Skip to main content

Playwright at Work

Tue, 08/29/2023 - 06:31
Christopher Byrne

“A Man of Much Importance”
Christopher Byrne
Applause Books, $36.95

In "A Man of Much Importance: The Art and Life of Terrence McNally," Christopher Byrne delves into the life and work of arguably one of the most important American playwrights of the last 60-plus years. Mr. Byrne's meticulous exploration into McNally's work is masterful, encompassing plays, musicals, television, film, and even operas that have been performed all over the world.

Having interviewed McNally on several occasions, Mr. Byrne additionally interviewed many of the playwright's colleagues: Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Joe Mantello, Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, and John Glover, among many others.

Mr. Byrne has set out to write an accurate "warts and all" portrayal of McNally's life as directed by McNally himself. Spoiler alert: There really aren't any. He details how early on, Terrence found his true passion, writing, and never strayed far afield from it. 

He begins with McNally's childhood influences, particularly the various teachers who made such a marked long-term difference on how he viewed the world and himself. It was one of these teachers who in fact exposed Terrence to opera, the genre that was to have a lasting impact on all of his work going forward.

Equally important were the heavy-duty influences of his alcoholic parents in a stressful and not altogether happy home life growing up in Texas. Terrence realized early on that he was different from many of his boyhood friends, preferring reading and listening to show tunes and opera as opposed to playing sports, long before he knew he was gay. Growing up in the 1950s, with a sometimes physically abusive father, young Terrence found an even more important salve in theater. It helped him decide, as had so many others before him, to come to New York. 

Attending Columbia University in the city and, in his spare time, as much theater as possible, Terrence became more certain that it was playwriting that he wanted to do for a living. He had always enjoyed writing, but his storytelling was now laser-focused on writing plays, and plays that had important meanings for him. 

His very strong feelings about the Vietnam War and his nascent homosexuality figured heavily on his early work. However, McNally, who never shied away from being gay or having gay characters in his work, bristled at being called a "gay writer." And indeed his works have a lasting humanity that supersedes gay or straight, which is why audiences everywhere relate so strongly to his writing.

I guess that I should disclose here that I was friends with Terrence. In fact, we share the same birthday. He once actually gave me his seats for the opening, on our respective birthday, of "Master Class" with Zoe Caldwell. At the crowded after-party, held at Maxim's as a group of us took in the thunderous reception to the play, and in particular to Caldwell's performance, Terrence began to think about who, if anyone, could replace her after her contract was up. 

We all tossed out a bunch of names, and then I proffered Anne Bancroft as Callas. Terrence immediately called her right from the party, and she said she would do it on the road, but absolutely refused to follow Caldwell on Broadway.

Having known Terrence personally, I am even more impressed with the depth of research and understanding that Mr. Byrne has put into this biography. His understanding of not just how Terrence thought and worked, but also of how the theater works, is impressive. 

McNally's early combustible relationship with the gay playwright Edward Albee is covered here, and its impact on his writing and on his trying to break free because of the competitive nature of both writers, is thoroughly explored, as is perhaps the greatest impact on his art, his sobriety.

As a young writer, thrust into the savage and often bitchy theatrical world, McNally sought refuge in alcohol, often to excess. After spilling his drink on Lauren Bacall at a party because he was inebriated, he was taken aside by Angela Lansbury, whom he had never met before, and she told him that not only was he hurting himself, but he was wasting his talent.

Shortly thereafter, he began attending meetings and became sober, a sobriety that lasted over 30 years until his death. 

McNally's other romantic relationships are also detailed, particularly his lasting, loving final one with Tom Kirdahy, a Broadway producer. 

Somehow McNally's forays into screenplays and television work were less successful than his theatrical work, because, as Mr. Byrne portrays it, his heightened character artifice was much better suited for the proscenium arches than the big and little screens of those other mediums.

Regardless, McNally's plays, "The Lisbon Traviata," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," "A Perfect Ganesh," "Master Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!," "Corpus Christi," "Mothers and Sons," and "The Ritz," as well as his books for shows like "Ragtime," "The Full Monty," and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," among others, are a lasting canon of work that will receive new productions for decades to come. 

Christopher Byrne has skillfully written a fascinating biography about a complex and compassionate individual. I savored every page.

Jeffrey Banks is an award-winning fashion designer, author, and regular visitor to Southampton. 

Terrence McNally lived part time in Water Mill. He died in 2020.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.