Consequences of success and failure in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls

Thompson Burk (1996) argues that the women in Top Girls “face a world in which the consequences of success are almost as frightening as those of failure”. Evaluate.

Set in part against the backdrop of Britain’s launch into individualistic enterprise culture and in part against the span of history, Top Girls is described by Churchill as a feminist socialist play (Lupu, 2003) and succinctly portrays the impasse that women have faced throughout the centuries. Churchill, in Brechtian style (Rabascall, 2000), avoids providing easy answers and actively prevents audience/reader identification with the characters, forcing us to analyse what is being presented. In evaluating Juli Thompson Burk’s (1993) claim, this essay will offer context to the play with reference to the norms of patriarchal societies, it will go on to assess what constitutes success or failure for the women in question and the consequences therein and will subsequently conclude in the affirmative.

Burk’s use of the word ‘world’ may seem somewhat ambiguous in the sense that she does not specify which Act’s women she is referring to. However, it can be argued that the world has not changed that greatly for women since the times of the ‘oldest’ character, Joan. All of Marlene’s dinner guests lived (accepting Gret and Griselda as real people within paradigm of the play) in a world where they were either subjugated to patriarchal order or had to make significant personal sacrifices in order to live outside of the societal norms. As Burk notes, “each woman’s apparent success rested upon her ultimate oppression” (1993:73). The world faced by the women of Acts 2 and 3 is no different. Despite societal changes toward ‘equality’ for women, as Churchill shows in the play, the 1980s were not a time in which women had become equal so much as a time when women were being permitted to try to function within men’s domains. However, “once each woman chose between career and family, there were few options open to her regardless of the current myth that anything is possible” (Burk, 1993:73). Due to the tendency of women to be written off after a certain age, this puts more pressure on them not to fail, whatever their chosen path.

Failure means different things to different characters. Those who want the traditional feminine role of wife and mother must kowtow to society’s —i.e. men’s— expectations as Griselda did and Joyce has done. While it is only at the dinner party that Griselda starts to question the rightfulness of Walter to act as he did, for example taking away her children, Joyce has always been mindful of the options available to her and in Act 3 it becomes clear that her path has not brought her happiness. “…bitterness at the failure of her martyrdom … expressed in her anger toward Angie and Marlene. Accepting the traditional role … has brought Joyce nothing but hardship…” (Burk, 1993:73). Joyce even acknowledges the unhappiness of her life: “I can see why you’d want to leave. It’s a dump here” (82, in Rabascall, 2000:223).  Failure in the traditional feminine aspiration would mean not getting a husband or having children.  Isabella Bird happily followed this path for most of her life, however:

ISABELLA. Whenever I came back to England I felt I had so much to atone for […] I did no good in my life. I spent years in self-gratification. So I hurled myself into committees […] My travels must do good to someone beside myself. I wore myself out with good causes (18).

As Rabascall states, “This is the price Isabella had to pay for daring to live a different kind of life” (2000:175-6). However, while Isabella could ‘never be like Hennie’ (25) and was not perturbed at the stigma of being a single woman, for many being unmarried would have inflicted great shame on them for being, in the eyes of society, a spinster and by extension defective or in some way freakish. This stigma has faded from prevalence, but still endures now in the twenty-first century.

Non-traditional women, who want to make something of themselves outside of the home, must fight to transcend the artificially imposed restrictions of their sex and, often, their class and ‘pass as’ men, much as Louise has done (52). Marlene has had to do both these things to not have the ‘wasted life’ of her mother and sister (78), but it is a lonely road. Joan’s recital of a passage from Lucretius that “advises withdrawal from the world and detachment from the suffering of others” (Dorney, 2008:23) seems to be a prerequisite for Marlene’s life style, but it is precisely this unsympathetic, detached attitude which makes the prospect of failure in this world frightening. As Dorney notes, “solidarity exists only among other top girls… and their success will always be at the expense of the less able, less ambitious and less ruthless” (2008:36). Marlene’s contemporaries, however, seem intent on achieving success long term. Building an exterior tough enough to endure the isolation takes time and, though Nell seems comfortable to follow Marlene’s example of accepted segregation, Win is a woman who ‘wants it all’, to be successful and to be liked (65) to be, in short,  what Aston has terms a ‘Superwoman’ (2003:21). By wanting it all, Win is running the risk of sooner or later facing rejection on both fronts. As Angie’s final line, “Frightening”, at the close of the play (p.87) illustrates, “The price of success in the [… ] patriarchal-capitalist world, perhaps great while it lasted, is ultimately truly frightening.” (Burk, 1993:72).

Success is shown to come at the cost of family and friendship, leaving the successful alone with their success. This is exemplified by Marlene’s choice of dinner companions, none of whom are her contemporaries.  All of the women at the dinner party have achieved success in their own and Marlene’s measure, but all have paid a price. However, none seem —until drawn to recount those prices— to really regret their decisions; they seem more to accept that it could only be short-lived. As Isabella said, “…how marvellous while it lasted” (29).

It should be noted that perception of success or failure is relative to the individual. The consequences are equivalent if you accept that each woman, regardless of their priorities, actually want both career and friends/family, because for women who genuinely are not bothered about having children (or actively do not want them), do not want to marry for whatever reason or are more gratified by personal success than a salubrious social-life, not having these things is of no negative consequence. The same goes for women who never want a career and are happy living solely as a wife/mother. However, the specific women of the play are portrayed as feeling that they have lost out in one way or another through the choices they have made —or have had made for them— and in this respect it can be seen that the consequences are of equal negativity.

Top Girls paints a picture of a world in which —for women —both failure and success have serious consequences. Success for non-traditional women is a career and failure means the drudgery (as they can be taken to see it) of a traditional role. Success for traditional women means marriage and motherhood; failure means facing the spinster stigma. Failure for women who want the ‘Superwoman’ life means either not achieving a career or not achieving a family or both; success means to ‘have it all’, but at the price of being exhausted if they can manage both and having to give up one or the other if they cannot. These women are doubly penalised for wanting to have ‘everything’. In conclusion, it can be seen from Churchill’s portrayal of the world and in agreement with Burk (1993) that the consequences of success and failure are of similar measure.




Aston, E. (2003) Feminist Views of the English Stage: Women playwrights, 1990-2000, Cambridge University Press. Available in part from: A2%09Aston,+E.+%282003%29+Feminist+Views+of+the+English+Stage:+Women+playwrights,+19902000&hl=en&ei=mv6TMrtItOahQfR4638Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed: 4th December 2010, and in part from: Accessed 24th November 2010.

Burk, J. T. (1993) “Top Girls and the Politics of Representation in Donkin, E. & Clement, S. (eds) Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theatre as If Gender and Race Matter, pp 67-78, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Available from: top+girls&ots=RswUYfZ5Kt&sig=1Pyd4akUt9ZvtWzZbA36xk8-uvI#v=onepage&q=top%20girls&f=false. Accessed 23rd October 2010.

Dorney, K. (2008) Top Girls – Caryl Churchill, York Notes Advanced. London, York Press.

Lupu, M. (2003) Top Girls, A Study Guide. Minnesota, The Guthrie Theatre Press. Available from: Accessed 2nd November  2010.

Rabascall, E. (2000) Gender, Politics, Subjectivity: Reading Caryl Churchill. Available from: Accessed November 2nd 2010.

%d bloggers like this: