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Megan Terry 1932-
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...
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- Critical Essays
Megan Terry 1932-
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307
Beach Grass 1955
The Dirt Boat 1955
Go Out and Move the Car 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
Home: Or Future Soap 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
Off Broadway Book 1972
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
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
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
Janis Joplin 1980
Flat in Afghanistan 1981
The Trees Blew Down 1981
Winners: The Lives of a Traveling Family Circus and Mother Jones 1981
Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones 1983
Body Leaks 1990
Breakfast Serial 1991
Do You See What I'm Saying? 1991
Sound Fields: Are We Hear 1992
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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 has been working with the Omaha Magic Theatre, founded in 1969 by another former Open Theater member, Jo Anne Schmidman.
Terry's work in the theatre is characterized by her use of “transformations,” an approach to acting which reached its dramatic high point in productions of The Open Theater, but which she has experimented with since the mid-fifties. Transformations are defined by a nonpsychological, action and image-oriented conception of character which negates the notion of a fixed reality or situation in favor of the continuous displacement of one reality with another.
Besides Terry's early work with transformations, they grew from several sources, namely Viola Spolin's theatre games, the work of Nola Chilton, and Second City techniques—acting strategies based on “games” and “role-playing.” As an acting idea (and an approach to the creation of a text), transformations have been an important development in performance theory in the American theatre, the first significant break with the Stanislavsky system.
Not all of Terry's plays are transformation plays, however. She has written in several styles which include naturalism (Hothouse), satirical comedy (The Tommy Allen Show), and absurdism (The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, The Magic Realists). Many of the plays are musicals (Viet Rock, Massachusetts Trust, Brazil Fado). Generally they are loose, free-form structures that agitate for unconventional modes of dramaturgy.
Whatever the form, Terry tends thematically to explore social issues in contemporary American society: the Viet Nam war (Viet Rock), crime (The People vs. Ranchman), politics (Massachusetts Trust), sexism (American Kings English for Queens). She is interested in ways in which society fuels itself on deception. But the plays do not propagate a doctrinaire political point of view; instead they lean toward more abstract treatments of subject matter, frequently through comedic means.
Terry's characters are usually outsiders, people struggling to keep their individuality in a system which pushes them to conform to the status quo. The theme of dominance-submission runs through many of the plays and the characters have rich fantasy lives which help them triumph over banal or oppressive surroundings (Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place). Because of the emphasis on transformations and the absence of conventional plots, characters easily create realities for themselves.
Terry has, throughout her career, tried to embrace new forms, though her most successful works are the transformation plays. Her plays tax the capabilities of actors by requiring rapid and frequent changes of character and situation, and a great deal of physical work (Comings and Goings, Viet Rock). Usually they need few technical effects and hardly more than a few ramps and props.
Not mere formal exercises, however, the works explore human relations in a variety of circumstances, ranging from contained domestic settings to more epic-style scenes. Many of them are specifically about women and their relationships to other women and to society. If some of the plays are more consciously feminist in perspective (Approaching Simone, Hothouse), others nevertheless depict female imagery (The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, Sanibel and Captiva). Terry's drama is dominated by characters victimized by others or by the “system”—characters for whom she shows a great deal of compassion.
This is evident from her earliest work in the theatre, Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, which unfolds as an encounter between two garbage scavengers, B.A. and Crissie, and a stoned, down-and-out young woman. It takes place just before dawn on New York's Lower East Side. B.A. and Crissie meet Copper Queen on one of their morning routines, and though not very bright themselves, they outsmart the newcomer and run away with her shabby fur coat. The play ends with the trusting Copper Queen—who describes herself as an ex-beauty contest winner from Montana and the mother of an illegitimate child taken from her by her own parents—waiting on the street for the two women. They have promised to let her look after the “baby” they pretend to be wheeling in their dump-heap carriage.
A highly sentimental play in the realistic mode, Copper Queen attempts to show how feelings of trust and affection can exist in an urban atmosphere of degradation, a dominant theme in many of the plays of Terry's contemporaries, though the strong may overpower the weak in the fight for survival. It also offers characters whose lives of fantasy energize the mundane reality of their existence, a frequent theme in Terry's work. Still, this is a minor play for a writer who had not yet begun to work in her more exciting transformation style.
Transformations first surface in Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, a play which focuses on three men—Jaspers, Gregory, and Michaels—in a prison cell. Far from the prison melodrama one might anticipate from its setting, Keep Tightly Closed is not a conventional play with a story, but more a fragment of a possible narrative. In a series of rapid transformations it shifts realities in which the men—all of them jailed, it appears, for the murder of Jaspers' wife (that may or may not be true)—continually create new identities for themselves.
The play is framed by scenes in which the men act out the routine, mechanized aspects of their lives. But in between there are a number of transformational scenes which help the characters transcend their environment. They “become” General Custer, an Indian chief, a soldier at war, figures in Captain John Smith's Jamestown, drag queens, movie gangsters, and criminals reenacting the murder of Jaspers' wife. At other times they are simply themselves, trying to cope with the terror of confinement.
These improvisational-style scenes—developed by The Open Theater, which premiered the play—are acted out in a variety of styles that encompass naturalism, camp, vaudeville, gangster movies, costume epics, melodrama, and abstraction. Uninterested in the psychological probing of her characters, Terry instead devises a series of images that flow together, in an effort to explore confinement, dependency, domination-submission, ritual, friendship, deprivation, and loneliness—all of the emotional conditions that characterize a prisoner's life—through action rather than plot. The men, in other words, are defined by the “roles” they play in the transformations.
This continual exchange of one reality for another proposed by the transformation reflects the modern temper. It is a notion of dramatic character that revels in action, fragmentation, and the divided self—unlike naturalism and its insistence on story and character built through the accumulation of emotional and intellectual details which conspire to make a composite of a total, unified theory of self.
In conventional drama aspects of a character are successively peeled away, ultimately revealing the defining center of a personality. In transformational plays, however, as many aspects of the self are revealed as there are layers. The audience is forced in conventional theatre to sit passively and watch the drama develop onstage, while the audience for an innovative transformational play is invited to actively and continually adjust its expectations of “reality” onstage.
Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, though not the most skillful of transformation plays, is a good example of the style's radical approach to character, plot construction, and acting. All of these will reach their fullest potential in Terry's most accomplished play in this style, Viet Rock.
Another transformation of the same period, 1966, is Comings and Goings, which its author calls a “theatre game.” Indeed, this series of about thirty successive transformations illustrates how important the notion of “play” is to the concept of transformation.
Comings and Goings explores various ways He and She relate to one another: sexually, emotionally, socially. Scenes take place at home, in a night club, a diner, a police station, and outdoors, among other places. The dialogue is deliberately ordinary and concise (often one word exchanges) to set up the reality of a situation.
The short scenes flow smoothly into and out of each other, unlike the more fragmented Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, which was tied to a narrative structure while often growing out of the final image of the previous scene or from its dialogue. He and She, not always human beings, are even called upon to become inanimate objects—a plug and a socket, a pencil and list, two galaxies—as was frequently the case in the sixties, when American actors first began on a wide scale to experiment with alternatives to naturalistic acting. Often, especially in The Open Theater, this meant a highly physicalized, nonpsychological treatment of character in the sparest of settings.
Comings and Goings, referred to by Terry in a Note prefacing the play as “a trampoline for actors and director,” is perhaps a highly polished series of skits about role-playing rather than a play, and that is not to belittle this transformation, which calls for virtuosic acting con brio. It is, after all, about acting—that is, gesture, tone of voice, facial expression, attitude, movement.
One of the highlights of the piece is the scene in the diner between a customer and a waitress, which is played in five different ways ranging from casual transaction to sexual encounter. In other scenes Terry has He and She—who, incidentally, have been played by more than two actors—reverse positions in a scene or repeat the same dialogue with different actions.
Comings and Goings is bright, original, witty, and unpretentious. Unfortunately, it is so rooted in the theatrical experimentation of the sixties that now it seems more an acting exercise that reveals its age than a piece for the permanent dramatic repertoire. Still, it accomplished what it set out to do, and that is perhaps all one should ask of it.
In a totally different vein is The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, which grew out of a section of an earlier fragmentary play, Calm Down Mother. In this absurdist-style work two old women pass their time in a nursery home, intertwining memory and fantasy for as long as they can resist death. They alternately fight, console, insult, hurt, and charm one another when they aren't fooling with “Mr. Birdsong,” the object of their sexual fantasies. In fact, much of their fantasy life revolves around sex. When Mrs. Tweed says, “I hear a man's voice,” Mrs. Watermellon replies, “It's your longing.”
In Gloaming all time flows in a continuous present which Terry attempts to imbue with a special female presence. The actual situation of the play reflects the triumph of the human spirit against death, an unfeeling nurse, and the visits of grotesque family members. The Gloaming, Oh My Darling embodies themes that are important to Terry, showing particular interest in female imagery, but it is too sentimental to succeed as absurdism, dramatic territory she has never seemed very comfortable in.
Sanibel and Captiva, a later radio play, continues the absurdist attempt to slightly more successful ends. In this one-act poetic drama an elderly husband and wife are fishing, their conversation orchestrated with the sounds of the surf, gulls, minahs, a barking dog, a car approaching, an airplane overhead.
In the play, which reflects the influence of Beckett, Terry succeeds in creating a certain amount of ambiguity and sensuality, but it is less arresting as a dramatic experience than the transformation plays. These action-oriented works seem better suited to Terry's temperament than the reflective, more static dramas. Terry's manipulation of imagery is plainly more inventive than her dialogue. Finally, if the development of character becomes too central in the play, she has a tendency to fall into sentimentalizing.
Transformations are the driving force behind Terry's antiwar play, Viet Rock, which developed in an Open Theater workshop she conducted (1965-66). A counterculture musical termed by the author “a folk war movie,” Viet Rock combines marching cadences and the frug to the accompaniment of bitterly satiric rock music.
When the bombs fall The Viets rock and rock When the napalm bursts Then the Viets roll.
Viet Rock is a political play but not an ideological one, even as Terry makes her sympathies known in the structure of images which coalesce around the various themes the play develops in its nonnarrative movement. She presents a panoramic sweep of conflicting attitudes toward the war (military, domestic, governmental, protest)—not the war itself. Alternating parody and sentiment, moments of joy and those of disaster, Terry's view of America—far from Norman Rockwell's uncomplicated portraits—evolves from its advertising slogans, antiwar chants, rock and roll dances, and movie-style gestures, all of them set in relief against the militaristic, sexist, racist machine that grinds out soldiers for a war in Southeast Asia. The result is a broadly satiric rock musical style that indeed gave a new shape to the new expression characterizing the political, social, and cultural upheavals of the sixties.
In Viet Rock scenes move rapidly from one event to another, emphasizing the social aspect of events without regard for conventional laws of space and time. When the play opens the actors are in a circle on the floor, which breaks apart in an instant transformation as the male actors become babies and the female actors their mothers. This image soon gives way to the scene of an army physical, then the women becoming mothers and sweethearts saying goodbye to young soldiers, then men in drill formation, and so forth. All of these scenes occur quickly after a situation has been established, so that a large number of perspectives can be shown.
Since Terry tends to disregard gender roles where possible, women play soldiers and become airplanes; they are also shown in active protest against the war. In the final scene of Act I—in which a Senate hearing takes place—the actors take turns playing senators and witnesses; when an actor finishes his place as one character, he quickly becomes another. There is no development of character because the style of the play does not allow for it, and reality is not fixed, character never rigidified. Viet Rock embodies the frenzy, passion, and conflict of a certain period in American life in a style that echoed the fragmentation of the times.
Viet Rock also reflects many of the experimental theatre techniques of its era—not only in the transformational style it represents but in its rock musical form (the play is a contemporary of Hair), the highly physical demands it makes on actors, its need for audience contact, the structure of choral configurations, the improvisational, open shape, and literal development of imagery.
On the thematic level it represents the sense of engagement exemplified by many of the theatre groups who were performing during the war in Viet Nam. In recent years, and with the end to the war, politics has given way to more formalistic, perceptual explorations of theatre.
Though Viet Rock seems dated now from a stylistic point of view, in its time it provided a strong communal experience of political protest. The final scene of the play—in which the “dead” rise up, walk through and touch the audience in a “celebration of presence”—is typical of theatrical experiences of the sixties when theatre companies made a special effort to emphasize the shared experience of theatre, disregarding the space between actor and audience. That was perhaps the significance of Viet Rock as a protest play—not its politics, which are more an emotional reaction to the war than an analysis of it.
In other plays of this period Terry continues her interest in social themes and political issues, but to less successful ends. The People vs. Ranchman tackles the theme of capital punishment while also trying to suggest that in a sexually repressed society people live out sex fantasies through the crimes of others. Massachusetts Trust is a more ambitious work of political satire in an allegory-fantasy mode, but it is gimmicky and lacks a strong focus due in part to the confused intermingling of different styles and themes.
Approaching Simone is a unique play for Terry—not in form, for it continues the structural experiments of Viet Rock, but in its positive depiction of a modern historical figure who is able successfully to struggle for her individual liberation. That character is the French thinker and mystic Simone Weil, whose life is capsulized in roughly chronological scenes from her childhood up to her suicide in 1943 at the age of thirty-four.
Weil is shown in scenes with her parents and brother, contemplating suicide at fourteen; in a nightclub with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus; later as a professor, factory worker, and political radical; then in Spain during the Civil War, in America, and back at work for the French underground; and, finally, her death from voluntary starvation. The play, which unfolds on a series of ramps and platforms situated throughout the performing space, and interweaves several musical numbers, is organized to show Weil in active struggle against oppression and unimaginative and conventional thought.
Approaching Simone, while certainly a feminist attempt to create a heroic female protagonist who makes conscious decisions regulating her life, gives only an outline of the brilliant, tortured French philosopher. The play demonstrates no complexity of thought, no examination of the act of suicide (or glorification of death), nor religious extremism. It simply takes the facts of Simone Weil's life at face value, trivializing them in the process. Terry is content from the very beginning to show Weil as a martyr and saint who transcended the material world through her religious faith. With no dramatization of real conflict, and no worthy opponents of Weil's philosophy, Terry allows herself to move Weil through a series of scenes which do no more than create a skimpy hagiography in a silly musical form.
The Tommy Allen Show continues the vision of a crazed America that Terry expressed in earlier plays, though this time she does not rely on transformations as an organizing principle. Instead, she offers a three-part structure, at the center of which is a television talk show parody; Parts One and Three are autonomous environments for the audiences to wander in. In Part One the audience, as if at a carnival, walks through a series of rooms before the play begins: “Room of Strange Walls and Floors,” “Room of Mirrors,” “Room of the War Toys,” “Chekhov Room,” “Tai Chi Room”; in Part Three actors' “Speeches on the Cross” are accompanied by individual torture scenes.
The middle section of Tommy Allen is the actual TV talk show—complete with commercials—done in a satirical revue style. Tommy Allen (the character is played by four men and women) has as his guests a country-western singer, suburban housewife, child molester, and gay comedian whose shenanigans—interspersed with commercials for dope, vaginal deodorant, and violence—make Saturday Night Live seem innocuous in comparison. Terry's America is a country degraded by its perversion of moral values and ruled by consumerist ethics—a land virtually wishing itself to death. Its inhabitants are adrift in a world of meaningless talk and unfulfilling relationships. “… I show the public dreaming,” says Tommy 2.
Though Terry's intentions are obvious, she is not always lucid in exposing them dramatically; the play's excess of energy contributes to its own disintegration. Whatever real satire there exists in Tommy Allen is easily diluted by the flaccid comedy which frequently takes over. In the long run The Tommy Allen Show fails to follow its own formal logic; the images, strongest in the first and third sections of the play, simply cannot make up for the weak narrative structure they frame and are intended to amplify. A play such as this one—self-indulgent, unmanageable—points to the limitations of its comedic style.
It is somewhat surprising to see Terry turn to conventional naturalism in Hothouse, a 1974 domestic drama, after her experiments of the sixties. Hothouse centers on three generations of women—Ma, her daughter Roz, and her daughter Jody—in its attempts to make a feminist statement on solidarity among women, mother-daughter relationships in particular.
Terry's focus is a lower class family living in Seattle in the mid-fifties. The family home is symbolically isolated from the outside world by the vines, bushes, and trees which overrun the house and yard. But this “hothouse” is hardly a breeding ground for human life. Ma and Roz are always drunk, and Jack (Roz's husband) has run off, after one of their fights, to live alone on his boat. The central character in the play is young Jody, struggling to keep the family together despite the booze, violence, and deception which polarize her parents. “This isn't any family. This is a pack of wolves!” Roz acknowledges.
The one outsider who enters the household is Jody's boyfriend, David, who wants to marry her. She seems willing at first, but in the end rejects his promise of a stable, conformist future in the hope of a better life at home. Roz is right when she remarks of David, “He's not our kind of people.” By rejecting him Jody refuses the opportunity to run from the degradation of her environment and create the possibility of a new life for herself. Home is a “hothouse” which stifles emotional growth and personal independence, but marriage may be another kind of entrapment, hints Terry.
If marriage is shown as a bourgeois alternative, a kind of bondage, the brutal conditions Jody faces living with her mother and grandmother and their various boyfriends are glossed over, even dismissed, in favor of Terry's “thesis.” The fact of showing women without men interests Terry, even though the prospect of young Jody living with these two women, who spend all their time drinking, is disheartening and presents a false sense of support if one thinks of them serving as role models.
Intellectually, Terry is being fair when she insists that women turn to each other and away from men who try to brutalize and dominate them (Jack and Roz) or remold them (David and Jody), but she hangs her premise on some pretty shaky characters. Hothouse doesn't make as strong a feminist statement as it apparently sets out to, and it is disappointing to see Terry fall prey at this stage of her career (perhaps it is an old play?) to old-fashioned psychologizing and simple notions of fate, heredity, and environment (now she is in O'Neill territory). Hothouse is an unsatisfying representation of family life, all the more so because it fits potentially provocative subject matter to a conventional form, conventionally and falsely fashioned.
Terry moves into a nonnaturalistic world in another recent play which uses transformations. In her opening speech of American Kings English for Queens Silver Morgan, a young girl raised by prairie dogs until she was taken at seventeen into the Connell family home, asks, “Do you think like you talk, or talk like you think?” Terry's play, performed by the Omaha Magic Theatre, sets out to explore the ramifications of that question in the style of musical fantasy.
A series of scenes conspire to offer lessons—the play is a teaching tool, it seems—about the uses and abuses of language, sex roles, concepts of romance, and the socialization process. The lessons are self-conscious and simplistic, as if American Kings English were prepared for grade school audiences. Whatever insight Terry has to offer on the imaginative possibilities of language when it resists rigid socialization dissipates in the inanity of the dialogue and in banal song lyrics. Here even transformations, which Terry has used elsewhere to expand the imagistic and structural potential of her plays, are merely illustrative or functional. Caught in a mix of satire, musical comedy, and didacticism, American Kings English for Queens is a lackluster attempt at uniting linguistic and feminist thought—not to mention the “wild child” theme—in a critique of contemporary society.
Another new play from the Omaha Magic Theatre is Brazil Fado, a return to the earlier transformation style. In this satirical musical that evolves simultaneously as two plays—one taking place in an American home, the other in a TV news station—Terry sets out to examine the Brazilian socio-political situation in the context of American society.
Unless it is done in the style of the grotesque or black humor, a play that combines scenes of torture with Carmen Miranda-type numbers is hardly likely to succeed as serious politics. Aside from its trivializing of the thematic material, and its ineffectual attempts to comment on either Brazilian or American society, Brazil Fado lacks the organization and focused energy of the best transformation plays. It is marred by a certain tackiness and self-indulgence that, unfortunately, has characterized Terry's work with the Omaha Magic Theatre.
Sadly, Megan Terry's most recent efforts have not equalled her achievements with The Open Theater. Her plays are tending more and more to be shapeless and unfocused. Where transformations once gave a style and structure to the plays, they now seem to have outlived their innovativeness. Terry hasn't found a new form to give her current work the structural foundation it needs. The unhappy truth about most of the adventurous writers who came to prominence in the sixties—and Terry is one of that period's important experimental writers—is that their writing has not maintained its earlier level of originality and invention.
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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 whose attention is fixed on New York commercial successes tend to ignore Terry's work, but she has received public recognition and support over the last twenty years from numerous foundations and government offices. As playwright in residence of the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1970, she has, with the Magic Theatre's artistic director and founder Jo Ann Schmidman, been able to sustain one of America's most innovative theatres for more than fourteen years.
Terry's own definitions of feminist drama are deliberately broad: ‘anything that gives women confidence, shows themselves to themselves, helps them to begin to analyze whether it's a positive or negative image, it's nourishing'. Her plays, however, consistently reveal a precise criticism of stereotyped gender roles, an affirmation of women's strength, and a challenge to women to better use their own power. In Terry's plays we witness a sustained yet never repetitive development of transformation as the central convention of feminist drama. ‘Transformation', she asserts, ‘reveals to us an efficient universe. Nothing is lost—it's just transformed.'
Born in Seattle, Washington, on 22 July 1932, Terry ‘hung around' a community theatre until its director, Florence Bean James, took her in and she began to work on set construction and design. For Terry, the concept of transformation and its development as a key technique of her dramaturgy began with this early training in design and collage; she still thinks of what she does as a kind of architectural process in which she ‘builds' plays.
Despite her father's refusal to pay for her education because she would not join a sorority, she took a BA in education at the University of Washington. Her studies included creative dramatics, taught by her cousin Geraldine Siks. Growing up, she had loved cartoon characters and impersonators; working with young children who naturally used role transformation in their daily play led her to think that adult plays could be written that used the same process.
Terry left Seattle in 1956 when a double bill of one of her first plays and a play by Eugene O'Neill was lambasted by local critics. She promised her father on her departure that if she had not made it in the theatre by the time she was thirty-five, she would give up and become a teacher. For the next ten years, she endured the struggles of a young, unknown playwright in New York, a life enriched and complicated in the early sixties by her association with Joseph Chaikin, Peter Feldman, Maria Irene Fornes, Barbara Vann, and more than a dozen other young actors, writers and directors who were rejecting the stylistically and commercially ‘closed' theatre of Broadway to create what they soon called the Open Theatre. Many of the original Open Theatre company members had been trained by Nola Chilton, whose teaching emphasised the freeing of the individual actor's body and voice through exercises that focused on imagined objects and sensations. Even more important to the development of Megan Terry's work, however, was the structure given to daily workshops by transformation exercises originally created by a Chicago artist and teacher, Viola Spolin. Spolin's theatre games meshed perfectly with Terry's vision of a theatre in which actors created and altered the world in front of the audience, relying on their own resources of body, voice and imagination.
In its first few years, from 1963 until 1966, the Open Theatre was a set of workshops, led by different members of the company, including Terry. By the spring of 1964, Terry had drafted a new one-act play, Calm Down Mother, inspired by her Open Theatre Workshops. That summer, on a month's Rockefeller Foundation Grant at the Office for Advanced Drama Research in Minneapolis, she revised this as well as an earlier, full-length drama, Hothouse, and another one-act play, Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, written when she first arrived in New York. In that one month of Minneapolis heat, she also wrote another one-act play, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. The three one-act plays became part of the Open Theatre's repertory and were first performed by the company in 1965 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse which the company rented for public performances.
Hothouse is unmistakably drawn from an earlier period of Terry's life and work (although it was not actually produced until 1974, by which time it seemed outdated to some reviewers). Set in a fishing village near Seattle in 1955, it is the only one of her plays that could be called a conventional, realistic drama. In contrast to most well-made modern plays, however, the central characters are women, and the world of the play is distinctively female. Three generations of women from one family inhabit a small house in which an uncountable number of houseplants seem to have taken over the living space. Ma, the grandmother of the group, is a spirited, not-so-old lady, who has ‘started again'—with men, booze and life itself—so many times that she's lost count. Her daughter Roz spends much of her time drinking, swearing and making love to one man or another. Jody, Roz's daughter, is caught between the invigorating but crazy life of her female family and the naïve passion of her university-student lover, David. Each of the women has and wants her man, and much of the play revolves around the pending divorce of Roz and Jack, Jody's here-again, gone-again father.
Much like Shelagh Delaney's Lion in Love, Terry's Hothouse, while realistic in its detail and dialogue, relies little on narrative development, and instead builds a distinctively female environment. The experience of watching either of these plays has more in common with that of listening to a jazz trio than with witnessing Ibsenesque modern drama. Already in Hothouse, Terry's extraordinary ability to make every word a gesture is apparent. Hers is not the skill (or inclination) of the eighteenth-century playwrights who strove to differentiate characters through language; rather, more like Samuel Beckett than any other notable predecessor or contemporary, Terry's words function on stage as physical actions, as mediations that gradually change the people who speak and the relations between them.
Hothouse reveals a political coherence between the assertiveness of the language and the speaking voice. Terry's women defy expectations of ways women talk, especially to each other. Jody, Roz and Ma are acerbic, witty and candid; they make us laugh as few female stage characters do. But they have not simply been allowed access to the male domain of verbal aggression. The lines these women speak express thoughts inseparable from feelings; these are intelligent people whose perspicacity reveals rather than conceals caring. When, at the end of the play, Roz gazes down at Jody who has crumpled into an exhausted sleep, she claims both her connection to and her separation from her daughter:
Roz: My glass is empty. Who's the bartender around here? … Don't be mad at me, Jody? Jody? I love you more than anything in the world. You hear that? You never have to do without love, Angel. … You were so little. Look at you now. Tall and pretty. As tall as your old lady. And a hell of a lot smarter. A hell of a lot.
Hothouse none the less has as much in common with the predecessors of feminist drama as it does with Terry's subsequent work and the other plays that come to define contemporary feminist drama. Like almost all of Western drama, the strategy of Hothouse pivots around a covenant of expectation between audience and characters: the implicit promise is that at some point, usually near the end of the play, a recognition scene will occur in which a character reveals herself or himself in some new way to us and to another in the world framed on stage. In this process of revelation, both the character and the spectator learn something new about who each is. In the classic example, Oedipus endures a series of such recognitions and revelations, discovering step by step who he is and, in our witnessing of these illuminations, we assumedly discover something of who we are. The revelation of erotic attraction in Hellman's The Children's Hour functions strategically in an almost identical way.
The structure of Hothouse sustains this basic pattern. Both Jody and Roz are caught in elemental confusions about their own identities. Jody seeks self-definition through David's love for her, but finally discovers that she ‘can't live off feelings of other people'; to find herself, she must acknowledge both her separateness and her ties to the women who have reared her. Roz, in turn, must acknowledge her identity as a mother, and must reveal her love for her daughter. That she initially does so half-drunk, with Jody asleep, is a resistance to the recognition scene and a source of partial frustration for the audience. But a moment later, as the play ends, the traditional convention is completed: Jody awakes in her mother's arms, returns Roz's embrace and welcomes the outside world to participate:
‘Come in Bugs … Come in Flies.'
Such recognition scenes at once assert and resist change. In the terms of ancient Greece, it is through such moments that one comes to ‘know thyself'. This, of course, implies that there is some primary, core ‘self' in each human being, and that the process of becoming a better person is one of shedding delusions and defences, of making the hidden seen. Within such a framework, progress is ironically a movement backwards in history, a matter of retrieval and purification, and, finally and essentially, a matter not of transformation of the self but of acceptance. It is the individual will that makes recognitions possible; context and relationships with others may inhibit or inspire the process but are secondary agents.
If one's goal as a playwright is to inspire radical alterations in human actions, then the 2500-year-old dramaturgical fixation on the recognition scene might well be viewed as a prison. The 1960s were a time when a major shift in the structure of drama became possible. But possibility is not the same as necessity, and for many male playwrights there was no compulsion to reject the old forms. (There are, of course, exceptions, like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.) For women, or at least for women who saw that self-awareness and self-discovery were only first steps towards change, it was crucial that a new way be found. A theatre that genuinely included women had to take as a central convention, the overt display of people becoming other.
In this context, the work that Megan Terry produced in the mid-sixties was genuinely experimental, a struggle and testing of a whole new way of doing theatre. In the plays that follow Hothouse recognition scenes vanish, and in their place appear series of transformations. Instead of characters gradually and painfully discovering their true selves, actors take on one role only to discard that role in front of the audience for another. What was always true of theatre—that the human being could in this arena transcend her or himself—now became not just an unquestioned aesthetic principle but a manifestation of political and aesthetic struggle.
Within a short period of time in the mid-sixties, Terry produced half a dozen plays in this new transformational mode. The one-act Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills reveals its earlier roots and suggests the transition between the more conventional strategy employed in Hothouse and the transformational structure that would inform all of Terry's subsequent work. In Ex-Miss Copper Queen three marginal women meet on the street somewhere on the Lower East Side in New York City. The character known only as ‘Copper Queen' is an embodiment of a dramatic transformation: as she lies half-drunk, half-drugged on a front step at the beginning of the play, we see both the naïve beauty queen that she was ten years before and the bedraggled streetwalker she has become at twenty-six. As Copper Queen sips her wine and talks to the pavement—half-succeeding in animating it—two old women, B.A. and Crissie, appear. B.A., the more assertive of the two, wears three wigs, each a different colour and suggestive of a different age; each woman wears a rubber glove on one hand; Crissie wears a white lace glove on her other hand. The two women are scavengers. They salvage items of value from the garbage of the city streets, placing the retrieved items in an ancient but polished pram. Like Copper Queen, their appearances are perplexing and defiant of categorisation.
During the brief encounter of these three women, Copper Queen tells her story of decline from riches to rags, from innocence to brutal experience. Her success in a beauty contest in Butte, Montana, had transported her to New York, where she lost a second contest and became pregnant. Helpless, she yielded to her parents' plan that they rear the child as their own, while she stayed as far away as possible. The tale is of a transformation, but in this play, the alteration of character remains within the familiar mode of narration of past events. We do, however, witness a hint of a destructive form of transformation in the ironic tranquillity that emerges from Copper Queen as her various pills take effect.
As in Hothouse, it is not so much what happens, but the nature of the bond established among the women that is important in this play. Each of the women is elusive, unfixed in any history or type. What connects each to the others and to us is their fierce determination to work and their pride in their own endurance. Within this very limited and particular group, collecting garbage and whoring are legitimate. Just as the pram is transformed from a traditional sentimental object to an efficient work tool, so work itself and its relation to women is at least redefined.
Terry's next three plays move more completely into the transformational mode. Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place begins with an archetypical transformation in which the three male actors combine to become a machine. Consistent with Viola Spolin's urgings that change be developmental, the actors make a transition from the machine image to prisoners in a cell by moving in ‘a military manner' to their bunks. During the one hour in which we witness these three men in their jail cell, we learn that all three have been convicted of murder of the wife of one of the men. In her production notes, Terry makes clear that the script is deliberately ambiguous as to whether a murder has been committed and if so, who is responsible for it. In contrast to some dramatic works, however, where ambiguity is intended as a device to challenge the audience, Terry's intention was at least as much to create a challenge to the players and directors ‘to decide what matters to you'. The script stands as a score for actors who must, in Terry's words, ‘come to understand that they are connected with one another by muscle, blood vessels, nervous structure—impulses felt by one member may be enacted by another'. In the final sequence of the play the three men lock arms facing outwards in a circle and turn like a machine wheel chanting ‘And roller and roller and roller, And rocker and rocker and rocker.' This image captures the interdependence as well as the constraints of the prison these men inhabit.
Calm Down Mother, written during this same period and often hailed as the first truly feminist American drama, embraces the transformational form even more persistently than does Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, but it is also an obvious complement to the latter work. Calm Down Mother calls for three women players, who are named in the cast of characters simply as ‘Woman One', ‘Woman Two' and ‘Woman Three'. As in Keep Tightly Closed Terry has here moved into a theatrical style that unhesitatingly focuses on the actors; in the manner of the ‘poor theatre' heralded by Jerzy Grotowski, the play is set on a bare stage, with the only props being four straight chairs. As the lights come up on the three women ‘clustered together to suggest a plant form', we hear a taped speech in the voice of an amused gentlewoman describing the evolution of three one-celled creatures from passive life in the sea to rooting on the land.
At the close of this speech, one of the women breaks from the group structure, walks towards the audience and identifies herself as Margaret Fuller. The abrupt transition, different from the more flowing transformations that characterise other experimental work in the sixties, is the first appearance of Terry's own distinctive signature. The woman's brief speech also contains a quotation from Fuller that identifies Terry's own hope for women in this and other plays. ‘I'm Margaret Fuller,' Woman One begins. ‘I know I am because from the time I could speak and go alone, my father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a lively mind.'
For most women, however, it is difficult to know oneself as a ‘living mind', and the montage of scenes that follow in Calm Down Mother catches moments in that struggle for a variety of women characters. Structurally, each of the scenes is similar in its triangulation of interaction among three women and in a common tension between generation, between mothers and daughters, symbolic or literal. In one early scene, two older women, sisters who run a Brooklyn delicatessen, become nostalgic when a young female customer enters whose hair reminds them of their own youth and their mother. In another scene, one woman lies still on the floor while her two daughters meet in a distant city and acknowledge their mother's impending death from bone cancer. This crisis allows the ‘strong' sister to reveal her own vulnerability.
While Terry centres on mother-daughter relationships, she does not sentimentalise them. In the penultimate scene of the play, two sisters fight about the morality of contraception, and their mother, after attempting to stop their argument, rejects the daughter who advocates the pill. ‘You're no daughter of mine,' Ma cries, ‘Pack your things.' That line resonates through the final scene in which all three actresses paradoxically declare their self-sufficiency and their identification with reproduction: ‘The eggies in our beggies [sic] are enough … Are enough … Are enough.'
This last scene serves as an ironic counterpart to Margaret Fuller's assertion of the struggles to be a ‘living mind', and also unites the varied transformational devices used to move one scene into another. Some of these transformations, links between sets of characters and contexts, are abrupt freezes in which the end of one scene is held, then released into a new context. Most of the transformations exploit a gesture or emotional beat to allow the passage of the actresses from one role to another. At the end of a nursing-home scene, the two patients, already objectified by their context, become mechanical subway doors, through which the third woman, the nurse in the previous scene, tries to pass. During the movement pattern, the women chant ‘Please keep your hands off the doors.' What makes this transformation effective is that it picks up on one motif from the previous scene—the mechanisation of the lives of these women patients—and then creates a context in which a motif of the next scene about three prostitutes is ironically announced in ‘keep your hands off'. By the end of the play, Terry has brought the audience to accept persistent change in the bodies, voices and roles of each actress. The image of three women, smiling sweetly at us while they touch their bellies, breasts and sides and chant ‘Our bodies, our bellies … our funnies … our eggies' seems perfectly right.
Terry employs a number of similar devices in Comings and Goings, a play that like Calm Down Mother, was and remains central to feminist drama. Although many of the roles in Comings and Goings can be played by two women or two men, this play's tension emerges from pairings of many kinds and focuses particularly on male-female relationships. Class is not explicitly an issue here, but power and its relationship to gender roles are key issues to the conflicts that occur repeatedly in the play.
The opening scenes in Comings and Goings attune the spectator to the language-based transformations of this play. Like many of Terry's dramas, this one unveils the rituals that structure and inform our daily lives. The context of the opening of Comings and Goings is the awakening of a couple to a new day. The key lines exchanged between the two are ‘Time to get up', and ‘In a minute'. Stage directions suggest that this scene be repeated a number of times with the actors reversing roles and lines. In performance, actors stress the different meanings and infinite variety of interactions possible by varying modes of deliverance. ‘Time to get up' can be spoken cheerfully, reluctantly or commandingly, and ‘in a minute' can be a refusal, an acceptance or even a seductive invitation to return to bed.
The elemental frame for this opening scene sets up the performance strategy of displacement that structures Comings and Goings. Stage directions urge repetition of some scenes, and require that the entire company be prepared to play any role at any time. As many devices have been used to accomplish this as there have been performances. Some companies have labelled performers with numbers or names and put those labels in a hat to be randomly drawn by members of the audience. Other companies have used an onstage stage manager to decide the moments when one performer will replace another and/or to decide who replaces whom. In some productions an arrow on a wheel has been spun by members of the company and/or members of the audience. Whichever device is used to provoke change, transformations occur both within and between scenes. Describing this outside of the context of a performance might lead to the conclusion that Comings and Goings is fragmented and disruptive in production. In fact, however, with any well-rehearsed company the continual exchange of actors, while emphasising the concept of improvisation within a frame, is accomplished very fluidly.
Comings and Goings is strikingly successful in performance precisely because its theme and its form are inseparable. It is a play about role definitions and role change which relies on theatrical role transformations to move the play forward. Each of the mini-scenes presents a moment of encounter between two people, in which the tension of change, of coming and going, is central. Individual control over the scene is a crucial issue of content as well as of performance. In one segment towards the middle of the play, for example, a waitress and customer enact a common ritual of ordering food; by the repetition and variation of interpretation, at times the waitress appears to be the servant to the customer, whereas in other presentations the customer is at the mercy of the waitress.
In addition to calling attention to improvisation, ritual and role-playing as basic elements of theatre, Comings and Goings stresses the particular relationship of social roles to gender roles. In most of the scenes a predictable male-female relationship sets the frame but awaits violation or criticism. The restaurant scene, for example, illuminates gender roles by alternating control between the waitress and the customer; differences in inflection as well as reversal of the source of identical lines of dialogue make the waitress either servant or expert. As male and female performers replace each other within scenes, it becomes impossible to dismiss unequal power relations between men and women as ‘merely' a matter of individual greed or condescension. We come to see that it is the roles we have defined for men and women that determine domination.
Again paradoxically, Comings and Goings is not simply a condemnation of social and gender roles in contemporary society. Indeed, the experience of the play for both performers and audience is constantly joyous. While the scenes portray a world in which human beings are persistently alienated from each other, unable to acknowledge each other's needs and desires, the uncertainty for any performer of when she or he will be on and each's responsibility for every role demonstrates an ensemble process in which each member is dependent on the other in a positive and constructive manner. The performance transcends the world portrayed and makes the mode of playing appealing to the spectator.
A similar juxtaposition of sharp political criticism with intoxicating energy in performance characterised productions of Viet Rock, the play that brought Terry fully to public attention. Written in 1966 in conjunction with her Saturday Workshop at the Open Theatre, Viet Rock was one of the first plays to confront the war in Vietnam and the first rock musical ever written. First performed on 25 May 1966 by members of the Open Theatre at Café La Mama the importance of the play was at first blurred by the more successful opening during the same season of another Open Theatre production, Jean Claude van Italie's American Hurrah. It was not, in fact, until after Viet Rock received high praise on European tours that it received respectful attention in the United States.
Viet Rock is a difficult play—both to perform and to witness—but it gradually overcame its initially negative response and lingered on in numerous productions, in the growing antiwar consciousness of many Americans, and in its dramaturgical effects on contemporary theatre. Subtitled ‘A Folk War Movie', it fulfils that title both in its obvious satire of scenes from war movies and its evocation of known and newly created American rituals. The opening circle, in which actors gradually rise from prone positions like spokes of a wheel, bounce, then fling themselves around the stage floor, typifies the explosive conjoining of lyrical and satirical attitudes that permeates the play. The human circle is accompanied first by a male voice singing the lyrics of the play's theme-song ‘Viet Rock' and then by a taped voice that begins ‘Things could be different. Nobody wins. We could be teams of losers.'
Following the opening circle of Viet Rock is an ‘instant transformation' of the kind Terry employed in Calm Down Mother and Comings and Goings: male actors become baby boys and female actors become mothers who then ‘lovingly' undress the males down to their underclothes. Subsequent scenes relentlessly survey the variety of contexts that comprised the Vietnam war for Americans. We see army physicals, soldiers departing for Vietnam confronted by antiwar protesters, women burning in the final stages of death, soldiers parachuting into Vietnam and arriving mistakenly in ‘Love's quicksand' in Shangri-La. The long central scene is set ‘back home' at a US Senate hearing of the war that ends Act I with the ironic singing of ‘America the Beautiful'.
Act II begins with the oral presentation of letters ‘sent' between soldiers and the mothers back home. It then cuts, in Brechtian fashion, back to the American soldiers in Vietnam; male actors play the Americans, while female actors play South Vietnamese soldiers. At the end of the play, we are returned to an explosion and a circle, but this time the circle is tangled, ‘the reverse of the beautiful circle of the opening image', and there is no sound but a ‘deathly silence'.
Terry criticises war and the values that are a context for it. She misses no chance to note the sexism of the military: the Sergeant demeans his men deliberately by calling them ‘girlies', the interchangeability of the weak is designated clearly by the casting of women as Vietnamese soldiers, and ‘Mom' is perceived by the men as a correlative for sentiment. Because these gestures remind us that female attributes are commonly used derogatorily, they suggest a particularly feminist perspective.
Equally pertinent to the development of a feminist dramaturgy is the insistent sounding of song in this play. For Terry, as was the case for Bertolt Brecht, music renews the possibility of a poetic theatre, a theatre that at once engages and ‘alienates' the audience. Here, and in some of her other plays, songs perform two apparently antithetical tasks: they transcend ordinary discourse through melody and metaphor while providing a frame in which the harshest sort of criticism can occur. Music intoxicates. It is capable of transforming not the actors but the audience. When that possibility is exploited as Terry and subsequent feminist dramatists rediscovered, it can be conjoined with words that lead us in our ‘transformed' state to think differently about the world. It is thus difficult to refrain from singing ‘America the Beautiful' at the end of Act I of Viet Rock, but as we do so, it is equally hard to avoid recognition of the lie this war gave to that song.
The tension and public attention provoked by the productions of Viet Rock and America Hurrah led to significant changes in the Open Theatre's structure. The company abolished its assortment of workshops and, with the help of a Ford Foundation Grant, decided to focus all its work on one collaborative effort under Chaikin's direction. With this change of direction, Megan Terry gradually moved out on her own, writing, with increasingly precise language, dramas that unabashedly questioned the American dream and its corruption in the hands of the greedy and mendacious. The domineering male power structure loomed large in Terry's The People vs. Ranchman and Massachusetts Trust, and women who were just beginning to address their position in American society welcomed these plays.
One of her most intriguing scripts from the late sixties was a television drama, Home, produced in 1968 by public television. The play envisions a futuristic world in which overpopulation has created small, isolated, dense communities that live in tiny cubicles from birth to death. All groups are overseen by an external controlling power that regulates everything from food to reproduction. A rare instance of a drama fully conceived for video, Home's environment is its source of power and conflict. For the television production, fold-up beds were installed in walls, and one wall contained a large, circular television screen surrounded by cameras. Television and control were thus the medium and the message.
This apparent divergence from Terry's theatrical work retains many elements of her previous dramaturgy. While the characters remain constant throughout the ninety-minute production, the day is ritualistically divided into segments, and when Central Control commands, new activities are instantly initiated. Women dominate the internal space, both in number (of the nine onstage characters, five are female) and in the urgency of their presence. But power ultimately resides in the male voice of Central Control, and the ‘intruder' who eventually penetrates the cubicle is a man. The play ends in a rock song, reminiscent of the final songs of both Viet Rock and Comings and Goings.
Terry's next leap as a playwright came in 1969-70 with the creation of the Obie-award winning drama Approaching Simone. The Simone of the title is Simone Weil, the French writer and martyr who starved herself to death in 1943 at the age of 34. Terry had been intrigued by Weil since she first came to know of her in the fifties. Her goal in writing the play, Terry told one Interviewer, was to place Simone's heroic spirit, her enormous will, in front of other women: ‘Then people will say, “My God, it is possible; women are free to do this and can.”'
This focus on one complex, transcendent woman is unique among Terry's works, but the playwright's signature remains vivid in the deployment of the rest of the cast, an ensemble who repeatedly transform into characters from Simone's life and externalisations of Simone's pleasures and pain. Terry's architectural, episodic style lends itself well to a biographical drama, in which the epiphanic as well as the ordinary moments of Simone's life and death are equally embraced. Some of Weil's power lay in her own words and the poetry she loved, both of which Terry caresses in the play, but equally remarkable are the visual metaphors that evoke Simone's construction and destruction of herself. A familiar theatre exercise in which the entire company lifts one member takes on particular force in Act II when the entire cast suddenly appears to raise and caress Simone's body, which is wracked with both physical and spiritual agony. Each actor in the company removes and puts on a piece of Simone's clothing, in a haunting attempt to take on her pain. But no one can remove Simone's pain, and in the end the ensemble vanishes. Simone is left in a pinpoint of light that slowly, slowly fades to black.
Few theatrical images of the last twenty years have been as compelling as this last moment of Approaching Simone, and, for the first time, critics were fully appreciative of Terry's success. Instead of exploiting this success to turn to commercial theatre, however, Terry joined with five other women playwrights in 1972 to form the Women's Theater Council. This group, which included Fornes, Drexler, Bovasso, Kennedy and Owens as well as Terry, came together to demonstrate the existence of feminist drama and to support each other as well as other playwrights in achieving productions of plays that arose from women's visions. As a formal body, the Council was short lived, but it did serve to establish a network that has continued into the 1980s.
For Terry, the establishment of the Women's Theater Council and its successor, the Theater Strategy Group, did not suffice as an environment in which to pursue her own commitments to an experimental, community-based theatre in which women could thrive. In 1968, one of Terry's colleagues from the Open Theatre, Jo Ann Schmidman, had returned to her native Omaha, Nebraska, where she had established a new more central, storefront theatre, the Omaha Magic Theatre (OMT). The goal of the theatre was to effect social change: ‘We want to have an impact on the community of Omaha, Nebraska. We believe that change is possible here. There's responsiveness.' Terry visited the OMT in 1970, and thus began a lasting association with the company. By 1974, while productions of her plays were blossoming throughout the country, she had moved her resident to Omaha, where she has remained ever since as resident playwright.
An early aim of the OMT according to Terry and Schmidman was ‘to crash some barriers for women'. But at first, the company, which was and remains open to anyone who wants to participate, attracted mostly male actors, writers and musicians. Then in 1974, following Terry's move to Omaha and perhaps because of the increasing force of the women's movement, the desired feminist orientation of the theatre began to be realised and OMT was able to focus on plays about women by women.
The play that served as one catalyst for this change was Terry's Babes in the Bighouse, one of the first big successes of the OMT and one of Terry's most provocative dramas. Set in a woman's prison, Babes is a ‘documentary musical fantasy' that interweaves clichéd public notions of life in a women's prison with documentary material drawn from prison interviews and visits. Songs and stories reveal the internal lives of the inmates. When the OMT performs the play, the audience is seated on at least two sides of the playing area; for the original production, audience members entered the theatre and were immediately confronted by brightly-coloured metal scaffolding arranged in two tiers to represent double-decker prison cells. The actors, who repeatedly transform from inmates to guards and matrons, address many of their speeches directly to the audience, and often more than one activity and discourse occur simultaneously. Despite moments of comic relief and the characteristic inclusion of song and dance, for the audience the experience of Babes in the Bighouse is undeniably troubling.
Throughout this play the prison world strains towards the audience, threatening yet reminding us that we are on the outside. The inmates first present themselves in a grotesque version of our projections of ‘bad women': costumes for the opening utilise a wild mixture of corsets, feathers, long gloves, leather, spike heels and heavy make-up. The performers replace these costumes with simple housedresses and colourful band uniform jackets for most of the play, but the ambience of hostility of many kinds is sustained by the starkness and vulgarity of the language and the raw physical violence that repeatedly flashes or hints its presence. There is no comfort for the audience in the stripping of new inmates or the fight between two characters named El Toro and Jockey over the attentions of another prisoner. It is crucial, however, to Babes'; intentions, that the most aggressive and distressing actions of the production are not predictable prison behaviours but are the stories the women tell us of their past and present anguish.
With Babes in the Bighouse, Terry's development of a distinctive feminist dramaturgy achieves a new force and cohesion. In a gesture similar to one Caryl Churchill would make in Britain a few years later, Terry and Schmidman cast men as well as women in the roles of the female prisoners and matrons, and by their own account this led the entire company to a more rigorous study of ‘women's speech patterns, their physical and emotional behaviors and just how it is to be a woman.' Here, as with Churchill's Cloud Nine, there is no campiness or hidden grin in the performance of female roles by men; rather, we quickly accept from the all-female context of the women's prison that our perceptions of gender are based on social roles, gestures and styles.
Transformations also take on a more precise and fluid form in this play. According to the stage directions, the dominant dramatic image for Babes is ‘How the Women Walk'. As spectators, we experience the walks of the performers as a continuous chord that permeates each scene. The walks serve as the occasion for transformations of one character to another, and they visually express the condition of being a woman ‘in prison'. Changes in characters are facilitated and underlined by the physical rhythm of the walking movement itself.
Four years after writing Babes in the Bighouse, during which time she had written and helped produce another six plays for the OMT, Terry turned her attention to another kind of prison for women, the more pervasive confinement of the English language. Entitled American King's English for Queens, this ‘musical in two acts' reveals the many sides of sexism in the uses and abuses of American English by a ‘typical' American family. In the first act, we see the Connell family at home in their ordinary, daily rituals. The second act sharpens the focus and suggests new possibilities for a language of cooperation and genuine communication through the invasion of the family by Silver Morgan, a seventeen-year-old feral child.
The first hint we are given of the play's direction is a wonderfully funny yet tense scene in which Mom Connell insists, carelessly, on referring to a rabbit as ‘he'. Jaimie, her young daughter, is confused and frustrated by the pronoun, because her mother's consistent reference to the rabbit as male contradicts her understanding that rabbits have lots of babies. Her mother never comes to appreciate the source of her daughter's distress, and Jaimie can only escape her confusion by asking ‘If all the rabbits are boys, are all the cats girls?'
The most irritating character in the play is Dad who sets the drama's tones and tensions by his constant admonitions that his family must speak ‘proper' English. For Dad, ‘proper' means the absence of slang and the use of correct grammar, but he fails to see that within those rules language users make continuous decisions that shape the world in sexist terms. Dad does learn, however, and, by the end of the play, is able to ask ‘Do you think like you talk?' The question is never explored in its philosophical intricacies, but it does lead the audience to agree that although language may initially define our humanness, the ways we use language determine what kinds of human beings we are and can be.
Like many of Terry's most recent plays, American King's English for Queens addresses central feminist issues in terms that are accessible to any spectator. On the page, these concerns sometimes seem simplistically articulated as when Susu, the oldest daughter, explains to her siblings that ‘We'll have to think of a way we can teach her [Silver, the feral girl] to talk without making her feel that being a girl is not as good as being a boy.' But in performance, Terry's controlled use of dramatic conventions creates a more subtle context for the verbal statements. Transformations appear again, this time both to show different aspects of Mom's dreams and to demonstrate the changes in Silver Morgan. And the OMT's discovery of the possibilities of soft sculpture, of sets created out of the traditional female art of quilting, adds a meaningful, striking dimension to the spectator's experience.
American King's English for Queens is indicative of the kind of path that Terry and the OMT have taken in recent years and of one possible route for feminist theatre. This path is characterised by the desire to engage the largest possible community and to do so through lightly comic, colourful, song-filled confrontations with social problems that concern every American family. One of Terry's most recent dramas, Kegger, pursues this route by confronting adolescent drinking; another OMT production, Running Gag, takes a number of light-hearted pokes at the current American obsession with jogging.
Neither of these plays directly addresses the economic and political structures that some feminists find it crucial to confront. For more than twenty years, Megan Terry has illuminated the lives of American women through her drama. Although she is a critic of sexism, violence, materialism and social corruption, her work does not call for a radical social revolution as much as it calls attention to the enormous strength she perceives in women, especially in the ability to will transformations. Hers is explicitly not a Marxist understanding of culture or society; in a distinctly American fashion, she protests inequality and injustice but does not analyse society in terms of class and economic oppression. But by utilising an ever-evolving set of feminist theatrical conventions and by putting in front of an audience a genuinely free ensemble that persistently emphasises the value of collaborative work and of women's work, Terry's dramas do suggest the possibility of transforming the texture if not the structure of everyday life. For Megan Terry, ‘the real news is not that women are down, are victims, but that women are in good health and making it'. And at least in Omaha, Nebraska, feminist drama is in good health and making it, too.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4386
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 Theatre—although ostensibly savaging television, Middle American family life, marriage, sex, or prison, Terry challenges the perceptions molded by language itself and the clichés about language as a vehicle for communication. Whereas words seldom say what they mean, the reverse (that they mean what they say) is often true. What is conveyed between characters onstage, or between them and the audience, is seldom confined by either the connotative or denotative meanings of the words used; and yet these deliberately chosen words and phrases are capable of creating meaning for both speaker and auditor.
Using the notorious American snipe hunt as a metaphor in American King's English for Queens, Terry identifies the parameters of language-meaning discourse. But action and reaction also create a context for meaning which either validates or rejects language's implications. Two features are vital to Terry's context for language: the transformations which illuminate the shifting realities purported to have acknowledged meanings; and the songs which redefine the circumstances of the characters and storyline seriously or mockingly. Unlike the absurdists, Terry does not investigate language to devalue it, nor meaning to abandon it, nor action to replace them both. Instead, all of her challenges testify her reluctance to allow the idea of meaninglessness to mask the uses made of language, action, and meaning.
From Martin Esslin's early appraisal of the absurdists to Ronald Hayman's 1979 summary of their efforts, critics, playwrights and directors alike have acknowledged that the last thirty years of drama have been primarily, not only antiart or antitheatre, but also antilanguage.1 They posit the notion that it is impossible to communicate at all, by whatever means attempted; or that language is an unacceptable vehicle for successful communication; or that language communicates what the speaker had not meant; or, at best, that what language can communicate is extremely limited and probably not worth the attempt anyway. The most respected playwrights of our time have leaned toward minimization; some de-emphasize language to convey meaning through action, while others script both language and action in the most limited ways. Beckett's dramatic works quite clearly follow the latter pattern: in Waiting for Godot, language and movement frequently contradict each other, what had come before, or what was clear to the audience; in the later works, bodies are lost in urns or behind curtains, and brief, disconnected phrases (or even sounds and musical notes) replace comprehensible speech. Pinter is committed to the same reconsideration of communication, frequently allowing his characters a torrent of words, often emphasizing silences as strongly as the language which surrounds them: Pinter thinks of “talk” as covering over silence. In Theatre and Anti-Theatre, Hayman examines how, in the same period, three important directors—Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Joseph Chaikin—turned away from language-meaning parallels.2 Separately, these directors evolved practices which accommodated their beliefs that language, being culture specific, could not communicate as successfully as movement, more universal. In short, the absurdists and their successors seem to have perceived language (words, sentence structure, constructions) as meaningful to the speaker and the auditor—though seldom, if ever, having the same meaning. What they seem less willing to grant is the meaning accorded to language by social practice. Where this influence is acknowledged by the absurdists, it is used in ironic ways—e.g., greetings and other socially ritualistic exchanges in Godot, Happy Days, The Birthday Party—often recognized by the characters as well as the audience.
In the four full-length musicals named above, Terry admits that a speaker does not always say what she or he means, but does mean what she or he says: something is communicated by language. And in a structured world, socialized auditors recognize general language use as well as irony, clichés, and stereotypes to which they react.3 These responses may have been conditioned by the social climate, and the word choice of the speaker or the verbal response of the listener may not actually correspond with what they believe themselves to be saying, but these factors do not lessen communication. Normal utterances, lacking the precision of poetry's language choice, expand rather than contract the range of communication, especially when joined with action rather than separated from it.
For most speakers and listeners, language (i.e., a word for something) defines, identifies, or places an object so that it can be discussed without consideration of what the word means in any precise way. For example, the female human being may be identified by either of two terms—“woman” or “girl”—which distinguishes one from the other by differences in age; however, ordinary usage does not differentiate them that way, as is obvious when a group of middle-aged women is called “the girls.” In more ordinary use, terms like “lady,” which has overtones relating to behavior, or “gal,” which is both the female equivalent of “guy” and a frequent variant of “girl,” carry their overtones implicitly from speaker to listener. Neither they nor the audience are aware of these meanings, treating them as natural extensions of the terms requiring no explicit acknowledgment.
American King's English for Queens poses a series of questions about language and gender; its form and impact are basically feminist. “What is the difference between boys and girls or women and men?” leads to “What is appropriate behavior for these sex-differentiated people?” and culminates in “What is the social place for girls and boys or men and women?” “English is such an expressive language,” Silver Morgan says in the play's first scene.4 The all-American family, the Connells, have captured her in a snipe hunt from the prairie-dog town where she was raised. The great snipe-hunt fantasy serves here to define the limits of language and its meaning. If there is no such animal as a snipe, as we know, then the Connell children cannot find one; but whatever is captured on a snipe hunt must obviously be a snipe. Played by a woman, Silver looks like a woman; conditioned by her upbringing, she thinks she is a prairie dog; but described as the “only one in captivity” (p. 51) and worth “at least twenty-five thousand, if not a hundred million” (p. 72), she/it must be a snipe. The family response to Silver Morgan arises not from what they see or think, but from what they call her.
This process of eliciting meaning from the words used to talk about something dominates the Connells. The only boy in the family, Doug refuses to play a careers game with his sisters because he might have to be a ballerina or stewardess. When he draws cards for “good personality” or “bad makeup,” he is threatened by the careers his sisters propose: nurse, teacher, or model. The “simple game” becomes a “stupid girl's game” as his rejection of the game becomes a rejection of all girls with whom he associates stupidity and criticism: “Girls are crazy! Girls are crazy! Lazy-crazy!” (p. 29). Doug and his father consistently distinguish the household by gender:
Dad: You women outnumber us five to two. (p. 72)
Doug: But two men against five women? (p. 73)
Yet eleven-year-old Katie proposes that they are “seven human beings” (p. 73), although Doug is not sure: “Are we human beings and men too?” (p. 73). Both men acquiesce slowly and reluctantly to this dual status and the proposed team effort of raising Silver Morgan. Dad's earlier lyrics associating “you sissies, girls and dinks / Couldn't shoot a chink in a holler. …” (p. 45) show how he feels about girls by the ways he names them: they join the apparently prejudice-free term “girls” with the highly charged, pejorative terms “sissy,” “dink,” and “chink,” so that “girl” is no longer a value-neutral term. Because this is true, Dad must teach Doug how to behave like a man:
Now here is the way a man stands.
You must hold yourself like a man. (Doug follows too literally and holds his crotch.)
You protect your sisters.
Men don't cry. If you cry I'll make you wear your sisters' clothes to school. Good … good … You look cool! (pp. 37-39)
Men's behavior is seen as a function of what they are called: Doug is a boy at nine years old, but when called a “man,” he can be one. Crucial to the meaning of “man” is its negative, i.e., not-girl, the ultimate degradation. Not only Doug acknowledges what Dad is teaching him, but Mom and his sisters recognize the same connotations surrounding the terms “man” and “girl,” reacting at one point by inverting them to “boys” and “women.” Simply as a result of this name change, the females feel stronger and more unified while the males feel threatened.
This assignment of meaning occurs in the transformations as words are given visual reality. When Mom sings about her lost life while chopping stew vegetables, she is trapped by a net the full width of the stage:
Somewhere in this murk of me
There really may still lurk a me
(Kids drape a net over Mom's head and hold ends like ladies-in-waiting.)
What is she like?
And where did she go
For the last twenty years or so?
(Kids spin Mom in net, beat her with vegetables.) (p. 29)
Trapped in her own stew, Mom gets stuffed with a carrot and tormented with celery. The limits on her life, her imagination, and her opportunities are presented more clearly to the audience than to the characters; their impact is clear and direct. Here, action is meaning.
Babes in the Bighouse, set in a women's prison, uses all the B-movie implications of its title directly and in reverse. Notably, the tension between prisoners and guards is diluted by visitors from the community who are urged to rethink their attitudes about the institution and disregard some of the prisoners' complaints because of so-called changes in the system:
I want to welcome you to our campus. I think some of you may have noticed the new sign just to the right of the front gate: “Women's State Correctional Facility.” The legislature was kind enough to vote us a new name this year and we were able to paint a new sign with the materials left over from repairing our “Adjustment Center.” In the dark ages of penology, there was a place where inmates were confined for punishment, which our charges referred to as “solitary confinement,” or euphemistically, as “the hole.” But since the sociological-anthropo-sensitivity-psychiatric revolution has brought us into this new age of enlightenment—and thus more humane treatment geared toward rehabilitation—what used to be called “the hole” is now a gaily painted place where inmates who may be feeling upset may go to meditate—alone—away from the hubbub of correctional life.5
But the prisoners are not confused by talk; nor are the audience, having already been told by one of the inmates:
They got a hole in here—they call it “The Adjustment Center.” They want everything here to sound like a hospital or a school so you'll think that with a new name somethin's changed around here. No matter how many times they call it a “campus,” this place is still a joint. (I, 1)
Because they understand the rules, the prisoners also recognize how to avoid them. Since reading aloud from a dirty book is forbidden, they mock the regulations by proposing to circumvent them: Jockey offers to “croon a dirty book to you. They couldn't take it away, hey? No, there'd be nothing for 'em to confiscate. Nothing to go against me in my file for the parole board, because it would go right out into the air” (II, 32). This strategy reverses the previous notions of language and meaning whereby saying makes it so; in this case, “saying” goes right out into the air because regulations acknowledge written words as though the obscenity were in either the writing down or the reading rather than the action described. (It is ironic that in this lesbian setting the sexual aggressor in Jockey's dirty book is male and the narrative directly parallels those in Playboy or erotic romances.)
The play consistently stresses the confusion among language, behavior, and meaning which the authority figures and the prisoners manipulate. Language is a weapon in the hands of both. Having just refused a new prisoner's correction of her name in the records from Bessie to Betsy, the Matron calls roll to which each inmate responds: “Mamie Eisenhower … Ida Lupino … Happy Ford … Betty Rockefeller … Tricia Diet-Rite … Amy Carter … Marlena Dexadrine” (II, 2-3). Emphasizing her arrogant stance, a prisoner later turns aside the Matron's entrapping question “When did you stop engaging in homosexual behavior?” with a twist on the question's classic form: “When I stopped beating my husband” (II, 19). As they comprehend the power struggle between themselves, both groups try to hold an advantage through language as well as action.
The operational defining of the term “lady” appears half-a-dozen times in the play. Like its extended form “Christian ladies,” the word is used by the guards to categorize approved behavior they hope to promote. “Ladies,” apparently by definition, do not act smart, do get respect; they do not fight like men, do have their hair curled at a beauty parlor. Viciously the Doctor, who had injected one angry prisoner with a muscle relaxant which affects breathing, identifies the term: “Do you promise you will become a feminine person, demure and self-controlled? To smile whenever you see me walk by? To control your temper and learn to walk like a sexy woman?” (II, 27). In short, a “lady” is exactly what two inmates had previously claimed—“a prostitute.” This emphasis on isolated bits of behavior, while different from the standard, societally accepted definition, nonetheless focuses on the same aspect—behavior which restricts the ways in which women can act. It becomes clear that this redefinition is a feature of the prison authority's lexicon when an inmate, wanting to shower more than once a week, appeals to the “ladylike” nature of her request. She is ignored. Her listeners know exactly what they understand the term to mean; all other definitions, especially by prisoners, can be disregarded.
In this play, transformations illuminate meaning for the audience as the actors become one another, shifting from prisoner to guard to visitor, and being treated by others onstage or behaving themselves according to the parts they play: they become what they are named. No one needs to have the precise natures of the terms “guard” or “prisoner” explained to her; even the audience share the social meanings of these terms automatically. Through the transformations, the actors and audience participate in the apparently different but essentially limited roles available to women in the Bighouse. Because no fixed identity is attached to any actor or character, the woman becomes the women. Their survival and satisfaction are group functions; each relies implicitly and explicitly on the others; each knows that she can rely on the others' recognition of her identity and its meaning.
Transformations like those of Babes and the split-stage presentation of Brazil Fado elaborate more clearly than specific language the meaning of the latter work. Two scenes play simultaneously: one, in an American bedroom, is a bizarre sex scene with sadomasochistic components juxtaposed against the second, in a Brazilian TV station, with news reporters broadcasting information about political repression in Brazil. The dramatic irony resulting from the audience's simultaneous awareness of both and the effect of secondary dialogue provide meaning as a counterpoint to language. While armed Brazilian police brutally beat a local family on one stage, the American couple, Danielle and Barton, move toward sexual orgasm as he whips her with the head of a mop and tantalizes her with a rubber shower attachment on the other stage. Abruptly, she insists, “It's gross.”6 She is referring neither to the torture nor to the sexual activity, however, but to her unbreakable habit of chewing on her lips. The contrast between the lovers' routine and the reports of torture unrealistically sung in a Carmen Miranda style makes both appear ludicrous and serious.
The “newscasters” are continually transformed into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing a tango, the stereotyped Latin spitfire Carmen Miranda, the Bride of Frankenstein, brutal police, cowed peasants, corporate spokespersons, tortured prisoners, pornography salespersons, guerrillas, or government officials. With as few as four actors playing all these roles, the frequency of the transformations keeps the audience from settling into any familiar pattern of expectation. This unpredictability adds to the impact of the statements made by the various characters; they are simultaneously more and less shocking and believable. The transformations also give the newscasters opportunity to overuse the jargon of each group (identified by language choices, clothing, and behavior). The Finance Minister rationalizes in governmentalese:
The use of torture is very prejudicial to our world-wide economic progress and the improvement of our financial system. … We believe that economic expansion will solve our internal social problems, but to bring this about, we still need three or four years of social stability at home. (p. 16)
The educational jargon is equally contrived:
This statement I want to share with you children, comes from a primary resource group of what are known in the adult world as “political prisoners.” (p. 17)
The business world, smothered in style rather than interested in content, is similarly structured:
(Warm Announcer Approach) This is the only time the sponsors will interrupt this program about the terrible things going on in Brazil. We feel it's more important for you the public to be aware of the terrible tortures going on in Brazil than to be interrupted all the time by commercial messages. We'll keep our message short as a riding crop, tight as a bit in your teeth. (pp. 20-21)
The advertisement which follows, juxtaposed with Barton and Danielle's continued sexual activity, is for “Obedience, an S and M extravaganza. … Humiliation, spanking, bondage, only fifty dollars for a six-month trial offer” (p. 21). The melodies used to sing reports of death and torture are light and upbeat, contradicting the words used; the groups' jargon and clichés are persistently used. “Newscasters … march upstage left on hands and feet, bellies up, like ants and sing”:
They'll never call me Nero (March in Place) In my country's uniform. (March Left) When I turn the thumbscrew I do so as a hero. (p. 31)
When one newscaster challenges another about their reports, she is told: “If I listened to what I read, I might respond, and if I responded I would get angry, and then I would get depressed that I couldn't do anything about it, and then I would get exhausted, and face would get puffy. I would look terrible on camera. I would lose my job” (p. 30). If people do think as they talk rather than the reverse, as proposed in American King's English for Queens, then the newscasters seem to be clinging to jargon and scoobedo to keep from acknowledging the meaning of what they are saying.
The power of language is clearly recognized by this repressive dictatorship; censorship is one of its primary aims. Reports of seized letters being written to the Free World by political prisoners are themselves cut off. Censored newspapers are filling their blank columns with poetry. “Thus all Brazilians enjoy classical culture with … what's left of the news … I mean what's right with the news … rather, the news that's fit to … still be in print” (p. 10), according to a news announcer transformed to a terrorist with a paper bag over his head. Despite all this, the barrage of information directed at the audience through language and movement, delivered by a rapidly transforming cast, is unmistakable and obvious in its meaning.
Terry clearly recognizes the role of television in contemporary life and the fascination of Americans' response. As a molder of ideas and reactions, an influence on attitudes, it outdistances all other media. Its pronouncements, entertainment, and very existence are accepted with seriousness. The earliest of these four plays, Tommy Allen Show, is a superb parody of every TV talk show ever produced in America. There are four Tommy Allens (one woman, two men, and two people in a horse costume), multiple announcers, guests named Mrs. Assbite and Child Molester, and commercials for Avon's “Pussy Off,” the Trinity, and the High Heaven Heroin Company. Its plug is aimed at a growing audience:
And for the kids, try our Johnny Junkie Kit, with a complete set of toy works, black jack, rubber tube, monogrammed spoon, and a little pink pail to throw up in. … Ages three to six. For the girls, needles and heroin bags for Barbie and Ken, and a little prostitute outfit for Barbie when she has to support Ken's habit, and a drag costume for Ken when Barbie is too sick to stroll. Remember, buy your junk only from authorized dealers of the High Heaven Heroin Company.7
Nothing escapes commercialization and the hard sell. To “quit,” “sleep more,” or “dream/escape,” Tommy Allen 1 fantasizes aloud as a “commercial for his dreams” plays in the movie area of the studio, showing him in a nightshirt, using stylized gestures, running through a forest, between trees, and into a lake. His fantasy is making love, gathering plastic bottles from the beach, learning to take out the garbage, and finally, smiling angelically while he is beaten by police with billy clubs. Announcer 3, who cannot believe Tommy 1 would want to escape “(pointing to the audience) All this,” tries to interrupt the dream fantasy by calling his name; he is helped by Tommy 2's question: “What's the best way to get the crud out of your belly button?” Interrupting his dream program, Tommy 1 delivers the answer in his “best commercial selling voice,” concluding with the standard plea: “Don't go away folks, we'll be right back.” As the fantasy ends—“Hello, folks, we're back”—Tommy 1's dream is reduced from whatever meaning it might have had for him or others to a device filled with nonsequential, unrelated attention-grabbing statements designed to elicit an immediate, if empty, sense of identification or response from the audience both in the studio and at home (p. 44). Parodying the American dream fantasy, the Show demonstrates how easily images and language manipulate the listeners.
The Show suggests that people are often dragged along by the force and flow of words rather than using language thoughtfully, that language and meaning can exist in the public sphere as though unassociated with their speakers or creators. The television commercials, selling either “good” or “evil,” have this kind of independent life, even as “real” TV commercials tout the typical and normal American family as consisting of male and female parents with two or three children (some of each sex) while statistics demonstrate that fewer than ten percent of American families fit this norm: the autonomous meaning of TV advertising's words and actions convinces ninety percent of the population that it is unusual. The ubiquitous “informed source,” “unnamed spokesperson,” or “highly placed official” of contemporary news releases is a speaker similarly separated from the language and meaning attributed to her or him.
Tommy 3, who first sings in imitation of Streisand, Dietrich, and Garland, and plays with her microphone like Tina Turner, begins her monologue by acknowledging the relationship between thinking and speaking. When she meets people, her conversation switches to certain automatic responses; she talks but does not think. This habit has led her to more than the boredom she admits; she has apparently forgotten how to think. Because the social exchanges of “how was your day?, how was school?, etc.” (p. 45) fit so many situations, she has been able to convey greeting, interest, concern or friendship to a listener as conditioned by language conventions as she. When Tommy 3 tries to explain how she began to think and to notice what was around her, she is interrupted by the TV laugh track at points which make a potentially serious comment merely laughable. Hearing the laugh track, the audience are supposed to assume that her monologue—like its standard late-night model—is an extended joke. Whether they see the humor or not, they laugh: no one wants to be singled out as the one who missed the punch line when laughter indicates apparent understanding of the apparent joke.
Television's lunacy is easily parodied; it is separate from life's, yet reflects it while claiming to represent it. These three positions of outside, reverse, and duplicate are often mistaken for the thing which is rather than the thing which is as it is. So too with language. Obviously, words do not exist in a vacuum; they have a societal status, are rarely idiosyncratic for speaker or listener, and often mean what the speaker would not acknowledge having said. Both spoken and heard, of course, they have the capacity to influence those who use them. Communication, however defined, is achieved through language as well as through action; people mean what they say, even when they do not realize it. Language with its various auras influences individual and societal behavior. As Terry's musicals insist, it is never without meaning or power.
Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, rev. ed. (Woodstock, N.Y., 1973).
Ronald Hayman, Theatre and Anti-Theatre: New Movements Since Beckett (New York, 1979).
See such extensions of the Whorf-Sapir position as Anthony Wootton, Dilemmas of Discourse (New York, 1976), an examination of sociological interpretations of language; or M.A.K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic (Baltimore, 1978), on the social interpretation of language and meaning.
Megan Terry, American King's English for Queens (Omaha, c. 1978), p. 3; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Megan Terry, Babes in the Bighouse (Omaha, c. 1984), Act I, pp. 4-5; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Megan Terry, Brazil Fado (Omaha, c. 1978), p. 9; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Megan Terry, The Tommy Allen Show, in Scripts, 2 (December 1971), 37-61, passage from 41; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4366
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 and sex roles permeates our life so thoroughly that many of us are afraid to give them up. In giving them up we fear we would be giving up our identity, and even life itself.
Joseph Chaikin's comment represents part of his response to what he and others involved in the Open Theatre of the 1960s called the “setup.” In advertising for an “ingenue,” a “leading lady,” a “character actress,” a “male juvenile character,” and so on, trade papers reflected a disturbing coincidence between theatre and society: both based their vocabulary of character on the stereotype. Both assumed there were “fixed ways of telling one person from another” and found security in institutionalizing that assumption. As a consequence, Chaikin points out, “Each element of the societal [or theatrical] disguise, the acceptable image, can be assessed on an almost absolute and exploitative scale of values: ‘It is better to be Caucasian’; ‘it is better to be heterosexual and male’; ‘it is better to be rich’; ‘it is better to be Protestant’” (12-14).
Megan Terry's early transformation plays—Eat at Joe's, Calm Down Mother, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, Comings and Goings, and Viet Rock—represent a further response of the Open to the “setup.” Abjuring the rigidity of appointed and anointed roles, the Open made transformational drama a staple of its early repertory, creating theatrical exercises and plays in which actors shifted freely and suddenly from one character, situation, time, or objective to another. As Terry's colleague Peter Feldman put it, “Whatever realities are established at the beginning are destroyed after a few minutes and replaced by others. Then these are in turn destroyed and replaced” (201). From the perspective of two decades of subsequent theatre, it should now be clear that Terry's work with transformation challenged more than the individual actor seeking versatility and range. In freeing the actor from the prescriptiveness of the assigned role, transformational drama challenged the prevailing character of realistic theatre, which reinforced social and theatrical expectations. Terry's work in neutralizing fixed assumptions, dismantling the stereotype, and reevaluating the institutional hierarchy proved seminal in forming emerging principles and modes of New York's alternative theatre.
Chief among these emerging principles was Off-Broadway's conception of character. Until Beckett's Waiting for Godot startled Broadway in 1956; until Joseph Cino opened the Cafe Cino in 1958; until the Becks went public with the Living Theatre in 1959, with Jack Gelber's The Connection; until Edward Albee turned to playwriting, staging The Zoo Story in New York in 1960; until Ellen Stewart opened La Mama in 1962; and until the Open Theatre became a presence in 1963, the prevailing mode of American drama was realism. The principle of construction was the cause-and-effect relationship, the plot proceeding neatly through units of action that raised a dramatic question, satisfied that question, and raised another, even as a dominant dramatic question sustained itself throughout the play. Character became clear through motive, often discovered in a past event that justified a character's present perversions. The social-psychological-moral paradigm pursued by Ibsen in A Doll House and Ghosts remained the model for serious postwar American drama, which placed its faith in causality and its attendant claims.
Modern American drama took little notice of Pirandello's radical assault on the theatre in 1923, when Six Characters in Search of an Author rocked its Paris audience and changed Europe's theatrical vocabulary. In his 1953 study of “Modernism” in Modern Drama, Joseph Wood Krutch needed only to append a brief chapter on American drama, asking how modern it was, even while he was expressing moral outrage over Pirandello. The Italian playwright, he argued, of all the moderns, made “the most inclusive denial of all, namely, the denial that the persistent and more or less consistent character or personality which we attribute to each individual human being, and especially to ourselves, really exists at all” (77). For Krutch, the “dissolution of the ego” that Pirandello's plays present obviated all moral systems, “since obviously no one can be good or bad, guilty or innocent, unless he exists as some sort of continuous unity” (78).
Krutch's reaction might well be justified if one assumes the moral function of theatre, in which case consistency, plausibility, and growth are all essential elements of the continuous self. But a play, as Megan Terry and others have shown, might also be designed to play with the epistemological question of how the self takes form, without identifying a self that is morally accountable, psychologically consistent, or socially defined.
Transformational drama acknowledges the multiple and shifting selves that at any moment or collection of moments constitute a developing self, placing that composite in a context that is itself shifting. The consequence is a drama of perception analogous to a Picasso painting of a woman's profile seen in the same canvas as the woman's frontal view. Neither has priority, neither negates the other, both suggest the complexity of the dynamic process that we can only tentatively call the self. Moreover, transformational drama acknowledges the extent to which the modern self is shaped by popular culture—advertising, movies, fictional heroes, romanticized history, TV commercials—the stereotypes provided by the media that steal into ordinary lives and shape expectations. In its involvement with media propaganda as the living artifacts of our culture, transformational drama becomes a kind of found art, a collage of the objects that incipiently form, reform, and transform models of self. And, finally, though transformational drama of necessity negates Krutch's concept of an identifiable and continuous self, it curiously affirms the relationships between self and others that Krutch's more traditional analysis of character would also assert. As Feldman points out in his “Notes for the Open Theatre Production,” rehearsals for Keep Tightly Closed began with improvisations dealing with “dependency, enclosure and isolation” (199). And as Bonnie Marranca notes in her study of American Playwrights, Keep Tightly Closed explores “confinement, dependency, domination-submission, ritual, friendship, deprivation, and loneliness” (185). Terry's approach to these relationships is, of course, different from Ibsen's, but, like realistic drama, it affirms the invariables of human experience. Unlike the dominant paradigm, however, transformational drama accommodates and affirms the variables as well.
Any of Terry's transformation plays might serve to illustrate the Open's contribution to redefining dramatic character, though her technique is not always the same. In Comings and Goings, randomly selected actors replace other actors, often in mid-sentence, and are themselves replaced, continually subverting the identification of actor and character or of audience and character. In Calm Down Mother, three actresses assume changing roles, becoming first one character and then another. In Viet Rock, the technique, as Richard Schechner describes it, is variously employed: “In the opening scene the actors become, in rapid sequence, a human, primordial flower, mothers and infants, army doctors and inductees, inductees and mothers. In the Senate Hearing scene actors replace other actors within the framework of a single scene” (16). In Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, not only do the three inmates change into other characters as the play progresses, but the situation being dramatized changes as well. Schechner sees Terry's techniques in Keep Tightly Closed as accomplishing three functions: “They explode a routine situation into a set of exciting theatrical images; they reinforce, expand, and explore the varieties of relationships among the three men; they make concrete the fantasies of the prisoners” (13). It is this play, mounted at the Open Theatre in 1965 in a double bill with Calm Down Mother, that I find most diverse, most fascinating, and most representative of the potential and the impact that Terry's work with transformational drama has had on the American theatre. I would like to look at the transformations in that play more closely and then offer some comments on Terry's contribution to off-Broadway's redefinition of the definition of self.
Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, like all transformation plays, does not ask its actors to find some coincidence between themselves and the characters they are portraying, nor does it ask its actors to create subtexts. In place of this psychological work, it offers a sequence of opportunities for verbal and nonverbal behavior, each involving an abrupt shift in roles. Transformational drama is clearly both a challenge and an opportunity for the actor wanting to see himself or herself not as a trade magazine type but as an actor capable of moving with facility among diverse roles. Yet transformational drama is not simply “for the actors,” as Gerald Weales suggests in his unappreciative assessment of Terry's work (240). Transformational drama, like all drama, is for the audience, whose response to the abrupt changes the form demands helps create this alternative model of presenting dramatic character, one that says more about the epistemology of character, onstage and off, than realistic drama can.
The three men who share a prison cell in Keep Tightly Closed, all sentenced for their part in the collective murder of Jaspers's wife, provide a centering situation—not necessary for transformational drama but immensely effective here. Jaspers, an attorney in his thirties, hired Michaels to hire Gregory to murder his wife so he could collect half a million dollars in insurance payoffs. Though Gregory accomplished the deed, he was apprehended, offering a confession that implicated the other two as well. Now cellmates, Michaels has taken refuge in illness, Gregory in dreams and orgasms, and Jaspers is restless and angry. Though confined as the other two are, the lawyer still attempts to exercise his authority and to employ whatever strategy might help him get free. He bullies Michaels into agreeing to torture Gregory. When Michaels frustrates Gregory by repeating everything he says, Jaspers offers calculated comfort, advising the humiliated man not to sign the confession when he is upset. Still later, he contrives to get Gregory to join him in persuading Michaels to confess.
As the drama of Jaspers's power struggle progresses, the three remind themselves of the circumstances that led to their incarceration. At one point, Jaspers assumes the role of prosecuting attorney/judge/arresting officer, interrogating Gregory and attempting to reshape the arrest and trial into the scenario he would have liked to see. The three speak of the murder, reproaching and comforting one another, and Gregory tells stories: one of a dream he had of raping a woman, the other a fantasy of a woman who swallowed a snake's egg and was eaten away inside by the snake. Though arranged with no special respect for chronology or causality, each of the episodes in the centering situation contributes to the audience's conception of the three cellmates: Jaspers is arrogant, authoritative, angry. Michaels, a server rather than a leader, is burdened by conscience and compassion. Gregory is a weak but dangerous sexually-preoccupied underling.
But if presentation of the socially-psychologically-morally recognizable character were all transformational drama achieved, it would be indistinguishable in effect from realistic drama. What is special about transformational drama is that it provides multiple perspectives through providing alternate situations and roles. In Keep Tightly Closed, the centering situation, which itself admits recollection, wishful thinking, and fantasy, is punctuated repeatedly by actions among other characters outside the cell, played by the same three actors. Hence at one point Jaspers becomes General Custer, Michael a bluecoat, and Gregory their Indian victim. At another, the three become characters in a Jamestown drama, with a dying fifteen-year-old begging for water from Captain Smith. In one especially chilling vignette, Gregory recreates the moments in Jaspers's kitchen immediately preceding the crime, while Jaspers becomes his soon-to-be-murdered wife and Michaels his eight-year-old son. Three times, the trio become mechanical devices, and in one sequence they are transformed into a vaudeville trio, drag queens, and movie gangsters.
In none of the transformations is an audience to see the three as Rosalind playing Ganymede playing Rosalind (Shakespeare, As You Like It) or Solange playing Claire while Claire plays Madam (Genet, The Maids), even when Gregory as the murderer replays the kitchen drama. For each transformation, the three actors, not the characters, assume different roles or join in the mechanical representation of a container, a lead pencil, and a labeling machine—all identifiable through the prescriptions and restrictions spoken by the actors. Even if the transformation is completely convincing, however, and the audience understands that Jaspers is not General Custer or the dying boy but that the actor has merely shifted roles, its perception of character changes in a number of ways. For one thing, as Chaikin points out, the wearing of a disguise affects the actor: “In former times acting simply meant putting on a disguise. When you took off the disguise, there was the old face under it. Now it's clear that the wearing of the disguise changes the person. As he takes the disguise off, his face is changed from having worn it” (6). The face that is changed from having worn the disguise is the face the audience sees. Though an audience understands that it is not Jaspers who is playing General Custer but an actor shifting roles, the afterimage of the character that actor has just played necessarily informs the next. Hence an audience's perception of Custer is affected by the afterimage of Jaspers, and the afterimage of Custer, in turn, changes the audience's perception of Jaspers. As the actor who plays Jaspers assumes other roles as well, the layering multiples: images and afterimages combine in a densely layered portrait that challenges the clear, sharp outlines of the realistically drawn face.
Moreover, as it is creating the Picasso face, transformational drama is also engaging, even exploiting, the special double vision that an audience brings to every theatrical experience. While the transformation requires the actor to abandon one role for another, at the same time it plays on the knowledge that an audience never achieves the same abandonment. Though willing by convention to believe the masquerade and to enter the fiction of the play, an audience watching Olivier playing Lear never forgets that it is watching both Olivier and Lear. Nor do recidivist playgoers discard their recollection of Olivier playing Hamlet when they watch Olivier playing Lear or, for that matter, their image of Olivier playing Hamlet when they watch Jacobi in that role. Transformational drama demands that the audience not only be aware of the multiplicity of selves generated by a multiplicity of roles but that it become an active participant in the process of definition and redefinition that never ends.
Were we talking of Comings and Goings, which shifts arbitrarily from one situation to the next and randomly appoints actors to assume specific roles, we might stop our discussion here, without attention to context. But Keep Tightly Closed presents a nuclear trio of characters whose prison experience is central to the play. Given this centering situation, it is safe to assume that Terry's choices of transformations in Keep Tightly Closed are not random but are chosen for their specific content to contribute both to an audience's perception of Jaspers, Michaels, and Gregory and to its understanding of how character takes form. In shifting to the situation with Custer, a bluecoat, and a redskin, for example, Terry provides a vignette that might well have served as a subtext or a preparatory improvisation for the trio had the group been operating under the Method. Jaspers—arrogant, authoritative—changes into the General, “buckles on sword, tips hat forward, climbs on horse, gallops in circle, comes back to Michaels,” and commands; “Tie that redskin up.” Michaels, who followed Jaspers's orders in securing a hired murderer, now changes into the obedient bluecoat, responding with a “Yes, sir!” Gregory, who is about to be interrogated by Jaspers and coerced into signing a confession, becomes the Indian, laughing derisively and refusing to sign the treaty even when tortured (163-4). Or Jaspers, exhausted from Gregory's refusal to sign, becomes a fifteen-year-old dying in Jamestown: “Please, water … a taste … only one … then I'll ask for nothing more … a drop. …” The others take verbal jabs at the absent Captain Smith, creating a portrait of a hellish old “pisspot”—not unlike Michaels's and Gregory's perception of Jaspers—and cursing the day they “signed on this voyage.” As the lad's life fades, Gregory becomes Captain Smith, assuming the position of authority figure and father (173-4). In both cases, history provides an analogy that works through association of the relationships and emotions of the past with those of the present. In this duo of vignettes, the actor (and, by association, Jaspers) becomes both father and son, tormentor and tormented, the dominant figure and the submissive one.
If history provides a subtext for the centering situation, so also do the collection of offbeat characters recognizable to any contemporary audience: the vaudeville trio, drag queens, and gangsters. Earlier I spoke of how at times the prisoners discuss and act out events of the recent past, sometimes reshaping them in response to their needs, and how Gregory, when encouraged by Michaels, speaks of his dream and, on his own initiative, tells the story of the woman whom an interior snake emaciated and killed. In describing two of the play's alternate situations—the General Custer and Captain vignettes—I spoke of shifting situations and roles, in which the audience is asked to think of the historical characters and relationships in the context of the centering situation and the characters and relationships of the centering situation in the context of the historical vignettes. When, halfway through the drama, Terry has the actors wrap themselves in a prison blanket, lock arms, and break into a song and dance, then shift into a vignette as drag queens, then into one as gangsters, she is introducing another order of transformation, one that crosses the line between the centering situation and the alternate situation through more than analogy. In these vignettes, the actors retain their identities as Jaspers, Michaels, and Gregory even as they engage in the transformation, so that style and tone reflect the drag queen or gangster even as content betrays their prison identities. The shift between role playing and transformation is subtle and ill defined, a tactic that requires the audience to think of the three cellmates at the same time it is thinking of the offbeat figures.
Here again, we have relationships similar to those profiled in the historical vignettes: Jaspers becomes the dominant queen; joined by Michaels, he torments Gregory, who tries to swallow an embarrassing love note. But “Swinging Woolf's” love note was “sent to this cell” (179), apparently by a prisoner, or perhaps by a guard, attracted to one of the three cellmates. In the gangster vignette, Michaels's movie gangster discusses his seduction of Gregory's movie gangster as he primed him for the murder assignment. To Michaels's gangster's “I buy lots of slobs drinks when I want a few laughs,” Gregory's gangster, or Gregory, replies, “Some laugh. You're in for life for a few laughs. You aren't laughing now” (180).
These offbeat vignettes comment as well on the peculiar way in which a uniquely modern character, both national and individual, takes form. These products of Hollywood—singers and dancers, drag queens, and movie gangsters—are merely another part of the propaganda machine that advertises for an ingenue or a leading lady. These seemingly harmless representations of humanity are surface rather than substance, which, through mass dissemination, acquire legitimacy of form. Terry's introduction of these recognizable pieces of Hollywood celluloid wrenches us away from the individual confinement of the prisoners and reminds us of the social and personal confinements that media stereotyping prescribes.
The culminating vignette of the play, in which Jaspers becomes a preacher, his cellmates altar boys, and then the three become father and sons, brings together the centering situation, the transformation vignettes, and the vignettes in which role playing and transformation are difficult to divide. Having just tried to persuade Gregory to help him get Michaels to confess, the actor playing Jaspers, or Jaspers, changes abruptly into a preacher, speaking before a congregation about a man “in our midst” (194) accused of murdering his wife. After delivering an exhausting sermon that warns the congregation of impending losses and urges community as a countering strength, the preacher collapses into the arms of Michaels and Gregory, who become Jaspers's eight-year-old son, Richard, and his ten-year-old, Mark. Both offer comfort to their father, assuring him that “Mommie's in heaven” (196); then all three engage in a chanting prayer to “Our father, Our Father” (197-98).
In his notes to the Open Theatre production, Feldman remarks that he took it that “Jaspers' mind cracks completely at the end, and the ‘Dearly Beloved' speech shows him in the midst of a wild, pseudo-religious, ecstatic delusion” (204). Yet Walters's notes reveal that he told his actor not to play Jaspers playing a priest but simply to play a priest (208). That the two directors approached the moment with opposing assumptions suggests the complexity of this culminating vignette, in which a preacher who looks just like Jaspers says what Jaspers would have said had Jaspers been in the pulpit—or in which Jaspers himself (or a Jasper who has lost touch with himself) orates. The figure in the pulpit is at once a preacher before his congregation, one of any number of TV evangelists (Feldman used a Cardinal Cushing oration as his model ), Jaspers in prison adopting the role of a preacher, and a mentally incompetent Jaspers who has collapsed under the moral weight of confinement, isolation, and loss. The vignette curiously accommodates the social-psychological-moral inscriptions of realistic drama, urging affirmation of the invariables of human relationships and experience that the previous vignettes individually and collectively record. But it departs from the realistic model in not yielding to the static face. This shifting portrait of Jaspers provides a stage image not of the morally accountable, psychologically consistent, socially-defined self that Krutch values but of the dynamic process of character formation and the multiple layers that constitute an anatomy of self.
Terry's understanding of transformational drama as more than an acting exercise, as an opportunity to explore with intelligence and with force the modes of self-definition in a contemporary arena, helped move American theatre beyond the cliche. A decade after Terry's work with transformational drama at the Open, Sam Shepard, acknowledged high priest of off-Broadway, framed a note to actors in Angel City: Instead of the idea of a “whole character” with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central scheme. Collage construction, jazz improvisation. Music or painting in space (qtd. in Gilman xv-xvi). Shepard might have been describing Terry's transformational drama, created a decade earlier at the Open.
If Terry's work with redefining character has found legitimacy in the American theatre, so also has it been influential in feminist theatre. Helen Keyssar, who has written on women playwrights of the last two decades, calls Terry the mother of American feminist theatre (53). Today's Terry, in residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre, where she and Joanne Schmidman have created new theatre for nearly twenty years, calls herself a feminist—and a humorist, and a humanist, and, most importantly, a theatre person (Leavitt 286). Yet her motherhood rightly began in the sixties at the Open, not only because she was writing plays for and about women but because she was writing transformational drama. That form's theatrical efforts at dismantling the stereotype, freeing the actor from the prescriptiveness of an assigned role, and reevaluating the institutional hierarchy speak with force to the comparable goals of feminism. Terry's work in neutralizing fixed assumptions helped prepare off-Broadway for the gender deconstructions of the burgeoning phenomenon we now call feminist theatre. In an interview with Diane Leavitt in 1977, Terry spoke of her desire to “explore the possibilities of what a woman could be.” She remarked, “We don't know what a woman could be like because we've had so many outlines and definitions forced upon us” (288).
Terry dedicated Keep Tightly Closed to Chaikin, whose words began this paper. Perhaps it would be appropriate to end as well with a quotation from Chaikin's The Presence of the Actor: “The joy in theatre comes through discovery and the capacity to discover. What limits the discoveries a person can make is the idea or image he [or she] may come to have of himself [or herself]” (1). Terry's transformational drama is a theatre of discovery, in which all things, and joy, are possible.
Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor: Notes on the Open Theater, Disguises, Acting, and Repression. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Feldman, Peter. “Notes for the Open Theatre Production.” Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 199-206.
Gilman, Richard. Introduction. Seven Plays. By Sam Shepard. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. xi-xxvii.
Keyssar, Helen. Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Modernism” in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1953.
Leavitt, Dinah L. “Megan Terry: Interview.” Women in American Theatre: Careers, Images, Movements: An Illustrated Anthology and Sourcebook. Ed. Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins. New York: Crown, 1981. 285-92.
Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. “Megan Terry.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Vol. 1. New York: Drama Books Specialists, 1981. 183-92.
Schechner, Richard. “The Playwright as Wrighter.” Introduction. Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 7-18.
Terry, Megan. Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 153-98.
Walter, Sidney S. “Notes for the Firehouse Theatre Production.” Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 206-09.
Weales, Gerald. The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's. London: Macmillan, 1969.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4762
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 to one another and get a feeling of forward momentum as a family?”1 Terry believes the actual process of being an effective family has been in deep trouble for a long time and she hopes her plays will suggest possible solutions.
Her interest in the family as a main subject for her plays began in 1977 with American King's English for Queens (AKEFQ) which investigates the ways language shapes male and female roles within the family. She wove her play around the central question, “Do you think like you talk or talk like you think?”2
The story revolves around the Connell family: Daniel Connell (Dad), an ambitious business executive in his 40s; Julia Connell (Mom), his wife, a homemaker in her late 30s; and their four children Susu, 16, Kate, 11, Doug, 9, and Jaimie, 6. Dad, who has worked in a corporate office all his life, now fears that his job might be lost due to cutbacks. Mom, filled with fantasy and frustration, remembers Dad's broken courtship promises and cries in her veal stew. The children throughout the play harass each other and pester their parents. The central event of the play occurs when Mom and Dad send the children off on a snipe hunt, that legendary pastime. Instead of a snipe, the kids catch Silver Morgan, a human being raised by prairie dogs. Never taught the English language, Morgan can speak only in barks and chirps. The children for the remainder of the play try to teach Morgan to speak their language and become one of the Connells. The problem, however, is that the Connells do not all speak the same English. Daddy Connell speaks the authoritarian language of the male business world, Mommie echoes her husband's language, and the children wallow in sex-oriented words and ideas.
In 1979 Terry wrote Goona Goona, a play about violence within the family. This new musical comedy asked the question, “Do we look like goons to our children?”3 The story line centers on the affluent West Omaha family known as the Goons. The father, Dr. Granville Goon, an “M-Deity” is a workaholic surgeon by day and a wife and child beater by night. June Goon is his quaalude-popping wife. Imprisoned in their expensive home, she tries to escape her life through pill-induced euphoria and sleep. The children Gaga and Garfield, who try to love their parents, are confused and bewildered by their beatings. The youngest child, the hyper-violent Gogo Goon, is kept in chains all the time so as not to hurt himself or his family. Rounding out the family is sadistic Grandmother Goon who at one point in the play scrubs her grandchildren's backs with steel wool before forcing them into a boiling bath.
Hearing the cries of agony from the Goon household but afraid to call the police are the two snoopy neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Marriott. Their dilemma, and one of the major questions of the play, is that even though there is something seriously wrong next door, should they become involved in someone else's domestic problems? Appearing at various moments in the play are the three visiting nurses whose job it is to keep an eye on reports of family abuse. As they travel around the community they provide factual information about abuse for the audience. Toward the end of the play, the Nurses and the Police do try to deal with the Goon's problem, but because of professional standards and red tape, it's too late to help. Gogo Goon eventually kills his parents, grandmother and the visiting nurses.
The third of Terry's family plays is the 1981 Kegger. Billed as an educative, preventative piece, Kegger examines alcohol use and abuse among teenagers. Most of the action of the play occurs at a keg party, where many young teens, due to peer pressure, not only drink but become totally inebriated. Once in this intoxicated state the teens begin their litany of why they drink and how much each of them can drink. In the early morning hours the party finally ends and many of the nauseated participants who drank too many “purple passions” are faced with the dilemma of driving home drunk.
Interwoven into the play's structure are monologues or what Terry called “testimonies” from teenage alcoholics, recovered teenage alcoholics, and their parents. It is through these testimonies that Terry shows the myriad of effects of heavy drinking on the teenager. Oftentimes alcohol does more damage to the growing body in its effects on emotional development, growth of judgment, and logic skills.
In Family Talk Terry investigates the breakdown of communication within the nuclear family. A focus of this work is to explore problems of familial interaction in a world of video domination. The family's “hypnotic routines” play a pivotal role in character development and theme.
Family Talk, like all of Terry's plays, is written as a series of transformations. An alternative to realistic playwriting, the transformational style involves a change of realities, of time, place, and character which is considered a major innovation in both playwriting and acting style. It violates linear plot development (with a beginning, middle, and end) and well-defined characters. Transformational theatre has an entirely different kind of construction. Plays are more circular, intuitive, and personal. The audience's usual habit of identifying actor and character is challenged and broken. Characters continually transform into other characters.
Richard Schechner, in the introduction to Terry's book Viet Rock and Other Plays, commented that an audience member's attention while watching Terry's transformational theatre is “divided between the virtuosity of the group of performers (an appreciation of ‘pure performance') and a close scrutiny of the action which seems almost abstract when stripped of its usual actor-character identification”.4 In trying to evaluate Terry's plays Schechner further added: “… Miss Terry's plays in print do not have the same authority as, say, the texts of Arthur Miller; and this lack of authority is to the play's advantage. The texts remain ‘pretexts' for productions; their staging should not be a recreation so much as a reconstruction.”5 This important point must always be considered when transformational plays are read. The script does not give an adequate idea of the play because so much depends on the actors' movements and characterizations.
In addition to being transformational, all of Terry's plays are written as comedies that are full of parody and satire and never intended to be dogmatic or propagandistic. Said Jo Ann Schmidman, founder of The Omaha Magic Theatre, “The work we do is entertainment … fun and light, even though the subject matter may often be heavy.”6 In essence, Terry's plays are a combination of pure entertainment and a social message, a difficult but most effective combination to achieve.
Dedicating Family Talk “to the evolution and constant redefinition of the American family,” Terry depicts the stereotypical suburban family: mother, father and five children ranging from seven to sixteen years of age.7 The Kraaz family has lost the fundamental ability to communicate. An exasperated mother Kraaz calls her family to dinner in Act I, and is answered by an almost commercial-like singsong unison reply from her T.V.-dominated children—“That's O.K. Mom, put it in the microwave.” After persistent, thwarted attempts, such as banging her pots and pans to get her family's attention, she takes drastic action and unplugs and apparently breaks the television.
Mom: I'm sick of eating alone.
Gregg: Be right there, Mom.
Mom: You always say that.
Diane: Be right there, Mom.
Mom: From now on you can cook your own dinner.
Davey: Thanks, Mom.
Mom: You know what we're having for dinner tonight? Baked alligator and swamp rat souffle.
All: Make mine rare, Mom.
Mom: Molten lava has rolled all the way from Hawaii and is eating away at the dining room table.
All: One more minute, Mom.
Mom: (Puts bucket over head, makes menacing cutting gesture with arms and moves into family room to cut the T.V. cord.) One … two … three … four … five … six … seven …
(Electrical malfunction sound and lights black out as cord is cut.)
Gregg: What’d you do?
Davey: The TV's broken.
Davey: You broke the TV.8
Without the drone of the T.V. to distract them, the Kraaz children are forced to communicate with their parents.
Throughout Act I the family confronts familiar problems: television, name calling, overly authoritarian parents, and a teenage daughter who lives for the phone. Electronic entertainment infiltrates every aspect of their lives, even driving a wedge between Mr. and Mrs. Kraaz. Caught up in being the breadwinner, father Kraaz loses himself in the newspaper during his off hours, and a simple shopping trip to a Nebraska furniture mart erupts into a spousal fight.
Mom: Going shopping with you is the most terrifying thing a person could ever attempt to do!
Dad: It's not my fault you lose your glasses! You always undercut yourself by losing your glasses.
Mom: I never lose my glasses.
Dad: I know—you've just “mislaid” them.
Mom: I've just … You always lose your keys!
Dad: And you always find them for me.
Mom: That's right.
Dad: I'd find your glasses for you, but I'm afraid of the alligators in your purse.
Mom: Don't try to make me laugh when I'm feeling so hurt.
Dad: You're not the only one who gets hurt.
Mom: That Nebraska Furniture Mart was a snake pit.
Dad: I thought it would make you happy.
Mom: Why would you think it would make me happy to go further into debt?
Dad: Those plane tickets put us in debt.
Mom: My dad was sick, I thought he was going to die. I had to go to him; I had to help Mother. She had to live on Valium the whole time. She could never have gone through it without my help.
Dad: I'm not begrudging you your trip to help your folks. I'm only pointing out where the extra debt came from.
Mom: And I'll pay it off, every cent!
Dad: Calm down. I'm not Scrooge. What's going on here? I took you out to buy you a present and we end up one step from the divorce court.
Mom: A new stove isn't my idea of romance.
Dad: Oh, no. That's it! I'm going for a run.9
To relieve his frustration Dad jogs around the block and Mom plunges into a deep depression that even her sympathetic children cannot alleviate.
A particularly strong scene demonstrating the verbal and physical abuse among siblings is that of thirteen-year-old Jennifer on the telephone. Each of the other kids is holding onto multicolored wires attached to Jennifer's symbolic phone which is a baby doll with a mouthpiece attached to its head. Throughout this scene the children prey on Jennifer and eventually tangle her up like a captured animal. Mom intervenes only to have yet another argument with her daughter.
An acting motif used throughout is the image of a constant swirling haze symbolic of the chaos in the family. Throughout the first act the actors grope aimlessly about trying to communicate their dilemma. They are constantly moving in directionless patterns literally bumping into each other as they search for an answer. Complementing this swirling movement is the occasional use of a specially rigged microphone (vocoder) that electronically distorts the actor's voices.
The stage environment, designed by Diane Ostdiek, consisted of a large monopoly board-like floor cloth with such designated areas as: “Danger—Mom at Work,” “Fallout Zone” and “Zombie Land” and central to the action is a large abstract television set. Due to its placement, the T.V. takes on an ever present God-like focus. The entire ground cloth is framed in a blue outstrip known as the “Stargazing Strip.” This area is critical to the set and production. When domestic life becomes too overwhelming, Kraaz family members escape to the “Stargazing Strip” to get away and think. A limited but selective number of props were used in the production. Five large gallon white paint containers without handles were used in several clever ways. Kraaz children could disappear or hide by placing the buckets over their heads. The containers also doubled as furniture and weapons.
Appreciating this dramatic production requires understanding why and how it was written. The themes for the play come from feedback from many of the OMT's touring audiences. It is a regular practice for the company to conduct audience discussions after performances both in Omaha and on tour. According to Terry, “It was those discussions that made it clear that domestic violence and teen drinking were symptoms of a deeper problem: that families can't communicate.”10 The recurrent theme of the family and communication skills came from consulting counselors, psychologists and communication experts.
According to Terry, television is America's fantasy life, catapulting us into an unreal world, such as shows that glorify the rich and powerful as do Dallas and Dynasty. These shows give us what we lack in our real life, while Family Talk tries to restore what we have lost through our infatuation with television—a delight in others' efforts to achieve and grow.
What Terry has done in Family Talk is not simply focus on a shattered family but rather emphasize the elements of reconciliation and communication that heal and make the family whole. As a result, Terry has focused her new play on a positive theme: improving communication within the family. During Act II the family resolves to conduct weekly meetings and Bible readings. These proposals are almost cliché in our society; however, for a family that wants to care for and support one another, they can be powerful tools for personal family transformation.
This past year I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of this innovative production and interview Ms. Terry about her play and also her work in recent years. The following are excerpts from that interview.
[Babnich]: Could you elaborate more on ways the audiences helped you write Family Talk?
[Terry]: I have taped all the discussions over the years, and the prevailing concern of most people is how are we going to get close to one another and get a feeling of forward momentum as a family group? People would get up and say, “My husband won't talk to me.” Other people would say, “I have a teenage son that I might as well not have, because he never speaks. I put food on the table and he takes it to his room.” The young people say to us: “If I don't speak in a certain way my mom won't speak to me, because I have to speak perfectly. Perfect means her way.” Throughout all the discussions we kept hearing the same sort of things. Parents kept asking, “Where does it all start? What can we do before our kids start digging through our bags to take money to go out and buy a six-pack of beer?” And the idea that kept coming up over again was talk. Simple as that, we need to start talking together which is certainly more easily said than done. So I decided instead of writing a play and just saying, “Well here's the problem, folks; we're going to dump another problem in your lap,” I said, “Do you suppose I could write a play on how to do something right and would anyone come if I did? Is there any way to put positive role modeling on the stage?”
And you decided yes.
I decided I'm going to fight it out. We called all the successful family counselors in town. Omaha has been in the forefront of a lot of work with families with kids in trouble. So, we took these people to lunch and picked their brains and asked, “What works?” Each one of them had a different way of dealing with the family group, and many of them were having success.
What did you learn from these counselors?
The family has been in deep trouble. All of the counselors we talked to are making a fortune because this is true. But I think Americans are recognizing the problem and many people are working to find ways to strengthen the family, to redefine it, to accept all the different kinds of families we have. The old-fashioned nuclear family of the ‘50s is a kind of myth. There's a huge increase of single person households of people living together, of single parent households, mixed households, and divorced persons. We have to say we're a big country with big arms and we have to embrace all these things and validate whatever way it is people are getting together. We need to let go of the old myths that are hurtful and rigid and yet find what was good in the old-fashioned family and try to revive it and support it, as it can be applied to our newly defined family. Some people have accused me of totally going soft but it seems to me that if there are things that are valid in the old fashioned family and things that work, like developing good manners and listening to one another and taking turns, then we should use them. We have so much chaos in life today. How do you train yourself to be more available to yourself? The big struggle that I've always had is between my animal self and my civilized self and trying to get these in harmony so we can both go forward as one. It seems to me that the family is one place where an individual can get a good grounding in how to deal with his or her self.
You mentioned earlier, that you are not in the habit of giving solutions in your plays. Could you tell me more about that?
I always feel it is cheating to give direction. I'm such a democrat. I always say that if I lay out the facts people will be intelligent enough to make up their own minds and know what to do. But I see some people are so bewildered they need more clues.
What type of solution did you propose in Family Talk?
To agree that everyone get together at least once a week and have some time together to really exchange feelings, thoughts, plans and ways of going forward. Otherwise we were finding that people just stayed isolated all through the whole development of the family. They all went off or got married and they still didn't know each other. And then the family reunions or holidays were excruciating times, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. A lot of people suffer severe anxiety having to go back and be with their families again if these things haven't been worked through at an early age. Sometimes I think we're a nation of disaster freaks judging by the news and what other people are writing. The big risk now is not death, destruction or disaster but compassion. It is a revolutionary tact to show tenderness, warmth and the fact that love and coming together is possible. It is possible to be close, to sing in harmony, to cry and laugh together. We need these positive images. It seems as if the whole planet is on the verge of chaos.
Do you think Family Talk will help the plight of the family?
Well, some of the counselors and families (especially those who have experienced the play together as a family) have said it will. But, I have no idea. A good percentage of the audience say that it makes them feel good and that maybe there's hope and new ways to do things. I remember a young family who, after the show was over, took a long time before getting up from their chairs. I walked over to them and the father said, “Thank you for the show, we have a lot to digest.” He found a lot of things that they were going to go home and try to use and help each other move forward better as a group.
Moving on to the subject of playwriting and the production itself, how did you begin to write Family Talk? The last time we talked was in 1980. Has your approach to writing changed since then? Do you work from an outline?
No. Once I have an idea I rush out to a typewriter. I have typewriters stashed here and there. For Family Talk I had lots and lots of scenes. We used only a third or close to half of what I'd written.
How long did it take you to write that first group of scenes?
It's hard to know, somewhere between four to five months.
In some of your earlier plays, Viet Rock and Babes in the Bighouse, scenes were written in workshop with the help of the actors. Did you use this method for Family Talk?
After compiling all the research I then went home and wrote a script. Once I had a working script I brought it to workshop where Jo Ann and a group of 35 people read it through a couple of times and then we put it away for two months.
Did you do that on purpose?
Yes, and we didn't touch it again.
Did you do something else?
No, the workshops continued. We met four times a week without the script. This is how we always work, really. I write independently of Jo Ann while she independently evolves the play structure. During workshop I listened to people's family stories too, but it was more like getting “essences of warmth” rather than using anything direct, anything specific. During the workshops we were also touring Mud and Kegger.
What happened after the two months of workshop?
We went back to the script and then it was a matter of ordering scenes and fitting in discoveries we made in workshop.
By this time did you have a completed script to give the actors?
No. The actors trust Jo Ann so well that I don't think they suffered any anxiety. We've worked together for so long that Jo Ann had no problem taking a scene and staging it, regardless of where it was going to be placed in the body of the play. The cast would kid me a lot about how the play was going to end. We started working on the play in October of 1985 and I didn't have a final scene until New Year's Eve. In fact, I wrote two different endings before I settled on the family meeting.
Was the order of scenes set by January?
No, we were still changing things around. Jo Ann looked at all the scenes and we had a lot of discussions about how the play should start. At first she didn't like the scene I wrote but after she worked on it and created her own way of introducing the scene then she liked it.
When I was watching the play I felt that the dissonant underlying music complemented the chaotic movement on stage. As in the past, were you also involved in writing the music?
I wrote the lyrics for four songs: “Exceptional”, “How to Exasperate A Mother”, “I write a Thousand Letters” and “The Dream Song.” Jo Ann, John Sheehan, and Joe Budenholzer wrote the other tunes.
I noticed that the musical score combined different musical styles from country western rock and roll, to abstract polytonal melodies. How would you describe the music?
Jo Ann and I, in working with different types of composers, mix the styles. Rather than having one musical voice, which is typical of a traditional musical, we have several. John's music is what I suppose critics call no music. It's very dramatic, sort of like avant-garde opera, and it effectively shows dream states on the stage. His music worked very well in depicting the underside of the family, the chaotic stages, the fragmentation, the disparate qualities. Joe's music was used during the times of family harmony. His final song, “Quality Time,” was a mixture of folk and country; it was very warm, simple and easy.
What have you been doing since 1980?
Working hard! We've been working here constantly 18 hours a day.
Do you still feel good about working and living in Omaha?
Any regrets that you're not in New York?
No. The last time I was in New York I was amazed at how I couldn't wait to get back to Omaha.
What bothered you about New York and the theatre scene?
It's just so hard to move around there and the commercial theatre work isn't good.
What do you think is the future for commercial theatre?
They've priced themselves out of existence and into absurdity. They're going to have to retrench. As you know, our top ticket price is $5, so people can afford to see live theatre. If commercial theatre doesn't do something to get young people back into the theatre, the commercial theatre will die because they are not creating audiences for the future.
What do you think the future of alternative theatre is?
It will probably always be led by people who are not satisfied with what they see elsewhere, by people who have a better vision, a vision of what they want to see on the stage so they put it there themselves. There will always be people like that and they'll be coming out of who knows where and not necessarily New York. Where did Grotowski develop? Not in New York. Eugenio Barba or Dario Fo didn't work in New York City either. Name all the great theatre artists who don't work in New York City and you see that you don't have to be in New York City to do good work. That's one thing I say when I speak to young people; you don't have to go into exile to be an artist anymore because of the work done by the National Endowment for the Arts and the State Arts Councils and now Corporate Giving for the Arts. You can be an artist wherever you want to pitch your tent. If you love the landscape in which you were raised and that feeds you as an artist, then you should stay there and make your art there. When I was growing up you had to go to Hollywood or New York, but that's not true anymore. Besides, New York has also priced itself out of existence because of the rents. In the 1960s I paid $25 a month for this coldwater flat that is now going for $1050, and three families are living in it. The young people can't afford to live in New York anymore. So they're going to Minneapolis, Omaha, Seattle, or Denver because they can afford to live there and make work happen.
As a final question, Megan, what does the future hold for you?
I'm always writing and rewriting. I never quit rewriting until it's published and then if I get a chance at another edition I write and rewrite some more. I've just finished rewriting one of my past plays, Sleazing Toward Athens, which is about the clash of materialism with the humanities on today's commuter campuses.
So you're going to keep on writing and rewriting?
I'll never live long enough to develop all the ideas I have. I have an idea a minute. I guess I'll just have to leave a lot of them on computer discs for other people to explore if they wish to do so.
Personal interview with Megan Terry, 3 May 1986.
Megan Terry, American King's English for Queens (Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha Magic Theatre Press, 1978), p. 1.
“Goona Goona,” The Jewish Press. 23 November 1979, p. 13.
Megan Terry, Viet Rock and Other Plays. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967, p. 1.
Terry, p. 1.
Personal interview with Jo Ann Schmidman, 21 February 1980.
Portions of the plot synopsis are taken from my review of Family Talk published in the May issue of Theatre Journal, 1987.
Megan Terry, Family Talk, (Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha Magic Theatre Press, 1986), pp. 3-4.
Terry, pp. 40-41.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5230
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, primarily in New York City with the Open Theater, now became more precisely focused on joint endeavors with her colleague, Jo Ann Schmidman, and on efforts to engage and address the local community in Omaha. While Terry was one of the few feminist playwrights to have had her work from the sixties and early seventies published, after 1974 fewer of her texts were commercially printed, even though she and the Omaha Magic Theater made serious efforts to arrange for low-cost script publication and willingly made copies of new scripts available to anyone who asked. Awareness of Terry's work since 1974 has also been limited because, although the Omaha Magic Theater has toured extensively in the Midwest and occasionally on the East and West Coasts, it has remained remote from the mainstream Boston-New Haven-New York-Washington, D.C. theatre circuit.
It is not, therefore, surprising, that when, in the 1980s, the press discovered the “new women playwrights,” Megan Terry was ignored or overlooked. At the same time, there is good reason to claim, as one of us did in Feminist Theatre,1 that Terry is the “mother of American feminist theatre.” Evidence for this claim abounds in Terry's more than fifty plays. As a body of work, these dramas have explored a wide range of feminist issues: production and reproduction, the language of patriarchy, gender roles inside and outside the family, the victimization and heroism of women, and the pain and power of women in a repressive society are all essential elements of Terry's dramatic discourse. Her plays persistently criticize and subvert specific institutions and events in American society—from the war in Vietnam to the hypocritical behavior of parents toward adolescents—but these critiques are not merely casual gestures at topical issues or facile assaults on patriarchy and sexism. Rather, they are specifications of a vision that emphasizes a transformation of morality as the basis of social and political change.
Although critical of the particular instances of violence and oppression against women, Terry's plays have never insisted, as has the work of some feminists working in other media, that revolution is necessary in order to improve the stature of women in society. Her objections to inequality are not usually couched in terms of an economic system that creates such situations, but rather emerge as protests against individual circumstances, institutional corruption, or verbal and conceptual distortions, notably common in occurrence as these may be. Even, for example, in a play like Babes in the Bighouse (1979), which harshly condemns both the treatment of women prisoners and, metaphorically, the pervasive imprisonment of women in the codes and practices of modern society, the challenge is to the audience's sense of responsibility and dignity, not to the economic and political systems that support such prisons. Terry's outlook in this regard has been archetypically American and may be a strategic choice given that her audience, too, is, for the most part, assertively American. Enacting her own feminist version of American romanticism, Terry has chosen in most of her plays to highlight the positive, though incremental, change that is available: women, in her dramas, are “alive and well” and on the way to doing even better.
This belief that things can be better took form in Terry's work as magic even before she joined forces with the theater of that name. Calm Down Mother (1965), one of Terry's first plays to be explicitly concerned with women as women, depicts the tensions as well as the attachments between mothers and daughters, but ends with a ritual-like chant that invokes woman's reproductive capabilities as a source of difference and almost mystical strength. Viet Rock (1966) concluded in “deathly silence,” but the intense ambiance of community in the acting ensemble deliberately encouraged spectators to believe that they—we—could overcome the various oppressions represented and enacted in that war. The most memorable moment in Approaching Simone (1970) occurs when each member of the acting company takes on a piece of Simone's clothing, symbolically taking on her pain and her struggle for women's freedom. Simone Weil, like theater itself in Terry's hands, is a model, but, as dramatized, her heroism can join her to others rather than separate her from them.
It is possible, then, to comprehend Terry's move to Omaha, Nebraska, as a geographical expression of her conviction that possibilities exist outside the norm. It is also important to note that this move came at the beginning of a decade that was to see both the rise and the retrenchment of feminism, including, in the eighties, a new generation of women content to identify themselves as “post-feminists.” From the retrospective view of 1988, however, those changes are dated, and even for some who embraced “post-feminism,” that label is showing itself not only as inaccurate but invidious.
As if sensing such a trend in the offing, Terry's 1983 collaboration with JoAnne Metcalf, Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones, represented a new and increasingly politicized direction for her drama. Retaining the basic optimism of her previous work, while venturing into one of the most contested arenas of contemporary American society, Terry dares in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus to show the possibility of authentic communication and mutual support between two types of successful women who, in today's world, would appear to be unyielding foes. The central figures and the orchestrators of events in this drama are Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, both born in the nineteenth century, the former out of Terry's imagination, the latter out of history. In Terry's staged world, Mother Jones, a political activist, socialist, and organizer for the rights of women and children, is not the evil enemy but the star performer and ally of Mollie Bailey, a woman who is a traditional housewife and, ironically, the ringmistress of a traveling “family” circus.
In this world, dramaturgically and politically, transformation and possibility are key motifs, as they have been throughout Terry's work,2 but their explicit presence has been augmented by an increased attention to the social-political cosmos. The onstage transformations that were oppositional conventions in Terry's dramas of the sixties (and that became accepted theatrical practice in American experimental theatre before vanishing, in the seventies, from the work of most male playwrights) are revitalized in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus as circus feats. More eloquently than in Terry's previous work, these transformations are also now the feats of American women recovering and reconstructing their history. Even the production history of this drama diverged from the pattern Terry had established in the previous decade: first produced in the Plays in Process series of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus was then produced at California Institute of the Arts and in Santa Barbara, California, before appearing onstage “at home” at the Omaha Magic Theater.
The prologue to Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus signals the ironic tone and mythic frame for this play. Suspended on a wide trapeze or platform held aloft by “invisible” stagehands, two Celtic queens, who are, simultaneously, Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, are crossing the Irish Sea on a raft in the midst of a fierce storm. Lashed to their raft are other, unconscious members of their tribe. Mother Jones's opening line—“Did you lash down the males?”—instantly establishes the inversion of conventional power relations between men and women; the men are not only physically subjugated to the women but are treated as sexual types, as “males.” (A few lines later, Mother Jones confirms this conception when she reassures Mollie that they will reach land with at least one male “in good condition.”) The prologue also establishes a mother-daughter relationship between Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey: literally fulfilling the role suggested by her ironic, historical name, “Mother” Jones commands, instructs and nurtures Mollie, who, in turn, proclaims her love for “Mother” and her confidence that she will be empowered by her mother's attachment and support:
Mollie. Mother, I love you so. Let me stand against the storm and spell you. If you hold my hand I'll be able to feel the way to steer. (P. 2)
Theatrically and culturally, this prologue is at once familiar and disconcerting. The sea-storm setting and the playful echo of “Take in the topsail” in “lash down the males” blatantly recall Shakespeare's The Tempest, which, like Terry's play, is situated in both the historical context of the discovery of the new world and the mythical context of a separate space of spectacle where time and place are magically construed. The raft of the two Celtic queens is a far cry, however, from the sailing ship of The Tempest, and the two women steering the raft's course would have had no place, even as passengers, on Shakespeare's all-male ship. Perhaps even more unsettling, where Gonzalo ended the prologue of The Tempest longing for any piece of dry land, Mother Jones bypasses an island, seeking greener fields. Contrary to gender stereotypes, the men of The Tempest quickly lose patience, blame others, and surrender to fear and chaos, whereas Mother Jones concludes the prologue of the contemporary drama warmly reassuring Mollie that “If we're not in trouble, we're not going in the right direction.”
The right direction in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus is rarely straight forward, or straight backward. In keeping with many contemporary feminist plays, this prologue and the two acts that follow exploit theater's liberty with time and place to conjoin previously disconnected elements of culture and history. Such temporal and spatial reconfigurations orient the spectator toward alternative ways of viewing the present and the past. Terry has subverted conventional representations of chronology and history repeatedly in her work, beginning with Calm Down Mother, but the particular juxtaposition in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus of a historical figure with a fictional character has even more striking affinities with several of Caryl Churchill's dramas than with Terry's own previous work.
Churchill's Top Girls, like Terry's Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus, begins with an imagined ritual of passage that requires a new understanding of gender roles. The similar emphases in Terry's and Churchill's dramaturgies on unprecedented historical representations and on explicit intertextual gestures suggest that the most potent emergent element of feminist theater may not be the recovery of women's history but what Mother Jones calls “getting into trouble,” and what I have elsewhere described as doing dangerous history.3 Where many feminist endeavors, in the theater and in other media, have aimed to recuperate women's history as an inspirational resource for women and men, dangerous historical explorations seek not only to recover the forgotten achievements of women but also to examine the conditions under which gender conflicts have repeatedly arisen and repeatedly been resolved such that women have remained subordinate to men. Dangerous historians, and dramatists doing dangerous history, confront the illusions of the past, including those that conceal women's complicity in the recurrent subjugation of women to men. Dangerous history also refuses to ignore women's violence at key moments in that history. The processes and effects of doing dangerous history in drama are increasingly evident not only in plays by Churchill and Terry, but in other feminist dramas such as Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in This House (1982), Louise Page's Salonika (1982), Ntozake Shange's Three Pieces (1981) and Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations (1981).
If, then, Terry's prologue to Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus is a warning that we are about to enter the realm of dangerous history, it is therefore appropriate that the setting into which Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey are lowered for acts 1 and 2 is a circus, a place whose attraction is inseparable from its embrace of danger. That Terry sets this play in a circus is at once a logical extension of her long-term association of magic, theater, and spectacle and an assertion that what has once been implicit in her own dramaturgy and in American culture will now become explicit, theatrically and substantively. At least in modern societies, the circus is the ultimate world of possibilities, paradoxes, and perversions; it is a reminder of the lost world of carnival, a world that Soviet cultural critic M. M. Bakhtin has recalled to our attention as the locus of folk humor and unofficial culture in Western societies from the Greeks through the Renaissance.4 Because the circus separates the audience from the performer/participants, it is not a true carnival, but in its irreverent conjoining of laughter and fear, its deployment of popular imagery, its love of exaggeration, its pleasure in the grotesque, and the promiscuity of its attachments, the circus, like the Rabelaisian novels that attracted Bakhtin's attention, signifies a symbolic opposition to the dominant values and practices of patriarchal societies.
Mollie Bailey's circus partakes of these essential attributes, but it also evokes a uniquely American understanding of circus: an exotic incarnation of the American rags to riches dream in which anyone can be anything and all is attainable. The American circus is the archetypical carnival that we run away to join, hoping to belong to a world in which our fantasies become real and we're freed from normative constraints. So Terry, in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, dreams for us, envisioning a society with new rules that embrace diversity. Once we enter this world, it will metamorphosize us in such a way that we neither want nor are able to return to our previous lives.
Traditionally, and in Terry's play, the circus is the realm of a liberated Saturnalia in which identity is redefined. As in most forms of carnival, the masters may become servants and vice versa, but there are possibilities even beyond this. Anyone can become anyone, then, in turn, become someone else. Identity is no longer fixed, especially when performers adopt new personages for their various “acts” or roles within the performance as a whole. Combining a familiar circus routine and a transformation technique often used in the sixties and seventies by improvisational theatre companies like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Paul Sills's Story Theater, Terry is able to stress this fluidity of identity in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus with far less stylistic self-consciousness than in her previous works: within the circus setting, one man can stand on another's shoulders to play the Father; the Mother can be similarly performed; the actress and the actor playing Mollie and her husband, Gus, can grow older and younger within a minute's time; other actors in the company can transform from trapeze artists to canaries. The circus setting naturalizes these transformations because within the bounds of circus the notion of who one is within the group is in Heraclitian flux: age, gender, and authority are constantly redefined.
The circus not only has performers who transcend the circumscription of labels, it also has clowns, indefatigable warriors who conquer the impossible, recovering from falls that in everyday life would bring men and women down. Mollie Bailey herself displays some of the attributes of the clown in the first scenes of act 1, when, as she introduces her children, “endless streams of people seem to keep coming out from under her skirt.” And, although the circus life is controlled by metaphors of the family, often with the ringmaster as patriarch, in this play, Mollie Bailey is ringmistress and a matriarch who is able to share her power without diminishing it.
Mollie's ability to share her power is explicitly attributed in the play to her gender identity, but the drama suggests that, even for a woman as strong as Mollie, this might not be possible in the ordinary world. The circus, however, is, also, importantly, a cooperative, a collective in which interdependence is all, and, frequently, a matter of life and death.5 The benefits of cooperative effort are announced in the prologue of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, but it is in the arena of the circus itself that the particular possibilities and originality of the cooperation between Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones are revealed.
Following two scenes that introduce the audience for the circus (and the drama) to Mollie Bailey's personal history of escape from an authoritarian father to love, marriage, and centerstage in “Women's Eternal Circus,” Mollie, as ringmistress, introduces “for the first time anywhere” an act that “has never been staged in America or on the continent.” The “act” is a scene from nineteenth-century American history, starring Mother Jones, and, as Terry blatantly reminds us, this is not a scene commonly played on the stages of American history or theater. In stark contrast to the frivolity and resurrection symbology of the initial circus scenes, Mother Jones first appears as a herald of death, carting the dead bodies of four children on top of coffins in a procession of carts drawn by old women. The image recalls the travels of other famous and weary souls, particularly the journeys of Brecht's Mother Courage with her wagons and children who die in the face of overwhelming adversities. In a speech to the audience, Mother Jones narrates the story, which is, indeed, a true story, of the epidemic that took the lives of her husband and four children. She tells of her grief, then sings to us of her determination to “find a way to fight for the living.” As Mollie made a new life for herself with Gus and the circus after leaving her parents, Mother Jones reincarnates life from death. What Mollie does for a nuclear family, Mother Jones creates for the communal family of the poor and oppressed.
By embracing theater's ability to realize the impossible, to blur borders between the “real” and the imagined, Terry creates a dream juxtaposition of the lives of two outstanding women from history “who didn't know each other, [but who allow us to] know more about ourselves by knowing them.”6 This juxtaposition sharpens the sad irony of Mother Jones's name: it was not until after she had lost her four children and husband to a yellow fever epidemic and had become an extraordinarily successful labor organizer that Mary Harris Jones became known as “Mother” Jones. The lives and works of Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey are thus inverses each of the other, but are also analogues; both demonstrate the force of nurturing activities and the empowerment possible through what anthropologist Nancy Chodorow has called “the reproduction of mothering.” (I am thinking here of mothering, not as the institution that presently determines women's experience, but as it might be imagined in a non-gender-biased society.)
By showcasing Mother Jones, Mollie Bailey reveals her to be an object of her admiration, though there is never any suggestion that Mollie is dissatisfied with her own life. Notably absent is any indication of competition between the two women. Instead, mutual respect and collaboration between Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey implies a personalized version of the triumph of a feminism based on responsibility and attachment to others over a patriarchal social system grounded in ideas of rights and competition. This is not a feminism that excludes men, that requires an alternative lifestyle or is biologically constrained. The dialogue between Mollie and her husband, Gus, emphasizes that the pleasure they take in the life and family they have created for themselves is informed rather than threatened by Gus's recognition of Mollie's strength. And Mollie can be strong and still value “clean family fun” and a “down-home good time show.”
Equally important, Mollie Bailey can be strong in her ways while fully acknowledging the different strengths of Mother Jones, whom we see in the first act as an “agitator, aggravator, hellraiser,” crusading against starvation wages for child and women laborers. Mollie attempts to delight little children and provide them with the gift of laughter and life while Mother Jones struggles for downtrodden children and fights the police. But while Mollie's voice is sweet and often expressed in song and Mother Jones's voice is harsh and inclined to cursing, each woman is able to hear the other, and neither sees herself or the other as victim.
The episodic, non-narrative structure of the play supports the audience's understanding of the differences as well as the interdependencies between Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones. After Mollie's initial introduction in act 1 of the “Mother Jones act,” scenes from the life of Mother Jones are intercut with scenes from Mollie's life. The connections between these scenes are often not explicitly articulated by an on-stage character, but are implicit in the similarities or contrasts between the events in Mother Jones's life and those in Mollie Bailey's. Two scenes in act 1, for example, juxtapose Mother Jones's instruction of a young soldier with Mollie's instruction of her daughter. Functioning much like an Eisensteinian montage in film, the audience learns from the collision between the two scenes more than from the separate content of either situation.
On a larger scale, act 1 and act 2 of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus have only a minimal narrative relation to each other but interanimate each other by contrasts and continuities of roles and themes. Where Mollie was the initiating voice of act 1, it is Mother Jones who begins act 2, and, notably, it is now Mother Jones who uses song to present her message. Her song repeats a refrain: “I was born in Revolution …” that reminds us of the changes in her life and in the historical context of her life, but that also reassures us of some continuity: “… And I'll never leave you. … Til we've seen these troubles through.” Like Brecht's women, when she is not changing herself, Mother Jones is the emissary of change; and like Brecht's Widow Begbick (Man Is Man) and Jenny (Threepenny Opera), as well as Mother Courage, Mother Jones's survival and success are predicated on her adaptability. Unlike Brecht's women characters, however, Terry's bringers of change are not only changed themselves by circumstances but are also able to transform themselves.
This openness to change is as true of Mollie as it is of Mother Jones. Mollie transforms herself most obviously by leaving home and then creating her circus/family. The actress's onstage transformations from middle-aged woman to young girl and then again to older woman heighten and defamiliarize these commonplace changes, giving them dramatic equivalence with the radical alterations of Mother Jones's life. This is not to say that Terry conflates the tragedies of Mother Jones's life with the traumas of growing up and separation from parents, but that the models of change we are offered range, importantly, from the heroic to the ordinary. Mollie's attitude toward change, rather than her circumstances, provide a way to understand our own capacity to transform ourselves. She has a propensity for change, she tells us: “I was born when I was already ten thousand years old.”
Mollie also celebrates complexity and eventually dismisses the archetypal purity ascribed to women; by so doing, she suggests we do the same. When her son, Eugene, presents his intended bride for her consideration, Mollie destroys his expectations of what is to be thought valuable:
Eugene. She'll expand me! She has a beautiful soul, so clean, so pure, so white.
Mollie. (To audience and all) Right away I'm alarmed!
Eugene. But those are all perfect qualities. … She has a clean soul.
Mollie. Then don't marry her.
Eugene. I don't understand you.
Mollie. You can marry her if her soul is as patched as our tent. (P. 31)
Mollie again invokes the circus as a source of imagery and meaning when she goes on to explain to Eugene her position on freedom from the tyranny of perfection:
You think to sell us your bride by showing only her pure points. That's not what circus is all about. Where are the falls? Falling and almost falling and recovering from falling. That's our job. (Pp. 32-33)
From a lifetime of “acts” inside the bigtop of Mollie Bailey-Mother Jones's Family of Women's Eternal Circus, Mollie has learned the lesson with which she concludes her sermon to her son: “If the soul is a soul that is whole, it must be made up of all aspects, dark and light, of the human/animal possibilities.” Stage directions indicate that Eugene is frightened by his mother's exhortation. No wonder, since what Mollie proposes is no less than a dismantling of the secure matrix of role-playing on which society has come to depend. Perhaps most threatening, Mollie's admonitions are pointedly addressed to her son at the moment he wishes to marry, and they are called forth, specifically, by Eugene's unquestioning assumption of the value of a pure soul.
Eugene's vision of a perfect marriage modifies the patriarchal stereotype by insisting on his own purity as well as that of his bride-to-be, but Mollie's revisionist gender values call not only for equality but for transformations of values for both men and women. Authentic transformations necessarily bring a genuinely brave new world. Eugene senses the terror of the unknown in this projected cultural revolution, and his explosion: “Mother. … You ask for everything!” is not unlike the shriek of the isolated daughter in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, whose final cry is “afraid.”
Mollie's only fear, the fear that grounds her advice to her son, is of a life lived without risk. As she explains in her final “introduction” of Mother Jones, Mollie admires and wants her audience to “experience” Mother Jones because, “Mother Mary Harris Jones is one first-class risk-taker. … ” She and Mother Jones each have “a different way of living in this world” and “a different philosophy of life,” Mollie continues, but with or without the labels and diverse “philosophies” of capitalism and socialism, of homemaker and agitator, as mothers, they share an understanding that “sometimes to minimize the danger, you have to take risks” (42).
Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones each acknowledge for themselves and for the audience that “history” as we know it is as much a human creation as any other enterprise. The task, therefore, is to rewrite a history that will enable rather than circumscribe those that come to be influenced by it. In the past, men have written the histories, but in the world of Terry's play, Mollie is the author of herself and of her story, a story that is unlike that of many authors because it is not, finally, a monologue but a dialogue. Aware that others will be suspicious of this mode of telling, and will demean her and her story as “woman's work,” when you come to watch her circus, you will hear her say:
Some people have put forward the notion that women don't know how to organize, don't know how to make decisions, don't understand logic, nor can they even tell a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. I confess, to the last accusation, because the way I see it the story has no beginning and it not only hasn't ended for me, it's always starting all over again. (P. 41)
Speaking here for the first time in the play “for women,” Mollie's “confession” affirms the episodic, circular structure of her circus and of the play itself, while simultaneously reclaiming Terry's basic belief in the regenerative powers of women and the epiphanic stories they tell. Life does go on in Mollie's stories: in the final scene of the play, Mollie's husband, Gus, dies in the arms of the couple's very pregnant daughter, Minnie. Terry then deploys the most theatricalized transformation of the drama to play this motif out fully: all of the actors drape garments on Mollie that before our eyes, change her into a seventy-five-year-old woman. The individual women, Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, are as vulnerable to time's tolls as we are, but in parting from the audience, speaking in one voice for the first time, they encourage us: “Go on—go on and open / Open that door you've never opened before!”
Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones ends on this chord, but the legacies of Mollie and Mother Jones do not. They are part of a re-engendered society and of a new history in which lives and acts transform rather than simply end. In this play, as in her previous work, Terry pushes boundaries, but here she not only imagines anew a universe in which people may effect their own transfigurations, she also takes the risk of reconfiguring the terrian of women's relations to each other. The ordinary moments of our contemporary lives are made extraordinary both by replacing women in history and by imagining difference among women as well as between men and women as a source of strength rather than weakness. In Terry's hands, familiar dramatic tools and cultural practices are made strange and magical by combining signs and conventions from differing forms of discourse and diverse value systems. The songs, transformational acting techniques, dialogic discourse, and wondrous feats of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus together make everyday existence alien, but rather than making us remote from our own society, they urge us to reenter our own worlds through new doors.
Like a magician who is freed to show the audience how she pulls the rabbit out of the hat, Terry, like Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, shows women and men how to work to make a difference. Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey will, indeed, “be back again,” to haunt us and inspire us, as will all the previously hidden struggles, defeats, and triumphs of women when today's women own their pasts as their inheritance, an inheritance that is rightfully ours but for which we also must accept the dangers of responsibility.
Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1984, 1986), 53-76.
For a different introduction to the idea of transformation in Terry's dramas, see June Schlueter, “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, 59-69.
Helene Keyssar, “Hauntings: Gender and Drama in Contemporary English Theatre,” Amerikanische Studien, December 3-4, 1986, 461-68.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984), especially 432-74.
Op cit. 153, 255-56. Bakhtin comments frequently on what he calls the “wholeness” or collectivity of carnival. For example, “The individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body. In this whole, the individual body ceases to a certain extent to be itself; it is possible, so to say, to exchange bodies, to be renewed (through change of costume and mask)” (255). We might note that this description of the spirit of carnival is similar to Nietzsche's notion of the Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy.
Megan Terry, author's note to script of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones (New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1983).
Additional coverage of Terry’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors Vols. 77–80; Contemporary Authors Biographical Series Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vol. 43; Contemporary Literature Criticism Vol. 19; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 7.