Top Girls (1982) by Caryl Churchill is a play that explores the struggles faced by women through ages in order to establish themselves in a patriarchal world. It encapsulates the theme of feminism, intertwining it with the social and political issues of the time. Written in the time when Women Movements were being accorded, the play talks about the advancing image of the “New Woman”, at the same time underscoring the price paid to attain the same. The play is nonetheless thought-provoking and the most recounted play by Caryl, and is even considered a masterpiece.
The play focuses on the life of Marlene, a career-driven woman, who has been recently promoted to the post of a Managing Director in her employment agency called ‘Top Girls’. In order to celebrate she goes out for dinner with five women from the past in Act One. It is a surreal scene which resurrects these women from legend, myth and history. All of them narrate their life experiences of how they strived through life and succeeded in their own ways. Despite being from different eras of history and belonging to different social classes, what unites them is their common attempt, however small or intense, of not succumbing to patriarchy.
Isabella Bird, the Victorian traveler, and also the first European woman to have met the Moroccan Emperor, talks about her thirst for travel and adventures and her aversion towards the concept of settling in a “domestic life”. It highlights the sense of independence that travel granted her and that she achieved despite her severe health issues. She performed her duties as well, but it is her desire to explore that makes her admirable.
Lady Nijo, through her experiences as a mistress to the Emperor of Japan, draws attention to the sexual exploitation faced by women under such professions. However, Nijo not only accepts her position but also believes its honorable, which is worth noting. She rebels to the act of patriarchy by beating the emperor for one of his heinous ceremonies. This act of hers is not only praiseworthy but also indicative of the little acts through which women challenged the male dominance.
Pope Joan is another noteworthy woman who left home to seek knowledge and disguised herself as a man later. She inspired people with her knowledge and served as a Pope. However on being discovered she was “stoned to death” because “children, women and lunatics can’t be Pope”. This accentuates the horrors women go through in a man’s world. Not only are they denied of equal opportunities such as education, but are exterminated on being discovered in places/positions they are forbidden. Nonetheless, Joan is an inspiration to women of all eras.
Dull Gret led an army of women peasants into hell, fighting Devils, killing them ruthlessly. Her story is one of valor and strength, exhibiting the power of women to fight against all the problems, big or small. Patient Griselda is another guest, who is famous for her integrity and forbearing character. Despite suffering at the hands of her husband, much to the displeasure of other guests, she forgives him. Her character is in opposition to other guests but does highlight the forgiving nature and the strength of a woman’s character.
All these women bear entirely different characters and were a part of different circumstances, but they are glorified for their strength. This scene has a feminist aspect to it as we see them encouraging, supporting and empowering each other, thus inspiring the womankind.
Along with surrealism, the play also adopts features of Brechtian Drama in the form of alienation effect and also the cast playing different characters in different scenes.
However the core of the play lies in the following acts, Two and Three, which examines the central issues faced by women in a modern world.
Marlene comes across as the “Modern Woman”, who gives up her personal life for her job. Women in those days could choose either their career or have a family. She chooses the former at a price of being disowned by her sister. Joyce, on the other hand, chooses the domestic life and is envious of her sister’s, Marlene’s success. In fact, Marlene’s act of leaving behind family to progress in life is looked upon by them as abandonment. She is abhorred for being ambitious. Indeed, none of them are fully happy in their situations because they both are in extremes, which highlights the need for a balance between domestic and career-driven life.
If you analyze the play from a feminist perspective you will have mixed reviews. Marlene is inspiring for the success she manages to achieve in a male dominated world. It emphasizes the ability of women to establish themselves in every front. It is very empowering to see her act in her role as an independent, tough woman who achieves her goals. Her reaction to Mrs Kidd’s accusations is commendable because she retains her position as being worthy of it. In fact a modern feminist would even consider her hatred for her father for his acts of domestic violence as just in nature and feminist in approach.
However, Marlene also ends up appearing “anti-feminist” as she makes use of same instruments that patriarchy does in order to survive. We do see instances of women being dominated by other women. For example, Marlene doesn’t really care much about Joyce or Angie, who is her daughter and has no heart for the “weak, lazy or frightened”. She is too professional and even ignorant of the struggles of working class. She supports Margaret Thatcher, who despite being first woman British Prime Minister, didn’t do much to improve women’s situation. As some critics say, Marlene does embody some elements of patriarchy, as she makes use of similar standards that men do to achieve success, at the cost of other women, focusing only self growth and benefit and not showing much kindness.
Such a portrayal of her character is done only to critique it, highlighting the feminist aspect of the play. As Churchill remarks, “What use is the female emancipation if it transforms clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, the weak and the helpless? Does freedom and feminism consist of aggressively adopting the very values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?”
So Marlene does come across as a character embodying both feminist and anti-feminist qualities. She isn’t entirely blamed for the choices she makes and isn’t considered entirely heartless.
The play does intertwine gender with social scenarios and is even considered a socialist play as it talks about the respect and rights that the working classes deserve but aren’t granted. It also traces relationships among women which can also be of envy and resentment. It also talks about their relationships with men, about childbearing and also abortion, giving an insight to the right of women to live life on their own terms.
The play also gives prominence to the hardships faced by women in their careers and jobs. The disadvantage of being rejected in employment opportunities in favor of a man, or being scorned by the people for being chosen over a man, both underline the society’s allotment of role given to women, inferior to that of men. However, the play rejects such notions as we constantly see the portrayal of successful women throughout the play.
To conclude, the play involves giving voice to women and their experiences, empowering them, encouraging them, talking about their success stories despite their tribulation. At the same time it also focuses on the need to indulge in a form of growth that not only helps the individuals but in fact everyone collectively, and the need to not only improve conditions of women but also other classes. Also it emphasizes the importance to having the right balance between career and personal life. The play rejects patriarchy and calls for a feminism that empathizes with other women and helps them grow too and not just individuals. Indeed, the play is a perfect example of a feminist text.
By- Raghvika Kohli, 1136