Megan Terry Terry, Megan (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Megan Terry 1932-

American playwright.

Considered among the first dramatists to embrace feminist causes and avant-garde techniques, Terry's work often presents female characters in situations that test them or require them to challenge their own gender preconceptions. In other plays, Terry explores the psyches of such societally marginalized characters as battered women, teenagers, the elderly, and prisoners. As a director of many of her own works, Terry advocates a community theater approach in which she sometimes recruits individuals from the audience or from the streets outside the theater to act. Her philosophy of each participant bringing their “own reality” to the play, along with her use of space and music, are among the key identifiers of her work.

Biographical Information

Born in Seattle, Washington, Terry became fascinated with the theater when she was seven years old after attending her first live production. Determined theater would be her career, Terry mounted theatrical productions in her neighborhood and school, serving as actor, writer, director, designer, and set builder. While still in high school, she interned with the Seattle Repertory Playhouse where she worked with director Florence James and actor Burton James, whose political views influenced Terry's later dramas. As a student at the University of Edmonton, Terry immersed herself in set design and technical direction, skills that later affected her approach to theatrical writing. After completing college, Terry continued to write and produce dramas, some of which were performed at New York City's Open Theatre. The experimental environment at the Open Theatre helped Terry conceive her plays as a series of action blocs rather than sequential scenes. She also began using her scripts as starting points for dialogue and action and allowed the participants to ad lib their parts.

Major Works

Terry’s prolific writing resulted in the production of more than fifty plays and numerous awards. The Magic Realists (1969) signalled Terry’s experimentation with postmodern techniques, which included songs and dream sequences. Her first success and perhaps best-known play, Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1966), is generally regarded as the first rock musical as well as the first drama about the Vietnam conflict. Despite its topicality and popularity, Viet Rock received mixed reactions to its innovative form and antiwar message. Viet Rock is also noted for Terry's use of “transformational drama,” a highly influential postmodern technique she defines as “a dramatic action composed of brief sequences that are suddenly transformed into different sets of characters and circumstances.” In contrast to her previous work, Approaching Simone: A Drama in Two Acts, which received the 1970 Obie Award for best play, received wide acclaim from critics. The play portrays the life of philosopher Simone Weil, who, at age thirty-four, committed suicide by starvation to protest World War II soldiers starving at the front line. During the 1970s, Terry wrote several plays concerning family, societal, and gender issues, including Hothouse, The Pioneer, American King’s English for Queens, and Goona Goona. Family scenarios used in her 1978 play American King’s English for Queens demonstrate the sexism Terry perceives as inherent in the English language, and the 1979 play Goona Goona depicts the abuse that occurs in some families.

Critical Reception

Although she received favorable notices for her one-act plays Calm Down Mother: A Transformation Play for Three Women (1966) and Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place (1966), Viet Rock was the first of Terry's plays to receive serious critical notice. While some critics found the play's use of rock music and subversive politics offensive and amateurish, others applauded Terry's use of such innovative theatrical techniques as nonlinear time and refusal to maintain the play's action within the confines of the stage. The play, however, was highly influential, inspiring other musicals, including the well-known play Hair. Approaching Simone, however, was received enthusiastically by critics, many of whom admired the humane themes Terry employed. In her play Hothouse, inspired by her relationships with her mother and grandmother, Terry explores the expectations society places on female behavior. While admiring her treatment of feminist themes, some critics faulted Terry's reliance on autobiographical material. In contrast to the negative reviews Hothouse received, Terry's Babes in the Bighouse: A Documentary Fantasy Musical About Life Inside a Women's Prison (1974) was lauded: the plays use of humor and satire was considered by critics as an inspired means to portray potentially controversial issues of sexuality and the degradation of female prisoners.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Beach Grass 1955

The Dirt Boat 1955

Go Out and Move the Car 1955

Seascape 1955

New York Comedy: Two 1961

Eat at Joe's 1963

Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills 1963

When My Girlfriend Was Still All Flowers 1963

Calm Down Mother: A Transformation Play for Three Women 1966

Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place 1966

Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie 1966

Comings and Goings: A Theatre Game 1967

The Gloaming, Oh My Darling: A Play in One Act 1967

Changes 1968

Home: Or Future Soap 1968

Jack-Jack 1968

The Key Is on the Bottom 1968

Massachusetts Trust 1968

The People vs. Ranchman 1968

Sanibel and Captiva 1968

The Magic Realists 1969

One More Little Drinkie 1969

The Tommy Allen Show 1969

Approaching Simone: A Drama in Two Acts 1970

American Wedding Ritual Monitored/Transmitted by the Planet Jupiter 1972

Choose a Spot on the Floor 1972

Grooving 1972

Off Broadway Book 1972

Nightwalk 1973

St. Hydro Clemency; or, A Funhouse of the Lord: An Energizing Event 1973

Susan Perultz at the Manhattan Theatre Club 1973

All Them Women 1974

Babes in the Bighouse: A Documentary Fantasy Musical About Life Inside a Women's Prison 1974

Couplings and Groupings 1974

Fifteen Million Fifteen Year Olds 1974

Henna for Endurance 1974

Hospital Play 1974

Hothouse 1974

The Narco Linguini Bust 1974

The Pioneer 1974

Pro Game; The Pioneer: Two One-Act Plays 1974

We Can Feed Everybody Here 1974

Women's Prison 1974

Pioneer 1975

100,001 Horror Stories of the Plains 1976

Women and Law 1976

Brazil Fado: You're Always with Me 1977

Lady Rose's Brazil Hide Out 1977

Sleazing Toward Athens 1977

Willie-Willa-Bill's Dope Garden, A Meditation in One-Act on Willa Cather 1977

American King's English for Queens 1978

Attempted Rescue on Avenue B: A Beat Fifties Comic Opera 1979

Goona Goona 1979

Advances 1980

Fireworks 1980

Janis Joplin 1980

Flat in Afghanistan 1981

Katmandu 1981

The Trees Blew Down 1981

Winners: The Lives of a Traveling Family Circus and Mother Jones 1981

Kegger 1982

Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones 1983

Amtrak 1988

Headlights 1988

Retro 1988

Body Leaks 1990

Breakfast Serial 1991

Do You See What I'm Saying? 1991

Sound Fields: Are We Hear 1992

Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Megan Terry,” in American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, Vol. 1, by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, Drama Book Specialists, 1981, pp. 183-92.

[In the following excerpt, Marranca and Dasgupta critique Terry's career, focusing on the author's use of various styles.]

Megan Terry began her theatrical career in the mid-fifties in Seattle, Washington, where she first had her plays produced and worked as a director and actor. But it was her work as a member of The Open Theater from 1963 to 1968 that brought her to prominence. In the mid-sixties Terry ran a playwrights' workshop for that company in which many of her own plays were developed. Since 1971 she...

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Helene Keyssar (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Megan Terry: Mother of American Feminist Drama,” in Feminist Theatre, Macmillan, 1984, pp. 53-76.

[In the following excerpt, Keyssar explores Terry's extraordinary impact on feminist theater, contending that her work does not invite radical revolution but instead calls attention to the power of women.]

Since the early sixties Megan Terry has been a sustaining force in feminist drama, nurturing other American women playwrights and continually extending the reaches of her own plays. Captivated by theatre from the age of fourteen, Terry, now in her early fifties, has written more than fifty dramas most of which have been both produced and published. Reviewers...

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Kathleen Gregory Klein (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language and Meaning in Megan Terry's 1970s ‘Musicals',” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, December, 1984, pp. 574-83.

[In the following essay, Klein concentrates on the meaning and power of the language in Terry's musicals.]

American King's English for Queens is the most clearly articulated of Megan Terry's language plays of the 1970s, explicitly concerned with the ways in which the text and context of language mold thinking, seeing, and believing. In four full-length plays, Tommy Allen Show, Babes in the Bighouse, Brazil Fado and American King's English for Queens—all “musicals” performed at the Omaha Magic...

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June Schlueter (essay date 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place: Megan Terry's Transformational Drama and the Possibilities of Self,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 59-69.

[In the following essay, Schlueter discusses how Terry's transformational drama acknowledges the extent to which the self is shaped by modern culture.]

In order “to make it,” we need to make images of ourselves. We compose ourselves from the cultural models around us. We are programmed into a status hunger. Once we have masked ourselves with the social image suitable to a type, we enter the masquerade of the setup. Even the masquerade of our ethnic...

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Judith Babnich (essay date 1988)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Megan Terry and Family Talk,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 296-311.

[In the following essay, Babnich provides an in-depth discussion of Terry's Family Talk, including an interview with the author.]


For the last ten years Megan Terry, playwright in residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1974, has been writing plays focused on themes of particular interest to the American family. Her newest musical comedy, Family Talk, is the fourth in a series of plays tackling the problems of domestic life. Common to all these plays is Terry's concern of “how are we going to get closer...

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Jan Breslauer and Helene Keyssar (essay date 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Making Magic Public: Megan Terry's Traveling Family Circus,” in Making A Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, edited by Lynda Hart, The University of Michigan Press, 1989, pp. 169-80.

[In the following essay, Breslauer and Keyssar examine Terry's Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, a play that shows people how to make a difference in their world.]

When Megan Terry moved to the Omaha Magic Theater in 1974, she began a new phase of the feminist discourse she had begun to shape in the experimental theatre of the 1960s. The energy that she had directed for more than a decade toward collaborative production endeavors,...

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Megan Terry (essay date 1977)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Pages a Day,” in The Drama Review, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1977, pp. 60-4.

[In the following essay, Terry discusses her passion for writing and her everyday, artistic life.]

I was bused to the theatre at the age of seven. There was a program, sponsored by the Junior League, to bring children to live theatre. I lived in a small fishing village outside of Seattle; it was a long bus ride, but it changed my life. Professional actors, who had worked together for twenty years under the direction of Mrs. Florence Bean James (who had studied with Stanislavsky) were playing Rumplestiltskin. That was it. I fell in love.

As soon as I...

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Megan Terry with Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (interview date 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 377-401.

[In the following interview, Betsko and Koenig cover an array of topics including how Terry describes her creative process to the message the author would like to convey to the world.]

Megan Terry was born July 22, 1932, in Seattle, Washington. A founding member of The Open Theater and The New York Theatre Strategy, she is now Literary Manager and Playwright-in-Residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Ms. Terry has written more than sixty plays, including X-Rayed-iate, Family Talk, Porch Visit, Above It: Speculations on the Death of Amelia...

(The entire section is 10386 words.)

Megan Terry (lecture date 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Anybody Is as Their Land and Air Is,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 4, 1989, pp. 83-90.

[In the following lecture, Terry discusses her life in theater, focusing on the need of individuals to give of themselves in order to make a difference in the world.]

I think it's more fun to think in groups than alone with a typewriter. Maybe that's why, of all the writing fields, I chose playwriting. My mind has always worked faster than my typewriter. At times I lay this malady to the fact that I got a “D” in typing in high school and may not belong in this technological age. Contrary to popular belief, typing isn't natural to all women....

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Judith Babnich (interview date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. X, 1992, pp. 191-203.

[In the following interview, Terry discusses her play Turn Your Headlights On.]

In 1969 Jo Ann Schmidman, a young actress, founded a theatre in Nebraska amid the rolling plains of middle America. She named it the Omaha Magic Theatre and described it as a place open to everyone. Its initial goal was to produce four new musicals by untried American writers and composers each year, and by so doing, to attract new American playwrights to Omaha. The group assembled by Schmidman included actors, actresses, directors, writers, and technicians, all devoted to the...

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Felicia Hardison Londré (essay date 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Konlin and Colby H. Kullman, The University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 138–49.

[Below, Londré provides a brief overview of Terry's career followed by a 1989 interview covering an array of topics.]

From her days as a founding member of the Open Theatre in New York (1963–67), to her current activities as resident playwright and literary manager of the Omaha Magic Theatre, Megan Terry has used the stage to tell the truth for and about the communities in which she worked, while her innovations in theatrical form have emerged from the creative process...

(The entire section is 5064 words.)