After years of preparation and postponements, the cancellation of Terrance McNally's Corpus Christi came swiftly May 21, when Manhattan Theatre Club suddenly dropped its plans to stage the controversial play this fall.
A joint statement from MTC and McNally said "Because of security problems that have arisen around the production of this play and related concerns, MTC is now unable to mount this production responsibly."
It was unclear whether the "security problems" cited included any threats against the playwright or theatre. A report in May 23 The New York Times cited a source saying MTC and McNally had received bomb threats. MTC did not return a phone call regarding the withdrawal of the play.
Corpus Christi had surfaced on the MTC roster before, but the play did not draw more than usual attention until a report in The New York Post quoted a source who claimed the work depicted a Jesus-like character (named Joshua) as gay and engaging in sex with his apostles. The item quickly inspired the protests of the Catholic League and other religious groups.
Throughout, McNally and MTC have remained mum on the subject of the drama, answering nearly all questions with "No comment." "I think that they're being prudent," said Peter Cane, an entertainment lawyer who represents The Beauty Queen of Leenane among other shows. "It's a very volatile situation. If you think back to [Martin Scorcese's film] The Last Temptation of Christ, there were pickets and disruptions. If they were worried about security problems, they were probably doing the right thing."
"I have to think there were not literally threats," said Rick Hinshaw, director of communications at The Catholic League, the most vocal of the play's opponents. "They'd have mentioned that specifically. Certainly nothing like that came from this organization."
Hinshaw said that, in light of the cancellation, the League would drop its campaign to cut off MTC's federal, state and city funding. Contacted May 20, a spokesperson at the NEA said the agency had not funded Corpus Christi, and would not change its policy toward MTC based on the reaction to a production enot back.
The Dramatists Guild, of which McNally is a vice-president, did not return a call asking for comment. Acting Director Christopher Wilson had not returned several phone calls by the end of the day May 22.
A Playbill On-Line reader present at an MTC-hosted reading of the play wrote to say, "I just want to drop a line about how disturbed I am by the cancelation of Corpus Christi at the MTC. It is one of Terrence's most beautifully writen plays and I find it a shame that those who wish to censor artistic expression will make it impossible for the theatrical community to see this work. I think the overall spirt of this work and my own personal feelings about the piece can be spoken for in this quote from the play:'Maybe other people have told His story better. Other actors. This is our way. If we have offended, so be it. He belongs to us as well as you.'"
The words "Corpus Christi" are Latin for "Body of Christ."
McNally and MTC have enjoyed a long and fruitful history. The theatre has produced such McNally works as Lips Together, Teeth Apart, A Perfect Ganesh, and Love! Valour! Compassion!, which subsequently transferred to Broadway, winning a Tony Award for best play. The dramatist is currently in the running for another Tony for his book to the musical Ragtime.
-- By Robert Simonson