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Watching Caryl Churchill

Author of close to 50 plays, Caryl Churchill’s work focuses on themes of sexual politics, power, and societal structures. Arguably her most celebrated work, Top Girls was written in 1982, right after Churchill spent time in America and when Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” was in office. The politics of Churchill, known as a second wave feminist with an anti-colonial perspective, was in complete opposition to Thatcher, an advocate for free markets and a small state.

Prior to the creation of Top Girls, Churchill was well known for her 1979 play Cloud 9, which pairs scenes set in Victorian-era Africa and 1970s London. In1980, Churchill premiered Three More Sleepless Nights which explores intimate conversations that occur in bed between three couples using overlappingdialogue. This technique would go on to be expanded from two-personscenes, to a six-person dinner party in the opening scene of Top Girls.

Top Girls came from Churchill’s desire to examine success. “I remember before I wrote Top Girls thinking about women barristers — and how they were in a minority and had to imitate men to succeed — and I was thinking of them as different from me,” explains Churchill. Eventually, that thinking morphed into Churchill’s own field — playwriting. “I thought ‘wait a minute, my wholeconcept of what plays might be is from plays written by men.’”

Top Girls draws its power from Churchill’s use of challenging societal structures through theatrical conventions. Churchill had the concepts of “dead women at a dinner party” and “working women” and shaped thoseideas into the play. Act I depicts a dinner party set in a world where time, location, physical form, and language are not barriers for the women who lived in different centuries, some real and others fictional, breaking bread and discussing their lives. The language is fast-paced, and the women often speakover each other, not really listening to what the other guests are saying.

In a complete shift in Act II, the actresses are transformed into working classwomen in the 1980s who are divided by the cut-throat mentality to succeed. Split between an office setting and a backyard in a home, the two spaces showdifferent aspects of womanhood — the professional woman and the mother.

While this play centers around the roles of womanhood in society, it is often regarded as a piece that is feminist and political. As Churchill herself says,“It usually only gets noticed and called ‘political’ if it’s against the status quo.” Top Girls provides a snapshot of different generations of women at anemployment agency, from a younger generation adopting the capitalistagenda to the older generation who were pioneers in the workplace, but arenow stuck in middle management.

Through the play, Churchill asks how we need to shift our thinking to include more voices at the table in terms of defining achievement. While Top Girls does not present answers, it asks audiences to question their own beliefs and to wonder for themselves how much of our lives have been defined by acapitalist and often masculine perspective.

In its original production, Top Girls was lauded for its clever examination ofmodern gender roles. Critic Benedict Nightingale from the New Statesman wrote, “What use is female emancipation if it transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, weak, and helpless? Does freedom, and feminism, consist of aggressively adopting the very values thathave for centuries oppressed your sex?”

There are no rules to watching Churchill’s plays, and as her writing shows, every play is distinct with its own specific structure. Churchill’s writing style solidified her legacy as one of the most significant playwrights of the 20th century. Her writing stretches the boundaries of traditional theatre, and as Churchill herself says, “You invent the rules, you experiment all the time.”

— PHAEDRA MICHELLE SCOTT


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