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At dusk, all characters, led by Clive, the head of the family, come to the verandah of his African home, where they sing a patriotic song honoring England. Various characters begin to break from the song to define their roles within the family. Betty (played by a man), proclaims her devotion to husband Clive. Clive's African servant Joshua (played by a white man) states his loyalty to his master and claims to hate his tribe. Finally, son Edward (played by a woman) aspires to be like his father, and Clive presents daughter Victoria (played by a dummy), mother-in-law Maud, and their governess Ellen.
After the song, all but Clive and Betty exit. Clive and Betty discuss their day with one another. Clive has been managing conflicts among the country's natives. He announces the coming arrival of explorer Harry Bagley, calling him "a great admirer" of Betty. Though reluctant, Betty then communicates her trouble with Joshua. Joshua has refused to fetch Betty a book that she has requested, telling her to get it for herself. A frustrated Clive calls for Joshua, who enters and, after a scolding from Clive, apologizes to Betty. Harry Bagley enters briefly upstage and exits after waving to Clive and Betty.
Maud enters from the house to check on Betty and criticize Clive's keeping Betty in Africa for too long. Ellen enters to bring Victoria to Clive. Edward also enters. Clive asks dummy Victoria about her day, but she is unable to answer. When Edward is interrogated, Clive discovers his son holding a doll. After a scolding for such feminine behavior, Edward explains that he has been looking after the doll for sister Victoria. Clive and Edward exit to meet Harry Bagley. Ellen, Betty and Maud stay behind and discuss their anticipation of Harry's arrival. Ellen exits to put Victoria to bed.
Having been gone only a short while, Clive re-enters with Caroline Saunders (played by the same person who plays Ellen) draped over his shoulder. She collapses, exhausted from her journey on horseback. Maud panics over having heard the drums of local tribesman. Clive quiets Maud as he works to revive Mrs. Saunders, all the while explaining that Mrs. Saunders should and will be properly cared for at his home. Betty exits to gather herself, as Harry Bagley and Edward approach the scene. Clive greets Harry and dismisses Edward to bed. As Mrs. Saunders gets to her feet, Maud helps her into the house.
Clive and Harry speak briefly of the rising unrest among the natives as Joshua enters to escort Clive around the property. Betty enters as Joshua and Clive leave. Harry and Betty speak of their mutual attraction for one another, but Betty runs away when Harry, disregarding propriety, attempts "to take her in his arms." Meanwhile, Joshua has returned, and he observes them discreetly. With Betty gone, Harry seizes the opportunity to proposition Joshua for sex. Joshua agrees to this and they leave to go to the barn.
From the very beginning of Cloud 9, Churchill lets her audience know that the play, or at least the first act, will be some form of satire, a poking fun at British society and convention. First, she marks Clive's family as stereotypically British by having them sing a patriotic tune to the audience and then identify themselves. Each character tells the audience of his or her unwavering commitment to Clive and/or Britain, establishing the stereotypes further. Then, Churchill introduces one of the principal comic devices of the act: the physical composition of the cast blatantly contradicts the roles that they are intended to play (Betty is played by a man, Joshua by a white man, etc). The opening images of the play suggest that the characters have somehow been misplaced, foreshadowing the mayhem to come. These images also symbolize the gender confusion that will become one of the major themes of the play. Churchill suggests that Betty's striving to become "what men want" has actually transformed her into a man. The fact that women have become men, and vice versa, indicates the severity of their sexual repression.
Clive quickly becomes a symbol of repression, in each of its forms, sexual and colonial. Clive's disgust at Edward's playing with a doll suggests a British intolerance for feminine men, and Clive's lecturing Joshua on the proper treatment of Betty implies a Victorian era concern with keeping everyone in their appropriate place. However, in establishing Clive as a representative of 19th century British attitudes, Churchill argues that these attitudes were accompanied by a sense of impending change. Instead of accepting the fact that Edward might have a feminine tendency to play with a doll, Clive quickly accepts the weak excuse that Edward is "minding it for Vicky." Clive's actions demonstrate a denial of the truth that also characterizes the British treatment of its colonial holdings in this era.
The pace that Churchill establishes in this first scene is that of a farce. Entrances and exits are almost continuous. Clive drives this momentum, calling people in and dismissing them just as quickly, remaining in control of the family, but not without almost frantic effort. This pace creates comedy and suspense when coupled with the bits and pieces of secrets placed throughout the scene. By the end of the scene, when Betty and Harry discuss their mutual attraction, the audience knows that the characters have little time before someone will walk in on them. Indeed, Joshua enters to listen in on the end of their conversation.
In this first scene, Churchill also introduces the perverse sexuality of the act. She sharpens this perversion, and the comedy of the scene, by contrasting it with the clichéed politeness of her characters. Harry asks Joshua, "Shall we go in the barn and fuck?" a polite gesture coupled with the shocking revelation that Harry is gay during a period of history in which such an orientation was highly offensive to a majority of people. An audience might also notice this contrast in Harry's interaction with Betty. He talks of adventure and exploration as a mature British explorer might be expected to, but he breaks decorum at the end of the conversation by lunging after Betty as she runs away.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Cloud 9!