Written in an episodic series of vignettes, Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play Fen explores the social and economic constraints of individuals in a rural community in England. Although the majority of the work follows the tale of Val, a woman who grapples with the decision to leave her family, the other characters are given considerable stage time as well. The struggle of women to gain agency is explored in the situations of other characters, from defiant Nell to abused Becky to resigned Shirley. The play delves into the impossibility of escape as the individuals struggle to release themselves from their situation yet must continue to face its realities and the repercussions of their dissatisfaction.
As for the name of the play, “the Fens,” also known as the Fenland or the Fenlands, refers to the coastal plain in eastern England. “Fen” is a term for a marshland, a natural phenomenon that captures the interest of artists and environmentalists alike. Over the years, they have been the target for draining for an agricultural agenda but have recently been the subject of numerous conservation efforts as well. At the time Churchill wrote Fen, the intensive Fenland survey, which would later change into the Fenland Project, was initiated to learn more about the rapidly changing land and all the archaeological treasures it held. Churchill’s work examines the everyday life and social constraints of people, particularly women, in this geographic region.
Caryl Churchill is an English playwright known for her feminist works that often tackle themes like oppression and the abuse of power through a postmodern, experimental lens. Born in England, Churchill immigrated to Canada at ten years old, though she would return to England for and after receiving a university education. Her career started with creating plays that her fellow Oxford students performed. She then went on to write radio dramas and television plays, managing her new family life while never neglecting her own career.
Blending social critique with a surrealist approach is a distinct technique that forms the basis of Churchill’s approach to stage work. Her exploration of unfulfilled yet consuming desire, such as the desire to reap the benefits of two irreconcilable realities and the need for escape if not satisfied, is a pervasive theme in several of her works. Churchill constantly reimagines the potential breadth and depth of what a play can be and how it can communicate, responding to the social discourse by reexamining themes in a rich variety of unique ways. She is renowned for her experimentation with language, structure, and form. Churchill is elusive, having an indelible mark on younger generations of playwrights yet rarely appearing for interviews. At 82, she is considered to be one of the greatest living playwrights, respected for her notable risks and experimental novelty.