A Number

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A Number
Written by Caryl Churchill
Characters Salter
Bernard 1
Bernard 2
Michael Black
Date premiered 23 September 2002
Original language English
Subject Human cloning and identity

A Number is a 2002 play by English playwright Caryl Churchill which addresses the subject of human cloning and identity, especially nature versus nurture. The story, set in the near future, is structured around the conflict between a father (Salter) and his sons (Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black) – two of whom are clones of the first one.

Contextual Information[edit]

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is an original work published in 2002 in London in association with the Royal Court Theatre.[1] A Number was written when cloning was often in the news. Dolly the sheep, creation of human embryos at Advanced Cell Technology in the US, and the cloning of a kitten[2] gave rise to controversy concerning possible human cloning.

Plot synopsis[edit]

A Number is a fast paced play set in the near future when the startling discovery of an underground cloning experiment has become the forefront of one family’s conflict. Bernard has made a life‐changing discovery: he is one of “a number” of clones that were created from the cells of an older brother he never knew he had. Bernard (B2) approaches his aging father, Salter, with the information and Salter explains that Bernard’s older brother (also named Bernard – B1) had been killed in a car crash at a young age. Salter says that in his grief, he chose to engage in a cloning experiment meant to recreate his lost son . Any other clones that were made were because the doctors were unethically using the cells and that he and Bernard should sue. Just days after B2 left, B1 appears at his father’s door very much alive and angry. He too has learned about the clones. Salter reveals that B1 didn’t die, but was cloned as a way to correct his parental mistakes made after his wife’s suicide. Salter then had B1 sent away. B1 is filled with contempt for his father and has an explosive temper – the opposite of his calmer, younger brother, B2. Later, B2 returns to Salter’s house after meeting with his older counterpart. B2 reveals that he plans to leave the country, partly out of fear of B1 and partly to avoid running into more versions of himself. B1 returns to Salter’s house with his more unsettling news: he followed B2 out of the country and killed him. After yet another tragic turn of events, Salter seeks out one of the genetically identical clones, a man named Michael Black. He asks Michael questions, trying to learn what is shared between his sons, and finds him pleasant and undisturbed by the knowledge that he is also one of “a number.”

Character Guide[edit]

  • Salter: a man in his early sixties, he was married and had one son. His wife killed herself by throwing herself under a tube train. A few years later he had his son Bernard cloned.
  • Bernard (B2): His son, thirty-five, first clone of his first son, made to replace original son.
  • Bernard (B1): His son, forty. First son of Salter, Mother committed suicide when he was two years old.
  • Michael Black: His son, thirty-five. Another clone of Salter’s first son. He is married with three children, a boy, a girl, and a small child ages twelve, eight, and eighteen months, and is a mathematics teacher.

Character Analysis[edit]

Each character has a different core emotion. Salter goes through a range of emotions from love, to anger, to despair, each as a result of his actions and decisions. Salter is tormented by his choices and hides “behind the smoke screen of lies and cigarettes” to try to live this new life with his new child, Bernard (B2).[3] Salter’s actions seem unreasonable. In one of the dialogues there is a phrase: “but another child might have been better” [4] asking the question of why did Salter not just have another child? Why did he make a clone of his first child? Salter’s response was that he thought his first child was so perfect during his babyhood that he wanted another chance, a second try. He loves this clone, but he quickly becomes angry and snarls at his original son saying he should have been squashed as a child.[5] He then turns to despair once he finds out his original son and the clone that he loved are dead, and then looking for answers he finds another clone. He asks him a series of questions and is disappointed that this clone seems to have no unique features, nothing to keep the memory of his dead sons special. Bernard (B1) is a “bitter, angry 40-year old” who finds his father after being given up. Bernard was abused and neglected as a child by Salter and naturally is angry, but still has a bond with Salter because he is his father. The clones are a threat to this bond; Salter showed love to this clone, love he has never showed to Bernard. In bitter anger he murders the clone that lived with Salter, and then having nothing else to live for, Salter would hate him, he kills himself. Bernard (B2) is living a life full of lies. From conception he has been told lies, from how is mother died to the fact that he is a clone. The lies are slowly uncovered one by one, each time driving him further and further away from Salter, he is angry, confused and lost. His world has been shattered and he is scared; scared of not having a sense of self anymore, scared of his lack of uniqueness, and scared of Bernard (B1). Michael Black is another clone of Bernard but he is very pleasant. He is a “mild-mannered teacher, a happy family man, who takes the news of his unusual genesis with extraordinary equilibrium, and whose quiet contentment is utterly baffling to the tormented Salter.”.[6] He seems normal, but also seems very shallow and like everyone around him. He lacks a depth that Salter is searching for, but is content without it.


The genre of A Number would be considered a tragedy. The overall mood of tragedies is solemn, and the mood of A Number is certainly that. With the death of half of the characters in the play the mood is very dark. There is an assumed moral code, which is not to tamper with the natural order of things. There is a tragic hero; a tragic hero is “the agent of action of a classic tragedy, characterized by the following: commits an act of shame, is responsible for other people, and goes from good fortune to bad”.[7] Salter is the tragic hero as a father he is responsible for his children and his act of shame is cloning his child, which leads to the production of multiple people that he was not aware of. There is a nemesis, or someone who is seeking revenge. That character is very clearly Bernard (B1) who seeks retribution for the way he was treated as a child and the destruction of his unique identity. There is a scene of suffering; Salter breaks down multiple times throughout the play, the consequences of his decisions coming down on him. If you combine all of these elements it is a formula for a classic tragedy.


Caryl Churchill’s main concerns when writing this play was the idea of self. She takes this idea of identity and challenges it with this story. If you were to find out that you were simply a clone then you’re not a unique person, but one of many, just a number. This story from a subjective position, though we are privy to most of what is going on, we are always with Salter. So when Bernard (B1) was with Bernard (B2) we did not know what was happening. The world of the play is moderately comprehensible, we can understand everything that happens but some things elude us. Why are the clones so drastically different from one another? The events of the play happen in a fairly linear manner, there are some events in the past that are brought up through conversation, but we are not taken back. The characters are “fully textured human beings, with ideas, feelings, personalities, passions, and foibles” that are very similar to our own, making the characters very lifelike.[8] The setting is set to imitate real life, simply two chairs and perhaps a table. The play is representational, the audience is never interacting with the play itself, only observing.


The use of language in A Number is unique and slightly confusing and hard to follow. The dialogue is “hovering between the weirdly stylish and everyday inarticulate chat.” [9] This choice of language shows a casual conversation, but obviously in a different time, in this case the future. The dialogue is very repetitive, many words being repeated more than once in the same sentence, and sentences are often incomplete and thoughts never finished. One character is known as B2 to distinguish him from the other clones, one writer labels it as “clone-speak.” The same writer describes the language as “futuristic too- sentences incomplete, compressed, abbreviated in a kind of shortish hand.” [10] The rhythm that Churchill chose for A Number is a normal pace. The dialogue is just normal conversation between people so it is neither fast nor slow; the sentences may be shortened, but the rhythm is normal. Churchill uses a device known as dissonance throughout the play. Dissonance is a subtle sense of disharmony, tension, or imbalance within the words chosen in the play.[11] The sentences do not flow smoothly from one to the next, they are choppy and harsh. “It wasn’t perfect. It was the best I could do, I wasn’t very I was I was always and it’s a blur to be honest but it was I promise you the best.” [12]


Churchill gives no stage directions and no indication of a setting for the play. In the 2002 production, the stage was described by one critic as a “bare blank design” with “no relation to domestic realism.” [10] The costumes of the play were as simple as the stage design. Salter always wore a rumpled looking suit, sometimes expensive looking, but sometimes not. The various Bernards usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, but sometimes a sweatshirt.[13]


Original production[edit]

The play debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The production was directed by Stephen Daldry and designed by Ian MacNeil and featured the following cast:

Lighting was designed by Rick Fisher and Ian Dickinson was the sound designer. The play won the 2002 Evening Standard Award for Best Play.[14]


The play was revived at the Sheffield Crucible studio in October 2006 starring real-life father and son Timothy West and Samuel West. This production later played at the The Chocolate Factory in 2010 and at the Fugard Theatre, Cape Town in 2011.

The play was revived at The Nuffield Theatre (Southampton) in February 2014 with John and Lex Shrapnel to huge critical acclaim.[15] It will transfer to the Young Vic Theatre in June 2015.

US premiere[edit]

In 2004, the play made its American debut at the New York Theatre Workshop in a production starring Sam Shepard (later played by Arliss Howard) and Dallas Roberts.

LA/OC, California premiere[edit]

In February/March 2009, the play made its Los Angeles/Orange County debut at the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in a production directed by Scott Barber, starring Vince Campbell and Mark Coyan.


A Number was adapted by Caryl Churchill for television, in a co-production between the BBC and HBO Films.[16] Starring Rhys Ifans and Tom Wilkinson, it was broadcast on BBC Two on 10 Sep 2008.[17]


  1. ^ Churchill, Caryl. A Number. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003.
  2. ^ "What Is Warm and Fuzzy Forever? With Cloning, Kitty - New York Times." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 27 Feb. 2009 <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=.
  3. ^ Brown, Georgina. "A Number." Mail on Sunday [London] 29 Sept. 2002.
  4. ^ Churchill, Caryl. A Number. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. p. 21
  5. ^ Churchill, Caryl. A Number. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. p. 51
  6. ^ Jones, Oliver. "A Number." What's On [London] 2 Oct. 2002.
  7. ^ Rush, David. Student guide to play analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. p. 286
  8. ^ Rush, David. Student guide to play analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005 p. 187
  9. ^ Myerson, Jonathan. "A Number." Independent [London] 1 Oct. 2002.
  10. ^ a b De Jongh, Nicholas. "A Number." Evening Standard [London] 27 Sept. 2002.
  11. ^ Rush, David. Student guide to play analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005 p. 86
  12. ^ Churchill, Caryl. A Number. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. p. 26
  13. ^ Basset, Kate. "A Number". Independent on Sunday [London] 29 Sept. 2002.
  14. ^ Evening Standard Awards Retrieved on 8 October 2009
  15. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/feb/14/a-number-caryl-churchill-theatre-review-lyn-gardner
  16. ^ "Uma Thurman, Rhys Ifans and Tom Wilkinson star in two plays for BBC Two" (Press release). BBC. 2008-06-19. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  17. ^ "A Number". BBC Two Listings. BBC. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 

External links[edit]