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‘A Licence to Kill’: Caryl Churchill's Socialist-Feminist ‘Ideas of Nature’

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Caryl Churchill's theatre is centrally concerned with the kinds of social and cultural orders that are used to ‘cultivate’ futures. Her late twentieth-century and now twenty-first-century theatre especially has critiqued the ordering of national and, increasingly, transnational capitalist economies and their attendant ‘futures’. As a socialist theatre practitioner, Churchill, along with other cultural materialist critics, recognises that matters of ecology are bound up in matters of economy. Raymond Williams, for example, has argued not only that nature is caught up in ‘human history’, but that understandings of arrangements between nature and man have also necessitated consideration of nature, man and property (1980: 67, 76, emphasis added). In this scheme of things, nature locates within the human systems (social, political, legal, cultural) that ‘govern’ it at any one historical time.

Arrangements of nature, ‘man’ and property are an enduring concern of Churchill's canon. For example, her 1970s and 1980s work Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and Fen (1983) both figure land issues within a Brechtian-inflected, materialist critique; both include historical perspectives that demonstrate the risk to ‘future histories’. Light Shining engages in a socialist critique of seventeenthcentury English history: looks towards the revolutionary possibility of a new social order, ultimately thwarted by the introduction of a capitalised system of land ‘ownership’. Consequent upon the failure to democratise is the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of ordinary, poor people. Fen likewise considers the harsh social realities, past and present, for fenland communities in the English region of East Anglia, where the land that is cultivated is complexly ‘owned’ by business investors. While the historical paradigm for this was, Fen teaches, the landowning farmer and poorly paid village workers, more recently the farmers have been bought out by transnational business investors. The model of familial heritage and ownership loses out to the movement of transnational capital, but crucially the point is that neither system benefits the workers. In brief, both Light Shining and Fen demonstrate that ‘ideas of nature’ connect to property and to issues of labour and disenfranchisement.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2005

More about this publication?
  • Performing Nature
    The essays in this volume explore the borderland between ecology and the arts. Informed by psychoanalysis and cultural materialism, contributors to the first part, 'Spectacle: Landscape and Subjectivity', look at ways in which particular social and scientific experiments, theatre and film productions and photography either reinforce or contest our ideas about nature and human-human or human-animal relations and identities. The second part, 'World: Hermeneutic Language and Social Ecology', investigates political protest, social practice art, acoustic ecology, dance theatre, family therapy and ritual in terms of social philosophy. Contributors to the third part, 'Environment: Immersiveness and Interactivity', explore architecture and sculpture, site-specific and mediatised dance and paratheatre through radical theories of urban and virtual space and time, or else phenomenological philosophy. The final part, 'Void: Death, Life and the Sublime', indicates the possibilities in dance, architecture and animal behaviour of a shift to an existential ontology in which nature has 'the capacity to perform itself'.
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