Cloud 9 Summary

Caryl Churchill

Cloud 9

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Cloud 9 Summary

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Cloud 9 is a two-act play by the British playwright Caryl Churchill, first performed in 1979. Its first act is set in the nineteenth century, in colonial Africa, while the second act takes place in London in 1979; however, the characters from Act I reappear in Act II, and for them, only twenty-five years have passed between acts. This contrapuntal structure allows Churchill to explore how far political repression—along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism—has altered during the course of the twentieth century. This theme is reinforced by the casting: each character is played by different actors in each of the two acts, and Churchill calls for each character to be played by an actor of the opposite sex in Act II. In Act I, the black servant Joshua is played by a white man.

The play opens in the home of Clive, a British colonial administrator in an African country. He leads his household—wife, Betty, children, Edward and Victoria, their governess, Ellen, Betty’s mother, Maud and the native servant, Joshua—in a song celebrating the glories of England.

With the song over, Clive begins to regale his wife with stories from his day: he has been managing a dispute between local tribes. Betty complains that Joshua has been rude to her, and Clive rebukes the servant.

Harry Bagley and Mrs. Saunders arrive. Harry is an explorer, fresh from an expedition to the interior. He and Betty immediately begin to flirt with one another, revealing a long-standing attraction. However, at the first opportunity, Harry and Joshua slip away to have sex with each other.

Mrs. Saunders is seeking protection; despite Clive’s management, unrest among the local populace is growing. Clive shoos Mrs. Saunders away, following her out of the house to quell her resistance. When they are alone, he performs oral sex on her. Then they return to the rest of the family. Clive makes a toast to the Queen.

Clive and Harry play catch with Edward until Clive becomes embarrassed by his son’s fumbling. The game becomes hide-and-seek, and under its cover, Edward finds an opportunity to ask Harry to resume their sexual relationship. Elsewhere, the governess, Ellen, confesses to Betty that she loves her. Betty has eyes only for Harry and dismisses Ellen’s confession as absurd.

Clive leads the other men outside to flog the natives. Mrs. Saunders, upset, follows them outside. Ellen notices that Edward is playing with a doll and hits him. When his father returns, Edward apologizes to him for playing with the doll. The characters depart for the verandah, but Clive keeps Betty back. He tells her that he knows she has been having an affair with Harry. He lectures her on the dangers of lust before forgiving her.

Clive takes Harry aside to discuss the increasing unrest amongst the natives. Harry attempts to seduce Clive, who rebuffs him, horrified. Clive hurries away to find Mrs. Saunders, whom he tries to persuade to marry Clive, hoping to cure—or at least cover up—Harry’s homosexuality. Mrs. Saunders refuses.

Clive is distracted by the news that British soldiers have killed Joshua’s parents. He offers the servant his condolences. Resuming his mission to marry off Harry, he forces him to engage himself to Ellen. An engagement party follows, but Mrs. Saunders announces that she is leaving. Clive kisses her goodbye, provoking Betty to attack her. Clive is disgusted by Mrs. Saunders stooping to fight and he kicks her out.

As Clive raises his glass to toast Harry and Ellen, Joshua raises a rifle to shoot him. Edward can see Joshua, but he does not alert his father. The act ends on a blackout.

Act II begins about a hundred years later, as Victoria (only twenty-five years older) arrives at a London park with her friend Lin and Lin’s daughter, Cathy. It is winter. While Cathy plays, Lin tells Victoria that she is a lesbian, and asks Victoria on a date. Edward appears, and so does Betty, who reveals that she is thinking of leaving Clive.

Time skips forwards: it is spring, and Edward is arguing with his lover, Gerry about Gerry’s inability to commit. To the audience, Gerry admits having sex with a stranger on a train. Victoria arrives with her husband, Martin, who reveals that he is passionately in love with his wife. When he leaves, Lin arrives and tells Victoria that her brother has been killed in fighting in Belfast. Gerry and Edward return: Gerry breaks up with Edward.

Now it is a summer night. Victoria, Lin, and Edward are conducting a pagan sex ritual. As Martin arrives, they enlist him into what is becoming an orgy. Lin’s dead brother materializes and talks about his experiences as a soldier in Northern Ireland. Afterward, characters from Act I begin to appear.

Later in the summer, Victoria, Lin, and Edward are living together in a polyamorous household. Betty announces that she has rediscovered masturbation. Gerry and Edward become friends. While buying ice cream, Cathy is attacked by the Dead Hand Gang. The other characters begin to fight about who should have been looking after her, and all except Gerry and Betty leave. Betty explains that she has come to terms with her son’s homosexuality. Betty from Act I appears: she and the new Betty embrace.