The issues come thickly layered, and by no means easy to disentangle. Terrence McNally has written a play on the story of Jesus, at points in which the teacher and his disciples are a band of homosexual men in contemporary America. The title, Corpus Christi, is simultaneously the body of Jesus, the holiday that honors its presence in the Eucharist, and the Texas Gulf Coast town where McNally grew up: three in one and one in three. There is some frivolity in the telling—McNally’s hero, Joshua, attends “Pontius Pilate High”—but the overall intent is clearly serious, even pious, in ways that should give any good Catholic food for deep reflection, not a cue for the virulent threats and declarations of war that have dogged the play since a muddled version of its contents became public knowledge. One or two scenes may be blasphemous by strict Catholic standards, but no more so than most 20th-century novels, contemporary movies, or even modern paintings. McNally is by temperament a middle-class entertainer—I don’t mean that dismissively—and there’s little in his play that hasn’t been expressed by the flood of greater artists preceding him. The religion that has survived Renan, Genet, Kazantzakis, Rossellini, Fellini, Arrabal, Dalí, Max Ernst, and Oskar Panizza has no need to panic over Corpus Christi.
The panic, of course, comes from a topic most of McNally’s predecessors didn’t deal with: homosexuality. In other words, it’s a case of pure bigotry masquerading as pious outrage. Since Jesus’s commandment was “Love one another,” it’s unlikely that he would have objected to love between men. (Whether he himself would have engaged in any sexual activity is a separate issue.) The centurions mocked him as “king of the Jews,” a title he neither claimed nor disavowed; he would surely have responded with equal silence if jeered at, like McNally’s Joshua, as “king of the queers.” After all, if whatever you do to the least of these you do unto him, any victimized group has the right to claim Jesus as its own. That’s the simple truth, as well as the importance, of his teaching; the oddity, after 2000 years, is the inability of so many Christians to accept it. Preferring his divinity to his ideas, they might as well be worshiping Baal for all they know of the man from Nazareth.
McNally himself was raised Catholic, and the deep response that religion evokes in him gives Corpus Christi both its power and its problems. Brought up on the Gospels, McNally follows them unresistingly, peopling his play with disciples, centurions, and every familiar figure from Barabbas to Pilate’s wife. At the same time, he tries to impose on the old story several different modern plays. One is an attempt to create a new version of Christian ritual: The actors introduce the evening as “their” way of telling the story; the actor playing John “baptizes” them, under their real names, and assigns the roles they will play. Later, we see Joshua solemnize the marriage of the disciples James and Bartholomew; the moment is specifically presented as a revisionist ritual: On cue, a priest walks by to rebuke Joshua, and is duly rebuked himself.
But ritual isn’t a mode that attracts McNally. Much more in his line is the impulse to deflate it with comedy: Joshua’s childhood and adolescence, which take up much of the first half of the intermissionless two-hour evening, are seen in this vein. The virgin birth happens in a cheap motel; one of the magi misguidedly brings the newborn babe a Flexible Flyer sled. Instead of astounding the old men in the temple, the young, sexually confused Joshua memorizes Shakespeare sonnets and keeps a photo of James Dean hidden under his bed. In short, it’s a comic-realistic version of the familiar story about growing up gay in Middle America.
But Joshua also has auditory hallucinations: bouts of hammering (“Of course I hear hammering,” his mother tells him, “your father’s a carpenter”) and a disembodied voice that repeatedly says, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” McNally never conveys why Joshua might have been singled out, or how he grows into the extraordinary man we’re about to see preaching and making miracles.
Even more damagingly, McNally’s time-jump doesn’t carry any real sense of the past. The historical Jesus grew up in a land ruled by what most of its inhabitants viewed as a foreign military occupation. The official Judaism of the time was the equivalent of a collaborationist church; there were conflicts even among the collaborators (Pharisees versus Sadducees), plus any number of breakaway cults and monastic sects. One of the latter, the Essenes, preached a doctrine so similar to Jesus’s that controversy still rages over whether he had or had not been a member of the group.
Not only does McNally fail to provide an equivalent for this roiling background, he never seems to ponder how a modern prophet, hearing the call, might deal with his awareness that a man named Yehoshua had felt a similar impulse 2000 years ago, resulting in a religion that still to this day dominates much of the Western world’s thinking. Instead of reimagining that time, or confronting the dubious heritage it has left us, McNally shifts uneasily back and forth, toying with both but never wholly merging them. When Joshua, wandering in the desert, gets a lift in a truck driven by a blind leper, you think, “Doesn’t he know how this story ends?” Certainly everyone else who grew up in Corpus Christi in the 1950s must. (In a revealing slip, the leper refers to Anita Ekberg as “a Swedish actress, before your time.” Anita Ekberg and James Dean were stars of the same era. Just when was Joshua among us?)
Time’s significant because the most riveting scene in McNally’s play shows Joshua confronting the age of AIDS. Philip, the Greek apostle, is represented as an HIV-positive hustler, whom Joshua heals with an embrace. This sexually charged moment—undoubtedly the one likely to cause dogmatic Christians the deepest disquiet—takes its power from its immediate relevance. What human being wouldn’t wish for the arrival of a man who could cure epidemics with a hug and a command to believe? Yet AIDS isn’t over, and the drug mixtures that have lowered its fatality rate aren’t the product of a visiting faith healer, but of immense and costly scientific effort, not to mention a vast amount of political protest. The answers Jesus had for a desert society based on agriculture aren’t so easily transferred to a postindustrial urban world, a problem McNally fields with flip jokes (Matthew, an ex-lawyer, moans about giving up his corner office) or vague hints (Bartholomew, a doctor, talks about following up Joshua’s miracles with medications). The economic challenge Jesus raised—if we took his teachings literally, we’d all be socialists on communes—flickers through the text, an unanswered question.
So, finally, does the queerness for which Joshua is presumably crucified, an operation McNally follows with the detailed devotion of a true believer in what Bernard Shaw bitterly called “Crosstianity.” Joshua isn’t an activist of any kind; all we see him do is preach love and work miracles. By switching back into biblical times, McNally dodges any question of what his hero might have been tried and crucified for today. Expecting civil war in Judaea daily, the Romans had ample reason to crush any grassroots movement; crucifixion was a standard punishment, which Jesus shared with the rebel slave Spartacus and countless other victims of empire. Ultimately, McNally has no more to say about all this than, “Look what they did to him”—a line repeated three times by one of the disciples in the play’s oddly perfunctory closing moments.
Still, the man who said the only commandment was “Love one another” would have understood. However unsatisfactory as a work of art or an interpretation of Jesus, Corpus Christi is a brave act. McNally’s willingness to expose himself and his artistic home to danger, for the right to declare that no such danger should exist, does him honor. That he has evoked hysteria instead of serious discussion from his opponents is the proof that he was right. And a grimmer proof is being mourned this week in Wyoming: Matthew Shepard. Look what they did to him, and see McNally’s meaning, which has a truth far greater than his play.