A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Caryl Churchill

Caryl 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.

   Three 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 end.

   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."