Monstrous Regiment was formed in 1975 by a collective of female British actors frustrated with the roles available to women, which “trivialized the female experience.” Its founders were Chris Bowler, Linda Broughton, Helen Glavin, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker, all of whom appeared in the first production of Vinegar Tom.
They set out to create political theater that centered women, starting with a production of Scum by Chris Bond and Claire Luckham, a play set in the Paris Commune of 1870. Vinegar Tom was their second production and their first commission. They produced a total of 30 shows before becoming dormant in 1993.
As of fall 2018, there was very little information available about Monstrous Regiment online or in print. The Victoria & Albert Museum and members of Monstrous Regiment launched the company’s digitized archive this January.
In 1976, Caryl Churchill met actors Chris Bowler and Gillian Hanna at an abortion march. Bowler and Hanna had just founded a London socialist-feminist theater company called Monstrous Regiment, who, like Churchill, “were thinking they would like to do a play about witches.” They promptly commissioned Vinegar Tom.
At this point in her life and career, Churchill was both a fledgling playwright and a fledgling feminist, coming into her own as a political artist a few years before she found widespread success with Cloud Nine and Top Girls.
Churchill worked in solitude for much of the 1970s. Most of her output until Vinegar Tom was radio plays she wrote at home while raising her children. Chris Bowler of the Monstrous Regiment, who originated the role of Ellen, said Churchill described her writing career and politicization before Vinegar Tom as solitary: “She felt that being at home she missed out on things we were involved in.”
Vinegar Tom marks her first time writing for a specific company of actors, as well as Monstrous Regiment’s first time working directly with a playwright. In her author’s note, Churchill writes “I felt briefly shy and daunted, wondering if I would be acceptable, then happy and stimulated by the discovery of shared ideas and the enormous energy and feeling of possibilities in the still new company.”
Churchill wrote the first draft of Vinegar Tom in three days and gave it to Monstrous Regiment, then spent the next few months writing Light Shining in Buckinghamshire with Joint Stock Theatre Company. (Joint Stock would go on to premiere Cloud Nine.) When she returned to Vinegar Tom, she created the character Betty to be played by a new member of Monstrous Regiment and wrote the rest of the songs.
The Monstrous Regiment note in the back of our scripts says “The writer/group collaboration was so close, with Caryl attending all rehearsals, it isn’t easy to pinpoint where specific ideas came from.” This play was born from a sense of ensemble in a performance context and from the need to build and connect to a collective women’s history.
At this point in the 1970s, feminist struggle centered on reproductive rights—women’s bodies as battleground. Britain passed its Abortion Act in 1967. On our side of the pond, Title IX became federal law in 1972, with Roe v. Wade decided the next year. In the UK, feminists organized under the Women’s Liberation Movement. Gender discrimination cases filtered through the courts, but as recent history shows, none of these freedoms are guaranteed.
Churchill was inspired in part by a 1973 feminist pamphlet called Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Printed by the Feminist Press at CUNY, its introduction delcares “Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright,” the introduction declares. Barriers between women and their medical needs are unnatural, the pamphlet claims, due to the active takeover of health care by men, from generations of wise women, midwives and, as seen in Vinegar Tom, “cunningwomen” who serve the rural poor.
The characters Ellen and the briefly-seen Doctor — played by seniors Nicole Labun and Ryane Lampe — exemplify the uneven access to medicine described in Witches, Midwives and Nurses. She offers treatment free of charge to the poor women at the center of the play, while only Betty’s landowning father can afford a professional, male doctor.
- Read about the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK: https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood
Historicization and Feminist Reclamation
You might already know a bit about Bertolt Brecht’s theory of alienation in performance, or Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht, an influential German playwright, director and theorist, was last seen at IU Theatre with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
The go-to example is audience interaction — breaking the fourth wall, removing the audience from complete narrative immersion. The songs in Vinegar Tom are effective in this and, as Gillian Hanna (the original Alice) admits, a little ham-handed.
“We didn’t want to allow the audience to get off the hook by regarding it a period piece, a piece of very interesting history. Now a lot of people felt their intelligence was affronted by that. They said: ‘I don’t know why these people have to punctuate what they are saying by these modern songs. We’re perfectly to able to draw conclusions about the world about the world today from historical parallels.’ Actually, I don’t believe that and, in any case, we can’t run that risk. For every single intelligent man who can draw parallels, there are dozens who don’t. It’s not that they can’t. It’s that they won’t.”
Brecht described theater as “historicizing” its performed material, which is thought of as a form of distancing effect. He wrote that an audience member shouldn’t identify too closely with a character, that the closest they can come to empathy is recognizing “If I had lived under those same circumstances...” There’s a buffer of history, the difference between our present and the onstage past that allows for a critical attitude toward society. Brecht proposed that if we stage present-day plays with the same distance, as if they’re historical, we can dissect the circumstances that shape our own social impulses and biases.
In Brecht’s idea of historicization, history is a tool for analysis and not much more. A criticism of distancing effect is that it’s cold and unfeeling, bordering antisocial. For his purposes, say in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, emotion was a fascist manipulation that clouded critical thought.
Churchill and Monstrous Regiment held history in a different way.
Feminist-socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham said feminism of the 1970s “has made many of us ask different questions of our past.” This is evident in both Churchill’s historical plays and Monstrous Regiment’s impulse to stage political theater about women in history.
Vinegar Tom can be read as a feminist intervention on a history written by men. “Unfortunately, the witch herself—poor and illiterate—did not leave us her story,” Barbara Ehrenreich and English wrote in Witches, Midwives and Nurses. “It was recorded, like all history, by the educated elite, so that today we know the witch only through the eyes of her persecutors.”
A feminist interest in given (male) history is distinct from Brecht’s historicization in that Vinegar Tom excavates centuries of oppression. The influential Feminist Criticism and Social Change calls the rewriting of women’s history as “not as an assortment of facts in a linear arrangement, not as a static tale of unrelieved oppression of women or of their unalleviated triumphs, but as a process of transformation.”
- Read about historicization with Brecht in Practice: http://brechtinpractice.org/theory/historicization/