- “She Was Always Sad”Remembering Mother in Caryl Churchill’s Not Enough Oxygen and A Number
In her book Lives Together, Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture, Suzanna Danuta Walters claims that “popular images both reflect and construct; they both reproduce existing mainstream ideologies and help produce those very ideologies.”1 Although focused on popular discourses about mother-daughter relationships, Walters’s observation extends to the social production of familiar images, ranging from mother as self-sacrificing nurturer2 to mother as destructive force,3 that contribute to cultural definitions of motherhood that do not adequately reflect many women’s lived experiences. In several of her plays from the 1970s to the present, Caryl Churchill examines such representations in various ways. In Top Girls (1982), for example, she questions symbolic representations of mothers in literature and art by employing them, putting characters such as Chaucer’s patient Griselda and Brueghel’s Dull Gret onstage. Additionally, she subverts stereotypes with characters such as Marlene and Joyce in Top Girls and Betty, Lin, Victoria, and even Edward in Cloud 9 (1979)4 by presenting mothers as individuals who actively negotiate the social, political, and economic challenges of motherhood rather than as supporting characters who merely act upon, or in relation to, their children. Yet two of Churchill’s most complex examinations of the intersections of gender and power as they relate to cultural constructions of mothers, motherhood, and mothering come from Not [End Page 233] Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen (1971) and A Number (2002), plays in which mothers are conspicuously absent.
Not Enough Oxygen and A Number are, on one level, domestic dramas, depictions of family crises playing out between fathers and sons within the home, so the absence of the maternal figure is difficult to ignore, particularly because of the small casts (three characters in Not Enough Oxygen and four in A Number, in which each scene is a father-son two-hander). Yet though the action of both plays is set within the private sector of the home, Churchill enables the family structure to function metaphorically as a microcosmic representation of the social structure by drawing attention to external forces such as environmental crises, government regulations, and scientific interventions into the processes of reproduction, all of which significantly affect familial relationships. As Churchill has noted, her writing is influenced by “a tradition of looking at the larger context of groups of people. It doesn’t mean you don’t look at families or individuals within that, but you are also looking at bigger things.”5 Among the “bigger things” Churchill explores in both of these plays is the way in which ideas about maternity are culturally constructed, and the lack of mothers’ active participation in the conversations highlights the challenges women face in shaping those constructions. According to Shari L. Thurer, “Just as the practice of mothering has veered widely within the mores of different epochs, so has the status of mothers. . . . As men realized their contribution to procreation and seized control . . . the mother has been dehumanized, that is, either wildly idealized . . . or degraded.”6 Because the mothers in these plays exist only as disembodied characters (never there but also never not there) who feature in the stories of their husbands and sons, their physical absence simultaneously exposes and enacts the process of dehumanization, as “mother” is constructed solely through memory and myth.
Originally broadcast on BBC 3 in 1971, Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen is a radio play set in 2010, offering a bleak vision of a future in which severe environmental crises affect the planet and its population; there is not enough oxygen or water, and grass is a precious commodity, cordoned off in the park, a little patch just visible over the heads of the people in the perpetually swarming crowd. In this nightmarish world, nature is not merely subordinate to technology—faster elevators, larger televisions, oxygen spray—but overcome by it, a barely lingering victim on the verge of obsolescence. The dystopian setting, with its uncomfortably close parallels to contemporary society despite its science-fiction trappings, is marked by loss and absence. For although the world is...