Churchill, Top Girls
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Churchill, Top Girls
This 1982 play has its roots in experimental feminist theater of the 1960s, where barriers between audience and performance may have been broken down, or where ensemble performances meant the same actor would have several roles. Feminist theater sought to be consciousness-raising, sometimes didactic. Plays were often communally written, and satirized sex stereotyping and/or depicted heroic neglected women of the past and/or reversed sex roles to expose subtleties in the workings of patriarchy.
At first the scene seems to present a gathering of various women from history and art in a celebration of their lives and accomplishments. But where do we end up really? These women narrate their lives with seemingly no perspective; they describe but do not evaluate. They interrupt each other, compromising the ideal of “community.” They are characters locked into separate discourses, creating a cacophony of retold experiences with no conclusions on their parts.
“What I was intending to do was make it first look as though it was celebrating the achievements of women and then — by showing the main character, Marlene, being successful in a very competitive, destructive, capitalist way — ask, what kind of achievement is that? The idea was that it would start out looking like a feminist play and turn into a socialist one, as well” (Churchill, qtd. in Betsko and Koenig 82).
* * *
Excellent, yes, table for six. One of them’s going to be late but we won’t wait” (55). [Marlene’s take-charge steamrolling attitude is immediately clear. And notice she refuses to extend any courtesy of waiting for one of the women. And notice her perfunctory treatment of the waitress who by definition clearly is not a “top girl”]
“Do you have a sister?”
“Yes in fact” (55-56). [We will discover that she does indeed have a biological sister, but basically “in fact” only and not in a sisterly relationship. “Sister” is, of course, a loaded word in a play that seems at first to be feminist; and Marlene’s dismissiveness doubtless applies generally, too.]
[Nijo reports about her being given at 14 years old as a concubine to the Emperor.]
“Marlene: Are you saying he raped you?
Nijo: … No, of course not, Marlene, I belonged to him…. I never enjoyed taking other women to him” (57).
The women talk about their fathers. Marlene asks Gret if she had horses.
“Gret: Pig” (58).
“Oh Joan, thank God, we can order. Do you know everyone? We were just talking about learning Latin and being clever girls” (58). [Not hardly! Marlene is able to interpret these stories of misery into triumphs?]
Note what the women order: Isabella an austere chicken and soup, Nijo a self-denying salad (but classy Waldorf at least), Gret “Potatoes,” Joan canelloni (58-59), and Marlene:
“Make that two steaks and a lot of potatoes. Rare. But I don’t do good works either” (59). [The juxtaposition of these utterances from two separate conversations is telling and intentional on vegetarian Churchill’s part. Devouring the traditional carnivorous alpha-male meal of bloody steaks is certainly doing no good work for the planet’s resources.]
“Well it’s not Pope but it is managing director” (67). [What does a managing director do? It’s another of the mountain of empty, meaningless, job titles for people who accomplish nothing but pointless meetings and idiotic memos. How many Associate Supervisory Coordinators or Assistant Directors to the Associate VP of Academic Intersectionality do we need? Note also that offices that used to be called “Personnel” are now “Human Resources.” Grease yourself, cog, cuz we’re gonna deplete you!] [Wait. Soylent Green is people?]
“We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements” (67). [A head-slapping toast.]
“in France there was a plague of giant grasshoppers, but I don’t think that can have been my fault, do you?
The grasshoppers fell on the English channel and were washed up on shore and their bodies rotted and poisoned the air and everyone in those parts died.
“I shouldn’t have been a woman. Women, children and lunatics can’t be Pope” (69). [But a child criminal lunatic can be President.]
“No really, I’m not hungry” (73). [Good girl. Young ladies who want to catch a man are never hungry.]
Nijo reports one of the childbirth moments she experienced: “It was only a girl, but I was sorry to lose it” (70).
“Griselda arrives unnoticed” (73). [When asked, she demurely denies wanting any food. “Patient Griselda” is a character, as Marlene announces, in Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer (74).]
“I can’t stand this. I’m going for a pee” (77). [Marlene is unable to tolerate listening to Griselda’s complicity in her story of abuse. We know this is not an otherworldly visit of dead women through the ages, since some are not historical but from the arts or legend. If we tentatively thought that we were witnessing a drunken dream of Marlene’s, that assumption is smashed by Marlene herself leaving the ongoing scene. No easy dismissals for us.]
“It was always easy because I always knew I would do what he said” (77). [Just the kind of passivity Marlene cannot abide. She starts ordering brandies. Joan is babbling in Latin.]
“Listen, she’s been to hell” (82). [Marlene gets everyone finally to shut up for previously monosyllabic Gret’s mostly uninterrupted, very different story.]
“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 the women stop and get some. But most of us is fighting the devils” (82). [Unlike the other strained attempts at stories of self-determination and faux success, Gret’s story is one of collective female action: in that sense, the only truly feminist glimpse, albeit in a surreal and grotesque painting. She acknowledges that some women get distracted by the devil’s ass-money, but she dismisses them and continues the tale and the recounting of retaliation against inhumanity. Naturally, Marlene would have been one of the ass-money casualties.]
What is a “top girl” and what is Churchill’s perspective or comment on this?
“Top Girls” is just a name for the employment agency, but it also refers to women who succeed in patriarchal capitalist structures. Note that they’re still “girls.” Marlene, we know from Act I, will be promoted to “managing director” — snazzy job title! But again, what does a “managing director” really do?
Here’s an especially brilliant bit from Churchill: consider the name of the character Win. We can assume that Win must be short for Winifred. And the more common nickname would be Winnie. Win vs. Winnie — big difference, no? [In Serious Money we have Scilla (the ferocious monster from classical mythology’s nautical map), whose name must be Priscilla, right? The more common nickname: Prissy. Prissy vs. Scilla!] And Kit may be a nickname for Katherine, but so would be Kitty or Kitten. This Kit is much more practical.
The “successful” women just seem to be passing along the traditional heartless rules. Some women are “getting ahead” in some weird way, but they’re not infusing any humanity or human kindness and compassion into the system. So Churchill is critiquing one branch of the women’s movement’s standards for success, which are the old male success standards and a perpetuation of the competitive, destructive, capitalist system. There’s no regard for “sisters”; success comes at the “expense” of other women; and blindness is rampant even concerning the continuation of oppressions within the family structures.
* * *
Marlene interviews Jeanine, advising her not to wear an engagement ring when sent to a potential employer. “I’ve a fairly small concern here, father and two sons, you’d have more say potentially, secretarial and reception duties, only a hundred but the job’s going to grow with the concern and then you’ll be in at the top with new girls coming in underneath you” (86). [They “do” lampshades. And when Daddy dies, you’ll be considered a candidate as CEO? Not likely. Meet your new boss: Daddy Jr.]
The rather slow kid Angie and her younger friend Kit are hiding from Joyce, who is Marlene’s financially struggling sister. Joyce announces tea and chocolate biscuits: “Want a choccy biccy, Angie? … Fucking rotten little cunt. You can stay there and die” (91).
Kit asks Angie: “When there’s a war, where’s the safest place?”
Angie: “Nowhere” (92).
Angie ruminates about Angie: “She’s not going to get a job when jobs are hard to get. I’d be sorry for anyone in charge of her” (97). [Ironically, Joyce herself is in charge of her, somewhat gladly, it turns out.]
Joyce asks Kit: “What do you want to be when you grow up, Kit?”
“I could, I’m clever” (97).
[An advance for women in what is traditionally a male field? Or just another person making better bombs to kill us all? What about ethics and morality?]
At the Top Girls Employment Agency, Win and Nell discuss a company promotion that a certain Howard expects: “Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that” (100).
Discussion shifts to “personal” life, if such a thing is a competition too: “Derek asked me to marry him again.”
“He doesn’t know when he’s beaten” (102). [Meanwhile, Win has to keep her affair with a married man secret and sneak around (104). Big win?]
Marlene enters: “I’m doing some of Pam’s ladies. They’ve been piling up while she’s away” (103). [Human beings are such a burden! Marlene is referring to the cases or the files or the interviews but dehumanizes the women into a pile of work.]
After another depressing interview (Win and Louise), Angie appears before Marlene: “How did you get past the receptionist? The girl on the desk, didn’t she try to stop you?” (107).
Angie adores and admires Marlene. After a confrontation with Howard’s frantic wife, Mrs. Kidd, and another interview by Nell in which Shona proves to be a fraud understanding nothing but the superficial style of success, and an exchange between Win and Angie at the end of which Angie falls asleep, Marlene shakes her head. Final line of the Act: “She’s not going to make it” (120). [Marlene’s unfortunately assessment of Angie — but she said the opposite, that anyone can “make it,” a year ago (in the next Act).]
“Bottom women” are still left behind. The lower class remains. Marlene has colonized her sister as a surplus labor force for raising her daughter. The scene takes place a year earlier in Joyce’s kitchen.
* * *
It turns out that Angie deceptively brought about Marlene’s visit. Marlene doesn’t seem bothered and remarks to Joyce: “We are sisters after all. It’s a pity to let that go” (125).
Talk of their parents, opportunity, and lack thereof becomes argumentative. Marlene’s justification: “I know a managing director who’s got two children, she breast feeds in the board room, she pays a hundred pounds a week on domestic help alone and she can afford that because she’s an extremely high-powered lady earning a great deal of money” (134). [Circular commodification, but Marlene has similarly farmed out her child.]
Joyce misinterprets Marlene’s question about Joyce’s husband who left her: “I’ve always said I don’t want your money” (136).
Unwisely, Marlene turns to politics: “I think the eighties are going to be stupendous” (137). [Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was England’s doppelganger of Saint Reagan. Yeah, privileged swine did really well.]
Joyce isn’t buying it: “What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms. Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. Great adventures” (138). [You go, Joyce!]
“I spit when I see a Rolls Royce, scratch it with my ring…” (139). [Whoa! You go even farther, Joyce!]
The screaming over each other gets out of control until a silence. Marlene says, “I don’t mean anything personal. I don’t believe in class” (140). [Another combination of utterances from Marlene that she does not grasp the implications of. She never means anything personal, because she’s barely a human being. Also, she herself has no meaning as a person. And while it’s handy to refuse to accept that we live in an oppressive class system, she also, we can say, has no “class” — that is, decency, nobility.]
Marlene: “I didn’t really mean all that.”
Joyce: “I did.”
Marlene: “But we’re friends anyway.”
Joyce: “I don’t think so, no” (141).
Marlene is having another drink before bed, when Angie appears: “Frightening…. Frightening” (141). [It’s Angie’s enigmatic utterance as she presumably comes out of a nightmare, but applicable, certainly, to the final vision that the play addresses. We’ve gone from a fantasy of the past to a nightmare of the future.]
Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. In Plays: Two. London: Methuen, 1990. 51-141.