by Caryl Churchill
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eNotes: Table of Contents
1. Top Girls: Introduction 2. Summary ♦ Act 1 Summary ♦ Act 2 Summary 3. Caryl Churchill Biography 4. Characters 5. Themes 6. Style 7. Historical Context 8. Critical Overview 9. Essays and Criticism ♦ The Importance of Angie in Top Girls ♦ Feminist Drama: The Politics of the Self: Churchill and Keatley ♦ De-realised Women: Performance and Identity in Top Girls 10. Compare and Contrast 11. Topics for Further Study 12. What Do I Read Next? 13. Bibliography and Further Reading
Since its earliest productions, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls was regarded as a unique, if difficult, play about the challenges working women face in the contemporary business world and society at large. Premiering on August 28, 1982, in the Royal Court Theatre in London before making its New York debut on December 28, 1982, in the Public Theatre, Top Girls won an Obie Award in 1983 and was the runner-up for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The play is regularly performed around the world and has quickly become part of the canon of women's theater. Top Girls helped solidify Churchill's reputation as an important playwright. Critics praise Top Girls for a number of reasons. Churchill explores the price of success paid for by the central character, Marlene, while using unusual techniques including a nonlinear construction, an overlapping dialogue, and a mix of fantasy and reality. The last occurs at a dinner party celebrating Marlene's promotion, which is attended by five women from different times in history, literature, and art. The dinner party is the Top Girls 1
first scene of the play and, to many critics, the highlight of Top Girls. Churchill brings up many tough questions over the course of the play, including what success is and if women's progress in the workplace has been a good or bad thing. While many critics compliment the play on its handling of such big ideas in such a singular fashion, some thought Top Girls was disjointed and its message muddled. As John Russell Taylor of Plays & Players wrote, "Like most of Churchill's work, it is about nothing simple and easily capsulated."
Summary Act 1 Summary
Act 1, Scene 1 Top Girls opens in a restaurant where Marlene is hosting a dinner party for five friends. She has recently been promoted at work. The five guests are all women that are either long-dead or are fictional characters from literature or paintings. The first to come are Isabella Bird and Lady Nijo. Nijo and Isabella discuss their lives, including their families. Dull Gret and Pope Joan, who was elected to the papacy in the ninth century, appear. The conversation wanders between subjects, including religion and the love lives of Nijo and Isabella. Isabella goes on about her travel experiences. Joan talks about dressing and living as a male from the age of twelve so that she could further her education. Marlene proposes a toast to her guests. They, in turn, insist on toasting Marlene and her success. Joan relates her disturbing story. While she enjoyed being the pope, she also had a discreet affair with a chamberlain and became pregnant. In denial about her state, she gave birth to her child during a papal procession. Joan was stoned to death, and her child, she believes, was also killed. While Joan relates her story, Nijo talks about her four children being born, and only being able to see one of them after having given birth. Isabella talks about how she never had children. Marlene wonders why they are all so miserable. The final guest arrives. She is Patient Griselda, a character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Griselda tells her story. Though she was a peasant girl, she was asked...
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