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‘Corpus Christi’: Why it irks us


Due to the outsize publicity given Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York Oct. 13, its savage treatment at the hands of secular New York reviewers is already common knowledge. Is there a point in postmortems?

I think so. Though the play itself deserves only a footnote in a survey of modern drama, it’s worth trying to look at it calmly. What one might call “the Corpus Christi Case” merits extended reflection, especially by Catholics.

It’s worth noting, for example, that thanks to the angry protests of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the play sold out its 8-week run before the opening. If the league had not fanned the fires lit by papers like Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, there would have been lots of empty seats by the third night, when I saw it. The league couldn’t care less, of course, since the controversy undoubtedly attracted new members, thereby financing more advertising to exploit the very real fact that public expressions of anti-Catholicism are often allowed a spurious respectability.

Although the notion of presenting Jesus as gay is at first disturbing to many -- including a straight type like me -- McNally deserves the benefit of the doubt. As the author of “Love! Valor! Compassion!” along with “The Master Class” and my personal favorite, “The Perfect Ganesh,” there is no reason to believe his motive was exploitative. If he was trying to be offensive, it was primarily to force people like myself to seriously consider his basic metaphor: Jesus the queer.

He isn’t offering a historical rereading of the Jesus story. Profoundly disinterested in recent New Testament scholarship, he includes bits and pieces from the gospels with the naiveté of a pre-Vatican II Catholic high school drama group.

Only theological thuggery would pronounce the play blasphemous. For members of the Christian Coalition, with their loathing for homosexuals and their assumption that gays are inherently evil, presenting Jesus as homosexual is contemptuous. For a homosexual playwright such as McNally, however, to do so would seem an effort to offer praise and to claim an identity with him.

In the play, 13 pleasant young men gather in a circle on a raised wooden platform. One comes forward to tell the audience that they’re going to present “an old and familiar story,” one that has never been told right before. After a sweet rendition of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?,” John (Michael Irby) calls the men forward and baptizes them one by one. “I bless you and I baptize you and I recognize your divinity as a human being,” he proclaims, and each apostle is given a brief moment of self-identification -- as a lawyer, a fisherman, a hairdresser, a hustler.

Sense of tradition missing

McNally’s alteration of the gospel text hardly seems worth sending on to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, although someone steeped in the tradition would have presented a deeper sense of an ancient and respected Christian ritual; here the material has simply been rendered trite. The playwright wants to say that each of us is a son of God (he’s not very strong on daughters of God), and hopes that we’ll feel challenged, perhaps usefully outraged. Unfortunately, his rendering of the material is a sentimental parody of humanism.

Proceeding to a retelling of the life of Joshua (clearly intended to be Jesus), McNally wants to make a plea for tolerance and love but casts the material in such simplistic terms that we pat ourselves on the back for being more sophisticated than the protesters across the street. Although it must have been difficult to grow up homosexual in Corpus Christi, Texas, (McNally’s home town), it’s heavy-handed to cast Fr. McMullen as the ultimate bad guy because he wanted Joshua to play football or for Judas to become Joshua’s first lover on the night of the high school prom.

To be fair, the sex in the play is never lurid, but reviewers who suggest that few theatergoers would be upset are disingenuous. The intimation, no matter how lightly sketched, that after a day’s preaching Joshua, played by Anson Mount, and his disciples celebrate with a drunken orgy, is deeply offensive to believers -- and tasteless to others.

Even worse from a dramatic point of view, the central figure of the play is weak and uninteresting. Though Joshua occasionally hears a voice saying, “This is my beloved son,” and says, “You can come no closer than my body; everything else is hidden,” we never understand why others would be drawn to him. He is a Jesus that neither homosexual nor heterosexuals would bother following.

Nor do McNally’s hardworking actors, some of whom play multiple parts, have material with which to individualize whatever apostle they portray. You might think the fact that Joshua’s lover is the one who betrays him “to the fag-haters in priests’ robes” would create some powerful stage moments, but Judas remains a sinister stick-figure whose motives are never explored. At Catholic University I once wrote a play about Judas that Walter Kerr wisely decided not to produce, but even my Judas was more interesting.

Only nervous laughter

McNally’s plays have often been criticized for lack of structure, but he has consistently shown a real talent for humor. When an HIV positive character in “Love! Valor! Compassion!” complains, “I’m sick of straight people. ... There’s too goddamn many of them,” it’s both funny and affecting. In contrast, the laughs in “Corpus Christi” seem nervous and adolescent.

What’s worse, changes in the New Testament story that might have a point are not followed up or even weaken dramatic impact. For example, a minute after Joshua tells the centurion, “Your faith has made you whole,” the latter reappears to say his wife is dead, but the situation is simply dropped. Later, a crucifixion sequence is interrupted by a brief scene in which a sadistic nun strikes a young girl on the hand with a stick.

It is equally hard to understand why McNally presented Mary as a lush, and Joshua’s refusal to allow her to enter the room just as the Last Supper is about to take place seems like an odd attack on the women’s ordination movement.

If McNally is no Chekhov or Brecht, he has a reputation as a serious playwright and is in the enviable situation of working regularly with a solid New York theater eager to produce his plays. Over the years he has prepared the upper middle-class audience of the Manhattan Theatre Club for greater acceptance of homosexual themes; this time he has committed dramatic hubris. At the very least McNally should have emphasized Joshua’s concern that all our relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, transcend manipulation and that we make sure others are never reduced to objects.

To his credit, McNally’s plays do not idealize the homosexual milieu he draws on. If he wants to influence a wider public than the in-group audience at his theater, however, he needs to create credible positive images with which more people can emotionally identify. Though I suspect that most of those who picketed “Corpus Christi” would have disliked the play, McNally has already gone some distance in the direction of creating credible images with “Love! Valor! Compassion!” in which four homosexual couples share friendship, heartache and betrayal. At the end, there is recognition of a common frailty and of the characters’ capacity for love and community.

Would it not be possible to present the experience of a similar group who share their lives with someone they come to recognize as a spiritual leader and plumb more deeply their religious (not necessarily institutional) yearnings?

To cleanse ourselves of fury

My parish bulletin urged me to join the Catholic League’s protest of a blasphemous play. Apart from the idea of condemning something without seeing it, such a reaction sees no need to cleanse ourselves of the anti-homosexual fury that pervades both church and society. Why is it that I have never heard a sermon insisting that homosexuals be treated with the same respect as others? The U.S. bishops have issued some exemplary statements on this theme; why aren’t they drawn upon?

It’s not only that “Corpus Christi” opened the same week that a young homosexual student was killed in Wyoming; anyone aware of the psychological pressures on Catholic high school boys knows that there is immense work to be done. Church authorities and moral theologians need to engage in open dialogue on norms of behavior. We must begin now to teach each other, by word and example, that McNally’s metaphor of a gay Jesus may be just a contemporary extension of Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s film reviewer, taught drama in Fordham University’s theater department.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998