CARYL CHURCHILL 1979
Cloud Nine, by British playwright Caryl Churchill, was first performed at Dartington College of Arts in February 1979 by the Joint Stock Theatre Group. It was then performed on tour at the Royal Court Theatre in London and was first staged in New York in 1981.
Cloud Nine, which can be found in Churchill’s Plays One(London and New York, 1985), was a popular and critical success. In addition to frequently being very amusing, the play highlights colonial and gender oppression. The first act is set in the nineteenth century in an African country ruled by Britain, and Churchill satirizes the repressive nature of the Victorian family, the rigidity of narrowly prescribed gender roles, and the phenomenon whereby oppressed peoples in colonized countries take on the identity of the colonizers. Act two takes place in London one hundred years later with mostly the same characters, who have aged only twenty-five years. In this act, Churchill explores such topics as women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution, all of which were prominent social movements in Britain, as well as the United States, in the 1970s.
Caryl Churchill was born on September 3, 1938, in London, England. She spent most of her early Page 95 | Top of Articlechildhood in and near London before her family moved in 1948 to Montreal, Canada, where Churchill attended the Trafalgar School until 1955. Churchill began to write as a young girl, and she also developed an early interest in the theater. She continued these interests during her undergraduate years, which began in 1957 when she enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in England. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1960. During her university years, two of her plays received student productions, and in 1962, The Ants, her first professional radio play, was broadcast.
In 1961, she married David Harter, a barrister, and from 1963 to 1969 the couple had three sons. During this period Churchill continued to write radio plays, including Identical Twins(1968), and to develop a socialist and feminist approach to drama. Churchill’s first professional stage production was Owners, performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London in 1972. The play premiered in New York the following year. During the 1970s, Churchill wrote a number of plays that were broadcast on BBC television, including Turkish Delight(1974) and The After-Dinner Joke(1978). Her two stage plays, Objections to Sex and Violence(1975) and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire(1976), brought her critical attention. The latter play was the result of Churchill’s involvement in London’s experimental Joint Stock Theatre Group. Another play written for Joint Stock was Cloud Nine, which in 1979 became Churchill’s first big success. It was also a hit in the United States, where it opened off-Broadway in New York at the Theatre de Lys in May 1981 to positive reviews and large audiences. Cloud Nine won the Obie Award in 1982.
Churchill followed this success with Top Girls, a play that portrays women achieving success by imitating the worst of male behaviors. It was staged at Royal Court Theatre in 1982 and transferred to New York later that year. It also won an Obie Award. In 1983, Churchill wrote Fen, which was the result of a group of Joint Stock actors and playwrights living for two weeks in a hard-pressed farming community in the Fens of England. Fen was a critical and popular success in London and New York, and it won the 1984 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
After Softcops(1984), which was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and A Mouthful of Birds(1986), co-written with David Lan, Churchill wrote Serious Money(1987), a play about greed and financial scandal on London’s
stock exchange. Two short plays followed, Ice Cream and Hot Fudge(1989), and then Mad Forest(1990), in which Churchill examined life in Romania before, during, and after the downfall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. During the 1990s, Churchill wrote Lives of the Great Poisoners(1991); the surreal and mythic The Skriker(1994); Thyestes(1994), a translation of a play by Seneca; Hotel(1997), in which all the parts are sung; and This Is a Chair(1999).
Act 1, Scene 1
Act 1 of Cloud Nine is set in a British African colony in the nineteenth century. The first scene takes place on the verandah of a house. After an opening song introduces the characters, Clive tells his wife, Betty, that he is expecting a visitor, Harry Bagley, an explorer. Betty tells Clive that their black servant, Joshua, insulted her, and Clive makes Joshua apologize. Then the family gathers: their children Victoria and Edward; the governess, Ellen; and Betty’s mother, Maud. Edward is looking after Victoria’s doll, which annoys his father because he Page 96 | Top of Articlethinks this is unmasculine. Betty is nervous at the thought of entertaining a guest. Mrs. Saunders, a widowed neighbor, arrives to take shelter; the local tribes are preparing for war, and she is afraid to stay in her own house. Harry arrives, and he and Clive speak about the dangerous situation, exhibiting a disdainful view of the indigenous people. Harry and Betty are left alone; they are romantically attracted to each other. The scene ends as Harry, who is bisexual, propositions Joshua for sex.
Act 1, Scene 2
A couple of nights later, in an open space some distance from the house, Mrs. Saunders meets with Clive. It is revealed that Clive has already seduced her and has a sexual passion for her, which she goes along with even though she does not like him.
The family gathers for a Christmas picnic. They play a ball game, but the men monopolize it, claiming that the women cannot catch. Then everyone plays hide and seek. Joshua warns Clive that the stable boys are not reliable and are carrying knives. Harry and Betty exchange endearments, and Betty bemoans the fact that they can never be alone. Edward says he loves Harry, and it is clear that they have on former occasions had sex with each other. Betty confides in Ellen that she loves Harry, and Ellen reveals that she is in love with Betty.
Act 1, Scene 3
In the house, the women discuss the fact that the stable boys are being flogged, and Mrs. Saunders goes to investigate the situation. Edward is still fond of Victoria’s doll, but Betty takes it away from him and slaps him, and Ellen slaps him also. Edward confesses to the returning Clive that he said bad things about his father, but Clive forgives him because he owned up. Clive reveals that he knows of Betty’s feelings for Harry and is ready to forgive her, but he says she must resist her lustful feelings or they will destroy their marriage.
Act 1, Scene 4
On the verandah, Clive tells of a raid by British soldiers on a nearby village. Edward pleads with Harry to stay, while Ellen says she only wants to be with Betty forever. Clive tells Harry that he values male friendship; Harry misinterprets this and makes a sexual advance, which disgusts Clive, who tells Harry that he must save himself by marrying. Mrs. Saunders informs Clive that Joshua’s parents were killed in the British raid, but when Clive offers him a day off, Joshua sides with the British, saying his parents were bad people. Harry proposes marriage to Mrs. Saunders, who is not interested, and then to Ellen.
Act 1, Scene 5
On the verandah, there is a wedding reception for Harry and Ellen. Ellen confesses to Betty that she knows nothing about lovemaking, but Betty says there is nothing to it. Mrs. Saunders announces that she is leaving the next day, and Clive kisses her, which prompts Betty to lunge at her in a jealous assault. Clive blames Mrs. Saunders and says she must leave instantly. After her departure, Harry makes a speech, the wedding cake is cut, and then Clive makes a speech also, congratulating the couple and saying that all is well. But at that moment, Joshua readies himself to shoot Clive. Edward sees this but does nothing to alert the others.
Act 2, Scene 1
This scene takes place one hundred years later on a winter afternoon in a London park. Some of the characters from act one reappear, but they are only twenty-five years older. Victoria is married to Martin, and they have a son, Tommy. Victoria’s friend Lin, who is divorced, has a four-year-old girl, Cathy. Cathy plays with a gun as the two women talk about the problems of parenting; Lin says that she is a lesbian and hates men. Edward, who is a gardener at the park, arrives and tells Victoria that their mother is walking there. This is not good news for Victoria, since she does not like her mother. Betty appears with Tommy, who has a bruise from playing rough games. Betty announces that she is going to leave Clive. When Betty leaves, Edward and Victoria express their surprise and consternation, believing that now, both their parents will need a lot of attention. As the scene ends, Lin propositions Victoria for sex.
Act 2, Scene 2
In the spring, Edward and his gay lover Gerry are outside in the open air. Edward seeks an explanation of where Gerry was the previous night, but Gerry is evasive. After Edward leaves, Gerry tells of his sexual adventures in a soliloquy. Victoria and Betty talk. Betty says she is worried that she will not be able to manage on her own, now that she has left Clive. She is frightened. Martin tries to offer Victoria support in her dilemma about whether to accept a job in Manchester, but his advice is not much use to her because he is more concerned with demonstrating how good and understanding he is than with Page 97 | Top of Articlehelping her. Lin is in love with Victoria and asks her to live with her. Then Lin reveals that her brother, a British soldier, has been killed that morning in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Gerry tells Edward he is bored with their relationship, which is too much like that between husband and wife. Gerry says he is moving out of the apartment they share. Edward expresses amorous interest in his sister, touching her breasts, and she does not object.
Act 2, Scene 3
In the park on a summer night, Victoria, Lin, and Edward are drunk. They perform a farcical ceremony in preparation for a sexual orgy. Martin arrives, and the three of them jump on him and try to make love to him. They are interrupted by a stranger who turns out to be Lin’s dead brother, Bill, who is there because he wants sex. As the others leave, Gerry arrives on his own and tells the audience how he picks up lovers in the park. Then all the characters sing a song called Cloud Nine, which is an expression for sexual ecstasy.
Act 2, Scene 4
It is an afternoon in late summer. Lin, Edward, and Victoria now live together along with the two children. Betty arrives and announces that she has a job as a doctor’s receptionist and enjoys it. When Betty, Lin, and Victoria leave, Gerry arrives. Edward tells him that he is now unemployed and that in his new domestic situation, he does the housework. Gerry tells him of another sexual adventure; they arrange to meet for a meal. When they leave, Betty returns and tells of her sexual awakening. Victoria reveals that she has decided to go to Manchester. After she leaves, Betty befriends Gerry and invites him to dinner. She says she knows that both her son and Gerry are gay and that this does not distress her. Then Clive appears for the first time since act one and says that he does not feel the same way about Betty that he used to. He also bemoans the loss of the British Empire. Finally, Betty from act one enters, and she and Betty from act two embrace.
Harry Bagley is an explorer and a friend of Clive. Clive regards him as an eccentric—a bit of a poet as well as a hothead. Betty says he is a bore and a heavy drinker, but when Harry visits Clive and his family, she falls in love with him because he kisses her and says he needs her. However, Harry is bisexual, and his main interest appears to be males of any description. It is revealed that on a previous visit he seduced Edward, and he also propositions Joshua and Clive. Clive is horrified by this and tells Harry he must marry. So, to keep up the appearance of propriety, Harry marries Ellen.
Betty is Clive’s wife and is played by a man. Betty accepts her role as the dutiful Victorian wife, living only for her husband. But she finds her life monotonous and boring. When Harry arrives, she allows herself to develop a passion for him, which Clive, who finds out about it through Joshua, tells her she must overcome. Betty’s unfaithfulness, however, does not prevent her from becoming jealous when Clive kisses Mrs. Saunders.
In act two, Betty reappears and is twenty-five years older. This time she is played by a woman. She has decided to leave her husband, and at first she has difficulty building an independent life for herself. But she finds her feet when she gets a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. She also learns to explore her own sexuality through masturbation. She no longer lives entirely for and through a man.
Cathy is the four-year-old daughter of Lin. She is played by a man. In the park, Cathy amuses herself by painting and playing with guns, and she also likes to play with a group of boys called the Dead Hand Gang. But she has refused to wear jeans at school since the other children called her a boy. She now wears only dresses.
Clive is a British colonial administrator, married to Betty. He is a loyal, patriotic servant of the British Empire, and he has a patronizing and sometimes brutal attitude toward the local Africans, whom he does not trust. Clive is soaked in Victorian moral values. He takes great pride in presiding over his family and has rigid ideas about the way each member should behave. He believes that his son Edward should not play with dolls, for example, and he would take any show of independence by a woman as an insult. He is also shocked by homosexuality, as is seen when his friend misinterprets his comments about male friendship and makes a sexual advance. But Clive is also a hypocrite because he wastes no time in seducing Mrs. Saunders Page 98 | Top of Articleand constantly lusts after her. Clive returns briefly at the end of act two to say that he does not feel the same about Betty as he once did.
Edward is the nine-year-old son of Clive and Betty, and he is played by a woman. Edward likes dolls, although this displeases both his parents. His father wants him to act like a man, and his mother instructs him not to tell anyone at school that he likes dolls, because then they will not speak to him or let him play cricket. Edward may harbor a secret hatred of his father, because he does nothing to intervene in the last moment of act one, when Joshua is about to shoot Clive.
In act two, Edward is shown as a man in his thirties. He is gay and lives with Gerry. But their relationship breaks up, and he moves in with Lin, Victoria, and Cathy. He is happy doing housework.
Ellen is the young governess in charge of Edward and Victoria. She is a lesbian and falls in love with Betty.
Gerry is a gay man who lives with Edward. He boasts a lot about his sexual life and conquests. After a disagreement with Edward about the terms of their relationship, he moves out of the apartment they share. Gerry is later befriended by Betty.
Joshua is a black African who is the servant in Clive and Betty’s home. He is played by a white man. Joshua has internalized the values of his employers; he hates his own tribe and does not condemn the killing of his parents by the British. He serves his master, Clive, informing him that the stable boys are not to be trusted and then whipping them as Clive instructs. Joshua also reports to Clive on the illicit attraction between Harry and Betty and on Ellen’s sexual love for Betty. But he also harbors resentment about his subordinate position, which is suggested by his insulting Betty on two occasions. And in the last moment of act one, Joshua points a gun at Clive and is ready to shoot.
Lin appears only in act two. A working-class friend of Victoria, she is a divorced mother (of Cathy) and is also a lesbian. Her husband used to beat her, and she says she hates men. Lin is sexually attracted to Victoria, and eventually the two of them live together along with Edward.
Martin is Victoria’s husband in act two. He is a novelist who claims to be writing a novel about women from the woman’s point of view. He prides himself on being in favor of women’s liberation and believes that he goes out of the way to make his wife happy, but in fact he gets impatient with her indecisiveness and only serves to confuse her. Victoria believes that she is more intelligent than he is, but she is still dominated by him.
Maud is Betty’s mother, and she enjoys giving Betty old-fashioned advice about life and love.
Mrs. Saunders is an independent-minded widow who comes to the home of Clive and his family for safety after the local Africans become threatening. She is seduced by Clive, though she does not like him. She does, however, enjoy the pleasures of sex.
Victoria is the daughter of Clive and Betty. In act one, she is two years old and is represented only by a doll. In act two, she is married to Martin and has a child, Tommy. Victoria, who reads widely and likes to offer her intellectual insights to her less educated friend Lin, is in a dilemma about whether she should accept a job as a teacher in Manchester that would separate her from her husband. Since she is beginning to assert herself and not be so subordinate to Martin, she eventually decides to take the job. She also experiments with bisexuality, embarking on a sexual affair with Lin. Victoria does not get along with her mother, remarking that after a ten-minute conversation with Betty she needs to take a two-hour bath to get over it.
Colonialism and Sexism
Churchill wrote in her introduction to the play that she wanted to show “the parallel between colonial and sexual oppression.” She meant that it Page 99 | Top of Articleis the same mentality of the colonial power, reflecting male values, that also results in the oppression of women.
The colonial attitude can be seen in Clive, who has contempt for those he refers to as the “natives.” His attitude is paternalistic. He thinks of himself as a father to the natives, just as he is a father to his family. He also has a low opinion of the natives’ capabilities. After praising his black servant, Joshua, as a jewel, he adds, “You’d hardly notice that the fellow’s black.” Clive regards the local African population as little better than savages, commenting that he knows three different tribal leaders who “would all gladly chop off each other’s heads and wear them round their waists.” He exerts harsh discipline on the black stable boys when he learns that they cannot be trusted to be loyal servants of his interests.
The point Churchill wishes to make is that Joshua, the only black man in the play, has internalized the values of his white colonial masters and therefore cooperates in his own oppression. As he says at the beginning of the play, “My skin is black but oh my soul is white.” His goal is to become what white men want him to be; he says he lives only for his master, a comment that clearly echoes the way Clive’s wife Betty regards her own life.
Betty’s own attitude contributes to a sexism that pervades the play, especially in act one. Men such as Clive and Harry Bagley go out and have adventures, but the women (Betty, Maud, Ellen) lead dull, monotonous lives. Betty’s place is in the home, reading poetry, playing the piano, and waiting for Clive, around whom her life revolves, to return. Gender roles are clearly defined, and the women accept them as part of the nature of things. “The men have their duties and we have ours,” says Maud, and Betty regards her own loneliness as a form of service not only to her husband but also to the British Empire. She believes that she is perfectly happy, although she has little understanding of what her true nature and capabilities might be. She has allowed herself to be formed entirely to fit a male image of what a woman should be.
The men have very patronizing ideas about women. Clive regards his wife, and most likely all women, as delicate, sensitive creatures given to fainting and hysteria. But he may prefer things this way, since the weakness of women enables him to feel strong and chivalrous. He regards any sign of independence in a woman as an insult; it is he who
must be the protector. Similarly, Harry, when he declares his love for Betty, reserves for himself the active life and allocates to her a purely passive role: “I need you, and I need you where you are, I need you to be Clive’s wife. I need to go up rivers and know you are sitting here thinking of me.”
The sexism of the men extends to other areas. In act one, scene two, Ellen and Betty begin to play catch, and the men express surprise and congratulations whenever the women manage to catch the ball. Obviously, women are not expected to possess such an ability. Then Edward, who is only nine years old but has learned well from his father, tells his mother, and then Ellen, that they shouldn’t play ball because they cannot catch. It is a judgment that Betty is all too ready to agree with. Then the men take over. Edward cannot catch and is mocked by Harry and Clive; it appears that this is a test of masculinity. And when Betty informs Clive that he has hurt Page 100 | Top of ArticleEdward’s feelings, Clive reveals another of his unconscious gender stereotypes: “A boy has no business having feelings.”
The aim of the play is to deconstruct these gender stereotypes. Edward, for example, although a boy, likes to play with dolls, even though he is told by his elders that such behavior is not considered masculine. The playwright invites the audience to question this and other assumptions, such as the passivity of women. Mrs. Saunders, for example, shows that a woman can enjoy sex for its own sake, just as a man may, and this is in contrast to Betty’s dreamy, romantic notions of love.
The theme of liberation from the false, socially induced constraints of gender becomes even more pronounced in act two, which shows how the characters, especially Betty and Edward, break free of the rigid roles that were formerly prescribed for them. Society has changed, too, making it easier for them to do so. Betty is able to acquire a real job of her own, and she also relearns the pleasures of auto-eroticism, initially as an act of rebellion against her husband and her mother. Betty’s discovery shows how women are now more able to accept their bodies and sexual desires as natural, not something to be ashamed of or repressed. This theme is also apparent in act two, scene three, when Victoria and Lin chant in praise of ancient female goddesses.
In addition to the liberation of women, in the world portrayed in act two, homosexuality is not the shameful thing it was to Clive or Harry. Edward and Gerry can live as an openly gay couple, and Betty is not distressed at her knowledge that her son is gay or that her daughter is involved in a sexual relationship with her girlfriend, Lin.
There are changes in the way the family is constructed, too. If act one is a satire on the Victorian family, in which desires and sexual orientation are repressed in order to present a false appearance, act two shows the forming of alternative family structures. For example, a gay man, Edward, lives with two women and their two children. One of the women, Lin, is a confirmed lesbian, while the other, Victoria, is experimenting with bisexuality. This is a long way from the image of the family that Clive presents in the first scene of the play.
Churchill also sets out to undermine the ideology of colonialism. Since such a system is based on exploitation, violence, and the belief in the inferiority of the colonized people, it can only result in resentment and, ultimately, violence, as is apparent several times in the play. Joshua, for example, for all his dutiful attempts to act as his master wants him to, brazenly defies Betty’s orders (which also reveals the powerless position of women). When Joshua aims a gun at Clive’s head in the final scene in act one, it hardly comes as a surprise. Whatever surface appearances might suggest, Joshua will never wholly succeed in becoming “white.” (The specter of colonialism returns in act two, when Lin’s brother, Bill, a British soldier, is killed in Northern Ireland, where the British are fighting a guerrilla war against Irish nationalists. This time the emphasis is on the dispiriting life led by the soldiers who serve in the British army, which the Irish nationalists believe to be the arm of a colonizing, oppressive power.)
The play uses a number of unconventional techniques to create its effects. One of these is for some of the characters to be played by actors of the opposite gender. This reinforces the theme of undermining gender stereotyping. For example, Edward as a nine-year-old boy is played by a woman, which visually reinforces for the audience the notion that Edward does not behave in the way his Victorian family believes a boy should. Betty is played by a man because, as Churchill states in her introduction to the play, “she wants to be what men want her to be.” She does not value herself as a woman. Her true nature is therefore hidden from herself and others. Joshua is played by a white man, to reinforce the idea that he has embraced the values of white culture and behaves as his white employers expect of him.
In act two, the characters are played for the most part by members of their own gender. Betty is now played by a woman, which visually reinforces for the audience the fact that for the first time she is discovering who she really is. Edward is played by a man, to show that he has found his own identity and is comfortable with being gay.
The only exception to this is that four-year-old Cathy is played by a man. This has the same effect as the playing of Edward by a woman in act one. It subverts traditional expectations of how a girl should behave and what interests she should have. Cathy, Page 101 | Top of Articlefor example, likes to play rough games with the boys, and she also plays with a toy gun. The other reason for having Cathy played by a man is, as Churchill writes, “because the size and presence of a man on stage seemed appropriate to the emotional force of young children.”
Another unconventional technique in the play is the use in act two of many of the same characters from act one, even though the action takes place one hundred years later. Churchill managed this by having the characters age only twenty-five years from act one to act two.
The two acts are different in other ways, too. The first is dominated by men, especially Clive, who tries hard to keep everything under control, arranged the way he believes things should be. But the second act is dominated more by the women and the gays, who show a capacity for change and a willingness to entertain new ways of being and living. Those who were powerless earlier—Betty in particular—now grow into positions in which they feel more in control of their destinies. The fact that when the play was first staged the actor who played Clive in act one also played the child Cathy in act two reinforces this idea of the reversals that have taken place—the powerlessness of the old ideals in a new world. (Churchill wrote the play for seven actors, which means that some parts must be doubled. It is not essential, however, that Clive be doubled with Cathy; other combinations are possible.) In act two it is the man, Martin, the equivalent of Clive in act one, who must struggle to come to terms with the new feminist consciousness rather than have everything his own way.
Another way in which the structure of the play allows the playwright to convey her themes occurs at the end of act one. The final scene appears to have the form of a typical romantic comedy. Enemies are banished, order is restored, love triumphs, and there is a wedding celebration for the happy couple. Clive appears to sum things up when he makes a speech in neatly rhymed verse that ends, “All murmuring of discontent is stilled. / Long may you live in peace and joy and bliss.” But, of course, the reality is somewhat different. Not only is there a nasty little quarrel about the doll, as a result of which Clive hits his son, but there is also the more fundamental fact that all the words in praise of the marriage and in celebration of the ending of discontent are false. Nothing is what it appears, since Ellen and Harry are in fact gay and are marrying merely to shore up appearances, and a drunken Joshua is about to take a shot at Clive. The ostensibly comic form is belied by the reality of the situation.
Women’s Liberation Movement
Britain in the 1970s was marked by vigorous and politically effective campaigns for women’s rights and gay rights. The First National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. The goals it decided upon were equal pay for women, equal opportunity in education and employment, abortion rights, day care, and free contraception. The women’s liberation movement aimed to raise women’s consciousness about social issues and encouraged them to challenge some of the basic underpinnings of a male-dominated society—the assumption that women should always be secondary to men, for example, or that women are important only through their relationships with men. Women increasingly challenged the traditional division of labor in the family and in the workplace. They rejected the idea that certain roles, such as child-rearing and housekeeping, were suited only to women, and they fought for the right to pursue careers in areas traditionally open only to men. They argued that traditional gender roles had been constructed by a male-dominated society rather than being inherent in the nature of human life. And what had been socially constructed could also be changed.
During this time, there was a feeling of excitement among many women that a new era was dawning. Gillian Hanna, one of the founders of the feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment, recollected:
We wanted to change the world. At the time, this didn’t seem like such an outrageous project. All around us, women in every area of the world we knew were doing the same thing. It seemed as natural as breathing.
The women’s movement made a measurable impact on 1970s British society. The Equal Pay Act of 1970, which was implemented in 1975, established the principle of equal pay for equal work. In 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act banned discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status and established the Equal Opportunities Commission. Women also gained the right to maternity leave.
Gay Liberation Movement
A major landmark in the acceptance of homosexuality in Britain was the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults in private. The age of consent was fixed at twenty-one, five years older than the age of consent for heterosexual acts. (In 1994, the age of consent for homosexual acts was lowered to eighteen.) But gay people still faced discrimination, such as being fired from their jobs or denied custody of their children. In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. That year, the first gay rights demonstration in Britain took place in London. More than one hundred members of the GLF protested police harassment and intimidation. The first Gay Pride march was held in London in 1972, and a newspaper, Gay News, was published from 1972 to 1983. Adapting a slogan from the American civil rights movement (“black is beautiful”), gays proclaimed that “gay is good.” They rejected the Page 103 | Top of Articleshame and guilt that had often accompanied gay life in the past, due to disapproval of homosexuality by church and state and to almost universally negative portrayals of gays in the media.
The GLF also organized radical protests involving sit-ins at pubs (the British equivalent of a bar) that refused to serve gays, and GLF activists disrupted a lecture by noted psychiatrist Professor Hans Eysenck after he advocated electric-shock aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality. The increasing visibility of gay people encouraged many to “come out” and live openly (as Edward and Gerry do in Cloud Nine), without having to disguise the fact that they were gay. Many gays (as well as feminists) linked their oppression to the structure of the traditional family. By learning to form nontraditional family structures, many gays declared that they had rejected the masculine and feminine roles that society had designed for them. During this period, gays became freer in discussing the ways in which a masculine identity had been imposed on them in their upbringing although such an identity did not correspond to what they felt themselves to be (just as in the play, Edward comes to realize that the kind of man his father expected him to become was not who he was).
Women’s and Gay Theater
The 1970s saw the emergence of feminist and gay theater in Britain. Cultural historian Michelene Wandor, in Carry On, Understudies, divides this period into four phases. From 1969 to 1973, avant-garde and experimental writing flourished, and street theater companies performed plays that probed social issues from a socialist and feminist viewpoint. Theater was viewed as a means of raising women’s social consciousness. Phase two was from 1973 to 1977, during which alternative theater gained some stability as a result of receiving state subsidies. This was the period when women’s professional theater companies, dedicated to producing work by women or emphasizing women’s issues, began to spring up. The most prominent of these were the Women’s Theatre Group (1974) and Monstrous Regiment (1975-76). Churchill became involved in Monstrous Regiment and wrote her play Vinegar Tom for the company. During the same period, Gay Sweatshop, a theater company made up of lesbians and gay men, was also formed. Phase three, from 1977 onward, was a period of contraction for alternative theater groups, as the Arts Council reduced its subsidies. Phase four, according to Wandor, was from 1979 onward, when numerous female and gay playwrights came to prominence. These were either new writers with confident voices as a result of the work done by others over the previous decade or experienced writers who had worked through the previous stages and developed a stronger theatrical voice. These writers included, in addition to Churchill and Wandor herself, Pam Gems, Mary O’Malley, Nell Dunn, and Claire Luckham.
When Cloud Nine was first produced in England in 1979, it was a commercial success, establishing Churchill as a leading British playwright. However, critics were divided as to the merits of the play. Robert Cushman in the Observer(quoted in Plays in Review) described the second act as “almost the best thing to arrive in the London theatre this young and dismal year.” And John Barber’s verdict in the Daily Telegraph(quoted by Erica Beth Weintraub in Dictionary of Literary Biography) was also positive; Barber described it as “cheerfully entangling itself in the problems of fitting complex human instincts into workable social patterns.” But a different view was taken by J. C. Trewin of the Birmingham Post, who expressed puzzlement about the play’s themes. Whether the play was “a treatise on bisexuality” or “a view of parents and children,” Trewin regarded it as “superfluous.” He argued that the satirical approach to the British Empire in the first act was a hackneyed theme, and he dubbed the second act a “wholly muddled fantasy.” Peter Jenkins, in the Spectator(quoted in Plays in Review), was also less than enthusiastic, writing that the play’s “most constant danger is degeneration into a mere sequence of acting exercises, or cabaret turns, loosely plotted together.”
When the play reached New York in 1981, critics were lavish with their praise. Rex Reed, in the New York Times, called it “the most rewarding surprise of the theatrical season,” and Clive Barnes in the New York Post wrote that it is “a play that has something to say about kindness, affection, perversion, and most of all love” (both reviews quoted by Weintraub).
Scholars of the theater continue to write about the themes and techniques of the play, which has acquired a permanent place in the history of British theater.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses how two books, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, influenced Churchill as she developed the main themes of Cloud Nine.
Churchill has stated in interviews that two of the books that influenced her writing of Cloud Nine were Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Millett’s book was published in 1970 and became something of a bible for the emerging women’s movement. Although today Sexual Politics is less well known than the work of other feminists of the period, such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, it was in its time a revolutionary work that awakened many American and European women to an awareness of the nature of the patriarchal society in which they lived.
Fanon was a black psychiatrist from Martinique, a French colony, who wrote about his own experience of how the psychology of black people had been warped by the culture of the white colonizers. Churchill had already used Fanon’s work as a basis for her play The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution(first published in Churchill: Shorts: Short Plays in 1990), in which Fanon himself appears as a character. The two books together (Sexual Politics and Black Skin, White Masks) helped Churchill make the link between colonial oppression and gender oppression, a connection that she noticed had also been made by the French playwright Jean Genet, who called it “the colonial or feminine mentality of interiorised repression” (quoted by Churchill in her introduction to Cloud Nine).
Fanon’s study was first published half a century ago, in 1952. He wrote of the various ways in which the colonizing white man treated the black man as inferior. He noticed this operating in his own profession: the doctors in the public health service usually spoke pidgin English to their black or Arab patients in a way that was demeaning. They did not treat people of color as equals. This kind of attitude on the part of whites led blacks to a mentality that accepted their own inferiority. They believed that if they were to become fully human, they had to bring themselves as quickly as possible into step with the white world. Fanon characterizes the typical thought process: “I will quite simply try to make myself white: that is, I will compel the white man to acknowledge that I am human.” Fanon describes a dream reported by one of his black patients who was having problems in his career. The man dreamed that he was in a roomful of white men, and he too was white. Fanon concluded that this was simply wish fulfillment; the man wanted to be white. This was because “he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race.” The black man in the colonized world thus is faced with a choice: “turn white or disappear.”
In the play, Joshua, the black servant, has chosen to “turn white” rather than disappear. Those who choose the opposite are either flogged (like the stable boys) or run the risk of being the victims of a punitive raid by British soldiers, their lives considered of no importance. Joshua’s words, “My skin is black but oh my soul is white” are an allusion to “The Little Black Boy,” a poem by William Blake that carries the same theme:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,Page 105 | Top of Article
And I am black, but O! my soul is white.
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
In “turning white,” Joshua renounces his own parents and regards Clive as both his mother and father, an illustration of the paternalism at the heart of the colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples. Joshua is treated as a dependent; he is regarded as being like a child—Clive refers to him as his “boy”—or a woman.
The legacy of colonialism also appears in act two, in the reference to Lin’s brother Bill, a British soldier who is killed in Northern Ireland. The struggle in Northern Ireland was the legacy of centuries of British rule. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many British soldiers were killed by the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization fighting to free Northern Ireland from British rule. Churchill noted that when the actors in Cloud Nine conducted workshops about the play, they suggested that Britain’s relations with Ireland were much the same as a stereotypical male/female relationship. “The traditional view of the Irish is that they’re charming, irresponsible, close to nature, all the things that people tend to think about women,” said Churchill (quoted in Aston).
Thus the link is made between colonial and gender oppression. It is also interesting that Joshua, although obsequious toward Clive, feels relatively free to insult Clive’s wife, Betty. He refuses to fetch her book when she asks for it, and later, when she asks him to fetch some thread from her sewing box, he tells her that she has “legs under that skirt” (and so can do it herself) and then adds the lewd remark, “And more than legs.” Joshua is able to defy Betty because he perceives that as a woman in the white, British family, she has no authority. It is likely that he believes waiting on a woman to be against the natural order of things. It is, after all, the job of women to wait on men.
For her critique of this kind of gender stereotyping, Churchill turned to Millett’s Sexual Politics. Millett’s argument is simple in its outlines but carried through with relentless conviction and intellectual power. It is a sustained attack on patriarchy, the universal system by which males rule over females simply by virtue of being male. According to Millett, patriarchy as a means of perpetuating and justifying the rule of a particular group is more uniform and enduring than any class system or any other form of segregation in history. Each sex is socialized into the system at the psychological, sociological, and political levels. Personality is formed along stereotypical lines based on what the dominant group finds acceptable: aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy are assigned to the male, while passivity, ignorance, docility, and “virtue” are given to the female. This is reinforced by the roles society assigns, in terms of codes of conduct, attitudes, and approved activities. Domestic service and the raising of infants are allocated to the woman; everything else, such as achievement and ambition,
is reserved for the man. At the political level, this is reflected in huge disparities in status and power; in many societies women are considered little more than the property of men.
Underpinning all this is the assumption that such arrangements rest on a biological basis. They are “natural.” Against this, Millett argues that such patriarchal structures do not originate in human nature at all but are a result of human culture. She suggests that there are no significant inherent differences between male and female beyond the obvious ones relating to the physical body. There is no evidence of any mental or emotional difference; the studies that purport to show otherwise merely reflect the biases of their authors. Gender is in fact an arbitrary notion and may even run counter to biological fact, so ruthlessly is gender identity (“I am a girl,” or “I am a boy”) instilled in the first eighteen months of childhood. According to Millett, gender, as opposed to physical sex, is a learned behavior.
Sexual Politics was at once a scholarly examination of the origins and nature of patriarchy and a revolutionary manifesto. Millett called for the end of the institution of the family as well as of the notion of monogamous marriage that accompanied it, since the family was the chief enforcer of patriarchal values. Millett also derided the concept of romantic love, which she claimed was a form of “emotional manipulation” on the part of the male and which was useful to patriarchy because it obscured the woman’s low social status and economic dependence.
Millett’s argument formed the core beliefs of the women’s movement in the 1970s. Today, many (not all) of her views may not sound so radical—a sign of how successful the women’s movement has been in changing deep-seated attitudes in America and Europe, although few would dispute that Western societies today remain patriarchal in most important respects.
Cloud Nine is Churchill’s Millett-inspired attack on patriarchy, using the theatrical weapon of comedy. The family structure that Clive values so highly (“the family is all important”) is clearly unworkable because it is essentially unnatural, not conforming to the facts of the matter as they appear. Edward will not grow up into the man Clive wants him to be, whatever his parents do or say to him, and Betty’s denial of her own sexuality is a denial of the truth of her being. “You just keep still” is the best advice she can offer to Ellen about sex, and when Ellen asks whether it is enjoyable, Betty replies, “You’re not getting married to enjoy yourself.” Millett pointed out in Sexual Politics that one of the consequences of Victorian patriarchy was that “the vast inherent potential of female sexuality had come... to be nearly totally obscured through cultural restraints.” The assumption was, as Betty clearly also believes, that “sex is for the man.” Underlying this suppression of female sexuality are the male fear of women and the association of women, sex, and sin that goes all the way back, as Millett points out, to the Genesis story of Eve leading Adam into sin. This belief is expressed by Clive after he has praised male friendship to Harry. “There is something dark about women, that threatens what is best in us,” he says. This is one reason why Mrs. Saunders, who is an independent woman who likes sex and expects to get pleasure from it (something that fails to happen in her encounter with Clive), has to be expelled from the wedding party. She does not fit in the world that Clive chooses to believe he lives in, even though he has been quite willing to use her for his own sexual pleasure.
It is sex and sexual orientation that loom large in Cloud Nine, the very title of which is a reference to sexual ecstasy (as the song that closes act two, scene three makes clear). And it is the repressing of the sexual instinct, particularly same-sex attraction, that leads the characters into the lies and cover-ups that feature in act one. The infinitely varied nature of human sexuality simply cannot forever be squeezed into the narrow heterosexual and monogamous channels that patriarchy decrees. This seems to be the message of the play. Although the sexually liberated world of act two may also have its problems—Victoria’s struggles to break free of Martin’s dominance and the failure of the gay relationship between Page 107 | Top of ArticleGerry and Edward—it is at least a world in which the characters’ relationships start to have a closer resemblance to who they really are.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Cloud Nine, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In the following essay, Amoko examines the text of Cloud Nine and criticisms of the drama, identifying in both a lack of attention paid to acts of colonial violence and the generalization of white women in Africa to represent the experience of all women.
… colonialism has long served as a metaphor for a wide range of dominations, collapsing the specific hierarchies of time and place into a seamless whole. In this scenario, “to colonize” is an evocative and active verb accounting for a range of inequities and exclusions—that may have little to do with colonialism at all. As a morality tale of the present the metaphor of colonialism has enormous force but it can also eclipse how varied the subjects are created by different colonialisms.
A certain personal ambivalence defines my response to Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill’s drama in two acts featuring an audacious attempt to parallel sexual and gender oppression with colonial and racial oppression. While the attempt to enact the interrelated nature of these oppressions remains attractive, the apparent ease with which a playwright and company drawn exclusively from and implicated by racial and colonial privilege make direct comparisons and equivalencies between gender/sexual and colonialist oppressions is disturbing. These comparisons and equivalencies are made despite critical material differences in the history of gender and sexual oppression within specific cultural contexts, and the history of colonialism and the peculiar history of gender and sexual oppression within colonialism. As a consequence, certain oppressed identities, for example white women, may have been provided with the prospect of empowering representation at the cost of consigning certain other identities, specifically African women, to further subjection and invisibility.
In a bid to trace a certain coherence of effects in Western feminist practices of writing and reading, this examination of Cloud Nine concerns itself as much with the playtext as with its critical reception. Critical reaction to the play has focused disproportionately on what are perceived to be its “feminist accomplishments” to the near total exclusion of any in-depth or sustained examination of race and colonialism. Where passing review of colonialism has
been made, it has been merely to point out how racism and sexism occasionally interpenetrate or how racism, the play’s “other” concern, illustrates sexism, the play’s “central” or “ideal” concern. Critical discourses generated by Cloud Nine seem to imitate the structure of racialized omission inadvertently reproduced in the play. Acts of colonial occupation, mass murder, arson, and violent repression by colonial settlers in Africa depicted in passing in the first act of the play have attracted little critical attention. Visually no attempt has been made in the critical writing on this play to investigate the manner in which the peculiar experience of African women under British colonial occupation has been effaced in Cloud Nine. Nor has any attempt been made to investigate the ways in which the experiences and struggles of white settler women (complicit, however contradictorily, in the colonial project) have been generalized, in a play set substantially in colonial Africa, to represent the plight of all women in a manner comparable to the way men were historically generalized to represent all humanity.
One article, Elin Diamond’s “Closing No Gaps: Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill and Empire,” appears to question the impact of the “foregrounding” by these two feminist playwrights of gender critique at the expense of race and colonization. Diamond concludes that “unacceptable gaps” exist in the examination of race and imperialism in the works of the two playwrights, and attributes these “gaps” to their imperialist (British) background. However, despite noting in passing that women make up half the population of colonized nations, Diamond does not proceed to examine specifically the inherent differences between the respective histories of “colonized”
and “colonizing” women. In two separate studies that examine Cloud Nine, Diamond herself foregrounds racially marked feminist concerns and almost entirely ignores race and colonialism. She seems to exempt feminist critics from critical review at precisely the same instant that she indicts the two playwrights for their implication in imperial ideology, leaving unexplored the sources of her own feminist authority even as she challenges the sources of Churchill’s authority.
Against this background of existing feminist examinations of Cloud Nine, it is instructive to trace the ruses of power (both institutional and discursive) that foster the appearance of mutual exclusiveness between the two intertwined economies of white supremacy and phallotocracy. The phallotocratic economy and the colonial economy enacted in Cloud Nine are neither mutually exclusive sites of power that can be used to illustrate each other, nor entirely separable sites of power that occasionally collude and/or collide; rather, they represent interrelated structures of gender, racial, and sexual domination. Churchill’s attempt to investigate these two economies therefore enacts (in the theatrical sense of that term) the complicated and contradictory mechanics through which power is (re)produced and exercised. It is vital, however, to situate this play within the context of the Western creative and critical practices from which it emerged and within which it has circulated in the last sixteen years to widespread acclaim. These creative and critical practices, even in their deconstructive and/or feminist configurations, continue to be implicated in colonial discourses and the contemporary exercise of global power.
Claims regarding the interrelatedness of structures of domination ought not, then, to preclude the posing of what Homi K. Bhabha has termed “the colonial question, the ‘other’ question.” In his essay “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Bhabha asserts:
To pose the colonial question is to realize that the problematic representation of cultural and racial difference cannot be read off from the signs and designs of social authority that are produced in the analyses of class and gender differentiation. As I was writing in 1982 the conceptual boundaries of the west were being busily reinscribed in a clamor of texts—transgressive, semiotic, semanalytic, deconstructionist—none of which pushed those boundaries to their colonial periphery; to that limit where the west must face a peculiarly displaced and Page 109 | Top of Articledecentered image of itself in “double duty bound,” at once a civilizing mission and a subjugating force.
Bhabha’s insights enable a reconsideration of the ways in which Churchill and her critics may have reproduced an undifferentiated African landscape as the limit text of their critiques of gender and sexual differentiation. They allow, as well, for an examination of the ways in which various empowering white subjectivities seem to materialize against the dark reflection of a generic and stereotypic African man (Joshua). Churchill’s feminist critics appear to use colonial and racial difference to produce social and critical authority for Westernized notions of gender and sexual difference.
Cloud Nine enacts a multiple and highly differentiated structure of oppression that constructs the prevailing gender, sexual, and racial definitions. Churchill demonstrates, as much by her silences and contradictions as by effective and self-conscious dramatization, that these categories are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are inextricably interconnected. While patriarchy forms the foundational basis for this structure. Churchill deploys a number of dramatic devices in attempts to disclose and then dispute these oppressive categories and their informing ideology. These include instances of cross- casting, the destabilization of racial, gender, and sexual identities as discrete categories in character development, and Brechtian alienation attained through a non-linear dramatic structure and a historicized plot. As a result of the complex dynamics of power ceaselessly and contradictorily at play, the disruption of these categories is simultaneously facilitated and invalidated throughout the play.
Churchill identifies white patriarchy as the philosophical basis of the multiple structure of social organization early in the play. In his opening statement, Clive, a senior administrator in the colonial Empire in (undifferentiated) Africa, says:
This is my family. Though far from home
We serve the queen wherever we may roam.
I am a father to the natives here.
And a father to my family so dear.
This statement exposes not only a multiply oppressive structure, but also the interrelation between the colonization of Africa (and of African bodies) and (metaphorically) that of white women and children within a patriarchal structure. The social order constructed reveals itself to be white in its dominant racial ideology, masculinist in its dominant gender ideology, and heterosexist and monogamous in its dominant sexual ideology.
Churchill’s exposition of the prevailing social hierarchies is enacted most powerfully, in my view, in Act One, scene three, during which scene Clive and Harry (both white colonial settlers and both males) are supervising the flogging of their native domestic servants. Joshua, Clive’s senior domestic servant and trusted ally, flogs the other African workers—“the stable boys”—for not being “trustworthy,” for “whispering,” for “visiting their people,” for “going out at night,” and for “carrying knives.” While the men are administering this punishment the white women are kept indoors; under patriarchy, acts such as flogging (and violent components of colonial empire-building) are constructed as male acts from whose rigors the women and children are shielded. Significantly, the women embody and reinforce their oppression by performing and embodying their apportioned gendered roles: “The men will do it [the flogging] in the right way.... We have our own part to play.” “Luckily this house has a head, I am squeamish myself but Clive is not.” The “part” the domesticated women have to “play” is the consistent reproduction, in a deeply theatrical sense, of docile, obedient bodies useful in support of the colonial economy. Churchill specifies that the role of Betty be played by a male actor during the first act of the play. This casting choice physicalizes and concretizes the occupation of her body and that of other women by patriarchy. She says in self-introduction: “I am a man’s creation as you can see. And what men want is what I want to be.” She displays (as, indeed, do all the other women in this scene) a crucial facet of “colonial occupation” as she seems to consent to her oppression, a consent at once authorized and undermined by the glaring inequalities in power. Embodiment and enactment are dramatized early in the play as the principal ways through which an oppressed identity, “woman,” is normalized in a colonial setting. The history of colonialism (both of territories and of bodies) is replete with instances in which it entrenches itself through the materialization of subjects as “oppressed bodies.”
The introduction of Edward into this scene presents the final facet of social construction portrayed in the play—the “colonization” of (white) children by a patriarchal family structure that seeks to script onto their bodies a “natural” bipolar gender identity and a “natural” heterosexual disposition. Edward reveals the ways in which the colonial margin functions as a space for the cultivation of the ideal (white, male) subject. He is beaten for playing with a doll because, as he has been told Page 110 | Top of Articlebefore, “dolls are for girls.” In a powerful illustration of the intersection of the discourses of race, gender, and class in the colonial arena, Churchill parallels the flogging suffered by the colonized Africans for their “misbehaviour” with the beating suffered by Edward for transgressing prescribed gender roles. The on-stage beating occurs concurrently with the beatings suffered by the Africans off-stage. Cloud Nine demonstrates the nonvoluntary manner in which bodies are forcefully compelled to materialize within prescribed gender, racial, and sexual forms. At the very outset of her play, Churchill illustrates some of the multiple but inter-related sites of white patriarchal oppression: the colonization of Africa and the enslavement of African bodies, and the metaphorical colonization of women and children.
A critical facet of social organization that is consigned to invisibility in Cloud Nine—and, more pointedly, in Cloud Nine criticism—is the unique deprivation suffered by African women and children, who are not featured at all in the play. Unlike the gendered materialization of the settler women, which was mitigated (at least in part) by complicity in racial and economic privilege, and that of African men, which was mitigated in some degree by male privilege, the experience of African women under both autogenous and colonial misogyny deserves but fails to receive specific and separate reenactment. One could argue that in the world of Cloud Nine black women do not matter—which is to say, black women fail to materialize. The exclusion of African women, especially in Cloud Nine criticism, seems to presume a trans-historical and universal patriarchy and elides important distinctions between women in terms of race and colonial history. The construction and/or disruption of womanhood in Cloud Nine must be understood from a standpoint that takes into account the at once contradictory and complementary discourses of race, gender, and sexuality. This erasure of black women illustrates the problems (as pointed out in the epigraph to this essay) that arise in the use of colonialism as a metaphor for understanding other forms of inequality and exclusion. The erasure of black women from both the creative and critical universes of Cloud Nine seems to constitute a condition of the play’s feminist possibilities.
As she exposes—but also replicates—the multiple modes through which a white patriarchal structure variously manifests itself, Churchill deploys a number of dramatic strategies to disrupt the categories inherent in this epistemic regime, including what Diamond and Reinelt classify as “cross-racial” and “cross-gender” casting. The elaborate use of “cross-casting” in Cloud Nine anticipated and in some instances seems to have triggered debates over gender identity in contemporary Western culture and in Western theatre theory. Such debates would include, for example, the works of Diamond and Butler. In an uncanny sense, Churchill’s enactment of gender constitution seems to anticipate Butler’s contentions regarding the performativity of gender. In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (as well as in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity), Butler adopts the philosophical doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition in order to demonstrate the performativity of gender. (The analysis of the ways bodies materialized as various racialized, sexual, and gendered subjects in Cloud Nine undertaken above drew much of its implicit authority from Butler’s work). Basing her argument on Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born a woman, but, rather, one becomes a woman.” Butler explores the potential for deconstructing and subverting the gender script. She argues:
... gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously instituted through time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.
Butler’s conception of gender affirms de Beauvoir’s assertion that “woman” is a historical construction and not a natural fact. Butler makes a firm distinction between “sex as biological facticity and gender as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity,” even as she contests the given-ness of sex as a natural fact. She argues that discrete and polar gender identities are punitively regulated cultural fictions whose reproduction sustains a system of compulsory heterosexuality based on a notion of opposing “natural” sexes with “natural” attractions for each other. This argument is forcefully enacted throughout Cloud Nine, particularly in the scene examined above (Act One, scene three). In that scene, such mundane acts as bodily comportment, floggings, playing with dolls, and speech acts are coded in race- and gender Page 111 | Top of Articlespecific ways. These race- and gender-inflected bodily codes are violently enforced in order to ensure that bodies materialize in very specific ways.
Butler’s project aims beyond providing women, as oppressed subjects, with the capacity to effect social change. It points to the ontological insufficiency of the falsely essentializing and oppressive category “woman.” It seeks to disrupt the reification of sexual difference as the founding moment of Western culture and calls, in conclusion, for contestation of the gender script, for a different sort of stylized repetition of acts to be accomplished through “performances out of turn” and/or “unwarranted improvisations.” Although the play predates Butler’s arguments by nearly a decade, the casting choices and character realizations in Cloud Nine enact Butler’s call for contestation of the gender script through myriad gender performances out of turn and unwarranted improvisations.
In a separate attempt to deploy the notion of performance in order to grapple with the problematics of female identity and representation in Western culture, Diamond embarks on an insightful intertextual reading of Brechtian theory and feminist theory in “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards A Gestic Feminist Criticism.” This essay seeks “the recovery of the radical potential of the Brechtian critique and a discovery, for feminist theory, of the specificity of the theatre.” Diamond envisions the site of performance as simultaneously a site of feminist resistance. She appropriates key Brechtian concepts—Verfremdungseffekt, the “not, but” historicization, and Gestus—and reinterprets them using feminist concepts. Emerging from this intertextual reading is a theatre-specific aesthetic—gestic criticism—that seeks to use the theatre as a site for enactments of feminist resistance. Diamond suggests, for example, that the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung—the defamiliarization, in performance, of words, ideas or gestures in order to provoke fresh appreciation and insights—be deployed to critique gender differentiation. She provides as an example of this feminist Verfremdung the “cross-dressing” (a rather erroneous description) that occurs in Cloud Nine.
The construction of character and the casting choices directed in Cloud Nine ought then to be apprehended against the background of the disparate theorizing outlined above. The use of cross-casting and of other theatrical strategies to demonstrate and subvert the oppressive performativity of racial, gender, and sexual identities would seem to enjoy a fundamental, though admittedly limited, feasibility. Butler writes on the limits of the theatre metaphor and on the susceptibility of theatrical acts of gender subversion to being innocuously (indeed pleasurably) contained within the spectacle of dramatic illusion. Such pleasurable containments may have the reactionary effect of reinforcing the naturalness of real life identities. But perhaps the ultimate limit of the purportedly subversive re-enactments is the ontological status and stability of the notion of the West in the contestations of naturalized subject positions. In Cloud Nine, the attempted destabilization of normative gender and sexual subjectivities may disclose a creative and critical desire, to adopt Gayatri Spivak’s argument, to conserve the West as the ideal subject of discourse or, alternately, to conserve the subject of the West. The specific efficacy of the casting choices made by Churchill to denaturalize oppressive modes of identity formation is undermined by the Western-ness of these identities.
Cross-racial casting is introduced in Cloud Nine through the character of Joshua. In her cast list Churchill describes Joshua as Clive’s black servant who is played by a white actor. This description presents the first level of cross-casting, at which level the concurrent process of facilitation and invalidation of coherent racial subjectivity and an eventual reification of a white episteme is dramatized. Cross-casting challenges the conflation of skin colour and racial identity by dominant ideology and seeks, by portraying a white-skinned actor performing a black racial identity, to destabilize and problematize this conflation. Butler’s argument for a different sort of gender performance, a different stylization, can be adopted here with a racial difference. This apparent cross-casting is, however, seemingly invalidated by the very process that facilitates it. In order to disaffirm, in performance, the notion of racial identities immutably defined by skin colour, it must first be stabilized and reified during casting as well as in the perception of the audience. It seems, therefore, to be a strategy that cannot resist containment in the process of its own materialization. Further, the playwright seems to be trapped within dominant racial configurations. She unproblematically describes Joshua as a “black [man]” and the actor playing him as a “white [man]” in her cast list and in her introduction to the play (I discuss the introduction in some detail below), thereby re-conflating skin colour and racial identity and reiterating the existence of discrete and stable polar racial categories.
Confining analysis of the problematization of racial identity to the casting of Joshua would be misleading. Joshua’s character construction and development appear to contradict any apparent cross-casting. For cross-casting to occur the racial identity of both the actor and the character in question must, paradoxically, be perceived as stable and clearly defined. This is not quite the case with Joshua. “Cross-casting” is problematic as a description to the extent that Joshua’s skin color and his performed racial identity are stricken with indeterminacy. As a result, racial identification has been complicated or made ambivalent; this ambivalence authorizes but also potentially threatens the discourses of colonialism. In Churchill’s account of events Joshua, at least in the original production, was played by a white-skinned actor as a matter of practical necessity, there being “no black member of the company [the Joint Stock Company].” This led at a deeper level to “the idea of Joshua being so alienated from himself and so much wanting to be what the white man wants him to be that he is played by a white man.” Considering the emphasis that has been placed on the fact that the company in the play’s first production consisted of actors of “plural sexualities and sexual experiences,” this racial and colonial exclusivity seems odd—or perhaps is instructive.
The character of Joshua goes beyond obsequiousness and develops an active desire to be white, effectively renouncing claims to a black identity. In his disruptive construction Joshua purports to become a white man with a black skin—black skin, white masks ?! He seems to embody that form of subjectification that Homi Bhabha classifies as “colonial mimicry.” Bhabha defines colonial mimicry as “the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage.” Churchill seems to construct Joshua as a “mimic man”: almost the same but not quite; almost white, but not quite; anglicized, but not English. He says in self-description:
My skin is black but oh my soul is white.
I hate my tribe. My master is my light.
I only live for him. As you can see.
What white men want is what I want to be.
He regards Clive as his father and mother, disowning his own parents after their murder by the forces of colonial occupation during an arsonist raid on his native village. He asserts that black people are bad people, that they are not his people and that he does not visit them. He flogs his African coworkers as part of his duties—this punishment is in fact administered at his instigation. He has been Christianized (he prays to Jesus) and is domesticated. Despite being black, he seems to enjoy considerable power over Betty, Clive’s wife. He continually spies on her, reporting her “misbehaviour” (just like that of “the stable boys”) to a grateful Clive. He defies Betty’s orders with misogynous insolence and a degree of impunity, with the none-too-subtle connivance of his master. He has become an ingratiating subordinate enforcer—concurrently a target and an instrument of power—of white patriarchy in conspiracy with white men.
Crucially, both Betty and Joshua lend legitimacy to Clive’s superiority over them and expend their respective energies battling each other to determine who takes second place and oppresses the other. Any prospect of cooperative struggle is rendered unlikely by the differences in their oppression and in the power they wield. By playing the subjects of colonial occupation against each other, using offers of limited and discriminatory power, Clive entrenches his authority. Churchill dramatizes in this instance a central feature of colonial power—the racialized and gendered diffusion of power—a feature to which her feminist critics appear to fall prey by reifying a white epistemic regime even as they assault a universalized patriarchy.
Through Joshua (not unproblematically), racial identification is presented as a mutable performative, capable of being cast aside or reconfigured. Bhabha contends that the mimic figure, as a crystallization of the exercise of colonial power, marks the discourses of colonialism with their inevitable discursive failure by dramatizing the inability of these discourses to contain difference: “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace.” Joshua, in spite of his obsequious conduct in Clive’s presence, seems to embody the threat or menace of mimicry in his conduct in Clive’s absence. A potent instance of the menace of mimicry is presented when Joshua secretly narrates to Edward (the young “idealizable” white subject) a creation story that directly contradicts the Christian creation story they are both required to proclaim. Asked by Edward to narrate, in the secrecy of early morning, another “bad story,” Joshua replies. “First there was nothing and then there was the great goddess. She was very large and she had golden eyes and she made the sun and the earth. But soon she became miserable and lonely and she cried like a great waterfall and her tears Page 113 | Top of Articlemade all the rivers in the world...” At the conclusion of the lengthy recitation of this unauthorized creation story, Edward says, “It is not true, though.” Joshua concedes, “Of course it is not true. It is a bad story. Adam and Eve is true. God made man white like him and gave him the bad woman who liked the snake and gave us all trouble.” Although Joshua and Edward end their encounter with a reaffirmation of the official creation story, “the bad story” they conspiratorially indulge in powerfully illustrates the menace of mimicry. In Bhabha’s terms, Joshua as a mimic figure can be seen simultaneously to cohere to the dominant strategic function of colonial power and to pose an immanent danger to normalized knowledge and disciplinary power.
As if to contain the menace latent in mimicry, Joshua’s final and dramatic act in the play (an act that concludes the first act) is a decontextualized act of violence. He unexpectedly shoots at Clive, his erstwhile master. Rather than elaborating the menace of mimicry, this decontextualized act appears to be a contrived re-enactment of the stereotype of the randomly violent and murderous African. A colonial stereotype is seemingly evoked to finally erase the menace immanent in mimicry. Churchill may have intended Joshua’s violence at the end of the first act to represent a belated act of native resistance. Indeed, my analysis above of the menace in Joshua’s mimicry lends some credence to this reading. However, the completely decontextualized nature of the shooting undermines its dissident potential. In its unexpectedness and unexplainedness, Joshua’s shooting of Clive seems to hark back to white supremacist stereotypes that assign a tendency for atavistic violence and incorrigible duplicity to the black character. In its belatedness—and it is not so much the belatedness, as such, as the unexplainedness that is importantly at issue here—this act of native violence seems to legitimate the paranoia that colored many of the actions of the white settlers earlier in the play. These acts of white paranoia include an arsonist raid on a native village, Mrs. Saunders’s flight from her home to Clive’s, and the racial diatribes of Clive and Harry. This reading may seem unfair and one-sided until one considers the fact that Joshua’s shooting of Clive has attracted very little critical attention; as a singular act, this eruption of native violence seems in harmony with the surbordination of race and colonial history to gender and sexuality in the world of the play and its interlocutors.
It is instructive that the one black character portrayed on stage in Cloud Nine does not seek to disrupt the fundamental assumptions of hierarchical racial identification. Joshua self-denigratingly affirms the existence of a racial bipolarity in colonial Africa and idolizes whiteness. It is also instructive that the other Africans in this drama—the “stable boys” as well as the invisible African women and children—who have, presumably, not mimicked whiteness in quite the same fashion as Joshua, are denied representation except on the periphery: offstage, being flogged. The antithetical (re)production of the colonial subject—the absent but always already criminalized “stable boys”/ native villagers in contrast to the obedient and obsequious Joshua—authorize the reproduction of the discourses of colonialism. Further, in view of Diamond’s elaborate analysis of the potential in Churchill’s plays to remove women from historical and conventional invisibility, it is instructive that, while seeming to offer white women the prospect of non-romanticized representation, Cloud Nine, as if in conspiracy with colonizing white power, has sustained the continued invisibility and entrapment of African women. Not only does this play seem to be trapped within an ambivalent bipolar racial identification, it ultimately reifies whiteness as the Ideal Subject and casts blackness as the Other, at best the mimic, even in the heart of Africa. It is instructive that, in an act set in colonial Africa, white existence occupies center stage and black deprivation is stereotyped (on stage), marginalized (off stage), or erased.
Further attesting to the location of this drama in a white epistemic regime is the fact that Churchill, in her cast list and throughout the play, does not feel impelled to specify the racial identities of the (other) characters in the play, with the exception of Joshua, whom she pointedly identifies as “black.” Whiteness, as if by irresistible inference, is the given circumstance to which Joshua provides the lone (in)visible exception of a mimicking inferior. Is the generally laudatory critical reaction to the play’s contestation of gender and sexual difference similarly located in a white epistemic regime? Is whiteness, for instance, (in)visibly inscribed on the female bodies purporting, as Diamond puts it, to refuse the romanticism of identity?
Race and colonialism are not as centrally at issue in the second act of the play. The comparison between sexual or gender oppression in contemporary Britain and British colonial settlement in Africa in the nineteenth century is abandoned at the end of the first act, following the uncontextualized and unexplained end of the colonial presence in Africa. Page 114 | Top of ArticleThe treatment of race and colonialism seems to serve primarily as a backdrop (in Bhabha’s terms, as a limit text) that underwrites and sustains a critique of Western gender and sexual difference. Cloud Nine features a sustained attempt to use cross-casting to critique Western gender and sexual ideology. The actors (whose race we know by omission) involved in the out-of-turn gender performances or unwarranted improvisations are all white. The whiteness of all these characters and actors is at once presumed and effaced by Churchill and especially by her critics, who generalize these racially exclusive gender or sexual reconfigurations. An implicit assumption of the West as a primary referent underwrites these readings.
At the level of casting, by assigning “men,” as perceived sexed bodies, to play “female” roles, and “women,” as perceived sexed bodies, to play “male” roles (Betty is, in the first act, played by an actor identified as a “man”; Cathy as a young child is, in the second act, played by a grown actor described as a “man”; and Edward, as a young child, is, in the first act, played by an adult actor identified as a “woman”), Churchill uncouples gender and sexual identities and appears to fulfill Butler’s call for disruptive gender performances, for a different sort of stylization of acts. This is accomplished by the presentation of images of actors, as perceived sexed bodies, playing gender roles or repeating performative acts in conflict with the genders that dominant ideology “naturally” and unalterably assigns them—“women” acting “masculine” and “men” acting “feminine.” The uncoupling of gender and sexual identity is reiterated by doubling, where an actor plays more than one role in the course of a performance, in some instances across the boundaries of biological sex. In the first production of the play the following roles, among others, were doubled: the same actor, identified as a “woman,” played Edward in the first act and Betty in the second; and the same actor, identified as a “man,” played Clive in the first act and Cathy in the second. This demonstration of the performativity of gender and the possibility of transformation through gender performances out of turn is contained by its specific theatrical setting. The actors “real” sex and “real” gender cannot altogether be subverted in the theatre. As in cross-racial casting, the scheme to illustrate theatrically the performativity of gender (and consequently to undermine it) is simultaneously invalidated by the same means that set it in motion. The stability of “masculinity” and “femininity” as discrete and polar categories must first be affirmed and reified, before the seeming disruptiveness of cross-casting can be achieved and appreciated in performance.
Toward the conclusion of Cloud Nine Africa makes an abrupt return into the world of the play. Clive’s authority as father to his family has by this point been seriously undermined. In his final failure, his newly liberated wife, Betty, divorces him and begins a life of sexual exploration and self-fulfillment. Clive’s empire seems to be crumbling. Conceding this, a despairing Clive remarks at the end of the play: “You are not that sort of woman, Betty. I can’t believe that you are. And Africa is to be communist, I suppose. I used to be proud to be British. There was a high ideal. I came out of the verandah and looked at the stars.” The irony in Clive’s remark is that the discourses of empire in the play’s imagination and in its critical reception continue to be everywhere foundational.
Source: Apollo Amoko, “Casting Aside Colonial Occupation: Intersections of Race, Sex, and Gender in Cloud Nine and Cloud Nine Criticism,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 45–58.
Aston, Elaine, Caryl Churchill, Northcote House, 1997, pp. 31–37.
Churchill, Caryl, Cloud Nine, in Plays, Methuen, 1985, pp. 245–320.
Fanon, Frantz, Black Skins, White Masks, Grove Press, 1967.
Lloyd Evans, Gareth, and Barbara Lloyd Evans, Plays in Review, 1956–1980: British Drama and the Critics, Batsford Academic and Educational, 1985, pp. 235–36.
Millett, Kate, Sexual Politics, Virago, 1977.
Wandor, Michelene, Carry On, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Weintraub, Erica Beth, “Caryl Churchill,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13: British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Gale Research, 1982, pp.118–24.
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, William Morrow, 1987, pp. 75–84.
In this interview, Churchill talks about her work, including Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Fen, and other plays.
Gray, Francis, “Mirrors of Utopia: Caryl Churchill and Joint Stock,” in British and Irish Drama since 1960, edited by James Acheson, St. Martin’s, 1993, pp. 47–59.
Gray examines the far-reaching consequences of the plays that emerged from Churchill’s work with the Joint Stock Company, which added a political dimension to her work. He includes an analysis of Cloud Nine.
Itzin, Catherine, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain since 1968, Eyre Methuen, 1980.
This is a year-by-year account of the development of what Itzen calls the theater of political change from 1968 to 1978. She includes sections on Churchill and the important women’s companies of the period as well as other companies that gave opportunities to women writers and performers.
Wandor, Michelene, Drama Today: A Critical Guide to British Drama, 1970-1990, Longman, 1993.
This is a concise guide to themes, writers, and works in contemporary British drama. Wandor discusses Churchill along with Nell Dunn, Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Alan Ayckbourn, and others.