Thoughts & Musings

Seizing the Day by Moonlight:
Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune (1982)

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, October 30’s matinee performance.

© 2016 by Eileen Warburton

Frankie and Johnny were lovers/
Oh Lordy, how they could love…

I can still remember a time when the convention of theatre—as well as civilized courtship—was for a couple to ‘get to ‘know’ each other before wrestling one another into bed. To make small talk about work and backgrounds, to venture into beliefs, then to talk about families, then to move to romance, followed by sharing intimate language and touching, and only THEN to fall into love-making and sex.

Things move faster—and slower—for the couple in this play. We first encounter Frankie and Johnny grunting in the dark. They begin in raucous, passionate sex but don’t know one another at all. They are virtual strangers. For Frankie, middle-aged waitress at the diner, this has been a satisfying one-night-stand with someone she finds attractive. She wants to feed him and send him home so she can watch television. Maybe, she thinks, it could happen again. But Johnny, middle-aged short-order cook in the same eatery, believes that this post-coital moment is his one chance at creating a happily-ever-after for himself and Frankie and he throws everything he has into seizing it. Laden with the baggage of their disappointed lives and all their fears of the miserable things that could happen, they argue, fight, lust, eat, and share through the night, peeling back the layers of survival, trying to break down the walls between them.

Johnny had dreams as a young man. He wanted to be a teacher and he still keeps a copy of Shakespeare and a dictionary in his locker at work. But he was an abandoned foster child, raised pillar to post, now divorced with children he seldom sees and with whom he’s ashamed of his failures. He’s served time for forgery. He’s determined to storm through the isolation that defines his life. Frankie, too, had dreamed of being an actress, now toys with becoming a teacher. Her past is checkered with abusive men and friends who betrayed her and, like Johnny, she was abandoned by her mother as a little child. From her apartment window, she watches the role models of her neighbors—one couple silent and estranged, one couple enmeshed in domestic violence. While Johnny batters her heart, Frankie erects defensive walls of physical distance and sarcasm. She rejects Johnny’s gallantry and his romantic conversation.

Frankie and Johnny swap background stories and lengthen “the list” of inessential things they have in common—born in Allentown, PA, abandoned by their mothers at age 7, called their grandmother ‘Nana,’ and “You knew my cousin Arnold?” But what they are really discovering is the essential things they have in common: crushed ambitions, betrayal, disappointment, profound loneliness, a hidden hope for something better, connection, love and family. By morning, the two who began by groping in the dark are facing the rising sun together, sharing the ordinary and hope.

The power of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune is that all the while we are in the presence of lusty life—noisy sex, the smell of the Western sandwich, the burned back rubbed with butter, the music of Bach and Debussy looping through the dialogue—we are also in the presence of death. These two desperate people are driven by their sense of mortality, of time running out on them. This consciousness lends a poignant edge to their comic despair, while it also puts our own perception of the action into sharper relief by throwing it against the shadow.

This insistence that the most urgent thing facing us is the connection between people in a difficult world is the defining theme of playwright Terrence McNally’s work. Born in Florida late in 1938, he grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, glued to the radio to hear broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the serial of the Green Hornet. His lifelong passion for classical music, especially of grand opera, has led him to write musicals as well as stage plays and to lace his work with music as the uplift of the soul. He graduated from Columbia University in New York City in 1961 and, after odd jobs, had the marvelous break of being hired as the tutor of novelist John Steinbeck’s’ sons as the Steinbeck family made a cruise around the world. Steinbeck encouraged and mentored the young man and McNally moved to Mexico for a while on his return in order to write plays. He soldiered on through a string of failures before successfully finding his voice with plays like Next in 1969, The Ritz in 1975, and Frankie and Johnny in 1982. Among his 55 works for film, opera, TV, and stage, he’s won Tonys for Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) and Master Class (1995), as well as for musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) and Ragtime (1996). He’s been awarded a bagful of other distinctions— an Emmy,two Guggenheims, a Rockefeller, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortels, two Obies, three Hull-Warriners, a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. He continues to write plays that work to bridge our differences in race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

This essay was sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington.

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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