In this essay I examine two period plays: Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Henrik Ibsen’s A Master Builder. I compare both writers’ craft through an analysis of dramatic action, language, plot, chronological structures and audience perception.
Ibsen’s play, A Master Builder, is not only a pièce bien faite in a closed form, but it is also a narrated tragedy. The scenes are long and the plot is sustained (has Solness kissed Hilde, promising her a castle and a kingdom?). The play starts with a very dark tone, based on Solness’ pessimism, but this becomes brighter thanks to Hilde’s optimist influence on Solness. Brian Johnston identifies a parallel between the plot and the set:
The scenic progression of increasing light and spatial freedom from Act One’s windowless space; to the light-filled, bay-windowed room of Act Two; to the final open air and splendid sunset of Act Three should encourage us to respond, imaginatively, to the dimensions of the play’s multilayered action.
Churchill’s Top Girls presents itself in an epic manner, but without respecting all the open form rules: as evidenced in the long first scene/act and the audience’s unique visualisation of the plot and characters. Also, Top Girls does not fit necessarily in the tragic genre, since the ending is open rather than final and sad. In addition, any of the characters are heroes, although they are still far from being laughing-stocks.
A Master Builder, in contrast, offers many different interpretations: for instance, that the young girl is crazy and abuses Solness’s vulnerability; or that Solness’s wife influences him to be afraid of himself (because to her understanding, he is to blame for the fire that indirectly killed their children). Here the possibilities are endless, and this is different from a closed form play. Toril Moi illustrates:
Actors, directors, critics and play-goers have always struggled to figure out what The Master Builder is about.
These plays prove that both Ibsen and Churchill were excellent life observers and used a very scientific approach in the context of Aristotle’s idea of: “observations first, ideas next”. Both plays depict the society they lived in:
The manner of playwrighting is inseparable from the kind of theatre it is written for, affirms Styan, after all, no writer writes for himself.
In relation to geography and visual representation, Churchill presents a play that could only be set in England in the 1980s, because of her references to the then British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher in her early years of office. Ibsen’s audience might assume that A Master Builder takes place in Norway, because all of Ibsen’s plays are set there (although he wrote some of them, including A Master Builder, in southern Europe). Ibsen wrote A Master Builder to expose a stiff and isolated society. He explains that:
Anyone who wishes to understand me fully must know Norway, the spectacular but severe landscape that people have around them… The houses often lie miles from each other force them not to bother about other people, but only their own concerns, so that they become reflective and serious, they brood and doubt and often despair.
Churchill wrote Top Girls in England to explore a declining, yet proud society; no Briton could morally accept that their kingdom was in such a bad shape, until Thatcher changed Britain forever. “Few women in history have broken more taboos than she has”, illustrates Naismith, representing my own opinion that Thatcher is as a powerful woman who seems to have no regrets. She is, in fact, Top Girls biggest irony for being mentioned so many times. The irony even starts at the play’s title, which I shall explore later on.
These period plays still relate well to a contemporary context, in which many people ignore suffering that isn’t theirs, and where one financial crisis leads to the next. Given the global changes in the twenty-first century (including climate change, fear of nuclear war, and internet), Top Girls can still relate well to modernity, because feminism battles have yet to reach substantial success. Thatcher’s years hardly changed the view that society has about women, and this is Churchill’s essential concern in Top Girls.
The text of A Master Builder no longer relates to a modern and developed Norway, as people are no longer isolated from each other in their small villages without transport and internet. However, it can still relate to some people’s state of mind, where indifference, bitterness, fear, or fantasy knows no geographic boundaries. Today’s Norwegian society is one of the most privileged in the world, because as Per Hinrichs explains that “everyone in Norway enjoys a part of the countries wealth, because most of them live on the same financial level”. However, their inner demons still haven’t vanished, and Hinrichs continues by saying that, “there is an explosion of hate ideology towards foreigners.” This makes Ibsen’s description of his country very contemporary: his play expresses the willingness to reject everything, which is not deeply ingrained in Norwegian cultural tradition.
Top Girls represents a real world ruled by men who don’t need to sacrifice as much as women to get to the top. A Master Builder, however, represents a surreal world, where living a fantasy is sometimes better than facing reality. The latter play also presents a bitter world: a place where people are afraid of each other and, mainly, of themselves.
After analysing the text in depth, I realized that Churchill does not provide many stage directions, which allows the director more freedom to handle and interpret the text.
The playwright doesn’t say how the words should be spoken, as there is no adverbial advice. But the text is sufficiently complete for the actors to find the appropriate reading, complements Naismith. Ibsen, however, is more precise, using an approach of, “people representing actions of people,” and thoroughly advising the actors and directors through written word.
For Churchill’s Top Girls, the simple idea of a family life seems to be a threat to Marlene and—indirectly—Churchill. My reflection has a relation to the picture of the book cover. The workingwoman has smiling eyes, secure and self-assuring posture, and a slim body (today a sign of happiness and well-being); while the housewife looks fat, holding her trophy (an iron) high. The housewife is not smiling, nor is she crying: rather, she is just looking convinced of her role in life. The cable of the iron in front of her body could also suggest a line that cannot be crossed: a prison. She is in pink (a colour that is linked to the feminine), while the background is black (a strong, sexless colour). The career woman has opposite colours, standing in black in front of pink.
Throughout the play, Marlene feels that a family life would affect her vulnerability, and that this is something she couldn’t afford. This could explain the infrequent visits to her family. In Ibsen’s, A Master Builder, the greatest threat to Solness is losing power: yet his inner journey makes him realize that power doesn’t give as much back as freedom of thought and action.
The events that Solness had to go through in order to become a master builder (such as surviving a fire and losing his children) made me sympathetic, and when Solness explained the circumstances to Hilde, I felt compassion for him. Solness explains:
That fire and that alone was the thing that gave me the chance to build homes… I have had to renounce any hope of having a home of my own, I mean, a home with children… Was that the price of happiness?
Solness doesn’t need to say that he has never found peace of mind: through secrets and fantasies, it is clear that he has tried to escape his cold reality. Mrs. Solness—who had my sympathies first—died from within after the fire. She would never approve of Solness trying to be happy again, because she could never do this herself. Here his paedophilic behaviour in the past is raised: although this is sickening according to my moral judgements, because Ibsen does not identify for certain whether Hilde’s account truly happened, it becomes somehow forgivable.
Solness’ fear of the younger generation, who are threatening his authority on the only thing he can do well in this life, is also understandable: since most people are arguably afraid of aging. Ibsen, supposedly, intended this play to be semi-autobiographical. A self taught professional (like Solness), Ibsen had grown tired of his life and taken on a younger mistress.
In Top Girls, Marlene had my sympathies on the first act, because I am always pleased to hear about women’s victories. Nevertheless, Marlene has an unnecessarily negative opinion of housewives: as if they were all stupid women. For example, Marlene thinks aloud that Joyce, a housewife, doesn’t even know how to use the telephone. Marlene also lost my sympathies because she gave up her child to pursue a career: Churchill didn’t offer her other alternatives to unplanned pregnancy (like abortion or even prevention).
The title A Master Builder suggests both profession and hierarchy, as a “master” is someone who is above the rest. Although the title does justice to Solness, the main themes of the play, fantasy and fear cannot be guessed at all from the title alone. Bennett notes:
Cultural assumptions affect performances. And performances rewrite cultural assumptions.
This suggests that most of the audience comes to the theatre or start reading the play with pre-conceived ideas because of the title or the writer’s history. However, Ibsen always fought the image people had of him being a “social reformer rather than a poet”, as illustrated in the Cambridge Guide to Theatre. The title of Top Girls misleads audiences: because it suggests women who successfully juggle career, family and love life perfectly. Churchill shows that this utopia isn’t possible, and that it has never been possible, as her historic characters tell. Churchill uses Angie’s character as a picture for the pitiful future of women who don’t know where they stand. Kate Mosse suggests that the “play could have been called Bottom Girls”, since it is more concerned with losses than trophies.
Churchill used her craft to write Top Girls in a very concrete and contemporary way to explore women’s issues, and the play is a clearly political event, and not just an entertaining night-out. Churchill might have aimed, through Top Girls, for a feminist revolution, and the play did “articulate the pressures towards one (revolution), helping people to celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence”, as Bennett describes, however, the contemporary social context remained the same.
Both Churchill and Ibsen know how to make plays matter, and their first tool is the plot, which includes a play’s chronology. Ibsen possibly developed A Master Builder from the story’s main events: the fire (the earliest event), the death of his children, the kiss and the promise for a kingdom, all in the past, and Hilde’s visit plus the last climbing, in the present. It is essential that the audience understands what has happened in the past to make Solness the person he is: through the chronology and the precise moments of revelation of things that occurred in the past, Ibsen manipulates the audience into not judging Solness so bitterly. Ibsen decided to begin the story portraying a heartless Solness in order to contrast the beginning from the end, allowing the audience to go through a discovery journey. Hozier explains this technique:
The more acutely the dramatist can make us feel the contradictions of his double vision, particularly at the climax and the ending, the more affective the play will be.
This technique also creates suspense, because Solness as a businessman is very closed, and the audience wishes to learn more about him, discover his secrets. Solness’ analytic exposition is that through Hilde, “a version of the past which, though it may or may not be what actually happened” according to Brian Johnston, Solness works his psyche, fantasies and his memories backwards in order to free himself from his demons.
The chronology of Top Girls is unusual: the first act is the last chronological event, when Marlene celebrates her promotion; in the second act, Marlene is promoted; and the third and last act shows Marlene, one year before the previous acts, hoping for a promotion, plus the distant dream of a young girl to follow in the steps that Marlene has taken in the previous acts. Janet illustrates:
Top Girls opens with a fantasy of the past and ends with a little girl’s nightmare of the future.
Churchill’s complicated structural decision is arguably “a lot to ask from an average audience”, as Mosse discusses, and even a “frustration to conventional expectations”, quoting from Top Girls Study Guide. However, this approach highlights that the journey Marlene takes the audience along is more important than the destination (her promotion). The first act suggests that Marlene is the portrait of the happy and powerful woman in an ideal world, because she is the only one who doesn’t talk about her losses; whereas the last act shows that Marlene is no hero, in reality. This is one of the audience’s pleasures described by Hozier, which serves Marlene as well as Solness:
The real pleasure is watching someone neither better nor worse than us, someone who is conscious of their own actions, and who, trough some error of judgment, brings about their own downfall.
Both Marlene in Top Girl and Solness in A Master Builder are powerful in a world that only has two scales: according to Hozier still, “one based on money and another on gender”. Despite their power, both lead characters are not truly liked by anybody: Angie admires Marlene’s power more than her goodness and Hilde might only be interested in what she can get from Solness. Linking Marlene to Thatcher, Kavanagh illustrates my thoughts that “Thatcher was respected but not liked”.
Characters may leave an impression that they are more important than plot, but this is not what Aristotle taught. He argues that, “plot, ordered arrangements of incidents, is more important than character” because the character alone doesn’t make a story suitable for theatre. Churchill’s characters have all the freedom to choose the own path, but there will be always consequences, since they are entirely responsible for their actions. Ibsen’s Solness is afraid of being free and the consequences of his acts influence his family and everybody around him.
The historical characters in Top Girls illustrate the struggles women have been through all the centuries. The audience would profit more from the play if they knew a little bit about theses characters in advance, in order to understand why Churchill has chosen them specifically. In my opinion, the first act could even be one of Marlene’s dreams of becoming immortal like her guests. The historic characters interact with each other in interesting ways, starting by the waitress: Churchill gave her no line, to show that among the celebrities, she has nothing to say, being just a server. Churchill possibly made the housewife, Griselda Joyce, arrive later because she doesn’t share the same independent values as the other ladies: although she has given up her children to prove her love to her husband, just as Marlene had done to prove her love to her career. An interesting fact is that the ladies, each telling her stories of glory and misery, don’t really listen to each other. They talk simultaneously most of the time, as if they would be rather talking to themselves. When they do listen, they laugh at the other’s tragedies and take too long to stop laughing. This is, perhaps a symptom of drunkenness or of cold heart, or perhaps both: because in a drunken state, a person shows her true self.
Nevertheless, although the ladies rarely comment on the things the other characters are telling, the only time when they truly listen is when Griselda talks. Would the housewife’s talk be indeed more interesting than voyages, power, art, royalty or business related topics, or have the ladies just become tired and ran out of stories?
Set in the 1980s, the relationship among the ladies at the employment agency is like a battlefield. Churchill’s choice for the employment agency as a set for the second act already suggests women in power, as they are choosing who has a job interview and who doesn’t. When Angie visits her aunt at her office in London, Marlene shows a subtle desperation to know when her daughter/nice will be returning home from far away from her. In this moment two worlds clash together unexpectedly: the slow life and the fast one. Marlene doesn’t enjoy herself when she is not controlling the situation, and this includes the family visits.
The dramatic action between Angie and Joyce is a stressful one. For instance, Angie chooses to wear the dress that Marlene had given to her just to provoke Joyce, as Marlene can afford such a dress while she cannot. My understanding of their relationship is that money and power, not daily efforts, have claimed Angie’s admiration. Perhaps the existence of Joyce and Angie as characters is a tool that Churchill uses to show how Marlene can be insensitive to reach her professional success.
In Ibsen’s play, all characters seem to care about the destiny of one another. The characters are close—even if not always in a loving way—which makes their destinies matter not only among themselves, but also from the audience’s point-of-view. This device encourages the audience to take sides and start an inner journey of indirect self-discovery, like the Spanish metteur en scène Carlos Aladro states:
A Master Builder requires from its audience a predisposition for a very intimate trip inside themselves.
The relation between Hilde and Solness is very contradictory and thus strategically well placed by Ibsen. Hilde represents wildness and optimism, while Solness represents pessimism and domestication. Hozier illustrates:
Ibsen sets one character in parallel to another so that the fundamental contradictions are revealed.
When Hilde claims that Solness has made a promise made to her, she could be playing with an old man’s bad memory, manipulating him subtly. A story of paedophile behavior in a village could cause a scandal; so, the audience is left to wonder why Solness gives in to her story so easily: because it is an adventure; because it feeds his fantasies; or because he is afraid for what she might do to him. All the options above, except the latter, seem possible given the character of Solness. Solness prefers that his wife calls him a “lunatic rather than a sick man”. Clearly, his relation to wife is icy and indifferent, and they still live together because of the pressure wherein people in small towns in Norway avoid divorce. However, Mrs. Sonless doesn’t approve of Hilde, and questions her motives in approaching the home without any luggage and money, assessing that only people who are certain that they will be taken care of would act in that way.
Hilde and Solness leave substantial room for interpretation, since a reading of a play will always depend on the audiences’ own subjective experience of it. Bennett expresses this opinion by quoting Norman H. Holland, who states that:
All texts have a central core of fantasy.
She also quotes Grotowski:
The spectator wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself.
A Master Builder is a play full of symbols. Examples include Solness’ argument with God (actually himself, as the master builder or the almighty), and Mrs. Solness’ exaggerated care for her dolls, which suggests a substitution for her dead children. Similarly:
The fact that Solness cannot climb as high as he builds implies that he cannot act as freely as he thinks.
In terms of language structure, Churchill’s work is actor-friendly, because it had the actors’ contribution in the polishing process. John Price analyses:
Top Girls became devised, in part, from actors’ improvisations, providing thus acting clues through the semiotics of her dialogue.
Top Girls was not written for literary analysis, but for stage productions; in a book short sentences might suggest that the writer is poorly skilled, but on stage simple words and short sentences are a synonym for prompt understanding.
Simple vocabulary carries the potential for a very powerful emotional impact, exemplifies Naismith once again, what emphasises Churchill’s power upon the audience.
Another feature of Churchill’s style is the overlapping dialogue. This simultaneous talk is a “technique which Churchill pioneered”, according to Mosse. One character starts speaking a line, even though the other character has not yet stopped talking. It is very difficult to imagine the overlapping dialogues during a life production only from reading the text by myself. Nevertheless, I attempted to point out several possible reasons for Churchill’s decision to use this tool. First, when people are excited they overlap each other in discourse, and each single word loses its significance: so that just the emotions are expressed in a confused melody of words. Second, people also talk simultaneously when they have “competing egos”, according to Naismith, as they are not really interested about what the other has to say. This selfishness could be another clue from Churchill about the personality of the ladies who consider themselves top in the social hierarchy.
Max Stafford-Clark, the play’s first director, says that Top Girls is “an emotional jigsaw puzzle,” because of its chronological structure and speech style. These elements together deliver the full potential that the audience might expect from Churchill’s work: a complex and political piece.
Whereas, in Top Girls, the characters shout about the world, in A Master Builder they talk about it, one sentence per time. Ibsen’s speech style is naturalistic, but “once again, naturalism is blamed for suppressing the rightful participation of the audience”, referring to Bennett. Ibsen knew theatre well, and gained his remarkable writing craft from all the other activities he was involved with. Michael R. Booth explains:
Ibsen designed sets and costumes, stage-managed, checked the accounts, handled public relations, and wrote his own plays for production… The knowledge of how plays reached the stage in the nineteenth century was vital to an understanding of the theatre practice of the time.
Churchill was also particularly aware of the dynamics of theatre: “She is a playwright unique in her understanding of the actor/director process”, describes John Price.
All the writers’ efforts were made in order to evoke a certain reaction in the audience. My reaction—which is as personal as the most intimate of the writers’ thoughts. Quoting Tom Sutcliffe, “interpretation is how we put things in terms to which we can relate”.
A Master Builder is heartbreaking and this is not solely because Solness dies at the end. Ibsen gives the audience “a melancholic note of elegant despair” (borrowing from Letters to George). Hurtful silences in the family, fear of the future, betrayal among employees, a poor young woman’s subtle blackmailing upon a questionable past (albeit arguable) and the question of paedophilia that Solness never denies are all part of the line of thinking what made me less joyful about the play.
The death of Solness is the only palpable solution for him to reach freedom and happiness, thus the ending is suitable for the storyline in terms of this character’s psychology. It is happy, because Solness no longer must return to his miserable life; but also sad, because death per se is never a happy thing. Ibsen’s interpretation of life is arguably that only death can bring stillness of mind. This is a very radical and dark thought, and also pessimistic.
Churchill gives the audience no opportunity for wishful thinking, and gives the message that one cannot have everything, especially women. Top Girls is about losses, not glory. Naismith comments:
The play is less concerned with the celebration of successful women than with questioning the kind of success that it shows.
Success will questionably be always linked to show-and-tell, but what really goes through a career or family woman’s mind, the naked truth, nobody will ever know. The dilemma of Top Girls can be expressed as, from Kefi Chadwick article:
If we go out to work, we’re neglecting our kids. If we stay at home, we are little more than milk-producing cows.
I found myself wanting, for Marlene, is for her to falls in love with a man (or woman, since she is so against traditional family values), just to see that happiness isn’t only measured in professional success: thus, the play doesn’t end according to my moral judgment. However, endings are not prescribed, but are about the way the writer makes his or her last statement, showing the audience how they could (or how they have to) feel.
In Top Girls, Marlene possibly, represents Churchill’s strong opinion. Yet, I cannot ignore Angie’s last line: “frightening”. The use of this word gives the audience an array of possibilities and not necessarily from one point-of-view, like Mosse suggests:
The final word of the play – frightening – applies to the decade ahead. It’s a future when bottom girls are just not going to be able to make it.
For Angie, “frightening” could be indeed the future or the discovery that Marlene is her mother, because I cannot be sure whether Angie has overheard Marlene’s conversation with Joyce. Perhaps in live theatre the actress playing Angie would give the audience a hint of the director’s interpretation when speaking the word: in the text, it is difficult to confirm. The audience, without the actress’ clue, still could feel stimulated by the word alone and interpret it simply relating it to their private lives. The ending of Top Girls is “inconclusive, when a climatic ending would be inappropriate for a play, which emphasises problems of modern living”, concludes Naismith with my blessing.
A Master Builder has a climatic ending and it leads the audience towards how they have to feel, independently of their interpretation of Hilde. I understood her to be insane, only at the end accountable to her last line: “But he got right to the top! And I heard harps in the air:” who hears “harps in the air” other than insane people?
With Solness’ death, Ibsen’s way to “drive the play right up to the final curtain to gain the maximum impact” (borrowing Hozier’s word) leads the audience to feel sorrow. Not everyone copes with the philosophical thoughts that sad can be happy at the same time and some in the audience might judge Solness as pervert paedophile or promiscuous, and not feel sorrow at his death.
Audience reactions will always be unpredictable, and communication in theatre goes beyond two parties. Bennett explains:
There is a three-way communication: between the play, the individual and collective audience.
Furthermore, not everyone around the globe will perceive Top Girls in the same way as Britons; although women’s struggles are indeed global, the references to London and Thatcher are particularly local. I wonder what the production of this play in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia would mean, places where women have no or very little rights. Nevertheless, I ask myself whether Churchill wrote this play for westerns only, people who at least pretend to care about feminist issues, or if she thought she could indeed change the world. Writers are romantic dreamers, even if their writing style is harsh and straightforward. A Master Builder could have an appeal in countries where women have no voice: with the exception of Hilde, who is free, wild and crazy, all the women in the village are led by men.
Feminist topics aside, travelling around the world with a play that was written with a specific background in mind—like Norway, in Ibsen’s case—is a difficult thing, unless the director wishes to portray exactly this idea of dislocation. Sclonicov illustrates this point (cited by Bennett):
The problem of the transference of plays from culture to culture is seen not just as a question of translating the text, but of conveying its meaning and adapting it to its new cultural environment so as to create new meanings.
With this in mind, Top Girls could perhaps benefit from some changes to the text (Margaret Thatcher and London in the 1980 could be replaced by Dilma Rousseff and São Paulo today) more than A Master Builder, despite my certainty that small village mentality doesn’t exist only in Norway.
The meaning of A Master Builder became clear to me only at the end, with the contrast of the final moments. Solness was happy and seemed normal before he went climbing the tower, as he was living a fantasy and that was good enough for him. He had no reason to bother explaining to his pessimist wife, narrow-minded doctor and pragmatist employee that he planned on discussing his life with God from the top of a tower, a place he normally would be frightened of. Hilde was proud that he had finally decided to fight his demons, but Solness couldn’t build her a dream castle in such a dreadful state of mind. As a matter of fact, it crossed my mind that Hilde could be a product of Solness’ imagination; if it wasn’t for the fact that everybody else saw her.
Because of Top Girls’ unusual chronology structure, the meaning (that women in spotlight have to sacrifice many things) was already clear in the first act. The rest of the play just modernises the tales from the first act: this means that the ending of Churchill’s play doesn’t lead the audience to surrender to emotion.
The term catharsis was used by Aristotle and adopted in the psychology practice of Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries, wherein the patient is made to re-live an upsetting experience in order to cry about it, understand it and finally let go. In theatre, the theory about catharsis isn’t so different, as it helps the audience to restore the inner balance through emotional discharge. Esta Powel explains further:
Aristotle believed that catharsis helped to moderate passions and strong emotions… When personal distress is reawakened in a socially appropriate environment, such as theatre, emotional experiences are not too overwhelming, because people are under the impression that they cry about the play character, but not about themselves.
In A Master Builder catharsis is triggered in the audience by the element of surprise; when Solness falls from the tower and dies instantly, strong emotions are provoked. Top Girls, however, does not present the audience with such a shock at the end leading to catharsis (unless Angie indeed discovers that Marlene is her mother, which, as discussed above, is unclear).
There is no need to critically evaluate whether both productions have a performance potential by means of image analysis: because the artistic directors who first decided to produce Top Girls (in London in 1982 in the Royal Court Theatre) and A Master Builder (in Berlin in 1893 in Lessing Theatre) have already done this. They must have recognised the impact that both plays would have in the theatre. For example, in Top Girls overlapping dialogue works best spoken rather than written, and can be effectively use with the play’s provocative and political topic. Also, depending on the acting, A Master Builder could make a huge impact, due to the dramatic potential of Solness’ misfortunes and fears.
In short, both plays have strong appeal and encourage after-show discussions. They are also timeless, despite being period plays. To conclude, using the method of close analysis of dramatic structure, I have explained the contrasting ways in which Top Girls and A Master Builder are written in order to contribute to the understanding of audiences.
Luciana B. Veit