Terrence McNally Essay - McNally, Terrence (Vol. 7)

McNally, Terrence (Vol. 7)

McNally, Terrence 1939–

McNally, an American playwright whose biting comedies have been produced on Broadway and off Broadway, feels that most contemporary dramatists, including himself, employ "a kind of fairytale quality to frame today's ideas, problems, issues." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-58.)

Terrence McNally … had better beware of moths, for his mind is pure wool. The thoughts of this playwriting youth are the fashionably wrong wrong thoughts about Nuclear Apocalypse, the Bitch Mother, the Castrated Male, the Homosexual Martyr, and the Dehumanization of Everyone. The result [And Things That Go Bump in the Night] is one of those off-bleat stupefactions that make the modern stage look like the queerest wing of a nuthouse. (p. 88)

The play's plot and characters are assembled from the Kopit-Albee playmaking kit. Bump's grandfather is the peppery and frustrated duplicate of the grandmother in Edward Albee's The Sandbox. The silent father is a variation on Albee's laconic, spiritless father in The American Dream. Mother is the voracious woman of Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, in fright wigs à la Tiny Alice…. And the mortal baiting of the homosexual in Bump follows the cruelly bantering tone and logic of the venomous get-the-guests game in Virginia Woolf. The effect is worse than theatrical incest: it is rather like spreading disease in the guise of curing corruption. (p. 89)

"Juvenilia in a Fright Wig," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 7, 1965, pp. 88-9.

And Things That Go Bump in the Night dropped on Broadway with an empty thud. While this dissolute outpouring of nightmarish ectoplasm, made even more exasperating by its capricious detours into cuteness, does not deserve a much better fate, the play is not unprovocative. For Mr. McNally has a talent for imagery and an ambitiousness of purpose, which he frequently displays in his parable about modern society and the atom bomb. It is a promising notion to represent this society by a sadistic family that lives in an underground bomb shelter and is nightly faced with the alternative of humiliating a guest or being vicious to each other. And it is savagely dramatic to watch the torture of a Christlike homosexual visitor, whose eventual electric crucifixion does not deter these selfish people in their determination to survive the holocaust we hear exploding outside at the final curtain. However, in his debut Mr. McNally appears to lack the discipline or skill necessary to achieve his devastatingly large intention. (p. 24)

Henry Hewes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 15, 1965.

The present position of homosexual drama is unsatisfactory to just about everybody. The playwrights concerned are obliged, for obvious reasons, to disguise their themes and to present them, by implication, at least, as studies in "straight" behavior. The critics for equally obvious reasons are prevented from pointing this out (few of us would want to play the Marquis of Queensberry in a revival), at least in so many words. The result is a good deal of hissing venom on both sides: the critic taunting the playwright to declare himself—although to do so would clearly be suicidal; the playwright resenting, not unreasonably, the vindictive, and sometimes feline, reviews that the critic's frustration works itself off in.

I should like therefore to suggest a working hypothesis that might help toward breaking this log-jam: namely, that we have now had enough of these crypto-homosexual plays for homosexuality to have become part of the prevailing style, and that it is now possible to discuss a theater of homosexual sensibility without imputing homosexuality to any given playwright. The middle- (or writing) class traditionally gets much of its experience at second-hand and it is not uncommon for young playwrights to think they are writing about life when they are only writing about other plays. If enough of these models are homosexual, the new playwright may begin to read reality in a homosexual light (especially if the people he sees all the time are also based on theatrical models). (p. 289)

[In "And Things That Go Bump in the Night"] the square character is forced to admit to latent homosexuality and to be humiliated by the discovery. The inference seems to be that the square world is homosexual without the courage to admit it or to live out its implications: but this doctrine has to be quickly sublimated into other more acceptable themes….

Having set the stage for himself, the homosexual protagonist proceeds to work terrible vengeance on the square world; in each case the treatment ends in death, and in the rather smug survival of the executioner. The viciousness of this fantasy, which looks like meaningless overkill to the heterosexual, testifies to the depth of the homosexuals' grievances. The square victim is treated like a prisoner of war, who must pay personally for every atrocity real or imagined that his side has ever committed. (Readers probably don't need to be reminded that the above also has many points of resemblance to the plot of "Tiny Alice.")

Unfortunately, plays of homosexual sensibility often fail to make the right connection with heterosexual audiences, even when the plays present themselves in heterosexual guise. Some of the basic ingredients have lost their bite: for instance, the obsessions with mother-son relationships, and father-son relationships, which are a sort of signature, like the appearance of Hitchcock in his own movies; or the constant agitation over "the enemy out there"—an enemy which has to be left vague and nameless in the hope that it will ring some kind of bell with the spectator. The big scenes in these plays are often puzzlingly weak because one cannot feel the necessary involvement in the psychological situation. There is for instance a sort of wicked-fairy pageant in "Things That Go Bump" which is obviously meant to be impressive, and which brings the square victim to his all-too-available knees, but which (and I don't mean to sound too hearty about this) struck me as being one of the funniest moments of the season.

"Things That Go Bump" is a bad play, and several other portentous scenes had the audience in stitches, so it isn't fair to judge the whole genre by that. (p. 290)

"Things That Go Bump" is interesting in one respect at least. It is probably the most overtly homosexual play yet seen on Broadway and there are several things to be said in favor of that. It is obviously better to have this sensibility out in the open where we can see it—better for the plays, which can concentrate on telling truths about homosexuals rather than half-truths and falsehoods about heterosexuals; and better for the public, which can decide just how many of such plays it wants to see. As things stand, I believe that a mild heterosexual backlash is beginning to form (this is not meant as a clumsy threat, but as a simple observation) in protest at so steady a diet of transvestism. If this continues, the whole theater will be the victim. Therefore, as I say, there may be something to be said for having the homosexual sensibility asserted openly in one play rather than sneaked into twenty. It would, if nothing else, leave a cleaner smell. (p. 292)

Wilfrid Sheed, in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 21, 1965.

The prize horror of the season … is Terrence McNally's And Things That Go Bump in the Night. This is a devilishly embarrassing situation for those of us who, along with Philip Roth, deplored the crypto-homosexual play in which the pederast appeared disguised as an aging actress, a rebellious Negro or Everyman. Well, now we have an honest-to-goodness homosexual play, and is it ever an abomination! Anything is better than the hero as mother-craving-and-hating, alternately poetic and bitchy, sadistic but oh-so-red-blooded-American, smart-aleck little creep. And the mother and little sister who are his sidekicks—the perfect mother and sister for a homosexual: females clever and imaginative enough to envy, selfish and ruthless enough to want to strangle!

Let us dismiss the ostensible plot, which makes no sense anyway…. No need to detain ourselves with the borrowings, obvious and heavy, from The Zoo Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tiny Alice, though translated back into homosexual relationships. A little harder to disregard is the writing…. (p. 81)

What matters is the basic situation of that supremely vicious mother-son-daughter triangle that would die of internecine blood-lust if it were not for an endless line of Victims…. The idea is that these three incubi and succubi are infinitely appealing despite their ghoulishness or even because of it; that the so-called normal people in the play are represented as paralyzed or insensate, living in the past or escaping into sleep, doomed to extinction of one kind or another; that even among the inverts, the "nice" ones die because they can't take it; that the monsters shall endure and inherit the earth.

However, even the obnoxiousness of this premise might be made tolerable if the insights or at least the language were interesting. But no, it is all campy trivialities couched in poeticizing baby talk…. (pp. 81-2)

It is not the homosexuality that offends, but all that hysterical ugliness…. (p. 82)

John Simon, a review originally written in 1965, in Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1965, 1971, 1972, 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

McNally's Next begins … with a scene in which a man approaching middle age, an assistant manager of a movie house, is examined by a nurse for possible induction into the army. He tries to put her off by every possible gag. This is immensely comic although one is in some doubt as to whether it is the author or the actor … who is getting the laughs.

Then, toward the end, McNally changes his tune. The man who has been treated as a dumb beast, and who has tried to kid himself out of feeling himself humiliated, becomes savagely indignant. As in a previous McNally play, Witness …, we are shown the deep-seated, festering animosity of the "little man" who has unconsciously come to hate everything to which he is subjected by the contemporary world. He bursts with a hitherto suppressed sadism which needs only another prod to turn him into a killer—in backlash imitation of the very thing that has tormented him.

McNally's intention, and it is worthy, is to launch an exacerbated attack on the mechanics of a civilization which is taken as an acceptable, because inescapable, norm. The flaw—though it should be emphasized that this sketch is one of McNally's better efforts—is that the farcical opening fails to anticipate the final onslaught. One is uncertain whether the stronger element in the author's impulse is to be funny as hell or to vent his spleen. The result is a discomfiting insecurity of style. (p. 282)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1969 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 3, 1969.

Next, [a remarkable play of Terrence McNally's], is a small but invaluable treasure-trove. A fat, messy-lived, middle-aged assistant cinema manager is being given a grueling physical and psychic induction test by a fat, robot-like female sergeant. The army has clearly fallen on lean times, but this particular fat morsel fights with comic desperation to stay out. It is hard to say which are funnier: the questions, with their dehumanized yet scarcely exaggerated absurdity; or the answers, with their mixture of anarchic innocence and ironic grotesquerie. Starting out realistically, the play climbs by slow but sure steps into a surreal realm in which the uproarious and the horrible blend into a huge belly laugh that is also a heartache. The playwright accomplishes the almost impossible feat of making every line tearingly funny, yet at the same time relevant to both character and deeper significance. Uncannily, jokes top jokes, gushing forth so fast that you almost don't dare laugh lest you miss something funnier still. But simultaneously a life is unfolded before us, riotously and pathetically real, and downright sinisterly close to our own. (p. 189)

John Simon, a review originally written in 1969, in Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1965, 1971, 1972, 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

Mix the wistful, slightly sentimental humor of William Saroyan and the abrasive machine-gun ribaldry of Lenny Bruce. Add to that a mental image of Holden Caulfield as a 30-year-old dropout, and you have the basic tone and temper of Terrence McNally's Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?

The play is episodic, rather like an urban picaresque novel. Some of the encounters and adventures are wildly hilarious; others are mutely poignant. The play's weakness lies in McNally's tendency to write by free association. Whatever pops into his head, he pops into the play. But the author of Next and Noon is correcting this defect with each succeeding work. At 31, he looks like one of the best bets among up-and-coming U.S. playwrights.

T. E. Kalem, "Holden Caulfield's Return," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 18, 1971, p. 80.

It would be at least consoling to think that the kids who plant bombs in our allegedly decaying institutions are driven by a passion against injustice. According to "Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?" your friendly neighborhood bomber may be a maudlin little stinkpot, his ringlets dripping with self-indulgence, who blows and sets his fuse because old people die, because his girl, who has wound up in jail as a victim of his seedy little counter-culture games, doesn't want to play any more, because a cop has told him to quit loitering.

Far from being the picaresque character that playwright Terrence McNally intended, Tommy is a moldy Holden Caulfield, a charter member of the Paranoid Waifs of America, a small-town kid who has reached the crisis age of 30 still searching for the pearl in the hepatitic oyster of New York….

The obvious influences here, such as Michael McClure's "The Beard" and John Vaccaro's theater of the ridiculous, are despoiled, and a phosphorescent gangrene of chic infects the entire enterprise.

Jack Kroll, "Please Omit Flowers," in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1971, p. 108.

The answer to the question implied in Terrence McNally's Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? is nowhere….

So Tommy escapes to where life really is: New York. (p. 410)

Everywhere … Tommy is faced with stupidity, passionless promiscuity, brutality: it is what every young man is supposed to know today and ultimately to expect. Roughed up slightly by a cop, Tommy kills him with a blast of dynamite.

Is Tommy a good or a bad boy? He is neither. Tommy registers our society, typifies disoriented youth. But the "registrar" is as dumb or as banal as everyone he contacts. One cannot accept him as a product of our society, because his good nature, projected chiefly through the actor who plays him and McNally's jokes, evinces nothing propulsive in any direction: he neither learns nor protests, he does not yearn or despair. In a word, he is not a true person. He is a peg on which to hang all the clichés about our shabby time. No community whatsoever would make Tommy anything other than what he is, because he is a lump incapable of the volition needed for good or evil, the human material to develop toward a meaningful purity or a damnable baseness.

I stress all this in what is after all only a light entertainment (not without its laughs and clever twists) because the play is meant a little more seriously than it would appear. It belongs to that taken-for-granted criticism of the status quo, in which so much of our "new theatre" and New Left politics indulges, where the tag or verdict precedes and supersedes thought…. Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? works smoothly and—barring some extra goodies in the way of preposterous puns and special comedy routines—rapidly. (pp. 410-11)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 25, 1971.

From the author of Next and several other not uninteresting one-acters, [Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?] came as a distinct disappointment. But there lies part of the problem,: Tommy is a full-length play, and most of today's playwrights can write only, in however many acts, one-acters. The explanation, though I and many others have nibbled away at it, remains to be more comprehensively stated. McNally's play is dragged out beyond any shape or structuring: it concerns a kind of hippie living on charming conmanship, petty thievery and air…. [We] mostly see Tommy's momentary encounters with shadowy passers-by from whom he tries to get money; watch him doing an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in heaven, or going into recollections of his family with his various kinfolk in Florida seen and heard on three screens showing simultaneously the identical footage. Why so much of those fugitive strangers, why the irrelevant and campy impersonations, why three screens when one would do as well, and none at all better yet?

There is a desperation about this kind of playwriting: garrulity posturing as content, gimmickry pretending to be form, bizarreness mistaking itself (or hoping to be mistaken by others) for an original voice. Actually, Tommy is a type, a mode, a subculture, far more than he is an individual. (pp. 350-51)

One would be strongly tempted to urge Mr. McNally to write the kind of play he really has a feeling for, and do it forthrightly; but when one remembers And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which seemed to fill this bill, one is stopped shudderingly short. (pp. 351-52)

John Simon, a review originally written in 1971, in Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1965, 1971, 1972, 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

Terrence McNally is a sprint man, not a miler. When he attempts a full-length play (Things That Go Bump in the Night; Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?), his gifts tend to make an embarrassing exeunt. But in the circumscribed province of the one-acter he is rapidly becoming a master.

Bad Habits, his latest miniatures, provide two glimpses of limbo, caparisoned as a sanitarium. In Ravenswood, Dr. Pepper …, clearly a descendant of the March Hare on both sides of his family, presides over braces of sickies…. McNally is an angry and sometimes vicious observer of personality types; this funny farm is liberally mined with terror as well as gags.

In Dunelawn, the caricatures grow even broader…. At one point, a nurse … angrily challenges the transvestite …: "Do you know what they call people like you?" His answer is immediate: "Fashionable." Off-Broadway would benefit enormously if that label were to adhere to the good evening of Bad Habits.

Stefan Kanfer, "Funny Farm," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 18, 1974, p. 95.

What is it … that makes McNally's [Bad Habits] seem so funny? I surmise it is [its] nastiness.

We do not have many playwrights who have the courage to be nasty. Not that nastiness is, in itself, a virtue; a convincing enough case has been made over the last three or four millennia that it is a vice. But it is a vice of which there is so little around in our theater that it begins to look precious….

But here is McNally saying we are all wicked, and those who say otherwise are liars or fools, and those who pretend to cure it by psychiatry or whatever are quacks or madmen. Either we are wisely encouraged to yield to our basest cravings, or—the only alternative—we become well-behaved vegetables. This is, of course, equally untrue as the opposite position, but it is, at least, the other, less touted and well-trodden, extreme.

John Simon, "Desperation Comedy," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 27, 1974, p. 78.

Mr. McNally is a very funny writer—his "Bad Habits" was one of the most original comedies of the last few seasons—and a fearless taker of chances. Imagine risking a plot in which a fat, timorous, heterosexual garbage collector from Cleveland attempts to hide out in a homosexual bathhouse on the upper West Side in order to escape being murdered by his brother-in-law, an all too virile Mafia hood from Brooklyn! Imagine stirring into the plot the garbage collector's wife, equal to him in girth, who must disguise herself as a man in order to enter the baths; a primly virginal private detective afflicted with the voice of a prepubescent schoolboy; a Puerto Rican woman, already of a certain age, who hopes to launch her career as a night-club entertainer by serving as the m.c. for Amateur Night in the baths; and a middle-aged homosexual attracted only to fat men! The misunderstandings and bizarre confrontations that result from the garbage collector's grim determination to save his life would require a computer to sort out; at one point, for example, no fewer than three characters lie huddled higgledy-piggledy under a narrow cot while two other characters argue bitterly above them. How did Mr. McNally contrive to bring those five into the same tiny cubicle? I cannot tell you. There may have been a few threads of plot in need of disentangling at the final curtain, but I was having too good a time to notice them; "The Ritz" made me laugh almost from one tick of the clock to the next, and I am ready to forgive much for that. (pp. 76-7)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 3, 1975.

The Ritz was The Tubs until an off-Broadway cheapie, Tubstrip, encroached on its title…. [This farce is] not so much a play of mistaken identity as a play-long identical mistake.

The entire charade is an uneasy tripartite alliance among homosexual-heterosexual confrontation gags, fey would-be Feydeau farce, and campy bitchinesses and in-jokes on the order of "I don't speak Spanish, so the Continental [Baths] is out," or "You know Ronald Reagan used to be lovers with John Wayne…. That was just after he broke up with Xavier Cugat." Now there might be some kind of real comedy here if any one of the three aspects were fully and tellingly developed, but, in drama, three slapdash thirds do not add up to a harmonious whole…. [The] triune plot is more trying than unified.

It is also fairly unfunny. The reason, I think, is that it tries too hard to remain a clean dirty joke, which, in my book, ranks in ignominy with the fig leaf in art and, in life, the see-through blouse worn with a brassiere. Just as you can't construct a play as a layer cake (which is different from making a single layer so rich that it takes on additional, symbolic meanings), you cannot have your jokes be both dirty and clean (not even a cake can be both eaten and had). McNally's intention is to dabble in religious, ethnic, and sexual humor without offending the most middle-class and middlebrow sensibilities…. Yet, whether you like it or not, a strong sexual, ethnic, or religious joke must offend some people—it is rather like eating garlic, acceptable only to fellow garlic eaters—and as for feeble jokes, they are now possible on stage only in such still, alas, under-exploited areas as politics….

The play itself is considerably less trenchant than McNally's previous offering, Bad Habits, and not even so outspoken as the above-mentioned lowly Tubstrip.

John Simon, "Bath-House Bathos," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), February 3, 1975, p. 65.

[The Ritz] is essentially a string of burlesque sketches, fast and physical and funny….

[It] made me laugh a lot. Two reasons. It's traditional—all those "takes," all that parody fear and anger, all that scuttling about and diving under beds—done with briskness and fine timing. It's a sign of progress—a homosexual phenomenon accepted as a locus for farce. No bravery or bravado, just a new "place" for "This must be the place" gags. It's a much better play than McNally's last, the double bill called Bad Habits. That show leaned on offensive fake sophistication. All The Ritz asks for is elemental response, in a new setting, to the cartoon worry and woe that are the lifeblood of farce. (p. 22)

Robert Evett, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 1, 1975.