Playwright Terrence McNally died March 24 of complications related to coronavirus. He was eighty-one and a survivor of another great plague, AIDS. To understand McNally’s life and work, critics observe that plays like Love! Valor! Compassion! (which premiered off Broadway in 1994) offer a testament to how we can confront grief, trauma, and even the fear of death.
McNally’s luminous career included Tony, Obie, Drama Desk, and Emmy awards. He was also a librettist and screenwriter. His play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was made into the film Frankie and Johnny. In 1996, his play Corpus Christi became a cause célèbre when it was protested by fundamentalists enraged by his portrayal of Jesus and the apostles as gay Texans.
Behind some of McNally’s most important works is the historical context of the AIDS global pandemic. As a gay man in the 1980s, McNally was surrounded by friends and lovers sickening and dying from complications from the disease; their suffering was met with the indifference and homophobia of the larger world. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary joked about “the gay plague” in response to a question, and most of the reporters in the room laughed with him. Reagan himself wouldn’t mention the word “AIDS” until 1985, after more than 12,000 people had died of it.
Love! Valor! Compassion! centers on eight gay men who vacation together and untangle their interconnected lives and loves over the course of the play. The centerpiece of the drama is a scene in which the characters are in ballet drag, rehearsing their version of Swan Lake for an AIDS benefit. Each one steps into the spotlight to explain the circumstances of his death-to-come—from AIDS, a plane crash, old age.
This, says critic Raymond-Jean Frontain, “parodies the medieval Dance of Death, an emblem of the universality of mortality.” The playwright’s challenge in this scene is “to emerge from trauma with a renewed capacity for living—to feel oneself ‘restored from death’[…]—and, thus, better prepared to meet death when the time inevitably comes.” In Love! Valor! Compassion!, McNally turns the symbolism of the medieval dance of death on its head.
In the traditional Danse macabre or Totentanz, death is the equalizer, the great leveler: It comes for pope, prince, and president…as well as milkmaid, peasant, and copywriter. Linked hand-in-hand, with Death leading the way, all walks of life are as one on the last day.
“The threat of death, immolation, formlessness, chaos,” argues Frontain, “…must not simply be survived, but survived in such a way as allows the individual to take pleasure in the act of survival and to enjoy life afterwards with an enlarged or magnified capacity, even.”
In practicing their version of Swan Lake, McNally’s characters stand shoulder to shoulder and arm over arm, “a gesture both of solidarity against a shared threat and of mutual comfort and support.”
“In effect, they form a community characterized by the love, valor, and compassion of McNally’s title—qualities that, the play holds, offer the most effective way of meeting the threat of immolation,” writes Frontain. And, recognizing the ridiculousness of their tulle skirts and feathered headdresses, the men collapse into laughter. This is most definitely not the somber ending of all things.
“Life is frightening, McNally insists,” but instead of waiting for dread and darkness to swallow you up, you create your own light.