Caryl Churchill's play Serious Money was first staged in 1987 at London's Royal Court Theatre and was published by Methuen that very year. With hostile corporate takeovers making the news and a growing awareness of the greed of the so-called new market makers (financiers who attempted to make as much money as possible regardless of ethics and laws) both in England and the United States, the play opened at a time when audiences were ready to fully embrace it. Stories about buy-outs, insider trading, and people making huge profits, regardless of the damages they caused, were headline stories. Some of the culprits were jailed, others were still filling their bank accounts, but Churchill's play gave audiences a chance to find some humor in the situation.
Although not everyone is aware of the terminology of stockbrokers, bankers, traders, and other people involved in international finance dealings—which can make following the action a bit difficult at times—the play offers recognizable human traits in its characters. Money, as this play demonstrates, can bring out the best and, more often, the worst in people. Churchill provides a satirical glimpse into the world of finance. Serious Money is a comedy, a mystery, and social commentary. It is fast paced and has a unique format featuring overlapping dialogue.
Serious Money won the 1987-1988 Obie Award for best new play, the best comedy of
the year award from the London Evening Standard in 1987, the 1987 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the 1987 Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for best new play. The play continues to fascinate audiences around the world.
Caryl Churchill was born in London on September 3, 1938. When she was ten, she moved with her family to Montreal, where she spent her childhood. Her writing, which often exposes weaknesses and problems in the social structure, may well have been influenced by her father, Robert, who was a political cartoonist. When it was time for college, Churchill was accepted at Lady Margaret Hall, a part of Oxford University in England, where she majored in English. Before graduating, Churchill had written her first play, Downstairs, which won Churchill the first of many awards.
As Churchill was developing her style, the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) took an interest in the aspiring playwright and produced some of her works as radio plays. These included Ants (1962), Lovesick (1967), and Abortive (1971). Churchill also wrote plays for television around this same time, including The Judge's Wife (1972), The After Dinner Joke (1978), and Crimes (1982).
Churchill's first professionally staged play occurred in 1972. It was Owners, which focuses on the ills of capitalism, hinting at Churchill's leanings toward socialism (which favors communal ownership rather than the capitalist concept of individual ownership). One of her earlier plays that gained much attention was the satirical Cloud Nine (1979), which is about the effects of colonization. In 1981, Churchill won an Obie Award for this drama. Then in 1982, Top Girls won Churchill her second Obie. Churchill centers on a feminist theme in this play, a theme that often finds its way into many of her plays. The 1987 play Serious Money (which also won an Obie) marked Churchill's career, critics believe, as one of Britain's major dramatists of the twentieth century. More recently, Churchill has produced the play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (2006), which criticizes Britain's willingness to support U.S. war policies in Iraq.
Churchill is often praised for her philosophical insights and her willingness to be innovative in form. Her play Serious Money is a great example of how she pushes the traditional form of drama as her dialogue is fast and overlapping, with several characters interrupting one another, other characters switching roles, lines written in a rhyming, lyrical scheme, and songs at the end of each act, though the play is not a musical.
Serious Money is staged in two acts with no designated scene breaks, although the scenes do have informal names that are quoted throughout this summary.
"A SCENE FROM THE VOLUNTEERS OR THE STOCKJOBBERS BY THOMAS SHADWELL"
The play begins with a scene from a seventeenth-century play, The Volunteers by Thomas Shadwell, first produced in 1693. Mr. Hackwell, Mrs. Hackwell, and two jobbers (traders) are discussing investments. The scene represents the beginning of stock markets. Hackwell and his wife are asking the jobbers if there are any new patents available to invest in. As the four people discuss these possible investments, Mrs. Hackwell wonders if any of them will actually work. Mr. Hackwell says that it does not really matter. They just want to get people interested so they will invest. Once interest grows in the product, so too will the value of the Hackwell's stocks.
"THREE DIFFERENT DEALING ROOMS SIMULTANEOUSLY"
The play moves to contemporary times. There are three rooms shown. In the first is Greville, who is talking on the phone to a potential investor. He offers details of what the deal is worth and how much it will cost. He also predicts how much profit the deal will make in one year.
In another room is Grimes and Scilla, a female trader. Scilla is on two phones. As they talk on the phones, Grimes and Scilla also call out to other traders who keep track of stock prices. Grimes and Scilla also interject personal comments to one another. Grimes asks Scilla what she is doing after work, suggesting they meet at a bar.
In the third room are Jake, Scilla's brother, two salespeople and a dealer. They talk to one another interspersed with conversations on the phones. They talk fast, trying to make deals, as they sense there is about to be a power failure, which there is. All the screens go blank and the phones go dead. There is a loud outcry.
"LIFFE CHAMPAGNE BAR"
Scilla is here with her brother, Jake, and Grimes. They are discussing how much money they are making and how much more they could make. Jake says he has no intention of working after thirty. To accomplish this, he might have to "fight dirty." They mention Zackerman, someone of influence. Jake was supposed to take Zackerman (called Zac) to his father's home on the weekend, but Jake will be out of town. So he asks Scilla to take Zac there.
Zac enters. He is an American. Zac tells the audience that he teaches jobbers and brokers to be "new market makers." Then he tells a story about Merrison and Durkfeld, who are bankers. The bankers appear. Durkfeld suggests to Merrison that he should resign. Durkfeld wants to run the business by himself. Merrison is shocked. Durkfeld tells Merrison to go.
Zac says that it is not the bankers but the traders who have taken over the world of investments. These new traders are hungrier. He is talking about the business in New York. Then he talks about London. When the British Empire was at the height of its power, the British made easy profits on anything. That has changed, Zac says. "The empire's gone but the City of London keeps / On running like a cartoon cat off a cliff—bang. / That's your Big Bang."
"THE MEET OF A HUNT"
Zac is with Greville, Scilla, Mrs. Carruthers, Lady Vere, Major, Farmer, and Frosby. All are on horses.
Many of the lines here are repeated, making the dialogue come across like a song. Frosby, a retired jobber, recites a monologue, stating he is going to cause trouble that involves Scilla and Jake.
"ZAC PHONES TK AND MARYLOU BAINES IN NEW YORK"
Zac calls Marylou Baines, an arbitrageur (a person who makes profits from buying stocks in one market such as the United States and selling them in another market like Japan). TK is Marylou's personal assistant. When Marylou comes to the phone, Zac announces that Jake is dead, an apparent suicide. Then a chain reaction of phone calls occurs as the news of Jake's death runs through a network of people who are all connected by their involvement in the stock markets. The audience learns the D.T.I. (Britain's government regulatory agency, the Department of Trade and Industry) had been investigating Jake's trading practices. Everyone is concerned Jake might have mentioned their names.
There is a flashback with Zac and Scilla at the morgue, identifying Jake's body. Scilla says the day before his death, Jake told her he was concerned something might happen to him. Scilla insists that Jake was murdered. Jake gave her his diary. Scilla is going to investigate all the names in it to see who might have a motive for killing her brother.
"SCILLA AND GREVILLE AT GREVILLE'S HOUSE"
Scilla confronts her father. She asks if he knew why Jake was being investigated and if he had anything to do with Jake's death.
"CORMAN, A CORPORATE RAIDER, BROWN AND SMITH, INDUSTRIAL SPIES, ZAC AND MRS. ETHERINGTON, A STOCKBROKER"
Zac is working with Corman, who is planning a hostile takeover of Albion. A hostile takeover occurs when a company's stock is lower in value than the company's assets. Someone like Corman buys up a majority of the stocks, takes over the company, and makes his profit by selling the assets. Corman asks Zac what the chances are for the takeover. Corman tells Etherington, a stockbroker, to buy up as much stock as she can without drawing attention.
"MARYLOU BAINES AND TK IN NEW YORK"
In a flashback, TK tells Marylou that Jake has left a message about buying stocks in Albion. It is an insider tip, and TK and Marylou jump on it. Marylou teases TK that he will soon be in business on his own because he is doing so well.
"DUCKETT, CHAIRMAN OF ALBION, AND MS. BIDDULPH, A WHITE KNIGHT."
Ms. Biddulph is a white knight, a term for a person (or company) who comes to the rescue of the target of a hostile takeover. Biddulph suggests that she will make a deal with Corman so that Duckett's job, no matter what happens, will be safe.
"CORMAN, ZAC, ETHERINGTON AND OTHERS OF CORMAN'S TEAM"
Corman knows that Biddulph is acting as white knight. Corman is not concerned. Corman tells his people they must get Albion shares bought up, and Corman does not care how they do it. Zac learns that Marylou is working with Biddulph. Corman calls Marylou to confirm this. As he tries to make a deal with her, Scilla walks into the office and accuses Corman of killing her brother. Zac tells her that Jake was offering Marylou insider information for which she paid him a lot of money.
Scilla decides to drop the investigation of her brother's death and goes back to work. She talks with two women who are just starting out. They discuss how hard it is to be a woman in their profession. There is a long series of rather derogatory comments from male co-workers until the trading heats up and they become completely involved in their work. Then they sing a song about what they are doing, and the first act closes.
"JACINTA CONDOR FLYING FIRST CLASS"
Jacinta is a Peruvian businesswomen. She has a long monologue, which conveys her financial status and her unwillingness to invest her money in her country because Peru is unstable. She prefers to keep her money in European and American banks.
"MEANWHILE THE LONDON METAL EXCHANGE STARTS QUIETLY TRADING COPPER"
Zac talks with Jake in flashback. Jake tells Zac that the D.T.I. has interviewed him. Zac wants to know if Jake mentioned him. Jake says he could not lie about knowing Zac. Then Jake asks Zac what he should do. Zac asks if Jake wants to live in greed or live in fear. Jake chooses greed.
Jacinta joins them. She tells them she has sold her mines. She has invested in coca (cocaine plants) instead. She introduces them to Nigel Ajibala, a cocoa (chocolate plant) importer from Africa. Nigel says he now lives in London, "so one's operation / Is on the right side of exploitation." He insinuates that big European and American companies rip off smaller countries by keeping them in extreme debt. As Nigel puts it: "One thing one learned from one's colonial masters, / One makes money from other people's disasters."
When Nigel and Jacinta are alone, Jacinta praises Nigel for accomplishing an undisclosed plan.
"ZAC JOINS CORMAN AND ETHERINGTON IN CORMAN'S OFFICE"
Nigel, Jacinta, and Jake join the others in Corman's office. Nigel does not have enough money to buy stock in Albion, so Corman lends Nigel two million pounds. Corman promises to set up a franchise for Jacinta to give her more profits. Later, Nigel tells Jacinta and Jake that he does not intend to invest in Albion. He wants Jake to invest in something that will give him a better profit. Jake agrees.
"DUCKETT AND BIDDULPH"
Biddulph is working on a media promotion to make Duckett look good. Biddulph tells Duckett not to worry. Jacinta walks in and asks Biddulph to give her a loan. In return, Jacinta will support Duckett.
"MERRISON AND MARYLOU BAINES AT MARYLOU'S OFFICE IN NEW YORK"
Merrison, who was forced to retire, is angry. He talks to Marylou about getting revenge on Durkfeld. Durkfeld has invested in Corman's business, so Marylou suggests that Merrison do a hostile takeover of Corman's company.
"SCILLA AND GRIMES PLAYING PASS THE PIGS"
While unwinding after work, Grimes and Scilla decide to go to Greville to try to make him talk about Jake.
"GREVILLE AND FROSBY AT GREVILLE'S HOUSE"
Greville is still mourning, drinking with Frosby, when Scilla and Grimes come in. Greville swears he does not know anything about Jake's death or his money. After Scilla and Grimes leave, Frosby confesses that he was the one who turned the D.T.I. on Jake.
"ZAC AND SCILLA OUTSIDE CORMAN'S OFFICE"
Zac is distracted. He knows Jacinta is supporting Biddulph and Nigel may run with the money Corman gave him. Meanwhile, Scilla pretends to be a model and sneaks into Corman's office.
"CORMAN AND DOLCIE STARR"
Dolcie Starr is waiting to take pictures of Corman with a woman. News has leaked out that Corman is trying to take over Albion. Public opinion is against it. Starr thinks she can counter with a fake sex scandal. She takes pictures of Scilla (who is supposed to be a rented model) and Corman while Scilla forces information out of Corman about Jake's past. In payment for the details on Jake, Scilla tells Corman that Jacinta and Nigel have betrayed him.
Zac comes in with Nigel. While Corman is quizzing Nigel about the two million pounds, an agent from the D.T.I., Grevett, walks in. Everyone denies anything illegal is going on, and Corman gives Grevett his business records. Scilla tells Zac to call Marylou to say she is coming to see her. Scilla thinks Marylou might know what happened to Jake and where all Jake's money is. At this point in the play it is becoming apparent that Scilla is more intent on finding Jake's money than his murderer.
"MERRISON AND SOAT, PRESIDENT OF MISSOURI GUMBALLS, AT A DRUGSTORE IN MISSOURI"
Merrison pressures Soat, president of a small gumball company, to do a hostile takeover of Corman's company. Merrison provides the money. Soat agrees.
"CORMAN, GLEASON, A CABINET MINISTER, IN THE INTERVAL AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE"
Gleason, a member of parliament, tells Corman to drop his bid for Albion. He threatens that if Corman does not do as he says, Corman could end up like Jake. Gleason tells Corman that after the upcoming elections, he can go back to what he is doing.
"ZAC AND JACINTA, EXHAUSTED, IN THE FOYER OF THE SAVOY"
Zac and Jacinta declare their attraction for one another before they go to bed together.
"SCILLA AT MARYLOU BAINES' OFFICE IN NEW YORK"
Scilla threatens to expose Marylou. Marylou likes Scilla's drive and offers her TK's job as Marylou's personal assistant.
Zac announces that Scilla never finds out who killed her brother. He figures it must have been a government job. Another scandal would have hurt British elections.
The play closes with a song about how the stock industry has five more years to enjoy, because that is how long it is to the next election.
Nigel is from Africa and deals in cocoa beans. He is posing as a person with a lot of money, though he is living on a very basic budget. Nigel represents a man who is willing to go against his own country's needs and benefits to make a profit. Nigel declares he learned how to be greedy from the colonial powers that once ruled his country.
Marylou is an American who runs a very powerful network of wealthy people. Marylou pays Jake for his insider tips and is one of the main players in the money game. She is cold-hearted and immoral. She represents the American version of greed, which is the model for Jake and Scilla.
Ms. Biddulph is called a white knight because she comes to Duckett's aid. She creates a promotional campaign for Duckett by having media stories broadcast all the good deeds that Duckett is doing for the community. The stories are mostly false, but the promotion gets the public to stand behind Duckett and stop the hostile takeover.
Jacinta is a very wealthy woman from Peru. She once owned mines in her country but now makes money from the coca trade. She represents a person who takes wealth out of her country and places it in another, more stable country's economy. She is not only greedy, Jacinta is deceitful and promises anything in order to make a good deal for herself. She blackmails people to get them to do as she wants.
Corman is extremely wealthy, powerful, and greedy. He is always on the lookout for companies to buy out and will do whatever it takes to get them. Corman initiates the takeover bid on Albion, which he has to relinquish after community pressure causes members of the parliament to call the deal off. Corman represents British corporate greed. It is through him that the play looks at how politics and business work hand in hand.
Duckett is the head of Albion, the company that Corman wants to take over. Duckett represents the traditional form of business in England, which makes him an easy mark for Corman. When Biddulph comes to rescue Duckett by creating a fantastic media image of him, Duckett does not claim the stories are untrue. He merely goes along with Biddulph. In the end, Duckett's job and company are saved, but not by anything he has done.
Not much is known about Durkfeld, except that he asks Merrison to retire early. Durkfeld is co-chief of the bank where he and Merrison once worked.
Mrs. Etherington is a stockbroker and is involved with Corman's takeover bid. Etherington claims she has ethics, so when Corman says something about illegal actions, she pretends not to hear. However, she does whatever Corman tells her to do.
Frosby was a stock trader but was asked to retire. Now he holds a grudge against Greville and his children. Frosby thinks Grevill and his children are the reason he was forced out. They represent a new trend that Frosby despises. So he turns Jake over to the D.T.I. for insider trading. Later Frosby regrets this action.
Gleason is a member of parliament and represents politicians. He insists Corman call off the takeover bid. Gleason is worried the deal might cause a scandal, which could hurt his party's bid in the upcoming elections. Gleason threatens to do to Corman what was done to Jake. Gleason tells Corman that, as soon as the elections are over, Corman can go on doing as he pleases.
Grevett represents the D.T.I., the regulatory government service that watches over financial transactions in the United Kingdom. Although Grevett is curious about what he has overheard in Corman's office, he does not investigate very deeply. Corman keeps Grevett busy reading huge reports. Grevett does not appear to be someone motivated enough to clean up the illegal practices.
Grimes is a dealer and works with Scilla. His role is minor. He offends Greville and Frosby when he goes home with Scilla to ask Greville about Jake's death. Grimes has a foul mouth. Grimes represents the non-gentlemanly role of the modern British stock dealer.
Merrison was the co-chief executive of a large bank. He was asked to retire early and holds a grudge against Durkfeld, the man who asked Merrison to leave. Merrison decides to do a hostile takeover on Corman's business as revenge.
Soat is the owner of a small gumball manufacturing company in the States. Merrison threatens to take over Soat's company if he does not comply with Merrison's plan to take over Corman's business. Soat does as he is told.
Dolcie Starr attempts to create a promotional scheme to help save Corman. She decides the best plan is to make Corman look like the devil that he is. The plan falls apart, however, when Scilla shows up as the model with whom Corman is supposedly having sex. Corman explains that Scilla is Jake's sister, which could implicate Corman in the D.T.I.'s investigations. So the plan does not work.
T.K. is Marylou's personal assistant. He has studied under Marylou. When Scilla flies to New York to confront Marylou, Marylou replaces T.K. with Scilla. T.K. (as well as Scilla and Jake) represent the next generation of illegal traders.
Greville is Jake and Scilla's father. He represents the old time stock trader who was in power before the Big Bang. Greville has made the transition better than some of the other older men in the business, but he cannot adjust to all the changes. He especially does not like women in the field. Scilla accuses her father of favoring Jake. She also accuses Greville of being responsible for Jake's death, which is never proved. Greville denies both.
Jake is a very ambitious stock trader. He becomes involved with Marylou and makes a lot of money. He passes insider information to Marylou, an illegal activity, for which he gets caught. Jake tells his sister, the night before his death, that he is worried about something. He does not give her details. Jake represents the young, up and coming dealer, who wants money more than anything. Money is equated to power; and Jake is hungry enough to do whatever it takes to bring in the big money.
Scilla is Jake's sister and the daughter of Greville. She represents one of the first women to work in the stock market. She feels she is discriminated against because the men do not let her in on some of their deals or tell her how to play the market. When she discovers that her brother is dead, she first tries to figure out who killed him. The more she investigates his death, the more she realizes that Jake was a lot more powerful and had a lot more money than she realized. Soon her search for his murderer turns into a search for where he has stashed his money. Her search leads her to Marylou. Marylou sees how determined Scilla is and decides that Scilla will make an excellent personal assistant, so she hires her at the end of the play, thus turning Scilla into another Jake.
Zac is in banking. He is one of the few Americans who also works in the United Kingdom in association with the big stock brokers and traders. Zac is especially good when it comes to putting into place a hostile takeover, so Corman asks Zac to help him take over Albion. Zac also acts as a narrator of this play, filling in background information. Zac tries to stop Scilla from investigating Jake's death, but it is not clear if he is doing this for her sake, or for his.
The strongest theme of this play is greed. The main point of the play is to demonstrate how greedy people in the investment business became during the 1980s after the deregulations that went into effect in London. It is not just that people wanted money, but that they were willing to do anything to get it. As the use of the word greed implies, the people never seem satisfied with what they have and they always want more.
There were different kinds of greed that had various effects on other people. Corman's plan to take over Albion exemplifies greed that is sated at any cost, whether it is legal or not. Corman demands that everyone give up their families for as long as it takes to get the job done. Corman has no concern for the employees of the company he is taking over. He thinks of Albion only in terms of how much profit he can make.
Both Nigel and Jacinta's greed affects their countries. They both take what riches they can find and invest their profits in other countries' economies. Jacinta, in particular, has no problems making money off of illegal drugs; she is not concerned about what effects the drugs have on the people who buy them.
Jake and Scilla's greed is based on wanting to buy things for themselves. Jake wants to retire from work by the time he is thirty, so he bends as many rules as he can to make this possible. Scilla is not as shrewd as Jake at first. However, while investigating his death and reading his diary, she learns that Jake was making a lot more money than she is. One of the driving forces in her investigation of his death was to find out where he stashed all his money. By the end of the play, Scilla has changed. She is learning to play dirty, as Jake had once confessed that he had been.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- One of the first things that is usually noted about Serious Money is the rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue. Choose one of the scenes, paying special attention to the stage directions, that mark where one character's lines are interrupted by another, such as one of the scenes where the characters are on the floor of the stock market. Practice with three or four classmates so you can deliver these lines as fast as possible. Then present the scene to your class.
- Research the practice of hostile takeovers that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. How did this practice come to an end? Could they happen again? Are there any government regulations set in place in the United States to stop this practice? Write a paper presenting your findings.
- Jake's death is never explained. Why do you think this is? Lead a discussion with your class about this. Include discussion of who the murderer might have been. Make sure that each suggestion cites examples from the test. Was Jake murdered or does the class think it was a suicide? What details help them come to this conclusion? What character has the best motive for killing Jake?
- Many of Churchill's plays are influenced by her feminist views. Although this play is more focused on greed, Churchill still includes a few references to sexism. Research feminism and reread the play. Write an essay on feminism and its appearance in Churchill's work.
Power is another main theme in this play. It is represented in several ways. There is the power of the British parliament, with one member who stops the hostile takeover of Albion by threatening to kill Corman. Then, when the elections are over, the same member tells Corman he can continue with his illegal practices and parliament will look the other way. This is a corruption of power.
There is also the power of the D.T.I. that investigates Jake. The D.T.I. is set up to regulate the investment activities, but in the play, it is insinuated that the D.T.I. might have been responsible for Jake's death. It is unclear just how powerful the D.T.I. is, although the D.T.I. does cause the characters in the play a lot of concern.
The power of corporate executives is very evident in this play. Corman has the power to affect hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. He buys and sells companies without any thought given to the people who are involved. He tells everyone around him what to do and how to do it, even though it is illegal and very disruptive to their personal lives. Merrison, who holds a grudge against his former colleague (who becomes involved with Corman), searches for a small business owner whose company he can threaten to demolish if the small business owner does not do as Merrison tells him, which is to take over Corman's business. Merrison uses his power to seek revenge.
Jake has power because he knows a lot of people in the investment world and hears a lot of insider information. He uses this information as the tool to wield his power. Biddulph has power because she knows how to manipulate the media. She creates a do-gooder image for Duckett so the community will stop the hostile takeover of Duckett's company. There is also the power that comes with having a lot of money, which many of the characters in this play have. Power, as exemplified in this play, is not used to do good. It is used to help people become even more powerful.
In this play, everyone appears to have his or her own agenda. To this end, the characters are willing to say anything to anyone to accomplish their goal, even if that person has no intention of following through on what he or she has promised. There are a lot of ambiguities in the play, so it is never clear who is telling the truth and who is not. For example, the audience never finds out what Nigel is up to. He takes a couple million pounds from Corman, who thinks Nigel is going
to use the money to buy stocks in Albion. Nigel confesses that he has no intention of doing this, although he is not clear about what his plans are. Nigel and Jacinta are scheming something, as Jacinta praises Nigel for pulling off a deception, but the audience is not in on the deal that Jacinta and Nigel have pre-arranged. Jacinta tells Corman that she will buy stocks, too, in order to help him out. However, as soon as she leaves his office, she goes straight to Albion and promises to help save that company. The play suggests that power and money come to these people because they are deceitful. The person who makes the biggest profit is not necessarily the most intelligent, but rather is the one who can lie and get away with it.
Historical Opening Scene
The first scene in Churchill's play Serious Money comes from a Restoration era production, Thomas Chadwell's The Volunteers, first staged in 1692. By using this scene to open her play, Churchill informs her audience that her play is about the stock market, that it is a satirical comedy (which Restoration plays were known for being), and that the practices Churchill is about to expose have been going on for a long time. Chadwell's play is about the beginnings of the idea of investing in another person's business. As Chadwell presents it, the beginnings were not much more ethical than the dealings in the late twentieth-century markets, as Churchill presents them. So Chadwell's play is used as a reference and as a comparison. It deepens the meaning of Churchill's play because it shows a long-standing precedent. Churchill might present Chadwell's scene to make her audiences think. Maybe it is not just the insider trading that is wrong, but also the whole idea of stock markets that is a bit shaky.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) revolutionized the form of drama. Brecht, a German playwright, believed drama should be created not to entertain but rather to educate his audiences. Churchill's dramas are almost always referred to by critics as having been influenced by Brecht. Some of these influences can be seen not just in Churchill's delivery of a message (such as the destructive effects of greed in this play) but also in the form of her play. Brecht did not want his audiences to come to the play for enjoyment. He did not want his plays to draw his audience in through their emotions. His plays were not intended as escapes from reality, so he did everything possible to continually remind his audiences that the play was not to be confused with reality. Churchill accomplishes this in several ways. First, by opening with the scene from someone else's play, she calls attention to the fact that her production is also a play. Although it is not apparent in reading the play, some productions of Serious Money include actors exchanging roles right in the middle of a scene. Also, in the hunt scene, actors play their roles as well as being their own horses. In addition, the songs at the ends of each act are similar to Brecht's use of a chorus, which sums up some of the action that has taken place in the play.
Dialogue in Rhyming Couplets
In formal writing, a couplet is a two-line stanza, with the last words in each line forming rhymes. Much of Churchill's play is written in two-line couplets. Often a character might read the first of the lines and another character will read the second line of the rhyming pair. There are a few occasions when one character, like Merrison when he tells his story of the good old days in banking and trading, delivers a monologue that takes the form of a long unbroken stanza of multiple sets of couplets. Critics have noted that some of the rhyming schemes appear forced or silly, which might add to the comic nature of the play. Churchill's play may include rhymes, as many passages in Restoration comedies did. She might also have used rhymes to make the actor's lines appear otherworldly, thus keeping the audience from forgetting that what she is presenting on stage is not reality, according to Brecht's dramatic theories.
The use of flashback, which is a scene that interrupts the chronological flow of a literary work, thus taking the reader or the audience back in time, is most often used to provide missing information or to fill out a scene. In traditional form, the flashback is prefaced, so the reader or audience knows the scene occurred at an earlier time. In Churchill's Serious Money, flashbacks happen spontaneously. For example, after Jake has died, he pops up in future scenes as if he were still alive. This forces the audience to bridge the gaps, keeping them consciously involved in the play. Churchill might have interjected these flashbacks without warning as another tactic to remind the audience that what they are seeing on stage is not to be confused with reality.
The Big Bang
On October 27, 1986, major operational changes occurred for the London Stock Exchange. A number of rules that had previously restricted competition were dramatically changed or abolished. Those changes included a new job position, called market maker, which combined the functions of a stockbroker and a stockjobber (trader). Stockbrokers, who used to do all transactions face to face, were allowed to make deals via the phone and a computer quotation system, which sped up the transactions. The deregulation meant that ownership of member firms by an outside corporation was now allowed. There were also no minimums on the commission that could be received on a sale.
Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, wanted to improve and update Britain's role as a financial center, so she put these deregulations in place. As a result, London, which had previously focused on domestic trade, is now considered a global financial center.
London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE)
In the play, Scilla works at the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), one of London's stock exchanges through which futures are traded. A stock exchange is an organized marketplace where people gather to buy, sell, or trade stocks or other types of investment instruments. LIFFE specializes in a type of investment called Futures. Futures are contracts to buy or to sell specific quantities of a commodity (like wheat, corn, or sugar) or a financial instrument (such as the value of U.S. currency) at a predetermined price and by a specified date in the future.
Insider training, though often referred to in relationship to crime, is both legal and illegal. The legal type of insider trading involves employees and officials of a company buying or selling stock in their own company. As long as they report these trades (if done in the United States) to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), their actions are considered legal.
Examples of the illegal types of insider trading happen when the corporate employees and officials trade securities after they have learned of confidential information that the general public does not have access to. The same could apply to friends, business associates, and family members of the employees and officials if they buy or sell the securities after being tipped off by having been given this same confidential information that is still not general, public knowledge.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: After one of the greatest prolonged stock market booms, everything changes in October 1987. Referred to as Black Monday, October 19, 1987 saw one of the largest drops in stock prices in one day, a drop of 22.68 percent.
Today: The Dow Jones Industrial Average, an indicator of how the U.S. stock market is doing, reaches 14,000 points in 2007 for the first time, an 88 percent rise just since 2002.
- 1980s: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher orders the merger of the Department of Trade with the Department of Industry to create the Department of Trade and Industry (D.T.I.), which regulates business practices in the United Kingdom as well as trade functions and radio frequencies.
Today: The D.T.I., as of 2007, is now the Department for Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform.
- 1980s: With Margaret Thatcher in power as Britain's Prime Minister, Churchill writes Serious Money, a play that satirizes the consequences and changes that occur in London's stock market due to Thatcher's deregulations.
Today: With Tony Blair having just completed nearly ten years in office as British Prime Minister, Churchill writes Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, a play that satirizes Blair's collusions with U.S. President George W. Bush in the war on terror and the war in Iraq.
Ivan Boesky, who is mentioned in Churchill's play, was caught for illegal insider trading. His name is used as a warning about what happens if you are working on an illegal investment deal
and get caught. Ivan Boesky, an American citizen, was worth at least 200 million dollars in 1986 before the SEC caught him making illegal insider trades. Boesky worked his way up to become one of the more influential traders on Wall Street. His world collapsed on November 14, 1986, when he pleaded for a deal with the SEC. The commission fined him 100 million dollars and made him ineligible to work in securities for the rest of his life. In exchange, Boesky (who is now unflatteringly referred to as The Mouth) gave the SEC names of people involved in his illegal deals.
The name Guinness is also used in Churchill's play as a warning. This time it is a reference to a British misdeed in the stock market world. This fraud involved arbitrarily inflating stock prices for the distillery Guinness to enable Guinness to go forward with a takeover bid of Distillers, a Scottish brewing company. The white-collar crime was one of the United Kingdom's biggest. Four of the country's most successful businessmen were charged with the crime. They were Ernest Saunders, Guinness chief executive, Gerald Ronson, an oil businessman, Jack Lyons, a financier, and Anthony Parnes, a stockbroker. Known as the Guinness Four, the men were convicted, assigned jail terms, and heavily fined. The fraud was uncovered when Ivan Boesky gave names and details of the fraud in his plea bargaining with the SEC.
Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692)
Shadwell was a seventeenth-century British playwright and a poet who was writing in a period known as the English Restoration. The Restoration began in 1660 with the return of Charles II to the throne of England after the dissolution of the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. The theaters in England had been officially closed while the Puritans were in power, thus the Restoration refers to the re-opening of the English theaters in addition to the restoration of the monarchy. Shadwell was known for his witty dialogue and realistic portrayals of London society in his comedies of manners, a type of play that makes fun of society and was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in England. Restoration comedy was a theatrical form that heavily influenced Churchill. Shadwell's play, which begins Churchill's play, is called The Volunteers, or Stockjobbers and was published in 1693. It was Shadwell's last play and was staged after his death. Other plays include The Humorist (1671), Psyche (1675), and The Virtuoso (1676). In 1688, Shadwell was named the poet laureate for Britain.
With scandals in the financial world in both the United States and in the United Kingdom, Churchill's Serious Money enjoyed a great deal of critical attention in both countries. The 1980s were renowned for corporate hostile takeovers, and Churchill's play capitalized on this topic. Indeed, the play was awarded an Obie for best new play of the year.
Lynn Homa, writing in American Banker, calls the play "a sort of combination horse race/spy flick/Marx Brothers routine of financial wheeling and dealing." Homa finds the play to be fast paced, very funny, and "politically cutting theater." Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, continually praises Churchill in his review, despite a few flaws that he carefully points out. Overall, though, Rich finds the play to be intelligently written. Churchill proves, Rich writes, that though it is different from news reports and novels based on contemporary themes, the stage is as good a media for "dramatizing the big, immediate stories of our day." Rich states: "If Serious Money is an angry, leftist political work about ruthlessness and venality, about plundering and piggishness, it is also vivid entertainment."
Also writing in the New York Times, Leonard Silk describes Churchill's play as a "carnival of sinful freaks, caught in flagrante delecto, lying, cheating, screaming and, in the best bit, prancing like horses." Moira Hodgson, writing in the Nation, writes that Serious Money "is one of the most interesting of the season." Hodgson also describes the play as "a brutal satire." She goes on to write that "the language is harsh and savage, sometimes brilliant, sometimes puerile—and often startling."
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Koehler states that Churchill's play offers "entertaining complexity." Ted Hoover, writing in the Pittsburgh City Paper, calls Churchill "one of the greatest playwrights at work today; Horrifically intelligent, scathingly funny, woozily theatrical." Hoover continues, stating that Churchill, through her play, is "hurling so many non-stop staggering ideas at you, so many swirling theatrical styles and so much lush, giddy dialogue you don't really want to be anywhere else at that moment."
In an article that focuses on the playwright rather than the play, Sarah Lyall, writing in the New York Times, comments that Churchill, as a playwright, is all but held in awe, especially in London. Lyall writes that Churchill "is one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights in the English-speaking world." Churchill is so esteemed because of "her passion, curiosity, rigor, openness to collaboration." She is also uncommonly less predictable. To demonstrate her uniqueness, Lyall states that Churchill's plays feature "highly stylized conceits," such as "flashbacks, twisted chronologies, huge leaps of logic, elements of absurdity, overlapping dialogue, different actors playing the same character in different scenes, interjected songs and, in the case of Serious Money, dialogue written almost entirely in verse." Lyall adds that all playwrights are known for specific traits. Churchill's is that she is "a constant surprise."
Joyce M. Hart
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is a freelance writer and published author. In this essay, she examines the primary characters in Serious Money.
The secondary characters in Serious Money help color the dramatic story, adding complications, turns and twists, as well as filling in gaps in the storyline, while the primary characters move the plot along. The secondary characters might only appear in one scene, such as Soat, the president of Missouri Gumballs, the man who is coerced into undermining Corman's business. Soat's action provides a fitting ending to the play. The results of Soat's actions are significant, but Soat's character is insignificant. He appears briefly toward the end of the play and recites very few lines. Like Soat, there are numerous other secondary characters of varying significance. Frosby is in two scenes and confesses to his role in turning Jake over to the D.T.I. Merrison is a disgruntled banker who pressures Soat into action. T.K., Marylou's personal assistant, does not do much more than answer the phone.
Amidst this large cast, it can be argued that there are three major characters in this play. Although Corman, Marylou, and Jacinta have a lot of money and power, they are not major characters. When they are not present, not much is said about them by the other characters. Although they represent the big wheelers and dealers in this fictional financial world, the play does not stop and go on their presence. Rather, one would do best to examine Scilla, Zac, and Jake as the most significant roles in Serious Money.
Scilla is a primary character for several reasons. First, Scilla's determination to find her brother's killer drives a lot of the action. She also provides the suspense in this play. If this is a murder mystery, than Scilla is the detective. She moves the scenes along as she travels from meetings with Zac to talk about her brother's death, to confrontations with her father about Jake. Then she sneaks into Corman's meetings, showing up under disguise, pushing her way into scenes that otherwise have nothing to do with her. She has Jake's diary, which includes the names of many of the other characters. This gives Scilla the excuse to talk to or to investigate almost everyone in the play. Scilla is also the only character who is transformed over the course of the play. She starts out rather innocent, struggling with being a woman in a traditionally male profession. Her father hates that she is working as a trader; and it is through Scilla that the play demonstrates how male traders can belittle women, reducing them to mere body parts. When her brother dies, Scilla becomes a more vital character. She is driven to find out who is responsible for Jake's death and will not be deterred, even though Zac attempts to stop her. Scilla even accuses her father of being responsible. She is not afraid of anyone, even while she realizes that she too might be murdered.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- There are two companion collections of Churchill's plays: Churchill Plays 1 (1985) and Churchill Plays 2 (1990). These provide a good overview of the playwright's work.
- Churchill's 2007 play, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, portrays an affair between two men to comment on the submissive role that Britain has played in supporting U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century. The two characters, Sam (as in Uncle Sam for the United States) and Jack (as in Union Jack, a nickname for England) discuss military diplomacy, regime changes in the world, and rigged elections, among other things.
- Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) captures 1980s New York in all its glories and debasement. It depicts the greed of those working on Wall Street. Sherman McCoy, the protagonist, is a Wall Street investment banker who makes a wrong turn one night on his way home. The consequences of this act erupt into a story that shines a literary light on corruption in the legal system as well as on prejudice and greed.
- The Predators's Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders (1989), by Connie Bruck, provides a factual overview of what went right and what went wrong during the boom and bust of Wall Street and its players at the height of 1980s greed. Reportedly, the people involved in this story tried to stop its publication.
- Sarah Ruhl is an award-winning American playwright with an intelligent sense of humor. In The Clean House and Other Plays (2006), Ruhl demonstrates a unique voice that takes common themes such as love and death and breathes new understanding into them.
Yet, the more Scilla investigates Jake's life to discover who might have had a strong enough motive to kill him, the more she learns how much money Jake has made. She is at first disappointed by the fact that Jake never confided in her. Then she is angered that he did not tell her the secrets to his success. Finally, she becomes obsessed by the power Jake once held, and she wants to achieve the same for herself. Scilla not only wants to find out how Jake accumulated his wealth but also where he hid it. By the end of the play, she no longer cares who murdered her brother. Indeed, Scilla's character path is not one that can be lauded, unless the audience cheers for a character who values power above all else. Nevertheless, her role does present the only character arc in the entire play. For this reason, she must be considered as one of the major characters.
Another major character is Zac. Throughout much of the play, Zac acts as a narrator. Through Zac, background information is presented as are details that connect one scene to the next. For example, Zac introduces the story about Durkfeld telling Merrison to retire early. Although this tidbit is not completely understood when it is first presented, it proves to be essential to the plot when Merrison retaliates against Durkfeld near the end of the play.
Like Scilla, Zac appears in nearly all of the scenes. He has a more subtle power than Corman or Marylou, but they are dependent on him. Zac is a major figure in the network of bankers, traders, stockbrokers, and corporate executives. He is level headed, sure of himself, and he attempts to keep everyone calm. He tries to calm Scilla so she will not cause more problems than Jake's death has already caused. He is the person who notifies everyone of Jake's death. He knows all the key characters, not from Jake's diary, like Scilla, but from his actual experience and relationships with them. He is at the heart of Corman's plans for a hostile takeover. Furthermore, Zac is an American, and Churchill uses the U.S. stock market as a model for greed. The British traders and markets take their lead from the Americans. Zac, therefore, serves as a figurative representative of U.S. financial dealings. There are other Americans, like Marylou, Merrison, and Durkfeld, but they are not as pivotal to the play as Zac is. He not only pushes the action forward, but he also slows it down. He tells Corman when to act. He flirts with Scilla and Jacinta. He knows when Marylou is lying. Indeed, in this fast-paced play, the audience comes to depend on Zac to explain what is happening.
Identifying Jake as a central character might appear troublesome. After all, Jake dies at the beginning of the play. However, the play is not strictly chronological and Jake appears in several scenes after his death has been announced. In his last encounter with his sister, Jake tells her that he thinks someone might hurt him. Later in the play, as Zac is working with Corman, Jake suddenly appears again; this time in a bar with Zac. The two men talk about their dreams of making money. Jake reappears in the second act with Zac again, and Jake asks for Zac's advice. Jake knows the D.T.I. investigators will come to him, so he asks Zac what he should do. Then Jake introduces Jacinta to Zac so the Corman deal can go through. This scene demonstrates Jake's continued importance to the play's plot. He has the contacts that Zac needs. Later, Jake reappears in Corman's office and then with Marylou. Even in the scenes in which Jake is already dead, his ghost is felt throughout the entire play. Several characters are afraid that Jake might have mentioned their names to the D.T.I. before he died. Then there is the ever-present question of who killed Jake and why. Jake's death dictates Jake's memory. This also gives Scilla the courage to confront Marylou. Marylou had trusted Jake, and when she sees how determined Scilla is, she gives Scilla a job because of her past relationship with Jake.
Thusly, Jake, Scilla, and Zac represent the new market makers. Jake represents what can happen when things go wrong in this system. Scilla is the model for how to manipulate the system. Zac, who profits from the system, is the observer; he adapts to the system and makes the best of it.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on Serious Money, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Gray gives a critical analysis of Churchill's life and work.
Now established as one of the most important contemporary British playwrights, Caryl Churchill is often grouped with the dramatists of the late 1960s who revitalized and reshaped British theater, not only in terms of their political subject matter but also in terms of their chosen venues and company structures. While this connection is an accurate reflection of both her importance and her socialist perspective, the trajectory of her career is remarkably different from that of contemporaries such as Howard Brenton or David Hare. While the male dramatists of the period generally proceeded from university to the founding of a fringe theater company and thence to the major subsidized playhouses, Churchill's path was fragmented and complex, marked by several major shifts in direction.
Churchill was born in London on 3 September 1938. She was an only child; her mother was a model and actress, and her father, Robert Churchill, was a cartoonist. When she was ten the family moved to Montreal, Canada, where she was educated at the Trafalgar School. She returned to England to study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1957, and finished her degree in English in 1960, just as the first wave of British postwar playwrights was beginning to make its presence felt. While this development may have prompted her to write several pieces for the stage, which received student productions, her own dramaturgy was shaped more by radio than the theater, and her first professional radio production, The Ants (1962), originally envisaged for television, was submitted to the BBC Third Programme on the advice of her agent, Margaret "Peggy" Ramsay. The Ants was also included in the Penguin New English Dramatists volume covering radio drama in 1969. What made The Ants outstanding was not so much the youth of the author—Churchill was twenty-four—as a remarkable clarity of design that gives it an unusual authority. The story of a child who cannot articulate his feelings about either the war that occupies the headlines or the corrosive breakup of his parents, and who joins his grandfather in the destruction of an ants' nest he had formerly loved to watch, reflects preoccupations that recur throughout Churchill's work: the interrelation of the personal and the political; the ways in which the silenced struggle to find expression; and the idea of alternative worlds, both utopia and dystopia.
Churchill married the barrister David Harter in 1961, and between 1963 and 1969 they had three sons. She claimed in Catherine Itzin's Stages in the Revolution (1980) that the years she spent at home with the children "politicized" her. They were also instrumental in her early choice of medium. Radio has, from the outset, offered women opportunities to experiment and work. Its large output and relatively low profile mean that an author's gender is not emphasized. As plays are rehearsed and recorded at speed, the writer can work almost entirely from home; and, in a life filled with differing responsibilities, a play that is structured in small, often vividly contrasting, scenic units can be easier to build.
Because a radio play has no embodied form, it is also a medium in which the line between the abstract and the concrete can be blurred; ideas are colored by the voice that speaks them; and scenes of vigorous action derive their strength from the movement they create within characters rather than from spectacle. In Churchill's Abortive (1971), for example, a husband and wife reflect on her recent abortion; their thoughts seem to be drawn out of them by the carefully orchestrated sound effects of wind and rain. Gradually, the audience becomes aware that the couple read past events differently. The wife seems to have been raped by Billy, the father of her aborted child. Both she and her husband, however, hold Billy in affection, though their accounts of him do not tally. The husband, for instance, remembers a day on the river, "an English scene so remarkable for its pale green that it seemed even at the time like a memory," a moment made beautiful by Billy's vulnerability as he told their small daughter that he had never been in a boat and was tenderly encouraged by her to step in. The wife comments, "He was certainly lying because he told me he'd worked his passage to South America." There is no "true" version of the story, and the audience never hears Billy himself; what is important is the concrete effect his actions have had upon the relationship, on the ways the couple define themselves, their sexuality, their child, the possible lives that have now been closed to them, and those that remain.
Schreber's Nervous Illness (1972) enters the mind of the protagonist, a judge at the turn of the century and a patient of Sigmund Freud, to render concrete the images that afflict him. Schreber sees himself as assailed by "nerve rays" that speak to him in a variety of voices; in an arresting first speech he claims that "the Order of the World has been broken and God and I find ourselves in a situation that has never arisen before." As his illness progresses he sees himself as participating in "miracles" and as undergoing a transformation into a female state, his body becoming quick with new life. His monologues and the interruptions of the "rays" are intercut with statements from the Director of the Asylum, who never addresses the protagonist directly. As Elaine Aston has pointed out, this image parallels other plays in the 1970s, such as David Edgar's Mary Barnes (performed in 1978, published in 1979), that explore the "anti-psychiatry" of R. D. Laing. Churchill's use of radio puts the listener in the position of a Laingian psychiatrist: the audience hears, as Schreber does, the voices of the "rays" and of God himself—and with no visual dimension to suggest otherwise, their presence is not measurably different from that of the doctor. The audience has no choice, therefore, but to accept the validity of Schreber's experience—not to believe in the existence of the rays, but to acknowledge the significance of the psychological journey that he undergoes and the newly strengthened self with which he emerges. Churchill's interest in the ways the human subject can make and remake, articulate, and express itself is an abiding preoccupation.
What she has described as the second stage of her career, the period that marked a return to the theater, this time as a professional playwright, was inaugurated in 1972 with Owners at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. The darkly funny Owners tells with elegant symmetry the story of two couples: property owner Marion and her pushy capitalist husband, Clegg, and tenants Alec and Lisa. Written in three days as Churchill recovered from a miscarriage, Owners explores sexual and familial, as well as financial, ownership. Clegg likes to think of himself as owning Marion: "It's very like having a talking dog." His stereotypical chauvinism is so outrageous that the audience is set up to expect an uncomplicated enjoyment of Marion's refusal to conform; they are instantly challenged by her shameless adoption of the "dog" image. She converts it from Samuel Johnson's dismissive type of ineptitude ("A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs: it is not well done, but you are surprised to find it done at all") to that of the "capitalist running dog" of Mao Tse-tung: "I work like a dog. Most women are fleas but I'm the dog." Marion and Clegg both assume that they have the right to own Lisa's child: Marion because she desires her former lover Alec, Clegg because he has slept with Lisa, and both because they can afford to exploit Lisa's poverty. In contrast, when Marion gets her go-between Worsely to set the house on fire, Alec not only saves his family but sacrifices his life to save a neighbor's baby. While he sees life as something that can be spent in a good cause, he is equally willing to assume the responsibility of taking life: when his elderly mother goes into a permanent coma, he releases her. In contrast, Worsely, who subscribes to the capitalist assumption that life is what one makes it, is always trying to commit suicide; his failures are a running gag, as is his ongoing debate with a Samaritan: "I told him I wanted to kill myself and could he help. He said in a very feeling voice he would certainly try. But does he hell. The bastard's always trying to stop me."
Like many of Churchill's plays, Owners became more topical with time: the right-wing government elected in 1979 increasingly prea-ched individual responsibility for life. Margaret Thatcher characteristically invoked the story of the Good Samaritan who could afford to do good. The extent of this responsibility was explored in real-life events such as the "Baby Cotton" case in 1984, which raised questions about payment for surrogate parenthood, and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989 (when ninety-six football fans were crushed to death in the press of a badly managed crowd), which left one young victim in a permanent coma from which his parents struggled for the right to release him.
Churchill saw the mid 1970s as marking the beginning of a third phase in her work. As she became active in the women's movement she also moved from solitary to collaborative work, a process she described in Rob Ritchie's The Joint Stock Book (1987) as leaving her "as thrilled as a child at a pantomime." For many dramatists, collaborative writing, or "workshopping" material with a company, was a useful apprenticeship to be discarded as competence developed. Churchill had been a playwright for eighteen years when she encountered the feminist company Monstrous Regiment on an abortion march; the result was Vinegar Tom (performed in 1976, published in 1978), about the seventeenth-century witch trials. At the same time, she worked with the socialist company Joint Stock on a play about the same period, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (performed in 1976, published in 1978). Working with companies from the outset gave her the support she needed to work on a broader canvas with larger casts and to make use of their personal experiences and stage skills.
Churchill's plays differ from those of most of her male contemporaries, even those of broadly leftist/feminist sympathy, whose works frequently track the career of a female hero, a romantic conscience for a corrupt world, leaving old assumptions about gender and personality unshaken. Churchill's dramaturgy reflects the collective process that engendered the play. To watch Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, for example, is to experience a disorienting shift of focus. The play presents the experiences of the ordinary people who made the English revolution in the seventeenth century. There are no heroes with whom to identify; characters are played by several different actors, so they may be seen to grow in terms of understanding their situation, but not in terms of "personality." This undercutting of audience identification made Light Shining in Buckinghamshire—along with Vinegar Tom, which broke up the seventeenth-century story with modern songs—Churchill's most Brechtian work to date.
Like much of Bertolt Brecht's work, the play is charged with an excitement that stems from its ability to catch a political process and make it human and concrete. In one key scene, two women are looking in a mirror. The conversation concentrates on the material aspects of their situation. One explains to the other that they can take what they need, blankets and cattle, from the manor house, and she claims their right to do so as Saxons dispossessed by Norman aristocrats, as workers on the land betrayed by those whose title lies only in paper: "We're burning his papers … that's like him burnt." Feminist critiques of Churchill identify this scene as a liminal moment embodying the idea that the act of becoming a subject, a political being, is open to all. Throughout the play characters take hold of the language that has constructed them and shape new selves: a woman claims the right to preach; a butcher refuses meat to the rich; a vagrant ceases to identify herself as "evil" and can allow herself to be touched, in a meeting charged with a sense that "you're God, you're God, no one's more God than you if you could know it yourself, you're lovely, you're perfect." Yet, even in this scene it is clear that the revolution has been betrayed. Oliver Cromwell refuses the chance to set up a democracy and invests the government of the country in the propertied classes; the preacher who recruited for the New Model Army evicts his tenants while assuring himself he is doing it to provide corn for all. "Jesus Christ did come," one of the empowered women tells us, "and nobody noticed." The last lines of the play are spoken by men while the women keep silent.
Churchill's subsequent plays with Joint Stock and the Royal Court Theatre, especially Cloud Nine (performed and published in 1979), Top Girls (performed and published in 1982), and Fen (performed and published in 1983), brought her to much greater prominence. All three transferred to New York, where Cloud Nine and Top Girls won Obie Awards. Fen won the Susan Smith Blackburn Award in 1984, and Churchill's first collection of plays was published by Methuen in 1985. Since then all three works have been revived frequently by both amateur and professional companies. It was an extraordinary achievement, given the combination of political complexity and theatrical innovation in the plays. Their reception was prompted by the uprush of feminist consciousness in all aspects of life: novels, consciousness-raising groups, rape crisis centers, shelters for battered women, and an increasing body of feminist theory began to transform life at many levels, and Churchill's works took on the status of classics.
She continued to be active in the women's movement and in 1977 contributed to the Monstrous Regiment cabaret, Floorshow. The heady sense of new possibilities and the swift and stylized cabaret medium generated ideas that emerged in the bold imagery and cartoon-like tableaux of Cloud Nine, developed with Joint Stock in 1979 out of a series of workshops exploring sexuality and sexual politics. The title was taken from the term for orgasm used by the caretaker of the rehearsal room, who had been drawn into the discussions. In the middle of the second act the whole company unite to celebrate the varieties of love and sing "It'll be fine when you reach Cloud Nine." This scene is, however, a utopian moment that can only exist outside the narrative; within it, characters have to struggle and engage with the legacy of Victorian patriarchy. Churchill reveals the complexity of this legacy only gradually. The first act, which takes place circa 1879, is a wildly comic parody of the television series of the 1970s such as Upstairs Downstairs, which cast a nostalgic glow over the days of the British Empire; Churchill mocks the enforced sexual and social passivity of women and the insensitivity and colonizing greed of men:
BETTY Do you think of me sometimes then?
HARRY You have been thought of where no white woman has been thought of before.
BETTY It's one way of having adventures. I suppose I will never go in person.
In this act Churchill continually subverts the idea that the bodies of women (or of any oppressed group) are to be looked at as powerless and unchanging objects by the white male hierarchy. Because Betty is solely defined by male desire, she is played by a man; her son, Edward, who likes dolls, has yet to be made a man, and is played by a woman; her daughter, Victoria, the most passive of all, is a doll; and the black servant Joshua, who sings English Christmas carols and flogs native rebels but eventually shoots Betty's husband, Clive, is played by a white actor in unconvincing makeup that reveals him as a construct of white culture. The pattern the actors weave onstage also echoes the trap in which women are caught. The sexually articulate Mrs. Saunders speaks of desire, but as Clive vanishes underneath her skirts, emerging moments later to disguise the damp patch on his trousers with champagne, she can only ponder her dislike of him; the lesbian governess Ellen is played by the actress playing Mrs. Saunders, thus simultaneously embodying the attraction and the impossibility of a union between them. Ellen is married off to Harry Bagley, neatly crushing her hopeless desire for Betty and his for Clive in a single miserable union.
While the cross-dressing and farce-like speed are outrageously comic, reflecting the enthusiasm Churchill found in the workshops, they have an underlying savagery that emerges fully in the second act. The action moves to 1979, but Betty, Edward, and Victoria have aged only twenty-five years, and they are played by actors of the appropriate gender. They may thus be understood to have "matured" or "grown up" and absorbed the experience of earlier generations, but their engagement with the sexual politics of the 1970s is still warped and distorted despite the distance they have traveled. Betty has left her painful marriage; so has Victoria, now a mother and tentatively exploring a relationship with another woman. Edward is gay and struggling to come to terms with his lover Gerry's promiscuity. While the action—apart from the wild energy of Victoria's daughter, Cathy, played by a man with no attempt to disguise the incongruity—is primarily naturalistic, it borders on surrealism. If the Victorian Age can now be viewed as comic caricature, Churchill implies, humans are still far from utopia; a better world can be glimpsed in the moments when characters are at their least rational—as when Edward, Victoria, and her lover Lin make a drunken and giggly attempt to evoke the Goddess. Their language suggests an ideal past, the "history we haven't had," and, through Victoria's socialist-feminist analysis, explains how this past is so rooted in a long-dead economic system that it can never be recovered. They raise not a goddess but evidence of patriarchal corruption: first, Victoria's husband, Martin, who is nostalgic for the 1960s, "when liberation just meant fucking"; and second, the ghost of Lin's brother Bill, a soldier in Northern Ireland, who sees brutal sex as an antidote to his rage as a victim of a still-operative colonialism.
The closing moments of the play measure the distance between what 1970s feminism has achieved and what still has to be overcome. Visited by the ghosts of her mother and Ellen, Betty narrates her attainment of selfhood through self-induced orgasm:
I thought well there is somebody there. It felt very sweet…. Afterwards I thought I'd betrayed Clive. My mother would kill me. But 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 about it any more. Sometimes I do it three times in one night and it really is great fun.
Betty can now begin to renegotiate her relationship with her children, acknowledging their sexuality and articulating, through an awkward attempt to pick up Gerry, the hope that she may have a sexual relationship herself. At this point, the last image in the play, it is possible for her to embrace the Betty of the previous act; it is an image of great tenderness and optimism, and also one that only exists in imagined as opposed to real space, implying that the reconciliation of past and present has still to occur. Its echo of the mirror scene in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, however, implies that it is not impossible.
Top Girls and Fen mark a new phase in feminist political drama; as the 1970s gave way to the Thatcher era, images of women united in a struggle against a patriarchal legacy gave way to a more fragmented picture. In both plays Churchill turns to an examination of the position of women in contemporary capitalism. In the opening scene of Top Girls, the protagonist, Marlene, places herself in a continuum of "successful" women in history who gather to celebrate her promotion at a dinner: Isabella Bird, the Victorian explorer and traveler; Pope Joan, an apocryphal figure who allegedly served as the pontiff from 855 to 858; Lady Nijo, a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial court concubine and Buddhist nun; Patient Griselda, the "obedient wife" character from medieval and Renaissance sources such as Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; and Dull Gret, the key figure in a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The scene itself is theatrically and politically uplifting, with an energy arising both from obstacles transcended and heroic failure, sometimes sharply juxtaposed: Joan, for instance, reduces the company to ribald and delighted laughter with an account of giving birth unexpectedly during a papal procession, a laughter she suddenly ruptures with the comment, "They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death." Much of the vigor of the first scene derives from the way lines overlap, so that the rhythms of nineteenth-century reminiscence or Japanese haiku collide with those of the Latin Mass or the twitterings of Griselda. As virtually every critique of the play has since pointed out, this overlap dramatizes the point that these historical heroines could function only on the individual level; they lack the power to support one another or to offer help to their contemporaries—except, perhaps, for Gret, monosyllabic apart from one speech in which she describes organizing her neighbors to go and beat the devils in hell: "We'd had worse, you see, we'd had the Spanish. We'd all had family killed. Men on wheels. Babies on swords. I'd had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards."
In the next act, the actress who plays Gret, powerful but unheard, becomes the equally marginalized figure of Angie, Marlene's slow-witted daughter. Churchill tracks their relationship backward; the audience first meets Angie in the country, announcing that she is going to run away to London to visit her aunt, Marlene, whom she believes to be her mother. When she arrives at Marlene's office, she sits ignored, sometimes asleep, through a series of interactions between Marlene and various colleagues that are notable not simply for their infectious ruthlessness (Angie gapes in admiration as Marlene tells a wife interceding for her failed husband to "piss off" and a would-be saleswoman intones like a mantra, "I'm not very nice") but also for their linguistic poverty. Marlene's role in sustaining the capitalist culture is more overtly argued out in the following section, which takes place one year earlier. She visits her sister Joyce and confirms that she is Angie's true mother. The sisters bicker, at first with affection, then corrosively as the row becomes political; Joyce hurls the epithet "Hitlerina," while Marlene, who has won over Angie with presents, is confronted with the personal implications of her beliefs:
MARLENE … Anyone can do anything if they've got what it takes.
JOYCE And if they haven't?
MARLENE If they're stupid or lazy or frightened, I'm not going to help them get a job, why should I?
JOYCE What about Angie?
MARLENE What about her?
JOYCE She's stupid, lazy and frightened, so what about her?
Angie closes the play with a single word born out of the nightmare she has been having offstage: "Frightening," a word that sums up both her own future and that of a country in which feminism can contemplate an alliance with capitalism.
Fen is also a state-of-the-nation play, but in this play the gulf between those who control the land and those who work it is so wide that not even the acrid dialogue of Joyce and Marlene is possible. Rather, the opening, in which a Japanese businessman gazes at the Fens and looks for someone to tell him "old tales" of the Fen Tigers' resistance to the draining of their land, serves to stress that the figures of power in the play, such as the landowner Tewson, are themselves at the mercy of the multinational corporations. The lives of the sixteen women in the play are shaped by these forces, whose impact on the most intimate parts of their lives was indicated by the set designed by Annie Smart. Domestic paraphernalia was surrealistically planted in the soil on which they worked, so that they were never wholly free of the land. Economic conditions were seen to dictate vicious and frustrated relationships like that between Angela and her stepdaughter Becky, and the doomed love affair of Val, shuttling between her lover Frank, who cannot afford to support her, and her husband and children, until she finally asks Frank to kill her.
The women speak the same debased language of the Top Girls clientele: when Val bids her daughter a last good-bye it is subtextual, beneath an exchange of elephant jokes; as she seeks for God, a woman testifies to finding Jesus in the words "More jam, mum." Men do not tell stories, as Churchill's doubling plot stresses; they are all played by a single actor, indicating a failure to negotiate, or unite, or provide any kind of community. (At one point, Frank considers the futility of asking for a raise, taking the part of his boss as well as himself, and finally hits himself in the face.) The women, however, speak together. Nell tells stories of the past and refutes the chants of "witch" by telling the village children that she is a princess; and the ghost of a woman whose child died starving continues to challenge the landowners, warning them that she watches television alongside them and sees both their greed and the suffering they cause. As Val herself becomes a ghost, she liberates the dream-lives of the women: Nell is a Fen Tiger on stilts; Shirley, the worker, is ironing the field, but recalls the days when workers fought back and killed the owners' cattle; her mother, who would never sing, now does so in a burst of glory that brings the play to its end. The dream-lives create a context for the documentary material of which Churchill makes extensive use, much of it derived from interviews in Mary Chamberlain's book Fen-women (1975), which narrates the lives of women in an English village. They show that the most tightly circumscribed daily lives have still a capacity for energy and vision; they alert both characters and audience to utopian possibilities not yet dead.
Serious Money (performed and published in 1987), Churchill's second play to win a Susan Smith Blackburn Award and the third in what might be called her state-of-the-nation plays at the Royal Court Theatre, is far less optimistic. Set at the time of the "Big Bang" that transformed the stock exchange in the 1980s, it narrates the takeover of a company, significantly called Albion. It is also a murder story—except that no one actually cares about justice, and with the murder unsolved, the cast ends the play with an exuberant song welcoming in five more years of the Thatcher administration. The play was, disconcertingly, a huge success with the very community it satirized, and during the West End transfer, the Wyndham was filled with city speculators. The action presents a self-contained world, a capitalist dystopia with its own language and logic. The theatrical pleasure is rooted in the energy of the presentation: the play bounds along in verse, deriving comedy from the sort of outrageous rhymes associated with Cole Porter's witty love lyrics rather than the language of finance.
The verse, however, offers more than just pantomime energy. Studies of Churchill's language point out how she habitually defamiliarizes words; in this play she concentrates on those once used to denote tangible commodities, such as copper and cocoa (and cocaine), on which the lives of Third World communities depend. In the face of the Big Bang they have assumed the status of paper money, with a fluctuating face value. This volatile status is as true for those in a position to save those communities as it is for the young Thatcherites who now dominate the city. Jacinta Condor, for example, does not see herself as in any way responsible for the workers in her copper mine or for the political destiny of her country; the pat rhythms betray her lack of real concern while the drop into prose indicates the area in which she is prepared to engage with complex ideas:
I lose every quarter
The cash goes like water
Is better to close the mine.
I choose very well
The moment to sell,
I benefit from the closures in Surinam because of guerrilla activity, and also I leak the news I am closing my mines, which puts the price up a little, so it is fine.
Everything, in this world, can be reduced to commodities, and there is no longer a vocabulary outside that of trading. In the last moments, the ghost of the murder victim appears, perfunctorily; unlike the long-dead woman in Fen, he cannot speak of what has happened to him. While in Fen the women have the power to see spirits and imagine other worlds, in Serious Money there is no apparent possibility of a considered and vigorous dissent—no words, no societies or actions that are not ultimately controlled and corroded by city values. Serious Money won a London Evening Standard award for best comedy and the Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for best new play, both in 1987.
Mad Forest (performed and published in 1990) is a work on an equally ambitious scale about the revolution in Romania. The project was suggested to Churchill by Mark Wing-Davey, the artistic director of the Central School of Speech and Drama, who knew Churchill from Monstrous Regiment, just weeks after the execution of overthrown Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day 1989. By April 1990, Churchill, Wing-Davey, ten students, and a team of designers were working with students from the Caragiale Institute of Theatre and Cinema in Bucharest. The techniques Churchill had developed in her Joint Stock work were used to explore the experience of the Romanian students and other Romanian people whom they interviewed. The result was a play that combined a sense of being still under construction, like a series of dispatches from a war zone, with great formal coherence. The play has three acts. Acts 1 and 3 center on two weddings involving the working-class Vladu family and the Antonescu family, members of the intelligentsia. The weddings take place before and after the revolution. The revolution is presented in Act 2 through a series of testimonies by ordinary Romanians—including students, doctors, and artists. The documentary quality of this act is reinforced by the use of the Romanian accent; elsewhere characters speak unaccented English or Romanian. The division is not between the personal and the political—politics permeates the lives of the fictional families, while the testimonies are as concerned with the feelings of parents and children as they are with the actions of the army—rather, it is between the fact of the revolution and its implications for a complex society. Churchill's structure refutes any suggestion that her exploration of these implications can be comprehensive: the action proceeds in a series of vignettes, each introduced with a short sentence in Romanian; the effect is of a phrase book, eclectic and sometimes surreal, each "lesson" defamiliarizing the one before.
The pressures of the Ceausescu regime are presented in a series of scenes linking material and linguistic deprivation. In Act 1 the Vladus have a row about Lucia's forthcoming marriage to an American. It is conducted in shouts masked by a loud radio, a strategy employed to avoid bugging. Meanwhile, a subtext about poverty plays itself out as Lucia offers eggs and cigarettes. When her father smashes one of the eggs, her mother and sister carefully gather it up. As the play progresses it is clear that sexual life is similarly circumscribed: Lucia conducts a (bugged) conversation with a doctor who tells her "There is no abortion in Romania. I am shocked that you even think of it," while they exchange notes and a large wad of money. Even the spiritual is touched: a priest talks to his angel, hoping that his flock can still retreat into a "blue" of peace but realizing that while no words can be safely spoken there is no meaning in silence. "I try to keep clear of the political side," explains the angel blandly.
Churchill explains in her notes to the play that "the play goes from the difficulty of saying anything to everyone talking." The play rejects obvious theatrical opportunities—flags, shooting, heroics—to present the attempts of Romanian citizens to use their apparent newfound freedom of speech to analyze what has happened to them. For many, this freedom means speaking about confusion. This confusion is borne out by the final act, which centers on the wedding of Florina Vladu, who is marrying Radu Antonescu. It opens, not with one of the central characters, but with a scene between a vampire and a dog. The connotations the figure of the vampire bears in the West are complex: potent religion; forbidden sexuality; luxury and decadence; a specifically Eastern European culture; a near-feudal social structure; superstition; and, as a staple of the movies, capitalism itself. In vampire movies arcane knowledge has to be resurrected to make sense of the world, and everyone is under the threat of death. The image sets an agenda for the final part of the play.
Occasionally, briefly, there is a glimpse of utopia: Florina's old aunt seems to embody a new national awareness as she chants peasant wedding verses. But the overall picture is dark. In the hospital, Lucia's brother Gabriel is feted as a hero, but an unnamed patient asks again and again, "Who was shooting on the 22nd? … Did we have a revolution or a putsch?" Radu and Florina welcome Gabriel home with a bit of impromptu theater, acting out the execution of the Ceausescus; the scene is wildly funny but displays a disturbing level of mimic violence, which becomes real as Lucia (who married and dumped her American) is embraced by her lover Ianos and Gabriel lashes out with "Get your filthy Hungarian hands off her." No one is clear what they have been liberated to: their choices, their identity, their purchasing power, their rights. The play ends with everyone speaking at once, nobody listening, no new identity articulated except that of the vampire, whose speech cuts through the rest: "You begin to want blood, your limbs ache, your head burns, you have to keep moving faster and faster."
The confidence with which Churchill was able to engage with the two different student companies and with audiences in London and Bucharest is reflected in the experimentalism of much of her work since 1985, the year Joint Stock fell victim to Arts Council cuts. Her final work with them, A Mouthful of Birds (performed and published in 1986), on which she collaborated with David Lan and the choreographer Ian Spink, indicated the direction much of her later work took in making the stage a place of magical transformation. Churchill dates her interest in working with dance and song from seeing a production of Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins (1933) in 1979 and the politically resonant dance work of Pina Bausch in the 1980s at Sadlers Wells. However, while the images in Fen made the dreams of the characters concrete, and Mad Forest dredged up the vampire from the Romanian subconscious to articulate new political nightmares, A Mouthful of Birds was her first real attempt to use dance and speech in equal measure to explore extreme states of feeling.
Its starting point is Euripides' Bacchae, but while characters act out the story of Dionysus and Pentheus, the focus is different. The Bacchae tells the story of one man's opposition to the cult, which destroys him, and of the possession of a group of women who tear him to pieces in their ecstasy and then, horrified, resume their lives. Much of its fascination lies in its subversive images of authority brought down by its own rigidity, of women consumed by a violence that not only runs counter to all accepted forms of female behavior but that is in some degree holy. Churchill echoes the subversion of sexual stereotypes, exploring both female violence and male tenderness, but lays new emphasis on the variety of possibilities inherent in the idea of possession and the variety of characters who experience it. In workshops she explored different kinds of "being beside ourselves," as she explained in the published version of the play, including spiritualism, hypnotic regression, and living in the open, and developed the idea of the "undefended day," in which seven characters would step out of their normal lives and explore extremes. Lena, for example, hears the voice of her husband droning on about everyday defeats in counterpoint to the insistence of a spirit that she kill her baby in order to exist. The act of killing is symbolized by the washing of a shawl; Churchill is concerned to explore the feeling of power generated by violence rather than to evoke horror. Paul, working in an office and dealing in statistics and reports, falls in love with a pig, and they dance with great tenderness. Derek is unemployed, and works out to avoid the sense of emasculation experienced by his father when out of work. His journey through the play is the most extraordinary, as he takes on the identity of Herculine Barbin, the hermaphrodite, and then becomes Pentheus as the other men become Dionysus and the women Bacchantes. He is torn to pieces, but in the final section, as the characters all decide how to lead their lives after the "undefended day," he is born into a female body in which he finds peace and happiness.
Churchill continued to develop her work with Spink and his company Second Stride, and with Lives of the Great Poisoners (performed in 1991, published in 1993), they also explored the use of song with the composer Orlando Gough. The company consisted of four dancers, four singers (one of whom acted), and an actor, and explored the idea of "poison"—mythological, with the story of Medea; historical, with the cases of Cora Crippen (a music-hall singer murdered by her husband in 1910) and Madame de Brinvilliers (beheaded in 1676 for poisoning her father and two brothers); and environmental, with the story of Thomas Midgley Jr., the American engineer and chemist who put lead into gasoline with benevolent intentions. Modes of expression and historical periods flow into one another: Cora Crippen does her lamentable music-hall turn, is sung to death by a Chorus of Poisons, and returns as Medea to take her revenge; Jason discusses his forthcoming marriage to Creusa with Midgley as she dances her death with the Poisons.
What is perhaps most important about both these plays with Spink is their attempt to explore political questions by using resources no longer normally associated with political theater; they turn back to the spectacle and excess of melodrama, a medium whose political dynamic is gradually being rediscovered. The play on which Churchill worked steadily throughout the whole period of her association with Gough, The Skriker, completed and staged at the National in 1994, made this political aspect more explicit through its choice of central characters. Josie and Lily are everything the Tory values of the 1990s reviled—unemployed single mothers. Josie is in a psychiatric hospital after killing her baby. Alongside their gray and deprived world is another, inhabited by spirits, grotesque folkloric figures who dance, silently, their own stories and interactions with humanity. The only one to engage in dialogue, however, is the Skriker, described by Churchill as "a shapeshifter and death portent, ancient and damaged." Dazzlingly portrayed by Katherine Hunter in the original production, the Skriker continually transforms herself into social victims such as mental patients and lost children, into pieces of furniture, into psychotic men, and—most signficantly, perhaps, in a play employing the persecuted young mothers of melodrama—into a pantomime fairy in pink tulle and glitter. She offers what otherworld spirits have always offered in folktales: wishes interpreted with dangerous literalmindedness, gifts that cause only pain—Josie and Lily find their mouths dropping toads and pound coins like Rose Red and Snow White—and visits to her own world that savagely skew the time frame in this one.
While folk stories tend to construct spirits as troublesome but nonetheless in overall harmony with the natural world, the Skriker's "damage" is a product of an environment wrecked by twentieth-century capitalism:
Sunbeam sunburn in your eye socket to him. All good many come to the aids party. When I go uppety, follow a fellow on a dark road dank ride and jump thrump out and eat him how does he taste? toxic waste paper basket case, salmonelephantiasis, blue blood bad blood blad blodd blah blah blah. I remember dis-member the sweet flesh in the panic, tearing limb from lamb chop you up and suck the tomorrowbones. Lovely lively lads and maiden England….
Her language is breaking down, corrupted by a Nature abused by men. Toxic waste and the poisoning of the food chain break up the balance between the real and the supernatural. Lily, marginalized and despised, behaves as the heroine of a fairy-tale should and tries to save the world; but the twentieth century has destroyed the possibility of a fairy tale ending, and she finds herself on a blasted Earth whose inhabitants bellow at her in blind hatred. The Skriker never shows a figure who might be held responsible for what happens. At one point the Skriker tries to understand how the earth has been poisoned, but Lily cannot explain it. The paradox of the play lies in the theatrical complexity and richness that is used to depict the deprivation imposed by capitalism—a deprivation not only material but also spiritual and linguistic.
Churchill's preoccupation with the relationships between politics, language, and excess continued with her translation of Seneca's Thyestes in 1994. After seeing Ariane Mnouchkine's landmark production of the Greek tragic cycle The House of Atreus two years previously, Churchill researched the beginnings of the story in Latin and became attracted to the possibilities of the language. While earlier translators had tended to equate Latin itself with the Latinate borrowings in English that make for grandiloquence, producing an overblown rhetoric to match the extremes of violence in the plays, Churchill was attracted to the speed and compression possible in an inflected language. Her verse translation was fast, rough, and plain. Seneca's focus upon drought and a damaged Earth, the hellish landscapes in which he sets the narratives of murder, revenge, and cannibalism, echo the imagery of The Skriker, and much of the text reads like a more rhythmic and immediate version of the descriptions of a polluted world in that play:
Have we been chosen
out of everyone
to have the world smash up and fall on us? or have the last days come
in our lifetime? It's
a hard fate, whether we've lost the sun
or driven it away.
Churchill's work of the late 1990s continued to experiment with language; her plays also took on a new intimacy, an intense preoccupation with the personal. This intimacy springs from the way Churchill deploys subtext. The double bill Hotel (performed and published in 1997) was once again worked out in collaboration with Second Stride, directed and choreographed by Spink with music by Gough. The first piece, Eight Rooms, is an opera rather than a play with song and dance; both Churchill and Gough were interested in the way language works at the high points in an opera when a whole ensemble is singing different words. In Hotel, Churchill developed a text of fragments, incomplete sentences that the audience might grasp at different points as repeats were sung. The scraps form a mosaic that offer glimpses into the lives of fourteen hotel guests, couples and singles, who occupy the same room-oblivious of one another. Their stories hint at pain and loss: one couple is silent; a woman having an affair cannot sleep because she is worried about her children; a gay couple fail to communicate; a drunken couple quarrel and wake everyone up. While the audience works to extrapolate stories from these fragments of private unhappiness, the onstage action is full of wit: Spink coordinated the everyday actions of the guests—brushing teeth, watching TV, making phone calls—into a complex choreography that culminate in a point at which fourteen people lie on the bed, moving in a weird synchronicity that still reflects their own characters. The effect of the whole is a Bergsonian comedy—in which the human figures become cogs in a machine—which nevertheless implies the existence of tragedy.
The companion piece, Two Nights, was a dance to what Gough called "a kind of song cycle" built out of scraps from a diary. The theme of these scraps is disappearance; phrases come from an account of a magician making a building vanish, a Greek spell, and a manifesto that posits disappearance, not confrontation, as the ultimate way of taking power. The subtext is dark and disturbing; one can infer the possibility of suicide in lines such as: "will I still have a shadow? / will I still have a mind?" Dancers appear and disappear through cracks in the walls of the room. It is for the audience, finally, to decode the room and its inhabitants, as with the projects of Sophie Calle in the 1990s. Calle worked as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel and photographed the rooms she cleaned, exposing the lives of the occupants through their intimate debris: underwear slung across a chair, scribbled notes, and casual purchases. Both Calle and Churchill push the audience to reflect on the fragility of identity in an urban society lacking the old certainties of community.
The same theme is echoed in Blue Heart, the paired plays Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle (performed and published in 1997), which marked a reunion for Churchill and Joint Stock, resurrected by Max Stafford-Clark as Out of Joint. The use of actors' games and exercises creates a surface playfulness, but the precision of the subtext has the darkness of Hotel. Heart's Desire uses a technique Churchill developed in her 1977 play Traps, in which the actors play out different versions of the same event, so that as the story advances the audience become aware of multiple possibilities. Heart's Desire shows a couple in their sixties, Brian and Alice, who with Brian's sister Maisie are waiting for their daughter Susy to arrive from Australia. The wait, and later the arrival, are played out many times in different ways: sometimes the action is replayed at double speed with the smallest of variations; sometimes there are radical differences in what occurs—a horde of small children stampedes onstage, or two gunmen burst in and kill everybody. Each time the scene is reset to the beginning. When the play reaches the ring at the door, Susy does arrive, but so, as the scene resets again and again, do an anonymous "official," a friend of Susy from Australia, and an enormous bird. The speed and surrealism give the play a wild comic edge; but what remains consistent is the undertone of bitterness between the couple ("I've thought for forty years that you were a stupid woman, now I know you're simply nasty," says Brian time and again as the scene continually resets), and what the narrative seems to aspire to—the articulation of Brian's love for his daughter—takes place only once, in the penultimate run. "You are my heart's desire," he tells her—and at once the whole scene begins again, this time cutting itself off as he begins to speak the line for the second time. The narrative structure dramatizes the fact that the expression of love is far rarer than the corrosive rows engendered by a family politics shaped by a society growing less free, as rare as Churchill's carnival bird, which appears only once.
Blue Kettle is also about family politics in a capitalist world—this time, specifically about the marketing of family values. Derek operates a scam: he tracks down women who gave up babies for adoption in their youth and pretends to be their long-lost son. He denies that he is interested in anything but their money; but his motives, and those of the "mothers" he meets, become more complex and opaque as the play progresses. This complexity is partly because language itself is undergoing a metamorphosis, with the words "blue" and "kettle" replacing words the audience comes to expect by their context. At first this substitution occurs only a few times in a scene, and it is always simple to guess the replaced word; it is as if Churchill is combining a naturalistic text with a party game. Later, however, more words are substituted, until the final scene is almost entirely languageless:
MRS PLANT Tle hate k later k, k bl bl bl shocked.
DEREK K, t see bl.
MRS PLANT T b k k k k l?
This tactic makes for a radical shift in the relationship between actors and audience. The audience is neither passively accepting a naturalistic illusion, or judging a Brechtian gestus; rather, the process of decoding forces them to confront the values they normally bring to scenes dealing with mother-child relationships, to select for themselves a vocabulary that is adequate to both the emotional and economic aspects. "Mother," "son," "love," "money," all become fluid signs whose meaning is constantly being negotiated between the actors and the audience. It remains, though, a comic process, a party game in which the possibility of a wrong inflection can lead to a collapse like the fall of a house of cards.
Since the early 1990s Churchill has not been prolific, but the plays she has written continue to challenge actor, director, and audience alike. The short play Far Away (performed and published in 2000) shows a world at war. Its opening scenes between a girl, Joan, and her Aunt Harper set out the theme of complicity. Joan wakes in the night to see her uncle loading prisoners on a lorry; she is told that he is "part of a big movement now to make things better." Her willingness to accept the lie is pushed into a deeper complicity: the second section shows her in a workshop making elaborate, fantastic hats—their purpose to enliven processions of the condemned on their way to execution. The image of this parade—Churchill writes, "five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?"—is horrifying. It tempts an audience to respond with delight in its own refined sensibility. It proves, however, to be only a preparation for a more searching analysis. A dialogue between Joan and her coworker Todd deconstructs that very response. They debate the nature of art and beauty—"It seems so sad to burn them [the hats] with the bodies…. No, that's the joy of it"—and determine to expose not the realities that horrified the younger Joan but the "corrupt financial basis of how the whole hat industry is run."
The debate pushes the audience further from the assurance that the events of the last century cannot repeat themselves. In fact, it is only logical that the evasions and betrayal implicit in the narrow liberalism of Todd and Joan lead to world war in the literal sense—not simply involving nations, but dragging all existence into destruction. Todd says, matter-of-factly, "I've shot cattle and children in Ethiopia. I've gassed mixed troops of Spanish, computer programmers and dogs. I've torn starlings apart with my bare hands." As the play ends, the audience is confronted with scores of these verbal images, as unstageable as they are disturbing. Joan's last question is "Who's going to mobilize darkness and silence?" The trajectory Churchill traces from a single act of unthinking and almost innocent collaboration to the destruction of a planet is accomplished with such apparent simplicity that its frightening implications only dawn on the audience after the power of the text has already done its work.
In A Number (performed and published in 2002), the setting is one of extreme simplicity: two men, "father" and "son," in a room. What makes it troubling is that although the same actors play every scene, each "son" proves to be different—an "original" and two clones, Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael. All three—aware that "a number" of them exist, created by scientists without reference to their future needs or desires—are engaged in a struggle to discover and articulate an identity for themselves. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that no language exists for their situation. Stories about origins shift. Salter, the "father," tells Bernard 2 that the "original" died in a car crash and that he wanted to replicate his perfection—immediately exposed as a lie as he confesses to Bernard 1 he abandoned him as delinquent in order to start afresh with "the same basic the same raw materials because they were perfect." Bernard 1 destroys Bernard 2 and then himself. Salter searches out the unauthorized clones, and the play closes as he struggles to connect with Michael, who is happy with his life for reasons that undermine all Salter's investment in the notions of individuality and parenthood: "We've got ninety-nine per cent the same genes as any other person. We've got ninety per cent the same as a chimpanzee. We've got thirty per cent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all? I love about the lettuce. It makes me feel I belong."
Every mythology of Western selfhood that seems to bear on the story—Cain and Abel, Oedipus, nature and nurture, scientific progress, capitalism—proves inadequate. Salter, Bernard 1, and Bernard 2 all find themselves deprived of a language in which to describe their relationship, and their syntax flounders, as when Bernard 2 says:
Maybe he shouldn't blame you, maybe it was a genetic, could you help drinking we don't know or drugs at the time philosophically as I understand it it wasn't viewed as not like now when our understanding's different and would a different person not have been so vulnerable because there could always be some genetic additive and then again someone with the same genetic exactly the same but at a different time a different cultural and of course all the personal….
Michael, centered on other people and the world around him, speaking of concrete things such as lettuce and his wife's ears, is the only one at ease with language and himself. A Number won the 2002 London Evening Standard award for best play.
Caryl Churchill's name may be less well known than those of, say, Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard, but this relative lack of visibility is a reflection of her continuing engagement with theater rather than with movies, her loyalty to the Royal Court Theatre rather than the larger subsidized theaters (the National Theatre has produced only two of her plays, the Royal Shakespeare Company only one), and her love of personal privacy. However, there is a considerable body of critical material about her, and the critical consensus places her as a major force in shaping the contemporary theatrical landscape. She not only has raised feminist concerns within the theater but also has provided a new theatrical vocabulary with which to investigate sexual politics. Her influence has been acknowledged by playwrights as diverse as Mark Ravenhill and Tony Kushner; it also reaches out to impact coming generations.
Klaus Peter Muller
In the following excerpt, Muller discusses Serious Money as a "City Comedy," a moralistic genre first established in the seventeenth century. Based on his comparisons, Muller concludes that Serious Money is a satire and not a comedy.
… The audiences' decision to see Serious Money either as comedy or satire may explain their different reactions towards the play. Seen as a satire, the play must provide, however indirectly, moral norms which help to formulate value-judgments on the characters and their actions. As "satire is militant irony," and as the "satirist commonly takes a high moral line," morality is obviously an important aspect for the difference between comedy and satire in contemporary definitions. It is also the distinctive feature in the differences of the present-day spectator responses. The "moral line" in Serious Money is not so easily detected, however, if it is not seen in connection with the genre, the City Comedy, and its history.
The City Comedy proper was established "by about 1605" with "such plays as Jonson's Volpone, Marston's Dutch Courtezan and Middleton's Michaelmas Term." Churchill's use of Shadwell makes it necessary to remember an English tradition that was already a century old in 1692. The link between the past and the present is consciously established in the modern play, when one of Shadwell's characters, at the end of Churchill's first scene which is taken completely from the end of Act Two in Shadwell's The Volunteers, leads the audience into the contemporary world: "Look ye Brethren, hye ye into the city and learn what ye can" (p. 14). The introductory scene in Serious Money thus reminds the audience of the tradition of the genre. It also refers to the long history of stockjobbing, which in 1692 was called "the modern Trade, or rather Game." A third effect of the first scene is that it introduces a significant leitmotiv, because one characteristic element of the society of stockjobbers is highlighted, namely that of making use of everything for only one end, "to turn the penny." It is not the utility value of a thing that matters, but only its trade value.
… The keen interest in the social achievements and follies of society that is noticeable in the City Comedy is also valid in Serious Money. The old form depicted only part of the society, its negative elements and distorted, dangerous aspects. There was still a chance to reform, though. However indirectly it may have been hinted at in the plays, the audience was quite aware of this possibility. Even when some of Jonson's and Middleton's plays showed that "aggressive individualism has become an accepted behavioral norm and reductive conceptions of human nature hold sway," the reality was regarded as being redeemable. There was still a chance of improvement in human life and history.
In Churchill's play there is no sign of hope and possible improvement. Not only do the two acts of her play reveal that the negative elements portrayed are all-pervasive, but the second act clearly shows that everything is in fact deteriorating. Humanity repeats its mistakes all over again, but on an even greater scale. Churchill uses the third-world-motif to make this evident at the beginning of Act Two. Jacinta Condor flies in to London to buy more Eurobonds and invest her country's money most profitably for herself. Zackerman sarcastically comments upon this and the third world's plight: "Pictures of starving babies are misleading and patronising. Because there's plenty of rich people in those countries, it's just the masses that's poor." The South American, Jacinta, is joined by an African, Nigel Ajibala, "a prince and exceedingly rich," educated at Eton, who expresses his basic education quite simply: "One thing one learned from one's colonial masters, / One makes money from other people's disasters." History thus repeats itself; the former colonies act in the same way as their masters did in the past (and have been doing ever since), or even worse, as they exploit their own people. Nobody is interested in learning from history how the lot of human beings as a whole could be improved; everyone is just madly trying to better his or her personal financial situation. Once again there is no distinction made between men and women.
Is this world only "depicted, not disturbed," as in the City Comedy? Dr. Johnson said about the playwrights of the 17th century that "they pleas'd their age, and did not aim to mend." The audience was seen as "ironically contemplating its viciousness," rather than "‘joyfully contemplating its well-being.’" The same can be said about a great number of the spectators of Serious Money. Churchill clearly indulges them, by offering intriguing visual effects, music and rhyme. But she also obviously works with exaggerations. She increases the speed of change in our society. She makes clear that this change is for the worse. It is like cancer. She writes about it in verse, making her sentences rhythmical, seemingly light and funny. But what sounds and looks funny, good-humoured, and easy-going actually describes the loss of all human values and an attitude that brings about death. The frivolities of wit or repartee, the language that constitutes for some critics the "most conspicuous quality" of the City Comedy, are found in the modern play with a special destructive macabre twist and often an excessive aggressiveness. The motto in the coat of arms of the London Stock Exchange, Dictum Meum Pactum (My word is my bond), for instance, is changed into: "My word is my junk bond." Because of its offensiveness and violence, the glossy, seemingly light presentation does not distract from the cruel facts lurking behind the amusing performance. Whether Jake killed himself or was murdered, his death is inseparable from the world he lived in, from his job and aspirations. Like him, the society, industry, and human life in general will be destroyed. The characters in the play are indeed dancing on a volcano, for "five more glorious years," i.e., as long as the (Thatcher) Government and the people will support this way of life. It is a dance macabre, ingenuously choreographed by Caryl Churchill and intended to be disturbing.
Jake's death and its possible causes have become irrelevant by the end of the play. Corman's take-over deal has been postponed, as the undertaking is unpopular with the public and might damage the election chances of the Tory government. Both items are of minimal importance compared with the vital question of how the basis for the world portrayed can be secured. Its foundation is shown to be the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and the political atmosphere it provides. Caryl Churchill has written the portrait of a society, not a play about a murder case or a business transaction. Her topics are more or less the same as in the traditional City Comedies. "Moneymaking" is the most important one. It takes up so much of the characters' time that the "pursuit of women" is reduced to dirty language and greedy looks. "Self-interest" and "survival" are necessary aspects of a world that is thoroughly predatory.
Churchill uses the two-act structure in order to repeat and intensify the images, motifs, topics and themes in her play. The people unscrupulously making serious money continue in their endeavours to be successful. Money and jobs are turned over faster and faster. The speed will increase. The old generation is completely forgotten in the second act, and life is reduced to the amoral game of having a try at being personally successful. It is like a ride on a merry-go-round. But it is evident that the game will end in catastrophe, because it is based on a senseless, self-indulgent egoism destructive of all human values and long-term prospects of human life. The accelerated development towards destruction is vividly captured in the two acts of Churchill's play. Even those of the audience who do not think that the Thatcher government is responsible for such a development can identify with this phenomenon.
The play's theme is certainly not to "assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men," as in Milton's Paradise Lost. It is rather "to assert the eternal mechanism of making serious money, how this affects human life and how not to justify the ways of men to men." If the effect on human life is ignored, the play may be regarded as a light, funny city comedy, partly indulging in the mechanism of Bergson's laughter. As a "Serious" City Comedy, however, it encompasses much more than that. Serious Money seems to be a satire rather than a comedy. The situation at the end of the play has not improved but deteriorated, the society presented is death-bound. The play employs hunt and war imagery. Society is playing amoral games that destroy human life. It is the object of a satiric attack which takes its moral norm from the human life excluded from or annihilated in the absurd world of the play.
Why then is this moral norm not generally found in the play, and why do so many spectators not feel disturbed by the performance, but rather amused and exhilarated? It is the history of the modern age, the complexity of the contemporary situation, the human predicament of our time that make it particularly difficult to adopt a moral point of view. The situation presented in the play will not essentially change by replacing a Tory government with a Labour cabinet. The greed disease has too firm a hold. Thus anyone seeing in the play just an attack on the Thatcher government may indeed simply laugh about it and brush it aside as a distortion of reality. The play has a far wider scope. The Conservatives are indeed criticized for supporting the ideology that dominates the play. But it is rather this state of mind as such that the play attacks, the materialistic egoism that destroys all human, life-enhancing values. Although the butt of the satire is shown, nothing is presented that could put an end to the destruction of human life. While the spectator of a traditional City Comedy and of satire was usually presented with, or aware of, a clear view of the remedial system and actual ways of making it real, the contemporary world is largely characterized by the lack of such a system. Neither does our time have anything similar to the concept of the seven deadly sins, i.e., a clear view of evil. Even when basic values are generally acknowledged, there is much disagreement about how to achieve them and what a "normal" and "good" society would actually be like.
Churchill reveals important shortcomings of contemporary (Western?) society, without offering easy solutions. She does not write from a simple feminist position either. By satirizing the seemingly easy-going, playful and amoral attitude of the play's characters, she also makes evident that the postmodern position of laissez faire is equally unsatisfactory. Her play requires a modern spectator who is quite conscious of the social and political alternatives at hand. For a self-indulgent yuppie, Serious Money can be pure fun. For anyone with a mind for history and moral concern, it is more than that. It is a satire in the traditional sense which has connected satire with morality. It is, at the same time, a comedy in the traditional sense which attributed three elements (and sub-genres) to comedy: humour, wit and satire. Churchill's satirical comedy combines the traditional elements with a typically modern perspective, insofar as her play does not refer to an implicit ideal and a generally accepted morality, but leaves it to the spectator to find ways of improving the present society. For this purpose, knowledge of the history of humanity is required, and knowledge of literary history is helpful.
The term "Serious City Comedy" thus points out the similarities with, and differences from, the traditional genre. The historical awareness needed for an evaluation of the play's effect also helps to place it within the literary tradition. Its place is founded in the history of the modern world, beginning in the Renaissance with its two-sided aspects that we are still wrestling with:
"the Development of the Individual," "the Revival of Antiquity," "the Discovery of the World and of Man" [on the one hand, and, on the other hand] the thrust of capitalist enterprise, the rise of economic individualism, the development of an amoral "realism" in political thought and action. We are aware, above all, of a great reorientation of attitude that prepared the way not only for the scientific achievements of the seventeenth century and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but for the materialism of industrial civilization, the spiritual bewilderment of the nineteenth century, and the urgent anxieties of our own time.
Churchill, evoking this past, is today concerned with humanity's future. For her, there has been no "Advancement of Learning" since Bacon, certainly not in our knowledge of "Natural" and "Civil History," nor in our "Moral Culture" or "Civil Knowledge," at least none that has made itself evident in improved living conditions. Humanity rather seems to be "bound / Upon a wheel of fire," with this wheel of human history spinning faster and faster. Churchill can no longer believe, like Hobbes, in a Common-Wealth secured by the authority of "the Civil Sovereign" and founded on "Faith in Christ, and Obedience to Laws." To her, "civilization" is not a safeguard anymore, it is destroying itself and about to ruin life altogether.
Churchill has shown in her plays, especially in Vinegar Tom, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Fen and Top Girls, that this destructive course of human history has again and again been unconsciously chosen out of fear and greed, egoism and, above all, fatal ignorance. Many of her characters could say: "What's wrong with me / the way I am? / I know I'm sad. / I may be sick. / I may be bad. / Please cure me quick, / oh doctor." Most of them do not know that the cure is only within themselves. Many do not want to know, because it is painful knowledge demanding hard work. Ellen, burned as a witch in Vinegar Tom, understands something of this truth and urges people to "think out what [they] want," to become aware of themselves and their own position. Hoskins in Light Shining … wants people to see the "Light shining from us—." But they fail, and the world is still "fraught with tidings of the same clamour, strife and contention that abounded when [they] left it."
Lack of knowledge and concern are the dominant traits in Churchill's view of human history. There is, therefore, profound truth and dramatic irony in Pope Joan's statement in Top Girls: "Damnation only means ignorance of the truth." Joan is as ignorant of herself and the world in which she lived as all the other women in the play, those of the past as well as of the present. Ignorance is what they all "have in common" and what makes them "all so miserable." They are also great egoists, which often is a common consequence of ignorance. The least egoistic person, Joyce, is also the least ignorant, and the one most favourably presented in the play.
Only knowledge and humane behaviour could stop humanity's self-destructive progress. This is the history and value-judgment behind the funny, comical, satirical and musical elements of Serious Money, too. Under the surface of a light, though aggressive City Comedy there is the threat of death and complete extinction. That is why the play is serious about the need for an historical perspective, for amoral standard and for adequate human action. If these are not found, Churchill indicates, human history will deteriorate in an accelerating spiral of repetition leading to the ultimate annihilation of humankind.
Source: Klaus Peter Muller, "A Serious City Comedy: Fe-/Male History and Value Judgments in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money," in Modern Drama, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1990, 13 pp.
In the following review, Brustein classifies Serious Money as a satire. Though Brustein feels that the plot is too "complicated" and that the characters lack humanity, he nevertheless claims that the themes in Serious Money are so important that the play transcends these shortcomings.
Caryl Churchill writes hard-boiled, unpredictable, untidy plays, and with Serious Money, now playing at the Public Theater, she is at the top of her disheveled form. I was first exposed to the left hook of this unusual English dramatist when her early work Owners opened at a London fringe theater in 1972. It was a play about rack-renting in the East End, a terse treatment of social injustice in a style of episodic realism—ironic, cold, and detached enough to disguise a subterranean fury. The arresting thing about Owners was not its relatively conventional form so much as its disinterested radical posture. A product of a fiercely independent mind, it offered a negative Marxist critique unblemished by Marxist ideology. Since that time, in such plays as Cloud Nine, Fen, and Top Girls, Churchill has been experimenting with more fantastical techniques, but her remorseless inquest into the English social system continues unabated. Serious Money may be the most incisive autopsy she has yet attempted.
It is also an extremely difficult, sometimes even repellent play. Serious Money is a prodigiously researched examination of the workings of the world's money markets, where virtually all recognizable human feeling is subordinated to a passion for acquisition. American drama is often faulted for lacking public dimension. What's missing from Serious Money is any sign of private emotion other than covetousness. This, I gather, is precisely Churchill's point. In the world of money, all vestiges of softer virtues—love, loyalty, friendship, family feeling, the aesthetic sense—must be ruthlessly eliminated as obstacles in the path of profit; venality is the foundation stone of political and financial empire. In Serious Money, Plutus and Hobbes are reincarnated in the shape of Ivan Boesky (his spirit also informs the recently released movie Wall Street), whose much-quoted tribute to greed as the basis for the health and wealth of nations is the theme of the play.
The result is a dramatis personae of ruthless robots whose behavior seems as automated as the computer systems they use to conduct their corporate raids, mergers, takeovers, deals, and arbitrages. The setting for Serious Money might be a Pac-Man game: a maze of squeaking mouths devouring other mouths and getting gobbled up in turn. These hungry mouths are filled not only with corporate corpses but with venal epigrams: "You don't make money out of land, you make money out of money." "Being in debt is the best way to be rich." "Anyone who can buy oranges for ten and sell at eleven in a souk or bazaar has the same human nature and can go equally far." One character would like to own "a big cube of sea, right down to the bottom, all the fish, weeds, the lot, there'd be takers for that." Another prefers a square meter of space "and a section of God at the top." Corporations are in business not to produce products but to produce money, and governments (also moneymaking machines) exist to facilitate the process through deregulation.
The play begins with a scene from Thomas Shadwell's Restoration comedy The Volunteers (subtitled The Stockjobbers) involving the disposition of stocks and patents in the City of London, as if to prove that the System hasn't changed a bit through the ages. Churchill then proceeds to compose a cacophonous opera, simultaneously conducted in three different dealing rooms, the performers being jobbers and brokers screaming numbers at each other. (Audaciously, she has written most of the work in rhymed couplets and overlapping dialogue, which accentuates the bedlam.) Gradually, a kind of plot emerges out of the Babel of buying and selling. A corporate raider named Billy Corman is preparing to take over an old-fashioned firm called Albion (England?), which commands the loyalty of its employees and the support of the local community. Jake Todd, an industrial spy, has died under suspicious circumstances, and Scilla, his stock-dealing sister, appears determined to discover the cause of his death.
But Scilla, cheerfully admitting she is "greedy and completely amoral," is really more interested in placing herself on the ladder of financial transaction. And, though Jake may actually be a suicide, she manages through bullying and blackmail to attain a profitable position of power from those implicated in his death. Churchill is a feminist, but one of her theatrical virtues (also displayed in Top Girls, is a capacity to create female characters as covetous and corruptible as her males. (She is equally democratic toward black American dealers and African plutocrats.) Perhaps the most cunning figure in the play is a Peruvian businesswoman named Jacinta Condor who, when not speculating on the London metal exchange, is selling cocaine and paying off the contras. And perhaps the most chilling scene concerns Jacinta's unsuccessful effort to make a date with a young American banker, when both are too busy arranging deals to find an hour for lunch or dinner.
The takeover of Albion is complicated by white knights and competitive bids and a government investigation, so Corman drops his interest' in the firm in return for knighthood. As "Lord" Corman, he must improve his public image. A p.r. consultant advises him to think of culture: "You need the National / Theatre for power, opera for decadence, / String quartets bearing your name for sensitivity and elegance, / And a fringe show with bad language for a thrill." Corman becomes chairman of the board of the National Theatre. The cause of Jake's death is never determined. Jacinta starts dealing in China. Scilla becomes a rising star on Wall Street. Other characters become ambassadors or run for president of the United States or end up in jail. And the play ends with a rousing finale called "Five More Glorious Years," a tribute to the triumph of greed under Margaret Thatcher.
It is, as someone says, a dangerous system that could crash at any minute, but it is a source of incredible, if misguided, vitality, and it drives the play. None of Churchill's rapacious birds and beasts of prey has a recognizably human moment, but then neither do the cormorants of Ben Jonson's Volpone or Henri Becque's The Vultures or Bertolt Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards, the satiric tradition to which Serious Money belongs. Like her mordant predecessors, Churchill seems to have a sneaking admiration for the foibles of cheats and charlatans. Underneath her ferocious irony lies an understanding that the worst excesses of capitalism can be exciting and engrossing, which is why so many intelligent, dynamic people today are attracted to business. But she is also conscious of how debilitating such practices can be to the brain and spirit—of how "when the trading stops, you don't know what to do with your mind."
Max Stafford-Clark's all-English production is serviceable, if not altogether satisfying. The setting is not sufficiently abstract to accommodate the almost cinematic scenic structure; and the doubling, trebling, and (in the case of Allan Corduner) even quadrupling of roles compounds the confusion of what is already a difficult-to-distinguish cast of characters. (In a company of 16, for some reason, eight actors play the 20 principal parts.) The production numbers have a percussive punchiness, though they occasionally look like a varsity show, and the director usually navigates effectively through the verbose maze of the rhymed verse. But the absence of a human dimension in the writing prevents the acting from becoming truly distinguished, and the plot is too complicated to be absorbed in a single sitting. As a result, Serious Money is not a truly successful work of theater. But it is something considerably more important—a scathing social anatomy of the greedy scavengers feeding on the rotting economic flesh of the West.
Source: Robert Brustein, "Birds and Beasts of the West," in New Republic, Vol. 198. No. 3, January 18, 1988, pp. 27-28.
Bennetts, Leslie, "Frenetic Pace in Serious Money," in the New York Times, January 28, 1988, p. C21.
Churchill, Caryl, Serious Money, Methuen, 1987, pp. 21-22, 25, 28, 38-39, 60.
Hodgson, Moira, Review of Serious Money, in the Nation, January 16, 1988, p. 65.
Homa, Lynn, "Serious Money Portrays Recent Financial Foibles as Serious Fun," in American Banker, December 31, 1987, Vol. 152, No. 255, p. 12.
Hoover, Ted, Review of Serious Money, in the Pittsburgh City Paper, March 3, 2004, Vol. 14, No. 8, p. 36.
Koehler, Robert, "Serious Money: Wheeling and Dealing at Berkeley Rep," in the Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1989, p. 5.
Lyall, Sarah, "The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill," in the New York Times, December 5, 2004, p. 2.9.
Rich, Frank, "The Stage: Serious Money," in the New York Times, December 4, 1987, p. C3.
Silk, Leonard, "Is Wall Street as Bad as It's Painted?," in the New York Times, January 3, 1988, p. A20.
Geisst provides a provocative history of Wall Street, from crash to boom. This is the first history of Wall Street and it provides a glimpse at the enormous influence that Wall Street has come to bear on national and world affairs.
Hall, Roger, Writing Your First Play, Focal Press, 1998.
Hall teaches dramatic arts at James Madison University, and his book guides students in writing a play. In this book, Hall explains dramatic form and discusses fundamentals such as developing a voice and how to choose a point of view.
Komporaly, Jozefina, Staging Motherhood: British Women Playwrights, 1956 to the Present, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Komporaly explores the changing role of female playwrights in the United Kingdom from the 1950s through the twenty-first century. She addresses the impact of personal life on female playwrights as seen through their dramatic works and the transformations of women's position in society as reflected in the playwrights's staged productions.
Stewart, James B., Den of Thieves, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
This bestselling book about some of the biggest and best-known crooks on Wall Street will fill in details about such characters as Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Martin Siegel, and Dennis Levine, best remembered for their insider trading violations in the 1980s.