Thursday, October 26, 2006

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt

A priest is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young person in his care. Did he? Are you sure? How do you know? The Irish American writer behind Doubt, a play that features just such a Catholic priest, may know the answer. But he’s telling nobody. Almost.

“Well, it wouldn’t make much sense if there was no doubt in a play called Doubt,” says Shanley, in Dublin for the premier of his Broadway hit, which opened at the Abbey this week.

Doubt concerns a priest, Father Flynn (played in Dublin by Aidan Kelly) and a nun, Sister Aloysius (played in Dublin by Brid Brennan) who at war, they imagine, over the soul of a young boy.

But for Shanley, that scenario, and its specific setting in the American of the early 1960s, is one that lets him work outwards towards broader issues of faith, obedience and unreasoning adherence to simple explanations of complex issues. His play may deal with the hot button topic of clerical sexual abuse, but its import, he suggests, goes far wider, into the America of the present day, in which a mix of faith and propaganda has become a potent tool to stifle decent.

“Within the last six months in America, we have seen the stories unravelling the way they did after the Fifties. We realised that a lot of the simple explanations were inadequate, so we were going to have to go it alone, mentally…and people don’t like that. They want to be certain. They want to have it all wrapped up. But really, that’s a very adolescent emotion.”

Critics and audience stateside appear to agree that Shanely is offering them a timely and valuable analysis. Shanley, a first generation Irish-American, with a rake of relatives in Westmeath, won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer prize for the play -- to add to the Oscar he won with his script for 1988 Cher vehicle, Moonstruck. And Doubt has also broken box office records on Broadway.

All the same, leaving his play open-ended, also leaves the audience with questions. So, Shanley has been offering a back channel for them, putting his email address on the program and answering the mail he gets.

“I get a lots of mail from members of the clergy, and ex-members of the clergy, often telling me how much they enjoyed it. But most of the time people don’t really write reviews. They write to tell me their memories, to tell me stories about their time in church schools, often quite happy and fond stories.”

And as for the ever-hanging question, did Fr. Flynn do it? Well, Shanley isn’t telling. And if he is, he’s not swearing to tell the truth. The playwright admits that he told “the answer” to Brian O’Byrne, the New York based Irish actor who created the role of Fr. Flynn on Broadway.

“I did. But then I found out that Brian was lording it over the female members of the cast by saying he knew the answer. So I rang him up and told him that the answer I had told him was a lie…” Which should still leave at least Brian O’Byrne, after a little exercise in deduction, knowing the answer.

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