If a play isn't worth dying for, maybe it isn't worth writing.
We can excuse McNally his fervor. He is, in many respects, an unlikely convert to the Salman Rushdie club. Is The Ritz, a farce about a garbage man on the lam who takes refuge in a steam bath, worth dying for? Is Next, a comedy about a middle-aged movie theater manager suddenly ordered to take an army physical, worth dying for? Is The Rink, a Liza Minnelli/Chita Rivera vehicle about a run-down roller rink, worth dying for? Liza and Chita are always to die for, darling, but one assumes McNally meant his cry of defiance rather more literally. Still, over the years he evidently thought all three worth writing.
By the time Corpus Christi actually opened, the defense had somehow managed to reverse itself: if a play isn't worth writing, surely it isn't worth dying for. In the spring, the Manhattan Theatre Club had announced a new McNally work about a "gay Jesus-like figure." The Catholic League and other religious groups protested, the theater received a couple of death threats, and a few nervous corporate sponsors decided it might be wise to withdraw. At which point, the MTC cancelled the production. Now they were faced with protests from far more powerful figures, ones who knew how to get op-ed pieces on artistic freedom into the respectable newspapers—actors, directors, playwrights, Larry Kramer, Athol Fugard, Tony Kushner... . So the MTC resurrected their "gay Jesus," not on the third day but a week later, after taking the precaution of installing metal detectors. Now comes the happy ending: the play was lousy. So thoughtful critics and editorialists could say to all those religious whackos: c'mon, guys, get a sense of proportion; if you fellows hadn't made such a big deal, no one would even have noticed this play; next time, skip the threats to burn down the theater and just leave it to word of mouth. The play's badness gave everyone the chance to be even-handed: as The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin put it, "I'd rather have seen a better play, but I also would not want to have been prevented from seeing this play."
Which begs a question: from the Catholic League's point of view, what would constitute a "better" play about a gay Jesus? As McNally worked on Corpus Christi over the summer, it was reported that he'd taken the public outcry on board and decided to cut out some of the offensive language and explicit sex scenes in order not to distract from his theological message. This missed the obvious point: it's the theological message that's offensive. McNally's Christ subscribes to the traditional injunction to "love one another," but, as the "King of the Queers" rather than King of the Jews, he expresses that love by sodomizing his apostles.
The novelty in this latest skirmish for "artistic freedom" is the battleground—not some remote field way out on the edge, but slap bang in the center of midtown. Terrence McNally is no Andres Serrano, the celebrated NEA-funded crucifix-urinater. Rather, he's what passes for a bank- able Broadway playwright these days—the Broadway playwright, the only one left. He's got a shelfful of Tonys and he's the only guy in town who can sit at his desk and know that just about anything he writes will be produced. To give you an idea of how un-Serranoesque he is, his other current production is the Ford Centre's splashy musical Ragtime. This is not your run-of-the-mill, "transgressive" artist trying to get a little attention but a canny mainstream boulevardier who fell in love with the theater when he was taken as a six-year old to see Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun. Corpus Christi is "gay Jesus" gone primetime: even the matching button-down shirts and khakis he and his disciples wear suggest nothing so much as the ultimate celebrity Gap ad. Indeed, I could swear I spotted Andrew Sullivan in the Last Supper scene.
McNally's last big hit at MTC was Love! Valour! Compassion! in which a group of theatrical gays queened around a big house in Dutchess County. Corpus Christi is the sort of thing they might have had a giggle about late in the evening: Jesus and his disciples, they were just like us, weren't they? A group of men who hung out together, no women in sight, stands to reason they must be gay. You don't seriously think they'd spend all that time together if they weren't having sex? McNally's play is not so much a work of imagination as a work of lack of imagination, of an inability to imagine a world where sex is not the center of everything—where sex is not, in fact, a religion. In that sense, Corpus Christi is also the logical reductio of a process that has been gathering steam in the American theater during the long march of the AIDS epidemic—the need to find a spiritual validation of homosexuality.
Directed by Joe Mantello (of Love! Valour! etc.), the production is eager to please. Once you pass through the metal detectors, as at the airport gate, you enter the auditorium, where, as at the airport gate, folks are milling around. Thirteen of the millers—all fetching young men, brimming with boyish charm—are the cast. One of them starts talking to us: "We are going to tell you an old and familiar story," he says. "The playwright asks your indulgence, as do we, the actors. There are no tricks up our sleeves, no malice in our hearts, We're glad you're here." Everything is so reasonable. As at the airport gate, we then sit around for two hours waiting for the thing to take off. But it never does.
The tone is set by the opening scene, which proceeds at a trance-like sleepwalking-through-Jello pace. John the Baptist, in a voice which presumably is meant to be solemn and reverential but instead just sounds flat and slow, introduces each cute disciple as follows: "I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I adore you... ." McNally's theology is built on a pun: God, in a brief cameo appearance, instructs Joshua (the renamed Jesus figure) that his message will be that "all men are divine"—in both senses of the word, for how can such a tousled-haired washboard-abbed pert-buttocked cutie not be "of, from, or like God; sacred." We are all entitled these days to "our God," as the President put it in his mea sorta culpa back in August. There is an advantage to custom-building "your" God: Mr. Clinton, for example, is not very specific about "his" God, but, if I had to bet on it, I'd say that the President has in mind a sort of divine lounge act, relaxing in a celestial hot tub, surrounded by angelic cocktail waitresses, the kind of God who understands the pressures a guy can be under. God made man in His image, but today man makes God in his. McNally's God is a God of narcissism. As Joshua reassures one "marginalized" disciple: "We're each special, we're each extraordinary, we're each divine."
One assumes from his title that McNally did not set out to write a trivial play. Corpus Christi is its own trinity, referring to the body of Christ—and thus its sexual needs and those it arouses in others; the holy day honoring the body of Christ in the Eucharist; and McNally's own home town, on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The play doesn't quite take place in modern Texas or in ancient Palestine, but instead proceeds with a foot in both camps—an awkward balancing act summed up by Pontius Pilate's question to Christ: "Art thou a queer, then?" I wondered for a moment why McNally hadn't updated the story entirely to our time, but then it occurred to me, as no doubt it did to him, that a prophet peddling a religion of sexual gratification in remote parts of Texas would evoke only those looneytoon cults one reads about from time to time, usually following a mass suicide: such a "religion" might even seem exploitative.
And, while it might have been more daring to confine his queer retelling to the original time and place, it would also have cramped McNally's style: he wouldn't have been able to have Joshua/Jesus attend Pontius Pilate High, where he's bad at football and instead is the kid they get to sing "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy" (from South Pacific) in the school play. Our Lord discovers his homosexuality when Judas comes on to him in the men's room during the school prom. (There's a sentence I never thought I'd get to type.)
"D'you know who's playing Joshua?" I asked my companion. "A handsome mount." "Undoubtedly," I said. "But what's his name?" But I had misheard. Joshua is played by Anson Mount, a clean-cut puppy-eyed Messiah leading his nice young men across a set whose raised floating wooden platform seems designed to underline the troupe's hermetic purity. There are no leather-clad nipple-ringed hunks, no shrieking queens. As a gay cohort, Joshua and his disciples exude a wholesomeness closer to, say, Rupert Brooke and the Neo-Pagans before the Great War. Of course, as their name suggests, the Neo-Pagans took a cooler view of themselves than McNally's photogenic gay apostles. As the play's supporters see it, the playwright's message is unobjectionable: no one should be persecuted for being different. But McNally is not asking for non-persecution—for "tolerance"—but inviting us to celebrate gayness: Joshua is divine because, as he puts it, he pioneered "the Hershey highway" (if you have to ask, you probably shouldn't).
At such moments, McNally seems to be arguing not the divinity but the banality of homosexuality. He seems unable to conceive of any impulses other than sexual ones. The jokes are the sort that seem smart only to undergraduate revues. Mary, with child: "I'm a virgin, Joe." Joseph: "Nobody knows that better than I do." Judas boasts about his equipment. One of the Magi brings the newborn babe a Flexible Flyer sled. Anyone with an idle half-hour could find their own glib, college-sketch parallels. What McNally fails to do, seesawing between Corpus Christi and Jerusalem, is make the gayness integral to the story: it feels awkwardly grafted on top.
The most arresting scene has Joshua confronting the spectre of AIDS: the apostle Philip, anHIV-positive prostitute, is healed by Joshua with an erotic, intimate embrace. McNally's "theology" is at its sloppiest here: for, if "the Hershey highway" is the stairway to heaven, how come it also leads to disease and death? In their efforts to endow AIDS with a spiritual dimension, every play from Angels in America to Rent to McNally's A Perfect Ganesh has shied away from this question: that the defining act of homosexuality, practiced on the extravagant scale that most homosexuals would seem to require, has led to devastation.
The aspect of McNally's play that's most touching is the serio-comic telling of a gay childhood in Middle America. We're told that gay teens, forced to repress their sexuality, are "often" driven to suicide. But their fatalities are infinitesimal compared to those of gay teens encouraged to celebrate their sexuality: in New York, San Francisco, and other major cities, the gay population has HIVinfection rates of 50 to 60 percent. I don't personally think sex is worth dying for, any more than a Terrence McNally play is. But clearly many gays feel differently, and a more courageous playwright might have taken his controversial concept all the way and pondered the notion of sex as an act not only of conversion but of martyrdom. It's telling that McNally shadows every big event in the original—the Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion— except the one that counts: the Resurrection. He simply leaves it out: the best bit of the story utterly defeats him. Jesus' terrible suffering on the cross is at the core of what he means to us. To assume blithely that an unhappy gay adolescence in Texas will suffice as an equivalent is the most absurd narcissistic complacency.
McNally does, however, push the hot buttons du jour. Thus, Joshua marries his disciples Bartholomew and James—to each other, that is. "You have broken every Commandment!" roars an outraged Rabbi. Really? Joshua hasn't lied, stolen, murdered, committed adultery, or built graven images. Commandment-wise, he seems only to have broken the one about not coveting thy neighbor's ass. Would a real Rabbi bandy articles of faith so carelessly? It seems incredible. Such a dialogue beggars belief, unlike the rest of the play, which buggers belief—not least in McNally's explanation of why Judas betrays his Lord: hell hath no fury like a gay ex-lover scorned. "Sold to the fag haters in the priests' robes!" cries Judas (Josh Lucas)—and the deed is done.
The curious thing is that, in striking contrast to Salman Rushdie's tormentors, "the fag haters in the priests' robes" would find most of McNally's play unobjectionable. Not just Bishop Spong but your average enlightened Episcopalian would share Joshua's belief that we're all special, we're all divine, and gays in committed relationships should be allowed to marry in church. Hundreds of American and Canadian Anglican ministers recently issued a joint pastoral letter proclaiming their "understanding" of gays and dissociating themselves from the less progressive pronouncements forced on the recent Lambeth Conference by their ferocious, fire-breathing African brethren. (Many Africans take the view of Zimbabwe's Dr. Robert Mugabe, who says that homosexuals are "lower than dogs" and homosexuality a filthy colonialist habit; the country's first post-colonial head of state, the Rev. Canaan Banana, was recently tried for homosexual rape.)
For Episcopalians, with dwindling market share, it may make sense to reposition themselves as a specialty service catering to a highly targeted demographic. But it's happening elsewhere, too. Earlier this year, during the worst ice storm of the century, the pastor at my Baptist Church, apropos of nothing in particular, told us in his sermon that we shouldn't be afraid of "other sexualities." I cast an eye over the congregation: the town's widow women, leathery north-country ladies in pick-up trucks; our forest fire warden and Police Chief, sturdy plaid-clad Yankees; a few dairy farmers, a turkey farmer, a grandmotherly Town Clerk... . Fear of other sexualities didn't seem an obvious priority, especially in an ice storm. But we listened politely. Even in northern New England, you're aware that The Village Voice may be on to something with its recent front-page boast: "It's a gay world. Straight people just live in it."
Yes, indeed. And straight people's "transgressive" views never get a look-in at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In November, in conservative Alaska, about 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment reserving the institution of marriage for couples composed of a man and a woman. But, in liberal Hawaii, another 70 percent voted much the same way—to approve a legislative ban on gay marriage. In Fort Collins, Wyoming, where the brutally beaten Matthew Shepard died in hospital and spurred a national crusade for "hate crimes" legislation, an ordinance to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation was rejected by voters. Even in Ogunquit, a picture-postcard Maine seaside village where many a gay tourist has passed a happy weekend antiquing, a gay rights ballot article was defeated.
About fifteen years ago, Britain's doughty anti-porn campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a successful prosecution under the ancient (and generally neglected) law of blasphemy against a gay newspaper which ran a poem imagining Christ's erotic fantasies as he hung on the cross. A similar prosecution shut down Harvard Brenton's The Romans in Britain in which a centurion's anal rape of a Druid is meant to symbolize British "occupation" of Northern Ireland. On the whole, I prefer America's First Amendment freedoms, but I find it somewhat inconsistent that the same people who champion McNally's right to put on his witless provocation of a play are the same people urging Congress to pass "anti-hate" legislation restricting the right of religious groups to express reservations about homosexuality. Compared to almost everyone else in our shrill hysterical society, "religious bigots" are surprisingly tolerant. Take, for example, the Easter edition of The Mirror, a weekly newspaper in Montréal. On page three is an advertisement for Resurrection, "the queer dance event of Easter weekend," featuring an oiled muscular hunk, nude except for several phallic symbols over his crotch, his glistening thighs flanked by two urinals. This "queer dance event" was a benefit for Montréal Queer Pride/Divers Cité 98, whose corporate sponsors proudly display their logos underneath the twinkling stud: Canadian Airlines, American Airlines, Glaxo Wellcome... . We must be properly sensitive towards persons of color, persons of orientation, and persons of gender, but we can be sneeringly contemptuous of persons of faith, appropriating their most sacred imagery for the crassest of purposes even on the holiest day in the Christian calendar. Even if it is a gay world and straights only live in it, it might be nice—just for the sake of variety—if the theater were to encourage a little "transgression" from the other point of view. Not so long ago, relatively straightforward biblical renderings were big hits on Broadway: whatever you think of, say, Marc Connelly's Green Pastures(1930), its presence on the Main Stem exemplified a theater that hadn't yet given up on Mr. and Mrs. America. Now, to play the Bible straight, you'd have to be a musical, like Jesus Christ Superstar orGodspell (Corpus Christi is a sort of tuneless Gayspell). Today, the gay cheerleading of America's theater and its churches is testament in both cases to an acknowledgement of retreat. But what's crippling the theater is its stultifying political and cultural homogeneity—the way its views on virtually any subject are a given, even before you pass through the metal detector: the theater is "anti-homophobic" literally, in its fearless love of the same. That's why the offstage rows are so much more dramatic than the onstage soppiness, both in the case of McNally's play and also Rent, where the community spirit that the show champions has been dealt a severe blow by the ongoing legal dispute between the late Jonathan Larson's estate and the dramaturge who claims she wrote significant portions of the work. There's more dramatic truth in the lawsuit than in the libretto.
On the opening night of Corpus Christi, as McNally and Joe Mantello struggled across two hours to nail their cardboard cutout to the cross, one theatergoer, an MTC subscriber since the Seventies, pledged her support. "I wouldn't have dreamed of not being here," Ellie King told The New York Times. "When I heard they might cancel the production, I was furious. This has nothing to do with religion. This is theater."
Almost right: this has nothing to do with religion. Or with theater.