|Born||3 September 1938|
Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938) is a British playwright known for dramatising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes. Celebrated for works such as Cloud 9 (1979), Top Girls (1982), Serious Money (1987), Blue Heart (1997), Far Away (2000), and A Number (2002), she has been described as "one of Britain's greatest poets of and innovators for the contemporary stage". In a 2011 dramatists' poll by The Village Voice, five out of the 20 polled writers listed Churchill as the greatest living playwright.
Churchill was born in London, England, the daughter of Jan Brown, a fashion model and actress, and Robert Churchill, a political cartoonist. After the Second World War her family emigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Churchill was ten years old. In Montreal, she attended Trafalgar School for Girls.
She returned to England to attend university in 1956, and in 1960 graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college at Oxford University, with a BA degree in English Literature. She received the Richard Hillary Memorial Prize at Oxford and also began her writing career there. Her four earliest plays, Downstairs (produced 1958),You've No Need to be Frightened, Having a Wonderful Time (1960), and Easy Death (produced 1962) were performed at Oxford by student theatre ensembles. One of her plays, Downstairs was performed at the National Student Drama Festival in 1958 and won the first prize.
While raising a family in the 1960s and 1970s, Churchill began to write short radio dramas for BBC Radio. These included The Ants (1962), Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen (1971), and Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972). She also wrote television plays for the BBC, including The After-Dinner Joke (1978) and Crimes (1982). These, as well as some of her radio plays, have been adapted for the stage.
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In her early work Churchill explored gender and sexuality through modernist theatre techniques of Epic theatre. In the mid-1980s she started to incorporate dance-theatre in her writing. A Mouthful of Birds (1986) is the first example of this, and references the surrealist theatre tradition of Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. The fragmented and surrealistic narratives in Churchill's work characterises her work as postmodernist.
In 1972, she wrote Owners, a two-act, 14-scene play about obsession with power. It was her first professionally produced stage play and "her first major theatrical endeavour"; it was produced in London the same year.
She served as resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975, and was the Royal Court's first female playwright in residence. She began collaboration with theatre companies such as Joint Stock Theatre Company and Monstrous Regiment (a feminist theatre collective). Both used an extended workshop period in their development of new plays. Churchill continues to use an improvisational workshop period in developing a number of her plays. During this period, she also wrote Objections to Sex and Violence (1974).
Her first play to receive wide notice was Cloud Nine (1979), "a farce about sexual politics", set partly in a British overseas colony during the Victorian era. It explores the effects of the colonialist/imperialist mindset on intimate personal relationships, and uses cross-gender casting for comic and instructive effect. The play became successful in Britain and in the United States, winning an Obie Award in 1982 for best play of the year in New York.
Churchill gradually abandoned more conventions of realism, with her loyalty to feminist themes and ideas becoming a guiding principle in her work. She won an Obie Award for best play in 1983 with Top Girls, "which deals with women's losing their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment." It features an all-female cast, and focuses on Marlene, who has relinquished a home and family to achieve success in the world of business. Half the action takes place at a celebratory dinner where Marlene mixes with historical, iconic and fictional women who have achieved great stature in a "man's world", but always at great cost. The other half of the play, set a year in the past, focuses on Marlene's family, where the true cost of her "successful" life becomes poignantly and frighteningly apparent. In Top Girls, Churchill devised a system to indicate how the dialogue should be performed. She used the forward dash signal (/) to demonstrate a person interrupting the person speaking. She also used the asterisk symbol (*) to indicate a speech following on from a speech earlier than the one immediately before it.
Softcops (first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984), is a "surreal play set in 19th-century France about government attempts to depoliticize illegal acts".Justin Hayford of the Chicago Reader wrote that the play had little to offer to those who had already read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (on which Softcops is based), and that the play "glosses Foucault's monumental work in Cliffs Notes fashion". In 2018, Michael Billington stated that Softcops "felt like a meditation on crime and punishment lacking Churchill's usual gift of narrative drive."
The play A Mouthful of Birds (1986) was co-written with David Lan. Wallace Shawn has argued that it is among the "rich, inventive" Churchill works that are responsible for theater remaining exciting in modern times. Cameron Woodhead of The Sydney Morning Herald billed the play as "a difficult pleasure to watch and a challenge to perform". Billington listed A Mouthful of Birds as one of Churchill's misfires, however, and dismissed the play as "mystifying in its attempt to create a dance-drama suggesting that the violence and ecstasy of Euripides' The Bacchae were alive in modern Britain."
Serious Money (1987), "a comedy about excesses in the financial world", is a verse play, chiefly written in rhyming couplets. It takes a satirical look at the vagaries of the stock market and its Thatcherite denizens. The play was highly acclaimed, perhaps in part because it played immediately after the stock market crash of 1987.Icecream (Royal Court Theatre 1989) explores Anglo-American stereotypes. Richard Christensen of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Icecream "doesn't have much depth, but it does have a quirky, creepy kick to it", describing it as "a small but telling piece of theater". Andrew Dickson of The New Yorker dubbed the play "wryly picaresque" in 2015.
Churchill's play The Skriker (1994) includes distorted language, references to English folktales, and evocations of modern urban life. The Skriker is an ancient shape-shifting fairy and death portent in a search for revenge and love. The play initially received lukewarm reviews from critics, but is now considered among Churchill's successes.
"The prolific Churchill continued to push boundaries into the late 1990s. In 1997 she collaborated with the composer Orlando Gough to create 'Hotel,' a choreographed opera or sung ballet set in a hotel room. Also that year her surrealistic short play 'This Is a Chair' was produced." Reviews of the London opening of Hotel were favorable, but with the first piece ("Eight Rooms") generally considered superior to the second ("Two Nights"). In 2015, Moira Buffini of The Guardian listed This Is a Chair as one of Churchill's best works, stating that it "shows a real humility about the political inadequacy of playwrights."
Her 2002 play, A Number, addresses the subject of human cloning and questions of identity. Churchill received an Obie Award in 2005 for this play. Her adapted screenplay of A Number was shown on BBC TV in September 2008.
The play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (2006) takes a critical look at what she sees as Britain's submission to the United States in foreign policy.
In 2010, Churchill was commissioned to write the libretto for a new short opera by Orlando Gough, as part of the Royal Opera House's ROH2 OperaShots initiative. The resulting work, A ring a lamp a thing, played for five performances in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House.
Her Love and Information, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in September 2012, directed by James Macdonald. It was well-received by critics. The play, featuring 100 characters and performed by a cast of 15, is structured as a series of more than 50 fragmented scenes, some no longer than 25 seconds, all of which are apparently unrelated but which accumulate into a startling mosaic, a portrayal of modern consciousness and the need for human intimacy, love and connection. The play will have its regional premiere at Sheffield Theatres in June 2018, directed by Caroline Steinbeis.
Ding Dong the Wicked (2013) has been described as a companion piece to Love and Information. Charles Spencer said in The Telegraph that the work is "little more than a clever dramatic exercise" but "nags away in the memory long after you have left the theatre". Matthew Tucker gave the Royal Court Theatre performance three out of five stars, dubbed the play "snappy", and wrote, "Some may find this latest offering terse and obscure, however, in the spirit of explorative theatre, Ding Dong The Wicked is an intriguing and satisfying production." A reviewer for the Evening Standard argued, "What it all means is food for later reflection, but as always Churchill seems inventive, coolly socialist, bleak yet dazzling, a bit of a shaman. Although her technique sounds gimmicky, it works." Conversely, The Guardian's Michael Billington wrote that the work "feels as if it's cramming a trunkload of ideas into a tiny vanity case [...] the tightness of the format means there is no room to explore the source of so much private and public fury, or to differentiate between one society and another. In short, the play is too generalised to make any strong emotional impact."
The Royal Court Theatre premiere of Pigs and Dogs received a positive review in The Stage and moderately positive reviews in The Guardian,The Observer, and Evening Standard, with the last newspaper's Henry Hitchings stating, "While the incantatory style isn't consistently engaging, this is a striking parade of views on a subject that merits more sustained treatment." Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out said in a three-star review that the play "makes its point effectively if tersely".Mark Lawson of The Guardian praised Beautiful Eyes as a "sharp" comedy.
Churchill has published translations of Seneca's Thyestes, Olivier Choinière's Bliss (Félicité), and August Strindberg's A Dream Play. Her version of A Dream Play was premiered at the National Theatre in 2005.
The Royal Court Theatre held a 70th-birthday retrospective of her work by presenting readings of many of her most famous plays directed by notable playwrights, including Martin Crimp and Mark Ravenhill.
In January 2009, she wrote a ten-minute play that explores a history of Israel, ending with the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza. It was performed for free at the Royal Court Theatre, with a collection taken to donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians.
The Sunday Times condemned its "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness"; for The Times, "there are no heroes or villains, for all that Churchill decries what is happening in Gaza". Writers such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Melanie Phillips in her Spectator blog criticised the play as anti-Semitic, as did John Nathan. He noted that Churchill has said that Seven Jewish Children is "not just a theatre event but a political event." He suggested that a play representing views of one community and critical of that community needed to be written by a member of that community. The Royal Court denied the accusation.
Churchill published the play, Seven Jewish Children - a play about Gaza, online, for free download and use. Churchill said: "Anyone can perform it without acquiring the rights, as long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end of it".
In November 2019, along with other public figures, Churchill signed a letter supporting Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, describing him as "a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world" and endorsed him in the 2019 UK general election.
Churchill has received the following awards: