MiniReview: "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally

The Last Supper, from a 2018 production in Richmond, Virginia, by the Triangle Players.

(Photo: John K. McLellan)

What is it?

It’s a play by American playwright Terrence McNally, originally produced in New York in 1998.


What’s it about?

It’s a queer retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity to his Crucifixion.


Oh. “Controversial” is the word that springs to mind.

Yeah, it’s interesting what McNally does here. He retells the story as if the Jesus character (here called Joshua) comes from Corpus Christi, Texas, in the mid-twentieth century. He basically tells the story in a way that is pretty faithful to the accounts in the Bible, except for the change of scene and—yes—the suggestion that some, or all, of the band of Jesus and his disciples may have been queer.


Still, that’s a pretty big twist.

Yes, but McNally doesn’t overdo it. He blunts a lot of the criticism that might come from religious folk by actually presenting a pretty orthodox Christian message. He even has Joshua/Jesus recite the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety, and not in an ironic way. So that’s all pretty “by the book.” But McNally also insists that queer folk are part of the Christian community. For instance, one scene shows Joshua conducting a ceremony to bless the union of two of his disciples, James and Bartholomew. And, most controversially, he shows Judas and Joshua as lovers.


But does the play have anything to say, aside from the fact that Jesus may have been gay? I mean, he may have been, but kinda ... so what? So might Shakespeare.

I guess, if you don’t care at all about Christianity, it’s just an interesting new spin on an old story. But what McNally is doing here is actually desperately relevant to a lot of people even in 2021. He’s saying that our foundational religious story should be seen as an invitation to love, and indeed to celebrate love in all its forms. That is the central message of Jesus Christ, except that it’s always getting distorted. For those who are completely post-religion, this won’t be all that interesting. But for anyone who has even a spark of a desire to believe that the central religion of many of our lives isn’t antithetical to homosexuality, the message of this play couldn’t be more timeless.


So you’re saying that this is actually a Christian play? That it’s not anti-religion?

Yes, it’s a Christian play. Obviously, we don’t know a lot of the fine details about Jesus’s life, and this play interprets things and plays with them. But the message of this play is the Christian message. It’s a Christian play, yes. Like the medieval mystery plays—it presents a “version” of the story.


Does it say anything specifically to gay men, about how their Christianity might affect their lives?

The main message of the entire play is that loving someone of the same sex is love, and that what we should be seeking is to love everyone, in one way or another.

          As far as gay love is concerned, one line (which is then referenced again later in the play) stuck out for me. Joshua says to Judas, the first time they make love, “You can come no closer to me than my body. Everything else you will never touch. Everything important is hidden from you.” This is open to interpretation (as are many of the things Christ says in the Gospels), but it seems to me to be saying that sex is sex, and that it shouldn’t become the object of too much attention, either of condemnation or of worship. It is what it is, and can be an expression of love. But the most important things go beyond the body. In other words, sex shouldn’t be such an obsessively controversial issue. It’s just the body. The crucially important thing, from a Christian point of view, is the soul.



One. This isn’t really a first-rate reading experience; I think one really should see it onstage. From a literary point of view, it’s not outstanding beautiful or poetic, and there are a lot of stage directions. But the subject matter is so BIG that it deserves a place on queer (and specifically gay) reading lists. Gay men have suffered so much at the hands of so-called “good” Christian people; this just goes a short way to right this terrible and ongoing injustice, to present another, more loving point of view.




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