Authors: Terrence McNally

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works

Drama:

And Things That Go Bump in the Night, pr. 1962 (as There Is Something Out There, pr. 1964)

The Lady of the Camellias, pr. 1963 (adaptation of a play by Giles Cooper, based on the novel of Alexandre Dumas, fils)

Next, pr. 1967 (one act)

Tour, pr. 1967 (one act)

Botticelli, pr. 1968 (televised), pb. 1969, pr. 1971 (staged, one act)

¡Cuba Si!, pr. 1968 (one act)

Here’s Where I Belong, pr. 1968 (musical, book by McNally, music by Robert Waldman; adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden)

Noon, pr. 1968 (one act)

Sweet Eros, pr. 1968 (one act)

Witness, pr. 1968 (one act)

Bringing It All Back Home, pr. 1969 (one act)

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, pr. 1971

Bad Habits: Ravenswood and Dunelawn, pr. 1971 (2 one acts)

Let It Bleed, pr. 1972

Whiskey, pr., pb. 1973 (one act)

The Ritz, pr. 1974 (as The Tubs), pr. 1975 (staged), pr. 1976 (screenplay), pb. 1976

Broadway, Broadway, pr. 1978, revised pr. 1982 (as It’s Only a Play)

The Rink, pr. 1984 (musical; book by McNally, music by Fred Ebb, lyrics by John Kander)

The Lisbon Traviata, pr. 1985

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, pr., pb. 1987

Lips Together, Teeth Apart, pr. 1991

Kiss of the Spider Woman, pr. 1992

A Perfect Ganesh, pr., pb. 1993

Love! Valour! Compassion!, pr. 1994

Collected Plays: Volume I, Fifteen Short Plays, pb. 1994

André’s Mother, and Other Short Plays, pb. 1995

Master Class, pr., pb. 1995

Collected Plays: Volume II, pb. 1996

Dusk, pr. 1996

Ragtime, pr. 1996 (musical; book by McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel)

Corpus Christi, pr., pb. 1998

The Food of Love, pr. 1999 (libretto)

Dead Man Walking, pr. 2000 (libretto)

The Full Monty, pr. 2000 (musical; book by McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek)

The Visit, pr. 2001 (musical; book by McNally, music by Ebb, lyrics by Kander; adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play)

A Man of No Importance, pr. 2002 (musical; book by McNally, music by Flaherty, lyrics by Ahrens)

Screenplays:

The Ritz, 1976

Frankie and Johnny, 1991

Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1994

Teleplays:

Botticelli, 1968

Last Gasps, 1969

The Five Forty-eight, 1979 (adaptation of a story by John Cheever)

Mama Malone, 1983 (series)

André’s Mother, 1990

Biography

As a quiet child growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Terrence McNally began early to “make a theater in his head” while listening to popular radio shows. His parents, Hubert and Dorothy, former New Yorkers, encouraged his interest in the arts and occasionally took him to Broadway plays. McNally says that seeing Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun and Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I started him thinking of a career in the theater.{$I[AN]9810001677}{$I[A]McNally, Terrence[MacNally, Terrence]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McNally, Terrence[MacNally, Terrence]}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;McNally, Terrence[MacNally, Terrence]}{$I[tim]1939;McNally, Terrence[MacNally, Terrence]}

At seventeen he entered Columbia University as a journalism major, and he took advantage of being in New York by seeing “every single play on Broadway” from a back-row seat. At the time, Columbia had an important tradition, a yearly varsity show. As McNally was about to graduate, there was no one to write the script for the performance, so he volunteered. With music and lyrics by Ed Kleban (who later wrote A Chorus Line), it was a smash hit; the poster of the show is still the only one hanging in McNally’s office.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he was awarded a traveling fellowship and went to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. There he wrote a play, which he sent to the Actors’ Studio in New York. Molly Kazan, Elia Kazan’s wife, read the work and thought that McNally had talent but needed some practical experience in stagecraft. For the next two years, he worked as stage manager at the Actors’ Studio, where he did menial work but also learned his craft.

During 1961 and 1962, McNally went on a world tour as a tutor to John Steinbeck’s teenage sons. He then supported himself as a film critic while he completed And Things That Go Bump in the Night, first presented at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, under a Rockefeller grant, and then on Broadway. The reviews of this nightmarish rendering of what the playwright terms “the choice of evil, which is a constant, over chaos, which is not necessarily a good” were uniformly derisive.

McNally returned to magazine work until, in 1966, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and began writing some one-act “comedies” with dark undertones. The most noteworthy of these was Next, about an overweight middle-aged man mistakenly drafted into the army. Paired with Adaptation, by Elaine May, who also directed, the play ran for more than seven hundred performances. McNally, who is unsparing in his admiration for May, has commented, “Everything I learned about playwriting I learned from Elaine.”

However, two full-length plays, Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? and Whiskey, were not well received. Critics generally agreed with Richard Watts of the New York Post that McNally had a “talent for going short distances, but seemed to have serious difficulties filling out an entire evening.”

Returning to the one-act format in 1974, the playwright paired two thematically related plays, Ravenswood and Dunelawn, as Bad Habits. In the absurdist tradition, two sanatoriums are contrasted: one where the inmates act out their aggressions, the other where they are “helped” by being strapped into straitjackets, confined to wheelchairs, and given injections. This play won the Obie Award for the 1973-1974 season.

Next came The Ritz, a farce set in a homosexual bathhouse. It was a failure, as was his next effort, the original version of It’s Only a Play, which sent McNally into a period of nonproductivity for almost six years.

Then came Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune and The Lisbon Traviata to mark the beginning of an almost totally “new” McNally, who had one success after another. His subsequent plays continued to make use of serious music; all are somewhat wry, and all contain criticisms of modern society. Now, though, his theme is clearly defined: Human contact at any cost is necessary for people to face both life and death. No longer negative, angry reactions to the world of the 1960’s and 1970’s, McNally’s later works achieve a new measure of universality.

In The Lisbon Traviata, gay life is explored in terms of four men who ostensibly argue about the superiority of Maria Callas’s rendition of that opera; the underlying problem is betrayal and severance of relationships. Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, in contrast, is upbeat. A middle-aged man and woman, both severely scarred by life, find that they can put aside their fear of commitment and become genuinely “connected.” Lips Together, Teeth Apart takes place on the Fourth of July on Fire Island, where Sally and Sam are entertaining Sam’s sister and her husband in the home Sally has inherited from her brother, an AIDS victim. Beneath the humorous surface bantering, there are a number of serious concerns, ranging from class differences to homophobia, from fear of closeness to a dread of death. Final acceptance by all the characters mirrors McNally’s personal acceptance that death is simply part of life.

As a tribute to Maria Callas, McNally in The Master Class re-creates a day on which the diva, now at the end of her career, auditions three students for her class. Love! Valour! Compassion! pictures masculine friendships, as eight gay men share summer holidays at the home of an aging choreographer and his young blind companion. Most critics agreed that the play forcefully reiterates McNally’s theme that love and connectedness are all that matter. The play won a Tony Award in 1995.

Corpus Christi is one of McNally’s most controversial recent plays. It imagines Jesus (named Joshua in the play) as a young man growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1950’s, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and gathering a set of “disciples” that represents a cross-section of contemporary gay society. The play aroused enormous protest from Christian groups, a reaction that ironically underscored the point McNally was trying to make about the persecution of homosexuals in contemporary American society.

McNally gives much credit for his success to the Manhattan Theatre Club. He terms the organization his “regional theater” because so many of his plays have had workshop productions there before moving to Broadway.

BibliographyAlbee, Edward. “Edward Albee in Conversation with Terrence McNally.” Interview by Terrence McNally. The Dramatists Guild Quarterly 22 (Summer, 1985): 12-23. As vice president of the Dramatists Guild, McNally has conducted interviews with fellow playwrights. This important example chronicles Albee’s career with important parallels to McNally’s own, with an emphasis on the new playwrights of the early 1960’s.Barnes, Clive. “Making the Most of Ritz Steam Bath.” Review of The Ritz, by Terrence McNally. The New York Times, January 21, 1975, p. 40. Barnes notes McNally’s ability to write an engaging and zany farce based on situation. An even-tempered assessment by an important theater critic.Bryer, Jackson R. “Terrence McNally.” Interview with Terrence McNally. In The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Playwrights. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. A long interview with the playwright conducted in 1991, when he was poised on the brink of wider recognition following the success of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. McNally reflects honestly on all aspects of his career and offers particularly pointed commentary on the state of theater in the United States.De Sousa, Geraldo U. “Terrence McNally.” In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. This valuable aid to further study contains a brief assessment of McNally’s reputation, a production history of his plays, a survey of secondary sources, a comprehensive bibliography through 1987, and suggested research opportunities.Gurewitsch, Matthew. “Maria, Not Callas.” The Atlantic Monthly 280 (October, 1997): 102-107. Discusses the liberties McNally took with the life of Maria Callas to make his play “a highly personal, deeply perceptive meditation on the well springs and the consequences of supremacy in art.” A respectful commentary on McNally’s art and craft published in a leading magazine that reaches beyond the theater and drama communities.Gussow, Mel. “Agony and Ecstasy of an Opera Addiction.” Review of The Lisbon Traviata, by Terrence McNally. The New York Times, June 7, 1989, p. C21. Reviews the revised, nonviolent version of The Lisbon Traviata. Offers a mixed appraisal of McNally’s work and typifies the critical reception that the playwright garnered during the 1980’s. Gussow relates the play to the influence of opera on McNally’s life and art.Hewes, Henry. “’Ello, Tommy.” Review of And Things That Go Bump in the Night, by Terrence McNally. Saturday Review 49 (May 15, 1965): 24. This piece is uncharacteristic of early critical assessments of McNally’s work. It praises the playwright’s talent and his willingness to tackle difficult themes. Hewes was one of the first to recognize McNally’s great potential.McNally, Terrence. “Terrence McNally.” Interview by Jackson R. Bryer. In The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Playwrights. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. A long interview with the playwright conducted in 1991, when he was poised on the brink of wider recognition following the success of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. McNally reflects honestly on all aspects of his career and offers particularly pointed commentary on the state of American theater.Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed. Terrence McNally: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997. A diverse and illuminating anthology of essays and interviews that cover the full range of McNally’s career, with particularly solid contributions on his plays of the 1990’s. Contains a bibliography of important secondary readings.
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