What Can We Steal From John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt?

Title of Work and its Form: Doubt: A Parable, play
Author: John Patrick Shanley
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The script is available in a trade paperback edition as well as an acting edition from Dramatists Play Service.  (They’re a great organization, by the way.  You can buy acting editions of all kinds of plays at very low cost!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Doubt, in my opinion, is one of the best plays ever.  Sure, I’m a little biased; I had the honor of working at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the play’s Off-Broadway and Broadway runs.  After I walked out of the third Off-Broadway preview, I knew that I had just experienced a magical evening of theater.  (And world-class performances from Cherry Jones, Heather Goldenhersh, Brian F. O’Byrne and Adriane Lenox.)  The play won a zillion Tonys and a Pulitzer and everything.  The film, directed by Shanley, is very good, but I am somewhat sad that the original actors couldn’t have their performances immortalized on film.

Mr. Shanley drew on his childhood, setting his play in a Catholic school in the Bronx.  It’s 1964 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, overseeing many teachers, including young Sister James.  Sister Aloysius has…well…doubts about Father Flynn, a priest who coaches basketball and tends to the spiritual needs of the children and their families.  Father Flynn, she believes, is a little too friendly with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student.  The religious hierarchy restrains Sister Aloysius from confronting Father Flynn directly, so she deals with the situation in the only ways she can.

One of the reasons I admire the play so much is that Mr. Shanley deals with an awful lot of complicated issues.

  • Feminism – Sister Aloysius, as a woman, does not have authority over men.
  • Race – Donald Muller is the only black student in a sea of Italian and Irish kids.
  • Pedagogical Theory – Should a teacher be feared or loved?
  • Child Molestation – They’re out there…how do we find them and what should we do with them?
  • Parenting – Mrs. Muller wants the best for her child, even if it means being “interfered with” until graduation.
  • Attitudes Toward Homosexuality – Is Donald Muller a homosexual?  Does that change anything?
  • Our Moral Obligations – When we believe someone is doing something really, really wrong, what are we obligated to do about it?

Does he hit you over the head with them by releasing them all at once?  No.  They come out in a natural, organic manner.  Here’s how the audience learns that Donald Muller is an African-American child.  Five scenes into the play, Sister Aloysius finally confesses her real suspicion: that Father Flynn has been molesting the boy.

Sister Aloysius: Of all the children.  Donald Muller.  I suppose it makes sense.

Sister James: How does it make sense?

Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated.  The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for.

Sister James.  I don’t know that anything’s wrong!

Sister Aloysius: Our first Negro student.  I thought there’d be fighting, a parent or two to deal with…I should have foreseen this possibility.

Instead of launching into a big, melodramatic monologue about the equality of people of all races and yada yada yada, Sister Aloysius simply gives us the exposition.  Mr. Shanley respects the audience enough to know they’ll understand what he’s doing.  In lesser works, such a realization would be dealt with in a maudlin way such as this:

Can you believe it?  Father Flynn is molesting our first proud African-American student.  A young man who, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, simply wants to gain knowledge about himself and his life!  Haven’t African-Americans been through enough?  Hundreds of years of slavery, another hundred years of institutionalized racism.  When, oh when, will our proud African-American brothers and sisters be allowed to be free!?!?!1?!?! (Sister Aloysius begins wiping away dozens of tears.)

Nope.  Mr. Shanley gives his audience realistic scenes and graceful exposition.  In Mr. Shanley’s scorching Scene Eight, Sister Aloysius has a talk with Mrs. Muller.  Could some of the lines be shouted?  Sure.  These extremes are earned.  Does Mrs. Muller offer an unexpected analysis of the situation?  Um…yes!  The extreme is in the situation, not in the tone of Sister Aloysius’s response.

The ambiguous ending of Doubt receives a lot of attention because the audience receives no cut-and-dried answer with regard to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence.  That’s okay!  First of all, the play is titled Doubt.  What do you expect?  I wrote about this issue in my essay about the Law & Order: SVU episode with the same title.  The play puts the audience in the same position as Sister Aloysius (or anyone who read about the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal).  We’re probably not around when these terrible things happen…how do we know what really occurred?  At what point do we believe a person is guilty of a heinous crime?

What Should We Steal?

  • Confront a great deal of vital issues.  Isn’t why this a lot of writers get into the game in the first place?  Society has a lot of problems—and always will—and a lot of these problems are interrelated.  Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end of the emotional pool.
  • Avoid melodrama by treating the extremes in your work as though they are not.  Have you ever been to a wedding where someone had a little bit too much to drink and they spend the entire reception crying in a corner and then crying in the parking lot and then crying in the bathroom because their boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t like the Nicki Minaj song the DJ played?  While I can’t blame this hypothetical person for having such a negative reaction to Nicki Minaj, there’s just too much melodrama going on.  It’s not realistic and it’s generally not as compelling as works with more verisimilitude.
  • Leave your audience guessing.  Yes, yes.  It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  There’s nothing wrong, however, with inviting your reader to interact with the ideas in your stuff.  The dilemma of Doubt is played out in countless places in the country every day.  Isn’t it valuable to confront these questions in fiction before they face us in fact?  

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