The ‘Times’ Public Editor Plays Theater Critic

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

This weekend, Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor, apparently needed a break from politics, because his column was devoted not to the paper's landmark election coverage but to a short theater review of a mostly unnoticed Off–Off Broadway revival. Stung, apparently, by 150 angry e-mails from members of the Catholic Guild, Hoyt criticized freelance critic Jason Zinoman's review of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi for not being sensitive enough to the play's potential for offending Christians.

To which we say: Jesus Christ, Clark Hoyt, what are you talking about?

We freely admit that Hoyt's column upset us for personal reasons: Zinoman is a friend, and it annoys us to see him getting trashed by Bill Donohue and the Catholic League. But as a fellow theater critic, we're more annoyed that Hoyt, who apparently hasn't even seen the play, is taking issue with what we thought was an elegant and thoughtful review, for reasons having nothing to do with art and everything to do with appeasing a tiny, anti-gay interest group.

"Homosexual acts and same-sex marriage" — both of which the play comes down firmly in favor of — "are against the teachings of the Catholic Church," Hoyt helpfully informs us, "and it seems to me that failing to acknowledge that central tension is almost failing to tell readers what the play is about … Had the review acknowledged, even in passing, why the play could be disturbing or challenging to many Christians, even those who do not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church, I think it would have left Donohue no ground to stand on, and he told me he would not have complained." But since when is a critic obligated to frame his review in such a way that it's unobjectionable to Bill Donohue?

For that matter, the review does make crystal clear "why the play could be disturbing or challenging to many Christians." Zinoman's review points out from the get-go that the play portrays Jesus as a young gay man, and even leads with a thumbnail of the controversy that met Corpus Christi ten years ago. It seems to us that pointing out that a play features Gay Jesus and that it led Christians to threaten to bomb the theater ought to tip off most readers that the play is offensive to some Christians. Had Zinoman included a whole separate section in his review where he was like, "By the way! Christian doctrine is opposed to homosexuality. And many Christians don't love gay marriage. So if you're a Christian, heads up!" he'd have been laughed out of a job by his editor.

Zinoman delivered exactly what every good theater critic should deliver: a thoughtful discussion of the play on its own terms, taking into account the cultural context in which it's being delivered and its past history. If you're going to disagree with him, disagree — as we do — because you think the play is a little bit wimpy and lame. But taking him to task for not appeasing people who are convinced he likes the play "not for artistic purposes but for its assault on Catholicism" — pointedly, Donohue "had no problem" with Ben Brantley's pan of the original production ten years ago — is pretty embarrassing.

The Perilous Intersection of Art and Religion [NYT]
A Modern, Gay You-Know-Who Superstar [NYT]