By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
As the theatre community on Broadway, across America and around the world struggles with being shuttered in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, today we learned it has claimed the life of one of our legendary writers, Terrence McNally.
Playwright, musical and opera librettist, film and television screenwriter, for six decades Terrence McNally was one of the most prolific openly gay writers in America who helped move gay people from caricatures to central characters in every medium. A five-time Tony Award winner (including last year’s Lifetime Achievement Award), McNally’s influence on the American theatre and gay story telling cannot be overstated. His writing was fearless, caustic, hilarious, then suddenly heartbreaking.
No work more so than his seminal play, Love! Valour! Compassion! about eight gay friends at a country house coping with AIDS and each other.
I could go on for endless paragraphs about the life and legacy of Terrence McNally, but I won’t for two reasons. First, it’s been done better than I ever could in the award-winning documentary, Every Act of Life.
Second, Terrence McNally’s passing is deeply personal to me as an actor and director, writer, and a gay man. His work and influence have been a thread intrinsically woven throughout my life.
When I began studying theatre in college, my first lead in a full-length play was in Bad Habits and when I moved on into directing my first play was Bringing It All Back Home. The first may have been happenstance, but the second I chose. His biting anti-Vietnam black comedy captivated me with its ability to get an audience roaring with laughter and in one or two lines knock the wind out them in pain.
That was the brilliance of Terrence McNally’s writing. When I asked him about his unique ability for doing that during an interview , he said, “No one has ever asked me about that before. But that’s the way life happens is it?”
The occasion for the interview in 2004 was the opening of The Stendhal Syndrome, his first play since Corpus Christi which drew nightly protests and bomb threats after the NY Times reported it depicted Jesus and the disciples as homosexual. I was writing for the New York Blade newspaper and had pitched interviewing McNally to my editor who laughed saying, “sure if you can get him!”
Having worked in the professional New York theatre, I knew who and how to make the call. What I wasn’t expecting was the show’s press agent saying, “would you mind interviewing Mr. McNally at his home?” I’ve never met anyone be more generous with their time or kind in spirit during an interview, especially when they were about to open a new show.
We discussed Corpus Christi and I told him how I had been at the opening night “counter protest.” Then he talked about something very personal, which he never discussed, asking me not to write about it and I didn’t. With his passing today, I feel it’s ok to share that we discussed the fatwa death sentence put on him for writing Corpus Christi.
It had been five years since the Islamic fatwa had been issued in London, but it was still serious enough that he didn’t want it talked about in the press. Christian groups had issued such credible threats, I had to walk through a metal detector before entering the theatre to see the play in 1998. I asked him what he made of all it, and I’ve never forgotten what he said. It’s given me the freedom to be authentic as a writer and as a person.
“If there isn’t someone who’s upset by what you’ve said, you’re not doing job as writer.”
– Terrence McNally
(main photo image: video still from Every Act of life)