Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, playwright Terrence McNally escaped a lonely childhood by immersing himself in radio dramas such as The Green Hornet and live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. He even constructed a miniature model of the opera and manipulated scenes on the stage that, he later recalled, “was more real than life.” More than two dozen plays—and stages—later, a larger than life-size career has emerged from McNally’s early imaginings. He is the author of such renowned plays as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), which he adapted into a major motion picture, and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1995. The Nation called it “a remarkably Chekovian work—which is to say vital and capacious, extremely natural yet poetic and crafted at the same time.”
Over the years, McNally’s plays have been described as satiric and darkly comic, but more recently they have also come to be appreciated as compassionate, lyrical, and life-affirming. As actress Swoosie Kurtz, who has appeared in his plays, has said, “he shapes the opera of the human heart.” In addition to two Tony Awards for Best Play, McNally has also been the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships and numerous OBIE awards. He lives in New York City.
Excerpt from Master Class (1995)
Maria: No applause. We’re here to work. You’re not in a theatre. This is a classroom. No folderol. This is a master class. Singing is serious business. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and work. I appreciate your welcome, but enough is enough. Basta. Fini. Eh?
So. How is everyone? Can you hear me? I don’t believe in microphones. Singing is first of all about projection. So is speech. People are forgetting how to listen. They want everything blasted at them. Listening takes concentration. If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault. You’re not concentrating. I don’t get any louder than this. So come down closer or leave. No takers? What? You’re all scared of me? Eh? Is that it? I don’t bite. I promise you. I bark—I bark quite a bit actually—but I don’t bite. I don’t know what you’re expecting. What did they tell you? I hope you’re not expecting me to sing. Well, we shall see what we shall see.
Allora, so, let’s begin. Where is the first student? Who is the first student? Are they here? When I was a student, I never missed a lesson. Never. Not once. I was never late for one either. In fact, I was usually early. I never wanted to leave the conservatory. I lived, ate, and slept music. Music is a discipline. Too many of you are looking for the easy way out. Short cuts. No. If you want to have a career, as I did—and I’m not boasting now, I am not one to boast—you must be willing to subjugate yourself—is that a word?—subjugate yourself to the music. Always the music. You are its servant. You are here to serve the composer. The composer is God. In Athens, and this was during the war, I often went to bed hungry, but I walked to the conservatory and back every day, six days a week, and sometimes my feet were bleeding because I had no proper shoes. I don’t tell you this to melodramatize. Oh no. I tell you to show you who I am. Discipline. Courage. Here. Right here. From the guts.
Selected WorkCorpus Christi (1997)Master Class (1995) Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991) Andre’s Mother (1990)The Lisbon Traviata (1989) Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune (1987) The Ritz (1975) Next (1969)
Terrence McNally on the making of Dead Man Walking