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Cloud 9 | Study Guide

Caryl Churchill

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Cloud 9 | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Set both in 1880s Africa and 1979 London, Caryl Churchill's 1979 play Cloud 9 has been called a "wild farce of sexual politics." The two-act play satirizes Victorian sexual repression in the first act and celebrates modern sexual liberation in the second. The play features actors who are cast as different genders and races—at one point, a grown man plays a five-year-old girl—challenging traditional gender roles and racial stereotypes. The play premiered in Devon, England, in 1979 and found its way to off-Broadway by 1981. It was the first of Churchill's plays to receive widespread attention.

Viewer discretion is advised: because of obscene language and frank portrayals of sexuality, Cloud 9 is not suitable, one reviewer notes, for "cloistered monks over the age of 80." For almost everyone else though, "it offers an evening of uninhibited lunacy."

1. Cloud 9, like many of Churchill's other plays, uses a "contrapuntal" structure.

The word contrapuntal means "relating to counterpoint" and is usually used in music theory to refer to a piece of music with two independent melodies. But some theater scholars have used the word to refer to Churchill's frequent use of "two radically discontinuous theatrical worlds" in her plays. In Cloud 9 this is evident in the clash between 1880s Africa (in Act I) and 1979 London (in Act II). Churchill said about the structure: "The first act, like the society it shows, is male dominated and firmly structured. In the second act, more energy comes from the women and the gays."

2. Cloud 9's first act parodies the Victorian era and its rigid attitudes toward sex.

The protagonist of the first act, Clive, appears to be the model British aristocrat. He staunchly believes in rigidly defined sex roles and tries to impose his traditional values on his family. Nevertheless, he does not hold himself to the same standard he holds his wife to, having an affair with another woman.

Unlike many of the other characters, Clive does not reappear in the second act, suggesting that his views are incompatible with the more sexually liberated 1979 London society. Churchill wrote in an introduction to the play that she set the first act in Victorian Africa because she wanted to draw a "parallel between colonial and sexual oppression."

3. The characters age only 25 years in the nearly 100 years between Cloud 9's two acts.

In an introduction to Cloud 9, Churchill explained her reasons for this anachronistic technique. She felt the first act, with all its sexual repression, would be "stronger set in Victorian times, at the height of colonialism, rather than in Africa during the 1950s." She set the second act in 1979 London because she wanted the play to end up in "the changing sexuality of our own time."

4. Churchill used cross-gender and cross-racial casting in Cloud 9 to challenge stereotypes.

In the character list for Cloud 9, Churchill stipulates that certain characters are to be played by an actor whose gender or race differs from the character's. In the first act, for example, a woman named Betty is played by a male actor which, one critic notes, shows how "femininity is an artificial and imposed construct which can become the determining feature of behaviour."

5. The character Joshua references the English romantic poet William Blake.

Joshua, a black man who is played by a white actor, alludes to a Blake poem when he says at the beginning of the first act, "My skin is black but oh my soul is white." This line paraphrases a line from the Blake poem "The Little Black Boy": "I am black, but O! my soul is white."

6. The characters who appear in both acts of Cloud 9 are played by different actors in each.

Betty is played by a male actor in the first act but by a female actor in the second. Edward is played by a woman in the first but by a man in the second. Some of the actors whose first-act characters are eliminated come back to play a completely different character in the second. The actor who plays Clive in the first act, for instance, plays a five-year-old girl in the second. Hard as it may seem to believe, one reviewer notes, "It's not actually very confusing to watch."

7. A New York Times reviewer criticized Cloud 9 for its cross-gender casting and "Pollyanna-ism."

A 1981 New York Times review noted that "the transsexual casting is also problematic: though the male and female impersonations are amusing, not smirky, they nonetheless serve the unwanted function of announcing the jokes." However, he praised the actors and Churchill's creativity, adding that Cloud 9 has "real failings, but intelligence and inventiveness aren't among them."

8. Churchill wrote Cloud 9 based on conversations with her theater group.

Churchill wrote Cloud 9 for the Joint Stock Theatre Group in 1978–79. The group uses a "workshop" method for developing new plays. During the workshop period the play's writer, director, and actors collaboratively research and discuss a particular subject. The writer then writes the play separately and later returns to the group for rehearsals and rewriting.

Churchill explained that the workshop for Cloud 9 was about sexual politics. The participants started by sharing their own personal attitudes and experiences related to sexuality. They also "explored stereotypes and role reversals in games and improvisations, read books and talked to other people." Churchill said the play draws deeply on this material and that she "wouldn't have written the same play without it."

9. Cloud 9 won three Obie Awards.

In 1982 Cloud 9 won Obie Awards for Direction (Tommy Tune), Performance (E. Katherine Kerr), and Playwriting. The Obie Awards were created in 1955 to recognize achievement in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater.

10. Churchill generally refuses to give interviews.

Churchill has kept away from the public eye, because she has said that she is "always left with a slightly horrible feeling" after an interview:

I always feel that I've lied the whole time, even when I've tried not to...One tries to answer things in the terms in which they've been asked, and invariably those are not the terms in which I've thought of them myself.

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