Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Confusion of Gender

Churchill first demonstrates a sort of gender mismatch with her casting specifications. In Act I, the gender confusion is literal: men play women, and vice versa. This theme is closely tied to the comedy of the play. One cannot help but laugh at the male Betty's subservience to Clive. Churchill complicates the gender confusion with a sexual confusion. Even those characters not played by opposite-sex actors have nontraditional sexual orientations. Harry, for instance, has a sexual relationship with a little boy.

This theme extends into Act II, with Edward insisting that he would rather be a woman. Churchill argues that the placing of personalities and different sexual orientations in physical bodies is almost random. The great challenge of life is learning to reconcile one's upbringing and one's physical identity with one's true sexuality.

The Quest for Identity

In Act I, for the characters to act on their true feelings, they must do so in secret, at one point during a game of hide and seek. Clive's value system calls for a covering of identity if that identity disrespects England. Clive believes that nontraditional sexual identities are sicknesses that might be cured. Churchill seems to suggest otherwise, that while gender can be rearranged, sexual identity cannot be. In the second act, Betty, Edward, and Victoria, now distanced from Clive, continue the difficult search for identity. Although they are now free of Clive's direct influence, they face the new challenges of establishing an identity in a world far different from Victorian era Africa.

The Haunting of the Present by the Past

Though Clive is not present in Act II, his value system still has effects on the characters. Betty is still afraid of life without him, and Victoria is hesitant to leave a traditional marriage that is falling apart. Churchill makes the influence of the past more tangible by bringing characters from Act I back into the story of Act II. These characters reappear briefly, highlighting the differences between past and present, but demonstrating that the characters still remember their past and must come to terms with its influence.

The Oppressive Nature of Violence

To exert control over the natives, Clive must employ a variety of violent measures. He has Joshua flog some of the tribesmen and his troops burn native villages. In his own home, Clive has also created an atmosphere of violence. Betty punishes Edward by slapping him, and Clive allows Betty to attack Mrs. Saunders when he and Mrs. Saunders kiss. Clive himself is not actively violent, perhaps suggesting the hypocrisy of his oppression. He keeps his hands clean by allowing others to actually carry out his wishes with violence. The violence of Act I reappears in the assault on Cathy by the Dead Hand Gang. The "dead hand" of Clive's world strikes once more to keep Cathy from playing with the boys.