Navigation – Plan du site
Censorship and the Stage

Censorship or the Limits of Representation in Terrence McNally’s Gay Theatre at the End of the 20th Century

La censure ou les limites de la représentation dans le théâtre gay de Terrence McNally à la fin du XXe siècle
Xavier Lemoine

Résumés

Cet article explore les controverses soulevées par deux pièces, Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991) et Corpus Christi (1998), du célèbre dramaturge américain Terrence McNally. L’examen détaillé de la façon dont ces deux pièces ont été attaquées par des politiciens et des groupes religieux conservateurs démontre que la censure est toujours au cœur de la démocratie américaine. On peut y voir là le résultat de la révolution conservatrice qui se manifeste par des débats féroces autour de la liberté d’expression. Dans ce contexte, l’homophobie s’est révélée un cas symbolique de cette liberté. La réception de ces pièces a aussi mis au jour les mécanismes internes de la censure en tant que discours productif qui risque d’engendrer la suppression de la distance artistique qui permet de faire entendre une voix dissidente et une critique nécessaire de la condition humaine.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Tony Awards for Best Play and Drama Desk Award Outstanding Play in 1995 for Love! Valour! (...)
  • 2 Terrence McNally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, New York: A Plume Book, 1992, 10. All parenthet (...)
  • 3 Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi, New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1999. All parenthetic re (...)
  • 4 See, for a history of the freedom of speech in the United States, Marcela Iacub, De la (...)
  • 5 Marjorie Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars, New York: The (...)

1Terrence McNally has been one of the most popular American playwrights since the mid 1960s. His work has been produced throughout the United States and abroad and he has received numerous awards for his plays and books for musicals.1 Yet his work has often triggered hostility and rejection — from his very first play produced on Broadway in 1965, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, to virulent, if temporary, censorship in the 1990s of his two plays Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991)2 and Corpus Christi (1998).3 If the nascent acceptance of gay themes on the mainstream stage and his dark satirical style can explain some of the opposition encountered by his first plays, the mainstreaming of gay themes in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States and McNally’s fame lead us to wonder why two of his later plays ran into censorship and violent attacks. With the extension of the protection of the freedom of speech as a basic tenet of American democracy, it might be surprising to see that censorship in the arts endured in the last decade of the twentieth century.4 Today, freedom of speech invalidates any form of censorship if the given speech, including any artistic production, is not considered “obscene”.5 The definition of obscenity is based on social and cultural values open to debate as times change. What must remain off-stage (ob-scene) is therefore the result of a constant negotiation between conflicting values and ideologies sometimes referred to as the culture wars.

2McNally’s censored plays illustrate a cultural conflict that can provide some insights into the mechanism of censorship in the arts at the end of the twentieth century. It is not only a legal concept but a vague and vast network of political, social and media discourses shaping public and private expression. In this sense, censorship is as much a productive discourse as a silencing one. The different types of censorship that plagued Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Corpus Christi revealed that there was a conflict in the nature of discourses produced in the public sphere. The censorship of both plays reflected not only the level of interaction between theater and society but also the existence of a competition between different types of public discourses. Indeed, the powerful discursive effects of censorship threatened to absorb the theatrical discourse and the play’s own integrity. Was this transformation only due to the rise of political and social conservative forces in the 1980s and 1990s? Was it only a religious crusade against the visibility of homosexuality? To what extent did the play become invisible and unintelligible, thus illustrating the way censorship could stand as an operative force in the subjects producing its discourse? Within this perspective, can the plays’ messages and styles be related to and revealing of the mechanisms of censorship?

3Of course, the attempt to answer these questions runs the risk of repeating the effects of censorship, but hopefully, by teasing out the discursive tensions and by confronting the process of censorship based on misreading they might divert some of its power and offer ways to reframe the whole situation.

Competing Discourses

  • 6 John Houchin, Censorship of the American Theater in the Twentieh Century, New York and Camb (...)
  • 7 M. Heins, op.cit., xiii-xiv.
  • 8 Later, in 2011, a university production of the play did lead to a law suit in India (...)

4An apparent difference can be established between the two forms of censorship imposed on McNally’s plays. On the one hand, Lips Together, Teeth Apart was censored in a conservative county, Cobb County, near Atlanta, Georgia, where the play was put on in May 1993 at a small but popular theater, the Theater in the Square, in the town of Marietta.6 Although there was no federal censorship, local censorship was institutional in so far as it was enforced by the county. The institutional dimension was confirmed as it echoed the national wave of censorship that culminated with the National Endowment for the Arts scandal in which four artists lost their funding following an evaluation of the contents of their work by the head of this federal agency, John Frohnmayer, in June 1990. The Supreme Court decision in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley et al., handed down in June 1998, reversed the 1993 ruling that had first confirmed the grants for the artists. The Supreme Court decision favored censorship “by ruling that the ‘decency and respect’ standard inserted by Congress into the National Endowment for the Arts’ decision making process does not violate the First Amendment”.7 This decision not only restricted freedom of speech but also noticeably placed the representation of sexuality and homosexuality in particular — since three of the four artists, namely Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck, dealt with homosexuality — on the side of the obscene. Gays and lesbians remained signs that were marked as trouble, blurring the line between what the government could and could not endorse. Corpus Christi, on the other hand, ran into a form of non-institutional censorship to the extent that the opposition only came from vocal conservative groups and was supported by private firms, but not from the courts.8 Yet both situations stemmed from the same root: the rise of the New Right in American society embodied by conservative president Ronald Reagan. In other words, the censorship of McNally’s plays could be framed by the culture wars where gay and lesbian issues, along with other issues like pornography, often became a kind of litmus test for where the American society stood in its ideological orientations. The cultural lens is all the more pertinent as the distinction between institutional and private censorship did not seem to be decisive here.

  • 9 Quoted in Brian Britt, “State of the Arts in Cobb County”, The Nation, February 14, (...)
  • 10 Ibidem.
  • 11 Mac Wellman, for instance, was also targeted for his play Sincerity Forever (1990), althoug (...)
  • 12 B. Britt, op.cit..
  • 13 Wysong stated that his action “was about redefining government’s role”, Peter Apple (...)

5The plays’ problems revealed the double nature of censorship identified by Michel Foucault and, later, Judith Butler, namely that censorship not only restricts, but also produces discourses. But what was the type of discourse produced? The attempt of conservative lobbies to stop McNally’s plays ultimately failed, as they were put on, yet they succeeded to the extent that they imposed a new discourse altering the status of his works. The mechanism of censorship, then, can be considered as a process that converts one type of discourse into another. Censorship becomes a power struggle over meaning and operational categories. In the case of Lips Together, Teeth Apart the leader of the censorship crusade, Gordon Wysong, was part of the democratic system as he was an elected official of the County Commission. Although he denied any links with the religious right, he also admitted he had discussed the resolutions against the play with a local pastor, Nelson Price. Price took partial credit for the resolutions, explaining his strategy in a Baptist publication, The Christian Index, which consisted of trying not to make it appear as “a religious issue”.9 More specifically, County Commissioner Wysong, who had neither seen nor read the play, used the protests surrounding it to pass a Commission resolution against the county funding of any arts groups supporting a “gay lifestyle”.10 Censorship became a way to advance a homophobic campaign typical of some right-wing fundamentalists at the time.11 The County Commissioner portrayed his crusade as a revolt against threats to the Republic based on recent national or local measures that he deemed pro gay, including Atlanta’s new domestic partnership legislation, which he called a “raid on the treasury and on the value system of the taxpayers”,12 because it provided benefits to same-sex partners. Secondly, Wysong hoped to thwart the plan to bring the 1998 Gay Games to Atlanta. Finally, he was probably targeting his national political opponent,13 President Bill Clinton, who had painfully managed a weak relaxation of restrictions on gays in the military through the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. McNally’s play, as an artistic discourse, was submerged beneath the weight of this attack based on a larger political strategy.

  • 14 “Terrence McNally”, in David Savran (ed.), The Playwrights’ Voice: American Dramati (...)

6Strangely enough, Wysong’s campaign seemed to respond to the play’s criticism of the American upper middle class. Indeed, Lips Together, Teeth Apart focuses on two straight couples, surrounded by unstaged gay characters, who question how human beings can connect and break their isolation. Wysong’s actions seem to play a part in the play as the voice of the censor is staged through Sam’s reaction to Sally’s report (indirect information) that there was a naked swimmer on the beach. Sam speaks lines that Wysong could have uttered: “You mean, he was naked? On a public beach? That’s outrageous”, concluding in his next line, “It’s against the law”(LT, 10). Sam’s exaggerated puritanical reaction is simply one-sided, allowing McNally to point to and debunk the character’s narrow-mindedness. Homophobia, along with other instances of bias such as racism and misogyny, is ridiculed and seen as a symptom of the limitations of those individuals who are walled-in by their own fears and prejudices. This message, however, seems to have found no support in Cobb County, as the play produced more homophobia and even institutionalized homophobia despite the playwright’s efforts to make his point through a scenography that inverts the social reality of gay characters being surrounded by straight ones. On this section of Fire Island, the straight characters feel observed, judged and even dominated, as the deck of their house is lower and the gays occupy the higher ground. This spatial composition exposes an oppressive model, whereby heterosexuality is the norm against which homosexuality is measured, which might be considered as the root of homophobia. Furthermore, it places the audience in the same role as the silent gay neighbors who are being addressed by the straight couples, thus inviting cross-identifications (or at least a communal feeling as McNally puts it “We’re all in this thing called life together”).14 The will to toy with the convention of the fourth wall is fully revealed at the end of the play in the stage direction via the well-known lighting trick that plunges audience and actors in the same light (“Audience and actors are in the same bright light”, LT 101). The audience can be “gayified” by the play or at least imagined as homosexual by the characters (who after all assume their neighbors’ sexuality based on Fire Island’s reputation) and share a reflection on the mechanisms of homophobia. Indeed, the characters illustrate various types of typical reactions against gays and lesbians that amount to homophobia or heterosexism. Sam’s heterosexual panic is triggered by the assumed homosexual gaze of his neighbors:

Sam: Shit!
John: What’s the matter?
Sam: That guy in the red bikini is looking down here.
John: Ignore him.
Sam: I’m trying to. He waved at me.
John: So wave back.
Sam: You wave back. Imagine if they thought we were queer. (LT, 13)

7John’s cold indifference and Sam’s overreaction both point to the fear of being misread as homosexuals as if being looked and waved at by a gay man might turn them into homosexuals. This fear and rejection of homosexuality is recurrent throughout the play and symbolized by the pool no one wants to use for fear of being contaminated by HIV, which conveys the vision of homosexuality as a disease in the eyes of the homophobes. Sally, whose brother David bequeathed her his house after he died of AIDS, puts it plainly towards the end of the play:

Sally: None of us are ever going to go into that pool, so can we just stop talking about it?
Chloe: (from within) Did somebody say something?
Sally: We all think it’s infected. We all think it’s polluted. We all think we’ll get AIDS and die if we go in. (LT, 80)

  • 15 County Commission minutes quoted in B. Britt, op. cit., 196.
  • 16 “The money will go instead to law enforcement”, P. Applebome, op cit..

8Wysong’s condemnation of a gay gaze on his straight community equates with the situation depicted in the play but this theatricalization of the mechanism of homophobia was ultimately invalidated through the censorship mechanism. Indeed, the ordinance Wysong passed had wide implications beyond the play as the county cut the funding of art programs including the productions of Cobb’s Children Theater. The gay play, featuring no gay character on stage, was used as an excuse to impose an ideological vision where art with “strong community, family-oriented standards”15 could be supported. The hidden religious interest then not only exceeded the artistic discourse contained by the play but exceeded its homophobic agenda by weakening the practice of the arts in that community. This was coherent with the political project to curb government spending on culture and reinvest it in law and order.16 Censorship was implemented through the financial system that sustains cultural practices, thus re-categorizing the artistic discourse into an economic one, or, rather, negating the differences between the two kinds of discourses. Censorship worked as the tool of the dominant cultural value to erase multiple readings of reality and turn them into a single reality by imposing a singular language, the language of economics.

  • 17 In an overview article about censorship James Sterngold reports the significance of (...)
  • 18 The right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, published an article on May 1st, 1998, “ (...)
  • 19 Don Shewey, “Jesus in Khakis”, The Advocate, November 24, 1998. <http://www.donshewey.com/theater_reviews/corpus_christi.htm >, accessed </http> (...)

9Economic pressure17 was also at the heart of the situation with Corpus Christi even though no political institution was directly involved. Terrence McNally’s new play was to be premiered in May 1998 at the prestigious off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC). But in spring 1998 the content of the play, featuring a Christ-like hero as a gay man, was leaked to Roman Catholic rights groups that responded loudly and angrily.18Journalist Don Shewey described the homophobic element to the protest: “[…] audience members have to step around gay-haters on the sidewalk holding signs saying things like ‘Terrence McNally Sodomizes Jesus — And Your Mother Is Next.’”19

  • 20 Cathay Che, “Offending Catholics”, The Advocate, July 7, 1998, 49.
  • 21 The Catholic League was founded in 1973 to oppose discrimination against Catholics in the U (...)
  • 22 William A. Donohue, “‘Corpus Christi’ Is Gay Hate Speech”, The Catalyst, November 1 (...)
  • 23 “Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi Under Attack in Indiana”, 7/24/2001, National Coalition (...)
  • 24 See the list of the 49 religious organizations that signed a letter against the pla (...)
  • 25 Todd Gitlin, “The New Censorship: Controversy in a ‘Smiley Face’ Culture”, Los Angeles Time (...)

10On the basis of hearsay, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, claiming to be the largest Roman Catholic group (a 350,000-member organization) in New York, vowed to “wage a war that no one w[ould] forget”20 against the play they deemed “insulting to Christians”. The aggressive style of the head of the Catholic anti-defamation group, William A. Donohue,21 reduced the play to “a piece of filth” and “hate speech”.22 He sent letters to many public officials demanding “an immediate halt on public monies that support the MTC”.23 The Catholic League also built a coalition with other religious groups (Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim) to intensify pressure on backers.24 A group calling itself the “National Security Movement of America” made telephone threats against “Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally” and went on “Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground”.25 As a consequence, the Manhattan Theatre Club canceled the production on May 21, invoking security problems, while Trans World Airlines (TWA), one of the corporate sponsors of the MTC, withdrew its financial support.

  • 26 Dawn B. Sova, Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas, New York: Checkmark (...)
  • 27 Ralph Blumenthal, “Canceled Play May Be Staged”, New York Times, May 28, 1998. (...)

11In response to the clear attempt at censorship, systematic opposition arose and led to the victory in the case of Corpus Christi and defeat in the case of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. A number of organizations including the National Coalition Against Censorship, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, New Yorkers for Free Expression, PEN American Center, People for the American Way, and Visual AIDS criticized the Manhattan Theatre Club’s decision to cancel the play. Famous playwrights including Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, Wendy Wasserstein and Arthur Miller26 promised to boycott the playhouse for what they saw as its moral cowardice and “capitulation to right-wing extremists and religious zealots”.27 So, on May 28, artistic director Lynne Meadow revised her earlier decision by rescheduling Corpus Christi. She received reasonable assurances from the New York City Police Department that security would be enforced. This resulted in the audience passing through police barricades and metal detectors as they entered the theater. Guards were directed to inspect the floor under each seat before every performance because of the bomb threats. Despite the protesters outside the theater, the world premiere of the play took place on September 22, 1998.

  • 28 B. Britt, op. cit., 198.

12In Cobb County, many people mobilized against the censorship, from Miss Cobb County, a 19-year-old ballerina, to political and business figures. Former resident of Cobb County, Paul Newman, as well as a vice president of AT&T gave money to support the opposition to the financial cut endangering the existence of all publicly-funded cultural events. The resolutions attracted national coverage (Washington Post, New York Times, CNN) as local gay groups organized a number of protests and a boycott of local businesses. The threat of relocation by a major corporation, Home Depot, made Cobb people nervous as well. In the end, however, the cuts in the arts’ budget were extended to social funding such as abortion for county employees, services for battered women and children. For Walter Reeves, from Neighbors Network, these restrictions had immediate negative impacts as he found that hate crimes (antigay harassment and violence) went up, while religious right and neo-nazi groups spread hatred.28 This could exemplify the larger political aim of Wysong and the way censorship works to suppress not only one speech but the freedom of speech at large.

Censorship and the Unspeakable: Representing the Impossible

  • 29 It is hard not to think about the recent similar events in France where several plays (...)
  • 30 See Jacques Rancière, Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris: La Fabrique, 2008 about the no (...)

13Beyond the specificities of each case, censorship exerted a form of violence that wrested from the plays their potential subversive power. The media coverage encouraging the proliferation of sources of discourses, from small and large businesses to pressure groups had the radical effect of erasing the plays as works of art and turning them into political objects used to deploy political discourses and wage culture war. Censorship simultaneously made the plays extremely visible and managed to silence them. Indeed, their discourse as art and their nature as artistic objects had become impossible to maintain, which also points to the fact that theater must continuously renegotiate its position within the culture where it operates. Censorship can be understood as a specific cultural embodiment of this negotiation and as one of the discourses that theater can produce. The actualization of this potential of theater, however, comes at the price of silencing any other meaning, at least during the period of debates about censorship. In this sense, censorship produces other discourses whose effects cover up and cancel out the potential subversiveness of art and thereby silence it. Censorship, then, entails an ontological transformation of art, whereby the interest of a play resides in the “metal detectors” rather than in the play itself.29 The theatrical space as a place where imagination prevails and social rules are left behind at the door is destroyed. This is not to say that there is no political potential to theater, but rather that censorship denies political dissent from an artistic platform by discarding the very possibility of such a platform.30 Censorship renegotiates the ontological articulation of the stage and the street and signifies the porosity of such limits but also their necessity as a condition of representation. In the end, it signals that something impossible to represent socially is about to be represented artistically and it tries to stop this creation of distance.

  • 31 Michael Feingold, “Texas Nativity”, Village Voice, October 14-20, 1998.

14The panic triggered by McNally’s plays was systematically linked to the fact that it dealt with homosexuality, or more accurately, that it staged the conditions of possibility for the representation of homosexuality by taking it to places where it was supposed to be suppressed. Morality and religion, as a result, would be a mere excuse for homophobia. For theater critic Michael Feingold, the censorship of Corpus Christi was “[…] a case of pure bigotry masquerading as pious outrage”.31 If McNally’s censors rejected his vision, it was not only out of fear or hatred of homosexuality, but it was also to resist an impossible verbal and visual language which cannot or must not exist within their conception of the world. The playwright’s work, however, explores rather than ignores those questions of representation that point to the limits that define the subject in American society. This is apparent in the theatrical devices deployed by the plays.

  • 32 See, for instance, Lee Edelman, “The Plague of Discourse: Politics, Literary Theory and (...)
  • 33 Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York & London: Routled (...)

15In Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the swimming pool where the brother of one of the characters died is a theatrical trick illustrating the mechanism of censorship. Indeed, the pool placed at the center of the stage (in some productions) seemed to occupy the main acting area and, by doing so, emptied it out, giving a shape to the visible absence sometimes used to define the actor’s function — to the extent that the actor stands in for someone who is not on stage. This gaping void threatens a normative structure by preventing the main actions from taking place center stage. This could symbolize the absence of a center to a plot that otherwise seems to roughly follow realistic conventions. This attack on the canonical structure involves staging a dangerous zone where AIDS is felt to be thriving and menacing the two straight couples hovering around it. AIDS is not only lethal to the body but it is also a threat to the very meaning of science and a potential destructive force of our understanding of the world —mirroring the status of gays and lesbians from the point of view of the censors but also the conflation of AIDS with homosexuality. AIDS is a threat that embodies the fear of contamination, as it stands for the potential breakdown of the body, of knowledge, in other words for breaking down the subject.32 This is precisely the kind of threat that will start a panic and lead to the necessity to mobilize censorship to ensure that a sense of coherence is maintained at all costs, both on a social and a personal level. This reaction is so radical because it is at the heart of what holds a belief system together — hence the cohesion of society and the subject. As Judith Butler reminds us, censorship can be understood as the Lacanian “bar” by which the subject is both able to speak but limited in his or her ability to speak.33 The scenography, mainly through the property of the pool, throws the linear narrative of the subject into disarray or, at the very least, radically rearranges it.

  • 34 See, for example, Alan Nielsen, The Great Victorian Sacrilege: Preachers, Politics (...)

16Similarly, the reworking of a canonical narrative is at the center of Corpus Christi. The play is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ in the 1950s and 1960s in the town of Corpus Christi, Texas, through the experience of Joshua, who must survive homophobia and become a messiah spreading the message of love to his disciples and to the rest of the world. By bringing a gay discourse into the Christian narrative, the play questions the normative meaning supported by most Christians. It not only questions the rejection of homosexuality, but also raises the question of interpretation within the religious world and the mechanism of power that establishes the meaning of the Word. The travesty of the gospel treating the sacred story in a lowbrow style clashes violently with literal readers and followers of the scriptures. The transposition of Jesus’s life into the daily rituals of an American High School or the celebration of a gay marriage between Bartholomew and James (CC, 48-49) can easily be considered as sacrilegious. In fact, the transposition of the sacred scriptures on stage has always been a touchy affair under tight control of churches.34 In modern America, however, what is most striking is that the censorship imposed by a few religious groups, but probably shared by a larger number of people, reflecting the culture wars, highlights the very censorship they use in the construction of their own religious subjectivity. The association of male homosexuality with a disease like AIDS or with religion (Christianity) underscores that homosexuality, or rather its various representations, has been constructed as a sign threatening the boundaries of the healthy religious subject. However, in the cultural contexts of the late twentieth century the danger does not seem to apply equally to all subjects in the United States. The mechanism of subject formation is not, in the case of the representation of homosexuality, enforced by a national institution but by a marginal group of Christian fundamentalists. Even though they tend to represent the larger Christian Right and the social conservatives, the threat posed by plays altering the coherence of their subjectivity does not seem to apply to all subject formation. It does not mean that this invalidates the idea that censorship is a general mechanism in subject formation, but that it applies differently according to various subjects. Hence, censorship is not a totalizing process as it does not create the same boundaries in each subject. This explains that Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Corpus Christi could be performed in different areas of the United States and encounter contradictory reactions.

17In addition to considering the visceral rejection of the play by some groups and the support of a number of artistic companies, it is worth looking at the reviews and to see whether their authors were affected by censorship. The fact that the plays were not really examined by their most radical opponents, as I have argued above, supports the idea that censorship had turned the plays into something unreadable and invisible for the censors. Yet, was it the same for those who took into consideration the performances or the scripts?

  • 35 “All in all it proved to be a great victory for the Catholic League”, “Rally Agains (...)
  • 36 Ben Brantley, “‘Corpus Christi’: Nice Young Man and Disciples Ask for Tolerance”, N (...)
  • 37 McNally’s play was considered by Brantley as closer to the 1971 musical Godspell (the life (...)
  • 38 Richard Zoglin, “Theater: Corpus Christi”, Time, Monday, November 2, 1999. <http: //www.time.com./time/magazine/article/0,9171,989478,00.html>, </http> (...)

18The reviews of Corpus Christi were very mixed to very bad — a fact that William Donohue immediately reported with enthusiasm.35 “The excitement stops right after the metal detector”,36 wrote critic Ben Brantley in the New York Times. He went on, “the play that brought an outraged chorus of protest even before it went into rehearsal is about as threatening, and stimulating, as a glass of chocolate milk”. According to Brantley the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian was much more impious and the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was a more “daring reconceptualization”.37 Clearly, this reaction from one of the main theater critics in New York shows that the analysis of the play was still under the spell of censorship. Indeed, Corpus Christi was considered from the perspective of the play’s shock value. The critics did not respond so much to the staging or the meaning of the play as to the expectations raised by censors. Village Voice’s Michael Feingold played along the same line when he wrote: “the overall intent is clearly serious,” and besides “one or two blasphemous scenes by strict Catholic standard (but no more than what you can find in other works of the twentieth century) it is almost a pious play.” Time theater critic Richard Zoglin highlighted this bias when he wrote: “The producers of this off-Broadway cause celebre, about a gay Jesus in Texas, were ready for religious protests. What they didn’t expect was a crucifixion by the critics […]”.38 By implicitly aligning “religious protest[ers]” and “critics” he points to their potential links in the process of censorship.

  • 39 D. Shewey, art. cit.
  • 40 Chris Jones, “Insights abound in ‘Corpus Christi’”, Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2001. (...)

19A redeeming value, however, was found by a number of critics but one which seemed again to be an echo of the reasons that triggered hostility towards the play: the theme of homosexuality. Don Shewey thought that the dramatic text left “a lot to be desired” but that the staging was at the “hot center of gay American culture”.39 Along the same line, Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, in his review of the premiere of the play in Chicago in 2001, wrote: “[it] is a theatrically limited but undeniably earnest and heartfelt play that pleads for the acceptance of gay sexuality within the Christian mainstream”.40 This could reflect McNally’s own position as a gay man who was raised a Catholic and said to have a deep response to religion. And, indeed, Corpus Christi more or less accurately follows the Gospels (the Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Last Supper) mixed with elements of his personal autobiography — the title synthesizes the religious and the personal by evoking the town where the playwright grew up.

  • 41 The quote refers to Leviticus 18 : 22.
  • 42 M. Feingold, art. cit..
  • 43 D. Shewey, art. cit..

20Clearly, McNally’s purpose in this play is not to destroy the validity of religion, but why should it be, except in the premise of his censors? The script insists on one of the basic commandments “Love one another”, which is why Joshua celebrates the gay wedding in the name of love: “God loves us most when we love each other” (CC, 48) and rejects the famous passage describing male homosexuality as an “abomination” (CC, 48).41 But for a number of critics, the play, in the end, fails to convincingly renew the Christian narrative because of a lame structure. As Feingold puts it, “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”.42 Shewey is even harsher by explaining “the details add up to a muddle”.43 Yet, despite some obvious problems, McNally manages to weave a number of complex themes into a theatrical event. His reflections on theatricality is what censorship tended to destroy. Indeed, Corpus Christi played with theatrical conventions to challenge fixed representations.

  • 44 Idem.

21The opening scene suggests this effort by intending to reflect upon the emergence of subjectivity by combining Christian and theater rituals. The symbolic role the actors is ritualized through the actual baptism and christening of each actor. Shewey praises this opening and Mantello’s staging of it in the New York production: “Taking the time to perform this ritual has an overpowering emotional effect”.44 This scene is all the more interesting as it highlights the negotiation between the reality of the exterior world and the imaginary interior stage. The complexity of that suspension of disbelief is suggested especially by the transition of the actor performing his character. What is striking here is the attempt at showing the instability between the role of the actor and the actor playing “himself”: “I love being Simon. Simon was a singer. Well among other things he was a singer” (CC, 11). The shift from “I” to “he” entails a gradual focalization towards the character and to the new “I” expressed in the next lines: “I was, right smack in the middle.” This instability of the “I” is furthered when you take into consideration the fact that the first “I” is also a construction, that of an actor performing his “real” self. Indeed, does the actor really perform himself or a character who would be an actor? And even if he performs himself, what does it reveal about his subjectivity? Which one of his selves is he performing? By asserting the impossibility of knowing for sure, the play articulates this crucial distance between the political and the artistic discourse, which had been erased by censorship. It also questions the very process of theatrical representation especially with another mise en abyme of the world of acting with Thomas: “I am an actor. I mean Thomas is an actor. I’m an actor, too, of course…” (CC, 11). What is particularly relevant, as I argued earlier, is that censorship operated a renegotiation of the play into another discourse, a discourse that exceeded the play. This process was both the result of the external censorship of the censor and of the internal censorship as the play became a threat for the subject. Here, this mechanism is echoed by the theatrical game that emerges from a mix of a religious ritual and a theatrical one. This opening scene slowly tries to win the audience’s attention as the tone is anything but aggressive. The play intends to defuse resistance or, even, censorship on the part of an audience that could not accept the choice of the author and might consider his play as sacrilegious. Actors could translate on stage the process of censorship by toying with the “bar” that seems to produce various subjects. This game with identities as roles is all the more striking as each actor performs several characters, except for Joshua and Judas.

  • 45 See for a contemporary example the success of the Fox TV series Glee.
  • 46 See the seminal Theatre of the Ridiculous, Bonnie Marranca & Gautam Dasgupta, (eds.), New (...)

22This distance that censorship struggles to contain in the narratives forming the subject and its reception is also increased by the play’s comical or even farcical dimension. Actors comment on the show: “I hope that’s not the same water we used the last performance” (CC, 10) or on their part: “I love being Simon” (CC, 10). This creates a sense of perspective, and, at best, a critical distance. Similarly, the sacred narrative is often deflated by comedy as in the birth of Joshua in a cheap motel while the couple next door are having loud sex — it is a travesty after all. What’s more, the comic-realistic version of the familiar story about growing up gay in Middle America seems to be parodying the very notion of such a mainstream narrative that has become a Hollywood and TV subgenre: the life of teenagers in High School.45 Here the High School named after Pontius Pilate makes the humor of the play almost campy in line with the New York tradition of the Theater of the Ridiculous led by Charles Ludlam.46 Blatant anachronism feeds the sense of parody as past and present. Modern jobs mix with old mythical functions: John the Baptist is a “masseur”. Moreover, some references to current famous Broadway shows are supposed to be included in the play depending on its time of production. The comedy, however, is sometimes filled with tragedy as the evocation of AIDS turns the benevolent bodies into deathly vehicles. But, by offering a play that tries to accommodate multiple subjectivities, Corpus Christi points to the ways invisible bodies (HIV + bodies, homosexual bodies etc.) can come to find an artistic embodiment.

23All these techniques aim at debunking a pre-established reading grid of both the gays and the Bible to hopefully lead the spectators to new territories. This is a stated purpose: “We want to take you someplace beautiful, someplace thrilling, someplace maybe you’ve never been before” (CC, 11). Whether the play can achieve it is the very question that censors have tried to silence and that this paper has aimed at reopening.

Conclusion

  • 47 See the original Supreme Court decision, Abrams v. United States and its analysis i (...)

24Debates around censorship are not a transient concern, but part and parcel of the workings of democratic society. They feed the “free market of ideas” defended by Justice Holmes as a basic test of freedom of speech.47 But, in the case of the arts they also tend to annihilate the necessary distance that defines the artistic gesture. This is the result of a discursive struggle triggered by the fact that censorship is really to be thought of as a process dealing with the unacceptable — things that should be repressed in the social subconscious. More specifically, censorship, in the case of McNally’s plays, very well illustrates that there is not a simple form of censorship but that there are varied forms of censorships tailored to the variety of cultural subjects. Indeed, censorship through the arts emerges from plays scrambling the categories which uphold a specific narration of the subject and its representation. The plays and the censorship they faced show that these categories are not fixed and predetermined but rise from internal and external constraints.

25This is why Lips Together, Teeth Apart, produced in a conservative Georgian county, can lead to censorship just like Corpus Christi which was produced in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. The latter ran into problems not so much because of the venue where it was produced, even though the Manhattan Theatre Club, through its funding system, was an easy target for protests, but because of its sacrilegious nature within the cultural domains of religion and conservative politics. In a sense, censorship, rather than being seen as something good or bad, has to be understood as a marker or a trace of central conflicts where violent and opposing powers meet. It is a sign in itself and a visible concretion of abstract struggles, with the positive uptake being that questions are asked and aired in the open. When censorship has no public manifestation or is so widespread that it is not felt, it is maybe then that the most worrisome doubts might arise. Censorship has become an almost traditional feature of the history of American theater and could be considered as a sure sign that performance is alive and fully part of society. This does not mean that censorship is desirable but that it is bound to crop up in a democracy that relies on the freedom of speech to validate its political system.

  • 48 At the Edinburgh Festival on August 9, 1999. There were contrasted responses from t (...)
  • 49 Ibidem, 57-58.

26The fact that Corpus Christi opened just after the vicious murder of Matthew Sheppard, killed in Wyoming for being gay, gave more impact to McNally’s basic message of love and mostly deflated the religious protests over the play. Yet, later on, new productions of both Lips Together, Teeth Apart and, especially, Corpus Christi ran into many censorship problems throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom.48 In London, McNally became the object of a fatwa (decree) by Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, head of Al-Muhajiroun (“The Emigrant”), an Islamic fundamentalist group with possible ties to Osama Bin Laden,49 illustrating once more the new discourses produced by censorship and the deep implication of theater in the fabric of our contemporary society. In that sense, McNally’s plays can be considered as much as a product of homophobic and fundamentalist censors as they maintain the debate of free representation that is alive and necessary in a global world.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

APPLEBOME Peter, “Avoiding a Values Test, County Cuts All Art Funds”, New York Times, August 26, 1993.

BLUMENTHAL Ralph, “Canceled Play May Be Staged”, New York Times, May 28, 1998.

BRANTLEY Ben, “Nice Young Man and Disciples Appeal for Tolerance”, New York Times, October 14, 1998.

BRITT Brian, “State of the Arts in Cobb County”, The Nation, February 14, 1994, 196-198.

BUTLER Judith, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York & London: Routledge, 1997.

CHE Cathay, “Offending Catholics”, The Advocate, July 7, 1998, 49.

DONOHUE William A., “‘Corpus Christi’ Is Gay Hate Speech”, The Catalyst, November 1998.

EDELMAN Lee, “The Plague of Discourse: Politics, Literary Theory and AIDS”, in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literature and Cultural Theory, New York: Routledge, 1994.

FEINGOLD Michael (ed.), Grove New American Theater: An Anthology, New York: Grove Press, 1993.

____________, “Texas Nativity”, Village Voice, October 14-20, 1998.

FOUCAULT Michel, Histoire de la sexualité: I la volonté de savoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

GITLIN Todd, “The New Censorship: Controversy in a ‘Smiley Face’ Culture”, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1998.

HEINS Marjorie, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars, New York: The New Press, 1993.

HOUCHIN John, Censorship of the American Theater in the Twentieth Century, New York and Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Tony Awards for Best Play and Drama Desk Award Outstanding Play in 1995 for Love! Valour! Compassion! and in 1996 for Master Class. Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical in 1993 for Kiss of the Spider Woman and in 1998 for Ragtime. Drama Desk Award Outstanding Book of a Musical for Ragtime. He was also nominated many times in these categories and for the Pulitzer Prize. See for general information on his career: “The Muses of Terrence McNally: Music and Mortality are his Consuming Themes”, Toby Silverman Zinman, American Theater, March 1995: 12-17; John DiGaetani, A Search for a Postmodern Theater, New York: Greenwood Press, 1991 and the Internet Broadway Database. <http://www.ibdb.com/awardperson.asp?id=8828>, accessed March 1st, 2011.

2 Terrence McNally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, New York: A Plume Book, 1992, 10. All parenthetic references to Lips Together, Teeth Apart (LT, -) will be to this edition.

3 Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi, New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1999. All parenthetic references to Corpus Christi (CC, -) will be to this edition.

4 See, for a history of the freedom of speech in the United States, Marcela Iacub, De la pornographie en Amérique: La liberté d’expression à l’âge de la démocratie délibérative, Paris: Fayard, 2010.

5 Marjorie Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars, New York: The New Press, 1993, 15-37.

6 John Houchin, Censorship of the American Theater in the Twentieh Century, New York and Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003, 246.

7 M. Heins, op.cit., xiii-xiv.

8 Later, in 2011, a university production of the play did lead to a law suit in Indiana but the court ruled in favor of freedom of speech. “Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi Under Attack in Indiana”, National Coalition Against Censorship Website. <http://65.49.16.213/art/20010724~IN~Fort_Wayne~Terrence_McNally%27s_Corpus_Christi_Under_Attack_in_Indiana.cfm>, accessed October 2, 2011.

9 Quoted in Brian Britt, “State of the Arts in Cobb County”, The Nation, February 14, 1994.

10 Ibidem.

11 Mac Wellman, for instance, was also targeted for his play Sincerity Forever (1990), although not really focused on a gay theme. After Donald Wildmon, speaking on behalf of the American Family Association, attacked his play, Wellman responded in a letter in which he especially questions the homophobic discourse. See the letter sent to Wildmon in Michael Feingold (ed.), Grove New American Theater: An Anthology, New York: Grove Press, 1993, 87-89.

12 B. Britt, op.cit..

13 Wysong stated that his action “was about redefining government’s role”, Peter Applebome, “Avoiding a Values Test, County Cuts All Art Funds”, New York Times, August 26, 1993. <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/26/us/avoiding-a-values-test-county-cuts-all-art-funds.html>, accessed October 4, 2011.

14 “Terrence McNally”, in David Savran (ed.), The Playwrights’ Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing, and the Politics of Culture, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999, 134.

15 County Commission minutes quoted in B. Britt, op. cit., 196.

16 “The money will go instead to law enforcement”, P. Applebome, op cit..

17 In an overview article about censorship James Sterngold reports the significance of the financial role in contemporary censorship. “Censorship in the Age of Anything Goes; For Artistic Freedom, It’s Not the Worst of Times”, New York Times, September 20, 1998. <here>, accessed May 12, 2010.

18 The right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, published an article on May 1st, 1998, “Gay Jesus May Star on B’Way”, claiming that the play featured a Jesus-like figure “who has sex with his apostles”.

19 Don Shewey, “Jesus in Khakis”, The Advocate, November 24, 1998. <http://www.donshewey.com/theater_reviews/corpus_christi.htm >, accessed March 1st, 2011.

20 Cathay Che, “Offending Catholics”, The Advocate, July 7, 1998, 49.

21 The Catholic League was founded in 1973 to oppose discrimination against Catholics in the US. Donohue’s combative and outspoken style energized a once moribund group which had only 11,000 members and little publicity value when he assumed control of the organization in July 1993. Attacks on pop star Sinead O’Connor’s television appearance and on others propelled Donohue into the public spotlight.

22 William A. Donohue, “‘Corpus Christi’ Is Gay Hate Speech”, The Catalyst, November 1998. <http://www.catholicleague.org/catalyst.php?year=1998&month=November&read=664>, accessed September 26, 2011.

23 “Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi Under Attack in Indiana”, 7/24/2001, National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Website <http://65.49.16.213/art/20010724~IN-Fort_Wayne~Terrence_McNally%27s_Corpus_Christi_Under_Attack_in_Indiana.cfm>, accessed October 2, 2011.

24 See the list of the 49 religious organizations that signed a letter against the play in the publication of the Catholic League, The Catalyst online, October 1998, <http://www.catholicleague.org/catalyst.php?year=1998&month=October&read=636>, accessed September 26, 2011.

25 Todd Gitlin, “The New Censorship: Controversy in a ‘Smiley Face’ Culture”, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1998. <http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/07/opinion/op-57625>, accessed September 30, 2011.

26 Dawn B. Sova, Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas, New York: Checkmark Books, 2004, 57.

27 Ralph Blumenthal, “Canceled Play May Be Staged”, New York Times, May 28, 1998. <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/28/theater/canceled-play-may-be-staged.html>, accessed October 2, 2011.

28 B. Britt, op. cit., 198.

29 It is hard not to think about the recent similar events in France where several plays were assailed by a Catholic religious group with comparable effects. In Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville a triple security check, including a metal detector and body search before accessing the playhouse, and several interruptions of the performance severely interfered with the play and denied the artistic status of Romeo Castellucci’s Sur le concept du visage du fils de Dieu. Interestingly, the first trouble had started in April 2011 when Serrano’s photography “Piss Christ” was vandalized. See, for instance, Armelle Heliot, “Romeo Castellucci: la pièce qui fait scandale”, Le Figaro.fr, 30/10/2011. <http://www.lefigaro.fr/theatre/2011/10/30/03003-20111030ARTFIG00226-romeo-castellucci-la-piece-qui-fait-scandale.php>, accessed October 15, 2011.

30 See Jacques Rancière, Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris: La Fabrique, 2008 about the notion of “dissensus”. My point also relies on the thesis that freedom of speech is the most important freedom in a democracy because it is at the heart of the system to the extent that it creates space for a debate that makes possible the very existence of the government as representative of the people. See M. Iacub, op. cit., 86-87.

31 Michael Feingold, “Texas Nativity”, Village Voice, October 14-20, 1998.

32 See, for instance, Lee Edelman, “The Plague of Discourse: Politics, Literary Theory and AIDS”, in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literature and Cultural Theory, New York: Routledge, 1994.

33 Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York & London: Routledge, 1997, 135-136.

34 See, for example, Alan Nielsen, The Great Victorian Sacrilege: Preachers, Politics and The Passion, 1879-1884, Jefferson (NC) & London: McFarland, 1991.

35 “All in all it proved to be a great victory for the Catholic League”, “Rally Against ‘Corpus Christi’ A Hit; Critics Pan the Play”, Anonymous, The Catalyst, November 1998. <http://www.catholicleague.org/catalyst.php?year=1998&month=November&read=678>, accessed September 26, 2011.

36 Ben Brantley, “‘Corpus Christi’: Nice Young Man and Disciples Ask for Tolerance”, New York Times, October 14, 1998. <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/14/arts/theater-review-nice-young-man-and-disciples-appeal-for-tolerance.html?sec=&spon=&&scp=5&sq=%22corpus%22%20mcnally&st=cse&pagewanted=print>, accessed May 27, 2010.

37 McNally’s play was considered by Brantley as closer to the 1971 musical Godspell (the life of Christ enacted by young performers who emphasized the “peace and love” aspect of the story). Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You by Christopher Durang (New York, 1979) and The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, (Berlin, 1963 & New York, 1964) are two other plays that ran into problems and that Brantley lists as more radical.

38 Richard Zoglin, “Theater: Corpus Christi”, Time, Monday, November 2, 1999. <http: //www.time.com./time/magazine/article/0,9171,989478,00.html>, accessed May 27, 2010.

39 D. Shewey, art. cit.

40 Chris Jones, “Insights abound in ‘Corpus Christi’”, Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2001. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-07-10/features/0107100015_1_gay-man-gay-themes-christianity>, accessed October 3, 2011.

41 The quote refers to Leviticus 18 : 22.

42 M. Feingold, art. cit..

43 D. Shewey, art. cit..

44 Idem.

45 See for a contemporary example the success of the Fox TV series Glee.

46 See the seminal Theatre of the Ridiculous, Bonnie Marranca & Gautam Dasgupta, (eds.), New York: PAJ Books, 1979/1998, The Politics and Poetics of Camp, Moe Meyer, ed.), New York & London: Routledge, 1994, and my article discussing lesbian camp, “Le Camp lesbien des Five Lesbian Brothers,” Genre(s), Etudes Anglaises, Frédéric Regard (dir.), n° 61/3, juillet-septembre 2008, Paris : Klincksieck/Didier Érudition, 330-338.

47 See the original Supreme Court decision, Abrams v. United States and its analysis in M. Iacub, op.cit., 51-103.

48 At the Edinburgh Festival on August 9, 1999. There were contrasted responses from the Scottish clergy: Reverend David Murray of the Free Church of Scotland denounced it as “highly offensive” whereas Reverend Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh, defended the play, saying it fitted into the tradition of retelling biblical stories in modern contexts. See D. Sova, op.cit., 2004, 57.

49 Ibidem, 57-58.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Xavier Lemoine, « Censorship or the Limits of Representation in Terrence McNally’s Gay Theatre at the End of the 20th Century », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI - n°3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2013, consulté le 30 mars 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5533 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.5533

Haut de page

Auteur

Xavier Lemoine

Xavier Lemoine is Maître de Conférences (Associate Professor) at Paris Est–Marne la Vallée the University where he teaches American studies. He is a member of the research group IMAGER . He publishes on Queer theater and contemporary American performance. He has also translated a play (“ The Baltimore Waltz” by Paula Vogel) and has worked as an assistant stage director in Paris (Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique, Théâtre du Soleil et Jeune Théâtre National). His latest publications include “Proliferating Masculinities: New York Drag King Shows” (GRAAT On-Line issue #11 September 2011), « Naissance d’un chef-d’oeuvre », Les Nouveaux Cahiers de la Comédie Française , March 2011, and “Minority Perspectives in Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré by the Wooster Group” in M. Gonzalez and H. Laplace-Claverie (eds.), Minority Theatre on the Global Stage , Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012, 283-301. He has also co-edited the forthcoming book Understanding Blackness through Performance: Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity , New York: Palgrave Macmillan .

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • OpenEdition Journals