"Contextualising the play" - Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill

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Contextualising The Play  

'Top Girls' was written by Caryl Churchill in the early 1980s and was first performed in 1982. The play is set around this time and focuses on the lives of a number of women, each affected by the pre-1980s status quo and vast, rapid changes of the ensuing decade. These surrounded Churchill herself, and in this way the social and historical background- including politics, the second wave feminist movement and the class divide- has clearly coloured the play in many ways. 

There is strong historical context to the play, not least in the famous opening scene. Marlene, herself having just received a promotion at a time when the workplace was a male-dominated environment, is hosting an imaginary celebratory dinner party. Her five guests are all women, each considered 'successful' of their time. There is Lady Nijo, the twelfth-century Japanese courtesan to the Emperor and Isabella, the Victorian Scotswoman who endured terrible physical pain and illness yet travelled the world as no other woman had before her. Pope Joan of the eighth century disguised herself as a boy to gain an education and eventually rose to the head of the Catholic Church. Dull Gret of the 'Brueghel painting' (page v) led a crusade of women into hell itself to 'pay…out' 'the evil' (page 18) which had torn apart her family and Patient Griselda from The Clerk's Tale within The Canterbury Tales obeyed her husband to his every command, remaining true to him even as he tested her love.

Yet each woman has suffered for her achievements. Lady Nijo was forced to give away children by lovers other than the Emperor in order to remain at his side. When she finally loses his favour she is forbidden from attending her own father’s funeral, and ultimately abandons her life within the palace. She turns to Buddhism and becomes a wandering nun. Isabella leaves her sister at home in order to travel, and is consequently unable to be with her at her death. She passes up any opportunity to raise a family, and does not even manage to marry the man she eventually comes to love. Joan sacrifices her femininity in order to become Pope to the point at which she does not recognise her own pregnancy. She is stoned to death following a disastrous public childbirth. Dull Gret lost her entire family at the hands of Spanish soldiers, while Griselda is prepared to allow her husband to kill her own children simply to obey his wishes. And ultimately, we discover that Marlene has had to give up her own daughter to pursue her career, a decision which also costs her a relationship with her sister. This raises an important question as to the nature of success and whether or not it is worth the cost it seems to inevitably incur.

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There is also political history behind ‘Top Girls’ In the row between Marlene and Joyce on page 53, there is mention of Margaret Thatcher. Leader of the Conservative Party and the first female Prime Minister, she came to power in 1979 (almost certainly the year before the majority of the play is set). Marlene, who states on page 52 that she ‘believe[s] in the individual’ (and is therefore a supporter of individualist, or American feminism), shares and supports Thatcher’s views. We are given the impression that while Marlene has voted for Thatcher, Joyce remains loyal to her fiercely right-wing Labour ...

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