The Washington Times editor in chief accused of killing a planned review of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi released a statement Oct. 19 denying any "attempt to prevent Nelson Pressley, our theatre critic until he resigned, from having his say."
Pressley resigned from the conservative Washington daily Oct. 8 after he was told editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden didn't want a review of the controversial Off-Broadway play about a gay Jesus figure because "our readers are not interested in that."
"I cheerfully plead guilty to being offended by Terrence McNally's play," Pruden wrote in a statement. "Mr. Pressley's assignment was to cover the theatre in Washington, and to my certain knowledge his reviews were never edited for political or ideological reason..."
But Pressley told Playbill On-Line, Oct. 19, it was routine for the critic to explore major New York openings in his 4 1/2-year career as chief theatre writer. The understanding between him and his several feature editors over the years, Pressley said, was to cultivate the beat and seek out major newsworthy openings, like Paul Simon's The Capeman earlier this year.
Pressley, 36, said the understanding between the critic and the feature section editors was that he would go to New York, file a review, and eventually be reimbursed for the trip, as was the usual Times practice. Pressley was told Oct. 8 that the piece would not run. He resigned on the spot, but went to the Corpus Christi press opening Oct. 11 at the invitation of the Manhattan Theatre Club. Editor Pruden stated, "We earlier prominently printed a 1,500-word commentary by Mr. Pressley attacking the critics of the play, even though it was in my view an intemperate attack on sincere Christians." After the play's opening, Pruden stated, the Times printed a summary of the New York reviews of Corpus Christi in place of any review that might have appeared in The Times.
"It is a fact," wrote editor-in-chief Pruden, "that editors make the assignments at The Washington Times, and will continue to do so; sometimes they approve requests for out-of-town travel, and sometimes they don't."
Pressley said Oct. 19 this was the first time Pruden had been involved in any of his theatre coverage, and that features editor Carleton Bryant "knew I was going" to New York under the "typical procedure" of scoping out new work and covering it for the readership. Pressley said in nearly five year of working there, he had never personally met editor-in-chief Pruden.
"They didn't want me covering this play because of what it was about," said Pressley.
"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."
"They were going to make certain opinions off limits to me," Pressley said, 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 said.
Pressley said the Sept. 6 column inviting readers to be more open minded about Corpus Christi was actually about 500 words, not 1,500, and that he did get a memo from Pruden saying had Pruden known of it, it would have been killed.
Jay Handelman, former chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association, told Playbill On-Line Oct. 19 the "protests that surrounded the play" made the show "a major new story" made even more "noteworthy" with the revelation during the Oct. 9 press weekend that a gay 21-year old had been savagely murdered in an apparent hate crime in Wyoming.
In Corpus Christi, McNally seems to draw a link between the persecution of gay men and the persecution of Jesus Christ, who is renamed "Joshua" in the gay retelling of the Passion Play.
Handelman, TV and theatre critic for the Sarasota (FL.) Herald Tribune, said "in an ideal world," he would have been up to cover the play because it is one of the biggest theatre-related stories in years. "It's certainly a newsworthy thing regardless of the quality of the play," Handelman said. "I would think readers would be interested in it."
Handelman added, "Theatre does not generally generate the kind of passionate opinions that this play has."
"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 Manhattan Theatre Club 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 McNally 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