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)

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