Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Is Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” a feminist, socialist drama?

What differentiates Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” from many other feminist dramas is that, not only does it criticise the cruelties of patriarchy, it also points out the flaws of feminism and the dangers of what is known as intra-sexual oppression. “Top Girls” is a feminist play – Churchill once wrote that “what I feel is quite strongly a feminist position, and that inevitably comes into what I write.” However, it is not unequivocally so, since the play also dwells on the unattractive aspects of modern, radical, and capitalist feminism. “Top Girls” was influenced by Thatcher’s coming to power (a figure who embodies this capitalist feminism) and by Churchill’s trip to America touring her play “Vinegar Tom”. In America, she came across a type of feminism much more associated with business and success within capitalist structures, rather than the more traditional, socialist feminism she was used to. It is this capitalist approach to female emancipation that Churchill criticises, and in this sense it is a feminist, socialist drama.

The first act of the play begins as a celebration of female success and of Marlene’s recent appointment as Managing Director. However, this celebration swiftly transmogrifies into a chaotic scene of female suffering. Although we applaud the feminist attitudes held by these women, seen in Nijo’s questioning of male power (“Priests were often vagrants, so why not a nun?”) and Joan’s expression of female achievement (“I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me…”), these attitudes are soon proven to be somewhat ironic. These women, though they have achieved success, are all undeniably conditioned by society. This explains Isabella’s feelings of guilt (“Whenever I came back to England I felt I had so much to atone for,”) and Nijo’s blaming of herself for the flaws and cruelties of society: “The first half of my life was all sin and the second all repentance.” These feelings of guilt demonstrate the fact that these women still believe that male power is a part of the order of nature, thus making their success somewhat sardonic.

This is not to trivialise the success of these women: Joan became Pope and Isabella was asked to join the National Geographical Society. What it does show, however, is how these women have been conditioned. This is also seen in their responses to their own suffering: Joan describes her death with particularly bland language (“They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death”), perhaps suggesting that she feels she deserved to die. After all, Joan does refer to herself as a “heresy”, reinforcing this idea of self-blame. It is these feelings that make these women ignorant of their own incredible suffering, epitomised by Nijo’s response to Marlene’s questioning her experience of rape: “I belonged to him. It was what I was brought up for from a baby.” It is not until they hear of Griselda’s immense ordeals and they are spurred on by Marlene that they really comprehend the extent to which they suffered, epitomised in Marlene’s words: “O God, why are we all so miserable?”

The chaos of the scene’s end, as all the women describe their singular acts of triumph (even Griselda begins to challenge patriarchy), undercuts the previous sense of celebration In the act, with Joan crying and being sick in the corner. Thus, it is clear that Act 1, rather than simply focusing on the success of these women, demonstrates the ways in which women have been conditioned by society (as seen in Nijo’s obsession with clothes) and the ways in which they have suffered, epitomised by Griselda’s stoic submissiveness. Thus, Act 1 is the act that introduces and develops the theme of feminism through encouraging pity for the plight of women throughout history.

Act 2, on the other hand, presents us with a very different image, emphasising the brutality of modern feminism and so-called “yuppie” culture. It seems that the women of Act 2, particularly Nell and Marlene, have adopted typically negative male stereotypes of drinking and promiscuity in order to gain power. For example, Nell celebrates the fact that she has slept with two men over the weekend (“One Friday, one Saturday”), a story to which Win, in a typically macho-man style, responds, “Aye Aye.” This belligerence is also seen in the women’s reaction to the news about Howard: Marlene calls him a “Poor sod” and Nell brutally remarks: “Lucky he didn’t get the job if that’s what his health’s like.” These ideas of cruelty are also seen in the way in which Nell and Marlene seem to oppress other women. Marlene is brutal in her interview with Jeanine (she tells her that advertisement agencies are “looking for something glossier”), who ends the interview as a feeble wreck with the unconvincing words, “Yes, all right.”

Nell’s interview with Shona is similarly telling. Nell and Win both celebrate “Tough birds” like them, and Nell warms to Shona because she sees her as driven and successful, particularly when she says: “I never consider people’s feelings.” However, when Nell realises that Shona is lying about her identity and qualifications, she at once holds back any assistance she might be able to give her. This demonstrates the biggest problems with modern feminism and intra-sexual oppression: these women are prepared to help other “Tough birds”, but they will not lend a helping hand to those who need it most, those who, as Marlene says, have not “got what it takes.” This is perhaps most clear in Marlene’s cruel (though somewhat understandable) reaction to Mrs Kidd: rather than helping Mrs Kidd and comforting her in her realisation that her own life relies on the success of her husband, Marlene simply tells her to “Piss off”. Though Win is not quite as cruel as the others (she shows sympathy for Angie and Louise), the overwhelming sense of Act 2 is one of a lack of concern for the plight of other women, and thus Churchill criticises capitalist feminism. This is an idea also glimpsed at in Act 1 in the overlapping dialogue (showing a disinterest, perhaps, in the problems of others) and in the silence of the waitress. This implies that, throughout history, many women have been reluctant to help their female counterparts. Though there are moments of collective triumph in Act 1 (in Nijo and Gret’s stories), the self-obsession of these women demonstrates the need for a more socialist approach to feminism.

By placing the Angie and Kit scene before the office scene, Churchill ensures that Act 2 does not appear to celebrate the structures of capitalism. Moreover, the placement of the scene creates an ironic juxtaposition between Angie’s dismal circumstances (her garden has “a shelter made of junk”) and the cold glamour of the office scenes. This juxtaposition lingers until Marlene’s final words of the Act: “She’s not going to make it.” The futile and dreary depiction of Angie’s life (she is forced to invent tales of ghosts and vampires in order to add excitement to her life), along with the hopeless desire of Angie to escape (“If I don’t get away from here I’m going to die”) makes Marlene’s condemnation of Angie as a “Packer in Tesco” even more poignant and harsh. The inability of Marlene to recognise her daughter (“Have you an appointment?” she asks), along with Angie’s struggle to communicate with Mrs Kidd (Angie answers the wrong question) emphasise the brutality of Marlene’s abandoning of her child. Indeed, Marlene’s decision to abandon her daughter has created an irreversible rift between the two, a rift that is obvious through an analysis of vocabulary in particular. Marlene has had to reject a family life in order to succeed, and the image presented of Angie in Act 2 encourages us to dislike Marlene’s decision. In fact, Churchill commented that she “did want people to feel that Marlene was wrong… in rejecting Angie,” and thus Churchill criticizes the lack of humanity in capitalist feminism, since it necessitates the abandonment of an inherent maternal instinct.

It is in Act 3 that Churchill really drives home this feminist, socialist message. In the denouement, Churchill confronts two completely polarized political beliefs through the two sisters: Marlene believes “in the individual” and Thatcherism, whereas Joyce is a socialist who spits when she sees a Rolls Royce. The dismal circumstances of Angie and Joyce’s lifestyle (Joyce can only offer Marlene an egg) demonstrate once again the cruelty of Marlene’s attitude, an attitude summarized in her rejection of the working class as “lazy and stupid”. Marlene then goes on to defend Angie, telling Joyce “You run her down too much”, even though a year later she tells Win that Angie is “not going to make it”. The overwhelming sense of Act 3 is that it highlights the cruelty of Marlene: she has rejected her sister and her daughter for six years, and she tells Joyce she should not bother visiting her elderly mother. And although Joyce is not a perfect role model (Churchill herself said she was “limited and bad-tempered” as seen in her calling Angie a “fucking rotten little cunt”) she is certainly more humane than Marlene, as when she says: “Or what? Have her put in a home? Have some stranger take her would you rather?” Thus, though Joyce is not perfect, what Act 3 demonstrates is that the loss of humanity necessitated by success in a capitalist world is crippling and uncaring for other women.

What Churchill seems to advocate in this play is a collective, socialist form of feminism: she celebrates Marlene’s ambition, whilst also celebrating Joyce’s humanity and kindness. Likewise, she condemns the cruelties of Nell and Marlene, whilst also condemning Joyce’s inertia (though Joyce does at least go to evening classes and works four jobs). The real sadness of the play is that Marlene is prepared to subject her own daughter to the very life she herself desired to escape. It is this self-centred approach that Churchill condemns. Indeed, Roberts noted: ““Top Girls” states unequivocally that success within a system that ignores humanity must necessitate an analysis of motive and achievement.” If feminism, and indeed society itself, does not change its approach to female emancipation and the female predicament, then the future really will be “Frightening…” A collective, socialist feminism is, for Churchill, the way forward to a brighter, more equal future.


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