Top Girls
(Caryl Churchill)
Comedy & Humour
“Humour is not predictable. In fact, it relies
on surprise. It relies on logic being
suspended in some way. It is not familiar
and thus comforting. It is confronting and
because of this we shy away.”
How Humour Works
Assumes shared values / knowledge
What an individual finds funny is influenced by
many things: the historical period in which we
live, cultural and social experiences, age, gender,
Humour uncovers our biases and affiliations.
Built on incongruity: the gap between what is
expected and what is experienced or said.
(Understatement and exaggeration – most
common methods of creating humour)
Purpose and effects of humour
An element of dramatic structure – comic
Develops relationships between
Critiques established authority
Reveals and challenges the audience’s
assumptions & biases
Dramatic Structure
Skilful manipulation of mood and audience
response through the sequencing of the
comic scenes.
 Movement / contrast between moments of
profound sadness and cacophonous
 Varies the dramatic pacing and contributes
to the dramatic tension
Dramatic structure
Provides comic relief
- Eg. The bawdy speculations about the pierced chair
after Joan’s account of her stoning
- Eg. Marlene’s interview with Jeanine immediately after
the end of Act 1
- Eg. The office banter of Act 2 Sc 3 follows the ominous
ending of Act 2 Sc 2
Highlights key issues.
- Eg. the change in tone and mood in Joan’s story forces
the audience to reconsider the cost of Joan’s
transgression of patriarchal norms. The message
becomes even starker because the shift from farce to
tragedy is so sudden and unexpected.
Contributes to the presentation of the women as ‘clever girls’, self-aware
and capable of banter and repartee.
Eg. p.5:
Nijo: The first half of my life was all sin and the second / all repentance.*
Joan: *And which did you like best?
Eg. p.49
Win: We’re tactfully not mentioning you’re late.
Marlene: Fucking tube.
Win: We’ve heard that one.
Nell: We’ve used that one.
Eg. Joan’s self-mocking humour (eg. p.6: ‘Anyway I’m a heresy myself.’)
Develops relationships between
Creates an apparent sense of camaraderie /
solidarity while masking underlying rivalries
Fast-paced verbal exchange In the office
scenes between the ‘top girls’ – wit, banter,
Subtly reflects the competition between the
women – undercurrents of one-upmanship
Prevents any real emotional engagement.
Develops relationships between
Eg. p.47
Nell: He’s just got to relocate. He’s got a bungalow in
Win: And his wife says.
Nell: The lady wife wouldn’t care to relocate. She’s going
through the change.
Win.: It’s his funeral, don’t waste your time.
Nell: I don’t waste a lot.
Win’s quick grasp of the situation is matched by Nell’s
assertion that she doesn’t ‘waste a lot’ of time on such job
Possibly defending her professional competence against
Win’s perceived criticism.
Develops relationships between
Eg. p.49
Win: I spent the whole weekend at his place in Sussex.
Nell: She fancies his rose garden.
Win: I had to lie down in the back of the car so the neighbours
wouldn’t see me go in.
Nell: You’re kidding.
Win: It was funny.
Nell: Fuck that for a joke.
Marlene: Anyway they’d see you in the garden.
Win: The garden has extremely high walls.
The comedy lies in the disjuncture between their matter-of-fact tone
and the farcical situation.
The humour masks the tawdriness of the affair, and maintains an
emotional distance between the women despite the personal nature
of what is being discussed.
Critiques established authority
Undermines / undercuts the hierarchical
structures upon which power and status
depend, deflates pomposity, creates a leveling
Especially significant in a play that critiques
capitalism, socialism, patriarchy, and feminism.
Important to be able to mock convention and
Mostly directed at the religious establishment.
Critiques established authority
Eg. Comic juxtaposition of Gret’s first word in the play,
‘Pig’, and Pope Joan’s entrance  undermines the
authority of the office as well as the individual
Eg. The interweaving dialogue about Joan’s chamberlain
lover has Gret making comments that emphasise Joan’s
humanity (needs a lover to ‘keep you warm’) and her
sexuality (her lover has a ‘big cock’)
Eg. The description of the pierced chair together with the
subversive picture of clergymen looking up the pope’s
skirts  comic undermining of male religious authority
Critiques established authority
Provides relief from rigid social codes
Emphasises the communcal and the
Eg. Gret’s base, bawdy humour –
focuses attention on food, the body,
bodily functions – emphasises the
commonalities that mark our shared
Reveals and challenges the
audience’s assumptions & biases
Nijo’s repeated references to love poetry and clothing
strike us as faintly ludicrous & out-of-context
But they also invite us to rethink our own conventional
expressions of romantic love & the meanings we invest
in clothing / fashion
and to see them as social constructs
Contributes to the larger pattern of questioning that the
play engages in
Are there any aspects of human experience that are
not social constructs? Implications?
LINK to issues encountered in P5?
Reveals and challenges the
audience’s assumptions & biases
In the Marlene / Jeanine interview
Jeanine: I thought advertising.
Marlene: People often do think advertising. I have got a few
vacancies but I think they’re looking for something glossier.
Jeanine: You mean how I dress? / I can dress different. I
Marlene: I mean experience.
Jeanine: What is it they do?
Marlene: Lampshades. / This would be my first choice for you.
Jeanine: Just lampshades?
Marlene: There’s plenty of different kinds of lampshades…
Reveals and challenges the
audience’s assumptions & biases
The humour is located in the gap between the
audience’s knowledge of interview protocol, and
Jeanine’s naiveté
Marlene’s use of comic understatement; the wry tone
When we laugh at Jeanine’s interview faux pas, we do
so from a position of power and knowledge that we
share with Marlene
As the play proceeds and Marlene’s value system is laid
open for critique, we are forced to consider if we too
share Marlene’s bourgeois capitalist values
Reveals and challenges the
audience’s assumptions & biases
Eg. p.64:
Angie: Do you work here?
Win: How did you guess?
Angie: Because you look as if you might work here and
you’re sitting at the desk. Have you always worked here?
Win: No I was headhunted. That means I was working for
another outfit like this and this lot came and offered me
more money…… etc.
Angie’s unsuspecting, matter-of-fact response to Win’s
sarcasm induces our uncomfortable laughter
but also exposes our prejudices and, by contrast,
accentuates Win’s later kindness
Provokes the audience into reconsidering our own
values and allegiances