Feminism and Contemporary Elements of Caryl Churchill’s Play ‘Top Girls’

Top Girls

Link to Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ Entire Play Script, with Synopsis and Notes:  http://www.custommade.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/top-girls.pdf

In 1982, when Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls, feminism was approaching an apex of a sort following the sexual revolution of the 1970’s. Feminism in the mid to late 80’s is classified as the latter end of what is known as the Second-Wave that began in the early 60’s. This period was characterized by a notable evolution out of seeking absolute, fundamental rights, such as suffrage, and focusing more with cultural equality issues like ending discriminating hegemonic masculinity in the workplace and domestically. While Churchill’s Top Girls has its few moments disparaging specific male counterparts, largely the play uses a forward thinking agenda and rare dramatic form and theory to highlight the plight of women and the difficulties and sacrifices made in order to complete and accomplish in a male-dominated patriarchal society.

Assembled into a dialog between all-female characters, the first act is an impossible gathering of notable accomplished women from history, some imagined, some real, and all of them in one way or another effusively describing scenes suffered to get where they rose to. A contrasting element of prosaic irony is cast as an interrupting waitress is periodically given hegemonic orders and carries no opinion of her own.  (Flaherty 2004) At a highpoint, after hearing the women describe their circumstances, Marlene, the lead role and a manager of Top Girls Employment Agency, states:

We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we’ve changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” (Greenwald Act 1, Scene 1 p. 481)


After the dream-like restaurant scene, a more practical, believable office scene emerges along with a well-worked-for hierarchy with Marlene at the top. A brief discourse with new hire, Jeanine transpires. This is a noticeable moment for Churchill in the play for a couple of reasons that are rather elusive, yet extremely substantial in the literary, theatrical and feminist worlds. Churchill employs a technique of conversation that “indulges in Pinter’s verbal techniques of contradiction, tautology, disjunction, as well as repetition of word, beat, and gesture.” (Price 1999) How this represents a milestone in feminism and literature on the whole is that through Churchill’s “identifiable overlapping, pauses, and rhythmic stops and starts, comparisons to more prominent, male playwrights are rare.” (Price 1999) Reminiscent of techniques used by Mamet and as mentioned, originating with Pinter in structure and language. The similarity between Churchill and Mamet is remarkable and surely similarly inspired as Mamet’s style described here by John Lahr in his 1997 article from The New Yorker magazine,

Out of the muck of ordinary speech – the curses, interruptions, asides, midsentence breaks, and sudden accelerations – Mamet carefully weaves a tapestry of motifs which he sees as a “counterpoint.” Mamet says he doesn’t picture the characters on stage, he hears them. “The rhythms don’t just unlock something in the character, they are what’s happening.” (Lahr 97)


What makes this unique as a social feminist, and so uber-feminist, is the mere fact that while outlining the systemic problems of masculine hegemony and capitalist based income disparages, Churchill actually made theoretical and dramatic ground while demonstrating her artistic pioneering talents didactically, teaching others about not only the disproportional roles of women at work, but also contrasting working women with their domestic counterparts in a light that exhibited the sacrifices working women made in giving up family and homestead.

Churchill’s feminist aims seem to overlap each other like the Pinteresque language she employs. She states in an interview about Top Girls with Emily Mann,

What I was intending to do was make it first look as though it was celebrating the achievements of women 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.” (Betsko and Koenig 82)

Each scene in an abstract way foreshadows the next. The ordination and contrasts of the restaurant scene with the structure and discourse of the office scene, the sensibility of the office conversation with the simple logic of the two girls in her sister’s backyard, then the domestic banter of the backyard with banter of office workers back in the office. These scenes gain an introspection into the lives of women at different ages and socio-economic status, as well as a perspective comparison between women gainfully employed, pre-employed and homemakers.

In the last scene, a chronological spacing dissonance occurs as a flashback to a year prior requires the audience to apply all they’ve viewed and heard in the context of this built-in prequel predicate. In this sense, Top Girls precursors the post-modern period of Churchill which was marked just four years later in 1986. In a way you could say there is this undercurrent of post-structural reference as she deconstructs the paradigms of the modern workplace and what it means for a woman to accomplish greatness and even mediocrity in a world so clearly favoring males.

Personally, I found the humor, antics, language and satire of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls refreshing and engaging. It makes me want to find out how Marlene or whomever is leading the conversation will take it next, and its correlative implications. Top girls serves the world of female accomplishment in its own right as an academic achievement in form, theory, language and artistic expression. It is subtly groundbreaking in my opinion venturing into territory only previously occupied by males and lays groundwork for women to follow.




Works Cited

Greenwald, Michael L., Roger Schultz, and Roberto Darío Pomo. The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater: A Global Perspective. New York: Longman, 2001. Print.

Lahr, John. “Fortress Mamet.” New Yorker. 17 Nov. 1997. 70-82.

Betsko, Kathleen and Rachael Koenig. Caryl Churchill: Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech, 1987. 75-84.

Price, John A. “The Language of Caryl Churchill: The Rhythms of Feminist Theory, Acting Theory, and Gender Politics.” Women Writers, 22 July 1999. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. < http://www.womenwriters.net/editorials/PriceEd1.htm >.

Flaherty, Kate. “Feminist Drama: Railing and Redress A Brief Study of Sarah Daniels’s Byrthrite and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.” Online Journal: Philament, Issue 2 Jan. 2004. University of Sydney. Jan. 2004.  Web accessed 20 Mar. 2016. <http://sydney.edu.au/arts/publications/philament/issue2_Critique_Flaherty.htm >.

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