Friday, June 17, 2011

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

In Scene VII of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," Father Flynn admits to Sister James that he fabricated a story he told in a sermon on gossip. "What happens in life is beyond interpretation," he tells her. "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."
"Doubt," which was later expanded into an excellent movie, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama in no small part because it adheres to these words.
Father Flynn's is the first voice to confront us, giving us a short sermon on doubt. We immediately like him because his voice is familiar and modern, even though the play's action takes place in 1964. He reassures us that to doubt makes us part of a larger community, struggling to make sense of all around us. Doubt obscures the truth we strain to see, but it bids us on further, changing who we are in the process. The community hearing these words beyond the church likes their easy comfort. There is no reason to take tough stands and make hard choices. Salvation is free and easy, just as God is.
We then encounter Sister James, a bright, enthusiastic teacher with the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx. She is speaking to the school principal, Sister Aloysius. We like Sister James also, because of her sunny enthusiasm and zeal for her students. She is eager and loving and quick to forgive and forget, just as God is.
Zeal describes Sister Aloysius also - but zeal of a different sort. We don't necessarily like her. In a few words of dialogue, she comes off as judgmental, unnecessarily rigid, callously traditional and authoritarian. She warns Sister James not to let students use ballpoint pens as it destroys their penmanship. She chides her for "performing" rather than teaching. And she criticizes her as overly innocent, not only to her students but to the dangers around them. "Innocence is a form of laziness," Sister Aloysius says.
There is something in us that does not like Sister Aloysius, but this feeling diminishes the longer she talks. She is vigilant, just as God is, because the world is not on our side. We recognize her as the stereotypical Catholic school nun who rules over her charges with an angry kind of devotion and puts the smell of brimstone in their nostrils. But the longer she talks, the more we perceive why she is this way. She tells Sister James to think less about herself and observe what is around her. This is sound Christian advice - after all, the sisters are there to serve. In doing so, we can perceive what follows in two different ways.
Time passes, and Sister James returns to indirectly report what Sister Aloysius suspected - Father Flynn may have had inappropriate contact with Donald Muller, the school's only black child. Did Sister James perceive something because Sister Aloysius inspired her to, or did she actually see something she wants to discount because of how she feels about the sister?
The backdrop of "Doubt" - the Catholic sex abuse scandals of the last decade - gives us reason to draw conclusions from the action. But Shanley's characters cannot be so easily pegged, nor is this play simply yet another indictment of the Catholic Church. Flynn may indeed be innocent, but there is something in his quickly offended manner that feels guilty. Sister Aloysius may be a martinet with a vendetta against a priest she sees as overly accommodating, but we are willing to go along with the behavior if she is right about Father Flynn's guilt. We want to think the best of Sister James as she struggles between the two poles of opposition, but we see her partially in the same light as Sister Aloysius, and in the same way we see ourselves. Sometimes doing the right thing is not as important to us as appearing to do the right thing. The stakes in this - the life of a child - can easily be ignored so long as our lives continue and our self-images remain. It is this climate that allowed many guilty priests to survive in parishes for so long, with so many lives destroyed.
But Shanley doesn't construct an easy dragon for vanquishing, on either side of this contest. Just consider, for a moment, how "Doubt" could have ended. If Father Flynn, for example, had been proven to be guilty, then Sister Aloysius' determination would have been justified in our eyes. We might have drawn a conclusion that her traditional ways are superior to the more modern teaching and social styles of Flynn and James. If Father Flynn had been proven innocent, then we would see Sister Aloysius as the play's villain, the forces of openness and virtue having triumphed over the church's long catalog of overzealous homegrown persecutors.
But the play is about doubt, which means that neither outcome will happen. Indeed, no real accusation is ever fully stated. The worst intimation is that Flynn gave Donald wine. When Sister Aloysius confronts Flynn about what may have happened, he responds, "What exactly are you accusing me of?" This is to be expected, and it may be calculated on Flynn's part. He could be goading the sister to either make an accusation or retreat, gambling perhaps that she will retreat. She instead reminds him that she hasn't accused him of anything, but merely asked him what happened. The accusation is one he perceives - but he is right in assuming there is one.
The audience will side one way or another, but they will see that perhaps a traditional nun, no matter how dictatorial, may have been that way for a reason. They may see that a man accused cannot necessarily prove himself innocent without losing something, or everything, in the process. They will see that choosing sides is never so easy as rallying to a cause against this or that irredeemable force.
Shanley throws another wild card into the works with the entrance of Donald's mother into the play, who is summoned for a conference with Sister Aloysius. Nothing is ever spelled out, but Donald's mother is clear on one thing - Donald is different. Does this mean he is receptive to what Sister Aloysius believes are Flynn's homosexual advances? We aren't sure. We do know that Donald is different enough to spark angry beatings at the hands of his father. The mother tells Sister Aloysius plainly that she is willing to put up with whatever attention Father Flynn gives, because it will only last until the school term is up. Donald needs this education. She is willing to ignore the rest. As with much of this play, we suspect what is going on- but we don't know for sure.
This adds another layer - not of race, though Donald's blackness adds to the tension. Father Flynn is a man, and still in a position of authority in 1964. (It is interesting that this play takes place just before the Sexual Revolution.) Sister Aloysius, Sister James and Donald's mother have to navigate their powerlessness. Even Sister Aloysius must be circumspect in how she proceeds with her accusations, knowing that they could be easily ignored by her male superiors within the church. Donald's mother doesn't care about the sister's concern - she will side with her son "and those who are good to him," meaning Father Flynn.
The mother also offers this judgment: "You can't hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be." In the current environment, this sounds like an defense of what we perceive is Donald's homosexuality. But what of Father Flynn? Did God make him a child predator? Is he a child predator? What is Donald? We are never sure. Even this statement, which appears to be a defense, cannot be digested whole.
Shanley is not content to give us an ending with Father Flynn quietly removed from the parish. Indeed, he is promoted, and even the rock solid Sister Aloysius is left to doubt whether her suspicions were ever correct.
But there is also the layer of faith to all of this. We must never forget these characters are devout and carry on their lives in a community of belief. Does Father Flynn's promotion mean that God has protected him from a false accusation, or is this ironic comment on the protection the church provided predatory priests for decades? Does the fact that such things happen give us serious doubts about the justice of God, or even His existence? That feeling of emptiness, where something has occurred but we are not sure of its exact nature, readmits us to the community of doubt where we began the play. There is no last word, Shanley says, not even in a church, an indeterminate distance short of Heaven.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
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Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
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This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
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Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


  1. This is a terrific analyiss of the script, but could I add one thought (years after you wrote)? I don't believe Sister Aloysius's cry at the very end that she has "such doubts" means she has doubts about Father Flynn's guilt. I believe she is saying that she has doubts about her faith and her church--the price paid for "stepping away from God" in pursuing Flynn. The first interpretation would be sad. The second, that she has mortally injured her faith, is overwhelming and tragic. I used to think the old term "a scandal to the faithful" was a rather dry phrase. Now it comes to mind, in pain and anguish, whenever I think of the revelations of the past decade or so...and how many Catholics have had their faith injured or shattered completely. A Catholic mother and grandmother, Fort Worth

    1. Thanks for your reply! Yes, it could be interpreted that her faith has been shaken. But the play, once again, doesn't say one way or another whether this is the case. It leaves it up to the audience.