Terrence McNally: Life and Love Onstage

John M. Clum on Raymond-Jean Frontain’s The Theater of Terrence McNally

Playwright Terrence McNally, who died on March 24, was one of the leading figures in American theatre for over half a century. His entry onto the American theatre scene could not have been more disastrous. And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1965), a dark dystopian fantasy, was cut into incoherence by the producer and director and viciously savaged by the critics. For a while McNally considered giving up playwriting altogether but he bounced back with a series of comic one-act plays. Next, a one-act about a fat middle-age man who is called in for a draft physical examination, presented on a double bill with Elaine May’s Adaptation, ran for over 700 performances Off-Broadway beginning in 1969. The Ritz (1975), a farce set in a gay bathhouse, successfully brought a slice of gay culture to Broadway. Although he achieved some artistic and commercial success, there is an impersonal quality to McNally’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. He later admitted that he then had “a tendency to fall into either preaching or caricature, two cardinal sins if you aim to be a good and honest playwright.”

Raymond-Jean Frontain. The Theater of Terrence McNally: Something About Grace. Fairleigh-Dickinson UP. 2019. $115.

McNally’s major period, what he called his “second act,” came with his association with the Manhattan Theatre Club, which in the mid-1980s assured him that they would produce his new work. The then young organization had produced his twin bill of one-acts, Bad Habits, in 1974. That production briefly moved to Broadway. However, McNally’s association with the organization became a thriving artistic marriage with Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which opened the Manhattan Theatre Club’s space in the basement of the New York City Center in 1987 and has been revived on and off-Broadway many times since. The unabashedly romantic Frankie and Johnny had an emotional depth and structural coherence missing from the playwrights’ early work. Action was now character-driven as McNally moved from the absurdism and farce of his early work to poetic realism. The play depicts the transition of a couple in one night from a brief sexual encounter to an intimate relationship, from physical nudity to emotional nakedness. With Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, McNally’s major theme became the need for deep human connection and the ways in which people, to their peril, block themselves from that connection. In his best work from this point on, McNally explores the connections between sex and love, between flesh and spirit, and between the ordinary and the poetic. In his major work, McNally makes mundane moments like a couple brushing their teeth together or a man clipping the hair in his boyfriend’s ears into intimate, spiritual experiences.

The AIDS crisis, which attracted public attention in the 1980s, inspired McNally’s best work, which presents relationships and friendships strained by a constant awareness of mortality. How does one live meaningfully and lovingly in the face of disease and death?  Two of his strongest plays deal with individuals who have lost loved ones to AIDS. Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), presents two troubled married couples at the Fire Island house that a gay man who has died of AIDS has left to his sister. The four individuals are isolated by their own guilt and fear. The sister is guilt stricken over her inability to fully accept her brother’s gayness and her part in helping him die. One of the husbands has been diagnosed with cancer—gay men aren’t the only people facing disease and death. The surrounding houses filled with gay men celebrating the Fourth of July only make the four feel more self-conscious and isolated. Here as elsewhere in this series of plays for the Manhattan Theatre Club, McNally seamlessly blends humor and pathos in his deeply sympathetic portraits of frightened individuals. He is even able to depict their homophobia sympathetically.

A Perfect Ganesh (1993), arguably his strongest play, gives us two middle-aged women traveling together through India. The women are friends but not really close. Katherine has lost a son as a result of a gay-bashing but she was never able to accept his sexual orientation. Margaret has never been able to discuss with anyone the loss of her first son, run over when he was a little boy. Nor can she discuss the lump she finds on her breast during the trip. India is a site of life-affirmation in the face of mortality. The god Ganeesha tells Katherine: “We all have a place here. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. Allow. Accept. Be.” This phrase could be the motto for much of McNally’s work. How do the characters get out of the trap of crippling guilt, prejudice and self-consciousness and connect with the people close to them? How do they connect with what Ganeesha calls the cycle of “renewal, reconciliation and rebirth”? Disease and mortality come to everyone. Katherine’s husband dies in a freak accident while the women are in India. Characters have to accept not being in total control of their lives: “Allow. Accept. Be.”

In Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), McNally depicted a loving community of gay men in the age of AIDS who have come out of the city to an upstate country house. Terrence McNally wrote that in creating this play, “I wanted to write about family.” There are tensions and squabbles in this little community but there is also love. At the climax of the play, the men are rehearsing the “Dance of the Little Swans” from Swan Lake, a routine that requires perfect coordination, for an AIDS benefit. The dance becomes an image for the close bonds between these men. It also becomes another image of mortality as each of the men steps forward and tells the audience how he will die. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a celebration of the intentional families gay men create as well as a challenge to affirm life.

Corpus Christi (1998), which created heated controversy at its premiere because of its depiction of a sexually active gay Jesus, offers a summation of the themes of McNally’s previous plays for the Manhattan Theatre Club. Joshua, the contemporary version of Christ, proclaims: “We’re each special. We’re each ordinary. We’re each divine.” The worst sin is violating the commandment to love all people. Corpus Christi is a contemporary version of a medieval Biblical play written for gay men at a time when marriage was still impossible for lesbians and gay men and sodomy laws still existed in many states. The title, a double entendre, defines both the religious framework of the play and its autobiographical setting, McNally’s Texas hometown. Many of the play’s cultural references are to the 1950s, the time of McNally’s adolescence. These details underscore McNally’s deeply personal portrayal of Christ as one who passes on a message of self-acceptance and love to a damaged society and as a victim of brutal homophobia.

In this century, McNally created two plays about gay men in an age where marriage and family have become realities. Some Men (2010), is a series of vignettes about gay life from the 1920s to a wedding in the present. Mothers and Sons (2014), a sequel to McNally’s AIDS-era short play, Andre’s Mother (1988), takes place in the home of an affluent married gay couple who are loving parents to their son.

McNally was an ardent opera fan and opera becomes the basis for three of his works. The Golden Age (2012), takes the audience backstage at the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, I Puritani. The Lisbon Traviata (1989) is a dark portrait of two opera queens who use their favorite art form as a way of escaping reality. Opera becomes in that play a medium for solipsism. McNally’s most commercially successful play, Master Class (1995), is a portrait of the great diva Maria Callas that is also a picture of the dedication and fighting spirit an artist must have to survive against critics and audiences. “A performance is a struggle,” Callas says. “You have to win.” But McNally’s Callas is also a living ghost trapped in her past who offers little constructive help to her students. McNally’s libretto for Jake Heggie’s opera Great Scott (2015; he also wrote the libretto to Heggie’s Dead Man Walking [2000]), another backstage opera, depicts a great soprano who realizes that her career will soon come to an end: “Art endures. Voices do not.” It is also a celebration of the dedicated artists who keep opera alive.

McNally often created his plays with specific actors in mind and over the years some of our finest actors have been identified with the roles McNally wrote for them, particularly Nathan Lane (Lips Together, Teeth Apart; The Lisbon Traviata; Love! Valour! Compassion!, It’s Only a Play), Zoe Caldwell (A Perfect Ganesh, Master Class), and Tyne Daly (Master Class, Mothers and Sons).

Terrence McNally may be best known to many people as the book writer for a series of musicals: The Full Monty (2000; music and lyrics David Yazbek);  Ragtime (1998), A Man of No Importance (2002), and Anastasia (2017), with composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynne Ahrens; and a series of collaborations with John Kander and Fred Ebb: The Rink(1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), and The Visit (2015). All except The Rink are masterful condensations and adaptations of other material.

Unfortunately, only three of McNally’s plays were adapted into films. Richard Lester’s heavy-handed direction robs The Ritz (1976) of some of its humor. Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997) fares better. The film cuts the play somewhat but it preserves most of the performances of the original New York cast (Jason Alexander replaced Nathan Lane). Frankie and Johnny (1991), directed by Garry Marshall, adds characters and locations to the two-character, one-set play which, unfortunately, dilute some of the play’s poetry and emotional power.

A number of obituaries label Terrence McNally as a “playwright of gay life,” as the New York Times headline put it. What McNally did was to move gay experience into mainstream theatre by writing characters everyone in the audience could identify with in beautifully crafted plays. While I have emphasized the gay aspect of the playwright’s work in my own writing, I understand that he is not a parochial writer. Yes, many of his characters are gay; others find it difficult to accept the sexual orientation of loved ones. However, as I look back at the rich body of work McNally has given us, I am most fond of his compassionate portraits of troubled heterosexuals trying to break out of the cave of self: Sally, Chloe, Sam and John in Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Katherine and Margaret in A Perfect Ganesh. His plays are about love, particularly the need for self-love as a prerequisite for loving others. The challenge of his work is summed up in that great title, Love! Valour! Compassion!

While a number of scholarly essays have been written about McNally’s work, he has been the subject of only three monographs, each looking at the plays from a different perspective. The most recent, Raymond-Jean Frontain’s The Theater of Terrence McNally: Something About Grace, contains substantial critical analyses of selected works by one of our leading living playwrights. It is clearly a labor of love founded on careful readings of the plays. While there is much to appreciate in Frontain’s close readings, some of his terminology is problematic.

It is certainly true that McNally’s best work either celebrates truly loving relationships and compassionate communities or presents relationships poisoned by a lack of love and compassion, often as a result of homophobia. While this emphasis echoes Christian values, McNally’s work does not employ a particular Christian theological framework even though he very occasionally will use a term such as “grace.” The only time the playwright uses the term “spiritual” in his “Memoir in Plays” is in relation to A Perfect Ganesh, arguably his best work. Nonetheless Frontain, who has written previously on religion and same-sex literature, claims that the playwright “is the author of one of the most deeply religious canons in contemporary American theatre.” This isn’t saying much since most contemporary drama is decidedly secular, even at times anti-religious. While I would whole-heartedly agree that there is a religious dimension in McNally’s work, Frontain, in order to read much of McNally’s work within Christian terminology, must stretch key terms beyond any traditional theological meaning.

The title of Frontain’s first chapter is “Religious Humanism,” a term that for him crystallizes the core of much of McNally’s work. Some of us might see that term as an oxymoron. While words like “grace” would seem tangential to humanism, Frontain makes them central to his readings. He writes, “Grace [in McNally’s work] proves to be, not the deliverance from suffering and eternal death that an immortal, omnipotent deity accords hapless humans, but a gift one individual can bestow on another.” Is it, then, grace? McNally’s characters in his reading seek from other human beings the unconditional love accorded by God. How is that, then, religious? While it is true that McNally celebrates what are considered Christian virtues (virtues in other religions as well), with the exception of the problematic Corpus Christi, he presents them as being separate from any particular faith. In fact, the Christ figure in that play elevates the divine in individuals over a traditional concept of divinity. The best that can be said is that McNally wants to elevate Christian virtues while ignoring or rejecting Christianity.

Frontain presents McNally’s oeuvre as falling into four distinct phases. The earliest plays, written under the influence of McNally’s then partner, Edward Albee, “testify to the pain of living in a despondently profane world.” Then, with The Ritz and other plays of the mid-1970s, McNally turns to farce as a way of subverting the forces of oppression. The third stage in his work came with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic and with McNally’s life-changing trip to India. Finally, from Master Class (1995) on, McNally, according to Frontain, “launched an extended meditation on the redemptive power of theatre.” The Lisbon Traviata receives relatively brief mention and Some Men, one of McNally’s strongest twenty-first century creations, is ignored.

In the way of writers on gay spirituality a generation ago, Frontain idealizes sex as a spiritual experience. Oral sex, he writes, should be “a gift that one bestows willingly on a partner as a gesture of acceptance.” I’m not sure acceptance is the appropriate term. Ideally connection perhaps? He falls into absurdity in his chapter on Corpus Christi, where he writes of “the mystery of fellatio as salvation.” His reading of The Ritz includes a synopsis of queer Marxist theorists’ reading of anal sex as an overturning of heterosexual society, thus inspiring fear in homophobes. I think for many there are more primal fears involved. Much of what Frontain writes about farce and the carnivalesque has been written before in the context of other playwrights, and he loves lengthy discursive endnotes where he extends ideas contained in each chapter or argues with other McNally scholars. One doesn’t see this practice much these days. Some of what is included in these notes could easily have been incorporated into the text. The book contains an extremely useful detailed chronology of McNally’s oeuvre.

Despite my reservations, I learned a good deal from Frontain’s insightful, detailed critical analyses of McNally’s plays. He is spot on in emphasizing the moral and spiritual in McNally’s work, but there is far more secular humanism than religion contained therein.

Looking back over his career, Terrence McNally wrote, “I always tell people that a life in the theatre is its own reward. It’s not about celebrity or rewards. It’s about doing something that can matter. It’s about making yourself heard.” McNally certainly has mattered to those of us who love theatre. He also mattered very much to those of us who had the privilege of knowing this kind, lovely man who knew and was loved by just about everyone in the business. Perhaps his demise will lead more scholars and critics to focus on the estimable body of work he left behind.

John M. Clum’s books include Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama; Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama; Something for the Boys: Musical Theatre and Gay Culture and Arthur Laurents: Politics, Love and Betrayal. He is Professor Emeritus of Theatre Studies and English at Duke University.