3 September 1938 |
Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938) is an English playwright known for dramatising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes. She is acknowledged as a major playwright in the English language and one of world theatre's most influential writers.
Her early work developed Bertolt Brecht's modernist dramatic and theatrical techniques of 'Epic theatre' to explore issues of gender and sexuality. From A Mouthful of Birds (1986) onwards, she began to experiment with forms of dance-theatre, incorporating techniques developed from the performance tradition initiated by Antonin Artaud with his 'Theatre of Cruelty'. This move away from a clear Fabel dramaturgy towards increasingly fragmented and surrealistic narratives characterises her work as postmodernist.
Churchill was born in London, England, the daughter of Jan, a fashion model, and Robert Churchill, a political cartoonist. After World War II, her family emigrated to Montreal, Canada; Churchill was ten years old. In Montreal, she attended Trafalgar School for Girls.
She returned to England to attend university, and in 1957 she graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college at Oxford University, with a B.A. degree in English Literature. She also began her writing career there. Her four earliest plays, Downstairs (produced 1958),You've No Need to be Frightened, Having a Wonderful Time (1960), and Easy Death (produced 1962) were performed at Oxford by student theatre ensembles.
Marriage and family
In 1961 she married David Harter, a barrister. They had three sons together: Joe, Paul, and Rick, and live in Islington, North London.
It was while raising a family in the 1960s and '70s that Churchill began to write short radio dramas for BBC radio. These included The Ants (1962), Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen (1971), and Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972). She also wrote television plays for the BBC, including The After Dinner Joke (1978) and Crimes (1982). These, as well as some of her radio plays, have been adapted for the stage.
Themes and plays
In 1972, she wrote Owners, a two-act, 14-scene play about obsession with power. It was her first stage play and "her first major theatrical endeavour"; it was produced in London the same year. Churchill's socialist views are expressed in the play, a critique of the values that most capitalists take for granted: being aggressive, getting ahead, doing well.
She served as resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974–1975, and later began collaboration with theatre companies such as Joint Stock Theatre Company and Monstrous Regiment (a feminist theatre collective). Both used an extended workshop period in their development of new plays. Churchill continues to use an improvisational workshop period in developing a number of her plays. During this period, she also wrote Objections to Sex and Violence (1974).
Her first play to receive wide notice was Cloud Nine (1979), "a farce about sexual politics", set partly in a British overseas colony during the Victorian era. It explores the effects of the colonialist/imperialist mindset on intimate personal relationships, and uses cross-gender casting for comic and instructive effect. The play became successful in Britain and in the United States, winning an Obie Award in 1982 for best play of the year in New York.
Churchill gradually abandoned more conventions of realism, and her loyalty to feminist themes and ideas became a guiding principle in her work. She won an Obie Award for best play with Top Girls (1982), "which deals with women's losing their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment." It features an all-female cast, and focuses on Marlene, who has relinquished a home and family to achieve success in the world of business. Half the action takes place at a celebratory dinner where Marlene mixes with historical, iconic and fictional women who have achieved great stature in a "man's world", but always at great cost. The other half of the play, set a year in the past, focuses on Marlene's family, where the true cost of her "successful" life becomes poignantly and frighteningly apparent.
Serious Money (1987), "a comedy about excesses in the financial world", is a verse play, chiefly written in rhyming couplets. It takes a satirical look at the vagaries of the stock market and its Thatcherite denizens. The play was highly acclaimed, perhaps in part because it played immediately after the stock market crash of 1987.
In The Skriker (1994), Churchill uses an associative dream logic which some critics found to be nonsensical. The play, a visionary exploration of global ecology made through gender games, storytelling, distorted language and evocations of modern urban life, follows an ancient and shape-shifting death portent (The Skriker) in her search for love, revenge and human understanding.
"The prolific Churchill continued to push boundaries into the late 1990s. In 1997 she collaborated with the composer Orlando Gough to create 'Hotel,' a choreographed opera or sung ballet set in a hotel room. Also that year her surrealistic short play 'This Is a Chair' was produced."
Her 2002 play, A Number, addresses the subject of human cloning and questions of identity. Her adapted screenplay of A Number was shown on BBC TV in September 2008. Her recent play, Drunk Enough To Say I Love You (2006), takes a critical look at what she sees as Britain's submission to the United States in foreign policy.
In 2010, Churchill was commissioned to write the libretto for a new short opera by Orlando Gough, as part of the Royal Opera House's ROH2 OperaShots initiative. The resulting work, A ring a lamp a thing, played for five performances in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House.
Her Love and Information, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in September 2012, directed by James Macdonald. It gained great critical and popular acclaim. The play, featuring 100 characters and performed by a cast of 15, is structured as a series of more than 50 fragmented scenes, some no longer than 25 seconds, all of which are apparently unrelated but which accumulate into a startling mosaic, a portrayal of modern consciousness and the need for human intimacy, love and connection.
The Royal Court Theatre held a 70th Birthday retrospective of her work by presenting readings of many of her most famous plays directed by notable playwrights, including Martin Crimp and Mark Ravenhill.
Of course it's possible to trace recurring themes in Churchill's work – alienation between parent and child, the possibility and failure of revolution. But it is the variety of her work that is most striking. As Von Mayenburg says: "With each play, she discovers new genres and forms. She then discards them and moves on, opening up possibilities for other playwrights to explore. I think many people writing today don't even realise they've been influenced by her. She's changed the language of theatre. And very few playwrights do that."
Her career is examined in the Reputations strand on TheatreVoice.
Interest in Palestine
Churchill is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In January 2009, she wrote a ten-minute play that explores a history of Israel, ending with the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza. It was performed for free at the Royal Court Theatre, with a collection taken to donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians.
"'The Sunday Times condemned its "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness"; but for the Times, "there are no heroes or villains, for all that Churchill decries what is happening in Gaza"." Writers such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Melanie Phillips in her Spectator blog criticised the play as anti-Semitic, as did John Nathan. He noted that Churchill has said that Seven Jewish Children is "not just a theatre event but a political event." He suggested that a play representing views of one community and critical of that community needed to be written by a member of that community. The Royal Court denied the accusation.
Churchill published the play, Seven Jewish Children – a play about Gaza, online, for free download and use. Churchill said: "Anyone can perform it without acquiring the rights, as long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end of it". A full performance text is also available from The Guardian's website.
Prizes and awards
Churchill has received much recognition, including the following awards:
- 1958 Sunday Times/National Union of Students Drama Festival Award Downstairs
- 1961 Richard Hillary Memorial Prize
- 1981 Obie Award for Playwriting, Cloud Nine
- 1982 Obie Award for Playwriting, Top Girls
- 1983 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (runner-up), Top Girls
- 1984 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Fen
- 1987 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy of the Year, Serious Money
- 1987 Obie Award for Best New Play, Serious Money
- 1987 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Serious Money
- 1988 Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for Best New Play, Serious Money
- 2001 Obie Sustained Achievement Award
- 2010 Inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
- Downstairs (1958)
- You've No Need to be Frightened (1959?)
- Having a Wonderful Time (1960)
- Easy Death (1960)
- The Ants, radio drama (1962)
- Lovesick, radio drama (1969)
- Identical Twins (1960)
- Abortive, radio drama (1971)
- Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, radio drama (1971)
- Owners (1972)
- Schreber's Nervous Illness, radio drama (1972) – based on Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
- The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (written 1972)
- The Judge's Wife, radio drama (1972)
- Moving Clocks Go Slow, (1973)
- Turkish Delight, television drama (1973)
- Objections to Sex and Violence (1975)
- Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) 
- Vinegar Tom (1976)
- Traps (1976)
- The After-Dinner Joke, television drama (1978)
- Seagulls (written 1978)
- Cloud Nine (1979)
- Three More Sleepless Nights (1980)
- Top Girls (1982)
- Crimes, television drama (1982)
- Fen (1983)
- Softcops (1984)
- A Mouthful of Birds (1986)
- A Heart's Desire (1987)
- Serious Money (1987)
- Ice Cream (1989)
- Hot Fudge (1989)
- Mad Forest (1990)
- Lives of the Great Poisoners (1991)
- The Skriker (1994)
- Blue Heart (1997)
- Hotel (1997)
- This is a Chair (1999)
- Far Away (2000)
- Thyestes (2001) – translation of Seneca's tragedy
- A Number (2002)
- A Dream Play (2005) – translation of August Strindberg's play
- Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (2006)
- Seven Jewish Children – a play for Gaza (2009)
- Love and Information (2012)
- Ding Dong the Wicked (2013)
- Here We Go (play) (2015)
- David Lan
- Ian Spink
- Bertolt Brecht and his epic theatre
- Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty
- Pina Bausch
- Postmodern theatre
- Dance theatre
- Performance art
- Experimental theatre
- Political theatre
- Michel Foucault
- Churchill, Caryl. (2009) Seven Jewish Children. London: Nick Hern Books. Download only.
- Churchill, Caryl. (2008) Churchill Plays: Four. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-540-9.
- Churchill, Caryl. (2006) Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-959-9.
- Churchill, Caryl. (2004) A Number. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-743-4.
- Churchill, Caryl. (2003) Far Away. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-744-1.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1999) This is a Chair. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-344-3.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1997) Churchill Plays: Three. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-342-9.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1996) Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-311-5.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1994) The Skriker. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-275-0.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1990) Mad Forest. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-044-2.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1990) Churchill: Shorts. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-085-5.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Cloud Nine. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-090-9.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Icecream. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-016-9.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Traps. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-095-4.
- Churchill, Caryl. (1997) Blue Heart. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-327-6.
- Churchill, Caryl and Gough, Orlando. (1990) Hotel. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-337-5.
- "Caryl Churchill", Encyclopedia Britannica
- "'7 Jewish Children' Press Release", Washington DC Jewish Community Center
- "LMH, Oxford - Prominent Alumni". Retrieved 20 May 2015.
- O'Mahony, John. "Operas about wags? Why not, says the Royal Opera House", The Guardian, 10 June 2010
- Mark Ravenhill (3 September 2008). "'She made us raise our game'". The Guardian (London).
- "Patrons". Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
- Royal Court acts fast with Gaza crisis play, Mark Brown, The Guardian, 24 January 2009
- Nathan, John (12 February 2009). "Review: Seven Jewish Children". The Jewish Chronicle.
- Higgins, Charlotte (18 February 2009). "Churchill's Gaza play accused of antisemitism". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- "Letters: Jacobson on Gaza". The Independent (London). 21 February 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- online "Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill online"
- Caryl Churchill at British Council: Literature
- Fuller list of works, including radio and TV, with summaries
- BBC Radio Plays at ukonline