Blasphemy on Stage?

'Corpus Christi': The play & the controversy

Last May, William Donohue, the ever-vigilant president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, raised quite a ruckus about the fact that Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s play-in-progress, featured a gay, Christ-like protagonist who has sex, off-stage, with his male disciples. Donohue, who has a gift for strained analogies that rivals McNally’s own, has called the play "hate speech," "bigotry," and of course "blasphemy." He has argued that a similar depiction of a black or Jewish religious figure would be roundly condemned. Only Catholics and their beliefs, Donohue insists, are held up to such ridicule. (I would refer Donohue to a Jerry Seinfeld turn as Elijah on Saturday Night Live as evidence that the Department of Ridicule is an equal-opportunity employer. But that’s another argument.)

Following that controversy and in response to anonymous threats of violence, New York’s Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) decided to withdraw the play from its fall season. That decision outraged the theater and civil-liberties communities, and the MTC immediately reversed itself. The play, or the scandal, or both, must go on!

So it was with some apprehension that I made my way up Seventh Avenue toward the MTC last month for the first preview performance of Corpus Christi. (The play officially opened, along with the renewal of Donohue’s public campaign against it, October 13.) My anxiety was not lessened by the phalanx of blue-wimpled nuns who suddenly materialized on the sidewalk behind me. Sure enough, they followed me and joined other protesters in front of the theater. Access to the theater, however, was not obstructed. Once inside, I had to pass through an airport-like metal detection system, but the rest of the evening proceeded without any noticeable interruptions. The threat the play posed to my spiritual well-being remains to be determined.

Sitting through the two-hour preview performance, I was at times irritated, amused, and intrigued, but mostly nervous and finally bored. If the very notion of a sexually active Jesus is blasphemous, then Corpus Christi is certainly blasphemy. Like Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), McNally takes Jesus’ sexuality as a potentially rich subject for imaginative exploration. The theological question is an old and abiding one: If Christ was "true man," how could he not have known sexual temptation? Theologians have various orthodox answers to this puzzle, all reminding us that Christ was "like us in all things but sin." In short, he didn’t inhale. Though he assumed human nature, he was the "perfect man," not a representative or fallible man.

Scorsese, whose film was also the object of protest and boycott, took a shot at dramatizing this metaphysical conundrum by giving us a resolutely heterosexual Jesus who, however fleshly his fantasy life, still won the battle against sexual desire. Resisting sexual temptation is never a serious consideration for McNally’s homosexual Jesus (Joshua is his name). "You can come only as close as my body. Everything else is hidden from you," Joshua tells his occasional lover, Judas. At the very least, McNally’s tin -- actually gnostic -- ear for the centrality of sexual continence and renunciation to any authentic appropriation of Jesus’ story makes Scorsese look like Saint Augustine.

Corpus Christi takes the gospel story and overlays and intertwines it with Joshua’s prosaic American upbringing. The play is set in Corpus Christi, Texas, in what feels like the 1950s. The manger is a seedy motel room, Joseph a foul-mouthed lout, Mary a blousy, cigarette-smoking and uncomprehending bit of white trash, the disciples a boisterous -- "Boy did we party!" -- band of bar-hopping gay men. You get the picture. The satirical skits dramatizing Joshua’s coming-of-age, with their stock impersonations of sadistic nuns and sexually conflicted priests, are trite and old hat. Joshua’s carnal awakening takes place in the men’s room on prom night at Pontius Pilate High. Ho, ho, ho. Indeed, our hero, an insecure and vulnerable gay teen-ager adrift in a violent, homophobic world, becomes the grateful partner of a sexually predatory Judas. He’s quite a kisser, that Judas, McNally is forever winking. I could go on.

Anyone made uncomfortable by explicit talk about sex, especially gay sex, or by the irreverent treatment of religious figures or things Catholic, will certainly be offended by McNally’s brazen marriage of gay self-realization and Christian redemption. "This is our way," says a disciple at the play’s conclusion. "If we have offended, so be it."

Donohue has described the play pungently as "hate speech dressed up in artistic robes." In synopsis it can read that way. But the playwright makes a point of assuring the audience that "no malice" is intended. Hate speech doesn’t ordinarily disavow its motives. Jesus, Corpus Christi tells us by way of warrant, "belongs to us, too," or words to that effect.

In truth, Corpus Christi is by turns cloying and crude, but not, I think, malicious. It’s both spiritually ambitious and psychologically inert, as is any drama driven by political argument instead of character. McNally is not trying to expose the heretofore suppressed gay life of Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, it would take an exceptionally literal-minded theatergoer to mistake the Joshua of Corpus Christi, Texas, for the Jesus of Palestine -- or for the Jesus of any realistic dramatic rendition of the Gospels. We are a long way from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew. Instead, McNally is playing around with a number of Christian tropes and themes in an attempt to appropriate the moral prestige of the gospel to vindicate the dignity of homosexual love. Thus Judas’s kiss of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane-certainly the most notorious same-sex kiss in Western culture-is thoroughly eroticized. Corpus Christi also draws our attention, again and again, to Jesus’ divine (in both senses of the word!) sonship and to the significance of his embodiment as a male. Indeed, in Corpus Christi, which features an all-male cast, women are utterly superfluous. Perhaps most suggestive of all for McNally’s subversive purposes is the mystery and power of the idea that Jesus offers us his body -- Corpus Christi -- as the means of salvation. Christian symbolism is steeped in sexual imagery, and McNally insists on reading every ambiguity literally. From the expletive "Jesus Christ" to the gospel’s exhortations to brotherly love, every double entendre is both potential gag and a potential imprimatur of gay love.

In conceding McNally’s sincerity -- let’s call it a pettish sincerity -- I don’t want to pretend to be more worldly wise than I am. Even after eight years in New York, the sight of two men kissing passionately still makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. As the philosophical expression goes, it looks like a category mistake to me. However, given the frank and unapologetic homosexual world in which the play is set, the fact that one of the men is a kind of Jesus figure did not add appreciably to my discomfort. Perhaps I would have been more offended if Corpus Christi were a better play -- if it had given us a more credible Jesus. But McNally’s sexual/political agenda doesn’t leave much room for three-dimensional characters. Moral didacticism struts and preens upon the boards. The hateful heterosexual world that crucifies Joshua is present here as little more than a collection of caricatures mouthing idiotic prejudices. Joshua is mocked and killed by self-loathing heteros because he is "King of the Queers." His claims to our sympathy rest entirely on his status as a victim. Abuse meekly endured, love wanly extended to all, exhaust Joshua’s spiritual vocabulary. Jesus’ sharp-edged righteousness or humbling purity never darken the stage. Anson Mount plays Joshua as a little lost lamb, as helpless before his adolescent tormentors or in the beefy arms of Judas as he is before his executioners. His one moment of adult anger is directed at a "priest" who anachronistically objects to same-sex marriage. Really, wouldn’t it have been more effective just to hand out a flier on equal rights?

Worse, the salvation Joshua offers is new-age fluff and tasteless therapeutic theologizing. "All men are divine -- that’s the secret," he instructs those with ears otherwise deadened by disco. "I’m just a guy like you. We’re each special, we’re each ordinary, we’re each divine." Not even the Romans would crucify someone for taking this drivel seriously.

Christians, historians tell us, have a penchant for demanding a Christ who reflects their own culture and aspirations. Recently, liberation theologians have given us a revolutionary Jesus, neocons dress him like a corporate executive, and a good many feminists seem eager to turn him into a gelding. McNally wants a gay Christ and seems to think that homosexual suffering and homosexual love can reveal another facet of the Truth that is Jesus. There is certainly a measure of truth in the latter proposition, but it is not a truth that will be found in Corpus Christi. Joshua is an utterly banal and sentimental figure, without a hint of Jesus’ fierce authority or enigmatic otherness. It’s not enough to say that "he belongs to us, too." For starters, the pronouns must be reversed. The self-satisfaction Joshua and his disciples exhibit is as theatrically sterile as it is religiously fraudulent. Jesus is a compelling figure to the extent he is a discomforting figure. He is, at the very least, a relentlessly two-sided character. The minute you are comfortable with him, he demands something else, something more, something impossible. One instant you are relieved to be able to give Caesar what he demands; the next you are told to relinquish all worldly possessions. You are told to honor your mother and father, then to abandon them. Adultery is forgiven, but then lust in the heart punished. Sins are pardoned, yet judgment is everywhere and uncompromising. Go figure. It is this prickliness, this demanding, almost imperious solicitude that makes Jesus such an inexhaustible presence. McNally’s Joshua is all used up in a mere matter of hours.

That said, I am not nearly as confident as Donohue and his allies that the tradition has always gotten sex right or that there will never be a way to reconcile the sense homosexuals have of their own identity and the demands of the church. McNally is no guide, but that hardly settles the question. Despite Corpus Christi’s trivialization of the gospel, I left the theater struck by how resilient the Incarnation story remains as drama. Even twisted almost beyond recognition, the uncanny nature of Jesus’ actions speak to us in Corpus Christi. My ordinary work and churchgoing seem intent on rendering the gospel reasonable. But the idea of crucifixion-of bloody sacrificial atonement-is much more difficult to get your mind around when presented plausibly on stage. There is a physicality to the theater that ups the ante, and Joshua’s crucifixion is one of the play’s more affecting moments. Corpus Christi’s uncompromising focus on Jesus’ maleness, the play’s insistence on eroticizing Joshua/Jesus’ body, somehow made the crucifixion and the suffering more real. So I came out of Corpus Christi thinking oddly orthodox thoughts, thanks to a patently blasphemous play.

Published in the 1998-10-23 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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