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Terry, Megan 1932–

Terry, an American experimental dramatist, is associated with the Open Theatre of Joseph Chaikin. Her bold experiments in improvisation, transformation of role, and disunity of time and space are attempts to exploit theater as a medium for social change. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

(The entire section contains 3260 words.)

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Terry, Megan 1932–

Terry, an American experimental dramatist, is associated with the Open Theatre of Joseph Chaikin. Her bold experiments in improvisation, transformation of role, and disunity of time and space are attempts to exploit theater as a medium for social change. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Harold Clurman

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Viet Rock is an irregular chain of improvisations, in feeble rock 'n' roll style, intended to protest and mock the indignity and stupidity of our action in Vietnam.

One would suppose that such an enterprise, however crude, would arouse our social conscience, stir us to applause and shouts of approbation. Viet Rock does not propose "art" but propaganda. But we who are not averse to propaganda—particularly in a theatre that offers so little art—are sorely disappointed to find ourselves not only untouched but embarrassed by it. The reaction comes not simply from the ineptitude, the lack of originality in the various parodies …, or a straining after strong effects of satire and caricature. We squirm because of something peculiarly pretentious behind it all. What disturbs is a tone not of youthful bravado or raw radicalism but of a certain artiness and a by now no longer new conformism.

It sometimes goes by the name of "total theatre," an item in "the theatre of cruelty." It aspires to be free and gay, raucous, graphic, topical, improvisational, saltatory, shocking and politically explosive. What is aimed at is not a show but an event…. [In] Viet Rock we are given the gesture without wit, invention, thought or real point. There is little to indicate that this farrago is propelled by the force of genuine social indignation or understanding. There is hardly any true spontaneity; only untempered ambition and unripe mind. Such exhibits are swipes of avant-garde-ism. (pp. 586-87)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Viet Rock'," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 203, No. 18, November 28, 1966, pp. 586-87.

Jack Richardson

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Actually, there is very little to say about [Viet Rock, a satire with some dance and music, on the war in Vietnam]. Once the author's position is known, and from the play's title that position should be self-evident, everything that happens in the play can be quite readily imagined by the conjuring up of those television chronicles of death and debate we see every day. If anything, instead of accentuation, which is generally the means of satire, Miss Megan Terry has managed in her way to shrink martial reality so that it seems not nearly so vicious nor so grimly amusing as a Times dispatch, say, or a CBS Special Report.

For instance, in Viet Rock's main narrative …, we are treated to a group of not unsympathetic louts very similar to the funloving gangs that John Wayne has led ashore so many times. Of course, now we are supposed to see them as men unable to shed infantilism and who, after the manner of their sergeant/mother, burp forth the standard extenuations of their circumstance—defense of freedom, the stand against aggression, not-wanting-to-be-there-but-if-we-must-then-by-God, etc. Now Miss Terry is entitled to her opinion that our military is made up of infants in arms, and, in a simple way, she may be right. But there is so much more. (pp. 86-7)

Like Brecht in Mann ist Mann, Viet Rock's author is flaying the simpleton for allowing himself to be remodeled by the state into a slogan-spouting machine …, and to depict this is a much more difficult challenge than Miss Terry can meet by scattering patriotic songs at ironic moments or by trotting forth government figures to speak a gibberish a good deal less amusing again than the best official gabble the public must decipher after each high-level speech and interview. Now I am not plumping for the model rather than the work it inspired, dragging out the old canard about how contemporary reality is too absurd to be improved upon by art…. What concerns me is the premise in Viet Rock, and in the attitudes that hailed it, that the categories of this cut of history are so clearly defined and morally ranked that art, like the comedians at their convention, need only call out numbers to get the proper response. If this succeeds, you have an audience as self-satisfied when it leaves the theater as it was when it entered, an effect antithetical to the ends of satire. It is hard to think of Swift writing so that those who read him could feel self-congratulatory….

[Viet Rock] earned its right to no conclusions and certainly to no indictments. Even the best of its humor did not come from the substance of the play. It was the old, tired foxhole banter about sex and country that made the best comic points, and this brings us back once more into the John Wayne tradition, where I'm certain the author of Viet Rock does not wish to be. (p. 87)

Jack Richardson, "Satires" (reprinted by permission of Candida Donadio & Associates, Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Jack Richardson), in Commentary, Vol. 43, No. 3, March, 1967, pp. 86-7.∗

Catharine Hughes

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[Viet Rock] had numerous faults. The most damaging of them was the sheer amateurishness of its writing and production and the sophomoric quality of its message. That it attracted the attention it did—indeed, that it was professionally produced at all—is more a tribute to our national anguish over Vietnam than to the play's success in dealing with it. At least, we could claim indulgently, the theatre was coming to grips with the question, exposing it for debate, shaking our complacency. In reality, it was doing none of these things.

Coming to grips with the question? Well, hardly. It did not even concede there was a question. War was evil …; love was preferable …; and the United States contained a blind, ill-led, if not diabolically led, collection of automatons. A case can be made for any of the three points. The question is how to do it in the theatre. (p. 759)

If satire consists principally in heightened reality and a pricking of our latent awareness—in a recognition of the potentially absurd in what is around us—it can have nothing to do with the lecture hall. Miss Terry's play had to do with little else: it wore its cause on its sleeve, admitted no possible doubt…. It was, in short, a prisoner of its own clichés, drowning in its own emotionalism, and devoid of wit—surely the one element it most needed to lift it above tedium. It was, in other words, yet another indication of the New Left's nonexistent sense of humor. It is hard to imagine Miss Terry laughing at herself. (p. 760)

Catharine Hughes, "The Theatre Goes to War," in America (© America Press, 1967; all rights reserved), Vol. 116, No. 20, May 20, 1967, pp. 759-61.∗

The New York Times Book Review

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Megan Terry's plays are not plays in the usual sense, nor are they literature…. The texts are raw materials for theatrical occasions in which the actors' talents for improvisation and the director's inspirations of the moment are of at least equal importance…. In "Comings and Goings," for instance, which the author describes as "a trampoline for actors and director," seven pages are devoted to five textual repeats of a passage in which someone orders breakfast in a diner. The purpose of this—and of the volume [of her collected plays] …—is presumably to provide starting points for actors to think up improvisational themes for themselves. "Viet Rock," the raison d'être of the book, comes closest to offering a definitive text. It is concerned with the horrors of war and the licentiousness of soldiery. Miss Terry treats her subject in a modish sub-Brechtian manner, and few will quarrel with her sentiments….

"In Brief: 'Viet Rock'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 23, 1967, p. 10.

Albert Bermel

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The most exhilarating American play staged recently, Megan Terry's Viet Rock, was dismissed by TV commentators and other specialists as unpatriotic, one-sided….

The play now appears in a collection with Miss Terry's Comings and Goings, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place and The Gloaming, Oh My Darling…. Miss Terry's lapses [including sentimentality] amount to only a tiny portion of the book. Her feeling for theater rarely ebbs.

As a writer she has prodigious gifts. She threads together many varieties of language, from poetry and lyrical vernacular to senseless, palpitating vocal noises; she sets each one of her multiple scenes economically, without holding up the drama; her lines are rich with buoying rhythms and unforced song; she knows how to make a harsh satirical comment obliquely. These verbal qualities will in due course come in for plenty of attention.

What I find most interesting about her plays is their exploitation of the theater as a medium, in particular their accommodation to those unreal and neglected dimensions: stage time and space….

In Keep Tightly Closed the three actors begin as prisoners, abruptly become General Custer, a Bluecoat and an Indian Chief, switch to Captain John Smith and two followers, to parts of a mechanism, to drag queens, to a clergyman and congregation; without warning and at any time they return to their original roles. The transformations are not flashbacks, exact transpositions in time, not merely multiple views of given personalities; they are infinitely open possibilities, discovered by the actors and accepted or rejected at the playwright's discretion. They involve, with each new scene, changing power relationships and transformations of the playing area, as well as of the characters. In Comings and Goings different pairs of actors speak the same bursts of dialogue, or the same actors speak the dialogue as different characters, as master and slave, say, who swap identities. The result is a fluid, diverse, uncertain performance adorned by none of the old conventionally dignified poses. (p. 23)

[Miss Terry] takes advantage of the theater's ability to move instantly through time: backward to what Eliot called "before the beginning," forward to "after the end," even sideways to a concurrent scene….

She also values the space at her disposal, the cubic capacity of the playing area, by profiting from its height as well as its depth and breadth. The celebrated parachute jump in Viet Rock, for example, uses the air above the actors to simulate a descent. In The People Vs. Ranchman, an unpublished work of hers …, a man accused of sexual crimes is suspended in a net. His separation from the other players becomes an element in the performance and diffracts the stage space. Only Ionesco and Beckett among the better postwar dramatists have employed stage space more conscientiously than Miss Terry does, Ionesco by filling it, Beckett by emptying it. Possibly they made her discoveries feasible….

Most plays are not composed so that actors can create each setting for themselves and inhabit it. Megan Terry's are. They may, with any luck, show up the old "realism" for what it is—a poor imitation of imitations. They may also lead to a new stage realism, in which the theater makes the most of its intrinsic means.

In production Miss Terry's plays have suffered from the actors' inadequacies. Her art has drawn its energy from young, hardly trained people, some of whom improvise well, some not so well. The matching gestures that have become a mannerism of the Open Theater can get tedious after the second or third exposure. The casts break up into pairs of actors, and the weaker of each couple, taking his gestures from the stronger, debilitates the effects of both. Drama thrives on opposition, on the collision of opposites….

What matters is that the Open Theater has helped Miss Terry to find a style. How well the style survives will depend on whether she is widely imitated, as I believe she will be, and whether the imitators will meet the standards she has set, which I doubt. (p. 24)

Albert Bermel, "Cutting Up in Time and Space," in The New Leader (© 1967 by The American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. 50, No. 18, September 11, 1967, pp. 23-4.∗

Edith Oliver

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If I got the message correctly through the general din, Megan Terry's "The People vs. Ranchman" … is meant to be an exposé of the total corruption of America…. The script is occasionally clever, though not particularly intelligent or, for that matter, intelligible. What it all adds up to is beyond me. The mood of the [play] is that spleenful jubilation which I can never quite define and which is common to activist ventures of this sort, and two hours after the show is over it has vanished from the memory. (pp. 116, 118)

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'The People vs. Ranchman'," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 44, No. 38, November 9, 1968, pp. 116, 118.

Catharine R. Hughes

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[As] a form, biographical drama is distinctly quiescent. After seeing Megan Terry's Approaching Simone, … it seemed almost possible the avant-garde might reclaim it from oblivion….

How turn [the life of Simone Weil] into arresting, workable theatre? The collage framework of Approaching Simone is simple enough—a series of vignettes highlighting various important or pivotal events in Simone's life. Miss Terry's achievement … lies in the surprising theatricality with which she invests that seemingly untheatrical life. More particularly impressive in this regard is her successful employment of any number of experimental theatre approaches that, in other hands, have too often seemed mere gimmicks….

The only setting for the play is a series of platforms and ramps, and it is a tribute to both Miss Terry and her director that anything more elaborate would very likely have seemed intrusive. For here is a presentation of Simone's passionate awareness of oppression, her conviction that "the chain of evil can be broken only by one who is willing to sacrifice himself in Christ-like fashion, to absorb the evil and suffering into himself without yielding to the temptation of causing others to suffer."…

Miss Terry has perhaps performed something of a premature canonization, and it is as much a weakness in theatrical terms as it perhaps may be in historical ones. It is, however, a distinctly minor flaw. For Approaching Simone transforms material that at first glance might seem untheatrical—the play, after all, records the journey of a soul—into one of the most powerful and engrossing pieces of theatre to be seen….

Catharine R. Hughes, "An Avant-Garde Simone Weil," in America (© America Press, 1970; all rights reserved), Vol. 122, No. 22, June 6, 1970, p. 612.

Walter Kerr

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Now that I have my lower lip, my two legs, and my right arm back in working order, I may be able to set down a few reflections on the most ambitious and amply endowed product of the Megan Terry—Tom O'Horgan—Cafe La Mama combine to date. The project was called Massachusetts Trust; it was improvisationally arrived at during six weeks of experiment at Brandeis University (with the staging done first and the text thereafter)…. (p. 45)

You must understand that there had been no violence involved. All of the evening's violence … took place on the stage. There, actors were seized, turned upside down, and had their heads inserted into other actors' crotches while loyally continuing their unavoidably garbled speeches, actors who may have been representing men of the Mafia were shot down in cold ketchup, and what seemed thousands of supernumeraries raced hotly up the aisles to assault a possible political candidate in a free-for-all that was really quite convincing. (pp. 45-6)

The evening was roughly political, generally unintelligible, devoutly gymnastic. But it must be said that whenever the assorted acrobats left the stage to join those of us who were being responsibly attentive in the auditorium—this happened approximately every one and one-half minutes by my watch—they behaved with admirable discretion. They looked closely into our faces, demonstrating eyeball-to-eyeball contact, they crawled down the aisles clutching at us only occasionally, they offered us cookies—but they did nothing to account for my own eventually paralyzed condition….

Text and staging were carefully uncohesive, rigorously fragmented, so that nothing—neither political comment nor abstract visual image—could come into the kind of focus that might have bound an audience together. Massed eyes and ears in the auditorium were denied the definition that would have made them see and hear the same things, with the result that each onlooker responded as he responded, and hang the fellow on the other side of the house. It was every nervous system for itself. (p. 46)

The current avant-garde has a standard reply to everything that may be said about it, whether hostile or friendly. Raise an objection and that was the objection you were expected to make, supposed to make; the event brought you alive so that you could make it. This is rather a bottomless well…. (p. 48)

The difficulty with this bottomless-well position, the assertion that any response is the right response, is that it turns booing into victory, makes good and bad drama, good and bad performing, good and bad reaction, indistinguishable.

Pass that. The most curious sensation I had, listening to the split responses and paying some attention to my own constant distraction, was this: the more public the experimental theater tries to be, the more private it becomes. (p. 49)

Walter Kerr, "To Boo or Not To Boo—That Is Not the Question," in The New York Times, Section II (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1968 (and reprinted in a different form as "Togetherness: I," in his God on the Gymnasium Floor and Other Theatrical Adventures, Simon & Schuster, 1971, pp. 45-72).∗

The New Yorker

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[Megan Terry] set out, according to the jacket copy for ["Couplings and Groupings"] "to discover if and how the rhetoric about changing social patterns was affecting people's private lives." What she discovered is not at all clear, however, since the thirty-one interviews presented here are offered without benefit of commentary. "An extraordinarily broad cross-section of Americans" were invited to talk frankly about "life and sex and love," and did, and what one is to make of it all, God knows.

"Briefly Noted: 'Couplings and Groupings'," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 48, No. 51, February 10, 1973, p. 114.

Francis Levy

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Apart from other eccentricities, the family occupying centerstage in Megan Terry's "Hothouse" represents a complete reversal of traditional sexual stereotype. As if to toss the male-dominated scenario into a kind of dramatic prehistory, "Hothouse" substitutes a bootlegging grandmother, her harddrinking daughter (Roz), and a determined hypersensitive granddaughter (Jody) for the usual picture of the passionately violent father and his loving though rivalrous sons.

Without female protagonists, "Hothouse" would probably invite comparison with several well-known Irish-American tragicomedies where whiskey acts as a fuel to dramatic action….

But the playwright avoids derivativeness through the intricacy by which she draws the picture of female bravado…. Roz may seem like a type at first, but she is never a mirror reflection of some original male counterpart….

"Hothouse" is far from being a simple slice of life. The minutiae are used as a way of picturing character in history, of simultaneously evoking both destiny and the futile temptation to rebel against it. Like "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Hothouse" takes place in a day and attempts to sum up an entire world. Unlike O'Neill, however, Megan Terry often gets mired in an explicitness that amounts to little more than uneven digression….

["Hothouse"] at present is infected with an almost novelistic accumulation of fact. The drama at the heart of "Hothouse" would be even further enhanced by doing away with the unnecessary material which clouds this powerful portrait of individuals pitted against the predominance of fate. (p. 66)

Francis Levy, "Women without Men" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), in The Village Voice, Vol. XIX, No. 34, August 22, 1974, p. 66.

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Terry, Megan (Drama Criticism)