- The Theater of Terrence McNally: A Critical Study by Peter Wolfe
Peter Wolfe’s critical study of Terrence McNally’s extensive corpus of plays fills a long-standing gap in the scholarship on contemporary American playwrights. Wolfe’s astute analysis and his passionate and generous assessment of McNally’s oeuvre provide a comprehensive platform from which a critical body of work on McNally can be built. As Wolfe himself suggests, it is surprising that a figure like McNally, who has penned a number of noteworthy plays for gay audiences, such as Corpus Christi and Love! Valour! Compassion!, as well as for mainstream audiences, such as the blockbuster Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, has received such limited attention from scholars. Wolfe, the author of monographs on writers such as Dashiell Hammett (1980), Alan Bennett (1999), and more [End Page 321] recently the dramatist Simon Grey (2011), has a standing in the field of critical studies that lends expertise and credibility to this comparative work, ensuring it a prominent position in the scholarship in this area.
Wolfe skillfully identifies and outlines the tropes and themes that McNally draws on, and presents these in such a way that the reader can gain a holistic understanding of the development, meaning, and technical aspects of his body of work. The first three chapters focus on major thematic issues arising from McNally’s work as a whole, while the remaining four provide a play-by-play analysis. A more detailed outline of this structure in the preface would have made the text more accessible to those who have a specific focus of interest within McNally’s work in addition to those who are interested in an overview of McNally. Wolfe carefully works through a detailed analysis of McNally’s numerous plays, interweaving textual criticism with an extensive and authoritative discussion of key thematic constructs, philosophy, and the theatrics central to the work of McNally. While much of the text is dedicated to a thematic exegesis of McNally’s plays, Wolfe also comments on various practical issues such as McNally’s theatrical versatility, narrative structure, style, tone, and language. However, Wolfe is clearly comfortable in comparative analysis, where he generously assesses the work of McNally alongside a range of other accomplished authors, philosophers, and playwrights such as Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Max Weber, Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, and so forth, claiming a clear commonality between their work and that of McNally’s. While many will find this analysis useful, I would have been more interested in a discussion of the uniqueness of McNally than an assessment of his work in terms of other writers. However, this is a matter of personal interest and many readers will find this analysis valuable.
Wolfe’s comprehensive overview of McNally’s plays, which he claims to be “the first book-length work on McNally,” is necessarily focused on McNally’s broad thematic issues such as sexuality, eros, relationships, the AIDS crisis, religion, and forgiveness. Indeed, throughout the entire text, Wolfe demonstrates his in-depth understanding of the plays, moving easily among the large number on offer, as he considers the full breadth of McNally’s work. At the outset, Wolfe raises intriguing questions concerning the impact of Calvinist values on the work of McNally. He asks: “Is McNally suggesting, Calvin-like, that man’s [sic] depravity runs so deep that it overrides good works?” (5). “The question,” Wolfe insists, “pervades his art” (6). With this assertion, Wolfe appositely draws the reader’s attention to the socio-religious concerns that dominate McNally’s narratives, especially evident in works such as Corpus Christi and A Perfect Ganesh. Further, Wolfe extends this analysis to consider other questions that probe deeper into the influence that religion has had on the work of McNally. For example, in a complex and erudite discussion, Wolfe conflates McNally’s childhood experiences and protestant [End Page 322] upbringing in order to arrive at the conclusion that “the Calvinist tradition of raising children as soldiers of a vengeful God who see life as a constant...