Book Excerpt: “Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama”

For the past fifty years, Terrence McNally has been one of America’s major dramatists and the most prolific playwright about gay life in New York City. Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama is the first book-length study to the broad, distinguished history of gay theatre in America during his career. In this book, McNally’s work is seen against the political movements of the 1960s and the history of gay men in New York during the early years of gay liberation, the age of AIDS and the new reality of gay marriage and families. Below, John Clum, the author of this book, writes about how McNally’s work “reflects the evolving place of gay men in American theatre”:

McNally’s work reflects the evolving place of gay men in the American theatre and in much of American society over the past half-century. His early work moves from the crippling shame that leads to suicide in And Things That Go Bump in the Night, produced four years before the Stonewall Riots signaled the beginning of gay liberation, to the sexually liberated gay men cavorting in one of the gay bathhouses that were popular in the pre-AIDS era in The Ritz (1974). For the past thirty years, during what McNally called the second act of his career, McNally’s work has documented the place of gay men in middle-class urban America and the dynamics of homophobia that denied gay men full citizenship. His plays map how gay men are seen by supposedly enlightened people and how gay men see themselves. During the 1980s and early 1990s, McNally’s plays depicted gay men living under the shadow of AIDS. If they weren’t suffering from AIDS-related infections like James and Buzz in Love! Valour! Compassion!, dying from AIDS like David in Lips Together, Teeth Apart or Andre in Andre’s Mother and Mothers and Sons, they were living in fear of contagion like Stephen in The Lisbon Traviata. The healthy men in Love! Valour! Compassion! work for AIDS charities or volunteer in AIDS clinics. AIDS was a death sentence for the first fifteen years of the epidemic but it wasn’t the only danger for gay men. Walter, in A Perfect Ganesh, is beaten to death on a Greenwich Village sidewalk by a homophobic gang. A vicious assault on a gay teenager is graphically presented in McNally’s television play, M. Roberts. McNally has lived through the rapid assimilation of lesbians and gay men into the American melting pot, at least in the Blue States. He powerfully documents the changes in his series of short plays collectively titled Some Men. In his most recent play, Mothers and Sons, his characters have moved out of the gay ghettoes of the past and now inhabit a lovely apartment on Central Park West. A gay man is as likely to be a successful money manager like Cal in Mothers and Sons, as he is to hold one of the positions available to openly gay men a generation ago.”

Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama is available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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