One of the first famous victims of COVID-19 was the prolific playwright Terrence McNally, who died in Florida at the age of eighty-one. The obituary headline in the New York Times described him as the “Tony-Winning Playwright of Gay Life.” His most successful plays included The Ritz, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was made into a movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. According to the Times, McNally’s plays “traced the same arc that many gay men were experiencing in their lives over the same period, from the closet to rebellion, and from disaster to marriage and parenting…. His gay stories never came across as a narrowing of theater’s human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing.”
Curiously, the Times obituary failed to mention Corpus Christi, the one play McNally is probably best known for outside of the theatergoing public. That play’s depiction of a Jesus-like character and his disciples as a sexually active group of contemporary gay men created a furor in 1998. Much of the opposition to the play was instigated by the ever-watchful William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue called Corpus Christi “blasphemy” and an attack on the church. Petitions, demonstrations, and boycotts were organized; there were threats of violence against the theater, the actors, and the playwright. At the time, it was something of a big deal, at least in New York. Initially, the Manhattan Theater Club capitulated, withdrawing the play from its fall season. When the theater and artistic community rightly rallied to McNally’s defense, the play went back on the boards, debuting in October 1998. Because of ongoing threats of violence, theatergoers had the somewhat novel experience of passing through metal detectors before being seated.