The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

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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 out and asks Gregory how he murdered his wife—a question that slowly acquires the tone of a court inquiry: Gregory, the accused, is being interrogated about the murder by Jaspers, the judge. Gregory says that he was paid by Michaels to commit the crime. The inquiry then becomes an attempt by Jaspers to force Gregory to sign a confession addressed to the governor; Gregory adamantly refuses. Several scene changes follow, showing Jaspers as a fifteen-year-old boy dying in the swamps of Jamestown, then Gregory as Captain John Smith, then all three locking arms, singing, and moving in a simple dance step, finally becoming drag queens and film gangsters.

As a gangster, Gregory describes in gory detail the murder of Jaspers’s wife. This scene is followed by a reenactment of the murder. The scene takes place in the kitchen of Jaspers’s house. Jaspers, who is acting as his wife, is baking a pie. Michaels takes the part of Richard, Jaspers’s young son, who tells his mother that there is someone at the door. The mother tells the boy not to open the door to strangers, but the boy says that he has already opened it. Gregory has now entered the kitchen, and the murder is reenacted as he stalks Jaspers with a cord. The two move around in a circle, in a “slow tense dance.”

Once again the scene changes, as the characters return to their beds and Jaspers explains why he wanted his wife murdered. By killing her, he claims, he succeeded in killing his “female self,” which was stifling his “living space.” Jaspers now asks Gregory to cooperate with him against Michaels. He tells Gregory that together they will make Michaels sign a paper stating that he committed the murder, then implicated the other two in order to avoid the electric chair. Gregory asks how Michaels might be persuaded to do that, and Jaspers proceeds to demonstrate.

Jaspers is now a preacher, speaking from a pulpit; Gregory and Michaels are altar boys. Jaspers delivers a sermon directed to both himself and his congregation. He mentions the murder of a woman and claims that the man guilty of that murder is in their midst. The keyword of the sermon is “embrace.” It is the ecstasy of embrace, he says, that gives one the strength to overcome loss. Sounding increasingly like a prophet, Jaspers cries, “You will lose your life. You will lose.” Exhausted, he collapses into the arms of Gregory and Michaels, who are now Jaspers’s sons Richard and Mark—eight and ten years old, respectively. The two children console Jaspers by saying, “Mommie is in heaven, ”and reminding him that he has them for his sons. They start chanting the Our Father. Jaspers joins in subsequently with “Father, widower, murderer, my sons.” Once again, the three men join hands in a circle and move like a machine wheel. The play ends with them saying, “And Roller and Rocker.” The wheel suddenly stops and Jaspers faces the audience, saying, “This side should face you.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

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.


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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.


Critical Essays