Every season seems to bring a new batch of Caryl Churchill productions to the U.S., and this one is no exception. Right now, Churchill’s Serious Money is running in repertory with Howard Barker’s The Castle during the current residency of the Potomac Theatre Project at Atlantic Stage 2, and later this season the New York Theatre Workshop will offer James Macdonald’s production of her latest major play, Love and Information. Of additional interest is a new production of her early play Owners, opening in October at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Below, my program notes on Owners.
First presented at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on 6 December 1972, directed by Nicholas Wright and designed by Di Seymour. With David Swift (Clegg), Richard O’Callaghan (Worsely), Stephanie Bidmead (Marion), Anne Raitt (Lisa), and Kenneth Cranham (Alec). Text in Caryl Churchill: Plays: One. London: Methuen 1985, 1-67.
Put two New Yorkers who have never met in a room together and within ten minutes they’ll be talking about real estate. The real estate section in the Sunday New York Times is as central a part of the New Yorker’s weekly reading experience as the arts and leisure section; a real estate mogul is one of New York’s most reviled and admired personalities; and Robert Moses is a legendary New York figure who changed the face of the city during his tenure as Parks Commissioner in part by dislocating thousands of New Yorkers. And yet theatre and drama in New York has only rarely taken real estate as its subject. With the exception of The Civilians’ In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards a few years ago, a verbatim theatre project, issues of land ownership, development, gentrification, and tenancy have remained largely absent from American stages. When they do arise, it is usually and unsurprisingly within the context of race, as in several August Wilson plays (Radio Golf); Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and its predecessor, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, cast a keen eye to community and property ownership.
Such issues, more broadly determined as political and cultural dynamics, have had a long history in the British drama. The plot of Owners, Caryl Churchill’s first professional stage production, produced 40 years ago, resonates here in New York even today. Following a nervous breakdown, Marion, in her 30s, reconstructs herself as a real estate speculator in North London as her husband, Clegg, is forced to close his butcher shop after a chain supermarket, Sainsbury’s, opens next to his business. Ruthlessly, Marion buys and sells houses in North London and makes tidy profits on each deal; eventually she becomes an agent for the seller of a house in which her former lover Alec is a tenant with his pregnant wife Lisa, his senile mother, and two sons. Churchill steers her play into Ortonian territory (she had “recently reread Orton’s [Entertaining Mr. Sloane], which may have done something to the style,” she writes in a 1984 headnote to the play) as Marion takes more and more drastic measures to dislodge Alec and Lisa from the house, from bribery to arson; even euthanasia makes a brief appearance as a theme of Owners.
The rise of Margaret Thatcher to the Prime Minister’s office was still eight years in the future, but Churchill prophetically examines the ways in which post-capitalist definitions of ownership extend from land to intimate relationships. As part of the absurdist machinations of the comic plot, Marion, unable to have children of her own, schemes to “purchase” Alec and Lisa’s newborn son as a patrimony for her husband Clegg, who then reopens his butcher shop under the name “Clegg and Son”; meanwhile, Alec, whose Zen complacency had led him to emotional paralysis at the beginning of the play, begins to feel himself more and more responsible for the well-being of those around him — not only his family, but others as well, leading him to a supreme, if Pyrrhic, sacrifice. Through all this, Marion’s comic associate Worsely, a would-be suicide who can never quite seem to kill himself, keeps the plot in motion.
Churchill juggles questions of individual identity as owners and caretakers not only of property but of each other through the play, and even here issues of gender and power adhere closely to her picture of the means by which capitalism and ownership skew traditional definitions of sexuality and aggression.”[I wanted] one character with the active, achieving attitude of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ the other the ‘sitting quietly, doing nothing’ of [a] Zen poem,” she writes in the same headnote. “The active one had to be a woman, the passive one a man, for their attitudes to show up clearly as what they believed rather than as conventional male and female behaviour.” In doing so she raises issues of cultural and individual responsibility that obviously lead from the intimacy of the bedroom to larger issues of the environment and wartime that emerge in her later plays. Marion is an early sketch for Marlene in Top Girls; the issues of ownership and responsibility as reflected in land, domesticity and real estate also resonate in Martin Crimp’s first play, the much cooler Dealing with Clair, which premiered 16 years later. (Real estate development and eviction, as well as race, also figure in Howard Barker’s unproduced 1976 teleplay Heroes of Labour.) Another surprising resonance is in the picture of parents’ responsibility to their children and vice versa in an age of empire and capitalism, echoing back to Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and forward to Barker’s The Europeans. In all these plays, traditional conceptions of maternalism, aggression, and land ownership (not to mention masculine and feminine roles) are dislodged and opened to new insights in the relationship between the private and public individual. The conclusion of Owners, while providing hope of a kind, is not without an undertone of pessimism.
Owners is occasionally revived. According to the Internet Off-Broadway Database, it was last produced in New York in 1993 at the New York Theatre Workshop; its New York premiere at the Mercer Arts Center (only two performances) took place a year following its London premiere. April de Angelis directed a reading of Owners during the Royal Court Theatre’s Churchill festival in 2008.
For a New Yorker in 2013 — especially this one, whose ownership of a “co-operative apartment,” and relationships with his co-operating neighbors, often lead to meditations on what “co-operation” still means in capitalism — Owners remains of note.