Top Girls is a 1982 play by Caryl Churchill. It is about a woman named Marlene, a career woman who is employed at the ‘Top Girls’ employment agency. It looks closely at her family she left behind. Marlene left her poor life to enjoy success, and we find out that she left her illegitimate child with her sister.
The play is famous for its dreamlike opening sequence in which Marlene meets famous women from history, including Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, is thought to have been pope between 854-856; the explorer Isabella Bird; Dull Gret the harrower of Hell; Lady Nijo, the Japanese mistress of an emperor and later a Buddhist nun; and Patient Griselda, the patient wife from The Clerk’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. All of these characters behave like a gang of city career women out on the town and get increasingly drunk and maudlin, as it is revealed that each has suffered in similar ways.
The stories of the historical women parallel the characters in the modern-day story. For example, Bird, like Marlene, got to where she was by leaving her sister to deal with family matters. Dull Gret’s monosyllabic inarticulacy is comparable to Angie’s. Some of these parallels are emphasised by the actors doubling the roles of the historical and modern characters.
The structure of the play is unconventional (non-linear). In Act I, scene 1, Marlene is depicted as a successful businesswoman, and all her guests from different ages celebrate her promotion in the ‘Top Girls’ employment agency. In the next scene we jump to the present day (early 80s) where we see Marlene at work in the surprisingly masculine world of the female staff of the agency, in which the ladies of ‘Top Girls’ must be tough and insensitive in order to compete with men. In the same act, the audience sees Angie’s angry, helpless psyche and her loveless relationship with Joyce, whom the girl hates and dreams of killing. Only in the final scene, which takes place a year before the office scenes, does the audience hear that Marlene, not Joyce, is Angie’s mother. This notion, as well as the political quarrel between the sisters shifts the emphasis of the play and formulates new questions.
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