Sunday, October 18, 2015

Time Warps on Cloud Nine

The people of every age regard their own era as a hotbed of vice. They are always right. Every place and time has its own sexual taboos and requirements: a prevailing list of what one must or mustn’t do or say with whom and how. The modern Western world is rife with them, including much under the heading of PC. Nor need the “prevailing” list be the same as the traditional one: what we regard as traditional mores haven’t prevailed in the West for a long time. There always are people who voluntarily violate them: people who are unwilling or unable to be constrained, pigeon-holed, or compliant. They are the coals in the always glowing hotbed of vice. That is not to say there is no fundamental difference between time periods. Laws, openness, and flavor vary enormously; what is celebrated in one era might be hidden or outlawed in another. Sometimes in the same time and culture a few miles make a difference: age of consent laws vary state by state in the US for example, so teenagers in love might be just a happy couple in one state but criminals over the border. Nonetheless, hidden or open, the same range of behaviors exists everywhere. The word “range” is important at an individual as well as a social level. At a time when so many people seem intent on narrowly categorizing themselves, it’s worth remembering that on the classic 0-6 Kinsey scale of orientation very few people score a 0 or 6 whether or not they choose to acknowledge or act on their mixed attractions.

It is hard to find more contrasting lists than at the bookends of the century between 1879 and 1979. For those not old enough to remember the 1970s – trust me on this one – the zeitgeist was much more open than today. (I’m speaking of atmosphere: a number of laws, I acknowledge, lagged behind.) Playwright Caryl Churchill caught the transition perfectly in her play Cloud Nine, which I first saw at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village in 1981. [Side note: culturally “the 70s” slopped over into the chronological 80s for a couple years just as culturally “the 60s” stretched all the way to 1974 when hippies took off their headbands and put on disco shoes.] Act I is set in 1870s British Colonial Africa; Act II is in 1970s London.  Although a century has passed between acts, the characters in the first act reappear in the second aged only 25 years. This chronological disconnect is not just playwright’s whimsy: Victorian mores and ideals, while finding their fullest expression in the 19th century, really did last until the middle of the 20th. Most adults in the 1970s grew up heavily influenced by them, so the time bending is a neat device. Some of the roles were cast cross-gender, cross-age, and cross-race. Adultery, incest, pederasty, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and homosexuality are present in both ages, but guiltily covered up in the first act while openly practiced in the second. Yet, love is no easier for the characters in Act II than in Act I. They are just as confused about what they want as ever. Victoria’s feminist husband Martin in Act II for all his pandering (or rather on account of it) is every bit as annoying as Betty’s patriarchal Clive in Act I.

The Atlantic Theater Company currently has an off-Broadway revival at the Linda Gross Theater on 20th Street. I was uncertain how well the play would hold up after 34 years. The answer was it holds up beautifully, even with the circle-in-the-round bench seating that is clever but a tad uncomfortable for 2 hours and 40 minutes. Cloud Nine has not lost its edge; the times if anything have honed it. One quaint feature is refreshing: the play is not polemical in 21st century fashion. Even when in the second act Lin says she hates men it’s plainly just a personal thing and not entirely true: she finds herself in a threesome with Victoria and her brother. The script even pokes gentle fun at the bookish Victoria for theorizing that sex cannot be separated from economics.

We’re all complex in these matters and either embrace the confusion or set boundaries for ourselves in order to simplify life – even if this involves some self-oppression. All too often we don’t resist the temptation to try to set the same boundaries for others. It works about as well as Prohibition did for alcohol.

If you get a chance to see Caryl Churchill’s play, which crops up here and there, I recommend it. Be quick about it though, for it rarely stays for long. The NYC production runs through November 1 after a planned run of only two months.

Trailer for a production at the Almeida Theatre in north London


  1. Wow, I've never heard of this one. Sounds intriguing. And yes, we always think our current era is the most depraved... and then we read about some of the decadence of ancient Rome or the Persian Empire and we feel better about ourselves... or maybe that's just me. :)

    1. So true. One need only look at the jaw-droppingly innocent early 60s Doris Day "sex comedies" (in which there is no sex) that were considered daring in their day. The depravity!

  2. I guess the more we change, the more we stay the same is pretty true. When someone says to me, "Aren't thing horrible?" I want to respond, haven't they always been horrible? But I generally don't due to more explanation or being thought cynical or overly negative, which I tend not to be anyway. There's a book called Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard that is about the presidency of James Garfield, and although he was assassinate and his term shortened due to it, there were a lot of things in the late 1880s similar to today: his party was split on many issues, the guy who shot him, Charles Guiteau, was raised in a cultish community that believed in more or less free love or complex marriage. There was corruption, and wars, yet people survived and persevered.

    I'd not heard of that play. Yes, I bet sitting on a bench for two hours was a bit rough. :) Though it's good to know that the play was worth the effort.

    1. I usually go with "at least it's not 1914." A friend of mine has a book Beyond Cynicism (see Inner Mammal Institute) which is worth a look for those depressed by their own cynicism.

      The late 19th century was an exciting time full of new possibilities. Future historians might say the same about our time I suppose. Maybe it will turn out better. Maybe not.