- Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama by John M. Clum
This volume celebrates the fifty-year career of Terrence McNally, who in 2019 was awarded a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Clum's examination of McNally's career should not be mistaken as a biography, but instead understood as an in-depth "study of the relationship of the playwright's work to the history of gay drama" (ix) from 1965 to 2015. Given Clum's self-avowed focus on "plays that deal in some way with homosexuality," one might view his study as political; however, it is founded by rigorous scholarship and clarity, and Clum acknowledges the playwright's assistance and support (xviii). Clum enriches his book by providing extensive historical context that situates McNally's plays in their contemporary social and cultural milieu; at the same time, he makes his survey of McNally and American gay drama seem exceedingly relevant.
The study is divided into two parts. "The First Act" begins with McNally's And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1966), and then proceeds to cover his career during the revolutions of the 1960s. As Clum explains, "[t]his young playwright brought to Broadway many aspects of the gay culture and gay drama that were blossoming in Greenwich Village" (8). Although gay plays had been succeeding at the off-off Broadway Caffe Cino, Broadway critics were outraged by And Things That Go Bump in the Night "because the play made it graphically clear that the two gay characters had (offstage) sex" (x). John Simon called it "an abomination!" (4).
Due to the savage attacks he had received with his Broadway debut, the plays he wrote during the next ten years contained no characters that were overtly gay. The Vietnam conflict, the civil rights movement, women's lib, and the gay rights movement fueled his writing in this period, Clum points out, but McNally remained cautious. He chose to play "a kind of hide-and-seek with homosexuality" and "was writing for two audiences who would read his plays differently"—one straight and one gay (33). McNally's 1972 play Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? is an exception to this reticence: in one scene, Tommy describes being repulsed by serving as his friend's bottom. However, the scene was cut from the script prior to production. The Ritz (1975) was McNally's first Broadway success and revealed how the temper of the times had changed. Set in the notorious Continental Baths of New York City where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow had often performed, it succeeded and "represented a new era of gay openness and visibility" (53). The sex [End Page 405] farce, about "the danger of forbidden sex," results from a straight man's reaction to being in a gay bathhouse (54).
The book's "Second Act" consists of six chapters that examine the plays McNally wrote from the 1980s onward. In a chapter titled "Duets in the Age of AIDS," Clum notes that "[l]urking in the background (of McNally's plays) is … the specter of the AIDS epidemic" (64). It is a constant terrifying presence for the gay men in The Lisbon Traviata (1986): the two gay men who are obsessed with their love of opera and of Maria Callas struggle with their own relationship. As Clum explains, "[t]hese men are painfully aware of their own limitations, but don't seem to be able to control their worst impulses. People are capable of cruelty, particularly when they are painfully aware that they cannot give or receive love" (83). Fear of the AIDS epidemic led to the rampant homophobia that is seen in Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1992) and A Perfect Ganesh (1993), where McNally "shows us good people crippled by their bigotry" (90).
Clum describes the shadow of AIDS infusing several plays at this time: Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls (1993); Jonathan Tolins's The Twilight of the Gods (1993); and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which came to Broadway in 1993...