‘Top Girls’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ are plays that explore issues of gender and identity in very different ways. Churchill presents almost a feminist’s utopia, in which the stereotypical roles of men and women are subverted, giving females a role in the public sphere rather than the domestic one. However, Williams’ characters succumb to the prescribed gender roles whereby the women are confined to being passive, submissive figures in a patriarchal society dominated by men. Critics have suggested that Churchill’s characters are driven by rage whereas Williams’ are driven by sadness. Churchill’s characters mirror the time at which the play was written; during the up rise of feminism where women were beginning to be accepted by society and gained a sense of power through this. Perhaps this created the rage they were believed to be driven by. Williams’ characters were inspired by his own experiences with gender and identity- he was a homosexual at a time when this was unacceptable and he had trouble coming to terms with his sister’s fate, she was a schizophrenic who was forced to spend most of her life in mental hospitals. Williams’ own experiences are conveyed through his varied choice of characters highlighting his personal struggle for acceptance in society.
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Both plays echo the time at which they were written; ‘Top Girls’ was first performed during the 1980s, when third wave feminism began to emerge. At this time many women were adopting masculine roles in order to achieve success. This can be seen through the character of Marlene-the central protagonist who is forced to emulate men in order to prosper, however this simultaneously results in the loss of her female identity thus highlighting the struggle for identity of many women during this time. ‘Streetcar…,’ was written during the mid 1940s. This was shortly after the Second World War, as a result of which a shortage of men led to women taking on more masculine roles; this was the start of second wave feminism, however, despite these circumstances, women were immediately forced to return to the domestic role when the war came to an end and the patriarchy was resumed.
Stella’s character portrays the stereotypical image of a woman under the control of a man. Stanley’s constant ridiculing of Stella’s inferiority is emphasised through his primitive, abusive nature; stereotypical of men, when he ‘heaves the red-stained package,’ at her. More importantly though, this indicates his masculinity and the use of ‘red,’ provides imagery of blood and brutality, foreshadowing his cruelty against Blanche when he rapes her. Stanley’s character appears to be driven more by rage than sadness. However, some people might argue that it is his determination that drives him and that sometimes leads to rage, not the other way around. His refusal to be named a ‘Polack’ by Blanche emphasises his resistance against being labelled but also introduces the idea of the American dream. At the time Williams’ wrote this play, the Great depression was taking its toll on most of America, Stanley’s character is determined to live the American dream and by doing so he ignores his own cultural identity. Furthermore, his refusal to succumb to Blanche’s insults further emphasises his reliance on his manhood and masculinity and his constant take on the role of an ‘alpha male’, whereby he is unable to accept assertive behaviour from women. On the other hand, Mitch’s character is rather the opposite of Stanley, as he shows respect whilst maintaining fortitude in both the presence of men and women. He does, however, come across to be driven by sadness rather than rage. His desire to be with Blanche is a result of his loneliness and despondence with his current state-ill mother, thus highlighting his desperate attempt at happiness which is of course unsuccessful.
In ‘Top Girls,’ Marlene’s character fits Churchill’s image of a powerful independent woman and she is driven by rage in her attempt to challenge social stereotypes of women so that she can achieve the same accomplishments as men in the business world. Churchill’s use of Joyce’s character is not only the opposite of Marlene but depicts an image of a more submissive female. She differs from other characters not only in terms of her political views on society but also she is driven by sadness as opposed to rage, as a result of her miscarriage and therefore her subsequent inability to have a child of her own; thus conveying the more feminine aspects of Joyce’s personality. Perhaps she is envious of Marlene, as being the younger sibling, she has achieved much more, career-wise, and Joyce is forced to adopt the only other role of a female, i.e. being the domesticated housewife. In this way Churchill may be attempting to convey the idea that women are strictly confined to one role or the other.
The theme of motherhood is recurrent in both plays. In ‘Top Girls,’ this theme is negatively attributed as the characters are forced to sacrifice their maternity in order to gain success in other aspects of their life; thus they further deny their femininity of which motherhood is central. Marlene must give up Angie and her family to become a successful businesswoman. In this way her character, although at first appears to be driven solely by selfishness and rage, ‘I believe in the individual. Look at me,’ is also experiencing sadness and somewhat guilt through her loss of maternity and she expresses this guilt to Joyce, ‘You’ve been wonderful looking after Angie,’ she also offers financial support to reduce the burden on Joyce and her own lack of participation in Angie’s upbringing. In contrast motherhood is presented as a force for maintaining Stella and Stanley’s relationship when Blanche is raped and Stella is in denial of Stanley’s actions against her sister. The couple’s relationship is driven by passion and as Stella describes, Stanley’s violence ‘thrills’ her, however Stanley’s continuous degrading of Stella is upsetting; nevertheless she uses the coming of their baby as a reason to remain a couple. This contradicts Stella’s presumed nature as the submissive wife as in this situation she acts with fierce determination in order to prevent the failure of her marriage with Stanley and as a result she does what she has feared most-the betrayal of her sister in the admittance of Blanche to the mental asylum. This can be compared to Churchill’s own experience with his sister Rose who was sent to a mental hospital by their parents.
In ‘Top Girls,’ Churchill’s structural techniques depict her feminist outlook on society. The disjointed timeframe is could reflect her resistance against social norms; by defying the structure of a typical, naturalistic play where a moral homily is the ultimate aim, Churchill provides a more optimistic approach allowing the reader to construct their own interpretation. Each of the three acts explore the different women’s plights; encompassing their struggles to their successes and both plays are fairly short to maintain the audience’s attention. William’s including of a punchline; ‘…seven card stud,’ at the end of the play, leaves the actors in a tableau vivant. This is when the actors are left motionless as if in a picture. This accomplishes what is known as a coup de theatre and it creates a huge amount of dramatic tension through the melodrama of Blanche’s attempt to escape her fate. Although she has ‘always depended on the kindness of strangers,’ the ending conveys the harsh reality of Blanche’s life that has seen little kindness and is devoid from the ‘magic’ she so desperately desires. In this way Churchill’s characters portray a more realistic idea that individuals in the real world are not always able to feed their desires as this does not always lead to overcoming fears. Desire is a common theme in Williams’ plays, however, in this case, although it comes across positively; through the almost innocent desires of Blanche, it ultimately leads to her downfall in her living death when she is sent to the mental asylum. In this way Blanche’s character conveys the sadness felt by many characters in ‘Streetcar…’ and also may be an indirect reference to the typicality of the female gender; that being submissive and vulnerable-it is Blanche’s vulnerability that allows Stanley to take advantage of her and assert his authority both mentally and physically. Churchill is conveying a very important message here, that both genders deal with conflicting ideas as a result of the stereotypes created by society-males are given authority which permits them to manipulate their ‘power’ and mistreat the inferior females.
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A significant structural technique used in ‘Top Girls,’ is the overlapping dialogue which is at first glance representative of stereotypical nature of women, however when reading between the lines it shows the women supporting each other’s words, rather than being selfish. ‘Marlene: Were your travels just a penance? Avocado vinaigrette. Didn’t you/enjoy yourself? Joan: Nothing to start with for me, thank you. Nijo: Yes but i was very unhappy…’ Also this dialogue provides a wider insight into all the characters’ perspectives as they are constantly talking openly to one another; it is therefore a realistic portrayal of conversations exchanged between individuals. This quote also portrays Marlene’s feminine tendencies, whereby she feels the need to ensure her guests are fully satisfied. Her constant questioning of the others’ experiences demonstrates her selflessness, in that she is caring and willing to listen to others. On the other hand this could also convey her insecurity and inability to discuss her personal feelings, thus contradicting her femininity and highlighting the more masculine aspects of her nature. This may be Churchill’s way of conveying the conflicting issues of gender faced by women even in a modern society.
Pope Joan is driven by sadness as well as rage due to her rejection among society. In addition Dull Gret’s character appears to be driven by rage and this is demonstrated through her coarse monosyllabic interjections whilst at the dinner table; symbolising her hatred for the male gender. This hatred presented by many of the ‘Top Girls,’ is an attempt to, as Elaine Aston said, ‘refuse the fixing of gender roles,’ thus allowing both males and females to emerge from the stereotypes forced upon them. ‘Streetcar…,’ has been criticised for being a ‘succes de scandale,’ meaning it showed more sexual encounters than were common at the time. However later responses seemed to focus on this particular aspect and described the play as ‘a squalid anecdote of a nymphomaniacs decay in a New Orleans slum,’ this depicts the changeable nature of society over the years and can be seen in the varying receptions to the play. Finally the actors assigned to the roles in the play tended to vary successively and many failed to show Williams’ true depiction of the characters, i.e. Blanche played by Glenn Close came across to the audience as, ‘the thick-skinned sister-in-law from hell who hogs the bathroom.’ Thus Blanche’s true image is lost and the audience is not able to identify with her character, which was clearly not Williams’ aim.
To conclude both plays contain characters driven by sadness and rage, but the playwrights present their characters in distinctively different ways through the opposing issues of gender and identity; perhaps due to the difference in the time period at which the plays were written as well as the differing political and social circumstances. As a result both plays can be seen as classics that represent the history of their time. The characters can be seen as a product of the playwright’s personal experiences, thus it can be argued whether the characters are driven by sadness or rage, or if it may well be Churchill and Williams who are driven by such emotions.
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