Cloud 9 | Study Guide

Caryl Churchill

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Cloud 9 | Themes


At its core Cloud 9 is about the acceptance of oneself despite the pressures of society to conform to expectations of gender and sexual orientation. The play's themes explore society's expectations while simultaneously showing their limits.


Cloud 9 touches on a lot of different issues regarding gender, race, and sexual orientation, but above all it is a story about self-acceptance. The three main characters—Betty, Edward, and Victoria—learn the importance of stepping beyond the confines of society's gender roles in order to love themselves.


Betty goes through the biggest transformation during the play. She begins Act 1 as the nearly perfect Victorian wife and mother who happens to be extremely dissatisfied with her life. She craves danger, adventure, and a husband who adores her for who she is, not who he wants her to be. Leaving Clive at the beginning of Act 2 isn't a cure-all: Betty is suddenly afraid of everything and uncertain how to function without a husband to serve. She slowly regains her footing and becomes far more independent than she ever had been before. She still feels twinges of self-doubt, but the last few moments of the play show just how far she has come. Clive reprimands her for trying to "pick up" Gerry in the park, but Betty just ignores him as she hugs the actor who played Betty in Act 1. Betty has finally learned to love herself.


As a child in Act 1, Edward seems comfortable with his sexuality. He never questions his attraction to men in either act, but in Act 2 he begins to wonder about his gender identity. When he tells Victoria he likes women, he means he actually wants to be a woman. He's realizing his effeminate mannerisms and desire to "play the wife" in a relationship are signals of his identity. Edward doesn't end up becoming a woman or dressing like a woman; instead, he accepts himself for who he is: a man who identifies as gay but is also attracted to women, and one who happens to like being a homemaker.


Victoria is just a toddler in Act 1—and she is played by a dummy, symbolizing her lack of autonomy—but she becomes a major character in Act 2 as she tries to figure out how to balance her role as wife and mother with her desire to further her career. At a time when motherhood was still considered more important than a woman's career Victoria makes a different choice. Not only does she decide to move away from London for a job opportunity, but she also separates from her husband in favor of a more supportive, equal relationship. She realizes what makes her happy, and she goes after it.

Gender Roles

Gender roles have existed since the dawn of humanity, but they were strictly defined during the Victorian era. Society was divided into two separate spheres: the male and the female. The male sphere was everything outside of the home (business, politics, and education), while the female sphere was family and the home itself. These gender roles are firmly enforced in Betty and Clive's relationship in Act 1. Clive deals with the "troubles" concerning the natives and refuses to tell Betty anything, while Betty arranges for the care of the children. Clive gives himself permission to engage in extramarital affairs, yet Betty is expected not only to remain faithful but also to not care at all about sex. Some of the minor characters do exhibit characteristics out of line with the gender roles of the time, which only serve to highlight the rigidity of Betty's and Clive's functions in their marriage.

In Act 2 gender roles melt and mold themselves to the wants and needs of the character. Edward, who has never been overtly masculine, embraces his feminine side and becomes the homemaker for himself, Victoria, Lin, and their children. Victoria takes on the traditionally male role of career go-getter. Lin plays the roles of both mother and father, working to support Cathy while providing the emotional support she needs to thrive. Lin in particular pays special attention to Cathy's perception of gender roles, ensuring she plays with "boy" toys just as much as she plays with those meant for girls. Caryl Churchill isn't advocating for the complete dissolution of gender roles, but instead suggests they are malleable to fit the needs of each individual.

Sexual Identity

Many of the characters in Cloud 9 struggle with their sexual identity, particularly those who identify as homosexual. Harry has the most difficulties reconciling his sexuality with the man he wants to be. He thinks of his homosexuality as a "disease more dangerous than diphtheria" and loathes himself so much that suicide feels like a viable alternative to the shame of being one of the British Empire's "black sheep." He ends up marrying a gay woman to further hide the truth. In Act 2 Edward, who has always been comfortable with his homosexuality, suddenly begins questioning his identity when Gerry accuses him of being too much like a "wife." Victoria also questions her sexual identity in Act 2 when she entertains the possibility of a relationship with Lin.

In a play about self-acceptance it is no coincidence the characters who are the happiest are also those who have come to terms with their sexuality. In Act 1 Mrs. Saunders feels no shame about her enjoyment of sex, and she is the only woman to feel as if she's on somewhat equal footing with the men. Betty finds great pleasure in her newfound sexuality in Act 2, and Edward makes peace with himself when he decides to stop questioning his sexual desires and ignore labels altogether. In Cloud 9 accepting one's sexual identity is a major step toward accepting oneself.


Cloud 9 loosely follows the rise of feminism and the women's movement and the waning of patriarchal rule. In the broadest terms feminism is the political, social, and economic equality of men and women. That barely exists in Act 1, when everyone is ruled by Clive, the patriarch of the family and the colony. At this point Betty doesn't believe it's even possible to chase her dreams of adventure and danger because women's duties are strictly relegated to the home. Her mother reinforces this idea, constantly reminding Betty that Clive is in charge and saying it's not Betty's place to ask questions. Mrs. Saunders doesn't follow these social customs, and her behavior is a glimmer of the social changes on the horizon. She presents herself as an equal to men by carrying a gun, talking about the political unrest, and acknowledging her sexual desires. She remains independent after her father's death and isn't afraid to confront her closest neighbor, a lecherous old man who makes unwanted sexual advances. Maud claims Mrs. Saunders is a warning about what can happen to a woman who steps beyond patriarchal rule, but she is also an example of the freedom Betty so desires.

The tables are turned in Act 2. The women's movement has come to Great Britain, and women's place in society, while not fully equal to that of men, has risen considerably. Victoria chases her career despite her husband's veiled threats, and Betty becomes fully independent for the first time in her life. The gender roles that held women back during the Victorian era have become less and less restrictive, which in turn let the female characters in the play call the shots in their own lives. Even Edward benefits from this rise in gender equality. As an adult in Act 2, he can express his feminine side in a way that was unacceptable in Act 1. Like the women in Act 1, he can also pursue his desires. In fact the decline of the patriarchy and the rise of feminism in Cloud 9 really endanger only one character: Clive. No longer revered and feared by his family, he has lost the power that made him feel so important.


The power dynamics between men and women and whites and blacks shift throughout the course of Cloud 9. In Act 1 white men have all the power: Clive leads the family and the British colony, and Harry serves as his second-in-command. The women are not allowed to question the men's authority, nor are they encouraged to get involved in the precarious relationship with the natives. The natives, too, are under Clive's control. He has the stable boys whipped for plotting something nefarious and as the representative of the crown, he was most likely involved with the fire that killed Joshua's parents. The tables turn at the end of Act 1 when Joshua aims his gun at Clive, an act symbolic of the oppressed rising against the oppressor.

The oppressed rise again in Act 2, but this time the women take power away from the men. Martin's passive-aggressive suggestion Victoria isn't "well enough" to achieve her goals on her own leads Victoria to take control of their relationship and her career. She moves in with Lin and Edward, and Martin no longer has the final say on what happens with his child or his wife; he is forced to work together with everyone else. Betty begins making decisions for the first time in her life in Act 2, starting with her decision to leave Clive. At first she feels terrified of this new world of responsibility, but she soon learns to enjoy the small delights of independence, like eating bread with hot lime pickle for dinner. After decades of marriage, Betty has complete control over her life. When she walks past a blustering Clive at the end of Act 2 to hug herself, it is a representation not only of self-acceptance, but also Clive's loss of power.

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