By Scott Ross
Mart Crowley, 84. The writer of the first important American play completely peopled by gay men (plus one possible closet-case). The Boys in the Band may be dated, but its importance, and that of its author, remain evergreen.
Max von Sydow, 90. There were many who felt that, with Marlon Brando, Von Sydow as one of the two greatest actors in movies. Playing Who’s Best is always a mug’s game, but Von Sydow was one of those rare actors, like Gene Hackman, who seemed incapable of giving a poor performance. (He could be miscast, but that’s a different matter.) Beginning in 1957, when he became famous as a Medieval knight playing chess with Death he appeared in 11 Ingmar Bergman films: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries. Brink of Life, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Touch and was, with Liv Ulmann (who was in ten for Bergman) the face of Swedish cinema generally, and of Bergman specifically.
Above, left to right: Von Sydow playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957); with Julie Andrews in Hawaii (1966); with Bibi Andersson in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970); with Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973); with Robert Redford and Addison Powell in Three Days of the Condor (1975); with Pelle Hvenegaard in Pelle the Conqueror (1987).
Perhaps the most striking thing about Von Sydow, aside from his height and his thin, gaunt face and body, was the intelligence he inevitably projected. There are actors who are never believable as unlettered morons, and others (De Niro is a good example) you can’t imagine reading a book. Von Sydow could play a peasant, or a laborer, as he did for example in his beautiful performance in Billie August’s adaptation of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) but even there his eyes exhibit thought as deep as his limitless love for his son. And although the Swedish actor looked severe and the roles he undertook often demanded unyielding strength of character in the face of adversity, he was also often soft-spoken and kindly on screen, as he was in the movie for which most Americans remember him. As Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973) his selfless acts, like his faith, were as much a matter of human decency as of religious custom.
Von Sydow became a more international movie figure in the 1960s, assaying the role of Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the monstrously inflexible Reverend Abner Hale in the very fine adaptation of one-sixth of James Michener’s wonderful historical novel Hawaii (1966). He was an elegant villain in the spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and the conflicted Russian agent in John Huston’s woefully underseen The Kremlin Letter (1970). Returning to Sweden (and Ullmann) he was in the two-part Jan Troell epic The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) and, in America, the assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975) who shows surprising restraint when his quarry proves his mettle.
Most of the projects in which Von Sydow appeared during (to use a nifty phrase from Paddy Chayefksy) his emeritus years were, aside from Pelle, unworthy of his time or talents. And while Woody Allen cast him in a thankless role in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) he did at least give Von Sydow one deathless line: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”
Lyle Waggoner, 84.
Waggoner was a handsome lox on The Carol Burnett Show for seven years, and while I doubt many missed him when he departed (as they did Harvey Korman) as with Zeppo Marx there was something about the show with him that wasn’t there when he was gone. Just what, I don’t know. A kind of attractive amateurishness, perhaps, that Vicki Lawrence also shared in the early days, until she grew into her own as a comedian. I can honestly only recall three Waggoner moments with any clarity: As Mark Spitz on a talk show, memorable only because when asked a question he spat a mouthful of water; Gloria Swanson suggesting to him that they go away for the weekend… to Algiers; and cracking up at Tim Conway’s Nazi interrogator when he revealed his secret weapon: A strangely adorable Hitler hand-puppet.
Terrence McNally, 81.
McNally is one of those odd figures whose work is both stimulating and almost determinedly frustrating. Although his gift for dialogue — especially comic dialogue — was enviable, he had a maddening tendency in his full-length work to restate in his second acts everything his first acts revealed, mitigating their effectiveness and giving the spectator a numbing sense that he could have left at intermission and missed nothing of importance.
Yet, like his contemporary Mart Crowley, who also died this month, McNally was an important figure in the emergence of gay playwrights in the late 20th century, in the latter’s case as early as 1965, when his play And Things That Go Bump in the Night premiered. It was almost universally reviled, and not wholly without reason, as it revealed a nastiness that cropped up again and again in his work. (Although one might well argue that had this unpleasantness been heterosexual in nature the vitriol invoked against it would have flowed less freely.) But much of the opprobrium cast its way had to do with the central character of the sadistic gay son.
The play came an interesting time. The late critic John Simon had often inveighed against what he saw as homosexual playwrights attempting to “sneak a cuckoo’s egg into a nest of a different feather”; a year later, Stanley Kauffmann would unleash a small tsunami in the theatre with his essay “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” accusing gay writers of presenting homosexual characters and themes wrapped in heterosexual clothing; and three years after, the year before Stonewall, William Goldman, in his influential book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway would echo these sentiments. As with Kauffmann, and although his tone could be snide, Goldman’s approach was essentially sympathetic (“After all,” he wrote, “the homosexual is here, and he’s not going anywhere. It might be nice to know, at last, what’s really on his mind.”) but was seen as bullying. I think these men had a point. Not being free to write openly, as he wished, about what affected him and those like him, for far too long the gay playwright was among the most closeted of all show-business practitioners and had, perforce, to use subterfuge. It limited him, cramped his work, and made his growth nearly impossible when he had to place in the mouths of heterosexual men and women what should have been said between two men.* (Or, if the writer was a Lesbian, two women.) Simon, who had, just before And Things That Go Bump opened, repeated this lament, was less than happy to see his hope come to fruition. “Well,” he opined, “now we have an honest-to-goodness homosexual play, and is it ever an abomination!” Thereafter, McNally included a John Simon joke in nearly every play where it might fit, and which Simon usually got a chuckle out of, although he felt that some of them weren’t as good as others.
McNally’s work after the debacle of And Things That Go Bump concentrated on one-acts: Botticelli, Sweet Eros, Witnes, ¡Cuba Si!, Noon (all 1968), Bringing it All Back Home and Next (both 1969), Bad Habits (two one-acts, Ravenswood and Dunelawn, 1974), Whiskey (1973) before returning to the full-length form more or less permanently with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971). Considering his penchant for redundancy, he might have been well advised to stick with one-acts. Still, there were some winners along the way. The Ritz (1975), an old-fashioned, knockabout farce, turned the form on its head by setting the action in a gay bathhouse (ask your uncle, if he survived the plague). The two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), about two homely, lonely middle-aged “losers,” was a success, although when the inevitable movie was made the man, originally enacted by F. Murray Abraham, was cast with Al Pacino and the woman, played in New York by a pre-Misery Kathy Bates, was Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s Only a Play (1982 and 1986), was very funny for one act before (surprise!) falling apart in the second, a problem that also dogged the two versions of The Lisbon Traviata (1989).
Here, however, an interesting problem arose. McNally came under fire for having one of the two gay men in Act One commit an act of bloody homicidal violence against his lover in Act Two. The playwright obediently softened this ending and, as a result, ironically lost the act’s (indeed, the entire play’s) raison d’être. The first act consists of a long, frequently hilarious, conversation between two obsessed opera queens, and when the more serious of the two comes home to find his partner with another man, the murder he commits brings the opera obsession full circle; it’s horrific, bigger than life, and perfectly in keeping with the notion of opera fandom as a defining obsession containing (and, ideally, sublimating) grand passions and outrageous acts. The muted ending of the play’s revision is more like a dying fall — perfectly reasonable, perhaps, but reason is not the state of mind the play was concerned with.
McNally’s 1988 response to AIDS, Andre’s Mother, was an almost perfect little play, four pages long, restrained and elliptical. Adapted by McNally into a half-hour drama for Public Television in 1990 and starring Sada Thompson, Sylvia Sidney and Richard Thomas, the playlet’s self-containment was beautifully expanded, the ending deeply moving. It was with the 1994 Love! Valour! Compassion! that the playwright scored his greatest triumph, and produced his best and most well-rounded play. Set on three holiday weekends of a single summer, at the country estate of a Jerome Robbins-like choreographer, it is by turns Chekhovian and unabashedly theatrical, an examination of friendships, love and life grinning into the face of doom. Nathan Lane, who had played Mendy, the Mendy Wager figure (originally performed by Mendy Wager) in The Lisbon Traviata and also performed in McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), headlined a cast that included John Glover, Stephen Bogardus and the extraordinary Justin Kirk. The original production won the 1995 Tony for Best Play.
Master Class (1995) followed, a distinct step backward. Although this might be an opera queen’s ultimate play, and while Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald won Tonys, this fictionalized depiction of Maria Callas toward the end of her life suffered from the typical McNally malady of a second act that did little but regurgitate the ideas of the first, but somehow managed to win Best Play… proving perhaps the paucity of great American drama on Broadway as the Millennium approached. By contrast Corpus Christi (1998), a brave allegory in which a group of gay men re-enact the Passion, met with all-too-predictable howls of protest (along with death-threats from followers of The Prince of Peace) and a cowardly response from the Manhattan Theatre Club, which first canceled and then reinstated the original production.
I’m not conversant with McNally’s later plays, have only middling interest in the musicals for which he wrote the books (Here’s Where I Belong, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, The Visit, A Man of No Importance and Catch Me If You Can) and absolutely none in his three opera librettos in collaboration with the composer Jake Heggie. (I’ve only loved one opera in my life, but then who, other than a reactionary — or reactive — fool doesn’t love Porgy and Bess?) And if his plays are highly variable, his status as a lively éminence grise of modern American dramaturgy was assured long ago. It is, therefore, disheartening in the extreme to note that his death is being promoted as part of a fear-mongering campaign. According to the vaunted Wikipedia, which has in its necrologies recently climbed onto the current insane “The plague is coming!” hysteria-wagon over an influenza virus that has reduced the populace of seven continents to puddles of melted jelly, McNally, who had two serious health problems, not the least of which was lung cancer, “died of complications from COVID-19.” The source for this diagnosis? “The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to [McNally’s] husband, Tom Kirdahy,” reports The New York Times. And Kirdahy is a virologist? A physician? A coroner? No. He’s a theatre producer.
The Times obituary goes on, “Mr. McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and had overcome lung cancer [emphasis mine].” As Eliot M. Camarena observes, “So, as with many of the [COVID-19] deaths, he died with the virus but not because of it.” Wikipedia likewise is now routinely, and opportunistically, citing COVID-19 as the “cause” of deaths on its obituary page, mostly for the elderly who have actually died of existing conditions possibly exacerbated by the virus, reflexively and irresponsibly disseminating misinformation — or perhaps disinformation? — and hoping to frighten you like most corporate media.. (And don’t think for a moment Wikpedia is now in any way a “grassroots” organization.)
But then as Eliot further notes, quoting Hecht and MacArthur, “Who the hell’s gonna read the second paragraph?”
*Although being homosexual and writing about heterosexuals didn’t seem to limit Tennessee Williams’ dramaturgy.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross