I didn’t tell anyone this at the time, but seeing Golden Age, Terrence McNally’s last in an unintended trilogy of opera-themed plays (following The Lisbon Traviata and the Tony Award-winning Master Class), was a sobering audit of how I watch plays and what I expect from them. Everywhere I looked there was a potential gun in a drawer: Giovanni Rubini’s obsession with the high F he is to sing surely means his voice will crack, right? And Vincenzo Bellini’s constant agonizing over his opera’s opening night reception means something must go wrong, doesn’t it?
But Golden Age isn’t a movie, and McNally tends to spurn Hollywood plot devices in favour of a more character-driven realism. After pondering my expectations going into the play for a couple weeks, I interview the multi-award-winning 74-year-old over the phone on a Friday morning. I begin by asking him about the story in Golden Age, noting how its substance came not from the plot, but from the characters and the web of their associations.
“It’s sort of my style,” he says. “I’m not particularly a plot writer. I prefer to kind of track the drama between people.” For McNally, creating a story through characterization instead of plot is a matter of seeing the latter not as a tool belonging to the playwright, but as a consequence of the natural interactions of the players. For example, Rubini’s rejected marriage proposal wasn’t there to move the play in a certain direction; it was there because Rubini was a lonely but egotistical man, and Giulia Grisi had no interest in him.
That’s essentially how real life works, McNally argues. And if so, why should a play meant to imitate life be any different? “I experience my life as moment-to-moment encounters, some happy and some sad. As a playwright I try to capture those moments as realistically as I can.”
In fact, McNally is “suspicious of plot” – the temptation for playwrights to keep too much control over events, rather than letting a story run its natural course. “Very often it’s the author making the plot happen, rather than the characters,” he says. The story then suffers from a deus ex machina-induced lack of realism, making it predictable and harder for the audience to relate to or believe. This explains why, when I ask who McNally draws inspiration from, the question is barely off my lips before he lists Anton Chekhov, a “perfect example” of a playwright who relied on realism. “Plots are pretty slender in his plays,” he reflects.
But doesn’t the degree of plot vary depending on what the story demands? What role does McNally grant the subject of a play in determining what drives it forward? He tells me that while he doesn’t exactly improvise, he does stick to his characters, letting them make the decisions. “I have some idea of what’s going to happen, but I like to be surprised.”