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On Terrence McNally

I learned how to be a playwright by reading plays.

There were classes here and there that helped, but as someone who's lucky enough to get paid every so often to teach people how to write, I'm going to give you a secret that could put me out of business--

Just read plays.

That's the easy part.

The hard part is finding a person who has a voice that you can recognize, because before you can find your own voice, you have to listen to a voice that sounds the way you want to sound.  It's not about copying anybody anymore than children who learn to speak from their parents copy them.  First you get the language, then you come up with how you want to use it.

When you're a writer, language is more than just words--it's style and content and symmetry and all that other magical stuff.  Every writer speaks their own language, and if you want to become a writer, it helps to find somebody who seems to speak the same language that you do so you can (lovingly) use them as a jumping off point and one day make a language all your own.

As a young writer, I gravitated towards gay playwrights, because I came out when I was fairly young, and I desperately wanted to find other members of my tribe.  Is it any wonder I found myself more at home with playwrighting when film and television were still mainly made up of straight people?  Even then, plays about gay men were not always easy to come across, and when you did, they were often a response to tragedy--and understandably so.  I can't imagine trying to write about anything during the height of the AIDS crisis that wasn't in some way informed by it.  Before that, you had to wade through a lot of stereotypes to find anything worth grabbing onto.

Playwrighting has been around for a long time, but gay people are still working out how they want to be presented within the culture.

I found Kushner and fell in love, but knew immediately that he was operating at a wavelength I would never be able to tap into.  I was too young to appreciate the historical context of The Boys in the Band.  Larry Kramer was admirable but my worldview was so small and my courage so minuscule at that point, I'm pretty sure I closed The Normal Heart ten pages in and had my first panic attack.

Then I found Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally.

It's not produced anymore, because--like many writers who are unafraid to tackle the times they're in--the work sometimes winds up being too much of that time to reexamine again until it's far enough away to be considered a period piece.

But what a piece it is.

Not as ambitious as Kushner's Angels, but warmer and apologetically sentimental, with its intellect enmeshed in its humor.  McNally figured out that the way you avoid gay stereotypes is to put as many gay characters as you can onstage.  That way you can have all the types you want.  He found that difficult balance of presenting truth alongside cliche and made it all work.

Anything I wanted to know about being a playwright, I learned by reading Terrence McNally.

The downfall--even now--of being a playwright who speaks on behalf of their tribe is that you get pigeon-holed, and McNally was no exception.  One of the most versatile playwrights ever got dubbed "a gay playwright" even though, if you look at his body of work, that's just one subject among a myriad of others across every genre you can imagine--and he excelled at all of it.

Farce, experimental theater, musicals--you name it.  The underlying thread is that fearless emotion--characters who not only feel things but who fight to say what they're feeling and to have those around them feel the same.  Highly theatrical characters whose flair for the dramatic never took away from their humanity, and in fact, deepened it.

You could never truly get a handle on McNally, because he never rested on past work.  Despite the fact that whereas Love... shows signs of its age, he also has work in his arsenal like Master Class and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which hold up extremely well.  Still, you get the sense that success and failure never meant very much to him, and that's probably how he was able to amass such a wide range of work--a gift to those who haven't yet discovered him.  I envy them.

McNally's work gave me permission to be exactly the playwright I wanted to be.  He gave me and many like me permission to follow after him, and I'm still aspiring to learn all the different textures of his language.  As is so often the case with trailblazers, once the trail was blazed, the proper amount of respect is not always paid.

When he passed away this week, many nice things were said, but most of it got lost in the news of the nationwide health crisis we're experiencing.  The irony of McNally surviving one deadly virus only to be felled by another seems especially cruel.  It's unlikely that he'll get the kind of tribute he's owed as long as our collective attention is elsewhere.

What we shouldn't lose, however, is the work.  While we're all stuck in a somber time-out, it's worth going back and reading his plays, not just because they're a great lesson in playwrighting, but because they span a large section of American history that we often forget--and it's one that tells the story of victory over sexual oppression, government incompetence, fear, and yes, even a plague.

McNally said "I'm of the school, Write what you know," but he was a beacon for writers who might have been too afraid to write what they knew, especially about who they found themselves to be.  Not just gay, but also loud, emotional, blue-collar, strange, and unaccepted.

He taught them how to speak, and I hope we can all take a moment to speak for him.


  1. If everyone wrote what they know there would be many blank pages...but you, Kevin have often surprised me with the variety of things you seem to know!❤️


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