Playwriting: Churchill “Cloud Nine”

"Cloud Nine". Caryl Churchill, publicity art

Martin (to his wife): So I lost my erection last night not because I’m not prepared to talk, it’s just that taking in technical information is a different part of the brain and also I don’t like to feel that you do it better to yourself. I have read the Hite report. I do know that women have to learn to get their pleasure despite our clumsy attempts at expressing undying devotion and ecstasy, and that what we spent our adolescence thinking was an animal urge we had to suppress is in fact a fine art we have to acquire.

We are jumping into the middle of the second act of Caryl Churchll’s Cloud Nine. Martin’s wife is leaving him for a lesbian lover, and he is, while co-parenting he and his wife’s young son, “writing a novel about women from the women’s point of view.”

Again to his wife: I’m not like whatever percentage of American men have become impotent as a direct result of women’s liberation, which I am totally in favor of, more than I sometimes think you are yourself. Nor am I one of your villains who sticks it in, bangs away, and falls asleep. My one aim is to give you pleasure. My one aim is to give you rolling orgasms like I do other women. So why the hell don’t you have them?


My own mind has produced another list: More or less contemporary playwrights whose work I would like to see more of. So far the list has two entries: August Wilson and Caryl Churchill. Next comes the wondering: why these two? It might seem, among other things, that they could hardly be more different, though while Wilson has created a lot of great roles for African Americans, who were lacking them, Churchill has done the same for women. And both playwrights find a good deal in madness. But while Wilson is a champion of a gritty yet sentimental naturalism and evokes very specific places and times, Churchill loves mixing things up—genders and chronology; what might be called long views and close-ups; and characters talking over one another.

A father may be dismayed by Churchill’s scorn for the human beings most alien to her (fathers).

I wrote the previous sentences after—led by my list—I went to see a production of Cloud Nine, which is running through 1 November 2015 at the Atlantic Theater in New York City. The production is excellent and the acting even better, yet I must begin with some more critical observations about the play. Having first premiered in 1979, and focusing on shortcomings of patriarchy, colonialism, and what we can now call “heteronormativity,” Cloud Nine feels dated. It’s not that these do not remain vital subjects, but it can feel like Churchill is hitting us over the head with things we already know, for two hours and forty minutes.[1] And one may—a father may!—be dismayed, too, to find that Churchill’s sympathies encase the characters who seem to most share her own particular circumstances, and that this over-protectiveness is counter-balanced by her scorn for the human beings most alien to her (the fathers). We might well hear in such dividing of humanity into white and black echoes of the despotism Churchill is ostensibly scorning.

So then, as if out of the blue, my first, rudimentary answer to the why Wilson, why Churchill question: the construction of their works. As a writer (if of essays not plays), I relish opportunities to bathe in and think more about these two writers’ craft: how they put plays together. The fact that the contents of Cloud Nine, including all the forms of sex enacted and discussed on the stage, have lost their power to shock, unsettle, and perhaps even convince . . . This makes it easier for us to focus on and appreciate the architecture of Churchill’s plays. (As regards her Top Girls, the word “cantilevering” comes to mind; Cloud Nine seems more like a cube puzzle in which the different sized pieces are made to fit neatly together.)

The artistry not only relieves any suffering; it can lead us to forget or make light of it.

Or, allow me to transmute architecture into liquid mathematics. At the Atlantic, director James Macdonald and set designer Dane Laffrey have constructed a mini-arena of bleachers, an intimate theater in the round, with three exits below and between the benches. Among other things, this draws spectators’ attention to the actors’ and characters’ comings and goings. Like chemical compounds, they flow together and apart—collide, combine, mutate, and separate.[2] You could make two charts. (I wondered if Churchill did something like this as she worked on the play.) One chart would show simply the numerical combinations: when there would be most all the characters on stage together, when just two or three, or, in a few rare moments, just one. Perhaps the changing numbers make a music. The other chart would focus on who was talking with whom. And the end result might champion equality: all actors and characters getting an opportunity to express their desires and to interact with all the others.


We can also appreciate—at the Atlantic and even more in reading the script—Churchill’s comic touch.[3] Though Wilson’s work is warmer, both playwrights share, and with many comedians, a taste and talent for plunging into human beings’ limitations, voire depravity.

Two favorite examples from Cloud Nine’s first act. In a duet, “Harry Bagley,” a great explorer of the African wilds, and Edward, a pre-adolescent British boy, discuss their illicit sexual relations, which seem to have involved, at the least, the young Edward fondling Harry’s penis.

Edward: You know what we did when you were here before? I want to do it again. I think about it all the time. I try to do it myself but it’s not as good. Don’t you want to any more?

Harry: I do, but it’s a sin and a crime and it’s also wrong.

Edward: But we’ll do it anyway won’t we?

Harry: Yes of course.[4]

And there is the speech of Edward’s father Clive, the colonial patriarch, after he finds out that the parents of his seemingly loyal African servant Joshua have just been killed by British soldiers.

Clive: Joshua, I am horrified to hear what has happened. Good God! . . . Do you want a day off? . . . I’m sure it was all a terrible mistake.

Joshua: My mother and father were bad people. . . . You are my father and mother.

Clive: Well, really. I don’t know what to say. That’s very decent of you. . . .

Joshua: May I go sir?

Clive: Yes, yes of course. Good God, what a terrible thing. Bring us a drink will you Joshua?


Asecond answer to why Wilson, why Churchill: their capacity to create many unique, yet familiar-feeling characters and to write speeches for these characters that reveal them to us. (With Churchill this has a stripping-the-character-bare quality.) Child of Bakhtin that I am, I do not believe that engaging questions can be answered once and for all; each answer makes room for or opens a window on next answers. I will, however, note the sense in which my two provisional answers end up being the same. The spectator’s pleasure (my pleasure) in both cases is, ultimately, in the playwright’s craft.

An example: At a moment in my reflections on Churchill’s work, a favorite W.H. Auden stanza, from “As I walked out one evening,” came to mind:

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

If this has not been done already, a nice paper could be written connecting the Oxfordian Auden with the next generation Oxfordian Churchill. My point for the moment is that the contents of this stanza are hardly pleasant. (The last two lines have seemed to me a good description of relations between nation states, as well as a relation to Churchill’s work that one might enter into.) But there is such pleasure in Auden’s craft—in the meter, rhyme, and repetitions—the stanza is a pleasure to read. It is similar, I am proposing, with Churchill’s theater of collision and damage in which, for example, the particular attention she pays to the raw deal women have gotten may be coming, with time, to make the deal for all seem yet rawer. Yet the artistry not only relieves any suffering; it can lead us to forget or make light of it."Cloud Nine". Caryl Churchill, Atlantic Theater, New York, Atlantic Theater. Photo by Doug Hamilton of actors Betty Bloom, Sean Dugan.


Readers of the present essay will have recognized that August Wilson is getting short shrift. I look forward to seeing one of his plays again soon and in an inspiring production. And may this lead me to have more to say about his craft and in some opposition to Churchill’s. Meanwhile, heading farther in the other direction, before closing the present piece with a quotation from one of Cloud Nine’s soliloquies, I will pause to stress Churchill’s generosity. It is said that Shakespeare’s work was in danger of disappearing in the dustbin of history until, in the eighteenth century, English actors realized that his texts offered them a lot of great starring roles. Churchill offers actors a kind of strenuous work out, which becomes a way for them to show their flexibility and muscle. In the case of The Skriker, one may leave the theater impressed, above all, by the stamina of the lead actor. Cloud Nine’s demands are simpler: for instance, each actor is required to play a quite different character in the two acts of the play. Thus in the Atlantic production, Clarke Thorell plays Clive, the Victorian colonial patriarch, in the first act, and a young female child in the second act. And, Brooke Bloom, who is superb, superb, first plays Edward, the pre-adolescent boy (discovering his sexuality), and then Betty, a grandmother (rediscovering her sexuality). [The photos here, by Doug Hamilton, show on their left first Bloom’s boy and then her grandmother. Thorell’s child dominates the bottom frame. The other actors pictured include Sean Dugan, in the photo above, and, below, John Sanders, playing Martin, lounging. Chris Perfetti is partially hidden toward the back.]

"Cloud Nine". Caryl Churchill, Atlantic Theater, New York, Atlantic Theater. Photo by Doug Hamilton of actors Betty Bloom, John Sanders, Clarke Thorell, Chris Perfetti.In the second act, Betty (Bloom) has three great scenes. In the first, as a domineering, self-involved grandmother, she manages in a few minutes to lay waste (psychologically) to a whole playground of family members and friends. Much later, after she has left her husband, she propositions a man in his thirties, not realizing that he is not only gay, but also her son’s lover. A few bits:

Betty: I was married for so many years it’s quite hard to know how to get acquainted. But if there isn’t a right way to do things you have to invent one. . . . I always thought my mother was far too old to be attractive but when you get to an age yourself it feels quite different. . . .

Betty [a hair later]: So what I’m being told now is that [my son] is ‘gay,’ is that right? And you are too. And I’ve been making rather a fool of myself. . . . I’ve never tried to pick up a man before.

Gerry [her son’s lover]: Not everyone’s gay.

Betty: No, that’s lucky, isn’t it.

This leads right to her soliloquy:

Betty: I used to think Clive [her husband] was the one who liked sex.[5] But then I found I missed it. I used to touch myself when I was very little. I thought I’d invented something wonderful. I used to do it to go to sleep or to cheer myself up, and one day it was raining and I was under the kitchen table, and my mother saw me with my hand under my dress rubbing away, and she dragged me out so quickly I hit my head and it bled and I was sick, and nothing was said, and I never did it again till this year. I thought if Clive wasn’t looking at me there wasn’t a person there. And one night in my bed in my flat I was so frightened I started touching myself. I thought my hand might go through into space. I touched my face, it was there, my arm, my breast, and my hand went down where I thought it shouldn’t, and I thought well there is somebody there. It felt very sweet, it was a feeling from very long ago, it was very soft, just barely touching and I felt myself gathering together more and more and I felt angry with Clive and angry with my mother and I went on and on defying them, and there was this vast feeling growing in me and all round me and they couldn’t stop me and no one could stop me and I was there and coming and coming! Afterwards I thought I’d betrayed Clive. My mother would kill me. But I felt triumphant because I was a separate person from them. And I cried because I didn’t want to be. But I don’t cry about it any more. Sometimes I do it three times in one night and it really is great fun.

As I have written, Cloud Nine premiered in 1979 and is, let’s say, a period piece.[6] And Churchill’s craft and comic touch are such that there’s hardly any reason to stop appreciating her play now.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor


Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine, book cover, Nick Hern BooksEndnotes

[1] As with another excellent but long-winded playwright, Annie Baker, one would like to have the opportunity to query Churchill about certain scenes: How much are they doing for you? (E.g., in Cloud Nine, Act I, the catch-playing scene; Act II, the lost-child scene.) Or is there at work a Shakespearean approach: if a scene, speech, or dialogue is good (engaging, redolent) theater or good (evocative, sonorous) poetry, it’s in? (See John Meagher, Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made, and my Better Pleased with Madness, Zeteo, March 2015.)

[2] An additional consequence of the seating arrangement: spectators are drawn to observe the reactions of other spectators sitting across the theater floor and yet not far away from them. My teenage son reported studying an elderly couple’s reactions to the lesbian sex scenes. I was focused on a younger couple, the woman appearing to be a dancer, supple, physical. Without seeking to draw any conclusions, still I kept seeing these two people, like the actors on the stage, combining and separating; shoulders moving together, hands touching; the woman leaning away; the man crossing his arms in front of his chest. Of course, while Jonah and I were doing our observing, we were also observable—and observed observing.

[3] The Atlantic’s production is of a serious play with plenty of comic relief. Reading Churchill’s script afterward, I found it, rather, a comic script with its serious moments. And thus I could imagine another production, in the midst of hilarity, getting us to pull ourselves up short and to wonder: Why are we laughing so much, this is serious!

[4] Here and throughout I have copied the lines as they appear in an edition of Cloud Nine published by Samuel French. This script is of a 1981 Off-Broadway production directed by Tommy Tune. I have noted some differences between this script and the play I saw in 2015 at the Atlantic Theater. Whether there are differences between the lines I heard at the theater and those I have copied in the present text—that I do not know.

[5] A key piece of information at the head of the script: Act I is set in Africa in 1880 and Act II in London in 1980, “but for the characters it is only 25 years later.” That is, for example, Clive’s wife Betty in Africa in 1880 is now, in London in 1980, this grandmother Betty.

[6] Cf. Sex, Sex, Celibacy, Diversity, Zeteo, 9 July 2015.


"Cloud Nine". Caryl Churchill, Atlantic Theater, New York, Atlantic Theater. Photo by Doug Hamilton of actors Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti.Regarding the Images

The top-hatted, biceps displaying illustration may have been first used in publicity for a Barnard College production of the play. The illustration has been cropped for use here.

The book cover is from an edition of the play published by Nick Hern Books in 2013.

We thank Joe Perrotta and the Atlantic Theater for making available Doug Hamilton’s pictures, used above and here at the right, of the Theater’s Cloud Nine production. This last photo shows actors Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti.


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Playwriting Churchill “Cloud Nine”


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