Theatricalising History:

Approaches to the Past From A Female Perspective: Caryl Churchill

Ibrahim Yerebakan

Atatürk University

However different their methods and particular aims, so many post-war dramatists have turned to history, exploiting it in the pursuit of raw materials for the representation of modern society. Some of them have referred to the past events as a source of inspiration either to educate general public or to examine the ethical, social and political roots of the present situation or to change them in the future. And also some others have set about reinventing the past, creating a drama of imminence in which an image of proximate future is implied or prophesied. To put it in more general terms, post-war British drama is mostly characterised by the examination and the use of the past "which was to become as important as the analysis of the present" (Peacock 1991: 1).

What is astonishing, however, is that although history provided a lot of reference points for the dramatists in dealing with the contemporary problems, it was very seldom referred to in the treatment of gender concerns and had hardly any significance in the feminist context until the early 1970s. It was only after the Women's Theatre Movement during the seventies that serious initiatives were taken by women playwrights to examine the past from the standpoint of their own sex. In common with the feminist movement, women dramatists, particularly those with socialist inclinations, referred to history to assess the submerged and repressed aspects of female sexuality in relation with contemporary, heterosexual, white, male capitalist society.

Of all the women dramatists, Caryl Churchill appears to be the most powerful, original and the most representative of those post-war female writers who has employed history to analyse the sexual repressiveness and gender-based divisions inherent in contemporary society. She has certainly marked out a different approach to the past and demonstrated something more than just a passing interest in history. More importantly, she has set out an influential example, making the use of the past one of the features of her drama over the past decades. This analysis attempts to outline the distinguishing features of the use of history in four of her plays - Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), Vinegar Tom (1976), Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982).

In Light Shining in Buckinghamshire Churchill represents the 1647 Revolution completely from the perspective of the Levellers and the Ranters, who demanded absolute equality and the restoration of egalitarian society, where all members of the community would be treated equitably irrespective of sex or class differences. The play, therefore, emerges as a corrective to the simple 'Cavaliers and Roundheads' history recorded in history books. Describing the play as an attempt to expose other side of history that was underwritten in history books, Churchill notes in her preface to the text:

Simple 'Cavaliers and Roundheads' history taught at school hides the complexity of the aims and conflicts of those to the left of the Parliament. We are told of a step forward to today's democracy but not of a revolution that didn't happen; we are told of Charles and Cromwell but not of the thousands of men and women who tried to change their lives, Though nobody now expects Christ to make heaven on earth, their voices are surprisingly close to us (Churchill 1985: 183).
The point manifestly discussed in the play is that while the spirit of the revolution in the 17th century offered a utopian vision of economic, social and sexual freedom and, more importantly, signalled the establishment of an egalitarian society, the revolutionaries betrayed the cause. And as a result they became in the aftermath of the Revolution the new bourgeoisie, the new ruling class. Ordinary people who were expecting a millennium, a heaven on earth in the 1650s saw instead the establishment of an authoritarian parliament, the massacre of the dissenters, the advancement of capitalism and ever worsening economic situation of the poor (Churchill 1985: 183).

There is no doubt that by telling the story of a revolution in the past which was extinguished before it actually began in the eyes of ordinary people, Churchill tries to emphasise the roots of what is shown on the stage as a contemporary issue. In fact what is said in the play about the Revolution has obvious relevance to the speculations in the 1970s among the left wing groups about the possibility and the conduct of socialist revolution that was being attempted some three hundred years later. It is seen that Churchill in this play uses characters both men and women who seem to inhabit a society in the past but whose experiences could be used to shed a light upon the present as well as the future.

On the other hand, the play contains a fair amount of documentary material including an edited version of the Putney Debates in which the merits of freedom, democracy and equal distribution of public property are candidly discussed. Such discussions and debates in some way call to mind the dithering of the British politicians in the eighties on a number of issues such as Clause 28, which imposed a restriction on sexual freedom of an individual and prohibited the positive promotion of homosexuality and lesbianism, declaring such activities as an alien force, something to be feared and therefore to be repressed.

17th century social history also provided Churchill with further material concerning the struggle of ordinary people for their individual rights and civil liberties. The play contains a scene which reports that a group called the Diggers attempted to farm public land but were brutally repressed by the authorities on the grounds that granting such concession to ordinary people would destabilise the status of the ruling class. By employing appalling images in the past, the author reveals the deep division of English society along the rigid class lines, which has prevailed throughout the centuries. This division is even more explicitly underlined in the scene where a butcher with a cleaver in his hand denounces wealthy people for the amount of meat they consume. Here once again Churchill seems to analyse her own contemporary experience in terms of class society. Numerous points of contact with the modem world such as treatment of vagrants, squatters living in tenement buildings, New Age travellers crop up naturally in the play.

The oppression of women in the past is also an important part of the play's story, and is represented by social outsiders. The women characters reveal the particular suffering of the poor during this critical period of newly emerging capitalist society. They are drawn as suffering not only because of poverty but also because of their own acceptance of their servile status as women and their submissiveness to the will of men. These poor women are also presented as the embodiment of the source of all evils in the history of human-beings:

Woman cannot preach. we bear children in pain, that's why. And they die. For our sin, Eve's sin. That's why we have pain. We're not clean. We have to obey. The man, whatever he's like. If he beats us that's why. We have blood, we're shameful, our bodies are worse than a man's. All bodies are evil but ours is worst. That's why we cannot speak. (Churchill 1985: 204)
Dramatising the second-rate, sub-standard status of women within a specific historical timetable, Churchill in fact tries to expose the deceiving rhetoric of the human history that women are inferior to men. The implication here is that this is not just a debate of the past but is still an ongoing issue even today as it was yesterday, which is mainly brought about by biologically determined social and sexual behaviour and prejudices against women.

Written in the same year, Vinegar Tom draws on the same area of source material as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and uses 17th century accusation of witchcraft against poor, single and sexually unconventional women as a context for the speculation upon the contemporary male perceptions of female sexuality. Turning again to 17th century England, Churchill "shines her light on a society whose misogyny is grotesquely expressed in its condemnation of select women as witches" (Keysaar 1984: 90). She employs history in order to emphasise the oppression and humiliation of those women who do not conform to male constructed pattern of social behaviour. The play explores web of fear, ignorance, superstition and male prejudices which provoked the slaughter of women in the 17th century, "the time of last major English wjtchhunts" (Churchill 1985: 130), and which has also been reinterpreted by feminist circles as misogynist massacre of women." (Case 1988: 74)

Here in her most straightforward feminist work, Churchill approaches 17th century history more radically than ever, getting her hook into the male devil, thereby launching her virulent attack on a male-constructed patriarchal class system, which "treats women as inferior beings, as scapegoats for social shortcomings and defects caused by men." (Thomsen 1981: 166). In a sense, the male-controlled world is presented as a conventional tool in the historical suppression of women. In the opening lines, the generalised figure of man asks the important questions, through which centuries-old male prejudices against women are grotesquely exhibited, using the technique of character inversion:

MAN; Am I the devil?

ALICE: What, sweet?

MAN: I'm the devil. Man in black, they say, they always say, a man in the black met me in the night, took me into the thicket and made me commit uncleanness unspeakable (Churchill, 1985: 135)

What is remarkable about Vinegar Tom is that Churchill locates these historical female characters outside the domestic setting in order to show them as being fully capable of operating in a public context as effectively as a man. It emerges that these women are subjected to such brutal treatment simply because each of them is learning to live without men or independent of men, maintaining their financial freedom in a male-constructed environment. Such cruel attitudes of the male towards these financially independent women are certainly in terms of economic pressure and the role of women in 17th century English society. Since these women represent a sort of economic threat to mate world with their independent stance, they are routinely intimidated, tortured and finally eliminated from society.

Of these women accused of witchcraft, Miss Betty is the daughter of a land-owner and is about to marry the man of her father's choice. Since she has refused, she is locked up, bled with leeches, and about to be charged with witchcraft for her independent posture. The accused include Ellen, medical practitioner, who provides her community with health service, and has finally been hanged simply because her involvement in medicine is a serious threat to medical practice since it is regarded exclusively as male profession. Obviously all these negative images of women also reflect the authoritarian, patriarchal social structures in the 17th century. The reference to this historical fact is simply intended to emphasise that the persecution of women is not confined to a certain period of history but similar kinds of arbitrariness and cruelties against them still continue to be done in other ways and in other disguises (Chambers and Prior, 1987: 192).

The parallels between the historical phenomenon of witchcraft and present-day attitudes to women in Vinegar Tom are implicit but extremely powerful; the songs delivered in modern manner and contemporary dress throughout the play apparently succeed in shifting attention from the horror of events of the past unravelling on the stage to the modem times oppression of women, and also suggest that times may not be that different. In fact, these songs prevent the play from becoming lost in its historical setting and, instead, move it forward into the contemporary setting, relating the past persecution of women to present-day oppression. However, what is important here is to see the singers in modem costume in order to perceive this continuity in women's history. The following savage song, for instance, shows how women's sexuality is feared, hated and blamed for all kinds of social ills across the centuries:

Did you learn you were dirty boys, did you learn

Women were wicked to make you burn?

Satan's lady, Satan's pride

Satan's baby, Satan's bride

Witches were wicked and had to burn.

Evil women

Is that what you want?

Is that what you want to see?

In your movie dream

Do you scream and scream?

Evil women

Evil women.

Women. (Churchill 1985: 179)

Indeed, with this savage song Churchill incites the audience to examine whether the use of evil women as scapegoats is truly a thing of the past or still a thing of the present, and also to contemplate on the assumptions upon which oppression of women and misogynist attitudes are founded.

It is interesting to see that the roles of the male historical figures in Vinegar Tom are played by women. This is, in fact, a straight parody of the male perception of female sexuality, which also effectively sharpens the criticism of their description of women as creatures of "insatiable malice" and "carnal lust." (Churchill 1985: 178) Their speech promotes a realisation that the entire recorded history of women has been fabricated by patriarchal ideology. The male impersonation also reinforces the condemnation of sexual stereotyping, which is shown as the product of an ignorant fear of female sexuality. And this condemnation is sharply emphasised by means of ridiculing actual extracts from a 16th century misogynist book called The Hammer of Witches, written by these sexist theologians, which explains that women's susceptibility to witchcraft is caused by their physical, intellectual and moral inferiority.

It is evident that Churchill's primary concern in Vinegar Tom is to present an idea rather than to portray a particular period of time. It reminds the audience that neither the specific narrative that has just unfolded, nor the historical phenomenon of witch-hunts constitutes the final chapter in the history of patriarchy. Vinegar Tom may be set in the world of 17th century witchcraft, but it "speaks, through its striking images and its plethora of ironic contradictions, of and to this century's still deep rooted anti-feminism and women's oppression." (Itzin 1987: 9) Therefore, what is really portrayed about witchcraft in the play is not necessarily true only of witchcraft, but of women's experience today (Hanna 1978: 10). As one of the characters explains at one point the art of sinking without drowning, the play shows that sinking without drowning is the "art of survival as a woman, whether in the 17th century or the 20th century" (Itzin 1980: 285).

Cloud Nine shows Churchill in a different relationship to historical material than in her history plays. Here she employs history in order to agitate the most deep-seated assumptions about sexual roles and the role conditioning, linking sexual repression with capitalist oppression and relating economic imperialism to sexual imperialism (Itzin 1980: 287). Unlike the historian who attempts to judge the accuracy of available facts and offers personal conjecture, Churchill takes liberty with historical facts in Cloud Nine and deconstructs history and related unities of time, place and action. So, she creates farcical distortions both of historical events and characters in her gruesome portrayal of the accepted sexual values in Victorian age, a time which is considered to be one of the most sexist periods in English history.

While the first half of the play is set in 19th century colonial Africa, which is historically an imprecise date, when restless natives of Africa are shaking the solid foundation of the British Empire, the second act leaps hundred years in historical time and is set in contemporary London. Ironically enough, characters are only 25 years older than in the first act. By condensing the century into 25 years, Churchill is dismantling historical events in order to emphasise that authoritarian and paternalistic attitudes, restrictions on sexual relationships and repressive heterosexual values of Victorian society still continue unabated in contemporary Britain.

What is rather striking in Cloud Nine is the comparison of the two distant worlds. The historical half of the play traces a conventional British colonial family led by Clive, a patriarchal upper-middle class white male who stands for imperial attitudes. He sets the terms in the household according to his own will and defines sexual standards in the way that best serves his desires. In this patriarchal household male superiority is firmly established, while women are kept in their inferior place. Also sexual double standards are strictly maintained and non-heterosexual desires are absolutely suppressed. The historical half establishes the linkage between the values of authoritarian British imperialism and the repressive heterosexual values of the middle-class colonial family. In a way, Victorianism and imperialism are reduced to a sort of totalitarianism. And this is conveyed through the stereotyping of Victorian characters with their hypocritical behavioural patterns of double sexual standards, using the dramatic technique of character and historical inversions.

In the contemporary half of the play, puritanical constraints of Victorian ideology appear to have been lifted. Things have relatively changed, become more liberalised, sexual taboos about libertarian lifestyles are broken or dissipated. In contrast to their Victorian counterparts, contemporary characters apparently enjoy a more positive and open sexuality, engaging in bisexual or homosexual involvement. Homosexuality and lesbianism are proposed by these contemporary figures as routes to sexual freedom. A collage of new lifestyles in the 1970s is presented in all its details; an older woman, for instance, learns to manage herself alone, discovering her sexual pleasure for herself, a brother and a sister live together bisexually with a mother and child. Characters explicitly talk about their own sexual inclinations. By retaining essentially the same family members in this contemporary half, Churchill provides a sense of continuity for the audience. And she also extends audience's understanding that over the course of last hundred years family structure has altered, but the domestic roles, attitudes towards sexuality, patriarchal concept of women and assertions of power remain remarkably similar to those of the Victorian England. By having Betty embrace her ghost from Act One and by bringing Clive back to speak the final lines of the play, Churchill shows contemporary sexual freedom as the product of Victorian legacy: "I used to be proud to be British. There was a high ideal. I came out on the verandah and looked at the stars." (Churchill 1985: 320).

The explicit disclosure of the characters own sexuality in the second act also suggests that sexual constraints continue to abound in the contemporary society but with less repression and guilt. The overall point emphasised in Cloud Nine is that although gender hierarchy is still in place, this relative economic and sexual independence in contemporary societies has produced a variety of human relationships rather than a single option of heterosexual monogamy as it was in Victorian times.

Top Girls takes historical intercutting of Cloud Nine one stage further and uses history in order to analyse the "relationship between women and labour at opposite extremes of the possibilities available to working-women both in today's world and in the past" (Kritzer 1991: 139). Unlike the plays discussed so far, Top Girls sets history against the present and uses women from history in order to expose cultural distortions and sexual stereotyping. The historical elements are essential for the play with multiple levels of meaning, whose structure allows themes generated in the first act to "expand in the remainder of the play and, in so doing, comment upon the present." (Peacock 1991: 164)

The historical elements are largely confined to the play's first act, which takes place in a modem restaurant where the leading character Marlene has invited five notable women, drawn from fictional or real history. The life stories of these historical characters symbolise exploitation of women throughout the ages, which also provides the perspective for evolving the contemporary model of success in Marlene. These women reveal that they have achieved fame through taking roles reserved for men. Isabella Bird, Victorian explorer, for instance, stands for the appropriation of what was defined by her culture as masculine pursuits, travelling alone, placing herself in danger and discomfort in order to seek adventure. Pope Joan, disguised as a man, identifies herself with conventionally masculine role in order to gain access to the religious establishment. She reached the pinnacle of the exclusively male church hierarchy by posing as a man. Lady Nijo, 13th century Japanese emperor's courtesan, was subsequently to become a Buddhist nun. Patient Griselda, an obedient wife, suffered at the hands of her husband, and was celebrated for her patience by Petrarch and Chaucer. Gret, a figure from a Bruegel painting, lost her children to a murderous invading army. However different their historical and cultural circumstances, what unites these historical characters is their submissiveness to men; authoritarian fathers, sexist lovers, brutal husbands and so on.

Churchill's aim in portraying all these historical characters is to indicate that each of them has been formed in the process to adopt male behaviour, and even the situation of contemporary successful career women like Marlene is no different from these characters. Marlene eventually adopts male behaviour like those historical figures, who have to conform to male stereotypes of women or have felt guilty for not doing so. She is the best example of those who has to give up many of her ideals in a male world after she has become a 'top girl'. Like her antecedents she is playing life's game by male rules. Marlene in her individualism, her power over the other women in the office and in her adoption of male role emerges as the 20th century version of Pope Joan. Her upward mobility has virtually removed her from the women around her. The play points to the fact that female emancipation in the contemporary period has come to mean adopting those aggressive and predatory values which have for centuries oppressed women.

The appearance of the women from the past in their period costumes also presents a "synthesis of these women's trans-historical experiences, strengths, and strategies of the resistance as inspiration to the struggling women of the present." (Kritzer 1991: 143). Isabella in Victorian blouse and skirt, Gret in apron and armour, Pope Joan in Cossack dress, Griselda in medieval dress and finally Marlene in modern costume all epitomise the process of history. In the personality of Marlene with her elegant dress, Churchill theatrically manipulates history, examining and challenging the contemporary values as represented by this successful contemporary Thatcherite career woman.

The link between past and the present is reinforced by having actresses double between the historical and modem roles. This link is clearly seen in the second part of the play When women who are members or clients of 'top girls' agency meet and repeat views and behaviours communicated by the historical figures of the first part of the play. As the doubling of these historical figures with modem counterparts suggests, there has been no essential improvement in the female situation today. Having analysed the past and examined the present, Top Girls is predictably unambiguous as to the future. As one critic has remarked, "what is frightening is the single-minded abandonment of the future generation by 'Top Girls' throughout history" (Thomas 1992: 184).

In the light of the above discussion, it can be inferred that Churchill has returned to history not only to discover women in history or to portray situation of women at a particular historical moment, but by revising the history of the past and by reformulating traditional accounts of the past, she has tried to give historical elements a modem relevance. Like other contemporary socialist dramatists, for Churchill, the interpretation of the past has become implicitly and often explicitly a revolutionary art. In her outright rejection of the outdated views of those who would maintain the status quo in politics, sexual relationships or gender stereotyping, she has exposed the process of evaluation of looking at contemporary situation of individuals from historical perspective by portraying their predicament at a particular historical period.

The plays under study have also demonstrated that Churchill not only rejects the traditional function of history as a passive reflection of a given masculine world, but she also puts forward an alternative to the Establishment and male versions of the past, often communicating private experiences of public events. In doing so, she has also challenged the idea that the existing representation of history be regarded as sealed records not amenable to change in the present.

It is also clearly seen that Churchill has taken liberty with the presentation of events in the past. History or the past in its simplest sense of the term, is reinterpreted, reconstructed or deconstructed in her individual plays in order to expose a contemporary reality. In other words, history in one way or another is employed primarily as a means of discussing the present, as a vehicle for confronting the audience with the current situation. In this way the audience are forced to draw their own lesson for the future by looking at the past. It emerges that her way of looking at the past in many ways bears resemblance to a Marxist analysis of history which says; 'to have an effect on future one should understand the present by looking at the past'.

One result of using history for the purpose of exposing the evolutionary process of sexual perceptions is that sexual taboos about lesbianism, homosexuality and libertarian lifestyles are broken in that they are explicitly displayed on the stage, and all sorts of relationships take place in full view of the audience. And ultimately all the received notions of personality, sexuality and the way reality has been perceived throughout the human history have been undermined, if not totally dismantled.

Since Churchill's overall attempt to employ history is intended to comment upon the present, all history in her individual works has become a sort of contemporary history and a means of promoting discussion among the public on previously held gender assumptions. History and all images of the past have, therefore, become a tool to promote sexual and political awareness in modem period from a socialist feminist point of view. By portraying the submerged and repressed aspects of sexual experiences of various individuals in the past, she brings our own interpretative perspective from today's feminism and prompts us to re-evaluate the situation of female as well as male sexuality in contemporary societies.


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