Remembering Terrence McNally and His Controversial Depiction of Gay Men & Catholicism

Terrence McNally

The New York Times obituary of playwright Terrence McNally who died in late-March from COVID-19, recalled his many accomplishments, including multiple Tony awards and his ability to expand theater audiences’ horizons through his depictions of gay life. McNally was the creator of Corpus Christi, though, in a separate remembrance of the playwright  in Commonweal, Paul Baumann notes this controversial gay play was curiously absent from the Times’ recounting of McNally’s works.

In that play, McNally presents a “Jesus-like character and his disciples as a sexually active group of contemporary gay men,” in the playwright’s  hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Baumann thinks the Times was wrong to omit Corpus Christi from their obituary, just as he believes the play fell short of capturing the true essence of the gospel message. Baumann writes:

“There is nothing magically divinizing about sex, although this is what the secular culture seems to believe with a kind of fundamentalist’s certitude. Nor does sex necessarily widen or deepen one’s own humanity or regard for others. That is a fact on which the New Testament is entirely reliable. The playwright’s thoroughly eroticized idealization of his Christ figure—and, in fact, of human nature itself—is actually a narrowing of human possibility. It has little or nothing to do with Christian belief…Christianity has in fact placed the dignity and value of every human life, not sexual fulfillment, at the center of its and our concerns. If you wrestle honestly with the demands as well as the possible errors of traditional Christian sexual morality, you cannot ignore the place of sexual renunciation in the life and teachings of Jesus. Silence on that score is like failing to mention Corpus Christi in an otherwise duly laudatory tribute to Terrence McNally’s life and work.”

When Corpus Christi first hit the stage in 1998, it was met with outrage from religious groups, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which decried it as blasphemous. Wide scale boycotts and protests occurred, including threats of violence which caused  the temporary cancellation of the show. In his original Commonweal review of the show, Baumann describes the experience of entering the theater through a metal detector. He felt the play was not so much a scandal, but a letdown as a piece of theater. He remembers, “One can sympathize with his indignant depictions of macho culture, but not with the caricature of Catholic life.” In his remembrance of the playwright, Baumann writes:

“The satirical skits dramatizing Joshua’s [the Jesus character] coming of age, with their stock impersonations of sadistic nuns and sexually conflicted priests, are trite and old hat…Abuse meekly endured, love wanly extended to all, exhaust Joshua’s spiritual vocabulary.”

The Times describes McNally’s entire dramatic output as being able to illustrate “the same arc that many gay men were experiencing in their lives over the same period, from the closet to rebellion, and from disaster to marriage and parenting….His gay stories never came across as a narrowing of theater’s human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing.”

McNally’s words and stories were wide-reaching and set the tone for new understanding and representation in the theater. His death at 81 to COVID-19 is a great loss for his loved ones, including husband Tom Kirdahy, and his millions of fans, including Catholics and the LGBTQ community. In 2019, he received a Tony award for lifetime achievement, and the impact of his shows—Corpus Christi included—will surely live on for audiences everywhere. 

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, May 11, 2020

1 reply
  1. Joseph McCarty
    Joseph McCarty says:

    Your article on the passing Terrence McNally brings back memories of when my partner and I were attending Mass at a Chapel in the marshland near the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the ladies of the Chapel were passing out a flier after Mass, that was incensed about the production of “Corpus Christi” in Manhattan. The group that produced the flier was called “Tradition, Family, and Property”. We were taken aback that ladies in this remote corner of Louisiana who had no theater credentials whatsoever, would oppose the artistic freedom of playwright Terrence McNally. Jesus has been depicted in many cultural contexts, by artists of various stripes. If we had had a chance to see the play, we could critique what might be flaws, but it was creative of McNally to reinvent the Gospel story into a gay male context. It is not such a stretch as Jesus had an apostle who was called his “beloved” whom he chose to provide care for his Mother. We wrote a letter to the pastor of the Chapel protesting the lack of respect for artistic freedom by the Chapel ladies. He extended a hand of friendship, and invited us into a little circle with several older gay men.

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