Caryl churchills cloud nine the theatre of cruelty and otherness

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, the Theatre of Cruelty and Otherness

            The theatre of cruelty was first theorized by the French dramaturge Antonin Artaud. Artaud first proposed a form of theatre which is able to move away from the traditional textual and scenic representation. Instead of the linguistic struggle for representation, Artaud advocates for an endeavor to bridge the gap between the text and its enactment. Through various literary devices, thought can acquire a bodily form. Thus, according to Artaud, theatre has to be “physical” and “real” rather than ideological. Moreover, this type of theatre does not attempt neither to persuade nor teach the audience something, but rather affect it. Therefore, it is obvious that the name given to this particular literary theory, “the theatre of cruelty”, is not to be taken in its literal and immediate meaning. It is not the theme of the play that is “cruel”, but actually the mode of representation and the effect on the audience. More simply put, the theatre of cruelty is not violent in its essence, but in its intended harsh effect on the public. A play that can be included in this genre is necessarily an attack on the reader or the spectator, a forced, unrelenting message that is imposed on the public. Thus, the theatre of cruelty tells its audience something that it does not want to hear, thus performing a cruel act.

            Churchill’s famous play, Cloud Nine, is a brilliant and extremely revealing of the theatre of cruelty. The text weaves an extremely complex and intricate web of sexual, racial and gender allusions. Churchill uses many devices meant to construct a dynamic textual structure rather than a fixed one. The piece can be easily recognized as an instance of the theatre of cruelty: the author uses gender and racial cross-casting so as to increase the impact of the message on its audience. For example, Betty, Clive’s wife is played by a man while her son Edward is played by a girl. The daughter Victoria is a doll, and the African American slave Joshua is played by a white man. The cross-casting device obviously displaces the identity of the characters, pointing to the characters’ struggle to deconstruct their own image, as it has been created by the social environment. It is also significant that the action of the play takes place in the colonial British Africa, during the Victorian period. By using cross-casting, Churchill operates directly on the bodily, physical form of the people, thus impacting the audience and creating the illusion of authenticity and reality and not merely suggesting or representing the ideas. The purpose of the author is obviously to unmask the Puritanical Victorian Age, with its narrow-minded and fixed class system, and its immovable gender roles. Sexual repression and racial discrimination were two of the most blatant features of the Victorian Age. Thus, Churchill achieves a powerful effect by either keeping the gender or the race of the characters in the scenic representation (in the case of Harry or Mrs. Saunders for example), indicating thus an eventual conformity of the characters with the image imposed on them by the Victorian society, or by investing them with a different physical representation (Betty is played by a man, while the effeminate Edward is played by a girl) to show that the gender, sexual or racial identities are not fixed.

            Thus, Churchill replaces the purely linguistic or discursive representation with an actual bodily representation, investing the play with a factual reality. Thus, as Helga Finter points out, Churchill’s play is easily included in the theatre of cruelty since it chooses to affect the public directly. According to Finter, in the middle of the postmodernist theories of the impossibility of reality, the only form of theatre that can have an actual impact on the audience is the theatre of cruelty because it emphasizes physical touch and actual danger: “Some of today’s theatre directors believe that only a discourse of the Real can actually touch the spectator. In the age of simulation and simulacra, being touched appears to be conceivable only as a physical touch; only the provocation of actual danger and actual corporeal pain seems capable of giving meaning or sense, and thereby sensation, to existence–a sense that only makes sense if it touches the spectator physically.”(Finter, 24) Identity is thus split by racial, gender or sexual otherness. Finter underlines that the theatre of cruelty replaces speech or discourse with the actual voice and thought with physical or bodily presence: “Thus not only speech, as  Derrida has shown, is ‘prompted,’ but the voice itself and therewith the first body image is deconstructed as being indebted to others, to the Other. Artaud shows that the image of the body is a function of the voice. Physical presence becomes the sole function of a vocalization that is addressed to an identifying listener, who can thus become conscious of the role of the Imaginary in the perception of vocal phenomena.”(Finter, 25) Thus the play does not attempt to represent but actually to enact and affect the audience in a straightforward manner.

            The plot of the play is complex and hallucinatory, replicating faithfully its title, Cloud Nine. The characters seem to be engaged in a sexual trance. The play is obviously based on the relationships and the interactions established with them, which display their confusion with respect to identity. Apollo Amoko evidences that Churchill parallels sexual and gender oppression with racial oppression: “Caryl Churchill’s drama in two acts features an audacious attempt to parallel sexual and gender oppression with colonial and racial oppression.”(Amoko, 48) The two forms of discrimination become thus one and the same thing. Clive is obviously the representative of all the forms of patriarchal dominance and oppression. At the center of the action, Clive is the only character in the play that has an entirely determined identity and personality. He is the white male and the patriarch of his family, the father figure who believes in his absolute right to dominate both the racially and the gendered others. Amoko emphasizes that Clive is placed at the centre of the play’s structure, as a fixed identity that determines the play of the others. Through cross-racial and cross-gender casting thus, Churchill manages to show the effects of the white, male dominance represented by Clive, on the other characters: “As she exposes—but also replicates—the multiple modes through which a white patriarchal structure variously manifests itself, Churchill deploys a number of dramatic strategies to disrupt the categories inherent in this epistemic regime, including what Diamond and Reinelt classify as ‘cross-racial’ and ‘cross-gender’ casting.” (Amoko, 50)

            Thus, Clive constantly imposes his discriminatory ideology on the others. His ideals about perfect manliness are extremely telling: he has a narrow-minded conception that excludes women and racially different people from any serious consideration. His disappointment with the effeminate son, Edward, who plays with Victoria’s doll, is thus immense. His speeches indicate that he considers the role of the father as the absolute head and ruler of a family to be something sacred and unquestionable: “You should always respect and love me, Edward, not for myself, I may not deserve it, but as I respected and loved my father, because he was my father. Through our father we love our Queen and our God, Edward. Do you understand? It is something men understand.”(Churchill, 32) He thus addresses his son in his endeavor to seek comprehension in the common male language, which excludes the others from understanding. The role of the father is thus something pre-established presumably by God himself.

            His view on women is equally intransigent: women are hidden and dangerous, and, at the same time very weak and prone to committing mistakes and give themselves to negative influences: “Women can be treacherous and evil. They are darker and more dangerous than men. The family protects us from that, you protect me from that […]. If Harry Bagley was not my friend I would shot him. If I shot you every British man and woman would applaud me. But no. It was a moment of passion such as women are too weak to resist […]. We must resist this dark female lust, Betty, or it will swallow us up.” (Churchill, 34) Clive obviously voices the prejudices that were most common in the Victorian society with respect to gender roles. One of the crucial scenes is the one that takes place between Harry and Clive, and which eventually concludes with an unfit marriage for the bisexual Harry. Clive does not waste his opportunity or reinforcing male dominance by communicating his views about the gender superiority of men in front of Harry. Male bondage or friendship is thus put above the interactions with the “weaker sex”. All the ideals voiced by Clive are obviously part of the patriarchic patrimony:  “I know the friendship between us, Harry, is not something that could be spoiled by the weaker sex. Friendship between men is a fine thing. It is the noblest form of relationship. [Although] there is the necessity of reproduction. The family is all important. And there is the pleasure. But what we put ourselves through to get the pleasure, Harry. When I heard about our fine fellows last night fighting those savages to protect us I thought yes, that is what I aspire to. I tell you Harry, in confidence, I suddenly got out of Mrs. Saunders’ bed and came out here on the verandah and looked at the stars. (Churchill, 39–40) However, Harry misunderstands Clive’s speech, and tries his sexual advances on him, thus escaping the gender determination imposed on him. His actions however embarrassingly fail, as Clive not only rebukes him but actually feels insulted and disgusted at the sexual proposal. Clive obviously cannot conceive of a sexual relationship between men. In his mind, the sexes are not only opposed, but also arranged hierarchically with the male being superior to the woman. A man for instance should not have feelings, since that is inscribed in the role of the women: “A boy has no business having feelings” (Churchill, 19) Also, the men should form a sort of coalition, escaping any female influence whatsoever: “You spend too much time with the women. You may spend more time with me and Uncle Harry, little man.” (Churchill, 32) Effeminacy is something not only dangerous but also contagious: “[There] is a disease more dangerous than diphtheria. Effeminacy is contagious” (Churchill, 40) Churchill points to the fact that gender and racial identities are not so clear-cut as they may seem in Clive’s view. Through different devices, she thus manages to show that the already constructed views can be and are more often than not, false.

            Using the cross-gender and the cross-racial devices, Churchill manages not only to demonstrate her point, but to enact it in reality and thus capture the attention of the audience. To reach the public, the author attacks precisely the well-fixed prejudices related to sex, gender or race. Again, Clive’s voice is crucial when he gives a speech for Harry’s wedding. He actually perceives Harry’s getting back to a “normal”, heterosexual state as a victory against the opposite sex: “Dangers are past. Our enemies are killed.—Put your arm around her, Harry, have a kiss—All murmuring of discontent be stilled” (Churchill, 47) As the play moves along the relationships become even more intricate and confusing, to underline Churchill’s point that identity is only constructed through its relationship with otherness.

            Barber puts forth that Clive’s masculinity is the core of the play, as it emphasizes the traditional rigid views of gender and sexual otherness: “Clive envelops masculinity in a traditional sense of duty. It is the rigidity of duty and Clive’s ability to function within duty’s confinement that gives him security in his own manliness. Clive typifies the emotional and physical strength of the privileged male and manifests his dominance over any other male who does not understand.”(Barber, 18) By playing with the characters’ identity, Churchill coveys the absolute artificiality and conventionality of the sex roles such as they were established by society: “By mismatching the performers with their stage roles, Churchill underscores the artificiality and conventionality of the characters’ sex roles. A clever theatrical idea thus serves a dramatic purpose, and the sexual shenanigans that result give rise to more than just the predictable cheap laughs….”(Asahina, 564)

            Churchill’s play is thus a courageous endeavor to unmask Victorian conventionalism and prejudice, against sexual orientation, gender roles, and racial differences. The play is intelligently constructed as it avoids a purely linguistic representation (which is likely to fail) and it achieves a factual, direct enactment of the ideas. As Peter Barry points out, the problem of whether one can escape the male, patriarchic discourse is thus solved (Barry, 126). Thus, Churchill uses the theatre of cruelty as a means of violently drawing the attention of the audience towards the truth related to traditional views of race and gender.

Works Cited:

Amoko, Apollo. “Casting Aside Colonial Occupation: Intersections of Race, Sex, and Gender in Cloud Nine and Cloud Nine Criticism(1).” Modern Drama 42.1 (Spring 1999): 45.

Asahina, Robert. “A review of Cloud 9,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1981–82, pp. 564-66.

Barber, Jeffrey A. “Churchill’s Cloud Nine.” The Explicator 57.4 (Summer 1999): 242.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory and introduction to literary and cultural theory. Second Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine in The Wadsworth Anthology of drama. Fourth Edition. New York, 2005.

Curtis, Anthony. A review of Cloud Nine, in Drama, London, No. 133, Summer, 1979, p. 57.

Finter, Helga. “Antonin Artaud and the impossible theatre: the legacy of the Theatre of Cruelty.” TDR (Cambridge, Mass.) 41.n4 (Winter 1997): 15(26).

Rich, Frank. “Sexual Confusion on Cloud 9,” in The New York Times, 20 May 1981, p. C30.

Wardle, Irving. Irving Wardle, in a review of “Cloud Nine,” in The Times, London, September 10, 1980, p. 10.

Watt, Douglas. “With Patience, Cloud 9 Develops a Silver Lining,” in Daily News, New York, 19 May 1981.


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