To what extent do Top Girls by Caryll Churchill and Dancing at Lughnasa by Brien Friel agree on the choices available to women?
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Brien Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa are both plays set in times of great change. The former deals with the implications of the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, while the latter grapples with the consequences of industrialization in Donegal, Ireland. The chief concern of both plays is how political changes affect the choices available to ordinary women. The two plays appear to be making political statements conveying personal standpoints of the playwrights. In the case of Churchill, it can be said that she is critiquing the Conservative Thatcher government and the negative impact it had on women. Friel is drawing attention to the introduction of factories in Ireland and the impact this had on working class families. Both plays evoke sympathy for the struggles of working class women. Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist and was not interested in advancing the position of women in society. She believed in individualism and that women could make it to the top if they worked hard enough; behaving like a man, but dressing like a woman. The character Marlene in Top Girls clearly fits into this category of a new breed of woman as she has achieved senior management status at her company without acting like a man, or at least not on the surface: “I don’t wear trousers in the office. I could but I don’t”. Changes occurring at the time were not benefiting women, rather, they were hindering their opportunities, because women were succeeding at the expense of other women. Again, Marlene is representative of this as she virtually abandoned her sister, mother, and daughter in the pursuit of a successful career. So too is Lady Nijo’s character, in the fantasy scene, as she fulfilled the role of mistress to other women’s husbands. Furthermore, Win, in Top Girls, is having an affair with a married man, despite also being married herself, yet this revelation does not provoke any moral objection from Nell. Given that Thatcher was the first female British prime minister, one would expect this to be the start of a revolution in the attitudes towards women, however, this was not part of Thatcher’s agenda. As Suzanne Moorse pointed out in her book Head Over Heals: ‘She is, on the contrary, a patriarch. Her heroes are her father and Winston Churchill. Her great strength is in bringing together masculine and feminine. As Beatrix Campbell wrote in her fascinating book, The Iron Ladies: “She has not feminized politics… but she has offered feminine endorsement to patriarchal power.”’ It can be argued that Top Girls is a condemnation of the capitalist system and a criticism of a new breed of feminism which rejects the notion of collective action and mutual support in favor of individual achievement. Ultimately, women’s choices were expanded as the notion of the powerful woman was normalized, but at what cost? In Dancing at Lughnasa, Rose and Agnes Mundy earn money knitting and selling gloves to Mrs. McLaughlin. However, they lose this meagre income when a knitting factory is built. Agnes sacrifices herself and does not enroll to work there as she knows Rose will not get a job due to her disability. We also discover the limitations on women in the work place as Mrs. McLaughlin does not manage to get a job as she is deemed “too old” when she is only 41. We see that the advancement that industrialization was supposed to bring actually hindered these women, where one would expect the change to improve their lives. Although some women will benefit from the factory opening, it is clear that the less fortunate will be left behind. This is also the case for the character Jeanine, in Top Girls, who is applying for a job at the Top Girl’s Employment Agency where her age clearly hinders her prospects. We are also introduced to the character Louise who is a Top...
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