The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill
By Nirmala Nataraj

Caryl Churchill. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.
Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most acclaimed female playwright in the English-speaking world, and simultaneously the most elusive. Critic Charles Spencer has called her the “least predictable of contemporary playwrights.” Her work has been described as elliptical, provocative, shocking, confounding—and, over the years, it has become significantly more pared down, devoid of stage directions or notes, which only seems to contribute to her enduring mystique.

Although Churchill has been writing plays for over five decades, she stopped giving interviews many years ago. She rarely comments on critics’ analyses of her work, but her past interviews and the words of her close collaborators, of whom there are many, continue to spark the imaginations of those who recognize the multiple ways in which she has pushed dramatic boundaries over the course of her career.

Feminist and socialist politics are important facets of Churchill’s plays, as her work challenges the oppressions and repressions of gender, class, sex, and race—but her bold stylization is an equally prominent feature of her writing. The fact that her work ranges from epic Brechtian dramas to surreal “anti-plays” to disconnected slice-of-life episodes is part of what makes it difficult to define Churchill’s style. Flashbacks, twisted chronologies, overlapping dialogue, contradiction, repetition of word and gesture, and different actors playing the same character in different scenes are just some of the devices Churchill has employed in her plays.

Given the scope of Churchill’s experimentation (with form as well as process), many critics have noted that answering the question “What is a Caryl Churchill play?” leaves most people scratching their heads in puzzlement. Playwright April de Angelis says, “She has turned the idea of what a play should be over and over, revisioning it beyond the accepted imaginative boundaries, to produce plays that are always revolutionary.”

As eager as they are to be heard, according to Churchill’s publisher of over 40 years, Nick Hern, her characters themselves are often less “talky” (preferring to justify their existence not with long speeches but with activity) and less obviously categorizable as villains or protagonists than those of other playwrights. Actor Maxine Peake, who played the title role in Churchill’s The Skriker (about a malevolent fairy who manipulates two teenage mothers) in 2014 at London’s Royal Exchange Theatre, describes Churchill’s characters as “coming more from a physical impulse rather than a cerebral one.”

Churchill and her collaborators are often surprised by the plays that emerge from her imagination. Hern says, “The plays just turn up, without warning. I think she’s one of those shamanistic writers, in the way Harold Pinter was. A play isn’t planned or premeditated; it’s scratching an itch. They come to me and I sit down to read them, having absolutely no idea what the length or subject matter or form will be.” Much like Pinter, Churchill is also mordantly witty, whether she is training her eye on large-scale social ills or the quirky dynamics of an intimate relationship. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff says, “Churchill’s plays are supremely alive because the scenes are endlessly active. They’re about transactions, power, competition, desire.”

Love and Information premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, under the direction of Churchill’s frequent collaborator James Macdonald. De Angelis notes that this enigmatic play is an exploration of two of the most powerful human themes: needing to know and needing to love. Love and Information is a collection of 57 short, episodic vignettes that use a series of interactions between mostly unnamed characters to explore knowledge, meaning, and how we make sense of information in our lives. Each vignette is self-contained and characters are not repeated from one scene to the next, meaning that the dozen actors in our production are responsible for playing multiple roles. Some of the scenes last only five seconds, and none are longer than five minutes. Because Churchill does not include stage directions or character descriptions in Love and Information, the artistic team is tasked with filling in the blanks and creating the world of the play according to the production’s specific needs and intentions.

Overall, Love and Information presents an assortment of stories and perspectives that leave much to the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, a viewer’s process of making sense of the play may be the ultimate point that Churchill is attempting to make. As she has said, “I don’t set out to find a bizarre way of writing. I certainly don’t think that you have to force it. But, on the whole . . . I enjoy finding the form that seems to best fit what I’m thinking about.”

“Decision”
(a scene from Caryl Churchill’s script for Love and Information exactly as it appears on the page)

I’ve written down all the reasons to leave the country and all the reasons to stay.

So how does that work out?

There’s things on both sides.

How do you feel about it?

No, I’m trying to make a rational decision based on the facts.

Do you want me to decide for you?

Based on what? The facts don't add up.

I’d rather you stayed here. Does that help?

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music
By Nirmala Nataraj

Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Jerry Jackson.
Inspired by Smiles of a Summer Night, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy of errors, A Little Night Music emerged from Stephen Sondheim’s vision of a musicalized tale about the games that men and women play in sex and love. With a grand scope that is meant to generate nostalgia for turn-of-the-twentieth-century elegance, the play is a marked departure from Sondheim’s previous collaborations with director Harold Prince, such as Company (1970) and Follies (1971), which feature upper-class New Yorkers in a contemporary setting.

Before librettist Hugh Wheeler came on board, Prince and Sondheim had been toying with the idea of writing a chamber opera since their collaboration on the 1957 musical West Side Story (for which Sondheim was the lyricist and Prince the producer). Scandinavia in midsummer (a time of year during which the sun rarely sets throughout the region) provided the ideal backdrop for a play about sexual frustration, perpetual anticipation, and romantic foolishness. After settling on Bergman’s film for source material, Sondheim drew the title for the play from an English translation of the German name for Mozart’s serenade no. 13 for strings in G major (Eine kleine Nachtmusik). In A Little Night Music, three-quarter time, counterpoint, and harmonically complex melodies help evoke the grandeur and complex social interactions of a bygone era.

Sondheim’s original story for A Little Night Music was comparatively darker than the piece he ultimately developed with Wheeler. An early draft of A Little Night Music relates the story as a parlor-room fantasy with three distinct endings. Wheeler, however, felt that Sondheim’s idea was overly bizarre and confusing. As Sondheim explains in his annotated book of song lyrics Finishing the Hat, “[Wheeler’s] work had always been linear, not fanciful.” Although Wheeler attempted to write the libretto that had been asked of him, he ended up generating a piece that Sondheim found “boring and literal.” Wheeler’s book had erased all traces of gravity, darkness, and melancholy from Sondheim’s initial idea, leaving “a graceful but fluffily light comedy version of Bergman’s movie.”

Although Sondheim’s surreal vision for A Little Night Music never came to fruition, the musical that was eventually produced was hardly received as fluffy. In fact, many critics saw through the play’s cheery facade; as Richard Watts commented about the characters: “On the surface they appear to be enjoying their sins, except at moments when they are embarrassingly caught in them. But the atmosphere, for all its gaiety, seemed to me that of men and women who are leading hollow lives and are only too aware of it.”

The original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music secured eleven Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score), six drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summed up the show as “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting . . . the real triumph belongs to Stephen Sondheim . . . the music is an orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes, all talking of past loves and lost worlds.”

A Little Night Music opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway on February 25, 1973. Directed by renowned Broadway director Harold Prince and starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold, the musical closed on August 3, 1974, after 601 immensely successful performances. The musical went on to enjoy an equally successful run on London’s West End in 1975 and a number of revivals throughout Europe, with productions spanning from Paris to Stockholm. In the last four decades, the musical has enjoyed numerous Broadway revivals and continues to be a popular selection among opera companies throughout the world. Prince also went on to direct a film adaptation of A Little Night Music in 1977, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down. And of course, the music endures. The nostalgic and wistful “Send in the Clowns” is one of Sondheim’s most immediately recognizable songs and has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra (1973) to Judy Collins (1975), who won a Grammy Award for her rendition, to Grace Jones, Judi Dench, and Megadeath.

Although Sondheim isn’t usually sentimental about his own work and has expressed continued befuddlement over the popularity of “Send in the Clowns,” it seems that much of his early ambivalence about the play has transformed over the years. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes Wheeler’s libretto as supple and surprisingly ageless. Although he jokingly admits to feeling dread as an audience member during a major revival or a school production of A Little Night Music, he writes:

Once the lights have been dimmed, I have an exhilarating time watching it. . . . I underestimated Hugh’s work shamefully when I first read it. After living with it through numerous productions for more than thirty-five years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the half dozen best books ever written for a musical.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.
 
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