Drama Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.

John Patrick Shanley March 2005

            I have no doubt, that Doubt is one of the best written plays I’ve ever read. John Patrick Shanley crafted a masterpiece without clearly depicting the main story sparks. The ending left me confused and troubled. It reflected the play’s title perfectly. I’ve seen this play performed and read it once before. I found it so powerful that I couldn’t resist delving into it again.

Doubt served as the theme of Fr. Flynn’s opening monolog.  I liked the way the playwright established the setting and theme of the play at the very beginning. I still mentally harken back to the beginning of Hamlet whenever I read a play. Lines and lines of dialog where characters prattled on about how dark the night and that they’re standing in front of a castle really seared into my memory. (I do take solace in the fact that even the Bard could’ve improved as a writer.) Shanley avoided this error. The fourth line in the play read: “Last year President Kennedy was assassinated.” (Page 5) What an exceptional way to quickly establish the time frame.

The play contained an outstanding protagonist and antagonist, but with a twist. Shanley drew them so well that I’m not sure which role each main character played. Sister Aloysius served as a hardline reactionary to the changes occurring in the Church. She opposed the use of the song “Frosty the Snowman” in the Christmas show. It “espouses a pagan belief in magic”, she asseverated. (Page 29) I thought it clever how she informed Sister James not to focus so much on teaching history. Yet, in the play Sister Aloysius referred to Socrates (Page 12) and Sparta (Page 36). She did so while, in essence, telling Sister James how to do her job. I found her choice of examples intriguing. Wasn’t Jesus a teacher, too?

Fr. Flynn served as her opposite. He supported a friendlier, more accessible clergy. He recommended adding secular tunes to the Christmas pageant. He coached the boys’ basketball team. After practice he invited them to the rectory. The priest even paid special attention to the lone African-American child at the school, Donald Muller. The latter ignited the main story spark.

Sister Aloysius suspected that the priest had an inappropriate relationship with the boy. There being no Chris Hansens at St. Nicholas school, she opted to investigate the matter herself. The drama unfolded around her efforts to confirm her (unfounded) allegations. Fr. Flynn always responded with a reasonable (sounding) explanation for all her suspicions.

To further enhance the story, the priest admitted being a fabulist to Sister James. Again, he followed this revelation with a reasonable (sounding) explanation. He claimed making up stories for his sermons “in the tradition of the parable.” (Page 38) Why?

What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation. The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion. (Page 39)

The playwright did an exceptional job keeping me engaged. The more I read, the more I had doubts about both characters’ behavior. It took special talent to continue building this tension through the entire play; accomplishing this while relating few verifiable facts took extraordinary skill.

I have little doubt that the ending won’t satisfy some readers. I would remind them of Shanley’s own words:

You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.

To absorb the essence of these words, read Doubt.  

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