Terrence McNally

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 31, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is the legendary American playwright Terrence McNally. Welcome.

Terrence McNally: Thanks.

Paulson: Great to have you here.

McNally: Legendary — I hadn’t heard that one before.

Paulson: Ah, legendary means — it means —

McNally: Been called a lot of things, but not that. I like that better than some of the things I’ve been called.

Paulson: Highly bankable? Would that work? That’s pretty good.

McNally: That’s good too, but seldom heard in connection with my name.

Paulson: I’ve read that you are one of the few playwrights in America who can count on anything you write being produced. Is that true?

McNally: I wish I could say that. No.

Paulson: Oh, OK.

McNally: I think I have, maybe, more of a chance than someone just beginning, but I think Arthur Miller and Edward Albee wonder who’s going to produce their next plays, too. We all do.

Paulson: I see.

McNally: It’s a different time for a serious playwright.

Paulson: You wrote a great piece — I guess it was American Theatre Magazine — talking about “What I know about being a playwright.”

McNally: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And I was really struck by one of the points you made there. You said, “Write plays that matter. Raise the stakes. Shout, yell, holler, but make yourself heard. It’s time for playwrights to reclaim the theatre.”

McNally: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: Who took it away?

McNally: I think production cost started it, kind of fear that this may not please a lot of people, so let’s, you know, do the most obvious thing. And I, I profoundly believe that that is what went wrong with the Broadway theater in terms of the serious drama, not what has gone wrong with the American theater, which I think is very healthy. A lot of people, when they’re talking about the theater, mean the Broadway theater. Right now, serious plays on Broadway are very, very much an endangered species. Serious plays around the country or in New York, where I live. Off-Broadway — off, off — I think are pretty healthy. And no, it’s not any better or any worse than it was in, quote “The Golden Age.” The Golden Age means when the Arthur Millers and Tennessee Williams — their plays were automatically done on Broadway. Now that’s not true.

Paulson: At a time, though, of increasing production costs, why is there not a temptation to do something that’s relatively simple, that doesn’t require a cast of 47?

McNally: Well, the costs in the theater are not the size of the cast. It’s theater rents. It’s advertising in The New York Times. It’s having crews backstage when there’s not a single set change, but you got to pay eight guys to sit there. And musicians and — it’s a very complicated subject. But I think people who work in Broadway theater got very greedy a few years back, probably in the ’60s, late ’50s. And it’s just even the simplest play on Broadway now costs millions of dollars. And the big musicals are now $10 million, $12 million. That’s scary. I mean, I’d be conservative if someone said, “Do you want to invest $10 million?” I’d say, “Well, what’s the chance of return?”

Paulson: Have the audiences changed?

McNally: I don’t know. No, I think — I, I basically feel audiences go when they hear the show is good and fresh and has something to say. So I don’t think they’ve really changed. As Broadway gets more expensive, I think you get an older crowd, because when I was a young man, I didn’t have the price except for standing room or last row of the balcony, which, in the late ’50s, when I first came to New York, I think it was $2.90, you could sit in the balcony. And that’s where I sat and, you know, I said — I thought, “Well, maybe one day, I’ll get to sit downstairs.” But I think young people don’t have the money in their pockets.

Paulson: Your very first visit to Broadway, you saw Ethel Merman?

McNally: Yeah, well, my parents took me, and I was about five years old.

Paulson: And did that ignite something for you?

McNally: Yeah, it did. But more than that, I think it was my parents. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. They were New Yorkers. They came to New York once a year and always brought back theater programs and displayed them on the coffee table, and I was very impressed by that. And I remember, for example, how moved they were by “Death of a Salesman.” And I thought, “Gee, theater must be this wonderful place where you can really affect people and change how they feel, how they think,” and that always seemed very important to me. And — but when I came to New York and went to Columbia, my very first night here, I went to — I wanted to see “My Fair Lady,” and they said, “Oh, the standing room gets sold in the morning. You have to sleep in the sidewalk to see it.” So the next thing I wanted to see was “Damn Yankees,” and Gwen Verdon was still in it. So that was the very first night in New York, and I had standing room for that. And then the next night, I learned to get in the line outside the Mark Hellinger Theatre at midnight. We slept on the sidewalk. And then when the box office opened at 10 o’clock, the 25 standing-room places were sold within five minutes, and I came back that night. I went home and got a nap. I don’t know how I survived Columbia. I went to the theater so much.

Paulson: Do you still get that kind of emotional rush when you go to a show today that —

McNally: I think everyone does. When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, how can you not get a rush? I mean, you’d not be human.

Paulson: You described, in your discussion about playwrights and, and writing for the theater, about touching people’s emotions, affecting the way they view the world. And, of course, that’s the way some journalists operate as well, and you gave some thought to being in journalism.

McNally: I did. I very much wanted to be a journalist originally. I thought it was very exciting. But when I’d, when I’d work on the Caller-Times, which is the Corpus Christi paper, in the summer — I started in high school, and I worked there while I was in college. TV journalism was just beginning. And I was sitting there writing, and somebody else was filming. Or you’d stay in the paper extra late because something had happened, and you get in the car at 1 a.m., and it’s on the radio. And I thought, “Hmm, my ego — this is not gonna please me.”

Paulson: I understand you got into a little bit of trouble from an interview with LBJ (former president Lyndon Baines Johnson).

McNally: I did, which is another reason I said, “If I’m gonna be a writer, it’s got to be a little more creative.” They sent me to interview him. And I was about 19 or 20, but I looked about 14 still. And he was — and his aides were a little surprised to see this kid walk into his hotel suite in Corpus. But while I was interviewing him about oil-depletion tax — something in which I had no interest but why I had been sent there and why he was in Corpus Christi, because there’s a lot of oil there — he got a call from — someone said, “It’s Bird,” or, “It’s Mrs. Johnson.” And he got on the phone, and while he was talking to Lady Bird, he was just flipping through the pages of that month’s Playboy, which I put in my interview with him, and he was not pleased, and his press office called the — or he called the editor of the Caller-Times and said, “Ah, well — ” and I thought, “That was the most interesting thing that happened all afternoon. And, if you can’t write that, then I want to do something else.” And then while I was at Columbia, I wrote “The Varsity Show,” and then I wrote a one-act play, and then I wrote — and it sort of got done at Actors Studio in a workshop sort of thing. And then my first full-length play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” got done on Broadway. But I never stood, you know, at Brooklyn Heights Promenade and shook my fist and said, “I’m gonna make it as a playwright.” I remember that movie “Youngblood Hawke,” where he’s a writer who’s gonna conquer New York. I never felt that way. I sort of drifted into it, or maybe I wanted it so badly, I couldn’t even admit it to myself, you know? ‘Cause it’s pretty arrogant to think, “I can write something, and people will sit in a dark room, spend money, and listen to me for the three — two-and-a-half — three hours.”

Paulson: And, and yet it was a fairly quick path. I mean, all things considered, there are a lot of people who are playwrights for years and just dream of Broadway, and you got there — a very early start —

McNally: I was very fortunate. I was still in my 20s when I was able to earn a living as a playwright. After my first play, “Things That Go Bump in the Night,” was a failure, I went to work at a magazine, actually, and before that, I’d done some temp work. But basically, I was about 26, 27 when “Next” opened, a play that Elaine May directed with Jimmy Coco, and that ran for about three years. It was done a lot, and I was earning a living — a modest, very modest some years, but I didn’t ever have to work for anybody else. Unless you write a TV script or a Hollywood script, then you’re writing for someone else. And it’s — it rankles if you’re used to being a playwright where you’re your own boss, no one can make you do anything. You work for a TV studio or a film studio, you’re a gun for hire. And I don’t think a lot of people realize the difference between being a playwright and a screenwriter. That’s the difference, not how do you transpose it and make it more cinematic. It’s someone says, “Change it. Do — or you’re fired.” I can’t get fired for my own play. I can get fired if I work for a network or a studio.

Paulson: Well, you mentioned “Things That Go Bump in the Night.” And, and harkening back to what you’d said about “write plays that matter; raise the stakes,” you know, you’ve got this track record of work that make people shout, yell, and holler back at you, and that very first play on Broadway kind of started that reputation. Can you talk a little bit about the reaction to the play?

McNally: To “Things That Go Bump in the Night”? I can’t say I expected it. And we weren’t doing previews. And there are people, you know, who seemed uncomfortable by the play, because I think it was, it was probably a play that had the frankest — had real gay characters. They weren’t comic relief. They were two gay men. And this is back in 1963, I think. And that really upset people. And I remember one night — Eileen Heckart was the lead in the play, and she wore kind of a — oh, I don’t know — a gown with a slight train to it. And someone ran down and grabbed her by the, by her train and sort of was trying to pull her and was screaming, “You shouldn’t be in this play. Stop this blasphemy. This is indecent.” And then the actor playing her son jumped down and pushed that guy, and there was, like, a real, a real fight went on. I felt like Victor Hugo in the world premiere of “Hernani” or, you know, Stravinsky at the “Rite of Spring.” I had not foreseen that. I thought, “You know, it’s just a play.” Whether I think theater should agitate people to that degree, I don’t know. I’m of two minds. Because art sort of goes by the wayside. You’re sort of saying, “Is the performance going well tonight? How can I make this scene better?” You’re worrying about “Is someone gonna leap up and pull Eileen Heckart off the stage again?” And the same thing to jump 30 years later — 40 years, whatever it was — to “Corpus Christi” — the same thing. I wasn’t able to enjoy “Corpus Christi” as a play until I saw it in Chicago over a year later — year-and-a-half later — without, you know, metal detectors and police dogs and pickets outside the theater. They did a production there with no, no controversy, and I realized I’d never seen my own play, because in New York, it was such a political event. It wasn’t an artistic event. And finally, I am a playwright. I, I’m — this is fiction. If I really want to agitate about issues, you can, you know, pick up a sign or write a letter to The New York Times. So I’m of two minds. You also — you do like an audience getting involved with your work and responding strongly, but what were they — you have to say, “What are they reacting to?” In “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” there are people who were angry, I think, that homosexuals were in a play, two men. But at least they’d seen the play. With “Corpus Christi,” I was being pilloried in print by people who had not seen the play, had not read the play, and, more shockingly to me, they had no interest in seeing or reading the play. They just wanted to get up in arms, because the pot was stirred by professional pot stirrers. And, you know, with them around, people get crazed, and they can work them up. They’re very skillful, these guys, at creating controversy.

Paulson: In fact, a lot of these First Amendment controversies stemming from New York — the pot is first stirred by The New York Post.

McNally: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And that’s what happened in this case.

McNally: This was totally a New York —

Paulson: Like, a month ahead of time, they said, “There’s a play about a gay Jesus — ”

McNally: Having sex onstage — simulated sex with the apostles, which was not, which was not true. And, you know, as a journalist, I do remember: if I was gonna quote anybody, I had to have their name and say, “Bill Smith said, blah, blah, blah.” Today, “Anonymous spokesman said — ” “A member of the cast who spoke — ” I hate that. So I think it gives journalists now the right to abuse free speech and make things up. So the entire “Corpus Christi” controversy was made up by a New York Post journalist. The fire was fanned by the League of Catholic Decency — whatever they’re called — calling up archbishop of New York, saying, “What do you think of a play in which Christ is gay, he has onstage sex with his apostles, and there’s a lot of nudity?” What are they gonna say? “Of course we condemn this.” So all of this — and then the ironic thing, finally — when the play opened and it did not have nudity, onstage simulated sex — Christ and the apostles, the same writer said he learned from an anonymous cast member that I had bowed to the pressure and cut all the sex scenes and cut all the nudity. So talk about being in a no-win situation.

Paulson: And there’s no truth to that?

McNally: It was never true, either that there was this in the play or that I cut it out. So then I’m accused of being a coward who had bowed to — so much for freedom of the press. It can be abused very easily. Then I’m, and then I’m quite against free speech — when people are liars, you know? I guess I’m against lying. I’m all for free speech, believe me, ’cause without free speech, then you suddenly don’t have free thought, and — which is the downside of a “Corpus Christi” episode. “What if I start — ooh, I better not write about this. I better not say that. It’ll get people mad.”

Paulson: Right.

McNally: You start censoring yourself. That’s when the bastards win, you know, when you start doing that.

Paulson: Well, your description of “Corpus Christi” as not having sex onstage, not having nudity — that really won’t comfort the people who are upset by the depiction of Jesus or Joshua.

McNally: They wouldn’t admit that, you see. They wouldn’t say, “What we object to in this play is that you’re saying Christ and his apostles are possibly” — it was like, “What if they were gay men?” This is — we’ve told the story many different ways. I told, “What if they were gay men?” I’ve sort of been fascinated why people have never written about the sexuality of Christ and the apostles. It’s like, “We don’t want to go there.” So I think it was — I think the issue was — for them, was really homophobia. It’s so interesting. The people who protested the most, the Catholics — this, the play was written and performed long before their own scandals with the priesthood, so it’d be very interesting how this would all play today. But I think homophobia was the issue, but they’re not gonna say that.

Paulson: You’re a guy who, your entire career, has had pockets of controversy, and, and beginning with the first play on Broadway, and arguably peaked with “Corpus Christi.” Were you ever concerned about your personal safety?

McNally: No, and I probably should have been. One thing that happened in all this — when I had a fatwa declared on me for “Corpus Christi.” I was at home, and the phone rang, and someone said, “The mayor wants to talk to you,” and Giuliani got on. And I was only on the phone with him for, like, a minute, but he did say, “As long as I’m mayor of this city, you know, your safety is guaranteed.” And there were sort of two detectives — sort of followed me around up through the day the play closed. Then I was on my own again. But there are strange things. Once, I came out of my apartment, and there was a car there, and someone took my picture, and the car sped off. And little things like that. And one night after rehearsal, the director said, “Don’t look now,” and there was someone behind us with kind of a machete. And we started walking faster, and then we realized it was just a guy — a crazy guy with a machete. He was not gunning for me. But, you know, things like that. But it’s really the, the psychological fear. I was — I hope, when I write a new play, that it has not crept into my work. I don’t think it has. But that’s what I think they’d like to do, finally, is silence you, you know. And that’s, that’s, that’s when it gets scary.

Paulson: Another lawsuit, a lawsuit in Indiana — are you familiar with this —

McNally: Yeah, yes.

Paulson: — at Purdue and Indiana University, where plaintiffs argued that the university could not allow a student to stage “Corpus Christi” because it violated the separation of church and state by attacking a specific faith. Do you recall your reaction when you received news of that?

McNally: Well, I was in touch with the people, and I thought it was so brave of them to do it. Again, it’s a misunderstanding of the play. How the play can be possibly interpreted as an attack on the Catholic faith is absurd. Now, if you want to say it’s an outrage to the public whose tax money would pay for this production, the notion that Christ and his apostles could have been gay men, that’s a totally different issue. But no one ever says that. They say it’s an attack on the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church didn’t even exist the time of the crucifixion, you know? It came — so it’s, it’s misunderstanding, and it’s people, I think, making the wrong issue because they’re afraid to really speak their mind and say, “We don’t want students with tax money to put on a play in which it’s all right to be gay” — I mean, on the simplest level — “It’s all right to be a gay Jesus Christ in ‘Corpus Christi,’” and people have a lot of trouble with that. But I think what really is subversive about “Corpus Christi” is that it preaches we don’t need priests. We don’t need institutions. We are all divine. We all are the son of God, which is something I believe. We all can live as exemplary a life as Jesus Christ, and, you know, we don’t need popes and bishops and cardinals to tell us what to do. And I think that real — that’s the — if there’s a subversive quality to the play, it’s that. It’s that organized religion is — and then, of course, they are the ones who attack the play.

Paulson: Another play, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” stirred up some controversy in Cobb County, Georgia. And what was interesting about that is, they were so offended by the play that they cut the entire $110,000 budget for all arts in the county to punish essentially everyone, I guess, because they couldn’t constitutionally punish you. They, they couldn’t pick you out and just cancel your, your play. Do you find that there’s a backlash against all art when people are offended by yours?

McNally: I hope not. No, I hope not. I thought that theater was very brave. Again, now, that was a play that had won almost every prize you can in New York. I was told it was definitely gonna win the Pulitzer Prize that year and to be by the phone at noon. And at 12:01, it rang and said, “It’s another play,” and hung up. So, but, you know, it was a play that had been so approved by, quote “The Establishment.” I think they were startled, when they did the play, that they had this enormous problem there. But I don’t want the arts to be punished ever. I want people to be more open-minded to what the arts contribute to our lives, which I hope is provocative thoughts and feelings and say, “Gee, I didn’t know I felt that way,” or, “There’s another alternative to this.” But that, that’s a play I was really quite surprised. It’s like when they still ban Grapes of Wrath in a school library. You’re kind of like, “What? They’re still banning it?” And, so.

Paulson: Each of these cases that have been challenged in the court, you always win. I mean, the First Amendment is pretty resilient and protective, and in the case in Indiana, the federal court said, “No, of course” — He said, “It’s blasphemous. It’s probably offensive to a lot of people — ”

McNally: Right.

Paulson: ” — but it certainly is protected by the First Amendment, and the student had a right to put it on.”

McNally: Well, you know, those of us who live in New York, we sometimes forget how difficult it is for artists, theater artists in smaller communities, to present our plays. I mean, I’ve certainly been told — asked — because when you do an agreement to do a play, say, in Georgia to do “Lips Together,” that you have to use every word of the text. And smaller theaters have said, “Do you mind if we cut the four-letter words?” Or, “In this community, we love the play, but we just can’t say the following six lines.” And I, I really do say to them, “Then don’t do the play. And I’m very sad, but I hope you make it clear to your subscribers why you’re not doing the play, that, you know, you feel that the language — or that you’ll get in trouble with local people.” ‘Cause I think once you start chipping away at the language, then you’re chipping away at the meaning. And it’s not just a question of four-letter words, which people say it is. It’s a whole other thing, and I think it’s so — you know, you either want to do a play by Terrence McNally, or you don’t. I don’t do a bowdlerized version of my play on just to get it on. So, but I’m very aware of the real courage it takes for a small town to do “Love! Valour! Compassion!” for example, which is one play of mine in which all the characters are gay. And that’s not bothered a lot of people, I guess, or, you know, I haven’t heard too much about controversy there.

Paulson: And it may have bothered them in 1962 and maybe not today.

McNally: I hope there’s been real change in those areas. I think theater is also an incredible way to talk about issues that concern a society, because it’s live. You’re sitting together. The actors are right there, and you’re, you know, you’re sitting with your neighbors. And I don’t think movies affect an audience quite that way, that kind of community. Unfortunately, though, so often when there is controversy, you go out and interview the people on the sidewalk with the signs — they haven’t read the play or read the book or seen the film. And that’s the sad thing, because I think all artists are trying to communicate. We’re trying to say, “This saddens me. This gives me great joy. This bothers me. How do you feel about this?” The goal of a play is not to have pickets outside the theater and death threats. It’s to start a dialogue between people who think they’re not interested, who think they, they hate. When you can — I would say this is, to me, is the point of writing. I wrote a piece for public television called “Andre’s Mother,” and it was televised nationally. And I must have gotten close to 100 pieces of mail saying how much the film meant to these people. And it’s a play about a woman — a mother who’s rejected her son for being gay. And the letters were all signed, “Pete’s mother,” “Bill’s mother,” “Tom’s mother.” That’s why you’re really a writer — or I’m a writer: to have reached people like that and touched them.

Paulson: We just have a couple of minutes left. We began talking about the need to write plays that have meaning and that matter. Whose work has moved you? Who — what are the examples you would cite of plays that really open up your eyes to a different perspective or touched your heart in a meaningful way?

McNally: Hmm. In American writers, I would have to start with Eugene O’Neill. And “Death of a Salesman” is a profoundly moving play to this day. I had a high school English teacher who got me really in love with Shakespeare — not afraid of him — at a very early age, sophomore year in high school. I read him probably the most. I think he’s the best writer — forget playwright — just best writer, smartest person who ever lived and a real role model. And his plays have a wonderful arc. She had us read his plays in the order he wrote them, not histories, comedies, tragedies. And I owe her a lot. Her name is Ms. McElroy, and “Frankie and Johnny,” which is being done on Broadway, is dedicated to her. And I just — that’s a nice way of saying “Thank you” to someone who really changed your life through words.

Paulson: Thank you for joining us here today.

McNally: Thank you.

Paulson: Our guest today has been American playwright Terrence McNally. Join us again for “Speaking Freely.”