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Utopian space in Caryl Churchill’s history plays: "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" and "Vinegar Tom"

By Sian Adiseshiah


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.\ud \ud 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

Topics: W400 Drama
Publisher: Society for Utopian Studies
Year: 2005
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