Calm Down Mother
Megan Terry's Calm Down Mother (referred to as a transformation play) demonstrates various aspects of relationships between women, first espousing the most optimal situations that a woman can strive for and then showing how women, as well as their society, place restraints on their achievement of their most favorable growth. The work is considered one of Terry's most popular one-act plays and was first produced by Open Theatre on a double bill with Terry's play Keep Tightly Closed (a transformation play for men) on March 29, 1965, at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in New York City.
Terry uses only three women and minimum props for Calm Down Mother despite the fact that there are, in essence, multiple characters and blocs that make up this play. Over the course of the production, the three women take on different relationships to one another as they change from middle-aged shop owners to old women in a nursing home, to young prostitutes, sisters, friends, and mothers and daughters. In each section of the play, the characters explore what it means to be female, how society views them, and what tools they have to improve themselves.
Although the play was written and produced at the height of the feminist movement in the 1960s, it discusses topics that remain relevant to contemporary women as they pursue answers to their relationships with other women and society. Terry's play,Page 2 | Top of Article popular in experimental theater in the middle of the century, continues to be staged in college and small theater productions across the United States today.
Megan Terry, an internationally recognized playwright and prolific writer who has created over sixty plays, is often referred to as the Mother of American Feminist Drama. She has been involved in the theater since childhood and has so devoted herself to her art that in 1994 she was elected to lifetime membership in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre for her distinguished service to the profession on a national scope.
Terry, who was born in Seattle, Washington, on July 22, 1932, as Marguerite Duffy, fell in love with the stage at the early age of seven. Her parents, Marguerite and Harold Duffy, often took their daughter to local theatrical productions; and when she was not witnessing a live professional performance, Terry was known, throughout her childhood, to produce many of her own backyard plays. As a teen, she wrote, created the sets for, and acted in school plays. When her parents divorced in her senior year of high school, she moved in with her grandparents who lived only a few blocks from the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, where she would eventually spend most of her time. While enrolled at the University of Washington, Terry continued her activities at the Playhouse, where she wrote plays and built sets until 1951, when, in the throes of McCarthyism, a state committee accused the theatrical group of un-American activities and closed them down. This event made Terry realize the power of theater, and it ignited her passions further.
For her sophomore year, Terry transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, where she discovered that of all her experiences in theater, from acting to building sets, it was writing that most inspired her. The following year, she returned to Seattle and the University of Washington and became involved with the Cornish School of Allied Arts, where she established a community playhouse and premiered several of her first published plays.
Feeling somewhat stymied by the cultural acceptance of her plays in the Pacific Northwest, Terry moved to New York City in the late 1950s. It was also around this time that she changed her name. By the early 1960s, she had written several more plays but was discontent with the direction of commercial theater in New York. In 1963, together with several other producers, writers, and actors, she helped establish the Open Theater, where a series of her plays, including Calm Down Mother (1966), premiered. The techniques that Terry employed in some of her plays of this period would define experimental theater. A couple of her innovations were including rock music in musical comedies and involving the audience in the performance, something that had never been done before. Her anti-war musical Viet Rock (1966) remains one of the classic pieces from that era and is enjoying a contemporary revival.
Terry's works have been translated and performed in many different countries. She has earned an Obie Award (for Approaching Simone in 1970), the Dramatists Guild Annual Award, the ATA Silver Medal, and several fellowships, including a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts, and a grant from Yale. She has lived in Omaha, Nebraska, since 1974, where she is involved in the Magic Theater, a company of artists dedicated to creating new American musical plays, and where she continues to write and to conduct writing workshops.
Megan Terry's play Calm Down Mother consists of only one act, but it is separated by different sections, during which the three female characters change roles. In the first section, the three woman are clustered, so as "to suggest a plant form," the stage directions dictate. They are listening to a tape, which recounts the beginning of life outside of the oceans. Woman One states that she is Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), a nineteenth-century transcendentalist who has been credited with beginning the feminist movement in the United States. Woman One declares that she accepts the universe.
The two remaining women respond that she had better for "Carlyle said that you had better," making a reference possibly, to Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), a Scottish historian and critic who promoted a strict and authoritarian form of government. Woman One declares that her father supported her "not as a living plaything, but as a mind"; and the other two women remind her thatPage 3 | Top of Article she had better "grab the universe" while she can. This section then ends with the women going into a "brief freeze."
In the next section, the three women are in a store setting. Woman One becomes Sophie and Woman Three becomes Esther. They are sisters, and both of them work at the store. Woman Two is a young female customer, who is trying to buy a six-pack of beer. Sophie becomes entranced with the young girl's hair, which reminds her of her mother's hair. Sophie wants to touch it and tells the young woman about how she used to comb her mother's hair. She also recounts that she too used to have hair like that, but she has had so many surgeries that her hair has changed. Esther complains that her sister Sophie had become obsessed with her hair when they were younger.
Sophie asks if she can comb the young woman's hair. She also admires the young woman's skin. As she continues, Sophie laments the loss of her mother and of her own youth while Esther and the young girl "begin a mournful hum." Sophie eventually joins them, and the hum builds to a crescendo, at which point the young girl "flings the other Two Women away."
The young woman tells the audience that she wants to learn how to throw away the depression and anger that other people try to impose on her. She goes up to Woman One and throws her feelings on her. Then Woman One begins a monologue in which she states that she feels like she wants to hit someone; but these feelings are only coming from one side of her, as if she has suffered a stroke and that side is consumed with rage. Then there is another freeze.
Woman Three tells the audience that everyone must write the details of their lives with the "absurd conviction they are talking to or will contact someone." The two other women approach her and beat her down to the ground, where she remains throughout the third section.
One of the women becomes Nancy, who has just arrived at her sister Sally's newly rented New York apartment. Sally has just recently divorced an abusive husband. Nancy tells Sally that she is falling apart, to which Sally reacts by calling her "Stella Dallas," a reference to a 1937 Barbara Stanwyck movie in which a mother sacrifices everything for her daughter. In Nancy's case, however, she has sacrificed a lot for everyone, including her mother, who has just been diagnosed with cancer, a circumstance that Nancy can do nothing about except wait for her mother's imminent death. Nancy is also angry with her father, who is an alcoholic. Nancy believes that her father is faking a heart attack in order to grab attention away from his wife. The women embrace and freeze.
Woman Three, who has been lying on the stage floor throughout the preceding section, rises. She is in a nursing home. Women One and Two are residents there. Their names become Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon. They discuss the passing of time; and Mrs. Watermellon declares that the sunrise begins in the heart, but no one ever believes her. She then explains time by making reference to her menstrual cycle, which Mrs. Tweed believes is absurd. The two women call one another names, and Mrs. Tweed threatens to call Mrs. Watermellon's family and have her committed. Mrs. Watermellon reminds her that she already is.
The third woman is now a nurse, and she approaches them with food, which the other two refuse to eat. The nurse is very mechanical in her responses to the women. The two patients make fun of her, calling the food worms, then calling the nurse a worm. When the nurse tries to get away from them, the two patients turn into subway doors, chanting "Please keep your hands off the doors." When the woman finally breaks through, all three women become "call-girls," or prostitutes, preparing to begin their night. Their names are now Momo, Felicia, and Inez.
Momo and Felicia are arguing, trying to upstage one another. Inez tells them to "shut up," or they will be late for the party. The women are preparing themselves for what appears to be an orgy. The women talk to one another in very combative tones, threatening to cause harm, calling one another offensive names. In the middle of the argument, Felicia pulls out a "roll of bills," which reportedly belongs to Momo, who has apparently not been giving her share to Ricky, the madam of the house. Momo is the newest one of the group, and Inez tells her she has a lot to learn. Felicia refers toPage 4 | Top of Article Inez as "mommie," asks her forgiveness for all the arguing and suggests that Inez spank her. Momo does the same. Then the three women huddle and chant: "Have confidence. You've been found."
The women continue to repeat their chant, but, instead of statements, they begin questioning themselves: "You've been found? … No, I've been found." The women are now living in a tenement, washing dishes. Their names are Sue, Sak, and Ma.
Sue begins by talking about birth control. She is angry about a magazine article that states that it is wrong to use contraceptives. Sak goes along with Ma, who does not believe in birth control. Sue points out that, technically, she could create a baby every month for the next thirty years of her life. To prove her point, she states that every woman who does not create a baby out of every one of her eggs is, in some way, practicing some kind of birth control. She then criticizes her sister and mother for sitting in church every week and listening to the men preaching about birth control, a subject they do not even fully understand.
Sak, who is a true believer, warns that Sue will burn in hell for what she has just said. Sue responds, "They'll make me a saint! A thousand years from now they'll award me a medal for not contributing to the population!" Ma tells Sue to pack her things and move out of their home. Sue tries to tell her that she has "been born out of my time." She calls her mother and sister "empty bottles of holy water," then says she does not need to pack. "I've got everything I need right here in my belly."
The three women then face the audience and end the play with a chant about their bellies and their "eggies" being enough. The last line is a question: "Are they?"
Esther appears in the grocery store section. She is the sister of Sophie. She is a middle-aged woman who tends to criticize her sister for being obsessed with her looks. She joins with the young girl in a mournful hum to lament the passage of time and the onslaught of old age.
Felicia is a prostitute who continually argues with Momo. She is the one who says "Calm down, mother," referring to Inez, an older prostitute. Felicia discovers money that Momo has stashed away and threatens to tell the madam of the house. She also tells Inez to spank her for being bad.
Girl is the young woman who tries to buy a six-pack of beer in the grocery store section. Her hair reminds Sophie of her mother's hair. She allows Sophie to touch her hair and suggests that maybe Sophie was allergic to the anesthetic the doctors gave her. She joins with Esther in a mournful hum until she cannot stand it any more and pushes Sophie and Esther away.
Inez is an older prostitute who is responsible for Felicia and Momo. Felicia refers to her as "mother," but it is unclear if there really is a blood relationship between them.
Ma is the mother of Sue and Sak in the last section of the play. She is conservative and a true believer in her faith, which disallows the use of contraception. She sides with her daughter Sak when Sue makes known that she is on the pill, then she tells Sue to leave.
Momo is the least experienced of the three prostitutes. She argues with Felicia. She also has stashed away money without paying the "house" because she says she needs a vacation. In the end, she joins Felicia in telling Inez to spank her for being bad.
Nancy is a Midwestern woman who arrives at her sister's New York apartment to help her celebratePage 5 | Top of Article her new independence. Nancy has previously helped Sally get out of a bad marriage. Nancy refers to herself as the "old bulwark of the family." She is the calm one in the midst of family crises, but with her mother's imminent death, Nancy fears that she is falling apart.
Nurse appears in the section with Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon, two patients at a nursing home. Nurse is very mechanical in her care of the two elderly women and is made fun of because of her lack of compassion.
Sak appears in the last section of the play. She is Sue's sister. She is conservative like her mother and a bit naïve about sexuality. She tells her mother that Sue has been having sex and is thus responsible for Sue being told to leave the house.
Sally has just moved into a new apartment after having left an abusive husband. She is Nancy's sister and acknowledges that she could not have gained her freedom without her sister's help. Nancy describes Sally as soft. She often gives in to men, even if they have hurt her. Sally also gives her father the benefit of the doubt when her sister states that their father has faked a heart attack.
Sophie works at a grocery store and is stunned by a customer who comes in to buy some beer. The young woman has hair just like Sophie's mother, and Sophie laments the loss not only of her mother but also of her own youthful beauty. Sophie's sister, Esther, refers to her as having been previously arrogant about her looks.
Sue claims that she has been born out of her time, in contrast to her mother and her sister Sak, whom she says are three hundred years behind the times. Sue practices birth control despite the dictates of her church and magazine articles she reads written by men. She is sexually active and does not want to have any children. She claims that every woman practices birth control in one form or another because no woman gives birth to every egg that she carries in her ovaries.
Mrs. Tweed is a patient in a nursing home. When Mrs. Watermellon refers to her menstrual cycle, Mrs. Tweed tells her that she should not talk of such things and threatens to call her family and have her committed. She also ridicules the nurse, referring to the cereal she is eating as consisting of worms.
Mrs. Watermellon is an outspoken elderly woman who lives in a nursing home. She tells Mrs. Tweed that she knows the secret of the beginning of each day, a secret that exists in her heart. When Mrs. Tweed says she is going to call her family and have Mrs. Watermellon committed, Mrs. Watermellon reminds her that she already is committed.
Woman One plays various roles, taking on other named characters at times. She is only specifically pointed out in the beginning when she announces that she is Margaret Fuller, a reference to an early pioneer of the feminist movement; and again, later in the play, when she tells the audience that she wants to hit something; and, intermittently, as part of a chorus.
Like the other nondescript women, Woman Two plays many different roles. Under the title of Woman Two, she makes a reference to Carlyle in the opening of the play, announcing that Woman One had better accept the universe. Later, she talks to the audience and tells them that she wants to get to the point where she can throw negative emotions back to the people who try to put them on her. She often joins the other two women in chorus.
Woman Three also plays various roles and is only identified as Woman Three when she tells the audience that they should list every detail of their lives in the hope that they will eventually makePage 6 | Top of Article contact with someone. She is then knocked down on the floor and remains there through one of the sections, then rises and chants about her girlhood being all flowers. She often takes part in chorus with the other two women.
When Calm Down Mother was written and first produced in the 1960s, birth control devices, other than prophylactics, were just beginning to be mass-produced. A hormonal birth control pill had been introduced in the 1950s, but it was used as a regulator of the menstrual cycle, not as a way of preventing birth. Such was the social, political, and religious environment at the time of the original staging of the play. Thus, in choosing to develop a theme of birth control in her play, Terry was stepping on very controversial territory.
Although there is a reference in the scene between the three prostitutes when Felicia tells Momo that she will "stick holes in your diaphragm," Terry elaborates on birth control fully only at the end of her play and brings it up mainly in relationship to the opposition of the religious beliefs of her family. In the 1960s, many of the Christian churches preached that if a woman did not want to conceive, she should practice abstinence from sex. In the Catholic Church, women were told to monitor their menstrual cycles so they would know when they were ovulating. This practice was referred to as the rhythm method. Sue, in the final scene of the play, points out that rhythm was just as much a form of birth control as taking a pill. According to Sue, unless every woman brought to fruition every egg in her ovaries, she was practicing birth control.
Women's Relationship with Men
Terry brings out the topic of men only obliquely in her play. When she does mention them, they often are referred to in a not-so-positive light. First, she mentions Carlyle, which one can assume is Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher who believed in strict patriarchal control of society. Then, she refers to the abusive husband of Sally, a naive woman who was too soft with men. She let them take advantage of her. Terry also brings up the fact that Sally's father, an alcoholic, has faked a heart attack in order to compete with the attention that Sally's mother is receiving because she has cancer. She relegates men to customers in the scene with the prostitutes; and, in the final scene, she condemns male authors of magazine articles and male priests for preaching against birth control, a serious matter that does not concern men because they do not know what they are talking about. "Who the hell are all these guys on platforms to say you can't take pills, you can't use rubbers, down with vaseline, out with diaphragms, who the hell then are they?" In other words, men are one of women's biggest hindrances in their struggle to liberate themselves.
The topic of aging first appears in the scene in the grocery store when Sophie becomes enthralled with the young female customer's hair. Sophie reminisces about her mother's hair and how Sophie used to comb it. Then, she slips into memories of her youth and laments the fact that her hair no longer contains the luster and health that it did in her youth, a part of her appearance that used to make her proud. She also regrets that her skin no longer is soft and smooth and white. High blood pressure and several surgeries brought on by old age have robbed her of her youth, Sophie states.
Age is also an apparent topic in the scene in the nursing home, where Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon have been left to the care of a cold-hearted nurse. Mrs. Watermellon points out to Mrs. Tweed that they have been committed to the place as one might be committed to an asylum for misfits.
Since the word mother is included in the title of Terry's play, one must suspect that motherhood plays a dominant role. However, this role weaves its way through Terry's work rather subtly. The figures that represent motherhood are varied, and the message delivered is a bit confusing.
Motherhood figures prominently in Terry's discussion of birth control, in that with its use, a woman can more fully choose when and if she wants to become a mother. There is also the oblique reference to motherhood albeit mockingly, in the scene of the prostitutes in which Inez, an older, more experienced call girl is referred to as mother because she is responsible for the other two younger women. It is actually from a line of dialogue in this scene that gives the play its title.
Motherhood is also discussed in the beginning of the play when Sophie recalls having brushed her mother's hair and helped her with her bath. In the next scene with Nancy and Sally, Nancy refers to her mother as the "fighter," the strength of the family. Nancy's mother is also her role model. In the scene in the nursing home, it is implied that Mrs. Watermellon is a mother when Mrs. Tweed tells her that she is going to call her son and have her committed. A mother figure is also included in the final scene with Sue and Sak.
The definition of motherhood, however, varies quite widely throughout the play. Sophie remembers her mother with love and longs to touch the young girl's hair in order to stir her memories of having cared for her mother. In the following scene, Nancy also speaks about her mother with love as she mourns her mother's imminent death to cancer. The image changes, though, in the nursing home scene, during which motherhood is depicted in a quite different attitude. The fact that Mrs. Watermellon refers to herself as having been committed, as well as the non-nurturing service of the nurse who is responsible for her care, suggests that the mother (Mrs. Watermellon) has been abandoned. The prostitute scene mocks motherhood as well. The three women (including the mother figure) are, after all, preparing themselves for an orgy. Finally, in the last scene, the mother is pictured as having few thoughts of her own, and her daughter tells her that she is three-hundred years behind the times.
There are only three characters on stage at all times during this play. Three women are first introduced only as Woman One, Woman Two, and Woman Three. However, throughout the play the women take on different roles and different names as they work through various mini-scenes. Sometimes the women are sisters; sometimes they are mother and child. At one point, one of the women spends the entire scene on the floor.
The actresses often change and move in and out of the play through their dialogue. There are momentsPage 8 | Top of Article when they say their lines to one another. There are also times when they speak directly to the audience. There are various monologues by an individual; and there are also group chants.
To help define the ambiguity that might surround the play because of the constant changing of roles, stage directions suggest that the actresses "freeze" in between the different sections of the play. This marker warns the audience that the actresses are stepping out of their previous characters and moving on to new ones.
With each new scenario, the women's names change, not only on the program but also in the dialogue, providing yet another marker for the audience. "She wants ale, Sophie," Esther announces, cueing the audience into the new identities.
Since there are few props provided, Terry has one of the women describe the scene in the bloc in which Nancy visits her sister Sally's new apartment. "Why it's very … it's really very charming. It really is. Downright Greenwich Village, the clean West Side, that is." In the scene with the prostitutes, Felicia states, "I can't see in that mirror," to explain that the women are dressing for a party, trying to apply their makeup.
1960s American Experimental Theater
The cultural revolution of the 1960s influenced many aspects of American society, as well as the American theater. The revolution sparked a keen interest in innovative drama, and that innovation, in turn, had a strong and penetrating affect on American culture as a whole.
Although cultural revolutions were taking place all over the entire Western world, the changes in theater were mostly an American invention. Theatrical groups such as Living Theatre, Bread and Puppet, as well as the group that Megan Terry belonged to, Open Theatre, sprung up in the early 1960s. Most of these troupes included young people—actors, playwrights, directors, and set designers—who were interested in critiquing their society, whether the focus was a statement on the overall values of society, on civil rights, on sexual relationships, on the Vietnam War, or on the burgeoning struggle to create new definitions for women's roles in society.
Among some of the more influential theater people during this time was Joseph Papp (1921–1991), who used commercially successful plays and musicals (one of his later and most famous ones was Chorus Line in 1974) to help support experimental off-Broadway productions. Other names included Tom O'Horgan (originally a producer with the experimental theater group La Mama), who went on to create the successful rock musical Hair (1968); and Amiri Baraka, also known as LeRoi Jones, who founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem and wrote the critically acclaimed play Dutchman (1964).
Experimental theater, however, was not limited to off-Broadway productions. Experimental plays were performed all over the country. A common thread that ran through most of the plays was that most were very revolutionary and therefore very shocking. Nudity and sexuality that had never been displayed on stage (such as homosexual acts), vilification of high-ranking officials and American foreign policies, and the denigration of established religions were some of the major themes. The most interesting factor, though, was not just that these plays were being written and performed but that the people who were buying the tickets and watching the performances came from the middle and upper classes of the population. It was the first time, during the birth and heyday of experimental theater, that the so-called counterculture, or alternative culture, had such a heavy influence on the general populace. Cutting-edge ideas became the topic of conversation out in the suburbs as well as in the heart of the city; revolutionary concepts were discussed at cocktail parties as well as after rock concerts because experimental theater was getting its message out and making people from all walks of life question the status quo of their society.
Experimental theater with a bent toward feminist theory was even more successful. Two major feminists groups, Women's Experimental Theatre and the Wilma Theatre, were established, but works by feminists were not restricted to these venues. Not only were plays with feminist messages popular but women suddenly found that the roles of playwright and director were also open to them.
One of the more successful small theaters during this time was La Mama Experimental Theatre,
which began as a small basement theater in 1961 under the direction of playwright Ellen Stewart. It was typical of like-minded theaters throughout the country with a mission to nurture and present new, original works by people from a wide range of backgrounds. The work presented by La Mama was experimental not only in the writing but also in the collaboration that they fostered by incorporating music into their dramas. Many of the best playwrights of the 1960s had one or more of their plays produced at La Mama, including Terry, who saw her Magic Realists, Three Clowns, and Viet Rock all staged there in 1966, and People v. Ranchman (1967), Changes and Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dark Place both in 1968, as well as her most successful play Approaching Simone, which was presented at La Mama in 1970. Other well-known playwrights who had their early plays produced at La Mama include Sam Sheppard, Bruce Kessler, Tom Eyen, and Lanford Wilson.
Although Terry is credited with being one of the first American feminist playwrights, and her plays have inspired many other dramatists to broaden their imaginations and to create dynamic and innovative experimental works, there is little critical analysis of her play Calm Down Mother. It was produced off-off-Broadway in a small but eventually influential theater group called Open Theatre to small audiences and few critical write-ups. However, in the inner circle of playwrights and academics who study drama, there are many tributes to her creations. Helene Keyssar, for instance, points out in Feminist Theatre that Terry's writing is revolutionary but subtly so. It is not radical in itself and does not demand sweeping reforms, but rather calls attention to possibilities that Terry perceives in women's nature. Her plays encourage women to transform themselves by demonstrating the changes that Terry herself envisions. She also inspires other writers and her audiences, it is suggested, because she shows how women can create enormous amounts of energy by working together instead of competing with one another.
Terry herself reinforced this concept in an interview published in Kathleen Betsko's Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Terry stated that one of the main reasons that she writes is to present the potential she perceives in women in dealing with life and all its challenges. She encourages women, through her writing, to take action as she herself takes action through her creative endeavors. She loves pushing herself, she says, to the edges of what is possible.
Many critics agree that Terry's plays expose hypocrisy in American culture, but she does so not by merely pointing her fingers at particular institutions or by accusing any one group of people; rather, she does so by showing her audiences what they can do to break free of the confinements that society often places on people, or, specifically, on women. In her essay "Megan Terry," which appeared in Speaking on Stage, Felicia Hardiwon Londre recalled seeing Terry's early plays in the 1960s and feeling privileged to have done so. The experience left a strong impression on her that has lasted over the years. She believes that there will soon be a reevaluation of Terry's work that will honor the impact it has made. June Schlueter, in her Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, probably would agree with this assessment, as she defined Terry's work by referring to it as an "experience of discovery."
Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her published writing on literary themes. In this essay, Hart explores the suggested transformation of the three women in Terry's play in an attempt to discover the deeper meaning behind the brief scenarios.
The subtitle to Megan Terry's play is A Transformation for Three Women. If Terry is true to her title, then there must be a pattern to each short scenario, each change of character, and each relationship that she demonstrates in this play. In order to find the pattern, readers must ask questions such as why did Terry start her play with a tape recording of the first signs of life outside the great oceans? How does she use sisterhood? Why is the title of her play contained in the scene with the prostitutes? Although answers to these questions are subjective and, at the most, speculative, they can add depth to this brief play in which characters change identities, scenes appear random, and no obvious (at least at first sight) answers are provided. By digging into possible motives for creating such an arbitrary play, readers become more active in the process. Terry does not hand out her philosophy as a college professor might offer in a lecture. She is one of the pioneers in feminist experimental theater, and one of her main goals was to engage her audience in the process. She offers a scheme or an outline. It is up to the audience to fill in the missing pieces.
Terry begins her play with a curious tape recording that recounts the beginning of life on land. There are three one-celled creatures, giving the reader a hint that Terry is setting up a theme for the play since there are also three female actresses throughout. As these three one-celled creatures make their way to the shore, they are constantly being washed toward the beach and then drawn back into the ocean. Not until they join forces are they eventually pushed far enough up the beach that they are able to avoid the action of the next wave. Their challenge is not yet over, however, as two are torn away by a tornado. Only one remains, and it "stretches toward the sun."
Following this opening, Terry writes various scenarios that include three women. Each of the situations that she presents could be likened to the attempts of the three one-celled creatures as they attempt to reach shore. First, there are the sisters Sophie and Esther, the shop owners, and their young customer who has come in to buy some beer. The connections between these three women are tenuous at best. Sophie wants to touch the young woman's hair, a very personal experience. She admires the young woman, but not so much for the woman's sake but rather for her own. The young woman reminds her first of her mother and then of herself; and it is in that longing for her youth that Sophie reaches out and touches the young woman. Her gestures are personal, but her motives for touching are anything but personal. The young woman is an object, a phantom of Sophie's youth. The young woman might just as well have been a mannequin. Sophie asks nothing about the young girl's life or her feelings. All Sophie does is tell the young girl of her troubles, her fears, her sorrows. Esther does notPage 12 | Top of Article share Sophie's feelings; as a matter of fact, she tends to make fun of them. She remembers Sophie's youth in contempt, recounting how she used to spend so much time combing her hair and admiring herself in the mirror. Esther and the young woman join in a mournful lament at the end, mocking Sophie's pain.
At this point, the women lose their identities. The young girl returns to being Woman Two, and she admits that she hates it when people try to bring her down. She wants to throw off their emotions rather than absorb them. Sophie goes back to being Woman One, and she displays her anger by stating that she wants to hit something. Woman Three, trying to make sense of it all, tells the audience that everyone needs to write down the details of their lives so they will not feel so small. "A lot of people must start writing with the absurd conviction they are talking to or will contact someone," she tells them. In comparison with the opening section of this play, this scene points out that these women are not connected. It was only when the three one-celled creatures came together in the opening scene, that they finally were pushed high enough on the beach that the waves could not recall them to the sea. In the above scenario, Sophie is hurting, yet neither of the women can or want to empathize with her. Despite her family connection, Esther displays jealousy toward her sister. The young girl cannot relate to Sophie's loss of youth. Each woman lives in a separate and isolated unit. They cannot see beyond their own needs and therefore cannot find the soil upon which they must sink their roots in order to grow.
Woman One and Woman Two then beat Woman Three down to the ground while she is talking to the audience about "contacting" someone. Woman Three remains in her prone position throughout the next scene, in which Women One and Two are transformed into a new sisterhood, that of Nancy and Sally. These women are much more supportive of one another. As a matter of fact, all their relationships with women are positive. It is the men in their lives who bring them down. Sally has just divorced an abusive husband, and Nancy has issues with her father who, in her mind, is attempting to upstage her mother who is dying of cancer. This part of Terry's work reenacts the wave motion of the ocean. The three one-celled organisms were constantly washed ashore only to be pulled back by the waves. The scene between Nancy and Sally defines how a healthy relationship between sisters can help create benefit for both. However, Nancy and Sally are not yet secured on the beach. The wave that pulls them off the soil is their relationship with men. Nancy states that her sister Sally is soft when it comes to dealing with men, implying that she allows them to take advantage of her. Nancy in turn, is suspicious of men even to the point of accusing her father of faking a heart attack. Terry appears to be implying that a good relationship with women is a step toward growth, but women must also resolve their conflicts with men.
Whereas in this scene, Nancy honors her mother by referring to her as a good role model, in the next section of the play, two elderly women (one of whom is a mother) have been "committed" to a nursing home. They are taken care of by a nurse who tends to them mechanically. Although they appear to be companions for one another, Mrs. Tweed and Mrs. Watermellon do not get along very well. Mrs. Tweed tells Mrs. Watermellon that she should not be thinking of herself as a woman anymore when the latter refers to her menses: "You shouldn't think of such things. Woman a' yore age." The two women then lambaste one another with insults, demonstrating the shallowness of their friendship. This scene is reflective of the one that Sophie and Esther played out, in which none of the women exhibited compassion toward one another. This scene is also a statement of how society treats old people, in particular old women. Not only society at large but families in general tend to want to shut them away, as exhibited with the refrain at the end of this scene: "Please keep your hands off the doors."
The scenario that follows the nursing home section involves three prostitutes, and it is a bitPage 13 | Top of Article puzzling. Prostitution, of course, represents another kind of relationship with men; not one, readers can assume, that Terry promotes because she portrays the three women as being constantly at one another's throats. Right from the opening lines, Momo and Felicia are harshly criticizing one another. Terry also sets up this scene to make it look as if Momo and Felicia are the children of Inez, the third character. It is Felicia who states: "Calm down, Mother," the title of the play. It is possible that Terry thought the relationships in this scene were the worst depictions that she could think of for women, as they prepare themselves for a forthcoming orgy. Everything in this scene is either upside down or totally wrong. For one thing, Inez, more than likely, is not really the mother of Momo and Felicia; for another, the women constantly bicker among themselves as they compete for the attention of men and their money; and to top it off, Momo is a cheat. To further extend the absurdity of this scene, Terry has Momo and Felicia asking Inez to spank them for being "bad girls." The three women represent the epitome of commercialized womanhood—a bad mixture of sexuality and cash. They have become objects without a soul. They are the one-celled organisms that are torn out of the sand, unable to set their roots.
The play ends with a discussion of birth control, an issue that remains as controversial in contemporary times as it was at mid-century when Terry's play was staged. In the previous scene, the prostitutes' bodies did not belong to the women, as they sold their sexuality as a commodity in order to earn a living. Sexuality, in their case, had nothing to do with sensuality, let alone the idea of creating a child. However, to stay in their profession, the prostitutes had to be careful to avoid getting pregnant. In the 1960s, most religious organizations not only preached against having sex before marriage, but some, such as the Catholic Church, taught that it was a sin to think about sex. Sex was a biological drive meant only to procreate. Pleasure in sex was never discussed. Some women, therefore, believed that it was their duty to have sex with their husbands without considering any pleasure in the act. Understanding this mentality helps to enlighten the final scene of Terry's play. The mother of Sue is shocked that her daughter would go against the church and practice birth control. First of all, Sue was not even supposed to be having sex since she was not married. Secondly, why would any woman want to have sex except to get pregnant? Thus, Sue's mother is horrified.
Sue counters, however, with the fact that every woman practices some form of birth control because it is impossible for all of her eggs to be fertilized in her lifetime. Some of those eggs will be cast "upon the ground," which, according to Sue's mother, is contrary to biblical teachings. In this scene, Sue not only stands up for her rights to enjoy sex, to control the number of babies that she brings into the world, to control what happens to her body, and to the old conservative notions of her mother's generation, she also stands up to men. She shouts back at the priests and the male magazine writers who condemn birth control. She is the only female in the play who makes a stand, who is strong enough to fight for her rights despite the pressures that are applied against her. Sue is the one-celled organism who, in the beginning of the play "stretches toward the sun." She is the character who "walks toward the audience and smiles at them in joyous wonder." She is Margaret Fuller, as mentioned in the first scene, one of the first American feminists, who states, "'From the time I could speak and go alone, my father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a living mind."' It would seem more logical, then, that Sue should have been the one to quote the title of the play. Her final words, as well as the final statement of the play, might have been: "Calm down, mother. Times are changing."
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Calm Down Mother, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
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