By Robert Heide
It was Edward Albee who first introduced me to Terrence McNally in 1958. A lifelong friend, I was stunned when I heard of Terrence’s death March 24 at the age of 81, from complications of the coronavirus. Living in Florida with his husband Tom Kirdahy, he had overcome cancer but was suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and though his underlying condition made him especially vulnerable, as far as I know he was the first major theater artist to die of the virulent disease. My July, 2019, article in this paper chronicled a banner year for the playwright that year which included a play running on Broadway (a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune), the premiere on PBS of an American Masters documentary (Terrence McNally—Every Act of Life), a collection of his plays published by Grove Press, and a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, which made him the recipient of a total of five Tony Awards (two for plays and two for books of musicals.)
Before and after Albee wrote his one act play The Zoo Story in 1958, paired on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s monologue play Krapp’s Last Tape, Edward and I spent a great deal of time together going to gay bars in Greenwich Village, like Lenny’s Hideaway on 10th Street just a hop, skip, and jump around the corner from where I lived on Christopher Street. Also on 10th Street was Julius’s Bar where a framed photo of a youthful and serious Edward still hangs on the wall today just above the jukebox. In addition to The Old Colony on Eighth Street, our favorite gay spot, there was a dive called Mary’s where Edward and his troublesome, heavy-drinking partner of thirteen years William Flanagan went most evenings. Flanagan was a music critic for the Herald Tribune as well as a noted composer who had been mentored by Virgil Thompson. Another composer, Ned Rorem, who later achieved fame, was also on hand at the bars most nights where getting drunk or loaded up on booze was the order of the day. The Zoo Story and Krapp’s Last Tape were both focused in on existential themes of life and death, as were many other mostly one-act plays of the time by writers including Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco, that were part of a theater movement called Theater of the Absurd. With the help of producer Richard Barr, Edward was able to parlay a large sum of money inherited from his family, who were connected to the RKO movie Theater chain, which helped make his forays into the theater successful. Two top Broadway press agents were hired, at that time unheard of for Off Broadway productions, to promote his one-act play. I was amazed one afternoon on the beach at the Jersey shore to see a plane flying by trailing a huge flag advertising The Zoo Story at the Provincetown Playhouse. Meanwhile the drinking went on unabated most nights until four in the morning, after which we would go back to the Flanagan/Albee apartment on Fourth Street and the drinking parties would continue until dawn. Often four men would act out the scenario of “a game” that eventually became the basis for Edward’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, only the four men became two heterosexual couples.
Terrence McNally, just out of Columbia University, also attended those late night affairs and later we realized that the model in Virginia Woolf? for Honey who ends up drunk on the floor, puking, was a combination of both of us. Terrence told me he identified with that character who was intimidated by the older married couple and he also remembered very well all the drinking but not the puking. I told him that one night, at producer John Wulp’s apartment after a night of heavy pub crawling and drinking, I recalled that before passing out, while sprawled on the floor, I had heard Albee, Rorem and others who were standing above me jokingly but cynically saying “Well, if he wants to kill himself, let him.” This ‘youth quake’ of drinking eventually subsided in my case, in Terrence’s case entirely, and many years later for Edward. After Virginia Woolf? became an enormous hit on Broadway, Terrence moved in with Edward who was then living on 12th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Edward was raking in the dough then and his gin, bourbon, and scotch on the rocks parties were legendary. Terrence, who lived with Edward for five years, was meeting and getting it on with celebrities like Rock Hudson, while at the same time going to the theatre all the time. He finally tried his hand at his own play And Things that Go Bump in the Night, produced on Broadway by Ted Mann. I attended the opening and liked it very much. Unfortunately the top newspaper critics viciously dismissed the play, which, unusually at the time, had two gay characters. It also starred Eileen Heckart in the lead role. Both men were driven, and super ambitious, but Edward did not like the idea of then lover Terrence competing with him in the playwriting department, and their relationship ended. To make sure they didn’t bump into each other too often, Edward told Terrence that he would live east of 6th Avenue and that Terrence should live west of 7th Avenue, and although Terrence lived in several different locations in the West Village, it wasn’t until after Edward moved to Tribeca that Terrence (with his husband) moved to University Place. Later in the game Terrence and Edward had become good friends, which lasted until Edward’s death in 2016.
The headline in Terrence’s obituary in The New York Times was “Terrence McNally, Tony-Winning Playwright of Gay Life, Is Dead at 81.” Unlike Edward, Terrence depicted positive role models of gay life in his plays over and over, including Mothers and Sons in 2014, which had a married homosexual couple with an adopted son, and others such as Love, Valor, Compassion, and Corpus Christi. In The Ritz he presented half-naked men roaming around in a bathhouse to Broadway audiences, and The Lisbon Traviata chronicled the love gay men had for opera. After the success of Terrence’s Broadway play Morning Noon and Night, he proposed to myself and playwright Leonard Melfi to each write a play with related gay themes, and for a short while I was on a path to Broadway. Instead, Leonard lost interest and dropped out, and Terrence went on alone putting two of his one-acts together under the title Bad Habits. He also wrote the books for ten musicals including Ragtime, The Full Monty, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Chita Rivera, The Rink, and Anastasia, all of which contributed immensely to his growing bank account, which at his death apparently topped $200 million.
One of my favorite quotes from Terrence was printed in a conversation with Philip Galanes in the April, 2019 edition of T: The New York Times Style Magazine: “Theater stopped telling the truth when it started charging for admission. After the Greeks, it was selling something. Everybody was a salesman.”
The volume, Robert Heide 25 Plays was published by Fast Books in 2017 and is available from the publisher and on Amazon.