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Considered to be ‘one of the most innovative playwrights to have emerged in post-war British theatre’

Considered to be ‘one of the most innovative playwrights to have emerged in post-war British theatre’ (Tycer, 2008, p. 4), Caryl Churchill is ‘ ‘. For this essay, I will specifically focus on Top girls and analyse Churchill’s exploration in terms of form, theme and context whilst also ??.
Caryl Churchill was raised by a middle-class family and spent her childhood in Britain and Canada. She was born as a socialist and feminist as she remembers that her mother ‘talked to me about working, and the fact that she used to not wear her wedding ring to work. I had the feeling, rather early on that having a career was rather incompatible with staying married and being very happy.’ (Aston, 2001, p.4) In 1960’s Churchill mainly wrote radio plays that fitted in with raising a family, so it is evident that Caryl was attempting to find the perfect solution to keep motherhood and her career on the same path. This is embedded in Top Girls as Churchill stated, ‘it would start out looking like a feminist play and then turn into a socialist one, as well.’ (Churchill cited in Betsko & Koenig, 1987: 82).
Caryl recognises that the two terms (socialist and feminist) are not synonymous but as a writer, she felt ‘strongly about both and wouldn’t be interested in a form of one that didn’t include the other’ (Aston and Diamond, 2009: p. 4). This is evident in her writing; it is characterised by deep, political investigations of the contemporary moment (at the time of her writing), often via imaginative historical excavations (i.e. Vinegar (1976) is compared to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible as both use historicization as a technique and deal with the consequences of false accusations of witchcraft within a community). This produces a satisfying drama filled with well-rounded and challenging parts for female actors as well as compelling arc for the audience.
Top Girls was developed by Stafford-Clark and produced at the Royal Court when he was the Artistic Director (1979-1993) and seen onstage in 1982. Churchill’s first work with Stafford-Clark had been through the democratically organised theatre company Joint Stock. Again, this was a company with broadly socialist aims. In Stafford-Clark’s eyes, it was a ‘hazardous and demanding way of working’ (2007, p. xiii) as the company’s working process challenged both the actresses and the playwrights, so Churchill herself.
Large amounts of her work have been created in a collaborative atmosphere and are designed to critique how women are positioned in society e.g. Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment whose objective was to ‘make exciting political theatre based on women’s experience’ as they were ‘tired of seeing that experience marginalized or trivialised’ (cited in Goodman, 1993: p. 69). There is a clear correlation in the notions set out by her collaborators, and she felt that these collaborations helped her to articulate her ‘personal politics’ into something ‘more objective and analytical’ (Itzin: 285).
The play was written as a response to Thatcher’s election and therefore shadows Brecht’s modernist conventions of political theatre. It voices Churchill’s concerns regarding a societal emphasis on capitalist success over sisterly solidarity. She compares the lives of two sisters and questions if is it more important to break out of poverty and make something of yourself or to fulfil your responsibilities to your family and community? And if you’re a woman, are you more likely to answer this question in a certain way? Joyce and Marlene have different answers to the questions the play asks: one picks career, the other – family. Churchill avoids idealizing either path. Instead, she gives the audience an opportunity to examine their opinions regarding gender and class and suggests that feminists must continue to examine their priorities and role in the society.
However Top Girls complicates its feminism. It explores the controversial role/issue of social class within the feminist movement. It addresses how the empowerment of a generation of white, middle class feminists has been achieved with little concern for the advancement of other classes and races of women.
Marlene, who runs the Top Girls agency, has become financially very successful but this has not helped her sister who is bringing up Marlene’s daughter for her. Joyce is a more understanding character and doesn’t blame her father for being abusive. She recognizes that he had an oppressed life; perhaps this is because she has remained firmly in the lower class. She has stayed loyal to her family and believes she is better off without a man but resents Marlene for betraying them.
There are bold resonances with the achievement of Marlene and Thatcher herself. She achieved great success but did nothing to further the position of other women as there were no women in her cabinet; her policies instantly affected mothers (maternity provision cuts and ending of free school meals), and she aped masculine behaviours.
It has been argued that all the women in the play assume male roles or adopt traditional feminine behaviours. Michelene Wandor criticised the play for not providing clear feminist role models but it is important to recognize the main message conveyed is that to succeed in patriarchal capitalist society, women adopt aggressive stances that place material gain above family life. Churchill doesn’t indicate whether that’s is the ideal pathway. Instead, she interrogates the relationship between the past and current social practice through alienation; Caryl presents history as comedy to infuse her audience with an awareness about the futility of individual emancipation without concurrent societal transformation and wants the audience to explore it for themselves.
The play opens with an anachronistic dinner party hosted by Marlene who brings six women from different historical periods and social classes together; Pope Joan, who occupied a position, which remains inaccessible to women. Lady Ninjo (b. 1258), a Japanese woman who married an Emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun who travelled on foot through Japan came from a family acutely conscious of its heritage. Dull Gret, a fictional character depicted in a painting by Brueghel and the only working-class woman in Act 1. Patient Griselda, another fictional character from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales who has no voice of her own and is devoted to her marriage to a Marquis. Lastly, Isabella Bird (1831-1904), a Scottish traveller. By placing Marlene together with these exceptional women, her position is heightened but Churchill questions the merits of Marlene’s achievement. Nonetheless, these women represent decidedly different social classes and they experience profoundly different existential realities.
Marlene refuses to acknowledge the obvious differences among the women. When the women toast her success, she attempts to elide the differences
MARLENE: ‘We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements’ (67)
to impose a commonality of success, which is at least questionable.
However, there’s an evident shift in the act where the women become sadder
MARLENE: ‘Oh God, why are we all so miserable?’ (72)
This is ironic because the meal is meant to be a celebration. Are they troubled because of the consequences of being a feminist or the path they took? Or are they egoistic mourning over their own stories? Both interpretations are fuelled by the overlapping dialogue; this may be a common device now, but at the time it was an innovation in dramatic style. Does the overlapping dialogue show the women interrupting one another or are they communicating collaboratively? Churchill’s demands are high, as she will not give answers but instead expect the audience to stay focused.
The Non-linear time (Saturday, Sunday, Monday then back a year or in other versions the interview is interspersed) and all the women besides Marlene performing multiple roles implements Brecht’s conventions – the two techniques not only evoke the audience’s engagement but instruct them about the general message of the play; the need for social change.
All these aspects of style challenge the conventional forms of theatre. Consider the idea that as a woman, Caryl is challenging not only the content and the subject matter of plays but also the way they are written.
The play reached beyond a feminist audience and broke new ground for female dramatists to be accepted as equal as men; however, feminism is not the only political force that shapes Churchill’s work which is deeply rooted in socialist principles. Churchill combined historical and contemporary research with a feminist and socialist interest in providing actresses with quality roles.
Caryl Churchill is a writer who has enjoyed a long-varied career and her constant dedication to ‘… discovering new subjects and forms have not wavered over the decades’ (Tycer, 2008: p. 6). Stafford-Clark reflected that Churchill’s mounting acknowledgement as a writer meant she could ‘write a rulebook’ (2007, p. 5). Although I agree that Churchill’s influential in opening the theatrical landscape for subsequent female writers, her criteria changes each time she writes a play, and she sees her works content and form as interlinked; ‘I enjoy finding the form that seems to best fit what I’m thinking about .. on the whole I enjoy plays that are non-naturalistic and don’t move at real time’ (Aston, 2005, p. 15) so I pose this question: why do we need a rulebook? The beauty of theatre is that it is always developing, so let playwrights explore new forms of theatre and ask more questions!
Churchill concluded the play with a socialist argument (highlighting her view) and gave Angie the final word,
ANGIE: Frightening. ()
causing the audience to think about how the next generation will be affected by the political conflict expressed. Although I’ve discussed the quote in this essay, I wish to point you to my bibliography list for further research on Margaret Thatcher and other political convention that shaped this play; unfortunately, the constraints of this essay did not allow me to indulge further.