‘Corpus Christi’ redux
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a column on its coverage of the controversial Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. Public Editor Clark Hoyt writes:
When Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” was first produced in New York 10 years earlier, the Manhattan Theater Club said there were threats to burn down the theater, kill the staff and “exterminate” McNally. The play was canceled, but then reinstated after an outcry from other playwrights and the theater community. With protesters and counter-protesters in the street, the audience had to pass through metal detectors.
This time, there were no protesters and no metal detectors, but The Times’s coverage of “Corpus Christi” — a sympathetic review and an article linking the uproar a decade ago to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Colorado — hit a raw nerve with the group that organized the demonstrations against the play in 1998.
Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called “Corpus Christi” a “vile play” and charged that The Times liked it “not for artistic purposes but for its assault on Catholicism.” He urged his members to write to the public editor, and more than 150 did.
It is tempting for a secular and culturally liberal newsroom like The Times’s to dismiss such objections, especially because many appear to have come from people who neither saw the play nor read in full what The Times said about it. No self-respecting newspaper is going to avoid writing about a controversial work of art because it might offend some segment of the public. That would go against everything a newspaper stands for — examination of anything that happens in the public square — and Donohue told me he agreed that The Times should have covered the “Corpus Christi” revival. He just did not like what the newspaper said about it.
A number of Catholics I spoke to expressed outrage or embarrassment at Donohue’s methods. “He overreacts; he caricatures the things he objects to,” said Paul Baumann, editor of the independent Catholic magazine Commonweal, who himself gave “Corpus Christi” a negative review in 1998. “He raises the temperature in the room in a very unhelpful way.”