OPINION: Playwright Terrence McNally: a life led with bravery and integrity

Wednesday, 25 March 2020 16:43 GMT

Playwright Terrence McNally arrives for the American Theatre Wing's 68th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York, June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)/File Photo

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McNally's career traced the birth of the modern-day LGBT+ rights movement and skewered American preoccupations with class, psychotherapy and sexual mores

Ash Kotak is a playwright and film-maker and leads the #AIDSMemoryUK Campaign to establish a national tribute to HIV and AIDS in Britain.

Playwright, librettist and screenwriter Terrence McNally has died in Sarasota, Florida, at the age of 81. Having survived the AIDS pandemic and lung cancer, he succumbed to coronavirus whilst suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 

As a gay playwright, McNally explored the issues of his lifetime. His influence on gay theatrical literature is profound; his versatility in terms of form and style informed by his huge talent. I cannot think of American theatre without including him. Over a six-decade career, his body of work relates the story and history of both pre- and post-Stonewall and the birth of the modern LGBT+ rights movement.   

Through 30 psycho-social dramas to satires, comedies and musicals, he explored Vietnam; traditional family life and structures; sexual mores; socialism; the American Dream; controlling relationships; and celebrated homosexuality but avoided gay ghettoisation and shame. 

Open about his sexuality, his four-year relationship with the closeted playwright Edward Albee led to frequent battles. 

AIDS gave his work a new urgency in plays such as “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”, which follows two straight couples over a weekend in Fire Island inherited by a friend whose brother had recently died of AIDS; and “The Lisbon Traviata”, where he hilariously explores romantic loss though opera queens and rare Maria Callas recordings.

His lover after Albee had been the actor/director Robert Drivas who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1986. Another long-term lover, Gary Bonasorte, another playwright and founder of an AIDS research clinic, died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 2000. 

In 2010, McNally married Broadway producer and attorney Tom Kirdahy, who survives him.  

McNally’s better-known works include Tony Award-winning “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class”. Further Tonys came for “Kiss of a Spider Women” and “Ragtime”.

Bad Habits”, written in 1974, laughed at the American reliance on psychotherapy. The controversial “The Ritz”, set in a Mafia-owned bathhouse, became a gay classic movie. And the Tony Award-nominated “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”, with actors Kathy Bates (for which she won an Off-Broadway Theater Award) and F. Murray Abraham, revolved around the relationship between a restaurant chef and a waitress, and was later made into a movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. The award-winning “The Full Monty” was a smash.  

Actors loved his plays. McNally’s characters are witty and smart, and laughter often lifted the audience past loneliness and loss. For him, it was a weapon to increase awareness and connect differences across his worldwide audience. Humour became a form of armour against homophobia, the necessary tool with which to challenge a lack of empathy for the alienated whom McNally humanised through his writing. He would return often to a character’s struggle for intimacy after having been taught by society to hate themselves, an issue that resonates still today. 

Through more hits than misses – his work could be too sentimental although it never lacked humanity and certain plays feel dated as recent revivals have shown – he was a survivor and it is hard to criticise a life lived with such honesty and integrity regardless of whether you loved, liked or even hated his plays. 

Who could ever imagine a world without Terrence McNally and his huge body of work that survives the modern-day plague? And who would want to?