Terrence McNally: The interview

Terrence McNally
Photo: Chuck Colbert

Terrence McNally
Photo: Chuck Colbert

By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter–

The celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, who is openly gay, has won four Tony Awards, including one in 1995 for his gay-themed Love! Valour! Compassion! Now 73 years old, his brilliant career has spanned five decades. And yet for all the success in New York theatre and beyond, he said recently during a visit in Boston, his marriage to Tom Kirdahy is what matters most.

“It is the most profound thing in my life,” said McNally speaking recently at the TAJ Hotel in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood. “I can’t think of anything thing bigger or more important to me. Marriage informs everything I do. It gets better every day since we went to Vermont.”

The couple was civilly united first in Vermont (2003) and then has married seven years later in Washington, D.C.

“We were both surprised how much it changed things,” McNally explained. “I believed him so completely when [Tom] said those things to me,” McNally said, referring to their exchange vows, “for better or worse, sickness and health” in Vermont, which he said the couple considers to be their marital benchmark.

McNally is a cancer survivor so the vow of sickness and health packs special meaning. “I feel very safe and protected. Nothing too bad can happen if you have [love and marriage] in your life. So a bad review from a critic is pretty small potatoes compared to that.”

Both McNally and Kirdahy were in Boston a few weeks ago on the occasion of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ awarding McNally its Beacon of Liberty Award. The ACLU honored his artistic contributions as they inform social justice issues and celebrate freedom of expression. The award was presented during a gala cocktail reception on Saturday, Sept. 15 at the TAJ, just two weeks shy of the opening of the musical Ragtime.

McNally won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Book (musical) for Ragtime. The local revival of the Broadway musical is a collaborative effort between the ACLU and Fiddlehead Theatre Company. Ragtime runs through Sunday, Oct. 7, in the historic Strand Theatre, located in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood.

“Ragtime is the perfect ACLU play,” said Carol Rose, the legal advocacy group’s executive director, “not only because it is about issues of freedom, equality, and human striving for equality, but also because it takes place at an incredible time in our country, with union organizing, immigrant rights organizing, social justice and women’s rights” — and at the time “the ACLU was founded in someone’s living room in Boston.”

“This is a play that speaks directly to issues of equality, for people of different races and gender,” said Rose, adding, “Of course, for LGBT people, the theme — that deep human emotion, which goes to the desire for equality — is applied to a whole new group, a whole new generation.”

Just as Ragtime speaks to social justice and compassion for those in need, so McNally’s play Corpus Christi gives voice to the intrinsic goodness of gay men and lesbians, made in the image and likeness of God.

Written in 1997 and staged in New York the following year, Corpus Christi is a passion play, a retelling of the story of Jesus and the apostles through a gay lens, with Jesus and his disciples as gay men living in Corpus Christi, Texas. Judas betrays Jesus over sexual jealousy. In one scene the Jesus character named Joshua marries a gay male couple.

An international tour — a revival of the play along a film documentary Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption — has been ongoing now for six years by the California-based 108 Productions.

Recently, the tour visited Chicago.

The documentary examines the effects Christian anti-gay attitudes have on the cast, audiences, even protestors in the many places Corpus Christi has played.

McNally spoke to all of that and a lot more while in Boston.

“It’s so funny,” said McNally. “The play is so conflated with anti-Catholicism and as an attack on the Catholic Church, which I never envisioned when I wrote it. If I wanted to write a play attacking the Catholic Church, I would certainly know how to write it. I think a lot of people have already done it.”

Early on, Bill Donahue of the New York City-based Catholic for Religious and Civil Rights led the charge against Corpus Christi, going so far as to say it was blasphemous.

The attacks got nastier and personal. An UK-based Islamic group, the Shari’ah Court, issued a death fatwa against McNally in 1999 when the play opened in London.

Closer to home, when his mother went to Mass during [the New York run of] Corpus Christi, she found an envelope at her seat from the Catholic League, asking to send money to stop “this play in New York.”

“My mother saw my picture on the envelope,” he added. Upset by that, “She never went back to a Catholic Church,” said McNally.

Ultimately, “The message of the play,” he went on to say “is one of profound love and humility and deepest respect for Jesus Christ.”

Still, the outcry, McNally said, “Revealed the amount of homophobia that still exists in the religious hierarchy of [Christian] churches. They have a lot to answer for.”

McNally did not have a typical Catholic upbringing. “As a Catholic, I never thought sexuality was a sin,” he explained. “I did not go through the tormented adolescence,” of thinking “I’m going to hell. I just thought something that frankly was so much fun, couldn’t be a sin. My view is that God is pretty fun-loving and happy-go-lucky.”

Receiving an award from an advocacy organization like the ACLU is not a first for McNally. Five years ago, Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates honored the playwright with its Spirit of Justice award.

And while recognition from New York theatre critics and advocacy groups is appreciated and welcomed, McNally said “When people say my work has changed them, particularly in the gay area, that makes me very happy. That’s as a good an award you can get.”

The play Love! Valour! Compassion!, and especially Andre’s Mother, a film about a woman’s coming to terms with the death of her son from AIDS, “affected a lot of people,” McNally said. The PBS movie, he said parents have told him, “Helped them come to accept their gay children.”

McNally arrived in New York right out of high school to attend college at Columbia University. “The minute I got out of high school I went to New York” because “I knew I would not be the only gay person in the world,” he said.

Initially, McNally thought he would become a journalist. “Your work should be a manifestation of the best of yourself, the most thoughtful of yourself,” he said, adding, “I cannot imagine being an artist with a disconnect [between] who I am and [what] I truly feel and think.”

“I am more of a writer who writes from his feelings than from a political agenda,” he said. And yet being out as a gay person is “incredibly important politically.”

“It seems like such fundamental part of who you are, your sexuality,” McNally explained, readily acknowledging “Being gay in theatre was not very challenging. The only ones not out are our critics.”

Over the years, McNally has seen a lot of change since arriving in the Big Apple at age of 17. “We used to dart down little, dark allies, deserted streets to a cellar bar and now we are married,” he said. But now the of change “seems to go at warp speed compared to little increments of progress.”

“The two places I look to for the future of where the country is progressing are Massachusetts and San Francisco,” both “a little bit ahead of New York,” said McNally

And, “I love your new Senate candidate,” he said matter-of-factly, referring to Elizabeth Warren, Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Scott Brown.

©  Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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