CARYL CHURCHILL 1982
Since its earliest productions, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was regarded as a unique, if difficult, play about the challenges working women face in the contemporary business world and society at large. Premiering on August 28, 1982, in the Royal Court Theatre in London before making its New York debut on December 28, 1982, in the Public Theatre, Top Girls won an Obie Award in 1983 and was the runner-up for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The play is regularly performed around the world and has quickly become part of the canon of women’s theater. Top Girls helped solidify Churchill’s reputation as an important playwright.
Critics praise Top Girls for a number of reasons. Churchill explores the price of success paid for by the central character, Marlene, while using unusual techniques including a nonlinear construction, an overlapping dialogue, and a mix of fantasy and reality. The last occurs at a dinner party celebrating Marlene’s promotion, which is attended by five women from different times in history, literature, and art. The dinner party is the first scene of the play and, to many critics, the highlight of Top Girls. Churchill brings up many tough questions over the course of the play, including what success is and if women’s progress in the workplace has been a good or bad thing. While many critics compliment the play on its handling of such big ideas in such a singular fashion, some thought Top Girls was disjointed and its message muddled. As John Russell Taylor of Plays & Players wrote, “Like most of Churchill’s work, it is about nothing simple and easily capsulated.”
Churchill was born on September 3, 1938, in London, England, the daughter and only child of Robert Churchill and his wife. Churchill’s father was a political cartoonist; her mother worked as a model, secretary, and actress. Churchill began writing stories and doing shows for her parents as a child. After spending her early childhood in London, the family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in about 1949, where Churchill spent most of her formative years.
In 1956, Churchill returned to England to enter Oxford University. While studying literature at Lady Margaret Hall, she began writing plays for student productions. Her first play was written as a favor for a friend. One of Churchill’s student plays, Downstairs, won first prize at the National Student Drama Festival. Churchill graduated with her B.A. in 1960, intending to become a serious writer.
Family matters stymied her plans. In 1961, Churchill married David Harter, a lawyer, and had three sons over the next decade. Still, she managed to write about thirty radio dramas, usually one act, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as some television plays in the early 1970s. Many of these early plays were related to her life experiences and were somewhat depressing, but they did garner Churchill some notice for her writing abilities.
In the early 1970s, Churchill turned to theater, initially writing for fringe theater groups. Owners, a tragic farce, was her first major play, produced by a fringe group in London in 1972. This production led to her position as a resident playwright at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975. Churchill began exploring feminist ideas with her first play for the Royal Court, Objections to Sex and Violence (1974).
Churchill continued to explore feminism with Vinegar Tom (1976). She wrote the play both with the help of and for Monstrous Regiment, a feminist touring-theater company. Vinegar Tom and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) use historical settings to discuss repression. These plays garnered Churchill more attention and critical praise.
In 1979, Churchill’s Cloud Nine had its first production. This was her first big hit, and had a long run on both sides of the Atlantic. The Obie Awardwinning play was set in the Victorian era, with the roles played by their physical opposites. For example, a man played an unhappy and unfulfilled wife. Critics enthusiastically praised Churchill’s originality. Churchill followed this success with Top Girls (1982), a play about feminism and the price of success for women. Though some did not regard it as highly as Cloud Nine, the play cemented her reputation and won her another Obie.
Churchill wrote plays on a variety of topics throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Fen (1983), which focused on female tenant farmers, won her the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. In 1986, she wrote Serious Money about the London stock exchange. Churchill used music and dialogue that rhymed in the play, which also won the Blackburn Prize and many other awards. She continued to experiment with technique in Mad Forest (1990) and The Skriker (1994), which incorporated music and dance. Though Churchill’s output decreased in the late 1990s, she continues to push the limits of traditional dramatic forms using dance and music, and other unexpected constructions.
Act 1, Scene 1
Top Girls opens in a restaurant where Marlene is hosting a dinner party for five friends. She has recently been promoted at work. The five guests are all women that are either long-dead or are fictional characters from literature or paintings.
The first to come are Isabella Bird and Lady Nijo. Nijo and Isabella discuss their lives, including their families. Dull Gret and Pope Joan, who was elected to the papacy in the ninth century, appear. The conversation wanders between subjects, including religion and the love lives of Nijo and Isabella. Isabella goes on about her travel experiences. Joan talks about dressing and living as a male from the age of twelve so that she could further her education. Marlene proposes a toast to her guests. They, in turn, insist on toasting Marlene and her success.
Joan relates her disturbing story. While she enjoyed being the pope, she also had a discreet affair with a chamberlain and became pregnant. In denial about her state, she gave birth to her child during a papal procession. Joan was stoned to death, and her child, she believes, was also killed. While Joan relates her story, Nijo talks about her four children being born, and only being able to see one of them after having given birth. Isabella talks about how she never had children. Marlene wonders why they are all so miserable.
The final guest arrives. She is Patient Griselda, a character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Griselda tells her story. Though she was a peasant girl, she was asked to be the wife of a local prince, but only if she obeyed him without question. Griselda agreed, though it later meant losing the two children she bore him—they were taken from her as infants. Then Griselda was sent back to her father with nothing but a slip to wear. Her husband called her back to help him prepare for his next wedding to a girl from France. The girl was her daughter—all this was a test of her loyalty. He took Griselda back, and the family was reunited.
Marlene is upset by Griselda’s tale. Nijo is also perturbed because her children were never returned to her. Gret finally speaks up about her journey through hell, and how she beat the devils. The scene ends with Isabella talking about the last trip she took.
Act 1, Scene 2
The scene opens in the Top Girls employment agency in London. Marlene is interviewing Jeanine for possible placement. Marlene tells Jeanine that if she is to be sent on a job with prospects, she must not tell them that she is getting married or might have children. Marlene evaluates Jeanine and suggests jobs based on her perception of Jeanine’s future.
Act 2, Scene 3
This scene takes place at night in Joyce’s backyard in Suffolk. Joyce is Marlene’s elder sister. Joyce’s sixteen-year-old daughter Angie and her twelve-year-old friend Kit are playing in a shelter they built in the backyard. Joyce calls for Angie, but Angie and Kit ignore her until she goes back into the house. Angie says she wants to kill her mother.
Angie and Kit discuss going to the movies. Kit gets mad at Angie when she talks about dumb stuff. Angie desperately wants to leave home. Kit believes they should move to New Zealand in case of a war. Angie is indifferent because she has a big secret. She tells Kit she is going to London to see her aunt. Angie believes that Marlene is really her mother.
Joyce sneaks up on them. Joyce will not let them go to the movies until Angie cleans her room. Angie leaves, and Kit informs Joyce that she wants
to be a nuclear physicist. When Angie returns, she is wearing a nice dress that is a little too small for her. Joyce becomes angry because Angie has not cleaned her room. It starts to rain. Joyce and Kit go inside. Angie stays outside. When Kit returns to get her, Angie threatens to kill her mother again.
Act 2, Scene 1
It is Monday morning at Top Girls. Win and Nell, who work at the agency, are talking. Win tells Nell about her weekend that she spent at her married boyfriend’s house while his wife was out of town. The conversation turns to office gossip. They consider changing jobs as Marlene has been promoted over them, limiting their prospects. Still, Nell and Win are glad Marlene got the job over another coworker, Howard. Marlene enters late. Win and Nell tell her that they are glad she got the promotion rather than Howard.
Win interviews Louise, a forty-six-year-old woman who has been in the same job for twenty-one years. Louise has done everything for her company, but has spent twenty years in middle management with no opportunities to go higher. Win believes there will be only limited openings for her.
In the main office, Angie walks up to Marlene. Marlene does not recognize her at first. Angie has come to London on her own to see her aunt, and she intends to stay for a while. It is not clear if Joyce knows where Angie is. Angie becomes upset when Marlene does not seem like she wants her to stay.
Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Kidd, Howard’s wife. Mrs. Kidd is upset because Howard cannot accept that Marlene got the promotion to managing director over him. In part, he is disturbed because she is a woman. Mrs. Kidd wants Marlene to turn down the promotion so that he can have it. Mrs. Kidd leaves in a huff when Marlene is rude to her. Angie is proud of her aunt’s saucy attitude.
In another interview, Nell talks to Shona, who claims to be twenty-nine and to have worked in sales on the road. As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Shona has been lying. She is only twenty-one and has no real work experience.
In the main office, Win sits down and talks to Angie, who was left there by Marlene while she is working. Angie tells Win that she wants to work at Top Girls. Win begins to tell Angie her life story, but Angie falls asleep. Nell comes in and informs her that Howard has had a heart attack. When Marlene returns, Win tells her about Angie wanting to work at Top Girls. Marlene does not think Angie has much of a future there.
Act 2, Scene 2
This scene takes place a year earlier in Joyce’s kitchen. Marlene is passing out presents for Joyce and Angie. One of the gifts is the nice dress that Angie wore in act 1, scene 2. While Angie goes to her room to try it on, Joyce and Marlene are talking. Joyce had no idea that Marlene was coming. Marlene believed Joyce had invited her there. Angie made the arrangements, lying to both of them.
Angie returns to show off the dress. They chide her for her deception. Angie reminds her that the last time she visited was for her ninth birthday. Marlene learns that Joyce’s husband left her three years ago. It is getting late, and Angie is sent to bed. Marlene will sleep on the couch.
After Angie leaves to get ready for bed, Joyce and Marlene continue their discussion about their lives. The sisters’ conversation turns into an argument. Marlene believes that Joyce is jealous of her success. Joyce criticizes the decisions Marlene has made, including leaving her home and giving up her child, Angie. Marlene offers to send her money, but Joyce refuses.
Marlene is excited about a future under the new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, while Joyce cannot stand the prime minister. They talk about the horrid life their mother led with their alcoholic father. It becomes clear the sisters have very different views of the world. As Marlene nears sleep on the couch, Angie walks in, having had a bad dream. “Frightening,” is all she says.
Angie is the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of Joyce. Angie is the biological daughter of Marlene, but was given up by her birth mother, who was only seventeen at the time and had career ambitions. In act 1 of Top Girls, Angie realizes that Marlene is her mother, though she has not been told directly. Both Marlene and Joyce do not think highly of Angie and believe her future is limited. She has already left high school with no qualifications. She was in remedial classes, and her best friend is Kit, who is four years younger. Angie is frustrated and wants to murder her mother. Instead, she runs away to visit her aunt in London and hopes to live with her. Previously, Angie tricked Marlene into visiting her and Joyce. Angie is Marlene’s embarrassment, but she is also one of the things that links her to the women at the dinner party.
Isabella is one of Marlene’s dinner party guests in act 1, scene 1. She is a Scottish woman who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and who traveled extensively later in life. In Top Girls, Isabella is the first to arrive at the party and dominates the conversation in a self-absorbed manner. She talks on and on about her travels; her complex relationship with her sister, Hennie; her clergyman father, and husband; her illnesses; religion; and her lack of children. While Isabella does listen and respond to the others, she mostly tries to figure out her own life and what it meant. She could never be as good as her sister, but her adventures made her happy. Isabella is one of the characters who helps Marlene define herself.
Dull Gret is one of Marlene’s dinner guests in act 1, scene 1, and the third to arrive. Gret is the subject of a painting by Brueghel entitled “Dulle Griet.” In the painting, she wears an apron and armor and leads a group of women into hell to fight with devils. Gret is generally quiet through most of the dinner, answering questions only when directly asked and making a few comments on the side. Near the end of the scene, Gret makes a speech about her trip to hell and the fight with the devils. Like all the dinner guests, Gret’s story reflects something about Marlene’s life.
Marlene interviews Jeanine for placement by Top Girls in act 1. She is engaged and is saving money to get married. Marlene is not supportive of Jeanine’s ambitions to work in advertising or in a job that might have some travel, but she categorizes her according to what Marlene believes she will be able to accomplish.
Pope Joan is one of Marlene’s dinner party guests in act 1, scene 1, and the fourth to arrive. She is a woman from the ninth century who allegedly served as the pope from 854 to 856. Pope Joan is somewhat aloof, making relevant, intelligent declarations throughout the conversation. When the topic turns to religion, she cannot help but point out heresies—herself included—though she does not attempt to convert the others to her religion. Joan reveals some of her life. She began dressing as a boy at age twelve so she could continue to study; she lived the rest of her life as a man, though she had male lovers. Joan was eventually elected pope. She became pregnant by her chamberlain lover and delivered her baby during a papal procession. For this, Joan was stoned to death. At the end of the scene, Joan recites a passage in Latin. Like all the dinner guests, Joan’s life and attitude reflects something about Marlene.
Joyce is Marlene’s elder sister and mother to Angie. Unlike her younger sister, Joyce stayed in the same area and social class she grew up in. Joyce is unambitious and unhappy. She was married to Frank, but she told him to leave three years previously because he was having affairs with other women. She supports herself and Angie by cleaning houses.
Because Joyce seemed to be unable to have children, she adopted Angie as an infant when Marlene decided to give her up. But Joyce soon got pregnant and miscarried the child because of the demands of raising Angie. Joyce resents both Angie and Marlene, in part because of her miscarriage. She calls Angie a lump and useless. Marlene is too ambitious and clever for Joyce.
Yet Joyce has pride. She will not take Marlene’s money, and she does not cater to her crying. Joyce maintains her working class loyalty and stands her ground when Marlene starts to sing the praises of Margaret Thatcher. Despite such differences, Marlene and Joyce are very much alike. They both believe they are right and do what they must to survive in their different worlds.
Mrs. Kidd is the wife of Howard, the man who got passed over in favor of Marlene for the managing director position at Top Girls. In act 2, Mrs. Kidd comes to the office and tries to get Marlene to turn down the position. Mrs. Kidd hopes Marlene will understand how much it would hurt Howard’s pride and livelihood. Marlene is not impressed by her pleas, and Mrs. Kidd leaves after insulting Marlene for being a hard, working woman.
Kit is the twelve-year-old best friend of Angie. Unlike Angie, Kit is clever and plans on being a nuclear physicist. The girls have been friends for years, though Kit gets annoyed by Angie’s limitations. In some ways, Kit is a younger version of Marlene.
Louise is interviewed by Win for placement by Top Girls in act 2. Louise is a forty-six-year-old woman stuck in middle management who believes she has been overlooked for promotion and underappreciated by her present firm. Win is not particularly supportive of Louise’s desires to use her experience elsewhere and does not offer much hope for a better position. Like Marlene, Win categorizes Louise according to what she believes Louise will be able to accomplish.
Marlene is the central character in Top Girls. She is a successful businesswoman who has recently been promoted to managing director of Top Girls, an employment agency. To celebrate, she has a dinner party at a restaurant with five guests, all of whom are women who are either dead or fictional characters from literature and paintings. Marlene’s own life shares some parallels with these women.
Marlene’s adult life has been focused on her career, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. She previously worked in the United States and has done well for herself. Marlene has little to no contact with her family. Her alcoholic father is dead, and her long-suffering mother is in some sort of home. Marlene does not get along with her sister Joyce, who has remained part of the working class and lives in the same neighborhood where they grew up.
Marlene let Joyce raise her daughter, Angie. Marlene became pregnant at age seventeen, and because the then-married Joyce did not have a child, she allowed her to adopt the baby. Marlene has as little respect and interest in Angie as Joyce does. Like the women she interviews at Top Girls, Marlene believes Angie’s future is limited. Yet Marlene’s own life is just as circumscribed, but in different ways. Her success has come at a high price, costing her both her empathy and her relationships.
Nell is one of the employees at the Top Girls employment agency. She is happy that Marlene got the promotion over Howard, but she has her own career ambitions and might want to find a job with better prospects. In the meantime, her boyfriend, Derek, has asked her to marry him, but she does not know if she will accept. Her career seems more important to her than the marriage. During the play, Nell conducts an interview with Shona, whom Nell believes might be good for Top Girls. Nell is disappointed to learn that Shona has lied about everything on her application.
Lady Nijo is one of Marlene’s dinner party guests in act 1, scene 1, and the second to arrive. She is a thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan to the Emperor of Japan. She later became a Buddhist monk. Like Isabella, Nijo is somewhat self-absorbed, though not to the same degree. Nijo tells the others about her life, including information about her father, her lovers, her four children (only one of whom she ever saw), symbolic clothing, and her time as a traveling monk. But she also listens respectfully to the stories of others and acknowledges her limitations. Nijo liked her silk clothing and easy life with the Emperor. By the end of the scene, Nijo is in tears. Like all the dinner guests, Nijo’s life reflects something about Marlene’s.
Patient Griselda is one of Marlene’s dinner guests in act 1, scene 1, and the last to arrive. She is a fictional character, appearing in “The Clerk’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, among other stories. As soon as she arrives, Marlene has Griselda tell her story. Griselda was a peasant girl who was asked to marry a local prince, but only if she would obey him without question. She agreed and bore him two children who were taken away from her while they were still infants. She did not question the decision. Her husband sent Griselda back home with nothing more than a slip to wear. She went without question. He sent for her to help him plan his second marriage to a young French girl. Griselda came back. At a pre-wedding feast, he revealed that the girl and her page/brother were their children and all these incidents were tests of her loyalty. Like all the dinner guests, Griselda’s story reflects an aspect of Marlene’s life.
Shona is interviewed by Nell for placement by the Top Girls agency in the second act. Shona tries to pass herself off as a twenty-nine-year-old woman with sales experience, which Nell believes at first. As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Shona has been making up a story. She is really twenty-one and has no job experience. Shona is certain that she could handle high-profile jobs, but Nell does not believe her.
Win is one of the employees at the Top Girls employment agency. Like Nell, she is glad that Marlene got the promotion over Howard, but she has her own career ambitions and might move on. She is relatively well educated and has previously lived in several different countries. Win spent the previous weekend with her married boyfriend at his house, while his wife was out of town. During the course of the play, Win interviews Louise for a job; she shares Marlene’s callous attitude toward Louise.
Choices and Consequences
Nearly every character in Top Girls has made or is in the process of making life-changing decisions with important consequences. The dinner party in act 1, scene 1 exemplifies this. Each of the historical figures has made a hard choice. For example, Pope Joan chose to live like a boy, and then a man, in public. When she became pregnant by her secret lover, the stoning death of her and her baby were consequences of her chosen life. Joyce chose to adopt Angie, which lead to a certain life path. Joyce believes that she miscarried her own child because of the demands of raising Angie.
Marlene also made several hard choices. She became a career woman who spent some time working in the States. Marlene is estranged from her family, including her biological daughter, Angie, and does not seem to have many close friends, female or male. Her dinner party in celebration of her promotion consists of women who are dead or do not really exist, not with friends or family. She has no love relationship. Marlene is very much alone because of her life choices. While her daughter Angie has already made two life choices—dropping out of school at the age of sixteen with no qualifications, and running away to London to live with her aunt/mother—the consequences of these actions in her life are unclear.
Success and Failure
Success is an important part of Marlene’s life in Top Girls, defining who she is and whose company she enjoys. The dinner party is meant to celebrate her promotion to managing director as well as the successes of her guests. Joan became the pope. Isabella traveled the world. Gret fought the devils in hell. Griselda survived her husband’s extraordinary tests of loyalty. Marlene sees these women as successful, though they are not in her real, everyday life. Marlene’s personal life is a failure because of her success in business. She has no real friends in the play, and she has not seen her sister or biological daughter in seven years. At the dinner party, she moans at one point, “Oh God, why are we all so miserable?”
Yet, Marlene believes that Joyce is mostly a failure because she did not grow beyond her neighborhood; instead, she got married and raised a child. Joyce cleans houses for a living, and she is not
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research one of the five guests from history, literature, and art that come to Marlene’s dinner party in act 1, scene 1 of Top Girls. Compare and contrast their lives to Marlene’s life, focusing on issues of gender and success.
- Explore the psychological aspects of the complex relationship between Marlene, Joyce, and Angie. How could Marlene, Joyce, and Angie have avoided their sad situation?
- Research the state of the women’s movement in Great Britain in the 1980s. Should Marlene be considered a feminist? Why or why not?
- Compare and contrast the public perception of Great Britain’s prime minister in 1982, Margaret Thatcher, with Marlene. How were successful women viewed by society in this time period?
impressed by Marlene’s life. Joyce does not really see her world in the same terms of success or failure. She does what is necessary to survive and to rear Angie. However, both sisters agree that Angie has no chance of being a success in life. Angie has no education, no ambition, and is regarded as dumb. The best she might do is menial work and marry. While this describes Joyce’s life, both Joyce and Marlene perceive that Angie might not be able to take care of herself. This would be the ultimate failure in their eyes. They agree that one should support oneself.
Marlene and Joyce’s differing definitions of success stem in part from a class conflict. Marlene has moved beyond her working-class roots to a middle-class life by education and persistence. She holds a management position in a demanding field, an employment agency. She even lived and worked in the United States for several years. Marlene supports the political agenda of Great Britain’s female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, even though she is perceived as anti-workingclass.
Joyce remains firmly working class, leading a life only slightly better than her parents. She works as a cleaning lady to support Angie. Unlike Joyce and Marlene’s mother, who stayed with her alcoholic husband and had nothing, Joyce told her husband to leave when she could no longer take his controlling nature and numerous affairs. Joyce regards Thatcher as evil, comparing her to Adolf Hitler, for her attitudes towards working-class people. Joyce believes that Marlene thinks she is too good for her. Marlene says she does not like working-class people, but she does not really include her sister as one of them. The pair never come to an understanding on class.
Sex Roles and Sexism
Throughout the text of Top Girls is an implicit discussion on what society expects women to be. Each of the guests at the dinner party defines womanhood in a particular era, either by what they are or by what they are not. Isabella, for example, could not live up to the standards of femininity defined by her sister, Hennie. Yet Isabella was a traveler who saw more of the world than most men. Marlene also breaks out of the traditional roles for women, by virtue of her career.
While Marlene has benefited economically from her career, her disregard for sex roles has its problems. She is not married, and it does not seem like she is in a long-term relationship. Joyce does not really like her. Mrs. Kidd, the wife of the man who was passed over for the promotion that Marlene got, begs her to not take it. Mrs. Kidd believes that the upset Howard should not have to work for a woman. Further, Mrs. Kidd hopes that Marlene will give up the promotion because Howard has to support his family. Mrs. Kidd calls Marlene “unnatural” for her uncompromising stand on the promotion and her attachment to her job. Marlene does not give in, but such sexism does not make her life and choices any easier.
Top Girls is a feminist drama/fantasy set in contemporary times. The action is confined to two places in England, London and Suffolk. The realistic action takes place in two settings. One is the Top Girls employment agency, where Marlene works. There, potential clients are interviewed, and Angie shows up, hoping to stay with Marlene. The other is Joyce’s home and backyard, where Marlene visits and Angie and Kit scheme. The fantasy dinner party that opens Top Girls also takes place in London. (In many productions, the restaurant is called La Prima Donna.) Though the dinner is clearly a fantasy because all the guests are dead or fictional, the setting is very real.
Fantasy versus Reality
In act 1, scene 1, Marlene hosts a dinner party with guests both long dead (Pope Joan, Lady Nijo, and Isabella Bird) and fictional (Dull Gret and Patient Griselda). While Marlene listens to and guides the conversation—injecting only bits about herself—these five women share their stories. The party is ostensibly to celebrate Marlene’s promotion at work, but she intends it to be a celebration of all their successes. Though these women have each achieved something they are proud of, success has come at a large price in their lives. The dinner party itself shows the tensions between fantasy and reality because the guests are not “real” to the rest of the characters in Top Girls, only to Marlene. Yet the ideas and problems brought up by the fantasy women are very real. These issues echo in the plot and dialogue of the rest of the text, adding another dimension to the tension between fantasy and reality.
Top Girls is not a linear play, but one in which time is used in an unusual fashion. The last scene of the play, act 2, scene 2, is the only part that takes place at a specific time in the story, about a year earlier than the other events. This flashback ties up some of the loose ends created by the story. The rest of the scenes, even the action within act 2, scene 1, do not have to take place in the order presented, though all are set in the present. The events are linked thematically, but not by a specific sequence of time. In addition, the idea of time is toyed with at the dinner party in act 1, scene 1. None of the guests can really exist at the same time, yet they share many of the same concerns.
Often when Top Girls is performed—including its premieres in England and the United States—several parts are played by the same actresses. Only the actress who plays Marlene, the central character in the play, has only one role. Thus guests at the dinner party are played by actresses who also play contemporary characters. Such casting decisions create visual links between seemingly disparate women. In the original production, for example, the same actress played Dull Gret and Angie, implying that these characters might have something in common. Similarly, another actress took on the roles of Pope Joan and Louise, drawing another parallel. This casting technique further emphasizes how alike the concerns of the historical characters and contemporary characters really are.
In the early 1980s, Great Britain was ruled by women. Though Queen Elizabeth II was only a royal figurehead, real political power was held by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A member of the Conservative Party, Thatcher had been elected on May 3, 1979, and proceeded to put her own stamp on British life over the next decade or so. She was reelected in 1983 and 1987, and held office until late 1990, when she received a vote of no confidence and was replaced by fellow Conservative John Major. Thatcher had been the longest serving prime minister in Great Britain since the nineteenth century.
To improve the British economy, Thatcher dismantled the socialist practices that were put in place in the post-World War II era. She privatized major industries, like coal mining and telecommunications, which had been run by the British government, and she cut down on the power of trade unions. Because Thatcher’s revolution benefited the middle- and upper-classes and seemed to hurt the working- and lower-classes, she was very unpopular among the latter groups. Unemployment continued to rise, and by 1982, over three and a quarter million people were unemployed. With cuts in both welfare and other social programs, such people’s lives were becoming much harder. Though the economy was strong and interest rates and inflation were down, real living standards had been falling slightly for several years; international trade was also down.
In 1982, Thatcher and the Conservative party had some popularity problems among the general population. National morale was not particularly high until the Falklands War broke out. The Falkland Islands were a British possession in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Argentina. The group of islands are small and only about 1,800 people were living there. The territory was at the center of a dispute between Argentina and Great Britain for a number of years, and the two countries were in negotiations over them. In the spring of 1982, Argentina became impatient and invaded the Falklands. Great Britain responded and reclaimed the islands before Argentina quickly surrendered. Though there were approximately 243 British casualties, the victory improved national moral and the repute of Thatcher and the Conservatives. The popularity of the Labour party went down.
Thatcher was but one symbol in the 1980s of powerful women. There was a concrete change in the position of working women. In Great Britain in the early 1980s, women made up forty percent of the labor force, and over sixty percent of women aged twenty to sixty-four were working. Marriage rates fell in the 1980s, after having remained stable for many years. Before that decade nearly every adult woman was married at some point. Those that did marry gave up working after having a child, although sometimes they went back to work after their children went to school or reached adulthood. Most women who worked were employed in poorly paid white collar, service, and industrial occupations. Approximately seventy-five percent of women did personal services work, clerical work, retail work, or health, education, or welfare work. The number of professional women was still small, but more women were becoming lawyers than ever before. These professional women often had equal pay for equal work, but working class women did not. Despite the success of Thatcher, many British women were anti-Conservative, though they did not necessarily support Labour either. To these women, Thatcher may have shared their gender, but her political prominence did not necessarily make her their heroine.
Most critics agree that Top Girls is an intricate play; generally, they find much to praise in its themes, attitudes, and text. The play’s depiction of women and feminism is particularly interesting to critics.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1982: Great Britain is led by a female Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was regarded as harsh.
Today: Great Britain is ruled by a male Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, who is regarded as personable.
- 1982: Great Britain goes to war with Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands and wins.
Today: The Falkland Islands are still a British protectorate, but self-governing. The citizens have been under constant British military protection ever since the war.
- 1982: A “have-it-all” concept of life is common for women in the United States and Great Britain. Many strive for wealth, a successful career, and a perfect family.
Today: While material and personal success are still important, a more realistic tone predominates as the difficulties of trying to balance it all are realized.
- 1982: The feminist movement is floundering in Great Britain and the United States. The agenda of many feminist organizations has little to do with the reality of the lives of ordinary women. In the United States, this trend is symbolized by the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Today: In a post-feminist society, women’s organizations regroup to address concerns of women of different classes. In 1998 in the United States, the National Council of Women’s Organizations (representing six million women) drafts potential legislation for the National Women’s Equality Act, which calls for the end of sex discrimination.
Writing about the original London production, Bryan Robertson of The Spectator argued, “her play is brilliantly conceived with considerable wit to illuminate the underlying deep human seriousness of her theme. The play is feminist, all right, but it is an entertaining, sometimes painful and often funny play and not a mere tract.” Expanding on this idea, Benedict Nightingale of the New Statesman wrote, “What use is female emancipation, Churchill asks, if it transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, weak and helpless? Does freedom, and feminism, consist of aggressively adopting the very values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?”
Writing about the same production, John Russell Taylor of Plays & Players is one of several critics over the years who believed that the rest of Top Girls did not live up to the promise of the dinner party scene. He found the play disjointed, arguing that “the pieces in the puzzle remain determinedly separate, never quite adding up to more than, well, so many fascinating pieces in a fascinating puzzle.”
When Top Girls opened in the United States a short time later, a few critics were dismissive of the play and Churchill’s potential appeal to American audiences. Calling the play “confused,” Douglas Watt of the Daily News proclaimed, “Churchill can write touchingly and with a good ear for everyday speech about middle-class Londoners today. But while concern for ugly ducklings may be universal . . . Top Girls is a genre piece likely to arouse even less interest here than Alan Ayckbourn’s equally tricky, but infinitely more amusing, works about the English middle class.”
Edith Oliver of the New Yorker was perplexed by certain aspects of the play. She wrote “Top Girls. . . is witty and original, with considerable dramatized feeling, yet somehow never got to me, and I was never certain whether she was making one point with the whole play or a lot of points in its separate segments.” Later in her review, Oliver emphasized that “[d]espite my admiration of Miss Churchill’s ingenuity, I was disappointed and at times puzzled—never quite certain, for exampie, whether the historical characters of the first scene were meant to be the prototypes of modern characters. . . .”
A majority of American critics commented on the uniqueness of certain aspects of Top Girls, but they were most concerned with its feminist theme and social meanings. For example, John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor called Top Girls “a theatrical oddity in which the long view of what has been happening to womankind’s ‘top girls’ combines with a sharp look at contemporary women achievers and a compassionate glance at the plight of an underclass underachiever who will never know the meaning of room at the top. Apart from one cheap shock effect, Miss Churchill has written a thoughtful and imaginative theater piece.”
Along similar lines, T. E. Kalem of Time asks in his review, “Is the future to be divided between a smart, scrambling upper class of no-holds-barred individualists and a permanent underclass of poor souls who are unfit for the survival of the fittest?” An unnamed reviewer in Variety added, “If it’s about male manipulation, Top Girls also pointedly involves the conditioned mentality of the sisterhood itself, with its inherited sense of role in a masculine or at least male-dominated world. The play seems to be saying that women historically have had themselves as well as sexist pigs for enemies.” John Simon of New York believes the ideas in Top Girls have universal applicability. “This is not easy theater, but funny, fiercely serious, and greatly worth thinking about. Its aporias [insoluble contradictions] are not only pertinent to women, they also concern the entire, always incomplete, human condition.”
Top Girls has continued to be performed regularly over the years. Most critics believe the play has withstood the test of time, despite specific references to British prime minster Margaret Thatcher and attitudes specific to the early 1980s. Of a 1991 revival in London, Paul Taylor in The Independent argued, “What continues to distinguish Top Girls is its cool, objective manner. The scenes in the job agency are almost too cleverly efficient in the way they expose the heartlessness the women have had to assume along with their crisp power-outfits. Churchill permits you to identify with the tricky plight of these characters but she does not ask you to like them.” Similarly, Alastair Macaulay of the Financial Times believes, “Both as theatre and as politics, Top Girls is exciting and irritating. The dialectic of its final scene, between the Thatcherite Marlene and her socialist sister Joyce rings true as you listen. The terms in which the sisters argue about Thatcherite politics have not dated.”
In this essay, Petrusso discusses the importance of the character of Angie in Top Girls, and her role in the construction and development of the central character in the play, Marlene.
Many critics who have commented on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls have focused their praise on the interesting characters and complexities of the scene that opens the play, act 1, scene l’s dinner party. The party is hosted by Top Girl’s central character, Marlene, and is attended by five guests, all obscure figures from history, literature, and art. Ostensibly, the party is to celebrate the success of Marlene, who has recently been promoted to managing director of Top Girls employment agency. The scene also defines many of the play’s themes and dramatic tensions. There are a number of critics who share the opinion of Lianne Stevens of the Los Angeles Times. Reviewing a 1986 production of Top Girls in San Diego, California, Stevens writes, “outstanding performances . . . cannot rectify the main defect in Churchill’s play: Nothing that comes after is as interesting as having dinner with Pope Joan, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda and Isabella Bird.”
There are, in fact, several aspects of the rest of Top Girls that are as interesting, mostly because of what has been laid out in the dinner party scene. One is the character of Angie, Marlene’s sixteen-year-old daughter, whom she allowed her sister Joyce to adopt at birth. Angie plays as pivotal a role in the play as any of the dinner party guests. While there is no doubt that Marlene is at the center of Top Girls, and that her character presents hard and conflicted ideas about women, success, power, and employment in the early 1980s, Angie and the dinner guests help to define Marlene as much as Marlene’s own actions and comments do. However, the dinner guests were chosen by Marlene, while Angie was an accident Marlene has chosen to have very little contact with and is dismissive of.
Each of the dinner guests is an adult woman, though they are fantastic characters who do not
really exist in the modern world inhabited by Marlene and the rest of the characters in the play. Marlene turns to them, not to any of the “real” people depicted in the play, when she wants to celebrate her promotion. While the guests are successful in their own, though not always obvious, ways, their success has come at a price. Lady Nijo suffered many degradations including not being allowed to raise her own children. Marlene is deeply troubled by the story of Patient Griselda, who was humiliated by her husband as a test of her loyalty to him, mostly because she was of a lower class. To get an education, Pope Joan led a life of deception as a male. Though she later became pope, it was her womanhood—her ability to get pregnant and give birth to a child at an inopportune moment—that led to the murder which ended her life.
Marlene’s choice of guests reveals much about her. First, she does not have anyone in her real life to share her promotion with, suggesting an alienation from real women. Second, the loss of her child still weighs on her, either in her conscious, subconscious, or both. Lady Nijo, Pope Joan, and Patient Griselda all suffer the loss of children. Only Joan is rather indifferent to the death of her infant. Marlene inquires about Dull Gret’s children, clearly expressing her interest in the subject. Marlene’s question after the one to Gret is rhetorical:“Oh God, why are we all so miserable?” There is a link between unhappiness and the idea of children and loss. Third, Marlene has no real interest in her own daughter, Angie, though they have more in common than Marlene does with her chosen guests.
To understand the importance of Angie, Marlene’s character must be better understood. Marlene grew up in an unstable home. Her father worked in the fields, and had a problem with alcohol. Her mother suffered at the hands of her husband, often going hungry and being beaten. Her sister Joyce was older, and did not share either Marlene’s need to escape or her intelligence. Despite her background, Marlene managed to create a good life for herself by working hard and apparently acquiring a decent education. She even lived in the United States for several years. The only flaw, the only thing that could have held her back, was when Marlene got pregnant at the age of seventeen. The situation was stressful, and Marlene was in denial for part of the pregnancy. Rather than allow Marlene to give the baby up to strangers, Joyce insisted on adopting Angie, in part because she had no children of her own. This is a long-standing point of contention between the sisters, though Joyce makes it clear that she would not have approved of any
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Cloud 9 is a play by Churchill written in 1979. Like Top Girls, this play is experimental in form and characterizations and includes feminist themes.
- Skirmishes, a drama written by Catherine Hayes in 1982, also concerns two sisters conflicted over family matters.
- Steaming is a feminist play by Nell Dunn written in 1981. It is from the same era as Top Girls, and has themes similar to Top Girls.
- Ugly Rumors, a drama about Margaret Thatcher and other British prime ministers, was written by Tariq Ali and Howard Bronton in 1998. The play concerns the differences in the interactions between Thatcher and male prime ministers.
- Objections to Sex and Violence is a play by Churchill first produced in 1975. At the center of the drama is a tense relationship between two very different sisters.
- The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan and originally published in 1963, was one of the first important books addressing the issues of equality for women. Since its first printing, Friedan’s book has inspired and encouraged women as they have sought to establish careers, widen their presence in the business world, and create a fulfilling home life. The reissued edition, published in 1984, features a new introduction and speaks to topics that are of particular interest to women today, including health insurance, welfare reform, sexual harassment and discrimination, the growing presence of women in sports, and the decreasing wage gap between men and women.
choice Marlene made in the situation except to have had an abortion early on or raise the child herself and not have tried to have a better life. Angie and related petty jealousies are at the heart of their conflict and thus at the center of Top Girls.
Yet, Angie is a reviled character. Everyone around Angie dismisses her and believes she has no future. Joyce, her adopted mother, calls her “a big lump.” She believes Angie will have a hard time getting a job and her best bet in life is to get married, though she cannot imagine who would marry her. Joyce does admit at one point, “She’s clever in her own way.” Labeling her “thick,” Marlene, Angie’s birth mother, tells one of her coworkers, “She’s not going to make it.” She believes Angie’s future career will be as a “Packer in Tesco,” nothing as accomplished as working at the employment agency run by Marlene. Kit, her only friend and a twelve-year-old, says to Angie at one point,“Stupid f—ing cow, I hate you.” She later tells Angie that she is not sure she even likes her. Kit amends that attitude by telling Joyce ’ I love Angie.” The way those around Angie talk about her, it seems like she is useless and incompetent. Joyce especially seems to hammer this idea home directly to Angie. Angie is definitely immature. She talks about being able to move objects with her thoughts, hearing a long-dead kitten in the backyard, and has only one friend, Kit, who is four years younger than her. She has ended her education in remedial classes at the age of sixteen.
Yet Angie accomplishes much over the course of Top Girls, more than expected considering how she is talked about. Angie has her own equivalent of the dinner party in act 1, scene 3. She and Kit hide in a shelter that they probably made in Joyce’s backyard. Kit, however, is a real person, unlike the unreal guests at Marlene’s. Angie and Kit have a real, if tense, friendship. They make tentative plans to go to the movies. Angie expresses her frustrations to Kit, saying she wants to kill her mother. She tells Kit about her secret, that she believes Marlene is her mother. Angie also says that she will go to London to see her aunt. Kit does not really believe her,
“EVERYONE AROUND ANGIE DISMISSES HER AND BELIEVES SHE HAS NO FUTURE. JOYCE, HER ADOPTED MOTHER, CALLS HER ‘A BIG LUMP.’ SHE BELIEVES ANGIE WILL HAVE A HARD TIME GETTING A JOB AND HER BEST BET IN LIFE IS TO GET MARRIED, THOUGH SHE CANNOT IMAGINE WHO WOULD MARRY HER.”
though, underscoring that Angie is constantly underestimated by those around her.
Another success of Angie’s is going to London from Suffolk on the bus, and finding her way to Marlene’s work place in act 2, scene 1. Joyce and Kit do not think Angie could do such a thing on her own. But Angie wants to escape her life with Joyce and become a success. To that end, she goes to her aunt/mother and hopes to stay with her. Angie has the gumption to ask her aunt for help. She will even sleep on the floor of Marlene’s home to have this different, better life, like her aunt/mother. It also creates a situation where Marlene gets her child back, a key point brought up in the dinner party. Angie wants to be with Marlene, to be Marlene, and does what she can to make that happen. Angie wants to be a top girl.
Angie’s first success, though the last in the play since it takes place in act 2, scene 2, is getting Marlene to visit her in the first place. The last scene takes place a year before the rest of the Top Girls. Angie lied to Marlene to get her to visit her and Joyce in Suffolk. She has not seen her aunt/mother since her ninth birthday party. Angie knows that Marlene has had good jobs and has lived in America, and she admires her tremendously. Angie appreciates that Marlene has escaped their neighborhood and become successful, just as Marlene admired that about her fantasy dinner guests. Angie may not have the education or the intelligence that Marlene has, but she wants to do something like what Marlene has done. In this scene, Marlene reveals the key to her success. She proclaims, “I’m not clever, just pushy.” Angie has shown that she can be pushy as well over the course of the play, implying that she might have a better future than anyone imagined.
In writing about a 1998 production of Top Girls in Los Angeles, California, Don Shirley of the Los Angeles Times argues, “Churchill painted a stark picture of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain as a place where women could end up in either a cushy but heartless career or a dreary life in domestic servitude. This may sound broadly feminist, but the play finally emerges as a more specific attack on Thatcherite insensitivities towards the girls who aren’t on ‘top.’” Shirley includes Angie as one who is not on top, but does not see that she could be. Angie is a younger—perhaps dumber but no less ambitious—Marlene.
Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essay on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, author Jasbir Jain discusses how Churchill writes a feminist world to create an emotional space which develops a “collective description” of the characters’ experience as women.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1983) and Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should (1987) are plays with an all women cast. Men, though present in the stories, are absent from the stage. They occupy emotional space but not physical space. At the very outset there is a defining of space, a creation of a feminist world. Keatley deliberately kept the men offstage to provide a space for the women to interact among themselves,“to show the way women use language, silence and subtext when alone together”; Churchill apparently does it for the purposes of sharing, for as Adrienne Rich has pointed out that unless women are prepared to share their “private and sometimes painful personal experience” it may not be possible to create a “collective description” of what is truly a woman’s world. In both plays women from different generations and backgrounds meet together to share and to interact but with two major differences. Keatley’s characters in the child-scenes are child characters and represent the same lineage whereas Churchill’s characters represent several centuries, from the ninth to the present and have altogether different backgrounds.
The moment women are placed centre-stage they begin to interact and introspect, to analyze and to criticize; they cease to look at themselves through the male gaze, instead they begin to problematize their conflicts and the involuntary processes of their bodies. By defining space in female terms, women are transformed from objects into subjects and their passive acceptance of gendered roles is turned into an analysis of socially imposed codes of behaviour.
Plays by women need not be feminist, just as plays about women are not always so. But plays which concern themselves with women as subjects and explore their emotional realities acquire a feminist perspective. The sixties and the seventies witnessed the rise of women’s theatre groups and collectives and a consciousness about women’s roles. This was the beginning of a feminist theatre with, as already stated, overtly political aims. Women through exploring and talking about their experiences opened out their role confines, created female traditions and entered areas hitherto forbidden to them. Several all-women plays were also written. Megan Terry’s Calm Down, Mother (1965) was a transformation exercise for women and hailed by Helene Keyssar as the first real feminist play, while her later Babes in the Bighouse (1974) was about women prisoners and closed spaces where violence became a natural inhabitant. Eve Merriam’s Out of Our Fathers’ House (1975) was a projection of the struggles of exceptional women, while Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others (1977) examined the role conflicts in a lighter vein. Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends (1977) is located in the thirties and is a powerful statement about the violence implicit in heterosexual relationships; it is as Schuler has pointed out “impossible to ignore that explicit critique of patriarchy” (226) present in the play. Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, coming out the same year as Top Girls (1983), is a tense kitchen drama about a mother and a daughter with the daughter at the end committing suicide behind a locked door.
Plays with an all-women cast make a specific statement even before they put this female space to different and individual use. They discard supportive roles for women and provide them with the freedom to relate directly to each other rather than through sons and husbands, “Language, space and the body are loci for the woman playwright to dramatically challenge the images of women determined in dominant discourse” (Hart), Memory, history, the past are evoked for different reasons.
“BY DEFINING SPACE IN FEMALE TERMS, WOMEN ARE TRANSFORMED FROM OBJECTS INTO SUBJECTS AND THEIR PASSIVE ACCEPTANCE OF GENDERED ROLES IS TURNED INTO AN ANALYSIS OF SOCIALLY IMPOSED CODES OF BEHAVIOUR.”
Time too becomes an important factor, often being projected non-chronologically.
Both Top Girls and My Mother create hypothetical situations which are historically not possible but are rendered so spatially and proceed to become emotional questionings. Both are 3-act plays but while Churchill after an initial juxtaposition of the past and the present moves on, Keatley keeps on coming back to the childhood scene which is a conjunction of 1905, 1941, 1961 and 1979.
Top Girls in the first act evokes the past, somewhat like Eve Merriam’s Out of Our Fathers’ House where six women are presented together in a “hypothetical conversation”. They act out both for themselves and each other the stories of their lives. It is a journey into selfhood, and at each step they need reassurance from their own selves. They belong to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Caryl Churchill, however, builds on a wider canvas and the dramatic purpose of the bringing together of six women from different backgrounds and periods is very different. The first act of Top Girls is in the nature of a prologue where Marlene, a top executive in an employment agency is hosting a dinner for five other women, three of whom are from the pages of history, and two from the world of male imagination. Pope Joan, a ninth century Pope who achieved this through cross-gendering, Lady Nijo an emperor’s concubine and later a Buddhist nun, and Isabella Bird, a nineteenth century explorer are the three ‘real’ women. Dull Gret, a woman from Breughel’s 16th century painting and Patient Griselda from the pages of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer are the two others (Note the words “dull” and “patient”).
Each one of them—except Griselda—has in some way violated the social code as imposed upon them. Joan learnt Latin, ran away from home disguised as a boy and later became a pope. But yielding to passion, she conceives and is detected during childbirth. Male priests have fathered children, but she has never learnt to understand or live with her body, thus alienated from this most fundamental space she might own, she pays for it with death. Lady Nijo on the other hand accepts the code but renders it hollow by creating space for herself. Handed over to the Emperor as his concubine, she takes lovers to fulfill her emotional needs. Out of favour with the Emperor she takes holy orders as directed by her father, but instead of being confined in a convent, she walks the breadth and length of Japan. But she does this at the price of motherhood. Isabella Bird also has to sacrifice marriage and family life in search of adventure. Because she is a woman, she finds it difficult to accept the idea of living for herself alone and therefore occupies herself with good causes.
As contrasted with these women from real life, who have individually made space for themselves, questioned patriarchal structures like religion, ownership, love and motherhood, the two women from the world of imagination are limited in their projections. Griselda’s life reads like a fairytale—a peasant woman married into the aristocracy, and children whom she had given up for dead restored to her later. The price of her marriage is unquestioning obedience to her husband’s command which is first the taking away of her son and her daughter and later being turned out of her house. Griselda does not question her husband’s right over her, nor does she resist his orders. Her case, like Nijo’s, is one where motherhood has been reduced to an “institution” under male control (Rich). Dull Gret is also single minded like Griselda. If for Griselda it is surrender, for Gret it is anger.
These five women have got together to celebrate Marlene’s success and as they share experiences they question patriarchal structures either directly like Joan and Isabelle, or obliquely like Nijo, or silently through victimization like Griselda. Travel is a major theme for Joan, Nijo and Isabelle. They travel in their different dresses, Joan in her papal robes, Nijo in her silkgowns and later her nun’s habit, and Isabella in her full blue trousers and great brass spurs. (Dress also specifies space. Masculine dress does not constrain the women’s private space, though, in the long run, there is no social recognition of that space.) Travel opens out new worlds and spaces. Their coming together in the first act provides “a dramatic genealogy of Marlene’s historical community” (Keyssar).
The second act is the in-between act with 3 scenes. The first and the third are located in Marlene’s office, the second in Joyce, her sister’s, backyard. The office scenes have two interviews inbuilt into them, one with Jeanine and the other with Louise, Marlene’s two clients; a competitive scene between Nell and Win and Marlene’s interactions with Angie and with Mrs. Kidd. The themes of these two scenes are a replay of the themes introduced in Act One—Jeanine who is torn between marriage and a career, Louise who at the end of twenty years finds herself sidetracked by younger men, Nell and Win who wish to go places both literally and figuratively but Marlene has occupied the place at the top and Mrs. Kidd who has come to plead for her husband who has been superseded by Marlene. Mrs. Kidd tells Marlene:
“What’s it going to do to him working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal. . . . It’s me that bears the brunt. . . . I put him first every inch of the way. . . . It had crossed my mind if you were unavailable after all for some reason, he would be the natural second choice I think, don’t you?” (58-59)
In her view Marlene is abnormal in her determination to be at the top and she’ll end up lonely and miserable.
The backdrop of the office room is confined and provides limited space where competition and aggression and violation of territorial rights go hand in hand. The middle scene sandwiched between these two office scenes is in a backyard in a “shelter made of junk” by children. It is a hiding place, away from the taboos and restrictions of the adult world. Kit and Angie talk about running away from home, they talk about travel, about the reality of their menstrual blood which flows from hidden spaces and their love-hate relationship to the adult world. Later Kit seeks shelter from rain within the precincts of her friend’s house while Angie herself is left outside with a feeling of rejection.
The third act moves backwards in time. It takes place a year earlier than the second act. It is a confrontation scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce. They open out their past, the suppressed, sibling rivalry, Marlene’s need to escape from her background, Joyce’s support, the birth of Marlene’s daughter Angie, and her adoption by Joyce, Joyce’s miscarriage, and her separation from her husband Frank. Women sacrifice their motherhood for a career; but at times they also have to sacrifice their marriage for their motherhood. Joyce is denied space within her marriage while Marlene is aware that men want her to turn into “the little woman” which she is not prepared to do. In all this it is Angie who feels confused and dispossessed.
Keatley’s play is also a three-act play with the first act having ten scenes and moving between 1905 and 1979. The second act is one uninterrupted scene located in 1982, and the third act is placed in 1987 diving back, towards the end, to 1923. There are five child-scenes spread over the play-Act I sc. 1, sc. 3 and sc. 8, Act III sc.3 and sc.6 which act like a conjunction of events, like a voice from the past, like an abandonment of the chronological process. The movement of the play can be seen from the graph. The conjunction scene is shown as a circle with four different time streams flowing together.
Covering four generations, it covers several sets of relationships. Space is used very consciously, and scene shifts are indicated not by sets but with the help of lights as Keatley has stated in her “Introduction” to the Methuen edition of her play, her stage directions specifically mention “no sofas” primarily because it is so easy to slip into comfortable positions once the sofas are there. It is so important to render the women vulnerable, to make them appear “awkward” or uncomfortable.” Interestingly enough, it was also a conscious decision not to locate any of the scenes in a kitchen which is considered domestic space; instead the locales are houses, living rooms, gardens, backyards, a hospital room and Margaret’s office, places which are gender-neutral or strongly affected by male environment. The recurring child scenes where Doris aged 5, Margaret and Jackie both aged 9, and Rosie aged 8 meet are located in a wasteground, “an uncompromisingly real place”, beyond the reach of adults and beyond male vision. The wasteground is unpatterned and uncontrolled, closer to nature and reflective of the unconscious; it goes to show that girls are not “born good” and that little girls are not made of sugar and spice and all things nice. They experience rivalry and hatred and harbour murderous intentions, eager to get rid of the goodness of the female tradition.
The five child scenes are played by adult characters dressed up in childhood clothes emphasizing the use of body language. This also underlines the continuity of the unconscious well into adult life. Their attitudes are an indication of the direction their adult lives will take. The child scenes introduce the main themes of the play—“sex, death, gender, courtship, destiny and loneliness”, they also contrast with the world of masks, lies and fibs of the adult world.
Keatley views her play as structured along emotional chronology—the past (Act I), the present (Act II) and the future (Act III). It is possible to view the structure somewhat differently—anxieties of growing up (Act I) widowhood and loss (Act II) loneliness, separation and death (Act III). The lives of the women are narratives of female growth and loss; the men—Jack, Ken, Graham, Simon—remain outside, mowing the lawn, honking the horn, or present at the death bed. Yet the choices women face are centred around men—marriage, family, motherhood. Doris gives up working when she gets married, Margaret decides not to have children because she wants to work. When she wants to better her qualifications, her marriage breaks up. Jackie goes ahead and has a child without marriage, but finding it difficult to cope with the child single-handedly passes her on to her mother. Margaret who has never acknowledged her body dies of stomach cancer and Jackie who takes to art, finds herself trapped in masculine roles and her grandfather’s inheritance while Doris who had given her all in marriage ends up with a feeling of having been betrayed. Even the piano she had bought with her own earning is bequeathed to her by her dead husband. Life is a game of solitaire, but one doesn’t find the solution to it all by oneself. There are no solutions. There is no space for meeting the conflicting claims.
The central act, Act II, is in many ways a very stark act. The house with its sense of closure, the furniture covered with sheets, the presence of the past in this house of death—they are indicative of Doris’s unfulfilled sexuality and Jackie’s lost female inheritance which bypasses her to be given to Rosie.
Space is used yet in another way. Suky, the doll which resurfaces as a comforter for three generations is mutilated, rejected, discarded and hidden in dustbins and urns. The background song “Suky Take It Off Again” has sexual implications, the rejection of the doll is the rejection of roles which may appear to be soft. Another song “All You Need is Love” a song escapist in intention contrasts with real life choices where the accent is on facing reality, the hard, cruel choices, and playing solitaire by oneself. Keatley uses the earth as a concrete sense of space:
Earth is the base element of the play. I think the stage floor the key to the design—grass—a worn rug, a stone backyard. It is only when characters touch earth that they make contact with their true feelings and powers. All child scenes take place on bare earth. On her birthday, Rosie buries Margaret’s doll in the soil. When Doris and Margaret finally kneel together with their hands in the soil, planting geranium seedlings, they speak their real feelings. There are key moments of contact with the earth throughout the play.
Standing barefeet is a literal enactment of “earthing” one self. Characters in both the plays stress the act of running or walking barefoot whether it be Nijo or Patient Griselda.
Both Churchill and Keatley use an all-women cast to problematize the gender issues, and to project the realistic aspirations of women. Through the use of space, through juxtapositions, closing-ins and opening-outs they also project a need for a new understanding of space, a shifting and loosening of boundaries, of creating more space and moving out of territorial claims. In fact their use of space challenges the very structures of ‘reality’ that have kept women behind scenes (Hart). They move away from naturalistic structures and spaces towards magic and fantasy, mixing history and fiction, in order to fathom the unconscious and realize a woman’s self.
Source: Jasbir Jain, “Feminist Drama: The Politics of the Self: Churchill and Keatley,” in Women’s Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, Rawat Publications, 1996 pp.274-87.
In the following essay on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, author Joseph Marohl discusses how Churchill creates her characters and dramas with “deliberate confusion . . . and playfulness” to examine difficult social and emotional concepts of gender and history, effectively de-centering gender as the primary dramatic focal point.
For a decade now, deliberate confusion of dramatic roles and playfulness about otherwise serious concepts of gender and history have distinguished Caryl Churchill’s plays from the work of mainstream playwrights in Great Britain and the United States. For instance, six performers in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire play twenty-four different dramatis personae with individual role assignments which vary from scene to scene and are unrelated to the performers’ actual sexes. In the finale of Vinegar Tom, her “sequel” to Light Shining, two female performers portray two seventeenth-century theologians in the top hat and tails of music hall entertainers, singing with great irony the song “Evil Women.” In a prefatory note to Traps, Churchill describes the play as an “impossible object,” like an Escher drawing: “In the play, the time, the place, the characters’ motives and relationships cannot all be reconciled—they can happen on stage, but there is no other reality for them. . . . The characters can be thought of as living many of their possibilities at once.” The cast of seven performers in Cloud Nine, Churchill’s first bona-fide commercial hit, play thirteen roles of varying age, gender, and race. In Act One, a white performer plays a black servant, a male performer plays the role of a woman, a female performer plays a boy, and a small dummy represents an infant girl. Act Two brings a degree of naturalism as women play women and men play men, with the exception of Cathy, a five-year-old girl played by a man. A stage note explains that “Act One takes place in a British colony in Africa in Victorian times. Act Two takes place in London in 1979. But for the characters it is twenty-five years later.” Only three characters appear in both acts, and in all three instances the actors portraying them in the second act are not the same persons portraying them in the first. In Top Girls, an all-female cast of seven play a total of sixteen different characters, five of whom do not exist in the present. Even more recently, in Fen, five women and one man play twenty-two characters in an ambiguous setting which is simultaneously interior and exterior: in Annie Smart’s 1983 stage design, “a field in a room.”
Multiple casting and transvestite role-playing, which modern directors of the 1940s and 1950s practiced deliberately in several experimental productions of Shakespeare and other standard dramatists, reflect the many possibilities inherent in the real world and subvert conventional ideas about the individuality or integrity of character. The theatrical inventiveness of Churchill’s comedies suggests, in particular, that the individual self, as the audience recognizes it, is an ideological construct and the “real world,” the world as it is recast by the performers, klieg lights, and chicken wire on the stage, consists of people and events which are individual only in so far as they are rhetorically defined in contrast to others. Her plays conceive character and event as paradoxes. People in her plays are not whole, though sometimes they are ignorant of their own fragmentation; they exist only in tension with their environment (time and space), the other people in the environment, and with the “others” who they themselves used to be at an
earlier age (their former “selves”). Churchill describes the condition more vividly in dramatic terms in the closing image of Cloud Nine, when a character in Act Two confronts the version of herself from Act One: “Betty and Betty embrace.”
In performance, the plays assume obvious political importance, espousing the social concerns of contemporary feminism: gender stereotyping, the division of labor according to sex, the proprietary family, the oppression of sexual variety through compulsory heterosexuality, class struggle, ageism, and ethnocentrism. The dramatic events raise the audience’s consciousness about social principles through the actions depicted and, more importantly, through the actual events of the performance: woman playing man, man playing woman, one person playing two (or more) persons, two persons playing one, the deconstruction of history and geography (and the related unities of time, place, and action) in order to dramatize the cyclical progress of political and social events in history. What the audience experiences during the performance, then, is defamiliarization of the ordinary (alienation effect) and the subversion of positive ideologues about gender, social hierarchies, and chronology. The comedies are parodic enactments and satires of prevalent, middle-class belief-systems and values, i.e., mythologies.
In Top Girls, the one continuous character, Marlene, embodies the characteristics of the popular myth of career woman as castrating female and barren mother. The play uses the myth in order to undermine it, to supplant radical and bourgeois feminist styles with a socially conscious feminism, to “trick” the audience into condemning the “feminist hero” for, in the end, practicing a too-conventional role in the existing power structure. In this, the play succeeds brilliantly and unconsciously. The purpose of the present reading is to discover the political practice of the play as it works through the performance, particularly of the first scene, but a summary of the play’s successive parts is necessary first.
Top Girls begins at a restaurant, with a dinner party celebrating the protagonist Marlene’s promotion to managing director of the “Top Girls” Employment Agency. Joining her at the party are five ghost characters drawn from history, painting, and fiction: the nineteenth-century Scottish lady-traveler Isabella Bird; the thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan-turned-nun Lady Nijo; Dull Gret, whom Bruegel pictured storming hell in apron and armor; the
“WHAT THE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCES DURING THE PERFORMANCE, THEN, IS DEFAMILIARIZATION OF THE ORDINARY (ALIENATION EFFECT) AND THE SUBVERSION OF POSITIVE IDEOLOGUES ABOUT GENDER, SOCIAL HIERARCHIES, AND CHRONOLOGY.”
legendary Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, headed the Church in the ninth century; and Patient Griselda, ironically arriving late and last, the incredibly long-suffering hero of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale. The group ostensibly represents women of outstanding courage and achievement, but the dialogue, often cast as a series of overlapping narrative monologues, reveals pointed differences in ideology and practice. The scene is unique in that it is the only scene in which the play’s seven actors appear together and the only scene which does not portray a naturalistic event. It is also the longest scene of the play. The women playing the ghost characters and the waitress appear in subsequent scenes as Marlene’s clients, fellow workers, sister, and daughter.
Immediately following the dinner party scene is a brief scene at the employment agency, where Marlene interviews a secretary who aspires to a better position with a new company. There follows a long scene at Marlene’s sister Joyce’s back yard, where Marlene’s sixteen-year-old daughter Angie, whom Joyce has raised as her own daughter, and Angie’s younger friend Kit discuss violence on television, money, matricide, death in general, and menstruation, with Angie announcing at the end her intent to visit Marlene in London. The scene sets up the argument for the play’s final scene, in which Marlene and Joyce quarrel about politics and family. More important, the scene reveals the complex disturbed psychology of the slow-witted Angie, whose sex, class, appearance, and low intelligence present a multiple threat to her eventual employability and welfare. The girl’s resolution to travel to London to her successful “aunt” hints of Sophoclean tragedy. But her threats of matricide and her Oedipal attachment to Marlene do not effect catastrophe or catharsis in the end; Churchill’s play is neither tragic nor obvious. The tragic implications of the scene are not, however, wasted, for, as subsequent events prove, Angie, like Oedipus or Antigone, is a victim of history and fate.
Act Two opens at an office of the “Top Girls” Employment Agency. In the first scene, Win and Nell, two employment agents with the firm, arrive for work and discuss Marlene’s promotion, aware that now, as one of them remarks,“There’s not a lot of room upward.” To which the other one responds, “Marlene’s filled it up.” Both women agree, nevertheless, that they had rather see a woman promoted than Howard Kidd, a male employee at the agency. Between interviews conducted by Win and Nell, Marlene receives two unexpected visitors at work: Angie, whose surprise visit is treated less than enthusiastically by her mother, and Mrs Kidd, Howard’s wife, who asks Marlene to turn down the promotion so that her husband will not be reduced to “working for a woman.” The scene ends with news that Howard is in the hospital after a heart attack. The women in the office greet the news with deadpan irony, remarking, “Lucky he didn’t get the job if that’s what his health’s like.” Marlene then turns towards her daughter, who has fallen asleep at Win’s desk, and prophesies: “She’s not going to make it.” The line is the end of the story but not the end of the play.
The last scene occurs one year before the scenes preceding it in the play. Once again, the scene is Joyce’s house, the kitchen this time. The use of flashback allows the audience to observe a number of changes that will occur over the year in Marlene’s character. In the last scene, Marlene, drunk and guiltily maudlin, argues that Angie will “be all right” someday. She regards her career advancement as beneficial to women everywhere and herself as an independent, self-made person, in the same mold as Margaret Thatcher, much to the annoyance of her sister, who reminds her that she could have accomplished nothing had not Joyce been willing years before to take the burden of Angie off her hands. Marlene asserts her belief in middle-class individualism; she is, she says, “an original,” a supporter of Ronald Reagan and a “free world.” Joyce, whose politics are Marxist and pro-Labour, criticizes her successful sister’s priggishness and egotism. She reminds Marlene about her parents, common workers who lived wasted lives and died without happiness or meaningful employment, and about their daughter Angie, who will also be a victim of monetarism and class prejudice. Nevertheless, Marlene persists blindly to endorse a system that values profits over the needs of people, and in the end she seems to accept that Angie, Joyce, and her mother are reasonable sacrifices to make in order to realize her own success in the business world. Abandoned by Joyce, Marlene sits alone in the kitchen until Angie stumbles in, half-awake after a nightmare, and utters the last line of the play, the single word “Frightening,” an unknowing indictment of her mother’s self-interested individualism or perhaps an apprehension of her own miserable future.
Taken as a whole, the play demonstrates several larger formal devices which appear immediately to be significant. The central image of the story related to Marlene is the employment agency, a company which locates meaningful and profitable work for its clients. Employment is likewise the central action of the play. All the characters are involved in the assessment of their own work and the division of labor in general: Marlene’s promotion to managing director, Angie’s unsuitability for the work force, Joyce’s unpaid labor as wife and mother, and, of course, the employees and clients of the agency. Work, promotion, money, and success are topics of conversation among the characters throughout the play. The three interviews conducted in turn by Marlene, Win, and Nell in the course of the performance do not, however, indicate that much real change is possible for the status of women in the existing labor system. For Jeanine, the secretary looking for “better prospects” in Act One, Marlene is able to suggest only other secretarial positions. Jeanine wants more money and prestige, a job like Marlene’s, for instance, but Marlene urges her to lower her sights. In the end, Marlene convinces Jeanine to interview for a secretarial position with a lampshade company, which pays no better than the job she already has. Marlene attempts to make the new job more enticing by assuring the client that “the job’s going to grow with the concern and then you’ll be in at the top with new girls coming in underneath you.” In a small firm operated by a man and his two sons, Jeanine’s chances for a real promotion to the “top” are practically non-existent; her best bets are longevity and the chance someday to manage new girls in even more subordinate positions. Louise, an older client looking for a change from her middle-management position of twenty years, succeeds only in stirring up the ire of Win, her interviewer. Louise complains that newer male employees move up the ranks much more speedily than her, but admits that she has difficulty with other female employees. Win develops an instant dislike for the client, who in some respects represents her own limitations in advancing at “Top Girls.” She tells Louise that in most situations she will be forced into competition with younger men and encourages her to accept a position with a cosmetics company, a field that is “easier for a woman,” but probably with a reduction in salary. The most pathetic case of all, however, is Shona, whom Nell interviews. She aspires to employment in a “top field” such as computers but seems willing to settle for a lesser position at the “Top Girls” agency. For all her ambition and energy, Shona cannot conceal the disadvantages of her class: poor education, an unrealistic and naive concept of the business world, and lack of connections or experience. She fails in her attempt to bluff Nell into placing her in a position with management status. Together, the three interviews challenge the idea of individual achievement, so important in Marlene’s ideology and in the ideology of the English middle-classes who deny the existence of class. The three interviews depict the world of business as a vertical progress from bottom to top, hence “Top Girls,” which, intentionally or not, affirms the class distinctions which Marlene ignores: “I don’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.” The changes Jeanine, Louise, and Shona attempt to make in their social situations, in which the “Top Girls” agency professes to give assistance, prove to be impossible within the establishment. Despite all the talk of advancement, Top Girls dramatizes the economic stasis of women in business and, more important, the impossibility of genuine social reform of any kind within a system maintaining vertical class distinctions.
The same circular, self-consuming logic can be traced in other parts of the play. The audience’s attention is drawn towards a particular line of discourse only to see it totter and collapse anticlimactically later on, its premises shattered. The play moves backwards, negating its “arguments” as it proceeds. It begins in a place of consumption (a restaurant) and ends in a place of production (a kitchen). It begins with a celebration for a promotion and ends anti-chronologically with a drunken reunion which occurred one year before the promotion. The progress of the principal character Marlene proves to be illusory, and, in the end, she is no more morally advanced than the other characters and seems unusually dependent upon the sacrifices of others. Marlene’s solicitousness about Angie in Act Two, Scene Two, which initially resembles “womb envy” (before the audience is aware that Angie is Marlene’s daughter), ends up being little more than feelings of guilt for having abandoned her, years before. Contrary to one’s usual sense of dramatic cause and effect, Marlene’s guilty conscience is not redemptive; she repeats the abandonment of her daughter at the end of the scene and resumes her original course. The first scene, moreover, celebrates a promotion which the audience comes to realize was achieved at the high cost of the displacement of a number of other women of equal worth. In the end, Marlene lacks the transcendent quality of heroism the audience had come to expect of her at the beginning. Neither is she as reprehensible as her antagonists Mrs Kidd and Joyce (both played by the same actor) would have the audience believe. Marlene, too, is a victim of the hierarchy in which she operates. Even though Top Girls lacks faith in individualism as a vehicle for social reform, it is not entirely pessimistic in its outlook. Its faith resides in the revolutionary processes of history, which a theatrical performance can duplicate.
The most obvious device of the play, that the performers are all women, allows the drama to take a number of directions which would otherwise have been impossible. Playwright and theater analyst Micheline Wandor says that the “single-gendered play may be ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that we all inhabit a world which consists of men and women, but it does provide an imaginative opportunity to explore the nature of the gendered perspective (male or female) without the complexities and displacements of the ‘mixed’ play.” Ironically, by the exclusion of active male characters, Top Girls manages to escape the pitfall of sexism, that is, allowing the audience to mistake the class struggle which is the basis of the dramatic plot for a “battle of the sexes,” which is exactly the mistake Marlene, Win, Nell, Mrs Kidd, and Angie make, Joyce being exceptional. The action of the play indicates that the female perspective is capable, too, of drawing class distinctions and enforcing a patriarch-like matriarchy based on tyranny and division. The issue of plural feminisms as opposed to homogeneous (i.e., authoritarian) Feminism emerges in the play through the demonstration of differences of class and history among members of the same sex, a demonstration which begins in the opening scene.
Before moving to a more particular reading of the play, it is important to recognize the multiple natures of the women in the play. They are first of all, obviously, real women—actors performing roles. They are also female characters—fictions and dramatis personae. On yet another level, they enact roles of gender—cultural codes by which “female/ feminine” defines itself as different from “male/masculine” codes. The absence of male characters on stage diminishes the obvious importance of this third level of significance, even though it plays a major part in the discourse of some of the characters. The play in performance de-realizes the women in two ways: one, by being “framed” or abstracted by the theatrical event, their sex becomes a signifier within the dramatic discourse; and two, by performing assigned roles in the drama, their characters contribute to the dramatic discourse through action and dialogue. Thus, one can call Top Girls a “women’s play” because all of its actors and characters are women, and, at least initially, gender appears to be the dramatic focal point. Gender, however, is de-centered as the real subject of the play almost as soon as the performance begins. The first scene, in which women of different historical periods and different cultures convene to celebrate Marlene’s promotion, dramatizes the lack of unity among persons of the same sex, effected by the lack of ideological unity. The six women at the dinner party represent diverse cultural attitudes towards class, religion, family, ethics, and gender; gender is given only an equal footing with other matters of cultural identity. Apart from its definition in the context of a specific culture, male or female gender does not exist. Only by the reformation of entire social systems, then, can gender roles be changed (or dispensed with) and authentic liberation of the sexes occur. Marlene’s bourgeois style of feminism is proved in the course of the play to be culturally conditioned, for her success does not really challenge patriarchal authority but appropriates it, conforming, as it does, to the existing hierarchy. Joyce’s argument with Marlene in the last scene makes this criticism explicit:
Marlene: And for the country, come to that. Get
the economy back on its feet and
whoosh. She’s a tough lady, Maggie. I’d give her
a job. / She just needs to hang
in there. This country
Joyce: You voted for them, did you?
Marlene: needs to stop whining. / Monetarism is
Joyce: Drink your tea and shut up, pet.
Marlene: It takes time, determination. No more
slop. / And
Joyce: Well I think they’re filthy bastards.
Marlene: who’s got to drive it on? First woman
prime minister. Terrifico. Aces.
Right on. / You must admit. Certainly
gets my vote.
Joyce: What good’s first woman if it’s her? I
suppose you’d have liked Hitler if
he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done,
Hitlerina. / Great adventures.
Marlene: Bosses still walking on the workers’
faces? Still Dadda’s little parrot?
Haven’t you learned to think for yourself? I
believe in the individual. Look at me.
Joyce: I am looking at you.
It is our cultural prejudice, perhaps, that women should be political only about “women’s issues,” and Top Girls uses the prejudice against its audience by deceptively foregrounding gender in order to displace it with Joyce’s class-conscious politics in the last scene. Marlene’s mistaken concept of female homogeneity in the first scenes, then, parallels the mistake the audience makes about the play’s message: to overestimate the importance of sex in feminist politics.
The writing of the French semiotician Julia Kristeva has done much to demonstrate how the opposition of male and female, upon which much of Western thought rides, is constructed by the social hierarchy which it supports. It is ideologically circular; patriarchy invents a myth to justify and perpetuate its own existence. A concept of feminism, like Marlene’s, which defines itself in the context of a polarity of the sexes (i.e., female versus male/male versus female) cannot transcend the inherently man-centered or phallocentric assumptions of the ruling power system. (The problem is portrayed imaginatively in the “Top Girls” Employment Agency, which cannot place women into high levels of corporations which are designed especially to exclude women.) Top Girls circumvents the cultural polarity with its single sex cast. The dramatic conflict arises not out of a battle of the sexes but out of class struggle as it persists through many generations of history. The first scene functions as the medium whereby certain lines are drawn so that the subsequent political discourse will be clear and understandable.
The play opens with a simple and familiar theatrical image, a table set for six. Marlene and the waitress enter or are discovered as the lights go up. They are costumed in familiar contemporary dress befitting their status and occupation. Enter Isabella Bird in Victorian blouse and skirt. Immediately, Isabella’s appearance estranges the setting. As each successive character enters in costume (Lady Nijo in kimono and geta, Dull Gret in apron and armor, Pope Joan in cassock and cope, and later Patient Griselda in medieval dress), the audience becomes aware, perhaps only dimly, of the process of history the costumes represents. Given the new context, what Marlene and the waitress wear is peculiarly historical and cultural, too. Modern dress is another form of period costume. The visual lesson of the opening scene, if taken, is to recognize the cultural relativity of certain norms.
Little is learned about Marlene in the first scene except that she has received a promotion at the employment agency where she works. Her function at the beginning is to serve as interviewer and interlocutor for the five ghost characters. Each of the characters delivers a personal narrative which, like her costume, distinguishes her from the others in the group by identifying her with the ideology of her culture. Each woman, moreover, has a distinctive manner of speaking appropriate to her class, the more extreme examples being Isabella’s chatty and anecdotal monologues and Gret’s monosyllabic grunts. Despite Marlene’s frequent affirmation of a unity based on gender, the ghost characters do not discover much common ground among themselves. For Isabella, the others seem to lack civilization and education. Nijo perceives the others as barbarians, and Joan sees them as heretics and pagans. In fact, the common denominator of the group, besides sex, is zealous regard for their distinct cultural identities. Only Marlene perceives herself primarily as an individual apart and as a woman; the others view themselves as members of other collective enterprises: for Gret, it is a battle with her townspeople against the devils; for Griselda, it is her marriage to the Marquis; for Joan, it is the Church of Rome; for Nijo, it is her father’s household and the Emperor’s court; and for Isabella, it is the British Empire. Only Marlene feels a bond with the others based on sexual identity. Only she senses an allegiance to a subculture contradistinctive to the dominant culture in which she lives.
Parallels of situation do exist between the ghost characters’ narratives, but the differences are more significant. Most of the women have survived tragic love affairs with weaker men. At one point, Joan asks rather unemotionally, “Have we all got dead lovers?” Nijo lost her lover, the poet-priest Ariake, before she bore their son. Isabella’s American lover, the mountain man Jim Nugent, died of a gun-shot wound to the head. In later life, Isabella married John Bishop, because of his resemblance and devotion to her beloved sister Hennie, but he died shortly after the marriage. Joan’s lover died in the midst of a debate with her over the theology of John the Scot.
Their narratives reveal also that many of them have borne children. Gret had ten children, whom either war or pestilence killed. Nijo gave birth to children by the Emperor and her lovers Akebono and Ariake. Griselda bore the Marquis a daughter and a son, which he removed from her in order to test her allegiance to him. Pope Joan narrates the grotesque nativity of her baby in the middle of a papal procession and their joint executions at the hands of the Roman cardinals. Only Isabella is childless, which she compensated for, she claims, by a fondness for horses. Marlene does not mention her daughter.
All the women left home, several at an early age, but for different purposes. Isabella traveled the world in search of adventure and a variety of experiences. Nijo wandered as a vagabond nun in Japan in obedience to her father’s wishes and in penance for losing the Emperor’s favor. At age twelve, Joan went with her comrade and lover to Athens to study theology. Gret made an epic descent into hell to avenge the death of her family and to rob the devil’s storehouses. And Griselda was carried away, in fairytale fashion, to marry the Marquis, Walter.
Although, as Marlene says of them, the ghost characters are women distinguished by their courage and accomplishments, they have made obvious and often extreme concessions to their various patriarchies, against which they utter no word of condemnation or complaint. In order to study science and philosophy in the library, Joan disguised herself as a boy and continued to pass for male for the rest of her life. She moved to Italy because Italian men were beardless and became Pope after Pope Leo died. So strong was her identification with the male sex that she was unable to interpret obvious signs that she was pregnant, which failure led to her downfall and death. By way of explanation, she says she “wasn’t used to having a woman’s body.” There is a hint of irony, perhaps, when later in the play Louise (whom the same actor plays) remarks during her interview with Win,’ I don’t care greatly for working with women, I think I pass as a man at work.” What is more remarkable is Joan’s lack of outrage against the vicious hegemony of the mancentered government of the Church. She even joins in the condemnation of herself and her sex, saying, “I’m a heresy myself’ and ’ I shouldn’t have been a woman. Women, children and lunatics can’t be Pope.”
Griselda submitted to paternal oppression in a different fashion. As part of a marriage contract, she agreed to obey her husband unconditionally. She then “patiently” allowed her husband to separate her from her own daughter and son and later to send her back barefoot to her father’s house so that he could marry another woman. At the end of the story, the Marquis revealed that all this was only a test of her love and loyalty towards him, welcomed her back to his house, and reunited her with their children. All the women, except Nijo, seem shocked at the Marquis’s tyrannical treatment of her, but like Joan, Griselda defends the hand that oppresses her. Explaining her own reluctance to interfere when the daughter was taken from her, ostensibly to be killed, she says, “It was Walter’s child to do what he liked with.”
Nijo’s accomplishments in life were the result of strict adherence to the wishes first of her father and then of the Emperor of Japan. In every respect, she judges herself and the other women at the dinner party according to man-imposed standards, especially those of her father, even her decision to wander Japan as a penitent nun:
Nijo: Oh, my father was a very religious man. Just
before he died he said to me,
‘Serve His Majesty, be respectful, if you lose his
favour enter holy orders.’
Marlene: But he meant stay in a convent, not go
wandering round the country.
Nijo: Priests were often vagrants, so why not a
nun? You think I shouldn’t?/I still did
what my father wanted.
Isabella Bird’s concern to be known as a “lady,” despite her wanderlust and sense of adventure, is a milder, less obvious form of submission to male authority. Only Gret, who remains silent for most of the scene, gives less evidence of paternal domination. Isabella is less successful in her acquiescence to the standards nineteenth-century English society had set down for women, but her spirit was nevertheless willing. “I tried to do what my father wanted,” she laments shortly after Nijo’s speech above. And later in response to Griselda’s strange tale of marital perseverance, she says, ’ I swore to obey dear John, of course, but it didn’t seem to arise. Naturally I wouldn’t have wanted to go abroad while I was married.” Of all the characters present at the party, Isabella most closely resembles Marlene, an effect, no doubt, of their relative closeness in history and culture.
All the women at the dinner party are able to detect areas of intolerance and sexual tyranny in the cultures of the other women present; their blind spots are the inequities of their own cultures. Joan expresses shock and disgust at Griselda’s servile obedience of the Marquis: “I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me”; but she does not comprehend how her own denial of her sex was also a concession to anti-feminist hegemony. Isabella decries the “superstition” of the Church during Joan’s lifetime, but she is ignorant that the Victorian woman’s obsession with being a proper lady was another form of female subjugation. Marlene does not approve of Nijo’s acquiescence to her rape in the Emperor’s palace, but later in the play she encourages a client to adapt herself to a certain professional image to please male employers. Only near the end of the scene, after the women have begun to be drunkenly boisterous, do some of them guardedly criticize their cultures. “How can people live in this dim pale island and wear our hideous clothes?” Isabella wonders.’ I cannot and will not live the life of a lady.” Nijo complains about the Emperor’s granting permission to his attendants to flog his concubines. Patient Griselda ventures to comment aloud, “I do think—I do wonder—it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to.” Marlene’s awakening comes much later, when she sees her daughter sleeping in the office and acknowledges, after everything, very little has really changed in the world: “She’s not going to make it.”
The first scene prepares the audience to perceive the play’s subsequent scenes in the light of culturally-conditioned ideology. Like the ghost characters, Marlene has accomplished much in her life, and like them too, she has done so by making concessions to a phallocentric system oppressive to women. Although she expresses disapproval of the extreme, vicious acts of Griselda’s Marquis, for instance, or the more intolerant doctrines of the medieval Church, she often praises the ghost characters for their pragmatic manipulation of the patriarchy to further their own ends, a compliment which, needless to say, baffles its recipients. Unwilling to be tyrannized herself, Marlene has joined the powers-that-be and, like Pope Joan, seeks to be obeyed rather than to obey. Nijo perceptively uncovers the secret significance of the promotion to managing director when she adds the phrase “Over all the women you work with. And the men,” to Marlene’s new title. Marlene’s advancement helps no one but herself, however much she would like to believe in a right-wing feminism, and, as the following scenes reveal, she endorses a hierarchical system oppressive to the less fortunate women and men in her society.
Gender fails to be a rallying point in Act One, Scene One, because it is a signifier distinctive to the ideologies which encode it. The conceptions of gender differ culturally and historically as do the costumes. When Marlene proposes a toast “to you all,” Isabella responds, “To yourself surely, we’re here to celebrate your success.” Pleased at the compliment to her promotion, Marlene nevertheless attempts to turn around Isabella’s toast, “To Marlene,” by adding, “And all of us.” She says, “We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements” (italics mine). Marlene wants her promotion to be a sign of progress for women collectively, but the others perceive her success as peculiarly Marlene’s own. Because of her blindness to class and ideology, Marlene persists in her naive belief that what she individually accomplishes for herself will automatically redound to the common good. Her separation from her sister Joyce in the last scene duplicates her separation from the five ghost characters in the first. In the quarrel which marks the end of the drama, the use of pronouns to demarcate the characters’ opposing points of view becomes an explicit element of the discourse:
Marlene: Them, them. I Us and them?
Joyce: And you’re one of them.
Marlene: And you’re us, wonderful us, and
Angie’s us I and Mum and Dad’s us.
Joyce: Yes, that’s right, and you’re them, (italics mine)
Whereas the cultural divisions of the dinner party scene are somewhat blurred by the amicable situation, the bluntness of the sibling quarrel at the end of the play effectively splits Marlene and Joyce into separate classes, in spite of apparent shared features such as sex, family, and a common interest in the well-being of their daughter Angie. Gender fails to be a rallying point in Act Two, Scene Two, because Joyce, unlike Marlene, does not see the perpetuation of class differences within a hegemonic patriarchy (or matriarchy) as an acceptable feminist model for society. Joyce’s argumentative point, which in effect is the political statement of the play, is that Marlene has misperceived the lines of conflict. Inadvertently, Marlene has become “them,” the tyrants, even as she endeavors, on the basis of gender, to identify herself with “us” (a sisterhood of all women) in the first and last scenes.
The play in performance moves the audience from the apparent dichotomy of “female/male,” which Marlene’s discourse asserts, to the underlying dichotomy of “oppressor/oppressed” which is the effect of phallocentric hierarchism and which operates outside of the classifications of sex and gender. Within the society of the play, which includes only women, hegemony continues to exist even as women gain token power within the system. Given the context of the whole play, the expression “top girls” becomes, of course, ironic in as much as it implies a middle and a bottom, that is, hierarchy and class tyranny. The drama which the process of scenes enacts is the decentering of Marlene as “top girl” and the deconstruction of the ideology encoding the expression.
Churchill’s comedy is disloyal to the historical process of civilization it chronicles in the opening scene. The apparent feminist front at the dinner party proves to be neither unified nor really feminist in any social or political sense. The five women present are as unconscious of Marlene’s concept of sisterhood as they are of her concept of the individual. In their own ways, they endorse the several tyrannies under which they lived: Joan, Isabella, and Marlene by emulating the oppressor; Nijo and Griselda by conceding to him. Dull Gret’s naive assault upon hell and its he-devils in an attempt to steal infernal wealth parodies radical and bourgeois forms of feminism, which either reverse or capitalize on existing inequalities rather than remove them. In Gret’s army, the women-invaders stop to gather the money that the “big devil” sh—s upon their heads and bludgeon the “little devils, our size,” an action which offers the satisfaction of victimization to those who themselves once suffered as victims. The ideology of these actions is not explicitly challenged until Joyce pronounces her judgment on it in the final scene: “Nothing’s changed for most people / has it?” Marlene’s feminism, defined by paternal models for dominating the weak, fails to envision “alternative, non-oppressive ways of living.” It is the presence of “stupid, lazy, and frightened” Angie, however, who disturbs Marlene’s ideology from the beginning. Angie, whose presence once posed a threat to Marlene’s career, threatens at the end her sense of moral equilibrium—Marlene’s world cannot account for or accommodate her. The world continuing to be what it is, Angie, like most women, can never be a “top girl.”
Source: Joseph Marohl, “De-realised Women: Performance and Identity in Top Girls,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 30, No. 3, September 1987, pp. 376-88.
Barnes, Clive,“Wry Top Girls is Hard to Top,” in New York Post, December 29, 1982.
Beaufort, John, “Innovative Guests from the Royal Court: Top Girls,” in the Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 1983, p. 15.
Churchill, Caryl, Top Girls, Methuen, 1982.
Kalem, T. E., Review in Time, January 17, 1983, p. 71.
Macaulay, Alastair, Review in The Financial Times, April 17, 1991, section l, p. 13.
Nightingale, Benedict, “Women’s Playtime,” in New Statesman, September 10, 1982, p. 27.
Oliver, Edith, “Women’s Affairs,” in The New Yorker, January 10, 1983, p. 80.
Review in Variety, September 8, 1982, p. 116.
Robertson, Bryan, “Top-Notch Churchill,” in The Spectator, September 11, 1982, p. 25.
Shirley, Don, “Top Girls Wins Sympathy for Britain’s Lower Echelons,” in Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1998, p. 6.
Simon, John, “Tops and Bottoms,” in New York, January 10, 1983, p. 62.
Stevens, Lianne, “Top Girls Gets Lost in Shuffle,” in Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1986, part 6, p. 1.
Taylor, John Russell, Review in Plays & Players, No. 350, November 1982, pp. 22-3.
Taylor, Paul, “Presciently Tough at the Top,” in The Independent, April 16, 1991, p. 14.
Watt, Douglas, “British Top Girls Not for U.S.,” in Daily News, December 29, 1982.
Ashton, Elaine, Caryl Churchill, Northcote House, 1997.
This is a critical study of the whole of Churchill’s catalog, including Top Girls.
Bruley, Sue, Women in Britain Since 1900, Macmillan, 1999.
This social history of British women includes information about the 1980s.
Gilmour, Ian, Dancing with Dogma: Britain Under Thatcherism, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
This is an economic and political history of the Great Britain that Top Girls is set in.
Kritzer, Amelia Howe, The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment, Macmillan, 1991.
This book is a critical overview of and commentary on Churchill’s work, including Top Girls, radio plays, and television plays.
Thompson, Juliet S. and Wayne C. Thompson, eds., Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister Indomitable, Westview Press, 1994.
This collection of essays considers the whole of Thatcher’s life and political career.