- Caryl ChurchillOnly Dimly Understood
My relationship to the work of Caryl Churchill was, for years, a furtive, confusing, indirect, even oppositional, possibly imaginary one.
I was a young playwright. A director friend had seen a production of Mad Forest—a piece conceived and executed as soon after the Romanian Revolution as was possible and drawn very much from still-smoldering eye witness accounts—and proposed that we develop a play in this manner: a piece based on the testimonials of “the people,” with fictionalized scenes that developed the story further. Our response to a project made in response to a wrenching near-contemporaneous event involving numerous real people was to make a play about Joan of Arc, and while we were working on the play, I did not read Mad Forest. It may not have been published, I may not have realized that contemporary plays are published; I was content to work off rumor. This was handy when another director, a few years later, proposed that we make a work about the Romanian Revolution; I didn’t want to be influenced by the play, but I didn’t want to write a play which had already been written, so Mad Forest was a play that I would sidle up to in bookstores, and lift up furtively, and I would very swiftly fork a few pages into my brain and then dart away . . . I read only enough to know that this was a play about the Romanian people, and so I figured, “well, that’s been accomplished,” so my play was mainly about the Ceausescus; Mad Forest was grim, so my own play was antic. [End Page 33]
A few years later, yet another director proposed that we work on a play about the famous wives of dictators, and I wondered how you would put a bunch of historical women in the same room together, and of course I immediately thought of Top Girls. I was given a scene from Top Girls to perform in an acting class I attended long before and so I had read the play; had found it charismatic and puzzling: charismatic for its wild toggle between the free floating if detailed fantasy of the first act, and the dark and difficult and gripping realism of the other two acts; puzzling because the play seemed to me to be saying that love was more important than ambition and achievement; that a mother’s failure cannot be forgiven. This wasn’t a message I was used to seeing from a female political writer; if there was a Thatcherite sub- or supra-text, if what was being questioned was not a role but a system, this was beyond my analysis, and I’m glad it was, really, because what remained with me of the play was a nicely burning contradiction. This wonderful achievement seemed to be telling me about the cost and penalty of a woman’s achievement during a time when this message was generally coming from very conservative men; the inobviousness of the material was very important to me.
By this time, I knew a little about the working methods of Caryl Churchill, I think, again, mainly through rumor. For instance, I knew that she often worked in concert with a group of actors researching a topic for months at a time. Once the research period was concluded, she would go off somewhere and, in complete privacy, write a play that might or might not incorporate material from the workshop but which was very adamantly her own. This burning example was very important to me; when my director—who had, after all, initiated this whole idea—would offer suggestions of her own and/or beg me to consider directions she found gripping and vital, I would absolutely consider them if they were of interest to me, but I retained with a firm grip the draconian staff of Authorship. A play is not a democracy, I would tell her, sternly, and I would invoke the name and practice of Caryl Churchill, and that, of course, kind of shut down the discussion.
For a number of years, annoyed that I was by the interference of...