Forgotten plays: No 5 – Owners (1972) by Caryl Churchill

The writer unleashed her gift for black comedy to excoriate British attitudes to property and possessions in this sprightly drama

Caryl Churchill is rightly admired for many qualities: her formal inventiveness, her questing intelligence, her dystopian vision of everything from cloning to climate catastrophe. But she has one gift that is rarely discussed: her wild humour. It is there in the sudden eruption of a 10-foot bird into the family brouhaha in Blue Heart (1997) and in the backyard banter in the more recent Escaped Alone (2016). It is also vividly present in one of her earliest stage plays, Owners. Given that the piece had a brief run at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 and, as far as I know, only one revival, it is one of Churchill’s least-known works yet cries out to be rediscovered.

On the surface, it sounds bleak. It is about the urge for ownership and shows Marion, a rampant property developer, eating up everything around her: she’s not only prepared to turf two old friends, Alec and Lisa, out of their top-floor flat but seeks to claim the passive Alec as a lover and forcibly adopts the couple’s new baby in exchange for cash. The play has a lot to say about landlords and tenants and is full of intimations of Churchill’s later work. The English belief in the sanctity of property is central to the historical documentary, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976). When the go-getting Marion states her philosophy as “be clean, be quick, be top, be best” you also hear the voice of the Thatcherite Marlene in Top Girls (1982).

Yet I was astonished, on rereading the play, to discover just how funny it is: this is political comment in the form of black comedy. Marion’s sidekick, Worsley, is a pseudo-Chekhovian character with a built-in deathwish. At one point he tells Marion’s husband, Clegg: “I saw a poster saying Suicide – ring the Samaritans. So this very pleasant young fellow came round and I told him I wanted to kill myself and could he help?” Only gradually does it dawn on Worsley that the aim of the Samaritans is to prevent, rather than assist, suicide.

Clegg is also an Ortonesque grotesque devising endless ways to bump off his wife: “Weedkiller in Marion’s soup. In a garlic soup. Would it taste?” I’m not denying for a moment that Owners raises serious issues: above all the question of whether our endless lust for possessions, whether of property or people, is a sign of spiritual emptiness. But, even if the play is wordier than her later work, it is a sprightly extravaganza reminding us that Churchill has always been the wittiest of social explorers.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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