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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
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.
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
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 /
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
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
Pope Joan
Pope Joan
• Movie is out on 12 Aug!
• In German
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Nijo: On their hands and knees!
Marlene: A pierced chair!
Gret: Balls!
(Griselda arrives unnoticed.)
Strong visual presence despite lack of
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 warriorprotector
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,
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
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
Cyclical structure – Play framed by
Marlene’s dream dinner party and Angie’s
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
Subtext – draws on the cultural knowledge
and assumptions shared by the audience
Humour – comic balances the tragic
All female cast
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 &
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)