The dramatisation of questions of nature, nurture and identity in Caryl Churchill’s A Number
Caryl Churchill is now recognised among the leading dramatists of her generation. Indeed, ‘many critics and theatre scholars would argue that she has played a leading role in shaping our contemporary theatrical landscape.’ Despite the general gloom surrounding theatre attendance, her plays continue to ‘expose the big lie that new plays inevitably empty the building.’ In A Number (2002) she consolidates her reputation, for this play has achieved success both at home and overseas, and was one of the most frequently produced plays in American professional theatres during the 2005-2006 season. Her ‘incredibly sharp mind and…willingness to explore uncomfortable subjects from new angles’ is evident in the script which ‘comes up with a challenging form of moral inquiry.’ A key issue is that of individual identity, yet the play is also ‘an exploration of the way that people develop regardless of their genes – the nature versus nurture debate.’
For the purpose of this essay, I shall explore the theatrical dynamics used by Churchill to represent these key issues of nature, nurture and identity on stage. Furthermore, I shall argue that, although A Number is not an ethical debate, the wider issue of cloning is a metaphor for the identities that the characters assume with each other both on and off stage, that ‘oppress(es) them and limit(s) the possibility of remaking themselves in a more liberated and self-chosen way.’
The premise or question underpinning A Number asks, ‘what is a father?’ Centring on the context of parental responsibility it unpacks the wider issue of whether fatherhood is a biological or sociological phenomenon, for, observes Lyn Gardner, ‘our children are what we make them.’ But playwrights, argues Caryl Churchill, don’t give answers, they ask questions. In considering Gardner’s assertion in the light of the nature versus nurture debate, we must therefore look at Churchill’s characterisation of Salter, his son, Bernard (Bernard One) and his cloned ‘offspring’, Bernard (Bernard Two) and Michael Black, and the relationships that they have with each other.
In opposition to Aristotle’s unities of time and place, ‘Churchill works in non-linear fashion,’ and the passing of time is symbolised by the individual acts (indicated by the lighting fading to dark) that denote separate occasions in time, and it is the ‘short urgent scenes [that] give immediacy to the lives and lies that start to unravel.’ However, ‘the scene is the same throughout, it’s where Salter lives.’ It is not, then, a realist set depicting a physical place, but a psychological space. The brief set description – and the implied starkness of the set itself – supports this, and immediately hints at the issue of identity. Furthermore, in a direct contrast to naturalism, the set betrays nothing of Salter himself. The space that is achieved with the uncluttered stage ‘flows around the actors like a fluid’, and, in what is a fairly static play, the spotlight can sweep the stage, resting on the individual characters, rather than on the set, bringing them, and the script, to life.
The stage direction concerning Salter is also concise. In the absence of any concrete detail, he is simply described as ‘a man in his early sixties.’ A further suggestion that his identity may be an issue comes in the fact that we never learn his first name. However, more information can be gleaned from his surname, which is undoubtedly an epigram for his personal characteristics. Firstly, it alludes to him being the ‘salt of the earth’, or ‘everyman’, and this suggests that A Number comes in the form of a warning: that this could happen to anyone. Secondly, he shares his name with the manufacturer of balancing scales – balance being a condition in which two opposing forces can only maintain stability if they are of equal strength or importance; a state that is challenged in Salter’s conflict with his sons. Thirdly, it is an anagram of ‘alters’, and, indeed, Salter is ambiguous, his character swaying between that of a loving father and that of a neglectful one.
The five acts of A Number are comprised of a series of duologues and it is through their seesaw effect that the conflicting on and off stage relationships are developed and dramatised. Salter, as we have seen, is a man whose identity is as slippery as the truth he seeks to hide. But what about his sons, each of whom is played by the same actor? In Act One we meet the cloned Bernard (Bernard Two), for the first time. At this stage, the audience is unaware that he is anyone other than Salter’s son, Bernard, aged thirty-five. That he bears the same name as his brother is important, since, like a double-edged sword, it gives him an identity yet strips him of his individualism. As Bernard Two’s situation begins to unfold, so Salter’s character unravels and we discover some unpleasant truths about him:
a million is the least you should take, I think it’s more like half a million each person because what they’ve done they’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity, so we’re looking at five million for a start.
Here, Churchill skilfully develops both characters through Salter’s use of pronouns. Firstly, he undermines his son’s individuality and sense of self by stating ‘they’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity’, for until this point, Bernard Two has only been concerned with the concrete details of his discovery – that he is one of a number. However, the introduction of the abstract issues of identity and uniqueness, give the situation a different slant entirely, and (to Salter’s cost), Bernard Two becomes intent on finding out the truth. As Salter repositions his own responsibility for the cloning, he ascribes blame to the hospital that carried out the procedure (‘what they’ve done they’ve damaged…’). Finally, through the commodification of values, where economic value is applied to something that traditionally would not be considered in economic terms, he absurdly equates the number of clones that have been reproduced with the amount of damages he believes are due, and includes himself as a maligned party: ‘so we’re looking at five million…’ Thus, through Churchill’s manipulation of language, we can deduce that Salter is a greedy, self-seeking bully who shirks personal responsibility, and she foreshadows Bernard Two’s flight by forcing upon him the opinion that he has been ‘weakened’ and ‘damaged’.
It is during the first Act that the subplot is revealed. This centres on the issue of responsibility, and can be construed both in the wider context of scientific responsibility: [The doctor’s] dead, he was some old and they’ve just found the records and they’ve traced’, and in the more intimate context of parental responsibility: ‘Sometimes I’d go out and leave you.’
In examining Bernard Two’s identity (who am I?), Churchill also investigates the impact of his position within his family (what am I?), and discovers that the two are inextricably linked. For 35 years, Bernard Two has believed that he is the only son of his widowed father, but on discovering that there was ‘another son, yes, a first’, he dismisses the essentialness of his humanity, discarding it in much the same way as Salter discarded his first-born, crying ‘I’m just a copy. I’m not the real one.’
In Act 2 we meet Salter’s firstborn son, Bernard, (Bernard One), and again, the crux of the issue is identity. Churchill is ever skilful in her choice of names for her characters, for ‘Bernard’ means ‘bear’. Bernard One is openly aggressive and bear-like from the opening of the scene, but Churchill complicates matters by portraying him as a reject, a throw-away, a discarded toy. Bernard Two, however, does not conform to the bear-like description, and his confession that, being given the same name as his ‘brother’, makes the situation worse, reminds the spectator that his name (and therefore his identity) does not belong to him. It is therefore through the juxtaposed characterisation of these two men with the same name that Churchill subtly opens the nature versus nurture debate.
Subtlety is a byword for Caryl Churchill, who is renowned for her lack of stage directions in her plays. That is because those directions are inherent in the subtext, making it possible ‘to experience the emotion of the character directly rather than having to accept a mere description of it.’ Martin Esslin asserts that:
When…dialogue is acted in the right spirit, the tone of voice – the acting, the action – conveys infinitely more than the actual words that are spoken. Indeed, the words (the literary component of the dramatic fragment) are secondary.
What he means by this is that it is the way that a dramatic piece is acted that brings it to life on the stage. Of course he is justified in this, but we should not overlook the dramatist’s skill in presenting emotion on the page. Here, Bernard One has just met his father for the first time in 36 years:
No because your father’s not young when you’re small is he, he’s not any age, he’s more a power. He’s a dark dark power which is why my heart, people pay trainers to get it up to this speed, but is it because my body recognises or because I’m told? because if I’d seen you in the street I don’t think I’d’ve stopped and shouted Daddy. But you’d’ve known me wouldn’t you. Unless you thought I was one of the others.
Churchill’s dismissal of grammatical convention and her intermittent punctuation not only gives a voice to Bernard One’s character, but the childlike lexis (‘dark dark power’, ‘Daddy’) also serves as a reminder that he is the adult version of a rejected child. This cues the actor to play him as an angry individual who is kicking out at a society that is personified by the person who rebuffed him. Esslin explains:
Drama, by being a concrete representation of action as it actually takes place, is able to show us several aspects of that action simultaneously and also to convey several levels of action and emotion at the same time….
Bernard One’s character is juxtaposed to that of Bernard Two and as the audience absorbs his words and observe his body language, it stimulates harmatia. For, despite his obvious vulnerability, Bernard One’s flaw is that he is just like his father,
who defensively continues to apportion blame: ‘which was nothing to do with me whatsoever and I think you and I should be united in this.’ Furthermore, Bernard One is a ‘chip off the old block’ in that both men are addicts, and both are abusers:
I’ve not been lucky with dogs. I had this black and tan bitch wouldn’t do what it’s told, useless. Before that I had a lurcher they need too much running about. Then a friend of mine went inside could I look after, battle from day one with that dog, rottweiler pit bull I had to throw a chair, you could hit it with a belt it kept coming back. I’d keep it shut up in the other room and it barks so you have to hit it, I was glad when it bit a girl went to pat it and straight off to the vet, get rid of this one it’s a bastard…
Phyllis Nagy argues in favour of metaphor in the theatre, claiming that, ‘without metaphor, art does not exist.’ This is implicit in Churchill’s portrayal of Bernard One, firstly as the child quivering under the bed and then as the dog-beater. Yet these two contrary sides of Bernard One’s personality collide and invoke an emotional response when we realise that the dog is a metaphor for Bernard One himself, and that his treatment of the dog mirrors his father’s (and society’s) treatment of him. That the dog is to be ‘got rid of’ because ‘it’s a bastard’ reflects Bernard’s status – that, by dint of him being given away, he was ‘fatherless.’ Here, the issue of cloning also surfaces as a metaphor for the abused becoming the abuser.
In Bernard One’s conflict with Salter, his body language – cued by his tone of voice – gives him, and not his father, the power in this scene, and I would suggest that, in ‘scripting the body’, it was Churchill’s intention that the actor should embody his emotions by standing during the confrontation. Furthermore, since the play is fairly static, his gestus is limited and ranges from open and fluid gesticulation to closed and tense body movements. For Bernard One, the issue is always less to do with the physical act of cloning and more to do with his handling of rejection:
…you sent me away and had this other one made from some bit of my body…and they take this painless scrape this specky little cells of me and kept that and you threw the rest of me away.
Here, the actor would consolidate Bernard One’s feelings of anger, frustration and rejection by containing his movements and lowering his voice.
Bertolt Brecht regarded the theatre as an experimental laboratory for the testing of human behaviour in given situations. In A Number, Caryl Churchill plays with the development of real relationships within the artificial context of genetic experimentation, and asks ‘What would happen if…’ Indeed, ‘what [Churchill] does, in a series of fraught, emotional encounters, is use the scientific possibility to address basic human questions.’ In Act 3, Bernard One and Bernard Two have met offstage and Bernard Two describes his ‘brother’ as ‘a nutter’, stating ‘He says all kind of wild…so you don’t know what to believe.’ However, it is Salter’s lies that begin to unravel, and as they do so the distinction between nature and nurture is blurred, as is evidenced in Bernard Two’s monologue:
Maybe he shouldn’t blame you, maybe it was a genetic, could you help drinking we don’t know or drugs at the time philosophically as I understand it it wasn’t viewed as not like now when our understanding’s different and would a different person genetically different person not have been so been so vulnerable because there could always be some genetic addictive and then again someone with the same genetic exactly the same but at a different time a different cultural and of course all the personal all kinds of what happened in your own life your childhood or things all kind of because suppose you’d had a brother with identical an identical twin say but separated at birth so you had entirely different early you see what I’m saying would he have done the same things who can say he might have been a very loving father and in fact of course you have that in you to be that because you were to me so it’s a combination of being very complicated and that’s who you were so probably I shouldn’t blame you.
Indeed, Churchill subtly emphasises the differences between two men who have the same genetic material but have experienced vastly different upbringings. For, ‘from the cells of this child a doctor has created Bernard Two who is the physical match but psychological antithesis of his ‘brother’.’ Here, Bernard Two’s dialogue is fractured and rambling, emphasising the difficulty he is having with understanding the situation that has been presented to him regarding his parentage and his position within his family. Furthermore, he has exposed his father (whom he has always trusted) as a liar. This rambling is in contrast to Salter’s matter of fact description of his late wife’s death:
She did it under a train under a tube train, she was one of those people when they say there has been a person under a train and the trains are delayed she was a person under a train.
Again, the fractured dialogue and lack of punctuation are more emotive than the sum of Salter’s words, which, in and of themselves dehumanise his wife, reducing her to a mere statistic – a number – a person under a train. There is circularity here, too, since Salter not only dehumanises his wife, who ends up under a train, but he dehumanises his son, Bernard One, who ends up like a dog, quivering under his bed. Furthermore, the sub-text hints at Salter’s sexual relationship with his wife. Churchill is specific in her description of the tube train, and this suggests that Salter had considered extending his family, not out of love, but clinically, through artificial means, long before Bernard Two came along, his motivation being that he originally thought Bernard One perfect:
…I wanted you again because I thought you were the best…the basic the same raw materials because they were perfect. You were the most beautiful baby everyone said. As a child too you were very pretty, very pretty child.
For Salter, then, outward appearances are more important than character, and it is Bernard One’s looks that he sought to replicate, not his character, which he suppressed through abject abuse and neglect. Bernard Two, however, was his second chance; a really wanted child, with whom he has a solid relationship and clearly loves. Salter feels that, in Bernard Two, he has redeemed himself, and he wants recognition for the things that parents ordinarily do for their children:
I did try that’s what I did I started again I…I was good…I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer. I did some better things. I’d like recognition…I was nice to you.
For Bernard Two, however, his world has been turned upside down, and he no longer knows or understands who he is:
it feels it always it feels doesn’t it inside that’s just how we feel what we are and we don’t know all these complicated we can’t know what we’re it’s too complicated to disentangle all the causes and we feel this is me I freely and of course it’s true who you are does freely not forced by someone else but who you are who you are itself forces or you’d be someone else wouldn’t you.
Here, Churchill dramatises Bernard Two’s insecurity and his identity crisis through the fracturing of his dialogue, for he cannot articulate his thoughts and emotions. The repetition and fractures in his speech mirror both the rupture of his individuality and the fissure of his hitherto strong relationship with his father. George Pierce Baker asserts that dramatic dialogue must ‘state clearly the facts which an auditor must understand if the play is to move ahead steadily and clearly.’ Despite its elliptical form, Churchill achieves that in this speech, as her dramatic technique is a metaphor for what is going on in the lives of her characters.
The short fourth act is chiefly concerned with off-stage moments, with Bernard One confessing to his father than he has killed his cloned ‘brother’. But this is more than a bridge to the final Act, for here Churchill uses status to truly explore and fill out her characters personalities, presenting ‘even minor qualities that the perfect portrait of an individual will be recognised.’ Here, Bernard One is the character with the power, as he is in possession of the information that Salter wants – the details surrounding Bernard Two’s death. Earlier his status had been denigrated by his anger, but here it elevated by his somewhat chilled nuances:
and you know what he’s like, not tidy, am I tidy you don’t know do you but you’d guess not wouldn’t you but you’d be wrong there because I’m meticulous.
Here, Bernard One’s dialogue belies what he is saying about himself, for it is careless and badly punctuated. Yet his precise use of the word ‘meticulous’ indicates an underlying coldness, and, sub-textually, this asks questions about his experiences. Has his personality been influenced and shaped from any early age by his father, or has he other experiences – military perhaps – that have made him the man he is?
Salter, too, elevates Bernard One above the son he professed to have loved, by not reporting the murder, and he tries to gain personal ground by reminding his son that they have a motive for their cohort: ‘you and I have got common cause against the others don’t forget, I’m still hoping we’ll make our fortunes there.’ Furthermore, he once again diminishes the status and personal worth of the remaining clones by reducing them to a commodity by which he can make his fortune.
In the second half of this Act, Bernard One retains his power or status by his refusal to speak. During his verbose monologue, in which he tries to tip the balance of power back towards himself, Salter pleads, ‘Don’t stop talking to me.’ He also tries to raise himself above his son by conferring a god-like status upon himself:
I’ll tell you a thought, I could have killed you and I didn’t. I may have done terrible things but I didn’t kill you. I could have killed you and had another son, made one the same like I did or start again have a different one get married again and I didn’t, I spared you though you were this disgusting thing by then anyone in their right mind would have squashed you but I remembered what you’d been like at the beginning and I spared you, I didn’t want a different one, I wanted that again because you were perfect just like that and I loved you.
Here, in what is a mirror to Bernard One’s attack on his dog in Act 2, Salter’s language is aggressive, but instead of earning him the authority and respect he craves, it disparages him, as does his self-aggrandising declaration that he ‘spared’ his son. His desire for status is further evident in his use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, some fourteen times in this one paragraph, and this suggests that, at this time, Churchill’s intention would have been for him to have been standing. Yet even these devices fail to raise him above the level of his son, the murderer, for the final words of the Act are Salter’s feeble ‘Yes? yes?’
In the final Act we are introduced to one of Bernard One’s cloned progeny, Michael Black. Once again, Churchill has been scrupulous in her choice of name for her character, for Michael means ‘Who is like God’, and Black is a synonym for ‘evil’. So this character manifests the yin and yang (or balance) that is missing from Salter and his other sons. These opposing, yet complementary, principles are manifested in Michael’s surface niceties – his secure job, his wife and three children – and also in his macabre thought life:
…there are these people who used to live in holes in the ground, with all tunnels and underground chambers and sometimes you’d have a chamber you’d get to it through a labyrinth of passages and the ceiling got lower and lower so you had to go on your hands and knees and then wriggle on your stomach and you’d get through to this chamber deep deep down that had a hole like a chimney….And when somebody died they’d hollow out more little rooms so they weren’t buried underneath you they were buried in the walls beside you. And maybe sometimes they walled people up alive in there.
Here, the underground chambers are reminiscent of Bernard One’s bedroom (under the bed), the place where Salter’s wife died (under the train) and the ‘small room, rather dark, one window and the shutters’ that was Bernard Two’s rented room. Indeed, each of these places, like Michael’s labyrinth, were places of incarceration. Michael’s choice of the pronoun ‘you’ rather than the formal ‘one’ personalises his story and brings Salter to a moment of anagnorisis where the scales finally fall from his eyes and he recognises that he is responsible for the destruction of his family:
I didn’t feel I’d lost him when I sent him away because I had the second chance. And when the second one my son the second son was murdered it wasn’t so bad as you’d think because it seemed fair. I was back with the first one…now he’s killed himself…now I can’t put it right any more.
Status is also important in this scene, as Michael’s job as a teacher becomes a metaphor for the uniformity or sameness that he is seeking. Churchill also demonstrates Michael’s middle class upbringing through her choice of idiolect. Salter questions Michael’s use of the adjective ‘delightful’ to describe what he feels about being a clone, although he ignores Michael’s opinion that the mad old professor would be ‘thrilled’ if he’d live to see it. Salter’s lesser status is also emphasises in Churchill’s elliptical dialogue:
because what does it do what does it to you to everything if there are all these walking around, what it does to me what am I and its not even me it happened to, so how you can just, you must think something about it.
Here, Salter is struggling to verbalise what he is feeling and the conciseness of his speech is equally difficult to understand. Furthermore, this dramatises the issue that Salter has with his personal identity and his quest for respect, for he questions ‘what am I’. Certainly, A Number ‘poses endless questions; and, if it is difficult to come to any conclusions, it is because of the elliptical nature of Churchill’s hour-long form.’ Churchill herself asserts that:
What is said and how it’s said are hardly separable in the theatre; setting, language and form are all part of the way at looking of a play. So that if the range of theatre is to be widened this will come partly from greater technical range, from the ability to use the medium more fully.
Through the characterisation of Salter, ‘the play is in part an attack on patriarchy, [but] it doesn’t supply enough hard information to resolve the issue of whether character is determined by genetic or social factors.’ Indeed, Churchill merely opens the discussion and leaves her audience to make up their own mind. Certainly, the subjects and issued raised by the play are new and contentious, and, moreover, they have wide-reaching political and ethical ramifications. However, Churchill herself defends her right to rock the political boat, claiming that,
whatever you do your point of view is going to show somewhere. It usually only gets noticed and called ‘political’ if it’s against the status quo.
Furthermore, she admits that, usually, ‘I try to smuggle the politics in; you write a cracking family drama and you get the politics embedded in the story.’ Certainly, for Salter and his offspring, the biggest issue is not political, but personal, since it concerns their identity. Where the two Bernards are intimidated by what they see as an attack on their individualism, Michael Black welcomes the homogeneity; he likes his life and enjoys being the same as the others: ‘I think it’s funny, I think it’s delightful.’ Furthermore, despite the self-assured impression that he gives, his low self-esteem soon becomes evident:
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.
Furthermore, as Salter laments ‘I miss him so much. I miss them both’, Michael retorts, ‘There’s nineteen more of us’, and this gives credence to the assumption that, for Michael, a number, any number, could replace a living breathing relationship.
Lyn Gardner claims that Churchill’s great strength is her ‘ability to raise big moral issues through the interstices of close human encounters.’ For Churchill herself that means finding ‘new questions, which may help us to answer the old ones or make them unimportant.’ In this imaginative and subversive play she invites the spectator to consider the advantages and dangers of genetic engineering to both the individual and to society. Yet more than that, she invites a close dissection of human relationships and stresses the importance of responsibility in a less than perfect world. Despite its somewhat futuristic theme, A Number engages with our time and leaves enduring questions about the frailty of the human condition and the choices that we make.
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Brandon, JM (2006) A Number, Theatre Journal 58.3 pp 502-504
Gardner, L (2002) A Number, The Guardian, 27 September
Gardner, L (2006) A Number, The Guardian, 26 October
Aston, E Caryl Churchill – Literary Encyclopedia [online] Available from http://www.litencyc.com
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