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Top Girls. Act 1 – Commentary. Setting & Action. The play opens with a fantasy banquet in a public setting of a restaurant Marlene joined by women from the past to celebrate her promotion to managing director of Top Girls Employment Agency

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Top Girls

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Top Girls

Act 1 – Commentary

Setting & Action

  • The play opens with a fantasy banquet in a public setting of a restaurant

  • Marlene joined by women from the past to celebrate her promotion to managing director of Top Girls Employment Agency

  • Women drawn from history (Isabella Bird, Lady Nijo, Pope Joan), literature (Griselda) & painting (Dull Gret)

  • Act 1 begins on a festive note

  • Excitement shown through Marlene’s preparations & the arrival of the first colourfully costumed guests

  • Creates the anticipation of a unique celebration of women’s potential

  • However, the mood darkens as the scene unfolds.

  • The women’s recounts of travel, intellectual accomplishments and love affairs that have made them ‘top girls’ give way to instances of suffering & loss.

  • Ironically revealed after Marlene’s toast to all of their “extraordinary achievements” – see p.13

  • Cacophonic collapse of the celebration – despite their fame, the women were still subjugated by the patriarchy of their times

Dramatic Structure

  • How does Act 1 ‘fit’ into the overall dramatic design of the play?

  • What purpose does it serve? (i.e. link to thematic issues)

  • Contrast btwn the fantastic in Act 1 & the realistic in Acts 2-3

  • The fantastic mirrors the ‘real’ – the breakdown of the celebration at the end of Act 1 prefigures & reinforces the failure of the women in Acts 2-3 to achieve true progress.

  • The play undermines the illusory perception that women have now “made it” in the marketplace of modern capitalist society

  • The fantastic rep. Churchill’s creative use of mindscape to characterise Marlene.

  • Act 1 functions as a dramatic projection of Marlene’s desires, fantasies & fears, giving the play a psychological depth.

  • As the play unfolds, the audience re-visits Act 1 to discover that each of the women invited shares parts of Marlene’s life that she would like to keep in secret.

MindscapeUse of Char. Foils & Parallels

  • The women at the dinner serve as character foils & parallels to one another, and to Marlene.

  • While Marlene shares a history with these women from the past, she also adopts a stance of superiority, assuring herself that she would never have made their mistakes or passively suffered their oppression.

Character Foils / ParallelsUse of Doubling

  • Doubling – dramatic technique of using the same actors to play two or more parts

  • Ref. to the cast for the first performance in 1982, directed by Max Stafford Clark (e.g. Pope Joan / Louise)

  • Only the actress playing the role of Marlene was not cast for another part – why?

  • Effects of doubling?

  • Multiplies the meanings the audience can ‘read’ into the web of contrasts / parallels set up btwn the women characters

  • A structural device that unifies the three acts, while injecting a dynamism through the constant role switching

  • Marlene stands in contrast as the constant role switching as the one consistent image

Isabella Bird

  • Based on a Scottish woman who lived from 1831-1904 (i.e. Victorian era)

  • Daughter of a clergyman

  • Had a very adventurous life for a woman of her era

  • Travelled extensively despite suffering from illness

  • Married her sister’s (Hennie) doctor at the age of 50; never had children

  • Known for her travel writings & the first woman to give a lect. at the Royal Geographical Society in 1892

  • Like Marlene, Isabella travelled and had a sister.

  • Isabella moved out of Scotland which she found to be in “constant murk”.

  • This parallels Marlene’s desire to “leave home” to become a successful career woman in London.

  • Both women have also left their sisters and seem to feel guilty & isolated in doing so (e.g. for every account of her liberation, Isabella counters it with a reflection on Hennie’s goodness).

  • However, while Isabella longs to go back home (“I did think of settling down”), Marlene attempts to separate herself from her family by not visiting Angie & Joyce in six years.

  • Isabella also rep. the supportive sister Marlene wishes she has.

  • Isabella takes the lead in affirming Marlene & rejoicing in her “very well deserved” success.

  • Significant that the actress who plays Isabella later doubles as Joyce, as if Marlene had ‘cast’ her own sister as a char. devoted to her sister

  • Isabella as a projection of Marlene’s unstated desire to be accepted by her family

  • Ultimately revealed as an unrealizable fantasy in Act 3

  • Scene of Isabella & Marlene drinking at the end of Act 1 parallels Joyce & Marlene drinking in Act 3

  • Contrast is underscored – the exceptionally close relationship btwn Isabella / Hennie vs. riotous argument btwn Marlene / Joyce

  • Questions the ideal of sisterly solidarity assumed in feminism

Dull Gret

Lady Nijo

Loss of children forms an undercurrent running through their narratives.

Patient Griselda

Pope Joan

Pope Joan

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Pope Joan

  • Ongoing controversy if Pope Joan existed

  • Believers insist that she was elected Pope in 854 and ruled successfully for two years.

  • Pope Joan’s narrative in the play illustrates the themes of performed gender roles & lost infants.

  • “Anyway I’m a heresy myself.” (p.6)

  • Joan’s pretense of being a man was undone by a pregnancy which she did not even recognise!

  • Had denied her femaleness – she “wasn’t used to having a woman’s body” (p.16)

  • Joan’s comic recollection of going into labour – she was so divorced from her woman’s body that she thought that the contractions were due to “something I’d eaten”.

  • Disastrously comic & subversive public childbirth:

  • “I heard sounds like a cow lowing, they came out of my mouth. Far away I heard people screaming, ‘The Pope is ill, the Pope is dying.’ And the baby just slid out onto the road.” (p.17)

  • Subversion in the women’s laughter at the resulting pandemonium of the Church caused by the childbirth

  • However, the mood shifts with the sudden silence after Joan’s startling revelation of her stoning.

Act 1, p.17

Joan: One of the cardinals said, ‘The Antichrist!’ and fell over in a faint.

They all laugh

Marlene: So what did they do? They weren’t best pleased.

Joan: They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death.

They stop laughing.

  • Joan’s exposure & death due to her failure to abandon her child has led Marlene to conclude “So the only thing to do was to get rid of it somehow.” (p.15)

  • Is Marlene seeking to justify her decision to put her career first before motherhood & family? – The audience learns later in Act 3 that Marlene has had two abortions & abandoned Angie.

  • Significant that the actress who plays Pope Joan is double cast as Louise

  • Both women adopt ‘male’ qualities to succeed:

  • Joan: First I decided to stay a man. I was used to it. (p.11)

  • Louise: I think I pass as a man at work. (p.52)

  • Like Pope Joan who occupied a position kept exclusively for men, Marlene has broken the glass ceiling of her time.

  • However, Louise also rep. what Marlene could & has become, having to justify her existence every minute and watch herself.

  • Parallels btwn the three women provoke us to question women’s historical progress.

Top Girls

Act 1 – Commentary (Part 2)

Patient Griselda

  • A character from Clerk’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

  • She had to repeatedly prove her obedience to her husband Walter by giving up her children.

  • “It was always easy because I always knew I would do what he said.” (p.23)

  • An unlikely candidate for ‘top girl’ given her complete submission to her husband, a Marquis

  • Marlene’s dismissive treatment of Griselda – she scorns Gr.’s unreasonable submission to a “monster” like her husband:

  • “But you let him take her? You didn’t struggle?”; “Walter was bonkers” (p.22-23)

  • Gr. as a foil to Marlene’s self-determined success based on talent

  • Yet, Marlene is ironically similar to Gr. in terms of social class.

  • Gr. was a peasant girl who tended sheep and Marlene comes from the working class in the country.

  • This similarity in class background, though ignored by Marlene, is also the probable source of Marlene’s subconscious attraction to a character who seems out of place at the banquet.

  • Both are also willing to sacrifice their children to be successful in a patriarchy.

  • But Gr. is less morally blameworthy than Marlene because she did not initiate the abandonment.

  • Gr. was also more elated than Marlene to be reunited with her children.

  • Does this contrast tilt our sympathy more towards Gr. than Marlene?

  • In her drive to justify herself and establish her superiority to Gr, has Marlene ended up being more (if not the most) ruthless character at the banquet?

Dull Gret

  • From Brueghel’s painting ‘Dulle Griet’

  • Caricature of the working class that Marlene distances herself from

  • Silent for the most part until last speech in the play

  • Listening to the other guests, as noted by her occasional but relevant interjections

  • One-word answers; vulgar in diction – comments confined to food (‘Pig’, ‘Potatoes’) or sex

Act 1, p.19

Marlene: And someone looked up his skirts? / Not really?

Isabella: What an extraordinary thing.

Joan: Two of the clergy / made sure he was a man.

Nijo: On their hands and knees!

Marlene: A pierced chair!

Gret: Balls!

(Griselda arrives unnoticed.)

  • Strong visual presence despite lack of speech

  • Staged action – steals food and other items (e.g. crockery, cutlery) from the table

  • Costuming – wears an apron, a helmet & armour; least fashionable

  • Costuming is symbolic

  • Apron - trad. female role of housekeeping

  • Helmet & armour – male role of warrior-protector

  • Sword in right hand & a bag containing food and a fry pan in her left – juggling male & female roles

  • Ironically, Gret turns out to be the most extraordinary character at the end.

  • Successfully leads a group of women to fight the devils – contrast with Marlene & Pope Joan

  • Churchill suggests that any progress in women’s equality must reach, if not begin, with the working class (socialist feminism).

Act 1, p.27-28

  • “We come into hell through a big mouth. Hell’s black and red […] But most of us is fighting the devils. […] We’d all had family killed. My big son die on a wheel. Birds eat him. My baby, a soldier run her through with a sword. I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards.”

  • Double casting of Gret & Angie

  • Marlene casts her own daughter as the peasant woman because she considers Angie slow-witted (“a bit thick”, “a bit funny”, “not going to make it” – Act 2 Sc 3, p.66).

  • Marlene attempts to justify her abandonment of Angie & rejection of her own working-class upbringing.

  • Ironically, Gret’s narration becomes Angie’s reproach for Marlene’s ambition & lack of maternal love.

  • “There’s a big devil sat on a roof with a big hole in his arse and he’s scooping stuff out of it with a big ladle and it’s falling down on us, and it’s money, so a lot of women stop and get some.” (p.28)

The ‘Invisible’ Patriarchy Male dominance

  • An all-female cast but influenced by unseen male purposes

  • The influence of the absent father figure

  • Women bonded by patriarchal oppression throughout history in different forms

  • Imitate and obey masculine authority

  • Joan pretended to be a man and co-opted the fatherly figure of the Pope.

  • Nijo followed her father’s advice to “enter holy orders” if she fell out with the Emperor & justifies her travel with “Priests were often vagrants, so why not a nun …I still did what my father wanted.” (p.3)

  • Isabella describes her father as “the mainspring of my life” and pleased him by devoting herself to Latin, needlework & charity.

  • Griselda’s obedience was learnt from her peasant father who “could hardly speak” against Walter, the local Marquis.

  • Gret took up a sword & armour of a man and went into battle.

  • Act 1 mirrors the absent but influential patriarch in Marlene’s world.

  • Marlene blames her father’s alcoholism for her family issues & decision to leave home in Act 3.

  • Like the women in Act 1, Marlene’s toughness has served to validate rather than challenge patriarchy.

Female solidarity?

  • Overlapping dialogue

  • Women locked in their own perspectives, despite common experience of oppression & lost children

  • One repeats a word uttered by another and enters into her own narrative (e.g. ‘father’ or ‘poetry for Nijo & Isabella)

  • Joan’s long, incomprehensible recitation of Latin verse

  • Power differences btwn the women due to differing class backgrounds

  • The titled Isabella & aristocratic Nijo tend to dominate the conversation and frequently interrupt others.

  • The humbly born Joan & Griselda speak only in answer to questions.

  • Gret, the uneducated peasant, speaks very little.

  • Contrast btwn Marlene who directs the progress of the dinner and the silent waitress serving

Dramatic Structure

  • Juxtaposition as key structural device

  • Contrast in settings – fantasy (surreal) vs. realistic; public (restaurant, office) vs. private (kitchen)

  • Contrasts & parallels btwn relationships dramatically visualised through doubling

  • Dramatic structure set up to undermine Marlene’s achievements

  • Play begins with a digression – Marlene, the main character, plays host of a party and her guests the focus.

  • Even in Act 2, the focus is on Angie which refuses an interpretation of the office scenes as a celebration of Marlene’s achievements.

  • Sequencing

  • Linear narrative – Marlene’s predicament cumulatively exposed

  • But backward movement in time – Effects?

  • Stagnation of the feminist movement

  • Provides a more dramatic climax at the end of the play – the audience discovers that Angie is Marlene’s daughter and re-assesses Marlene’s earlier remark of Angie (“Packer in Tesco more like”) as doubly unkind.

  • Open ending

  • Angie’s last word “Frightening” is deliberately ambiguous

  • Frightening future for Angie or Marlene is frightening?

  • Cyclical structure – Play framed by Marlene’s dream dinner party and Angie’s nightmare

  • Play is too gloomy?

Dramatic methods

  • Language use

  • Different speech codes / registers to characterize class differences

  • Pronouns to establish relations of power & solidarity (‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’)

  • Overlapping dialogue

  • Naming – labels, terms of address

  • Expletives

  • Silences

  • Subtext – draws on the cultural knowledge and assumptions shared by the audience

  • Allusions

  • Irony

  • Humour – comic balances the tragic

  • All female cast

  • Doubling

  • Alienation – a defamiliarizing process in which the audience is constantly made aware that they are watching a play; roles are constructed

  • Symbolic significance of visual props & gestures:

  • Dressing (e.g. Angie’s dress in Act 2 & 3)

  • Drinking (e.g. wine, whiskey)

  • Tables (e.g. restaurant table set for dinner in Act 1, three desks in Act 2 Sc 3, kitchen table without dinner in Act 3)

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