessions of Parliament, payment of its members, and suffrage (right to vote) for all citizens. Basically, they wanted an end to privilege based on birthright.

Diggers and Ranters

Among this radical group was another, smaller faction made up of commoners called Diggers. They considered themselves the true Levellers because they wanted all land to belong to all people. Traditionally, only nobles and the upper class owned land; everyone else had to work that land under poor conditions and payment. Diggers were agricultural communists: they believed Page 160  |  Top of Article in equal distribution of all land to all people and an end to government.

Another radical movement of commoners was called the Ranters. Considered blasphemous by the Puritans, Ranters were self-proclaimed messiahs, prophets, and mystics who believed God is in everyone and everything. They believed they were infused with the Holy Spirit and so were removed from sin. Ranters were associated with nudity, which they embraced as a form of social protest. For them, conventional rules and norms of society did not apply. The Ranter movement, which lacked organization and leadership, was at its peak from the late 1640s through the late 1650s.

Power Struggle and the Putney Debates

By spring of 1642, Parliament and Charles struggled over power. Parliament ordered the military to report to it rather than to the king. Charles raised his own army in retaliation, and the first war began. By May 1647, each side could claim both victory and defeat, and a compromise was reached. Charles agreed to accept some of the religious reform demands and give Parliament control of the army for a specific number of years. Parliament, in turn, ordered the current army to disband. The army refused and took possession of the king. The rogue army now had all the power.

In June, the army demanded the arrest of eleven members of Parliament for the "crime" of negotiating with the king in secret. Parliament refused to turn over its members, and the army camped outside London. Members of the army debated what to do, since they were in the unique position to act against both king and Parliament. These discussions were known as the Putney Debates because they took place in the fields of Putney.

The Levellers wanted a new and improved elected Parliament that truly represented the people (with the exception of the poor and servants). Members would be voted upon by England's working class. There would be no king and no houses of lords or commons. The Diggers made clear their desire for an end to private property and the existence of government altogether.

Military and political leader Oliver Cromwell did not like the tone of the debates and ordered the Levellers back to their regiments. When they resisted, Cromwell arrested three and killed one, thus ending the Putney Debates.

The End of War

Cromwell eventually became leader of Parliament. The royalists were defeated, and Charles I was executed for treason. This event was a major turning point in England's history, as it was the first time the public authority had executed a king. The non-noble classes had grown in size and strength, and it was a clear message of the power of religion as a political force.

The Diggers were not satisfied with the beheading of the king; they revolted even more because they felt little had changed. Cromwell ordered more executions, and soon the Levellers disbanded altogether.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

The title of Churchill's play was taken from the title of a political pamphlet published by the Diggers in 1649. In it, they state, "You great Curmudgeons, you hang a man for stealing, when you yourselves have stolen from your brethren all land and creatures." This was the sort of emotion underlying the revolution of seventeenth-century England.

Rather than tell the story of England's war in terms of battles won and lost, Churchill chose to focus on the beliefs and hopes of the people who would be most affected by the war's outcome. Those who fought against the king believed Christ was soon returning to earth, where he would establish heaven. Every action, every thought, stemmed from that belief.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire illustrates that exciting time when the king has been defeated and the possibilities are endless. Soon, though, the Diggers and Levellers are defeated and betrayed. Those victims turn to the other radical movement, the Ranters, who embody that last revolutionary cry before capitalism claims the kingdom.

Churchill explains in the foreword to her play:

The simple ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads’ history taught at school hides the complexity of the aims and conflicts of those to the left of Parliament. We are told of a step forward on today's democracy but not of a revolution that didn't happen; we are told of Charles and Cromwell but not of the thousands of men and women who tried to change their lives. Though nobody now expects Christ to make heaven on earth, their voices are surprisingly close to us.

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CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire did not receive much attention when it first hit the stage in 1976. By the early 1990s, it was generally well received. Critic Julia M. Klein labels the play "brilliant" in her 2006 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Most critics agree with this assessment, but they also agree on the main drawback: The play makes demands on its audience.

In his theater review for the Nation, critic Thomas M. Disch praises the play. "As a poetic statement of the general situation of leftists living in a period of reaction, I can think of no work of comparable power." In Disch's opinion, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire outshines Churchill's other plays, which he heralds as "some of the finest plays of the last two decades."

That said, Disch also points out that despite good reviews of the play in 1991, the play makes intellectual demands on its audience and "even more dismayingly, it would help to know something about English history." These requirements limit the appeal of the drama.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1640s: This is a major transitional time period for England. Religious and political ideologies and beliefs are colliding, and it is an era of revolution and revolt.

    1970s: Again, this is a transitional era in England's history, when citizens are at a crossroads of optimism and cynicism. It is a time of increased labor strikes, government-imposed wage freezes, and serious economic instability. England's people are feeling underrepresented and ignored. Britain finds 1976 a humiliating year, as it is forced to request a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

    Today: A global economic crisis grips society, and England experiences a deep recession (decline in economic activity). Political parties feud over government spending issues, and the government freezes students loans and grants in the wake of the recession. England is in turmoil politically and economically.

  • 1640s: Women are relegated to traditional roles of wife and mother. Those who break away from social norms are punished severely, often in the village square.

    1970s: The women's movement is in full swing in England, as it is in America. Laws are passed to ensure that women get the same pay as men for doing the same job, but that equality never quite manifests.

    Today: Again, parallel to America, women today can be found in all fields of the business sector, though they still are not being equally compensated for the work they do. Feminist literature is enjoying a renewed interest as it connects with activists from decades ago, as well as young women.

  • 1640s: Between the 1540s and the 1640s, the cost of living in England increases a drastic 700 percent.

    1970s: The British pound is worth $2.40 in U.S. dollars. Inflation in 1972 is 7.1 percent; it jumps to an all-time high of 24 percent in 1975.

    Today: Economic experts are comparing the current economy to that of the 1970s. The British pound is worth approximately $1.65.

Critic Roy Sander, in Back Stage, calls Churchill an "interesting writer" but considers Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the work of an "immature playwright, not yet versed in some of the rudiments of her craft." He dislikes the use of the same actor to portray several characters and the "tedious talk about God."

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Illustration depicting the English Civil War

Illustration depicting the English Civil War: the storming of Bristol by Prince Rupert and his Royalist forces (Getty Images)

More than two decades after it was written and first performed, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire enjoyed a new sense of relevance. In a 1997 article for the London Guardian, British journalist Fiachra Gibbons explains:

It's hard to imagine a play set in the aftermath of the Civil War being bang-on the moment, yet this is…. The play hasn't changed since 1976, but we have. The world has turned upside-down.

Gibbons is referring to the political state of England in 1976. It was an era of republicanism (in which a country is governed by an elected charter that has all official power, as opposed to a democracy, in which, theoretically, the majority rules). Parliament at the time was under heavy scrutiny for its behavior, which many Britons felt was out of sync with the desires and needs of the majority of citizens who had elected them. The overall atmosphere of England in the 1970s was one of unrest and political dissent. The ideas and beliefs of Diggers, Ranters, and Levellers, therefore, were more easily understood by modern British people.

CRITICISM

Rebecca Valentine

Valentine is a freelance writer who holds a B.A. in English with minors in philosophy and professional communications. In this essay, she considers Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire from a feminist perspective and questions its lack of female representation.

The English Civil War was a time of great transition. It was a major turning point in English history as, for the first time, ordinary citizens rallied against the king's rule. More lives were lost in this war, in proportion to the population at the time, than in World War I. Some of those lives belonged to professional soldiers, some to Page 163  |  Top of Article untrained civilians. Some belonged to women. Women, arguably more than any other subgroup, were the greatest dissenters in society during the years of the war. They broke out of traditional gender roles in nearly every conceivable way and took liberties where none were offered. Given these bold steps, women and the challenges they faced during the English Civil War are underrepresented in Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

Of the twenty-five characters in Churchill's play, only five are female. Two of those characters appear in just one scene. Churchill's goal was to present not the war itself but the lives of the ordinary citizens who would be most affected by the conflict's outcome as well as its action. However, the play presents only a snapshot of women's lives in seventeenth-century England. Even within the limitations of the play (minimal stage props, historical fact mixed with fiction, and an emphasis on the cultural and social implications rather than the war itself), the audience and reader could be presented with more information to provide a more balanced understanding of women's role in that society at that time.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (1984) explores the beliefs of the era's radical groups, including the Diggers and Ranters, as well as the social and emotional impulses that led to them.
  • Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (2006) was first published in 1900. Written by Sir Charles Firth, it is the only balanced account of Cromwell's personal and professional life.
  • Geoff Kennedy's 2008 book titled Diggers, Levellers, and Agrarian Capitalism: Radical Political Thought in Seventeenth Century England provides a detailed look into the radical movements that fed the English Civil War.
  • Civil Wars in Africa was written by William Mark Habeeb in 2006. Written for young adults, the book analyzes past and current cultural, political, historical, ethnic, and religious conditions that have led to civil war since 1960.
  • Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England is Phyllis Mack's 1995 study of radical prophecy in medieval England.
  • Michael Braddick's God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (2009) is unique in that it explores not only the wars themselves but their cultural and social implications. This history volume, almost eight hundred pages long, shows how everyone, from pamphleteers to witch hunters and petitioners, was mobilized in the decade of conflict that would shape modern-day England.
  • John Davenport's The Age of Feudalism(2007) begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and traces the history of European feudalism from the fifth century onward. Geared toward younger readers, the book contains colorful illustrations and informative sidebars.
  • Author Keith Roberts and illustrator Angus McBride have published Soldiers of the English Civil War, Volume 1: Infantry (Elite) (1989) and Soldiers of the English Civil War, Volume 2: Cavalry (Elite) (1990). Rather than focus on accounts of people or events, these two volumes provide a visual reference that includes details on uniforms, military structure, and troop training; quotations from primary documents; and graphics of equipment and weaponry. The illustrations make this set appealing to all ages.

SELF-IDENTITY

The scene "Two Women Look In a Mirror" most obviously illustrates the results of the Page 164  |  Top of Article subjugation of women in rural England. For the first time, these two peasant women are seeing themselves—really seeing themselves. They have a sense of identity apart from any and all else. The first woman tells the second that there is an even bigger mirror still at the squire's house, one in which she can see her whole body. Here, the whole body is symbolic for the whole woman.

Despite their relative absence in Churchill's play, women were remarkably active in the English Civil War on a variety of levels. Some expressed their dissent by standing alongside the men in battle. They served as regular soldiers, some obviously women and others disguised as men. The situation became so threatening to the social order that King Charles banned women warriors from dressing like men.

In addition to fighting, women exacted revenge on the soldiers who threatened their families during wartime. Such dissent was not relegated to the peasantry and working class. In a Daily Mail article titled "Uncivil War: The English Civil War Divided Families and Proportionally Took More Lives Than World War I; As a New TV Drama Reveals, It Was Also the First War Fought Out between Spin Doctors," writer Julian Champkin reports that "highborn ladies actually commanded castles under siege while their husbands were away fighting." Nowhere in Churchill's play does the idea of dissent at such a physical level present itself.

SCANDALOUS BEHAVIOR

Churchill does show how some women chose to break out of gender restrictions in the scene titled "Hoskins Interrupts the Preacher." Hoskins has taken to preaching on the move, mobile only because no parish will allow her to stay. She was a member of the outspoken Ranter sect, which promoted free love and the idea of a sinless existence. Prior to the emergence of such sects, women had no voice, either individually or collectively. By joining with those who shared a set of values and beliefs, they gained a sense of control over their lives. Like Hoskins in the play, this already marginalized community (women) felt that the price they paid—ostracism and public damnation—was worth the benefit of no longer being overlooked and ignored.

We do not find women who practice witchcraft in the play, or at least none that claim to do so, and yet England had experienced an explosion of witch hunts as the Civil War broke out. Historians believe women claimed to be witches for a number of reasons, some not so surprising. According to the History Review article "Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War" by Alison Jones and others, some women truly believed they had magical powers, while others were simply mentally imbalanced. Still others enjoyed the power such a claim gave them. Jones and her coauthors write, "In a patriarchal society women were expected to be submissive to men; witchcraft therefore gave them a greater authority, as everyone feared them because of their powers."

Some historians believe women used a confession of witchcraft to explain their suicidal feelings or depression. In seventeenth-century England, good and bad were talked about in terms of God and the devil. Although suicidal thoughts and depression are dealt with today as symptoms of distress, back then they would have been considered the work of the devil. Many concepts we now know are normal and merely signs of something else were then believed to be unnatural. As the authors of "Dissent and Debauchery" point out,

Many women must have looked long and hard at themselves and their roles as mothers, wives and neighbours. If they did not conform to society's views as to how they should act then some convinced themselves that they were witches.

REVOLUTION FOR ALL?

Churchill does include women in her play, and the few scenes these women occupy give the observant reader or viewer important information. But why not paint for us the whole picture? Was the omission of information deliberate? Was it considered superfluous to the point the play is supposed to make? Janelle Reinelt of Cambridge University calls Churchill "arguably the most successful and best-known socialist-feminist playwright to have emerged from Second Wave feminism." Why, then, do women receive so little attention in her cultural and social analysis of the English Civil War?

It is possible that Churchill's feminist treatment of her body of work did not flourish until after she wrote Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. As author, she is entitled to include whatever information she wishes in her plays. It is also quite possible that Churchill intentionally left the reader or viewer with an incomplete picture of women's lives during the English Civil War in an effort to make a point: Women, the Page 165  |  Top of Article most marginalized subset of society, remained thus throughout the English Civil War.

Although she never explicitly indicates that she empathizes with the Levellers, Diggers, or Ranters, she does make clear that even in a revolutionary atmosphere, women continue to be subjugated. In the scene "Hoskins Interrupts the Preacher," the closing line belongs to the preacher as he says, "Woman, you are certainly damned." It is up to individual interpretation to figure out whether the preacher is speaking solely to Hoskins or in general, about all women.

Given that the English Civil War was the first revolution fought by a literate population of commoners, it would have been interesting and enlightening to hear more from and about the female perspective in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Some women did keep diaries and journals. Perhaps Churchill is beseeching her audience to ask of themselves, How successful can a revolution be if its own warriors continue to subjugate its women?

Source: Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.

David Benedict

In the following interview, Benedict talks with Churchill talk about her life after critical successes and about her body of work.

If you could stop MORI polling people about their voting intentions for a few seconds and persuade them to ask people to name this country's greatest living dramatist, most people would probably plump for Harold Pinter or David Hare. Regardless of their incontestable stature—plays as good as Old Times or Racing Demon don't fall exactly from the trees—a substantial body of opinion would place Caryl Churchill at the top of the list. Only last week, Mark Ravenhill, author of last year's surprise hit … wrote: "I read Top Girls at least once a year and I weep. One day, I think, one day I'll write something as good."

For those unlucky enough never to have seen Churchill's definitive play about the 1980s—a dazzlingly dramatic and politically astute analysis of what it took to rise to the top—which the Guardian awarded the back-handed compliment of being "the best play ever from a woman dramatist"—there's some late news just in. It's unofficial, unannounced and unbelievably overdue, but 1997 is the year of Caryl Churchill. Earlier this year, the National Theatre's tour of her 1976 play set around the English Civil War, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, opened at the Cottesloe; Cloud Nine, her magnificently funny and sharp-witted modern classic about patriarchy, patriotism and sexual politics is back in a major revival at the Old Vic; Hotel, her latest collaborative piece for the trailblazing dance/music-theatre company Second Stride opens in London next week; and her new double-bill Blue Heart will open at the Edinburgh Festival in August. All of which goes some way to making up for three barren years.

Her astonishingly ambitious The Skriker, a vast social panorama with Kathryn Hunter as a shape-shifting underworld creature, which took Churchill years to write, opened at the National in 1994 to the bafflement of many, who were misled by the production. Others hailed it as a masterpiece. But since then, apart from her translation of Seneca's Thyestes for the Royal Court, the rest has been silence. You could be forgiven for thinking that she'd given up writing. You'd be right. Happily, though, she's had a change of heart; yet the playwright continues to be elusive, shying away from the media circus surrounding the business of theatre. Like much of her finest work, Top Girls was directed by Max Stafford-Clark. He deals with her reticence very simply: "She really wants the work to express what she's doing."

Fair enough. This isn't the disdainful aloofness of some theatrical grande dame. In fact, when she finally accedes to my request to meet during rehearsals for Hotel, she's thoughtful and generous and anxious to dispel any suggestion of frosty, lofty indifference. She apologises for seeming "difficult" but points out the absurdity of our meeting. "It's an odd kind of conversation," she muses, "there's more going on than just two people in a room. You're doing your job. It's going to be read by a lot of people, and when it's printed, it Page 166  |  Top of Article has a definitive quality which then gets quoted back at you 15 years later. It's also not a conversation because it's so one way" And then, all of a sudden, the guarded nervousness gives way to laughter. "Never mind," she says, the shutters opening to reveal a welcoming smile leaping across her face.

She was an only child. Her father, a cartoonist, and her mother, a fashion model, moved from London to Montreal when she was 10, and she began writing short stories and producing living-room pantomimes. At 14, she wrote a full-length children and ponies book and was also improvising plays with a friend. "We would work out in some detail what was going to happen and we would play it, and, if we hadn't quite liked how it went, we would play it again." During her time at Oxford at the end of the Fifties, she won first prize at the National Student Drama Festival with her play Downstairs. Her first work to receive a professional production was The Ants, a radio play, a form which suited her because there was a market for it (and no fringe theatre in the early Sixties) and because she was raising her children.

The (then) estimable theatre journal Plays and Players declared Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, in which different actors played the same character, to be "one of the finest pieces of English playwrighting for years," but the big break came three years later in 1979 with Cloud Nine. Like Light Shining, it was written for Max Stafford-Clark's company Joint Stock and its dynamite cast (including Julie Covington, Antony Sher and Miriam Margolyes) who were wittily embracing gender-bending long before anyone dreamed of the term. Joint Stock pioneered a collaborative approach to playwriting, something which has had a marked effect on Churchill and scores of writers since. "It was very exhilarating because it was a completely different way of working." Wasn't it scary giving up authorial control? "Yes, a little bit, but there's a misconception sometimes that the actual writing process becomes collaborative. Some companies create wholly devised plays but I've never gone that far into collaboration." Joint Stock's method was based on an extended workshop / research period, after which the writer would go away and write. "And then there is more rewriting in rehearsal because you've got a group of people you work with and trust. And they trust you because you've all shared that research time. I would be much more open to changing things than if it had been something I had written alone."

Since then, Churchill's work has split between plays created on her own and those that have grown out of collaboration, notably the dance/theatre works The Lives of the Great Poisoners and the forthcoming two-part Hotel, both written with long-term co-conspirators choreographer Ian Spink and composer Orlando Gough for Second Stride. "Hotel started from an idea I had of something which might work as an opera with Orlando, which was of eight lots of people in eight rooms, which would appear on stage as one room." Eyebrows might be raised at the idea of a dance company presenting an opera, but if anyone can pull it off, it's these three whose experience, versatility and sheer success rate with formal experiment is matched by no one in this country except Lloyd Newson and DV8.

"She reinvents herself every time," says Stafford-Clark, who points to Churchill's constant formal experimentation in the creation of overlapping dialogue in Top Girls or her comedy of City greed, Serious Money, written entirely in (deeply unfashionable) verse. Despite British Telecom's refusal to allow the use of its phones on stage ("This is a production with which no public company would wish to be associated"), it transferred to the West End and became a smash hit. Stafford-Clark, however, admits to finding her challenge terrifying. "She asks you to do things that haven't been done before. You think, ‘Maybe it won't work, and we can't do it’." He obviously thrives on the terror, though, and you can hear the thrill in his voice as he prepares to team up again for Blue Heart. Other playwrights are more famous, he concedes, but then counters: "Her influence has been enormous and not just on other writers. You go into schools and you tell them ‘We're doing some plays by Caryl Churchill’ and that she might be involved and teachers faint and genuflect. She shaped the way they teach and think about drama."

When Churchill began writing, virtually the only other major female dramatist was Agatha Christie. Perhaps her most significant move was the shift away from the semi-autobiographical stance adopted by women novelists. Theatre is a much more public artform and Churchill has taken that to heart, making ideas, emotions and structure indivisible. I point out that almost Page 167  |  Top of Article none of her plays follow the traditional route of the journey of a single protagonist, an idea that surprises her. She mulls it over. "When I was working with Joint Stock, I think there was a strong anti-sentimental feeling about in theatre. There was an attraction to making continuities with dramatic ideas rather than going a long way down an emotional journey … which didn't mean there wouldn't be very emotional things." That's certainly borne out by the poignant final image in Tom Cairns's new production of Cloud Nine, where the mother confronts the ghostly image of her younger self.

With all this year's burst of dramatic activity, can it be true that, three years ago, she stopped writing? She tenses up again. Then relents. "Oh, I don't mind …" She runs a long hand through a mane of silver hair. "I just got bored with it. That feeling of ‘Was I going to start thinking about another play just because I was a playwright?’ I've had it before. I remember that, in 1978, I decided I definitely wasn't going to be a writer any more. It took me about four months to get out of my head the idea that I was a writer and once I'd done it, of course, I started writing again." Her laughter fills the chilly rehearsal room. She looks at me, confidingly, her gaunt, gravely beautiful head resting on one hand. "I think I wanted to wait until I missed it."

Source: David Benedict, "The Mother of Reinvention," in Independent (London, England), April 19, 1997, p. 4.

Helene Keyssar

In the following excerpt, Keyssar analyzes the unconventional political and gender-based aspects of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

… Churchill was less satisfied with [Objections to Sex and Violence] than with any of her other scripts. Rather than retreating to more conventional dramaturgy, however, she pressed even more firmly against the boundaries of theatrical illusion with her next play, Traps, in which two women and four men live in a communal relationship that has few constraints and a continually plastic structure. The title of the play is ironic, for the characters are paralyzed by the anarchy of the totally communal and therefore relativistic society they have created. The "random permutations" of the relationships are evidence of the multiplicity of simultaneously available roles so central to Churchill's vision, but the deliberately contradictory messages in the play are so unrelieved that the drama has difficulty escaping its own spinning. We are not caught within Traps, but remain outside it and excluded from it.

Still searching for a context for her work that would be aesthetically challenging and allow her political integrity, Caryl joined with an alternative theater company, the Joint Stock Company, in 1976 to create Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1974 by Max Stafford-Clark, William Gaskill and David Hare, Joint Stock was committed to a collective, ensemble rehearsal process and to creating a theater that was unquestionably political without being doctrinaire. Actors and designers as well as playwrights and directors were expected to think and talk about the texts and about themselves. In their first production, an adaptation of William Hinton's Fanshen, the company made the decision to evolve activities for rehearsal that involved the playwright with the actors in the evolution of the script. In what might seem to be an obvious gesture, but one that is decidedly rare in theater, actors were repeatedly asked to describe and then show what they thought was the political point of a scene (Itzen, p. 221). Once actors extended their interest from the conventional modern focus on what the character desires or does to the balances of power, authority and obligation in a given framework, the style of performance moved toward a Brechtian epic theater mode. Such a context was ideal for the uncompromising non-naturalistic approach of Caryl Churchill.

In her introduction to the published text of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Churchill describes how the play evolved:

First of all, Max Stafford-Clark and I read and talked till we had found a subject in the millenial movement in the civil war. There was then a three-week workshop with the actors in which, through talk, reading, games and improvisation, we tried to get closer to the issues and the people. During the next six weeks I wrote a script and went on working on it with the company during the five-week rehearsal period.

It is hard to explain exactly the relationship between the workshop and the text. The play is not improvised: it is a written text and the actors did not make up its lines. But many of the characters and scenes were based on ideas that came from improvisation at the workshop and during rehearsal…. Just as important, though harder to define, was the effect on the writing of the way the actors worked, their accuracy and commitment. I worked very Page 168  |  Top of Article closely with Max, and though I wrote the text the play is something we both imagined.

Four years later, Churchill told me that this process was both exhilarating and exhausting, "much harder work in most ways than writing alone." The effort paid off, however, for both the production and the play were consistently applauded for their clarity of vision and commitment. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire retained many of the stylistic elements of Owners and Objections to Sex and Violence—short, self-enclosed Brechtian scenes, furniture reduced to a table and six chairs and minimal hand-props, a non-psychological depiction of characters, and company songs that interrupt and comment on the action. But it also gave its audience a coherent experience of historical change that raised serious questions about the past and the present.

Paradoxically, while both the seventeenth-century civil war setting for Light Shining … and the Joint Stock Company were male-dominated, it was with this play that Caryl was first unqualifiedly commended as a feminist. The most obvious source of this response was Churchill's emphatic attention to the sexual and political oppression of women in a historical period—the late 1640's in England—that is often described as revolutionary and liberating. In a cast of twenty-five characters, only five are women. But the women in the play ably claim their space.

The most extraordinary of these women, Hoskins, is a Ranter who believes that the millennium is at hand and that with it will come both economic and sexual freedom. Transcendent in her faith, she names falsehood and hypocrisy as she sees them in language that respects neither sexual nor social convention; her outrageous assertions repeatedly deflate the manipulative and deceiving rhetoric of the men of state. Margaret Brotherton, a vagrant beggar, functions as our reminder of what Hoskins might be without her illusory belief in the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ. And Hoskins' faith is far from orthodox; when Brotherton protests entering a holy meeting, saying, "No, I'm wicked, all women are wicked, and I'm—" Hoskins retorts, "It's a man wrote the Bible." Brotherton is a victim of poverty and her own acceptance of her servile status as a woman; Hoskins is a victim of her ideology, but, at least for a time, her commitment gives her a strength unavailable to Brotherton.

Equally striking are characters identified only as 1st Woman and 2nd Woman who reveal the particular sufferings of poor women in an emerging capitalist society; precisely because of their anonymity, these women make an unsentimental appeal to our sympathy. In contrast to other images of women during periods of war, Churchill's women do not suffer because of the deaths or defeats of their men, but because they have lost the most by the defeat of a genuinely egalitarian movement. In this play, as in Owners, there is no separating the evil that ensues from the ownership of property from the impoverishment of the lives of women. In Hoskins' vision of the world about to dawn, "we'll have no property in the flesh. My wife, that's property. My husband, that's property." The message is clear, more in tune with the epigrammatic assertions of other feminist plays of the seventies, and with studies of the biases of ordinary language, than with Churchill's earlier dramas.

Churchill distinguishes her feminism in the theatrical approach to this play and in its historical perspective. To emphasize the distinct angle of her vision, Churchill urged that the characters not be played by the same actors each time they appeared. In the original production presented at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1976, six actors played all of the twenty-five roles, and characters were presented by one actor in one scene and another in the next. Churchill's most immediate intention in using this device was "to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience (Churchill, "Note on Production"). In addition, however, the device politicizes the theatrical convention of transformations, initiated in experimental theater in the sixties and potently adapted by many feminist playwrights in the seventies. In theatrical transformations, actors paradoxically deny and reinform the magic of what Michael Goldman has called the actor-as-character by revealing rather than concealing change. In transformational exercises and episodes, actors gradually and subtly alter their facial masks, vocal tones, mimed objects. In Light Shining …, as in Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls … or Megan Terry's Comings and Goings, the script requires role transformations to emphasize the commonality of the stories told and to reject the old hierarchies of theater. Theatrical transformations demand intense focus and precision and remind us that our awe of the actor derives at least in part from the confirmation that we can become other, that we can change. But transformations Page 169  |  Top of Article also assert the collective nature of theatrical performance, the interdependency of all those on stage, and undermine our often desperate desire to hook our empathy and admiration to a star, or leader. That it has been feminist theater groups and women playwrights who have sustained, explored and extended this gesture is consistent with a more widespread struggle against male authoritarianism….

Source: Helene Keyssar, "The Dramas of Caryl Churchill: The Politics of Possibility," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1983, p. 198.

SOURCES

Adiseshiah, Sian, "Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill's History Plays: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Vinegar Tom," in Utopian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 2005, pp. 3-27.

Bonner, Bill, "Ruined by Good Luck," in HoweStreet.com, http://www.howestreet.com/articles/index.php?article_id=9993 (accessed July 26, 2009).

Buse, Peter, "Caryl Churchill," in ContemporaryWriters.com, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth259 (accessed July 6, 2009).

Champkin, Julian, "Uncivil War: The English Civil War Divided Families and Proportionally Took More Lives Than World War I; As a New TV Drama Reveals, It Was Also the First War Fought Out between Spin Doctors," in Daily Mail (London, England), February 5, 2005, p. 13.

Churchill, Caryl, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Theatre Communications Group, 1997.

Disch, Thomas M., "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire," in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 13, April 8, 1991, p. 459.

Gibbons, Fiachra, "In the 1660s, They Cut the Tongues from Levellers' Mouths. Now They Just Arrest Them," in Guardian (London, England), January 11, 1997, p. 6.

Hackett, Douglas, "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire: A Complete Revolution?," in English Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, November 1999, p. 31.

Jones, Alison, Harjit Dulay, Jennifer Cobley, Joanne Hammond, Lisa Purcell, and Laura Barlow, "Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War; A Group of Second-Year Students from Southampton University Present the Results of a Collaborative Research Project," in History Review, No. 47, 2003.

Klein, Julia M., "Caryl Churchill's Identity Crisis," in Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, 2006.

Knox, E. L. Skip, "History of Western Civilization: English Civil War," in Boise State University, http://history.boisestate.edu/WESTCIV/english/ (accessed July 6, 2009).

Louth, Nick, "Back to the 1970s Economy?," July 10, 2008, in MSN.com, http://money.uk.msn.com/investing/articles/nicklouth/article.aspx?cp-documentid=8854840 (accessed July 26, 2009).

Reinelt, Janelle, "The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights, 11: Caryl Churchill and the Politics of Style," in Cambridge Collections Online, http://cco.cambridge.org/extract?id=ccol0521594227_CCOL0521594227A015 (accessed July 6, 2009).

Sander, Roy, Review of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, in Back Stage, Vol. 32, No. 8, February 22, 1991, p. 44.

FURTHER READING

Bernstein, Jonathan, Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang, Canongate, 2006.

This humorous reference book is a useful guide for Americans wanting to truly understand what the British are saying. Bernstein is a screenwriter and columnist for the Guardian (London) who uses his wit to tackle what could be a dry subject. Some of the selected terms date back two hundred years.

Lacey, Robert, Great Tales from English History: A Treasury of True Stories about the Extraordinary People—Knights and Knaves, Rebels and Heroes, Queens and Commoners—Who Made Britain Great, Back Bay Books, 2007.

This encyclopedia-like reference book includes more than 150 stories of people both famous and not so well known. He dispels common myths surrounding time periods and people. For instance, Pilgrims did not wear shoe buckles, which did not come into fashion until the late 1660s.

This is the text from the original pamphlet published by the Digger faction during the English Civil War.

Purkiss, Diane, The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain, Basic Books, 2007.

Like Churchill's play, this historical analysis focuses on the human, cultural, and religious perspectives of the English Civil War. It includes excerpts from letters and diaries as well as tracts from the Putney Debates and other primary sources of the era.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Light Shining in Buckinghamshire." Drama for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 27, Gale, 2010, pp. 151-169. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2279400019%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D757f5dfe. Accessed 27 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400019

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  • Authority
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 151
      • 27: 160
  • Characterization
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 168-169
  • Christianity
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 155
      • 27: 156
      • 27: 158-159
  • Civil war
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 151
      • 27: 158-159
      • 27: 164-165
  • Class conflict
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 160
  • Depression (Psychology)
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 164
  • Disillusionment
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 156
  • English history
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 151
      • 27: 158-160
      • 27: 162-165
  • Equality
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 153
      • 27: 155
  • Feminism
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 162-165
      • 27: 168-169
  • Freedom
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 151
      • 27: 154
      • 27: 158
  • God
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 156
      • 27: 158-159
  • Hypocrisy
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 168
  • Ideology
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 156
      • 27: 168
  • Individualism
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 158
  • Language and languages
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 159
  • Manipulation
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 168
  • Marginalization
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 164-165
  • Monarchy
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 154-155
  • Oppression (Politics)
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 168
  • Perfection
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 156
  • Power (Philosophy)
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 154-155
      • 27: 160
      • 27: 164
  • Rebellion
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 153-154
      • 27: 156-158
      • 27: 160
      • 27: 162-165
      • 27: 168
  • Religious beliefs
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 158-159
  • Religious reform
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 160
  • Revenge
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 164
  • Self identity
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 154
      • 27: 163-164
  • Sex roles
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 162-165
  • Sin
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 155
  • Social class
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 153
      • 27: 155
      • 27: 159
      • 27: 160
  • Social identity
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 151
  • Transcendence
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 168
  • Tyranny
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 15-155
  • Upper class
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 159
  • Wars
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 155
      • 27: 168
  • Witchcraft
    • Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
      • 27: 164