There are few stories more deeply ingrained in the collective mind of Western culture than the story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It resonates powerfully with millions of devout Christians not just in Europe, the Americas, or Australia, but across the entire world. Even those unassociated with the religion are still affected by its omnipresence. It embodies a mythology vital to the human experience, explaining and lending meaning to the lives of those who choose to believe.
The tradition of art drawing inspiration from the Biblical account of Jesus's life is absolutely immense. Despite the extent of work devoted to the subject, artists continue to produce interpretations in diverse media to this day, altering views according to the time and culture. Different periods draw different relevance from his life, sometimes building upon previous understandings, sometimes contradicting them. Considering the recent importance of the topic in popular culture, religion, and government, it is not surprising that the newest interpretation might frame Jesus as a gay man.
It is also not surprising that such a view would garner virulent, almost violent criticism. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Terrence McNally completed a draft of his play Corpus Christi in 1997. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay youth in Corpus Christi and his thoughts on Jesus's message of love, he constructed a retelling of the story in which Jesus and his apostles were gay men preaching in the Texan city, beginning with the Messiah's birth and ending with his crucifixion.
The Manhattan Theater Club, a prestigious Broadway group, agreed to hold the first performance of the play. During rehearsals, the New York Post ran a story headlined, "Gay Jesus May Star on B'Way." Among other accusations, the article claimed that the Jesus figure had sex with his apostles. The article enraged conservative Christian organizations, which staged protests and put pressure on the Manhattan Theater Club's corporate sponsors. Subsequently, Trans World Airlines withdrew support from the theater. Especially involved in the campaign was the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Despite the protests, rehearsals continued, however when the Manhattan Theater Club received a phone call lambasting the "Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally" and threatening to "exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground," the theater decided that it could not continue with the production out of concern for the actors' and theater personnels' safety.
This cancellation drew a new force into the fray. Several organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship, the People for the American Way, and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression condemned the theater. Enraged with the action, several playwrights whose work the theater had planned to perform withdrew their plays, leaving the Manhattan Theater Group with an increasingly empty upcoming schedule. After speaking with the police and gaining assurances that the theater and its staff would be protected, the Manhattan Theater Group reinstated the play. Over two thousand people gathered to protest its opening night.
The play has encountered no smoother road as time has gone on. Upon its first showing in London, a Muslim group called the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa against Terrence McNally, urging all devout Muslims to murder him at any opportunity. Several Catholic organizations have maintained consistent campaigns against the play, directing hundreds of members to send handwritten postcards and e-mails to any venue performing it. The production has encountered numerous protestors from city to city. After nearly six years, the controversy has not relented.
This is unfortunate, because the play is not particularly well-written. I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Corpus Christi in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Just as in other venues across the country, protestors were out in force. Angry letters condemning and supporting the play flooded the city's newspapers. Representatives of various religious faiths weighed in, most prominently the Bishop of the Madison diocese congregation. Mayor David Cieslewicz publicly purchased tickets for opening night in support of the play. That a production could garner such harsh criticism even in a city as liberal as Madison testifies to the passions summoned up by the story of Jesus Christ.
The emotions evoked in the political arena dwarf those evoked on the stage. Before I continue with a review, I note for the reader's benefit that I am of Catholic heritage and education, but do not consider myself to be a Christian. I am also a gay man. But whether one aligns politically with the play or not, one can still evaluate its artistic merits. Corpus Christi, while interestingly conceived, is lacking in them.
The play begins with the actors gathered on stage in street clothes. They mingle, crack jokes, and burst into bouts of humming erratically. As the audience settles, these bits of music interweave into a single hymn. The musical interlude ends, and the character playing John the Baptist steps forward. He holds a bowl of water, and calls up each actor by his real name, blessing him, "recognizing [his] dignity as a human being," and giving him an apostle's name. Thereafter, each character addresses the audience, explaining his background and characteristics as he exchanges his street clothes for simple robes. Some of the occupations remain true to the text, such as Peter as fisherman, but other characters introduce themselves as public school teachers, hustlers, or even hairdressers. This inconsistency between a complete modernization of the text and merely a projection of an alternate perspective on historical events is a hint of things to come.
In what I consider to be the most memorable moment of the play, the two actors remaining glance at each other, bemused, and ask which of them comes next. The only names that remain unspoken are those of Jesus and Judas. John replies that they already know their roles. They cast each other one final look, entirely friendly, then the character playing Jesus steps forward. This interesting metadrama framing the play itself, in which each actor transforms into his character, works well to draw the audience gently into the play, reminding them that is an interpretation, a different way of telling the story, and not a theological or historical proposition.
Jesus, who is renamed Joshua because, as his father quips, "this is Texas, and Jesus sounds too Mexican," is characterized as a quiet, caring man alienated both by his sexual orientation and his sense of undefinable purpose. His primary task is to spread a Gospel of love that embraces the poor and the outcast, especially including gay men, and in a very human fashion it is difficult for him to accept this calling at first. There is little change to his character from the New Testament account save for his prominent homosexuality. McNally's Jesus is a compassionate man with a deep faith in the ability of humanity to rise above hatred and a trust in a God that he often questions, but never rejects.
Unfortunately, McNally thereafter exchanges subtlety for cumbersome bluntness. Characters are assigned 'modernized' roles in a haphazard, inconsistent fashion. The tempting devil becomes an illusion of James Dean. A leprous man who serves as God messenger to Jesus is also a truck driver, and a blind one at that. One apostle is a sauntering, flirting prostitute, another is a lawyer who sounds slightly too bitter about having abandoned his worldly goods. Judas is framed as Jesus's lover, extrapolating rather heavily on the Kiss of Betrayal. Some events pass verbatim as written in the gospels, others are inserted wholesale. A gay wedding in defiance of a Catholic priest's ravings, while extremely well received by the audience for obvious reasons, was ill conceived and came off sounding shrilly political. Random interludes, for example a parallel scene of a child receiving thwaps of a ruler to the knuckles by a comically stereotypical Sunday school nun as a scourged Jesus screams in agony, are awkward at best, distasteful at worst.
The play is also plagued by an abiding inconsistency in time. McNally cannot seem to decide whether he wants his events to take place in the first few decades of the first century, or the last few decades of the twentieth century. One minute, a thoroughly hip-to-it Jesus cures a man of HIV, the next he rids someone of a decidedly unmodern possession by evil spirits. People drive trucks and attend night-long discos, but Peter still defends Jesus at Gethsemane with a sword. Alcohol-swilling cowboys and Roman legionnaires mix uneasily. It is clear that McNally intentionally crossed 0 A.D. with 1960 A.D. (a character comments that he enjoys glancing at maps of the ancient Roman empire and seeing Corpus Christi, his home). The technique could have produced a refreshingly surreal tableau that might show us exactly how much things have changed, and how much they haven't. But there is no rhyme nor reason to McNally's jumbled anachronisms, preventing the audience from drawing any conclusions save confusion.
In interviews, McNally stated that he was inspired by his own rocky childhood in Texas, and wanted to include some of this personal experience in the play. Whether or not it indicates something of hubris that he would parallel himself with Jesus Christ is debatable, however the end result is still awkward. There seem to be two separate plays occurring at once, one based off of the life of homosexual men in the mid-50s to early-60s, another a fairly reverent retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. It would have taken greater skill in dialogue, characterization, and setting to have woven those threads into one cohesive picture. While McNally may possess this skill, he did not use it here.
I'm lead to wonder whether the hysteria of Christians concerning this play may have tremendously backfired, if their intention was to ensure as few individuals had an opportunity to see it as possible. It is not a bad play, but it is not a groundbreaking one either, and particularly not worth the amount of media play it has received. I commend McNally for his willingness to buck taboos, but question the results. Much could have been done to discuss Jesus's embrace of society's outsiders, his message of love, and his sympathy and identification with those who suffer ruthless violence, especially considering that the play was written in the context of Matthew Shepherd's brutal murder, an action ironically celebrated with malicious glee by some Christian groups. A comparison between the Biblical legalism of the Jewish high priests and that of Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups that could drive them to persecute with vicious zeal is apt. But such an explosive subject must be handled with exacting artistic insight and skill to deliver both meaning and controversy. It is unfortunate that Corpus Christi could only manage the latter.