Playbill Poll: The Corpus Christi Controversy -- Part 1

News   Playbill Poll: The Corpus Christi Controversy -- Part 1
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 Playbill thanks in advance all who take the time to write. Here are the results so far:

From Offenblock:
I wrote in earlier expressing my disappointment of the cancellation of Corpus Christi. I was fortunately able to participate in that very reading that stirred this furor. As an actor it scares me that this metropolis I consider to be the core of my opportunities as an artist is so quick to censor. I'm sad that I mistook theater to be a safe place of artistic expression and opinion. I hope to someday be able to show my support of the freedom of expression next to the likes of Fugard, McNally, Kushner and Mantello. I am also anxious for the day when other people and establishments will not have the control to make the decisions on what I do or do not want to see. I am proud that I was able to participate as an actor in this project. I feel lucky to be one of the few that was "ALLOWED" to experience this moving and beautifully written play. I hope that other open minded artists will be able to one day view this work and in turn make their OWN decisions about the piece.

From Chad Klopfenstein (
It seems that there are a lot of PC buzzwords being thrown around in reference to this controversy -- especially "censorship". There is no such thing as censorship in the private sector. A theater can choose to produce or not produce whatever they see fit. That is not censorship, that is business.
More importantly, I have been deeply disturbed by fact that many people seem to think that Jesus is literary character than can and should be treated as any other fictional entity. I quote from the Playbill On-Line article that pulls this line from the play itself: "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."
As a devout Christian and an actor, I must take exception. Jesus does not "belong" to anyone. In our age of Political Correctness, it is mystifying to me that such insensitivity is so widely accepted. Were a playwright to create a Martin Luther King Jr type character that was portrayed as standing for things which he in actuality stood against, there would be a justifiable outcry. The playwright would be chastised and no self-respecting theater would produce the play.
In this case, the deeply held beliefs of billions of people worldwide are being spit upon (if the reports of Jesus as an active homosexual are true). I respect Mr. McNally's right to create such a play. I respect MTC's right to not produce the play. And I respect my right to say that Jesus did not come to earth to "belong" to Terrence McNally. Any attempt to claim Him as a possession is misguided.

From John Sefakis:
I was shocked to hear that MTC dropped Terrence McNally's latest play from their fall schedule.
This is not the Inquisition or Nazi Germany, or Christ on Calvary or the age of book burnings. For MTC to succumb to the wishes of the Catholic League and other right-wing extremists and act as a co-conspirator and censor of this play is a disgrace. For the New York playgoer, this unwarranted decision reeks of censorship and turns the constitutional clock back to the 1950's. This is how we live in a free society? Those who disapprove of this play should just stay away.
Does this play accuse Christ of being gay? Nobody knows whether he was or wasn't, or what McNally was going to do with his concept. What we do know is that Christ was betrayed and nailed to the cross as a criminal -- which he wasn't. In McNally's play, I could assume that Christ symbolizes the same torture gay people are exposed to because of their sexual preference as opposed do the Catholic League's assumption that the play is anti-Catholic. We haven't read the play -- so who is right?
As I said, people have the option no to go see this play. But to refuse this Tony-award-winning playwright his right of free speech, in a safe environment where he has enjoyed many, many successes (and made a lot of money for MTC), is akin to primitive, McCarthy-like hysteria.
It is not fair to New Yorkers, theater-goers or anyone who values the Constitution to cancel production of this play. Most of us are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between theater and "reality,"and we also recognize the need for separation of church and state. To put Terrence McNally on the Cross, after he has done so much for MTC, is morally repugnant and has the potential to reduce MTC's income no matter if they decided to do the play or not -- so why couldn't they stand up for freedom of speech instead of cowering in the corner against a vocal minority of bigots?
It is not only appalling, but frankly shocking that MTC has chosen to cave in to these threats, particularly in the current atmosphere of moral and political repression in New York City, where we have a mayor closing 90% of adult businesses and asking the public to photograph other New Yorkers going into these establishments. We have Rupert Murdock's New York Post writing weekly homophobic editorials and his media arm, Fox's Channel 5, taking cameras illegally into public restrooms trying do prove a connection between public sex and children (which was not ever shown, no less proven, in the report). This is nothing less than a McCarthy-like right-wing New York City cabal of politicians, media and church groups attempting to control the arts through intimidation and fear. Maybe it is the beginning of a McCarthy-like Inquisition....
Whether it be McNally or an unknown, the fact that MTC chose to produce this play requires them to defend and protect the rights of the playwright and to fulfill their obligations not only to their audience, but to society. One cannot cave in to extremists when a moral and constitutional issue is at stake. The right -- and fight -- for freedom of speech is a moral obligation.
I sincerely hope they reverse this decision and defend Mr. McNally against these hatemongers and bigots.

From Skippercar:
First of all, I can't believe that a religious organization would bring death threats and other threats to an organization for a piece of "fiction". [Editor's note: There has been no charge that the Catholic League or its members made the alleged threats.] I am a very spiritual person. I also am an actor. I also believe in Christ. But everything I know about Christ, I have read! I wasn't there. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to "educate". If it offends you, don't come. However, please give me my right to form my own opinions. I feel that everyone should "live and let live". If you are offended, produce your own version. Have any of these people even seen the script?

From Leonwillsing:
Since the time that Christ was born he has been mocked, misinterpreted, caricatured, defiled, rejected, offended, blasphemed, reinterpreted, misquoted, mistreated, persecuted, betrayed and even crucified.
Over that same period of time he has been honored, adored, praised, uplifted, celebrated, loved and trusted by many who chose to put their faith in him.
I think that the Catholic League should re-examine their faith so that they can better represent alleged followers of Christ. Threats of murder and destruction are not consistent with the teachings of Christ so perhaps they should revisit the Holy Bible and get back on the right track.
One would think that a true Christian would be firm enough in their faith to know that a stage play , regardless of it's content, has absolutely no power over what's true and real. Playwrights can present subjects with fictional or non-fictional slants but it's up to us as individuals to seek out , establish and hold fast to the truths that will govern our lives.
I applaud Mr. Fugard's decision to withdraw his play and I am ashamed , as an artist, that MTC has lost site of their TRUTHS and allowed themselves to be swayed by the risk of retracted sponsorship and barbaric threats.
What a shame!
I know from reading the New Testament that Jesus had qualities that were very gentle, romantic, sensual and physical and that there are even instances where he encouraged disciples to greet one another with a kiss. I would love to see how Terrence McNally presents these qualities in his play. I don't think that he will be irresponsible or distasteful in his handling of the subject. I would expect it to cause controversy but such is the case with most great writers......even Jesus.

From Ralphine:
While I am not a subscriber to MTC, I do see almost every one of their shows, and I do subscribe to Roundabout, The New Group, The Drama Dept., and The Vineyard.
While I think the safety issues are serious (look at what happens to Abortion Clinics), I am saddened that so much pre-emptive action has taken place when the play isn't even ready to stage yet. People are acting on rumors and hearsay, but their actions are getting very real results.
I think it is censorship, and the fear of other playwrights is very justified...I am not sure I would want my work produced by such a group. Since the play itself is still a work in progress...I think any single word Mr. McNally writes from this point on will be informed by the controversy, as will any possible production. Fanatics like the Catholic League must be stopped...they cannot be given such power over things that they dislike...just like TV...they always have the option of not attending...they don't have the right to stop the work, or from stopping others from viewing it. But the threat of getting funding stopped is frightening...I know how hard that money is to come by. But this kind of spineless action on the part of MTC empowers these fanatics, and who knows where they will stop...maybe the drug packet Mimi and Roger use in Rent will be deemed unfit for viewing, or the nudity in Judas Kiss, or the pedophilic aspect of How I Learned to Drive...and what plays not yet written may not ever be written in this kind of atmosphere. I am sad, frightened, and angry...I hope the Vineyard does the play!
Thanks for the opportunity to sound off!!!!

From Srrurhino:
Sadly, this incident confirms the extent to which the United States has become a unofficial theocracy. One is obliged to respect MTC's concern for the safety of its performers, staff and audiences. Yet it is hard to be anything but outraged at the Catholic League's alternating rhetorical tone, promising a war no one will forget one minute, and condemning violence the next.
Conservatives in the '60s demanded that liberals purge their ranks of anarchists; perhaps liberals are now free to make the same demand of the religious right. Liberals have, in any event, largely appeased the demands of the Reagan revolution for the past two decades, and have been rewarded for their trouble with more demands. Maybe this controversy can serve as a rallying point for fighting back.
What is there to fight for? A more tolerant society, for one thing. Part of that can include a recognition by the anti-gay, anti-NEA forces that government, through the tax code, plays a major role in subsidizing the growth of religious organizations. Why then the objection to funding for the arts? Saying that a given art work is "offensive" is hardly the point; ALL of us who are part of this society support, directly or indirectly, something that "offends" us. Some of us, this author included, feel that it's a price worth paying to have a country that is truly free. Our freedom made us the envy of Communist countries (in which religious and artistic groups were persecuted). At some point, conservatives need to see that freedom is the freedom to choose, not the freedom to choose what conservatives want.
I would be proud to see this play, no matter what threats were made. Perhaps, if enough people made that statement publicly, another NFP theatre such as the Public would produce it. "Corpus Christi" at the Delacort Theatre in Central Park, anyone? Perhaps a series of evening performances there would convince the cowardly bomb-throwers to remain in the dark--or to come into the light, and renounce their evil.

I find it incredibly disheartening that a well respected arts organization in the cultural hub of America could fall prey to the religious right. I would expect this to happen in the sexist, racist, anti-semitic, homophobic South, but never in Manhattan. Guess NYC is still beholden to the Catholic church. I understand, though do not endorse, MTC's cowardly decision. It's far easier to discard Terrence McNally's new play than to risk controversy. However its decision has ignited a far greater controversy: censorship in the county's most culturally liberal city. I have no doubt that the threat to people and property is real, but if Sir Guiliani's police state is so adept as he is want to boast, could it not work with the theatre to thwart any terrorist activity? Perhaps the real reason for capitulating is $, which is the life blood of New York. Corporate sponsorships are a valued commodity in these days of escalating costs and open hostilities towards the N.E.A.
The real loser, of course, in all this is the theatre going public. We enjoy and support theatre, because when it is good, it is always pushing the boundaries. Corpus Christi promised to push them even more. Would it have made the general public uneasy? Probably, but so what. One doesn't choose (or at least shouldn't choose) art to hang in their home because it matches the sofa. Similarly, one shouldn't choose to go to a production just because they can identify with a character. Alas, MTC has taken away that choice from NY, and that is most disheartening of all.

From James R. Moreton:
Of course, it's censorship. Bravo, Fugard!

From MrTartuffe:
I literally had filled out the application, complete with credit card number, to subscribe to Manhattan Theater Club for next season, mostly to see the new McNally and Fugard plays. However, MTC's decision to cancel McNally's play also activated my own form censorship: I burned that application.
And I am sure I am not alone.

From MGKNelson:
I've been an MTC subscriber for a few years. I've seen all of McNally's work in the last decade. And I go to church every Sunday. I guess that makes me want to respond to this disaster.
MTC deserves the Fugard withdrawal. Don't they own a telephone with caller ID? Didn't they try to find out who the terrorists were? They caved very quickly, it seems to me.
And what's that strange reference from the terrorists threatening gays and Jews.... Jews? What's that anti-semitism about? If I were MTC, I'd really go after the Catholic League and put this martyr stuff on hold. As it stands, MTC has plenty to lose. Their season next year was already very lightweight.
I understand that in the peak Stalin intimidation days, book publishers were forced to send a copy of each new book for government approval -- after the entire run had been printed. That is, they were made to censor their own work or eat the full cost of the print run. MTC goes that one better. It seems to me that MTC doesn't realize that its subscribers would have stood by its decision to proceed with the McNally. They would have rallied to protect it. And the play would have had an eager audience of defenders, even those who didn't care for the play itself.
As it stands, MTC will have none of the above; it will also not have me. My wife and I aren't renewing our subscription.

From Leisah Swenson:
I have not read Mr. McNally's play so I do not feel prepared to comment on the content of his work. I do know that he is a very gifted writer, and I would be thrilled to work on such provocative texts as his. Writers like Mr. McNally are the reason I chose my profession. I am a working New York AEA Stage Manager and have been in the business for 6 years as such.
I have also been a Producer, a Production Manager, and a Theatre Administrator. I can see why MTC pulled the production....for safety, subscriber retention, and funding reasons. I can also see that it is unfortunate that they had to take such measures.
Having been in this business from an administrative point of view as well as the creative side puts me in an interesting position of being able to understand both sides....and try to come to a happy medium.
I wonder.....did the threatening individual from the Catholic League actually read Terrence McNally's play or were their clouded views of "Righteousness" standing in the way of their ability to understand and appreciate another human being's attempt at understanding the human condition?
No one has the answer to the existence of a Supreme Being(s).....and yet, we all seem to have an opinion. The Catholic League, if indeed they are responsible for such ridiculous behavior of threatening seekers of the truth, should be ashamed of themselves. I do believe that the bible says that we should "Love Thy Neighbor".

Was MTC right to cancel the production? I think as the producer, MTC has the right to cancel any production.
Did such cancellation constitute censorship? Yes, but that is the producer's prerogative.
Was Fugard right to withdraw his play? There is no "right" or "wrong"; withdrawing is also his prerogative.
What precautions, if any, should another theatre take in presenting Corpus Christi? Impossible to adequately respond ...
How do you feel about a play that depicts a gay Jesus-like character? As a McNally fan, I am always interested in seeing his work, however this play is likely to inflame the passions of non-theatregoers more than MTC subscribers.

From Peter Horton:
The cancellation of Terrence McNally's latest play is an affront to the theatre community. While I can understand security concerns in this day of violence against those who disagree with a particular individual viewpoint, I feel that the Catholic League is a boisterous, loud group which likes to protest things they have never seen claiming they are insulting to our faith. The Catholic League and its head, William Donaghue, are the insult to people of faith. They are more interested in gaining publicity for their own conservative agenda than the faith of our people. I wonder if the league would be protesting if this were a play about Mohammed or Philo, or about a minister of another denomination or belief. It's time the league and its anti-everything agenda were put out to pasture. I hope "Corpus Christ" will be staged at another theatre.

From Michael Sellers:
I think MTC's decision to pull "Corpus Christi" is appalling. But I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Catholic League of America, who instituted a smear campaign against this play before having seen it or read it first-hand. As a group that claims as it's first priority to "...protect the First Amendment rights of Catholics in the United States...," I am at a loss to understand how silencing a playwright can achieve such a goal? I am also at a loss as to understand how a Christian organization can promote a "battle," to use their words, to fight any other organization that tries to mount this production. Would Christ himself have supported such an action?
I am disappointed by MTC's decision and hope that they will reconsider in light of the mounting criticism. As we have learned in the past, it does society a disservice to blindly place our faith in a group or cause -- we need the voices of artists -- writers, actors, musicians, dancers, etc. -- to challenge our beliefs and help us all think for ourselves.
Perhaps the real issue here is the fact that a fictional character resembling Christ is being portrayed as homosexual and this crosses a self-imposed line of morality (according to the Catholic League). I think it's a topic that bears further thought, discussion and action, especially from those of us in the theater community who are, like myself, Catholic and vehemently oppose the stand that the Catholic League has taken on "our" behalf.

From Mark A. Tapia:
MTC has shown great cowardice in canceling McNally's play. It is the obligation of the playwright to create any situation with any characters in any behavior he or she chooses providing that such creation is exciting, intellectually involving, theatrical. Theatre is supposed to challenge our preconceived notions -- Mr. McNally has a history of doing exactly this. MTC has become an institution -- in the worst possible sense of the word.

From Scott Etheridge:
I am outraged at the cowardice shown by the Manhattan Theatre Club in canceling this production. I have asked MTC to cancel my subscription for next season and to refund the payment I have made.

From Kppm:
Rumor...hearsay...and the New York Post...
And I was thinking about subscribing this season.
Well Roundabout will get my money instead.

From Mark Beale:
One can't really condemn the Manhattan Theatre Club for wanting to avoid violence. The genuine villains of this piece are the religious groups who are threatening murder. [Editor's note: There has been no charge that the Catholic League or its members made the alleged threats.] Obviously their interpretation of religion and the Bible is even more extreme than Mr. McNally's (I've always believed the Bible said something about not killing people). Maybe a gay Jesus is better than a murderous group of "religious" people.
It's sad that any group is able to create virtual censorship simply by complaining loud enough (and behaving like idiots). I hope another theatre company will accept the play. This all reminds me of the difficulty Weill and Brecht had with (among other things) The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, in 1930. Riots in the theatre weren't uncommon in Germany in that era, but it didn't stop the show. They'd perform with the house lights up and police lining the walls if necessary. That's what I call a commitment to theatre!

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