Most people don’t often think of playwrights as science fiction and fantasy writers, and SF doesn’t really exist as a genre in the theatre world in the same way it does in the world of print and cinema. Yet from its earliest incarnations, theatre has reveled in the fantastic, and many of the greatest plays of all time have eschewed pure realism. Something about the relationship between performers and audiences lends itself to fantasy.
The British playwright Caryl Churchill has written a great number of extraordinary plays, many of them enlivened by impossible events. Churchill is a staunchly political writer, a writer who seeks to challenge audiences’ complacencies about the real life of the real world, but flights of imagination give resonance to her unblinking view of reality’s horrors, using the unreal to probe the deep grammar of reality.
Churchill’s 2002 play A Number involved cloning, which is about as close to core science fiction as she has gotten, but her work from the late 1970s till now has seldom relied on kitchen-sink realism. Cloud Nine required actors to play different genders and races, Top Girls included a meeting between various women from fiction and history, Mad Forest included among its cast a talking dog and a vampire, the title character of The Skriker is “a shape-shifter and death portent, ancient and damaged,” and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You is a two character play where the characters are a man named Guy and a country named Sam.
It is Far Away (first performed in 2000), though, that I find myself returning to most often. Partly, this is because the play is full of suggestion and ambiguity, and utterly lacking in resolution; an effect that, in this case, is haunting rather than, as it would be in the hands of a less skilled writer, frustrating. It feels like a nightmare. It begins with a scene of a young girl, Joan, talking with her aunt, Harper. Joan says she sneaked out of the house and saw things happening outside. At first, Harper explains the things she saw with ordinary explanations, but with every item that Joan adds, Harper’s stories become less tenable, and it is clear that Joan’s uncle has been torturing people in the barn. It’s all the for the best, though, Harper insists:
You’re part of a big movement now to make things better. You can be proud of that. You can look at the stars and think here we are in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of the people who are putting things right, and your soul will expand right into the sky.
And so Joan goes to sleep. The next scenes take place some years later, and show us an older Joan, now working with a man named Todd in a hat factory. They talk about the hats they make, and their discussion shows them to be devoted artists. As the short scenes progress, the hats grow larger and brighter, until they are described as “enormous and preposterous.”
We don’t know what the hats are for until what is probably the most famous scene in the play, one that exists only as stage directions: “A procession of ragged, beaten, chained prisoners, each wearing a hat, on their way to execution.” (A note at the beginning of the plays says of this scene: “The Parade: five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?”)
Each week, we learn, one hat wins a prize and is saved in a museum; the rest of the hats are burned with the corpses. Joan wins, and Todd is impressed: “No one’s ever won in their first week before.” Todd and Joan have some qualms with how the hat factory is run, but they are perfectly accepting of the necessity and artistry of the hats, and proud to have their work recognized.
The final scene brings Harper, Joan, and Todd together at the end of the world. A war has begun, but not an ordinary war: a war of, quite literally, everything against everything. Joan and Todd are now married, and Joan has run to Harper’s house to see Todd and get away from the war for a day. It’s clear, though, that there really is no escape, no rest. It’s hard for them to tell what is with us and what’s against us, and what “us” means anymore. (Harper asks Todd if he’d feed a hungry deer if it came into the yard. “Of course not,” Todd says. “I don’t understand that,” Harper says, “because the deer are with us. They have been for three weeks.”)
In a monologue that ends the play, Joan reveals the depths of the war:
It was tiring there because everything’s been recruited, there were piles of bodies and if you stopped to find out there was one killed by coffee or one killed by pins, they were killed by heroin, petrol, chainsaws, hairspray, bleach, foxgloves, the smell of smoke was where we were burning the grass that wouldn’t serve. The Bolivians are working with gravity, that’s a secret so as not to spread alarm. But we’re getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar. Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?
It’s a new world order, and though clearly no-one likes it, they accept it as the way things are, the new reality. Everybody wants to be on the right side, that’s what matters most.
Far Away most reminds me of two other plays: Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Blasted moves from a nightmare of domestic realism in its first half to a world literally blown to pieces in its second half; Grasses of a Thousand Colors gives us a wealthy, narcissistic scientist who has inadvertently ended the world by creating a method for cannibalism to be an effective solution to food shortages. All three plays link the familiar, comfortable surroundings of bourgeois white people to extraordinary destruction. These are not tales of repressive regimes, of Big Brothers and World States, but of ordinary people who participate in and perpetuate the various forces that lead to apocalypse. These dystopias are not fun; they do not inspire hope in the human condition, they do not let us revel in mass destruction and imagine ourselves as plucky survivors. They are screams against fate. The world of these stories will not be destroyed; it is destroyed already when the curtain first rises, whether the characters know it or not.
What is it, though, about Far Away that keeps me reading it, thinking about it, year after year? Like all great tragedies, it contains more than any summary can say. Its meaning is not merely a moral statement; its meaning is the play itself: its imagery and words, its lacunae and aporias. Great theatre gives us more than meaning, it gives us performance, even if we have never seen a production of the play. There are moments from Blasted that were burned into my brain long before I saw it in performance, and I have never had the chance to see a production of Far Away or Grasses of a Thousand Colors, but their apocalypses are vivid in my mind. With just a moment of concentration, I hear Joan’s final monologue in my ears, I see the prisoners in their ridiculous hats marching to their deaths. Keeping those sounds and images in my imagination, I have a sense of their meaning, yes, but much more—the frisson of great art, the richness of metaphors and something beyond metaphors: the wonder, the madness of creation.
It is just such creation that stands against the destruction of the world, and offers what little hope we as a species deserve.
Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Weird Tales, One Story, Locus, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and the anthologies Interfictions and Logorrhea. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and BSC Review, and his blog, The Mumpsimus was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005.