Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 704 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

1960s American Experimental Theater The cultural revolution of the 1960s influenced many aspects of American society, as well as the American...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1960s: Experimental theater is born in the United States, influencing the mass culture with its productions that shock middle-class...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Contraception is a topic that is discussed in the last section of Terry’s play Calm Down Mother. Research the history of...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Megan Terry’s hit play Viet Rock (1966) came about after an exploration of emotions about the Vietnam War that Terry conducted with...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

SOURCES Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987. Keyssar, Helene,...

(The entire section is 224 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 440 words.)