How does Churchill’s play explore the tensions between work and private life?
Top Girls critically examines the relationship between work and marriage through its depictions of the sacrifices made by successful women at the London employment agency. Win, Nell, and especially Marlene have made great strides in their careers, they have all done done so by making sacrifices in their private lives in order to focus on their work. Marlene is the central character, and her career ambitions have depended upon her leaving her daughter, Angie, to be raised by her sister Joyce. The play suggests that the price that Marlene has paid for her success is extreme, and that women being forced to chose between having a successful career and a fulfilling private life is a form of social injustice.
Marlene and Joyce seem to represent different ideas of what modern women can and ought to do with their lives. Discuss the key differences between these characters and what they mean for Churchill’s play.
Marlene and Joyce are sisters who serve as foils as the play unfolds. We first see Marlene celebrating her promotion to a managerial position, and later we observe her hyper- professional, no nonsense demeanor while she is at work. She has no time for personal issues, and her character represents the choice that many women in 1970s Britain were struggling with - should they have to sacrifice a private life in order to succeed in their careers? Meanwhile, Joyce is the archetypal bitter housewife - confined to the drudgery and difficulties of caring for family. However, despite her efforts, Joyce's family is still unhappy - her husband has left her and her adopted daughter hates her. In Top Girls, Caryl Churchill uses these characters to elucidate important contradictions in the social and professional demands placed upon women in contemporary British society.
What is the role of travel in the play, and in the lives of the various women who discuss their experiences of it?
Several of the independently minded women in Act 1 are avid travelers. Isabella Bird speaks constantly of her travels across the globe and attaches great value to those experiences, whereas she associates the demands of societal life in England with disappointment and a frustrating obligation to her husband. Lady Nijo likewise speaks about the second half of her life as a Buddhist nun, traveling Japan on foot as a way of healing after her time as the Emperor's concubine. Later, Marlene and Win both speak of having spent time abroad as part of their journeys towards fulfilling careers. The play suggests that travel allows women to develop independent ways of thinking and experiencing the world that social duties and familial obligations often prevent. Travel opens their eyes and imaginations to new possibilities.
How does Churchill use language to establish a particular character’s identity, class, or social status? Choose and discuss some key examples.
There are numerous examples of a link between identity and language in Top Girls. Dull Gret, for instance, hardly speaks. Her lack of linguistic prowess contrasts sharply with the rest of the women at the dinner table, and situates her as a peasant woman of the Middle Ages. Yet when Gret does eventually decide to join the conversation, the brutish simplicity of her narrative is striking, and helps to convey the raw emotion that she and her fellow village women experienced while watching Spanish soldiers murder their families. Meanwhile, the three women working at tTop Girls – Nell, Win, and Marlene – exemplify an essential link between language and identity that is both personal and collective. When they first arrive, Nell and Win banter about “Coffee coffee coffee” and poke fun at their inadequate male colleague, Howard – “Howard can just hang onto himself” and “Howard’s really cut up.” When Marlene enters, she falls easily into this style of conversation, telling Win “Pass the sugar and shut your face, pet.” All three women use slang, shared associations and phrases, and a quick delivery of caustic speech in ways that reinforce shared membership in an elite circle of professional females.
Why are there no men physically present in Top Girls? What does this say about the play and Churchill's message?
Although the women in the play speak often and critically about men, there are never any male characters onstage in the play. The settings of each Act reinforce this fact – a group of women have taken over a restaurant and dinner table in Act, women have taken over the traditionally male-dominated space of an office in Act 2, and we see conversations in Joyce’s kitchen and living room, which are typically feminine domestic spaces, in Act 3. Many of the roles and professions of the women in the play are linked to men (courtesan, wives and daughters, Pope, modern professional), but the fact that men are absent helps to create a conceptual space in which Churchill examines female relationships and interactions outside of a male presence. This tactic allows Churchill to critically acknowledge the extent to which her characters' lives are shaped directly or indirectly by men and patriarchal power. Because the women in the play display aggression, conflict, and competition alongside their friendship and support for each other, Churchill also implies the far-reaching consequences of patriarchal oppression and capitalist exploitation.
Top Girls moves backward in time over the course of Act 3, from Angie’s visit to London to Marlene’s visit to Joyce’s house. Discuss this flashback technique and its effect on our perception of the relationship between Joyce, Angie, and Marlene.
Although Marlene appears overly harsh and dismissive of Angie when she visits her at the agency in London, the play makes room for some sympathy in later scenes. Angie arrives entirely unannounced and interrupts Marlene at her place of work. Moreover, in an earlier scene, we have witnessed Angie’s violent feelings against her mother, Joyce, and her friend, Kit, - painting her as a difficult and rowdy teen. However, by moving back in time in the following scene, Churchill forces her audience to examine our initial impressions of these characters. We learn that Marlene is Angie’s biological mother, and that she left Angie to be raised by Joyce because she wanted to escape her working class background. This creates sympathy for Joyce and her frustrations with Angie, but also creates sympathy for Angie’s character and her intense desire to identify with Marlene. The narrative structure allows Churchill to create a dramatic reversal based on the delivery of knowledge previously hidden.
Top Girls is widely acknowledged as a piece of feminist socialist drama. Explain this categorization and why it is an appropriate description of Churchill’s play.
On one hand, Act 1 of Top Girls investigates feminism as a concept: did feminism exist in some form before it was given that name during the social justice movements of the 20th century? Is feminism simply the resistance to patriarchy by women? Can there be feminist identifications across historical periods? In the first Act, Churchill suggests that shared struggle against male oppression and patriarchy can connect women and empower them. However, within the modern era, as we see in Acts 2 and 3, feminism must battle against the unique challenges of capitalist exploitation and the drive to isolate and elevate the role of the private individual over collective life. Churchill layers her narrative with economical, political, and historical context. By doing this, she presents critiques of capitalism and the innate patriarchy that has existed throughout history - which allows us to categorize Top Girls as a feminist socialist drama.
How does Churchill’s play represent the power and status of the individual in the 1970s and 80s capitalist society?
Top Girls examines and implicitly critiques the elevated status of the private individual in late capitalist society. Marlene’s character represents the fulfillment of capitalist values – she seems to have been successful because her individual resolve has allowed her to escape the poverty into which she was born. Yet we learn at the end of the play that Marlene was able leave Ipswich because she abandoned her daughter, Angie, and essentially cut her family out of her life. Marlene regards Angie as a weak and unmotivated girl with no future, and this perspective helps her to justify a conservative view that class doesn’t truly exist, and all individuals have the power to elevate themselves financially through determination and hard work. The play suggests this perspective (parallel to Thatcherism) is flawed, showing that financial autonomy and success is built on socially oppressive relationships and structures of exploitation. The self-determining power of the individual is a myth, Churchill suggests, even if that myth shapes the dominant view of modern capitalist life.
The historical figures of Act 1 tell stories about their lives that are strikingly different. At the same time, the play suggests that these women all share something important. Discuss this idea and explain its centrality to the play.
As the different guests arrive and tell their life stories over the course of Act 1, it becomes clear that there are radical differences among these women. These differences are due to their respective upbringings, historical periods, religious and philosophical values, and materially embodied conditions. However, the interwoven narratives also suggest that these women have experienced something common: they all found ways to thrive in worlds controlled largely by men. Each woman has endured significant forms of hardship and labor demanded by husbands, lords, or patriarchal institutions, but each woman’s story also tells of unique achievements and a refusal to inhabit their expected roles quietly, which shows their collective spirit of opposition to injustice against women. The idea of a shared struggle and empowering action that cuts across historical periods is a key theme in Churchill’s play. Also, Marlene shares something in common with each one of these characters - showing that her conservative views - however flawed they may be - are borne out of years and years of patriarchy and oppression. While Marlene thinks she has it all figured out, the unhappy ending of the play shows that Marlene, like all of the women at her dinner party in Act 1, has made major sacrifices in order to succeed and that the feminist movement is still evolving.
The staging and production of Top Girls challenges its audience, especially in Act 1. How do such formal features of the play relate to its conceptual and thematic focus on the lives of women?
The initial setting of Act 1, at a dinner table, evokes the domestic space of the kitchen and the privacy of life at home. The surreal aspects of the staging, however, dislocate the typical expectations of security and comfort associated with private life. The women constantly interrupt each other and their narratives only emerge in fragmented form, which requires the audience to pay close attention and piece together each thread. This fragmentation is jarring, and provokes us to abandon our expectations of a linear dramatic narrative in favor of new possibilities for exploring the connections between these women. Churchill’s technique therefore complements the implication that women in the modern era must seek out new and unexpected solutions to conquer their political and economic struggles.