Caryl Churchill: Identical Twins
BBC Third Programme, 21 November 1968
In British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Identical Twins the voices of two brothers, Clive and Owen, engage in what the subtitle refers to as “an interior duologue”. Though commonly used in theatre for a dramatic performance that involves just two actors, the term takes on a slightly different meaning in Churchill’s radio play. The two protagonists never actually engage in a proper dialogue with each other. Instead, their trains of thought run on different tracks, side by side for the most part, but sometimes also intersecting. As its subtitle makes clear, Identical Twins is an enigmatic work. Broadcast just twice by BBC Radio 3, on 21 November and 7 December 1968, with one more repeat on 21 May 1993, it has never been published as a text or issued as a recording. Despite a belated stage performance in 2002, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre in London (see Gobert 2014: 84), the play still does not figure in the most recent edition of Churchill’s volume Shorts with Nick Hern Books (2014), which collects her work in radio and television. In fact, the script can only be read at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, Reading, and the recording only heard at the British Library in London. Ephemeral and virtually non-existent, Identical Twins is nonetheless an important work of experimental radiophonic literature. Perpetuating a fascination with sound that marks the historical avant-garde (see Kahn and Whitehead 1992), it is at the same time the product of an institutional context that makes it emblematic of the neo-avant-garde.
Caryl Churchill made a name for herself as a refreshing voice in the British theatrical scene of the 1970s with plays such as Vinegar Tom (1976), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and Cloud Nine (1979). All collaborations with leftwing radical theatre groups such as Joint Stock Company and Monstrous Regiment, these plays were driven by performer-led, workshop-style practices. When Churchill started putting on performances at more established venues, such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal National Theatre in London, she did not however mitigate her activist interest in politically charged issues like gender, feminism, economics, ecology and cloning, as exemplified by plays as diverse as Top Girls (1982), Serious Money (1987), The Skriker (1994) or A Number (2002). Blurred historical layers and time frames, doubled, tripled, even quadrupled actor roles with cross-dressing, overlapping dialogue, the deconstruction of language and the merging of genres (dance, opera, installation, fantasy, folklore, science fiction, rhyming couplets, etc.) are some of Churchill’s trademarks to this day, her work having lost none of its experimental daring in recent years.
Less well-known – in any case less critically-acclaimed – is the series of radio plays that she wrote during the 1960s and early 1970s, between graduating from Oxford and her career in theatre taking off: The Ants (1962), Lovesick (1966), Identical Twins (1968), Abortive (1971), Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen (1971), Schreber’s Nervous Illness (1972), Henry’s Past (1972) and The Judge’s Wife (1972). Their relative neglect is surprising, not only in view of Churchill’s prolific production for the medium, but also if we consider the following remark she made during an interview with Geraldine Cousin in 1988:
I listened to radio a lot. As a child, I was of a generation who grew up with radio, not television. Television was around at the end of my childhood, but I don’t remember it ever being important at all. Radio was, and it was nice because you could do other things at the same time, like drawing. I went on listening to radio, Beckett plays for example. Until, I suppose, my early twenties radio was really quite important to me. (1988: 3-4)
This affinity explains why her work for the medium shows such a deep understanding of its acoustic affordances, as well as why she invokes some of the most iconic radio dramas from the period. For example, she named her deeply multimedial and interdisciplinary stage play Lives of the Great Poisoners (1991) after the title of a book that one of the characters reads in Dylan Thomas’s “Play for Voices” Under Milk Wood (1954), which in turn is famous for its sonic application of collage techniques partly indebted to film.
If we can regard Churchill’s comments and allusions as an acknowledgement of the medium’s foundational role for her dramatic work at large, this would help to understand why her stage plays from the 1970s onwards begin to foreground language in distinctively acoustic ways, as voice, speech, sound and noise, more readily associated with radio. Multiple techniques first experimented with on the air find their way onto the stage. These include the fragmentation, merging and blurring of character or individuality through vocal counterpoint, overlapping dialogue and doubled actor roles, which often operate in conjunction to amplify one another. While stage plays such Three More Sleepless Nights (1980), Top Girls (1982) and Hot Fudge (1989) are often considered to be the origin of such devices (Bush 2018: 37) – sometimes by the author herself (Churchill 2014: vii) – the earlier Identical Twins (1968) should in fact receive most credit for it. In this artistic process of intermedial cross-pollination between broadcasting and theatre, Churchill’s radio play thus occupies a pivotal place.
True to its title, the play is about a pair of identical twins, Teddy and Clive, who take turns to talk about themselves, often in relation to their brother. They also speak at the same time and, on these occasions, they say exactly the same thing, only changing the names of their wives – Margaret and Janet – or that of each other. When they speak independently, the twins do not quite repeat the same words but say similar things from their own perspectives, using slightly different phrasings. Teddy and Clive share many characteristics. They look unwell and feel depressed, contemplating suicide at different points in their lives, which they refer to as their “decision”. They also have two children each – Tom and Susy for Clive; Stephen and Lizzie for Teddy – but they hate their wives and also cheat on them openly – Teddy with one of his tenants, Dawn; Clive with the nanny, Nicola. Yet their personalities differ in some respects as well. Clive likes the countryside, but Teddy abhors it, much preferring the city, and whereas Teddy is an extravert, Clive is introverted. He also enjoys wearing old and more comfortable clothes, while Teddy is always decked out in new apparel, clean and fashionable. In school, Clive performed badly, always setting off on long walks, but Teddy worked hard, and so on.
They were rivals from a young age, getting into fights, often quite violent ones, setting out to kill each other as they grew older. Sick and tired of everyone confusing them all the time, including their girlfriends and parents, Clive and Teddy became desperate for identities of their own. In their late teens, the brothers decided to part ways, each hopping on a different train. They are not reunited again until adulthood, when Janet takes an overdose of sleeping pills and Clive, her husband, goes to visit his brother, taking his nanny, Nicola. Teddy’s wife and children are now unable to tell the two brothers apart, so things are as they were before. In a moment of depression, Clive also takes an overdose of sleeping pills, while his brother just sits watching from across the table, doing nothing to prevent what is happening. From this moment on, the mental bond that had always connected the twins, conveyed by the simultaneous speech parts, even when living apart, begins to fade. As Clive slips into a deep sleep from which he is never to wake, his voice slowly dies away and is gradually subsumed by that of Teddy. We have now reached a pivotal moment in the radio play.
When Margaret walks in and sees what has happened, she thinks that her husband, Teddy, is dead, not his brother. Teddy, who has by now fallen hopelessly in love with Clive’s mistress, Nicola, simply has to pretend to be his brother to take over his life. After a brief moment of consideration, Teddy comes clean nonetheless. While he does leave his wife for his brother’s mistress, he does so, crucially, as himself, not as Clive. So, instead of giving up his identity for another one, he affirms his own. It is not a happy ending, however. To Nicola, it is all the same and even the neighbors keep calling him Clive, which he cannot be bothered to correct. This leaves him with suicidal thoughts of his own at the end of the play, the irony being of course that even with his brother now gone, he is still not able to establish his identity. It thus seems that Churchill plays on a pun inherent in the word “individual”, which combines the Latin roots in- (“not”) and dividere/dividuus (“to divide” or “divisible”) with duo or dualis (“two”), in order to present twin identity as being at once indivisible or unique and double or repetitive.
Identical Twins may be said to enact the very problem of “repetition and return” that afflicts the neo-avant-garde itself (Foster, 1994: 31), giving rise to the question of whether it is merely an inferior double or copy of the historical avant-garde. An important difference between the two, according to Hal Foster, is that “the neo-avant-garde is obsessed with the twin problems of temporality and textuality” (31). This is reflected in Identical Twins, whose representation of identity takes shape through quite different aesthetic experiences, depending on whether we read the radio play as a script or hear it as a recording. Summarized as above, Identical Twins does not really strike one as (neo-)avant-garde. In fact, the plot becomes quite banal in paraphrase, but that is because form, to a large extent, carries the content. Any reading of the radio play as a text or script is hindered by the fact that the brothers’ overlapping speech parts are printed next to each other, in two columns. This forces us to read the lines sequentially, one after the other, rather than simultaneously, which would be a practical impossibility. That Churchill was challenging, and eventually changed, the typical practice of representing plays as texts by adopting such a deviating approach is illustrated by a comment from her editor and publisher, Nick Hern:
We were sitting one day and Caryl said: “I want to have overlapping dialogue.” And I said: “Oh, my God, how are we going to do that?” And we worked it out, using a forward slash, and even put a little example of how it would work at the front of the script. And now it’s an absolutely standard way of laying out a play. (qtd. in Lawson 2012: n. pag.)
He is referring here to one of Churchill’s later plays, in which she would continue to adopt the technique, but Identical Twins is the first one in which she tried it out. In this respect, it is also the most radical one, which may explain why it did not appear in print. Never quite knowing which of the two brothers says what and trying to solve this conundrum is precisely what the entire radio play revolves around. It aims to let us experience the radical confusion of identity that Clive and Teddy have suffered from throughout their lives as twin brothers. The script, however, simplifies this by always telling us in the stage directions who speaks, which makes Churchill’s radical experiment with vocal counterpoint quite difficult to render as text.
Identical Twins becomes even more demanding when listened to, pushing the limits of radio by overloading the listeners’ abilities to process acoustic information. The voices of Clive and Teddy sound similar, though not exactly identical, since they are played by the same person, Kenneth Haigh, who recorded the two parts in multiple short takes (Fitzsimmons 1989: 15–16). This doubling effect of echoing voices, the one trailing slightly after the other, makes it hard to understand what Clive and Teddy are saying whenever they speak together. Although the twins do have some individual character traits, both in terms of personality and voice, it would take excellent retentive skills from listeners to continually distinguish the men on the basis of the personal information they care to divulge about themselves. If the objective of Identical Twins is to create extreme confusion, then sound, not text, is found to be the best way to achieve this aim.
Yet radio, still troubled by static interference in the 1960s, was all about clarity. This seems to have been a point of concern for the BBC, who decided to record and air Identical Twins in stereo. While this technique is frequently used to heighten the immersive and experimental nature of a radio play, in Churchill’s case it brought a level of consistency and simplicity to the listening experience similar to the textual identification of the lines in the script. Instead of allowing the voices of the two brothers to alternate between the two speakers, thereby creating disorientation, Clive’s voice always comes from the left speaker and Teddy’s from the right, the latter’s gradually filling both channels as his brother passes away and fades out. Judging from the BBC’s audience research reports, it was significantly easier to follow this version of the production than it was for the majority of listeners who did not own a stereo set or were outside of the transmitter’s range and so received the broadcast in mono, in which case the two voices always emanated from two speakers. It is not known if Churchill was involved in this process, but it was clearly the BBC’s decision, which reined in the avant-garde nature of her radio play and geared it towards a larger audience. This effect is further strengthened by a few notable cuts from the production script that would have made the listening even more of a challenge than it already was, especially in mono.
Halfway into the radio play, Churchill inserted some stage directions that call for the effect of a tape recording being fast-forwarded to make the voices of the two brothers sound speeded up and incomprehensible. They draw attention to the radiophonic “fourth wall” in making us realize that our access to Clive and Teddy’s thoughts are mediated. As such, Identical Twins is not unlike William Burroughs’ “cut-up” tape experiments from the 1960s, in which he uses the technology as a “metaphor for the artificial falsity of the self”, while at the same time as “the literal mechanism for an escape from that constricting identity” (Lydenberg 1992: 420), in the sense that “the ‘memory tapes’ or ‘mind tapes’ that constitute our prerecorded identity, our past and future, can be wiped clean” (419). Yet in spite of their similarities, one crucial difference is that Burroughs’ tapes were released as an LP, not broadcast through an institutional network. This gave him more control over his own materials and listeners more freedom to replay – even manipulate – his recordings, which makes Churchill’s radiophonic experiment at once more radical and more constrained. While the BBC were aiming for a conventional type of realism in their approach to Identical Twins, Churchill herself seems to have had a more avant-garde form of psychological realism or even surrealism in mind.
Churchill’s impressively prolific and diverse body of work is one that defies classification and because of that is helpful to revisit certain theoretical notions and concepts. Her preoccupation with treating speech and language as sound or noise in a great variety of ways aligns her with the artistic interests of the historical avant-garde. Because of this continuation, her dramatic work is often associated with Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre, but her plays for radio are typically excluded. This, in turn, is partly due to the medium’s underrepresentation in historical considerations that inform current debates about avant-garde and experimental literature, especially in the postwar period. This oversight has to some extent been addressed by Mladen Ovadija (2013), but the case studies he uses are almost exclusively theatrical ones – also for Churchill. Identical Twins thus proves the need for a broader critical framework that allows postdramatic theatre and the (neo-)avant-garde to engage in a dialogue with each other. Radio, with its many opportunities for acoustic experimentation and close ties to the historical avant-garde, can serve as a middle ground in this respect.
In Peter Bürger’s famous dismissal of the neo-avant garde as an institutionalized repetition of the historical avant-garde, radio would fall outside the realm of experimental art, since most European broadcasting services were state-funded and thus heavily institutionalized. Such a constricting view, however, ignores the fact that after the Second World War most public broadcasters, including the BBC, began to set up networks like the Third Programme (split into Radio 3 and Radio 4 after 1967), dedicated exclusively to the arts, alongside electronic sound engineering studios such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Certainly, not all of their productions would qualify as “(neo-)avant-garde”, but, nevertheless, creating a space for ground-breaking radio plays such as Identical Twins did encourage innovative practices. With programmes no longer having to cater to the nation at large, they could potentially address a more exclusive audience of listeners. In such a context, institutionalization can be conducive to a (neo-)avant-garde aesthetic, even if Churchill’s case also reveals that, in practice, experimentation could be checked. In the words of Foster, although he does not allude specifically to postwar radio broadcasting, “these developments have produced new spaces of critical play and prompted new modes of institutional analysis” (1994: 22). In order to understand the medium as a neo-avant-garde platform, archival research is crucial, since the majority of productions from this period still remain unpublished.
- Bush, Sophie. “Dramatic Devices.” Top Girls. Caryl Churchill. London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. 37-46.
- Churchill, Caryl. Identical Twins. 1968a. Production script. BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading.
- Churchill, Caryl. Identical Twins. (1968b). Audio recording. British Library, London.
- Churchill, Caryl. Shorts. London: Nick Hern Books, 2014.
- Cousin, Geraldine. “The Common Imagination and the Individual Voice.” New Theatre Quarterly 4.13 (1988): 3-16.
- Fitzsimmons, Linda. File on Churchill. London: Methuen, 1989.
- Foster, Hal. “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?” October 70 (1994): 5-32.
- Gobert, R. Darren. “On Performance and Selfhood in Caryl Churchill.” The Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill. Eds. Elaine Aston and Elin Diamond. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 105-124.
- Gobert, R. Darren. The Theatre of Caryl Churchill. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
- Kahn, Douglas, and Gregory Whitehead, eds. Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge, MA/London: The MIT Press, 1992.
- Lawson, Mark. “Caryl Churchill, by the people who know her best.” The Guardian, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2022 <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/03/caryl-churchill-collaborators-interview>.
- Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatisches Theater. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1999.
- Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby. London and New York: Routledge.
- Ovadija, Mladen. Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013.
- Verhulst, Pim. “Language, Sound and Textuality: Caryl Churchill’s Identical Twins as Neo-Avant-Garde (Radio) Drama.” Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-Garde: Experimental Radio Plays from the Postwar Period. Eds. Inge Arteel, Lars Bernaerts, Siebe Bluijs and Pim Verhulst. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2021. 213-235.