When Max Stafford-Clark invited Caryl Churchill to develop a new play with his company, Joint Stock Theatre Group, in 1978 she suggested they explore sexual politics. She had previously collaborated with them on her play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Joint Stock was a socially progressive company that often developed work on political themes. Their method of creating work began with a workshop around a theme and then gave the playwright time to write a play based on what they gleaned from the process. Her 1979 play Cloud 9 examines sexuality and gender through the lenses of British Colonial Africa and 1970s London.
The original workshop on sexual politics with Joint Stock took place between September and October of 1978 with director Max Stafford- Clark, playwright Churchill, and an ensemble of actors chosen, according to Stafford-Clark, as much for their “sexual proclivities as for their acting ability.” The company consisted of a straight married couple, a straight divorced couple, a gay male couple, a lesbian, a woman questioning her sexuality, two bisexual men, and several heterosexuals. The wide array of sexual orientations in the room revealed much to Churchill about how sexual politics influenced daily life. A company member discovered during the workshop that they “did not realize that sexual politics was politics. I’m now very interested in politics; it’s all the same thing.” Churchill went away and wrote the play, which she continued to revise when they started rehearsal in January 1979 for its premiere at the Dartington College of the Arts. Cloud 9 transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in London that same year.
In her forward to Cloud 9, Churchill wrote, “The company talked about their childhoods and the attitudes to sex and marriage … everyone felt that they had received very conventional, almost Victorian expectations and that they had made great changes and discoveries in their lifetimes.” These “Victorian expectations” led the company to conduct interviews with their grandparents and members of the older generation who were raised in the tail-end of the Victorian era. The interview with the older, formidable caretaker of their rehearsal hall inspired the entire company. She told the company in vivid detail about her abusive first marriage. Following her divorce, she met a man who treated her with respect. They courted for a year without having sex; when they finally did, she had her first orgasm at the age of fifty-nine. They married, and she told them, “Now we have sex sometimes as much as twice a week and I’m on cloud nine.”
During the workshop, one company member pointed out, “We keep forgetting that the country as a whole is not liberated at all.” The growing conservatism of the late 1970s in the United Kingdom, and Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979, seemed to many a return to the Victorian values of nationalist sentiment and hardline capitalism with the emphasis on the individual over others. The workshop fell right before, and the rehearsal process during what has been referred to as the Winter of Discontent in the UK from 1978 to 1979. That period saw widespread strikes, including the National Union of Railwaymen and the workers at Ford Motors, who demanded pay increases. In her election campaign Thatcher gained ground with the slogan, “Labour Isn’t Working.”
Similar to the Former Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes of the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa) who believed that the customs and culture of the British Empire should be practiced throughout all British-dominated countries, Thatcher insisted that Britain should be a “British nation with British characteristics.” This position exacerbated tensions surrounding the Troubles, the 1968–1998 conflict between those who believed that Northern Ireland should remain in the UK and those who supported reunification with the Republic of Ireland. To Churchill, the Troubles signified “the bitter end of colonialism.”
Churchill reflected that, “We did discuss the parallel between colonialism and the oppression of women.” She considered how British colonialism and Victorian repression informed the sexually liberated 1970s in Cloud 9. She wrote, “I felt the first act would be stronger set in Victorian times, at the height of colonialism” to emphasize the degree to which the company felt they had been formed by Victorian principals. Churchill set the second act in London in 1979 in what she called the “changing sexuality of our own time.” Upon seeing a revival twenty years later, original director Stafford-Clark said that, “The first half had always been a history play, but our endeavor to articulate our own sexual confusion [has] become history too.” Thirty-nine years since its premiere, both the first and second half are “history” yet the message of Cloud 9 still resonates in our current social climate when it comes to sexual politics.
By Fiona Kyle, Cloud 9 Dramaturg, Artistic Assistant for The Hartford Stage production of Cloud 9. Reprinted with permission.