Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

McNally, Cheever, and the Secret of Unconditional Love

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

McNally, Cheever, and the Secret of Unconditional Love

Article excerpt

Questioned at the time of the play's transfer to Broadway about the title of Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), Terrence McNally explained that he found the phrase, complete with exclamation points, in "an entry in John Cheever's journals. He just wrote 'Love! Valor! Compassion!' I guess it's like a sigh" (Rosen 24). The passage indeed appears in TheJournals of John Cheever, which McNally recalls reading not long after they were published in 1991. (1) In the passage, which possibly records a dream, Cheever says that while "walking in the woods, I heard a man shouting, 'Love! Valor! Compassion!' I followed the voice until I saw him. He was standing on a rock shouting the names of virtues to no one. He must have been mad" (Journals 277). Thus, the exclamation was not delivered as "a sigh," as McNally supposes, but, rather, as what Cheever calls elsewhere an "incantation" (Journals 182, 277)--that is, as a way for the speaker verbally to will himself to incarnate the virtues in question, or pseudo magically to conjure their existence in the world where they are sorely needed. McNally's employment of the phrase asks that the often-times frustrated but never finally abandoned hope for unconditional love expressed in Love! Valour! Compassion! be considered in the light of his engagement with Cheever's writing and in terms of the challenge that McNally implicitly offers in the play to Cheever's depiction of "the burden of men without grace" (Cheever, Journals 19).

"CALCULATED SELF-DECEPTIONS"

McNally and Cheever had proven successful, if only circumstantial, "collaborators" well before McNally first began work on Love! Valour! Compassion!. Biographer Blake Bailey records that in 1977 Cheever gave permission to WNET, New York City's public television station, to adapt three of his short stories for the Public Broadcasting System's recently launched Great Performances series (575-76). The dramatizations aired in October 1979. "The Sorrows of Gin," adapted by Wendy Wasserstein, starred Edward Herrmann and Sigourney Weaver; "O Youth and Beauty!", adapted by A. R. Gurney, starred Michael Murphy; and "The Five Forty Eight," adapted by McNally, starred Laurence Luckinbill and Mary Beth Hurt (Bailey 612). (2) The latter, observes Bailey, was "arguably the most successful of the three" (612). This should not be surprising considering McNally's skill at adapting other writers' work for the stage or screen. In 1963 he had been hired by director Franco Zefferelli to update the language of a new stage version of Alexandre Dumas's The Lady of the Camellias, and in 1964 he had completed a stage adaptation of James Purdy's novel, Malcolm. (Edward Albee's better-known adaptation would be produced only two years later.) Novelist John Steinbeck had so much confidence in the young playwright's talent that he proposed that McNally, his sons' former tutor, write the book for the musical adaptation of East of Eden, which was produced in 1968 as Here's Where I Belong. McNally would go on to adapt such radically different properties as Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit, and three films (The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance, and Catch Me if You Can) for the musical stage, as well as the memoir (and subsequent film) Dead Man Walking for the opera. In 1990 he would win an Emmy Award for transforming "Andre's Mother"--his powerful ten-minute stage sketch written in response to the AIDS pandemic--into an hour-long drama for television's American Playhouse.

McNally recalls that over the years he had been reading Cheever's short stories as they appeared in The New Yorker (where Cheever published 120 stories between 1934 and 1980) and had developed a warm appreciation of Cheever's depiction of middleclass New Yorkers in search of what Cheever once referred to as "some moral chain of being" (Cheever, Preface 3). The commission to adapt "The Five-Forty-Eight" arrived at a particularly difficult moment in McNally's career. …

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