Back in May of 1998, Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) in NY cancelled the scheduled production of the three-time Tony Award winner Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi play, prompted by anonymous telephone threats to burn down the prolific theater and kill its staff and the playwright. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights that was already campaigning against the play for blasphemy, disavowed responsibility for the phone-calls. Those developments swiftly sparked outrage in the artistic community over the religious group’s intimidation and MTC’s administration for backing off and not standing firm.
Apparently the play was set on schedule again, following talks among NYC Police and MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow, who was seeking reassurance that security will be adequate. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office also issued a statement, reading “Although the mayor doesn’t agree with the tone of the play, threats of violence in New York City will not be tolerated.” During opening day, there were two counter demos outside MTC, one supporting the play and another demanding to get banned. Police officers and journalists were on the spot and the audience had to pass through metal detectors.
Fourteen years after its debut in NY, Corpus Christi is staged at Chytirio theater in Gazi district of Athens. The play was greeted with condemnation from the Greek Orthodox Church that proceeded to lawsuit in June. Police forces arrested 3 actors for blasphemy who apparently got released following prosecutor’s intervention. However the dispute was not over yet.
Corpus Christi’s fall premiere in Oct 4 was cancelled as actors remained blocked inside theater’s premises by a demonstration of dozens religious bigots and Golden Dawn members. Although their request for temporary interim measures was rejected by the court, they allegedly attempted to break in, holding Greek flags, singing the national anthem and chanting racist slogans against the play’s director, Laertis Vasiliou, who holds dual nationality.
The premiere was then set for Oct 11, but a new request for interim measures was on board and the religious groups made it again outside Chytirio, jabbing small crucifixes and hurling yogurts. The parody reached its peak when Lifo’s contributor @manolis was bashed in his attempt to record protesters tearing apart the theater’s promotional material and Golden Dawn’s MP Christos Pappas released a detainee out of a riot police bus. The events went viral across the internet attracting media attention as they unfolded in front of police officers who literally turned a blind eye. Corpus Christi play was halted for a 2nd time in a row within a week.
The next day artists, queers, activists and members of left wing groups gathered in the evening outside Chytirio in what appeared to be a clear message that religious bigotry and fascists would not be tolerated. A couple of youths handed a banner reading “Hands off from culture and freedom of speech”, while the counter demo of nuns, priests, elderly and Golden Dawn members was already repelled down the road by police. Both blocs of protesters were “kettled” as a precautionary measure, causing frustration. However minor clashes sparked and police proceeded to at least 30 detentions.
The relationship between religion, politics and art has always been explosive for centuries, it’s not news. However in the wake of Greece’s worst crisis in 30 years, where hints of an emerging police state are evident and workers rights are slashed, the freedom of artistic expression is also challenged. With Golden Dawn embracing the modes of objection by religious groups, they are given a boost with a militant twist. Nobody has been forced to see Corpus Christi but a bunch of bigots actually forces everyone not to see it. The detentions added nothing but an illusion to this section of society that still believes the police is out there to protect civil liberties. If the police was meant to do a proper job it would have responded promptly to @manolis physical and verbal abuse. If the police was not linked with Golden Dawn then the officers would not remain indifferent to the detainee’s release. But if Greece’s constitutional democracy has not been repeatedly challenged, those lines would not have been written either.