For Manhattan Theatre Club, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Off-Broadway theatre last Thursday withdrew Terrance McNally's controversial, but so-far unseen, play Corpus Cristi from its 1998-99 season after receiving anonymous phone threats to burn down the theatre, kill the staff, and "exterminate" McNally. The threats came in the wake of a news report which claimed that the play depicted a Jesus-like figure as gay and having sex with his apostles. That report in turn sparked a protest by the Catholic League, a right-wing religious organization.
"Corpus Christi" is Latin for "Body of Christ."
The removal of the play pacified the league, but inspired the ire of playwrights and first-amendment advocates, according to a May 27 article in The New York Times. The strongest reaction came from South African playwright Athol Fugard, who angrily withdrew his play The Captain's Tiger, which was to have been staged at MTC. Tiger just completed a run at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.
Fugard said he was "shocked and deeply disturbed" by MTC's action, adding that "In yielding to the blackmail and threats of the Catholic League the theatre management has compromised one of the basic freedoms of democracy -- the Freedom of Speech -- and they have done it by censoring themselves and collaborators in the attempt to silence Mr. McNally."
There has been no charge that the Catholic League or its members made the alledged threats. The League does not advocate violence and disavows knowledge of any threats. McNally, who has been mum on the subject until now, also spoke out. On May 21, a joint press release by the playwright and the theatre had announced the removal of Corpus Christi. But on May 26, McNally issued a solo statement, saying he "greatly regrets that the Manhattan Theatre Club has decided not to go forward with plans to produce his new play Corpus Christi." He also expressed a hope that the play would be staged at another venue. Gail Parker, McNally's agent, did not return phone calls. An assistant to Parker said he was unable to fax a copy of the playwright's statement.
Other playwrights, such as Tony Kushner and Craig Lucas, also criticized MTC's action. For her part, MTC Artistic Director Lynn Meadows told the Times she had no choice but to withdraw McNally's work after a barrage of violent threats fell on the theatre and its personnel. It was also revealed that Trans World Airlines was prepared to halt its financial support of the production, though MTC Executive Producer Barry Grove said the airline's stance had nothing to do with the theatre's decision. A call to MTC's press representative Boneau/Bryan-Brown was not returned.
Meadows said she was trying to get in touch with Fugard. MTC's production of Fugard's Valley Song was a great success a couple seasons back. The current situation would seem to have somewhat soured that relationship. MTC has a much deeper tie to McNally, who, over the past decade, has virtually become the company's in-house playwright. McNally successes at MTC include Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion!. McNally did not remark as to whether MTC's handling of Corpus Christi would alter his future working relationship with the company.
Fugard's action also leaves a second hole in MTC's upcoming season, the first having been created by the removal of Corpus Christi.
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-- By Robert Simonson