Issue 70, Summer 1998

Reinstatement of the Terrence McNally play, Corpus Christi, by the Manhattan Theater Club, after its cancellation, lifted a cloud from New York’s cultural horizon but threats to creative expression persist elsewhere.

The McNally play, which is still being written, set off a series of protests after news reports that it was about a Christ-like figure who has sex, offstage, with his disciples. MTC received protests from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights which called the play “insulting to Christians” and vowed to “wage a war that no one will forget” against its production. William A. Donahue, president of the New York-based League, had sent letters to numerous public officials demanding “an immediate halt on public monies that support the Manhattan Theater Club.” The directors of the club, who said the decision to cancel the play was based on their concern for security, after anonymous threats of violence to the theater and its staff, were not prepared for the bitter outcry that ensued from playwrights, directors, club members, the media, and others. The decision was reversed and the play will be produced in the fall.

NCAC was among the free expression advocates who urged the Manhattan Theater Club not to cave in to terrorist-type tactics.. We were joined by the National Campaign for Free Expression, New Yorkers for Free Expression, PEN American Center, People for the American Way, Visual AIDS, playwrights Christopher Durang, William Hoffman, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner and author Judy Blume. The letter said, in part:

“Public funds that are made available for artistic productions cannot be withdrawn in an effort to suppress discussion of controversial issues; the First Amendment protects against that kind of government control over ideas… Mr. Donahue and others who object to the message of Corpus Christi have an easy choice–they don’t have to see it. If they have their way, however, the rest of us would have no choice.

“…If theater with controversial themes is suppressed in New York City, there is little hope for Esperanza in San Antonio and Out North in Anchorage… They could use your help in standing up for free expression, and the right to reimagine the world in a way that is friendlier to gay and lesbian people.”

The San Antonio City Council last September defunded the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a cultural arts group advocating for social justice, as an “in-your-face organization” for sponsoring a lesbian and gay film festival (Censorship News 67). In November, the Anchorage Assembly stripped the Out North Contemporary Art House of municipal funds for failing to produce only art that is “strictly mainstream…that you would take your whole family to.” If that’s the standard for all publicly funded theater and arts, most adults will just stay home.