Analysis of ‘Top Girls’ by Caryl Churchill
Analysis of ‘Top Girls’ by Caryl Churchill – Caryl Churchill was born in 1938 in London. During the war years, the family moved to Montreal. After schooling there, she came back to England to study at the Oxford University. While she studied there, she wrote several plays which were performed by student theatre groups. Caryl Churchill had a lot of interest in non-naturalistic techniques, feministic themes and the styles popularized by Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. Top Girls was written in 1982 when feminist movements were at their peak. It ponders about the price women pay for success in professional life and also about what being a successful woman means in society.
The play focuses primarily on Marlene, a successful head of an employment agency. The play opens with one of those dreamy surreal openings made famous by the author. We see famous strong women personalities from history and fiction coming together at a dinner party and talking about their experiences in life. The story moves back and forth in time and the audience can understand the past and present side by side.
The setting for the opening scene of the play is a restaurant where Marlene awaits her guests. Marlene is celebrating her promotion as head of the employment agency where she works. Soon the guests, who were strong historical or fictional women, talk about their struggles in life when they tried to achieve personal goals. Often, they had to struggle against authority and society and face adversities but they did not give up their struggle. Some of them even had cruel and uncaring husbands or lovers; some lost their children for trivial causes.
Lady Nijo went to meet the emperor of Japan seeking his help on certain issues but she is raped by him. She considers this her destiny but she cannot be with the child she gives birth to as he has royal blood. In the ninth century Joan hid her true identity and became the Pope but it was revealed that her had given birth to a child and hence was a woman. It was heresy for a woman to be a Pope and she was stoned to death. Griselda’s husband was obsessed with making her prove her loyalty and in that effort she loses two of her innocent children. All these women have lost their children in one way or the other.
In Act Two, Scene One, Marlene interviews Jeanine who is not particular about what job she does as long as it fulfills her passion for travel and provides her with the opportunity to be with her husband. Marlene isn’t that kind of personality but she finds Jeanine interesting. Scene Two opens with the young girls Angie and Kit playing with each other. Angie is a foul mouthed girl uninterested in studies. She seems to dislike her mother and tells Kit that she plans to kill her mother, Joyce. For all her macabre talk, she is immature.
The Top Girls employment agency is the setting for the third scene. Two office workers Nell and Win spend their time gossiping before starting work. In comes Louise who is a client, looking for a job as she finds herself at a dead-end. She has worked very hard for several years but is always overlooked when promotions are offered. She has no interests outside her office but she feels that it’s time to move on and look for a new job. Marlene has a visitor, her niece Angie who idolizes her aunt.
She has left home doesn’t want to go back. Marlene is not pleased but she offers to keep Angie for the time being. Another visitor drops in, Mrs. Kidd, the wife of Harold who lost to Marlene in the race for promotions. She says her husband is devastated and wants Marlene to give up her present position which Marlene flatly refuses to do.
The person to enter is Shona who comes with highly inflated credentials. She claims to be twenty nine with many years of experience working in a sales office. Nell is initially impressed with her resume but soon finds out it is all hollow. Meanwhile, Angie is chatting with Win about her aunt and Win’s lives but midway she falls asleep. The office gets the news of Harold suffering a heart attack but no one is very concerned.
The next scene goes back in time by a year; the setting now is Joyce’s kitchen where Joyce, her daughter Angie and her sister sit chatting. When Angie goes to bed, Joyce and Marlene continue talking about politics and Thatcher’s economic policies. The topic now moves to Angie and Joyce states that Angie shows no promise and nothing much will come of her. Marlene feels that Joyce is taking an extreme view regarding Angie. Soon it is revealed that Marlene is Angie’s biological mother but she had left her in Joyce’s care as she did not want to sacrifice her career. This trauma probably caused Joyce to lose the baby she was carrying.
This is a play which in three acts, deals with the question, what does success mean to women and what price do they pay to achieve it. All the characters who appear in the play are women. Caryl Churchill uses a surreal setting as the opening scene. The occasion is a dinner party that the main character throws to celebrate her promotion as the head of an employment agency. The guests are fictional and historical characters who had come into conflict with society and with individuals. Some of the guests are Lady Nijo, Pope Joan, Dull Gret and Lady Griselda. All of them have suffered privations with most of them losing or having to give up their children.
In the first scene of the second act, the action switches to the employment agency where Marlene interviews Jeanine who isn’t a career minded woman. The second scene mostly consists of Marlene’s niece Angie and her friend Kit spending their time playing with each other. Angie is a sullen unpleasant kind of child who shocks Kit by saying that she is planning to kill her mother Joyce. Joyce is Marlene’s sister. In the third scene the focus shifts back to the employment agency where Nell and Win are indulge in office gossip in the morning.
The first client for the day is Louise who is 46 years old and is looking for a change in profession. She has worked selflessly for many years in an office but now she feels she can’t grow anymore at her current workplace because she never gets promoted. She has been so devoted to work that she has no social life or other interests. Marlene is visited by Angie who has come away from home with no intentions of going back. Marlene is not pleased though she lets Angie spend the night a
t her place. Mrs. Harold Kidd, the wife of the man over whom Marlene has been promoted suddenly drops in. She says that the loss of promotion has devastated him. She suggests that Marlene should give up her new position, something which Marlene rejects outright.
Shona is a client who claims that she is twenty nine years old with years of experience working in the sales department of an office. Initially Nell is impressed with Shona but soon realizes that her resume is inflated. Angie meanwhile chats with Win about her aunt whom she idolizes. Halfway through the conversation, she falls asleep. News comes in that Harold has had a heart attack but no one is bothered by the news.
The next scene goes back in time. Marlene, her sister Joyce and her daughter Angie are in Joyce’s kitchen chatting. When Angie goes to bed the two sisters discuss Mrs. Thatcher’s rule and her economic policies. They disagree on most matters. Joyce tells Marlene that Angie is neither intelligent nor hard working. Marlene thinks she is exaggerating. It turns out that Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter and she had left her with Joyce so that she could focus on her career. This trauma led to Joyce having a miscarriage and losing her own baby.
Marlene is the central character in the play. She has just been promoted and now heads the employment agency where she works. Success means a lot to her. She has abandoned her daughter, leaving her in the care of her sister in order to pursue her career unhindered. Marlene does not bond with her biological daughter and she is ruthless when it comes to preserving her job. She wastes no sympathy on Harold when he suffers a heart attack brought on by his inability to get promoted.
Joyce is Marlene’s sister who adopts Marlene’s child because Marlene wants to pursue her career. She loses her child as a result of a miscarriage and she is resentful. She recognizes that Angie, the daughter she brings up has no special talents and isn’t intelligence. Her politics are left of center and she is not impressed by Thatcher’s policies.
Angie is Marlene’s biological daughter but she does not know that. She thinks her mother is Joyce. Her equation with Joyce is poor and she tells Kit that she plans on killing her mother. Joyce’s assessment that Angie is neither intelligent nor hardworking is true to a certain extent.
Women and Careers
The main theme of Top Girls is women and careers and the adjustments they make to their personal life to achieve success. The main character, Marlene, is a successful woman but she has achieved success at the cost of a normal private life. Marlene has abandoned her child in order to be a professional. Her sister Joyce, on the other hand, is a stay-at-home mother but her views regarding politics and economics are less conservative than her sister’s. The guests to the surreal dinner party are mostly women who transcended traditional gender roles. But their lives weren’t complete. Caryl Churchill brings issues that vex women who seek balance in their professional and private lives to the forefront.
Thatcher’s England and Feminist Politics
Caryl Churchill has in several places mentioned the rise of Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister of England as the chief inspiration behind Top Girls. Margaret Thatcher was a powerful role model for all the women in England who were aspiring to be career women. Thatcher was married and had children and a successful career even before she entered politics. The conflict in Thatcher’s role as Prime minister comes from the fact that in spite of being a woman, her policies were anti-feminist. She was deeply conservative. But feminist politics has traditionally been identified as being connected with leftist politics.