A Number is a powerful and a thoughtful play that encapsulates tragedy to convey its message. Caryl Churchill has introduced us to the concept of human cloning and beautifully executed how nature is overpowered by nurture. By choosing one character to play roles of three different sons, she demonstrates how genetically people might be the same but behaviour wise, they all differ from each other. This play dramatically problematizes the conventional notions of what really identity is. It makes us question; is identity a fixed notion? Does our identity lie in our genetics or the environment and experiences of one’s life shape his identity? As we travel through this journey, we see how things fall and find our answers. Churchill’s static scene setting throughout the play with no stage directions at all catches our attention. It adds significance to theatricality of the play. It tells us that this play is heavily based upon discourse, as if the audience watching the play is just tuning into discussion between the characters.
B2: You said things, these things
Salter: I said
B2: You called them things I think we’ll find they’re people
Salter: Yes of course they are they are of course
As the play commences, the text has already given us the clue that he is not the real one by referring him as B2. In the very first scene, we see B2 getting offended by Salter for calling clones as things but in the end, he agrees to it himself. Just in the start of the play, we are confused and stuck to what pushed him to say that in no time. The contradiction in his own dialogue might be because he realized that his own identity is at stake and threatened if clones are considered as real people. Churchill sets the tone of the play by invoking this question in our minds that are clones individual entities or are they just replicas (things) of the original? If we focus on Salter’s manner of speech, his language is betraying the fact that he is not convinced they are. Hence, repetition of words. He referred to clones as things and then goes like, I did? It tells us how his subconscious is positioned to this problem that he might not believe they are humans that’s why the unintentional slip.
Salter: what? is it money? Is it something you can put a figure on? Put a figure on it.
B2: This is purely
Salter’s idea to make profit from the clones leaves us in a state of awe but as humans considering how relatively real it is, we grasp this concept as a harsh reality. He decides to exploit them for a monetary compensation but of course, numbers cannot account the value of the life of a human being. Churchill’s mastery of diction is displayed many times in this play, sentences are left incomplete, because what is about to be said is obvious and need not to be said. In a way, language shapes the very structure of the play. Considering the fact that all the sons is played by one character demonstrates how language is used as a weapon but it also betrays the vulnerability of the same character who have been using it as a weapon. In Act 1, we can see the guarded conversation between B2 and Salter. Both the characters are trying to play witty and aren’t revealing anything to each other. Her proficiency with language can be seen as how the dialogues has deeper meaning to it. It makes us curious and keeps us engaged at the same time.
B1: No but look at me.
Salter: I have. I am.
B2: No, look in my eyes. No, keep looking. Look.
As the act 2 closes, this particular dialogue by B1 enthralls us as an audience. It seems as if B1 is up to something now. We know it has more significance to it. Since B1 has a clone, he has somebody who looks exactly like him, his doppelganger. B1 tries to shift Salter’s attention towards himself and consider him to be a man, his child, his only son and entirely himself. Maybe he is trying to make Salter feel guilty as a father. He tries to strengthen his existence, his individuality by this eye contact with him.
Salter’s choice for having B1 cloned is confusing. It makes us wonder why he didn’t have a second child instead of going through the process of cloning? One way to see it is that Salter is a self-centred person. As the play unfolds, it slowly reveals the possible reasons of Salter cloning B1. He disregarded and neglected B1 as a child. This is best represented when B1 reminisces about his childhood how he used to scream and shout at night hoping that Salter could hear him.
B2: I want to know if you could hear me…enough you’d come.
Childhood is a time period where children yearn for parent’s attention, and having ignored by them at a tender age can have serious behavioural changes in future. The negligence and mistreatment by Salter affected B1. He has helplessly become this way. Our attention totally shifts at B1 when he opens up about Salter’s behaviour with him. We feel sympathetic towards him. This is one way to see that Salter is now regretful his idea was to utilize a clone of B1 to revamp his past and correct his parental behaviour. ‘No, I wanted the same.’ Furthermore, this dialogue by Salter is an evidence how he used cloning as a tool to change his past, if it were another child, it wouldn’t have made up for how he treated B1.