Culture Beat: Theater of blasphemy

Culture | The play depicting Jesus as a homosexual will go on-and yes, your tax dollars were involved

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

In Elizabethan times, playwrights were forbidden to mention God or Jesus onstage, lest they inadvertently violate the Commandment against taking God's name in vain. In this most creative age of English drama, dramatists such as Shakespeare had to use indirect terminology such as "Heaven" or "Providence" to explore their theological themes.

What would the Elizabethans think about a play depicting Jesus as a homosexual with the 12 disciples as his traveling harem?

The upcoming production, titled Corpus Christi-Latin for "the body of Christ"-is not some obscure bit of perversity from the pornography subculture or the lunatic fringe. Rather, it comes straight from the country's arts and culture establishment. Its author, Terrence McNally, has won three Tony Awards. The play, originally scheduled for October, is to be put on by the Manhattan Theater Club, one of New York's most important off-Broadway venues.

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And yes, there is an NEA connection. Although the National Endowment for the Arts is not funding this particular play, the Manhattan Theater Club received $125,000 in tax money to fund an education program in New York City high schools. Another $80,000 went for the "creation and preservation" of new plays for the season. Although Mr. McNally's play was reportedly not among those funded, money for one project frees up money for others.

The play had its first reading at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. This is a public, tax-supported school in the home state of Sen. Jesse Helms, scourge of the NEA. Mr. McNally led a workshop in which he had students act out his script as a work-in-progress. The School of the Arts was originally for high-school-aged children, though it has since become affiliated with the University of North Carolina system. (It is not clear at this point whether the students who had to act out the play were teenagers, college students, or adults.)

The play reportedly begins with a group of homosexual men drawing lots for the different roles. One plays "Joshua," the Hebrew version of "Jesus," and the others adopt the roles of the disciples, as well as the Virgin Mary in drag. They then enact the Passion Story, complete with King James Version English, but with a homosexual twist: "Art thou the king of the queers?" asks the play's Pontius Pilate. "Thou sayest," responds "Joshua."

The sex is not shown onstage, according to those who attended the play's initial readings, but the disciples talk about having sex with Joshua.

Once news of the production came out, even sophisticated New Yorkers questioned the judgment of putting on such a play, and as outraged Christians voiced their protests, the Manhattan Theater Club announced its cancellation.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was the first to organize public protests, condemning the play as anti-Christian bigotry and warning that if the play is shown, "We'll wage a war that no one will forget." The Manhattan Theater Club reported getting death threats and promises to burn their theater down.

Even some New York drama critics expressed their uneasiness over the play. One of the club's corporate sponsors, TWA, said it would pull its $25,000 subsidy if the play were performed.

In the face of the uproar, the Manhattan Theater Club cancelled the play, citing fears about security. It seemed that the free market had duly noted when a work of art had stepped over the line.

But then came an even greater uproar, only from the other side. The distinguished South African playwright Athol Fugard, who was also being featured in the club's fall season, withdrew his play in protest of the "censorship." Actors rose in righteous indignation, wrapping themselves in the flag of free speech and artistic freedom. "I don't know where we are as a country," said actress Patti Lupone on CNN. "It's not a country of ideas."

For a company to decide not to run a play is not censorship. A reader who chooses not to buy a particular book is not censoring that book. A publisher who rejects a manuscript is not committing censorship. Corpus Christi was not being outlawed by the government, which is what censorship means; rather, its cancellation was the free market at work. Nor was Mr. McNally's artistic freedom being interfered with. He was free to create his play, and he did. But the public and producers are also free not to buy a particular play. There are any number of reasons a work of art might not be purchased or produced. Questions of taste, worries about audience reaction, and fears about unprofitability are totally legitimate criteria and are used every day in the world of the arts and media.


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