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...

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About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.