The opening scene of Top Girls takes place in a restaurant where the historical characters are gathering one by one for a luncheon. Marlene is proud to include herself among the group for “the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” Serving as their hostess, Marlene greets the dignitaries, introduces them to the others, and makes some attempt to draw them into the conversation. The “Top Girls” need little encouragement. Confident about their places in history, they unselfconsciously begin unfolding their stories. Their accounts, bizarre and disturbing, are related in fragments often interrupted by one of the others.
Lady Nijo, a courtesan to the emperor of Japan in the fourteenth century, tells about hiding the details of four pregnancies and secretly giving up babies to retain her position of favor in the court. She was eventually expelled from the court for her affair with another lover.
Pope Joan claims to have been pregnant without knowing it. Riding in a papal procession, she experienced back pain and dismounted. In a sudden swell of pressure, she gave birth to the baby in the streets of Rome. Shocked and outraged, the people stoned her to death at the edge of town. She assumes that the baby was murdered as well.
Patient Griselda explains how she, too, lost her children, one after another, to a husband who took them away as babies. She accepted his decision without complaint, never mentioning them to him again. When he sent her home to her parents in disgrace, wearing nothing but a slip, she continued to obey his wishes unconditionally. Years later, she willingly agreed to prepare his wedding to a younger bride. These plans were never completed, however, because he finally confessed that he had only been testing her loyalty to him. He restored her children to her, and they lived “happily ever after.”
The women chat casually, recounting the circumstances of complex personal relationships in which they have had to make difficult choices for success. Stories of abuse and debasement are intercut with Isabella Bird’s self-absorbed account of lost opportunities with people she loved. Although often filled with regret, these women never present themselves as victims but describe themselves unapologetically as shapers of their own destinies.
Marlene listens sympathetically to their tales, demonstrating outrage and concern for their rights as women. Yet the lessons she should have learned from history make little difference when she returns from lunch to her own workplace. Interviewing a client in the employment agency, she demonstrates no concern for the client’s integrity as a woman. Marlene advises her to compromise personal preferences for advancement and to lie about the circumstances of her marital status to land a job.
The remainder of the play focuses on Marlene’s story and that of her colleagues and clients. For every experience related by a historical character in the first act, there is a modern parallel, often portrayed by the same person. Doublecast as Lady Nijo, for example, is Win, who is having an affair with a married man. Many of the modern women, however, are composites of earlier figures. Among those interviewed is a client who, like Pope Joan and Dull Gret, is proud to “pass as a man at work” and, like Patient Griselda, has loyally worked twenty-one years for a firm that exploits her flawless record.
More to the point, the second act reveals how much Marlene has in common with her famous friends. A visit to her sister, Joyce, sparks an altercation between them that discloses Marlene’s relationship as biological mother to the dim-witted Angie. Marlene, as a young girl aspiring to escape a small-town, working-class existence, gave up her illegitimate baby to her sister. Joyce was pleased to adopt the baby at first, because she was not able to get pregnant. Angie’s deficiencies have, however, complicated her hopes for more children. Furthermore, Joyce resents the class differences now existing between her and her sister. Marlene has assumed a middle-class position and wants to keep it. When asked by Joyce whether she will help Angie, Marlene replies coldly that she probably will not do so, because the girl is “stupid, lazy, and frightened.” She means that she herself refuses to risk her professional reputation for a weak candidate. It becomes clear to Joyce at that point that Angie’s future is doomed. Marlene’s maternal selfishness, her conservative politics, and her willingness to imitate and endorse the standards and practices of a male-dominated capitalist economy consign Angie to the bottom of the hierarchy. Marlene, however, is unconcerned. Although appalled by the social circumstances that forced her luncheon friends to relinquish their children, she fails to recognize the tragic consequences of her own ambitions.