Furor Over ‘Gay Jesus’ Part of a Cultural Chill

Now that the Manhattan Theater Club has rediscovered its nerve and reinstated Corpus Christi on its fall schedule, let’s pause for a moment and clarify some arguments.

For readers who have been on Mars for the past month, here’s a recap. Terrence McNally’s new play is said (by people who haven’t seen it, though various scripts and reports are circulating) to concern a modern-day gay Jesus-like figure who, offstage, has sex with his disciples. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post launched a crusade against this blasphemy, and various talk-radio shows contributed a series of gasps. William A. Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said the play was “sick beyond words.” The Manhattan Theater Club, which has been producing Mr. McNally’s plays for many years, canceled the play, saying that they had received bomb threats and could not guarantee audience safety. (One message that they recorded singled out “Jew, filthy homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you, we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground. This is a message from National Security Movement of America.… Death to the Jews worldwide.” Mr. McNally, in fact, is Catholic.

When legions of theater people protested, the South African playwright Athol Fugard withdrew his play The Captain’s Tiger from the theater’s lineup, and several theaters volunteered their venues for the orphaned play, the Manhattan Theater Club did what it should have done in the first place-consulted with the New York Police Department and announced that security would be in place and the show would go on.

It may be the fate of Mr. McNally’s play to be prefitted with ideological filters-condemned to be “the gay Jesus play” in the eyes and ears of those who admire it and those who don’t alike. But Mr. McNally is lucky, anyway-his play is going to be mounted over a combination of tabloid hysteria and Christian correctness. Many despised works and exhibitions in recent years have not had the same good fortune. As the steady hum of censoriousness has grown to a roar in recent years, magnifying the roar of the protest has been the roar of the cave-in. In 1995, the Smithsonian Institution, after vociferous attack, gutted a planned exhibit on the dropping of the atomic bombs, and went on to postpone even serious consideration of a show on the Vietnam War so that the earliest it could appear is the year 2002, if at all.

And Library of Congress officials dismantled a show about the architecture of slave quarters-a show called Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation , already installed and about to open-because a number of employees, mainly African-Americans, were offended by it. The library went on to remove four anti-lynching cartoons from 1935-1946 from a graphics exhibit. (They were “rather difficult images,” Jill Brett, the library’s public affairs officer, told me at the time.) The pattern is plain throughout our culture: Since symbols get some people upset, mute them. Instead of inciting debate, run for cover. In this climate, fear roars louder than speech.

Of course, in an anything-goes culture, censorious voices have trouble figuring out how just what to forbid and why. The Post editorialized on May 2 that “in today’s artistic climate … [a sexually active gay Jesus] isn’t the slightest bit brave or unusual. It is just guaranteed-and clearly intended-to outrage and offend believing Christians.” The Post thus took the position that Mr. McNally’s offense was simultaneously (a) usual and (b) unusual. With its privileged access into the hearts and minds of fiction writers, the Post evidently bored into the intentions of an artist whose work neither they nor anyone else they knew had seen-because it does not yet exist. In this way, the paper joined the Islamists who don’t have to read a page of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses before they rush to condemnation-they knew blasphemy before they saw it.

The uproar over Corpus Christi follows a logic of universal closed-mindedness that is appallingly general these days: If Position X has been ruled out of bounds by somebody, then so must Position Y be by somebody else. To preserve the single standard, cut everyone down to size. Thus did the Catholic League’s Mr. Donohue rhetorically challenge intellectuals to say whether they would “rush to defend a play entitled Shylock and Sambo ? Would they defend it knowing that the script calls for gay Jewish slave masters who sodomize their obsequious black slaves?” Oddly, Mr. Donohue’s provocation likens the presumably loving sex acts in Mr. McNally’s play to acts of rape. More dangerously, he seems to maintain that if one voice deserves being chilled, so do others. If the right eye offends somebody, pluck out the left one, too. One censor fits all.

In other words, the current atmosphere is chilly all around. As Peter Applebome pointed out in The New York Times on June 4, nonprofit theaters are being squeezed by queasy donors. Some theaters want to chill out cultural conservatives, some, cultural radicals. The general principle is the same: No Offense. All hail to the smiley-face theory of culture.

Churches are institutions. Like all other institutions, they maintain precious symbols-icons. Where there are icons, there will be iconoclasts-that is the human condition. One difference between theocracy and democracy is that the latter is duty-bound to protect iconoclasm-and to keep it in bounds so that people don’t get hurt along with their icons. Of course speech is often offensive-that is why it needs the government’s guarantee, regardless of whom it offends. That is one thing police are for. If you think a play bigoted, the principle of maximum speech permits you to mount your own play, or distribute leaflets denouncing the one you hate, or gather on the sidewalk to argue. If the Catholic League thinks there are too many plays about gays, they should put on their own productions about gay Antichrists-or anyone and anything else they like, or don’t like. In the interests of literature, theater producers, too, should abandon political means-tests.

There are no apostles of any faith who cannot learn from their blasphemers. In 1961, Luis Buñuel’s great Viridiana , which contained a tableau of Bacchic beggars in the positions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper , was banned in Spain, along with the rest of Buñuel’s films. In 1963, Italy banned it, too, and sentenced Buñuel, in absentia, to a year in prison. It is said that when Generalísimo Francisco Franco finally saw the film, he remarked: “I cannot understand the fuss.”

Let everyone take a leaf from the Generalísimo’s book. How free is a believer when he is afraid of his own shadow? How comfortable in his spirit when he must go to the mat against blasphemy?