Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill's History Plays: "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" and "Vinegar Tom."



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Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill's History Plays: "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" and "Vinegar Tom."
by Sian Adiseshiah

The Politics of Utopia

Considering the utopian potential of the theatrical space, there has been surprisingly little attention spent on the exploration of the relationship between utopianism and theatre hermeneutics, with some notable exceptions including Klai? (1991) and Gray (1993). Bearing in mind theatre's tendency to make frequent use of forms of utopian expression, at least at the level of "pretending" and "playing," it is noticeable how infrequently the two fields are brought together in criticism. In one of the few engagements with this relationship, the stage is insightfully referred to by Diana Knight as "a sort of laboratory for constructing the liberated social space of utopia" (22). While the novel's form fits the traditional utopia, wherein the narrator is usually the guest who is guided around the utopian literary space, the exciting multi-dimensionality of the theatrical space--in relation to utopianism and the expression of the utopian impulse often present in drama--has been markedly neglected. Theatre in particular as an art form can be seen as embodying an intense contradiction of utopian and anti-utopian features. It is utopian, in the creativity of a shared performance between theatre practitioners and audience that takes place in a collective space (or "no-space"), but anti-utopian in the modes of hierarchy, exclusivity and discipline that are inscribed in the economics, cultural forms and institutions of bourgeois theatre.

Many of Caryl Churchill's plays display a preoccupation with political possibility and reveal traces of utopian desire. Her 1970s plays, in particular, intersect with and reflect a cultural context that produced rejuvenated engagements with utopia. The theatre groups Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment, who performed the original productions of her history plays Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and Vinegar Tom (1976), were additionally committed to utopian considerations of non-hierarchical collaborative working methods and participated in a system of pay parity. This essay seeks firstly to explore the ways in which theatre, utopia and space can be brought together theoretically, and secondly to read Churchill's history plays with reference to the utopian dimensions of their production contexts as well as with regard to the potentiality of utopian (historical) space--both literal (physical spaces) and metaphorical (spaces of possibility)--that can be traced in the plays.

Ruth Levitas's The Concept of Utopia (1990) has clarified some of the confusion over definition that has plagued engagements with utopianism. It has done so by distinguishing criteria of content, form and function and by demonstrating the ways in which utopias have been constructed through history in terms of their determination by one or more of these criteria. The historical reception of utopias has similarly deferred to one or more of these criteria, but without a consensus of priority or unity of definition, and thus commentators have often talked past each other. This semantic complexity can, however, provide a productive, albeit protean, conceptual framework within which to explore the political signification of cultural practices. And Levitas's location of "desire," "desire for a better way of being and living" (7), as one constant feature of utopianism in the face of a ceaseless variability in content, form and function, helps to provide some conceptual continuity.

The political formulations that an emphasis on "desire" gives rise to have meant that utopianism has been both celebrated and treated with suspicion from within anti-/counter-capitalist quarters. Feminists, anarchists, and radical environmentalists have applauded utopian transcendence of the dominant order and found useful the privileging of the imagination that accompanies utopian political practice. The dominant thinking within traditional Marxism, in contrast, has displayed an anxiety over what it sees as the inability of utopian activity to undermine the dominant order precisely because of its surpassing of, or escape from, it. Marxists have emphasized instead the importance of a rigorously materialist approach to political action that locates the destruction of the system as dependent upon critique from within and of the social formation, as opposed to what they see as utopian idealism.

Jennifer Burwell has discussed this problem in terms of what she calls the utopian and critical impulses, the former of which she sees as positing "a self-contained and inaccessible ideal 'elsewhere' where social contradiction has always already been resolved" and the latter limiting "themselves to a negative hermeneutics of exposure" (ix). In this proposition, the utopian is without a critical relationship with the contemporary material world, and the critical impulse fails to envisage an alternative to it. Burwell's challenge to this hypothesis is that "internal critique must confront its inability to escape the social structures of oppression or do more than merely describe existing conditions" and "utopia must confront its disengagement--as a mere escape--from these conditions" (ix). However, each impulse--utopian and critical implicates the other. In transcending the dominant order, that order--vis-a-vis its negation--is implicitly critiqued, and similarly--through critiquing, undermining, and deconstructing the dominant order--the utopian is the silenced alternative that necessarily articulates itself.

Assuming that one impulse stimulates the other, however, is not quite enough. In order for the function of utopianism to act as an effective catalyst to social transformation, a materialist critique must accompany and work dialectically with utopian projection. Ernst Bloch's outline of his theory concerning the utopian impulse in The Principle of Hope is dependent upon the notion of a Marxist synthesis of warm and cold streams, explained by Bloch's translators as "one representing its undeceived critical rigour, the other its idealistic and imaginative receptivity" (xxvi). Bloch states, "only coldness and warmth of concrete anticipation together therefore ensure that neither the path in itself nor the goal in itself are held apart from one another undialectically and so become reified and isolated" (209). He considers utopia to be an attainable reality and socialism to be the modern manifestation of the utopian impulse. Hope is viewed as trainable and as the facilitator of engaging with the "not-yet," which in turn is fundamental to progressive change. And while, as Darren Webb has forcefully argued (2000), the thesis in The Principle of Hope depends upon an unguarded subjectivism, Bloch nevertheless responds to what Perry Anderson describes as "a generosity and confidence of vision missing from the mainstream of historical materialism ... whose very definition as a science has restricted its human range" (159).

The revival of interest in utopian modes of artistic production and political practice in the aftermath of the international upsurge of political activity in the 1960s, and particularly the general strike in France and the global student protests in May 1968, has produced a fresh engagement with utopianism. The counter-culture defines itself largely in terms of its immediate transcendence of the dominant culture including the dominant oppositional culture, with this practice treated as both an object of desire in itself and as effective political strategy. Coterminous with this revival is the resurgence of "critical" (often feminist) utopian cultural and artistic production with utopian space becoming more fluid, self-critical, and dialectical (Moylan).

Utopian Space

Indeed, the metaphor of utopian space is itself contradictory, for utopia's linguistic definition refuses spatial coordinates; it is located nowhere. As Lyman Tower Sargent puts it, "the primary characteristic of the utopian place is its non-existence combined with a topos--a location in time and space--to give verisimilitude" (5). This internal tension contributes towards its semantic multi-dimensionality, as well as reinforcing its political power, since its aspirational character is impenetrable precisely because it is a non-existent but real place or space. This characteristic can benefit contemporary theories of social transformation that struggle to resist the total colonization of space by capital. Michel de Certeau points to "tactics," "ruses," "trickery," and "deception" as modes of non-compliance and resistance that are enacted by "consumers" and "users" in everyday life:





Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other's
game (jouer/ dejouer le jeu de l'autre), that is the space
instituted by others, characterise the subtle, stubborn,
resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their
own space, have to get along in a network of already
established forces and representations. (18)




de Certeau points to cultural practices such as songs, folklore, and stories of miracles, providing specific examples from the Brazilian peasants of Pernambuco, as responding to the dominant discourse " 'from aside' with irrelevance and impertinence in a different discourse, a discourse one can only believe" (17). Songs, folk stories, and wishful iconography are considered as resistant to diffusion or co-option by the dominant discourse, for their terms of production lie outside of the communication system that structures the articulation of the dominant order. Theatrical Space

Theatrical space is receptive to the application of utopian theories on a number of levels. It has no spatial permanence, for example. The performance of theatre is temporal, and thus the utopian "good place" that is "no-place" has a rich resonance in the transient production of theatre. Theatrical spaces, even in the form of the traditional theatre building, host a play temporarily at different times and on different days, and often the play will tour a variety of theatres--moving from space to space, across the country or countries--a fact which further enforces its spatial fluidity. indeed the theatre groups Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment, who performed Light Shining and Vinegar Tom, were touring companies which experimented with space: challenging the static spatial configuration of (bourgeois) drawing-room theatre's presentation of a seemingly natural and trans-historical reality as well as deconstructing a similarly conventional use of space in the social realist and kitchen sink drama of The Angry Young Men in the 1950s.

Theatrical space is also a liminal space that places the audience in a liminal role. Baz Kershaw refers to the anthropologist Victor Turner, who compares the position of the theatre audience with the role of participants in ritual. Kershaw describes theatre as placing "the participant 'betwixt and between' more permanent social roles and modes of awareness." He considers theatre's primary feature to be its inducement of the audience "to accept that the events of the production are both real and not real." He concludes that theatrical experience is centred on "a ludic role (or frame of mind) in the sense that it enables the spectator to participate in playing around with the norms, customs, regulations, laws, which govern her life in society" (138-39). Such a liminal space that hovers between the real and fictional can be interpreted as a momentary utopian break in the signification of the dominant order. Kevin Hetherington discusses this break in relation to rite of passage rituals where the transitional and unstable liminal place and phase is superseded by an ideological consolidation and reintegration of the subject back into society as a new person with a new identity (18). Both Light Shining and Vinegar Tom, drawing on Brecht's Epic Theatre, seek to remove the space of comfort that facilitates an audience's apathetic reception, a reception that is in turn dependent upon their interpellation as "a collective entity ... created in the auditorium ... on the basis of the 'common humanity' shared by all spectators alike" (Brecht 60). The extent to which theatre in isolation is able to reintegrate audiences into society with new identities is debatable; however, it clearly gestures towards the transformative or the renovative, if only, at times, conservatively vis-a-vis catharsis or comedic consolidation.

Michel Foucault, in his article "Of Other Spaces" theorizes what he terms "heterotopias" as places that are "formed in the very founding of society--which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites ... found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (23). These spaces are situated outside of all other spaces but still contain an identifiable locality. fie proposes that "between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror." Indeed, "the mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place." But simultaneously it is "a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy" (23). Theatre, with its representation of differing and contradictory sites, and the stage's reflectional qualities clearly fit the criteria of a heterotopia. The theatrical space produces a convergence and interaction of many spaces that are ordinarily mutually exclusive. The theatrical space thus hovers between the real and not real in that it is an identifiable site, if only temporarily, but not only in its transience but also in its reference to other fictional sites it gestures towards the imaginary and the utopian.

Certain expressions of theatrical language can be regarded as producing a non-assimilable utopian mode of signification: what Antonin Artaud describes as the "language of symbols and mimicry ... silent mime-play ... attitudes and spatial gestures ... objective inflection" (99-100). Michel de Certeau's reference to the Brazilian peasants of Pernambuco, who respond to the dominant discourse "from aside," for example, can likewise be located in the theatrical "aside" so frequently used in renaissance drama as an expression of subversion, transgression and furtiveness, or insolence, sardony, and parody. Indeed, Churchill's theatrical montage in her history plays is formed out of snippets of historical documentation, Brechtian episodic scenes and surreal monologue in Light Shining, and contemporary songs, quotations from historical witchhunting manuals, and the appearance of fifteenth-century witchhunters in the context of a seventeenth-century witchhunt in Vinegar Tom. This use of montage contributes to the formation of a plurality of theatrical languages that are not easily appropriated by the prevailing political discourse.

The relations of production that constitute theatre are conducive to the utopian construction of a socialistic working community. In The Empty Space, Peter Brook expresses a utopian vision of the collective production of theatre in the following terms:






It is always hard for anyone to have one single aim in
life--in the theatre, however, the goal is clear. From the
first rehearsal, the aim is always visible, not too far away,
and it involves everyone. We can see many model social
patterns at work: the pressure of a first night, with its
unmistakable demands, produce that working-together,
that dedication, that energy and that consolidation of
each other's needs that governments despair of ever
evoking outside wars. (98)




The potential for a utopian working practice is clearly explored by British socialist and feminist theatre groups that flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s such as Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment, who worked as a collective, used collaborative working methods with playwrights, and doubled up in acting roles thereby avoiding the hierarchical divisions that tend to be produced by the separation of actors into major and minor roles (Itzen 1980; Craig 1980). Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Light Shining is concerned with the destabilization of established history and the utopian potential of historical space in its representation of English Revolutionary activity on the part of the Ranters, Levellers, and Diggers during the English Civil War and Revolution of the 1640s. Max Stafford-Clark directed the Joint Stock actors in the original production and a three-week workshop involving Churchill, Stafford-Clark, and the actors was followed by a nine-week script-writing period where Churchill worked alone. This was the first time Churchill had worked with actors except in rehearsal, and the excitement that this type of collaboration produced is exemplified by her comments: "I was constantly amazed by their skills, and fascinated by the idea of working in this way. We had to learn about something remote and then find out how we related to it. There was a lot of reading history, and then finding similar things in our own lives" ("The Common Imagination and the Individual Voice" 6). The history Churchill read included A. L. Morton's The World of the Ranters (1970) and Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down (1972). Churchill's engagement with communist and New Left historicism acts as a defence and reinforcement of the type of working-class history "from below" produced in Britain by History Workshop and the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). It does so in the context of neoliberalist challenges to it, particularly directed at Hill, from historians, such as J.C. Davis in his Fear, Myth and History (1976), who sought to substitute the revolutionary desire to challenge monarchical power and enfranchise the population with the role of chance and political infighting as an explanation for the cause of the Civil War (which is not classed as a Revolution in this formulation). Churchill's contribution to this debate is one that is in broad alliance with Left historiography but is also one that places women and gender relations at the center of a representation of socialist history.

The play is in two acts that are constructed out of short scenes where, as Churchill describes "each scene can be taken as a separate event rather than part of a story" ("A Note on the Production" 184). In the original production that opened in the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in September 1976 and, after touring, played at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London, six actors played twenty-five parts but also swapped roles. Churchill explains that, "this seems to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience.... When different actors play the parts what comes over is a large event involving many people, whose characters resonate in a way they wouldn't if they were more clearly defined" ("A Note on the Production" 185). Moreover, the division of labor among the actors is one that promotes parity and solidarity at the expense of a divisive hierarchy. Thus the materiality of the play's production signifies a certain utopianism and aptly lends itself structurally to the representation of silenced plebeian and feminist histories.

It is also significant that Light Shining was written and performed in 1976: at the political crossroads of optimism and the growth of cynicism, just after the upsurge of working-class and student activism, and on the eve of the disillusionment and pessimism that set in with a more defensive militancy in the face of the Social Contract (that produced wage restraints, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey's capitulation to the International Monetary Fund, and an accelerating monetarism). Churchill comments, "the revolutionary hopes of the late sixties and early seventies were near enough that we could still share them, but we could relate too to the disillusion of the restoration and the idea of a revolution that hadn't happened" (Ritchie 119). Her introduction to the play implicates the duality of the two historical moments:






For a short time when the king had been defeated
anything seemed possible, and the play shows the
amazed excitement of people taking hold of their own
lives, and their gradual betrayal as those who led them
realised that freedom could not be had without property
being destroyed. (Introduction, Light Shining 183)




The emphatic (re)creation of a liberating space by sections of society in both historical periods is clearly referred to in Churchill's introduction as she closes it by commenting on the Ranters in the final scene, "whose ecstatic and anarchic belief in economic and sexual freedom was the last desperate burst of revolutionary feeling before the restoration" (Introduction, Light Shining 183). Light Shining is a play that draws heavily on Brecht's ideas of Epic Theatre. It is a play in two acts containing twenty-one short scenes that can be characterized by a sense of self-containment producing an episodic sequence of events and moments that break up a naturalistic narrative. Set in 1647, it dramatizes key moments in the lives of plebeians and radical sect members of the Levellers, Ranters, and Diggers. Their views are suppressed under the emerging dominance of Oliver Cromwell and the leadership of his New Model Army, who have become synonymous with the Parliamentarian cause and have eclipsed other more radical republican voices. The title of the play comes from a pamphlet written by a group of radical Levellers from Buckinghamshire who promoted the idea of the abolition of property, which in turn prompted the Digger pamphlet written in 1649 "More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire." Churchill includes a quotation from the pamphlet in her introductory notes to the play: "you great Curmudgeons, you hang a man for stealing, when you yourselves have stolen from your brethren all land and creatures" (Introduction 183).

There are competing versions of utopia in the play. Star, who recruits for Cromwell's army, uses a Fifth Monarchist discourse to encourage soldiers to sign up. Jerusalem is appealed to as the land of freedom and plenty which will be established on earth with the coming of Christ as King once the current King has been disposed:






Life is hard, brothers, and how will it get better? I tell
you, life in Babylon is hard and Babylon must be
destroyed.... When parliament has defeated Antichrist
then Christ will come. Christ will come in person, God
and man, and will rule over England for one thousand
years.... When Christ came, did he come to the rich?
No. He came to the poor.... Now is the moment. It
will be too late when Christ comes to say you want to he
saved. Some will be cast into the pit, into the burning
lake, into the unquenchable fire. And some will be
clothed in white linen and ride white horses and rule
with King Jesus in Jerusalem shining with jasper and
chrysolite. (Light Shining 194-95)




The military and political necessity for the Parliamentarian army to recruit the poor in large numbers engenders a Christian liberationist language that appeals to justice and freedom, constructing the poor as Christ's Saints. A utopian fantasy of heaven on earth informs the figurative rhetoric through which political agitation is conducted. This millenarian utopian discourse is drawn on again in Cobbe's vision (a character based on the historical Ranter Abiezer Coppe). The vision is a cataclysmic experience full of apocalyptic imagery that culminates in Christ's directive to "Go to London, to London, that great city, and tell them I am coming" (206). There are different spatial modes of utopianism operating in the play. One that has a material grounding and poses a critical intervention and praxis comes from the Diggers who reclaim the land at St. George's Hill, Surrey for common usage. Gerrard Winstanley announces (his words taken from an edited version of "The True Levellers Standard Advanced, Or the state of the Community opened, and presented to the Sons of Men" written in 1649):




A declaration to the powers of England and to all the
powers of the world, showing the cause why the
common people of England have begun to dig up,
manure and sow corn upon George Hill in Surrey. Take
notice that England is not a free people till the poor that
have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the
commons. It is the sword that brought in property and
holds it up, and everyone upon recovery of the
conquest ought to return into freedom again, or what
benefit have the common people got by the victory
over the king? (219)




The Diggers' prom-communist utopian theory is put into practice. Utopia is located in the free and common access to and usage of the land that contrasts with the previous scene--the Putney Debates--wherein ownership of private property is endorsed as a basic natural right, and suffrage given only to those with an interest (property) in case the majority without an interest abolish interests altogether. It is noteworthy that the activity of the Diggers--an activity that undermines the very basis of capitalism--that of property relations, occurs off-stage, which is a kind of no-place. Again, the semantic significance of "the good place" that is "no place" resonates as the audience experiences the Diggers' reclamation of land indirectly (through its reporting) and thus imaginatively. In this way, it might be said that there is something characteristic of utopian activity that resists representation. Utopian space is also constructed out of the destabilization of pacifying identities which informs the increasing empowerment of many of the characters in the first act. In the scene entitled "Two Women Look in a Mirror," the audience sees two women experiencing for the first time the reflection of their whole bodies in a large mirror looted from a huge house belonging to a Royalist. Frances Gray in her article entitled "Mirrors of Utopia: Caryl Churchill and Joint Stock" usefully points to the strong suggestion in this scene of the Lacanian "mirror stage," which is radically subverted by Churchill who images female solidarity in the mirror as opposed to an individual and alienated Other. The lack of a stable spatiality for the mirror's reflection also alludes to Foucault's heterotopia with its image of the ideal lacking spatial grounding. The surrounding dialogue--"He'll never come back. We're burning his papers, that's the Norman papers that give him his lands. That's like him burnt. There's no one over us. There's pictures of him and his grandfather and his great great--a long row of pictures and we pulled them down" (207)--additionally suggests an image of the potentiality of what Marx termed "a class for itself." The idea is that "a class in itself" develops a politicised consciousness of its position vis-a-vis production relations and becomes "a class for itself," which stimulates revolutionary activity. Typically of Churchill, she subverts the traditional male-centred configuration of class politics generally espoused by the masculinist vein of Marxism by foregrounding women as central revolutionary agents of class struggle.

Act 1 is full of utopian drive, containing several spaces of possibility where a growing sense of active agency develops in a number of characters. Hoskins, a female vagrant preacher, begins to reclaim the Bible as she challenges the male Calvinist preacher's reference to St. Paul in his attempt to silence her. She retorts, "Joel. Chapter two. Verse twenty-eight. 'And it shall come to pass that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall see visions. And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit" (201). Briggs, "a working man," who is recruited by the corn merchant Star into the army, becomes quickly politicized, joins the Levellers, and is elected as an agitator by his regiment. He rapidly attempts to secularize the discourse of revolution and recognizes that the war in Ireland serves only colonial interests. Claxton (a character based loosely on the historical figure Laurence Clarkson or Claxton) moves towards the Ranters, and this journey is coterminous with his increasing insight into the force of ideology. He says, "my body is given to other women now for I have come to see that there is no sin but what man thinks is sin. So we can't be free from sin till we can commit it purely, as if it were no sin. Sometimes I lie or steal to show myself that there is no lie or theft but in the mind" (221). Several characters repudiate their subordinated subject positions and locate themselves progressively more as dynamic agents, taking hold of language and political discourse in an empowering and creative way.

The spaces of possibility begin to close, however, as Act 2 proceeds. In the penultimate scene, Hoskins, Cobbe, the female vagrant Brotherton, Briggs and Claxton meet in a tavern and discuss what has happened after the betrayal at the Putney Debates. There is a certain pathos as the coming of Jesus is frenziedly and ecstatically appealed to by all except Briggs, who is the lone secular voice. Utopian struggle is relegated to modes of noncompliance, the "tactics," "ruses," "trickery," and "deception" outlined by de Certeau. Cobbe repeatedly swears and asks "Is it nothing but a lifetime of false words, little games, devil's tricks, ways to get by in the world and keep safe?" (230). The last scene, entitled "After," explains their circumstances after the Restoration. The brief speeches have become flat and monologic.

The last lines of the play are Claxton's: "There's an end of outward preaching now. And end of perfection. There may be a time. I went to the Barbados. I sometimes hear from the world that I have forsaken. I see it fraught with tidings of the same clamour, strife and contention that abounded when I left it. I give it the hearing and that's all. My great desire is to see and say nothing" (241). Utopia is dissipated and the empowering and liberationist force of language is curtailed by political defeat and censorship. Seeing (something) and saying nothing becomes the prevalent activity (or inactivity). There is, nonetheless, an ambiguity over Claxton's meaning. The audience perceives a glimpse of another utopian space--Barbados--a utopia ripe for the accumulation of profit that capitalists can construct into a new and lucrative industry. Questions of whether Claxton is in exile or has been absorbed into the system, and whether his silence is due to repression or complicity with the dominant order, are critically left unanswered at the end of the play.

Vinegar Tom

Written in the same year as Light Shining and first performed a month after under the direction of Pam Brighton at the Humberside Theatre, Hull, in October 1976, then on tour, and at the ICA and Half Moon Theatres, London, Vinegar Tom was also a collaborative venture (this time with the socialist-feminist theatre collective Monstrous Regiment) and was again set in the seventeenth-century. The work on Vinegar Tom began before Light Shining, and Churchill completed a first draft during this period, but she left the play at this stage to work with Joint Stock, and then returned to Vinegar Tom after the completion of Light Shining. There seems to be, thus, an explicit inter-textuality and inter-theatricality between these two plays in terms of their material production that reinforce their overlap (in Churchill's words) "both in time and ideas" (Introduction, Vinegar Tom 129).

The same sense of excitement Churchill expressed over working with Joint Stock shows up also in this initial period of working with Monstrous Regiment. She describes her feelings after meeting the whole company:





I left the meeting exhilarated. My previous work had
been completely solitary--I never discussed my ideas
while I was writing or showed anyone anything earlier
than a final polished draft. So this was a new way of
working, which was one of its attractions. Also a touring
company, with a wider audience; also a feminist
company--I felt briefly shy and daunted, wondering if I
would be acceptable, then happy and stimulated by the
discovery of shared ideas and the enormous energy and
feeling of possibilities in the still new company
(Introduction, Vinegar Tom 129).




Churchill conveys the sense of thrill at the newness of this way of working as well as the stimulation induced by the "discovery of shared ideas" and the opening up of "possibilities." The terms used signify a passionate engagement with utopianism. While the sense of utopian possibility appears as tangible in the discourse on the making of Vinegar Tom as it was with Light Shining, Vinegar Tom is nevertheless more complex in its relationship with the expression of utopian modes. On a basic level, it is more of a campaigning play. Churchill describes Vinegar Tom as "a play about witches, but none of the characters portrayed is a witch; it's a play which doesn't talk about hysteria, evil or demonic possession but about poverty, humiliation and prejudice, and the view which the women accused of witchcraft had of themselves" (Fitzsimmons 35). The focus is on producing a drama that makes explicit the patriarchal connections among the institutions of church, state, and family that comprise a misogynist matrix of signification. The play illustrates the formation of misogynist myth-making by using a mixture of historical and religious documentation and references. These can be seen in the repeated citation of the witchhunt bible The Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches written in 1484 by the Reverends Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger (which was in use for three centuries) as well as Kramer and Sprenger, in the original production, being played by women dressed as Edwardian music-hall gents in top hats and tails.

Although there is explicit use of historical material, Churchill explains in the Introduction to Vinegar Tom that she "didn't base the play on any precise historical events, but set it rather loosely in the seventeenth century" (30). This was "partly because it was the time of the last major English witchhunts, and partly because the social upheavals, class changes, rising professionalism and great hardship among the poor were the context of the kind of witchhunt" (30) in which she was interested. Unlike Light Shining, Vinegar Tom additionally incorporates modern songs by actors out of character and in contemporary dress, the intervention of which breaks up the dramatic narrative. Gillian Hanna of Monstrous Regiment (who played a poor village girl, Alice, in the original production) explains this intervention in terms of their wish to "smash that regular and acceptable dramatic form" since they "didn't want to allow the audience to get off the hook by regarding it as a period piece, a piece of very interesting history" (9). In this sense, it is a more confrontational play, one that seeks to arrest the audience with a belligerent mode of representation that removes any "neutral" space where the spectator may wish to reside. It thus offers an alternative to Fredric Jameson's characterization of the postmodern obliteration of "distantiation" or the effacement of critical space (87).

The play may not engage straightforwardly with utopian modes and seems to depend more on the critical impulse as its driving force, but there are some powerful utopian representations. Firstly, as Hanna mentioned, the "smashing" of conventional theatrical form that Vinegar Tom so explicitly enacts recalls Bloch's theorizing of history and utopianism: the enclosed historical narrative is disassembled and blast through with contemporary provocative moments. There is not only a reconstruction of predominantly poor and unconventional women's histories, but also a destabilization of bourgeois historiography and a counter-balancing of other (male) socialist narratives such as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1952). While the girls in Salem in 1692 are similarly not witches and are, in the main, represented as victims of patriarchal hegemony, the profundity of the parable of McCarthyism is, nevertheless, located in the flawed but essentially good male figure of John Proctor, with Abigail Williams displaying the qualities of beauty, lust, guile, fickleness, and deviousness--typical constructions that comprise the object of the male gaze.

Vinegar Tom relegates the central masculinist consciousness of The Crucible to the scarcely drawn and unnamed (genetic) "Man" in Scene 1, together with surly Jack (the tenant farmer who induces little more than hostility from the audience), and stereotypes of the sadistic and authoritarian Doctor (an off-stage character), the witchhunter Packer, and the fathers of witchhunting: Kramer and Sprenger. Female characters dominate the dramatic landscape, and, although not represented naturalistically, they, nevertheless, form the focus of a fully rounded community to which the audience responds. The differences between the women are not idealistically papered over and, indeed, serve as an obstacle to survival and change; however, a common utopian thread of female desire can be traced that echoes throughout the play and connects the female characters in a network of gendered subjectivity.

The poor village girl Alice and the landowner's daughter Betty, for example, are irreconcilably differentiated in class terms--so much so that it becomes a life and death distinction as Betty is saved from hanging solely because of her class status--but they nevertheless echo each other in a utopian yearning to transcend their immediate environment. Alice's repeated request in Scene 1 to the unnamed Man to take her with him to Scotland or London is matched in the following scene by Betty's articulation of her longing to escape the estate and--by implication--her role: "on my way here I climbed a tree. I could see the whole estate. I could see the other side of the river. I wanted to jump off. And fly" (Vinegar Tom 140). Even Jack's self-righteous wife, Margery, reveals hints of utopian yearning, a yearning that is reflected in the insinuation of repressed sexual desire as she sings a song to accompany her struggle to churn the butter, "come butter come, come butter come. Johnny's standing at the gate waiting for a butter cake. Come butter come, come butter come" (143). This song gathers more significance from its positioning in the scene immediately after the song that mournfully narrates the development of women's sexuality, "Nobody Sings."

As in Light Shining there are attempts to occupy a more self-empowered subject position, particularly by Alice, who in her conversation with the Man just after they have had sex at a roadside (an ambiguous or liminal space) endeavors to articulate herself as a subject, as opposed to an object, of desire: "I don't like a man too smooth" (135). Further on in the scene, she echoes the discourse of the Ranters in Light Shining as she says "any time I'm happy someone says it's a sin" (136). Initially the man collaborates with this point of view by alluding to the utopianism of the political culture of radical sects in London:






There's some in London say there's no sin. Each man
has his own religion nearly, or none at all, and there's
women speak out too. They smoke and curse in the
tavern and say flesh is no sin for they are God
themselves and can't sin. The men and women lie
together and say that's bliss and that's heaven and that's
no sin. (136)




But Alice's struggle to construct an autonomous space from which she can assert an empowered subjectivity is thwarted by the man, who, once asked if he will take her with him, retorts, "take a whore with me?" He scoffs, "what name would you put to yourself?. You're not a wife or a widow. You're not a virgin. Tell me a name for what you are" (137). His power to switch swiftly from camaraderie to misogyny is underlined. This dialogue also demonstrates that Alice requires a man's "generosity" if she is to locate a wider range of modes of self-assertion. A space that signifies a kind of pro-female or "womanist" utopia--in Alice Walker's sense of the term--is Ellen's cottage. Ellen, the cunning woman, tries to support other women in their self-determination. She says to Alice's friend Susan, who is pregnant for the sixth or seventh time after miscarrying several times and almost dying during childbirth, "take it or leave it, my dear, it's one to me. If you want to be rid of your trouble, you'll take it. But only you know what you want" (154). Unlike the professional male doctor who administers discipline, Ellen promotes choice. Betty also enjoys Ellen's unconventional space. She asks, "Can I come again sometimes just to be here? I like it here" (156). Ellen's cottage becomes a counter-site, a heterotopia where (mostly) women come to enjoy a brief spell away from the patriarchal domination of their everyday lives.

There are two other types of utopia imaged. A fascist utopia is ironically signified in the song "Something to Burn":






Sometimes it's witches, or what will you choose?
Sometimes it's lunatics, shut them away.
It's blacks and it's women and often it's Jews.
We'd all be quite happy if they'd go away.
Find something to burn.
Let it go up in smoke.
Burn your troubles away. (154)




As well as referring explicitly to the activity of scapegoating, this song also sardonically conjures up the fascist utopia with women in their place, "lunatics" locked up, and no Jewish or black people making trouble and "infecting" a white male utopia. A further ironic utopian image is Ellen's painting of Betty's life as a rich wife:




Your best chance of being left alone is marry a rich
man, because it's part of his honour to have a wife who
does nothing. He has a big house and rose garden and
trout stream, he just needs a fine lady to make it
complete and you can be that. You can sing and sit on
the lawn and change your dresses and order the dinner.
(169)




This description functions paradoxically as a reminder of Betty's class privilege (Ellen continues: "What would you rather? Marry a poor man and work all day?" [169]), and serves as an acknowledgement of the hollowness of, and the lack of self-determination that complicates, female class "dominance." Conclusion

Commitment to the potential of human emancipation evident in many of Churchill's plays is often reflected in a representation of social activity where individuals employ various forms of non-compliance, disobedience, and resistance in the most intransigent and repressive of contexts, as well as more confident displays of solidarity, confrontation, and collective uprising. Utopian theory facilitates the exploration of the interaction between different modes of non-cooperation with, and challenge to, oppressive networks of power. Light Shining is concerned with competing versions of utopia, utopian spaces, and utopian processes. These competing versions echo the debates over theory, tactics, and strategy that occurred within Left and counter-cultural circles. Donald Campbell in "Traditional Movement" comments: "parallels with our own time exist in plenty--the scene depicting the Putney debates reminded me very much of the squabbles of the British Labour Party" (20). Meenakshi Ponnuswami in her article "Fanshen in the English Revolution: Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" additionally points to the connections between the carnivalesque transgressive practices of the Ranters in their performativity of liberation--their swearing, drunkenness, practice of free sexuality--and these utopian tendencies within the contemporaneous counter-culture. The Diggers' practice of reclaiming the land, contrasting with the Levellers' negotiation with the parliamentarians, is similarly resonant of the competing strategies and tactics that dominated the British Left in the 1970s. Light Shining explores a range of differing forms of the utopian, representing weaknesses as well as strengths of utopian modes of political activity, and thus additionally intimates the importance of engaging with both the critical and utopian impulses in the exercise of political theory and practice. The limitations of the performativity of immediate liberation, such as the Ranters' final outburst of millenarianism, are emphasized, but the restrictive range of the critical impulse of the Levellers is similarly shown to be vulnerable to absorption by the system. Churchill thus undertakes what Bloch's Principle of Hope proposed, for Light Shining wrenches open the past, both to support the re-construction of silenced histories and to intervene in the present and change the future.

Like Light Shining, Vinegar Tom works as an engagement with the present as well as the past. In the context of active political practice by the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), the play was peculiarly topical in the mid-1970s. Its concern with subjectivity and consciousness, sexuality and women's health, contraception, abortion and marriage are all issues at the forefront of concerns of women more generally as well as the WLM. As part of its implication of the duality of past and present, Vinegar Tom explores the dystopian impulse that informs both a patriarchal configuration of oppressive structures and the complicit behaviour within these structures of some female characters such as the bitter tenant farmer's wife, Margery, and the witchhunter's assistant, Goody. Complicity is a key issue that caused divisions within the WLM. Despite this sort of behavior, both the critical and utopian impulses are strongly manifested in characters such as Alice and her mother, Joan, who, faced with hanging for witchcraft, remain defiant to the end. Joan's last speech before her hanging (in which she performs the role of a witch--now a utopian fantasy of power--claiming to be the cause of trouble, misfortune, and accidents in the village over the last ten years) provides her with a momentary space from where she assumes an active and commanding persona. She fleetingly transcends the ideological parameters imposed upon her as she temporarily occupies the demonized but powerful role that she has been accused of, claiming omnipotently, "the great storm and tempest comes when I call it" (173). Hence, although the political signification of the play seems to function predominantly at the critical pole, there are traces of utopia that exist in a specifically female matrix of space, language and consciousness, a matrix which in turn is figured as a mode of survival and local resistance.

Light Shining contributes towards the construction of socialist history with its celebration of the courage, political enlightenment, and activism of radicals during the English Revolution. Although it dramatizes their political defeat, the play's utopian goal of collective revolution and individual freedom is represented positively through a bricolage of various utopian and critical practices. Vinegar Tom stages a history that is often trivialized--or even ignored--in mainstream history and underestimated in socialist historiography. It can be read as a less acknowledged but adjacent history to the 1640s English revolutionary narrative. The utopian yearning for a wholly different social landscape is played out amidst an anti-utopian setting where fear, death, division, and poverty form the material conditions of this community. The angry tenor of Vinegar Tom is a corollary of the continuing sidelining of the witchhunts for over four centuries, and its confrontation of the full-horror of this practice an insistence on the rethinking of the way this period is articulated.

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Publication Information: Article Title: Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill's History Plays: "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" and "Vinegar Tom.". Contributors: Sian Adiseshiah - author. Journal Title: Utopian Studies. Volume: 16. Issue: 1. Publication Year: 2005. Page Number: 3+. COPYRIGHT 2005 Society for Utopian Studies; COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group



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