Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 88 (December 1998): 9–10.
It can’t be easy to write a play that is at once boring and offensive. But that is what Terrence McNally has accomplished, so to speak, in Corpus Christi, his bathetic rendering of the life of Jesus (here Joshua) as the gay man of sorrows. The critics—including those who clearly wanted the play to succeed—have been withering, though many of them minimize its offensiveness. But even those for whom the concept of blasphemy is incomprehensible or empty agree that Corpus Christi is a very bad play.
It does have a more interesting history than most plays. After the Manhattan Theater Club scheduled it last spring, word of its contents leaked out, and religious organizations, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in particular, vigorously protested. The club at first backed down, but counterprotests from the outraged national "arts community" over the proposed cancellation prompted the play’s rescheduling.
The arts community, it turned out, rescued a turkey. The publicity surrounding the play has guaranteed full houses for its limited run, but don’t look for post–New York productions. The night I saw the show, the audience’s response could generously be termed tepid. They came eager; they went away underwhelmed.
The story of the play follows, in rough outline, the pattern of the original. Joshua/Jesus is born in a cheap motel in Corpus Christi, Texas, to a bewildered Joseph and a well–meaning but feckless Mary. (Mary’s wispy vulnerability raises faint echoes of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.) Joshua senses from the outset that he is different (he tries to like football and girls, but fails at both) and that he is fated to a tragic end (he has ominous visions, and the hammering of nails in a cross echoes intermittently offstage throughout the play).
After unhappy early experiences—lots of nasty encounters with priests and nuns, a sexually humiliating senior prom—Joshua leaves Corpus Christi. He gathers a group of gay disciples, and they gambol about the countryside performing miracles and doing good (interspersed with frequent bouts of boozing and sex). In the end Joshua returns to Corpus Christi, where he is betrayed by Judas (who first seduced him on prom night) to the "fag haters in priests’ robes" and crucified in the presence of all who tormented him in his youth. He dies as "King of the Queers."
I have noted that the play is boring. It runs a little under two hours without intermission, and every minute weighs. I found myself looking for signs of its ending. (Ah, the Last Supper. It can’t be too long now.) The problem is not in the production. The director, Joe Mantello, keeps things moving as well as he can and the ensemble cast is lively and competent. But there is only so much they can all do with a leaden script that veers between sentimentality and juvenile satire.
Part of McNally’s problem is that he is trying to tell two stories at once. On one level, Corpus Christi is a not unfamiliar version of the Jesus story geared to a liberal Catholic imagination. This Jesus is genuinely, if ambiguously, divine—as, to a lesser extent, are we all. John the Baptist anoints Joshua (and all the disciples): "I bless you and I baptize you and I recognize your divinity as a human being." Joshua/Jesus has miraculous powers, though they sometimes fail. He preaches a gospel of unqualified affirmation that has no need of repentance and in which love is the universal solvent. If we but learn to repeat the mantra "I love you" fervently enough, the play suggests, all will be well. Liberal Christianity has been peddling this watered–down version of the Jesus story for a very long time now, and if that is all McNally intended, he would stand accused not so much of blasphemy as lack of originality.
But that is not all McNally is up to. Alongside the benign liberal Jesus, he gives us an angry gay Jesus—and it is this latter Jesus that finally takes over the play. The affirming Joshua teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, but when a priest has the effrontery to criticize his blessing of a gay marriage, Joshua strikes him twice across the face.
And indeed, given the sanitized gay world of this play, who would not share his outrage? Joshua and the boys are (Judas aside) as fresh–faced and winsome a group as could be imagined. They may indulge a little too freely in alcohol and sex—and they do talk awfully dirty—but it’s all carried off with a kind of frat boy innocence. So perky and insouciant are they that one would not be surprised to hear any of them exclaim at any point, "Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!" Take away what the play views as the homophobic viciousness that lurks everywhere, and all would indeed be well in the world of Corpus Christi.
Except, oddly enough, for sex—about which McNally seems somewhat conflicted. At times, Corpus Christi approaches sex the way it approaches everything else between gay and straight: gay good, straight bad. Sexual couplings between heterosexuals are invariably ugly and often violent: as the numbingly repetitive vulgarity of the dialogue indicates, what these people do is simply described by a four–letter word. Gay sex, on the other hand, is often sweet and ennobling. But not always. It is Judas, after all, who introduces Joshua to sex. More than that, Joshua regularly warns his (many) sexual partners: "You can come no closer to me than my body. Everything important is hidden from you." Whatever these cryptic words are meant to convey, it would seem that even gay sex has its dark side.
Sex aside, however, there is little that is ambiguous in Corpus Christi. The author is not simply an angry gay; he is an angry lapsed–Catholic gay. If there is any anti–Catholic cliché the play avoids, this Protestant viewer missed it. McNally’s hatred for the Church is his business, but the damage it does to his work is ours as well. This is not a work of the imagination; it is a polemical—and yes, thoroughly blasphemous—rant.
A number of reviewers have worried that the play’s weaknesses will blind viewers to its important message of the need for toleration. But that is not McNally’s message at all, and if it were, it would be unnecessary. No one outside the fever swamps disputes the point that no decent person will have anything to do with gay–bashing. McNally’s point is rather that no decent person will express disapproval, on any grounds, of homosexual behavior. Any such disapproval is itself gay–bashing.
What’s wrong with Corpus Christi is not, finally, its excesses. What’s wrong is the vast, sad confusion—and the attempt at moral blackmail—that lies at its heart.