For well over half a century, Caryl Churchill’s plays have been enriching the landscape of British theatre. As David Hare astutely observed on her seventieth birthday celebrations held at the Royal Court in 2008: ‘The principal question you can ask of any artist is: what difference would it have made if they’d never existed? Would the culture be poorer? In Caryl’s case, the answer is self-evident’.
For Churchill has a rare genius for reinventing dramatic form, one that she combines with her capacity for political intervention. Hers is a political theatre voice with an enduring commitment to opposing a world unjustly divided between ‘us and them’; those who have and those who have not. She was always clear that ‘socialism and feminism aren’t synonymous’; felt ‘strongly about both and wouldn’t be interested in a form of one that didn’t include the other’. Thus, feminist perspectives and dynamics join with her anti-capitalist, socialist stance. In Cloud Nine (1979), with its iconic cross-dressing device, she demonstrated how the legacies of a nineteenth-century, colonial past weighed heavily on attempts to achieve a more liberated sexual politics in the present. In the state-of-the-nation Top Girls (1982), she voiced the dangers of a feminism reductively attached to a neoliberal mode of individualistic empowerment. And in Fen (1983) she revealed how the corporate ownership of land controls and determines the harsh lives and histories of agrarian women labourers. At all times, inventive and political no other contemporary British playwright has achieved as much as Churchill has in pioneering the way for generations of women dramatists to be taken seriously in the male-dominated theatre industry.
Although over the decades of playwriting her socialist-feminist vision of society has looked increasingly, to borrow the title of her 2000 play, ‘far away’, she has remained fiercely opposed to the nightmarish intensification of capitalist greed, violence, and damage that, as her recent apocalyptic Escaped Alone (2016) reminds us, is now occurring on a global scale. Undaunted, she remains steadfast in her commitment to socially democratic futures – repeatedly deploys her theatrical inventiveness to form those urgent, contemporary social and political questions that prompt her audiences to think how the world might be otherwise.
The words of Nell, the most outspoken, radical protestor among the women labourers in Fen and, like Churchill, an accomplished teller of ‘frightening stories’, feel apposite – ‘I won’t turn back for you or anyone’.