HAVE I SEEN THE PLAY?” asked 67-year-old John Spann. “Well, no. But I don’t have to crawl into a sewer to know how noxious it smells.” It was Saturday, September 26, and Spann and one thousand other conservative Catholics had come to New York by bus from as far away as Kentucky to protest outside a preview performance of Corpus Christi, the audacious new play by ex-Texan Terrence McNally, a four-time Tony award winner who is perhaps the state’s best known playwright. Surrounded by police officers and barricaded a safe distance from the entrance to the Manhattan Theatre Club (where the play would officially open some three weeks later), the protesters sang religious songs, beat drums, and waved crucifixes, American flags, and hand-painted placards reading “Armageddon is here!” and “ Corpus Christi is satanic. Boycott it—now!”
What was all the fuss about? McNally—who is openly homosexual and has tackled gay issues in his plays before, most notably in his 1994 Broadway triumph Love! Valour! Compassion! —has written the story of Joshua, a gay Christ-like character from Texas who undergoes a spiritual journey. In a nod to Eastern religion, Corpus Christi embraces the notion that Joshua is the Son of God because “the divine spirit” is within all men (God speaks to him while sitting, Buddha-like, in the lotus position). Joshua attends Pontius Pilate High School in modern-day Corpus Christi. Mary is portrayed by a male actor and is caricatured as a twangy Texas lowbrow. There are sexual elements in the play that seem gratuitously profane, though McNally seems less interested in whether Christ had gay sex than in the “discovered divinity” within a man who happens to be homosexual. And there is a crucifixion scene that seems to be driven by political self-interest: Condemned for being “queer,” Joshua dies on the cross wearing smeared lipstick and a crown of thorns that looks like a red tiara.
When plans for the play were announced in May, the Manhattan Theatre Club received bomb threats (which were immediately disavowed by Catholic organizations), and initially Corpus Christi was canceled. But civil liberties groups raised a ruckus, and the production was reinstated, albeit with unprecedented security measures: Tickets are sold only by phone, a private security company monitors each performance, and audience members must pass through a metal detector before taking their seats. Chris Boneau, a spokesperson for the theater, watched the September protest from the steps of the theater. “Today’s demonstration is a reflection of First Amendment rights, both for the artists and the public,” he said. “Much of the judgment about McNally’s play has been made by people who have not actually seen it.” Whether or not the protesters continue to rally, chances are Corpus Christi will be a success—at least financially. Thanks in large part to the press generated by the controversy, every show has sold out.