BWW Feature: THE WISDOM OF TERRENCE MCNALLY, 1938-2020
Theater suffered a huge loss this week when the playwright Terrence McNally died at 81, of complications of our current plague, the coronavirus. It was a sad irony since many of McNally's plays dealt with the effects of a previous plague, AIDS, in the 1980s.
His plays, musicals and screenplays, which included "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Love! Valour! Compassion!," "Ragtime," "Dead Man Walking," and "The Full Monty," made him one of the most vital and produced writers around.
The four-time Tony winner, a deserving subject of an episode of "American Masters" last year (that has been made available again through streaming), McNally was brought by PBS to the TV Critics Association's press tour in California in early 2019 as well. Hundreds of press conferences are held twice a year at press tour, for shows that come and go, but very few sessions still linger in the mind as McNally's did.
Thoughtful and expansive, he went on about his craft and his community and gave insight on a variety of topics, including why he wrote plays.
"I do it because it's fun," he said. "I enjoy it. I enjoy communicating with people. Nothing makes me happier than to make an audience moved or make them laugh.
"Especially now that I'm older, so many people of the generation behind me have written to tell me that plays like 'Love! Valour!' really affected them when they were growing up and they thought they were the only gay man in the world and then they saw this play or read it in their library. And that means a lot to me. That I you know.
"I like to feel my work has mattered, and I think it has a little bit. And that's one of the reasons I do it. But I think, again, it's fun.
"I love going to rehearsal. I love working with actors. It's so inspiring; you want to write better. You work with a great actor, you can say, 'I can write this scene even better.' They teach you about it. To me, writing is a two dimensional art form, and theater is a three dimensional art form. And they're the ones who give it the third dimension. They, plus the director and the designers. And I just love being part of it.
"I've never thought, 'Gee, I'd really like to write a novel' or 'Gee, I'd really like to direct.' I found my niche. I found it when I was still at Columbia, and I've never wanted to be anyplace someone said, 'Would you direct?' I wouldn't direct anything. If an actor said, 'Do I enter left or right?,' I'd say, 'I can't answer questions like that. I have bigger things on my mind.' It's all very important, and I like the writing and watching them, you know. And plus, I don't have to show up eight shows a week. I can go off, and they have to go to the theater every night. I get to see other people's plays."
And that's important, he said.
"I believe in going to the theater," McNally said. "When I meet younger playwrights, [I say,] 'Go to a play. You'll learn something. Even if it's a bad production of "Three Sisters," you will learn something about being a playwright. Go to a bad production of "Timon of Athens." You learn something.'
"Not every play Shakespeare was great. But I don't think theater is an academic. I didn't study playwriting. I went to the theater every night. I went to Columbia. So I had the opportunity to go every night, and tickets were really cheap. Standing room or the last row of the balcony were very affordable. That's what I recommend.
"Write your play. Get actors to say your words, and sit there and listen to them being spoken in real time. You don't need a teacher grading your play or giving you notes. The actors give you notes by their performances. You can tell when they're interested, when they're engaged. The audience tells you when they're not interested, when they don't think something is funny or moving.
"It's a very real art form, it seems to me. I don't think of theater as art so much as a wonderfully fun business. I love going to work every day. I'll put it that way. I don't know if a lot of people would say, 'I love going to the bank every day' or 'I love going to the insurance company.' People in the theater, I think, like going to work.
Of his subject matter, he said, "I believe you write what you know about, and one thing I do know about is being a gay man, since I am a gay man. And I was never in the closet. I think that was probably my salvation.
"My first play had gay characters in it. And when you write your first play, you don't know it's going to end up on Broadway. So when I now read it's the first play on Broadway with gay characters that actually had sex instead of [someone] being just the witty next door neighbor who drops in for sugar or the alcoholic who commits suicide off stage, it was a character who wasn't dead at the end and which had sex with the other man in the play.
"But I didn't know that play was going to end up on Broadway. So I'm a great believer in 'Write what you know about.' So it was not a conscious "''m going to do something really different and write about gay men.' No."
There was no particular pushback for the gay content, he said.
"People didn't like the play, but they didn't say 'because it's about homosexuals.' I think the original reviews of my first play, 'And Things That Go Bump in the Night,' are outrageously homophobic, but we didn't even have that word in those days, because The Times would never use the word 'gay.' I think Tennessee Williams was probably reviewed we all knew he's gay, but no one would say it in a review. So the climate has changed. The conversation is so much healthier and franker than it was when I began.
"The opening night of 'Things That Go Bump in the Night' was still when critics all came to the opening. Now they come to previews, as I'm sure you know. And the critics it's also a time when everyone still smoked. Every single person in the world smoked, it seemed. And the critics would stay outside to the very last minute because they all had aisle seats. And then they would flash the lights, and then they would take the last cigarette and go in.
"As soon as they sat down, the play began. And I was standing outside nervously they didn't know who I was but observing all this. And Walter Kerr put out his cigarette and said to his wife Jean, 'Let's go see what his boyfriend has come up with,' because I was living with Edward Albee. We had a relationship that obviously had penetrated the inner sanctums of The New York Times. So they were reviewing a play by somebody's boyfriend. That's what the climate was in those days. 'Let's see what his boyfriend's come up with.' I felt kicked in the stomach before the curtain went up. I'll put it that way.
Of contemporary playwrights, he lauded Matthew Lopez, whose play "The Inheritance" opened on Broadway in November.
"There's a program at the Dramatists Guild where I try to get a young writer who really hasn't been in a room with talent and see how they develop characters, how directors work. And he was my assistant on a musical, 'A Man of No Importance,' we did at Lincoln Center," McNally said of Lopez. "And he's written this play. It's a huge hit in London. It's won two of the big prizes for best play. It now has the Olivier. He's really a great new writer. So that's one. There's just a lot of them out there, a whole new generation.
"I think the biggest problem is costs of production and too many producers produce out of fear. 'Is it going to be a hit?' Every hit that's ever been written, I think, has been a hit because it was written out of confidence and belief in it. Lin-Manuel Miranda, that's one voice speaking to you. 'Hamilton' also became the biggest hit of all time.
"Too many shows on Broadway feel like they're written by a committee," he said. "Theater is the best when it speaks in one voice, and I'm very optimistic about those voices in the wings waiting to be heard. We just have to keep encouraging young people who have the ability to produce to stand up and be counted and see the theater as a place they can realize their vision.
"Theater is harder to do than when I started. I used to feel I finished a play on Friday and we went into rehearsal on Monday. It doesn't feel that way anymore. Now you finish a play in 2005. You get a reading in 2006. You get a workshop in 2007. You can go on. It is harder, but I think a real explosion of new talent is happening in the theater. I hope it's happening here too. I really am very New York centric. I haven't been in L.A. in a good four or five years. So I am optimistic about them."
Of his own contemporaries, "They challenged me more than inspired me," McNally said of writers "roughly my age" - Sam Shepard, John Guare and Lanford Wilson. "I knew they were good, and it was fun to be in the same ring with them. I started at a very heady time for Off Broadway. 'The Zoo Story' and 'Iceman Cometh' and 'Threepenny Opera' had all sort of happened around 1956, the year I moved to New York at 17. So Off Broadway new writers were sexy. New York was really interested in them. So I had I certainly felt I had good competition, good peers.
"The writers that have continued to inspire me will always be Chekhov and Shakespeare. I'm just in love with Shakespeare, and just the words are so wonderful to get in your mouth. I certainly don't write like him, but you can do a lot with the English language if you really think carefully about how people use it and how it defines who they are in society and who they are in relationship to one another.
"And I think if I do have a natural ability, I think I have an ear for the way people talk," he said."Some good playwrights never get that. The characters all sort of sound alike. But Shakespeare is a genius at giving people just totally different soundscapes in the same play. So that's a model for me to aspire to."
Of critics, McNally said, "I stopped reading reviews about three plays ago, and I think it's probably wiser not to have read them. But it is it does affect your livelihood, my livelihood. Now often the play will be done in other theaters. And they have a job to do. I think some critics are better than others. They come, they've always been; I knew the contract I was entering. If you're going to write for the commercial theater in America, your plays are going to be reviewed, sometimes by rather unqualified people. That happens a lot away from the big city, you know. And you read a review, and they say, 'Well, she's basically our food editor, but she reviews the occasional play' or 'He does auto news, but he also likes theater, and he reviews when the little theater does a play.'
"Everybody's a critic anyway. People just come by the rehearsal room and look in, and you can tell, like, 'What are they working on?' So actors, when they rehearse, they're sort of critiquing you. So it's a dialogue. You're not working hermetically sealed. So, to me, the great critics, you can't compare them to someone who has four hours to write a review. And you get the bound of the reviews Bernard Shaw; he worked for months on those. This is more journalism. And New York, most papers have gotten rid of their drama critic. The Times, I think, is the only daily newspaper still covering plays, Broadway and Off Broadway. When I came to New York, there were eight daily newspapers. They all had critics. Now we have three papers and one critic. But it's in flux.
"I think, finally, if you give a good performance for 800 people, those 800 people go home and tell 800 people, 'I saw a great show' or 'I didn't see a great show.' And I, finally, think word of mouth is what turns you into a really successful, long run, not a quote, 'Greatest thing since Wonder Bread.'
In his career, he said, "I've been lucky because the first play I ever wrote got done on Broadway. The world of theater has been welcoming to me. Now, if I'd had ten flops in a row, I don't know if I would have answered your question so positively. But the theater has really provided me happiness, growth intellectually and emotionally. I've made lifetime friends. And I think my generation, we've made a difference in the dialogue in this country about women's rights, gay rights, Vietnam, racism.
"I still think the theater is an incredible form to get live people in a room. The lights go down. I'm always excited. And we're in a discussion for the next two hours about this subject. And I think that's got an aliveness to it that, frankly, a movie or television doesn't have.
"It's a totally different experience. And I still think there's always going to be a need to sit with our fellow man in the dark, watching other fellow men live, telling us a story at that very moment. I don't think that will ever go away."