Herstory Repeats Itself with Caryl Churchill’s Classic Top Girls

When we think of the British playwrights we’re most familiar with, one is a political conservative for the thinking classes (Sir Tom Stoppard), another a safe middlebrow socialist for the carriage trade (Sir David Hare), and another a working-class sentimentalist for Off Broadway (the un-knighted Mike Leigh).

Where does that leave Caryl Churchill—the unrepentant Marxist-feminist poet who’s for nothing less than social, political and theatrical revolution? In my view, she’s England’s greatest living playwright.

Ms. Churchill is, firstly, the shaman of theater who transforms our sense of reality. She’s the radical contemporary dramatist who’s experimented the most, on either side of the Atlantic, with theatrical form—and made it new and irresistible. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether you share her politics, or—heaven forbid!—“approve” of them.

In play after intelligent play—the staggering, time-bending Top Girls (1982), currently at the Biltmore; its model in role-playing, Cloud Nine (1979); or the famous Restoration Comedy about Wall Street greed that proved wildly popular with Wall Street traders, Serious Money (1987)—Ms. Churchill has proved herself a dazzlingly inventive playwright with an original mind.

Her recent, unrelenting 50-minute reflexive rant against the U.S. and Tony Blair at the Public, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You was an uncharacteristic lapse—a cartoon, a wanky indulgence. It certainly lacked the finesse of other recent work such as the apocalyptic and lyrical Far Away, the hypnotic magic realism of The Skriker, and the delightful nuttiness of Blue Heart—the one-acter in which children suddenly run out of kitchen cabinets like mice and a giant ostrich lopes into the action.

 

LOOK AT THE imaginative daring of the legendary first act of the all-female Top Girls: A dinner party in an Italian restaurant is being hosted by pushy Marlene, the new female boss of the Top Girls Employment Agency, and celebrating with her are five other “top girls”—Pope Joan, the mythic female ninth-century Pontiff, who was stoned to death; Isabella Bird, the Victorian traveler and writer; Lady Nijo, the 13th-century concubine to the emperor of Japan and Buddhist nun; Patient Griselda, the peasant girl who married a prince and sacrificed her children (Griselda was celebrated by Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer); and Dull Gret who was painted by Brueghel and led a revolutionary assault on hell.

It’s a fantastic gathering and Shavian conversation piece across the centuries about the fate of ultimately powerless women. And how weirdly, utterly natural those mythic figures seem, mingling in the present! “We’ve come a long way,” 20th-century Marlene announces in her toast to one and all. “To our courage and the way we’ve changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.”

It’s Ms. Churchill’s point, of course, that women haven’t come a long way at all, and that nothing has changed in spite of their achievements. Beneath the dinner party’s exotic, overlapping banter, there’s misery and sexual abuse, feminine acquiescence and nightmares that the playwright proceeds to link to the 1980s.

Ms. Churchill takes us from the surreal timelessness of the opening, to a London comedy about the rise of Marlene amid the Thatcherite callousness of her agency, to the bruising social realism of her sister’s wretched existence in Suffolk living with a dim, frightened young daughter, Angie.

Ms. Churchill writes consistently good roles for children. Angie is given the last word in the play—“Frightening”—and the play itself is saturated in fear. Angie sure frightened me. Brilliantly played by Martha Plimpton (who doubles very amusingly as Pope Joan), I kept thinking the poor girl is a distant relative of Dull Gret and that what frightened her so much was a nightmare of her nonexistent future, and that she was on the verge of beating her mother’s brains out.

Ms. Churchill does this to you. Menace is one of her insinuating notes. In the Top Girls Employment Agency, the ball-breaking women are like callous men in disguise. This middle section of the play doesn’t live up to the magic of the first. (What could?) The office scenes are sketchy, and the sexual politics of the workplace have grown familiar in the 25 years since the play premiered.

But one scene riveted me. Mary Beth Hurt, in a measured, beautiful cameo as Louise, is the living embodiment of defeated middle-aged anonymity in a man’s world. She appears to be an uninteresting woman stuck in middle management; she wants a new job in pathetic revenge for not being noticed after a lifetime’s dedication. “I don’t care greatly for working with women. I think I pass as a man at work. …” Louise is the drab descendant of the fake Pope Joan. Yet beyond Ms. Churchill’s sexual politics, I saw this short, terribly human scene as a portrait of a secular saint.

The playwright’s socialist credo verges on the reductive in the last scene’s slow-burning confrontation between Marlene and her estranged working-class sister, Joyce. Visiting home in rural Suffolk for the first time in years, the capitalist Marlene is revealed as a woman who’s lost her soul, while her socialist sister has held onto hers.

Joyce is the exhausted, furious idealist who works as a maid slogging in three jobs to put food on the table. Her guy fell for another woman. She raised the cursed, slow-witted Angie. She’s someone who deserves much, much better in life.

They all do.

“I don’t mean anything personal,” Marlene offers her sister apologetically after a vitriolic row between them about that other top girl, Maggie Thatcher. “I don’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.”

“And if they haven’t?” Joyce asks.

“If they’re stupid or lazy or frightened,” she replies indignantly, “I’m not going to help get them a job. Why should I?”

Marlene’s big self-deception is that she says she doesn’t believe in class. England has never stopped believing in class. It remains the country’s dirty little secret. But for me that final scene is less a political treatise than an exceptionally moving family drama. Ms. Churchill is saying that people are suffering. They can’t just be treated like rubbish. She’s suggesting that there are catastrophic consequences to neglect, as Dull Gret does at the close of the remarkable first scene in her gutter description of her brutal battle with hell.

“We’d all had family killed,” says Gret. “My big son die on a wheel. Birds eat him. My baby, a soldier run her through with a sword. I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out of my front door that morning and shout till my neighbors come out and I said, ‘Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out’ … and the ground opens up and we go through a big mouth into a street just like ours but in hell.”

In Top Girls, the winners and losers are all women. Kudos to the entire cast, the best ensemble on Broadway—Ms. Plimpton; Ms. Hurt; the excellent Marisa Tomei as Isabella Bird and Joyce; Elizabeth Marvel as Marlene; and Ann Reeder, Jennifer Ikeda and Mary Catherine Garrison, all terrific actresses.

The scenic designs of exemplary emblematic simplicity are by Tom Pye; Laura Bauer created the perfect costumes; and James Macdonald has directed the finest production of the year.

Herstory Repeats Itself with Caryl Churchill’s Classic Top Girls