1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 13
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable
his preface to his Pulitzer-winning play, John Patrick Shanley writes:
“We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of
judgment, and of verdict.” Deep down, we know what he means.
Schoolteachers cannot hug students for fear of liability lawsuits. Hired
firebrands analyze television sitcoms for covert political import.
Distrust of church, government, and pop culture leave individuals
feeling radically adrift.
an America shaken by President Kennedy’s assassination, a Bronx priest
tries to keep his newly integrated Catholic school on course. But Sister
Aloysius notices the attention Father Flynn pays one beleaguered boy
and wonders. So two nuns undertake a forbidden investigation, determined
that right trumps hierarchy. If only the truth proved as easy to grasp
as the sisters’ fervor; but each new revelation only compounds their
is set in 1964, a time when Americans liked to claim Oswald’s rifle had
stolen our national innocence. Yet as a people, we still had innate
trust in forms of authority, including the Church. Secular leaders
joined professional religious in the effort to sweep clerical sex abuse
under the rug. In such an environment, a nun openly challenging her
priest’s sexual mores, upsetting the mandatory hierarchy, required
profound depth of faith.
“truth” is slippery. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius begin an
intricate dance around the balance of power, one in which facts take no
part. Shanley’s characters shift suddenly, and our loyalties shift with
them—Father Flynn seems like a predator one moment, an avuncular
schoolteacher beleaguered by harpies the next. Sister Aloysius goes from
dirty rumor-monger to champion of the afflicted, and back, so fast that
we almost cannot see it.
a Catholic school graduate himself, openly admires the candor nuns and
priests demonstrate in their devotion to schoolchildren. Yet this candor
has a dark side: in caring for children, we must remain vigilant
against all threats, even ourselves. This bleak duality is further
compounded by Catholic hierarchy, in which directives begin up the
chain, and everyone lower, whether professional religious or ordinary
laypeople, is expected to obey.
these exigencies aren’t enough, the mother whose boy gets caught in
this conflict seems willing to make horse-trades. She wants her son to
remain in Catholic school because “he has a better chance of getting
into a good high school. And that would mean an opportunity at college.”
Back when few black men had a chance for higher education, and thus
economic prosperity, the stray rumor seems a small price to pay.
“real world” we hear so much about harbors great moral compromise. If
we pursue one moral principle at all cost, we risk violating another.
And if we judge people by one category of transgression, we strip some
portion of their humanity. Yet we must draw the line somewhere. We
cannot permit all things, nor forbid them, so we find ourselves
performing moral contortions just to remain afloat.
this environment, we find ourselves clinging to the one character most
like ourselves. Sister James, a novice who still believes God sorts
everything out, contends between two charismatic leaders, each of whom,
considered alone, makes a persuasive case. She has no landmarks to guide
her steps; the novitiate has even taken her name. This unfolding case
proves a stark education in the moral vagaries of following God’s call.
the final scene, Sister Aloysius says: “In the pursuit of wrongdoing,
one steps away from God.” Having kicked over one moral code to defend
another, she ultimately leaves us with the question: is vindication the
same as justice? Is my white lie less wrong than your gaping moral
chasm? Even in the final scenes, Shanley refuses to give us easy
answers, and we exit this play as darkly confused as when we entered.
himself directed a big-screen adaptation of this play in 2008. Though
beautifully designed and acted by an all-star cast, its realistic sets
and army of extras loses some of the play’s muscular austerity. With few
sets and only four actors, the play reflects the relative isolation
each character feels. Even the boy at the nexus of the controversy never
appears onstage, heightening our dislocation and lending urgency to the
parable highlights the risks of winning, the perils of defending a
creed beyond the point of reason. Because it doesn’t wrap up neatly, it
stays with us long after we exit the theatre. Sister Aloysius’ doubts
become our doubts. And like her, we wonder if we can ever believe again.