Characters Discussed

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Marlene, the thirty-three-year-old, recently promoted managing director of the Top Girls Employment Agency. A working-class woman who left behind her illegitimate daughter, she has achieved success in the business world by being as tough, ruthless, and aggressive as any man. Politically conservative and emotionally cold, she represents women who have “made it” by incorporating patriarchal standards of success and who are contemptuous of those who have selected more traditional paths. She left her industrial hometown and chose sales as a career because she believed she would be judged on her performance. Later, she settled into a career with Top Girls as a placement counselor, using her knowledge of the business world to help other women get a start. She is sympathetic to the agency’s applicants and expects them to share her ambition and sense of individualism.


Joyce, Marlene’s older sister and acting mother to Angie. She works as a cleaning woman. She stayed home to care for her parents and her husband, as well as Angie, after Marlene left home for London. Politically liberal, with a hatred for the wealthy people who employ her, she rejects Marlene’s money, pity, and contempt and accepts without regret the choices she has made.


Angie, Marlene’s slow-witted seventeen-year-old daughter. Driven by a murderous hatred of Joyce, she suspects that Marlene is her real mother and runs away to London to join her. She is one of those girls who will not, as Marlene says, “make it.”

Pope Joan

Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, reigned between 854 and 856. Driven by a thirst for knowledge in philosophy, religion, and metaphysics, she had to assume the male role to achieve her goals. At Marlene’s imagined promotion celebration, she is one of five historical and mythical dinner guests, all of whom are linked to present-day characters by the dramatic device of having an actress play more than one role. Louise is her contemporary physical analogue; Marlene is her emotional one.

Dull Gret

Dull Gret, the subject of a Pieter Brueghel painting, in which she is dressed in armor and an apron, leading a crowd of women through hell to fight the devils. The only lower-class woman at the dinner who accepts her status, she has reared ten children, whom she is willing to go to any lengths to save. She is linked with Angie physically and with Joyce temperamentally.

Lady Nijo

Lady Nijo, born in 1258, a Japanese emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun, who traveled through Japan on foot. Totally dominated by the patriarchy, she has suffered through the murder of her children because they were not boys and the economic consequences of being out of favor with the court. Win is her counterpart.

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird, a Scottish world traveler who lived from 1831 to 1904. She idolizes her sister and her late husband, admitting to having experienced great loneliness. The actress who plays her also plays Louise.

Patient Griselda

Patient Griselda, the obedient wife of “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Constantly tested by her husband, she always responds with acceptance. The actress who plays her also plays Nell and Jeanine.


Jeanine, a client who is looking for a job so that she can get married. She lacks self-confidence and direction.


Louise, a client who has devoted her life to her company, only to see men promoted over her. She has spent twenty-one years with her employer and developed a department, but her career has stagnated.


Win, an interviewer and employment counselor. She is having an affair with a married man....

(This entire section contains 683 words.)

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She realizes that she is being used, to an extent, because he is unlikely to leave his wife for her.


Nell, another interviewer and employment counselor. She is dating two men, one of whom wants to marry her. She is afraid that if she marries him, she will have to give up her career.


Shona, an applicant. She is confident and has an impressive résumé. Nell discovers that she is a gifted charlatan with no actual business experience.


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Angie 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 Bird 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 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.

Jeanine 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.




Critical Essays