Send in the Clones

by Josh Costello, Literary Manager & Artistic Associate



Cloning is the process of creating a copy of an individual organism from a sample of DNA. Some bacteria and even plants reproduce naturally through cloning.  For animals like humans, the process of cloning in the lab has been slowly moving from science fiction to reality.

In 2002, when Caryl Churchill wrote A NUMBER, several high-profile stories about cloning had recently been in the news. A few years earlier, in 1996, the world was introduced to Dolly the sheep, the result of the first succesful cloning of a mammal. In 2001, a biotech firm called Advanced Cell Technology announced success in cloning a human embryo -- an exaggerated claim that nevertheless provoked much discussion and hand-wringing about the moral implications of human cloning. The first kitten was cloned soon after, but speculation about a new market for cloning beloved pets fizzled when it turned out the kitten's fur patterns didn't match its "mother" despite having the exact same genes. Fur patterns are determined by the environment in the womb, and not just by instructions from DNA -- an example of the ways in which environment can impact identity.

Churchill was 64 in 2002, and had already long been considered Britain's leading living playwright (alongside Tom Stoppard); she had been awarded an Obie for Sustained Achievement in 2001. Her work defies categorization – she seems to invent a new theatrical form and genre for every play. Her themes are likewise wide-ranging, but often political (including MAD FOREST’s look at the Romanian Revolution, CLOUD NINE’s exploration of sexual politics, and TOP GIRLS’ take on feminism). With A NUMBER, Churchill uses cloning to explore questions of identity and parenthood. Do our genes determine who we are? Or can our environment change us on a fundamental level? Is nature or nurture predominant, and what does that mean for our sense of self and family?

Just a few weeks before this production started rehearsal, news broke that Chinese scientists had performed the first successful cloning of a primate, using the same technique that produced Dolly the sheep to produce two cloned macaque monkeys. Human cloning is forbidden in many countries, including the EU and the UK specifically. But the technology to create a human clone is clearly within reach, and it seems certain that it’s only a matter of time before the moral and ethical implications of human cloning will have to be faced.