Born 22 July 1932, Seattle, Washington
Daughter of Harold Joseph Duffy, Jr., and Marguerite Cecelia Henry Duffy
Formerly adjunct professor of theater at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and later playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theater (OMT), Megan Terry is also a founding member of the New York Theatre Strategy and the Women's Theatre Council; she was one of the playwrights-in-residence of the Open Theatre (1963-68) with Joseph Chaiken, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and others. In 1973 Terry won the Village Voice Obie award for best off-Broadway play for Approaching Simone.
Two concerns of the Open Theatre have characterized much of Terry's work and her approach: ensemble creation and performance and the presentation of abstraction and illusion to clarify complex human attitudes. The "transformation" which marks so much of her work involves, first, characters, place, time, and action changing unpredictably and, second, different actors replacing each other as characters. These are present also in the "musicals" which Terry has composed for OMT (a regional company which presents only new "musicals"), her new works, and the workshops she conducts.
Terry's best-known play, Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1967), was developed in the playwright's workshop for the Open Theatre. Parodying and satirizing attitudes toward war, Viet Rock is less an anti-American political statement than a universal condemnation of the wastefulness, hypocrisy, and senselessness of war. The transformations of scenes, characters, and actors guarantee that each production will be individuated by its cast and circumstances. In Brechtean fashion the slogans and clichés, songs and battles can be revised or updated, but the theme of war's destructiveness remains. The mythic conclusion, when the Viet Cong kill and devour a G.I. and a native woman, intensifies the audience's repugnance and reveals the universal character of the military as one soldier ingests another—transforming another's flesh into his own. Terry's earlier theatrical transformations had made soldiers into senators or witnesses, sweethearts into soldiers, or actors into babies and mamas.
Approaching Simone (1970) has received the best reviews of all Terry's plays. It presents a totally self-aware hero, Simone Weil, in her struggle to gain complete truth. In the two most strikingly dramatic scenes ("Simone at Fourteen—When and Why She Wants to Kill Herself" and "The Visitation") the physical pain of migraine headaches and battle wounds is symbolic of the lacerating agonies she endures. At fourteen, Simone is challenged by the chorus with her inadequacies: gender, ignorance, awkwardness, arrogance. Urged to kill herself, she slowly is drawn back to the will to live, to "know truth." During the "visitation," Simone focuses on the metaphysical poet George Herbert's "Love" as her pain is assumed by the physically and emotionally supportive ensemble. Believing love is the disintegration of the self, and truth is to be found in love, Simone is Terry's heroic woman, an individual not described or circumscribed by sexual conflicts. Terry writes of Simone as a model for other women to "know that a woman can make it and think clearly in a womanly way."
Terry is a somewhat iconoclastic combination, an experimental dramatist who advocates entrepreneurial management and espouses the "pioneer values" of hard work and self-sufficiency. A designer early in her career, she still thinks of her work as "a kind of architectural process in which she 'builds' plays," and not only as a metaphor. She believes theater is a hands-on-business, and that one must be willing to build sets, create audiences, and manage finances, as well as conceive of "theater."
Called "The Mother of American Feminist Drama" by Helene Keyssar, Terry writes plays characterized by rapid transformation of character and situation, by a great deal of physical action, and by a deep political commitment. The body of her work has continued to grow, as has the range of her styles. Critic David Savran has said her plays constitute "a virtual compendium of the styles of modern drama, ranging from collaborative ensemble work to performance art to naturalism."
Terry is a feminist whose critique of society is less "ideological" than it is grounded in humanist values and in a deep commitment to community. In her work she explores such issues as "production and reproduction, the language of patriarchy, gender roles…the victimization and heroism…and the pain and power of women," according to Keyssar and Jan Breslauer. Directing her critiques less at systems than "as protests against individual circumstances, institutional corruption, or verbal and conceptual distortions," her feminism, Keyssar says, is "a precise criticism of gender roles, an affirmation of women's strength, and a challenge for women to use their own power." Terry puts these principles into practice in her own professional life, encouraging other women playwrights, collecting and distributing bibliographies, and building networks as she crosses the country.
One of her own best expositors, she says of the legacy of the Open Theatre in New York, "I feel we democratized the theater." She also feels she contributed to the form of American musicals by proving "that rock music worked on the stage" and by "speed[ing] up exposition." Of her work now, she says the playwright's responsibility is "to critique [her] society," and she wishes to convey through her plays "that life is possible."
Calm Down Mother (1966). Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills (1966). Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place (1966). Comings and Goings (1967). The Gloaming, Oh My Darling (1967). Home (1968). The Magic Realists (1969). Fireworks (1970). The People vs. Ranchman (1970). One More Little Drinkie (1971). The Tommy Allen Show (1971). Massachusetts Trust (1972). Megan Terry's Home; or, Future Soap (1972). Sanibel and Captive (1972). American Wedding Ritual (1973). Couplings and Grouplings (1973). Hothouse (1975). Nightwalk (with S. Sheppard and J. C. van Itallie, 1975). The Pioneer (1975). Pro Game (1975). Women and the Law (1976). Willa-Willie Bill's Dope Garden (1977). American King's English for Queens (1978). Babe in the Bighouse (1978). 100,001 Horror Stories of the Plains (1978). Attempted Rescue on Avenue B (1979). Brazil Fado (1979). Goona-Goona (1980). Scenes from Maps (1980). Comings and Goings (1980). Fireworks (1980). The Gloaming, Oh My Darling (1980). The Trees Blew Down (1980). Flat in Afghanistan (1981). Katmandu (1981). Molly Bailey's Traveling Circus Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones (1983). Fifteen Million Fifteen-Year-Olds (1983). The Pioneer (1984). Pro Game (1984). Retro (1985). Kegger (1985). Objective Love (1985). Sea of Forms (with J. A. Schmidman, 1986). Sleazing Towards Athens (1986). Amtrak (1988). Dinner's in the Blender (1988). Headlights (1989). Snow Queen (for children, 1990). Walking Through Walls (1991). Sound Fields (with J. A. Schmidman and S. Kimberlaine, 1991). India Plays (1992). Right Brain Vacation Photos: New Plays and Production Photographs, 1972-1992 (edited with others, 1992). Belches on Couches (with J. A Schmidman and S. Kimberlaine, 1993). Remote Control (1994). Body Leaks (1994). Star Path Moon Stop (1996). Fireworks (1996).
Barron, E. A., A Structural Analysis of Representative Plays of Megan Terry (dissertation, 1984). Benzel, K. N. and L. P. de la Vars, eds., Images of the Self as Female: The Achievement of Women Artists in Re-envisioning Feminine Identity (1992). Betsko, K. and R. Koenig, eds., Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987). Chinoy, H. K. and L W. Jenkins, Women in American Theatre (1981). Cohn, S. B., ed., Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature (1977). Hart, L., ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre (1989). Keyssar, H. Feminist Theatre (1985). Kolin, P. C., ed., American Playwrights Since 1945 (1989). Kolin, P. C. and C. Kullman, eds., Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights (1996). Larson, J. Public Dreams: A Critical Investigation of the Plays of Megan Terry, 1955-1986 (dissertation, 1989). Marranca, B. and G. Dasgupta, eds., American Playwrights: A Critical Survey (1981). Savran, D., In Their Own Words (1988). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Senelac, L., ed., Gender in Performance (1992). Wagner, P. J., Megan Terry: Political Playwright (dissertation, 1980). Winner, C. A., A Study of American Dramatic Productions Dealing with the War in Vietnam (dissertation, 1977).
CA (1979). CD (1973, 1977, 1982, 1988). CLC (1981). Contemporary Theater, Film, and Television (1988). DLB (1981). FC (1990). Notable Women in American Theater (1976). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Prize-Winning Drama: A Bibliographic and Descriptive Guide (1973). TCAD (1981).
Art and Cinema (1987). Centennial Review (Summer 1988). Interview with Megan Terry (audiocassette, 1981). Megan Terry (audiocassette, 1984). Mississippi Folklore Register (Spring-Fall 1988). Modern Drama (Dec. 1984). Notes on Contemporary Literature (March 1990). Performing Arts Journal (1983). Studies in American Drama (1987, 1989). University of Mississippi Studies in English (1992).
—KATHLEEN GREGORY KLEIN,
UPDATED BY MARCIA HEPPS