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Cloud 9 | Study Guide

Caryl Churchill

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Cloud 9 | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In what ways is Betty the primary protagonist in Cloud 9?

A protagonist is a story's main character. Betty can be considered the main character in Cloud 9 because she is one of two characters who appears in both acts. The other character, Edward, is a child in Act 1; his role isn't nearly as large as Betty's. Betty is also the primary protagonist because of her personal transformation throughout the course of the play. She first appears in Act 1 as a devoted wife who does not question her husband's authority and who seems to have very little interest in her children unless they are exhibiting behaviors appropriate to their sexes, as when she tries to hug Edward after he belittles Joshua in Act 1, Scene 3. In Act 2, Scene 1 she leaves her husband, and in Act 2, Scene 4 she acknowledges, if not accepts, her children's unconventional lifestyles. Of all the characters in the play she changes the most; they play itself is structured around her particular narrative arc.

In what ways do Maud, Clive, and Martin serve as antagonists in Cloud 9?

In the simplest terms an antagonist is a force that opposes the protagonist of a story. Antagonists aren't necessarily villains, but they stand in the way of the protagonist's success. There are three protagonists in Cloud 9: Betty, Edward, and Victoria, and three antagonists: Maud, Clive, and Martin. Betty's desires to be more than a wife and mother are hindered by Maud and Clive, who try to mold her into the model of the perfect Victorian woman. Betty craves adventure and danger, but Maud pulls her back to earth with reminders that she has a duty to her husband and her family. Clive takes the idea of the "perfect woman" one step further and refuses to tell her the truth about what is going on with the local tribes. She is left feeling helpless and completely dependent on him for protection. Betty doesn't find happiness until her mother is dead and she divorces Clive. Victoria has a similar problem. She would like to take the job opportunity in Manchester, but Martin is making it difficult. Though he says he believes in equality of the sexes and tells Victoria to do whatever she wants to do, he makes it clear he and Tommy will stay behind in London. He also tells her he and Tommy will move in with a female friend with whom he would like to have sex, a jab that is meant to make Victoria jealous. Martin wants Victoria to be happy, but only as long as she doesn't change. She is finally free to chase her career dreams once she separates from Martin and moves in with Edward and Lin.

In what ways do societal forces serve as antagonists in Cloud 9?

Antagonists, or the forces that oppose the main character of a story, sometimes take alternate forms, such as institutions or ideas. Though there are character antagonists in Cloud 9, there are also cultural norms that stand in the way of several characters' goals: Sexism: In Act 1 men and women are assigned very specific roles that are in line with the traditional Victorian ideas about masculinity and femininity. This is particularly difficult for Betty, who wishes for a life away from the doldrums of home. She wants a life of adventure, but that just wasn't proper for Victorian women. Edward, too, suffers the effects of the separate spheres of Victorian life. He wants to play with dolls and express his feminine side, but he's instead forced to engage in "masculine" activities. In Act 2 Edward and Victoria both fight against societal norms that say women should take care of the family while men work out of the home. Homophobia: In Act 1 Harry is forced to hide his attraction to other men for fear he'll be put in jail. Clive completely freaks out when he discovers Harry's sexual orientation, and his threats of turning Harry over to the authorities result in Harry marrying a woman he barely knows. Though homosexuality is far more accepted in the 1970s, Act 2 Edward fears his employer will find out he's gay and fire him. Like Harry he has to hide who he is in public. Racism: Though Clive, who is white, and his family are in the African region Clive oversees, their racism oppresses the natives who work for them and live near them. Clive thinks black people are unintelligent, brutal "savages," and he treats them as such. This even applies to Joshua, who leaves his culture behind to become "what white men want." British colonialism itself was a product of racism, as the British thought Africans were wholly inferior because of their skin color and different way of life.

How do Betty's views about feminism change over the course of Cloud 9?

Betty starts off as a reluctant subject of Clive and the patriarchy in Act 1. She recognizes Clive's authority and knows better than to challenge it. She doesn't correlate her dissatisfaction in life as being a result of living in a male-dominated society where women were expected to produce children and care for them. Unlike her mother Betty doesn't shun Mrs. Saunders for her independence and her attitude of equality; she's curious about it. Her dislike for Mrs. Saunders stems from Clive's obvious attraction to her, not her forward thinking. Though Betty is curious about life outside of her homebound bubble, she accepts "women have their duty as soldiers have." Part of that duty is to follow the lead of men. Betty's views change over the next 25 years. The audience is never told why she finally leaves Clive, but it is evident at the beginning of Act 2 she is not entirely comfortable with the idea of women being equals to men. She isn't sure she can take care of herself as well as Clive did, and she clings to the idea that boys should be brave and girls should be pretty. As Act 2 goes on, Betty becomes more comfortable making decisions for herself and taking care of herself, even getting a job for the first time in her life. She may not identify herself as a feminist, but she finally understands she has value beyond her role as wife and mother.

How does Martin and Victoria's relationship differ from that of Clive and Betty in Cloud 9?

Clive and Betty's relationship follows the art of the traditional patriarchal relationship common in Victorian society. The male reigned supreme in all family matters; his role was that of breadwinner. He didn't manage the servants or get involved with child-rearing—that was the role of women. Women were also expected to support their husbands in all matters. Betty rarely questions Clive's authority and judgment, and she is the first person to take the blame for his unhappiness. Betty is the supporting actress to Clive's Hollywood A-lister. She lets him dictate the terms of the relationship even though she's unhappy. Victoria and Martin's marriage is extremely different from that of Victoria's parents. Like her mother, Victoria isn't content to stay at home with her child and take care of her husband. Unlike her mother, Victoria actually does something about it. She approaches her marriage as if it were an equal partnership. Both she and Martin work outside of the home, and they share the responsibility of taking care of Tommy. Like Betty, Victoria is subject to her husband's advice and counsel, but she is just as apt to do the opposite of what he says as she is to agree with him. By the end of the play Victoria, not Martin, is the person who sets the tone and the terms of her marriage, reversing the roles her parents played 100 years before.

To what effect does Churchill play with time in Cloud 9?

Time is a strange thing in Cloud 9. Acts 1 and 2 take place 100 years apart, yet for the characters only 25 years pass. In the introduction Churchill says she wanted the play to end up in 1979, the year the play was first performed, to show "the changing sexuality of our own time." She sets Act 1 in the Victorian era in part because several of her collaborators said the messages they received about sexuality during their childhood were quite rigid and puritanical in nature. This 100-year time difference establishes a baseline for the rigid morals of the past while also giving the audience a clear understanding of how changes in culturally accepted attitudes affect the lives of individuals. Had the first act taken place in 1954, Betty's transformation wouldn't have been quite as impressive, as it wouldn't have been entirely unusual for her to work and handle money in the 1950s. By setting the first act in the 1870s, Churchill shows just how much Betty has changed in the name of independence.

In Cloud 9 how does Betty serve as a representation of the rise of feminism between the Victorian era and the narrative present?

Feminism is generally defined as the social, political, and economic equality of women and men. Betty would probably not identify herself as a feminist, but her transformation from housewife to income earner is symbolic of the rise in feminism between the Victorian era and the late 1970s. In the Victorian era a woman's place was in the home. Upper-class women like Betty didn't work in the traditional sense, only as social figureheads, and they were generally excluded from public life. Women in England didn't receive the right to vote until 1928, but the suffrage movement in England began much earlier. Debates about women's suffrage took place in Parliament almost every year from 1870 to 1884, and notable suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst joined the movement in 1880. Act 1 of Cloud 9 takes place in 1879, squarely in the midst of the growing movement, and Betty's desire to know more about what is happening outside of her house parallels the increase in demand for women's equality. Act 2 takes place in 1979, about 16 years after the women's rights movement of the 1960s arrived in Great Britain. By 1975 the Equal Pay Act was passed as law in Great Britain, and more than 1,500 women's groups around the country met regularly to discuss women's rights. The gender roles of the Victorian era were crumbling as standards of equality increased. Betty is a symbol of this change. She leaves the "protection" of her unhappy marriage and learns to take care of herself for the first time in her life. She gets a job, pays bills, and lives on her own. Though she still values the idea of having a man as the head of the household, she recognizes it is possible for women to take care of themselves and flourish while doing it.

In what ways is Churchill's portrayal of homosexual relationships in Cloud 9 more sympathetic than her portrayal of those that are heterosexual?

Heterosexual relationships take quite a beating in Cloud 9. Betty and Clive's marriage is based on Victorian attitudes about male supremacy. He dictates Betty's behavior and asserts himself as the leader in the relationship. He also cheats on her without a second thought, and then berates her for kissing Harry. Victoria and Martin's marriage is more balanced, but they break up because Martin isn't as supportive of Victoria's dreams as he claims to be. While both of the heterosexual relationships end in separation, the homosexual relationships presented in Act 2 of Cloud 9 are mostly depicted as being healthier and more equal than their heterosexual counterparts. This is true even when the relationships are incestuous, as they are with Victoria and Edward, or illegal, as they are when young Edward and Gerry agree to replay the Edward-Harry relationship of Act 1. Lin, Victoria, and Edward's relationship and living situation allow each person to choose the role they want instead of being forced to play the role society dictates. Victoria can focus on her career, Edward can take care of the house, and Lin can have help raising Cathy. Lin, in particular, provides the unconditional support and love Victoria is missing in her relationship with Martin. Even Edward and Gerry's relationship is healthier than those of the heterosexual couples: though they ultimately break up, they are able to talk about their differences instead of forcing each other to change. They part amicably so as to give each other the freedom to live their lives as they want.

How does Churchill's choice to have some characters in Cloud 9 played by members of the opposite sex affect the audience's understanding of the play?

In the play's introduction Churchill notes those characters who should be played by actors of a sex or race different from that of the character. In Act 1 Betty is played by a man, Edward is played by a woman, and Joshua is played by a white man. In Act 2 Cathy is played by an adult man. These disparities between the actor and the role he or she portrays gives the audience insight into the sex- and race-based struggles facing these particular characters. Betty's and Joshua's aspirations are displayed through the physical characteristics of the actors playing them. Betty sees herself as "man's creation," and her life is dedicated to being "what men want." The same goes for Joshua, who wants to be what white men want. These casting choices also highlight the absurdity of expectations based on sex and race. Hearing a white man talk about blacks as "bad people" is jarring because it brings explicit racism out in the open. The audience gets a sense that Joshua doesn't just hate the "bad people," but all black people. Likewise, the contrast between a man calling another man "my little dove" emphasizes the condescending language masked as terms of endearment directed toward women. Edward and Cathy are both children played by adults of the opposite sex. Both of these instances highlight the oddity of imposing cultural norms on someone who doesn't fit a particular stereotype. The images of a woman berated for not being "manly" enough or a man preening under the weight of a woman's jewelry encourage the audience to examine viewpoints and values they didn't realize they had.

How does Cloud 9's message of self-acceptance give it continuing relevance despite advances in gay rights and women's rights since its first performance?

In 1979 homosexuality was legal in England, but only if "homosexual acts" were performed by adults over the age of 21 behind closed doors. Gay couples couldn't marry. Women in the late 1970s/early 1980s still faced discrimination in many aspects of life, particularly when it came to careers and income. In the United States women couldn't open their own credit card accounts without a father's or spouse's signature until the early 1980s. Homosexual relationships are no longer against the law, and gay marriage is legal in the United Kingdom and the United States. Women are represented in nearly every profession. However, the message of Cloud 9 hasn't been diluted by these cultural advancements. Audiences can still see themselves in the characters of Betty, Edward, and Victoria and can identify with the play's message of self-acceptance, which transcends the limits of laws, statutes, and social expectations.

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