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Terrence McNally, writer of such plays as “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” died March 24 of complications from COVID-19 in a hospital in his home state of Florida. Labeled by The New York Times as a “playwright of gay life,” McNally, who won four Tony Awards throughout his career, was 81.
McNally was born Nov. 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Florida to a couple of transplanted New Yorkers. After a hurricane destroyed the seaside bar they ran, The Pelican Club, the family moved to Port Chester, New York, then onto Dallas and, finally, Corpus Christi, Texas. After high school, McNally moved to New York City to attend Columbia University in 1956.
It was in his second play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” that McNally began exploring the issues of homosexuality. Bump bombed and received bad review from the New York press. But McNally was undeterred. He would return to the subject matter time and time again in such shows as “The Ritz” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
McNally would be greatly affected by the AIDS epidemic. In the play “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” two married couples spend the Independence Day weekend at a house on Fire Island. The house, which has been willed to character Sally Truman by her brother who has just died of AIDS, features a pool that the guest are afraid to use. In 1990, McNally won an Emmy Award for best writing in a miniseries or special for “Andre’s Mother” that tells the story of a woman trying to cope with her son’s death from AIDS.
McNally’s biggest successes would come later in his career. In 1994’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” McNally explores the relationships of eight gay men. The show won him his second Tony Award. In “Corpus Christi,” which debuted in 1997, McNally offered a modern-day retelling of the story of Jesus, in which both the son of God and his disciples were gay. Its debut was met with great controversy and large protests.
McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996. He had a civil union ceremony with his partner Tom Kirdahy, a Broadway producer, in 2003 and the couple officially married in 2010 in Washington, D.C. Five years later, following the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage equality, McNally and Kirdahy renewed their vows at New York City Hall with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Kirdahy’s college roommate, officiating on June 26, 2015.
In 2018, McNally was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The following year he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
“McNally’s work offers a bittersweet, often satirical picture of life in America from the turbulent 1960s to the early 21st century,” said John Clum, author of the book “Terrence McNally and 50 Years of Gay American Drama.” “While he often focuses on homosexuality and homophobia, his plays also focus on his characters’ desire for some form of spiritual renewal. They are also celebrations of various forms of love – of family, friends and lovers.”
McNally had overcome lung cancer in the late 1990s, which cost him portions of both lungs. He was living with COPD at the time of his death, which made him particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. He died in Sarasota where he had lived for many years.