In Memoriam: Terrence McNally

Covid-19 complications claim the distinguished playwright

"Nobody loves the theatre as much as Terrence."

This observation about Terrence McNally was made by Nathan Lane in the 2019 documentary Every Act of Life. That great love, along with a 55-year career as a playwright, came to a close Tuesday, March 24, as complications from coronavirus took McNally's life. He was 81.

Terrence McNally at the 80th birthday gala thrown for him by Zach Theatre in September 2018 (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

McNally's career was extraordinary, and not merely for its longevity. As a writer, McNally was able to move fluidly among forms and genres – door-slamming farce to domestic drama to satirical comedy, musicals to straight plays to operas – and his work was embraced on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional theatres, and in concert halls. His four Tony Awards testify to his range: two for plays, of very different kinds (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class) and two for musicals, also very different in subject and scope (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime). Moreover, McNally was a pioneer in writing about the lives of gay men, tracking their experiences in real time from the days of bathhouses through the AIDS crisis through the fight for gay marriage. He gave them life on the stage with dimension, depth, and dignity, and led the way for other playwrights to do so. And remarkably, audiences not only accepted McNally's plays in this vein, they applauded them and made them successes – in New York and across the country.

If you hadn't known McNally grew up in Texas, you would find little evidence in his work. The majority of it, by far, was set in New York, the city he came to after high school and made his home for the rest of his life. Only once did McNally make overt reference to his Lone Star upbringing: in the play Corpus Christi, named for the coastal town where he grew up but also a parable about tolerance in which the Gospel story is retold in 20th-century Texas with a Christlike figure named Joshua, who is gay. The play has courted controversy since its premiere in 1998, but inspired some of the loudest outrage in McNally's home state when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst turned a Tarleton State University student's workshop production of Corpus Christi into a battleground for the culture wars. Sadly, Dewhurst was reflecting the same virulent strain of homophobia represented by Texans in the play.

Terrence McNally at a preview performance for the 2019 revival of his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)

But Texas retained some claim on McNally's heart. It was in Corpus Christi that a high school English teacher gave him the encouragement to pursue his writing, and he paid his respects to Maureen McElroy throughout his career – crediting her in interview after interview and even in one of his Tony Award acceptance speeches. McNally has his literary archive here at the UT's Harry Ransom Center, and he has seen his plays widely produced across the Lone Star State, despite the disapproval of certain politicians. Austin has had a special fondness for McNally's work, with productions here of 12 of his 36 plays, two of the musicals for which he wrote books, and two of the operas for which he wrote librettos. McNally may well be the most-produced playwright locally after Shakespeare.

Austin is also now the city where the last world premiere of a play by Terrence McNally took place. Immortal Longings, a reworked version of the play Fire and Air, which premiered in New York in 2018, opened at Zach Theatre in June of 2019. Zach, which had already produced several of McNally's plays under the tenure of Artistic Director Dave Steakley, had developed a relationship with the playwright and held a gala celebration of McNally's 80th birthday, with many of his favorite New York performers taking part, in the lead-up to Immortal Longings' premiere. Though it was a period of honors and laurels for him – induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Distinguished Lifetime Service Award from the Broadway League, a Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre award from the Tonys – McNally kept revising and refining his play, working to make it better. That's how much he loved the theatre.

McNally is survived by his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, and by his brother, Peter McNally.

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