Caryl Churchill, a prolific playwright, is considered a major contemporary writer. Although she came from a rather traditional middle-class British background, her social conscience was a significant factor in her development as a playwright. In Top Girls, as in many of Churchill’s plays, feminism and socialism are necessary and inseparable.
The structure of the play is experimental. The first scene is a fantasy influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the “alienation effect” that was designed to prevent the audience from getting emotionally involved with characters. (Brecht felt such emotion would prevent the audience’s developing an active concern for the problems he presented.) Churchill employs effective distancing techniques, such as the overlapping dialogue and the tales of the women guests juxtaposed with Marlene ordering a dinner more typically associated with male preferences—steak, potatoes, and plenty of liquor.
The other scenes are realistic and depict the bleak and petty world of the employment agency and of Marlene’s family in Suffolk, who are unable to compete in the capitalistic world of Margaret Thatcher’s England. The realistic scenes in the play are also treated experimentally, for Churchill wrenches them out of their linear time sequence. The first scene, the fantasy dinner party, actually is chronologically in the middle of the various events. Chronologically, the first scene is Marlene’s visit to Joyce’s home, which occurs a year before the fantasy dinner, but the scene is placed at the end of the play. The effect of this is to give the revelation that Marlene abandoned her daughter, Angie, even greater force. The two Monday-morning scenes at the employment agency are interrupted by the Sunday scene in Suffolk, which ends with Angie dressed in the too-small dress Marlene gave her—as the audience will learn in the play’s final scene—one year earlier.
Churchill stated that the impetus for writing Top Girls came during a 1979 trip to the United States, when American feminists told her that things were going well for women here because more top executives were women. This surprised Churchill, who was used to a different kind of feminism in England, one more closely allied with socialism. This led her to explore the idea that “achieving things isn’t necessarily good, it matters what you achieve.”
In Top Girls, Churchill analyzes the relationship between women and work and examines possibilities of the past and present. In the first scene, the women of history and legend start by boasting of accomplishments, then gradually become bitter as they realize what they have lost. The tenuous community shared by these women is based on negative aspects of experience—dead lovers, lost children, and anger at the power that others, usually male, exercised over them.
Churchill, in this play and others, explores the meaning of feminist empowerment. She examines the dichotomy between traditional women’s work, which centers on concern for and nurturing of others, and traditional men’s work, which is focused on power and competition. She shows that women have been able to compete but that without concern for the powerless, winning such competitions does not constitute a feminist victory.
Churchill does not advance an answer to this problem in Top Girls, but she firmly rejects the notion that there is progress by stressing the lack of women who are both successful and fulfilled. Clearly something is missing in the lives of the “top girls” as well as in the lives of those like Joyce and Angie who will not “make it.”