Churchill, with "Top Girls" being revived at the Aldwych Theatre
in the West End and "Far Away" scheduled to open in New York, wouldn't
mind being called "The Mother of Us All." If it hadn't been for
"Top Girls" in 1982, women playwrights would have had
a more arduous road in reaching the recognition they are now awarded
as a matter of course. How do I know? In 1981 the World Book Year
Book fired me from my post as theater reporter for daring to devote
my yearly roundup to women playwrights and especially to Beth Henley
and her play "Crimes of the Heart" (which later won the Pulitzer
Prize.) "Crimes" had a difficult journey to Broadway via the Actors
Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, and a Manhattan Theater Club production
off-Broadway. The Year Book substituted a more "suitable" article,
which I never bothered to read.
Born in London September 3, 1938, Caryl Churchill is
the daughter of a political cartoonist for the Daily Mail and a
model and part-time actress. When she was still a child, her parents
moved to Montreal, Canada, where she received her early education,
returning to England in the late fifties to study English at Oxford
University. There in 1961 she met and later married David Harter,
a lawyer. They have three sons.
Encouraged by winning first prize at a student drama
contest, she continued writing and by the seventies had seen her
plays staged, including "Owners" in 1972 and "Objections to Sex
and Violence" in 1975. The Royal Court Theatre in London invited
her to become their resident dramatist, and in 1976, Court director
Max Stafford-Clark staged her play "A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,"
set in the time of Oliver Cromwell.
In 1979, he staged Churchill's "Cloud Nine," written
in a non-realistic style she invented and which has become characteristic
of her plays. It was the first work for which she gained international
attention. Its characters include Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale,
and begins in Victorian Africa and ends in modern Britain. Using
cross-dressing, with men playing the women's parts and vice versa,
Churchill explores sexual totems and taboos as well as imperialism.
years later in 1981, "Top Girls" added to Churchill's fame. Again
using characters from history as well as myth, it begins with a
restaurant dinner party hosted by Marlene to celebrate her promotion
to manager at the Top Girls recruitment agency. The women include
Pope Joan (who was sacked from office when giving birth revealed
she was not a man, and therefore unfit to be Pope), and Patient
Griselda, who in Chaucer's tale undergoes with patience such hardships
and humiliations as giving up her children and her home and being
sent away by her husband - who instructs her to make preparations
for him to remarry. She is 'rewarded' when he reinstates her as
his wife. There are also a Chinese concubine and a Victorian traveler.
All of the women have suffered from male domination and won in the
In the second and third acts, written realistically,
Marlene is seen interviewing women for top jobs, to determine if
they have the right stuff to do a man's job, and then, in her lower-class
home in East Anglia, in a confrontation with her sister, who has
had to raise Marlene's daughter, a dull girl with little hope of
succeeding on her mother's terms.
"Serious Money," which followed, satirizes the greedy
excesses of investment bankers and money managers. Far from offending
the men she is satirizing, they flocked to and enjoyed the play.
The versatile playwright also has written an anti-capitalism drama
in verse, and collaborated with the Second Stride company on a dance
work titled "Hotel," in which words, music, and dance combine to
depict the lives of people away from home. "Fen" is a drama about
the bleak lives of women agricultural laborers in the fens of East
Anglia, and "Mad Forest" is a documentary-like work about a village
and its way of life in Romania.
Her recent work "Blue Heart" explores new directions
in language to portray the emotions of family members as they live
their everyday lives. In the first of two short plays, a man cheats
elderly women by pretending to be the son each of them has adopted;
to suggest evasiveness, Churchill substitutes the words "blue" and
"kettle" for verbs and nouns. In the second short work, a suburban
family repeat their lines again and again as they interrupt themselves
and are then interrupted by a series of strange callers, including
an SS soldier, an ostrich, and three terrorists.
Commenting on Ms. Churchill's versatility and imagination,
director Max Stafford-Clark says, "she asks you to do things you
haven't done before. She reinvents herself every time."