Monday, 26 January 2015

Marlene’s success is being celebrated in Act One of Top Girls, but to what extent is she actually a positive expression of female progress in society?

Ever since the pen was first put to paper, the female position has been a subject of the utmost consideration. Christianity as a whole, particularly the Bible and the works of misogynists like St Jerome and Theophrastus, instilled a certain chauvinism in society which has prevailed ever since. Despite the occasional non-conformist voicing their opinions, it was not until WW1, when religion broke down and women took to the workplace, that the female voice began to be heeded. Nonetheless, whether the subject be religious and societal inequality (Hardy’s Tess, for example), or motherhood and marriage (Sylvia Plath), the female predicament remains a constant in literature. Top Girls, highlighting the 1980s woman’s struggle to succeed, fits into this tradition perfectly. However, Caryl Churchill’s purpose in writing the play is elusive, since there seems to be no figure of female fulfilment, despite the fact that all the play’s characters are women. Even Marlene, a high-earning, successful businesswoman, is unhappy. This deficiency of female happiness demonstrates Churchill’s belief that society and business are still largely dominated by males. Patriarchy is still going strong in this modern era.

Marlene is, undoubtedly, a symbol of female success and progress in society. She has come from a lower-class background (her sister’s garden is occupied by “a shelter made of junk,” p33) and has risen up to become the managing director of an employment agency. She has thus fought against not only gender, but also class, to attain her position. She is admired by all those at the dinner party, as well as by her daughter, Angie. Isabella suggests they all toast to Marlene “to celebrate your [Marlene’s] success” (p14), and indeed Angie tells her that one day she will be “in charge of everything”. Angie, along with the audience, is incredibly impressed by Marlene’s ambition and desire for success, something she sees very little of living with her Aunt, Joyce. At one point, Marlene toasts everyone, including herself: “We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” (page 14) This toast, although somewhat arrogant (probably enthused by the alcohol), is completely true: Marlene has changed her life, achieving the extraordinary. Just as we applaud the Wife of Bath, so we applaud her for her domineering attitude and her control over every situation. It is worth noting that the play’s first words come from Marlene, immediately taking charge:

“Excellent, yes, table for six. One of them’s going to be late but we won’t wait. I’d like a bottle of Frascati straight away if you’ve got one really cold.”

The fact that she is ordering alcohol, a stereotypically male role, is very significant. Moreover, she specifies the wine’s temperature and says “straight away”. Thus, the first sentence of the play shows that Marlene knows what she wants; the rest of the play proves that she will get it. Like the other characters in Act 1 (except Griselda), she is admirable in her drive and ambition, particularly when compared to her sister. As an expression of female progress in society, she could be seen as a figure of inspiration to all women.

However, her success in the workplace has come with a cost. She is certainly an expression of female progress, but whether that expression is positive is debatable. In fact, Churchill wrote of Top Girls that it is a play “which deals with women’s losing their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment” (Encyclopedia Brittanica), and Marlene is the symbol of this loss of humanity. She is a very aggressive figure not only in the workplace, but also at dinner: she starts the meal before everyone has arrived (“One of them’s going to be late but we won’t wait”), and many of her comments are harsh and extreme: “Walter was bonkers,” “Walter’s a monster” and “What a sod.” In Act 2, the first thing she says is “Fucking tube”, again emphasising her constant belligerence. It is only with this harsh and dominating attitude that Marlene thinks she can survive. However, as well as being dominating, she is also cruel, particularly in her interview with Jeanine. She tells her, bluntly: “No As, all those Os you probably could have got an A. / Speeds, not brilliant…” Although you may argue that she is simply being honest, she is particularly unkind when she tells her: “I have got a few vacancies but I think they’re looking for something glossier.” Jeanine, already anxious and timid, is made into a feeble wreck by Marlene’s callous interrogation and harsh comments. The conversation ends on a feeble note with Jeanine saying: “Yes, all right.” In contrast, Win is much less aggressive than both Marlene and Nell, opening her interview rather light-heartedly: “Now Louise, hello, I have your details here. You’ve been very loyal to the one job I see.” Marlene is perhaps most cruel when she says that Angie is bound to be a “Packer in Tesco”. The true irony of this statement is that it is Marlene’s fault that Angie’s future is so dismal. Although Marlene is particularly pugnacious, the other women of Act 1 are too, as is Nell. For example, Joan, Nijo and Isabella all talk over each other, suggesting that the three of them are aggressive and self-absorbed. Nonetheless, Marlene is still hostile, epitomised in her conversation with her sister, when she ridicules her for being less intelligent and says: “You couldn’t have one so you took mine.” Marlene is the symbol of Thatcherite, Yuppie culture in this play, and, as she explains to her sister, she believes “in the individual” (p93). Believing in the individual, for Marlene, also means having little or no care for anybody else. In that sense, she represents a very negative expression of female progress.

Marlene is not only cruel, but she is also heartless and consequently loveless. Throughout the play she expresses no sentiments of family or romance: all of that has been sacrificed for success. Indeed, she has completely broken off from all her family, and this is demonstrated by her reply to the question “Do you have a sister?”: “Yes in fact.” The words “in fact” suggest that her sister is not somebody she often thinks about. This is juxtaposed with Isabella’s lamentations about missing her sister, creating a strong contrast between the two: while both Marlene and Isabella left their sisters to become independent, Isabella still misses her home and her family. Marlene tells her sister: “I do think of you,” and yet we struggle to believe her because, not only is she drunk when she says this, but she also fails to recognise Angie when she arrives at the office. Her lack of care for her family is epitomised by the fact that she never visits her mother. She even tells Joyce that she would feel “A lot better” not going to see her. She also seems to harbour some grudge against her father, explaining to Angie that “I don’t think he ever gave me a bath” and complaining that Joyce is “Still Dadda’s little parrot”. Marlene has split from her family not only because of the bleak opportunities in their town, but also because of their opposite political ideologies: Marlene is very right wing, whereas Joyce (and presumably the father) spits when she sees a Rolls Royce. Whilst Isabella feels a huge amount of guilt for deserting her beloved Hennie, Marlene shows little remorse. Moreover, like the protagonist at the opening of Austen’s Emma, Marlene sees no reason for love or relationships: “Oh there’s always men” she tells her sister, nonchalantly (recalling Nell and Win’s attitude towards relationships). Her attitude towards men is most obvious in her interview with Jeanine, in which she advises to not wear a ring because it “Saves taking it off,” perhaps suggesting Marlene’s uncaring approach to marriage and divorce. Marlene associates marriage with a lack of drive, asking Jeanine: “Does that mean you don’t want a long-term job, Jeanine?” Thus, Marlene has sacrificed not only her parents and sister, but also any chance of romantic attachment. In contrast, the other women of Act 1, although having trouble in relationships, were all open to the idea of love: Isabella says that she had just began to love John with her “whole heart” just before he died, and Nijo relates her romantic attachments to Ariake and the sentimental poetry involved. Thus, Marlene stands out amongst the others as completely rejecting love and family, and so making the cost of her success more extreme. Can she be called a positive expression of female progress if we consider what she has sacrificed for success?

Finally, Marlene has given up her child, and this is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the play. Unlike the other women of Act 1, who have all in one way or another had their children torn from them (Isabella was unable to have them), Marlene has willingly given her child up. When Joan is relating the story of her child to the group of women, Marlene asks her, unfeelingly: “Didn’t you think of getting rid of it?” (p16) In contrast, in response to the hardships experienced by Griselda, Nijo asks: “Did you feel anything for the children?” They are all emotionally affected by Griselda’s cruel treatment at the hands of Walter. Marlene only comments, perhaps sarcastically: “You really are exceptional, Griselda.” (p28) She explains to Joyce that she has been on the pill so long that she is “probably sterile” and that she has had two abortions: “it’s boring, it wasn’t a problem… I don’t want a baby.” She sees children as impediments to achievement, and so she abandons her own child to her sister. The aforementioned irony of this is undeniable: Marlene, in the final act, repeatedly complains about the dump that is her hometown and her lack of proper parenting, and yet she is happy to let her own child live in very similar circumstances without a father figure and with very little money. One may argue that she believes Angie can succeed for herself and, as Marlene says, “She’ll be all right,” and yet Marlene herself does not believe this. She tells Win: “She’s not going to make it.” She is comfortable with leaving her daughter with Joyce, despite knowing the cruel circumstances in which she is unnecessarily putting her. Thus, Marlene prioritises success over everything else, making her an unattractive figure, rather than a positive expression of female progress.

Thus, although Marlene is successful and shows, like the other characters in Act 1, that women can succeed, her success is not shown positively. In fact, in contrast with the characters at the dinner, her achievement is the least positive of them all, since she is cruel, unloving and uncaring. Although she does show some humanity at points, this is often clouded over by her relentless drive to succeed. Caryl Churchill was clearly keen to insinuate one key thing: the fact that Marlene, along with the other characters of Act 1 (except Griselda), has lost happiness for success. However, Marlene has willingly done this, whereas the others had little or no choice. Marlene’s unhappiness is demonstrated most obviously through her typically Yuppie-style alcoholism: she drinks to escape and forget (“What a week”). Moreover, on page 20 she exclaims: “Oh God, why are we all so miserable?” They are all miserable because they are all females who have transgressed, and this is something that a patriarchal society condemns. Churchill is demonstrating the fact that society needs to change, unless it wants half of its population to be unhappy. Marlene’s predicament is so extreme that she can barely even cry without feeling emasculated (or, in a sense, being stereotypically female). It is only at the end of the play that she says to her sister, drunk: “No, let me cry. I like it. I knew I’d cry if I wasn’t careful.” She, like the Wife of Bath, struggles to come to terms with the fact that her success, which she thought would make her happy, has not. In fact, Griselda seems to be the only woman in Act 1 who is genuinely happy (although their comments make her change her attitude later on), despite being treated cruelly throughout her life. This is, for Churchill, the female predicament in the 1980s: the struggle to find happiness in a masculine world. What Churchill sought to prove through Marlene in Top Girls was that a heartless and callous drive for power would not allow for this happiness. A different, more humane approach is needed.

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