Cloud Nine – A Political Agenda
Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, which means “in a state of blissful happiness,” was written during the height of conservative rule and the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The play, therefore, is primarily concerned with exploring notions of British self-identity during the post-colonial era, especially in relation to gender and sexual identity. It does so by focusing on two specific time periods: the Victorian age (Act 1), which is well-known for its restrictive and suppressive world view, and the contemporary era in which the play was written – 1979 London (Act 2) t which as a “time of sexual revolution and women’s liberation” (Madore, 2006).
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Churchill employs a two-act model as a means of showing the way in which many British people were attempting to break away from old stereotypes and to create new identities, as do most of the characters in his play (Madore, 2006), while also showing how Victorian traditions and values continued to influence British society and culture. The playwright, for example, uses obscenity and sexuality as a means of establishing a parallel between colonialism and sexual oppression, while also critiquing Thatcher and her government. As a result, the audience is ultimately presented with “the views of the “left” in Britain during a period of conservative rule …” (Madore, 2006). This paper, therefore, will explore the political agenda in Cloud Nine by focusing on feminist and gender theories and how these are linked to colonialism, subsequently arguing that the nature of the play’s political agenda is significantly rooted in ideas that had emerged during the Sexual Revolution. As such, Churchill aimed to demonstrate the way in which she believed British society to be still locked within its Victorian past.
Reflections of British Identity
Although gender theory is a significant factor in Cloud Nine, Churchill’s approach is not one that is strictly feminist. Instead, the playwright portrays the way in which all people can be sexually repressed through using two contrasting repressive periods within British history. The first Act, for example, takes place in Africa at the height of British colonialism, thus placing it in the Victorian era – a time during which colonialists perceived themselves as having a responsibility to civilize local cultures, while Act II takes place in London in around 1979. As such, Act I acts as a backdrop for Act II, a time during which British colonialism was all but over, and yet various forms of its oppression remained present within British society.
The end of the 1970s marked a unique and distinctive period of the sexual revolution in London, thus clearly contrasting it with Victorian sexual ideology, which was undeniably oppressive. By the late 1970s, homosexuals, although still frowned upon in many societal sectors, had established a firm presence within Britain’s cultural landscape, while women had gained a number of rights and new freedoms, thus increasing their status. Divorce, for example, had become acceptable, and cohabitation was rising. Churchill, therefore, thrusts her Act I characters into this new political landscape in order to see how they react (Madore, 2006).
In Act I, the audience is introduced to British upper-middle class family who are living in colonial Africa. Clive, the father, is characterized by Victorian ideals, including sexual repression and the notion of having to civilize the “other” in colonial regions such as Africa. His inability to change and grow, however, means that he is left behind in Act II, while Betty, his wife, displays her need to develop through her extramarital affair with Henry. As such, Betty’s need to redefine her identity is shown through the way in which she ends her unhappy marriage, ultimately divorcing her husband, and, as such, depicting her as a modern woman. Her statement, “But if there isn’t a right way to do things you have to invent one” (Churchill, 1989, Act I), indicates her new understanding of her own power and place in the world, while also showing her disassociation with tradition. Clive, on the other hand, is unable to break away from his patriarchal world view, thus making him incapable of inventing new things.
Betty spoke these words to Gerry, the character who symbolizes sexual freedom. William (2000), for example, highlights the way in which Gerry does as he please with whom he pleases, thus identifying his attitude as one that clearly dismisses Victorian ideals and values. Betty, however, is not yet quite as free – as seen by the way she “invents” masturbation as a means of satisfying her sexual needs rather than immediately launching into an extramarital affair. This, therefore, suggests that Betty has not wholly dismissed the traditions of the past, but that she has accepted that times change and that people need to change in accordance with such differences. In fact, London in 1979 is so far removed from colonial Africa that “many ways to do things must be invented” (Bermal, 1997, p.174).
As previously discussed, the patriarchal nature of colonial Britain is clearly showed through the character of Clive, who tells his son;
“You should always respect and love me, Edward, not for myself, I may not deserve it, but as I respected and loved my own father, because he was my father. Through our father we love out Queen and our God” (Churchill, 1989, Act 1).
Victorian world views, as demonstrated by this quote, were constructed on perceived duty, responsibility, and societal expectations. The quote, which is taken from Act 1, scene 3, portrays the way in which Clive just mindlessly accepts British history and tradition. He believes, for example, that Edward has a duty to love him because of him being his father, and, as such, fails to take into consideration his own personal behaviour. Instead, Clive associates family loyal with nationalism and Britain’s state religion, Christianity, thus suggesting a parallel between colonialism and sexual oppression (Madore, 2006).
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In the course of Act I, Churchill engages the audience with colonial history by challenging gender and sexuality notions that were current during the late 1970s. This is achieved through deploying a cross-gender and cross-racial cast, thus undercutting perceived racial and gender stereotypes. In Act I, for example, Betty is played a man, a woman plays Edwin, and Joshua is white-skinned. This technique is used by Churchill as a means of demonstrating the way in which Betty does not value her womanhood, but instead tries to live in accordance with male standards, values, and expectations. As such, Churchill demonstrates the way in which notions of femininity were primarily male constructions of what they believed a woman should be, thus identifying femininity as “an imposed construction of the [given] society” (Harding, 1998, p.254). When Clive states, for example, “We must resist this dark female lust, Betty, or it will swallow us up” (Churchill, 1989, Act 1), he is echoing his previously stated fear of Africa “swallowing” him up (Ibid), thus connecting perceived female weakness with the “dark”‘ savagery of Africa. As such, Clive associates Betty’s “dark” lust as being evil, which suggests that it is beyond her control and something that only be defeated through them working together. His perception of femininity, therefore, is of female weakness. He does not, for example, allow Betty to make choices or decisions, but instead perceives his own male strength (his control) as being her only way of overcoming her weakness (Harding, 1998).
It has also been argued that the use of gender-bending enables the play to achieve “one of the main epic-theatre goals; Verfremdungseffekt … [which is] the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself” (Madore, 2006). This suggests that Churchill attempted to make homosexuality more palliative to her audience by making such relationships appear visibly normative and heterosexual, and that she used gender-bending as a means of distancing the audience from the play. In consequence, she severed “their ability to believe that the reality of the play is in fact their true identity” (Ibid.). However, Jenkins (1996) argues that the way in which the text is used as a “tool of intervention” supports the notion of the play being written as a means of enabling individuals to discover their own reality. This is also supported by the way in which the “reality in which …. the play is occurring, is one in which the country is struggling to find its own identity (to resurface from the post-war image) much like the characters in Act II are trying to find their sexual identity” (Jenkins, 1996, p.47).
Questions and issues surrounding identity, therefore, are “carried in to the second act of the play where sexual relationships and identities are pushed even further than in Act I with the introduction of orgies and “out of the closet” homosexual relationships in to the text” (Jenkins, 1996, p.51). The audience, therefore, are presented with non-stereotypic characters, thus challenging common notions of what it meant to be male, female, homosexual, and black. Using a white man to play Joshua the black servant in Act I, for example, depicts the rupture in Joshua’s identity, which has been caused by the internalizing of colonial values, while his being played by a black actor in Act II suggests that he has established who he is in relation to his surrounding world. Colonial oppression and suppression, therefore, are depicted in Act II in the form of neo/post colonialism. As such, “the actors … established a parallel between colonial and sexual oppression, showing how the British occupation of Africa in the nineteenth century and its post-colonial presence in Northern Island relate to the patriarchal values of [British] society” (Patterson, 2007, p.84).
British life, especially for the working class, became increasingly difficult during the period in which Cloud Nine was written. What came to be termed as “Thatcherism,” had started out with great promise, and indeed many individuals and organizations did, at first, benefit from the introduction of various government policies.  As such, many people were riding on “cloud nine” during the first years of Thatcher’s governance. Nevertheless, the privatization of all major public industries ultimately worsened the well-being of the working classes, thus dispelling a cloud of doom across the country as the adverse effects of privatization manifested themselves in diminishing labour productivity, a reduced workforce, and growing unemployment (Jenkins, 1996, p.324). The result was growing dissatisfaction with “right wing” politics and growing support for the “left,” a factor that Churchill shows through Lin’s brother not caring about his country as much as he did about “getting laid” (1979, Act II). Churchill, therefore, uses political discourse as a means of demonstrating the way in which Britain is far from being on “cloud nine,” while also showing the way in which so many people remained locked in Victorian traditions, thus creating a national identity crisis.
As demonstrated in Cloud Nine, British identity was very much in question in the latter years of the 1970s and the early 1980s. The country that had once “ruled the world” had lost its position as the world’s greatest superpower, thus meaning that the British government was too focused on its perpetual bid to remould its international reputation that it tended to overlook the welfare of its citizens. Churchill, therefore, sets out to explore the patriarchal nature of Britain’s colonial era and the way in which this continued to influence the draconian racial and gender disparities that continued to mark post-colonial Britain. For example, when Clive confronts Mrs. Saunders by stating, “… it is positively your duty to seek my help; I would be hurt, I would be insulted by any show of independence” (Churchill, 1989, Act I), he portrays the way in which women were powerless within colonial times, whereas Betty’s choice to divorce portrays the way in which women ultimately gained their sexual freedom. Nevertheless, Churchill also uses political discourse, gender and feminist theories, and social commentary, as a way of portraying the way in which 20th century Britain remained caught up in Victorian traditions – a perception of the world that had clearly become obsolete.
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