Vinegar Tom: More Than Just a History Play
Oppression takes many forms in society; Capitalism over the working class, patriarchal communities over the women in them and in some cases even women over women. Caryl Churchill has explored such issues in her works mainly pertaining to the position of women in male-dominated societies. In fact, her works utilize various plot structures to harness support for the improvement of the position of women in society while some attempt to illustrate women’s struggle against oppressive patriarchal agents. One of the plays in which Churchill focuses on women’s oppression is Vinegar Tom. The main character is Alice, a single mother in her twenties who lives in a small village. Alice and her mother Joan are accused of witchcraft after an incident with their neighbors results in several mishaps upon their neighbors’ farm; the death of livestock among other issues, all supposedly the result of Joan’s “witchcraft”. It is later implied during Joan’s interrogation that Vinegar Tom, Joan’s cat, may be an ‘imp’ and completes the acts for her. The plot includes much witchcraft, some break downs of the Christian faith at that time, and the clear discrimination of women. Written at the height of the second feminist movement in the 20th Century, Churchill, an extremely influential feminist author shows how much control men have over society. This play is very unique because it is a play with songs added although there are not enough to qualify it as a musical, the lyrics still add to the driving theme of the play. Churchill explores the issue of women’s oppression by analyzing dominations of middle and the lower class women. In fact, it is class that supports the oppression of women. In Zahra Ravari’s essay, “Vinegar Tom: Women’s Oppression through Patriarchal- Capitalist Dominations”, she states that the women characters in the play challenge social norms with reference to the construction of gender identities that lead them to be labeled as deviants and in this context as witches by patriarchal agents (Ravari 153). Society is defined in different gender and class relations in such a way that there is an interconnection between both issues. One form of Patriarchal-capitalist domination is when agents subordinate and oppress marginalized communities including women (both working and middle classes) in such societies. Perhaps the most notably oppressed in Vinegar Tom is Betty, she is a landowner’s daughter who does not accept her parents’ wish to get married to a man that her parents have chosen. In scene two, she escapes from the confines of her household to Jack’s and Margery’s house, the upstart middle class couple, and tells them that “I’m not let go where I like...They lock me up. I said I won’t marry him so they lock me up (Churchill 12).” Instead of sympathizing with Betty, Jack and Margery coax her into fulfilling her parents’ wishes. In Betty’s case, her parents and the doctor who diagnoses her as a hysteric patient are fulfilling the roles of patriarchy. The doctor claims “Hysteria is woman’s weakness... cause behavior quite contrary to the patient’s real feelings... you will soon be well enough to be married (Churchill 24).” In scene six, where she is tied to a chair to be bled by the doctor for her “irrational behavior”, she asks herself: Why am I tied? Tied to be bled. Why am I bled? Because I was screaming. Why was I screaming? Because I’m bad. Why was I bad? Because I was happy. Why was I happy? Because I ran out by myself and got away from them and- why was I screaming? Because I’m bad. Why am I bad? Because I’m tied. Why am I tied? Because I’m happy. Why was I happy? Because I was screaming. (Churchill 24). These questions and answers reveal Betty’s inclination to rebel against her parents’ wishes and show her demand for freedom in the sense of her marital status. Here, the power of the doctor as the patriarchal agent is clearly revealed (Ravari). He labels Betty as a hysterical...
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