Top Girls


Caryl Churchill

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Power, Success, and Individualism Theme Analysis

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Power, Success, and Individualism Theme Icon

The character at the center of Top Girls is Marlene—a successful businesswoman whose hunger for power forms the framework for the play’s action. As the drama unfolds, the audience begins to realize bit by bit just how much Marlene has sacrificed for her career. Set in the early 1980s, just a few years after the controversial Margaret Thatcher (who famously said that there was “no such thing” as society, only individual men and women who needed to “look to themselves first” rather than rely on the government for aid) had come to power as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Top Girls reckons with the way that “Thatcherism” pits the individual against larger society. Through Marlene, Churchill examines what it means to have power and success—and what it means to devote one’s whole life to getting them, ultimately suggesting that pursuit of shallow ideas of “success” rooted in financial or sociopolitical gain alone will always lead to disappointment.

Churchill uses Marlene’s arc to call into question what “success” actually looks like. Marlene appears to be a successful woman; she is financially independent, powerful within her chosen profession, and free of any burdensome attachments that might hold her back from pursuing even loftier goals; and yet, she has failed in many fundamental ways. Marlene’s success at her cutthroat employment agency—itself named Top Girls, an infantilizing name which implies that even if women make it to the “top” of the social or financial ladder, they are still just “girls”—has allowed Marlene to act as if she is above other people. She is condescending to the women she interviews for job placements, speaks cruelly of her niece Angie (who is actually her biological daughter), and looks down upon her sister Joyce, who has remained in the working-class neighborhood Marlene herself once called home. Marlene is cruel to others, forgetting always that she herself has been a victim of cruelty—namely, the cruel power structures which keep her from ever truly becoming a “Top Girl,” and which have warped her mind, causing her to believe that financial success and social capitals are the only roads to fulfillment.

Marlene is an aloof character who rarely displays emotion or states her motivations outright. This trait itself can be seen as a casualty of her devotion to obtaining power and success at any cost. She has learned how to play the games that will allow her to climb the corporate ladder, and, as a result, she has sacrificed empathy, intuition, and investment in the lives of others; all stereotypically “feminine” traits which, in the male-oriented world of business, could have held her back from achieving the success she’s won at the start of the play. She believes that success has required her to sacrifice empathy and softness, and in this way, she has failed to see how basic human goodness does not make one weak. Marlene’s failure as a mother is explored most deeply in the play’s final scene, which depicts a visit Marlene paid to her sister, Joyce, and her niece—who, again, is really her daughter—Angie. During the visit, Marlene and Joyce get into a vicious fight over Angie; Marlene defends her choice to give Angie up, claiming that since Joyce wanted a baby and Marlene wanted out of their working-class hometown, the arrangement made perfect sense. The sisters’ agreement, though, only benefited Marlene—free from the burden of motherhood, Marlene was free to pursue success, power, and independence, while Joyce lingered in a loveless marriage, suffered a miscarriage of her own, and became the primary caregiver for her and Marlene’s ailing parents. As the scene progresses, Joyce’s misery calls into question whether Marlene’s life is really a success at all—she has risen to power on the shoulders of other people, and has then alienated herself from those who helped her in the beginning. In this way, Marlene’s life is a success on paper, but is actually a failure in other, perhaps greater ways. 

Churchill is clearly in opposition to the effects of “Thatcherism” and pursuit of individual success at the expense of decency, goodness, and support of others. In creating a character who is so focused on her own success that she has become blind to the suffering not only of others, but of herself as well, Churchill uses Marlene to show how what some people see as “success” is actually, in a very real way, abject failure. 

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Power, Success, and Individualism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Power, Success, and Individualism appears in each act of Top Girls. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Power, Success, and Individualism Quotes in Top Girls

Below you will find the important quotes in Top Girls related to the theme of Power, Success, and Individualism.
Act One, Scene One Quotes

MARLENE: Magnificent all of you. We need some more wine, please, two bottles I think, Griselda isn’t even here yet, and I want to drink a toast to you all.

ISABELLA: To yourself surely, we’re here to celebrate your success.

NIJO: Yes, Marlene.

JOAN: Yes, what is it exactly, Marlene?

MARLENE: Well it’s not Pope but it is managing director.

JOAN: And you find work for people.

MARLENE: Yes, an employment agency.

NIJO: Over all the women you work with. And the men.

ISABELLA: And very well deserved too. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something extraordinary.

MARLENE: Well it’s worth a party.

ISABELLA: To Marlene.

MARLENE: And all of us.

JOAN: Marlene.

NIJO: Marlene.

GRET: Marlene.

MARLENE: We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements. (They laugh and drink a toast.)

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Isabella Bird (speaker), Lady Nijo (speaker), Dull Gret (speaker), Pope Joan (speaker), Patient Griselda
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

JOAN: But I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was getting fatter, but then I was eating more and sitting about, the life of a Pope is quite luxurious. I don’t think I’d spoken to a woman since I was twelve. [My lover] the chamberlain was the one who realized.

MARLENE: And by then it was too late.

JOAN: Oh I didn’t want to pay attention. It was easier to do nothing. […] I never knew what month it was. […] I wasn’t used to having a woman’s body.

JOAN: I didn’t know of course that it was near the time. It was Rogation Day, there was always a procession. I was on the horse dressed in my robes and a cross was carried in front of me, and all the cardinals were following, and all the clergy of Rome, and a huge crowd of people. […] I had felt a slight pain earlier, I thought it was something I’d eaten, and then it came back, and came back more often. I thought when this is over I’ll go to bed. There were still long gaps when I felt perfectly all right and I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and spoil the ceremony. Then I suddenly realized what it must be. I had to last out till I could get home and hide. Then something changed, my breath started to catch, I couldn’t plan things properly any more. […] I just had to get off the horse and sit down for a minute. […] And the baby just slid out on to the road.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Pope Joan (speaker)
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:
Act One, Scene Three Quotes

ANGIE: I’m going to London. To see my aunt.

KIT: And what?

ANGIE: That’s it.

KIT: I see my aunt all the time.

ANGIE: I don’t see my aunt.

KIT: What’s so special?

ANGIE: It is special. She’s special.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: She is.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: She is.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: My mother hates her.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: Because she does.

KIT: Perhaps she’s not very nice.

ANGIE: She is nice.

KIT: How do you know?

ANGIE: Because I know her.

KIT: You said you never see her.

ANGIE: I saw her last year. You saw her.

KIT: Did I?

ANGIE: Never mind.

KIT: I remember her. That aunt. What’s so special?

ANGIE: She gets people jobs.

KIT: What’s so special?

ANGIE: I think I’m my aunt’s child. I think my mother’s really my aunt.

Related Characters: Angie (speaker), Kit (speaker), Marlene, Joyce
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene One Quotes

NELL: Howard thinks because he’s a fella the job was his as of right. Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that.

WIN: Poor little bugger.

NELL: He’ll live.

WIN: He’ll move on.

NELL: I wouldn’t mind a change of air myself.

WIN: Serious?

NELL: I’ve never been a staying-put lady. Pastures new.

WIN: So who’s the pirate?

NELL: There’s nothing definite.

WIN: Inquiries?

NELL: There’s always inquiries. I’d think I’d got bad breath if there stopped being inquiries. Most of them can’t afford me. Or you.

WIN: I’m all right for the time being. Unless I go to Australia.

NELL: There’s not a lot of room upward.

WIN: Marlene’s filled it up.

Related Characters: Nell (speaker), Win (speaker), Marlene, Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

WIN: So I take it the job itself no longer satisfies you. Is it the money?

LOUISE: It’s partly the money. It’s not so much the money.


WIN: So why are you making a change?

LOUISE: Other people make changes.

WIN: But why are you, now, after spending most of your life in the one place?

LOUISE: There you are, I’ve lived for that company, I’ve given my life really you could say because I haven’t had a great deal of social life, I’ve worked in the evenings. […] I had management status from the age of twenty-seven and you’ll appreciate what that means. I’ve built up a department. And there it is I, it works extremely well, and I feel I’m stuck there. I’ve spent twenty years in middle management. I’ve seen young men who I trained go on, in my own company or elsewhere, to higher things. Nobody notices me, I don’t expect it, I don’t attract attention by making mistakes, everybody takes it for granted that my work is perfect. They will notice me when I go, they will be sorry I think to lose me, they will offer me more money of course, I will refuse. They will see when I’ve gone what I was doing for them.

Related Characters: Win (speaker), Louise (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

ANGIE: This is where you work is it?

MARLENE: It’s where I have been working the last two years but I’m going to move into another office.

ANGIE: It’s lovely.

MARLENE: My new office is nicer than this. There’s just the one big desk in it for me.

ANGIE: Can I see it?

MARLENE: Not now, no, there’s someone else in it now. But he’s leaving at the end of next week and I’m going to do his job.

ANGIE: This is where you work is it?

MARLENE: It’s where I have been working the last two years but I’m going to move into another office.

ANGIE: It’s lovely.

MARLENE: My new office is nicer than this. There’s just the one big desk in it for me.

ANGIE: Can I see it?

MARLENE: Not now, no, there’s someone else in it now. But he’s leaving at the end of next week and I’m going to do his job.

ANGIE: Is that good?

MARLENE: Yes, it’s very good.

ANGIE: Are you going to be in charge?

MARLENE: Yes I am.

ANGIE: I knew you would be.

MARLENE: How did you know?

ANGIE: I knew you’d be in charge of everything.

MARLENE: Not quite everything.

ANGIE: You will be.

MARLENE: Well we’ll see.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 66-67
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS. KIDD: Howard’s not in today.

MARLENE: Isn’t he?

MRS KIDD: He’s feeling poorly.

MARLENE: I didn’t know. I’m sorry to hear that.

MRS KIDD: The fact is he’s in a state of shock. About what’s happened.

MARLENE: What has happened?

MRS KIDD: You should know if anyone. I’m referring to you been appointed managing director instead of Howard. He hasn’t been at all well all weekend. He hasn’t slept for three nights. I haven’t slept.

MARLENE: I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Kidd. Has he thought of taking sleeping pills?

MRS KIDD: It’s very hard when someone has worked all these years.

MARLENE: Business life is full of little setbacks. I’m sure Howard knows that. He’ll bounce back in a day or two. We all bounce back.

MRS KIDD: If you could see him you’d know what I’m talking about. What’s it going to do to him working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal.

MARLENE: I think he’s going to have to get over it.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Mrs. Kidd (speaker), Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: Are you suggesting I give up the job to him then?

MRS KIDD: It had crossed my mind if you were unavailable for some reason, he would be the natural second choice I think, don’t you? I’m not asking.


MRS KIDD: You mustn’t tell him I came. He’s very proud.

MARLENE: If she doesn’t like what’s happening here he can go and work somewhere else.

MRS KIDD: Is that a threat?

MARLENE: I’m sorry but I do have some work to do.

MRS KIDD: It’s not easy, a man of Howard’s age. You don’t care. I thought he was going too far but he’s right. You’re one of those ball breakers, that’s what you

MARLENE: I’m sorry but I do have some work to do.

MRS KIDD: are. You’ll end up miserable and lonely. You’re not natural.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Mrs. Kidd (speaker), Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

NELL: You find it easy to get the initial interest do you?

SHONA: Oh yeh, I get plenty of initial interest.

NELL: And what about closing?

SHONA: I close, don’t I?

NELL: Because that’s what an employer is going to have doubts about with a lady as I needn’t tell you, whether she’s got the guts to push through to a closing situation. They think we’re too nice. They think we listen to the buyer’s doubts. They think we consider his needs and feelings.

SHONA: I never consider people’s feelings.

NELL: I was selling for six years, I can sell anything, I’ve sold in three continents, and I’m jolly as they come but I’m not very nice.

SHONA: I’m not very nice.

Related Characters: Nell (speaker), Shona (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: Is she asleep?

WIN: She wants to work here.

MARLENE: Packer in Tesco more like.

WIN: She’s a nice kid. Isn’t she?

MARLENE: She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny.

WIN: She thinks you’re wonderful.

MARLENE: She’s not going to make it.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Win (speaker), Angie
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene Two Quotes

JOYCE: [Kit’s] a little girl Angie sometimes plays with because she’s the only child lives really close. She’s like a little sister to her really. Angie’s good with little children.

MARLENE: Do you want to work with children, Angie? Be a teacher or nursery nurse?

JOYCE: I don’t think she’s ever thought of it.

MARLENE: What do you want to do?

JOYCE: She hasn’t got an idea in her head what she wants to do. Lucky to get anything.

JOYCE: True enough.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie, Kit
Page Number: 82-83
Explanation and Analysis:

JOYCE: You couldn’t get out of here fast enough.

MARLENE: Of course I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. What was I going to do? Marry a dairyman who’d come home pissed? Don’t you fucking this

JOYCE: Christ.

MARLENE: fucking that fucking bitch fucking tell me what to fucking do fucking.

JOYCE: I don’t know how you could leave your own child.

MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her.

JOYCE: What does that mean?

MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her?

JOYCE: Or what? Have her put in a home? Have some stranger take her would you rather?

MARLENE: You couldn’t have one so you took mine.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 89-90
Explanation and Analysis:

JOYCE: Listen when Angie was six months I did get pregnant and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby because she cried so

MARLENE: You never told me.

JOYCE much—yes I did tell you—and the doctor

MARLENE: Well I forgot.

JOYCE: said if I’d sat down all day with my feet up I’d’ve kept it and that’s the only chance I ever had because after that—

MARLENE: I’ve had two abortions, are you interested? Shall I tell you about them? Well I won’t, it’s boring, it wasn’t a problem. I don’t like messy talk about blood and what a bad time we all had. I

JOYCE: If I hadn’t had your baby. The doctor said.

MARLENE: don’t want a baby. I don’t want to talk about gynaecology.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

JOYCE: You can always find yourself work then?

MARLENE: That’s right.

JOYCE: And men?

MARLENE: Oh there’s always men.

JOYCE: No-one special?

MARENE: There’s fellas who like to be seen with a high-flying lady. Shows they’ve got something really good in their pants. But they can’t take the day to day. They’re waiting for me to turn into the little woman.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE. I think the eighties are going to be stupendous.

JOYCE: Who for?

MARLENE: For me. I think I’m going up up up.

JOYCE: Oh for you. Yes, I’m sure they will.

MARLENE: And for the country, come to that. Get the economy back on its feet and whoosh. She’s a tough lady, Maggie. I’d give her a job. She just needs to hang

JOYCE: You voted for them, did you?

MARLENE: in there. This country needs to stop whining. Monetarism is not

JOYCE: Drink your tea and shut up, pet.

MARLENE: stupid. It takes time, determination. No more slop. And

JOYCE: Well I think they’re filthy bastards.

MARLENE: who’s got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.

JOYCE: What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman. […] Great adventures.

MARLENE: Bosses still walking on the worker’s faces? Still dada’s little parrot? Haven’t you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.

JOYCE: I am looking at you.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker)
Page Number: 94-95
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: I hate the working class which is what

JOYCE: Yes you do.

MARLENE: you’re going to go on about now, it doesn’t exist any more, it means lazy and stupid. I don’t

JOYCE: Come on, now we’re getting it.

MARLENE: like the way they talk. I don’t like beer guts and football vomit and saucy tits and brothers and sisters—

JOYCE: I spit when I see a Rolls Royce, scratch it with my ring Mercedes it was.

MARLENE: Oh very mature—

JOYCE: I hate the cows I work for and their dirty dishes with blanquette of fucking veau.

MARLENE: and I will not be pulled down to their level by a flying picket and I won’t be sent to Siberia or a loony bin just because I’m original. And I support

JOYCE: No, you’ll be on a yacht, you’ll be head of Coca Cola and you wait, the eighties is going to be stupendous all right because we’ll get you lot off our backs—

MARLENE: Reagan even if he is a lousy movie star because the reds are swarming up his map and I want to be free in a free world—

JOYCE: What? What?

MARLENE: I know what I mean by that—not shut up here.

JOYCE: So don’t be round here when it happens because if someone’s kicking you I’ll just laugh.


MARLENE: I don’t mean anything personal. I don’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.

JOYCE: And if they haven’t?

MARLENE: If they’re stupid or lazy or frightened, I’m not going to help them get a job, why should I?

JOYCE: What about Angie?

MARLENE: What about Angie?

JOYCE: She’s stupid, lazy and frightened, so what about her?

MARLENE: You run her down too much. She’ll be all right.

JOYCE: I don’t expect so, no. I expect her children will say what a wasted life she had. If she has children. Because nothing’s changed and it won’t with them in.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis: