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Terrence McNally is a dramatist of diverse talents whose plays, whether classified as satire, farce, or melodrama, generally attack complacency, outmoded norms, institutions, and human folly by means of black humor and witty, acerbic dialogue. McNally’s early plays, in which he examines the effects of current events upon individuals, are often angry, violent, and bitingly satirical. His later works, while remaining true to their author’s savage wit, are lighter and more lyrical in tone and increasingly rely on references to New York and its theater community.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Interest in Music and Theater
Terrence McNally was born on November 3, 1939, in St. Petersburg, Florida, but early in his life, his family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where McNally was educated. McNally’s father operated a small beer distributorship, and by local standards the family was well-off. McNally remembers his childhood as a lonely one, in which he escaped into favorite radio programs, including Let’s Pretend, The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet, as well as live broadcasts of operas from the Metropolitan opera. He constructed a miniature model of the Metropolitan and re-created scenes on the stage that, he later recalled, ”was more real than life.”
McNally’s parents encouraged his budding interest in music and theater. Both native New Yorkers, they took him on a visit to their hometown when he was six years old. He was treated to a performance of Irving Berlin’s popular Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun (1946), an experience that McNally never forgot. On subsequent trips he saw as much theater as possible. When his parents journeyed to New York without him, they brought home theater programs and original-cast recordings of musicals and operas for his growing collection. McNally’s mother was a high-school English teacher, and she arranged to give McNally and a few other interested classmates extra tutoring in the works of William Shakespeare. During his senior year in high school, McNally wrote a play based on the life of composer George Gershwin. McNally’s love of music runs through virtually all of his works—operatic arias, especially, are called for in many of his scripts and the love of opera and its performers is central to his major works.
Working in the Theater World
In 1956 McNally entered Columbia University in New York City, where he majored in journalism. McNally graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree. His first play, The Roller Coaster, was published in the Columbia Review in 1960, and he received a Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship from Columbia that same year. The Evans fellowship made it possible for McNally to spend six months writing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In 1961 he sent samples of his writing to Molly Kazan, wife of director Elia Kazan and a playwright herself. She recognized his potential. McNally’s comparative inexperience in theatrical matters led Molly Kazan to secure for him a position as a stage manager at the Actors Studio in New York, where her husband was teaching. McNally was entranced by his experience there. He met noted playwrights, including Edward Albee, William Inge, and Arthur Kopit, and such actors as Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley. He learned more about the roles of playwright, actor, director, designer, and particularly about dramatic structure; he began to apply this learning to his own writings. He also became personally involved for some time with Albee, although their relationship did not last. During the 1960s critics frequently noted the influence of Albee’s style on McNally’s early plays, although within a decade McNally developed his own distinct style as a dramatist.
In 1961 and 1962, McNally then worked as a tutor to the two teenage children of Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck, when the Steinbeck family took a world tour. On returning to New York after the trip, McNally garnered some attention with one of his earliest short plays, This Side of the Door (1962), which won the Stanley Drama Award from the department of languages and literature at Wagner College in 1962. To make ends meet, McNally worked for nearly two years (1963-1965) as a movie critic for Seventh Art magazine in New York.
McNally applied for and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he wrote several one-act plays. Most were produced either on stage or public television. The critical success of these works brought him increased recognition. He was a runner-up for a Drama Desk Award for most promising playwright in 1969 and received his second Guggenheim Fellowship that same year.
McNally had a major breakthrough as a playwright when he wrote his first full-length farce, The Ritz (1975). The play earned McNally several honors, including an Obie Award for Best Play, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Throughout the 1970s, McNally made forays into musical theater, with mixed results. Some of his productions were failures; others were hailed as witty and innovative.
McNally became vice president of the Dramatists Guild in 1981. His involvement with the welfare of playwrights and their works was set in somewhat ironic counterpoint with several of his works during the 1980s. These works were often satiric assaults on the New York theater world.
During the 1980s, McNally wrote increasingly for television, and as he did so, he explored some important social issues of the day, including the emergence of AIDS in America, and particularly among the homosexual community in New York. One of McNally’s most effective television dramas was an expanded version of his short one-act play Andre’s Mother, which was presented on the American Playhouse series on PBS in 1990. This drama won McNally a 1990 Emmy Award for its sensitive portrayal of the uncomfortable relationship between the mother of a young man, who has succumbed to AIDS, and his lover, whom she meets at her son’s funeral.
Throughout his writing career, McNally has always tackled compelling and controversial issues of the day, from the Vietnam War to AIDS. In the late 1990s, he stirred up controversy with the production of his play Corpus Christi, which featured a cast of gay characters in Corpus Christi, Texas, putting on a passion play about Jesus Christ’s life. This drama set off a furor in the form of criticism from various Catholic organizations. The Manhattan Theatre Club, ostensibly concerned with the safety of its audience in the face of bomb threats, canceled the play. This action inspired a fierce response from the artistic community. Playwright Athol Fugard, who also had a play scheduled to appear in the same venue, withdrew his work in protest of the cancellation of Corpus Christi. Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America (1992), a play that had also faced similar attempts at censorship, criticized the Manhattan Theatre Club, also. In the face of stinging criticism from Fugard, Kushner, and other playwrights such as Craig Lucas, the Club put the play back on its schedule.
McNally continues to write plays, television scripts, and film screenplays, and in the twenty-first century he is considered a bastion of the New York theatrical community.
Works in Literary Context
McNally established himself as a playwright with a light-comic gift in the mid-1960s and has matured into one of the most versatile and prolific playwrights in the American theater. Some critics have described him as the American Ben Jonson. (Jonson was an Elizabethan dramatist whose dark view of the contemporary human situation is tempered by a strong vein of humor and satire.) One commentator wrote that McNally ”is a playwright, not a polemicist. His view of humanity has to be as generous as that of anyone working in the American theater today.”
From Biting Satire to Light Lyricism
McNally first achieved prominence as a bitingly comic writer in 1968, when six of his plays were produced. His subjects dealt with the major upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s: the Vietnam War, the draft, middle-class morality, political revolution, presidential assassination, youth and rebellion, popular culture, and changes in sexual codes. McNally’s characters in his earliest plays find themselves in a splintered and unfriendly world; the subjects of these works range from the disillusionments of the Vietnam era to the self-deluding popular culture of the late twentieth century. McNally has exhibited an increasingly compassionate and lyrical touch in his plays since the mid-1980s and a life-affirming viewpoint, remarkable for a gay dramatist writing in the midst of the AIDS pandemic. His more recent work is exuberant, lyrical, and absurd, sharply contrasting with the tone of outrage and anger noted in the beginning of his career.
Throughout his career, McNally has examined the isolation of the individual in contemporary life. He sees ”people in a video shop checking out three or four films, and that’s who we’re going home with at night, this who-needs-anybody attitude, and that bothers me.” His plays frequently feature characters fighting against loneliness and isolation with a combination of humor and acceptance of life’s harsh realities. For example, in Sweet Eros (1968), McNally presents a man who was abandoned by a former lover and who drove his second lover to suicide; he now has kidnapped a woman and bound her to a chair. The man and the woman create a strange type of coexistence, in which both find relief from loneliness and isolation.
Works in Critical Context
McNally had a difficult time achieving critical recognition early in his career. Like most long-time playwrights, he has had his share of failures as well as successes. He is recognized, however, as an important voice in the New York theatrical scene and a playwright whose works have revealed much about the human condition. New York Times critic David Richards, in his piece ”A Working Playwright Edges Into Fame,” states that by the standards of contemporary drama McNally is ”an anomaly—a playwright who continues to work regularly at his trade, who believes that a career in the theatre is ‘its own reward’ . . . and, most significantly, who grows more accomplished with each successive play.” Actress Swoosie Kurtz, who has appeared in McNally’s plays, has said his ”vision celebrates the bravery of lonely souls; his voice resounds with the anguish and joy of life itself. Out of the mundane, he shapes the opera of the human heart.”
And Things That Go Bump in the Night
Though he would later meet with Broadway success, McNally’s first Broadway play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1964), was reviewed harshly by critics and ran for only two weeks on Broadway. An anonymous critic for Time identifies the play as ”coming from the Kopit-Albee playmaking kit” with the result ”worse than theatrical incest: it is rather like spreading disease in the guise of curing corruption.” John Simon, writing in New York Magazine, calls the play ”the prize horror of the season,” and Wilfrid Sheed of Commonweal dismisses it as ”a bad play.” Some critics were savage, calling And Things That Go Bump in the Night ”arrant balderdash” and ”sick, sick, sick,” while others were less emphatic. Writing for Saturday Review, Henry Hewes points out McNally’s ”talent for imagery and an ambitiousness of purpose” but finally concludes that he ”appears to lack the discipline or skill necessary to achieve his devastatingly large intention.” Despite these reviews, the play was revived twenty-one years later, after McNally had achieved greater success, in Washington, D.C., where it met with more appreciative critics who recognized the pointedly exaggerated qualities of the play.
Bad Habits In 1971 McNally’s Bad Habits, a bill consisting of two one-act plays, Ravenswood and Dune-lawn, was given a small production at the John Drew Theatre in East Hampton, New York. The bill was well-received in East Hampton, and Bad Habits moved to an Off-Broadway production, opening at the Astor Place Theatre, and then returned to Broadway, at the Booth Theatre. Bad Habits won the Obie Award in 1974, and it earned McNally the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, a prize given annually by the Dramatists Guild Council for writers whose plays tackle controversial subject matter.
also gave McNally one of his first major critical triumphs. In a review for Cue critic Marilyn Stasio applauds the ”non-stop hilarity” of the two plays and stresses that although ”both plays are casually constructed, the character satire is dead-on accurate, and for all its zaniness has a niceness of logical clarity that is akin to classical farce.” Harold Clurman describes McNally as ”one of the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult. . . . His plays are spoofs and at times quite funny.” Similar sentiments would be expressed by critics throughout the rest of McNally’s career.
- Anderson, Michael and others, eds. Crowell’s Handbook of Contemporary Drama. New York: Crowell, 1971.
- Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
- Bigsby, C. W. E. Modern American Drama. 1945-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
- Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
- Eddleman, Floyd Eugene, ed. American Drama Criticism: Interpretations 1890-1977. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String, 1979.
- Kostenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon, 1993.
- Lehman, Peter. RunningScared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. Philadelphia.: Temple University Press, 1993.
- Salem, James M. A Guide to Critical Reviews: Part I: American Drama, 1909-1982. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1984.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
- Sinfeld, Alan. Out on Stage. Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
- Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed. Terrence McNally: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
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