Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
When Calm Down Mother was written and first produced in the 1960s, birth control devices, other than prophylactics, were just beginning to be massproduced. A hormonal birth control pill had been introduced in the 1950s, but it was used as a regulator of the menstrual cycle, not as a way of preventing birth. Such was the social, political, and religious environment at the time of the original staging of the play. Thus, in choosing to develop a theme of birth control in her play, Terry was stepping on very controversial territory.
Although there is a reference in the scene between the three prostitutes when Felicia tells Momo that she will ‘‘stick holes in your diaphragm,’’ Terry elaborates on birth control fully only at the end of her play and brings it up mainly in relationship to the opposition of the religious beliefs of her family. In the 1960s, many of the Christian churches preached that if a woman did not want to conceive, she should practice abstinence from sex. In the Catholic Church, women were told to monitor their menstrual cycles so they would know when they were ovulating. This practice was referred to as the rhythm method. Sue, in the final scene of the play, points out that rhythm was just as much a form of birth control as taking a pill. According to Sue, unless every woman brought to fruition every egg in her ovaries, she was practicing birth control.
Women’s Relationship with Men
Terry brings out the topic of men only obliquely in her play. When she does mention them, they often are referred to in a not-so-positive light. First, she mentions Carlyle, which one can assume is Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher who believed in strict patriarchal control of society. Then, she refers to the abusive husband of Sally, a naive woman who was too soft with men. She let them take advantage of her. Terry also brings up the fact that Sally’s father, an alcoholic, has faked a heart attack in order to compete with the attention that Sally’s mother is receiving because she has cancer. She relegates men to customers in the scene with the prostitutes; and, in the final scene, she condemns male authors of magazine articles and male priests for preaching against birth control, a serious matter that does not concern men because they do not know what they are talking about. ‘‘Who the hell are all these guys on platforms to say you can’t take pills, you can’t use rubbers, down with vaseline, out with diaphragms, who the hell then are they?’’ In other words, men are one of women’s biggest hindrances in their struggle to liberate themselves.
The topic of aging first appears in the scene in the grocery store when Sophie becomes enthralled with the young female customer’s hair. Sophie reminisces about her mother’s hair and how Sophie used to comb it. Then, she slips into memories of her youth and laments the fact that her hair no longer contains the luster and health that it did in her youth, a part of her appearance that used to make her proud. She also regrets that her skin no longer is soft and smooth and white. High blood pressure and several surgeries brought on by old age have robbed her of her youth, Sophie states.
Age is also an apparent topic in the scene in the nursing home, where Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon have been left to the care of a coldhearted nurse. Mrs. Watermellon points out to Mrs. Tweed that they have been committed to the place as one might be committed to an asylum for misfits.
Since the word mother is included in the title of Terry’s play, one must suspect that motherhood plays a dominant role. However, this role weaves its way through Terry’s work rather subtly. The figures that represent motherhood are varied, and the message delivered is a bit confusing.
Motherhood figures prominently in Terry’s discussion of birth control, in that with its use, a woman can more fully choose when and if she wants to become a mother. There is also the oblique reference to motherhood albeit mockingly, in the scene of the prostitutes in which Inez, an older, more experienced call girl is referred to as mother because she is responsible for the other two younger women. It is actually from a line of dialogue in this scene that gives the play its title.
Motherhood is also discussed in the beginning of the play when Sophie recalls having brushed her mother’s hair and helped her with her bath. In the next scene with Nancy and Sally, Nancy refers to her mother as the ‘‘fighter,’’ the strength of the family. Nancy’s mother is also her role model. In the scene in the nursing home, it is implied that Mrs. Watermellon is a mother when Mrs. Tweed tells her that she is going to call her son and have her committed. A mother figure is also included in the final scene with Sue and Sak.
The definition of motherhood, however, varies quite widely throughout the play. Sophie remembers her mother with love and longs to touch the young girl’s hair in order to stir her memories of having cared for her mother. In the following scene, Nancy also speaks about her mother with love as she mourns her mother’s imminent death to cancer. The image changes, though, in the nursing home scene, during which motherhood is depicted in a quite different attitude. The fact that Mrs. Watermellon refers to herself as having been committed, as well as the non-nurturing service of the nurse who is responsible for her care, suggests that the mother (Mrs. Watermellon) has been abandoned. The prostitute scene mocks motherhood as well. The three women (including the mother figure) are, after all, preparing themselves for an orgy. Finally, in the last scene, the mother is pictured as having few thoughts of her own, and her daughter tells her that she is three-hundred years behind the times.