Years ago, I remember driving through a mill town, not wanting to take another breath—the air quality was so bad. When we stopped to refuel, my mother—audacious as she was—asked the attendant how he could ‘stand the smell.’ “You get used to it,” he said. “I don’t even smell it anymore.”
There’s nothing unusual about the attendant’s response. With ubiquity, people often stop paying attention and adjust instead. Many do that even when they understand the consequences (in this case, the connection between poor air quality and lung diseases), and especially when they feel unable to change what’s happening.
Progressives have to walk a different path. The changes they fight for—like a higher minimum wage, health care for all, and constructive response to climate change—are connected to a macro-cause, a cause so pervasive that it’s hardly recognizable these days, absorbed as it is in America’s mindset and socio-culture. It’s Neoliberalism, the most influential social, economic, and cultural force of our age. But few in the general public call it by name, and even fewer know it exists. It’s there, though. Everywhere.
Written in the early 1980s and first performed in 1982, it’s an outstanding expression of socio-cultural satire. A public intellectual, Top Girls is Churchill’s timely response to Neoliberalism.
What might enable its public display? One avenue is through the Arts. And Caryl Churchill’s play,Top Girls, is a good example. Written in the early 1980s and first performed in 1982, it’s an outstanding expression of socio-cultural satire. A public intellectual, Top Girls is Churchill’s timely response to Neoliberalism. When Churchill wrote the play, Neoliberalism was being foisted full-stop on Britain by its enthusiastic ally and practitioner, Margaret Thatcher.
Marlene—the play’s protagonist in Churchill’s all-female cast—lives in London. In contrast to Marlene’s life and status, we find Joyce, her sister, a single mother. Marlene lives in an upscale part of town. Joyce does not. On this day, Marlene travels to Joyce’s home; the first visit Marlene has made in quite a while—even though Angie, Marlene’s daughter, lives with Joyce.
As critic Ben Brantley puts it, “Marlene is seen in both the unforgiving world of affluence in which she now lives and the equally unforgiving one of poverty from which she escaped.” Kerry Reid writes: “Written as a response to the notion that taking over the corner office (or Downing Street) was itself inherently liberating, Churchill uses the bifurcating (and suffocating) choices faced by women as a skeleton for her story.”
It doesn’t take long for the sisters to quarrel. “I’ve got four different cleaning jobs,” Joyce tells her sister. And Marlene can’t understand why. The way out, Marlene asserts, is to have a plan and work diligently to achieve it. Marlene boasts that she believes in ‘the individual’ and what individuals can achieve with hard work and persistence. Just look at Margaret Thatcher, she declares, a shopkeeper’s daughter who became Prime Minister.
But Joyce is having none of it. The sisters are worlds apart. Joyce sees it as an ‘us v. them’ situation and, from her perspective, Marlene is one of ‘them.’ Says Joyce: “I spit when I see a Rolls Royce, scratch it with my ring.” Marlene: “I hate the working class!”
But Top Girls isn’t a family spat. It’s a commentary about Neoliberalism, of which Marlene is both a believer and proponent. She is all about the need to roll up your sleeves, compete, advance, and (most importantly) succeed. She has precious little time for anything else, including bringing up her daughter—the responsibility for which has befallen to her sister.
But the story Churchill tells doesn’t hinge on a two-sister storyline. In fact, the interchange just described comes from the play’s last scene. The play’s beginning is quite different—so different that it seems drawn from an entirely different script. Yet, it has stood the test of time as the play’s most memorable scene.
There, Marlene welcomes five women to a dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s recent promotion. Surprisingly, they aren’t acquainted. We soon learn why. Scotland’s Isabella Bird (1831-1904) traveled extensively in later life. Lady Nijo (born in 1258), a Japanese Emperor’s courtesan, was also a poet, author, and Buddhist nun. Dulle Gret (also known as ‘Mad Woman’), a character in Pieter Bruegel’s eponymous painting, led a group of women through hell fighting devils. Pope Joan, thought to have served as Pope from 854-856, did so by posing as a man. And Griselda (from the late 1400s) is the obedient wife in Chaucer’s, ‘The Clerk’s Tale,’ from The Canterbury Tales.
What do they have in common? They live in a man’s world. Early on, they share stories about how they sought their fathers’ favor, marrying well, and bearing children (Gret had ten). Then, supplication shifted to their spouses.
Joan’s story was different. Her accomplishments came as a man because women were barred from engaging in the activities she valued. The ruse began as a pre-teen and continued for the rest of her life. And Joan succeeded in life—not by a little, but by a lot. She was elected Pope.
But before Joan continues her story, those assembled remember what this night is about: Marlene was promoted to a managing directorship. “You find work for people?” asks Joan. Nijo gushes about Marlene’s success, declaring that Marlene has authority over the women with whom she works—and the men, too.
Then it’s back to Joan, who tells those assembled how much she enjoyed executing her papal responsibilities. But she was lonely, too, and took a lover. Then, one day, Joan fell ill while riding a horse during a procession. Observers believe she is dying, but the circumstance is quite different: Joan is about to give birth. “The baby just slid out onto the road,” Joan explained. The response? The crowd grabbed her by the feet, dragged her out of town, and stoned her to death.
And when the audience expects more from these five figures, they vanish not to be seen again. The scene shifts to the “Top Girls” Employment Agency, where clients and staff (all women, again) interact. There, we learn more about what it’s like living in Marlene’s professional world.
Jeanine, a typist who was elevated to a secretary, wants to continue moving up the career ladder (she’s saving to get married). Marlene is quick to oblige, giving her the tips that she believes will help Jeanine succeed in her quest. But Jeanine, unconvinced that she has ‘what it takes,’ agrees reluctantly to try.
Other insider views of ‘success’ follow. In one scene, Louise, a Top Girls client, talks about her past job experiences. She laments about working relentlessly for the company and, despite doing everything she was asked, “Nobody notices me.” Young men, on the other hand—men her junior, and many she had trained—“go on to higher things.”
Louise continues unmasking the work culture, telling Win, a job interviewer, that she’s the only woman at her current job. The rest are ‘girls” (i.e., support staff). Louise is quick to disassociate herself with ‘girls’ … and women, for that matter. “I don’t care greatly for working with women. I think I pass as a man at work.”
On the flip side, there’s Mrs. Kidd, spouse of Howard, who is also her workplace peer…until now. They competed for a directorship, which she won. Now there’s a new challenge: helping Howard cope with being ‘passed over’ by a woman and having to work for a woman. Mrs. Kidd asks Marlene for help. “You’re going to have to be very careful how you handle him. He’s very hurt.”
Churchill’s language use is intentional. Note that she doesn’t refer to Mrs. Kidd by her first name. In Top Girls, there are men, women, and girls, and Churchill portrays differences in a sometimes harsh manner. But when it comes to competing and winning, well, that’s when the masculine wins out—and it always wins out—irrespective of gender. To advance, women need to adjust and behave like men—just as Thatcher did.
And to get her point across, Churchill employs what is at first a distracting technique—until you ‘get it.’ Time and time, a character interrupts another character in mid-sentence—just as men often do to women.
LOUISE: “I feel it’s now or never. I sometimes think….” (Win interrupts)
WIN: “You shouldn’t talk too much during an interview.”
Of course, not all of what Churchill writes is what Neoliberalism has wrought. It’s but the newest version of an age-old storyline. And that’s exactly why Churchill begins Top Girls with figures across the centuries and ends it with two contemporary sisters and their conflicting life stations and world views.
As Helen Epstein puts it, “The dialogue of Act One (with historic figures) gives way to raw, ugly, and intelligible lines of argument about the choices contemporary women do or don’t have: the terms of their employment; the terms of their relations with the fathers, lovers, and husbands; their obligations to or abandonment of their children; their definitions of success.”
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a powerful experience, especially instructive for those who have never heard of Neoliberalism. Progressives know, of course, and therein lies our challenge.
There’s a four-step routine to change: 1) Name it. 2) Proclaim its deleterious effects. 3) Disdain it. 4) Change it. In Top Girls, Caryl Churchill takes steps one and two. It’s up to us to finish the routine. Finally.
My thanks to Professor Lewis Dibble, Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, for recommending Top Girls. You can listen to this article at Under the Radar with host Frank Fear