Top Girls

Top Girls Summary and Analysis of Act 3


Act 3 is set at Joyce’s home on a Sunday evening, three years earlier. Joyce, Angie, and Marlene are in Joyce’s kitchen and Marlene is taking presents out of bright bag while Angie eats a box of chocolates. Marlene, who has not visited in a while, has brought some presents for Angie. One of the gifts is the dress that Angie puts on in Act 1. Angie goes to try on the dress, and Joyce complains that Marlene has decided to surprise them when the house is a mess and there is nothing to eat. Marlene is confused, claiming that Angie phoned her up about two weeks earlier saying that Joyce wanted her to come. Angie was clearly lying, and Joyce accuses Marlene of not knowing about Angie's antics because she never comes to visit. The two sisters bicker until Angie returns, wearing the dress Marlene gave her. Joyce commands her to take it off so it won't get dirty. Angie wants to wear it, though, and Joyce relents.

Kit walks into the room unannounced, and asks Angie to come play, but Angie refuses. Joyce comments that Angie takes care of Kit like a little sister, and that she’s good with children. Marlene asks if Angie wants to be a teacher or nurse and work with kids, and Joyce tells her sister that Angie hasn't thought much about her future and is not clever like Marlene. Marlene produces a bottle of whisky from her bag, but Joyce refuses to drink. Marlene remembers the two of them getting drunk together the night that their father died. She asks Joyce if she’s seen their mother, and Joyce says she visits the old woman every Thursday. Marlene proceeds to grill Joyce about people from their old neighborhood. Angie recalls Marlene’s last visit - for Angie’s ninth birthday - with Joyce, Kit, and Angie’s Dad. Marlene asks after Angie’s dad, and Joyce tells her that Frank moved out three years before.

Angie remembers a postcard Marlene sent her from the Grand Canyon, and goes to her room to fetch it. Marlene plans to stay at her sister's place for the night, and Angie offers her bed. Joyce says no to this and commands Angie to go to bed. Angie says she has something secret to show Marlene first, and goes upstairs to get ready, while Marlene and Joyce begin to get drunk. Angie calls to her aunt, who goes upstairs to tuck her in.

Marlene returns and Joyce asks about Angie’s secret. Marlene won’t tell her, but Joyce knows it’s Angie’s “exercise book” for a secret society that Angie and Kit have invented. She then tells Marlene that Angie has been in the remedial class at school for the past two years. Marlene changes the subject, telling Joyce about her visit with their mother earlier that day. The sisters begin to argue about Marlene leaving their hometown, which Joyce views as abandonment. She expresses her resentment towards Marlene, who grows agitated, insisting that she had to get out of their small town. Joyce scolds her and says “I don’t know how could leave your own child,” and Marlene responds, “You were quick enough to take her,” revealing that Angie is in fact Marlene’s biological daughter - not Joyce's.

The sisters continue to argue, and we learn that Marlene became pregnant with Angie at the age of seventeen, but didn’t tell anyone about it until it was too late to have an an abortion. Joyce and her husband Frank offered to take the child because they had been married for three years and had no children of their own. Joyce got pregnant once after taking Angie in, but miscarried, because, she claims, looking after Angie was too stressful. Marlene reveals that she’s had two abortions since Angie and still doesn’t want a baby.

The conversation then takes an emotional turn when Joyce aggressively tells Marlene that it'd be fine for her to wait yet another six years to visit her sister and daughter. Marlene actually starts to cry, and Joyce apologizes, telling her sister she loves her. They discuss Joyce's estranged husband, Frank, who has never liked Angie. Meanwhile, Marlene claims that she meets a lot of men who want to be with a high-powered executive, but cannot handle the day-to-day challenges of the relationship. Marlene is looking forward to the 1980s, because she thinks “Maggie” (Margaret Thatcher) is a “tough lady” who is going to improve the country. Joyce seems surprised that Marlene voted for Thatcher’s conservative party, but Marlene states, “Monetarism is not stupid.”

The sisters begin to discuss their childhood struggles in a working class home. Marlene says she knew since she was thirteen that she had to get out of their house because she did not want to end up like their parents, who had a difficult marriage. Joyce expresses envy at Marlene’s travels to America and her exciting job, but is also ashamed of Marlene for being so selfish. Marlene retorts that she hates the working class for being stupid and lazy, while Joyce likes to scratch expensive cars with her ring because she hates posh people. Marlene, meanwhile, supports Ronald Reagan for his stringent anti-communist positions, while Joyce believes that a working class revolt is imminent - targeting the upwardly mobile, like Marlene.

Marlene, like Margaret Thatcher, claims not to believe in class as a barrier to success, but thinks that anyone who has what it takes should be able to succeed. However, Marlene cannot help people who are stupid, lazy, and frightened. Joyce calls Angie “stupid, lazy, and frightened” and wonders what will happen to her. Marlene thinks Joyce is overly harsh on the girl, but Joyce fully expects Angie's future to be bleak as long as Thatcher's conservative party (which only benefits people like Marlene) is running England. The sisters' temporary moment of empathy dissolves into political conflict.

Marlene wants to go to sleep, but first, begins to ask Joyce something, however, Joyce won't hear it and leaves the room. Marlene pours herself another drink, and Angie comes into the room and calls out for her mum. Upon seeing Marlene instead, Angie then says “Frightening”. When Marlene asks the girl if she’s had a bad dream, Angie again says “Frightening”. The play ends.


The final Act of Top Girls flashes back one year, to the last time Marlene visited Joyce and Angie. We learn during this Act that Angie is in fact Marlene’s biological daughter, and that Marlene gave her up as a baby to Joyce and her husband, Frank, in order to escape her working class background. Act 3 positions Joyce and Marlene as foils, representing the opposing political positions in Britain at the start of the 1980’s. Joyce’s perspective is aligned with the working class and the interests of labor, while Marlene supports the new conservative party and the policies of Margaret Thatcher.

Ultimately, the play seems to side with Joyce, rejecting the policies and presumptions of the Thatcher regime, which Churchill portrays as viciously individualistic and exploitative. However, Churchill is far from painting Joyce as a working-class hero. Marlene's sister is full of contempt, and it seems like there is nothing in her life that makes her happy. Joyce keeps reminding Marlene of the sacrifices she has made to maintain a family, and feels that she has taken on the brunt of the suffering. This is a sharp contrast to Marlene, who has risen through the ranks of a professional world ruled by men, even if she is blind to certain socio-political truths about what she has given up to do so. In this sense, Marlene’s trajectory is similar to that of Margaret Thatcher, who was extremely successful in the world of British politics while being ardently anti-feminist. This irony is at heart of the play’s political undertones.

Meanwhile, Joyce's romantic relationships have been challenging and exploitative, but her perspective is also broad enough to include the social dynamic of class. For example, when she and Marlene argue about their parents’ lives, Marlene defines their family situation by their father’s alcoholism, and feels like their mother wasted her life being married to him. Joyce, however, attributes their difficulties to the fact that their father had to work “in the fields like an animal” day to day, and even then, the family remained poor. When Marlene suggests that it’s important to acknowledge Margaret Thatcher’s achievements as the first female prime minister, Joyce scoffs and says there’s no reason to celebrate a woman in politics if her policies are akin to those of Hitler. Class structure, for Joyce, is the root of oppression. It cuts through individual differences and creates a structural obstacle - making it impossible for most people to elevate themselves out of poverty.

Marlene is blind to her sister's perspective, saying “I don’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.” This is a striking example of how wealthy people justify the inequitable conditions that surround the accumulation of wealth. Marlene is successful at her job because she chose not to divide her focus - she abandoned her family and or her baby daughter. The concluding scene of the play moreover uses the personal relationship between Joyce, Marlene and Angie to represent the contemporary political situation in England. Angie addressees Marlene as “Mum” thinking that Joyce is there, and Marlene replies as her “Aunty” which is the fictional role she has taken on to mask the fact that she is actually Angie’s mother.

Marlene’s choice to be Aunty and not Mum is part of her constructed persona. She has rejected her working class roots to fully embrace the fiction of independence and fulfillment through her career. Her refusal to acknowledge her own family’s plight, and her unremarkable, “slow” daughter with little potential is akin to the conservative refusal to acknowledge that private wealth is amassed through the structural exploitation of working class labor. Just as Marlene wants to detach from her family, even though it is because of them (especially Joyce) that she can live her high-flying life in London, Thatcher's capitalist supporters attributed the lower class struggles to laziness, lack of ambition, stupidity, and so forth - refusing to acknowledge their crucial contribution to the corporate machine.

Despite these implications, Churchill’s play is not a one-sided attack on Marlene’s choices. The fact that Marlene was only able to accomplish so much professionally by giving up her personal life calls into question the fact that women at the time only seemed to have two options: either to devote themselves entirely to domestic life, or to reject any kind of emotional attachment in order to prioritize career ambitions. Neither Joyce nor Marlene are happy, due to the fact that both of them live lives of extremes - Marlene's life is all work and no family, and Joyce's life is the opposite. Their opposite situations recall the historical female figures from Act 1, who achieved great things despite patriarchal exploitation, and as a consequence, their lives were marked by great struggles.

Top Girls thus implies that concrete improvements to the female role in society must come through political transformations addressing labor and class status as well as gender. Just as Joyce is bound to the domestic labors of the home and the work of raising Angie, low-wage workers under Thatcher had no choice but to accept their positions on the lower rungs of capitalism. Top Girls synthesizes a feminist perspective with a socialist perspective, revealing through the art of theatre that historical conditions of women and the working class are closely linked under modern capitalism. At the same time, the play shows that Marlene’s choices have given her a certain kind of autonomy through economic freedom, which makes it difficult to entirely dismiss her character as heartless. Marlene’s freedom is only made possible by leaving her daughter in Joyce’s care, but she does in fact succeed at a company dominated by men. This contradiction suggests that while Churchill’s play is a strident critique of capitalism, it acknowledges the limited yet meaningful forms of independence that women were increasingly able to pursue as a consequence of feminism.