Analysis of the Plays "Top Girls" and "A Doll's House"

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The Role of Theatre Performance in Shaping Audience Perceptions

Theatre performance plays imperative roles in the society such that it can be impossible to define those functions in a few sentences or words. One of the most notable things about performances is that each viewer has his or her own way of interpreting a play. However, the playwrights and directors often focus on specific themes to promote in their presentations. Such ideas and the manner in which the actors present them have the potential of shaping the way viewers perceive the world afterwards. According to Lynette Goddard, "Performance seems an ideal space for explorations of cultural identity, holding within it the possibility of reconfiguring the ways that we think about each other and view the world" (Goddard 2007 pg.1). The plays "Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill performed by Seoul Players and "A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen performed by Belhaven University both tackle women's rights as a matter of importance but the manner in which the plays are performed can make a member of the audience choose to see the need for upholding women's rights or not. For example, "Top Girls" presents two sets of women, those who have high rankings in the society and those who do not. The performance allows individual viewers to identify with either the side of women who have made it in life or those who are struggling to find their rightful place in the society. Those differences have the prospective of changing a woman's perception that when some few women can enjoy their rights, it does not necessarily translate to all the other women in the society. The central objective of this analysis is to use Goddard's quote, "Performance seems an ideal space for explorations of cultural identity, holding within it the possibility of reconfiguring the ways that we think about each other and view the world" to analyze the plays "Top Girls" and "A Doll's House" with the intention of showing how performance shape the audience view of the world.

The Struggle for Individual Identities in "Top Girls" and "A Doll's House"

One idea that runs across both plays is the dilemma many women face in the struggle to obtain individual identities. The plays reiterate the fact that while females know deep down their hearts, they need liberty to become the people they desire in the society, they often find themselves at crossroads between fulfilling the already feminized role and defying the social codes. In "Top Girls", the main character Merlene is first presented as an independent woman who is on the path to success. In the first scene, Marlene is joined by five other guests for dinner to celebrate her promotion to become the managing director of Top Girls Company. The guests who all have participated in one way or another in the fight for women's rights celebrate the success of a fellow woman and it gives the audience the idea that women can also make it to the top positions in employment and the society as a whole (Seoul Players 2015: 0:05-14:46). However, the presence of Pope Joan the woman from the 9th Century who disguised herself as a man to become pope sends a different signal to members of the audience who can identify with her. Pope Joan brings up the idea that the feminine looks and bodies that women have can sometimes bar them from reaching their highest potentials. Females who have had to disguise themselves as men to achieve something in life will easily understand it, but those who have not will look at Pope Joan as a symbol of change, as an indication that women ought to change their identities to achieve their goals and ambitions.

Likewise, the play "A Doll's House" brings out the idea that women are trapped in their bodies and should, therefore, continue experiencing oppression until they decide to act in ways that oppose the societal attributes linked to their bodies. Nora Helmer, the wife to Torvald, is forced to sacrifice her integrity for the sake of her family but spends most of her life struggling to act as though she did not take a bold step to obtain money for her husband's treatment abroad. Apart from that, the whole play is set in Nora's living room, something that ties her to the traditional roles attached to females in the nineteenth Century. By watching and hearing how Torvald chides Nora for spending too much money on Christmas gifts, some members of the audience are likely to consider females as belonging to the home and whose actions should be monitored because they cannot make useful decisions. On the other hand, viewers who already have positive attitudes towards the importance of women's rights will see Nora as a woman who is struggling to remain the ideal woman that her husband and the patriarchal society wants but also has an inner push to explore things in a more liberal way like spending the money she has on gifts.

The Power of Performance in Changing Audience Perceptions

Goddard's statement that performances present an exploration of cultural identity with the possibility of re-shaping people's perception of each other and the world best supports the idea that people's opinions change during a performance and the ending of the play acts as a rubber stamp to the beliefs and ideas that one has developed during the play. "A Doll's House", for instance, begins as a bleak story that seems to reinforce the position of women as subordinate to men. Nora Helmer does a lot of things to repress her inner power from exploding as a way of maintaining a peaceful relationship with her husband. The first two scenes show how Nora struggles to keep her secrets from being known. She hides the loan from Torvald because as a woman she should not appear to be financially advantaged than him. Apart from that being a woman she is supposed to receive help and support from her husband and therefore it should not come to the limelight that she took a loan to help Torvald. Nora reveals that she has to work in secret to pay off the secret loan because as a woman she is not supposed to be working. In the scenes where Nora attempts to conceal her economic power and ability to fend for the family, members of the audience might have various perceptions of the role of women in society. At some point, one might conclude that women's place is second and anything they do that is against the norm of that position should be hidden to preserve their overall image as women. However, towards the end of the story and more so the decision Nora makes to leave Torvald, changes the perception that women have to live under the supervision and dominance of males. From that point, it is evident that they can seek freedom outside their home away from oppressive partners.

Challenging Stereotypes and Promoting Equality Through Performance

The two plays also help members of the audience to see females who are economically advantaged as not necessarily free from gender discrimination and oppression. Apart from that, the performances demonstrate that even those who have made some achievements regarding enjoying their rights still have to sacrifice for the males in society. Take the example of Mrs. Kidd who believes that her husband Howard should have gotten the position of Managing Director instead of Marlene and went to ask Marlene to step down for Howard (Seoul Players 201: 1:17:02-1:19:43). Here, Marlene is experiencing male oppression channeled through a female who has been brainwashed to think that men deserve better in society than women. Consequently, women who have already openly achieved what other men have not, face the challenge of being seen as serving in the wrong positions. Howard cannot accept that Marlene is better than him and got the promotion that is why he sends his wife to urge Marlene to drop her position. Based on the scene where Mrs. Kidd tries to convince Marlene to leave the Managing director position to her husband, the performance somehow restates the status of women as subordinates to men, and only the defiant ones manage to achieve equality with males in society.

Reconfiguring Perceptions of Women through Performance

The question of who is a woman and what is her role emerges in both plays as opposed to a question seeking to understand the males. That question aligns with Goddard's assertion that performances can help people reconfigure how they view others and in this case how they view women. The two plays bring to light the notion held by men in many societies that women should never take a domineering or even equal positions. An excellent example is Marlene's refusal to grant Howard his wishes of getting the position that belongs to her. That confidence coupled with Angie's admiration of Marlene's life and achievements is likely to change how some people view women (Seoul Players 2015: 1:13:06-1:13:04). For example, males who perceive women as weaker beings who easily surrender to the dominance of men might begin thinking otherwise after watching Marlene's firmness as the head of an organization. Besides, women who have been on crossroads regarding entirely taking up influential positions or enjoying their freedoms can emulate Marlene and boldly tell off members of the society who think their position is second to males.

Similarly, a change of perception in both male and female members of the audience may occur towards the end of watching the performance of "A Doll's House". Nora's sacrifice of leaving her children behind knowing that her liberty is more important and that the nanny will take good care of her children untangles the chains of oppression that women endure in the name of protecting their children. Viewers are likely to begin seeing women who have divorced and left their children with their fathers or under the care of someone else as liberal thinkers who have made choices to consider their welfare first before that of others. The patriarchal societies push women to always think of others before themselves that is why they must serve their husbands and take care of the children even when they are extremely exhausted. In fact, the performance of "A Doll's House" helps the society understand the position of the modern woman who still has to juggle employment and household chores to maintain her status as a woman. The play shows that such women need not be tied to marital or parenting duties, they can be excellent performers in other areas of life as opposed to home keeping but remain valuable members of society.

Competition and Women's Rights in Theatre Performances

Through the performance of the two plays, members of the audience get to view the fight for women's rights as not only a fight against male domination but also a struggle for competition amongst themselves. The "Top Girls" performance, for example, shows the mutual aggression between Win, Nell, and Marlene as they support each other in their place of work against male dominance and oppression. However, the play also demonstrates that the mere distinction between men and women based on sex in addressing women's rights does not guarantee the full realization of those rights. Nell's expression of envy that Marlene landed the position of Managing director instead of her helps female viewers to perceive other women as competitors in places of work and other areas of society previously dominated by men. Apart from that, the performance helps members of the audience to view the struggle for gender equality and respect for women's rights as challenges faced by females in society as they seek equality.

Challenging Gender Stereotypes through Performance

Moreover, the plays help change the long-held perception that men are stronger than women. The performance of "A Doll's House" brings out that concept well because it begins by showing how Nora is childish, weak, and silly based on Torvald's statements and some of the things she does. However, as the play progresses, the audience comes to the realization that Nora is intelligent, strong-willed, and motivated. Were it not for her economic and personal strength, they could not have managed to take Torvald to Italy for treatment. Torvald, on the other hand, is first presented as the authoritative husband who continually patronizes Nora. However, towards the end of the play, viewers see Torvald as a selfish, petty, and cowardly man. Based on the highlighted facts and ideas, it is evident that performance enables viewers to assess the society through the characters, setting, and the message which, in turn, change the way people view the world and its aspects. The two plays discussed in this paper tend to present viewers with the notions they hold regarding women's rights and gender equality and reshape the audience's thinking to perceive success or failure as well as strength or weakness as attributes that suit specific individuals and should not be generalized based on gender and gender roles.


          Bellhaven University (2013). A Doll's House. [Video] Available at:                                                           [Accessed 24 May 2018].

          Goddard, L. (2007). Staging black feminisms. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

          Seoul Players (2015). Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. [Video] Available at:                                                 [Accessed 24 May 2018].

November 24, 2023



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