Top Girls and Sisterly Feelings


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Caryl Churchill's Top Girls is a play on gender which focuses on women as genderized social beings. The play consists of female characters some being fictitious, some real characters. Until the first scene, the reasonable audience identifies with Marlene, however she also proves to be a product of patriarchy toward the end. Marlene and her sister Joan have little difference in identity. However Churchill puts the two sisters into two categories. Marlene is a selfish figure - which is her sister's complaint - who leaves her mother and her illegitimate baby. She rejects her own class - working class - and desires to join the bourgeoisie. She sees working class morality as wrong. She gains material success; however, she loses her family and her own identity. In terms of class and feminism, Marlene and Joan have different views. While Marlene represents the bourgeois feminism, Joan embodies socialist feminist approaches. Marlene feels no responsibility for her family. She does not pay any attention to her mother or sister; she is comfortable enough to leave her baby to her mother.

Alan Ayckbourne is also concerned with family relations in Sisterly Feelings. In one of his writings, he insists that he is more interested in parents than the children. He deals with family relations in enormous detail. He is less interested in marriages than man-woman relations. He analyzes the way man and woman differ. He states at one point that "[c]ollapse of marriage has to do with the collapse of fantasy". He does not support the idea that marriage is a happy institution. The reason why he is so pessimistic toward marriage is probably due to the relationship between his parents. They divorced when he was five years old. Ayckbourne's subject matters in his plays are domestic and marital situations, materialistic greed; infidelities and betrayals. Sisterly Feelings, as the title suggests, is a play about siblings. Dorcas and Abigail are two sisters who are in love with the same man, Simon. However it is interesting that Abigail is married and Dorcas has a fiancé. Simon, on the other hand, is a divorced man.

The play is an unusual one in that Ayckbourne leaves choice to the audience which he himself calls a "related comedy". He sees the play as a neat joke firstly because two sisters are competing to unite with the same man; secondly because there are four alternatives depending on the choice. What Abigail and Dorcas are committing is adultery. Each is betraying her fiancé or husband by trying to be closer to Simon. Ayckbourne is critical of betrayals. The setting is late February, Thursday afternoon in Act I Scene One; June, Saturday afternoon in Act I Scene Two; September, Saturday afternoon in Act II Scene One; November Saturday afternoon in Act II Scene Two. The events take place during a picnic in Common Pendon. Sisters compete with each other during the picnic since each wants to be closer to Simon. They even toss a coin in order to decide who is going to walk with Simon instead of going with the car. Ayckbourne includes two alternatives by dividing the scenes in to two, one Scene two A, the other, Scene two D; the letter A representing Abigail, the letter D, representing Dorcas. In the scene devoted to Abigail, it is Abigail who manages to get united with Simon whereas in the scene devoted to Dorcas, it is Dorcas. Ayckbourne puts stage directions such as:

Should Abigail have chosen to stay with Simon, Act II Scene One A follows. If, however, Abigail opts to go with Patrick, the reader should turn to Act II scene one D {p. 296}. (Sisterly Feelings 238)

The two of the four alternatives concerning Abigail are either Abigail chooses Simon or her husband, Patrick. The other two alternatives concerning Dorcas are either Dorcas chooses Simon or her fiancé, Stafford. Ayckbourne questions the sisterhood through Dorcas and Abigail along with man-woman relationship through their relationship to male characters. When Patrick is suspicious of his wife, he asks her whether she is meeting Simon. The answer is a strange one in that Abigail suggests she is bored with him and needs an adventure. She is bored after years of marriage and is in search of a more exciting man. As for Dorcas, she also has got bored with Stafford and is in desire of a new relationship with another man. It is thus not only the question of sisterhood but also the question of dissatisfaction of women that Ayckbourne deals with. At the end of the play, Simon proves not to be satisfactory and he remains an adventure for both of the sisters. There has been no change in the partners despite the adventures lived with Simon. What Ayckbourne discusses is the relationships within society. He portrays marriage as a boring and insecure institution.

As a conclusion, there is little difference between Ayckbourne's approach to family relations and those of Churchill's. Marlene is like Dorcas and Abigail who pay little attention to sisterhood in the sense that she denies her family ties for her own desires. Dorcas and Abigail betray both each other and their mates. Marlene betrays her mother and her sister, and is indifferent to her baby. Family relations are not as close as it was in the previous traditional plays. Along with the society, the values of society have also changed. There is no longer the traditional family in modern drama. People have been estranged from each other thus families are disconnected.


  • Ayckbourn, Alan. Sisterly Feelings. French, 1981.
  • Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. Methuen Drama, 1999.

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