New Yorkers may have noticed last month a tiny Off-Off revival of the once-controversial Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi, one that pretty much passed without comment. And what a nice sign of progress that was. Those of us around in '98 remember well the imbroglio and media circus that led Manhattan Theatre Club first to cancel the play's premiere (after threats of violence) and then reschedule it after gay activists and theatre artists forced them to come to their senses. Much of the controversy was stoked by deliberate misinformation about the play spread in the press by people who had not read it. Not many folks came out looking good after this--not even McNally,who behaved with bravery and dignity throughout the controversy only to see his play slammed by critics as lame, thanks to the unbelievably high expectations the mess created for shock value.
All the playwright wanted to do was something countless Christian writers have done through the centuries: make Jesus' story their own. In McNally's case, that meant finding Christ in the life of an outcast gay man in a small southern town. (He himself having grown up Catholic and gay in Corpus Christi, TX.) Now to some people Jesus means nothing more than Puritan sexual mores, fire and brimstone punishments for everyday trivial transgressions, and utter subservience to anything commanded in his name from on high. To others, though, the meaning of Christ is in the suffering of the afflicted, in the ministering to the poor and dejected, and in the hopes stirred in even the most hopeless of cases. More than one good Christian has maintained throughout the ages that if Christ were alive today--bodily at least--he would surely be with the most hated and frowned upon elements of society. Which is exactly where McNally puts him in this play.
This essential conflict between two different interpretations of Jesus is as old as Christianity itself. Is he human or divine? Is he a peacemaker or a moral crusader? Sure, certain organs of "authoritative" doctrine like the Vatican or "Dr." James Dobson have pronounced supposedly definitive answers to these questions, but that hasn't stopped people around the world who really do consider themselves Christians and take genuine solace in the teachings of Christ from coming up with their own answers--and loving Jesus none the less for them.
So why am I returning to this old, old fight? For me personally, the '98 "Corpus Christi" affair was a kind of awakening--both a theatrical and political awakening in realizing that theatre not only can still matter, but was also in dire need of advocacy against those who will use it as a political football at a moment's notice. Those who love the theatre and understand it need to be vigilant against those who mischaracterize and demonize it for their political ends--and among those I include not just hatemongering puritanical rabblerousers but the major media outlets that enable them and perpetuate their falsehoods.
Which brings me to the strange relation between the respectable mainstream media and one William Donohue and his Catholic League, the instigators of the original Corpus Christi affair, who, lo and behold, are at it again. Rather than letting the play continue its ride into dramatic obscurity and footnote-land, they've brought into the news once again everything the media does not get about the dramatist's calling.
Mr. Donohue is no stranger to those of us who follow culture-war/censorship fracases, though he certainly is a stranger to civil discourse. He is the ultimate media whore in the temple of culture-war journalism, the go-to-guy for an outrageous quote in any story. Invite him to a debate on morality in movies, for instance, and you get: "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular." Or, even better: "If you asked [some Hollywood actors] to sodomize their own mother in a movie, they would do so, and they would do it with a smile on their face."
(These and other quotables--oh so many of them--are readily available on Media Matters, who have an entire virtual file on the guy.)
What a delightful kook! you may say. And you'd be right. Except that his latest screed against Corpus Christi has been given surprisingly credibility by none other than the "Public Editor" of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt.
I don't want to bestow too much importance on Mr. Hoyt's columns. I know I don't make a habit of turning to its sporadic appearance on the Sunday op-ed page every other week or so. And neither apparently do many others since over a month went by before I heard anything of his entering the fray of L'Affaire Corpus. So thanks to Dan Kois on NY Mag's Vulture blog for pointing it out.
Before posting on this I swore I would try to control myself and keep it short and to the point, and let the links speak for themselves.
But sorry, dear reader. I have too much--nay, ten years' worth--to get off my chest. So please indulge me a full and proper fisking.
Back on October 22, the Times' Jason Zinoman (who I admit I know and think well of) reviewed said revival of the infamous play--which was playing a short run at the tiny Rattlestick Theatre in the West Village, brought in by a Los Angeles group 108 Productions. Zinoman's take was that this was still "one of Mr. McNally’s minor works" and no great shakes as drama, but that this more modest staging--performed without the swirl of controversy about it--brought out some affecting themes and, yes, "reverence" that was lost the first time around.
Hardly a "money" review. But at least it was reviewed at all, which is not a given with such small productions. And after probably getting some nice ticket sales out of it, 108 Productions soon packed up its kit and went back west having completed their mission of finally giving a kind of closure to this play in the city that gave it such a tortured (and hardly immaculate) birth.
No, not so fast, cries Saint William the Offended. On October 23, the very next day after the review ran, he fires off another of his incoherent Press Releases. After acknowledging, "Because the play is not at a prominent location this time, the league has ignored it" (good to know that showcase productions get ignored by interest groups as well as the media!), Donohue maintained that the "bigotry" of Zinoman's review forced him out of his lair and into--much as he hates it-- the media spotlight.
If only the New York Times thought of Catholics as if we were all gay, we’d have no problem with the newspaper. The vile play which they love—not for artistic purposes but for its assault on Catholicism—features the Jesus character, Joshua, saying to his apostles things like, ‘F---your mother, F--- your father, F--- God.’ The Jesus-character is dubbed ‘King of the Queers’ and the script is replete with sexual and scatological comments. At one point, a character named Philip asks the Jesus-figure to perform fellatio on him.
But last I checked the Gospels are not the privileged property of the Vatican alone. Arguably they are not even the province of just Christians--one could say Jesus belongs to all of us, at least as an integral character in Western culture. But whoa, that's too radical a step for now, so let's stick to professed Christians for the moment. My question is: who died and made Bill Donohue spokesman for all Chirstendom. (And don't Protestants and Greek & Russian Orthodox resent his claiming all sacrilegious outrage for his own sect?)
Now onto the gay-bashing. Aside from the syntax of Donohue's first sentence just making no sense to me, clearly his message is: Anything gay is offensive, and even if you, New York Times, are pro-gay, you're still offending me by not accommodating my hatred of gayness and my church's teaching of gayness as evil.
Then we get to the dramatic criticism. Nice to see him employ the old mainstay of anti-theatrical prejudice that everything said in the dialogue of a play , by any character, clearly represents what the author himself believes. This sounds funny, I know. But think of how often you hear that and how none of these outside observers seem to get the very idea of "character." Do we get the context of the "fuck them" lines? Of course not. Do we find out Jesus' answer to the offer of a blowjob is? Why bother! It's enough of a sin that HE is asked--even by a fictional character.
Cherry picking quotes is par for the course in political argument, of course. So I'm hardly surprised here. (Though I assure you the above Donohue classic about movie stars "sodomizing their mothers" is perfectly in context.) Which is why it's reprehensible that his defenders in more responsible quarters let him get away with that. More on that later.
Regarding the NYT review itself, notice the ease (and rhetorical laziness) with which Donohue equates any not-negative thing said about the play with some nefarious gay agenda. Despite Zinoman's clear accounting of the play's dramaturgical merits, the only reason anyone would like this play apparently is if they themselves are gay, or they love gay people. (Which I guess makes them gay.) He goes on:
Yesterday, Jason Zinoman of the New York Times applauded the play for its ‘reverent spin on the Jesus story.’ One wonders how debased a performance against Catholicism must become before this guy would call it irreverent. Moreover, one wonders what this guy would say if the play substituted Martin Luther King for Jesus. On October 19, Mark Blankenship [in an earlier NYT feature] said those who protested the play in 1998 offered ‘stark reminders of lingering homophobia.’ So when anti-Catholic homosexuals like McNally feature Jesus having oral sex with the boys, and Catholics object, it’s not McNally who is the bigot—it’s those protesting Catholics. One wonders what this guy would say if a Catholic made a play about Barney Frank showing him to be a morally destitute lout who ripped off the taxpayers. Would he blame objecting gays for Catholic bashing?There's one very simple disconnect here that underlies the whole stupid fight. And since no one else seems to be spelling it out, allow me: If you're a homophobe (or, I suppose, just a strict adherent of the Vatican party line regarding all matters sexual) then, yes, any suggestion of a Christ figure engaging in gay sex is "irreverent," and a slander against the savior. However, if you're not a homophobe (or you happen to be gay yourself, like McNally) maybe, just maybe the idea of a gay Jesus is not so offensive.
This is where Donohue's endless bonkers analogies fall apart--notwithstanding their made-for-tv rhetorical kick. His strawmen of anti-MLK or anti-Barney Frank (talk about pulling out of nowhere!) stories are just that, strawmen. And totally irrelevant to the case at hand. Just like back in '98 I remember so well his constant invocation of an imagined play "Shylock and Sambo" (''about gay Jewish slave masters who sodomize their obsequious black slaves") which he postulated as the exact moral equivalent of McNally's. I would understand the comparison if Terence McNally were not a mild-mannered gay Catholic but actually some anti-Papist homophobe Jew or Muslim who deliberately set out to write the worst slander he could spread about the Lord and Savior.
The author behind the imagined "Shylock and Sambo" thing is clearly a racist Nazi who wishes nothing other than to slander. But Corpus Christi is actually written by a man who is both Catholic and gay. I know that's inconceivable (and excommunicable) to you, Bill, but to those who truly want to understand the play, it's essential. Because once you know that the play surely does seem to intend to celebrate both the spirit of Jesus and true love, whether it be gay or straight. The only reason one wouldn't see that in the play is if one were just a homophobe who insists everything gay is sinful, if not evil.
Is not an essential qualification of hatespeech the actual presence of, you know, hate? In this case, though, hate appears nowhere on stage, but only in the audience. Or, to be more exact, only in Bill Donohue's mind.
And make no mistake, hatespeech is precisely what Donohue is accusing McNally of. (Hence the word, "bigotry" and the Shylock/Sambo references.) Which is why I stress the principle of authorial "intention" at all--often a problematic issue. Normally I'm open to not limiting a play's meaning simply to stated intentions of the author. But here those intentions are exactly what are on trial. And I hardly think Donohue & co. are suddenly going all French-deconstructionist-literary-theory us.
Ok, so Donohue's arguments are patently incorrect, misleading, and ridiculous. Still it's a free country he has a right to say them, post them on his site, fax them en masse to his heart's content. Surely no one--especially in this Age of Obama--would take this seriously?
Well, enter Clark Hoyt, "Public Editor" (i.e. ombudsman, watchdog, referee) of the New York Times. Hardly an accident: in his October 23 press release, Donohue pointedly called upon his membership to barrage Hoyt and supplied his email address. Sure enough, on November 9:
Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called “Corpus Christi” a “vile play” and charged that The Times liked it “not for artistic purposes but for its assault on Catholicism.” He urged his members to write to the public editor, and more than 150 did. “I am outraged that The Times would review such a disgusting and revolting play,” wrote Brian Tennyson of Lakewood Ranch, Fla. Others accused The Times of regularly ignoring the sensibilities of Catholics and even church-bashing, and said it would never treat other religions the way it treats Catholicism.Behold modern-day interest-group politics and media manipulation in action. What a spontaneous burst of protests! Surely there must be something significant going on! I would understand taking up the issue if, say, the Vatican or the NYC Archdiocese wrote the Times or issued a statement. But to my knowledge they didn't. So right away, Hoyt confers on Donohue a respectability and credibility it was news to me he ever had.
Hoyt of course distinguishes himself from the radical Donohue. Nor does he see the point in engaging the specific debate or content regarding the play. (I mean, do we expect him to be some literary critic, too? The man's only human!) Instead he uses his perch as the Times' in-house finger-wagger to fault Zinoman's review for essentially not giving some kind of equal time, or at least deference, to the Donohue position.
[Zinoman] seemed to find it a bit more appealing [than Ben Brantley's 1998 review], saying “there are moments of hard-won sentiment that will win over the biggest skeptic.”
Zinoman called the play “an earnest and reverent spin on the Jesus story, with some soft-spoken, gay-friendly politics thrown in.” Donohue was infuriated because he said no play that depicted Jesus as sexually active, whether with men or women, could be “reverent.” Zinoman defended his description. He said the play was “very faithful” to the plot of the New Testament. But he said it had a “point of view. It’s certainly pro-gay-marriage and it’s intolerant of prejudice against gay people.”
But homosexual acts and same-sex marriage are against the teachings of the Catholic Church, and it seems to me that failing to acknowledge that central tension is almost failing to tell readers what the play is about. In it, one of the disciples quotes Scripture as saying that it is “an abomination” for a man to lie with a man, and “they shall be put to death.” The Jesus character, named Joshua, calls it “a terrible passage” and quotes instead, “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good.”
Had the review acknowledged, even in passing, why the play could be disturbing or challenging to many Christians, even those who do not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church, I think it would have left Donohue no ground to stand on, and he told me he would not have complained.First, I invite you to read Zinoman's review in full and see if it at all resembles the review Hoyt characterizes. (I linked to it above. Here it is again.) Zinoman devotes, I kid you not, the entire first three paragraphs to the history and nature of the '98 controversy. This is the context he's framing the review in, no question. It would be impossible, as Hoyt suggests, for any reader to come away from this review not learning how controversial the play has been.
No, what Hoyt wants is something more, I'm afraid. He wants Zinoman to concede justification for offense. So instead of saying, the play turns out not to be so objectively offensive after all in these times, he's apparently supposed to say something like: Although offensive to many, the play has some dramatic merit (to heathens).
Pretty scary implications there for the practice of theatre criticism in difficult times. How many points of view must be acknowledged and deferred to in any given piece of criticism (which is opinion journalism, by the way) covering religious material? Need we make concessions in reviewing a production of, say, Inherit the Wind, to those fond of Creationist Museums and Sarah Palin?
While Hoyt does reference Donohue's "overheated" nature (and gets some mild quote from someone to that effect as an obligatory journalistic counterpoint) he does Bill one better in indulging in yet more reckless exegesis of the play. First he seems totally clueless about the Christian-humanist tradition (yes, there once was such a thing) the play really stems from and just classifies it as yet more hatespeech:
Peter Steinfels, the co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a religion columnist for The Times, said much of “the arts over the last century or so have been adversarial” to the church and traditional morality, creating a problem for secular media. “Corpus Christi” fits squarely in that tradition.Well, see above for why the play does not necessarily fit the tradition of hating morality and the church. (Gee, did he ever think of ringing up Terence McNally to see what is influences really were?)
Then comes the misleading characterization of the play's details:
Set in Corpus Christi, Tex., where McNally grew up, it turns the story of Jesus and his disciples into a parable about the persecution of gays. Along the way, it pushes what have to be hot buttons for many Christians. Jesus is born in a shabby motel room; loud, abusive heterosexual sex takes place in the room next door; Joseph is a boorish, profane carpenter; Mary isn’t much of a mother; Jesus discovers he is gay and has sex (not on stage) with the young men who become his disciples; he performs miracles, officiates at a gay wedding, is ultimately betrayed by Judas and is crucified.Stupid question, Clark, but: why is updating the manger to a "shabby motel room" automatically a "hot button"? Would a Trump Tower suite be more appropriate?
Kidding aside, this is a huge point. McNally's re-setting of the iconic scene deliberately emphasizes the poverty of Mary and Joseph, and Jesus' humble origins. Unless Hoyt is suggesting that it's ok to assume all children born in Motel 6's, with loud "heterosexual sex" through the walls will turn out evil (just imagine if the sex sounds were not hetero!), then this argument is absurd.
(Godard's similarly controversial 1985 film Hail Mary also came under fire for daring cast Joseph character as--sacre bleu!--a gas station attendant. Here again, a moving attempt to locate the emotional story of the gospels among the meager, sometimes ugly lives of modern day commoners was instantly denounced as sacrilege on its face.)
The vilification of the play's other details is also equally intellectually lazy. However "boorish" there's nothing new about the long tradition of depicting Joseph as a "common man." And as for the sex acts themselves (which I guess is all that anyone really cares about here) note the parenthetical "not on stage." As anyone in the theatre knows, the choice a playwright makes over what to show and what not can be quite significant. Donohue's original libel against the play--not based on any reading of the script and yet circulated widely throughout the media--was that it depicted "Jesus sodomizing his disciples." Sounds pretty "hot button," doesn't it? Well no such thing happens in the play. Is the assumption that because the character is gay that if he is making love with any of these men it must be buggering? (Since that's what those homos do.)
Maybe someone out there who really knows the script can set the record straight on just what sex acts McNally "confirms," but, again, the whole on stage/off stage distinction as crucial. Just as Rudy Guilliani convinced a nation (just one year after the original Corpus controversy) that a Chris Offili painting of a woman surrounded by found-object ornaments had "smeared the Virgin Mary in elephant dung," the description of the artistic event itself grossly (and deliberately) misrepresents the actual audience experience.
Think of it: wouldn't you have assumed from Donohue's descriptions of the play that it shows some guy dressed in full Jesus regalia bending over St Peter and rogering him in a downstage center spotlight? Yes, ok, that would be worthy of some qualification in my review. But guess what, Bill (and, now, Clark): that's not the play Terence McNally wrote.
What Hoyt's really up to here, though, is not defending Donohue's crazy theology, but just another distressing case of news media bending over backward not to appear liberal--or even secular. It not necessarily "liberal" (as in commie) to refuse to apologize for observing secular standards in an officially religion-neutral state. But Hoyt sees a lesson in "the bigger picture" here:
It is tempting for a secular and culturally liberal newsroom like The Times’s to dismiss such objections, especially because many appear to have come from people who neither saw the play nor read in full what The Times said about it. No self-respecting newspaper is going to avoid writing about a controversial work of art because it might offend some segment of the public. That would go against everything a newspaper stands for — examination of anything that happens in the public square — and Donohue told me he agreed that The Times should have covered the “Corpus Christi” revival. He just did not like what the newspaper said about it.So, first, Hoyt simply outs Zinoman (and, presumably, his editor) as "secular and culturally liberal" without citing any evidence. Then he gives credence to protests based on myth not fact. And finally he dismisses "first amendment" squabbles as less important as the right of professionally-offended media whores like William Donohue to be offended.
...[B]ut I wound up thinking that he had put his finger on an interesting issue: how a newspaper like The Times, which devotes great space and energy to covering the arts, should deal with the frequent collisions between art and religion. The argument, as it did with “Corpus Christi” 10 years ago, often gets framed as a First Amendment fight between those championing freedom of speech and those seeking to stifle speech they object to. But lost in all of that can be the deeper story of the spiritual and religious tensions that gave rise to the art in the first place and the sensibilities of religious readers who may be struggling with aspects of their own faith.
As disturbing as all that is, it's not nearly as disturbing to me as the overriding point so chillingly captured in the op-ed's title: "The Perilous Intersection of Art and Religion." Is not the subtle implication here just to kind of stay away from such "intersections" and "collisions"? Or at least, when forced to, walk very very gingerly?
I can see this as prudent career advise from your Editor-in-Chief or the paper's corporate board, who want to avoid the kinds of bullying letter/email campaigns Donohue is famous for. But this outlook conveniently sidesteps the question of truth.
Maybe, just maybe, the most productive and enlightening way to deal with such conflicts is allow both the open microphone of protest as well as some well-informed context from experts. In this case not just experts on religion (that is, theology, not just sloganeering)--but on theatre as well. And on gay life and literature, too. Rather than placate and mollify the professional culture warriors, how about seizing the teachable moment, Clark?
One more dramatic criticism point, I think, gets to the heart of the matter, which is McNally's rights as a writer in a pluralistic society.
As even Hoyt notes, McNally calls his central character not Jesus but "Joshua." I don't think this should be ignored as incidental. For what the playwright has deliberately and carefully done here is not to simply dramatize The Gospels (a la the Zeffereli "Jesus of Nazzareth" mini-series) but to construct an alternate, parallel universe for the gospels. Objectors may say "Jesus/Joshua same difference"--but I say, yes: difference! It's a simple choice, a small gesture, but it means something. Just like the stage setting is not some Sunday school rendering of Holy Land, Inc., but a recognizably contemporary, albeit unseemly, world of a small American town. That "shabby hotel" is not an insult but actually a gesture of worship, of intimacy with the gospels, bringing it home. But more importantly, it is a reimagining, as if McNally's is saying--if not screaming, so unsubtle is it--this is not the Holy Land in 4BC, ok? Put that aside and appreciate this as a different story.
It's notable how other controversial Jesus dramas make similar gestures of concession or suspension of belief (in all meanings of the word). Monty Python's glorious Life of Brian not only uses a different name for its protagonist, but begins with the birth of said Brian in the next manger down from Jesus' (where the wisemen visit by mistake, and eventually take back their gifts). Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ got into so much trouble because of a scene showing Jesus copulating with Mary Magdalene... in a dream sequence. (The vision of that dream is the "last temptation" as conceived of in Kazanzakis' book and faithfully depicted as such in the film. Needless to say, Jesus rejects the dream and finally accepts his own sacrifice.)
It's also worth pointing out the similar strategy employed by Salman Rushdie in Satanic Verses, where because of an extended fantasy sequence (by an overtly fantasist magical-realist novelist) Mohammed's wives seem to be envisioned, provisionally, as prostitutes. (A good summary is provided in the novel's Wikipedia page.)
I stress this point of what I'll call the disavowal of the "fictional gesture" (Known at the end of movie credits as the "all resemblances to living persons are incidental" line.) Some say it's a cop-out, but I say without the acceptance of that convention, without that little zone of freedom where nothing is out of bounds, we cannot really call ourselves a free society.
I do not raise the spectre of Rushdie and his fatwa casually. Not only have threats of violence marred the Corpus protests before, despite Hoyt's oddly dismissive description of it ("the Manhattan Theater Club said there were threats to burn down the theater, kill the staff and 'exterminate' McNally.") I don't think MTC, as careless as they are financially, would have shelled out for metal detectors otherwise.
But remember what Rushdie came up against was basically the question of who owns "Mohammed." The fanatics who condemned him represent the same forces behind the threats against newspapers reprinting the Mohammed cartoons a few years back. Such policing of the image and depiction of The Savior--whatever the religion--runs contrary to a free society. Period. Some still insist that Jesus only be defined by His sexual preferences or lack thereof. Others choose to pay tribute to other aspects of his legacy: compassion, caring, unconditional love. Why, Clark Hoyt, must we pay our respects to one over the other? No one owns the copyright on Jesus or Mohammed--not in a truly free society, at least.
And therefore, Mr. Hoyt, why must Jason Zinoman privilege and adhere to just one sect's version of a common property?
Conclusion: Why this matters
The theological and dramaturgical contentions of this controversy are a decade old already. The new issue raised now specifically regards theatre criticism and the rights of a critic as a writer.
Yes, Clark Hoyt may not wield much measurable power within the New York Times. But let's remember why he's even there, and why there is such a thing as a "Public Editor" there. The position was created, remember, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, at a time when the paper's journalistic ethics were severely questioned. The Public Editor, then, became a signal not only to the reader but the journalistic community that the Times would constantly subject their practices to review, and in public view. As it has evolved the column seems to be part "devil's advocate," part reader's advocate (a kind of "ombudsman," as other papers call such figures), and an all around in-house gadfly. But generally the mission of The Public Editor is to speak for the highest standards in journalistic standards and practices.
Which is why I--as a sometime critic myself--find it disturbing to find such an authority suggest that a critic is not an "opinion journalist" but must constantly be on the watch to mollify the objections of those who disagree on politically radioactive issues. Must even a theatre critic devote "equal time" to all sides of any controversial issue raised in the performance at hand?
Again, I think it's clear Zinoman provided quite sufficient background info (within the limits of a 500-word review, mind you) to determine why some devout Christians (not just Catholics) might take offense to the play. But how far is Zinoman supposed to go if he himself does not genuinely find offense? At what point can the critic's own sensibilities be free to express themselves? Why must he give voice to strident religious beliefs that are not his own? Hoyt goes to great lengths in his column to argue that you don't have to be homophobic to be offended by McNally's play. To which I respond: really? And if you answer: well, the Vatican's says homosexuality is wrong, so that's what Catholics have to believe, then I say: And that's not homophobic? What other term would you suggest?
Agreed: no journalist, even a columnist, should set out to directly offend groups of people based race or religion (or, shall we add, sexual preference?). But the question remains: what constitutes a legitimate offense? Must we apologize for any statement that sends the apoplectic William Donohue headfirst into a media frenzy?
Now that's a good question for The Public Editor.
PS. The Public Editor column did run some subsequent readers' letters on Hoyt's column on November 22. Some dissents, but generally I am not encouraged by the selected responses.