Nelson Pressley, 36, theatre critic for The Washington Times, resigned his position Oct. 8 after his editors nixed his plan to review Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, the controversial Off-Broadway play about a gay Jesus figure.
Pressley, who held the job at the conservative D.C. daily for nearly five years, told Playbill On-Line Oct. 16 that feature editor Carleton Bryant told him Oct. 8 that, per Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden, “our readers are not interested in that play.”
Pressley resigned when Bryant confirmed Pruden’s implacability. “By forbidding me to review this play,” Pressley wrote in his resignation letter, “management obviously means to compel me to toe a partisan political line. That does not strike me as consistent with any honorable journalistic tradition, and it is certainly not something I can tolerate as a critic.”
Phone calls to Bryant and Pruden were not returned to Playbill On-Line by press time Oct. 16. Pruden was out of the office Friday.
“They were going to make certain opinions off limits to me,” Pressley told Playbill On-Line, adding that a critic’s job is to “go out and see the art that needs to be seen.” “If I can’t cover this play based on what it’s about, where do you draw the line?” Pressley told Playbill On-Line.
It was the first time such a restriction was put on his work, Pressley said, although Pruden expressed disappointment about Pressley’s Sept. 6 column that invited readers to be more open-minded about Corpus Christi. Pressley said a Pruden memo called the column “intemperate” and Pruden wrote that the column would have been killed had the editor-in-chief known about it before going to press.
Pressley said in 4 1/2 years of working at The Washington Times, he had never personally met editor-in-chief Pruden.
Although Pressley had no reviewing assignment or job after Oct. 8, he accepted the invitation to attend the Oct. 11 press preview at Manhattan Theatre Club, walking past vocal anti-MTC protesters who called the play “blasphemous” and “hate speech.”
Protests and counter-protests about the scheduling of Corpus Christi at the nonprofit theatre have helped make the production one of the biggest American theatre stories of the decade.
“Any critic at any paper will tell you it’s a newsworthy play,” Pressley said. “To tell me our [conservative] readers aren’t interested in that play is poppycock.”
In the spring, when MTC announced the play, religious groups were outraged. In May, when MTC pulled the play from its schedule because of threats of violence, artists were inflamed about the company’s lack of moral courage and Athol Fugard withdrew the script of a play planned for MTC’s season. MTC changed its mind, reinstating the drama, and cries from religious groups grew over the summer leading to the pickets and a demonstration of some 1,500 anti-MTC protestors at the official opening Oct. 13.
Pressley said his response to the play was not favorable. The play has taken a critical drubbing, but is sold out until Nov. 29.
-- By Kenneth Jones