Tag: Law & Order: SVU

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

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?  

What Can We Steal from “Doubt,” an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU?


Title of Work and its Form: “Doubt”, an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU
Author: Written by Marjorie David & Paul Kolsby, directed by Ted Kotcheff
Date of Work: Originally broadcast November 23, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is on approximately four times a day in syndication and can be found on the program’s Season 6 DVD.  “Doubt” is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creation of Suspense

Don’t even pretend to lie: when you’re not feeling well, you grab a tub of ice cream and sit down on the couch, stuffing your face with Cherry Garcia and your eyeballs with Law & Order.  The program is a spiritual successor to Dragnet, one of the first police procedurals and one of the most realistic.  As you well know, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit sends Detectives Benson and Stabler in search of all kinds of evil sex criminals.

One of the reasons the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is because Dick Wolf and the other producers use the least amount of serialization possible.  The episodes are about the crimes and their resolutions in the justice system.  Sure, we hear about Stabler’s wife on occasion and we wonder when Benson will find the right guy.  Further, every episode can take place in a different world.  Here’s the formula: In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of SOME FUN MILIEU  to get justice for VICTIM who has been SEX CRIME.  In this case, the story goes like this:  In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of THE UNIVERSITY ART DEPARTMENT to get justice for A YOUNG WOMAN who has been RAPED BY HER PROFESSOR.

The story is not complicated, but David and Kolsby are very shrewd in the way they create suspense in the viewer.  When you watch a crime show such as this, you’re wondering whodunit and looking for clues.  David and Kolsby change your thinking about the he said/she said story every couple minutes.  Look at some of the “story beats” in the show.

  • A student claims she was raped.  (HE’S GUILTY! —we all dislike rape.)
    A professor openly tells the detective the student will blame him.  (HE’S INNOCENT—he’s being open and honest.)
  • The student recoils at being touched.  (HE’S GUILTY—that’s what happens to rape victims.)
  • The professor points out his bruises and claims they were having consensual rough sex.  (HE’S INNOCENT—it’s hard to distinguish between the two and why should he have his life ruined?)
  • The professor’s door open to the detectives, revealing a very young and very pretty girl.  (HE’S GUILTY—he clearly likes girls who are too young!)
  • The little girl is really his loving daughter.  (HE’S INNOCENT—and we feel a little bad for thinking he’s a monster.)

The episode keeps the viewer guessing and humanizes a man who may or may not be a rapist.  By the same token, the episode humanizes a woman who may or may not have falsely accused a man of rape.  These situations are often more complicated than people give them credit for.  Should a rapist’s life be changed by the punishment he (or she) receives?  Of course.  On the other hand, what about the innocents who have suffered this same punishment?  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t envy the judges and attorneys and officers who deal with these cases.

If you’re going to do a he said/she said, then the man and woman have to say stuff.  This episode accomplishes that exposition in an awesome way.  Instead of having a scene in which Stabler and Benson sit the guy down at a table, the viewer gets his side of the story while he’s stripping down for the medical examiner to pull evidence off of him.  We contemplate the invasion of his privacy while we hear what HE says happened.  These scenes are intercut with the she says.  The woman explains her side of the story while she’s undressing and doing a rape kit for Benson.  Not only is the exposition accomplished in a fast and efficient manner, but the writers are also given yet another opportunity to evoke sympathy and anger.  (They’re manipulating you.  I hope you realized that.)

The best turn occurs at the end.  I’ve presented this episode to my class, and many folks were not pleased.  The foreman of the jury announces that a verdict has been reached.  The piece of paper is handed to the judge.  She reads it.  The foreman gets the paper back and reads: “We, the jury, find the defendant…”

And that’s it.  It doesn’t matter what the jury (by way of the writers) thought.  It matters what you and your family think.  If you watch this episode with others, maybe a discussion will ensue.  What could be better than that?

What Can We Steal?

  • Own your status as a manipulator.  As a writer, it’s your job to lead the reader (or viewer) along.  Fake them out.  Trick them.  How do you do that?  You play with their perception of the story in order to increase the joy in their experience.
  • Compress exposition in interesting ways.  Why have two interrogation scenes when you can have just one.  Even better, you get to set the scenes in a much more dramatic way than officers and suspects on opposite sides of the same table.
  • Respect your audience enough to let them think for themselves.  The ending of “Doubt” mimics real life.  Do you think a jury member ever REALLY knows if he or she is right?  Do defense attorneys know they are sometimes unsure as to their client’s innocence?  Doubt is a part of life, friend.  The argument goes on, in the episode and in the real world.