Megan Terry’s works, although varied in structure, length, technique, and subject matter, are linked by a dynamic emphasis on emotion over reason; a lively use of earthy language, humor, music, metaphors, and symbols; a fearless treatment of timely controversial subjects; and a dedication to collaboration and spontaneity in acting and production. Because of her quickness to address controversial issues, some of her most noted works may not be her best plays, but rather those works that elicited the strongest public reaction at the time of first production.
The Magic Realists drew sharp criticism and publicity for its failure to touch ground with some realistic setting or situation, but it merits analysis in that it marks the beginning of Terry’s shift to her own distinctive theatrical style, rooted in the traditions of vaudeville and early film comedy. Viet Rock, while characterized by some critics as naïve and simplistic, clearly captures the spirit of early protest reactions to the war in Vietnam, and as such it is Terry’s best-known play. Two of her most representative works, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place and Megan Terry’s Home, explore the theme of enclosure and entrapment, at both personal and cultural levels. Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus represents yet another phase in the development of Terry’s playwriting, combining her love of music and strong female characters with a deep commitment to exploring ethical and political issues.
Terry’s work demonstrates adaptability, variety, and a consistent dedication to political and ethical ideals, qualities that provoke criticism as well as praise. Analysis of the body of her work reveals a prolific and imaginative mind at work, constantly striving and reworking themes as old as drama: family and gender roles, violence and pacifism, individual and social welfare, subordination and freedom. Her plays represent a substantial contribution to American drama, both in their innovative forms and in their political and philosophical substance.
The Magic Realists
The Magic Realists premiered in 1966 at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York and drew sharp criticism from Village Voice reviewer Michael Smith for its lack of connection to any outside reality. Terry’s first break from realistic theater styles, The Magic Realists presents a combination of obscure dialogue and stereotyped characterizations. The action of the play centers on T. P. Chester’s attempts to find a clone of himself who can carry on his nonstop wheelings and dealings. He chooses Don, a teenage escaped convict, in whom he recognizes the same total lack of scruples and the same “hunger” that have brought him to his esteemed position in the world of high finance. Occasionally, a “person” enters the stage, representing one of his numerous children, whom Chester views solely as tax exemptions. When a beautiful black woman named Dana arrives on the scene, she manages to seduce Don from Chester’s influence. Dana, a Japanese American, and an American Indian, who all turn out to be secret agents, attempt to arrest Chester, but one of Chester’s offspring persons appears to rescue him with a submachine gun. At last united, the father and child inadvertently gun down the secret agents as the weapon is held between them in a wild, whirling embrace.
The action demonstrates in vaudeville style how the capitalist economic power structure creates machinelike human beings whose sense of family, justice, and human emotion are entirely subordinated to the drive for money. Although the plot and characterizations are admittedly thin, this early work reveals several of Terry’s strong points. She captures natural speech rhythms and the comedy inherent in juxtaposition of radically differing character types. The combined elements of violence and sexuality create lively slapstick comedy and a few thought-provoking insults to the status quo.
In a similar vein, Viet Rock garnered much attention but little praise for its earnest, naïve attack on the brutality and absurdity of the Vietnam War. The play uses all the familiar clichés about honor, duty, and love of country to demonstrate that the soldiers who deliver these lines are basically automatons. Women in the play share responsibility for creating males who are infantile, obedient, and easily manipulated by brainless sentimentality. Viet Rock depicts events as varied as senate hearings and soldiers writing home to mothers and sweethearts in a collection of vignettes linked by few or no transitions. Although the music and satire received negative reviews for failure to achieve depth or complexity, Terry also drew admiration for her canny sense of theater and her ability to create a “happening” that captured the current mood of public outrage. Critics argued, however, that the play did very little to deepen anyone’s understanding of issues or to undermine self-satisfaction, two principal aims of satire. The play may not be notable for its depth, but its innovative use of rock lyrics and interaction between actors and audience broke ground for the creation of Hair, one of the...
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