Calm Down Mother

by Megan Terry

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The Deeper Meaning

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2035

The subtitle to Megan Terry’s play is A Transformation for Three Women. If Terry is true to her title, then there must be a pattern to each short scenario, each change of character, and each relationship that she demonstrates in this play. In order to find the pattern, readers must ask questions such as why did Terry start her play with a tape recording of the first signs of life outside the great oceans? How does she use sisterhood? Why is the title of her play contained in the scene with the prostitutes? Although answers to these questions are subjective and, at the most, speculative, they can add depth to this brief play in which characters change identities, scenes appear random, and no obvious (at least at first sight) answers are provided. By digging into possible motives for creating such an arbitrary play, readers become more active in the process. Terry does not hand out her philosophy as a college professor might offer in a lecture. She is one of the pioneers in feminist experimental theater, and one of her main goals was to engage her audience in the process. She offers a scheme or an outline. It is up to the audience to fill in the missing pieces. Terry begins her play with a curious tape recording that recounts the beginning of life on land. There are three one-celled creatures, giving the reader a hint that Terry is setting up a theme for the play since there are also three female actresses throughout. As these three one-celled creatures make their way to the shore, they are constantly being washed toward the beach and then drawn back into the ocean. Not until they join forces are they eventually pushed far enough up the beach that they are able to avoid the action of the next wave. Their challenge is not yet over, however, as two are torn away by a tornado. Only one remains, and it ‘‘stretches toward the sun.’’

Following this opening, Terry writes various scenarios that include three women. Each of the situations that she presents could be likened to the attempts of the three one-celled creatures as they attempt to reach shore. First, there are the sisters Sophie and Esther, the shop owners, and their young customer who has come in to buy some beer. The connections between these three women are tenuous at best. Sophie wants to touch the young woman’s hair, a very personal experience. She admires the young woman, but not so much for the woman’s sake but rather for her own. The young woman reminds her first of her mother and then of herself; and it is in that longing for her youth that Sophie reaches out and touches the young woman. Her gestures are personal, but her motives for touching are anything but personal. The young woman is an object, a phantom of Sophie’s youth. The young woman might just as well have been a mannequin. Sophie asks nothing about the young girl’s life or her feelings. All Sophie does is tell the young girl of her troubles, her fears, her sorrows. Esther does not share Sophie’s feelings; as a matter of fact, she tends to make fun of them. She remembers Sophie’s youth in contempt, recounting how she used to spend so much time combing her hair and admiring herself in the mirror. Esther and the young woman join in a mournful lament at the end, mocking Sophie’s pain.

At this point, the women lose their identities. The young girl returns to being Woman Two, and she admits that she...

(This entire section contains 2035 words.)

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hates it when people try to bring her down. She wants to throw off their emotions rather than absorb them. Sophie goes back to being Woman One, and she displays her anger by stating that she wants to hit something. Woman Three, trying to make sense of it all, tells the audience that everyone needs to write down the details of their lives so they will not feel so small. ‘‘A lot of people must start writing with the absurd conviction they are talking to or will contact someone,’’ she tells them. In comparison with the opening section of this play, this scene points out that these women are not connected. It was only when the three one-celled creatures came together in the opening scene, that they finally were pushed high enough on the beach that the waves could not recall them to the sea. In the above scenario, Sophie is hurting, yet neither of the women can or want to empathize with her. Despite her family connection, Esther displays jealousy toward her sister. The young girl cannot relate to Sophie’s loss of youth. Each woman lives in a separate and isolated unit. They cannot see beyond their own needs and therefore cannot find the soil upon which they must sink their roots in order to grow.

Woman One and Woman Two then beat Woman Three down to the ground while she is talking to the audience about ‘‘contacting’’ someone. Woman Three remains in her prone position throughout the next scene, in which Women One and Two are transformed into a new sisterhood, that of Nancy and Sally. These women are much more supportive of one another. As a matter of fact, all their relationships with women are positive. It is the men in their lives who bring them down. Sally has just divorced an abusive husband, and Nancy has issues with her father who, in her mind, is attempting to upstage her mother who is dying of cancer. This part of Terry’s work reenacts the wave motion of the ocean. The three one-celled organisms were constantly washed ashore only to be pulled back by the waves. The scene between Nancy and Sally defines how a healthy relationship between sisters can help create benefit for both. However, Nancy and Sally are not yet secured on the beach. The wave that pulls them off the soil is their relationship with men. Nancy states that her sister Sally is soft when it comes to dealing with men, implying that she allows them to take advantage of her. Nancy in turn, is suspicious of men even to the point of accusing her father of faking a heart attack. Terry appears to be implying that a good relationship with women is a step toward growth, but women must also resolve their conflicts with men.

Whereas in this scene, Nancy honors her mother by referring to her as a good role model, in the next section of the play, two elderly women (one of whom is a mother) have been ‘‘committed’’ to a nursing home. They are taken care of by a nurse who tends to them mechanically. Although they appear to be companions for one another, Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon do not get along very well. Mrs. Tweed tells Mrs. Watermellon that she should not be thinking of herself as a woman anymore when the latter refers to her menses: ‘‘You shouldn’t think of such things. Woman a’ yore age.’’ The two women then lambaste one another with insults, demonstrating the shallowness of their friendship. This scene is reflective of the one that Sophie and Esther played out, in which none of the women exhibited compassion toward one another. This scene is also a statement of how society treats old people, in particular old women. Not only society at large but families in general tend to want to shut them away, as exhibited with the refrain at the end of this scene: ‘‘Please keep your hands off the doors.’’

The scenario that follows the nursing home section involves three prostitutes, and it is a bit puzzling. Prostitution, of course, represents another kind of relationship with men; not one, readers can assume, that Terry promotes because she portrays the three women as being constantly at one another’s throats. Right from the opening lines, Momo and Felicia are harshly criticizing one another. Terry also sets up this scene to make it look as if Momo and Felicia are the children of Inez, the third character. It is Felicia who states: ‘‘Calm down, Mother,’’ the title of the play. It is possible that Terry thought the relationships in this scene were the worst depictions that she could think of for women, as they prepare themselves for a forthcoming orgy. Everything in this scene is either upside down or totally wrong. For one thing, Inez, more than likely, is not really the mother of Momo and Felicia; for another, the women constantly bicker among themselves as they compete for the attention of men and their money; and to top it off, Momo is a cheat. To further extend the absurdity of this scene, Terry has Momo and Felicia asking Inez to spank them for being ‘‘bad girls.’’ The three women represent the epitome of commercialized womanhood—a bad mixture of sexuality and cash. They have become objects without a soul. They are the one-celled organisms that are torn out of the sand, unable to set their roots.

The play ends with a discussion of birth control, an issue that remains as controversial in contemporary times as it was at mid-century when Terry’s play was staged. In the previous scene, the prostitutes’ bodies did not belong to the women, as they sold their sexuality as a commodity in order to earn a living. Sexuality, in their case, had nothing to do with sensuality, let alone the idea of creating a child. However, to stay in their profession, the prostitutes had to be careful to avoid getting pregnant. In the 1960s, most religious organizations not only preached against having sex before marriage, but some, such as the Catholic Church, taught that it was a sin to think about sex. Sex was a biological drive meant only to procreate. Pleasure in sex was never discussed. Some women, therefore, believed that it was their duty to have sex with their husbands without considering any pleasure in the act. Understanding this mentality helps to enlighten the final scene of Terry’s play. The mother of Sue is shocked that her daughter would go against the church and practice birth control. First of all, Sue was not even supposed to be having sex since she was not married. Secondly, why would any woman want to have sex except to get pregnant? Thus, Sue’s mother is horrified.

Sue counters, however, with the fact that every woman practices some form of birth control because it is impossible for all of her eggs to be fertilized in her lifetime. Some of those eggs will be cast ‘‘upon the ground,’’ which, according to Sue’s mother, is contrary to biblical teachings. In this scene, Sue not only stands up for her rights to enjoy sex, to control the number of babies that she brings into the world, to control what happens to her body, and to the old conservative notions of her mother’s generation, she also stands up to men. She shouts back at the priests and the male magazine writers who condemn birth control. She is the only female in the play who makes a stand, who is strong enough to fight for her rights despite the pressures that are applied against her. Sue is the one-celled organism who, in the beginning of the play ‘‘stretches toward the sun.’’ She is the character who ‘‘walks toward the audience and smiles at them in joyous wonder.’’ She is Margaret Fuller, as mentioned in the first scene, one of the first American feminists, who states, ‘‘‘From the time I could speak and go alone, my father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a living mind.’’’ It would seem more logical, then, that Sue should have been the one to quote the title of the play. Her final words, as well as the final statement of the play, might have been: ‘‘Calm down, mother. Times are changing.’’

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Calm Down Mother, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003. Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her published writing on literary themes.

Images of Ourselves

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1398

In order ‘‘to make it,’’ we need to make images of ourselves. We compose ourselves from the cultural models around us. We are programmed into a status hunger. Once we have masked ourselves with the social image suitable to a type, we enter the masquerade of the setup. Even the masquerade of our ethnic and sex roles permeates our life so thoroughly that many of us are afraid to give them up. In giving them up we fear we would be giving up our identity, and even life itself. (Chaikin 13)

Joseph Chaikin’s comment represents part of his response to what he and others involved in the Open Theatre of the 1960s called the ‘‘setup.’’ In advertising for an ‘‘ingenue,’’ a ‘‘leading lady,’’ a ‘‘character actress,’’ a ‘‘male juvenile character,’’ and so on, trade papers reflected a disturbing coincidence between theatre and society: both based their vocabulary of character on the stereotype. Both assumed there were ‘‘fixed ways of telling one person from another’’ and found security in institutionalizing that assumption. As a consequence, Chaikin points out, ‘‘Each element of the societal [or theatrical] disguise, the acceptable image, can be assessed on an almost absolute and exploitative scale of values: ‘It is better to be Caucasian’; ‘it is better to be heterosexual and male’; ‘it is better to be rich’; ‘it is better to be Protestant.’’’

Megan Terry’s early transformation plays— Eat at Joe’s, Calm Down Mother, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, Comings and Goings, and Viet Rock—represent further response of the Open to the ‘‘setup.’’ Abjuring the rigidity of appointed and anointed roles, the Open made transformational drama a staple of its early repertory, creating theatrical exercises and plays in which actors shifted freely and suddenly from one character, situation, time, or objective to another. As Terry’s colleague Peter Feldman put it, ‘‘Whatever realities are established at the beginning are destroyed after a few minutes and replaced by others. Then these are in turn destroyed and replaced.’’ From the perspective of two decades of subsequent theatre, it should now be clear that Terry’s work with transformation challenged more than the individual actor seeking versatility and range. In freeing the actor from the prescriptiveness of the assigned role, transformational drama challenged the prevailing character of realistic theatre, which reinforced social and theatrical expectations. Terry’s work in neutralizing fixed assumptions, dismantling the stereotype, and reevaluating the institutional hierarchy proved seminal in forming emerging principle and modes of New York’s alternative theatre.

Chief among these emerging principles was Off-Broadway’s conception of character. Until Beckett’s Waiting for Godot startled Broadway in 1956; until Joseph Cino opened the Cafe Cino in 1958; until the Becks went public with the Living Theatre in 1959, with Jack Gelber’s The Connection; until Edward Albee turned to playwriting, staging The Zoo Story in New York in 1960; until Ellen Stewart opened La Mama in 1962; and until the Open Theatre became a presence in 1963, the prevailing mode of American drama was realism. The principle of construction was the cause-andeffect relationship, the plot proceeding neatly through units of action that raised a dramatic question, satisfied that question, and raised another, even as a dominant dramatic question sustained itself throughout the play. Character became clear through motive, often discovered in a past event that justified a character’s present perversions. The social-psychological- moral paradigm pursued by Ibsen in A Doll House and Ghosts remained the model for serious postwar American drama, which placed its faith in causality and its attendant claims.

Modern American drama took little notice of Pirandello’s radical assault on the theatre in 1923, when Six Characters in Search of an Author rocked its Paris audience and changed Europe’s theatrical vocabulary. In his 1953 study of ‘‘Modernism’’ in Modern Drama, Joseph Wood Krutch needed only to append a brief chapter on American drama, asking how modern it was, even while he was expressing moral outrage over Pirandello. The Italian playwright, he argued, of all the moderns, made ‘‘the most inclusive denial of all, namely, the denial that the persistent and more or less consistent character or personality which we attribute to each individual human being and especially to ourselves, really exists at all.’’ For Krutch, the ‘‘dissolution of the ego’’ that Pirandello’s plays present obviated all moral systems, ‘‘since obviously no one can be good or bad, guilty or innocent, unless he exists as some sort of continuous unity.’’

Krutch’s reaction might well be justified if one assumes the moral function of theatre, in which case consistency, plausibility, and growth are all essential elements of the continuous self. But a play, as Megan Terry and others have shown, might also be designed to play with the epistemological question of how the self takes form, without identifying a self that is morally accountable, psychologically consistent, or socially defined.

Transformational drama acknowledges the multiple and shifting selves that at any moment or collection of moments constitute a developing self, placing that composite in a context that is itself shifting. The consequence is a drama of perception analogous to a Picasso painting of a woman’s pro- file seen in the same canvas as the woman’s frontal view. Neither has priority, neither negates the other, both suggest the complexity of the dynamic process that we can only tentatively call the self. Moreover transformational drama acknowledges the extent to which the modern self is shaped by popular culture— advertising, movies, fictional heroes, romanticized history, TV commercials—the stereotypes provided by the media that steal into ordinary lives and shape expectations. In its involvement with media propaganda as the living artifacts of our culture, transformational drama becomes a kind of found art, a collage of the objects that incipiently form, reform, and transform models of self. And, finally, though transformational drama of necessity negates Krutch’s concept of an identifiable and continuous self, it curiously affirms the relationships between self and others that Krutch’s more traditional analysis of character would also assert. As Feldman points out in his ‘‘Notes for the Open Theatre Production,’’ rehearsals for Keep Tightly Closed began with improvisations dealing with ‘‘dependency, enclosure and isolation.’’ And as Bonnie Marranca notes in her study of American Playwrights, Keep Tightly Closed explores ‘‘confinement, dependency, domination- submission, ritual, friendship deprivation, and loneliness.’’ Terry’s approach to these relationships is, of course different from Ibsen’s, but, like realistic drama, it affirms the invariables of human experience. Unlike the dominant paradigm, however, transformational drama accommodates and affirms the variables as well.

Any of Terry’s transformation plays might serve to illustrate the Open’s contribution to redefining dramatic character, though her technique is not always the same. In Comings and Goings, randomly selected actors replace other actors, often in mid-sentence, and are themselves replaced, continually subverting the identification of actor and character or of audience and character. In Calm Down Mother, three actresses assume changing roles, becoming first one character and then another. In Viet Rock, the technique, as Richard Schechner describes it, is variously employed: ‘‘In the opening scene the actors become, in rapid sequence, a human, primordial flower, mothers and infants, army doctors and inductees, inductees and mothers. In the Senat Hearing scene actors replace other actors within the framework of a single scene.’’

In Keep Tightly Closedin a Cool Dry Place, not only do the three inmates change into other characters as the play progresses, but the situation being dramatized changes as well. Schechner sees Terry’s techniques in Keep Tightly Closed as accomplishing three functions: ‘‘They explode a routine situation into a set of exciting theatrical images; they reinforce, expand, and explore the varieties of relationships among the three men; they make concrete the fantasies of the prisoners.’’ It is this play, mounted at the Open Theatre in 1965 in a double bill with Calm Down Mother, that I find most diverse, most fascinating, and most representative of the potential and the impact that Terry’s work with transformational drama has had on the American theatre. I would like to look at the transformations in that play more closely and then offer some comments on Terry’s contribution to off-Broadway’s redefinition of the definition of self. . . .

Source: June Schlueter, ‘‘Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place: Megan Terry’s Transformational Drama and the Possibilities of Self,’’ in Studies in American Drama, 1945– Present, Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 59–69.

The Impact of Feminist Theater

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Since the early sixties Megan Terry has been a sustaining force in feminist drama, nurturing other American women playwrights and continually extending the reaches of her own plays. Captivated by theatre from the age of fourteen, Terry, now in her early fifties, has written more than fifty dramas most of which have been both produced an published. Reviewers whose attention is fixed on New York commercial successes tend to ignore Terry’s work, but she has received public recognition and support over the last twenty years from numerous foundations and government offices. As playwright in residence of the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1970, she has, with the Magic Theatre’s artistic director and founder Jo Ann Schmidman, been able to sustain one of America’s most innovative theatres for more than fourteen years.

Terry’s own definitions of feminist drama are deliberately broad: ‘anything that gives women confidence, shows themselves to themselves, helps them to begin to analyze whether it’s a positive or negative image, it’s nourishing’. Her plays, however, consistently reveal a precise criticism of stereotyped gender roles, an affirmation of women’s strength, and a challenge to women to better use their own power. In Terry’s plays we witness a sustained yet never repetitive development of transformation as the central convention of feminist drama. ‘Transformation’, she asserts, ‘reveals to us an efficient universe. Nothing is lost—it’s just transformed.’

Born in Seattle, Washington, on 22 July 1932, Terry ‘hung around’ a community theatre until its director, Florence Bean James, took her in and she began to work on set construction and design. For Terry, the concept of transformation and its development as a key technique of her dramaturgy began with this early training in design and collage; she still thinks of what she does as a kind of architectural process in which she ‘builds’ plays.

Despite her father’s refusal to pay for her education because she would not join a sorority, she took a BA in education at the University of Washington. Her studies included creative dramatics, taught by her cousin Geraldine Siks. Growing up, she had loved cartoon characters and impersonators; working with young children who naturally used role transformation in their daily play led her to think that adult plays could be written that used the same process.

Terry left Seattle in 1956 when a double bill of one of her first plays and a play by Eugene O’Neill was lambasted by local critics. She promised her father on her departure that if she had not made it in the theatre by the time she was thirty-five, she would give up and become a teacher. For the next ten years, she endured the struggles of a young, unknown playwright in New York, a life enriched and complicated in the early sixties by her association with Joseph Chaikin, Peter Feldman, Maria Irene Fornes, Barbara Vann, and more than a dozen other young actors, writers and director who were rejecting the stylistically and commercially ‘closed’ theatre of Broadway to create what they soon called the Open Theatre. Many of the original Open Theatre company members had been trained by Nola Chilton, whose teaching emphasised the freeing of the individual actor’s body and voice through exercises that focused on imagined objects and sensations. Even more important to the development of Megan Terry’s work, however, was the structure given to daily workshops by transformation exercises originally created by a Chicago artist and teacher, Viola Spolin. Spolin’s theatre games meshed perfectly with Terry’s vision of a theatre in which actors create and altered the world in front of the audience, relying on their own resources of body, voice and imagination.

The first few years, from 1963 until 1966, the Open Theatre was a set of workshops, led by different members of the company, including Terry. By the spring of 1964, Terry had drafted a new oneact play, Calm Down Mother, inspired by her Open Theatre Workshops. That summer, on a month’s Rockefeller Foundation Grant at the Office for Advanced Drama Research in Minneapolis, she revised this as well as an earlier, full-length drama, Hothouse, and another one-act play, Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, written when she first arrived in New York. In that one moment of Minneapolis heat, she also wrote another one-act play, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. The three one-act plays became part of the Open Theatre’s repertory and were first performed by the company in 1965 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse which the company rented for public performances. . . .

Source: Helene Keyssar, ‘‘Megan Terry: Mother of American Feminist Drama,’’ in Feminist Theatre, Macmillan Press, 1984, pp. 53–76.


Critical Overview