Calm Down Mother is a one-act transformational play that dramatizes the limitations imposed on women both by society and by other women, as well as women’s dawning recognition of the root causes of those limitations. Organized loosely in scenes that transform—at times abruptly, sometimes with the help of bridging commentary or ritual chant—into other scenes in other locales, the play depicts vignettes of women’s daily lives and shows how interactions between women are structured by their familial or societal relationships, economic status, ages, professions or occupations, and above all, gender. Megan Terry has said that she wrote the play because at the time of its creation she could find no good roles for women in current stage offerings.
Structured into eight scenes, the play has only one set, described in the stage directions as “An open stage. Four chairs are in View.” This minimal staging, a characteristic of much of Terry’s work, allows the actors to create various social and cultural milieus through their use of movement, posture, and voice and through their ability to transform themselves from identity to identity. The nearly bare stage also forces the audience to participate actively in the creation of the illusion onstage.
The play opens as the lights come up slowly during the taped recitation of a brief speech about the prehistorical evolution of one-celled creatures into the first plant, and the further splitting of that plant into two parts, one of which “stretches toward the sun.” Three women, clustered together to resemble a plant, are revealed on stage. As the speech ends, Woman One comes forward to introduce herself as Margaret Fuller, a woman who knows that she is strong because “my father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a living mind.” She announces her acceptance of the universe as her home, and Woman Two and Woman Three chant their concurrence with her decision. The scenes that follow outline the boundaries—boundaries of age, class, race, mortality, sexuality, and gender stereotyping—that define a woman’s universe.
A scene in a delicatessen dramatizes a woman’s grief over her diminished attractiveness as a result of hair loss after surgery. The women’s loud lamentation at the end of the scene metamorphoses into rage that drives Woman One to scream “I want to hit!” as she drives her fist into the palm of her other hand. Woman Three’s brief monologue about the “pitiful few facts” of a woman’s life leads to a scene in a New York flat where two young women’s pleasure in the new apartment is destroyed when one of the women gives in to hysteria under the burden of having, yet again, to be the “old bulwark of the family” when trouble strikes. A brief interlude about girlhood as “a green time” introduces Woman One and Woman Two as two elderly women in a nursing home. As the women talk about how “the days go by and the days go by and the days go by,” they are rudely interrupted by a nurse who—treating them like children—insists that they eat their cereal. Abruptly, the old women become a subway door that opens and closes repeatedly as they chant, until finally Woman Three breaks through the “doors” to reveal a completely different world.
The new scene situates the three women, transformed now into call girls, in an apartment that they share uneasily. They are connected only by their profession and by their thrall to a pimp named Ricky, to whom they owe rent, the cost of police bribes, and a hefty proportion of their earnings. The women argue, taking turns siding with each other...
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against the third. A brief connecting chant changes the scene into a tenement kitchen in which a mother and her two daughters discuss menstruation, pregnancy, and contraception until the mother suddenly becomes aware that one daughter is sexually active although unmarried—at which point the mother orders her daughter out of the house. The play ends as the three actresses, now simply unnamed women, enact a ritual that questions whether a woman should be content with an identity solely as childbearer, proud of her unique and gender-specific reproductive capability.
Well received by critics when the Open Theatre premiered it in 1965 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse on a double bill with Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, Calm Down Mother has become one of Terry’s most popular and most frequently anthologized plays. Like her other transformational plays, including Comings and Goings (1966) and Viet Rock (1966), it constructs a constantly changing series of stage realities, challenging both performers and audience to rethink cultural assumptions about gendered behaviors.
Leading drama scholar Helene Keyssar has referred to Megan Terry as the mother of American feminist theater, an identification whose truth is demonstrably evident in the body of dramatic work that she produced from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. Repeatedly, she has dramatized women’s issues: gender stereotyping, reproduction, patriarchal language, woman as victim, woman as hero, competition and sisterhood, the bonds and separations between mothers and daughters, and the perils of male-female relationships. Her treatment of these themes is part of her continuing focus on the societal forces that define women, the cultural icons that provide women with negative self-images, and the political barriers that prevent someone from discovering who they are and what they can be.
More important to the development of feminist drama, however, is Terry’s considerable contribution (widely acknowledged by theater historians) to the creation of transformation drama. It is this genre—a product both of the theatrical ferment of the 1960’s and of Terry’s own creative experimentation—that has done the most toward breaking down the gender stereotyping so prevalent on the American stage until the middle of the twentieth century. Transformational drama frees performers from the baggage of acceptable images and cultural models, allowing them to explore different characters, different theatrical styles, and new forms of interaction—all within the same play. The implications of such freedom have proved significant for women writers who struggled for a time to create a form of theater that would lend itself to the portrayal of women whose very lives were a multiplicity of roles, a panoply of selves. With transformational drama, women playwrights can simultaneously dramatize women’s split identities and suggest new and integrated ways of living female.
Calm Down Mother displays many of the characteristics that would later become commonplace in feminist drama. The play explores and dramatizes women’s internal states of being, showing women to themselves by valuing women’s experience through its depiction of commonplace activities and images—furnishing an apartment, washing dishes, applying makeup. Terry uses negative images in positive ways, creating accurate characterizations to shatter female stereotypes and dismantle female myths. Seemingly meek elderly ladies harbor regret for the end of their fertility; one of the call girls defiantly conceals some of the tips from her pimp because she dares to dream about taking a vacation out of New Jersey. These personal rebellions are minor, but they signal the strength of inner identities all but obliterated by culturally constructed images. When feminist theaters flowered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many of the plays that they produced were (like Calm Down Mother and Terry’s other transformational dramas) collagelike, multilayered constructions that used poetry, ritual, and lyrical language to portray the reality of women’s lives.
Terry, meanwhile, although not abandoning the early forms of transformational drama, has forged ahead to create two other distinct bodies of work: role-model plays, which showcase admirable women such as Simone Weil and Mother Jones as appropriate strong female icons; and political and public service drama, focusing on such issues as teenage alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and domestic violence. These new issues can still be identified as women’s concerns, but where Terry’s earlier work focused on the personal, her later work addresses public and community affairs from the woman’s point of view.
1960s American Experimental Theater The cultural revolution of the 1960s influenced many aspects of American society, as well as the American theater. The revolution sparked a keen interest in innovative drama, and that innovation, in turn, had a strong and penetrating affect on American culture as a whole.
Although cultural revolutions were taking place all over the entire Western world, the changes in theater were mostly an American invention. Theatrical groups such as Living Theatre, Bread and Puppet, as well as the group that Megan Terry belonged to, Open Theatre, sprung up in the early 1960s. Most of these troupes included young people—actors, playwrights, directors, and set designers—who were interested in critiquing their society, whether the focus was a statement on the overall values of society, on civil rights, on sexual relationships, on the Vietnam War, or on the burgeoning struggle to create new definitions for women’s roles in society.
Among some of the more influential theater people during this time was Joseph Papp (1921–1991), who used commercially successful plays and musicals (one of his later and most famous ones was Chorus Line in 1974) to help support experimental off-Broadway productions. Other names included Tom O’Horgan (originally a producer with the experimental theater group La Mama), who went on to create the successful rock musical Hair (1968); and Amiri Baraka, also known as LeRoi Jones, who founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem and wrote the critically acclaimed play Dutchman (1964).
Experimental theater, however, was not limited to off-Broadway productions. Experimental plays were performed all over the country. A common thread that ran through most of the plays was that most were very revolutionary and therefore very shocking. Nudity and sexuality that had never been displayed on stage (such as homosexual acts), vilifi- cation of high-ranking officials and American foreign policies, and the denigration of established religions were some of the major themes. The most interesting factor, though, was not just that these plays were being written and performed but that the people who were buying the tickets and watching the performances came from the middle and upper classes of the population. It was the first time, during the birth and heyday of experimental theater, that the so-called counterculture, or alternative culture, had such a heavy influence on the general populace. Cutting-edge ideas became the topic of conversation out in the suburbs as well as in the heart of the city; revolutionary concepts were discussed at cocktail parties as well as after rock concerts because experimental theater was getting its message out and making people from all walks of life question the status quo of their society.
Experimental theater with a bent toward feminist theory was even more successful. Two major feminists groups, Women’s Experimental Theatre and the Wilma Theatre, were established, but works by feminists were not restricted to these venues. Not only were plays with feminist messages popular but women suddenly found that the roles of playwright and director were also open to them.
One of the more successful small theaters during this time was La Mama Experimental Theatre, which began as a small basement theater in 1961 under the direction of playwright Ellen Stewart. It was typical of like-minded theaters throughout the country with a mission to nurture and present new, original works by people from a wide range of backgrounds. The work presented by La Mama was experimental not only in the writing but also in the collaboration that they fostered by incorporating music into their dramas. Many of the best playwrights of the 1960s had one or more of their plays produced at La Mama, including Terry, who saw her Magic Realists, Three Clowns, and Viet Rock all staged there in 1966, and People v. Ranchman (1967), Changes and Keep Tightly Closedin a Cool, Dark Place both in 1968, as well as her most successful play Approaching Simone, which was presented at La Mama in 1970. Other well-known playwrights who had their early plays produced at La Mama include Sam Sheppard, Bruce Kessler, Tom Eyen, and Lanford Wilson.
There are only three characters on stage at all times during this play. Three women are first introduced only as Woman One, Woman Two, and Woman Three. However, throughout the play the women take on different roles and different names as they work through various mini-scenes. Sometimes the women are sisters; sometimes they are mother and child. At one point, one of the women spends the entire scene on the floor.
The actresses often change and move in and out ments when they say their lines to one another. There are also times when they speak directly to the audience. There are various monologues by an individual; and there are also group chants.
To help define the ambiguity that might surround the play because of the constant changing of roles, stage directions suggest that the actresses ‘‘freeze’’ in between the different sections of the play. This marker warns the audience that the actresses are stepping out of their previous characters and moving on to new ones.
With each new scenario, the women’s names change, not only on the program but also in the dialogue, providing yet another marker for the audience. ‘‘She wants ale, Sophie,’’ Esther announces, cueing the audience into the new identities.
Since there are few props provided, Terry has one of the women describe the scene in the bloc in which Nancy visits her sister Sally’s new apartment. ‘‘Why it’s very . . . it’s really very charming. It really is. Downright Greenwich Village, the clean West Side, that is.’’ In the scene with the prostitutes, Felicia states, ‘‘I can’t see in that mirror,’’ to explain that the women are dressing for a party, trying to apply their makeup.
1960s: Experimental theater is born in the United States, influencing the mass culture with its productions that shock middle-class Americans who are concerned about the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and the feminist movement.
Today: Experimental theater remains alive and thriving all over the United States and has broadened its scope to include international themes of multiculturalism and gay rights.
1960s: Large and loud demonstrations against the war in Vietnam gain the attention of the media and U.S. politicians as thousands of young men are drafted into the military services.
Today: Demonstrations and protests opposing the U.S. and British war in Iraq are held around the world.
1960s: A so-called second wave of feminism sweeps the country as women march in the streets. They have the right to vote, but now they are demanding the right to work outside the home and to choose whether or not they want to sustain pregnancies.
Today: The third wave of feminism is gaining momentum as young women grow dissatisfied with their role in society. They have gained access to education and jobs, but now they want equal pay and advancement in relation to their male counterparts.
1960s: Broadway entices people with a burst of successful musicals: Hello Dolly (1964), Funny Girl (1964), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Man of LaMancha (1965), Mame (1966), and Cabaret (1966). With the introduction of rock music, however, these types of musicals are quickly classified as old-fashioned and are replaced with rock and roll ventures such as Hair (1968) and Oh, Calcutta! (1969).
Today: At the turn of the century, Broadway is heavily influenced by what are referred to as corporate musicals, hugely profitable productions such as Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion King (1997), but the trend is changing as Broadway experiences a revival of the standard musical with the productions of Urinetown (2001) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002).
1960s: U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the sale of oral pills for contraception. By the late 1960s, it is estimated that 13 million women around the world use the pill. Pope Paul IV reissues a statement reinforcing the Catholic Church’s position against practicing birth control.
Today: U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the sale of a pill that causes an abortion. Planned Parenthood facilities are threatened with protests and bombings; and President George W. Bush reimposes a ‘‘global gag rule’’ which restricts funding of international family planning programs. It is estimated that 96 percent of Catholic women in the U.S. practice birth control.
SOURCES Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987. Keyssar, Helene, Feminist Theatre, Macmillan Publishers, 1984.
Londre, Felicia Hardison, ‘‘Megan Terry,’’ in Speaking on Stage, University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Schlueter, June, Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, Associated University Presses, 1990.
FURTHER READING Aronson, Arnold, American Avant-Garde Theatre, Routledge, 2000. Aronson, who teaches theater at Columbia University, explores some of the more popular and more successful avant-garde theaters (such as Living Theatre, The Wooster Group, and Open Theatre) in an attempt to discover why, at the turn of the century, these theaters have declined.
Heywood, Leslie, and Jennifer Drake, eds., Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Heywood and Drake have collected essays written by women born between 1964 and 1973 who discuss feminism and what it means to them.
Kershaw, Baz, The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, Routledge, 1992. Kershaw presents a detailed analysis of radical theater and its effect on political and cultural practices. Roose-Evans, James, Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook, Routledge, 1997.
Roose-Evans, one of Britain’s most innovative directors, explores the history of avant-garde theater in search of its influence on social and political history. Thompson, Denise, Radical Feminism Today, Sage, 2001. Thompson reexamines feminism by looking at the definitions that feminism has previously offered women and questioning the limitations that they have imposed.
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, eds. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. This valuable book includes an interview in which Megan Terry comments on the influences on her work, the sources of her themes and ideas, and her working habits. She also discusses her work in the context of the development of American theater since the 1960’s, focusing on her association with the Open Theatre and later the Omaha Magic Theatre.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre. New York: Crown, 1981. A collection of essays, interviews, reflections, and reminiscences about and by notable American dramatists, actresses, directors, and other theater professionals. Of special interest is Dinah Leavitt’s interview with Megan Terry—an interview in which Terry speaks of her desire to explore in her work what it means to be a woman in American society.
Hart, Lynda, ed. Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. Included in this collection of essays is Jan Breslauer and Helene Keyssar’s “Making Magic Public: Megan Terry’s Traveling Family Circus.” Although the essay does not focus specifically on Calm Down Mother, it is valuable reading for its discussion of Terry’s work as feminist drama. The rest of the collection is significant because it provides a theatrical context for Terry’s work and for her contribution to American drama.
Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre. New York: Grove Press, 1985. An extremely important study of the beginnings and development of feminist theater. Especially significant to the student of Megan Terry’s plays is Keyssar’s description of Terry as the mother of American feminist theater, and the subsequent discussion of Terry’s contributions to the dramatization of women’s issues and concerns on the American stage.
Savran, David, ed. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. Savran’s collection of interviews includes a conversation with Megan Terry in which the playwright names the plays and playwrights that have influenced her style and describes the emotions in which she finds ideas for her work. She discusses her own plays and her work with the Omaha Magic Theatre, and she speculates about the future of American drama.
Schlueter, June. “Megan Terry’s Transformational Drama: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place and the Possibilities of Self.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Although this essay focuses on a play other than Calm Down Mother, Schlueter’s discussion of transformational drama as a genre is important for its illumination of Terry’s technique in Calm Down Mother.