Today’s post about the British playwright Caryl Churchill is by Dan Rebellato.
In the Department of Drama and Theatre in the university where I work, we’ve recently built a new theatre. One of the complicated decisions you have to make when you build a theatre is what to call it. We managed to stop the university insisting on naming it after a major donor (The British Petroleum Theatre?). We weren’t keen to give it a bland name reflecting a local landmark (The Runnymede Theatre? The Windsor Theatre?). We wanted to name it after someone who inspired us. For a Drama Department, we’re quite big and that’s a problem in this instance, because who could we find who was equally important to the playwrights and the live artists, to the scholars and dance and political theatre, to the internationalists and the historians? We wanted someone who commanded immediate recognition and respect, yet still had a sense of edge and risk; since Royal Holloway began life as a women’s college, we also thought it would be good to find a woman. All of these boxes seemed at first glance impossible to tick. And yet, it turned out to be very simple. We called it the Caryl Churchill Theatre.
I can’t think of anyone in British theatre who has so continually pushed her own boundaries, refusing to repeat herself, working with restless creativity to reinvent theatrical form with every play and performance text she writes. Caryl Churchill has been writing since the 1950s and is still as active and vigorous as when she first began to make an impact with a series of densely inventive radio plays in the 1960s. Political without ever being preachy, more interested in asking difficult questions than providing easy answers, what marks her work is a constant determination to find new theatrical forms appropriate to the times in which we live. Every play is a new discovery about the way things are and a new discovery about the capacity of the theatre to capture the texture of contemporary life. Top Girls (1982) is a three-act play that investigated the significance of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister to the meaning of feminism. The central act takes place in the offices of a successful business run by a woman, Marlene. The final act flashes back a year to pit Marlene against her left-wing sister, Joyce. The first act takes place outside any recognisable time, at a restaurant where Marlene hosts a celebratory meal with a series of successful women from history as the guests. The argument of the play, the experience of the play is not to be found precisely in the dialectic of the things individual characters say, though what they say is beautifully observed; it emerges in the complex relations between the scenes, between the times represented, in the juxtaposition and jumps between times. Described thus, this complicated structure may seem alienating or clever-clever; in fact, it produces moments of heartfelt emotion and startling enlightenment. The play has been performed internationally and twice has had successful runs in the West End.
Top Girls is a terrific example of the way this extraordinary writer is continually creating new forms to interrogate the world. (The first act of Top Girls is marked by a motif of continually overlapping dialogue, which requires a complicated typographical arrangement; Churchill invented this a couple of years before in Three More Sleepless Nights  and it has become a standard tool for all contemporary playwrights, even though Churchill herself has long left the device behind.) A lesser writer would have perhaps reused the technique in a few more plays; Churchill has never written another play like Top Girls. In fact she’s never written another play like any of her plays. She never looks back, never repeats herself, always moves on. Cloud Nine (1979) explores identity politics: the first half is a farce set in the Victorian era; the second time gives us the same characters, twenty-five years on, yet it is set in the present. Serious Money (1988) is a vast, ambitious play in ragged verse that explores the newly-released amoral energies of the post-big-bang City of London. This is a Chair (1997) juxtaposes a series of short fragmentary scenes with portentous scene titles (‘The Northern Ireland Peace Process’, ‘The Labour Party’s Slide to the Right’) which the scenes rarely, if ever, reflect, the play as a whole beautifully capturing a sense of dissociation between political discourse and everyday life. The three scenes that make up Far Away (2000), take us from the domestic, through the political, to the global, making a series of links that ask profound questions about the duties we owe each other and predicts the reinvention of war in the twenty-first century. A Number (2004) explores the ethics of cloning in a series of scenes between a father and his various cloned sons, all played by the same actor. Last year’s Love and Information (2012) was made up of approximately 60 different scenes, some moving, others riotously funny, several of them no more than a few seconds long, to capture and ask questions about the information bombardment of modern life. She’s written for dancers, singers, performance artists, actors; she’s developed shows in long collaborative processes and at other times in isolation. I could go on. Churchill seems endless; indeed her ceaseless exploration of theatrical form has been the only true constant in her work.
It is always a wonderful thing to see a new Caryl Churchill play, to see where her quicksilver mind has taken her now. She is, in many people’s view, the greatest playwright alive. She is a truly inspiring woman.
Theatre critics discuss Caryl Churchill’s work:
Dan is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Head of the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London.You can follow him on Twitter @danrebellato. His latest book, Modern British Playwriting 2000-2009, is available for pre-order here