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Summary Article: Churchill, Caryl
from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Acknowledged as one of the foremost, innovative dramatists of the contemporary British and international stages, Caryl is a highly influential figure in the field of feminist theater, performance, and scholarship.

Caryl’s early work included a significant number of radio plays, given that a radio career was one that she could combine with motherhood and family life. Her radio plays reflect a number of stylistic and thematic concerns of later work: playing with conventions of form, time, narrative, structure, language, and dialogue as well as thematizing the power structure of marital and familial relations—The Ants (1962), Lovesick (1966), Abortive (1971), Henry’s Past (1972), and Perfect Happiness (1973); issues of identity—Identical Twins (1968) and Schreber’s Nervous Illness (1972); and ecological concerns—Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen (1971). An early television play Turkish Delight (1974) showed some of the gender and class issues that Caryl would develop in her theater, as further evidenced in Owners, her first professionally produced stage play performed at the Royal Court Theatre (perf. 1972; pub 1973).

During the 1970s, Caryl came into contact with the socialist-feminist theater company, Monstrous Regiment, with whom she staged Vinegar Tom (perf. 1976; pub. 1977), a play about witchcraft, and wrote her first play with Joint Stock, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (perf. 1976; pub. 1977), on the English civil war in the 17th c. The Joint Stock production saw the beginning of her long association with the director Max Stafford-Clark, with Cloud Nine (1979), her drama of sexual politics, following as her second Joint Stock production. Working with both companies introduced Caryl to the experience of workshopping and marked a departure from her previous, more solitary, existence as a playwright. Her association with the Royal Court also continued through the 1970s with Objections to Sex and Violence (perf. 1975; pub. 1985), treating ideas of revolution and violence; a SCIENCE FICTION drama, Moving Clocks Go Slow (perf. 1975); and Traps (perf. 1977; pub. 1978), which is a further illustration of Caryl’s desire to experiment with dramatic form.

Caryl’s Top Girls (1982) is critically recognized as one of the major plays of the 20th c. It has been acclaimed both on account of the way Caryl experimented with overlapping dialogue, a technique that has influenced the playwriting of a number of contemporary British dramatists, and for its socialist-feminist critique of the “top girl,” Thatcherite ethos of the 1980s. The opening dinner scene in which the invited guests include women from history, art, myth, and fiction defied stage conventions of REALISM, while Caryl’s dramatization of the relationship between two sisters, “top girl” Marlene and her working-class sister Joyce, offered an incisive interrogation of bourgeois feminist principles. Both Top Girls and Cloud Nine won Obie Awards and went on to be performed around the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Caryl pursued her socialist critique of a Britain that became more and more divided by the “us and them” she portrayed in Top Girls. Fen (1983) examined the impact of transnational capitalism on a deprived community of (mostly) East Anglian Fen women. Soft Cops (1984), which, in contrast to Top Girls, has an all-male cast, offered a dramatic representation of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977; first pub. as Surveiller et punir), while the hugely successful Serious Money (1987), written in verse, satirized the world of the London stock market; the greed and corruption of the 1980s. Ironically, Serious Money proved particularly popular among the city speculators it set out to satirize, and made enough “serious money” to make a transfer into London’s commercial West End. In the style of a road movie, Icecream (1989) portrayed a dark picture of transatlantic culture and identity, and Caryl returned to civil war and the possibility of revolution in Mad Forest (1990), that detailed events in Romania leading up to the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu.

The desire to experiment has involved Caryl in collaborations with dance-theater, most particularly in her work with the choreographer Ian Spink and the company Second Stride. Caryl first worked with Spink on A Mouthful of Birds (with David Lan, 1986), and subsequently with Second Stride on Lives of the Great Poisoners (1991), The Skriker (1994), and Hotel (1997). The Skriker, a mythological shape-shifting figure from a fairy underworld, is arguably Caryl’s most interesting theatrical figure of the 1990s, one that signifies her concern to show the dangers of a contemporary world birthing a catastrophic (socially, economically, and ecologically) future. Disaster threatens as people are portrayed as increasingly alienated in their personal lives—Hotel and Blue Heart (perf. 1997; pub 1998), and as failing to make connections between the personal and the political—This Is a Chair (perf. 1997; pub. 1999). The all too real risk that all of this poses, is dramatized in Caryl’s first play of the 21st c., Far Away, in which the entire world becomes a war zone.

Like the Skriker, Caryl’s theater constantly shape-shifts in form, while thematically, the damage and dangers of an unequal, unjust, man made world are a constant preoccupation.


Bibliography Aston, E., C. C. (1997; rev. ed., 2001); Fitzsimmons, L., File on C. (1989); Kritzer, A. H., The Plays of C. C. (1991); Rabillard, S., ed., Essays on C. C. (1998)

Elaine Aston

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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