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Reviewed by:
  • Caryl Churchill by Mary Luckhurst
  • Verna A. Foster (bio)
Mary Luckhurst. Caryl Churchill. Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists. London and New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xiv + 208. $39.95.

Caryl Churchill has been writing plays for half a century, during which time she has constantly experimented with dramatic form. Equally, as Mary Luckhurst amply demonstrates in Caryl Churchill, her plays have always responded to new social, political, and cultural challenges, especially as they affect women and those who have been marginalized or oppressed. Luckhurst’s division of her book into chapters that focus on Churchill’s work decade by decade and her focus on one play in production for each decade illuminate both Churchill’s changing style and the enormous range and versatility of her work. She never writes the same play twice.

In part 1, “Contexts,” Luckhurst provides an overview of Churchill’s plays in relation to her life, her thought, and the critical and historical contexts in which her work has been received. She notes the well-known influence on Churchill of Brecht and of second wave feminism but concludes that while “Churchill’s significance to the development of feminist political theatre is unmatched,” her work is also informed by “science, ethics, war, terror, climate change and [End Page 233] masculinity” (24). Of particular interest is Luckhurst’s discussion of an essay Churchill wrote in 1960, when she was only twenty-two: “Not Ordinary, Not Safe: A Direction for Drama?” In this essay Churchill attacks the new wave of Royal Court realistic drama by male dramatists such as John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and Arnold Wesker and calls instead, in Luckhurst’s words, “for a utopian quest to explore socialist agendas in ways that provoke change” (12), using “experimental” forms and language, such as “juxtapositions of song, prose and poetry, a spectrum of emotional moods and the cumulative effects of powerful stage pictures” (13). Luckhurst demonstrates that throughout her career Churchill has followed her own agenda.

In part 2 Luckhurst begins by reviewing Churchill’s early work, mostly radio plays, of the 1960s, and also her six little-known plays for television written between 1972 and 1981. Typical of the political topicality of these plays is The Legion Hall Bombing (1979), a documentary drama about a boy accused without evidence of planting a bomb in Northern Ireland. Churchill took her name off the credits after the BBC censored some of its content. Luckhurst’s discussion of Churchill’s stage plays of the 1970s begins with a helpful account of The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972, finally produced in 2013), based on the writings of Algerian psychiatrist and political activist Frantz Fanon, whose “complex self-knowledge” Churchill admired; the play dramatizes “the colonised victim’s dilemma of complicity” (50). Analyses of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and Vinegar Tom (1976) follow. Luckhurst is very good at providing succinctly historical information that is essential to our understanding of Churchill’s carefully researched plays: for example, concerning the English Civil War and the various religious and political movements that inform Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

Given Luckhurst’s care in providing such instructive background material, it is unfortunate that in her discussion of Vinegar Tom she focuses on Churchill’s reliance on Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s polemical and essentialist Witches, Midwives and Nurses, which ties the play to 1970s feminism, and omits to mention at all Churchill’s use of Alan Macfarlane’s Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, which underpins the play’s still-relevant socialist understanding of the economic dynamics at work among different kinds and conditions of individual women. Luckhurst does offer a critique of her chosen “key” production for the decade, Cloud Nine (1979), suggesting that from the perspective of more recent views about gender, it may have become “a history play” as the “relation between biology, gender identity and sexual orientation is no longer assumed to be straightforward” (80). And in particular Luckhurst expresses concern about the play’s “blind-spot in relation to its racial politics” and urges that “Cloud Nine is long overdue for creative reinvention by directors who want to experiment with cross-racial casting” (81). [End Page...


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pp. 233-236
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