Terrence McNally’s earliest plays, influenced by both avant-garde theater and Cold War anxieties, offer savage criticism of society. Called by Harold Clurman “one of the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult,” McNally lashes out at various targets with an angry-young-man malice made palatable by his acerbic wit and solid stranglehold on a sense of the absurd.
And Things That Go Bump in the Night
Two prevalent, related themes that mark his early pieces are the dysfunction of the family and the alienation of the individual. His first major play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, deals with a bizarre family living in a basement, exiled from normal society. An absurdist farce à la Samuel Beckett’s Fin de partie (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame: A Play in One Act, 1958) and Arthur Kopit’s Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (pr., pb. 1960), the work is a devastating critique on the perversion of values forced on human beings by modern exigencies. The plot, a series of sadomasochistic exercises accompanied by shrieks of fear and outrage, involves the ritual destruction of Clarence, the play’s only “normal” character. He becomes a hapless victim in the sadistic and seemingly pointless games adroitly played by the “opera queen” Ruby and her children, Sigfrid and Lakme. Caring no more for their own kin, this trio mocks Grandfa, the grandfather who is about to be trundled off to an asylum for the insane. Love has simply degenerated into perverse carnality, care into apathy, and respect into derision. What remains are childish fears, such as the dread of the dark or solitude, that suggest an awful entropy in the human soul. There is no hope for humankind in this play’s apocalyptic vision, but there may be some sort of retributive justice, symbolized by the persistent “thump” that grows in volume and frequency as the play draws to an end.
Although hostile to the play, critics did identify McNally as a disciple of black comedy. The family members are, after all, outrageously humorous in their grotesque fashion. The play is perplexing, however, in part because of the playwright’s technique. It is a crazy quilt made up of non sequiturs, arcane references, foreign phrases, musical oddments, and disconnected and, at times, obtuse behavior. Stung into clarifying his vision by the play’s poor reception and after flirting with a career change, McNally began bringing his satire into sharper focus. In 1968, he had six plays in production, all one-acts Off-Broadway or teleplays on public television. In all of them, he sets a jaundiced eye on the dehumanizing and alienating aspects of American life. A favorite target is the Vietnam War and its eroding influence on values, a topic he treats in several works.
The best-known example is Next, a one-act spoof about a middle-aged theater manager, Marion Cheever, who has been sent a draft notice by accident. The two-character play takes place at an induction center, during a humiliating physical examination conducted by a tough, no-nonsense female, Sergeant Tech. Cheever, who has no desire to be drafted into the army, tries to wheedle out of his situation, but his tormentor carries on with all the inexorable indifference of a federal meat inspector. Forced to strip, Cheever, ashamed of his plump body, wraps himself in the American flag, and despite his desire to evade the draft, is upset when he fails the ludicrous psychological portion of the examination and is ruled unfit. When the ritual is over, Cheever burlesques it in a monologue in which he apes Sergeant Tech and with increasing stridency attacks the dehumanizing way in which society sets its standards.
Bringing It All Back Home
Another example, Bringing It All Back Home, focuses on a dysfunctional family unable to grieve for the son killed in Vietnam and sent home in a wooden crate conveniently deposited in their living room. The dead soldier’s sister and brother, engaged in a fierce sibling rivalry, verbally abuse each other, while their inept parents console themselves with inane observations, including the bromide that their son’s death was quick and painless, even though a mine “tore his stomach right open.” Selfish and vindictive, the nameless son and daughter excoriate each other while whining about their need for sex and drugs. The brother accuses his sister of being a slut; she accuses him of being a homosexual and a drug addict. The father offers simplistic parental advice, lecturing his son on becoming a manly adult through self-discipline and learning to bowl. Meanwhile, he pets his daughter in an obvious display of repressed incest and, when left alone, makes obscene telephone calls to total strangers. His wife, perpetually under a hair dryer, is unable to surface and listen to the conversation. All seem to treat the son’s death with stupefying indifference. At one point, that son pops up in his crate to protest, confiding that, contrary to what his family claims, his death “hurt like hell.” Matters come to a head of sorts when a television crew shows up to tape a human interest segment for the news. Interviewed by Miss Horne, a “black troublemaker” who asks penetrating questions about the son’s death, none of the family members can give a better answer than those provided by the worst self-serving apologists for the war. They are sorry human specimens, devoid of understanding, and numbed to uncaring by overexposure to daily horrors.
In and Witness several of his plays of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, McNally attacks such distressing complacency and insensitivity to human misery. Sweet Eros and Witness, produced as companion pieces on the same bill, both stress human beings’ need to assume personal responsibility for action and passivity alike. Both are troubling allegories.
In Sweet Eros, a man abducts a girl, strips her, ties her to a chair, and then proceeds to tell her his life story. Although personable and glib, he has a massive ego and is principally interested in justifying his narcissism. At first, the girl struggles with moral outrage, but in the end, she becomes docile, finding it easier and safer to acquiesce before madness than to fight it. She symbolizes a society that indicts itself by entering into a silent partnership with evil.
Similarly, in Witness, another victim is tied to a chair, this time a salesman captured by a young man planning to kill the president of the United States. The would-be assassin wants a witness who can later testify to his sanity. Also invited to witness the act are a window washer and a female neighbor, neither of whom finds it the least bit odd that the bound and gagged salesman sits in their midst. Neither of them wishes to take any responsibility for what is planned, partly because, as the window washer complains, too much freedom has left them without any rules or moral imperatives. He thinks that shooting the president is all right in a doing-your-own-thing sort of way. In contrast, the young man plans the death of the president because he wants to demonstrate that such an act is futile, that it can change nothing.
In two other one-acts, Ravenswood and Dunelawn, joined together as Bad Habits, McNally mocks two ways in which authority, represented by staff members at two contrasting sanatoriums, has dealt with asocial behavior. At Ravenswood, Dr. Jason Pepper encourages his patients to do whatever they want, even if it is demonstrably bad for them, while at Dunelawn, Dr. Toynbee and his two nurses drug unruly patients into silent stupors. As microcosms, the two sanatoriums suggest alternative ways in which governments have dealt with modern neuroses. At Ravenswood, Dr. Pepper panders to his patients’ desires, even encouraging aggressive and aberrant behavior, whereas at Dunelawn, the patients are kept in wheelchairs and straitjackets and, if unruly, are drugged into docility. Neither solution to human problems is satisfying, though the therapy used at Ravenswood seems to promote at least an ephemeral happiness.
Ravenswood and Dunelawn reflect both the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of McNally’s early satirical farces in the absurdist mode. Although much of the dialogue is humorous, the characters tend to be caricatures. Some are even reminiscent of cartoon characters. For example, Bruno, the groundskeeper in Dunelawn, is a variation on the cartoon Neanderthal at large in the modern world, as his “hubba hubba” tag phrase suggests. Both plays also have structural problems. They tend to dwindle away, more like skits than organic, complete pieces, which is a fault found even with Next, the playwright’s most successful one-act.
McNally was well aware of the limitations and was sensitive to the criticism. He credits Elaine May, whose Adaptation (pr. 1969) was once staged with Next, with helping him rethink his ideas about character. She encouraged him to “write people instead of symbols.” Aware, too, that short one-acts were too restrictive for developing characters to their full potential, McNally turned increasing attention to writing full-length plays, including Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, which some consider his best early play.
Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?
As critics have noted, the action of Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? reflects the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. Using several episodic flashbacks, it chronicles the experiences that have shaped Tommy into an anarchist bent on destroying various art centers. Like other McNally antiheros, Tommy is an alienated but engaging young man drawn to violence as a last recourse in a stagnating, suffocating, and insensitive world. His story is presented in a stage collage, using pyrotechnics, photographic images, music, asides, and “news” vignettes to piece it all together. Tommy is drawn in the tradition of the picaresque rogue, part con artist, part pariah, wounded by an indifferent or hostile world. His personal hero is Holden Caulfield, from J. D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Like Holden, he sees the system as phony and is determined to destroy even the most noble and benign aspects of it, its art. As he wanders, he gathers a family of misfits around him, almost in a sacrilegious parody of an American ideal. An old drifter-actor, Ben Delight, who is full of self-aggrandizing lies, becomes his surrogate father, while Nedda, a girl encountered on his sexually promiscuous rampage, becomes a substitute wife. There is also Arnold, an ugly dog, that, loyal until Tommy’s death, at curtain is led off on a new master’s leash. The play’s techniques sufficiently distance the audience to keep the whole mélange comical and innocuous. Although Tommy’s outrageous romp involves wanton destruction, flimflam tricks, and petty thievery, it elicits neither sympathy nor condemnation, only laughter. McNally tries to make one think in the aftermath of that laughter, and to that end, as Brecht does, he constantly reminds his audience that what is before it is, after all, merely a fantasy.
Another energetic piece, free of polemic design, is The Ritz, wherein McNally demonstrates his mastery of high-speed, offbeat farce. It is set in a New York steam bath catering exclusively to homosexuals, where the pudgy protagonist, Gaetano Proclo, has sought refuge from his brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci, who is out to kill him. As it turns out, Proclo has been set up by Vespucci, whose machinations have deliberately drawn Proclo to the place, an establishment owned and operated by Vespucci. Pursued by Michael Brick, a detective hired by Vespucci to hunt him down, Proclo dexterously but narrowly evades a series of comic disasters. Besides Brick, he is pursued by a homosexual “chubby chaser” whose taste in partners runs to the obese; a talentless female singer, Googie Gomez, who has it in her head that he is a producer; and, finally, his wife and Vespucci himself, who is hell bent on deceiving his sister into believing that her husband is a homosexual. It is a...
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