The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Top Girls is a feminist drama/fantasy set in contemporary times. The action is confined to two places in...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1982: Great Britain is led by a female Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was regarded as...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • 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...

(The entire section is 112 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Cloud 9 is a play by Churchill written in 1979. Like Top Girls, this play is experimental in form and...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive. "Wry Top Girls is Hard to Top." In New York Post, December 29, 1982.


(The entire section is 292 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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).