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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.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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