On Saturday, we were privileged to see a rare performance of the controversial Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. When the play first opened in New York in 1998, it was almost immediately shut down by hordes of Christianist protesters screaming that it was sacrilege. Now that I've seen it, I wonder if all of those folks might have been so hostile if they had actually seen the play themselves and given it a chance, rather than just foaming at the mouth at the very idea of it. The idea of it is this: it's a passion play, telling the Christ story, but transported to modern day Texas and portraying Christ and some of the apostles as gay. Just to be clear, it is not a satire or parody of the Passion, it is an earnest passion play. In the latter half of the play, the events leading up to and including the crucifixion are told with great integrity and with, well, great passion. The translation to modern times, modernized characters, and modern prejudices adds tremendous depth and power to the great classic story. I think the greatest iconic stories can certainly stand up to and transcend being adapted into another time, place, and sensibility, and even be enriched in the process. It's like a translation. A translator can strive for a close, literal translation, or go for a looser translation that aims to capture the "heart" of the meaning in modern terms. (Yes, I'm asserting that Terrence McNally's liberties with the Passion story are no more sacrilegious than loose modern Bible translations like The Message. It's certainly no more sacrilegious than Jesus Christ Superstar.) The way that lepers, tax collectors, and centurions were reviled in the first century is abstract for us, an intellectual exercise. People in first century Judea had visceral reactions to those character types that we just don't feel today. By leveraging contemporary prejudices about homosexuality and playing with gender in the casting, McNally makes us feel the impact of the story, of what it meant for God to take human form, with more visceral integrity than a "straight" telling can produce. Personally, I may have been more moved by this than by any other dramatization of the Passion that I have seen.
(Just to add the gravitas of time and place to this production, it meant all the more that we saw it performed in a church, with the full knowledge and blessing of the priest and archbishop, and on the 50th anniversary of the Selma "Bloody Sunday" march for civil rights.)