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The Language of Caryl Churchill:
the Rhythms of Feminist Theory, Acting Theory, and Gender Politics

John A. Price

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Caryl Churchill language

For over twenty years, the plays of Caryl Churchill have furthered feminist performance theory and broadened traditional views of gender roles. Feminist theory and gender politics identify major themes in Churchill's work; however, unique to feminist writers, and playwrights in general, is the origin of Churchill's writing for the stage - the playwright's creative collaboration with two innovative, improvisational, and feminist theatre companies, Monstrous Regiment and the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

Feminist critics from areas as diverse as socialist feminism, materialist feminism, and cultural feminism have claimed Churchill as a representative. An examination of Churchill's language reveals yet another affinity, that of postmodern feminism. Her dramatic structure and actor-oriented language follows, in part, the desires of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva for a form of writing that shatters the phallogocentric model. While Churchill's postmodern language disturbs the traditional (male) linear play structure, her language additionally reveals an awareness of the actor and director's creative process (via Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock). Paradoxically, this unique language and postmodern structure links her with other contemporary playwrights rarely viewed positively in feminist criticism: Harold Pinter and David Mamet. Churchill joins these writers who are "of the theatre": playwrights unique in their understanding of the actor/director process; the giving of life, of movement and emotion - not just words - to characters. From their individual experiences as actors and directors (both stage and film), Pinter and Mamet write with a semiotically rich language that affects audience and actor. While utilizing a similar semiological, rhythmic language, Churchill's work passionately challenges the oppressions and repressions of class, sex, and gender. Through analysis of Vinegar Tom (1976), Top Girls (1980), and Fen (1982), I argue that Churchill has developed and refined a duplicitous dramatic language that emphasizes feminist theory and gender politics through a unique, actor-oriented rhythmic structure. Churchill's unique, semiological language both challenges dramatic theory and champions feminist issues.

Churchill's early stage career can be divided into two parts: pre and post collaboration with the improvisational companies. Pre-collaboration begins with her first professional stage production of Owners at the Royal Court in 1972 and ends with the writing of Traps in 1976. As Victoria D. Sullivan explains, "Traps, then, is the final product of her original writing method (since even when later plays were not produced in workshop, such as Top Girls, they were influenced by her having worked in that method)" (5). Sullivan, among many other critics, recognizes the impact Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock continue to have on Churchill's work. Written in the same year as Traps, Vinegar Tom contains both her "original writing method" and the influence of improvisational collaboration and, therefore, provides an example of the development of Churchill's duplicitous, semiological language: a language serving as a sign-system criticizing the social and political plight of women, while simultaneously communicating direction from playwright to actor.

PACKER: Why won't you confess and make this shorter?

ALICE:I want my boy.

PACKER: Then you should have stayed at home at night with him and not gone out after the devil.

ALICE: I want him.

PACKER: How could a woman be a filthy witch and put her child in danger?

ALICE: I didn't.

PACKER: Night after night, it's well known.

ALICE: But what's going to happen to him? He's only got me.

PACKER: He should have a father. (P1 171)

Analysis of this passage from Vinegar Tom reveals her feminist commentary and dramatic communiqué: note the short, clipped, and emotionally restrained language of Alice compared to the longer, emotionally even and controlled language of Packer, signifying the conflict between and within the characters. The questioning pushes Alice to an emotional breaking point as she bursts forth with need and desperation in her last and longest line. Churchill's language structure, devised, in part, from actors' improvisations, provides acting clues through the semiotics of her dialogue. Additionally, critic Elaine Aston notes that Alice represents the "economically deprived single-mother group" and concludes that Packer's questioning "bears a frightening resemblance to the 1990's crusade against 'lone mothers' and 'home alone' children by right-wing politicians" (30).

One need only examine the structure of Vinegar Tom to discover the clearly identifiable elements of feminist theatre and postmodern feminism. Gillian Hanna, one of the founding members of Monstrous Regiment, "explained how this style was a response to breaking down conventions of dramatic form, stating that 'we knew that we had to have the music to smash that regular and acceptable theatrical form,' in the interests of exploring what she identified as a 'counter-cultural,' feminist style of performance" (Aston 27). Moreover, Churchill's postmodern insertion of the songs echoes Cixous' belief that "feminine writing is not merely a new style of writing; it is the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural standards" (Tong 200). Cixous could easily be speaking of Churchill's plays when she comments that "[h]er language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible" (201). The musical interludes of Vinegar Tom accomplish the feminist goal of disturbing the linear action of the play. While the play is set in seventeenth-century England and concerns the serious subject of witch craft, several modern songs disrupt the traditional flow of the action, sung by women in modern dress and not intended as "part of the action" (Churchill, P1 133). Aston explains how the content of the songs, not only their paradoxical placement in the play, furthers the feminist agenda of Churchill and Monstrous Regiment. The song

'Something to Burn' thematizes the marginalization of oppressed groups - not just women, but also 'lunatics,' 'blacks,' and 'Jews'. 'If You Float' highlights women's situation as a 'catch 22': float and you are a witch; sink and you die anyway. The song critiques patriarchal 'logic' which manipulates sign-systems, arbitrarily inventing and re-inventing the 'signs' of Woman's 'evil' doing. (29)

The songs serve to emphasize the postmodern feminism of Churchill's "sign-systems"; the structural placement of the songs emphasizes the feminist position against traditional male dramatic structures, while simultaneously criticizing traditional patriarchal mistreatment of women. Aston emphasizes the effect of this collaborative form of writing on Churchill, stating: "Looking back at Owners and forward to Vinegar Tom, it is possible to see how important the experience of working with the feminist company Monstrous Regiment was to the emerging 'woman writer'" (31).

Although the ideas, words, and phrases generated through the workshops were later refined by Churchill, the feminist origin of the language additionally implies a strong connection between playwright and actor, both the original actors of Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock and the actors of future productions of Churchill's work. This communicative aspect of Churchill's language is often overlooked while critics opt for analysis of the strong feminist content of her plays. Churchill's political commentary remains relevant today and warrants critical attention - as do the semiological acting directions contained within her language. While Aston, Sullivan, and many other critics highlight the continued feminist influence of Churchill's unique workshop collaboration, few have associated this process of writing with providing clues for characterization.

Further evidence of how Churchill's language accomplishes this unique duality, particularly the semiological relationship between actor and text, can be found in the numerous linguistic parallels to the language of Harold Pinter. Ruby Cohn provides perhaps the clearest link between Pinter and Churchill's foundational, pre-collaborative work.

Churchill's main trap, however, is, surprisingly, Harold Pinter: the cluttered stage recalls The Caretaker, the sexual mix-and-match recalls The Collection, the plea to home recalls The Room, the Christies' love play recalls The Lover. The phrase "I speak fluent jargonese" embraces many a Pinter play, and Churchill indulges in Pinter's verbal techniques of contradiction, tautology, disjunction, as well as repetition of word, beat, and gesture.however, her idiom varies with each play. (106-107)

While Churchill's idiom does, undeniably, change with each play (compare the previous example from Vinegar Tom, for instance, to her latest play Blue Heart, in which the opening lines are repeated, or "reset," three times by the same actor wearing different sweaters) the duplicity of her language remains consistent. The many parallels between Churchill's early plays and Pinter's linguistic style can be viewed as an innate feature of her dramatic language. Cohn's noting of Churchill's Pinteresque use of "word, beat, and gesture" emphasizes the linguistic similarities of the two playwrights, a style critics have long praised Pinter for utilizing. Michael Billington recently noted that "Pinter's languageis not something one can divorce from character or situation as if it were a mere virtuosic feat or a piece of ostentatious verbal trickery. [The characters] have a different rhythm and tone that reflects the speaker's thought processes and the dramatic situation" (123-24). A semiological style communicated or reflected through punctuation, pauses, and positional power plays indicates meaning, emotion, and action to actor and audience alike. Churchill emulated, strengthened, then made this style her own through her first collaboration with Monstrous Regiment, resulting in the nineteen seventy-six production of Vinegar Tom, and resulting in a language that furthers feminist theory while challenging acting theory.

Through her collaborative experiences with both Monstrous Regiment and the Joint Stock Theatre Group, Churchill remarked that "my attitude to myself, my work, and others had been basically and permanently changed" (Selmon 51). Early in her career, Churchill viewed herself as an isolated writer; however, she is quick to clarify specifically how the workshop process worked: "You don't collaborate on writing the play, you still go away and write it yourself. What's different is that you've had a period of researching something together, not just information, but your attitudes to it, and possible ways of showing things" (Betsko and Koenig 79). The "attitudes to it, and possible ways of showing things" can be attributed directly to the actors' contribution through improvisation to Churchill's language.

Churchill's play Top Girls, written in 1982, continues to be one of the most popular amongst feminist critics; however, overshadowed is the advance in theatre semiotics Churchill achieves as well.

Top Girls represents a point in Churchill's writing that moves beyond the audience fascination of Cloud Nine's sex and gender reversal and subsequent feminist commentary. The development of her unique language becomes not just dramatic theory and criticism, but an aspect of which the playwright was overtly conscious. Three years after beginning the influential playwright-actor collaboration, Churchill developed a sign system unique to theatre semiotics and revolutionary to traditional dialogue structures. Churchill explains the origin of her style:

When I wrote Sleepless Nights (1979)I wanted two kinds of quarrel - the one where you can't speak and the one where you both talk at once. When I was writing Top Girls I first wrote a draft of the dinner scene with one speech after another and then realised it would be better if the talk overlapped in a similar way. Having got a taste for it I've gone on overlapping in most things I've written since. (Shorts i)

Churchill's Pinteresque pauses, "the one where you can't speak," combined with a linguistic structure which, when written, appears as a radical departure, but sounds as natural and common as your most recent conversation. What Churchill labels as "Notes on layout," strategically placed just before the list of characters, also serves as 'notes' to the actor in determining meaning and characterization.

A speech usually follows the one before it BUT:

1) When one character starts speaking before the other has finished, the point of interruption is marked /.


MARGARET: I don't dislike him / but that don't mean I fancy him.

FRANK. And he don't dislike you. Eh? Has he said that?

He don't dislike you? He don't dislike you.

2) A character sometimes continues speaking right through another's speech:


MARGARET. Your friend. I don't like him /

FRANK. You fancy him.

MARGARET. like that, I quite like him.

This applies even when the intervening speech is very long. (Sleepless 246)

In examining Churchill's directives one and two, the actor learns not only when his/her line begins, but also what words of the previous line spark the response. In the first exchange Churchill details, for the actor playing Frank, what causes the character to speak the next line: Margaret's line, "I don't like him," before the forward slash. For the actors, this information exists as one of the most important clues in creating a Churchill character. "Notes on layout" should be viewed by actors as a guide to characterization and for actors trained in realism's Method, Churchill's language may be one of the only footholds in the traditionally slippery slopes of postmodern drama. These moments of "overlapping" language also signify to the actor instances of heightened conflict, where the needs and, therefore, the emotions intensify. Additionally overlapping within the language of Top Girls are Churchill's feminist agendas, as she explained in an interview with Emily Mann:

What I was intending to do was make it first look as though it was celebrating the achievements of women then - by showing the main character Marlene, being successful in a very competitive, destructive, capitalist way - ask, what kind of achievement is that? The idea was that it would start out looking like a feminist play and turn into a socialist one, as well. (Betsko and Koenig 82)

While the language simultaneously signifies meaning and direction to the actors and socialist/feminist commentary and criticism, Churchill's structure of Top Girls echoes the postmodern displacement of time, "with act two occurring one year after act three - producing a disruptive consciousness in which meanings are revealed in a new way" (Sullivan 14). This need for a "new way" is reiterated by Rosemarie Putnam Tong in her following conclusions concerning postmodern feminism: "Whether women can, by breaking the silence, by speaking and writing, help overcome binary opposition, phallocentrism, and logocetrism, is not certain. What is certain, however, is that the time has come for a new conceptual order" (210). Churchill followed the powerful duplicity of Top Girls in the next year ('83) with a return to The Joint Stock Theatre Group and the development of Fen.

Despite the uniqueness of Churchill's dramatic language and the now identifiable overlapping, pauses, and rhythmic stops and starts, comparisons to more prominent, male playwrights are rare. For example, critic Kimball King noted that Churchill's play Serious Money resembles Mamet's Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross in the harsh portrayal of betrayal in the business world (152). A closer parallel, however, can be found in the language of this paradoxical pair of playwrights. Mamet has placed himself atop contemporary American theatre through an unflinching examination of issues such as sexuality, Hollywood, and academia. Beyond the subject matter and plots of Mamet's plays exists a language that, while many regard it as offensive, captures the American tongue with a specificity recognized worldwide. The rhythm of Mamet, who, like Churchill, was heavily influenced by Pinter's language structure, reveals the thoughts, meanings, and motivations of his characters. From a November '97 interview in the New Yorker, the origins of Mamet's language become clear:

Out of the muck of ordinary speech - the curses, interruptions, asides, midsentence breaks, and sudden accelerations - Mamet carefully weaves a tapestry of motifs which he sees as a "counterpoint." Mamet says he doesn't picture the characters on stage, he hears them. "The rhythms don't just unlock something in the character,They are what's happening." (78)

Through conducting oral research in an East Anglican Fen village, Churchill taps the rhythm of the Fen people and adds yet another level to the communicative qualities of her language. In a similarly provocative and at the same time disturbing way, Churchill creates a language that is at once idiomatic of the Fen, and of humankind. "Through talking to people, the actors learned about lives, the work, and the history of the Fen community. [Churchill argues] researching oral history 'offers the possibility of creating a democratic history in that it offers the means of expression for the past of the 'common people'Fen is 'the result of a dialogue with a community'" (Aston 65). Churchill successfully stages "democratic history," socialist commentary, and the lives of the Fen women - all through linking actor to character through her rhythmic Mamet-like, yet duplicitously unique, language. The following example from Fen perhaps most clearly reveals the semiotic resemblance to Pinter and Mamet, while additionally speaking from a local and global oppression.

VAL: Don't start on me. Just because you had nothing.

MAY. Don't speak to me like that, / my girl, or it's out you go.

DEB. Don't speak to my mum.

VAL:. I've not been here / five minutes.

DEB. Don't speak to my nan.

VAL:. Shut up, Deb.

MAY. Don't speak to the child like that. (SHONA screams and runs off.

Silence.)Don't go after her.

VAL:. Don't you go after her.

MAY. Deb, you go and look after your sister.

DEB. No. (pause)

VAL:. I'd better go after her.

DEB. Leave her alone.

MAY. Leave her alone a bit, best thing. (silence) (24)

The struggles of the Fen women, their conflicts within a patriarchy, symbolized by their conflicts within a family, are representative of Churchill's political views - feminist semiotics. In lines two through five, notice the overlapping, broken, and interrupted rhythms; as well as the accelerated, clipped, and emotionally charged lines between the scattered, yet pervasive use of silence and pauses - theatre semiotics. The noted similarities to Pinter and Mamet remain as important, I believe, as the lack of common ground between Churchill and Henrik Ibsen or Arthur Miller.

While many well-documented "systems" exist for actors to approach a modern drama, equally applicable techniques are needed to utilize and take advantage of what playwrights such as Caryl Churchill have provided within their language of postmodern drama. Discovering ways to access the characters through language, through the same vehicle which her political points are made the clearest, can only strengthen recognition of Churchill's socialist and feminist commentaries. From the improvisational companies of Monstrous Regiment and the Joint Stock Theatre Group, Churchill developed a language from actors, for actors and exceeds the impact of Pinter and Mamet through simultaneously permitting the language to speak from women, for women.

Works Cited

Aston, Elaine. Caryl Churchill. Plymouth: Northcote, 1997.

Betsko, Kathleen and Rachael Koenig, eds. Caryl Churchill: Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech, 1987. 75-84.

Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber, 1996.

Churchill, Caryl. Plays One. London: Methuen, 1985.

---. Fen. London: Samuel French, 1983.

---. Shorts. London: Hern, 1990.

Cohn, Ruby. Anglo-American Interplay in Recent Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

King, Kimball. "Serious Money: A Market Connection?" Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988. 151-160.

Lahr, John. "Fortress Mamet." New Yorker. 17 Nov. 1997. 70-82.

Randall, Phyllis R. ed. Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. New York, Garland, 1988.

Selmon, Michael. "Reshuffling the Deck: Iconoclastic Dealings in Caryl Churchill's Early Plays." Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. Edited by Phyllis R. Randall. New York: Garland, 1988.

Sullivan, Victoria D. "Caryl Churchill." New York: Scribners, 1997. 179-200.

Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. Feminist Thought. Boulder: Westview, 1998. 193-211.