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Vinegar Tom: More Than Just a History Play

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    Vinegar Tom: More Than Just a History Play Oppression takes many forms in society; Capitalism over the working class, patriarchal communities over the women in them and in some cases even women over women. Caryl Churchill has explored such issues in her works mainly pertaining to the position of women in male-dominated societies. In fact, her works utilize various plot structures to harness support for the improvement of the position of women in society while some attempt to illustrate women’s struggle against oppressive patriarchal agents.

    One of the plays in which Churchill focuses on women’s oppression is Vinegar Tom. The main character is Alice, a single mother in her twenties who lives in a small village. Alice and her mother Joan are accused of witchcraft after an incident with their neighbors results in several mishaps upon their neighbors’ farm; the death of livestock among other issues, all supposedly the result of Joan’s “witchcraft”. It is later implied during Joan’s interrogation that Vinegar Tom, Joan’s cat, may be an ‘imp’ and completes the acts for her.

    The plot includes much witchcraft, some break downs of the Christian faith at that time, and the clear discrimination of women. Written at the height of the second feminist movement in the 20th Century, Churchill, an extremely influential feminist author shows how much control men have over society. This play is very unique because it is a play with songs added although there are not enough to qualify it as a musical, the lyrics still add to the driving theme of the play. Churchill explores the issue of women’s oppression by analyzing dominations of middle and the lower class women.

    In fact, it is class that supports the oppression of women. In Zahra Ravari’s essay, “Vinegar Tom: Women’s Oppression through Patriarchal- Capitalist Dominations”, she states that the women characters in the play challenge social norms with reference to the construction of gender identities that lead them to be labeled as deviants and in this context as witches by patriarchal agents (Ravari 153). Society is defined in different gender and class relations in such a way that there is an interconnection between both issues.

    One form of Patriarchal-capitalist domination is when agents subordinate and oppress marginalized communities including women (both working and middle classes) in such societies. Perhaps the most notably oppressed in Vinegar Tom is Betty, she is a landowner’s daughter who does not accept her parents’ wish to get married to a man that her parents have chosen. In scene two, she escapes from the confines of her household to Jack’s and Margery’s house, the upstart middle class couple, and tells them that “I’m not let go where I like… They lock me up. I said I won’t marry him so they lock me up (Churchill 12). Instead of sympathizing with Betty, Jack and Margery coax her into fulfilling her parents’ wishes. In Betty’s case, her parents and the doctor who diagnoses her as a hysteric patient are fulfilling the roles of patriarchy. The doctor claims “Hysteria is woman’s weakness… cause behavior quite contrary to the patient’s real feelings… you will soon be well enough to be married (Churchill 24). ” In scene six, where she is tied to a chair to be bled by the doctor for her “irrational behavior”, she asks herself: Why am I tied? Tied to be bled. Why am I bled?

    Because I was screaming. Why was I screaming? Because I’m bad. Why was I bad? Because I was happy. Why was I happy? Because I ran out by myself and got away from them and- why was I screaming? Because I’m bad. Why am I bad? Because I’m tied. Why am I tied? Because I’m happy. Why was I happy? Because I was screaming. (Churchill 24). These questions and answers reveal Betty’s inclination to rebel against her parents’ wishes and show her demand for freedom in the sense of her marital status. Here, the power of the doctor as the patriarchal agent is clearly revealed (Ravari).

    He labels Betty as a hysterical patient and he uses his treatment as a tool to torture her to accept the forced marriage. Hence, the audience can see that both the family and the doctor are oppressing her. Susan, another female character in the play, the poor mother of three children, who has had several miscarriages. She constantly gets pregnant and is also accused of being a witch because of the abortion she has had. According to social and religious codes, Susan has been condemned, as having gone against nature by challenging the society understands of motherhood.

    The community tries to make her feel guilty about what she has done as reflected in the claims made by Packer (a male character): “you went to this good witch, and you destroyed the child in your womb by witchcraft (Churchill 48). ” By bringing up the issue of abortion, Churchill is, in fact, trying to champion women’s rights to abort a fetus because they have a right to save their own body from harm. Indeed, this provides Churchill the opportunity to criticize the anti-abortionist patriarchal authorities that ignore the rights of abortion.

    However, sadly enough, it is the oppressing force that seems successful to coerce Susan into confessing “I was a witch and never knew it… I didn’t know that I was so wicked” (Churchill 58). Susan succumbs to the male-imposed ideas of wickedness. She believes that she was a bad mother and therefore, accepts the church’s accusation that she is a witch. Susan is also the cause of Alice’s death as she accuses her of being a witch to the witch finders. She tells Packer, “she [Alice] took me to the cunning woman [Ellen] and they made me take a foul portion to destroy the baby in my womb… nd she made a puppet… but that was my baby girl, and the next day she was sick… and dies” (Churchill 48). She blames Ellen and Alice for making her consume Ellen’s herbal potion and condemns them of witchery, which also results in their death. Nevertheless, in her final talk with Alice, she expresses, “if we’re hanged, we’re saved… I was a witch and never knew it. I killed my babies. I never mean it… I repent… ” (Churchill 58). She, thus, accepts her own and her fellow-sufferers’ guilt and expresses regret for carrying out the abortion.

    In this regard, Churchill shows how women can remain unconscious of their oppression and can victimize themselves and others. Caryl Churchill has used historical events in multiple plays; take for instance her work Mad Forest, written in 1990 just after the Romanian revolution. Churchill’s group went to Bucharest merely three months after the revolution (March 31–April 7, 1990); the result was the play that gives a singularly inconclusive account of the Romanian happenings of December 1989, namely, the overthrow and execution of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife (Bahun-Radunovi 455).

    Churchill approaches the historical event from the perspective of ordinary Romanians whose lives and dreams are shaped by history. The pronounced absence of any direct depiction of “recorded” political events, events that nonetheless dominate the everyday life depicted in these vignettes, emphasizes the opposition between the “recorded,” “official” history and personal memory (Bahun-Radunovi 455). It also serves Churchill to relativize the dichotomy of historical heroes and victims and to enact a pointed critique of cultural, gender, and social stereotypes.

    More important still, the unstable casting performs the heterogeneity of history. The “agents” and “non-agents” of history swiftly trade places, enacting multiplicity of different and, for Churchill as a leftist feminist, future and possible history. Approached from this perspective, the loose and circuitous paths of Mad Forest are revealed as leading to a center, which is unstable but replete with potentialities.

    To capture this volatile geography means—in Churchill’s metaphorical crossover—to enact a history of possibilities (Bahun-Radunovi 455). Sian Adiseshiah argues that drama scholars have focused to a fault on Churchill’s feminist themes, stylistic innovations, and postmodern inclinations, in her book Churchill’s Socialism: Political Resistance in the Plays of Caryl Churchill. Adiseshiah leaves behind the Marxist and socialist frameworks that might better explain both the plays in question and their overall trajectory.

    In a compelling reading of eight major Churchill plays, Adiseshiah establishes a continuous line of political engagement that shifts over time but ultimately remains faithful to both its socialist provenance and utopian tendencies. The opening chapter, “Socialist Contexts,” puts Churchill’s plays in conversation with British Left debates from the 1970s through the 1990s, tracing how artistic debates on the Left developed in their encounter with feminist and ecological concerns, and the fall of communism (Adiseshiah Churchill’s Socialism).

    This context provides a useful background for an entire generation of politically committed British playwrights. The author’s detailed explanation shows how Churchill constructs political history from written documentation in ways that open up the material to contemporary issues. Vinegar Tom extends into the witch-hunting theme, turning from the persecution of known seventeenth-century radicals to the marginalized population of seventeenth-century women. Staged without a specific time or location, the play constructs a feminist history with pointed references to the present.

    In the play, Churchill contests the marginalizing tendencies of traditional historians without idealizing the past she seeks to recover (Adiseshiah Churchill’s Socialism 133). Many of Caryl Churchill’s plays display a preoccupation with political possibility and reveal traces of Utopian desire (Adisehiah Utopian Space). Her 1970s plays, in particular, intersect with and reflect a cultural context that produced rejuvenated engagements with Utopia (Adisehiah Utopian Space).

    The theatre groups Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment, who performed the original productions of her history plays Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and Vinegar Tom (1976) (Constanakis 159), were additionally committed to Utopian considerations of non-hierarchical collaborative working methods and participated in a system of pay parity. Adisehiah’s essay “Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill’s History Plays: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Vinegar Tom” seeks firstly to explore the ways in which theatre, Utopia and space can be brought together theoretically.

    Secondly to read Churchill’s history plays with reference to the Utopian dimensions of their production contexts as well as with regard to the potentiality of Utopian (historical) space—both literal (physical spaces) and metaphorical (spaces of possibility)—that can be traced in the plays. Vinegar Tom works as an engagement with the present as well as the past. In the context of active political practice by the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), the play was peculiarly topical in the mid-1970s (Constanakis 161).

    Its concern with subjectivity and consciousness, sexuality and women’s health, contraception, abortion and marriage are all issues at the forefront of concerns of women more generally as well as the WLM. As part of its implication of the duality of past and present, Vinegar Tom explores the dystopian impulse that informs both a patriarchal configuration oppressive structures and the complicit behavior within these structures of some female characters such as the bitter tenant farmer’s wife, Margery, and the witch hunter’s assistant, Goody.

    Complicity is a key issue that caused divisions within the WLM. Despite this behavior, both the critical and Utopian impulses are strongly manifested in characters such as Alice and her mother, Joan, who, faced with hanging for witchcraft, remain defiant to the end (Adisehiah Utopian Space). Joan’s last speech before her hanging (in which she performs the role of a witch claiming to be the cause of trouble, misfortune, and accidents in the village over the last ten years) provides her with a momentary space from where she assumes an active and commanding persona (Churchill 56).

    She fleetingly transcends the ideological parameters imposed upon her as she temporarily occupies the demonized but powerful role that she has been accused of, claiming omnipotence, “the great storm and tempest comes when I call it” (Churchill 57). Hence, although the political significance of the play seems to function predominantly at the critical pole, there are traces of Utopia that exist in a specifically female matrix of space, language and consciousness, a matrix which in turn is figured as a mode of survival and local resistance (Adisehiah Utopian Space).

    Placing historical moments in British feminist theater in dialogue with one another brings out revealing convergences and discrepancies in her use of women’s history, particularly her representation of women’s power and martyrdom (Ravari). Churchill anticipated some of the concerns of transnational feminism, such as dystopian visions of fractured communities and how it throws into relief the suffrage pageants’ fantasy of universal, united sisterhood by encouraging attention to the ideological and class differences that must be elided to achieve such idealized visions of female solidarity (Cameron 144).

    The production, to varying degrees, reveals the tension between feminist and traditional ideals. Although recent appetite for history seems voracious, as is evident from the proliferation of televised series the nature of that interest is all too often in history commoditized, packaged, and sanitized for a viewership that wants personalities and good stories (Hammond 1). History appears depoliticized in this process, rendered unproblematic and stripped of any living tendrils to the present (Kritzer).

    Television at least does history, however. In British theater, history is virtually unrepresented (Hammond 1). It is not very difficult, perhaps, to suggest reasons why in the British theater of the last thirty years there has been very little that resembles a modern “history play. ” At the most general level, one can point to those theories of the postmodern that have called for or predicted the end of narrative history (Kritzer).

    Stopping short of the textualizing, ironizing, or undermining of history itself—and more directly relevant to the theater—are those accounts of the recent institutional history of theater that have argued the impossibility of any form of political radicalism to be found in scripted drama performed within a theater building (Hammond 2). Churchill’s early work with the Joint Stock Company considered the nature of socialism and the degree of its compatibility with feminism, deploying a ramaturgy that, as commentators have noted, is a radicalization of epic theater but not, finally, a repudiation of it (Hammond 2). While Churchill presents the structures of oppression through the narrative and thematic elements of her plays, she uses the formal elements of theatre to challenge the inevitability of oppression and empower audiences to seek change. Her application of highly theatrical techniques to the portrayal of grim situations results in a dialectic between imagination and material conditions.

    This dialectic confronts audiences with a dual sense of material reality and imaginative possibility. It models for audiences a process by which to analyze and challenge historical and modern conditions. Works Cited Adisehiah, Sian. “Utopian Space in Caryl Churchill’s History Plays: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Vinegar Tom. ” Utopian Studies 16. 1 (2005): 3-26. EBSCO Host. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. Adiseshiah, Sian. “Churchill’s Socialism: Political Resistance in the Plays of Caryl Churchill. ” Modern Drama 53. 4 (2010): EBSCO Host.

    Web. 10 Apr. 2012. Bahun-Radunovi, Sanja. “History in Postmodern Theater: Heiner Muller, Caryl Churchill, and Suzan-Lori Parks. ” Comparative Literature Studies 45. 4 (2008): 446-470. EBSCO Host. Web. 1 Apr. 2012. Cameron, Rebecca. “From Great Women to Top Girls: Pageants of Sisterhood in British Feminist Theater. ” Comparative Drama 43. 2 (2009): 143-166. EBSCO Host. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. Churchill, Caryl. Vinegar Tom. San Francisco: Samuel French, n. d. Print. Constanakis, Sara. “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire/? Caryl Churchill. Drama for Students. Vol. 27. Farmington Hills: Gale/? Cengage Learning, 2010. Print. Hammond, Brean S. “‘Is Everything History? ’: Churchill, Barker, and the Modern History Play. ” Comparative Drama 41. 1 (2007): 1-23. EBSCO Host. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Print. Ravari, Zahra Khozaei. “Vinegar Tom: Women’s Oppression through Patriarchal- Capitalist Dominations. ” Review of European Studies 2. 2 (2010): 153-163. EBSCO Host. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

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