The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill By SARAH LYALL Published: December 5, 2004 ONDON — CARYL CHURCHILL is one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights in the English-speaking world, and perhaps the single most acclaimed female one, but she is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In a world where serious playwrights constantly sit on panels, hold forth at academic conferences and appear on behalf of institutions like the British Council, Ms. Churchill remains a rare thing, a hugely successful playwright who lets her work speak entirely for itself. Advertisement Ms. Churchill is generally regarded with something close to awe in the London theater world for her passion, curiosity, rigor, openness to collaboration and for being, as the critic Charles Spencer wrote in The Daily Telegraph, "the least predictable of contemporary playwrights." Her elusiveness can be maddening for those trying to understand her plays, which are elliptical, provocative, shocking and increasingly pared-down; they seem to cry out for a cool authorial voice to help answer the questions they raise. But by the same token, it adds to her mystique and forces audiences, so often spoon-fed with official interpretations, to take some initiative. That is certainly the case with "A Number," which is to open Tuesday at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village. A slip of a play, only 65 minutes long, it has just two parts: Salter, a flustered and defensive father (played by Sam Shepard), and three of his sons, clones of each other (all played by Dallas Roberts). On the surface, "A Number" is about the moral and personal implications of genetic engineering. But there is much more to it. In a barrage of tense, spare conversations between Salter and the sons, the work also explores sibling rivalry; the expectations and responsibilities of parents and children; nature versus nurture and the essence of identity itself. "Ms. Churchill is not offering us a debate on the ethics of cloning," the critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian. "What she does, in a series of fraught, emotional encounters, is use the scientific possibility to address basic human questions: above all, what the source is of that mysterious thing we call personality." Ms. Churchill stopped giving interviews some years ago, but as to her personal details, this much is known: now 66 years old, she has been writing plays for more than 40 years. She was born in London in 1938, just before World War II broke out, and spent most of her teens in Montreal, where her family moved when she was 10. In 1957, she went to Oxford and began to write plays for student productions. Four years later, she married a barrister, David Harter. She wrote even while her three sons were small, mostly short radio plays, characterized by a necessary economy of style that carries through to her current plays. But it was a difficult time, and she said later that she had been writing "depressed plays about depression." "I was fed up with the situation I found myself in in the 1960's," she said in an interview some years later. "I didn't like being a barrister's wife and going out to dinner with other professional people and dealing with middle class life. It seemed claustrophobic. Having started off with undefined idealistic assumptions about the kind of life we could lead, we had drifted into something quite conventional and middle class and boring. By the mid-1960's, I had this gloomy feeling that when the Revolution came I would be swept away." Her husband, though, shifted to working with the poor and disadvantaged, and his sense of social responsibility mirrored hers; one of her first plays was "Owners," (1972), about (in part) the rapacity of landlords. But subjects plumbed by her subsequent plays are so multifarious as to make it impossible to pin down her work. To name just a few, she takes on 1980's greed in "Serious Money"(1987); the steep price of women's success in "Top Girls" (1982); the brief period of revolutionary idealism in 17th-century England in "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" (1976); the limits of playwriting as a form, and of the ability of words to express meaning in "Blue Heart" (1997); the horror of a violent world in "Far Away" (2000). The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill By SARAH LYALL Published: December 5, 2004 ONDON — CARYL CHURCHILL is one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights in the English-speaking world, and perhaps the single most acclaimed female one, but she is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In a world where serious playwrights constantly sit on panels, hold forth at academic conferences and appear on behalf of institutions like the British Council, Ms. Churchill remains a rare thing, a hugely successful playwright who lets her work speak entirely for itself. Advertisement Ms. Churchill is generally regarded with something close to awe in the London theater world for her passion, curiosity, rigor, openness to collaboration and for being, as the critic Charles Spencer wrote in The Daily Telegraph, "the least predictable of contemporary playwrights." Her elusiveness can be maddening for those trying to understand her plays, which are elliptical, provocative, shocking and increasingly pared-down; they seem to cry out for a cool authorial voice to help answer the questions they raise. But by the same token, it adds to her mystique and forces audiences, so often spoon-fed with official interpretations, to take some initiative. That is certainly the case with "A Number," which is to open Tuesday at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village. A slip of a play, only 65 minutes long, it has just two parts: Salter, a flustered and defensive father (played by Sam Shepard), and three of his sons, clones of each other (all played by Dallas Roberts). On the surface, "A Number" is about the moral and personal implications of genetic engineering. But there is much more to it. In a barrage of tense, spare conversations between Salter and the sons, the work also explores sibling rivalry; the expectations and responsibilities of parents and children; nature versus nurture and the essence of identity itself. "Ms. Churchill is not offering us a debate on the ethics of cloning," the critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian. "What she does, in a series of fraught, emotional encounters, is use the scientific possibility to address basic human questions: above all, what the source is of that mysterious thing we call personality." Ms. Churchill stopped giving interviews some years ago, but as to her personal details, this much is known: now 66 years old, she has been writing plays for more than 40 years. She was born in London in 1938, just before World War II broke out, and spent most of her teens in Montreal, where her family moved when she was 10. In 1957, she went to Oxford and began to write plays for student productions. Four years later, she married a barrister, David Harter. She wrote even while her three sons were small, mostly short radio plays, characterized by a necessary economy of style that carries through to her current plays. But it was a difficult time, and she said later that she had been writing "depressed plays about depression." "I was fed up with the situation I found myself in in the 1960's," she said in an interview some years later. "I didn't like being a barrister's wife and going out to dinner with other professional people and dealing with middle class life. It seemed claustrophobic. Having started off with undefined idealistic assumptions about the kind of life we could lead, we had drifted into something quite conventional and middle class and boring. By the mid-1960's, I had this gloomy feeling that when the Revolution came I would be swept away." Her husband, though, shifted to working with the poor and disadvantaged, and his sense of social responsibility mirrored hers; one of her first plays was "Owners," (1972), about (in part) the rapacity of landlords. But subjects plumbed by her subsequent plays are so multifarious as to make it impossible to pin down her work. To name just a few, she takes on 1980's greed in "Serious Money"(1987); the steep price of women's success in "Top Girls" (1982); the brief period of revolutionary idealism in 17th-century England in "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" (1976); the limits of playwriting as a form, and of the ability of words to express meaning in "Blue Heart" (1997); the horror of a violent world in "Far Away" (2000). Continued The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill By SARAH LYALL Published: December 5, 2004 ONDON — CARYL CHURCHILL is one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights in the English-speaking world, and perhaps the single most acclaimed female one, but she is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In a world where serious playwrights constantly sit on panels, hold forth at academic conferences and appear on behalf of institutions like the British Council, Ms. Churchill remains a rare thing, a hugely successful playwright who lets her work speak entirely for itself. Advertisement Ms. Churchill is generally regarded with something close to awe in the London theater world for her passion, curiosity, rigor, openness to collaboration and for being, as the critic Charles Spencer wrote in The Daily Telegraph, "the least predictable of contemporary playwrights." Her elusiveness can be maddening for those trying to understand her plays, which are elliptical, provocative, shocking and increasingly pared-down; they seem to cry out for a cool authorial voice to help answer the questions they raise. But by the same token, it adds to her mystique and forces audiences, so often spoon-fed with official interpretations, to take some initiative. That is certainly the case with "A Number," which is to open Tuesday at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village. A slip of a play, only 65 minutes long, it has just two parts: Salter, a flustered and defensive father (played by Sam Shepard), and three of his sons, clones of each other (all played by Dallas Roberts). On the surface, "A Number" is about the moral and personal implications of genetic engineering. But there is much more to it. In a barrage of tense, spare conversations between Salter and the sons, the work also explores sibling rivalry; the expectations and responsibilities of parents and children; nature versus nurture and the essence of identity itself. "Ms. Churchill is not offering us a debate on the ethics of cloning," the critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian. "What she does, in a series of fraught, emotional encounters, is use the scientific possibility to address basic human questions: above all, what the source is of that mysterious thing we call personality." Ms. Churchill stopped giving interviews some years ago, but as to her personal details, this much is known: now 66 years old, she has been writing plays for more than 40 years. She was born in London in 1938, just before World War II broke out, and spent most of her teens in Montreal, where her family moved when she was 10. In 1957, she went to Oxford and began to write plays for student productions. Four years later, she married a barrister, David Harter. She wrote even while her three sons were small, mostly short radio plays, characterized by a necessary economy of style that carries through to her current plays. But it was a difficult time, and she said later that she had been writing "depressed plays about depression." "I was fed up with the situation I found myself in in the 1960's," she said in an interview some years later. "I didn't like being a barrister's wife and going out to dinner with other professional people and dealing with middle class life. It seemed claustrophobic. Having started off with undefined idealistic assumptions about the kind of life we could lead, we had drifted into something quite conventional and middle class and boring. By the mid-1960's, I had this gloomy feeling that when the Revolution came I would be swept away." Her husband, though, shifted to working with the poor and disadvantaged, and his sense of social responsibility mirrored hers; one of her first plays was "Owners," (1972), about (in part) the rapacity of landlords. But subjects plumbed by her subsequent plays are so multifarious as to make it impossible to pin down her work. To name just a few, she takes on 1980's greed in "Serious Money"(1987); the steep price of women's success in "Top Girls" (1982); the brief period of revolutionary idealism in 17th-century England in "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire" (1976); the limits of playwriting as a form, and of the ability of words to express meaning in "Blue Heart" (1997); the horror of a violent world in "Far Away" (2000). What are the Top 10 Hippest Vehicles for 2005? 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We Will Rock You Willen The Woman in Black The Woman in White The World Cup Final 1966 Young Writer's Season Ivan Kyncl Caryl Churchill ARTICLE TOOLS E-Mail This Article Printer-Friendly Format Most E-Mailed Articles Single-Page Format ALL ARTICLES Arts & Leisure (December 5, 2004) READERS' OPINIONS Forum: Join a Discussion on Theater TIMES NEWS TRACKER Topics Alerts Theater Churchill, Caryl Shepard, Sam Track news that interests you. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Dallas Roberts, left, and Sam Shepard star in the New York run of "A Number," written by Ms. Churchill. NYT Store Photo: "Gypsy" sign on Broadway, 2003 Learn More. Kevin Spacey doesn't just star in the biopic of Bobby Darin‚ “Beyond the Sea.” He's also the producer‚ director‚ co–writer and bandleader! • Get more from behind the scenes! • What other movies are coming soon? The Mysteries of Caryl Churchill Published: December 5, 2004 (Page 2 of 2) "Though she has described herself as a socialist and a feminist, it is difficult to categorize Churchill," the critic Benedict Nightingale wrote in The Times of London. "She is certainly not a preacher or a propagandist, while her mind is as wide-ranging and unpredictable as her creative genius." Although their personal significances are hidden under her art, Ms. Churchill's plays sometimes can provide personal clues as to who she is and what her contemporaneous obsessions are. "Owners," which raises disturbing questions about motherhood and babies, for instance, was written in a three-day frenzy when Ms. Churchill had just come home from the hospital after "a particularly gruesome late miscarriage," she revealed in an interview in 1980. Advertisement "Into it went for the first time a lot of things that had been building up in me over a long time, political attitudes as well as personal ones," Ms. Churchill said. Similarly, "Far Away" - a dystopian play in which a child inadvertently sees her uncle herding prisoners into a barn and beating them, and later features a world at war and a grotesque parade of orange-clad condemned prisoners bizarrely dressed in elaborate hats - most likely has its roots in Ms. Churchill's experience as a grandmother, said James C. Nicola, artistic director of New York Theater Workshop. "I couldn't help but look at the play as a response as Caryl's dealing with her love of her grandchildren and thinking, 'What do I say to them about this horrific world that we live in, and how can I prepare them for it without frightening or intimidating them?,' " he said. If Ms. Churchill's plays have one signature, it is their highly stylized conceits. The works are as creative in form as they are varied in content, as if she wants to push the boundaries each time. They feature, in different instances, flashbacks, twisted chronologies, huge leaps of logic, elements of absurdity, overlapping dialogue, different actors playing the same character in different scenes, interjected songs and, in the case of "Serious Money," dialogue written almost entirely in verse. "She is a structuralist," said Max Stafford-Clark, director of the Out of Joint theater company and longtime director of Ms. Churchill's work. "It's not just the range of subject matter, but also the form which is continually surprising to critics and audiences." In an interview in 1989, Ms. Churchill tried to explain. "I do enjoy the form of things," she said. "I enjoy finding the form that seems best to fit what I'm thinking about. I don't set out to find a bizarre way of writing. I certainly don't think that you have to force it. But on the whole, I enjoy plays that are non-naturalistic and don't move in real time." She is also adored, and her privacy fiercely protected, by her friends in the theater world. She can be guarded, even with the directors who work with her, when it comes to the thought processes behind her plays. A strikingly handsome woman, she is strong and forceful and does not let people push her around in rehearsal, theater friends say, but she can be reticent when it comes to accounting for the plays themselves. Still, directors love working with her because of her theatrical instincts and her willingness to use the text of her play as the starting point, rather than the endpoint, of a production. "She's terrific in rehearsal," Mr. Stafford-Clark said. "Her theatrical intelligence - which is not the same thing as ordinary intelligence - is very astute. She doesn't have much ego, but she's quite forceful and stubborn about what she believes in." Her work seems of its time and also timeless, Mr. Nicola said: "What excites me about 'A Number' is that it's a 20th-century psychological drama re-imagined for the 21st century. As much as things may actually, physically change, the human drama is the same." "It seems to be the great crime of the day, that we're dehumanized over and over again," Mr. Nicola added. "But she always tries to remind us that were human and that we have souls." Other British playwrights are known for their distinctive, consistent traits: Harold Pinter's plays are always Pinteresque; and Tom Stoppard invariably reveals himself with his erudition and clever, multi-layered wordplay. But Ms. Churchill is a constant surprise. "If you look at the arc of her creative life, she's someone in her 60's who is as out on the edge and willing to reinvent herself as she was in her 20's," Mr. Nicola said. "Most artists - whether painters or novelists or composers - find some sense of what their voices and concerns are in their 20's and 30's, and in their 60's and 70's they're still doing variations on it. But it's not true of her. She's as fresh and new and unpredictable and inspiring now as she was at the beginning of her working life." <