Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, part 1: 1982 and all that

This year’s Shaw Festival, the big summer theatre event that takes place each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, features a new production of Caryl Churchill’s landmark feminist play from the Thatcher era, Top Girls, and I’m proud to say that I have written the program note for it. The play is a personal favourite of mine – I teach it most years, and I have seen several productions of it in the UK and in Canada. It’s also weirdly still topical: though it was written in 1982, near the beginning of what we might call late-modern neoliberal capitalism in Britain, it resonates even more loudly today because, well, neoliberalism is alive and kicking more of us in the ass than ever before. That’s what my program note is about, in fact: how Churchill’s “ball-busting” post/feminist icon, Marlene, seems as familiar as ever in 2015, and what we can and should learn from her today.

With kind permission of the Festival (and with big thanks to its dramaturg, Joanna Falck, who commissioned my essay) I’m reproducing the program note here; I’ll also do a review of the production (and the opening night dinner and party!) shortly after I see it later this month. Stay tuned.

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Top Girl Power

By Kim Solga

When I began teaching contemporary theatre to university students just over ten years ago, I put Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls on my syllabus even though I was certain that choice would prove to be a disaster. Churchill is one of the most important British playwrights living today, one of the most influential political playwrights in British history, and she is arguably the most significant British woman playwright of any generation; for students of the genre, her work is not to be missed. Top Girls, however, is a tricky play. Written in 1982, during the first wave of Margaret Thatcher’s power and influence, Top Girls is a child of its moment, steeped in Churchill’s strong brand of socialism and littered (like so many of Churchill’s major works of socialist realism, including Serious Money, first performed in 1987 and produced at the Shaw Festival in 2010) with topical references that can easily prove confusing for contemporary audiences. These things make the play a major historical drama, of course – no different from all of the other historical dramas we ask our students to read all the time – but that is not all this play is. It is also a work of ardent, forceful feminism, and in its unflinching representation of women’s lives on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum it explores the unsavory possibility that feminism could not then, in 1982, and should not now, in 2015, be declared “over”, because too many women are still being left behind.

Top Girls snapshots a few days in the life of Marlene, a high-flying corporate executive who has just been promoted to Managing Director of the employment agency that shares the play’s name. In the famous first act, Marlene presides over a lavish dinner party celebrating her good fortune – a party to which she has invited a variety of notable female figures from history, mythology, art and literature. This set-up makes for one of the funniest, most memorable openings in modern theatre (pay attention to what each woman orders for dinner or dessert!), but as the evening progresses and everyone becomes more and more drunk, fault lines open up. Here, audiences may catch a first glimpse of Churchill’s larger dramaturgical strategy: sharp, dialectical irony. Marlene’s famous guests have been remembered by history for their female exceptionalism – Gret is a warrior; Joan outsmarts the smartest men in Europe; Isabella is an unstoppable adventurer – but it is precisely this specialness that makes them hilariously unsuitable for everything from small talk to political debate with other women. Each guest brings to Marlene’s table a unique and valuable perspective on what it means to live a woman’s life in different places and times, but things finally fall apart because not one of them is able to imagine what it’s really like to be anyone else in the room (least of all their waitress). These remarkable women, it turns out, are all remarkably self-important, and with the possible exception of Gret, the least articulate member of the group, they seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to be part of a female community.

Many of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated plays were written over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was playwright in residence at the Royal Court Theatre (1974-5) and when she collaborated regularly with the Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment collectives, the latter an expressly feminist theatre group. Churchill has always openly declared her feminist affinities, but her plays combine feminist concerns for social and political equality with other forms of political commitment, making her work rich, multi-faceted, and broadly resonant for a range of viewers. Recent Churchill plays have explored issues as varied as ecological crisis (The Skriker, 1994; Far Away, 2000), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Seven Jewish Children, 2009), and human connectivity (or the lack thereof) in a fully digitized world (Love and Information, 2012). The work she was producing in the hot-house Thatcher years, however, focused primarily on the complicated relationship between gender and economic rights – on how, for example, women’s limited (but much celebrated) social, political, and economic gains through the 1980s were marching in lock-step with the radical shifts remaking postwar Britain in the image of neoliberalism. This is the model of government in which corporate rights and business interests are protected by the state above all, in the belief that private, for-profit firms will “trickle down” their wealth to employees and help achieve social equality more quickly and efficiently than any form of government could do.

We still live, today more than ever, with a bad neoliberal hangover, and the dangers neoliberal ideology holds for women in particular emerge subtly but skillfully in the middle act of Top Girls. The morning after the night before, Marlene arrives at work to a steady stream of women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs. One by one she cuts them down; her appetite to raise other women up with her newfound power and influence proves much less ravenous than the one that devoured her steak at supper. Churchill skewers Marlene’s shortsightedness in her careful juxtaposition of scenes, a technique she adapts from the mid-century Marxist theatre director Bertolt Brecht, but Marlene is not ultimately an unlikeable character. As a political writer Churchill is far more interested in supporting debate than in scoring points, and by the play’s final act Marlene emerges as a profoundly flawed human being with a strong survival instinct and a reasoned, if not especially inclusive, political perspective. Those of us who sat through first her drunken dinner and then her bad day at work might be surprised to find we’re supporting Marlene as she fights back against her sister Joyce’s bitter clinging to old ways and an ugly martyrdom. And in many ways our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, however different our ambitions may be.

I expected a lot of resistance to Top Girls’ feminism from my first students, both men and women, but they proved me wrong. Instead of complaining that Churchill’s politics are dated and polemical, they showed me how, like all good political drama, Top Girls is carefully rooted in a single place and time but is ultimately about so much more than that one place and time. After reading the play they wanted to talk about the word “feminism” and what it meant to them, and for them, in Canada in 2005. They wanted to talk about the claims made by “post-feminism”, and about the several other ways in which the death of feminist politics was being marketed daily to a generation of skeptical young people. They wanted to talk about the ongoing disparity in pay between men and women, especially in the professions, and they wanted to talk about how neither Marlene nor Joyce seems to have won any feminist battle, though neither seems able to offer the other any real empathy over their shared loss.

When my students and I read Top Girls today, ten years on, we talk about Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project (http://everydaysexism.com), about the play’s politics in light of increased discussion online and in the media around violence against women, and about feminism’s newfound popularity (cynical? sincere?) among certain Hollywood and pop music celebrities. We talk about Angie, Marlene’s young niece; she is left behind, written off, as many of my students, in this economy, fear they may be, too. We talk about the Occupy movement, about Idle No More, and about the various ways in which resistance to social and economic status quos is being spearheaded today by energized, organized young people who refuse to take systemic sexual abuse, racial profiling, or poor economic prospects lying down. These young men and women insist that a better world will be built through strength in numbers and a faith in common bonds; for them, Top Girls is far from historically dated and ideologically irrelevant. It is our contemporary, and its politics are smart, funny, and urgent.

Enjoy the show!

Kim

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