Terrence McNally: The man who freed himself and his audience of prejudice.

TONY award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 81, passed away from complications due to Covid-19 last week and I'd like to personally remember a small part of his life and legacy here. 

I'd also like to reflect for a moment on the cruelty of this ghastly pandemic and how unprepared our government has been and still is.

We will hear more, much more, unwelcome news like this in the weeks and months ahead and so writing this column reminds me of the sadness that was suddenly everywhere in the LGBT community at the outbreak of AIDS. 

McNally lost two of his life partners to those years and it seems especially cruel that he should lose his own life to this latest plague now.

Raised in Corpus Christi, Texas he later won multiple awards in a long and storied career in the theatre, but some things about him have been less remarked upon in recent tributes, his rare kindness, and his Irish heritage. 

It could be best seen, I believe, in his deep respect for Irish literature, his Catholicism growing up and his contention that Dublin (and Milan) are the two cities in Europe that reminded him most of New York. 

“It's the raw energy, I felt very at home there,” he told me in an interview reflecting on Ireland in 2016.

The first time McNally went to Ireland he took the boat from Holyhead to Dublin, he told me. “I stood on the prow of the ship at dawn trying to feel exodus, like returning to Israel you know, and I just couldn't work up any real emotion. It was a dreary day. So I'm not Irish that way. My parents never talked a lot of it, I come from a very chequered past, but there was never much talk about the previous McNally's. Maybe they were terrible criminals in another life.”

Alongside his Irish heritage, I want to celebrate McNally today because one of the many remarkable things he did in life in the theatre was rescue gay people from the ignominy of the theatre that had preceded him. 

He put them front and center on his stage as the engines of their own lives, resisting all the ventriloquism and coded symbols of previous generations, as well as the marked tendency to play gay characters for cheap laughs. 

It can be hard from this vantage point to understand just how groundbreaking it was to simply be himself, unapologetically, starting out in the early 1960s where to be openly gay was considered a form of career suicide. 

But McNally went even further, he gave his life and loves equal time, which asked the audience to likewise, freeing himself and them of their inconsideration. 

McNally was the future moving through the present, in other words, he understood that change was coming and he embodied it. But what I remember is his kindness. People that accomplished are often tempted to believe in their own press, to put on airs, to become in the process almost parodies of themselves.

I found McNally approachable, thoughtful and funny. He worked with legends and became one himself, but he clearly kept faith with the young theatre-loving kid he had once arrived in Manhattan as.

Shows can quietly change your life, he realized. He had been changed by what he had seen and he created shows that changed other people. It was a sharing thing, what was theatre if not connecting, he asked.

His friend and collaborator Chita Rivera put it best: “A huge part of me is gone. But then it’s not. Terrence wouldn’t like that. He helped to make me who I am as a person. He is the epitome of love and friendship. Only God knows how much I will miss him.”

It was actress Angela Lansbury who first invited him to spend some time at her place in Cork and he totally fell in love with it, he told me in 2016. “Our plan is to go again for a couple of weeks this summer. She spends most of July and August there and God it was a revelation.”

“In Cork we did nothing but drive around, look at terrific scenery and eat wild-caught fish.” For most of his life, he pictured Ireland as rainy and dreary. “I know it can be but what I didn't know was that it changes ten minutes later. It's kind of a nice discovery to make later in life.”

McNally is survived by his husband Tom Kirdahy (a Tony and Olivier Award-winning theatre producer). Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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