Terrence McNally considered Shakespeare and Chekhov his gods, and Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera his goddesses; he learned a lot from all four. That’s what he tells us within the first few pages of Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays (Grove Press, 659 pages) a book published in 2015 that presents the scripts of eight of his plays*, written from 1987 to 2013, interspersed with a few pages of introduction, recollection and digression.
“I’ve been asked before to write a perhaps more conventional memoir,” he writes in a short preface. “Perhaps I will one day. I arrived in New York at the end of the Golden Age of Broadway and participated first-hand in the exhilarating birth of Off-Broadway and a whole new generation of American playwrights. I’ve grown up and grown old with a lot of famous men and women.”
Terrence McNally died on March 24th at the age of 81. We don’t have that more conventional memoir. We do have “Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays.” Since every one of the eight plays is available in separate editions (although it’s nice to have them all together), the interstitial pages of memoir are what make this book distinctive.
That’s not to say it delves deeply into autobiography. (There is more information about his life — especially his love life — in the documentary “Every Act of Life,” currently on Amazon Prime.) We get only slide glances. McNally tells us about his years-long, live-in relationship with the older playwright Edward Albee, which started when McNally was an undergraduate at Columbia, in a single paragraph. The paragraph reads as if he expects us to have known already that they had been a couple, and he only brings it up in the context of breaking up with him. McNally had fallen in love with Robert Drivas, his leading man of his first play on Broadway, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” which was a flop.
The book is better when he’s talking about his muses and mentors. There’s an especially gratifying three pages about John Steinbeck, who hired the young McNally to accompany him and his family in a year-long trip around the world as a tutor for his two sons. “Don’t write for the theater,” the still theater-loving Nobel laureate advised the new college graduate. “It’ll break your heart.”
It’s in his introduction to the first play in the collection, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” that he tells us about the quartet of playwrights and performers he worships. He literally calls Shakespeare and Chekhov his “gods.”
In a later intro – to “Lips Apart, Teeth Together” – he elaborates about Chekhov; they both, he says, don’t believe in conventional plot. “Behavior is everything. What I believe in is characters responding to a strong situation. My ‘stories’ are their reactions. It was good enough for Chekhov.”
As for Minnelli, he writes that he has a “talent crush” on her. They met when she starred in the Kander and Ebb musical “The Rink,” the first musical for which he wrote the book. Minnelli taught him about theatrical “generosity” and “giving 100 percent,” while her costar Chita Rivera taught him about “technique.”
It was for Minnelli that he wrote the part of Frankie, wanting to help prove to the world that she could be a serious actress, but she never played it; she didn’t even read the script, although he kept on sending it to her. “Somehow it always which is lost or left behind in her nomadic life.”
One of his best-known plays (and the last to be on Broadway before his death, in a revival last year starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon), “Frankie and Johnny” is about a one-night stand between an ordinary man and woman that might turn into something more. McNally tells us his initial inspiration for the play occurred when, nearing 50 and without a lover, he was standing in line at the (now defunct) Blockbuster video store in Chelsea waiting to check out the videos to watch on a cold Saturday night. He suddenly noticed all the other people on line planning to spend the weekend “watching movies instead of talking or laughing or making love with someone else.”
It’s just such tidbits about the plays themselves that make the intros worth reading.
“Master Class,” his Tony-winning play about a class that the great opera singer Maria Callas gives to singing students, was inspired in part not by Maria Callas but by Leontyne Price. While a teacher at Juilliard, McNally dropped in on a master class by Price. What’s most striking about this is that he had actually attended master classes by Callas herself, and even spent an evening in her apartment, but he was disappointed at how banal she was. “I went home and put on La Sonnambula. I never met her again….To know her would have been unfair to her.”
A clue to why he has presented this collection of his plays as a memoir is in his comment that “Master Class is my most autobiographical play. While most of the facts about Callas’s personal and professional life are accurate, many of the feelings she expresses about the need for the arts in our lives are my own.”
In the intro to “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” his other Tony-winning play, he writes about his characters, gay men who spend the weekend in a country house upstate, “I knew these eight men. They were me, divided into eight. I was all of them.” (He then adds, confusingly “It is probably the least autobiographical of my plays, but it is definitely the most personal.”)
Terrence McNally sums up his life and his art in two sentences, which he lifts from the final monologue he gives Maria Callas in “Master Class.”
“What we do matters. If I didn’t believe that….”
The thought is left unfinished — which is itself a comment on Terrence McNally’s life and his art.
*The eight plays, in order, are:
+Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune
The Lisbon Traviata
Lips Together, Teeth Apart
A Perfect Ganesh
+Love! Valour! Compassion!
And Away We Go
Mothers and Sons
These include three of my (and most everybody else’s) favorite, which I’ve marked with a +, but it’s worth a reminder that McNally was a prolific playwright with an almost six-decade career, and this collection represents less than a fourth of his plays — a sixth, if you include the libretti he wrote for musicals.