Play Time: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls centers on Marlene, an agent at the London-based Top Girls employment agency, who has just been promoted to manager. The action of the play occurs in three main spaces: the Top Girls agency, where the audience sees the tensions Marlene and her female colleagues are facing in a male-dominated world; the home of Marlene’s sister Joyce and Marlene’s illegitimate child that Joyce has raised as her own, where the audience sees Marlene’s lower-class roots and her rejection and contempt for them; and, the opening scene taking up more than a third of the play, a celebratory luncheon attended by historical female figures—some fictional, some real, some a combination of both—advising Marlene on her success and relating their own stories of achievement and challenges in patriarchal societies.

While there is no dramatic this-leads-to-that connection between these different spaces, they are all in conversation with one another, and in productions of the play all of the actors for the historical figures are double cast as other characters throughout the rest of the play. This thematic dialogue between the different spaces is what ties the play together into a cohesive exploration of female empowerment, and the self-destructive nature of empowerment through capitalistic, patriarchal means. It’s also, in itself, a theatrical way to represent how past and present overlap, echo, and argue—both the past of Marlene’s personal life, and the past of the entirety of history.

Interruptions and Continuations

The first scene of the play does an excellent job of dramatizing the conversation of history, with five historical figures converging in the present moment. Rather than a normal, back-and-forth conversation, the characters talk around one another. Instead of one character telling a story about an illness they had, and another saying “I had something like that too—how long did it last for you?” the dialogue runs more like:

“ISABELLA: But even though my spine was agony I managed very well.
“MARLENE: Wonderful.
“NIJO: Once I was ill for four months lying alone at an inn. Nobody to offer a horse to Buddha. I had to live for myself, and I did live.
“ISABELLA: Of course you did. It was far worse returning to Tobermory. I always felt dull when I was stationary. / That’s why I would never stay anywhere.
“NIJO: Yes, that’s it exactly. New sights. The shrine by the sea. The goddess had vowed to save all living things. / She would even save the fishes. I was full of hope.
“JOAN: I had thought the Pope would know everything.” (24-25)

The way they converse bears more resemblance to the way a reader might talk to the narrator of a book, or a character in a TV show. Their responses are more reflective, always relating things back to their own lives. There can never be a real, interactive conversation between these people, because they are so far removed from one another in time and space. What can exist instead is echoing—one character’s experience with motherhood launching another into talking about her own children. Churchill brings this to life by having the characters constantly talking over one another (the point of interruption indicated with a slash), sometimes in harmonious ways, other times in a great, loud, confusing mess. It isn’t everyday dialogue, which can only happen in a fixed time, but the dialogue of history, which can occur in any time, or removed from time, depending on how the viewer approaches it.

It’s hard to say what this scene represents, or if it represents anything in the literal world, but it does clearly show how Marlene is approaching these historical figures. She isn’t interested in chronology or even the influence these people have had on the world, she’s interested in the issues that each of them faced that remained constant from thirteenth century Japan to nineteenth century Scotland. While most of the historical figures only talk about themselves and ask few questions of the others, Marlene is the opposite. She drops brief asides about her own life, but mostly she’s interested in asking questions of the women—seeking their advice to apply it to her own life.

The scene portrays the dramatic discourse of history—the way that long deceased writers who knew absolutely nothing of one another, who may’ve spoken completely different languages, can seem to be sitting down at the same dining table, arguing and agreeing and interrupting one another, treading the same topics and experiences again and again.

Doubling

If the first scene explores how a pantheon of past figures interact with one another, the rest of the play explores how the past interacts with the present. For a start, everyone except Marlene is double cast. While there are some resonances in this type of casting (the actress for Dull Griet, a loud, greedy townswoman depicted plundering the gates of hell in a Brueghel painting, is double cast as Angie, Marlene’s strong-headed, violent daughter) there’s truly resonance between all of the characters, whether they are linked by a common actor or not. One of the most striking instances of mirroring is between Marlene and Pope Joan, a historic/mythic woman who pretended to be a man to become the pope. While Marlene doesn’t flat out pretend to be a man like Joan, she does reject her motherhood, and takes on the cutthroat, callous attitude of her male counterparts in order to succeed in her career. And motherhood itself is a motif repeated across many different characters, a struggle that Lady Nijo and Patient Griselda and Pope Joan all had to deal with, and which the female characters in the twentieth century are wrestling with as well.

With the final scene, the harmony and disharmony between past and present is dealt with in a narrower scope, with Marlene going to visit her sister Joyce and her daughter Angie. Joyce lives in a lower class community, as did Joyce and Marlene’s parents, and their grandparents before them. In the final moments of the play, as Joyce and Marlene argue about Thatcherism and the working class, Joyce wonders about Angie’s future, and if “her children will say what a wasted life she had,” (97) just like Marlene and Joyce said about their own mother. And while it’s clear in the play that Marlene has escaped this life that Joyce and Angie are still trapped in, and Marlene will not relive the past life of her mother, she hasn’t escaped the past. As the audience has seen from all the women in scene one, Marlene’s actually only shifted into reliving a different kind of life. She hasn’t escaped the past, she’s merely moved from one role into conversation with another—she’s reliving the masculine transformation of Pope Joan, the long periods of separation from her children of Lady Nijo, and the distance from her sister of Isabella Bird.

Conclusion

Although it’s plot is scattered, a kaleidoscope of different time periods and public and private spaces, Top Girls closes the gaps between moments in history, and between moments in the present lives of the characters. Most literally, it does this by bringing five historical figures together at a dining room table, where the audience can see their lives and stories overlapping, responding to one another, and arguing with one another. It also closes these gaps by presenting all these different scenes together on a stage, for the duration of one evening at the theater. Churchill does not deliver her argument, an argument about recurring struggles for women, and the pressure to assimilate and reject femininity in order to succeed, by means of a conventional plot where one scene causes the next and it’s all resolved by some character revelation—rather, she allows the audience to make their own connections between these thematically cohesive scenes. The audience can draw lines between meetings at the Top Girls agency in 1982 to events in Rome in the ninth century to a conversation between Joyce and Marlene in 1981—responding, themselves, to another piece of history (if recent history) brought into the present by the theatre.

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