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Essay: Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine

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  • Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine
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Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine paints a poignant portrayal of the oppressive forces our society continues to suffer under, such as colonialism, patriarchy, homophobia, and the antiquated power dynamics of the traditional family, delving deeply to question the roles that society asks everyone to assume and fit into. The first act presents a commentary on the Victorian period with its stifling requirements of social etiquette, being the root of all our conceptions of reality. Many interpret that in Act II, the unrelenting chains and veils of Victorian decorum are banished, and our characters are at last set free, but there are various forms of oppression that still remain in the somewhat modern society that must be addressed. While the oppressive ambience is not as foul and wretched as in the first act, the second act does not present the holistic freedom of liberal independence that most seem to think it does.

Act II is characterised with Betty, Edward, and Victoria, now distanced from Clive the domineering patriarch of Act I, continuing their difficult search for identity. Although they are now free of Clive’s direct influence, they face the new challenges of establishing an identity in a world far different from Victorian era Africa. Numerous hints showcase the domination still draped upon us stemming from centuries of a single accepted status quo, such as having the individual need to classify and/or establish a single sexuality, or even choice of lifestyle, to which they would adhere to, the inability of the patriarch to surrender his birthright to power, and the continued attribution of specific traits to the individual genders.

Some scholars maintain the rather naive view of a thoroughly progressive second act, such as Elizabeth Russell boasting of an Act II “characterized by sexual liberation” whose characters are “wrenched free from their moral chains” (159). The ability to engage in a rather public sexual act is noted to be the epitome of freedom of repression, especially one that simultaneously includes one’s brother, same-sex lover, and former lover. The openness and acceptance of this relationship by Betty, the matriarchal figure, does display the centuries of progress completed. However James M. Harding notes that the second act continues in gendered boundaries and presents the orgy as an example of being contaminated with the male presence as it would originally have been a stage for the lesbian desire, and yet even that is damned to morph into a “heterosexual ménage à trois” (268). His insight does remind one of the lack of a consensual, reciprocated, purely lesbian romance, as when the relationship between Victoria and Lin is established, Edward almost immediately includes himself in the amorous entanglement.

Churchill has clearly offered us an image of the confusion and discomfort that has followed our liberation from the past–a liberation which is apparently incomplete. Betty mentions in Act II, Scene four that “if there isn’t a right way to do things you have to invent one” indicating a newly discovered understanding of her place in the world (Churchill 110). She asserts her right to establish new sexual relationships to suit one’s needs and desires mentioning it to Gerry, the character who represents complete freedom from sexual parameters. In this quote, Betty does not dismiss the lessons of the past, but merely accepts the fact that times change and that people, even those as old as Betty, must be flexible enough to change with them. Though Clive is not present in Act II, his values still have an effect on the characters. Betty continues to be afraid of a life without him, and Victoria hesitates to leave a traditional marriage that is falling apart. Churchill makes the influence of the past much more visible and tangible by bringing characters from Act I back into the story in Act II. These characters reappearing briefly, highlight the differences between past and present, but demonstrate the fact that the characters should continue remembering their past and coming to terms with its influence.

The acceptance displayed towards Edward by his family is also interpreted as a defining characteristic of an emancipated society. In Act II, Edward spends a considerable amount of time pondering the various sexual orientations he could possibly possess and explore, whether it be as a gay man in a surprisingly heavily heterosexually influenced relationship or as a lesbian, while the logical pursuit of freedom would perhaps demand a thorough freedom that excludes the pressure to designate one’s self. Edward of Act II is largely defined by his father’s oppression, facing a most complex quest for identity. He slowly grows into his role as a homosexual, but even very near the end of the play, still struggles to find a way to be the kind of homosexual that he wants to be. At one point, he even tells Victoria that he wishes to be a woman, specifically a lesbian woman (92). Edward’s constant need to categorise himself into an already established phenomenon might indicate our inability to invent new norms as we choose to instead manipulate those already in place.

Edward continues to perhaps subconsciously insert himself into a known established hetersoxually based relationship when Gerry proceeds to deny him the chance to play the role of a wife in their homosexual relationship. Ultimately, it is made clear that Edward finds pleasure in the role of mother, in taking care of children, as foreshadowed by his need to care for his sister’s dolls in Act I (although it is worth pondering over why this desire to care is usually likened to being a mother). Edward’s transformation indicates the failure of Clive’s indoctrination of the traditional values. Edward becomes a near opposite of the person that Clive wished for him to be. Churchill may be arguing that the situating of personalities and sexual orientations in physical bodies cannot be instructed and planned and is almost done at random. The great challenge of life is perhaps to learn to reconcile and/or balance one’s upbringing and one’s physical identity with one’s true sexuality, as most of the characters attempt to do so in Act II. While it is obvious that the previously repressed characters now possess a degree of freedom they did not have before, there are subtle traces of oppressive forces that remain and should not be ignored.

Another clear indicator of our modern era is the relationship between Lin and her daughter Cathy. Lin represents the bold and free spirit, as she is seen as the embodiment of sexual freedom, yet she forces her daughter to fit into her ideal of the modern individual, free from gender stereotypes, by compelling her to immerse herself into the masculine stereotype of playing with guns and promoting violence, which have always symbolised control and dominance. However some critics see this unconventional upbringing is a step forward as it creates a new formation in gender identity (Joodaki and Bakhshi 101). This indoctrination of violence is reminiscent of Clive in Act I forbidding Edward from playing with his sister’s dolls. Cathy mentions that she prefers to dress in skirts and act femininely, however her mother wishes to promote a more varied lifestyle that goes beyond what she understands as the feminine orientations. It is this moulding of the younger generation that points to the incomplete separation of the past. In a liberal society, one would possibly expect a parent allowing their son and/or daughter play with whatever doll and/or gun they wish for without fear of specific gender expectations. Perhaps some remnant from our categorised history can simply never be dissolved.

John Basourakos is of the opinion that Act II’s conflicts stem from a confusion due to the freedom they are all drenched in (14). When Martin says to Victoria, “God knows I do everything I can to make you stand on your own two feet. Just be yourself. You don’t seem to realize how insulting it is to me that you can’t get yourself together” (82), it is this statement that points to the more modern form of oppression the characters now struggle with. Martin’s control of Victoria is less severe than Clive’s influence in Africa. In fact, Martin’s control manifests itself as a willingness to give up control, or rather a forcible delegation of control. Martin says that he in fact favors Victoria’s independence. However, when she cannot “get herself together,” Martin is “insulted” because he has been rendered powerless by his inability to help her. Martin represents the ambivalence that comes with a shifting society in Act II. As the act’s only straight male, he struggles with where he fits in and what his status should in relation to his wife Victoria. He does not recognize that even the command to “just be yourself” is still a command and an exertion of his will upon Victoria. It is plain to see that Victoria can only find her true identity through her own action, or willingness to action.

Martin struggles to find a way to be meaningful to his wife without controlling her. Much of Martin’s speech, including the aforementioned quote comes in the form of long lecture-like monologues that depict him as relatively egotistical–impossibly consumed in the confusion of finding his own identity, but still demanding that Victoria find hers. David Waterman also insists that the characters in the second act are free of social control, however noting that “for all of their apparent freedom to perform their genders as they see fit, the characters in Act Two are obviously not emancipated from the matrix of power and its normative, regulatory function of maintaining social control” (91). While in Act I, Victoria is forced into an ultimate submission, in Act II, Victoria faces a new sort of constraint. She is no longer a dummy, but the nature of her relationship with Martin is restricting in a different, far more subtle manner. Martin, although to all intents and purposes is evidently in favor of Victoria’s liberation, manages to exert control by making her feel guilty for not responding positively to his attempts to satisfy her sexually. Only through a homosexual relationship with Lin can Victoria find a balance between love and liberation.

It is obvious that Act II is a significant improvement in terms of the freedom and independence the characters experience. However, there are still rather subdued indications of an underlying influence of the earlier instituted Victorian social standards. The most obvious exhibition of the continued effects we suffer under is the drastic distinction instituted between the male and female gender, and the specific traits attributed to them each. While the characters attempt to overpower the characteristics that have always been assigned to their gender, there are still specific obdurate characteristics that they continue to assign to the subsequent gender. Females are still associated with delicate frocks, playing with dolls, and caring motherhood, while males are connected with violence, force, and control. It may prove to be difficult to completely dissociate ourselves from the institutions we have so long internalised, as there has never been a time when our society had retained neutral connotations associated to the individualised genders. One must wonder how or even if our society will ever transcend beyond the restrictions of such classifications.


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