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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

Top Girls

Act 1 – Commentary


Setting action
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
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.


Mindscape use of char foils parallels
Mindscape to characterise Marlene.Use 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 parallels use of doubling
Character Foils / Parallels to characterise Marlene.Use 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? to characterise Marlene.

  • 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
Isabella Bird to characterise Marlene.

  • 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. to characterise Marlene.

  • 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 parallels Joyce & Marlene drinking in Act 3

Lady Nijo

Loss of children forms an undercurrent running through their narratives.

Patient Griselda

Pope Joan


Pope joan
Pope Joan parallels Joyce & Marlene drinking in Act 3

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  • In German


Pope joan1
Pope Joan parallels Joyce & Marlene drinking in Act 3

  • 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: which she did not even recognise!

  • “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)



Act 1 p 17
Act 1, p.17 pandemonium of the Church caused by the childbirth

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.



  • 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 girls1

Top Girls men, Marlene has broken the glass ceiling of her time.

Act 1 – Commentary (Part 2)


Patient griselda
Patient Griselda men, Marlene has broken the glass ceiling of her time.

  • 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.




Dull gret
Dull Gret Marlene?

  • 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
Act 1, p.19 Marlene?

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.)



  • Costuming is symbolic Marlene?

  • 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
Act 1, p.27-28 character at the end.

  • “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 character at the end.

  • 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
The ‘Invisible’ Patriarchy for Marlene’s ambition & lack of maternal love. 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



  • 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
Female solidarity? Marlene’s world.

  • 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 structure1
Dramatic Structure backgrounds

  • 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 achievements

  • 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 achievements

  • 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
Dramatic methods achievements

  • 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



  • All female cast shared by the audience

  • 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: shared by the audience

  • 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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