Literature Study GuidesCloud 9Act 1 Scene 1 Summary

Cloud 9 | Study Guide

Caryl Churchill

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Cloud 9 | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 1 of Cloud 9 takes place in an unspecified African region during British colonization near the end of the Victorian era. Clive, a colonial ambassador of the British government, his family, and his staff assemble to sing a song on the veranda as a means of introducing themselves to the audience. After the song Betty, Clive's wife, is concerned the sound of drums means trouble with the local tribes. Clive dismisses her worries as she fawns over his sore foot, then mentions their friend Harry, an English explorer, is coming to visit. Betty is bored and lonely in Africa, but she makes it a point to tell Clive she isn't excited about Harry's visit. She also tells him she's uncomfortable around Joshua, the family's black servant, who was very rude to her that afternoon. Clive reprimands Joshua with a wink.

Betty's mother, Maud, enters. She and Clive bicker about Betty, whom Maud thinks isn't strong enough to live in the African climate. The children, Edward and Victoria, enter with Ellen, their governess. Edward is holding Victoria's doll, promising he isn't playing with it, as he has done in the past, but merely "minding it" for Victoria. Clive and Edward go to find Harry while the women talk.

Clive returns with Mrs. Saunders, a widowed neighbor, who seems to be in shock. He helps Mrs. Saunders onto the veranda as Maud insists the sounds of the drums mean war. Clive replies the tribes are always at war, "if the term is not too grand to grace their squabbles." Edward arrives with Harry, and everyone goes inside except Harry and Clive, who warns his guest not to say anything that would "alarm the women." Clive wonders if they should all sleep with guns and tells Joshua, who has just entered, that he needs to arm himself. Clive and Joshua leave.

Betty returns. She flirts with Harry and asks if he ever thinks of her, to which he replies she has "been thought of where no white woman has ever been thought of before." Betty pours out her feelings to Harry, telling him how she wants to be "dangerous," only for Harry to tell her he doesn't like dangerous women. Betty then begs Harry to like her and want her. He says he does, then says, "I should have stayed on the river. The hell with it," and reaches for her. She runs into the house. Harry notices Joshua, who saw the whole thing, and asks if he wants to have sex in the barn. They leave.

Analysis

Cloud 9 is about the evolution of power between the sexes in personal and political relationships, and Act 1 establishes each character's starting point. As the head of the family and the face of the British crown to the unspecified African colony, Clive represents the white male patriarchy. As such, he determines the role each member of the family should play. Churchill underscores the unhappiness of Clive's wife and children with their traditional roles by casting them against type:

  • Victoria, who is represented by a doll or dummy in Act 1, is an object to Clive. When she is done bringing him happiness, he literally tosses her to someone else.
  • Edward, who is only nine and is played by a woman in Act 1, is expected to act "manly," explaining why Clive forbids him to play with dolls, a traditionally feminine and childish pastime.
  • Betty, played by a man in Act 1, is expected to be the perfect Victorian wife: feminine, submissive, and attuned to her husband's every need. Clive treats her more like a child than his equal, referring to her as his "little dove" and describing her as "so delicate and sensitive."

Though Edward's masculinity (and lack thereof) becomes increasingly important during the play, it is Betty who has the hardest time fitting into her place in the family. Bored from sitting at home all day with her mother and stifled by Clive's expectations, Betty craves the adventure and freedom enjoyed by men. Since she can't go into the jungle with Harry, she opts for the next best thing: an affair with him. She wants Harry to see her as a dangerous and seductive woman, the complete opposite of how her husband views and treats her. Her interest in Harry is also motivated by her competitive feelings toward Mrs. Saunders. Clive is clearly attracted to the independent and self-sufficient widow, and Betty is jealous.

Characters outside of Clive's family must also deal with their prescribed roles. Harry presents himself as heterosexual and seems to share Betty's desire for a relationship, but as soon as she goes inside he asks Joshua to have sex with him. This changes the meaning of his resistance to Betty's advances. The line "I should have stayed on the river. The hell with it," doesn't mean he is giving in to his attraction to Betty, but rather that he is going to pretend to be straight. If he stayed at the river, he could continue having sexual relationships with local men, as the reader learns later in the play. Harry is torn between the desire to be what society expects, straight, and the urge to be himself: gay.

The audience also sees two sides of Joshua—played by a white man—in Act 1, Scene 1. There is servant Joshua, who professes "what white men want is what I want to be." He is outwardly obedient and loyal to Clive, who appears to like him more than he does his own son. In the opening song, Clive introduces Joshua after Betty but before Edward, and Clive believes Joshua, not Betty, when Betty complains about how Joshua treats her. The Joshua Betty sees is the real Joshua: disrespectful and deceitful. Clive doesn't recognize these aspects of Joshua's personality because Joshua perfectly plays the role of black sycophant to Clive's white master. Clive expects Joshua to idolize him, so that's all he sees.

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