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Love! Valour! McNally!

"I'm always accused of saying that I'm not a gay playwright, " Terrence McNally insists. "I'm not saying that at all. I'm a gay man who is a playwright. It's not just about my sexuality."

To McNally, the distinction is obvious. But his critics haven't always agreed. At a time when gays and lesbians want their heroes loud and proud, McNally's tough stance on his own gay identity has often put him at odds with gay activists. As a result, he's become increasingly reticent to talk on the record about gay issues. In fact, after years of requests, this is the first time he has agreed to speak with The Advocate since 1988.

"I really hate talking about this because it always comes out wrong," he says, explaining why he's hesitant to discuss gay topics. "It doesn't come out wrong in my life. It comes out wrong when I read about what I allegedly said, and I feel very misinterpreted."

However, in his work McNally never holds back. It's no small irony that this playwright--who shies away from gay issues off the stage--has addressed the gay experience more than any other playwright of his generation. And in addressing the gay experience, he's, helped to define it.

Since his Broadway debut in 1965, McNally has consistently introduced audiences to gay themes and gay characters. Among his most famous works are 1975's gay bathhouse farce The Ritz; 1985's gay breakup drama The Lisbon Traviata; 1991's gay-themed comedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart; and 1992's hit musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which McNally wrote the book, winning a Tony award for his efforts). Add to that list 1994's Tony award-winning Love! Valour! Compassion!--now adapted as a film to be released nationwide May 16. It follows a tight-knit group of eight gay men and the changes that one summer brings to them.

Along with these gay landmarks are several works by McNally that don't always address the gay experience--at least directly--including 1987's two-person drama Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune (later given the big-screen Hollywood treatment in 1991 as Frankie and Johnny) and 1993's spiritual fantasy A Perfect Ganesh. The diversity of his work is yet another issue that has put McNally at odds with some gays and lesbians. The playwright cites 1995's Master Class--for which he won his second Tony award for Best Play--as a prime example. Although the play treats audiences to a fictional evening with gay icon Maria Callas, McNally says the gay press ignored it. "It's like I was a gay playwright three years ago because I wrote a play about eight gay men," he says. "But there's as much in Master Class that I want to say to my gay brothers and sisters as there was in Love! Valour! Compassion!"

The rigidity that McNally sees within gay circles is a source of frustration for him. "Sometimes you want to say to the people who criticize you, `What more can I do?'" he says. "I'm out. I hope I've made a contribution to our society."

Yet he's all too aware that some gays don't think he contributes enough. "Why am I being attacked?" he snaps. "Because I say I hate the expressions `gay theater,' `gay plays,' `gay playwrights'? Those expressions are so limiting. It's a way to say to the rest of the world, `You don't have to deal with me. I'm a harmless fairy.'"

In other words, McNally is determined to compete on a level playing field--not discriminated against but not indulged either. He illustrates his point by talking about his latest project, Ragtime. McNally wrote the book for the highly acclaimed production, a musical version of E.L. Doctorow's novel that opens in Los Angeles on June 15 and moves to New York in December. The rest of the show's creative team is straight, but McNally adds that's a moot point. "They all know I'm gay," he says. "We don't talk about my sexuality. We talk about the script of Ragtime."

McNally is already steeling himself for a chilly reception from the gay press, simply because Ragtime contains no gay characters. "Which doesn't mean I don't do my bit for the `cause' today," he says. "I do my bit for the cause if Ragtime is a fucking good show and people say, `You know, the book writer is a big queen.'"

For McNally, 57, visibility is the ultimate political act. "I think the most important thing we do in our lives is to be out," he says. "But I think being out is all we can do. Then just live a life that's of use to other people."

McNally never had to come out. The first time he hit the public eye, the New York press outed him. In those days the only big news about McNally was his lover--Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. "No one had ever heard of me other than gossip that Edward and I had lived together for about six years," says McNally. "So when my first play came out, it was reviewed as a play by a gay playwright."

The play was 1965's And Things That Go Bump in the Night. It concerned an eccentric family living in self-imposed exile in their basement. It featured two gay characters. The critics savaged it.

McNally now sees the play's failure partly as the result of homophobia--not to mention what was perceived as his riding on the coattails of Albee's fame. "The press didn't know we had been broken up for about a year," says McNally. "So they were reviewing Edward Albee's boyfriend--and they were going to get me."

After the show closed McNally swore off playwriting and spent the next year and a half as the assistant editor of his alma mater's alumni magazine, Columbia College Today. With the encouragement of friends and colleagues, he finally ventured back into the theater. And by the mid '70s he had begun to work at the astonishing pace that he's been known for ever since.

"I read the reviews of And Things That Go Bump in the Night," says Boys in the Band playwright Mart Crowley. "It was an enormous failure. How Terrence ever got the stamina, the guts, the courage, the moxie, the sheer will to go on, I'll never know."

It's not only his staying power that sets McNally apart from his peers but the sense of adventure he brings to his work. "Terrence doesn't write the same play over and over again," says playwright Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America. "You might see that it's all by the same author, but you also see that there are real experiments with form and content."

Especially gay content. Although McNally incorporated gay themes into his work from the beginning of his career, it wasn't until The Ritz that he pulled out all the stops. "To me, The Ritz was the most subversive play that has ever been on Broadway," he says. "Here was a sex farce about gay men back in the early '70s, and the villain in that play is the heterosexual who's humiliated at the end. People were laughing hilariously at what they're supposed to be terrified and appalled by."

With The Lisbon Traviata, however, McNally learned a harsh lesson about gay story lines in his work: Much of the straight audience wasn't ready to watch gay love onstage. The play was roundly criticized in the press for what McNally describes as its frank sexual talk. "There were times that the straight men in the audience would look at their watches or put their arms around the woman they were with. It was when there was affection between the gay characters," he says. "But I was so tired of gay plays where everybody was just an opera queen. Queens, people can deal with. Gay men having real emotions and feelings and dicks is much more threatening to people."

McNally kept those criticisms firmly in mind as he wrote Love! Valour! Compassion! "Almost the first image you see is of two men--who are practically naked--kissing," he says. "I wanted to get that over with." Admonishing an invisible audience, he adds, "If you're not going to be able to deal with men kissing, then leave now." This time most audience members stayed.

McNally adds that Love! Valour! Compassion! was just as much of a political statement for him as was The Ritz. "People came to the play because it won a Tony award, but there was a point when you could feel the audience embrace the characters," he says. "When they do, the most obvious response is, `I identified with these people.' And I consider that important."

McNally believes it's just as important that his gay messages are realistic, not melodramatic. "I don't feel as disenfranchised as some plays or movies try to make me feel," he says. "We're not Jews in Elizabethan England forced to live outside London, with Shakespeare writing The Merchant of Venice. You couldn't write the gay equivalent of a Shylock today," he says, referring to Shakespeare's Jewish villain. "That's how much we've been accepted. That's how much we're in the mainstream."

And mainstream acceptance of lesbians and gays is the basis of McNally's political views. "Being gay isn't enough anymore," he says. "The stakes are high now. We asked for acceptance, and we got it. What are we going to do with it?" The playwright quickly answers his own question: "Take it and be judged by the same standards that everybody else is."

RELATED ARTICLE: The playwright's the thing

No other art form is gayer than contemporary playwriting. It's not an exaggeration to say that a list of the top living American playwrights would be filled with names from this roster of gay and lesbian standouts.

Edward Albee: Twenty-four plays. Three Pulitzers. Two Tonys. Kennedy Center Honors. Ever since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reinvented American drama in 1964, Albee's name has meant master playwright. Even so, he's been getting better. In 1994 Three Tall Women put him center stage again.

Jon Robin Baitz: He burst on the scene with two critical sensations in the 1992 season: The End of the Day and The Substance of Fire. Other plays include the gorgeous Three Hotels (1993)--directed by his lover, Joe Mantello, and filmed for PBS--and A Fair Country (1996).

Mart Crowley: The Boys in the Band. Isn't that enough? The landmark 1968 play smashed down closet doors around the world and still packed a punch when it was revived last year off-Broadway.

Larry Kramer: His career as an AIDS activist almost eclipses his writing, but his essays and plays about the epidemic--including The Normal Heart (1986) and its 1992 sequel, The Destiny of Me--earn Kramer a high place in literary history.

Tony Kushner. Who hasn't heard about his Pulitzer prize-winning, two-time Tony award-winning Angels in America? Tagged "a gay fantasia on national themes" and divided into two three-hour evenings (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), Angels is the most-talked-about play since Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arthur Laurents: Almost 80 and still writing. Laurents's best-known works include his books for the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. On-screen he's represented by gay faves such as The Way We Were and The Turning Point. And he directs too, winning a Tony for La Cage aux Folles.

Craig Lucas: After a string of hits, including Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless (both made into movies), Lucas's latest, God's Heart, is touted as his masterwork to date. Since Lucas lost his longtime collaborator, director Norman Rene, to AIDS last year, it's fitting that their best-known creation is the 1990 movie Longtime Companion.

Paul Rudnick call him Oscar Wilde or call him Neil Simon; Hollywood calls him when there's a comedy in need of laughs. His crown jewel remains Jeffrey, a 1993 Obie winner that has been produced as far away as Japan and was made into a 1995 movie.

Nicky Silver. His recent efforts, The Food Chain (1995) and Fit to Be Tied (1996), have been hits, though reviews have been mixed. But his triumph, the savagely funny 1993 AIDS play Pterodactyls, proved there's gold in Silver.

Paula Vogel: Though the stars of her 1992 Obie winner, The Baltimore Waltz--Joe Mantello and Cherry Jones (The Heiress)--are better known than its writer, Desdemona reestablished her as a playwright to watch. Currently she's represented off-Broadway with How I Learned to Drive.

Lanford Wilson: Aside from his Pulitzer prize-winning Talley's Folly, Wilson's most famous plays include Lemon Sky, Fifth of July (filmed for PBS with Christopher Reeve as a Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair), and Bum This. Wilson's latest, Sympathetic Magic, has found a home at Second Stage.

George C. Wolfe: The Tony award-winning director of Angels in America and Bring In 'da Noise, Bring In 'da Funk started as a writer. The Colored Museum was a highlight of '80s theater. His other hits include the book to Jelly's Last Jam (1992).

Chay Yew. Gay and Asian--a story that's not been told onstage before Chay Yew's 1994 off-Broadway hit, A Language of Their Own. Chay is currently the resident artist and director of the Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:playwright Terrence McNally's political views
Author:Frutkin, Alan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 15, 1997
Previous Article:Losing the war.
Next Article:Sudden visibility.

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