The relationship between women and work is essential to Top Girls from its opening act. The surrealist dinner party in Act I is a celebration of Marlene’s promotion over her male colleague Howard Kidd. As the play develops, we learn that Marlene has achieved professional success at the cost of a meaningful personal life. Meanwhile, all the women who attend Marlene's dinner party have transcended gender roles during their lives and have occupied positions generally associated with men: Joan was Pope, Gret led an army (of women), Nijo violently retaliated against her lord, the Emperor, and Isabella spent her life exploring and writing books about her travels. Churchill critically examines the context of economic independence for women during 1970s Britain through Marlene and the other women who she encounters at the Top Girls employment agency. Joyce is an antithesis to Marlene, as she got married and became a stay-at-home mom. In Act 3, however, it becomes clear that neither Marlene nor Joyce is completely fulfilled - leading the audience to ponder the ways in which women can strike a balance between work and life.
Language and Identity
Language connects deeply to personal and collective identity in Top Girls. In Act I, Churchill explores this relationship through an experimental and surrealist technique, interweaving the different characters' stories in a kaleidoscopic way. Each woman speaks in the idiom of her particular historical era, but their speeches overlap, emphasizing their common experiences resisting patriarchy across generations. Churchill also uses language as an indicator of class status and social differentiation her depiction of 1970s Britain. The female characters who work at Top Girls – Nell, Win, and Marlene – speak in a casual, slang-heavy manner that places them inside an elite and competitive circle of professional women. Meanwhile, Joyce and Angie use caustic, curse-laden language that marks them as working class individuals. Angie’s simple vocabulary, however, also carries an emotional intensity and directness that recalls Dull Gret’s speech in Act I.
Thatcherite England and Feminist Politics
Caryl Churchill has publicly acknowledged that Margaret Thatcher’s rise to the position of British Prime Minister was an important inspiration for writing Top Girls. Churchill is deeply interested in feminism and the ongoing consequences of the women’s liberation movement. There was a certain irony in Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to power in the wake of feminism, since Thatcher’s policies were deeply conservative and anti-feminist. The feminist movement in Britain has been typically connected to left-wing political positions, especially socialism. In Top Girls, Churchill draws upon this contradiction in her depiction of Marlene, a woman who is extremely successful in the professional world, but whose victories on this front appear to come at the cost of ignoring her personal life. Churchill clearly depicts the conflicting views over Thatcher in the conversation between Joyce and Marlene. Marlene is proud that Thatcher, a woman, has become such a powerful elected official, while Joyce does not consider Thatcher's gender in her assessment that the Prime Minister's policies are suffocating the working class.
Churchill’s play draws upon techniques of surrealist theater, especially in Act 1. First and foremost, the dinner party collects female guests from various moments in history, and impossibly brings them together for a night of celebration in light of Marlene’s promotion. In addition, the group's interwoven, choppy dialogue is a departure from the ordered, linear progression that defines most dramatic writing. The women tell their stories in a dream-like, associative quality - an essential aspect of surrealist art. The play’s explicit political affiliations with left-wing socialism also connect it to traditions of surrealist art and theater, which sought to shatter the illusions of bourgeois society. In Acts 2 and 3, instances of unnerving behavior stand out as subtly surrealist elements with the power to upset the status quo – such as Angie’s macabre statement: "I put on this dress to kill my mother.”
Public vs. Private Life
Bourgeois capitalist societies tend to erect a strong barrier between the public and private spheres, and Top Girls calls this divide into question. Contemporary capitalism depends upon the basic presumption that individuals are born as autonomous public persons with equal access to the market, which allows them to amass wealth through hard work. Meanwhile, individuals also have the freedom to pursue their own religious, moral, and romantic desires in their private lives. Churchill challenges these basic presumptions through her depictions of Marlene, Nell, and Win as professionally successful women who play by the vicious rules of the corporate game in order to secure their success. These women have fractured or nearly non-existent private lives, whereas the men they work with, such as Howard Kidd, depend upon women to secure their private lives - having their children and running their homes. Joyce’s character represents the opposite side of this split, since she is a single woman who has chosen to remain bound to familial obligations, but is deeply unhappy and frustrated by her lack of opportunities. Ultimately, Churchill’s play suggests that the public-private distinction makes unjust demands upon women.
Oppression and Empowerment
Top Girls depicts political economic conditions of oppression in 1970s Britain. Many working class families, like Joyce and Angie, experienced nothing but difficulty, and saw no opportunities for advancement. Joyce and Marlene's blue-collar upbringing was marked by parental conflict and constant disappointment due to their father’s limited opportunities for work. This led him to beat Marlene and Joyce’s mother, who was effectively trapped in a situation of domestic abuse. However, the play also suggests that there may be opportunities to resist structures of oppression that stem from conventions surrounding class and gender. For instance, the dinner party in Act I allows Churchill to draw surprising connections between women from vastly different classes and historical eras, through their common resistance to patriarchal oppression. Also, the success of the women at the Top Girls agency shows a form of empowerment, although it is qualified by the fact that the women use their intelligence to further their individual situations rather than to critically engage the patriarchy that undergirds their professional environment.
Aggression and Female Relationships
Through Churchill's representations of women’s struggles across history, Top Girls critically examines the mutual aggression that can arise between women. Nell, Win, and Marlene all support each other at the employment agency, referring to themselves as “tough birds” who recognize that they are playing and winning in a man’s world. Yet there is also a strong degree of competition between them, which we see when Nell expresses envy that Marlene has been promoted over her. The conflict between supporting other women and viewing them as professional rivals is central to the play’s critical evaluation of modern capitalist values. Similarly, Angie and Joyce have a hostile, even violent relationship, even though Joyce has raised Angie as her daughter. Kit’s friendship with Angie further complicates Angie’s relationship with Joyce, because Kit is more intelligent and has a more promising future than her older friend. Churchill strikingly captures the aggression between Angie and Joyce when Angie changes into the dress that Marlene gave her, which symbolizes the intense conflict between Joyce and Marlene, and states her intent to kill her mother. These examples represent the critical challenges women face in building meaningful and supportive relationships with other women, especially in a world that inflates the role of individual over the collective.
Top Girls Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Top Girls is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Alone, Marlene sits wrapped in a blanket and pours herself another drink. Angie comes into the room and calls out “Mum?” Marlene says “Angie? What’s the matter?” and again Angie calls out “Mum?” Marlene replies, “Not, she’s gone to bed. It’s Aunty...