Compare and contrast the presentations of relationships between parents and children in Top Girls and other drama texts you have read about the struggle for identity in modern literature. How far do you agree with the idea that such relationships are destructive?
Throughout both Top Girls and The Beauty Queen of Leenane McDonagh and Churchill present parent child relationships as being destructive; a demise caused by deceit. During Top Girls, Angie’s discovery of the identity of her true biological mother, Marlene, results in a destructive relationship with her adoptive mother, Joyce. This theme is exaggerated further in The Beauty Queen of Leenane where Mag’s duplicitous relationship with Maureen sees her desire for control result in the act of matricide.
The most obvious cause of destruction in the relationships is deceit. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Mag hides Pato’s letter from Maureen causing her relationship with him to fail. Maureen discovers her mother’s dishonesty when Mag accidentally reveals her knowledge of the situation resulting in her admittance that “[she] did burn it!” This revelation causes the destructive emotion of anger in Maureen and is the end to her relationship with Mag. Similarly, in Top Girls, Angie is lied to about the circumstances of her birth. This is revealed as Joyce tells Marlene “I don’t know how you could leave your own child” to which her sister replies, “You were quick enough to take her”. Similarly this results in destruction through a lack of trust, however, this overheard conversation causes confusion rather than anger in Angie as she calls Marlene “Mum?”
In Top Girls, the tension between Angie and Joyce is caused by the knowledge of deceit. This is emphasised by Churchill through the explicit language she gives them. Joyce calls Angie a “Fucking rotten little cunt”, suggesting extreme hatred surrounds their unusual mother daughter relationship. Similarly, in The Beauty Queen of Leenane’s dialogue, Mag and Maureen swear constantly, again the mother figure, Mag, says “angrily” to Maureen “Now you just shut your fecking…” This constant use of expletives shows a lack of respect in both relationships leading to a destructive circle of belittlement.
Profane language is not the only means by which the playwrights demonstrate the dysfunctional nature of the relationships. During Top Girls, Angie becomes defiant; shown through her refusal to tidy her room. This is mirrored in Mag’s tendencies in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, where she continues to “pour a potty of wee down” the sink, when Maureen has specifically asked her not to. However, here it is the mother who is disobedient rather then the daughter, reflecting the role reversal between them as Mag becomes the dependant figure. Maureen feels that caring for Mag should not be her responsibility, causing further destruction as she becomes resentful of her mother and her absent sisters.
This defiance heightens the tension between the women, leading to a cycle of revenge as each character strives to gain control. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Mag continues to defy Maureen, who in turn provokes her mother with the purchase of “Kimberly biscuits” despite the knowledge that her mother dislikes them. In Top Girls, Joyce’s tone becomes increasingly patronising towards Angie, making comments such as “Of course it was there, it’s meant to be there.” These remarks are made despite Joyce’s knowledge that Angie wishes to be treated as an equal, shown by Angie’s refusal to go to bed so she can stay up with Marlene and Joyce. Angie’s disobedience towards her mother solidifies Joyce’s attitude towards her daughter.
As both mother daughter relationships become strained, the snide comments and constant attacks become humiliating. In Top Girls, Angie is embarrassed by Joyce whilst speaking to her friend, Kit. Joyce mocks Angie with “Don’t know much then do you?” belittling her intelligence, a known issue which caused her to leave school early. Joyce also refers to Angie as “a big lump” whilst talking to Marlene, again humiliating for Angie by insulting her looks. To more extreme ends, in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Maureen is treated in the same way by Mag whilst in the company of Pato. Mag attacks Maureen in front of Pato bringing up “Difford Hall in England”, a “nut-house” Maureen resided at for “a month”. Despite Pato seeing “no shame in that at all”, McDonagh uses stage directions to suggest that Mag is embarrassed as she talks “quietly”.
Due to both daughters being isolated, the feeling of humiliation is heightened and causes long lasting destruction in the form of low self esteem. In Top Girls, Angie has no job, and according to Joyce is “not going to get a job, when jobs are hard to get”. Her decision to leave school means she no longer has a reason to leave the house, and will not meet any new people. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Maureen is trapped with her mother and similarly has no job or many friends. Mag tells her “you don’t say hello to people is your trouble” suggesting that she is a reserved character. Again this would mean that the humiliation regarding Pato would be focused on by her as her first and only love interest.
Both daughters also appear to be subject to disapproval from their mothers. Both playwrights use dress to illustrate this. In Top Girls, Angie receives a dress from her birth mother, Marlene. Throughout the scene Joyce does not compliment Angie or the dress and merely tells her to “Go to [her] room then, [as they] don’t want a strip show.” Churchill uses Marlene’s reactions as a direct contrast, with her encouraging Angie to “try it on”. Chronologically later, although dramatically earlier, after the discovery of Angie’s birth mother, she puts the dress on again and is told “not today” by Joyce. This disapproval is similar to, Mag’s scorn as she “picks [Marlene’s dress] up disdainfully” and “tosses [it] into a far corner”. She also comments on her disgust at the price of “Forty pounds just for that skimpy dress”. Although Mag is alone when she makes the comments, the sentiment is conveyed as later Maureen “goes over to where the dress is lying, crouches down beside it and picks it up, holding it to her chest.” The image of the dress being “close to her chest” suggests the insults are close to her heart. However, an alternative interpretation would be that the dreams which the dress represents are close to Maureen’s heart, she is attempting to protect these from the destruction present between herself and Mag.
The inevitable subsequent build up of tension between the mother and daughter leads to violence. In Top Girls, Angie’s discovery of deceit and consequent anger towards Joyce, leads to thoughts of matricide, as she tells friend Kit “I put on this dress to kill my mother”. This relates to Angie’s connection with the dress as it comes to represent, for her, a link with her birth mother and support in challenging Joyce’s role as mother. Despite not going as far as committing the act itself, Angie thinks of ways to kill her mother, she “picks up a brick” and assures Kit “You can kill people with a brick”. This is highly disturbing for the audience, as Angie’s determination is conveyed through her preparation. Furthermore, the dramatic form creates visual immediacy as the audience see her pick up the brick, thus her intentions become real. Angie’s violent thoughts appear to be reciprocated, although with less conviction, by Joyce. This is emphasised in the way she tells Angie to “stay there and die”, a appalling way for a mother to address her daughter providing the influence for Angie’s shocking behavior.
The theme of violence is further present in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, as aggression escalates to the act of matricide. Throughout the play the revelation of a history of violence within the relationship is foreshadowed through the presence of Mag’s red hand and when she tells Pato, “She’s the one that scoulded my hand”. Despite Mag’s treacherous disposition, the audience is torn between the stories; though Mag provides “evidence” by “[holding] up her left hand” she has lied before and shows no remorse. On the other hand, Maureen often threatens her mother and has dreamed about her being dead in a coffin. The final act provides shocking confirmation of Mag’s torture as “Maureen slowly and deliberately takes her mother’s hand … and starts slowly pouring some of the hot oil over it”. Maureen is established as a violent character who continues to torture her mother whilst she “screams in pain and terror”. This use of “in yer face” theatre allows McDonagh to shock the audience. The brutality peaks as it is revealed that Maureen has killed Mag when “she finally topples over and falls heavily to the floor, dead.” This violence is particularly disturbing as Maureen appears to show no guilt or remorse for her actions as she “looks down at [Mag], somewhat bored … then steps onto her back” as she leaves the room. This physical act represents Maureen’s feeling of triumph over her dead mother, as she feels that through the murder of her mother the destructive cycle has ended.
In conclusion, both playwrights convey destruction within the parent child relationships. This destruction is caused by deceit and manipulation initiated by the parents but further adopted by the daughters, often to more violent ends. During both plays, this cycle is portrayed as vicious and continuous. In Top Girls the chronological end to the play provides none of the characters with happiness or liberty. Similarly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, although Maureen believes she is free from her mother, it is apparent to the audience that instead she has simply become her mother.