04 May 2005

A Number by Caryl Churchill

I love reading a script that makes me want to direct it, because the act of reading becomes so much more intense than it is when reading a script that is merely interesting because of its ideas, characters, structure, or story. Some of Caryl Churchill's plays, much as I find them intellectually engaging, don't appeal to my inner director, but some of her recent short plays, such as Far Away and A Number, are so spare and enigmatic that reading and (inevitably) rereading them provokes the imaginative concentration required when directing, and does so more than most other scripts I know.

A Number is a science fiction play, just as Far Away and the earlier Skriker are fantasy plays. Except in the theatre world there are only such things as plays, and nobody much bothers worrying about what to call them or their writers. (How odd it would be to hear someone describe Churchill, or anyone else, as "the famous sci-fi playwright"!)

Cloning is the ostensible subject of A Number, but it's also not, because the play is as full of silences and ambiguities as anything by Pinter or Beckett. There are no stage directions, barely any set description -- all we're told is the play takes place "where Salter lives", and all we know about Salter is that he's "a man in his early sixties" and that he has two sons named Bernard, the first one forty and the second thirty-five, and a son named Michael Black, who is also thirty-five. Churchill's plays are often hard to read because she writes dialogue with particular structures for each play. With some scripts she is very specific about how lines overlap. With The Skriker she created a dialect for the "shapeshifter and death portent" of the title that reads like something James Joyce might have tried to write for naughty children. Far Away employs a simple language of short sentences and vivid, nightmarish imagery ("The rats are bleeding out of their mouths and ears, which is good, and so were the girls by the side of the road").

A Number is more difficult to read than those plays, because the characters' words bleed into each other. Here's how it begins:
B2 [Bernard]: A number
SALTER: you mean
B2: a number of them, of us, a considerable
B2: ten, twenty
SALTER: didn't you ask?
B2: I got the impression
SALTER: why didn't you ask?
B2: I didn't think of asking.
The play is designed for two actors: one plays Salter, the father, and one plays all the sons. There are five short scenes. Performances in London and New York reportedly ran between fifty and sixty-five minutes. Depending on the production, I expect A Number can feel either entirely inconsequential or vividly mysterious, a prod to the imagination. Churchill doesn't write a play "about" cloning, but rather a play that includes cloning, a play that couldn't exist without cloning. It touches briefly on various issues of identity and authenticity, of genetics and personality, but it does not explore or debate these ideas the way a typical play "ripped from the headlines" would. Handled with sensitivity by talented actors, I expect these ideas could gain gravity through implication, through seeing how they are played out in the immediate emotional existence of characters for whom they are not issues or ideas, but, rather, the problems of life.

In his latest collection of plays, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Jose Rivera includes a wonderful postscript called "36 Assumptions About Writing Plays", a few of which apply quite well to A Number:
Theatre is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel.

Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA: potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.

Rhythm is the key. Use as many sounds and cadences as possible. Think of dialogue as a form of percussive music. You can vary the speed of language, the beats per line, volume, density. You can use silences, fragments, elongated sentences, interruptions, overlapping conversation, physical activity, monologues, nonsense, nonsequiturs, foreign languages.

Action doesn't have to be overt. It can be the steady deepening of the dramatic situation...or your characters' steady emotional movements from one emotional/psychological condition to another: ignorance to enlightenment, weakness to strength, illness to wholeness.

Strive to be mysterious, not confusing.
A Number is deeply mysterious, but it does not have to be confusing, because the situation is laid out with a certain amount of clarity: Salter, years before the play takes place, paid a scientist to clone his son. He didn't realize the scientist made twenty clones instead of one, and so Salter is faced with having to tell one of his sons that he is not the original, and then gets to meet some of the others, each of whom responds quite differently to the news. Why Salter had one of his sons cloned is explained with a couple of different, contradictory reasons, and Salter may be lying. The past is not what's important, the reasons are not important: the facts must be dealt with in the present:
B2: Because there's this person who's identical to me
SALTER: he's not
B2: who's not identical, who's like
SALTER: not even very
B2: not very like but very something terrible which is exactly the same genetic person
SALTER: not the same person
B2: and I don't like it.
The only son who has his own name, and the only character with a first and last name, appears at the end. He has a life, and feels comfortable in himself, but Salter never feels that Michael truly has an identity -- the worrying has slipped from the sons to the father, who previously was most concerned with suing the scientist who made more clones than were agreed on. But Michael isn't particularly annoyed:
MICHAEL: I think it's funny, I think it's delightful
SALTER: delightful?
MICHAEL: We've got ninety-nine per cent the same genes as any other person. We've got ninety per cent the same as a chimpanzee. We've got thirty percent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all? I love about the lettuce. It makes me feel I belong.
To Salter, the cloning is always a big deal, though in what way it's a big deal changes over the course of the play. To Michael, it's an amusing tidbit about himself, but it doesn't change who he is, his memories, his family, his friends. The play ends with the (to Salter horrifying) revelation that Michael likes his life.

Churchill's plays don't force emotion on the actors or audience, but they do leave wide possibilities for tremendous emotion -- I can imagine ways that Salter's slow devastation through the play could end up being complex and moving. The script is a blueprint, and a thrilling one to read, because it leaves so many possibilities open. Churchill is enough of a master to be able to skirt the edge of meaninglessness without sliding over; her recent plays are richly suggestive, and therefore can reward imaginative readers as much as a good production can.