On November 30, dramaturg and UChicago lecturer Derek Matson and Dr. Siân Adiseshiah talked about dramaturgy and where to begin with Caryl Churchill’s incredible 1983 play, Fen. Here are 11 takeaways from their discussion.
1. Dramaturg’s role
A lot of research and reading about the historical moment play is set in and was forged in. Close, attentive reading so you know it inside out. Offer collaborators a broader perspective with regard to context, specifically information that can be used in the theatre context so that the actors can imagine and put themselves in the play world more fully. Contemporary yet long-lasting.
2. Churchill’s Socialism: Political Resistance in the Plays of Caryl Churchill
Written by Dr. Siân Adiseshiah, the book was one of dramaturg’s Derek Matson sources when researching Fen. Dr. Adiseshiah talks of Churchill’s innovative playwriting and political points of identity. Both Matson and Adiseshiah point out how Churchill’s play are both of and specific to the moment in which she created them but also resonate beyond that moment into the new contemporary even as her plays age.
3. Churchill’s innovation
One playwriting technique that is often credited to Churchill is the slash. She marks overlapping dialogue in her plays using a slash mark to indicate to the next actor when to start talking over the other person, who also continues talking. This technique to signal overlapping dialogue has been adopted by playwrights everywhere and is now in common usage.
4. Male idea of working-class politics
As Dr. Adiseshiah says, Churchill is not interested in ideas of working-class politics from such a perspective. Churchill is not interested in middle-class driven feminism limited to the legal sphere or workplace competition.
5. Rethinking the assumed standard
In Fen, Nell is a 40-year-old class fighter of an independent nature. Churchill encourages audiences to rethink standard ways of thinking about class and gender. She draws from psychoanalysis, affect theory, radical feminism, second-wave feminism, and Marxism. She draws from a variety of ways of living in the world to represent deeply-lived experiences.
6. A playwright’s playwright
This term is often applied to Churchill due to her deeply human stories and her legendary status as one of the greatest living playwrights today. She successfully eschews conventional social realism.
Churchill’s techniques challenge conventional realistic narratives. Some techniques include short episodic vignettes that make up a montage that forms a linear developmental arc; songs that interrupt the narrative and sit adjacent to the action as a disruption rather than seamlessly part of the play; and overall encouragement of critical spectatorship. In Fen, we get attention to social relations within communities rather than prioritizing the interiority of character. The theatrical approach that lends itself to this is cross-casting, as multiple actors play the same character disrupts the strict audience identification of which 1 actor is connected with which character. Churchill also employs comedy. Fen is perhaps one of her least comedic plays, but there is a sensitive use of language that combines with rhyme to produce a surrealist comedy. In many of her plays, there is a sense of metatheatrical awareness. A lot of these techniques are related to Bertolt Brecht’s.
8. Disruptive narrative to awaken audiences
Churchill tries to get audiences to rethink familiar narratives. Many of her plays try to defamiliarize assumptions and common narratives. Near the end of Fen, the disintegration of the epistemology of the play suggests a refusal to be disciplined on behalf of the characters. There is also an enactment of the gap between what is and what could be of a better world.
9. Corporatization of farms and the union situation
As demonstrated in an early scene of the play, a farm is sold by a farmer to a corporation, which mirrors the reality of when Fen was written but also a phenomenon that persists today. Large companies buy the farms, turning them from personal ventures to corporate megaliths of production. As for unions, there’s mention of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in the play, which is now UNITE today. Unions often represented farm laborers in legal cases. When Frank is pretending to have a conversation with his boss, the boss makes threats about evicting him. This reflects how trapped workers are and how difficult resistance is.
10. Rejection of capitalism
The desire for a systemic break from capitalism comes through class-conscious fighter Nell. There is a deep desire amongst the women in Churchill’s play, particularly Nell and Val, for a radically different way of being in the world. There is a clear sense in the play that human life and communities are blunted by capitalism.
11. Fen in 2020
Many of the issues explored in the play are still relevant today. Agricultural workers are still underpaid, largely unionized, long hours, and hard labor. Questions around lack of stability and around health and safety all persist. There is a deep yearning for something different from the here and now of the play. That feeling speaks to the contemporary moment as there has been little change to the exploitative structures of Western capitalism. This issue of the precarity of work and lack of access exist in the contemporary beyond Churchill’s plays. The importance of meaning collaboration and collective action but the difficulty in achieving that is presented in Fen and continues to be relevant today. This question of how to make a long-lasting difference is in Fen and speaks to any contemporary moment.
Want to delve deeper into Caryl Churchill’s play? Tune into our next sessions!