TOP GIRLS – CARYL CHURCHILL

22 Mar

ALBION DECLINING

AN ODE TO THATCHERISM

 

DDDXXX

 

            Churchill doesn’t introduce us to blood-spattered Colonel Mustard guiltily holding a dripping candlestick in the library, nor do we meet Miss. Scarlet with a glass of red wine in one hand and a dagger in the other. There’re no murders in the play but cordite hangs so thick that the reader nearly chokes on the fumes. Instead we’re offered a play that’s devoid of one person, a protagonist who isn’t listed in the dramatis-persona, nor who’s to be seen on any stage and yet whose ghost, like a murdered Scot, haunts the production. Churchill relates that when she initially wrote her play she was heavily influenced by the political climate of the time, and the temperature of that specific period perspires in measured degrees throughout its production. Instead we’re offered a good old fashioned “M for Murder” where it’s up to the reader to sift the detritus in order to discover that, “when the possible is impossible, then only the impossible is probable.” Scrutinizing her list of characters we’re able, just as great nineteenth century consulting-detectives are able, to determine for ourselves the identity of the uninvited guest. The main character of the play isn’t Nicola, Deborah, or Abigail or any other proto-eighties name that the love-generation of the sixties decided to endow their first born with, but Marlene; Marlene with a not-so silent “M.” It’s this letter which defines the play, that construes character and which is representative of the entire undercurrent of the production. “M” is for Margret not Marlene and it couldn’t be more obvious if the lead character had it crayoned on her forehead during each and every performance. The spook that haunts the play is the late, but not lamented Margaret Thatcher; the female inspiration for Caryl Churchill’s play, “Top Girls.”

            Margaret Thatcher, probably the most divisive character who ever held the contentious title of Prime Minister, carved her legacy into the very heart of what was once England with surgical disregard. Apologists would say Britain, but Margaret, as her legacy proves, only truly cared about England, the other countries of the unfortunately named United Kingdom reduced to sources of revenue and contention, depending upon her government’s needs. In order to subtly communicate to audiences the inherent dangers of Thatcherism “Top Girls” was written as a societal introspective rather than a theatrical reflection. Through the character of Marlene, Churchill chronicles the beginning of the downfall; the death of empire and all that was great about Britain. Through her character we discover the demise of society, the rise of the individual to the detriment of the collective, the North-South divide, the destruction of the family unit and what it meant to be a disenfranchised native on a sinking island nation. With total disregard for British heritage and accompanied by a specious reverence of wealth, Margaret Thatcher left her mark, just as Marlene indelibly scrawls her own legacy in the play. The Top Girl in question is Thatcher, the production Thatcherism, the encore, a wilderness of industrial and social dereliction.   

            A play of two acts with the first being a confused and muddled retrospective; a group of women representative of historical figures who, the more wine they drink, the more they chat and obfuscate one another. One could be confused that Churchill is attempting to portray feminist triumph; that women through the years have fought their corner and progressed under the direst of circumstances in order to obtain at least the hammer with which to smash through glass ceilings. Tales of rape, subjugation and a will to overcome unfold throughout the first act; experiences of fortitude and despair that both enthrall and perplex. This is supposed to be a celebration but for whom, or rather of what? Marlene has been promoted and is about to achieve directorial status, proof that she’s got what it takes to be top-bitch in a dog-eat-dog world. The assumption then, is that the party is to celebrate professional success? The women at the party through loss of self-respect, love and even life, have helped to pave the feminist path. Marlene likewise has apparently overcome the odds but rather than the epitome of female success she’s portrayed as the antithesis of empathy. The corner office is now hers, but what was it that she sacrificed in order sit comfortably within it? Rather than dwell on her promotion, Churchill chooses to showcase the struggle of the others and in doing so intentionally glosses over Marlene’s perceived achievement.

            The first act is representative of transition, what Thatcher would’ve undoubtedly termed progress. The achievements of the past, personified by the historical women, are discarded in favor of the contemporary and her irrepressible march towards monetarism and egocentrism. When Thatcher took office, Britain was indisputably the “Sick Man of Europe.” A flirtation with state run institutions and the empowerment of the unions had led to stagnation in production and too much power in the hands of those who controlled vital services, rather than an equitable equilibrium of shared power. It’s easy to understand the rise of Labour after nearly a century of crushing worker subjugation. The Second World War had made a difference, and the social contract that’d been the country’s reward for surviving and destroying Nazism was well deserved, however, in retrospect was a peter-principle of too much too soon. The empowerment of the workers meant that the political pendulum swung too far to the left and ultimately had to swing once more to the center. Under Thatcher rather than finding that center, the pendulum swung instead, inexorably to the extreme right. Instead of celebrating the policy of nationalism and social awareness as alluded to by the various historical figures at the party, the social contract is discarded as Margaret steps into the second act; an allusion to the origins of Thatcherism and the abandonment of socialist values in order to empower the individual at the expense of society as a whole. A little short sited when one considers Margret’s humble beginnings – similar to the tales of Churchill’s historical women – as a village grocer’s daughter at the hub of the local community and who participated enthusiastically as a member of a congregation. The society she’d learned to appreciate as a young woman was clearly no longer to her taste and the lady was definitely for turning when it came to the idea of deconstructing Britain. In act two we encounter a modern, vibrant, controlling Marlene who’s focused on the future, having dismissed the ideals of old Labour and any hope of a revitalization of the social-contract.

            Two girls play outside, one a coarse, older girl, the other a younger more eloquent and obviously brighter child. Despite their differences they both play in the same back yard. There’s an adult in the vicinity, however, her attentions are elsewhere; Mother Britain no longer has time for her children and so the young Albions, left to their own devices and outside influences, are quickly choosing their own path. The mother is Marlene’s sister Joyce, or rather she personifies Britannia, the children in the back yard, although we don’t yet know it are not hers, and are representative of a divided nation. Although the oldest is supposedly her daughter there’s an obvious appreciation of the other child and her abilities. Britannia questions the younger girl about her future and is flabbergasted by her aspirations. It’s apparent that under the flagship of Thatcherism, if one works hard anything is seemingly possible. Britannia can only despair at her older daughter and shake her head, no longer seeing the value of posterity but imagining instead the brave new world of individual success. But at what expense, Churchill asks? Shouldn’t society benefit both children, aren’t both children worthy, don’t they each have talents which could be utilized to the betterment of the collective? It’s obvious that one of the children in the production will fail whilst the other will undoubtedly succeed. With a shrug of the shoulders and a matter of fact acceptance the sister character goes back to the minutia of life. Here Churchill demonstrates to her audience a fractured and polarized society. Yes, the future according to the new political doctrine is for all, but unfortunately not attainable by all. The ideology of personal monetary success at the expense of others signifies that rather than standing on the shoulders of the giants – the female guests of the first act – the Thatcher generation is crawling across the bodies of their neighbors; a simplistic scene but one which is analogous of Thatcherism.

            Marlene is now the top-girl at the Top Girls agency and professionally is in control of her life. Just as Thatcher had risen to the top, so has our protagonist. Young women with aggressive male vernacular are her subordinates, their accents denoting them as working class girls made-good and therefore tolerated by the British caste system and the new model society. But at what expense has she achieved her management  status? She’s given up a daughter, walked away from family, betrayed her roots and all but deserted a sister whom she hardly sees. In order to succeed she’s had to abandon so much. Once again Churchill is demonstrating the dearth of society, the disintegration of the family unit, geo-political separation, and the rise of the individual.

            To achieve promotion Marlene had to overcome traditional male hegemony and become the best man for the job, as Thatcher probably would’ve undoubtedly enjoyed saying with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. The man she’s supplanted, despite the supplications of his wife for his position, suffers cardiac arrest. Again Churchill’s skill in blanketing her real meaning is sublime. The sick man and his loving wife represents the mass unemployed and their communities who’ve been dumped and forgotten after the wilful destruction of steel, shipping, coal and industrial manufacturing. With no recourse, thanks to Thatcher’s illegally instituted regulations, the withdrawing of labor has become a crime. The heart attack signifies not only the death of the unions but also of the nation. Coal the life blood of the country, the fuel which boiled the kettle of the industrial revolution, employed millions and was the foundation upon which the North of England was built is eviscerated. Thatcher policy crushes them to the point where they’ll never recover and dismisses their communities as unviable just as Marlene dismisses the wife of her former colleague, “Could you please piss off!” Instead of industrial excellence and full employment it’s the rustle of bank notes and the flashing of computer screens in a money driven economy that signify transition. One could perceive Marlene’s promotion as representative of female progression but to define it as simply the usurpation of male domination would be naïve. Churchill clearly makes her point and it’s hard not scream Margaret every time Marlene’s name is mentioned. Her careful crafting of the scene is indicative of the demise of the British way of life.

            In the final scene there’s an attempted reconciliation between sisters – again read Britannia and Thatcher – both drunk and maudlin, who although related, can never be friends. Bearing the gift of a too small dress Marlene offers unwelcomed charity; a halfhearted attempt to patch the irreparable rift of a divided nation. The daughter Angie, who’s doomed to failure and representative of those who don’t personify the ideals of Thatcherism, tries on the ill-fitting garment she’ll never get the chance to wear. The realization that things have gone too far and that amends need to be made is obvious in Marlene’s demeanor, with the explication of her private rather than her professional persona in a place where she’s neither welcomed nor wants to be ; Maggie perhaps, not Margaret? The concept of an abandoned daughter representing a neglected nation creates momentary doubt in Marlene/Margaret’s intent, and is perhaps a glimpse into the never, publically displayed humanity of Thatcher? As a mother and wife she conceivably possessed the ability to empathize and yet was so compartmentalized that she was capable of destroying the lives of vast numbers of the population and their communities to pursue an ideal of neo-conservatism. The sisters continue to argue and even surreally discuss the policies of Margaret Thatcher, both adopting stereo-typical juxtapositions. The notion that one can succeed no matter where you come from is contradicted by a post- card of the Grand Canyon lying on a small kitchen table, in a house in the middle of nowhere, containing a forgotten family and an abandoned child. To add insult to injury Marlene tells Joyce, “I believe in the individual, look at me!”

            The daughter who’s been privy to what was supposed to be a private conversation is now aware of the true relationship between herself and her birth mother Marlene. No longer a child of Britannia but the progeny of Thatcherism her final words are lamentable. What choice does she have as a potential Tesco’s shelf-stacker, “she’s not going to make it?” She doesn’t want to emulate her adopted mother and eke out her life in rural anonymity, but realistically nor does she see herself fitting into the sophisticated professionalism of London briefly experienced when visiting Marlene in the city. The final word she utters, in a moment of self-realization, is, “Frightening!” Evidently she doesn’t have a choice, and in a world of top-girls, doesn’t stand a chance.

            Top Girls is suffused with the idea of Thatcherism and the misrepresentation of character to define the plight of 1980’s Britain is understatedly brilliant. Ignoring all the usual clues for literary discovery and avoiding the elephant-trap of feminist criticism, one grasps the epiphany of Churchill’s monumental political commentary. The only top-girl in this play is Margaret Thatcher, and Churchill doesn’t give a damn who knows it.

 

 

 

 

 

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