“Doubt, a parable” (2004)
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
I have recently had the pleasure to read “Doubt.” Written in 2004 by John Patrick Shanley, this Pulitzer Prize winning play is highly absorbing, and left me with more questions than answers. The action takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx. It is the year 1964. There are very few characters, except four central ones. The play focuses on Father Flynn, a parish priest and a teacher at the school, Sister James, a young nun and another teacher, Sister Aloysius, the principal of the school, and, finally, Mrs. Muller, the mother of Donald Muller, one of Father Flynn’s student’s.
On 58 pages (TCG 2005) the author raises many issues and questions that have been troubling the Catholic Church for many decades up till this day. For this matter the play will never stop being universal. Apart from the alleged sexual relationship between the priest and the boy, the author draws a reader’s attention to such philosophical issues as the truth, lie, and human conscience, or the changes in the Church and its adaptation to the modern times. Each of the characters represents a different approach to these matters. As a result, we are faced with a variety of characters with whom we may agree or disagree, identify or not.
One of the elements of the play I enjoyed the most was Father Flynn’s sermons: one about Doubt, and the other about Intolerance. Short, but powerful and substantial, the sermons serve both as a comment to the events occurring in the plot as well as a reflection of Flynn’s (perhaps, all the characters’) conscience. Each sermon is constructed to evoke contemplations by means of a parable made up by Father Flynn. At the same time, the stories he creates are universal so that any of his listeners (and we, the readers) may identify with them. Interestingly enough, there’s one speech Father Flynn gives to his students when he plays basketball with them-it is delivered exactly in the same way as his sermons, as if he’s always preaching.
As far as the characters are concerned, they are immensely realistic: fascinating, complicated, and three-dimensional. Since it’s a play with only dialogues, we get to know the characters through the opinions they express rather than their actions. It leaves out their thoughts and inside contemplations. They tell us only what they want to tell each other. It stimulates us to try to guess what they’re thinking, what eventually leads to uncovering the truth. The bad news is we are left with more questions than answers, as I’ve mentioned before.
Last but not least, the play is brilliantly written. There isn’t one word too many. Every sentence is in the right place, and seems to be meaningful. It is written in the convention of a parable, with the exception of the ending-unlike a typical parable, the play doesn’t have a clear-cut, moralizing conclusion. We have doubts, and don’t know whom to trust. If at the beginning we sympathize with young Sister James (who, by the way, loses her innocence along the way), at the end we feel like Sister Aloysius: uncertain of our own certainty. And that’s the genius of Shanley at work.
Long days, pleasant nights,