By Robert Heide
The year 2019 has certainly been a banner year for playwright Terrence McNally. He won a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, has a Broadway revival at the Broadhurst Theater of his 1987 two-character play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, starring Audra McDonald as Frankie and Michael Shannon as Johnny; and to top it all an American Masters documentary entitled Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, starring Terrence himself discussing his theater work, his life with his family of origin, his father’s alcoholism—as well as his own battle with alcoholism, and his “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” relationship with his mother after outing himself as gay. You can order the American Masters documentary from PBS. It was released in 2019 and was first shown on PBS (channel 13) on Friday, June 14th, and is one of the most amazing, startling, forthright TV documentaries I have seen in my lifetime. And a big hardback $40 book of Terrence’s plays has just been published by Grove Press. (I reference Terrence on a first-name basis because I have known him as a theatre colleague and friend for over fifty years.)
Terrence’s life has been not just the struggle with alcohol but also a battle with cancer. At one point he was drinking himself into oblivion and at a party one night he was confronted by Angela Lansbury. She accomplished a kind of intervention by asking, “What are you doing to yourself—your brilliant career?” From then on Terrence was off the booze.
I first met him through Edward Albee when Edward’s full-length play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was opening on Broadway. I met Edward in 1958 when his first play, The Zoo Story, coupled with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, opened at the Provincetown Theater in The Village to great acclaim. I became an intimate friend of Edward’s after hanging out with him at gay bars like Lenny’s Hideaway on 10th Street and Mary’s and The Old Colony, both on Eighth Street. During The Zoo Story days Edward liked to hold court at the San Remo Tavern on MacDougal Street.
In the early sixties Terrence showed up in The Village and was soon living with Edward. Shortly thereafter Terrence wrote his first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which was produced on Broadway by Ted Mann, who was known as a producer Off Broadway, which included O’Neill’s Iceman Cometh at the Circle in the Square. When I saw Bump I was very impressed. Eileen Heckart starred and it seemed to my mind to have come directly out of the Theater of the Absurd movement that was being presented at many Off Broadway theaters, which would include Edward’s one-act plays. Bump was panned by the uptown critics and I never could understand why. The night I saw it I thought it was terrific, as did most of the audience in attendance.
Terrence came to New York from Corpus Christie, Texas, in 1956, and as a student at Columbia he wrote a variety show in 1960. When I had my play Moon produced at the first Manhattan Theater Club Play Festival after a run at the Caffe Cino, I was delighted to find myself next to playwrights I admired such as Terrence, Maria Irene Fornes and Julie Bovasso. It was great fun and the theater producer Lynn Meadows was supportive of everyone.
Recently I saw the current production of Terrence’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune directed by Arin Arbus, and enjoyed the vivid acting of Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon—yes! Go see it at the Broadhurst Theater on 44th Street. It runs through August 25th.
My purpose in this article is not to review a play, but I’m happy to list my favorites among the many plays and books for musicals written by Terrence, and they include four that won Tony Awards: Love! Valor! Compassion!; Master Class (which focuses in on the life and career of opera diva Maria Callas); and his musical books Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. More plays include Mothers and Sons; Lips Together Teeth Apart; It’s Only a Play; Next; Lisbon Traviata; Bad Habits; and the musical The Ritz.
Terrence’s output over a lifetime in the theater is prodigious, and he states in the documentary that his main quest in his lifetime has always been his quest for love. He had many up and down relationships, as with the actor Bobby Drivas (who died of AIDS), who would not have an out-in-the-open gay relationship with Terrence because he thought it would destroy his acting career. Terrence turned 80 this year and he has at last found true love and happiness for many of the past years with his producer husband, Tom Kirdahy.
Robert Heide is the author of Robert Heide 25 Plays and many books, all available at Amazon. For a video of Robert discussing his relationships in The Village with some of these people, as well as his long friendship with Andy Warhol, go to robertheideandjohngilman.