Sunday, February 11, 2007

Are we really in Doubt?

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.


  1. I haven't seen the performance, but I have read the play a few times. (I will wait for one of the local comapanies to perform it at less than half the price, thanks.)

    I agree that too much is made of how, "audiences will be unsure after the play about what really happened."

    I also agree that Shanley's point is not to make everything "in doubt" or to make us feel that we can't be sure of anything.

    However, (and forgive the unfortunate Harold Bloom-sounding phrase,) but I think you are making a strong misreading of Shanley's play.

    I like what you are implying, but I don't get that from my reading of the text.

    In order for what you are stating to hold, we would have to assume that Father Flynn, even if he were innocent, would have no fear of even the hint of such allegations.

    It's a transformation that would be impossible without his guilt, and Sister Aloysius knows it.

    She certainly does not know that. Part of her knows that she may be running an innocent man out. She chooses to take the chance.

    The suspense and drama is built on this, and ties into the coda and what Shanley has built throughout the play.

  2. But that's no assumption at all, really - Shanley does make it clear that Flynn has nothing to fear if there are no actual allegations against him (remember there are already the "hints" of allegations); or, at any rate, that's the choice that the excellent Chris McGarry has made in the role, and his reading is a bit more blue-collar passionate, but no less confident, than Brían F. O'Byrne's was on Broadway. This is perhaps one time when the performance fills in what is missing from the page. Both actors all but deflated as soon as they heard that Sister Aloysius had gotten her information not from a priest, but from another nun. I think if you saw the show, this might be clearer to you; Sister Aloysius never feels that she is running any moral risk regarding his guilt (and neither do I). I suppose such doubt is possible, but it's far from reasonable. And at any rate, whatever an audience member may choose to tell themselves about Father Flynn, there's no evidence that Sister Aloysius has doubts about him; she has every opportunity to open up to Sister James about that, but pointedly does not. Instead, her doubt, as I pointed out, is now directed at the folly of her own religious faith.

  3. I had the same reaction as you (that he was, without a doubt, guilty) when I saw the play in New York, but my friend, who recently saw it during its Boston run, offered up a more doubtful interpretation. He thought that Flynn was guilty of abuse at his previous church, but not at the current one. Fearing his past being uncovered, he stepped down, only proving his past guilt.

  4. Again, that's a possible interpretation, but it hardly lets Father Flynn off the hook - indeed, it only means he hadn't quite sprung his latest trap.