Terrence McNally Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Terrence McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1939, but he grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he received his early education. His parents, both from New York, promoted his enthusiasm for theater by taking him to see both plays and musicals. In 1956, he entered Columbia University, where he took courses in writing and collaborated on variety shows. He completed his B.A. in English, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1960, and was named an Evans Traveling Fellow. With the fellowship, McNally went to Mexico, where he wrote a one-act play and sent it to the Actors Studio in New York. It piqued the interest of Molly Kazan, who appointed him stage manager there. Through his association with Kazan and her husband, Elia Kazan, McNally was hired as tutor to John Steinbeck’s teenage sons, and in 1961 and 1962, he toured the world with the Steinbeck family.

Back in New York, McNally won an award for a one-act play, which, with revisions, would become And Things That Go Bump in the Night. In 1964, he received a grant for staging And Things That Go Bump in the Night at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The notoriety that surrounded the production induced producer Theodore Mann to try a New York staging in 1965, but it was met with extremely hostile reviews and closed within two weeks. The disheartened McNally briefly dropped playwriting and took up journalism, but prompted by theater friends, he returned to begin a prolific period in which he wrote several one-act plays produced either Off-Broadway or on public television. The best known, Next, ran for more than seven hundred performances and secured McNally’s reputation as a talented writer of trenchant satire. Critics were generally less receptive to McNally’s full-length plays, and the failure of Broadway, Broadway in 1979 sent the playwright into new creative doldrums. It was five years before he returned to the Broadway stage, with the musical The Rink, for which he wrote the book. Although received tepidly by critics, the...

(The entire section is 833 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As a quiet child growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Terrence McNally began early to “make a theater in his head” while listening to popular radio shows. His parents, Hubert and Dorothy, former New Yorkers, encouraged his interest in the arts and occasionally took him to Broadway plays. McNally says that seeing Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun and Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I started him thinking of a career in the theater.

At seventeen he entered Columbia University as a journalism major, and he took advantage of being in New York by seeing “every single play on Broadway” from a back-row seat. At the time, Columbia had an important tradition, a yearly varsity show. As McNally was about to graduate, there was no one to write the script for the performance, so he volunteered. With music and lyrics by Ed Kleban (who later wrote A Chorus Line), it was a smash hit; the poster of the show is still the only one hanging in McNally’s office.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he was awarded a traveling fellowship and went to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. There he wrote a play, which he sent to the Actors’ Studio in New York. Molly Kazan, Elia Kazan’s wife, read the work and thought that McNally had talent but needed some practical experience in stagecraft. For the next two years, he worked as stage manager at the Actors’ Studio, where he did menial work but also learned his craft.

During 1961 and 1962, McNally went on a world tour as a tutor to John Steinbeck’s teenage sons. He then supported himself as a film critic while he completed And Things That Go Bump in the Night, first presented at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, under a Rockefeller grant, and then on Broadway. The reviews of this nightmarish rendering of what the playwright terms “the choice of evil, which is a constant, over chaos, which is not necessarily a good” were uniformly derisive.

McNally returned to magazine work until, in 1966, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and began writing some one-act “comedies” with dark undertones. The most noteworthy of these was Next, about an overweight middle-aged man mistakenly drafted into the army. Paired with Adaptation, by Elaine May, who also directed, the play ran for more than seven hundred performances. McNally, who is unsparing in his admiration for May, has commented, “Everything I learned about playwriting I learned...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)