Top Girls  is considered to be one of the most important works by Caryl Churchill on socialism and feminism. It is a play that is comic in presentation but serious in content, dealing with relations between female success and political positions, and examining the social and economic conditions, and the lines of women in present day England.[1] Top Girls is a farcical work that handles serious issues of power, despair, hatred and arson.

The play was written and performed at a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to dominate the political scene in Britain, achieving for herself the image of the strong executive who can handle the affairs of the state. However, the play itself is a critique of Thatcherism as a model for women’s achievements. If women have to be Margaret Thatcher in order to become achievers in a male dominated world, then this is nothing but a new form of enslavement for women, rather than a form of liberty.[2]

Staged at the Royal Court Theater, the National Theater, and Broadway, Top Girls strikes the themes of the universality of sisterhood, the sacrifices women have undergone in functioning in a male dominated world, and the relationship between economics and sex.[3]

Top Girls defines the content of success that so far has been achieved by women in England. However, the play also criticizes this progress considering it insufficient. It also dramatizes the “economic status of women in business” and asserts the impossibility of attaining social reform within a system of class distinctions.

By all means, this is a play that deals directly with the issues and problems of women and their liberation. However, it cannot be considered as a “women’s play,” although all its characters are female, and simply because gender is decentralized. Yet, the shadow of gender relations cannot be overlooked in this play, especially that the experiences of women and their agonies cannot be detached from the social universe, one which is dominated by male chauvinism and one which is influenced by the gender equation.

Act I starts with the six women invited to Marlene’s luncheon party, exhibiting their ‘diversity’ in their cultural attitudes toward gender, ethics, family, religion and class. The play suggests that Marlene’s bourgeois style is culturally conditioned, for she achieves success through conforming to patriarchal hierarchy rather than challenging it. Marlene, as the dialogue between the two sisters shows, is someone who believes in the “individual” viewing monetarism as an intelligent policy and the first woman prime minister as “terrific,” whereas Joyce questions the good of the first woman, and sees her as “Hitlerina.”[4]

The title of the play, Top Girls,  implies irony at the superficiality of women’s changing social position all through the ages. The title is also the name of the London employment agency, whose head executive is Marlene, the play’s protagonist and a top girl herself.[5]

The title in itself is very important. First of all, it signifies that women have reached the top positions in management and business. However, it also signifies a lot of irony, since revealing the reality of this transformation in women’s position has not been real, but rather, superficial. Therefore, the title is used as a double-edged weapon, one which praises the transformation of women, and at the same time, one which criticizes this transformation, considering it to be purposeless and only artificial.

The first act in the play is only an introduction in which Caryl Churchill exploits history in an impressive manner that is very similar to her technique used in Cloud Nine where she starts with Victorian England and then carries her characters to the late twentieth century. In Top Girls, she did not only travel back in time, but also in the social dimension, choosing her characters from different cultures, societies, and backgrounds. In the acts that follow, Caryl Churchill carries her audience to the 1980s at Marlene’s Top Girls world. Here at the employment agency, Marlene and other trained employees interview several job applicants. The message is very clear ¾ the road to success and to reaching the top is sprinkled with pain.[6]

Apparently, Marlene, the play’s central figure, may be looked at as another duplicate of the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. This is a point that Top Girls strikes at. Another issue Top Girls  unfolds is that Marlene, being a “caricature” of Thatcher, exists with many other Marlenes who maintain negative attitude toward the under-privileged and the uneducated.

Adopting Thatcher’s “competitive success ethos”[7] the dynamic Marlene is an individualist obsessed with her own advancement and does not take into consideration the lives of the unfortunate  and the less educated like Joyce, her sister, and Angie, her daughter. She demands that every one should have her “drive ambition and fire,”[8] and should not expect any help from the state or anyone. Marlene has had the privilege of being helped but refuses to extend help to anyone. When faced with her own daughter’s lack of any possible future, she neglects the whole issue as a case that cannot be handled, and remarks that Angie is a “no hoper.” However, she also remarks that Angie will be able to do it on her own, which signifies two major themes. The first is that the Thatcher-Marlene perspective of the world is a Darwinian perspective where everyone has to develop and survive on his own, because survival is for the fittest. And secondly, the Thatcher-Marlene perspective expects everyone to be on his or her own, without any support from bigger brothers or sisters, the state in this case.

As a feminist managing an agency, Marlene oppresses other women or other people, such as the waitress serving at the dinner party and her sister Joyce, not to mention her own daughter. When interviewing job hunters, she offers them “dismal salaries” and requires them to “conform to the male stereotypes.”[9]

In Top Girls Churchill sees each citizen as a “helpless, exploited victim of a dehumanizing capitalistic system.”[10] Marlene neglects her own daughter as “a bit thick” and “she’s not going to make it.” Top Girls questions the benefit of female emancipation, if it “transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the helpless, stupid and weak?”[11]

As it explores the gains and losses of women’s liberation movements, Top Girls makes a comment on the theme of women’s oppression, whether they are in the form of burning witches in the seventeenth century, or the “twenty-century aspect of the battered wife or child.”[12]

By choosing all the characters of Top Girls as females, Churchill observes that exploitation is practiced by top girls toward their own sex.[13] Marlene is an alive example of this phenomenon. Having been born in a poor low-class family in the suburbs, Marlene still bears grudge toward her father who “abused her down-trodden mother” and refused to visit her old mother. Surprisingly, believing seriously in her own success story, she states that she will not help anyone get a job, and “Why should I?”[14] “Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.” And when Joyce asks Marlene what sort of chances the dull, untalented daughter Angie might have in this world, Marlene simply does not have an answer to this “human question.”[15] This is in spite of the fact that the unfortunate girl Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter, but it is apparent that Marlene does not take such human problems and issues into consideration, as she does not take “into account the lives of Angie and her less fortunate sister.”[16]

Marlene possesses all the traits that make of her a true representative of the trends in the 1980s decade. This decade is considered as the decade of “greedy mergers and inquisitors, of women hating and homophobia.”[17]

Marlene’s deep conservatism, her admiration for Thatcher and Reagan, her prejudice against the working class, and her material selfishness suggest that one can accomplish success only by adopting the “venal, callous, competitive  procedures of men.”[18]

At the same time, Angie and Joyce represent the trends prevalent in the 1980s decade in being both sufferers and victims of a dehumanizing capitalistic system. Joyce is  a socialist, a working class woman who toils in a council house to bring up a backward teenager, unacknowledged by child’s own mother, Marlene. Living in the bleak working class countryside, and taking “four cleaning jobs,”[19] Joyce is a “caring and sacrificing” woman.[20]

The relationship between Joyce and Marlene is marred with resentment and exposes an irreconcilable class conflict between two daughters of the same parents. Joyce now categorizes Marlene as belonging to the “them” class, since she denied her origin and went up the mobile social ladder while she and her mother belong to the “us” class. The backward teenager, whom Joyce is rearing has been handed over to her by Marlene who had left for London, and whom she openly dismisses as “a bit thick.”

In the long final scene, Joyce bickers with Marlene who looks down on her, as being an underachiever who has remained stuck at home. Joyce makes an accusatory statement on Marlene’s ungenerous attitude when she remarks, “I’m all right, here where I was.”

A top girl herself, a winner in a man’s world, one who openly takes Thatcher as a model and neglects the social pressing issues of her underprivileged daughter and sister, such is Marlene. What Top Girls seems to say is that the danger of worldly success lies in the fact that it hardens the feelings of both women and men alike.[21]

Into an ultrafashionable London restaurant, a group of five girls drawn together from history, fiction, and literature are invited to a dinner party by an attractive executive.[22] This is how the play opens.

The invitees joining the party dinner are Lady Nijo, of the 13th century who was a member in the Japanese Emperor’s court; Isabella Bird, an English traveler of the 13th century; Dull Gret, who succeeded in leading invasion to hell in Burgel’s painting; Pope Joan, who disguising herself as a man, reached the pinnacle of the Church and was announced a pope between 854 and 856; and Patient Griselda, the submissive wife in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.[23]

The ghost characters are busy telling their narrative tales, but they hardly behave as panel celebrities. They all talk at once, and their voices overlap. However, it is understood that they all have accomplished extraordinary achievements.[24] The occasion on which these women gathered is to celebrate the promotion of a modern career woman over a male colleague, to the head of an employment agency.[25] The guests are delighted to give accounts of the harsh and brutal treatment they had received as a price for their successes.[26]

After the long opening scene, the women change into contemporary English women: mothers, children, and career girls who learn to cope with their new social roles as with the new freedom and its entrapments.[27]

The opening scene of Top Girls throws together history with contemporary time by depicting a fanciful luncheon party to which a group of selected successful women from the past are invited by a “cool competent and decidedly pretty hostess”[28] Marlene of the present, who has been promoted to the managing directorship of the Top Girls Employment Agency. The women hosted at Marlene’s party have in varied ways been overachievers and ‘top girls’ once in their times, and could survive within the rigid norms of “male-domination cultures.”[29] What contributes to the rich texture of the scene is their “comic disharmonies” and their differences.[30]

Each one of these personages drawn from history, art and literature has her own concerns and obsessions. Isabella is worried over her “Victorian, moral muscularity;” Lady Nijo, upset about the “thin silks” that she was privileged to wear; Pope Joan is taken by religious disquisition; Gret unable to calm her sensory instincts towards potatoes, cake and big cocks; and Patient Griselda subjected by complete obedience.[31]

The implied narrative is that these heroic individual women are like Mrs. Thatcher, the triumphant feminist of the present.[32] Hostess Marlene offers a toast to “All of us and our extraordinary achievements,” admitting the fct that “We’ve come a long way,” and that they all have suffered personally and through the abuse of their children; however, they coped with superior courage and magnanimity.”[33]

Similarly, Marlene, a representative of Thatcher, achieved triumph at a great cost: the deprivation of love and motherhood, and being subjected to abortion and rejection. The tough and callous Marlene, and the whole staff women of her agency are training girls to fit into the “male dominated business universe” by manipulating the limited freedom they have won as unfairly towards their fellow women.[34]

At this point, the world of Marlene’s employment agency, and her present success in business are set against and contrasted to her emotional chaotic past, to the unresolved conflict with her sister, and the slightly retarded and illicit daughter who is being reared by Joyce in her simply countryside house in Suffolk.[35]

The play closes with a scene revealing Marlene paying her sister Joyce a visit at her Suffolk farm. Marlene had quite the family at the age of seventeen. The sisters argue and the argument degenerates into a petty quarrel.[36] Joyce seizes the opportunity to pour out her “resentment” at Marlene’s behavior saying, “you’re the one who went away, not me.” She reminds her that she is right in the place “where I was,” and that she still keeps her father’s grave with flowers, and goes to see her mother every week.[37]

Marlene, however, resorts to crying complaining, “let me cry. I like it.” Tears are blended with politics. Marlene – the “high-flying” lady expresses her admiration for the prime minister Thatcher, and her scorn for the working class and the Labor Party, to which Joyce is attached. Marlene supports Reagan and believes that “anyone can do anything if they’ve got what  it takes.” However, Joyce simply raises the issue with sarcasm wondering, “And if they haven’t?”

Marlene immediately has her bold response saying, “If they are stupid, lazy or frightened I’m not going to help them get a job.” Ironically, these characteristics are exactly those of Angie and even when confronted with this reality, Marlene chooses to ignore it. Rather, Marlene ignores Joyce’s question and asserts that any woman can accomplish what she has done, provided that she is not stupid, lazy, or frightened, and is willing to put on the male qualities that help her to succeed in a man’s world. Ironically, the play terminates with the word “frightening” uttered by Angie who has run out of her bed scared by a nightmare. The action takes a circular shape and leaves the situation unresolved – whether Marlene will accept her daughter or not.

The first act is a dinner party given by Marlene in honor of her promotion to the head of the employment agency. The invitees are a group of five selected women from the past, some real and some fictional. The message announced by Act I is binding the ties among sisters of history and struggle. Like marlene, the famous guests are “top girls,” because women who have “come a long way” and accomplished “extraordinary achievements.”[38]

Each woman gives an account of her own biography, longings, obsessions and dreams. As they talk, their dialects overlap.[39] A modern young working woman, the nameless waitress who serves the dinner is not given any attention by the successful achievers and hence is dehumanized. Act I reveals the resentment with which the universal females are treated and in their turn, they project this resentment in their indifference towards the waitress.

Act II, Scene I shifts suddenly into Marlene’s agency in London, where she is interviewing a job applicant name Jeanine, who wants a job for the “sake of change and for more money.”[40] As Marlene is questioning Jeanine, much is revealed about the problems that women encounter as they are striving to earn their living. Jeanine is saving to get married, and consequently, she has not bought a ring as she reveals to Marlene, “We thought we wouldn’t spend on a ring.”[41]

Act II, Scene II takes place in Joyce’s backyard, where Angie and Kit are playing in a shelter made of junk. As Angie hears Joyce’s voice, she expresses her hatred towards her, “Wish she was dead.”[42] Angie and Kit have decided to watch the movie, “the Exterminator” a film of violence. Angie exhibits symptoms of extreme violence, verbally and in actions by licking the blood on her friend’s finger to become “a cannibal.”[43]

Angie’s problems are revealed through her words and deeds. She has an intuitive feeling that Marlene is her real mother so she takes a decision “to kill my mother.”[44]She shows that she loathes Joyce and dreams of going to London to live with Aunt Marlene. Her words reflect her determination to do so, especially when she says, “I don’t mind blood. If I don’t get away from here, I’m going to die.”[45]

Angie’s language is vulgar. She describes Joyce using slag and feels proud of her Aunt Marlene who “gets people jobs.”[46] Angie then appears in an old best dress, slightly small for her size, picks a brick and says, “you can kill people with a brick. I put on this dress to kill my mom.”

Act II, Scene III, moves to Marlene’s employment agency in London. Win and Nell, two employees are chatting about Nell’s new boyfriend and they are waiting for the showing up of “the top executives who doesn’t come in as early as the poor working girl.” As Marlene is interviewing Louise who dislikes working with a woman boss, Marlene is startled and exclaims, “What? It’s not Angie?”[47]

Angie has come to London dreaming of being claimed by her real mother¾Aunt Marlene. However, Marlene greets her coldly, “unfortunately you’ve picked a day when I’m rather busy, if there’s ever a day when I’m not.”

As much as the girl is delighted to see Marlene, she later is upset and would like to know how long Angie is “planning to stay.” A very touching dialogue goes on between them when Marlene asks how long Angie is going to stay and Angie responds asking, “Don’t you want me?”

It is at this point that Mrs. Kid, Howard’s wife enters Marlene’s office, upset because her husband has not slept with her for three nights and addresses Marlene saying, “I am referring to you being appointed managing director instead of Howard.”[48]

Mrs. Kid is very concerned about her husband’s inability to work for a woman boss. She is not concerned about Marlene’s ambition or about her ability to manage the business. She expects her to leave the post for her husband. Had it been a man who was promoted, Mr. Kid would have gotten over the situation as something “normal.” Mrs. Kid asks Marlene to handle Howard carefully as he is deeply “hurt” and feeling insulted as “he is a man.”[49] Mrs. Kid suggests that Marlene give up the job for Howard since he is charge of a “family.” It is at this point that Marlene asks Mrs. Kid to “piss off.”

Apparently, Marlene is right to have strong feelings about having gotten the job for herself, but she is also not concerned about anything else. She does not treat Howard’s case and she is not even ready to given an ear to his personal sufferings. She is a woman who breaks her way through in life, and she does not given any concessions of any kind, not even on the human level. When she is faced with Angie whom she treats coldly, she apologetically introduces her to her employees as someone who is a “bit thick” and “a bit funny.” She keeps repeating that Angie “is not going to make it.”[50]

Act III abruptly changes to Joyce’s house and kitchen, in Suffolk, London. Angie is seen taking out presents from a carrier bag, brought to her by Marlene who is now paying Joyce a visit. Joyce expresses her preference to have been informed about the visit by complaining, “you could’ve written.” It is revealed that Angie, out of her great love and admiration for her Aunt Marlene, had called her and asked her to come over for a visit, at the request of Joyce. Marlene explains that she has now come back after six years to visit Angie and Joyce, so she say, “I only came because I thought you wanted.”

The two sisters start reviewing past history, each blaming and accusing the other for deeds and misdeeds. The sisterly argument degenerates into a “word-cold-fight,” though the dialogue constitutes an interesting, effective piece revealing personal but common social problems simultaneously. It could be taken as the most touching part of the play. Several events are exposed. For example, Marlene has had a child, Angie, whom she “farmed out to Joyce at birth.”[51] Marlene, in order to realize her career goals, has condemned her daughter to remain “a bottom girl” all her life.[52]

Marlene also sees Maggie as a “tough lady . . . get the economy back on its feet.”[53] She is also very “prejudiced” against the working class, and her maternal selfishness, suggesting that for a woman to attain success in the capitalist Great Britain, she has to acquire the “venal callous competitive procedures of men.”[54]

The relationship between Marlene and her sister reveals the “irreconcilable class conflict”[55] that has broken out between the two sisters of the same parents. As Marlene weeps and pleads  for sympathy, Joyce gains worthy esteem by refusing her sister’s endeavors  to reach a compromise.

The last scene has much of Churchill’s “critical social eye”[56] and revives the central theme of the play. This theme claims that Marlene’s success that made her a “high-powered” lady earning much money, is as hollow and subsidized.”[57]

Both Joyce and Marlene are viewed as deprived and that certain complicated issues are more effective than blood ties.[58]

With respect to theatrical devices,  Top Girl breaks the traditional methods of portraying life on the stage, and recommends new ways of viewing reality.[59] In the dinner-party scene, which Marlene holds to toast her promotion, the absurd panel of celebrities  are so busy, and each panelist is occupied with narrating her own experiences, heedless of others.

The result is that everybody talks at the same time. Their voices overlap, as in the following dramatic situation:

“Joan: As Denys the Areopagite said¾first we give God a name, then deny it / then reconcile the¾

Nijo: In what shape would he return?

Joan: Contradiction by looking beyond! Those terms¾

Marlene: Sorry, what? Denys said what?

Joan: Well we disagreed about it, we quarreled. And next day he was ill, / I was so annoyed with him, all the time I was.

Nijo: Misery in this life and worse in the next, all because of me.

Joan: nursing him I kept going over the arguments in my mind.” [60]

This theatrical device in which each guest tells her tale, sometimes in excitedly overlapping sentences, is meant to add a touch of naturalistic effect to the production, and to imply some lack of mutual attention. The message implied is that women, generally, hardly listen to each other, even when they are looking a woman straight in the face. Hence, women do not sufficiently learn from each other’s experiences. Churchill’s strategy of overlapping voices and her concern with speech rhymes, are meant to add a “naturalistic intention.”[61]

Another theatrical strategy employed by Churchill in Top Girls is the doubling of the roles whereby each character is supposed to act a historical role, as being one of the five panelists, and another contemporary role.[62] To Churchill, the theater is an open frontier where “lives can burst apart and explode.”[63]

Despite all the innovation which Churchill pours into Top Girls, Churchill admits the Brechtian impact on her work, especially that “his ideas have been absorbed into the general pool of shared knowledge.”[64] In Top Girls, Churchill blends feminist strategies with Brechtian techniques. She makes use of “received history” whereby she historicizes the incidents as in the first scene of Top Girls which has the effect of conditioning the audience and urging them to look critically at the social context, and at the character’s behavior in the past, and by viewing the past, they are ready to examine contemporary issues closer to themselves.

As a socialist feminist, Churchill scrutinizes the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, an aspect quite evident in Top Girls. For example, Isabella says “my father was the mainspring of my life and when he died I was so grieved.”[65] She mentions that her father taught her Latin, although she was a girl. Similarly, Nijo remarks that she still did “what my father wanted.”[66]

To Churchill, feminism articulates with socialism, hence the feminist socialist theater articulates with “Brechtian Dramaturgy. “[67] In Top Girls, Churchill analysis the relationship between patriarchy and the economic system. She observes that women have been met with “cruel and unusual punishment” when they declined to conform to economic or sexual systems.”[68]

Top Girls shows how social progressive movements such as Feminism, are always subject to being accommodated” by capitalism. Thus, the moment Marlene achieves corporate success, she rejects her working class background and internalizes male capitalistic ideology. So, Marlene comes to see that “monetarism is not stupid; the eighties are stupendous” and that “Maggie is a touch lady.”[69]

Having read Brecht and Faoucault, Churchill in Top Girls uses “expertly the social jest for feminist ends.”[70] The site of the women’s bodies could be the literal site of gender writing. So when Angie put on the dress brought to her by “aunty Marlene,” the gap between Marlene’s world and Angie’s is portrayed on her body.

The socio-political issues depicted in Top Girls “draw upon the thinking” of R. D. Saing, Frantz Fanon, Eanon, and Michel Foucault. By taking female characters from history, and examining cultural distortions and sexual stereotyping, Churchill in Top Girls seems to have aims similar to Joe Orton’s. In Top Girls, Churchill’s dramatic strategy equates capitalism with sexual exploitation.[71]

Violence is also depicted in Top Girls, although in an indirect manner. It is often the untalented and the underprivileged who turn to be the victims of the dehumanizing capitalistic system. Society dismisses them as hopeless cases in the same way that Marlene dismisses Angie as “being thick and funny.”

As a twelve-year-old, “unkempt and fat”[72], Angie is exposed to several violent situations. She confides to her friend Kit that she has planned murdering her mother and leaving for London to live with her aunt Marlene. As she arrives at the agency, she observes with admiration the tough cookies, that is, the top girls, interviewing job applicants in a very “brutal”[73] manner.

Violence is implied in Marlene’s behavior toward Angie. In order to achieve her career goals, Marlene has doomed her own daughter to be a bottom girl all her life. Likewise, Marlene’s bias against the working class implies violence,[74] and the way she asks Mrs. Kidd “to piss off” is the epitome of vulgarity. Angie chooses to attend “The Exterminator,” a film of violence; she pronounces vulgar words, and picks up the brick, and puts on “this dress to kill my mother.”[75]

If Top Girls is about anything, it is about power and feminism. The timing of this play was in itself symbolic, since it was synchronous with the rise of Margaret Thatcher as the iron lady of Britain. Politically, therefore, Britain was undergoing a major transformation under the lead of an efficient and powerful leader that came to dominate the political scene in Britain. Needless to say, Thatcher’s arrival to power was at a time when British politics and political performance were suffering badly on all levels. A general feeling of frustration and depression had already predominated the country. Yet, for a woman to rise from within the Conservative lines of politics, then to propose major changes in British life and politics successfully, reflection of politics on British theater were inevitable, especially the Socialist theater which was mainly concerned with the circles of power and feminism.

The rise of Margaret Thatcher to power had its great echoes in the British theater, and Top Girls reflects the same major themes that are seen in this political transformation. The title, as it is evident reveals that the girls are at the top, that management is in the hands of women, that executive positions are no longer far from reach. Furthermore, in Top Girl, it is impossible to ignore the dominating role played by women are seeking independence in their lives at almost every level, which in itself is a sincere reflection of the political situation in Britain towards the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s.

In Act I, the image is hilarious. Women from different historical eras, representing various female characteristics, attitudes, behaviors and trends, all meet in the same place. The event in itself is very critical, the promotion of Marlene to top position at the agency. The symbolic representation in this form of presenting the play is very obvious. Those women traveled long way in history in order to celebrate an event which they all shared at the same time, namely, the achievement of executive power at last by one of them, Marlene.

Despite their different attitudes and beliefs about the relationship between woman and her social bounds, they all shared one thing, that is, the need of having women in powerful positions where they could make decisions and where they could influence the world around them.

At first, these women seem to be revolutionaries who have been able to get over their impediments and the repression of their social structures. They are women who have been able to pursue a life of struggle against the implications of power and hegemony brought about into their lives by virtue of male dominance and chauvinism. True perhaps, but the farcical content of this scene makes it impossible for the audience to believe that these women actually achieved anything against the hegemony of power. Yet, this does not become realized as an idea until the audience are carried by Churchill into contemporary England, where these characters have become executives and working people.

Marlene is certainly the link between the past and the future. She is the hostess who drinks the toast for feminism and extraordinary achievements. She is the one who hosts the idea of breaking male hegemony. Yet, the irony is self-embedded in Marlene’s life. Women have historically been the victims of male hegemony and control. They have been the victims of power and power relations between the structures of society. What happened now, in Marlene’s time was that the roles were simply shuffled. Marlene is no longer an oppressed woman, but neither is she a free woman. As a matter of fact, she has moved from one system of enslavement into another. She has moved out from being a woman who belonged to the poor working class to become a member of the ruling class, the class of executives and masters who manipulate others, and who ruthlessly exploit others in order to survive.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that nothing has changed with respect to power relations in society. Historically, Marlene’s guests have survived a lot of oppression, and this oppression was basically implied on them by males and by the male-dominated structures of their societies. These women managed to survive one way or another, and Marlene in the end, is nothing but the final product of their struggle and survival. These are the implications of Top Girls, but the point is not about origins and final products of human movements of struggle against hegemony. It is also about the degree of progress that human society has achieved after such a long struggle. Obviously, little has been achieved, and this is left to the audience to discover on their own as they watch Act II of the play whose events are in contemporary England.

Can it be said that Marlene or Margaret Thatcher had indeed survived oppression, enslavement and circumscription? Definitely not. They liberated themselves as individuals from certain social hegemonies only to fall under the mercy of other hegemonies. They escaped their fates as repressed women only to become repressors themselves.

Therefore, the emancipation movement which these women have represented over time has been hollowed, made void and emptied of its meanings. These women have managed to survive the difficulties of their social backgrounds, but they were not really liberated. They simply adopted new roles which suited them better, or more precisely, suited their personal and selfish desires to reach power and rule. They shifted positions from oppressed to oppressors, and from rulers to ruled.

Marlene for example considers herself at the beginning as an over achiever who has managed to beat the ruling world of men and to become a top executive of the company she is working for. Yet, by looking at what role she played in that position, it becomes apparent that she changed nothing. What happened was that a man was ousted from that position only to be replaced by a woman. Yet, the end product of this change remained the same. Women were oppressed all the same, and so were men. Marlene acts as a ruthless dictator, not because she wants to, but because this is what her role requires her to do, and her function, therefore, is not an independent one, but rather, a function that is tailored by the system.

Thus, Marlene ignores her motherhood because she considers it as a weakness. She ignores her sister because she despises the very lower class that she herself belonged to one day. She loathes everything that reminds her of her past. She hates her father because of his ill treatment to her mother, although she herself no longer visits her mother. In other words, Marlene hated the very things that constituted her past and present. Her enslavement by the system is very clear when she apparently acts as the tough executive who treats interviewees with cold blood, making them aware of her bossiness, and making them aware of her power.

Power, therefore, has not changed with time. Perhaps those in power did change seats, but the function related to these seats and positions remained the same. Working women, children, helpless individuals in society, both men and women, were still oppressed. Only instead of a mister boss at the top, it became a miss boss.

Top Girls can also be considered as a “parable” for Thatcher’s Britain, with Thatcher’s Conservative party in control, Marlene asserts that any woman is free to become a Top Girl like “our leader” and hence attain power.[76] Marlene announces herself a “Thatcherite” and is intoxicated with tendencies to exercise power and individual will whatever the cost is.

Top Girls seems to bring up the issue of power which can be reached  either by conforming completely, or by taking arms and disobeying, or by living disguised and pretending to be man, just as Pope Joan did in order to become the executive of the Church.[77] As a matter of fact, Marlene conformed completely with the hegemonic rules of society and at the same time, disguised by acting like a man in her position would act. One cannot know whether Marlene is a woman at the office or not without knowing that she is a woman beforehand. Apart from this, her behaviors are masculine when she treats people coldly with snobbery and bossiness.

Marlene’s superficial support for Thatcher is dramatic irony. She has reached the top, is a top girl, feels illusively happy and confident, that now she is an executive manager of the employment agency. She is aware that “there are fellows (fellas) who like to be seen with a high-flying lady” like her.[78] In addition to this, one cannot fail to notice the fact that Marlene has become the executive of an employment agency. It is not just any company or line of business. It is an employment agency, which gives Marlene more power over those who come over to seek her services. She has the power to assign their roles in society, to judge their qualities and to boss them. Hence, the line of business chosen by Churchill for Marlene is very significant since it goes into greater depth about the social relations of power and their influence over individuals.

Her position in this employment agency boosts her morale and her lust for more power at the same time, “I need adventures,” says Marlene, and she thinks the “stupendous eighties” is going to provide her with the power she dreams of.”[79] Marlene is now possessed with the determination and the will that enable her to brush out being “slop. No more slop,” which implies that she is shunning away her weakness. Her position now enables her to seek her individualism, or in other terms, her selfish inclinations, “I believe in the individual,” and “I still have dreams.”[80]

Here, a contradiction begins to arise. In Act I, Marlene drinks a toast to the achievements of all those women she saw as great. Now, she is acting and thinking as an individual in power. There is no more concern for the collective upheaval against power and hegemony. Now there is only her and the individual inside her. She no longer belongs to the rest of women or society. She is only an individual trying to seek more power. She discards any relationship with the past and turns her hardships that she faced on her own into victories as she claims pride for having left her home at the age of thirteen, not giving her father the chance to make her way in life. Now, all the success is the result of “my own way out.”[81]

The irony rises when Marlene begins to see herself in relation to the rest of the world. The world of poverty, weakness and helplessness is the world of failure, of hegemony and oppression. For her, the world of power, control and manipulation constitute the world of liberty and freedom. Consequently, Marlene adores those who symbolize her role and whose role she symbolizes, people such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Her self-contradiction becomes very clear when she claims that she does not believe in class but at the same time, she sees herself belonging to the powerful class of us, while discarding those who belong to the weak and underprivileged “them” who include her sister Joyce and her daughter.[82]

The question here is whether Marlene is really the end product of emancipation movements and struggles that were represented by those women she hosted at her party in the beginning. Apparently, there is a very big difference between them. First of all, these women did not become over achievers easily. They all paid a very burdensome cost, a cost which was generally dehumanizing. All of them have memories of rape, personal deprivation, and psychological battering. What unites them is their common submissiveness in their lives “to the authoritarian father, or sexist lover, or the brutal husband.”[83]

Only Marlene feels herself as independent of men and hence, all powerful. Marlene is the only one amongst them that has no human feelings or weaknesses. These feelings have been hardened and eventually eliminated through endorsing capitalism. Capitalist rewards and benefits have stimulated her life, made her cold and detached, and even inhuman.

The climactic argument between Marlene and her sister Joyce, reflects Marlene’s “Darwinian Individualism.” Her world has no accommodation for “the stupid, lazy and frightened”  even if it were her own daughter.[84]

Churchill’s play, Top Girls admits that Marlene has been able to “make it” and achieve a powerful post; she my have “got on” but for other people, nothing has changed. The last word in the play is “frightening” quoted by Angie who was scared by a nightmare.[85] The play is hinting perhaps, that future could be bleak for each one, and the cost of the illusion of power is an inhumane being. This nightmare can very well be the nightmare of power, alluding that what Marlene is living in is not actually a brilliant achievement, but rather, a horrifying nightmare, worse than any of the nightmares lived by her guests in the past. Hegemony and power are perhaps the night mare of the twentieth century individual, and woman in specific.

Indeed, women are at the center of this nightmare, especially that Top Girls is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of Caryl Churchill, a feminist playwright herself. As a socialist feminist dramatist, Churchill dramatizes women’s economic status in the business world, and stresses the focal point that “genuine social reform is an impossibility within a system of class distinctions.”[86]

The ideological message behind the various scenes is that “nothing has been altered for the great majority of people, has it?” as Joyce comments.[87] This just leads back to the issue of power, where it became evident that hegemony and power were still the same, and so were mastery and slavery. Only the individuals have changed, but not the relations. Apparently, the female emancipation propounded by women’s liberation movements have proved to mean “adopting those aggressive predatory values which have for centuries oppressed women.”[88] This means that Joyce’s irony reflects the reality of the situation, not just for women alone but for men as well. Nothing has really changed, and the nightmare continues. This is similarly echoed by Win and Nell, the two employees working at the agency and who remark on Marlene’s promotion saying that “there’s not a lot of room upward,” because Marlene has “filled it up.”

Ironically, the most obvious illustration of the failure of Marlene’s, Thatcher’s or Darwin’s feminism is Angie. Angie, the sixteen-year old happens to be Marlene’s abandoned illegitimate child who was brought up by Joyce. The girl is doomed by her class, appearance, and low intelligence.  The girl, however, is excited and enthusiastic about Marlene’s violence and repulsiveness in dealing with people at the office. However, Marlene feels nothing for her daughter because she does not recognize her presence since she has no traits that enable her to survive the world.

Marlene, and despite all the power she has acquired or attained now as a result of her new job, is naturally condemned (at the very end of the play by the reader and the spectator) when she foresees that Angie “isn’t going to make it.”[89] Ironically, this leads to the symbolic inauguration of Prime Minister Thatcher who is often seen as a symbol of feminist success and achievement. Thatcher is a woman just as Marlene, but the significance of her gender in power is almost meaningless. Thatcher, like Marlene is nothing but a disguised woman. Both women are playing the roles designed for them by men. Both women have achieved their positions because they acted like men, and by men standards and values. Therefore, such individualistic achievements are more to be considered as a drawback on feminism rather than as an advancement. The chaos at the luncheon party becomes significant, since each person was talking in a different direction, and this applies to both Marlene and Thatcher as well.

Yet, women like Marlene and Thatcher are actually living an illusion as they try to denounce the selfish nature of their achievements. When drunk, Marlene considers her promotion beneficial to all women, something which the audience discover is untrue at the end. Similarly, she seems to believe herself as “independent, self-made person.” Irony once more arises, however, when Joyce reminds Marlene that had she raised her own daughter Angie, she would not have achieved anything at all. Apparently, this means that Marlene’s success is only relative and that it is individualistic and that by no means it can be related to the collective struggle of women.

At first, one expects this to be a positive applause to the feminist movements and to the achievements accomplished by these women in their times. However, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a spearheaded attack against these perspectives of feminism represented by her characters. The comic and farcical situation in which these women are present at the luncheon party, where all of them are talking to each other at the same time, and where they all become drunk and even sick in the end, aims at one thing: to describe the situation of women and feminism at present. Yes, there were many achievements, but these achievements are actually hollow and meaningless, because they are not related to the human conditions of women.

Churchill’s Top Girls is both an assault against capitalism and its violent exploitation of women, and at the same time, a critical approach towards feminism which has not been able to represent the rights of women, all women. Through this play, Churchill’s message is that what women today call feminism, is nothing but a matrilineal manner of oppression against the weak, whether these be males or females. In other words, nothing has changed: oppression remains and the weak suffer.

[1] Dunning, Jennifer. The New York Times, December 13, p.99.

[2] Stine, Jean. C & Marowsky, Daniel. Contemporary Literary Criticism, p.88.

[3] Binnet, Leslie. The New York Times, Januar 6, 1983.

[4] Marohl, Joseph. De-realized women: Performance & Identity in Top Girls. P.382.

[5] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama. (1890-1990), p.465.

[6] Marohl, Josehph. De-realized Women. Performance and Identity in Top Girls in Modern Drama, 1987, p.382.

[7] Contemporary Dramatists (88-89) ed. (Karpatrick).

[8] Innes, Christopher, p.466.

[9] Oliver, Edith. The New Yorker (January 10, 1983).

[10] Contemporary Literary Criticism, p.89.

[11] Ibid., p.87.

[12] K. A. Berney. Contemporary British Dramatists, p.133.

[13] Top Girls (document sheet).

[14] The New York Times, January 6, 1983.

[15] Top Girls, p.58.

[16] The New York Time, January 6, 1983..

[17] Contemporary Literary Criticism, p. 81 … 87.

[18] The New Republic 27, Feb 14, 1983.

[19] Top Girls, p.82.

[20] Innes Christopher, Modern British Drama, p. 466.

[21] Gilman, Richard. Top Girls, The Nation, p. 187.

[22] Key Feminist Focuses Addressed. 3/11/97, one sheet.

[23] Karkpatrick (Ed.) D.L. Contemporary Dramatists, pp. 89-90.

[24] Eussow, Mel. “British Stage Feminists and US Past Feminists.” The New York Times, Jan. 20, 1983, p.31.

[25] Ibid., p

[26] Innes, Christopher, Modern British Drama, p. 466.

[27] Key Feminist issues, one page.

[28] Eussow, Mel. British Stage Feminists And US Past-Feminists.

[29] International Dictionary of Theater I Plays, p.818, Ed. Mark Hawkins Dady.

[30] Ibid., p.

[31] Dady, Mark Hawkins. International Dictionary of Theater I Plays, p. 817.

[32] Ibid., p.

[33] Stine, Jean. Contemporary Literary Criticism, p. 87.

[34] Stine, Jean & Marowski Daniel. Contemporary Literary Criticism, p. 8.

[35] Patrick, D. L. Kirk. Contemporary Dramatist. P. 89.

[36] Stine, Jean. C & Mrowski, Daniel. P. 88.

[37] The play, p. 81.

[38] Berney, K. A (ed.). p. 88.

[39] The New Republic, p. 83.

[40] The new Republic, p. 27.

[41] The play, p. 31.

[42] The play, p. 33.

[43] The play, p. 36.

[44] The play, p. 11.

[45] The play, p. 11.

[46] The play, p. 45.

[47] The play,  p. 46.

[48] The play, p. 58.

[49] The play, p. 58.

[50] The play, p. 66.

[51] The Republic, Feb.14, 83, p27.

[52] Burstein, Robert. The New Republic

[53] The play, p. 83.

[54] The Republic, Feb 14, 1983, p.27.

[55] The New York Times, Jan 6, 1983.

[56] The Nation, Feb 12, 83, p.187.

[57] To Girls (sheet one no references).

[58] Top Girls (Sheet one no references.)

[59] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama. (1890-1990), p. 466.

[60] The play, p.11.

[61] Dady, Mark Hawkins, p. 818.

[62] Dady, Mark Hawkins. International Dictionary of Theater I Plays, p. 818.

[63] Dady, Mark Hawkins. International Dictionary of Theater II Playwrights, p. 194.

[64] After Brecht, p. 88.

[65] The Play, p. 3.

[66] The play, p. 3.

[67] After Brecht, Reinelt, Janelle. Pp. 81-88.

[68] After Brecht, p. 89.

[69] The Play, p. 83/84.

[70] The play, p. 89.

[71] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama, p. 460.

[72] The New Yorker, January 10, 83, pp. 80-83.

[73] The New Yorker, January 10, 83, pp. 80-83.

[74] Brunstein, Robert. The British Conquest, The New Republic, 1983, p. 27.

[75] The Play, p. 44.

[76] Top Girls, one sheet, no reference, Internet.

[77] Ibid.,

[78] The play, p. 83.

[79] The play, p. 84.

[80] The Play, p. 85.

[81] The play, p. 85.

[82] The Play, pp. 84-86.

[83] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama, p. 465.

[84] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama, p. 466

[85] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama, p. 466.

[86] Marohl, Joseph. De-realized Women. Performance and Identity in Top Girls in Modern Drama. September 1987, p. 380.

[87] Ibid., p. 388.

[88] Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama. P. 466.

[89] Marohl, Joseph, p. 379.