Time to Remember: Terrence McNally and CORPUS CHRISTI

While the live theatre scene is paused, here is the second in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of certain significant or memorable events. Sadly, in March we lost the writer Terrence McNally due to Covid-19. He was 81 and is survived by his husband Tom Kirdahy. McNally was the multi award-winning author of many hit shows including FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, THE RITZ, MASTER CLASS, LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, and the book writer for musicals including THE FULL MONTY, RAGTIME, THE RINK and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

Al Pereira 2020 – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Here’s an article from November 2008, in which ANTHONY FIELD looks back at the history of McNally’s controversial work CORPUS CHRISTI and the show’s first revival which had recently opened in New York at the time of writing. At the start, he references The Laramie Project and the person who inspired it, the 21 year old Matthew Shepard who was beaten to death for being gay.

The Laramie Project started some ten years ago. On the same night that Mathew Shepard died in October 1998, the brilliant American playwright, screenwriter and librettist Terrence McNally had the World Premiere of his new play CORPUS CHRISTI at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The show’s previews had been marred by protests and bomb threats. The coincidence of timing emphasised the lingering homophobia and the fact that only in the medium of theatre were these events brought to the attention of the public.

The play was initially cancelled because of death threats against the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club. When the play eventually opened the theatre was besieged by  2,000 protestors, furious at what they considered blasphemy. when it opened in London, a British Muslim group called The Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a Fatwa (death sentence) on McNally.

A tenth anniversary revival of CORPUS CHRISTI opened in New York last month. Presented in Greenwich Village, it has proved to be a fund-raising vehicle for the Matthew Shepard Foundation which still works to prevent anti-gay violence.

Terrence McNally, born in 1938, had his first play produced at the age of 25 and since then he has had many successes in stage and screen, many with important gay themes. LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART was a study of the irrational fears that many people harbour towards homosexuals.It is illustrated by two married couples spending the Fourth of July weekend in a summer house on Fire Island which belonged to a relative who had just died of AIDS. Both couples are afraid to swim in the pool in case they contract AIDS from it.

McNally won the 1993 Tony Award for the Best Book of a Musical when he collaborated with John Kander and Fred Ebb on KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. This dealt with the complex relationship of two men caged together in a Latin American prison.

All of these works illustrate one of McNally’s favourite plot devices – to put heterosexual characters into a gay environment to see how they feel as members of a minority.

CORPUS CHRISTI is a modern- dress presentation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the person of a young gay Texan named Joshua. Joshua slowly comes to understand his sexuality, forms a liaison with a Judas-character, attracts followers with his preaching of love and tolerance, re-enacts the various miracles recounted in Christian scriptures and ultimately is crucified. several of the disciples are gay and Joshua presides over a civil a partnership ceremony.

A decade ago the play became a cause célèbre. Productions of CORPUS CHRISTI continue to be flash points for controversy and many school drama teachers have put their careers on the line by championing productions of the play by students, against prudish school boards.

As usual, the media provoked an outcry against the play when reporting- inaccurately- that a “gay Jesus had on-stage sex with his apostles”. In fact, the play features gay, modern Texans gathering to celebrate the story of Jesus with no overt sexual scenes.

McNally received many anonymous threats when the news media campaign turned the play into a tabloid sensation.He said that when he sat down to write the play he “was trying to invite gay men and women back to the table of spirituality.” Indeed, when the play opened in Los Angeles it was performed in a church.

James Brandon, who had played the lead role of Joshua since 2006, has said that “without the fog of outrage the plays’ religious themes become clearer. it is really about recognising that all people are the same. Gay men and women are just as divine as everyone else.”

Article reprinted by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field.

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