The Play

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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.

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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.

Dramatic Devices

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Exploring concepts such as tradition, Caryl Churchill experiments with notions of time and history in her plays. In Traps (pr. 1977), for example, she uses circular time. Through a distortion of the sequence of events, one incident can appear to happen both before and after another one. The effect is a kind of synchronicity that collapses all time into the present, forcing a close relationship among the events. Using a similar device in Top Girls, Churchill brings together women from diverse ages and cultures to a luncheon in the twentieth century. Marlene is actually eating with women who are already dead, but the effect is not jarring. Because little has changed in the condition of women over the centuries, the audience accepts Churchill’s metaphorical assertion that time has stood still.

Churchill continues to violate the natural order of time in the rest of the play, with a sequence of scenes in the second act that seems to have no placement in time and a flashback at the end of the play that reveals events which should have preceded everything else. The dislocation of time not only serves her thematic purposes but also allows her to break away from the naturalistic or realistic drawing-room comedy that is traditional in British theater.

Reinforcing the accelerated sense of time is Churchill’s deliberate use of overlapping voices. These occur in three forms: A character may start speaking before the other has finished, a character may continue to speak right through another’s speech, or a character may pick up the thread of an earlier speech to continue her story. Employed only in the luncheon scene, the overlap blurs sequential action and underscores the sense of sychronicity, much the same as a montage or a dissolve in film technique. An angry exchange between Joyce and Marlene in the powerful last scene returns that feeling of acceleration through the use of stichomythia, a device often used by William Shakespeare to create a breathless series of swift retorts.

Role reversals and double casting are still other devices used by Churchill in Top Girls and elsewhere. With them she explores the complexity of relationships between men and women, sometimes questioning the constrictions of gender stereotyping and the division of labor according to sex, sometimes illustrating the absurdity of any attempt to dissolve the differences in sexual identity. Her inventive casting—sixteen characters are played by seven actors—forces the audience to examine gender mythologies still commonplace today and question the social and economic structures that hold these misconceptions in place.

Form and Content

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Top Girls is the story of one woman’s rise to success and of the other women in her life (as well as those in history) whose experiences call hers into question. Its all-female cast speaks from a wide variety of cultural and political positions in dialogue that is orchestrated on the page almost like musical lines and themes, with numerous interruptions, dual conversations, and simultaneous speeches which undercut or highlight one another. The cast must also be prepared to perform multiple roles, particularly in the long opening scene, which may be Marlene’s dream or a fantasia outside the plot serving as a prologue.

The play opens in a stylish restaurant as Marlene prepares for the celebration of her promotion at Top Girls. As the guests arrive, the dinner party takes on the nature of a celebration of “top girls” from history and legend who fought and achieved: Isabella Bird, a nineteenth century Scottish woman who became a noted world traveler after the age of forty; Lady Nijo, a medieval courtesan forsaken by her lover, the Japanese emperor, to wander as a Buddhist nun; Dull Gret, a figure in a Hans Brueghel painting who leads a band of peasant women into hell to fight the devils; Pope Joan, who is fabled to have ruled as pope in the ninth century, disguised as a man; and Patient Griselda, an exemplary, long-suffering wife in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The women’s lively conversation veers into anguish as each woman reveals the high toll that her success exacted: exhaustion, neglect, abuse, loneliness, even murder. Much of this came at the hands of men or from the societal expectations against which these women struggled. The dinner party dissolves into a cacophony of broken dishes, tears, and outbursts of rage.

The rest of act 1 begins in the offices of the Top Girls agency the first day of Marlene’s new position, then moves to Joyce’s house the day before; likewise, the two scenes of act 2 begin by continuing the day at Top Girls, then shifting a year earlier, to Joyce’s house. In the first scene at the agency, Marlene interviews Jeanine; Marlene’s energy and drive are shown in counterpoint to Jeanine’s uncertainty. Following this, Angie is seen playing with Kit, a younger playmate; Angie seems not to relate to children her own age. Kit, who is good in school, both admires the older girl and finds her strange and threatening. Joyce and Angie argue, while Joyce worries about Angie’s chances in life. The tension escalates between them, and Angie confides to Kit that she wants to kill Joyce.

In act 2, between job interviews Win and Nell discuss their own prospects in love and careers, none of which seem promising. Angie turns up at the office, surprising Marlene, who is fond of Angie but does not know what to do with her, particularly as Angie hints that she wants to stay and become a success as well. Angie watches as Marlene is confronted by the wife of the runner-up for Marlene’s new position, who accuses Marlene of taking away jobs meant for men, even of betraying other women who support their husbands’ careers. Marlene angrily defends her success and her life. Later, Win relates a similar but less happy story to Angie, involving burnout from having to outwork and prove herself to men. The scene closes with Marlene, Nell, and Win discussing Angie, who has fallen asleep; Marlene concedes ultimately that Angie is “not going to make it.”

The final scene is a flashback to Marlene’s visit to Joyce and Angie the previous year after many years away. The center of the scene is an angry discussion between the sisters over their lives, their agreement that Joyce would rear Angie (who is actually Marlene’s child), and the political philosophies that divide them. The argument goes unresolved, as does the sisters’ attempt to relate as family despite their differences. Finally, a shaken, tipsy Marlene tries to comfort herself and Angie, who cannot sleep. Marlene tries to persuade Angie that things will be fine, but Angie only repeats one word: “Frightening.”

Places Discussed

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Restaurant

Restaurant. Fictional space outside time and place with a table set for dinner. Caryl Churchill’s realistic dialogue, with overlapping chatter and constant ordering from menus, grounds this surreal scene in naturalistic behavior in order to humanize the five characters who act as the various thematic voices within Marlene’s culturally splintered psyche. All six women travel to find adventure or notoriety, filling the scene with “true” tales of exotic globetrotting, all of which contrast with the depressing conditions of the women’s home lives within their different social structures. The expressionistic space of the restaurant itself may be seen as symbolizing Marlene’s feelings of isolation and loss, emotions she hides in work and drink. The consumption of this sumptuous meal contrasts with the apparent poverty in Joyce’s home.

“Top Girls” Employment Agency

“Top Girls” Employment Agency. Business in London run by Marlene. The spaces themselves are nondescript and colorless, suggesting corporate dehumanization and lack of maternal succor. Churchill staffs them only with upwardly mobile female managers in what would usually be viewed as a masculine field. This gender shift and destabilization is underlined by the ill health of Howard, the one male manager, who, like all men mentioned in the play, remains firmly offstage.

Joyce’s kitchen and backyard

Joyce’s kitchen and backyard. Small house in a country village, the childhood home of Joyce and Marlene and their working-class parents, situated near the town of Ipswich in Suffolk, about sixty miles east of London. The damp house, the junk-filled backyard, and the nearby fens provide the play’s most detailed environment, to contrast with the smart, tidy London offices. This naturalistic specificity explores the effects that such an environment has on women trapped in social roles, both those who remain and those who attempt to escape. The kitchen, often used to symbolize the female space, is instead the site of a political debate between the sisters and a head-on collision between capitalist individualism and the moral responsibilities of family and class identity.

Context

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Perhaps the most immediate impact of Top Girls is visual as well as structural: Its audience sees a play where every actor on stage is a woman. Churchill’s casting strategy is striking seen against a dramatic tradition in which the great majority of characters are male, with perhaps a handful of female characters at most, usually in stock roles such as romantic interest, villain, or servant. The historical figures in the dinner scene serve as a reminder that, regardless of whether they were acknowledged by dramatists, women have played a number of “dramatic” roles in lived experience, as full of adventure and conflict as the male-centered stories of most traditional dramas. The action of the contemporary story points out that many of the lives and experiences of women have not been encompassed by traditional dramatic narrative.

Churchill has often relied on writing practices that also go against traditional notions of authorship. Several of her plays, including Owners (1972), Cloud Nine (1979), and A Mouthful of Birds (1986), were developed in a group process. Playwright, actors, and staff discuss ideas in an open workshop and do collective research; then Churchill works with the collected material in a writing period, after which the group moves into rehearsals. Though this process was not in effect for Top Girls, other elements of the play show Churchill’s interest in changing traditional forms. Her interlaced conversational lines and transformations of the linear narrative time frame combine with her casting and thematic choices to show that there are stories not yet heard that women can tell, both on stage and as authors, and that there may be new ways to communicate them dramatically.

Churchill’s impact is felt widely in the theater, as she has become one of the most widely produced women playwrights in English, writing for British radio and television as well as the stage. Serious Money (1987) was a success in London’s West End, as well as at the influential producer Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York; her other works have been performed in many regional and university theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Historical Context

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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 morale 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.

Literary Style

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Setting
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.

Time
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.

Multiple Casting
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.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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 1, 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.

Further Reading
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 enconomic and political history of the Great Britain that Top Girls is set in.

Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Chruchill: Theatre of Empowerment. MacMillian, 1991. This book is a critical overview 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 career.

Bibliography

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Cousin, Geraldine. Churchill the Playwright. London: Methuen Drama, 1989. This study views Churchill’s plays in the context of her experimentations with collaborative productions, in which the author, actors, and director research, write, and develop a play together through a prerehearsal workshop period. Cousin examines Top Girls for the way in which it manipulates traditional time schemes and questions notions of achievement, success, and what Churchill considers “joy.”

Fitzsimmons, Linda. File on Churchill. London: Methuen Drama, 1989. A comprehensive listing of Churchill’s plays, including unperformed ones, and selected review and comments from the playwright herself about her work. The general introduction and brief chronology are helpful. Includes a bibliography with selected play collections, essays, interviews, and secondary sources.

Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Written from a feminist perspective, this book opens with an overview of theories of theatre and drama and of feminist and socialist criticism in relation to Churchill’s plays. The chapter “Labour and Capital” analyzes Top Girls, Fen (1983), and Serious Money (1987) as characteristic of Churchill’s concern about the socioeconomic effects of Margaret Thatcher’s government and its conservative policies.

Marohl, Joseph. “De-Realized Women: Performance and Gender in Top Girls.” Modern Drama 3 (September, 1987): 376-388. Marohl analyzes the play from the point of view of the battle between classes, emphasizing the socialist aspects more than the feminist ones.

Randall, Phyllis R., ed. Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988. A collection of essays, including one on Top Girls that comments on the challenge this play presents to feminists to realize that individual solutions are not successful and to confront the need to deal with the “larger contradictions created by a capitalistic patriarchy.”

Thomas, Jane. “The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Essays in Refusal.” In The Death of the Playwright?, edited by Adrian Page. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This essay analyzes Top Girls and Cloud Nine (1979) in the light of Churchill’s acknowledged reading of Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977).

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