Equal Opportunity Humor
by William S. Kowinski
Caryl Churchill, author of Cloud 9, which will be presented at HSU beginning this week, is that anomaly of the celebrity age: an unknown major playwright. Tony Kushner has called her the greatest living English playwright, and her plays are done often in North America, not only in places with San Francisco values (like San Francisco), but (this spring alone) at the University of Pittsburgh and my alma mater, Knox College in downstate Illinois.
Still, “everybody knows Tom Stoppard but hardly anyone knows Caryl Churchill,” said the artistic director of a Philadelphia theatre which completed a Stoppard play and was beginning a Churchill festival. The comparison is apt, since they both hit the British theatre scene at about the same time, in the heady, flashy, London swings, everything-is-possible, late 1960s. Some of their differences may also suggest why Churchill is less known: she was more experimental, more openly collaborative, more political from the beginning, and more pioneering and radical in the ideas she played with. She was also the first woman playwright to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre, which became her artistic home.
That’s also meant that most discussion of Churchill has been in the various academic permutations of gender studies, cultural semiotics and political analysis. But while her plays have taken the lead in consciously and courageously confronting such issues, what often gets lost in all the ideology and specialized jargon is what a skilled, daring, energetic, witty and generous playwright she is.
I’ve had a good time reading some of her plays this week. There’s quite a variety--she wrote contemporary and historical dramas and comedies, radio and television plays, adaptations, stage plays that emphasized movement or song as well as those that depended on dialogue, etc. But what stands out about them all is how she expresses the irony of real life.
One difficulty may be that her plays are notoriously hard to stage. I’ve seen three productions, one of Mad Forest and two of Cloud 9, including its original New York staging, directed by Tommy Tune. I remember that production as having a dynamite first act, and a confusing second act. Cloud 9 is especially difficult because the two acts are so different: the first (which takes place in 19th century colonial Africa) verges on caricature, while the second (in modern London) is more naturalistic in tone.
Part of the problem may be the language difference. (Don’t laugh—one Churchill play was partly inspired by the different pronunciation of “ice cream” in England and America.) English English depends a great deal on class, place and time period. While the Brits in Act I may adopt upper class accents of the Queen’s English because they represent England in an African outpost of the Empire, they are basically middle class. If they were nobility, they wouldn’t be posted deep in the heart of darkness. The characters in Act II are openly urban middle class, and so their accents aren’t of the posh Masterpiece Theatre sort.
This may be difficult for Americans to grasp, but it affects the rhythms. It also reflects the differences of the characters: those in Act I are pretending and repressing, with tragic and hilarious results, while those in Act II (metaphorically the grown-up children of Act I) are aware of the issues and are trying to deal with them, though with residual and therefore hilarious bits of unconsciousness. That the second act takes place on a playground suggests the innocence and exploration of new roles and rules across generations, as well as anticipating pratfalls.
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