Student Writing About Drama and Theater

Student Writing About Drama and Theater

student writing about drama and theater

Although many literature and theater students tend to write about the action, characters, language, or themes of plays as literary works, different kinds of issues often emerge when a play is considered in performance. While a more “literary” essay necessarily focuses considerable attention on developing evidence suggestively from the text of the play, writing about performance negotiates between the prescriptions of the text and their engagement by live performers, actual men and women onstage, moving and behaving in a specific environment.

Two papers written by university students dramatize some of the consequences of writing about drama asliterature or dramainthetheater. Both papers are about Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud Nine, in which questions of textandperformance are central to thinking about the play’s action. The first paper, written by Kimberly Gordon, a Theater major at Northwestern University, considers the play’s representation of women, and particularly its characterization of Betty, as part of its critique of the effects of the sexual revolution on the lives of women today. The second paper, written by Charles Heath, an English and Political Science major at the University of California at Davis, responds directly to a performance of Cloud Nine, staged by the Department of Theater and Dance at UC Davis. Heath concentrates his attention on the ways different roles were performed in this production, and comes to some surprising conclusions about how this production represented the play’s sexual politics.

Kimberly Gordon

Professor Worthen

Introduction to Modern Drama

Betty in Bondage

Choices, respect, and new possibilities were all to have been characteristic of the postsexual revolution. Many people believed that an entirely new place in history for women would be born. Caryl Churchill, England’s most noted feminist playwright, would laugh at such a notion. In all her works, she portrays women as “stuck” and unsatisfied. The relationships of Churchill’s women and their positions in them, have been predefined by their male counterparts. A woman’s adherence to these manmade molds forces her to give precedence to society’s demands over her own desires; this trap is exemplified in Churchill’s play, Cloud Nine. In this play Churchill employs the character Betty to illustrate the subordinate role of the woman in a male dominated world. This “subordination” is addressed by the character’s desire for something more, her views on marriage, her ingrained, warped perception that a woman must be “bad” in order to be happy, and the punishment she faces if she dares to disobey man’s guidelines.

Cloud Nine opens in Victorian Africa with the colonist Clive’s introduction of his family. When he speaks of Betty, his wife, he admits, “My wife is all I dreamt a wife to be / and everything she is she owes to me” (Churchill 810). The first words Betty utters confirm Clive’s remark: “I live for Clive. The whole aim of my life / Is to be what he looks for in a wife. / I am a man’s creation as you see, / And what men want is what I want to be” (810). Betty has become a “man’s creation” by patterning her behavior and actions to fit her husband’s desires. Churchill emphasizes the inequalities in this relationship by using role reversal. In the first act of the play, Betty and others are portrayed by actors of the opposite sex. This information layers the interpretation of the first scene. The audience watches a man play Betty, literalizing the idea that a man helped create her role; the viewer witnesses Betty through the male creator’s eyes.

Regarding the issue of crossdressing, Elin Diamond reminds the reader, “The point is not that the male is feminized but that the female is absent” (97). Betty, who in thought and action is represented as the “token female,” is presented, not as a woman, but rather as the illusion of one. A man in a woman’s costume produces a greater presence of masculinity and reduction of physical femininity. The absence Diamond speaks of also reflects on women’s character--they must be content with being discontent, with having their desires denied. This attitude is established by the male characters and later fostered through the women. When Betty acknowledges her dissatisfaction with the expectations imposed upon her, for example, Harry, an old friend of the family, proves discouraging:

harry: . . . I need you, and I need you where you are, I need you to be Clive’s wife. I need to go up rivers and know that you are still here thinking of me.

betty: I want more than that. Is that wicked of me?

harry: Not wicked Betty, silly. (816)

Betty’s wanting more is irrelevant. Harry trivializes her plea by calling her “silly,” an adjective implying a lack of power more frequently used to describe women and children than men.

Perhaps more damaging than the implications made by the men, are the ways in which they are passed down by the women. This masculine legacy occurs frequently in the motherdaughter relationship, and is seen in the following dialogue between Betty and Maud:

maud: Young women are never happy.

betty: Mother, what a thing to say.

maud: Then when they’re older they look back and see that comparatively speaking they were ecstatic. (812)

In this scene, a mother is guilty of perpetuating the void and emptiness in her daughter. As Betty hints of interests outside the domestic range, Maud smothers this curiosity by instructing Betty of her place as a wife and daughter. When Betty asks for information about the tribes and floggings taking place on their property, Maud reminds her, “I don’t think it’s up to us to wonder. . . . You would not want to be told about it, Betty. It is enough for you to know that Clive knows what is happening. Clive will know what to do. Your father always knew what to do” (818). Betty is not taught to be a selfsufficient woman. Maud helps to create and reinforce Betty’s dependency on men. As with any mother, Maud means no malice. In act 2, Maud lets her daughter know that all her actions were out of love. She confesses, “I know we have our little differences but I always want what is best for you” (833). Betty’s mother, like all mothers, wants her daughter to fit the mold of society. Unfortunately, following Maud’s advice robs Betty of her identity as an independent woman.

Betty has been taught to understand the protection she receives by conforming to society’s ideals, and reproduces those ideals in her own relationships with other women. She convinces the governess of her children, Ellen, to disregard her own desires and marry for the sole purpose of fulfilling her obligations as a woman:

betty: If you go back to England you might get married, Ellen. You’re quite pretty, you shouldn’t despair of getting a husband.

ellen: I don’t want a husband. I want you.

betty: Children of your own, Ellen, think.

ellen: I don’t want children . . .

betty: . . . Women have their duties as soldiers have. You must be a mother if you can. (821)

Ellen agrees to marry Harry, and just moments after the wedding Betty reminds her friend that she is, “. . . not getting married to enjoy herself” (822).

Not only are the women portrayed as inferior, and prevented from living life as they please, they are also made to feel “bad” and “weak.” In the exchange between Betty and Harry, Betty questions whether she is innately “wicked.” Betty refers to being made “better,” implying that she feels there is something wrong with her present condition. Churchill reinforces the widespread acceptance of these qualities in women when Clive confronts Betty about her kissing Harry. Betty automatically finds fault in her actions and confesses:

betty: There is something wicked in me, Clive.

clive: I have never thought of you as having the weakness of your sex, only good qualities.

betty: I am bad, bad, bad

clive: You are thoughtless, Betty, that’s all. Women can be treacherous and evil. They are darker and more dangerous than men . . . It was a moment of passion such as women are too weak to resist. (819)

The key words “bad,” “wicked,” “weak,” and “treacherous” become not merely the ways in which the men perceive the women, but more dangerously, the characteristics women attribute to themselves. Betty learns to equate sin with happiness, and is punished accordingly.

When women stray from the alleged “social norm” in thought or behavior, the men discipline them to correct their actions. After Clive blames the female sex for Betty’s weakness with Harry, he goes on to explain the severe consequences that might have followed had he not shown his wife mercy. He threatens, “. . . It would hurt me to cast you off. That would be my duty . . . If I shot you every British man and woman would applaud me . . .” (819). Clive’s warning carries with it a double standard. He reprimands Betty for being an unfaithful wife while he is currently having an affair with the widow Mrs. Saunders.

As act 2 of Cloud Nine begins, the audience encounters an entirely new setting and an entirely new Betty. Act 2 jumps seventyfive years into the future (although the characters age only twenty five years) and Churchill switches continents as well. It is London, 1979, and Betty has undergone an enormous transformation. During the transition she has become more comfortable with her own sexuality and herself, and her role is now appropriately played by an actress.

The Betty of act 2 leaves her husband, seeks and finds employment, and starts to to define herself as her own person. As she begins to disregard her conventional definitions of the roles of wife and mother, she is able to escape her selfimplemented boundaries. Betty comes to the realization, “You appreciate the weekend when you’re working . . . And the money, I feel like a child with the money, Clive always paid everything but I do understand it perfectly well” (832). She enjoys work and the strength derived from the ability to support herself.

Betty’s new selfpossession is complemented by her rediscovery of her sexuality at the end of the show. She confides:

I touched my face, it was there, my arm, my breast and my hand went down where I thought it shouldn’t, and I thought well there is somebody there . . . and I felt angry with Clive and angry with my mother and I went on defying them . . . Afterwards I thought I’d betrayed Clive. My mother would kill me. But then I felt triumphant because I was a separate person from them. And I cried because I didn’t want to be. But I don’t cry anymore. Sometimes I do it three times in one night and it really is great fun. (833)

Where Betty finds success in living alone, the adjustment is not an easy one. It is hard to break old habits, such as making tea for two. She discovers that, “It’s strange not having a man in the house. You don’t know how to do things for yourself” (828). The Betty in act 2
is still lonely and struggles with some reluctance to accept the new ideals and lifestyles presented by the generations of her children and grandchildren.

By the play’s close, Betty does begin to embrace a more independent future. This action is visually demonstrated as Churchill instructs that the Bettys from each act appear on stage together and embrace as the last action of the play. This hug implies both a sympathetic understanding of their shared past, and an appreciation for the genuine efforts to ensure a happier future. Betty is on the right path to freeing herself from remaining “stuck” in the outline man has provided her. But she has just begun the challenge. For now, Betty and all of Churchill’s women, are still a long way from being on “Cloud Nine.”

Works Cited

Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. 3rd ed. Ed. W. B. Worthen. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2000. 810–34.

Diamond, Elin. “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. SueEllen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 92–105.