The Action of Top Girls



Top Girls is a vibrant mash-up of theatrical styles. Churchill's play begins in a posh London restaurant, as Marlene throws herself a party celerating her promotion. Her five guests span over one thousand years of world history. They are the best and the brightest, drawn from reality, literature, and great works of arts. These long-lost friends race to get caught up, while knocking back carafes of wine and sharing their stories. (Churchill pioneered the now familiar technique of overlapping dialogue.)

Meet the historic women:

1. ISABELLA BIRD was an explorer and novelist born in the United Kingdom in 1831. Bird was born a frail and sickly child, so doctors recommended she lead an open-air lifestyle, poising her for travel. In her 73 years, Bird visited Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, and more. She wrote about her travels, earning her international fame. Later in life, after the deaths of her sister and husband, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary.

“I always felt dull when I was stationary. That’s why I could never stay anywhere.” – ISABELLA BIRD

2. LADY NIJŌ was a Japanese concubine turned Buddhist nun from 13th-century Japan, recognized for her autobiography, The Confessions of Lady Nijō. She began her work as Emperor Go-Fukakusa’s concubine at the age of 14. Their relationship was strained because Nijō took numerous lovers while working at the palace. Nijō was expelled from the court in 1283, at which time she assumed the role of a Buddhist nun. She wrote her autobiography in the early 14th century.

“The first half of my life was all sin and the second all repentance.” – LADY NIJŌ

3. DULL GRET (or Dulle Griet) is a figure of Flemish folklore famously depicted in Pietar Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 portrait “Dulle Griet.” Dull Gret is shown marching into Hell clad in male armor as other women loot a town behind her. It’s believed Bruegel tried to make a joke about noisy, aggressive women in this painting, playing on the Flemish proverb, “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon.”

“You keep running on and fighting you didn’t stop for nothing. Oh we give them devils such a beating.” – DULL GRET

4. POPE JOAN was alleged to have reigned as Pope of the Catholic Church in 9th-century Italy, but most modern scholars believe the storyof Joan is fictional. Accounts describe Joan as a learned woman who disguised herself as a man to study in the Vatican with a lover. Due to her abilities, she rose through the ranks and was elected Pope. One day, while making a procession, Joan unexpectedly went into labor. It was revealed that Joan was a woman, and she and her child were stoned to death.

“There was nothing in my life except my studies. I was obsessed with the pursuit of truth.” – POPE JOAN

5. GRISELDA is a fictional character from The Canterbury Tales noted for her patience and obedience. Griselda is a peasant woman until the Marquis of Saluzzo decides to court her. The Marquis’ only condition for marriage is that Griselda always obey him. Despite the Marquis dispelling her two children and divorcing her for being unable to bear him a child of status, Griselda maintains trust in her once-husband. At the end of story, the Marquis calls Griselda back and reveals he has been harboring their children all along. The reward for her patience is their family. 

“But of course a wife must obey her husband.” –  GRISELDA


Act 2 shifts to a more naturalistic style, opening in Marlene's hometown of Suffolk, where sister Joyce lives with her difficult daughter, Angie. Back in London, the play introduces the high-stakes world of the Top Girls Employment Agency, as Marlene takes over the corner office. Here she manages a staff of sharp, ambitious women, and recevies a surprise visit from her niece, Angie.


The final scene travels back in time to uncover the roots of Marlene's charged relationship with her sister, and the true cost of becoming a "top girl."

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