Terrence McNally: Farewell to a legend

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on April 24, 2020 Published on April 24, 2020

Pioneer: Terrence McNally had the rare gift of being able to combine absurdity, humour and operatic pathos   -  REUTERS/ ANDREW KELLY

Playwright Terrence McNally, who succumbed to Covid-19 in March, brought an unparalleled honesty and energy to the stage

On March 24, we in the performing arts experienced our first loss to the novel coronavirus. Four-time Tony-winning American playwright Terrence McNally (1938-2020) — who had survived lung cancer — succumbed to Covid-19.

In 1994, I was invited by the Artists Repertory Theatre (ART) in Portland, Oregon, to act in a play called A Perfect Ganesh. I wasn’t familiar with McNally’s work before this invitation, and I did not quite understand the script at first reading when it came to me by mail from ART. The director, Allen Nause, and I had enjoyed working together a couple of years before in Bengaluru with my theatre group, Playpen. He trusted me to do a sincere job of portraying the god Ganesh in the play, although acting is not my core competency. I trusted his choice of script. What an amazing eight weeks it was for me! This was the first time I experienced the joy of working with a professional theatre company and I felt privileged to act in a play by one of America’s leading playwrights.

Although not as popular as some of his other works, the play was a turning point in McNally’s career. Theatre critic Tom Jacobs wrote in his review of the play in Variety, “A Perfect Ganesh confirms what Lips Together, Teeth Apart suggested: Terrence McNally has evolved from America’s most amusing playwright into one of our most accomplished. In this hauntingly moving 1993 play McNally reaches new layers of emotional depth without sacrificing the wit that has made his work so enjoyable.” The same year I performed in A Perfect Ganesh, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was on in the small US town of Ashland. There, I saw a brilliant production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Among the first plays to deal with grief of losing loved ones to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the play is seen through the eyes of Sally, who has lost her brother to the disease. Years later, the production’s lead actress, Linda Alper, and I became friends. She visited me in Mumbai in 2018 and we reminisced about the power of McNally’s play. In an email, Alper wrote to me, “The play was a joy to rehearse and to perform. Deep, moving, original. And so funny! We often got standing ovations — because the writing was so beautiful, and the structure of the play so tight and seamless. But at this midweek matinee, as soon as the performance ended, two men leaped instantly to their feet, leading a wild cheer. Of course, those men were Terrence and his partner.”

McNally’s career did not start well. His first play had homosexual characters, which the critics and audiences rejected outright. Audiences were not used to seeing gay people portrayed on stage unless they were hairdressers or provided a laugh at their own expense. Playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, who were open about their gay identity, wrote about straight people, perhaps because the majority of their audience was straight. At the same time, McNally despised the label “gay writer”. He is known to have responded, “It is as absurd as calling Arthur Miller a straight writer.” At the 2014 marathon AIDS walk, McNally was asked why he chose to write about the disease. McNally responded, “There was no choice. An artist responds to their world and tries to make sense of it, even the bad things. What else was I going to write about, the weather?”

He had a rare gift of combining absurdity, humour and operatic pathos. One of the finest funny-sad scenes I have ever seen is from Love! Valour! Compassion! — a play on the lives and loves of eight gay men, the most remarkable of them being Buzz, a man who loves the world of the performing arts. The part was played by Nathan Lane in the Broadway premiere. Duffy Epstein, also my co-actor in A Perfect Ganesh, played Buzz in the 1996 production of the play at ART. Duffy recalls, “It seemed novel at that time to be telling a story that showed such love among a group of all-male, gay friends. There was a great scene where we all put on tutus and danced the finale of Swan Lake as a tribute to a friend. The theme I do remember being reinforced was that love is love, no matter who it’s between, and that it is to be treasured and preserved in any way it can be.”

What better tribute to a playwright than a quote from one of his plays? When Buzz is reminded that musicals never have happy endings, he remarks. “Yes, they do. That’s why I like them, even the sad ones. The orchestra plays, the characters die, the audience cries, the curtain falls, the actors get up off the floor, the audience puts on their coats, and everybody goes home feeling better. That’s a happy ending.”

Somewhere, McNally is brushing off the stage dust from his costume, he will pick up his coat and go home. But is it a happy ending for us? Alper adds in her email, “To know that Terrence McNally won’t be able to write another great play about what is happening now is a great loss”.



Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on April 24, 2020
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