Credit: Aemilia Scott

In his fascinating social history of middle-class life in 19th-century Europe and America, Schnitzler’s Century, Peter Gay catalogs some of the afflictions that Victorian masturbators could expect to suffer, according to experts of the period. They include boils, diminished mental and physical vigor, gonorrhea, impotence, premature ejaculation, epilepsy, consumption, hypochondria, and, of course, insanity. An American physician, George Calhoun, went further. His no-doubt-scintillating “Report of the Consulting Surgeon on Spermatorrhoea, or Seminal Weakness, Impotence, the Vice of Onanism, Masturbation, or Self-Abuse, and Other Diseases of the Sexual Organs” warns, “Self-abuse is the most certain road to the grave.”

That’s the sort of prudish, faux-scientific folderol commonly held to be typical of Victorians. After all, theirs was the era of underwear that could double as torture devices and wives who endured sex by lying back and thinking of England. Gay’s book serves as a corrective, showing that quacks, prigs, and philistines are only part of a complicated, contradictory story. The same age that produced Dr. Calhoun also produced Viennese physician and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, who was not only shamelessly fond of sex but put it in his plays.

Next to Gay’s nuanced portrait, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 is a crudely drawn cartoon. The comedy, which premiered in 1979 and is currently receiving a spirited but flawed revival at the Gift Theatre, contains nothing to counter preconceptions of Victorians as a bunch of sexually repressed imperialists. In fact, that’s the main joke.

The first act takes place in colonial Africa around 1880. Courtney O’Neill’s simple, evocative set suggests a whitewashed veranda, with views of the veld visible through opened shutters. Crinolines and corsets hang from the ceiling. The porch wraps around the home of Clive, servant of the British Empire and master of both his family and the local natives. His wife, Betty, is played by a man because, as Churchill has written, “she wants to be what men want her to be.” Likewise, Joshua, the family’s black servant, is played by a white man “because he wants to be what whites want him to be.” Clive’s young son, Edward, is played by a woman to underscore Clive’s attempt to “impose traditional male behaviour on him.”

Clive’s mission as patriarch is to make sure that his world conforms to his ideals—which is to say, that it continues to be dominated by white, heterosexual, Christian males. And since he’s the only character who fits those criteria, everybody else has to pretend. Secrecy and hypocrisy run rampant, especially when it comes to sex. Clive demands absolute fidelity from Betty, even as he boinks the neighbor lady. With no acceptable outlet for his homosexuality, family friend Harry turns to diddling Edward. Edward’s governess, meanwhile, is in love with Betty, who’s too blind to see it.

Churchill’s writing is bracing and madcap, but its satirical bite is blunted by the fact that her targets seem way too easy now. In any case, Maureen Payne-Hahner’s staging lacks the crispness necessary to put it over. Rather than a merrily chaotic, farcical round-robin, we get an undisciplined muddle. The last tableau before the act break has Joshua raising a rifle to the back of his master’s head, but the moment is so rushed and the blocking so clumsy that it barely registers. As Clive, Kurt Conroyd drops the veneer of propriety in favor of a louche, ham-fisted villainy, thereby reducing the character’s two dimensions to one.

The cast fare better with the characters to whom Churchill has granted some degree of human feeling. Jessie Fisher’s Edward is sweetly vulnerable, and Hillary Clemens gives us a scared and desperate governess.

Fisher and Clemens really come to the fore in act two, which jumps ahead a century—during which time the family has aged only 25 years. Clemens plays Victoria, Clive and Betty’s previously seen-but-not-heard daughter (represented by a headless dummy in the first half), who leaves her insufferably right-minded husband to take up with a woman (Fisher, as sensitive and affecting as in act one). Edward is now a liberated gay man but would rather be tied down to a husband. Betty, now played by a woman (the understated Alexandra Main), has finally screwed up the courage to leave Clive but finds independence daunting.

To her credit, Churchill avoids depicting her own age as an Edenic paradise in contrast to the bad old days, suggesting instead that with freedom comes uncertainty. This helps undercut some of the smugness of the first act. Though the final lines of the play have Clive resurfacing to chastise Betty and bemoan the fallen empire, the final image is of the two Bettys embracing across the chasm of time.