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Cloud 9 | Context

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British Colonialism in Africa

The coalescence of several economic, political, and social factors led to the territorial expansion of Great Britain into Africa between 1870 and 1900.

  • Economically, the British needed a way to replace income lost by the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s. They found it in the raw materials native to Africa that were necessary for the burgeoning Industrial Revolution (transition to manufacturing between 1760 and 1840), including palm oil, palm kernel, cotton, and rubber.
  • Politically, Great Britain tried to expand its empire as a means of establishing its superiority over France, Germany, Spain, and the rest of Europe. The country with the most territory around the world had the upper hand in international politics and bases for protecting far-flung trade routes and waterways.
  • Socially, Great Britain was ahead of most European nations, as the Industrial Revolution led to stricter sanitation standards, boosted employment in some sectors, and established a higher standard of living for many. But not everyone was positively affected by these new capitalist industries. Poverty and unemployment were still factors, particularly for those in rural areas who came to the city looking for work only to find the positions filled. The government looked to Africa as a place to where the "surplus population" could be exported.

The British arrived in Africa and, along with representatives of France, Spain, Belgium, and other European countries, assumed they could simply take over the land inhabited by native Africans, in part because of the British sense of superiority over those who weren't as "civilized" as they were. This wasn't limited to Africans—the British held the French, the Spanish, and the Italians in low esteem, too. But the Africans, unlike many European citizens, weren't Christian and lacked technology. The British government decided it needed to "save" the Africans by forcing a more "civilized" way of life on them.

The British established individual settlements across "their" colonies, which included Egypt in northern Africa, occupied by Great Britain in 1882; the Cape Colony in what is now South Africa; territory in present-day Uganda, Kenya, and part of Somalia; and Sierra Leone, Gambia, Nigeria, and the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) on the west coast. In Cloud 9 the role of the character Clive is to represent the crown in one of these (unspecified in the play) colonies. Tensions rose when the British began bypassing the Africans' role as middlemen in their trade deals. Deceptive treaties brought the situation to a head. The British government believed the jointly signed treaties allowed Great Britain full sovereignty over the territory, while the various African tribes and states viewed the treaties as commercial friendship agreements. Realizing Great Britain intended to enforce political authority in their designated territories, the natives rebelled. The resulting military engagements and acts of guerrilla warfare were fierce, but the Africans ultimately lost due to their low-tech weaponry of bows and arrows, spears, and outdated firearms, as well as their organization of disparate societies whose ideologies and allegiances constantly shifted.

Evolution of Women's Rights in Great Britain: Victorian Era to 1970s

Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain from 1837 to 1901, and the years of her tenure are generally referred to as the Victorian era. Though a woman sat on the throne, Great Britain was still by and large a patriarchy. Men controlled everything, from politics to business to their wives and children. Men and women lived in separate spheres, which rarely intersected. Women raised children and cared for the household, while men busied themselves outside of the home. This idea of separate spheres also extended to sexuality. Scholars of the time believed sexual pleasure was a natural part of the male experience but completely unnecessary—and perhaps even impossible—for women. Upper-class women, therefore, were only to engage in sexual relations with the express purpose of conceiving a child, and only after the exchange of marital vows. Men, on the other hand, had sexual "needs," which they sated with prostitutes or servants.

British women began petitioning for suffrage in the late 18th century but were not granted the right to vote until 1928, eight years after women in the United States. Following World War II, women around the globe left their positions in the workforce to make room for the men returning from war only to discover they no longer felt content merely to run the household while their husbands earned money. The technological advancements made after the war also influenced women's desire to do more than be wives and mothers. Housework was not as much of a burden thanks to advancements in vacuums, dishwashers, and washing machines. Life expectancies increased. Most notably, a new service sector emerged, opening thousands of jobs that were not dependent on physical strength. Women entered the workforce in droves, but they were limited to positions that fit within the limited definition of women's work—mostly clerical, cleaning, and nursing positions. Their incomes were far lower than those of men.

Women began rallying around the idea that they should have the same political, social, and economic opportunities as those afforded to men. The National Women's Liberation Conference in 1970 is cited by many as the start of the women's movement in Great Britain. It was one of the first times women could talk freely about feelings of inequality and the imbalance of power in British society. That same year saw the passage of the Equal Pay Act, followed by the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, which outlawed discrimination based on sex and marital status.

Selection of Actors

Cloud 9 was written with a cast of seven characters in mind, with actors switching roles between Act 1 and Act 2. For example, the actor who plays Clive in Act 1 could play Edward in Act 2. Caryl Churchill includes suggestions about pairings in her introduction to the text, but there is room for a director's own interpretation.

The play explores the roles gender and race play in everyday life, largely by prescribing the sex (and in one case, the race) of the actors. Churchill highlights expectations of gender by having some female roles played by males and vice versa. This is of particular importance in Act 1, when the role of Betty is played by a man and the role of Edward is played by a woman. In Act 2 Betty is played by a woman and Edward, a man. Similarly, the role of Joshua, a black servant who appears only in Act 1, is played by a white man.

In Betty's and Joshua's cases, the casting reflects the ways in which the characters are trying to please others rather than themselves. Betty's character wants to be a dutiful wife and mother, while Joshua wants to be a loyal servant. Churchill's decision to have Edward played by a woman in Act 1 is in part homage to the tradition of women playing boys (as is often done in staging Peter Pan) in the theater, and it is also a way to show how much Edward differs from the masculine stereotype Clive tries to impose on him.

In Act 2 all the characters except Cathy are played by actors of the same gender as their characters. Cathy, a four-year-old girl, is played by a man to emphasize the social constructs of femininity. Churchill notes a man's size and presence to help the audience better understand the emotional force simmering in young children.

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