Written by Kevin LaTorre
I sign my name in the guestbook of the Harry Ransom Center when I visit the Terrence McNally exhibit for the second time. Alongside the academics and the Northerners and the enthusiasts, “UT Student” is a nondescript designation. If a stack of brochures had been available, I might’ve picked one up, slipped it into my notebook, and kept it in the same way I keep playbills. Back in the front lobby, the receptionist and the two security guards all pitter-patter together in light Texas accents. Weather, grandchildren, the like. The ladies’ buttery voices might be what’s causing McNally to grin up there on his mounted photograph. He knows the lines of Texas’s old women, having grown up in Corpus Christi. I approach the playwright’s picture on this first wall of his exhibit, just before his documents and photos appear on the walls of the following room. This little waiting room—his little waiting room, he might correct with mock seriousness—has a theatre’s pre-show silence, as well as the headshot of the balding playwright who has written the show. He is eighty years old, the display tells me. I give the old man an impressed nod, and I turn the corner into the larger exhibit. There are no curtains hanging here, but somehow I expect to hear their heavy fabric drawing back. Maybe there are pulleys squeaking as they reveal the unlit stage.
McNally first reappears as a little blond boy in 1942 Corpus Christi, all curls and shorts, his mother holding him on her hip. Corpus Christi also gifted McNally the first person to encourage his writing: Maurine McElroy, his high school teacher. Their displayed correspondence spans from 1959 (Terry the college student) to 1998 (McNally the acclaimed playwright). Though, like a polite young boy, he always addresses her as “Mrs. McElroy.” McNally grows into a man for the first time on these handwritten pages. They will soon become typed once technology ages with him, but these pages came from his fingers and his pens. This first costume fits him loosely enough to allow him a quick-change before the next scene. The pages bob and dip out of the light, and his sleek new suit reemerges on the wall’s next panel.
His 1960 play Rollercoaster is the first McNally script that appears in the exhibit. He wrote this as a student at Columbia, and the two displayed pages stage the tale of an old man who is struck by a tiny projectile from somewhere above him, and—
A man reads the display over my shoulder. He has cut across the room diagonally, atypical for a theatergoer. He prefers the “goer” to the “theatre,” and so he crosses the stage freely as if he were the actor. The woman he left back by the door does not look over to him. I think that maybe she didn’t notice him go, or that he said something moronic and she finds McNally’s performance far more rewarding anyway. The man and I look over the information card for “Roller Coaster,” which cues the playwright Edward Albee to arrive on the scene. He darts out from the stage left wings and seduces the young McNally—or McNally seduces him—before his cameo ends as quickly as it began.
The boy who was the student, who then became the playwright, has now also become the lover.
When I move past this footnote romance, McNally assumes a wide smile and beams out from a photo of himself at twenty-six years old. He will not appear as a photo of himself for the rest of the performance. Instead, he will be only his words, his stories, and his performers. He tries out the new style in a typescript of And Things That Go Bump In The Night, his Broadway premiere. Its brief run didn’t survive the critics’ onslaught, but John Steinbeck lends a supporting role here with a few of his scrawled letters. He consoles McNally because Broadway needs his subversive gay comedy more than it knows. Old John strikes the pose of the cowboy: “Who ain’t been thro’ed, ain’t rode.” And so McNally rides on.
Further down the wall, a woman in black is lingering by the two screens showing The Kiss of the Spider Woman and Love! Valor! Compassion!. From this distance she looks like she could be anyone; that is, she could starch her black clothing and transform into a domineering opera legend, or perhaps wear only a waitress’s uniform and bluff her way out of a one-night stand. She hears the actors through the provided headphones, but I imagine their voices and dances filling the space of the room. McNally, the effusive musical-lover, wrote the books for both shows, and so hearing his creations reverberate from the wooden floor to the high ceiling is easy. Even as McNally’s words acquire music, I can still discern them under the glitzy little screens’ bright lights, remaining just as comic, just as alive.
Nathan Lane speaks McNally’s boldest words in Love! Valor! Compassion!, where he captivates in the role of the flamboyant, floundering Buzz. The exhibition’s video bathes Buzz in the blue light he enjoyed back on that 1995 stage, and he declares, “We want gay music!” Like McNally, musicals are Buzz’s outlet, but for all his comedy, he suffers the outraged futility of a lonely gay man dying of AIDS. He screams that he wants “a West Side Story where Tony really gets it,” a theatre where the actors die and the audience must keep “waiting for nothing.” Unapologetic, he nevertheless adds, “Fair is for healthy people.” The comedy is no longer dark. Just silent. McNally has lost many friends to Buzz’s “fucking scourge.” I can find their names online after the exhibit, but at this moment there is no need. He has already named them with Buzz’s blunted pain.
A young couple moves through the room just a little too quickly. They stroll by, as hand-in-hand as ignorance and bliss—they haven’t heard McNally’s performance, and the cheerful, painted backdrops of old movies are waiting in the next room. For date conversation, they might prefer balmy Hollywood to grave AIDS; after all, Hollywood has palm trees and earthquakes.
The immune couple passes the next screen, where a news broadcast documents McNally’s 1998 play Corpus Christi. As is his wont, McNally reimagined Christ and his disciples as gay men in the play’s namesake setting. The night of its October opening in New York, Christian groups assembled in the street outside the playhouse to protest the show’s content, as they had already done for a few weeks. As they had done since Corpus Christi first appeared the previous spring, and as they would continue to do for its ten-week run. McNally did not comment on the controversy; Corpus Christi would stand alone on its own words. His words, funny enough. I can almost hear a joke he might make with the play’s company as they all listened to the chanting outside. Who knew Catholics actually understood Latin? I wonder if it would lighten the mood, or if that room remained silent like this one. The furor did eventually pass, and I put the headphones back and move along.
In their raised glass box, the show’s final lines signal the coming curtain call: They are McNally’s four Tony awards, facing out towards the lobby. These are his final words to any of us still watching. Not a razzle-dazzle dance number, and not a rousing tap display. Just these testaments, their round faces proud in the light, proud in their applause. In The New York Times, McNally once wrote, “I don’t write literature. I write plays.”
Despite all the pages pinned to the walls of this sparse little stage, I find McNally entirely true to his character as he bows, and I can only applaud him, because like a fool I forgot my flowers at home.
Photo by Somedayprods.