Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama

by John Clum


Over the past half century, Terrence McNally has been one of America’s major dramatists and the most prolific playwright about gay life in New York City. He has written plays, the books for celebrated Broadway musicals, the libretti for new American operas, original works for television, and adaptations of his plays for film. He has won four Tony Awards (Best Play for Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! ; Best Book of a Musical for Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman) in addition to Drama Desk Awards and an Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is highly celebrated for work both off and on Broadway.

McNally’s work offers a bittersweet, often satirical picture of life in America from the turbulent 1960s to the early 21st century. While he often focuses on homosexuality and homophobia, his plays also focus on his characters’ desire for some form of spiritual renewal. They are also celebrations of various forms of love—of family, friends and lovers.

For half a century Terrence McNally has been and continues to be one of the most important figures in American drama. His plays have been produced all over the English-speaking world and are regularly revived. They have all been published. There is no question that his work deserves careful critical attention.

This is the first book-length study to focus on the relationship of Terrence McNally’s plays to the broad, distinguished history of gay theatre in America during his career. In this book, McNally’s work is seen against the political movements of the 1960s and the history of gay men in New York during the early years of gay liberation, the age of AIDS and the new reality of gay marriage and families.

During that half century of McNally’s career, gay life in America evolved from the prevailing anti-homosexual bias of the religious and medical establishments and Draconian anti-gay laws, even in cities with large gay populations like San Francisco and New York, to the legalization of gay marriage. Gay theatre moved from small Greenwich Village venues like the coffeehouse-playhouse Caffe Cino to Off-Broadway and Broadway where McNally has had a string of successes. His Broadway hit The Ritz (1974) offered the most candid view of post-Stonewall gay culture that had been presented on Broadway. The Ritz was a farce. McNally has always been a master at combining serious topics with laughter.

This critical study of Terrence McNally’s work is, for the most part arranged chronologically. Throughout McNally’s work is discussed in the context of other gay drama being produced in New York during the past half-century. Seeing McNally’s body of work through the lens of gay culture and gay drama is only one way in which his work can be interpreted, but it is a central aspect of his half-century of playwriting. Terrence McNally has not only written some of the richest, most powerful plays about the place of gay men in a certain segment of American society; he has written some of the finest plays of the past fifty years.

Readers and scholars interested in modern American drama, gay drama, and gay culture will find this valuable resource a riveting read.


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