It’s hard to believe it’s been over two months since we started our unplanned coronavirus quarantine, and I’m still reeling with dismay and disbelief.
And in March I was so sorry to learn of the Covid-related death of Terrence McNally at age 81. McNally had been one of America’s greatest contemporary playwrights and apparently had chronic pulmonary disease and had overcome lung cancer.
In my college days at NYU, I took a modern drama course with a professor whose partner was a new young playwright named Arthur Kopit. Naturally we read Kopit’s early works, and one night went with our professor to see a Greenwich Village production of Kopit’s play Oh Dad, Poor Dad. Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, afterwards meeting the playwright backstage.
We also read the early works of another playwright in Kopit’s circle, the lesser-known Texas-born Terrence McNally. I was captivated by McNally’s writing then, and have since followed his long, very prolific and successful theatrical career.
McNally wrote over three dozen plays including the Tony Award winners Love! Valor! Compassion! about a group of gay men vacationing together, and Master Class about the opera diva Maria Callas.
And he also wrote the books for ten musicals including the Tony winners Kiss of the Spider Woman, set in an Argentine prison, and Ragtime based on the E L Doctorow novel about three turn-of-the -20th century New York families seeking the American dream. An amazingly versatile writer, McNally also penned opera librettos and screenplays for film and TV. And just last season we saw a stirring revival of his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
But his first play to appear on Broadway was And Things That Go Bump in the Night. The year was 1964 and the subject was unusual and risky for the time – a romance between two gay men.
By serendipity in the late 1980s I met the playwright when we were both attending a Lifespring weekend in New York. Lifespring was a human potential program, an offshoot of Werner Erhard’s EST, and at the outset of the weekend we were all sitting in a large circle introducing ourselves. When it was McNally’s turn and he said his name, I cried out, “Are you THE Terrence McNally?”
A few weeks later he joined us for dinner and a performance of one of his plays then running on Broadway. I would never miss a McNally play, but I don’t remember which one we saw that night.
I just remember my delight in spending an evening with Terrence McNally!
Dana Susan Lehrman