Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place Analysis

Megan Terry

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place begins in a jail cell that contains two bunks and a single bed. At the start of the play, Jaspers, Michaels, and Gregory face the audience, then combine to become a human machine. Soon they change from parts of the machine to prisoners in a cell by moving in a “military manner” to their bunks. It soon becomes clear that all three have been accused of the murder of Jaspers’s wife. The audience does not know which one has committed the murder, nor is it clear whether a murder has actually taken place at all.

Jaspers’s energies in the jail are focused on finding a way out; he is a planner. He tells Michaels (who is in low spirits) that they must not give up the struggle to escape and that they will make Gregory confess that he had lied earlier by implicating them in the crime. Gregory, who has been sleeping, is now awakened by Michaels to make the confession. The scene abruptly changes. Michaels is now a bluecoat, Jaspers General Custer, and Gregory an Indian chief who refuses to sign a treaty surrendering his lands.

Just as suddenly, the three men become themselves again. Jaspers is annoyed with Michaels for having hired an amateur such as Gregory to kill his wife. He is still keen, however, to execute his plan of making Gregory sign a confession pleading his sole involvement in the crime. Gregory, who is asleep and evidently in the middle of a sex dream, is again awakened by Michaels. In an attempt to humiliate him, both Jaspers and Michaels ask Gregory to share his dream with them. At first Gregory hesitates, but he soon proceeds to narrate it. The dream centers on his brutal rape of a girl in a telephone booth soon after she gets off a subway. As he narrates the dream, Gregory becomes sexually excited and is unable to complete his story. Annoyed, Jaspers and Michaels climb back into their bunks. The dream makes Gregory recall a childhood incident, which he narrates to the audience. The hissing of a snake in Gregory’s story slowly merges with the noise of a machine, as Jaspers and Michaels join him to act again as a human machine.

With the three characters springing back to their beds, the scene changes. Jaspers soon leaps...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place is not a conventional play. Influenced by absurdist drama, it defies traditional notions of plot, characterization, and dramatic presentation. The central technique used by the author is “transformations,” a technique that throws into question established realities by constantly changing identities and circumstances. In a sense, the entire play is a game played between the actors and the audience. Each time the audience becomes comfortable with a given reality or character, a change occurs, making audience members reassess their conceptions of reality.

Through the technique of transformations, Megan Terry suggests that it is illusory to assume that there is a completed, unified self. Each person encompasses several identities. This is reflected in the play’s episodic structure. The actors jump in and out of roles—General Custer, drag queens, film gangsters, and the like. Character description is kept to a minimum in the play; it is left to the actor to interpret the character he is acting. Such an approach clearly places a greater emphasis on the performance text than on the written text. This emphasis on the performance text is in keeping with the basic tenets of the Open Theatre (where the play was first produced), which advocates a collaboration between playwright and actors in the staging of plays.

Unlike traditional plays, this play has no plot but instead a series of episodes. The scenes in which the three characters act as a machine are deliberately placed at strategic points. These scenes, besides giving the episodic structure of the play some unity, effectively communicate the mechanized aspects of the lives of the characters.

The play has no fixed style. Using camp, kitsch, vaudeville, and the grotesque, Terry juxtaposes naturalistic and nonnaturalistic scenes.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Keyssar, Helene. “Megan Terry: Mother of American Feminist Drama.” In Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Kolin, P. C., ed. “Megan Terry.” In American Playwrights Since 1945. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. “Megan Terry.” In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Olauson, Judith. “1960-1970: Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Rosalyn Drexler, Megan Terry, Rochelle Owens, Myrna Lamb.” In The American Woman Playwright: A View of Criticism and Characterization. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981.

Savran, David. “Megan Terry.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Terry, Megan. Interview by Dinah L. Leavitt. In Women in American Theater: Careers, Images, Movements. An Illustrated Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Helen Chinoy and Linda Jenkins. New York: Crown, 1981.

Wilmeth, Don, ed. “Megan Terry.” In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.