Terrence McNally, 1938–2020
The playwright who dramatized gay lives
Terrence McNally brought the complexity of gay life to the American stage. In his three dozen plays—as well as books for musicals, screenplays, and opera libretti—McNally returned to the subject again and again, exploring it with anger, humor, and tenderness. In Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), a group of gay men sharing a summerhouse wrestle with relationships; in Andre’s Mother (1990), a woman whose son died of AIDS struggles to accept his homosexuality; in Mothers and Sons (2014), her son’s lover has married and become a father. McNally‚ who died at age 81 of complications from the coronavirus, didn’t like being described as a gay playwright, finding the label reductive. And indeed his work stretched beyond gay themes: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987) is about a one-night stand between a female waitress and a male short-order cook. “I think I write about the difficulty of people connecting as they’re trying to find hope,” McNally said, “trying to find their way to real love and commitment.”
He was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., to “heavy-drinking New Yorkers” who ran a beachfront bar and grill, said The Times (U.K.). A hurricane sent them to Corpus Christi, Texas, where McNally wrote for the school paper and listened devoutly to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. Seeing Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I on trips to New York City “made a lasting impression,” said the Los Angeles Times, and McNally started writing plays as a teenager. He attended Columbia University in Manhattan, where he “indulged his theatrical cravings,” spending hours lining up for Broadway tickets. After graduating, he became a stage manager for the Actors Studio.
His Broadway debut, 1965’s And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a bomb, said The New York Times. A satire featuring “an almost unheard-of romance between two men,” it was savaged by critics: “ugly, perverted, tasteless,” wrote one. Subsequent plays fared significantly better, though his greatest triumphs came well into midlife—after he quit a daily drinking habit—with a long streak of popular works, including the book for the 1993 musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. While McNally dabbled in film and TV, he never wavered in his devotion to theater. “If you want to change minds, write a great editorial,” he said. “But if you want to get people to feel differently, reach them through the theater.”