Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938) is a British playwright known for dramatising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes.[1]


Her early work developed Bertolt Brecht's modernist dramatic and theatrical techniques of Epic theatre to explore issues of gender and sexuality. From A Mouthful of Birds (1986) onwards, she began to experiment with forms of dance-theatre, incorporating techniques developed from the performance tradition initiated by Antonin Artaud with his 'Theatre of Cruelty'. This move away from a clear Fabel dramaturgy towards increasingly fragmented and surrealistic narratives characterises her work as postmodernist.


Churchill was born in London, England, the daughter of Jan Brown, a fashion model, and Robert Churchill, a political cartoonist.[2] After World War II, her family emigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Churchill was ten years old. In Montreal, she attended Trafalgar School for Girls.

She returned to England to attend university, and in 1960 she graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college at Oxford University, with a B.A. degree in English Literature.[3] She also began her writing career there. Her four earliest plays, Downstairs (produced 1958),You've No Need to be Frightened, Having a Wonderful Time (1960), and Easy Death (produced 1962) were performed at Oxford by student theatre ensembles.[4]

Marriage and family

In 1961 she married David Harter.[5] They have three sons and live in Hackney, East London.


It was while raising a family in the 1960s and '70s that Churchill began to write short radio dramas for BBC radio. These included The Ants (1962), Not, Not, Not, Not Enough Oxygen (1971), and Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972). She also wrote television plays for the BBC, including The After Dinner Joke (1978) and Crimes (1982). These, as well as some of her radio plays, have been adapted for the stage.[1]

Themes and plays

In 1972, she wrote Owners, a two-act, 14-scene play about obsession with power. It was her first stage play and "her first major theatrical endeavour"; it was produced in London the same year.[1] Churchill's socialist views are expressed in the play, a critique of the values that most capitalists take for granted: being aggressive, getting ahead, doing well.

She served as resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975, and later began collaboration with theatre companies such as Joint Stock Theatre Company and Monstrous Regiment (a feminist theatre collective). Both used an extended workshop period in their development of new plays. Churchill continues to use an improvisational workshop period in developing a number of her plays. During this period, she also wrote Objections to Sex and Violence (1974).[1]

Her first play to receive wide notice was Cloud Nine (1979), "a farce about sexual politics", set partly in a British overseas colony during the Victorian era. It explores the effects of the colonialist/imperialist mindset on intimate personal relationships, and uses cross-gender casting for comic and instructive effect. The play became successful in Britain and in the United States, winning an Obie Award in 1982 for best play of the year in New York.[1]

Churchill gradually abandoned more conventions of realism, with her loyalty to feminist themes and ideas becoming a guiding principle in her work. She won an Obie Award for best play with Top Girls (1982), "which deals with women's losing their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment."[1] It features an all-female cast, and focuses on Marlene, who has relinquished a home and family to achieve success in the world of business. Half the action takes place at a celebratory dinner where Marlene mixes with historical, iconic and fictional women who have achieved great stature in a "man's world", but always at great cost. The other half of the play, set a year in the past, focuses on Marlene's family, where the true cost of her "successful" life becomes poignantly and frighteningly apparent. In Top Girls, Churchill made a note to describe the layout. She used the forward dash signal (/) to demonstrate a person interrupting the person speaking. She also used the asterisk symbol (*) to indicate a speech following on from a speech earlier than the one immediately before it.[6]

Softcops (first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984), is a "surreal play set in 19th-century France about government attempts to depoliticize illegal acts."[1]

Serious Money (1987), "a comedy about excesses in the financial world",[1] is a verse play, chiefly written in rhyming couplets. It takes a satirical look at the vagaries of the stock market and its Thatcherite denizens. The play was highly acclaimed, perhaps in part because it played immediately after the stock market crash of 1987.[1] Icecream (Royal Court Theatre 1989) explores Anglo-American stereotypes.[1]

In The Skriker (1994), Churchill's play, a visionary exploration of global ecology made through gender games, storytelling, distorted language and evocations of modern urban life, follows an ancient and shape-shifting death portent (The Skriker) in her search for love, revenge and human understanding.

"The prolific Churchill continued to push boundaries into the late 1990s. In 1997 she collaborated with the composer Orlando Gough to create 'Hotel,' a choreographed opera or sung ballet set in a hotel room. Also that year her surrealistic short play 'This Is a Chair' was produced."[1]

Her 2002 play, A Number, addresses the subject of human cloning and questions of identity. Her adapted screenplay of A Number was shown on BBC TV in September 2008. Her play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (2006) takes a critical look at what she sees as Britain's submission to the United States in foreign policy.

In 2010, Churchill was commissioned to write the libretto for a new short opera by Orlando Gough, as part of the Royal Opera House's ROH2 OperaShots initiative. The resulting work, A ring a lamp a thing, played for five performances in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House.[7]

Her Love and Information, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in September 2012, directed by James Macdonald. It gained great critical and popular acclaim. The play, featuring 100 characters and performed by a cast of 15, is structured as a series of more than 50 fragmented scenes, some no longer than 25 seconds, all of which are apparently unrelated but which accumulate into a startling mosaic, a portrayal of modern consciousness and the need for human intimacy, love and connection. The play will have its regional premiere at Sheffield Theatres in June 2018, directed by Caroline Steinbeis.


Churchill has published a translation of Seneca's Thyestes and her version of August Strindberg's A Dream Play. The latter was premiered at the National Theatre in 2005.


The Royal Court Theatre held a 70th Birthday retrospective of her work by presenting readings of many of her most famous plays directed by notable playwrights, including Martin Crimp and Mark Ravenhill.[8]

Of course it's possible to trace recurring themes in Churchill's work – alienation between parent and child, the possibility and failure of revolution. But it is the variety of her work that is most striking. As Von Mayenburg says: "With each play, she discovers new genres and forms. She then discards them and moves on, opening up possibilities for other playwrights to explore. I think many people writing today don't even realise they've been influenced by her. She's changed the language of theatre. And very few playwrights do that."[9]

Interest in Palestine

Churchill is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.[10]

In January 2009, she wrote a ten-minute play that explores a history of Israel, ending with the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza. It was performed for free at the Royal Court Theatre, with a collection taken to donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians.[11]

The Sunday Times condemned its "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness"; but for The Times, "there are no heroes or villains, for all that Churchill decries what is happening in Gaza".[11] Writers such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Melanie Phillips in her Spectator blog criticised the play as anti-Semitic,[12][13] as did John Nathan.[14] He noted that Churchill has said that Seven Jewish Children is "not just a theatre event but a political event."[14] He suggested that a play representing views of one community and critical of that community needed to be written by a member of that community.[14] The Royal Court denied the accusation.[15][16]

Churchill published the play, Seven Jewish Children – a play about Gaza, online, for free download and use. Churchill said: "Anyone can perform it without acquiring the rights, as long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end of it".[11][17]


In November 2019, along with other public figures, Churchill signed a letter supporting Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn describing him as "a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world" and endorsed him in the 2019 UK general election.[18]

Prizes and awards

Churchill has received the following awards:[19]


See also

Further reading

  • Churchill, Caryl. (2009) Seven Jewish Children. London: Nick Hern Books. Download only.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (2008) Churchill Plays: Four. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-540-9.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (2006) Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-959-9.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (2004) A Number. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-743-4.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (2003) Far Away. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-744-1.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1999) This is a Chair. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-344-3.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1997) Churchill Plays: Three. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-342-9.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1996) Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-311-5.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1994) The Skriker. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-275-0.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1990) Mad Forest. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-044-2.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1990) Churchill: Shorts. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-085-5.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Cloud Nine. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-090-9.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Icecream. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-016-9.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1989) Traps. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-095-4.
  • Churchill, Caryl. (1997) Blue Heart. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-327-6.
  • Churchill, Caryl and Gough, Orlando. (1990) Hotel. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-337-5.


  1. Caryl Churchill profile, Encyclopædia Britannica; accessed 26 January 2018.
  2. "Caryl Churchill Biography (1938-)". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  3. "LMH, Oxford – Prominent Alumni". Retrieved 20 May 2015.
  4. "The playwrights database of modern plays". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  5. Sarah Lyall (5 December 2004). "The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
  6. Churchill, Caryl (1982). Top Girls. London: Methuen London Ltd. pp. Front. ISBN 978-0573630231.
  7. O'Mahony, John. "Operas about wags? Why not, says the Royal Opera House", The Guardian, 10 June 2010.
  8. "Page not found". Royal Court.
  9. Mark Ravenhill (3 September 2008). "She made us raise our game". The Guardian. London, UK.
  10. "Patrons". Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Archived from the original on 2 March 2009.
  11. Royal Court acts fast with Gaza crisis play, The Guardian, 24 January 2009.
  12. Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Caryl Churchill: Gaza's Shakespeare, or Fetid Jew-Baiter?". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 14 April 2009. Retrieved 15 May 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. Nathan, John (12 February 2009). "Review: Seven Jewish Children". The Jewish Chronicle.
  15. Higgins, Charlotte (18 February 2009). "Churchill's Gaza play accused of antisemitism". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  16. "Letters: Jacobson on Gaza". The Independent. London. 21 February 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  17. Churchill, Caryl; Stoller, Jennie; Smith, Elliot (24 April 2009). "Video: Seven Jewish Children". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  18. Neale, Matthew (16 November 2019). "Exclusive: New letter supporting Jeremy Corbyn signed by Roger Waters, Robert Del Naja and more". NME. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  19. "Caryl Churchill". 16 September 2003.
  20. "". Archived from the original on 22 February 2014.
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