When Caryl Churchill’s A Number was first performed in 2002, cloning was a hot topic. Britain had become the first country to legalise cloning for research purposes and Dolly the Sheep was capturing the collective imagination.
A Number is the story of a man and his three sons, two of whom turn out to be clones of the first. All three sons are played by the same actor and in under one hour, this short, sharp two-hander questions the entire nature of identity.
This sparse play is set in a world where human cloning has become a reality and on the surface, is concerned with the ethics of cloning. However, the questions Churchill raises in the play are of a more existential bent. The play doesn’t explore the usual moral and ethical discussions surrounding cloning, as the headlines of the time were doing, rather A Number takes a more personal approach, using cloning as a framework for a more basic philosophical question. Who am I?
It explores the fragility of what we consider to be our personal identity and our conflicting responses to nature and to nurture.
Performed by two actors, the play opens as thirty-five year old Bernard (B2) confronts his father, Salter, about something he has just discovered. Bernard is not an only child. He is not even an original. He is in fact just one of a number of clones. Salter explains that after the death of the original Bernard, he had his son cloned, unaware that an unscrupulous doctor created many more clones than he was supposed to.
it is, I am, the shocking thing is that there are these, not how many but at all
exactly, even one, a twin would be a shock
a twin would be a surprise but a number
a number any number is a shock
Salter plans to sue the doctor, but in scene 2 it becomes apparent that the original Bernard (B1) is not dead. He is alive and furious to learn that after Salter abandoned him to the care system, he had him cloned to try to be a better father second time round.
B1’s inability to comprehend, or live in a world where multiple versions of himself exist will have devastating consequences.
A Number is a short sparse play that speaks volumes about the idea of identity and the motives behind the need for self-perpetuation. Churchill is more interested in the personal cost of cloning and implies that the price of scientific progress will be the loss of the very qualities that make us human.
Salter is a mixture of guilt, greed and vanity. His lies about the death of Bernard’s mother and his mistreatment of his first son. Despite his failures, his belief that he deserves a second chance, no matter what the cost, shows him up as a man who thinks only of himself.
I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer. I did some better things. I’d like recognition.
His sons do not have the luxury of thinking only of themselves anymore, because the very notion of individuality has been taken from them. They no longer feel original and are questioning their value as human beings. As a copy, is B2 ‘less’ than the original Bernard? Moreover, has the original Bernard lost something inherent in himself through the very act of being copied?
While his sons are concerned with the number of clones that exist, Salter is concerned with the amount of money that he can sue for – that notion of value and cost, the weighing up of a human life is at the core of this play.
So too is the idea of the narrative of a life. Salter has told his sons different lies about their childhood and they find these inconsistencies as hard to process as the idea that they have been reduced to a repeatable formula.
The concept of nature versus nurture is also touched on as the two Bernard’s inability to come to terms with what has been done to them, is completely tied up in their feelings towards their father and how he treated them growing up.
In the final scene, we meet Michael Black, another of the clones, who has never had any contact with Salter before. His attitude towards the news that he has been cloned is one of cheery acceptance.
We’ve got ninety-nine per cent the same genes as any other person. We’ve got ninety per cent the same as a chimpanzee. We’ve got thirty percent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all? I love about the lettuce. It makes me feel I belong.
I miss him so much. I miss them both.
There’s nineteen more of us.
Touching on themes of authenticity and identity, A Number uses ambiguity and implication to draw out complicated moral themes on what makes us human. Although ostensibly about a headline grabbing issue, Churchill explores the emotional and personal fall out that can come with scientific progress.
Reading a play will always be a lesser experience than seeing it and Churchill’s stilted overlapping dialogue definitely benefits from being heard rather than read. I saw a great production in Belfast quite a few years ago starring Brian McCardie, who some Line of Duty fans might recognise as Tommy Hunter. A Number has attracted some starry casts in its time.
The original London production was directed by Stephen Daldry and performed by Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. The original US production starred Sam Shepard as Salter and father and son actors Timothy and Samuel West have appeared in the play.
A film version starring Tom Wilkinson and Rhys Ifans was made by the BBC in 2008 and is well worth checking out.
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