Cloud Nine

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A: Caryl Churchill Pf: 1979, London Pb: 1979 G: Drama in 2 acts S: Clive's residence in Africa, Victorian period, and a London park, 1979 C: 7m, 8fClive is a British colonial administrator in Africa in Victorian times. With him live his wife Betty, his mother-in-law Maud, his two children Edward and Victoria, the governess Ellen, and his African servant Joshua. The native populace is rioting, and Mrs Saunders, a widow, comes to them to seek safety. Her arrival is soon followed by that of Harry Bagley, an explorer. Clive makes passionate advances to Mrs Saunders, Betty fancies Harry, who is, however, a homosexual who has sex with Joshua and the young Edward, and then mistakenly assumes Clive to be making advances towards him. Ellen, who reveals herself to be a lesbian, is forced into marriage with Harry. Act 1 ends with the wedding celebrations, the final tableau being of Clive giving a speech, while Joshua points a gun at him. Act 2 is set in a London park in 1979, with some of the characters from the first half reappearing, but only 25 years older. Betty has left Clive, Victoria is now married to Martin and has a son, and Edward lives with a promiscuous gay, Gerry. Victoria decides to leave Martin and begin a lesbian relationship with Lin, who has a young daughter, Cathy. When Gerry leaves him, Edward moves in with Lin and Victoria. After suggesting that she too might come and live with them, Betty begins a relationship with Gerry.

A: Caryl Churchill Pf: 1979, London Pb: 1979 G: Drama in 2 acts S: Clive's residence in Africa, Victorian period, and a London park, 1979 C: 7m, 8f

Caryl Churchill is one of the best living English-language playwrights, and Cloud Nine may be accounted one of her finest plays. Like Fanshen, the script was developed from improvisations with the Joint Stock Theatre Company, here on the theme of sexual politics (‘cloud nine’ being one woman's description of orgasm). The actors soon established a ‘parallel between colonial and sexual oppression’, showing how the British occupation of Africa in the 19th century and its post-colonial presence in Northern Ireland relate to the patriarchal values of society. To reinforce this, characters from Act 1 reappear only slightly aged in Act 2; furthermore, some characters are played by members of the opposite sex: in Act 1 Betty is played by a man in order to show how femininity is an artificial and imposed construct which can become the determining feature of behaviour. Act 1 is fun but fairly predictable in its condemnation of colonialism. Act 2, in which Betty is now played by a woman, initially seems to depict greater sexual freedom, but soon reveals new and subtler forms of oppression: as the Sunday Times drama critic John Peter wrote, being on Cloud Nine may feel good, but it is easy to get vertigo. Churchill here successfully unites the personal with the political, bringing together ‘two preoccupations of mine – people's internal states of being and the external political structures which affect them, which make them insane’.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

Caryl Churchill (b. 1938) English dramatist

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