Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2154
Megan Terry’s works, although varied in structure, length, technique, and subject matter, are linked by a dynamic emphasis on emotion over reason; a lively use of earthy language, humor, music, metaphors, and symbols; a fearless treatment of timely controversial subjects; and a dedication to collaboration and spontaneity in acting and...
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- Critical Essays
Megan Terry’s works, although varied in structure, length, technique, and subject matter, are linked by a dynamic emphasis on emotion over reason; a lively use of earthy language, humor, music, metaphors, and symbols; a fearless treatment of timely controversial subjects; and a dedication to collaboration and spontaneity in acting and production. Because of her quickness to address controversial issues, some of her most noted works may not be her best plays, but rather those works that elicited the strongest public reaction at the time of first production.
The Magic Realists drew sharp criticism and publicity for its failure to touch ground with some realistic setting or situation, but it merits analysis in that it marks the beginning of Terry’s shift to her own distinctive theatrical style, rooted in the traditions of vaudeville and early film comedy. Viet Rock, while characterized by some critics as naïve and simplistic, clearly captures the spirit of early protest reactions to the war in Vietnam, and as such it is Terry’s best-known play. Two of her most representative works, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place and Megan Terry’s Home, explore the theme of enclosure and entrapment, at both personal and cultural levels. Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus represents yet another phase in the development of Terry’s playwriting, combining her love of music and strong female characters with a deep commitment to exploring ethical and political issues.
Terry’s work demonstrates adaptability, variety, and a consistent dedication to political and ethical ideals, qualities that provoke criticism as well as praise. Analysis of the body of her work reveals a prolific and imaginative mind at work, constantly striving and reworking themes as old as drama: family and gender roles, violence and pacifism, individual and social welfare, subordination and freedom. Her plays represent a substantial contribution to American drama, both in their innovative forms and in their political and philosophical substance.
The Magic Realists
The Magic Realists premiered in 1966 at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York and drew sharp criticism from Village Voice reviewer Michael Smith for its lack of connection to any outside reality. Terry’s first break from realistic theater styles, The Magic Realists presents a combination of obscure dialogue and stereotyped characterizations. The action of the play centers on T. P. Chester’s attempts to find a clone of himself who can carry on his nonstop wheelings and dealings. He chooses Don, a teenage escaped convict, in whom he recognizes the same total lack of scruples and the same “hunger” that have brought him to his esteemed position in the world of high finance. Occasionally, a “person” enters the stage, representing one of his numerous children, whom Chester views solely as tax exemptions. When a beautiful black woman named Dana arrives on the scene, she manages to seduce Don from Chester’s influence. Dana, a Japanese American, and an American Indian, who all turn out to be secret agents, attempt to arrest Chester, but one of Chester’s offspring persons appears to rescue him with a submachine gun. At last united, the father and child inadvertently gun down the secret agents as the weapon is held between them in a wild, whirling embrace.
The action demonstrates in vaudeville style how the capitalist economic power structure creates machinelike human beings whose sense of family, justice, and human emotion are entirely subordinated to the drive for money. Although the plot and characterizations are admittedly thin, this early work reveals several of Terry’s strong points. She captures natural speech rhythms and the comedy inherent in juxtaposition of radically differing character types. The combined elements of violence and sexuality create lively slapstick comedy and a few thought-provoking insults to the status quo.
In a similar vein, Viet Rock garnered much attention but little praise for its earnest, naïve attack on the brutality and absurdity of the Vietnam War. The play uses all the familiar clichés about honor, duty, and love of country to demonstrate that the soldiers who deliver these lines are basically automatons. Women in the play share responsibility for creating males who are infantile, obedient, and easily manipulated by brainless sentimentality. Viet Rock depicts events as varied as senate hearings and soldiers writing home to mothers and sweethearts in a collection of vignettes linked by few or no transitions. Although the music and satire received negative reviews for failure to achieve depth or complexity, Terry also drew admiration for her canny sense of theater and her ability to create a “happening” that captured the current mood of public outrage. Critics argued, however, that the play did very little to deepen anyone’s understanding of issues or to undermine self-satisfaction, two principal aims of satire. The play may not be notable for its depth, but its innovative use of rock lyrics and interaction between actors and audience broke ground for the creation of Hair, one of the best-known rock musicals to come out of the Vietnam War era.
Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place
Receiving much more critical acclaim but less publicity, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place premiered at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1965 under the aegis of the Open Theatre. Dedicated to Joseph Chaikin, one of the founders of the group, the play typifies the concept of “transformation,” a theater style in which actors, setting, and mood metamorphose, often without transition. The play has only three characters: Jaspers, an intellectual lawyer; Michaels, a burly type; and Gregory, a bewildered, handsome young man destined to become victim of the other two characters. In jail, Jaspers and Michaels consider how to undermine Gregory’s confession, which has revealed that Jaspers hired Michaels to get Gregory to kill Jaspers’s wife. The first transformation turns Jaspers into General George Armstrong Custer, with Michaels as one of his soldiers, whom he instructs to kill Gregory, now a “redskin.” Just as abruptly, the characters become themselves again, and Gregory dreams of rape, achieving orgasm as Jaspers and Michaels berate him for his lack of control, his ineptitude, and his unprofessionalism.
If the audience members believe that they understand the character types established in the opening, the remainder of the play shatters these assumptions. The three men join to become a machine, apparently a gun, and each actor describes a part of the machine’s features. In the next transformation, Jaspers becomes a dying English soldier under Captain John Smith, alias Gregory. Later, Jaspers becomes mother to Michaels, then victim of a murderer, then an evangelist, and finally father to Michaels and Gregory. The play closes with a dancing chant in which the three form a human wheel, with Jaspers offering the closing line, “This side should face you!” Although the unexpected transformations are jarring and disorienting, the play offers the unifying notion that all human beings go through a series of roles, presenting different facets of human behavior, as dictated by society and circumstance. The prison setting suggests that people are locked into these roles, just as unwillingly and randomly as prisoners are incarcerated.
Megan Terry’s Home
Another play examining confinement, this time in a futuristic setting, is Megan Terry’s Home, originally created for Channel Thirteen in New York and later commissioned for NET and nationally broadcast in January of 1968. The principal characters, Mother Ruth, Cynthia, and Roy, constitute part of a unit of nine people, forced by overpopulation to live and die together in a room smaller than a jail cell. Central Control, the governing body, ministers to their physical, spiritual, and psychological needs, through the total organization of their sleeping and waking time. They pop pills for nourishment and psychological well-being, watch multiple television screens for news of past and present, and dream, chant, and perform isometrics for social and physical interaction.
The central conflict of the play rests in Cynthia and Roy’s desire to marry and have their own real baby for the group, a privilege rarely granted to units, regardless of how obedient, efficient, or patient they are. When the air-venting system temporarily breaks down, allowing another human to enter their cell, Ruth panics, overrides her socialization, and kills the intruder. The group of nine quickly disposes of the body and the marriage ceremony of Roy and Cynthia continues, with all nine hoping that they may one day be allowed by the state to have a baby of their own.
Terry’s play cleverly creates an alternative world, complete with values, customs, and mannerisms convincingly appropriate to a highly technological civilization coping with overpopulation and limited resources. It confronts the idea that human instincts for survival may be exactly the impulses that will lead to self-destruction. The overcrowded society places a premium on cooperation, self-sacrifice, obedience, and nonviolence, but it is unable to overcome the women’s urges to become mothers to their own children. One of her most sophisticated and intellectually complex works, Megan Terry’s Home calls on audiences to question human nature, media culture, religious values, and Western notions of progress. The action of the play suggests the possibility that brutality in the name of survival may be unavoidable, and it does so in a way that creates dramatic suspense and empathy for believable characters. Terry effectively exploits the medium of television, but stage directions make the work easily adaptable for live presentation as well.
Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus
Terry’s dedication to feminism appears in numerous plays, nowhere more openly than in Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus. This piece, dedicated to Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, alternates between scenes of Mollie and Gus Bailey and children and the life of Mother Jones. As with some of her earlier work, this play is at times heavy-handed in its delineation of good and evil, with heartless capitalists and their flunkies as adversaries to Mother Jones, who bravely seeks justice and protection for victimized children. Women are portrayed as the preservers of civilization, of all that is good and brave and true, and males appear in the play as little more than sperm banks. Music and humor carry the play, however, creating an entertaining spectacle with the timely obsessions of contemporaneous culture at its heart.
Terry continued with her interest in music, humor, and family issues in such works as Family Talk, a play that dramatizes the breakdown in communication within the family. Showing how television acts as a substitute for real communication, this play demonstrates what happens when Mother Kraaz unplugs the television. The seven family members literally and figuratively stumble and grope as they attempt to communicate with one another without the escape hatch of the huge, centrally located television set. Dian Ostdiek’s stage design includes a monopoly board setup with such location markings as “Danger—Mom at Work” or “Stargazing Strip,” where family members retreat when the stress of communication becomes too great. The music and lyrics, by Joe Budenholzer and John J. Sheehan, range from Andrews Sisters style, to country western or folk rock, to sound effects in the tradition of John Cage. While the vision is at times grim, the humor and musical play of Family Talk suggest healing and reconciliation.
In a similar vein, Headlights presents an alarming portrait of American society, pointing out that one of every eight Americans cannot read and then focusing on solutions to illiteracy. The play uses music, choral speech, multiple actors for single characters, and standard dialogue to relay the devastating effects of illiteracy. Multimedia presentations of slides and collages combine with props—fluorescent tubes, rings, rubber balls, and lampshade hats that illuminate when a character is “enlightened”—to illustrate how the system fails to educate. At the same time, the play’s portrayal of individual characters learning to read serves as an inspiration to nonreaders and teaching volunteers alike. As with Family Talk, the subject matter for Headlights came from interaction with audiences encountered by the Omaha Magic Theater’s touring group.
Star Path Moon Stop
Star Path Moon Stop, the Omaha Magic Theater’s last piece, is the outgrowth of collaboration with the Dallas Children’s Theatre. It was inspired by Terry’s realization that the audience and the world in which they live are changing—that even after living for almost thirty years in Omaha, she was no longer assured to be served by the same printer or other merchant from one month to the next. Through hundreds of interviews, she explored the concept of this ever-changing, even nomadic world. Star Path Moon Stop utilizes a modular text and includes structural actions, “stops” or “reality frames” that serve as distancing for the audience. The performance text can be constructed to create recurring patterns and to emphasize themes. The play’s dramatic form and subject matter confirm Terry as a playwright who is consistently attuned to contemporary issues and unafraid to explore them in her works.