There's no doubt that with Doubt, John Patrick Shanley has made one of the best "well-made plays" of recent years. Of course it's clearly a commercial construction, with its topicality (i.e., "pedophilia in the priesthood") handled with such consummate skill that it soothes, rather than shocks, our already-raw sensibilities. Shanley pushes his crisis into the past (to just after the Kennedy assassination), and savvily ladles on nostalgia for the very hierarchy responsible for said crisis: his hero, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones, at left with Chris McGarry; photo by Craig Schwartz) is an old-school refugee from Nunsense whose crusty moral carapace and suspicion of Vatican II only barely conceal a deep concern for her charges. And since Shanley handles the crimes he considers at one remove (we never meet the victim of the priest in question, Father Flynn), he can treat his play as essentially courtroom drama, with all that venerable form's opportunities for evidentiary coups du théâtre and cozy, matinee existentialism.
Don't get me wrong. I adore matinee existentialism, and I love Doubt. I'm glad Shanley wrote himself a hit, and I'm very glad Cherry Jones is still playing it to the hilt (through February 18, btw, at the Colonial). I was even tickled by Shanley's all-too-accurate evocation of the lost Catholic Eden of Sister Aloysius (I was raised Catholic myself in, yes, the late 60s).
But I'm rather less enchanted by the critical reaction to the play, which seems to imagine that its resolution is somehow, yes, in "doubt." (Warning - spoilers ahead.)
For instance, Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe wrote that the play is "astonishingly capable of persuading you utterly of one side of its argument -- and then, not five minutes later, making you even more certain of the opposite conclusion." To her, Shanley's intent was "to make us understand, with absolute clarity, that nothing is absolutely clear." And she's not alone - a virtual critical chorus has followed her lead.
But is this true? Are we supposed to feel, as the curtain falls, that Father Flynn's guilt is still in question? I know I sound like Sister Aloysius - but in a word, no. Kennedy, for her part, almost sounds like the play's Catholic Pollyanna, Sister James, who announces at its close that she doesn't believe the priest is guilty. But can we realistically share her faith? It's true that Shanley doesn't present Father Flynn in flagrante delicto; his method precludes him from doing so. And to be sure, he's constantly playing up the moral peril of Sister Aloysius's certainty (she's really just going on a hunch) - but that's simply to generate suspense; all courtroom dramas play this card in one way or another; it's the oldest trick in the book.
In the end, however, Shanley nails the not-so-good father in his climactic scene - pushed to the wall, Sister Aloysius bluffs (another sturdy canard of the melodrama): she tells the priest she's done a quick background check with other nuns (rather than with other priests). And Father Flynn suddenly folds; he never explicitly admits his crimes, but within seconds he morphs from righteous avenger (threatening Sister Aloysius with the loss of her position) to pathetic supplicant, begging her not to reveal his past. It's a transformation that would be impossible without his guilt, and Sister Aloysius knows it. As for those critics who pretend otherwise - well, I hope I never see them on a jury!
Well, you might argue, so what if the critics are misrepresenting Doubt - isn't, perhaps, their version of the play the better commercial draw? In fact, this is precisely what troubles me. I have no problem with Shanley playing to the conservative Broadway audience by implying the pedophilia crisis developed partly as a result of Vatican II - perhaps, partly, it did (although many pedophile priests were in the collar well before Vatican II). At any rate, the playwright carefully covers his bases by touching on many of the other factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
But at his finale, Shanley takes a step away from all this equivocation - Sister Aloysius succeeds in ridding her flock of this particular wolf, but her victory is pyrrhic; Father Flynn is simply transferred to another parish, where he is promoted to pastor, with, we and she can only surmise, even freer access to young boys. Thus her final line - "I have great doubts" - refers not to Father Flynn's guilt, but to the wisdom of her actions within the hierarchy of the Church. Indeed, her doubt in all likelihood refers to her Catholic faith itself, as Shanley portrays her belief as in complete alignment with the Church's authoritarianism, despite all its arrogance-disguised-as-humility and its open sexism. But moral action in this case was impossible within its confines, which pretty much destroys its moral authority; and Sister Aloysius knows it.
This, then, is the "doubt" at the heart of Doubt- not merely a trope out of matinee existentialism but something rather more serious, and with implications for the faithful today. To pretend otherwise is a disservice both to the Catholic Church and John Patrick Shanley's play.