- On Caryl Churchill
When I teach playwriting, I always put The Skriker on the syllabus. “Do you guys know Caryl Churchill’s work?” I’ll ask. “She’s brilliant; the only thing is, her plays are perfect. Sort of enragingly perfect.” The Skriker is no exception, and in fact that’s why I want them to read it. After all, most of the plays I assign—Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Sibyl Kempson’s Potatoes of August, a ton of Mac Wellman—are full of language at least as wild as what Churchill’s wicked fairy spits. Many of them feature “impossible” stage directions (no such thing! I keep insisting) that easily rival the supernatural antics of the play’s thirty characters (“As she speaks, toads come out of her mouth”; “The KELPIE cuts up the woman’s body.”). Of course, it’s not a contest. I’m just saying: on the one hand, The Skriker is formally outrageous, especially in the context of big-ticket late-twentieth-century playwriting in English. This outrageousness is likely to feel familiar to those of us who have come up in a downtown milieu and/or who identify with a level of disorienting strangeness that is sometimes called “modernism.” But, on the other hand it is also, still, a Caryl Churchill play.
What do I mean by that? Mostly it’s the perfection thing. When I read or see Churchill’s plays, I am always dumbfounded by the virtuosity of their planning, their structure, the way at every scale they seem to do exactly what they mean to do. Check the gorgeous verisimilitude of lines:
Everyone says you’ll be tired or they . . . bunnies or fluffy . . . everything too sweet and you think that’s really boring, makes you want to dress her in black but she’s not sweet like pink and blue. Or you get them moaning about never getting enough sleep or oh my stitches or like that, no one lets on.
To my mind, this is a textbook example of good writing: somehow Churchill knows exactly how much room to leave for your brain to do its thing. As Gertrude Stein observed, most plays create discomfort by competing with your brain rather than simply being there for it. Stein’s solution was to make plays that would refuse to do anything but be there, as in her Paisieu: [End Page 30]
Scene in precisenessWhole button come can couple with all division in antics of requiredlame and dew.Germaine and her child.Germaine and her child.
Obviously, this is not exactly what Churchill is doing: in The Skriker, characters say things, most of which we basically understand. But you can’t not appreciate Churchill’s confidence, her trust that the words will work themselves out in your mind, which is the same trust Stein accords us—with the difference that Churchill’s trust in us is realistic, not utopian. The way her confidence grounds her, plugs her into us, reminds me of the ancient Greek rhetorical concept of kairos, a speaker’s perfect attunement to the audience’s sense of time. This attunement is what carries you through the three zillion tiny narratives of Love and Information with nary a hitch, zipping you down a tightrope strung perilously between too much and not enough, like it was nothing. She makes it look easy.
Here is where my own tiny narrative might zag off the zip, where I might expect myself to say something about how ultimately as an artist and an audience I want too much and not enough; how I’ll always end up taking the side of chaos over order, unredeemed freakishness over virtuosity. But when I try to be really honest, I’m not sure that’s true, or the whole truth. As much as I love and rely on the wilderness of deformation, a part of me also can’t help but feel that everyday life is plenty ugly, plenty wild, plenty unredeemed; and that art is a chance, probably my only chance, to pursue...