Top Girls

by

Caryl Churchill

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Top Girls: Act Two, Scene Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The action flashes back to one year earlier; Marlene, Joyce, and Angie are in Joyce’s kitchen. Marlene is pulling numerous presents out of a bag for Angie, saying she’s brought “just a few little things.” Angie opens one of her presents—the fancy dress from Act One. Angie is thrilled with it, and Joyce tells Angie to go to her room and try it on. Angie wants to open one of Joyce’s presents, though; it is a bottle of perfume. Angie asks to put some perfume on, and encourages Joyce and Marlene to try some too so that they’ll “all smell the same.” She leaves, going up to her room to try on the dress.
In this scene, Churchill brings the narrative back to one year earlier, to allow her audience to take a look at the day that Angie described earlier as the best day of her whole life. Angie is clearly thrilled by the visit, and Marlene is using the opportunity both to lavish gifts on her sister and niece and show off how successful she has become. Angie is totally in Marlene’s thrall, and is both hungry for her attention and impressed by her wealth. The Angie in this scene is much more outgoing and childlike than the Angie from the rest of the play, implying that something very painful or disorienting has happened to Angie between this moment and the events of the earlier scenes.
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As soon as Angie is out of the room, Joyce chides Marlene for dropping in unannounced, but Marlene is surprised to hear that Joyce didn’t know she was coming since Angie, over the phone, told Marlene that Joyce had asked for Marlene to come for a visit. Joyce is amused, and asks if Marlene ever wondered why Joyce wouldn’t have called Marlene herself. Marlene replies that Angie said Joyce was shy on the phone and didn’t like using it—Marlene protests that she didn’t know any better, because she doesn’t know what her sister is like in the first place. Marlene says, looking back, she had been surprised that Joyce wanted to see her. Joyce deadpans that she didn’t want to see Marlene at all.
In the previous scene, Angie showed up to London unannounced to visit Marlene after dodging her mother’s watchful eye. In this scene, it is still Angie who has orchestrated the surprise, but in reverse. Angie clearly knows that Joyce and Marlene do not get along well and do not want to see much of each other, yet her desire to have Marlene around is so strong that she has defied her mother and invited Marlene anyway.
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Marlene offers to leave, but Joyce teases that she doesn’t mind seeing Marlene now that she’s here. She tells Marlene that she can come see Angie anytime she likes—Joyce won’t stop her. Marlene is the one who went away—Joyce and Angie have always been in the same place.
In this passage, Joyce seems to absolve Marlene of the sin of abandonment—then right away turns around and points out, rather snidely, that Marlene’s abandonment is never forgotten. 
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Angie comes back in wearing the dress, and Marlene compliments her on how pretty she looks. Joyce tells her to take it off so that she doesn’t get it dirty. Angie protests that she wants to wear it, and Marlene remarks that “it is for wearing after all.” Angie thanks Marlene profusely for the dress. Marlene asks Angie why she didn’t tell Joyce she’d invited Marlene down, and Angie replies that she wanted the visit to be a surprise—she hasn’t seen Marlene since she was nine years old. Marlene is shocked by how much time has gone by since her last visit.
Marlene has clearly been absent in Angie’s life, and judging by her lack of awareness as to how much time has passed, it’s evident that Angie is not one of her priorities. She is attempting to make up for it now through the lavish gifts, and Angie is falling for it, grateful for the attention and chance to partake of some of the luxuries that define Marlene’s life.
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Kit walks into the house “as if she lives there,” inserting herself right into the action. Joyce introduces Kit to “Angie’s Aunt Marlene.” Kit seems uninterested in Marlene’s presence, and instead asks Angie if she’s going to come out to play. Angie says she isn’t. Kit says the air in the room smells “horrible,” and then leaves. Joyce tells Marlene that Kit is a little girl Angie plays with sometimes, and that the two are like sisters; she tells Marlene how good Angie is with little children. Marlene asks Angie if she would like to work with children when she gets older, as a teacher or nursery nurse. Joyce answers for Angie, saying that Angie hasn’t thought of what she wants to do. Marlene presses Angie, but Joyce keeps answering for her, saying that Angie is not clever and hasn’t thought at all about her future.
In this passage, Churchill shows how Marlene’s preoccupation with success and corporate life has completely overtaken her world. When she hears that Angie is good with children, she immediately asks how Angie plans to monetize this “skill.” Marlene can only think of even the most basic human traits in terms of their profitability and potential for engendering personal gain. Joyce’s insistence that Angie hasn’t thought about her future is both meant to call attention to this peculiar habit of Marlene’s—and also to take a slight dig at Angie.
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Marlene pulls a bottle of whiskey out of her bag, and though Joyce protests at first, she eventually gets some glasses down so the two can have a drink. Marlene recalls that the last time the two of them got drunk together was the night their father died. Joyce says that she still keeps the grave decorated with fresh flowers. Marlene asks if Joyce has seen their mother, and Joyce replies that she visits her every Thursday.
Joyce wants to make Marlene feel badly for abandoning her hometown, and so points out how loyal she is not just to their mother, who is still alive, but how loyal she is even to their father’s memory.
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Marlene asks Joyce to catch her up on all the neighborhood gossip—Angie is confused as the women trade stories from their own youth, and attempts to get Marlene to pay attention to her by reminding Marlene of her last visit, for Angie’s ninth birthday. Angie asks if Marlene remembers the pink cake from the party, and recalls to herself that her own mother and father were there, along with Kit. Marlene asks where Angie’s father is, and Joyce replies that he moved out three years ago. Angie is amazed that Marlene didn’t know, and tartly states that Marlene doesn’t know much of anything at all. Joyce states that Marlene was in America when Angie’s father left, and Angie becomes excited, remembering that she has a postcard Marlene sent from the Grand Canyon in her room. She runs up to fetch it.
Angie clearly wants to be the sole focus of Marlene’s attention. Marlene and Joyce, however, have their own relationship to attend to—there are a lot of things happening in Joyce’s life that Marlene has, out of her own negligence, been ignorant of.
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While Angie is out of the room, Joyce states that she doesn’t know any of Marlene’s business—so it’s only fair that Marlene doesn’t know any of hers. Angie returns with the postcard and reads from it excitedly. She asks if Marlene will take her to America; Joyce tells Angie that Marlene is not returning to America, and calls her “stupid.” Angie asks Marlene to take her to America, becoming almost manic as she expresses her desire to be American. Joyce urges Angie to get to bed—Angie offers Marlene her own bed, saying she’ll sleep on the sofa, but Marlene, too, ushers Angie up to bed. Angie tells Marlene that she has a secret to show her up in her room; Marlene tells her she’ll be in to see her in a minute. Angie excitedly hurries to bed.
Joyce seems to actually want to keep her sister uninformed about the details of her life as retribution for Marlene’s having moved away. Joyce sees Marlene’s desire to leave her old life behind and pursue corporate and financial success as the ultimate betrayal—as a result, Joyce wants to keep Marlene in the dark about what is happening in her family. If Marlene doesn’t have the time or patience—or decency—to check in with her family, Joyce reasons, she doesn’t deserve to hear about them.
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Joyce and Marlene talk idly about the weather and the neighborhood, and Joyce is a bit short with Marlene. Marlene tells Joyce she could have left town if she wanted to—Joyce replies she didn’t want to. Joyce tells Marlene she picked an inconvenient time to show up, on a Sunday evening. Marlene begins telling Joyce that she got in to town earlier that morning, and spent the day otherwise engaged, but Angie’s shouts cut her off. Marlene goes to Angie’s room, leaving Joyce alone for a minute, and then comes right back.
The biggest rift in Joyce and Marlene’s relationship, as Churchill will continue to demonstrate, is that Marlene chose to leave their hometown. Joyce now wants to prevent Marlene from having any point of reinsertion or any point of reconnection—and so Angie’s affinity for Marlene gets under Joyce’s skin.
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Joyce asks Marlene what the secret was; Marlene replies that it’s a secret. Joyce says she knows Angie and Kit have some “secret society”—Marlene teases Joyce for not knowing the “password.” Joyce worries that Angie is “useless” at school, even though she spends hours and hours writing in her secret society notebook. Marlene thinks Angie might be developing a plot to “take over the world,” but Joyce points out that Angie has been in remedial classes for two years now.
Joyce seems very worried about Angie, but Marlene seems to think that Angie is doing fine and just enjoying a normal girlhood. Of course, though, Marlene is not present in Angie’s life, so she is blind to the ways in which Angie has struggled and suffered, and may actually be in danger of falling behind and getting stuck.
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Marlene tells Joyce that she arrived in the country this morning, and spent the day visiting their mother in a neighboring town. Joyce asks if their mother recognized Marlene, and Marlene defensively states that she was “very lucid.” Marlene comments on the “fucking awful life” their mother had, but Joyce tells Marlene to stop. Joyce points out that Marlene left home and went away, and doesn’t get to comment on the people she left behind. Marlene states that their mother is not only Joyce’s mother, and Angie is not only Joyce’s child. She asks why she can’t visit her own family without dredging up ill will. Joyce wants to avoid an argument, but asks Marlene not to comment on their mother’s life when Marlene hasn’t been to visit in so many years, while Joyce goes weekly.
In this passage, Marlene reveals that Angie is in fact her daughter. Despite her lack of desire to maintain any closeness with her family, Marlene feels she has the right to drop in when she feels like it, whereas Joyce believes that Marlene needs to give all or nothing, so to speak; she can’t be an occasional presence in Angie’s life, or in their mother’s, because it is unfair and selfish to do so.
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Marlene suggests that Joyce would feel better about things if she didn’t go to visit their mother every week; Joyce states that Marlene couldn’t get out of town fast enough. Marlene agrees, pointing out that she didn’t want to stay and marry a working-class drunkard. Joyce says she can’t believe Marlene went off and left her own child. Marlene points out that Joyce was “quick enough to take her.” Joyce protests that she only took Angie because she didn’t want her to go to an orphanage, or a stranger. Marlene suggests that Joyce, who had been unable to conceive in three years of marriage, got “lucky” when Marlene offered her Angie. Joyce comments that the deal worked out well for Marlene, too, who is able to hoard her salary rather than spending it on raising a child.
Marlene’s ethos and approach to life is all about doing whatever makes one “feel”  good. Joyce visits her mother weekly, selflessly showing up for her mother every chance she gets, while Marlene believes that it would be easier for Joyce to ignore their mother and focus on herself. Marlene’s deep sense of individualism also applies to her treatment of Angie—whom she abandoned when she decided that it was more important to get out of her hometown than it was to fulfill her duties as a mother.
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The two women argue back and forth about marriage and child-rearing; Marlene keeps insisting that she essentially did Joyce a favor by allowing Joyce to take Angie and raise her as her own. She asks if Joyce doesn’t want Angie anymore, and offers to take her back to London this instant. Joyce says she of course wants Angie; Angie is her child.
Marlene is so deluded that she believes she did her sister a favor in saddling Joyce with her own unwanted child. Marlene does not see how selfish she is now, and has apparently never been able to see her selfish actions clearly, even years and years ago.
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Joyce confesses that when Angie was six months old, she did become pregnant on her own—but she miscarried, because she was so exhausted and strung out from looking after the infant Angie, who cried nonstop. In response to this story, Marlene angrily retorts that she herself has had two abortions, but doesn’t want to tell Joyce about them because “it’s boring.” She doesn’t like “messy talk about blood” and “gynecology,” she says, and she certainly doesn’t want a baby.
Joyce attempts to talk to her sister about a painful, traumatic event that occurred in her life directly due to Marlene’s influence. Marlene, however, wants to try to minimize her sister’s pain, and so ridicules Joyce for starting a conversation about something so “messy” and embarrassing as “gynecology.”
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Marlene confesses that she was afraid of fighting with Joyce when she made plans to visit, and she breaks down in tears. Joyce attempts to cheer Marlene up, telling her she loves her. Marlene asks Joyce to let her cry—she likes crying. The two women laugh, and Marlene thanks Joyce earnestly for looking after Angie. Joyce tells Marlene she’s drunk, and fixes her some tea. As she does, she concedes that their hometown is a “dump,” and admits she understands why Marlene wanted to leave. 
As their argument reaches a fever pitch, Marlene seems to realize she has overstepped a boundary—or, perhaps, as at the dinner party, she is merely drunk. Nevertheless, her breakdown allows for a genuine moment between the two sisters in which Joyce earnestly acknowledges Marlene’s point of view, and validates her desire to seek something more than the lot she was born into.
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Marlene asks Joyce what happened with her husband—Joyce reveals he was cheating on her incessantly, and she kicked him out. Marlene asks if Joyce’s ex sends her money, but Joyce says she doesn’t take his money, and instead has four cleaning jobs that help her support herself. Marlene asks if Joyce has taken up with anyone else, but Joyce says there aren’t many options for her. Joyce asks Marlene about her job, and Marlene says it’s a good one. Joyce asks Marlene if she’s involved with anyone, but Marlene says no; every once in a while she goes out with “fellas who like to be seen with a high-flying lady,” but finds that none of them can “take the day to day,” and in the end always want her to “turn into the little woman.”
Joyce and Marlene have very different concerns. Joyce is trying to support herself and her child by stretching herself thin and taking multiple low-paying jobs, whereas Marlene’s largest concern is finding a man who will allow her to pursue her career above everything. Marlene will not be domesticated though—she does not want to return to the small life she worked so hard to escape.
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Marlene predicts that despite her lack of romantic success, the eighties are going to be “stupendous”—she is going to rise “up up up,” and the country’s economy is going to get back on its feet thanks to Margaret Thatcher. Joyce urges Marlene to drink her tea and shut up. Marlene keeps going, though, saying it’s “terrifico” that the UK has gotten its first woman prime minister. Joyce says that Margaret Thatcher is a terrible choice, and suggests that Marlene would have “liked Hitler if he was a woman.” Marlene cruelly teases Joyce for “parrot[ing]” their father’s working-class, anti-establishment values, never thinking for herself. “I believe in the individual,” she says; “Look at me.” Joyce replies stonily that she is looking at Marlene.
Marlene offers her tone-deaf prediction that the eighties are going to be an amazing and prosperous time. Joyce points out that there are serious social and political problems at stake—but because those issues benefit Marlene, and others of her class and social standing, she doesn’t see them as things she needs to worry about. She believes in the tenets of Thatcherism—that everyone is responsible for themselves, and anyone who does not try to change their circumstances is lazy, idiotic, or a failure.
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Marlene urges Joyce to stop quarreling with her over politics. Joyce, though, doesn’t want for Marlene to blame everything on their father, who “work[ed] in the fields like an animal.” Marlene states that their father was an abusive drunk, but Joyce excuses his behavior by pointing out how terrible both their parents’ lives were—they didn’t get to go to America “and drive across it in a fast car.” Marlene accuses Joyce of being jealous of her, but Joyce expresses contempt for Marlene’s high-class lifestyle and says she’s “ashamed” of having a sister who thinks of nothing but herself. 
Marlene and Joyce see their shared childhood very differently. Joyce understands that their parents had certain problems due to the restrictions and limitations of their financial and social standing; Marlene is unable to see why her parents didn’t try to advance out of their low position and try to make successful lives for themselves. Marlene is blind to the ways in which people suffer and struggle due to societal issues rather than personal failings.
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Marlene asks if Joyce is going to accuse her of hating the working class, and then outright admits that she does. Joyce retorts that she “spit[s] when [she] see[s] a Rolls Royce,” and scratches up nice cars with her ring. The women berate one another’s lifestyles, talking over one another until Marlene at last states loudly that she doesn’t believe in class. She thinks that “anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes,” and if they’re “stupid or lazy or frightened,” it shouldn’t be up to her to help them get a job.
As the sisters argue viciously and disparage the social class to which the other belongs, Churchill demonstrates the deep animosity class issues engender, even between people who come from the same family and the same background. Marlene’s politics are in direct conflict with how Joyce lives her life—and Joyce’s ideology threatens to reveal how damaging Marlene’s way of life is.
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Joyce asks what Marlene would do about Angie, then, who is “stupid, lazy, and frightened.” Marlene assures Joyce that Angie will be all right, but Joyce says she doesn’t think she will be. She predicts that Angie’s children—if she has children—will one day talk about what a “wasted life” she had, because nothing in their country has changed since their parents’ generation, and certainly won’t under Thatcher.
This passage seems to directly inform the statement Marlene will make about Angie one year from now, when she tells her coworkers that Angie is “not going to make it.” Joyce planted the seed of that thought in Marlene’s head by pointing out that Marlene’s own daughter is the very things Marlene purports to despise—dull, lazy, frightened, and unmotivated to change her station in life.
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Marlene asks Joyce if they can stop fighting—she says she “didn’t really mean” any of what she said. “I did,” Joyce retorts. Marlene asks if they can be friends anyway, and Joyce says she doesn’t think they can be. Marlene remarks that it is “lovely to be out in the country,” and then says she wants to go to sleep. Joyce gathers up some blankets for Marlene to use on the sofa, and then goes up to bed.
Things are so easy for Marlene in her life back in London that she thinks the same rules apply to her anywhere she goes. She doesn’t understand that her statements and actions have consequences, and that in trying to prove her rightness she has alienated her sister even further, and possibly ruined their relationship beyond repair at last.
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Marlene wraps herself in a blanket, sits on the couch, and has another drink. After a moment, Angie walks in, calling for her mother. Marlene asks Angie what the matter is, and Angie again asks for her mother. Marlene tells Angie that Joyce has gone to bed, and reminds Angie that she is only her “Aunty Marlene.” “Frightening,” Angie says. Marlene asks if Angie had a bad dream, and reassures her that everything is okay now—she’s awake. “Frightening,” Angie says once again.
This passage seems to reveal that Angie has heard the entirety of Joyce and Marlene’s long, painful conversation. Angie now knows the truth about her parentage. When she is calling “mum,” she is not calling for Joyce, but rather addressing Marlene as “mum” for the first time ever. Angie’s dull, flat delivery of the word “frightening,” again and again, seems to suggest that this is the moment when Angie became angry, withdrawn, and “frightening” herself.
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