Tickle fights and the wide stance: even someone as adroit about gay life as Terrence McNally might not have an easy time coming up with creatures as tormented as former New York representative Eric Massa and former Idaho senator Larry Craig, whose secrets became D.C. scandals in recent years.
Relaxing in a reception room at the Kennedy Center, playwright Terrence McNally, 71, found himself squeezing out a bit of compassion.
McNally has been in town for a mini-festival of his plays: “Golden Age,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” and “Master Class” which stars, improbably, Tyne Daly as Maria Callas.
The play won a Tony in 1996 and became the most-performed of all his plays.
(Just recently, a Broadway revival of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” set on Fire Island during the AIDS crisis, was postponed when Megan Mullally quit during rehearsals. And a planned student performance at a Texas university of his most controversial play, “Corpus Christi,” depicting Jesus and his disciples as gay, was cancelled by school officials).
Lundborg: What did Tyne Daly say when you asked her to play the role?
McNally: She’d seen Zoe Caldwell’s iconic performance, and she told me she was scared to death, which was why she’d do it.
Lundborg: How did Maria come to represent the ultimate diva?
McNally: A lot of her larger-than-life quality, unfortunately, came after she stopped singing and started making headlines. She became famous after her voice was gone. It helped that Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy instead of her.
Lundborg: You depict her as having aborted Onassis’s baby - is that based on fact?
McNally: I made it up but it felt emotionally right. And then someone wrote a book 10 years later saying there’s a horrible picture of an aborted fetus in a Milan clinic, and someone swears it was hers and that Callas signed in there under an assumed name.
Lundborg: She gave all up for art. Did you?
McNally: No. I gave up certain things, but not everything. I’m in a blissful relationship that’s lasted ten years. At the beginning, we went through a lot. Literally, on our third date, I had to tell Tom (Kirdahy, 46, the partner he just married) that I had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The odds are not great, but I had major surgery at Sloan Kettering and here I still am.
Lundborg: What’s the first music you heard that ravished you?
I Love Puccini
McNally: I was in fifth grade at a parochial school in Texas, and the nun brought in some shellacked records. She put on Puccini love duets with James Melton and Licia Albanese and I was gone.
The other 29 kids in the class were sleeping, throwing spitballs, reading comic books and being tortured while I loved it instantly. So when people ask me how you learn to love opera, I don’t know how to answer.
Lundborg: What do you make of the homosexual political scandals in Washington?
McNally: So much virulent homophobia is by men who are conflicted by their own sexuality. I don’t think women do this.
Unfortunately, it has terrible results in legislation and people being arrested and harassed. These men must lead such anguished lives, to be a father, raise a family and your secret life is with male prostitutes. My heart goes out to them, but get them out of office!
Lundborg: “Corpus Christi” depicts Jesus and his disciples as gay, so did you write it as a provocation?
McNally: I wrote it as an act of reverence and a meditation on the life of Christ and his message. I’ve never felt more misunderstood or ambushed in my life than by the response it got.
But it’s important to say that the attacks on the play were started by people who’d never seen or read it, based on rumors that weren’t true. It just goes to show how much homophobia there still is in our society: How dare a gay man or woman think that Christ’s divinity exists in him or her?
Millions of people have been told, “You don’t belong at this table, you can’t talk about spirituality, you’re a sinner.” That makes me angry.
(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)