All great plays have many levels of meaning. On the surface, Top Girls is about Marlene’s capitalistic world of gender politics, class hierarchy and the struggle for women to rise to the top. On a deeper level, this play is a modern day re-telling of Electra. In this version, Angie is the protagonist, rebelling against the lies and sins of the mother figure.
Our introduction to Angie in Act One, Scene Two, is of a violent, neglected and seriously disturbed sixteen year old girl who dreams of killing her mother. However, in the last scene of the play, which is actually set a year earlier, we see a much more innocent Angie. Misunderstood, yes, but not deeply deranged. So what changed?
The explanation lies in the final lines of the play, when Angie reaches out to Marlene and is rejected after overhearing the conversation between Marlene and Joyce. The play ends with Angie’s twice repeated line “Frightening.” Angie is referring to the revelation that she is truly unwanted. It is curious to note that Angie’s scenes at Joyce’s house move backwards in time. In the first one she is sixteen, presumably a short while before she goes to London, while the last scene of the play takes place a year earlier. This is juxtaposed with the office scenes, which move forward in time. On one level this symbolizes the future of women in the working arena, versus the past of women in the household, but on a deeper level, it shows the regression of Angie’s character.
Perhaps then, there is one more unwritten scene for Angie, before the beginning of the play: the scene where she kills her mother (Joyce) at last. Perhaps then, the whole first scene is a hallucinated conversation inside Angie’s mind after the murder. After all, we know she is into secret societies and black magic, it is more likely to be she who reads up on characters like Lady Nijo and Pope Joan (the priestess in the Tarot Deck) than Marlene or Joyce.
In her book “What Great Paintings Say”, Rose-Marie Hagen states:
“Psychiatrists have deduced from Dulle Griet’s face and Behaviour that she is suffering from a form of Schizophrenia…” “She (Dulle Griet)) is alone…” “For Schizophrenics, their surroundings become a chaos full of threatening delusions. And this is precisely what Breughel has painted.”
And this is also what Caryl Churchill has written in the first scene. In fact, each character symbolizes a step in the process of grieving: Marlene is denial, Lady Isabella Byrd is anger, Lady Nijo is guilt/pain, Pope Joan is bargaining and Griselda is acceptance/forgiveness. As for Dull Gret, like Angie, she is in hell.
MORE ABOUT THE PLAY
I created a prologue of movement in order to show the timeline of the events as I imagine it to be. During this prologue, Angie enters, carrying a bloody brick, and proceeds to wash off the blood from her hands. She then remains onstage as she conjures the images of the women at the dinner party in order to escape the reality of her brutal murder of her stepmother. However, this fantasy dinner soon turns into a nightmare. By the end of the scene, Angie makes the decision to go to her Aunty Marlene’s office in London.
I chose to have Angie onstage during the entire set up of the first scene. During that time, she is becoming Dull Gret on stage with the help of the Waitress, whom I used as an omniscient character that transcends the fantasy world and the real world. The waitress is linked to Angie and the audience, and as such, I used the Brechtian device of having her exist as “the waitress” for the remainder of the play. Before the second scene, the waitress re-enters with a brick (that is not bloody) and sets it down in Joyce’s yard. This lets the audience know that the scene is taking place before the scene we just witnessed. The waitress also reappears as Angie’s conscience in Act II in the office during the transitions. She transforms from one character to another onstage, so that the audience knows she is posing as someone else, rather than actually being another character.
During the first scene, Angie is simultaneously Dull Gret in the fantasy dinner and herself, going through the grieving process and facing what she has done. At one very crucial moment the waitress, who has just served the appetizers, serves Angie a framed photo of Joyce.
Angie takes this photo downstage and sits with it for a long time. Afterwards, she leaves it there. During the reciting of a poem, Lady Nijo takes a white chrysanthemum (a symbol of death in Japanese culture) and leaves it beside the photo on the floor, thus creating a sort of funeral shrine to Joyce.
Lady Isabella Byrd, therefore, is simultaneously that character and the ghost of Joyce. She exits last from the dinner party, both a senile older version of herself and a ghost traveling from this world to the next one.
Later when Angie decides she will “go on”, the waitress again hands her the photo, which she dutifully puts in her backpack along with different elements carried by each of the characters (which are actually Angie’s own things. For example, Patient Griselda hands her a rosary, which she wears in the scene between her and Kit, in the Goth Punk 80’s fashion.) During Dull Gret’s hell monologue, at the end of the dinner scene, the waitress comes out with the dress given to Angie by Marlene a year earlier (in the last scene). She holds it until Angie makes her decision, takes the dress, and leaves to go to her aunt in London.
In this particular interpretatation of the text, the scene that follows the dinner party is Angie’s arrival at the Top Girl’s Employment Agency in London in Act II. She is wearing the dress and carries the backpack that contains the photo of Joyce. She sees her aunt and the proceeds to look at the photo, when sitting alone in the office, while the waitress lurks in the background.
In the last scene, which takes place a year earlier, the framed photo reappears once again in its original place on a table in Joyce’s house. The photo frame has thus come full circle, and has helped make sense of the broken timeline of the play.
At the end of the last scene, the characters from the dinner party reappear with Angie on her last line “Frightening.” Thus also helping her journey come full circle for the audience.