The full range of women’s stories is on display in Top Girls as the play moves from the metaphysical world of power-hungry businesswoman Marlene’s fantasies to her fast-paced corporate London life. Churchill uses the play’s opening dinner-party sequence to demonstrate the range, vitality, and necessity of women’s stories. As she showcases women’s stories, both fictional and nonfictional, Churchill argues that, in a world controlled by the patriarchy, sharing stories is perhaps the greatest currency women have. As Marlene’s guests, real and fictional, share the tales of their lives and bond over their shared pain, Churchill highlights the eerie coincidences between them, suggesting that the only way for women to thrive in such a cruel world is to draw strength and wisdom from one another’s stories.
Two of the stories Churchill focuses on in the dinner party scene are nonfiction—they are taken from women’s own accounts of their lives. Churchill’s choice to portray real-life women from history grants them the chance to impart the wisdom they have gained through their trials and tribulations. Isabella Bird, a real-life explorer, writer, and naturalist and the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, is the first “real” guest at Marlene’s dinner party. Isabella is an anomaly in the play—she is the only woman who was never a mother, the only woman whose work was honored in her lifetime, and the only woman whose actual writing is used to inform her dialogue in the play. In including Isabella, Churchill shows how vital the validation of women’s stories truly is. Because Isabella was able to be seen and heard in her lifetime, she was able to be free in ways that many of the other guests did not. Lady Nijo was a concubine-turned-Buddhist-nun who lived in thirteenth-century Japan. A life of sexual servitude to the Emperor is “what [she] was brought up for from a baby,” and for a long time, this was the only course she ever believed her life would take. She reveals that later, when she eventually “fell out of favour” at court, she “had nothing” except her dead father’s onetime advice to her, which was to join a convent if she found herself rejected by the Emperor. Despite her suffering, Nijo’s writings lasted through the ages; Churchill includes Nijo as a testament to women’s stories and their inherent worth, even though often they are marked by pain and suffering which many would rather look away from.
The rest of the guests’ stories are fictional—their backstories are either drawn from legend or created by Churchill herself. Through her use of fictional characters alongside nonfictional ones, Churchill argues that the stories of women who have been flattened through one-dimensional portrayals (often at the hands of male artists and creators) are just as necessary as those which are “real.” Pope Joan disguised herself as a man and ascended to the papacy in the Middle Ages. Though she reigned for only a couple of years, as she tells the story of her life to the other party guests, she reflects on how deep into the role she got—she nearly forgot that she was a woman, and did not realize that she had become pregnant until she went into labor in the middle of a religious procession. Joan gave birth in the street; her cardinals declared her “The Antichrist” before dragging her away and stoning her and her child to death. “If it hadn’t been for the baby,” she laments, she might have ruled into her old age. Joan, like Marlene, pursues success and power at all costs. Patient Griselda is a figure in European folklore—she most famously appears in stories by Boccaccio and Chaucer, who were, of course, both men. In allowing Patient Griselda the space to relay her story of having had her obedience tested in cruel ways by her wealthy husband, Churchill allows Griselda to have the abuse she suffered at the hands her husband and other men (such as those who use her story to extoll the virtues of patience and obedience) be validated by other women. Dull Gret—who appears in a painting by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder—is, like Griselda, a subject of folklore. In the painting, she is shown leading an army of women to pillage Hell. Griet was a term used at the time to describe shrewish or cranky women. A Flemish proverb that states “She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed” would have been known to the painting’s viewers, and thus Griet would have been seen as a cartoonish rendering of a woman who’d shirked her place. In the play, Churchill allows Gret a moment of redemption and agency similar to Griselda’s, giving her the chance to relay things from her point of view and explain the anger and frustration that drove her mission. Marlene’s story is also fictional, but Churchill uses it for different purposes than the other fictional women in the play. Marlene is depicted as a cold, self-absorbed businesswoman who is primarily interested in her own professional advancement. She abandoned her daughter, Angie, to her sister Joyce’s care when the girl was still an infant, and has climbed tirelessly to a position of power at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Churchill uses Marlene as an indictment of Thatcherism—prizing of the individual’s needs over the collective ones of society. In this sense, Marlene is being “used” by Churchill in the same way Gret and Griselda were used by the men who told their stories for them. Marlene is, at the end of the day, a plaything of Churchill’s, but her narrative serves a clear purpose and is used in service of asking important questions—and thus it has just as much worth as any “real” woman’s story.
The interplay between the real and the unreal within Top Girls is meant to call into question how women’s stories have been erased throughout the ages, and to argue that every woman’s story has worth and value. Churchill’s use of women’s stories—fictional and nonfictional—in exploring what contemporary feminism looks like demonstrates her faith in the universal “truth” of women’s stories.
Women’s Stories ThemeTracker
Women’s Stories Quotes in Top Girls
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.
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.)
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.
GRET: We come to hell through a big mouth. Hell’s black and red. It’s […] like the village where I come from. There’s a river and a bridge and houses. There’s places on fire like when the soldiers come. There’s a big devil sat on a roof with a big hole in his arse and he’s scooping stuff out of it with a big ladle and it’s falling down on us, and it’s money, so a lot of the women stop and get some. But most of us is fighting the devils. There’s lots of little devils, our size, and we get them down all right and give them a beating. […] Well we’d had worse, you see, we’d had the Spanish. We’d all had family killed. My big son die on a wheel. Birds eat him. My baby, a soldier run her through with a sword. I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out of my front door that morning and shot till my neighbours come out and I said, “Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out.” And they all come out just as they was from baking or […] washing in their aprons, and we push down the street and the ground opens up and we go through a big mouth into a street just like ours but in hell. […] You just keep running on and fighting, you didn’t stop for thing. Oh we give them devils such a beating.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.