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McNally, Terrence (b. 1939)  
 
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Texas-reared Terrence McNally, whose first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was one of the great scandals of the 1964 New York season, emerged in the 1990s as America's most important gay playwright since Tennessee Williams. He achieved a measure of popular success with The Ritz (1974), a transgressive farce set in a gay bathhouse (later made into a less-than-riotous film by Richard Lester); Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), which was unfortunately gutted to make a cinematic star-vehicle for Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer; and with the books for the musicals The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), and Ragtime (1996).

But it is in a quartet of plays that respond to the AIDS epidemic--The Lisbon Traviata (1985, rev. 1989); Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991); A Perfect Ganesh (1993); and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), as well as in the Emmy-award-winning Andre's Mother (1988, televised 1990)--that McNally orchestrates his dominant theme of the difficulty of connection between people and of the corresponding need for love, bravery, and compassion in human relationships.

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Biographical Facts

McNally was born on November 3, 1939 in St. Peterburg, Florda. He was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas.

He matriculated at Columbia University, where he majored in English and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated in 1960.

McNally spent time after graduation in Mexico, where he completed a one-act play which he submitted to the Actors Studio in New York for production. Although the play was ultimately rejected by the acting school, the Studio was impressed with the script, and offered McNally a job as stage manager.

As a young man, in the early 1960s, McNally became a protégé and lover of playwright Edward Albee. Later, he became involved in relationships with actors Robert Drivas and Dominic Cuskern. In 1993, he fell in love with Gary Bonasorte, a playwright and founding member of the Rattlestick Theater Company, but lost him to an AIDS-related illness in November 2001. On December 20, 2003, Dover, Vermont, McNally entered into a civil union with Tom Kirdahy, a public interest attorney and producer. The couple married in Washington, D. C. on April 6, 2010.

McNally's Career

His career has come full circle with his last two plays of the 1990s: Master Class (1995), a meditation upon the making of personal and communal art, returns to Lisbon Traviata's celebration of Maria Callas as diva, and Corpus Christi (1999), which brought crowds of angry picketers to the Manhattan Theater Club (McNally's professional home since 1985) to protest his satiric reimagination of Jesus as a sexually active gay teenager in McNally's hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, proved an even greater succès de scandale than Bump.

What brings audiences to the theater is "the expectation that the miracle of communication will take place," explains the Last Subscriber to the board of a city arts complex in Hidden Agendas (1994), a one-act play written in response to the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy. "Words, sounds, gestures, feelings, thoughts! The things that connect us and make us human. The hope for that connection!"

And it is that humanizing "hope for . . . connection" that dominates McNally's theater, farcically in The Ritz as Chris wanders in and out of bathhouse cubicles looking for sexual contact, but more poignantly in later plays. "We gotta connect. We just have to. Or we die," Johnny tells Frankie in their eponymous drama. Unable to speak directly to each other, the four characters in Lips Together withdraw into soliloquies. Likewise, neither of the two principal characters in Ganesh is able initially to reveal a deep and abiding hurt to her best friend. In Love, Bobby is reduced to howling uncontrollably upon receiving news of his sister's death; and Gregory's stutter prevents him from putting into words the emotions that he expresses, rather, in dance.

How one responds as an onlooker to another's tragedy proves a haunting motif for McNally. In Lips Together, for example, Sally, from her deck, waves to a solitary swimmer whom she later understands was committing suicide, whereas in Ganesh, Margaret and Katherine recall a tense moment at a vacation spot when everyone on the beach held their breath as a small plane stalled overhead, the onlookers attempting to hold the plane aloft by their silent prayers until the pilot could restart his engine.

It is within this search for connection that McNally frames the social problems that surround homosexuality. "They hate us," Buzz explodes after witnessing an incident of anti-gay violence on the news in Love. "They fucking hate us. They've always hated us. It never ends, the fucking hatred." McNally offers no solution to the problem of prejudice, dramatizing rather the social dynamic inherent in the fear of difference.

The family in Bump sacrifices a victim every night (a gay man on the evening represented by the play) as a way of allowing themselves to feel safe in their bunkerlike basement; Perry and Arthur analyze the peculiar satisfaction that comes from using hate words in Love; a horrible gay-bashing is graphically narrated in Ganesh; and the four heterosexuals in Lips Together not only make empty excuses not to join gay neighbors for a Fourth of July celebration, but are afraid even to swim in the pool of a relative who died recently of AIDS.

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