Playbill Poll: The Corpus Christi Controversy -- Part 2

News   Playbill Poll: The Corpus Christi Controversy -- Part 2 Manhattan Theatre Club announced May 22 that it was cancelling a planned production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi owing to "security" concerns. The play reportedly depicts a Jesus-like character who has offstage sex with his apostles. A religious group threatened to seek a cutoff of funding for MTC. The MTC reportedly received threats of violence. But another playwright, Athol Fugard, subsequently withdrew one of his own planned plays, expressing concerns about censorship. McNally, author of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class and currently Tony-nominated for Ragtime, said he hopes another theatre will agree to premiere the play.

Manhattan Theatre Club announced May 22 that it was cancelling a planned production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi owing to "security" concerns. The play reportedly depicts a Jesus-like character who has offstage sex with his apostles. A religious group threatened to seek a cutoff of funding for MTC. The MTC reportedly received threats of violence. But another playwright, Athol Fugard, subsequently withdrew one of his own planned plays, expressing concerns about censorship. McNally, author of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class and currently Tony-nominated for Ragtime, said he hopes another theatre will agree to premiere the play.

What are your opinions of this situation? Was MTC right to cancel the production? Did such cancellation constitute censorship? Was Fugard right to withdraw his play? What precautions, if any, should another theatre take in presenting Corpus Christi? How do you feel about a play that depicts a gay Jesus-like character?

We're especially interested in hearing from Manhattan Theatre Club subscribers.

Send your opinions to Playbill On-Line's Managing Editor Robert Viagas at viagas@playbill.com. Playbill thanks all who take the time to write. Owing to the volumn of responses, we've created this second file of reactions:

From John Esche (eschetic@erols.com):
Like most literate people, I am appalled at the Manhattan Theatre Club feeling it necessary to cave in to threats of violence (whatever the source, but encouraged and abetted in gross dereliction of his office by New York's cardinal and the so called Catholic Leagues spokesmen for which have publicly threatened "a war" against any theatre which picks up the script) by dropping its production of the new script by Terrence McNally. If I were another major author considering a prospective home for nurturing a new play, I would certainly have to think long and hard as to whether MTC was still the kind of place for thoughtful, challenging work to be developed.
As an active Christian, it is supremely offensive to me that right wing mullahs of ANY faith should take the Lords name in vain to impose their own narrow orthodoxy on the rest of a free society. As all Americans should acknowledge, we are *not* a nation which has accepted or should accept an "established religion", and many aspects of Christ's life are untreated in the accepted scriptures and these are certainly right and proper subjects of speculation in works acknowledged to be fiction.
Consequently leaders of any church attempting to *dictate* secular affairs from setting baseball schedules or acting as censors of literary works (for leading the attack which culminated in the MCT action was absolutely an act of censorship) do so at their peril and should realize how far they alienate many of their coreligionists at a time when we should be searching for common grounds and ways to bring our society together. Such actions forfeit the moral leadership they (or some few of them in any case) *once* proudly exercised in showing leadership for the very freedom they now trample on in the fields of civil and worker's and voting rights.
If these groups and leaders whos actions have transformed themselves from titular spiritual leaders to mere hate groups are allowed to go unanswered, we all lose the freedom which has always set this country apart and made us great.
Let CORPUS CHRISTI go on at a better, even higher profile venue. Let Manhattan Theatre Club lose one of the prize playwrights which have made them such a vital force in New York Theatre (and the Tony Committee revoke any special awards given to the group). If Mr. McNally's speculations are not worthy or well expressed, they will fail on their own merits. Certainly no one who may feel offended by them is required to sit through them. To BAN them however, is to admit a powerful fear of the truth of these very ideas. This was, after all when the initial message of Christ's apostles took firmest root: when the Roman establishment attempted to suppress it. It is sad that foolish people trying to defend their own shaky belief so often take no pride or instruction from their own history.


From John Butz:
I have read the comments posted so far and the articles concerning the cancellation. While I agree with many of the comments posted (esp. Peter Horton's), I wonder how they would have read come Fall if the MTC was blown up during a performance, or McNally was assassinated at the stage door. These 'activists' [read terrorists] have bombed abortion clinics and gay bars and killed doctors who perform abortions--why would they not follow through on their threats on a theatre?
This must have been one of the hardest decisions Lynne Meadow has ever made. But isn't she responsible for the well being of her staff and her audiences. MTC may survive this very unhappy incident, but could it have withstood law suits from the families of dead audience members? As an actor and director and teacher, I am appalled that any producer would make the decision to cancel a play because of threats (which, by the way is NOT censorship- as the play is freely available to mount elsewhere, which apparently is going to happen). As Lanford Wilson once wrote, theatre is not safe, and if an audience wants safety it should stay home and watch TV -- but he was speaking of intellectual safety, not physical. I am equally appalled that any producer should be put in this untenable position by anyone claiming to be a Christian. Maybe Ms Meadow should add a surtax to the 'Corpus Christi' tickets so as to hire extra security. Maybe she should bow graciously, ask for forgiveness, re-instate the piece, and have all attendees sign a waiver of responsibility for MTC if anything untoward happens. Best of all, maybe the Catholic League should be disavowed by the Catholic Church and investigated by state and federal authorities as a terrorist organization.
I hope 'Corpus Christi' gets the staging it deserves, I hope that MTC continues the fine work it has done in the past -- most of all I hope that those who delivered the threats rot in a well deserved jail cell for a long, long time.


From David Curley:
Everyone is throwing around all these terms like "cowardice", "right-wing", "censorship" and "McCarthy-like". It is so easy to fall into lockstep and regurgitate the popular notion that whenever something happens that one doesn't agree with, it automatically becomes the fault and curse of evil conservatives.
I think Chad Klopfenstein [See Part 1 of this poll. --Ed.] makes an excellent, levelheaded point, one that cuts through all the extreme comments. How would people react if a playwright presented a Martin Luther King Jr. character that is portrayed as something controversial? The politically correct would never stand for it. There would no doubt be shouts of racism and accusations of hate mongering. There would be pickets and protests. Why is there a double standard? Why are conservatives and religious organizations not allowed the same freedom to speak their minds? Why is it "tolerance" when liberals have an opinion and "hate" when conservatives have one?
I have no problem with the portrayal of Jesus as gay. I also have no problem with the Catholic League making noise about it. I do not believe anyone received threats and I do not believe that Terrence McNally is hateful for writing the play the way he apparently did. This is America, where everyone, including conservatives and people who hold religious values, have the right to fight for his or her own way of life.


From Evan Smith:
I am ardently NOT a fan of Mr. McNally's work, however it is repulsive and terrifying to me that The Catholic League has the power to decide for me in advance the merit of "Corpus Christi". How this small, irritating cabal of religious zealots has managed to wield such power is a total and complete mystery. However -- and I emphatically do not support their decision to pull the play -- I empathize with MTC; backed into a corner as Meadow was, she made a decision which she and MTC felt was reasonable. Of course it was perfectly cowardly, but then does anyone REALLY consider MTC a bastion of cutting edge, vigorously challenging theatre? These are the people, after all, that brought us "Power Plays". The MTC audience is a bunch of noisy cellophane wrapper ladies with blue hair who would have sat back in a catatonic stupor whether McNally's Jesus was having sex with an apostle, or sucking fetishistically on a stick of frankincense. Why do you think Baitz and Greenberg have renounced it? We should be miffed at MTC, and so should Athol, but we KNOW who the real culprits are, and they aren't theatre people. They are Jesus obsessed lunatics and philistines who care nothing for art, expression or anything that could properly be called civilized values. But McNally should be on his knees thanking them for the free PR. Corpus Christi WILL eventually be staged, and of course EVERYONE will see it and some lucky producer will make bucketloads of money!


From RHart:
I really feel that all this nonsense about the MTC canceling Corpus Christi is ridiculous. There is a little thing in this country called "Freedom of Speech", and that is exactly what makes it so this play should be performed. Did they try to block Cabaret because it has Nazis in it? No. Did they try and keep Ronnie Larson's Peep Show from playing because of the nudity and homo-erotic themes? Nope. I think that the Catholic League has gone way off its rocker. If they don't want it played, then why don't they just not go see it!?!? I find it insulting that they are trying to limit what I can see, as a theatre goer. And as for Mr. Fugard, I am proud of his pulling his play out and showing his concerns for the MTC's censorship of Mr. McNally's play. Hopefully, someone like the Roundabout will adopt this play and stage it.


From Trystan Toole:
I used to work at MTC as a stage manager for some of their shows. I have a few friends who've worked there, and it seems as though it's been mighty hectic over there for quite some time. What I loved about working at MTC was they weren't as obsessed with the idea with being just picking seeds out of the watermelon. They were interested in capturing the whole idea, which I think is something most theater company's SHOULD have. Anyway, they are expecting all this stuff to "die-down" and all will be well when this ends. Frankly I "doubt" that will happen.
Anyway, as far as what I think about it, this incident is a matter of forbidden freedom of speech, which was what Terrence McNally was trying to do. People I've talked to against going to see this show. What angers me most is that if you haven't experienced the work, you should have nothing to be angered about. In fact, I'll bet that most of the protesters haven't even seen the play, they just know that it involves a homosexual Christ. It's almost the same thing with the CAPEMAN incident (only difference is that CORPUS CHRISTI is suppose to be a wee-more significant of a show.). Anyway, I was anxious to see this play, and I'm saddened to see that it's running was canceled due to outsiders thinking that they can dominate a world where free speech should be respected.
I think that a lot of theatre companies are wisely making their offers due to the fact that they know that there is some publicity involved with this show.


From Prometheus Bound:
I can't help but think that so many people are wrong for actions taken that have led to this fiery controversy over MTC and McNally's new play.
Those that deserve the blame:
1. Ward Morehouse was wrong for running a story without sufficient facts (As is often the case with his column, I find.) He printed that the play contained offensive material without ever having read the script. Again, he quoted an unsubstantial and probably unreliable source, and sensationalized it.
2. The Catholic League was wrong to use that article as a basis for their crusade against this play and MTC. They also have not read the script, I understand, yet the mention of Jesus and homosexual in the same sentence has them delivering threats tied to proverbial rocks thrown through proverbial windows. Anyone else getting images of an angry mob with torches?
3. Whoever escalated their protest to the level of threats of violence is not only wrong, but criminal. Enough said.
4. MTC was wrong for waffling. Just when I though the Catholic League and its right wing supporters couldn't get any more cowardly, MTC did the most reprehensible thing it could have: basically, it told the CL that they were in the right, and made it seem like they have power to control theatre and the entertainment industry. Also, they missed an opportunity to use the CL's fire to propel McNally's play to an almost certainly sold-out run.
Kudos to
-Athol Fugard
Anyone who has canceled their subscription to MTC in the past couple of days.
-Any theatre with brains and balls enough to pick up the premiere of "Corpus Christi" next season.
Off-Broadway theatre cannot afford to bow in the face of criticism. Controversy, questionable morals, stepping over the lines and pushing the boundaries: These are all things that have defined Off-Broadway theatre throughout its history.


From David Cromwell:
It's appalling, of course, to allow such benighted thinking of some individual(s) to abrogate First Amendment rights. I am upset, also, that everyone seems to have jumped all over Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove for having to make such a decision -- what could they do? The security of human beings was threatened in no uncertain terms, and we have seen so many instances recently that force us to consider these threats seriously, indeed. Should they have placed armed security guards throughout MTC? Hire bodyguards for each the staff? Put Terrence McNally in a witness protection-like program? Lynne and Barry are honest, dedicated theatre professionals whose commitment to theatre art is undeniable. I can't imagine this decision of theirs, which has now threatened their very productive relationships with the best playwrights now writing, was an easy one. But it has created a debate that must be joined by all of us.


From Michael Barret Jones, Bloomfield, NJ:
Frankly, it's a conundrum. Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove were put in an incomprehensibly difficult place with this situation. MTC's record shows that they are not afraid to present works with touchy subjects, and certainly Corpus Christi fits into their past programming. Terrence McNally will be remembered as one of the five or six best American playwrights of this century, and his work has never needed defense - it always speaks for itself. Without having read this piece (as no member of the general public has) I can't comment on its strengths and weaknesses, but coming from McNally, it would be on my "to see" list.
In regards to pulling the show, I don't see how they had any other options. As much as I believe in the First Amendment and Artistic Freedom of Expression, if MTC's staff was threatened with physical violence, if there were bomb threats or any other kind of insane behavior toward the company, they made the only possible decision. Is it right? I don't know. But the welfare of human beings is more important than a controversial play. I am furious and frustrated with organizations like the Catholic League who perpetuate closemindedness, bigotry and hatred, and feel that if they had not blown the situation out of proportion, that there would be no public mess.
A gay Jesus? Why not? A straight Jesus? Why not? A non-sexual Jesus? Oh, come on...the man had sex with SOMEONE! Why not talk about it? He was a human being, like we are human beings! This is the same issue that we fought here in NJ last year when a Black Jesus was part of a Passion Play. It is a basic failure to comprehend difference, and it's getting old.
I wholeheartedly support Mr. Fugard's withdrawal of his piece. As I said earlier, Meadows and Grove made the only possible decision. However, they have been forced into a position of censorship, and I believe that there should be some sort of public outcry - one tempered by the facts of the case.
I will miss not seeing Corpus Christi on MTC's stage next season. Will I boycott other productions there? No.


From Thomas M. Robson, Philadelphia, PA:
I think this just shows the ignorance of a lot of people. The Catholic Church for causing such a stir, and the Manhattan Theatre Club for bowing to their pressure. The purpose of art is to challenge, not to maintain the status quo. If there were no art that challenged the conventions, then society would not advance. I think that the Catholic Church, a body that has in the past protested other plays, Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All springs to mind, needs to stop being so sensitive and stop meddling in the arts.


From Joanna Spencer:
The whole situation is unfortunate, but often good comes from bad. Now that there's so much focused attention on censorship in the arts, maybe some real leeway will occur. I can understand MTC's fear which led to the cancellation, but why was there no fight before? Look at all the playwrights and other theater community members banding together now - why wasn't there a call to arms in retaliation? If people wanted to support the production and freedom of speech in general, I'm sure the strong NY theater community could have staged (literally) round the clock surveillance of the theater, could have persuaded swifter police action, could have slammed the press who leaked sensationalized headlines, and responded officially and responsibly to the Catholic Civil Rights organization and their letter writing campaign. Didn't MTC have any inkling that there might be some controversy and have a plan if things heated up? I can see how Athol Fugard made such a decision, but it would be really unfortunate if MTC suffers considering its important place in NY and US theater. Now tons of theater's are begging to produce "Corpus Christi" and MTC may have caused a permanent rift with NcNally. BIG consequences. I wish MTC would have acted differently, at least banded the arts community together in conscientious retaliation, before the drop.


From William P. Hines Scranton, PA (Wphines@aol.com):
Censorship on the Broadway stage is very dangerous. The MTC should be ashamed of themselves -- now losing all credibility as a new play presenter in the American theater scene.
Let the vision and words of the Terrence McNally shine elsewhere. The stage is a place of intellectual freedom -- just like the public library -- if you don't like the subject then go see something else. If you don't approve of McNally's play -- don't deny other theatergoers the opportunity to read the script.
MTC -- get a life!
The controversy brings attention to The Tony Awards and their purpose when censorship is being allowed in the theater. Something should be done.


From RPB:
This is the same Catholic League who vigorously campaigned against the airing of "Nothing Sacred," a television show so even-handed in its portrayal of Catholicism that on a provocative level it was practically a bore. A member of the organization was quoted here as never having read the play. If all the League is going on in their campaign are a couple of blurbs of hearsay in the New York Post, then they're basically a group of Chicken Littles mistaking falling acorns for meteor showers. How can they possibly be taken seriously?
Mr. Klopfenstein's comments are curious to me. I wonder, if the roles were switched and it came out that MTC had decided not to produce, in the words of William Donohue, "a reverential tribute to Christianity," whether Mr. Klopfenstein would be so laissez faire about "business."
And regarding "deeply held beliefs of billions of people worldwide [being] spit on" -- spit washes off. A deeply held belief, more often than not, is not likely to be shaken by a play, no matter how wonderful a writer Mr. McNally can be. Certainly the theatre, or any art for that matter, should not be robbed of its potential to challenge, to excite, to shed light to the left or right of center. But it lies ultimately with an audience to embrace or shun a piece. Sadly, thanks to a combination of unfortunate events, we won't have that chance at the Manhattan Theater Club.


From DavidG:
I was very saddened to hear of MTC's plans to cancel Corpus Christi. I understand their obligation to protect their employees and patrons, no piece of art or performance is worth a human life. No one, however, should be bullied or threatened by terrorists. While the canceling of this production is a loss for MTC and its patrons, it is more importantly another victory for the Religious Right.


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