In theater, casting is often very intentional. In Caryl Churchill’s 1978 play Cloud Nine, casting in integral to the themes of gender identity and expression of sexuality at the core of the play. The casting is very specific, and thoroughly thought through, with the choices for the casting of many characters being explained by Churchill herself. However, there is one character in Cloud Nine whose casting is not given an explanation at all, because he is not cast at all. Tommy, who is Victoria’s son in Act II of the play, is referred to as if on stage, but is never on stage at all. The simplistic explanation would be to say that, as every other character is double cast between Act I and Act II, there simply wasn’t another actor to play Tommy without throwing off the parallels of casting between Act I and Act II, but for this, he could have been played by a doll as a parallel to his mother in Act I. Given the intense thought behind the casting of each other character, there has to be a metaphorical or symbolic reasoning behind Tommy not being on stage.
There are established reasons in theater that a character may be unseen or off stage for the duration of the play. Generally, absent characters exist beyond the space the play takes place in (ie. referred to as if in another room, etc.), “the matter of each characters’ absence is closely tied to those characters’ occupation of space.” (Carlson 1). Tommy is not simply existing offstage though – he is quite literally invisible to the audience. Unseen characters can also represent omnipresence, which Tommy is not, nor is he a narrator or even the central character. Absent characters usually play a key significance and are central to a work. While Tommy is important in what he represents for Victoria’s story, the story being told is not one about Tommy. The traditional use of an absensent character would leave Tommy at home, off stage; instead, he is referred to as if on stage when he simply is not, which is not the traditional convention for absent characters. These are established conventions, and much of Churchill’s play is about subverting expectation and societal norm. Having Tommy be unseen to the audience, while the characters act as if he is there, might to another form of this subversion; where the general expectation is to see this child – he is unseen.
Most unseen characters are absent characters, affecting the story tangentially or omnipresently but not directly as they are not on stage nor interacting with those on stage from the audience’s perspective; Tommy fits the description of an unseen character but not an absent character. The very first mention of him is on the second page of Act II, when his mother says “Tommy, it’s Jimmy’s gun.” (Churchill 49) directly addressing him, but he is not on stage. Tommy isn’t even on the character list at the beginning – a list even Victoria-played-by-a-doll is on. They also speak about Tommy’s possible concussion referring to the “nasty bump” (Churchill 53) on his head as if Tommy is standing right there, but he isn’t; Betty also says “bye bye Tommy” (Churchill 56) later in the scene. There are many references throughout Act II like this, establishing that though the audience is not seeing Tommy, the other characters are. Because multiple characters refer to him, not just Victoria or Martin, we can assume he is a real child, despite his invisibility, not a hallucination. A typically absent character in theater would be referred to as if elsewhere in the world of the play, not as if standing right there when they aren’t, which means Tommy’s absence isn’t following the typical theater conventions of an absent character.
Cloud Nineis largely about subverting societal expectations – alongside the themes of gender, and sexuality subversions, Tommy’s lack of physical presence can be a play on the common social expectation that “children should be seen not heard”. In Act I, Victoria is played by a literal doll – a physical embodiment of this expectation for children, while the story revolves around the adults. Tommy’s absence takes this further – putting him mute and invisible, but still a weight in the minds of his parents, with his well-being constantly brought up. The concept that children should be seen not heard is meant to lessen their burden on their parents – a tenant of well behaved children not adding stress upon their parents (Writing Explained), but Tommy, even silent and invisible, is a major factor for why Victoria holds herself back from loving Lin, and by extension her own happiness. Sometimes societal expectations do not line up to reality, and even stereotypically well-behaved children can be a burden by nature. Where Tommy represents societal expectations of well-behaved children etc., he also shows how expectations do not always work out perfectly in practice.
In contrast to Tommy’s invisibility is Cathy – who is shown as a large and overwhelming presence on stage. Showing this parallel between Tommy and Cathy – inverted expectations of sons (who are meant to be loud and demanding) and daughters (who are meant to play quietly, speak softly) – could be showing how Cathy overshadows Tommy to such a degree that he is not even seen by the audience. In an introduction to the play, Churchill says that “Cathy is played by a man…partly because the size and presence…seemed appropriate to the emotional force of young children…[and] to show more clearly the issues…in learning…correct behavior for a girl.” Just as Cathy doesn’t met the expectations for a young girl, Tommy doesn’t met the expectations for a young boy – he is silent and Cathy is louder and larger in personality. To the point that the adults even forgot Tommy is with them at times – like when they lose him in the park, and he nearly drowns. In scene II of Act II, Tommy is feeding the ducks, and the adults lose track of him when dealing with their own problems, leading them to ask Cathy, the other child and the only one paying attention to him where he was repeatedly asking variations of “did he fall in the pond?”. They lose sight of him amidst their own problems.
Parental influence is also a possibility for Tommy’s invisibility. Victoria in Act I is unable to speak or control her own actions (being played by a doll) and in Act II feels trapped into a similar situation, unable to speak candidly to Martin about her unhappiness in their relationship until a ways through the act, unable to leave her son behind to take a new job, a new relationship etc. This concept also applies to Cathy. The implication is Cathy is the way she is because of Lin’s homosexuality – that she is loud and generally displaces more masculine associated traits such as being demanding, or playing in dirt etc. That Cathy “acts like a boy” while Lin is lesbian (which is commonly associated with a woman acting contrary to gender norms) can be seen as a reinforcement of harmful stereotypes that a homosexual parent will raise a homosexual child.
The idea is that children absorb and learn the behaviors around them. If Tommy isn’t on stage he cannot be negatively influenced. Martin says he’d take custody of Tommy, even though custody is generally afforded to mothers. This is because “between 1967 and 1985, lesbian and gay parents lost many more court battles than they won” (Rivers 917), it was considered that “the best interests of the child always lay in a heterosexual household” (Rivers 920). Alongside the message of tolerance for other sexual orientations expressed in the play – a controversially liberal position at the time, there is also the unstated implication that interactions with those of other orientations will convert of encourage children to have those other orientations. Tommy being off stage could be a way to show how he isn’t directly affect by his mother or uncle’s sexuality, despite the undertone that Harry Bagley made Edward gay, that association with him or Lin converted Victoria; Tommy being unseen is because he is not tied up in this messy implication of sexual desires imprinted or learned by those around him. In this play of sexual caricatures, he isn’t on stage because it doesn’t have a way of subverting gender or sexuality expectations. By not being seen on stage, he can be seen as breaking this cycle or this stereotype. By not being on stage, not being explicitly affected or “turned gay” after Victoria gets together with Lin might be a way of showing that a parent’s orientation isn’t always transferred on a child, in contrast to the relationship of Lin and Cathy, which you can take as reinforcing the stereotype.
Especially prominent in Act II is the progress of societal norms in terms of marriage and divorce – progress which is generally one step forward and two steps back. Act I shows a strict structure of marriage – that everyone must marry and divorce isn’t an option. By Act II, divorce is more allowable – but still something society would frown on in many instances, for instance Victoria and Martin, because they have a son. Tommy the main reason Victoria is hesitant to leave Martin, because there is still a social expectation to “stay together for the kid.” Martin also threatens to take custody of Tommy away from Victoria, a custody case he might have won because even today homosexual parents are seen as unfit parents in many instances. Tommy is a manifestation of the love Victoria and Martin had for one another, and so Tommy’s invisibility could be symbolic of the lost love between Martin and Victoria.
That Tommy is invisible he is idealized, both Victoria and Martin seem to want custody for reasons not entirely about Tommy, but perhaps the expectation of duty to their offspring or to spite their spouse. Neither gives any mention of which would benefit Tommy, nor any actual interests of his at all. The audience has no information about Tommy, beyond that he is male, he is their son, and he presumably is around Cathy’s age, though there is no specific mention of his age. They love him, but they don’t really see him, he isn’t a separate entity from the marriage and societal script that they have followed. Martin himself even says “I don’t like to say he is my son but he is my son” (Churchill 79) showing that he may not have wanted kids, but is adhering to the societal script. This symbolism is heightened by the fact that, when Victoria decides to leave Martin for Lin, they realize Tommy is missing and might have drowned; a symbol for the death of their marriage. Right before they realize Tommy has gone missing when they think he’s drowned, Victoria and Lin have a conversation about their own relationship, with Victoria admitting she maybe doesn’t love Martin anymore saying “it’s got to stop” (Churchill 65) and asking Lin if Lin loved her. The near-death of Tommy shows how Victoria is considering killing her marriage. Along with this, even at the start of Act II Lin references Tommy’s death as a way to get Victoria to herself, to leave Martin saying “I’ll give [Cathy] a rifle…blast Tommy’s pretty head off” (Churchill 52) showing an awareness that Tommy is what is keeping Victoria and Martin’s marriage together.
Most societal expectations are invisible, intangible things, and Tommy represents these invisible societal expectations on Victoria and Martin’s relationship – unseen, but not out of mind. Tommy himself represents societal expectation, and losing track of him when he nearly drowns is indicative of the play’s larger theme of letting societal expectations fall to the wayside to be true to oneself, and the way societal expectations can seem to be killed in the name of progress but they do not die easily. Even when they think Tommy has drowned, he has not, just as how they think progress has been made, it really has not.
Absent characters have importance through “‘proximate cause’ for the action that occurs onstage…a cause that directly produces an event and without which the event would not have occurred” (Morrow 2). While Tommy does not directly speak to any of the other characters, he is a proximate cause of much of Victoria and Martin’s dialogue, as well as much of the conflict Victoria has over wanting to be with Lin over Martin, he is a driving force of the conflict in Act II. Without Tommy, much of the conflict of Act II doesn’t happen at all, as Victoria would have had an easier time of divorcing Martin. Tommy represents the way societal expectations creates conflict within and between individuals.
The casting choices of this play serve to highlight inner feelings, the breaking from a typical expectation of that character; but Tommy’s role is so instinctively understood that he doesn’t need to be seen. Unlike every other character who shows some deviation from what is accepted by society, Tommy is the reinforcement of societal ideals, he doesn’t need to be seen by an audience that is being shown subversions of societal expectations because he is the societal expectation. Societal expectations aren’t seen, and don’t have to be acknowledged, but they do have a tangibility to them; by being unseen Tommy is symbolic of the assumptions people make, but that he is unseen doesn’t mean he can be ignored entirely. Societal expectations can be ignored, and many characters in Cloud Ninedo ignore them, but their effect on actions taken cannot be discounted – Tommy is a reference point for what the audience sees as off in the other characters of the play. Regardless of Churchill’s original intent, Tommy’s absence paints him as a reminder and symbol of societies invisible expectations – that even non-tangible things can be hard to break away from. Churchill’s Cloud Nine is a play about changing societal roles, expectations and progress and Tommy serves as a reminder that progress is typically two steps forward but one step back. His character undermines the progress that has been made – that progress is more in name than in reality a lot of the time, even as things change they stay the same. His absence shows how these problems are invisible – he represents the status quo, silently followed, invisible but always present, always a consideration before acting.
Carlson, Stephanie D., “Absent Characters: Stage Space and Social Change in Modern Drama” Thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2016. discoverarchive.vanderbilt.edu/bitstream/handle/1803/8435/Stephanie%20Carlson%20-%20Absent%20Characters.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.
Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. Theatre Communications Group, 1994.
Morrow, Sarah Emily, “Absent Characters as Proximate Cause in Twentieth Century American Drama.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2009. scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_theses/58.
Rivers, Daniel. “‘IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD’: LESBIAN AND GAY PARENTING CUSTODY CASES, 1967-1985.” Journal of Social History, vol. 43, no. 4, 2010, pp. 917–943. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40802011.
“What Does Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard Mean?” Writing Explained, writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard.