Caryl Churchill is without a doubt one of the greatest living playwrights. Anyone who says otherwise is a cultural chauvinist. And there are plenty of those types out there, some with massive platforms. People who genuinely believe that radical onstage experiments such as hers – sometimes Brechtian, sometimes Jacobean, very often pointedly surreal – are a degeneracy, or are at least unable to tell us anything about actually lived reality. Or those who simply think that her subjects – violence, exploitation, subjugation, war, the human soul’s atrophy under capitalism – are better swept back under history’s rug.
That same history, however, has a habit of vindicating her. Those willing to look on the twentieth anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq as a catalyst for this present – a present of ingrained paranoia, stochastic violence, the feeling that the only path to safety is through cruelty – are still too few. Millions of us tried to warn as much in the weeks and months running up to it. We weren’t listened to. Why would the voice of a single playwright, no matter how critically lauded, make the difference?
But when you’re right, you’re right. Churchill wrote Far Away, a relatively short one-act, in 2000. It was performed less than a year before the September 11th attacks, the pummeling of Afghanistan, the “Axis of Evil” bellicosity. Before the fall of Baghdad. Before the rise of ISIS and the return of the Taliban, of countless bitter veterans transformed into combat-trained white supremacists. Before Ukraine and Russia, China and Taiwan came to occupy their particular respective place in geopolitics. Before the collapse of truth. Before the most ridiculous forms of collective punishment proved themselves capable of winning elections. Before the prospect of an uninhabitable planet made all of these concerns almost moot.
Churchill didn’t see these exact phenomena per se, but saw something. And she was, unfortunately, eerily, prescient. Violently absurd as it is, this closing monologue from Far Away feels unpleasantly close.
Of course birds saw me, everyone saw me walking along but nobody knew why. I could have been on a mission, everyone moving about and no one knew why, and in fact I killed two cats and a child under five so it wasn’t that different from a mission, and I don’t see why I can’t have one day and then go back, I’ll do on to the end after this. It wasn’t so much the birds I was frightened of, it was the weather, the weather here’s on the side of Japanese. There were thunderstorms all through the mountains, I went through towns I hadn’t been before. The rats are bleeding out of their mouths and ears, which is good, and so were the girls by the side of the road. 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? that’s what I wondered in the night. By the third day I could hardly walk but I got down to the river. There was a camp of Chilean soldiers upstream but they hadn’t seen me and fourteen black and white cows downstream having a drink so I knew I’d have to go straight across. But I didn’t know whose side the river was on, it might help me swim or it might drown me. In the middle the current was running much faster, the water was brown, I didn’t know if that meant anything, I stood on the bank a long time. But I knew it was my only way of getting here so at last I put one foot in the river. It was very cold but so far that was all. When you’ve just stepped in you can’t tell what’s going to happen. The water laps around your ankles in any case.