Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Matthew Roudane - Chair


In 1998, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s staging of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi ignited protest and virulent condemnation from various religious and politically conservative groups which eventually led to the cancellation of the play’s production. This led to a barrage of criticism from the national theatre, gay, and civil rights communities and free speech advocates, including the ACLU and PEN, which issued a press releases about the cancellation that decried censorship and acquiescence by the theatre to neo-conservative religiously political groups. As swiftly as the cancellation, the Manhattan Theatre Club reversed its decision and the show resumed its rehearsal schedule. Although the critical reception of the play was mostly negative, the political controversy surrounding its production testifies to the fact that a contemporary play in America dealing with both religious and gay themes is still economically risky, radical politically, and worthy of critical rhetorical analysis. This work aims to fill that gap by providing an in-depth investigation of the tangled rhetorical history of Corpus Christi. First providing an account of the controversy surrounding the 1998 production of Corpus Christi, this work then gives a historical and cultural analysis of McNally’s career and corpus of work leading up to the play’s contentious staging. Second, a full account of the play’s critical reception is given through a close analysis of the rhetorical responses to the work from the Christian Right and the more secular community that supported the play’s production. Third, the American Christian Right’s vitriolic rhetorical response to the play is indicted as homophobic hate speech. Fourth, how McNally’s play repudiates the rhetorical violence perpetrated by the Right against gays is revealed. Finally, the last two chapters examine how the rhetoric of the play speaks directly to its queer audience. Chapter five reveals the rhetorical and meta-theatrical conversion strategies employed by McNally in Corpus Christi to proselytize his expansive message of Christ to his gay audience. Ending the work, chapter six examines McNally’s rhetorical reclamation of the Christ figure from the Right as a means of sacralizing homosexuality as a religious identity and homosexual love and sex as a spiritual act.