As it’s title would suggest, the truth never fully comes to light in John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play that won the Pulitzer Prize and eight Tony Awards before being turned into a film starring Amy Adams, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
The play is set in 1964 in the offices and garden of a small convent school in the Bronx. The moral certainties of the world are changing. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, has been assassinated and the Catholic Church is divided between the conservative wing and those who would like to bring a little more informality into the faith in the form of Vatican II.
Informal is not the style of Sister Aloysius, the strict and reactionary head of the school whom we first hear riding roughshod over the idealistic teaching methods of the young, painfully sincere and sweet-natured Sister James.
Rules are all to Sister Aloysius – she abhors ballpoint pens, secular songs and the idea of treating the children in her care with any kind of warmth – and wishes others would feel the same. For Sister Aloysius, the teaching staff should be feared.
SISTER ALOYSIUS: If I could, Sister James, I would certainly choose to live in innocence. But innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil. Situations arise and we are confronted with wrongdoing and the need to act.
All of which sets her on a collision course with Father Brendan Flynn, the charismatic Irish priest and school baseball coach who is adored by the boys he teaches and seeks to inspire rather than to intimidate.
The play opens with Father Flynn giving a sermon on the nature of doubt (“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty”) which initially raises the concerns of Sister Aloysius. However, when Sister James confides that Flynn has befriended a twelve year old boy called Donald Mueller, the only African-American pupil in the school, and had a meeting alone with him, which has left the boy unsettled, Sister Aloysius believes that she has a clear case of abuse on her hands.
The scene is set for a battle between Father Flynn, who has the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church in his favour, and Sister Aloysius, who is sure that the truth is on her side. The best scene is the one in which Sister Aloysius tries to recruit the boy’s mother to her crusade and finds that this pragmatic and dignified woman defiantly refuses to play her game. Mrs Muller is glad of the priest’s friendly “protection” and wants to keep the status quo in place until June, when her boy graduates and can put this good school on his CV.
Doubt: A Parable insists on leaving things in a state of uncertainty and as a play, still feels timely in the era of fake news, click-bait headlines the echo chambers of social media. The discussions and confrontations that take place following the initial accusation of wrongdoing, will have you doubting your own thoughts and prejudices at every turn.
Is Sister Aloysius’ belief that Father Flynn has abused this student right, or does it stem from her dislike of his modern teaching methods? Is Father Flynn a man defending his honour, or a priest who is becoming increasingly trapped in his own lies?
FLYNN: Please! Are we people? Am I a person flesh and blood like you? Or are we just ideas and convictions. I can’t say everything. Do you understand? There are things I can’t say. Even if you can’t imagine the explanation, Sister, remember that there are circumstances beyond your knowledge. Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion and not a fact.
When supposedly irrefutable evidence is produced, the deceptive means of its uncovering only succeeds in invalidating the very thing it is supposed to prove. The situation has shifted from being about who is right, to being about who can win.
The play’s balance of conflicting viewpoints, its austere institutional setting and its sensational front-page subject might suggest overblown melodrama, but there is a quiet fortitude to Shanley’s writing that suggests he is taking no one’s side – only reminding that doubt can be a healthy antidote to absolute truth.
Doubt: A Parable is an intelligently measured play – encompassing the themes of race, patriarchy and child abuse – which explores the dangers of moral certainty and the judgments that might bring.
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