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Terrence McNally.

Terrence McNally: ‘Theatre Changes Hearts’

In his 2019 Tony speech he looked back lovingly on a stage career, and reached forward to the work that will follow him.

At last year’s Tony Awards, the playwright Terrence McNally—author of such iconic plays as Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune—was given a lifetime achievement award and gave a singularly memorable acceptance speech. Today we received the devastating news that McNally had died from complications due to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, at the age of 81. Here is the complete text of his Tony Awards speech from June 9, 2019.

I love being a playwright. The hours are flexible, and you don’t have to wear a tie, unless you’re invited to the Tonys. I loved it since I wrote my first play. It was about George Gershwin and Ira, his talented lyricist wife. I loved it when I wrote my college varsity show, and it made people laugh. Only this time on purpose. I even loved it when my first play crashed and burned at the Old Royale on West 45th Street. And John Steinbeck told me to get right back on the horse. If you ain’t been throwed, you ain’t rode. I loved it when my second play was a success, and I could quit my job as a magazine editor.

I love it when I remember the little boy I was, thrilling to Ethel Merman, shooting out candles while reclining on a motorcycle in Annie Get Your Gun. I love it when I remember not being able to get out of my seat after a devastating performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I love it when my parents, shaken by their experience at Death of a Salesman—it changed their lives. My father quit his job at General Foods and struck out on his own. I love it when something I wrote softened the hearts of parents who had banished their son and daughter from their lives when they came out to them as gay and lesbian. I love it when I remember the artists who tried to help us understand the devastation of AIDS, even when they were stricken with it themselves.

I love it when I remember theatre changes hearts. That secret place where we all truly live. I love my playwright peers, past, present, and especially future. You’re chomping at the bit for your turn. Your diversity is long overdue and welcome. It’s a club with open admissions. The only dues are your heart, your soul, your mind, your guts—all of you. Your commitment to this ancient art form assures me that what we do matters. The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what kindness, truth, and beauty are.

“O brave new world,/That has such people in it!” Shakespeare’s talking to all of us. No one does it alone. Least of all playwrights. Most of all this one. Tonight is overwhelming for me. Thank you.

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