This Day In Writing History
On November 3rd, 1939, the legendary American playwright Terrence McNally was born. He was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, but grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. In 1956, McNally moved to New York City in order to attend Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1960, earning a degree in English. During his last year at university, McNally became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, an academic honor society for outstanding students of the liberal arts and sciences.
After he graduated, Terrence McNally went to Mexico and began his career as a playwright. He wrote a one-act play which he submitted to the Actors Studio in New York City for production. The Studio turned down McNally's play, but was impressed with his script. McNally was offered a position as the Studio's stage manager so he could gain experience in the theater. He moved back to New York and took the job.
While learning the ropes both working and writing for the theater, McNally became the protege and lover of legendary playwright Edward Albee. In 1968, McNally's first produced project made its debut. He had co-written the book for a musical called Here's Where I Belong. Unfortunately, McNally was so disappointed in the final product that he asked for his name to be removed from the credits. It was a wise decision. The musical bombed and closed after one performance.
That same year, Terrence McNally wrote what would prove to be one of his early breakthrough plays. Sweet Eros opened off-Broadway at the Gramercy Arts Theatre in New York City on November 21st, 1968, as part of a double bill with Witness, another early McNally play. Sweet Eros was a 45-minute, one-act, two-character play about a disturbed young man with a history of failed relationships who kidnaps a young woman and brings her to his home in the country.
The play opens with the girl sitting in a chair, bound and gagged, while the young man sits opposite her. He explains his motive for the kidnapping, then methodically strips her naked, both body and soul. After removing her clothing, he (presumably) rapes his victim, then subjects her to a series of rants and monologues about life and love. He wants to make the girl understand him, and ultimately, submit to him. Sweet Eros caused a sensation when it opened, because the girl, played by Sally Kirkland, was nude on stage for almost the entire length of the play.
In 1969, McNally once again won critical praise with his timely comedy, Next. Also a one-act, two-character play, Next told the story of Marion Cheever, an overweight, middle-aged sad sack who is mistakenly drafted. He reports to Sgt. Thech, a tough female examining officer. The two engage in a battle of wits, as Cheever is just as determined to avoid military service as Thech is to sign him up. The play opened off-Broadway, on February 10th, 1969, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, as part of a double bill with Adaptation, a play written by Elaine May, who directed both productions. James Coco and Elaine Shore co-starred in Next. Both plays ran for over 700 performances.
In the 1970s, McNally continued to win critical praise with two more comedies, Bad Habits (1974) and The Ritz (1975), which is my favorite McNally play. Bad Habits takes place during one day in a rehab center that caters to various "bad habits." The play is focused on three particular patients: an alcoholic, a drag queen, and a perverted, sadistic deluded man. Dr. Toynbee is the head doctor at the center. Described as a saint and revered by everyone, the doctor has developed a serum that can supposedly cure his patients' bad habits, but it only lasts momentarily and doesn't really cure anything... or does it?
The Ritz was a landmark gay-themed play that managed to be both poignant and screamingly funny. Gaetano Proclo is a meek, straight businessman from Cleveland on the run from his brother-in-law, murderous mob boss Carmine Vespucci. Proclo flees to New York City, where he hides out at a Manhattan bathhouse, (The Ritz) not realizing that it's a gay bathhouse. Proclo suspects that something is not quite right as he meets the oddball characters at the bathhouse, which include a fat fetishist, go-go boys, and a squeaky-voiced detective. Performing at the establishment is Googie Gomez, a third-rate Puerto Rican lounge singer with Broadway aspirations and a fiery Latin temper. When Proclo realizes that he's staying at a gay bathhouse, he's horrified, but he soon comes to accept his gay housemates. Then, Proclo's wife tracks him down and jumps to the wrong conclusion about his sexuality!
The Ritz opened on Broadway on January 20th, 1975, at the Longacre Theatre, and ran for 398 performances. Original cast mates Jack Weston, Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, F. Murray Abraham, Stephen Collins, and George Dzundza would reprise their roles a year later in an acclaimed feature film adaptation of the play, which was directed by Richard Lester.
In the 1980s, Terrence McNally would establish himself as one of America's greatest contemporary playwrights with his famous play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The two-character play was about two lonely people - a middle-aged man (Johnny) and woman (Frankie) - who end up in bed after their first date. Johnny believes that he's found a soul mate in Frankie, but she's not so sure about him. As the night progresses, Frankie and Johnny slowly reveal themselves to each other, baring their souls as they take tentative steps toward the beginning of a relationship.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opened off-Broadway on June 2nd, 1987, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Paul Benedict (best known as Mr. Bentley, the daffy British neighbor of the Jeffersons) and featuring Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh in the starring roles. In 1991, the play was adapted as an acclaimed feature film called Frankie and Johnny, starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, who beat out Kathy Bates for the role of Frankie. Although McNally himself wrote the screenplay, the movie differs greatly from the play on which it was based.
McNally would return to musical theater in 1984, writing the book for a musical called The Rink. He would also write the books for hit musicals such as Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), and The Full Monty (2000). In 1990, McNally ventured to a new medium - television, writing the teleplay for a TV movie called Andre's Mother. The acclaimed telefilm was written as an episode of PBS' American Playhouse series. The gay-themed drama is about a woman, Katherine, who is unable to come to terms with the death of her son Andre from AIDS. So, she directs her rage at his lover, Cal, (she never accepted her son's homosexuality) her own mother, (who did accept her grandson as gay) and even Andre himself. Andre's Mother earned McNally an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Dramatic Special.
Andre's Mother would not be McNally's last gay-themed drama. In 1994, he wrote the hit off-Broadway play, Love! Valour! Compassion! The comedy-drama was about eight gay friends who meet at a lakeside summer vacation home in upstate New York to celebrate the Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day holidays. The house is owned by Gregory, a middle-aged choreographer who fears that his creative talent is drying up, and his younger lover Bobby, a legal assistant who is blind. During their holidays. Gregory, Bobby, and their friends deal with flirtations, infidelity, AIDS, truth telling, and soul searching. The play also includes a dress rehearsal for a wacky production of Swan Lake - performed in drag! Love! Valour! Compassion! would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1997, with McNally adapting his own play for the screen.
In 1998, McNally wrote his most controversial gay-themed play. Corpus Christi is a brilliant and scathing satire of the Passion play, with Jesus and his disciples depicted as gay men living in Texas. Mixing elements of the ancient past (a Roman occupation) and modern times (television), the play satirizes religious persecution of homosexuals. When Corpus Christi was scheduled to open off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the play was canceled due to death threats made by Christian extremist groups against the Club's board members. The decision angered other playwrights, including Tony Kushner, who threatened to withdraw their own plays from the Club if Corpus Christi was banned. The board members relented, and the play was produced.
The play contained scenes that raised the ire of right wing Christians and other conservative religious groups; in one scene, Jesus performs a gay wedding between two of his disciples, and in another, he is betrayed by Judas - in an act of sexual jealousy. On opening night, the Theatre Club was besieged by two thousand protesters. When Corpus Christi opened in London, a British Muslim extremist group called Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.
With his brilliant, challenging plays, Terrence McNally has proven himself to be one of America's greatest contemporary playwrights. He lives with his husband, Thomas Kirdahy.
Quote Of The Day
“I don't think I've ever written anything even remotely naturalistic. The closest probably would be seen as Frankie and Johnny, and that's only 'cause they eat a sandwich and make an omelet in act two. But it's a romantic fairy tale, and I'm very aware of that. I don't think it helps the actors in my plays to lose themselves in the reality of talking to another person. A good McNally actor always knows he's in a play with an audience.” - Terrence McNally
Today's video features a short interview with Terrence McNally. Enjoy!