Doubt ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Max Lyandvert. With Alison Bell, Christopher Gabardi, Jennifer Flowers and Pamela Jikiemi. STC production at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse @ the Victorian Arts Centre until May 13.

It is almost impossible to think about Doubt without being aware of the context in which it is written - that is, post-9/11 America. John Patrick Shanley's play is the first in a proposed trilogy (part two, Defiance, has recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Company) that examines troubling dimensions of contemporary US society. And it obviously struck a few chords: it's garnered rave reviews and is the most decorated play on Broadway, with 24 awards to its name.

However, outside this context it's hard not to feel a little puzzled by this reception. There are things to admire in Doubt, to be sure; it's a skilful piece of playwriting, sparely written and solidly structured. But there's no getting away from the fact that it's a very old fashioned play, a naturalistic, linear drama that wouldn't have raised eyebrows 40 years ago. One can't help wondering if American theatre is really as conservative as this play seems to demonstrate.

Julian Meyrick's production is perfectly adequate to the writing, presenting the play as cleanly as possible; although, perhaps inevitably, it can't quite escape the smell of mothballs. Stephen Curtis' set - a stone wall diagonally bisecting the stage which neatly opens to slide in or out an office or a garden - is atmospheric and efficient, and beautifully lit, and there is little to complain about in the performances, which are honed by a previous season in Sydney. We are given a perfectly respectable example of well-made drama.

Doubt is set in a Catholic school in New York in the 1960s, where the principal, Sister Aloysius (Jennifer Flowers) is certain that a young priest, Father Flynn (Christopher Gambardi) is sexually abusing one of her pupils, Donald Muller, who also happens to be the school's first black student. Aloysius shanghais the innocent young nun Sister James (Alison Bell) into keeping an eye on Flynn, and when Sr James reports that Muller has returned from a private visit with Flynn upset and with his breath smelling of alcohol, Aloysius thinks that she has got her man.

Doubt is one of those finely judged dramatic arguments in which it is possible to empathise with every point of view, and the question of doubt is worked in several ways through the characters. The play opens with a sermon from Fr Flynn (he has a gift for down-home folksiness) in which he speaks of doubt as a possible basis for community, perhaps inverting a contemporary American truism that it is the things we are certain about that bring us together.

In Aloysius, doubt is a double-edged quality: she lectures the young Sr James on the necessity of scepticism, while entertaining within herself no doubts about the guilt of the the priest. Aloysius, played by Flowers with a nuanced crustiness, has all the best jokes: she does a good line in dry wit. And in Flowers' powerful portrayal you can see the concern that underlies her reign of terror over her charges: she has no time for sentiment because it's a cruel and unfair world out there. Her harshness is a symptom of how keenly she feels the responsibility of her position.

In the same way, one can see the justice of Aloysius' admonition to Sr James that innocence is irresponsible, while deploring how she strips the younger teacher of all her joy in her vocation. The young teacher is anguished by Aloysius's deliberate shattering of her hopeful world; she cannot live with the doubt that keeps her awake at night, and chooses after some struggle to believe the priest, who has perfectly innocent explanations for his behaviour. Fr Flynn himself, a representative of the younger, hipper Vatican II as opposed to the old-fashioned values Aloysius represents, clearly has doubts about his own conduct, but on the other hand is smugly secure that the male hierarchy of the Church will protect him from Aloysius' accusations.

When Aloysius calls in Muller's mother (Pamela Jikiemi) to discuss the issue, it introduces yet more moral complications. Mrs Muller reveals that Muller is gay and is regularly beaten by his father. She has sent him to this school because she believes that because of his "nature" he will be killed in the public school system, and because it is a way out of the black ghetto. In a curiously American formula, she is prepared to sacrifice her son to the priest, if that is what it takes, in order to save him.

Flynn himself is both charming, the image of a young, popular teacher, and a smugly sexist bully. Christopher Gabardi gives him, one suspects, a touch less subtlety than he might; his was the one performance of the night that had a feeling of limited repertoire. The audience is never given any clue whether Flynn is guilty of not of the crimes he is accused of, which supposedly leaves us exquisitely poised on the horns of dilemma.

Doubt is a play artfully designed to produce exactly the kind of discussion I have just given it, which is I think a large part of its problem. Shanley outlines his theme, illustrates it from several angles through his characters, and leaves the audience to decide for themselves. The major topic of discussion will inevitably be whether or not Flynn is guilty of sexual abuse, but in fact that question is irrelevant to Shanley's ends, just as the absent child in the play is a tool for everyone else's moral agonising. The point Shanley is making is that doubt has value, and, most importantly, that doubt can be a means of binding a community.

This is ultimately a soft-centred view of doubt that perhaps appeals to the post 9/11 liberal American community which is, after all, dealing with an excess of certainty among its political leaders. Even our doubt can draw us together and be a means of comfort! This glosses over a lot, to my mind: though to be fair Shanley himself subtitles the play "A Parable" and in the play has Fr Flynn comment: "You make up little stories to illustrate. In the tradition of the parable. ... 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." Which is all very well, but doesn't really explain the strange hollowness that was, for me, the play's major after-effect: a sense that the more I thought about it, the less there was to think about.

It's interesting to compare it, for example, with Terence Rattigan's 1948 play The Browning Version, with which it has some thematic resonances and which, to my mind, is a far superior work. A naturalistic play literally set in a drawing room, The Browning Version examines the cost of homophobia, and is at once more subtle and more harsh than Doubt. Without reaching beyond any of the aesthetic or social conventions of the time, without even mentioning the words "homosexual" or "deviant", it painfully exposes the grim economies of human cruelty. There is an excess in Rattigan's play, a sense that the characters are more than tools illustrating a dramatist's intention, which seems to me a major lack in Doubt.

At no point does this play expose the molten emotional core of the crime which is at the centre of its plot. It carefully steps around it, concentrating on the moral dilemmas faced by each of the characters. But without any real sense of what's at stake - whether it's Aloysius's unjustified smearing of an innocent man's reputation, or the life-long damage caused by child sexual abuse - Doubt's moral "theme" remains just that: an abstract idea.

Picture: Jennifer Flowers and Christopher Garbardi in Doubt


Anonymous said...

I may be taking a leap here, since I've neither seen nor read Doubt, but Alison's commentary reminds me of my reaction to the movie Syriana. Watching that film kept me on the edge of my seat, mentally speaking, as I tried to keep track of the connections among the characters and the implications of what they were doing. This experience continued for a while after I left the theater. But once I more or less worked out the story, I wasn't left with much--no troubling moral implications, no surprising realizations. (Much the same point was made by a writer in the April issue of GQ in an article on recent American "political" films.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - and I haven't seen Syriana... I suspect that's to do with the dominance of a jounralistic paradigm of response to contemporary events. As a former journalist myself, I'm not going to sniff at journalism; good journalism really matters. But in terms of artistic response, I often wonder how much it limits how we talk about things. Shanley could equally have written a thoughtful op-ed piece, for example. By way of contrast, think of Arrabal's play and they put handcuffs on the flowers (which I am thinking of because I read it yesterday) as a reponse to Fascism...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michaux - thanks for your post. We'll have to agree to differ, I expect: I agree with everything you say, except that I don't think doubt means anything much if what one is being doubtful about is, as I felt in this case, almost an afterthought. I certainly wasn't looking for a "solution" or a lack of ambiguity; it could be that part of my problem was that it was all too clear, his characters too much mouthpieces for his theme.