"When I came to New York, I saw every play for $2.90," playwright Terrence McNally recalled about his first theatregoing experiences as a resident of the Big Apple. "I remember the price vividly. It was the last row of the balcony, but it was available to me."
The prolific and award-winning playwright soon moved from the balcony to backstage when he began a lengthy career in playwriting. A four-time Tony Award winner, McNally has also been honored with an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Hull-Warriner Award and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He currently has one work — And Away We Go — in performance at the classical theatre company the Pearl Theater, and another, Mothers and Sons, on its way to Broadway, beginning performances at the Golden Theatre Feb. 23, 2014.
McNally, whose plays include The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Love! Valour! Compassion!, was commissioned by the Pearl to write a new work, an invitation he was "really tickled" to receive. The play follows a group of six actors performing 36 different roles and presenting various works of drama. The work travels through time, beginning with the Greeks before moving to Jacobean England; France on the eve of a revolution; Moscow; and America, during the premiere of Waiting for Godot.
"It's very much written for the Pearl, the company that has kept the faith for the great classic plays," McNally said of And Away We Go. "There are whole seasons in New York when I don't think a single classic play would have been performed if it hadn't been for the Pearl... I think it's really important. I write new plays for a living; I certainly don't think theatre should be revivals, but there has always got to be a place for Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Moliere and Aeschylus. Just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera exist to preserve the best of the past, I think it's important that these institutions do new operas and show new painters and other theatres present new plays, so it's all a continuum and an important one." And Away We Go does not include any scenes of the plays its characters perform; instead it offers a look at life backstage and behind-the-scenes.
|Photo by All Foote III|
"It's about the experience of putting on plays, how it's changed, how it hasn't over the centuries," McNally said. "It's my own private tribute to playwrights that have mattered to me, and to all the people who make theatre, and I think that includes concession stand people and ushers and props masters and wig masters and understudies and leading ladies, and great directors and playwrights and producers — all the people on the other side of [the] curtain." When selecting which works to include in And Away We Go, McNally said he relied on his intuition and plays that possessed "particular hooks" for him.
And Away We Go depicts the drama of theatre, and McNally, whose works include Master Class, Golden Age and The Lisbon Traviata, also writes frequently about opera. But his writing does not only encompass art; numerous plays he has authored also address political issues, including "Andre's Mother"; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; the book for the musical Ragtime; and the controversial Corpus Christi, a passion play that depicts Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas. While McNally claims he did not see the "firestorm coming" when Corpus Christi provoked a strong response from the public, he said he appreciates an engaged audience that leaves the theatre discussing the play.
"I think that writers write about what's happening to them in the world that we live in," he said. "AIDS was such a big happening in this [era]… How could you not write about it? It affected everyone in this country, whether they realized it or not. And, of course, it got reflected in my plays."
His next Broadway production, Mothers and Sons, addresses the subject of AIDS as it follows a mother who visits the apartment of her late son's ex-partner, who is now married to another man and has a young son.
"Mothers and Sons is very much a play about a post-age world in which men are married and are raising families and have children, but at what price? And what did they pass through?" McNally remarked. "And you know there was a period of time when a lot of my work reflected on the Vietnam War, which was a huge event when I was in my 20s and 30s, just as the world for gay men and women changed." Citing Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic as two contributing factors to this change, McNally said, "Suddenly gay men and women were taking their place at the table and saying, 'Hey we're here, too.'"
McNally is optimistic about the future. "[Although] not in my lifetime — I'm 75 — but America will have a gay president one day. It's all changing, between Obama and women and very powerful and effective gay people in Washington like Barney Frank, and I think that the taboos are being broken. Look at the polls. People under 35 — their support of gay marriage is over 75 percent. It's also generational. When you really read a strong opposition to same-sex marriage, it's always from people over 65. The younger you get, it's not an issue. The arts are going to reflect all that and whom we elect to office.
"The fact that I'm a happily married man is something that I did not expect in my lifetime, and I think theatre has a lot to do with that, frankly," McNally added.
Citing dramas that responded to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, McNally said, "There are changes in the society now that are going to be reflected in theatre in the years ahead, and I think that the fact that we have a new kind of mayor in NYC is going to somehow be reflected in the plays that are being seen... He hasn't even been inaugurated yet, but I think we will see changes in the way we live, and I think theatre will reflect them. I don't think theatre always causes changes, but it certainly reflects them... I do think theatre had a significant role in shaping public opinion... We are chroniclers of the times."
McNally also commented on the price of theatre tickets, which have risen to new heights since his days of sitting in the balcony for $2.90.
"People think of theatre that is only smash hits on Broadway that can raise their ticket prices to $500 or $2,000 a pair...It's not a healthy theatre, and I think that that bubble will burst," he said. "There should be a healthy audience and plays that cost a reasonable price on Broadway so I would love to see a change there... They've got to continue to make theatre more accessible. The theatre has got to get back to as close to being free as it can. To say that people trudged up the hill at Delphi to see a play at the theater of Dionysus as part of a religious experience is very different than getting an American Express Gold Ticket. And we've got to reconcile the two; theatre has got to include all of that."
And, what about his own future?
"When people say to me, 'When are you going to retire?,' I'm a little offended — well, not offended, but surprised they would that that," he said. "I love what I do. I read that 60 percent of Americans didn't like their jobs — no wonder this country has problems. If you hate something that you do every day for eight hours... how terrible! For 75 years, I've been doing something that I like, and I'll retire when it stops being fun, or when the typing gets too bad, or the brain is going."