Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, Cloud 9, shows her “continuing obsession with questions of identity of identity – a theme that unifies much of her work…” (Klein). The published front cover of Cloud 9 alludes to the ambiguity of identity through its artwork. The characters within the play are constantly challenging gender stereotypical roles. Churchill alludes to this notion with the picture of a colonial’s head, a woman’s naked body, and someone’s sneakered feet where the gender is left uncertain. Before a reader opens the play they must first look at the front cover. Similarly, if audience members go to watch the play performed live, they will encounter a poster or image on the front of a cast pamphlet. With these images, they are made aware that this is an unusual production. The bizarre aspect of cross casting is something that Churchill intentionally chose for her play. Take a look at the character list that I have added below and see if you can find any peculiarities.
ACT ONE CHARACTERS
Clive, a colonial administrator
Betty, his wife, played by a man
Joshua, his black servant, played by a white
Edward, his son, played by a woman
Maud, his mother-in-law
Ellen, Edward’s governess
Mrs Saunders, a widow
Harry Bagley, an explorer
ACT TWO CHARACTERS
Betty, played by a woman
Edward, her son, played by a man
Victoria, her daughter
Martin, Victoria’s husband
Lin, a lesbian single mother
Cathy, Lin’s daughter, aged 4 and 5, played by a man
Gerry, Edward’s lover
Churchill has female characters being played by men as well as male characters being played by women. Are you confused yet? Take a moment to watch this video as a way of helping you to wrap your mind around the obscure nature of this play.
Churchill uses this play as a way to create fluctuating identities within theater. The parotic cultural structures and iconic figures of the characters are used in a way to help reconstruct gender stereotypes (Humphries Lecture 8). “…what Churchill is after in Cloud 9 is not creating convincing illusions, but rather destabilizing our notions of gender, sexual, and racial identity. One of her most audacious conceits is having the character of a black man, a two-faced Victorian-era servant who is alternately complaisant and hostile, played by a white man. Also in Act I, the wife, Betty, chafing at her constructed femininity, is portrayed by a man; the role of her son, Edward, who wrestles with his lack of conventional manliness, is assumed by a woman; and her daughter, Victoria, is represented by a doll. The casting makes a political point: that gender (as well as race and class) is, in fact, a performance” (Klein). Because the characters are played by opposite genders, their homosexual relationships, while still homosexual, are seen in a heterosexual manner. This is because a sexual act is being performed by a male and a female even though the male is being played by a female character or vice versa. With this very confusing casting, “Cloud Nine makes acceptance of gay male and lesbian desire easy because it represents these forms of desire in terms that reinforce heterosexuality” (Harding). It appears that Churchill’s intent with this play is to impose resistance against the social norms of society.
The literal gender confusion found in Could 9 is embodied by the characters’ search for their identity. The theme of homosexuality is presented through the characters and their relationships. In a play that is pastiche, “a hodgepodge of pieces put into one place,” the context of the characters’ relationships is explored through the perception of gender and sexuality. (Humphreys Lecture 8). I will use the character of Edward, who is played by a woman, as an example of someone struggling to find their true identity. In the first act of the play, Edward is subject to his father’s cruel nature and has to hide his homosexual tendencies. Edward enjoys playing with his sister’s doll yet he gets chastised for even holding it for her, let alone playing with it. Everyone tries to hide the fact that Edward likes dolls from his father in order to keep him out of trouble.
BETTY: Well I should give it to Ellen quickly. You don’t want papa to see you with a doll (Churchill 8).
In the second act of the play, Edward is now played by a male. He is in a homosexual relationship with a man named Gerry, who like his father, does not want to accept him for who he is.
GERRY: Just be yourself.
EDWARD: I don’t know what you mean. Everyone’s always tried to stop me being feminine and now you are too (Churchill 70).
Gerry does not want Edward to play the role of the wife, which is what Edward is content in doing. Judith Butler comments on the emotional perceptions of gender and sexuality within her article Gender is Burning. “In the reprimand the subject not only receives recognition, but attains as well a certain order of social existence in being transferred from an outer region of indifferent, questionable, or impossible being to the discursive or social domain of the subject” (Butler 1). Edward exists in the social order, but he is seen as out of the ordinary, even within his homosexual relationship with Gerry. While struggling with his feminine features, Edward confides in Victoria that he is sick of men and believes that he is a lesbian.
Edward: No listen Vicky. I’d rather be a woman. I wish I had breasts like that, I think they’re beautiful. Can I touch them? (Churchill 72).
The character of Edward is a prime example of the struggles one must go through while searching for their identity. Churchill’s play pushes the envelope on deconstructing gendered norms in society. Her ability to create a work that entices the audience with humor, while bringing forth the serious matter of the search for identity, is a performance unto itself.
The iconic single by Blur, Boys and Girls captures the sentiment of this identity struggle most appropriately.
Girls who are boys
Who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls
Who do girls like they’re boys
Always should be someone you really love