Top Girls begins on a Saturday night. The protagonist, Marlene, is hosting a celebratory dinner for six people at a London restaurant. All of Marlene’s guests are famous women from the past. The first to arrive is Isabella Bird, who congratulates Marlene on her recent promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls Employment Agency (the reason for the party). Then, Lady Nijo arrives. At this point the dialogue begins to fracture. As the remaining three guests – Dull Gret, Pope Joan, and Patient Griselda – arrive over the course of Act 1, they recount their life stories, constantly interrupting each other and interweaving their comments and narratives. They drink several bottles of Frascati wine and order a three-course meal, while their conversation becomes more animated. Churchill presents these disparate threads in a kaleidoscopic structure that lacks a clear linear progression. What follows is a summary of each guest's individual narrative as it emerges over the course of Act I.
Summary of Isabella Bird’s Story:
Isabella Bird’s grew up in 19th Century England, the daughter of an English clergyman. Her family moved to Scotland when she was young, and Isabella grew up reading Latin, studying hymnology and metaphysical poetry, and doing needlework, but mostly she loved doing manual work such as cooking, washing, and mending. She had a tumor removed from her spine, which caused her to spend an extended part of her childhood lying on the sofa. At the age of forty, she went on cruise to Australia to improve her health, but the trip only worsened her condition and she hated Australia. From Australia she went to the Sandwich Isles, where she fell in love with the sea and woke up happy each morning. Isabella mentions that a man named Rocky Mountain Jim proposed to her, but she refused him because he was unsuitable as a husband. A year later, Jim died from a bullet to the brain - and on that same day, Isabella saw a vision of him.
The self-proclaimed loves of Isabella’s life were her younger sister Hennie, and her husband, Dr. Bishop, who cared for Hennie during her final illness and death. Dr. Bishop later became ill and died, so Isabella decided to deal with her grief by traveling to Tibet at the age of fifty-six. She crossed a mountain path at 7000 feet above sea level despite the agonizing pain in her spine. She also went to China and was nearly attacked by a xenophobic mob. Whenever she returned home to England, however, she says she felt a sense of guilt about her travels, which led her to volunteer on committees and give lectures about “how the East was corrupt and vicious”. Isabella tried once more to travel to China when she was older, but her doctors would not allow it because of her poor health. At the age of 70, she did manage to make it to Morocco, where she became the only European woman to ever meet the Emperor.
Summary of Lady Nijo’s Story:
Lady Nijo enters the restaurant and immediately begins to talk about her experiences as a concubine to the Emperor of Japan. When she was fourteen, she was a maiden serving sake at the court. The Emperor ordered Nijo's father to deliver Nijo to his court - permanently. She was upset at first, but she had been raised to perform as a courtesan, however, and became attached to the Emperor. Nijo mentions that her father told her, just before he died, to serve the Emperor faithfully and if she were to ever lose his favor, she must enter holy orders. When Nijo did eventually lose the Emperor's favor, she followed her father's orders and became a Buddhist nun.
Still, Nijo fondly remembers her days as a courtesan, especially her fine clothes. She recalls one of her lovers, a priest named Ariake who came to court her while she still belonged to the Emperor. Nijo says that the Emperor knew of their affair and did not care, which at first, she thought was kind. She later realized that the Emperor actually allowed the affair to happen because he was no longer interested in her. One night, the Emperor even sent Nijo to another man who had been pursuing her - and the Emperor listened in on their encounter from the other side of the bedroom screens. Nijo had several children by different fathers, but managed to avoid scandal. Her first child was the Emperor's, but it did not live. Her second child was fathered by Akebono, Nijo’s lover who had fancied her since she was thirteen. When Nijo became pregnant with Akebono’s child, the Emperor had not been near her for two months. She lied and told the Emperor that the child was his, and when the time came for her to give birth, she said she was ill. After their baby girl was born, Akebono took her away and Nijo told the Emperor she had miscarried because of her illness. Akebono and his wife raised the girl on their own, and Nijo saw her daughter only once - three years later. Her third child was the son of Ariake, and her fourth child was also Ariake’s but the priest died before the boy was born.
Nijo is moved by Griselda’s stories about losing her children and later being reunited with them. At one point Nijo cries out, “Nobody gave me back my children”, and then bursts into tears. Nijo recalls that both her father and the Emperor died in the autumn, and that she was not allowed to enter the palace when the Emperor was on his deathbed. She wonders if she would have been allowed to “wear full mourning” if she had still been at court. Nijo then shares an example of her rebellion. At the Full Moon Ceremony, it was traditional for the men of the court to make rice gruel and then beat their women across the loins so they would produce sons instead of daughters. The Emperor beat all his courtesans and allowed his attendants to beat them, too. One year, when she was 18, Nijo made a plan with Lady Genki to stop this unjust practice. The ladies all hid in the Emperor’s room while Lady Mashimizu stood guard, and when he entered, Genki seized him and Nijo beat the Emperor until he cried. She made him promise to never allow his attendants to beat his courtesans again. Afterward, the nobles were horrified by Njio’s audacity, but Nijo remembers the incident with pride.
Summary of Dull Gret’s Story:
Dull Gret speaks the least out of all Marlene's guests. She has poor table manners and even steals some of the plates when the others aren’t looking. When she does speak, her interruptions are short and brutish. It is not until the end of Act 1 that Gret shares her experience of leading an army of women through hell - an image based on Brueghel’s painting Dulle Griet. She describes all the grotesque details saw, the odd creatures she encountered - devils, rats, lizards, and the like. Gret claims that the women in her army were not bothered by these things, since they had faced worse in their lives at the hands of the Spanish Army. For example, Gret’s oldest son died on a wheel and birds ate his corpse, while a soldier speared her baby with a sword. One day, Gret decided she’d had enough, and went outside and began shouting until her female neighbors joined her. They all decided to go “where the evil come from the pay the bastards out.” All the women left their baking and washing to march down the street, and suddenly, they discovered a huge mouth that led them into hell. They ran and fought, giving the "devils such a beating".
Summary of Pope Joan’s Story:
When Joan arrives, Marlene mentions that Joan was an “infant prodigy”. Joan speaks about metaphysics and theology, and says while she always enjoys a theological argument, she won’t try to convert anyone because she’s not a missionary. She calls herself is a “heresy.” She left home at twelve, dressed as a boy because she wanted to study in Athens and women weren’t allowed in the library. She went with her friend, a sixteen year-old boy, but Joan knew more than him about science and almost as much about philosophy. After her friend died, Joan decided to stay disguised as a man, because she was used to it. Joan went off to Rome to study, “obsessed with the pursuit of the truth.” She taught at the Greek school in Rome, and soon, huge crowds were gathering to hear her lecture. She was soon appointed Cardinal, but then, Pope Leo died and Joan was chosen to succeed him. She claims that God knew she was a woman, so he didn’t speak to her directly. She enjoyed being Pope and consecrating bishops, but still worries that her deception caused natural disasters. Joan took one of her chamberlains as a lover.
Joan soon became pregnant - but at first, she just thought she was getting fat. On Rogation Day, Joan was leading a parade from St. Peter’s to St. John’s cathedral when she began to feel labor pains. She was forced to get down from her horse and the crowd thought she was dying. Suddenly the baby “just slid out onto the road” while one of the cardinals exclaimed, “The Antichrist!” and fainted. Joan was dragged by her feet out of the town and stoned to death by the crowd. Thereafter, all newly appointed Popes were made to sit in a solid marble chair with a hole in the center, while two of the clergy would look under his skirts to make sure he was a man. Throughout the meal and Joan’s tale, she drinks heavily. At the end of Act 1, Joan recites a long passage in Latin from Lucretius’s poem, De Rerum Natura. The passage describes the pleasures of living in an ivory tower, built upon the knowledge of wise men, and observing the folly of the world. At the conclusion of her recitation, Joan gets up and begins vomiting in the corner.
Summary of Griselda’s Story:
Griselda is the last guest to arrive to dinner. Marlene describes Griselda’s life as “like a fairy-story”. Griselda tells the group that when she was fifteen, a Marquis named Walter saw her in the field tending sheep. The Marquis then arranged a wedding to a mystery bride and the whole village was set to celebrate, including Griselda. On the day of the wedding, the Marquis’s carriage stopped outside Griselda’s cottage and he asked her father for Griselda's hand in marriage. Walter told Griselda that if she agreed to marry him, she must obey his every word. Her father was astounded, and they accepted the Marquis’s proposal. Griselda says that Walter (the Marquis) was wonderful at first, but he was not sure he could trust her to love and obey him - so he decided to test her commitment. They had a daughter, and when the baby was only six weeks old, Walter took her away. He told Griselda that the villagers hated her because she had once been one of them, and now that she had a child, they were restless. Walter sent the child away and they never spoke about it again. Four years later, Griselda had another child, a boy. Walter let her keep him until he was two, and then told her the peasants were unruly again and took the child away.
Twelve years later, Walter told Griselda that he had to send her away because the peasants wanted him to marry a new French bride who could give him an heir. Obediently, Griselda returned to her village. As the Marquis' wedding day approached, Walter told Griselda she had to help prepare the event because only she knew how to arrange things just as he liked them. Griselda says Walter's new bride was sixteen and beautiful, just like her younger brother - who served as the girls's page. At the wedding, everyone went into the feast while Walter stayed behind, put his arms around Griselda and kissed her. She was shocked, and suddenly he revealed to her that the girl and boy were her children. All the women are amazed by her story and cannot believe she put up with Walter’s actions, but Griselda only replies, “it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to [test her].”
Analysis of Act 1:
The idea of a shared struggle and empowering action that cuts across historical periods is a key theme in Churchill’s play. As Marlene's guests arrive and begin to share their life stories, they distinguish themselves through their disparate upbringings, historical periods, religious and philosophical values, and materially embodied conditions. Even so, the shifting narratives suggest that these women have experienced something common insofar as they have all found ways to thrive in worlds controlled largely by men. Each woman has endured hardship at the hands of a husband, lord, or a patriarchal institution. However, each woman has, in some way, also refused to inhabit her expected role quietly, which reveals the thread that binds them - the opposition to injustice against women. This appears to be the reason that Marlene has assembled these women - because she now considers herself their equal - as a woman who has triumphed over patriarchy. Also, scholars have noted that each of these female characters mirrors some facet of Marlene's psyche.
Isabella Bird, for instance, is a spirited and renowned travel writer from the 19th century who ventures to the far corners of the globe, despite her extreme physical limitations. Her character is somewhat conflicted due to the fact that she feels obligated to her family, but she also loves to be free of responsibility. She shifts back and forth between a dutiful life in England and the exciting dangers abroad. These two extremes define Bird's character, and her narrative suggests that she never managed entirely to achieve balance in her life, even though she tried to live as independently as possible. Out of all the dinner guests, Isabella has the most in common with Marlene - choosing not to marry until much later in life because of her professional aspirations.
Meanwhile, Lady Nijo, who lived in the 13th Century, has lived a life that can be divided into two clear halves - first, she lived as a courtesan for the Emperor of Japan, and later, she became a Buddhist nun, traveling around Japan and exploring a life of spiritual simplicity. Nijo’s attitude toward her children is both hardened and compassionate. She knew she could not keep them, and she constantly says it was better to give them up immediately and move on. However, at the end of the play, when she hears Griselda’s tale of being reunited with her lost children, Nijo cries and laments that no one ever gave her children back to her. Her divided feelings about her children mirror her divided life. As a courtesan she had to eschew self-governance in order to keep her position. Afterwards, though, she is more aware of the injustices that she and the other courtesans faced. Her story about beating the Emperor to prevent his attendants from abusing the courtesans is a powerful example of a proto-feminist response to patriarchal injustice, and Nijo is proud of her defiance. However, this act of rebellion does not change the fact that Nijo lived most of her life as a sexual servant to the Emperor - and the society not only conditioned her to accept that position, but also taught her that being a concubine is honorable.
Dull Gret’s character is a peasant from the middle ages with a determined spirit and a brash manner. She led the women of her village against the the Spanish soldiers, the cause of their grief and oppression. Certainly, this kind of uprising would have commonly been carried out by an army of men, so Gret has defied the gender conventions by taking action. Gret’s brutish behavior at the table and her lack of refined social skills or manners situate her in a lower social class than Pope Joan or Marlene, but her refusal to accept the injustices perpetrated by male soldiers connect her with the oppositional attitudes of the other women at the table. Gret's character has parallels to Marlene's blue-collar upbringing, and the fiery ambition that drove her to seek a better life. Also, Gret's monosyllabic, stunted interjections echo Angie's clunky, juvenile style of speaking.
Pope Joan is, in some respects, the polar opposite or foil to Gret’s character. Joan is intellectually and culturally sophisticated, with a brilliant mind for philosophy, metaphysics, poetry, and theology. Her accession to Pope – the highest station of the Roman Catholic Church – shows Joan to be a perceptive individual with the capacity to lead men. Yet Joan also displays rowdy tendencies, and becomes excessively inebriated by the end of the dinner, which parallels Gret’s festive lack of social refinement. Because of her aloof nature and somewhat condescending attitude, Pope Joan represents Marlene as she is during the play. While Joyce and Angie are making do in their small-town lives, Aunty Marlene has cruelly cast off her blue-collar roots and embraced the luxuries of her urban success. Similarly, Pope Joan went so far as to hide her gender in order to become more powerful - yet it was her female body - not her persona - that betrayed her.
Griselda, the final character to enter, strikes an affinity with Lady Nijo over the mutual loss of their children. Unlike Nijo, however, Griselda was eventually reunited with her children. Griselda showed great determination and loyalty by obeying Marquis’s conditions of marriage – even though it meant having to suffer the cruel injustice of being separated from her children. Her loyalty comes at a high cost, and the other dinner guests are surprised by Griselda’s decision to stay with her husband despite the emotional torture. Marlene, in particular, presents a virulent critique of Griselda’s decision, saying that she “can’t stand” hearing about Walter’s excessive demands and his emotional abuse of his wife. Ultimately, Griselda’s character energizes the women at the table through her story of patiently bearing the egregious hardships that the Marquis forced upon her - and even spends a lot of the conversation defending the Marquis' actions. Like Joyce, Griselda accepted her fate and stayed true to her promises to the Marquis, which paid off - while Marlene could never have been so patiently subservient.