John Patrick Shanley: interview

There‘s no right, wrong or easy resolution in John Patrick Shanley‘s Pulitzer Prize-winner ’Doubt‘. And, as he tells Time Out, that‘s just the way he likes it

  • John Patrick Shanley: interview

    Different perspectives: playwright John Patrick Shanley

  • The Pulitzer Prize is a passport to many things, but not necessarily to a critical hit in London. Sooner or later, all Pulitzer-winning dramas make the passage from Broadway to London. But they often don’t make it to the West End. And they don’t always make it past the local critics, who have met many a garlanded arrival with a chorus of faint praise. Take David Auburn’s ‘Proof’, which came to the Donmar Warehouse in 2002. The production seemed to have everything going for it: the Pulitzer, the producer, the punter-pleasing and luminous star-turn from Gwyneth
    Paltrow. But the play itself? Pale by comparison.

    John Patrick Shanley bagged America’s most-wanted literary prize in 2005 with ‘Doubt’. The Brooklyn-based (but Bronx-born) playwright feels sanguine about his play’s prospects at the Tricycle Theatre, where it opens next week. ‘I’m glad it’s the Tricycle doing the play,’ he says. ‘And I hope it travels well; it has travelled well to many countries.’ Given the right production, it may travel considerably better than some of its prize-winning predecessors. Its subject, a suspected case of paedophilia in the priesthood, is, sadly, topical in more countries than the US. And its theme – the vital necessity of doubt, even when it brings no benefits – is both modern and universal.

    ‘I set the play in the ’60s, in a Catholic-run school, because I was recalling a shift in myself from accepting to questioning everything I was told,’ explains Shanley, who was kicked out of more than one faith-based school in his early youth, but retains affectionate respect for the Catholic nuns to whom his play is dedicated. ‘Part of my brain resisted that questioning as evil or incorrect, but the part that believed that died and the part that didn’t flourished.’ One of the great flexibilities of ‘Doubt’ – a tersely-written, traditionally well-made 90-minuter – is that no one’s guilt or innocence is explicit; the danger lies in the lift of an eyebrow or a slip of the tongue, but mainly in that powerful dramatic organ, the audience’s imagination. ‘Doubt’ is a face-off between an elderly nun, Sister Aloysius, and a charismatic middle-aged priest who teaches at the school where she is principal. She is rigidly old-fashioned; he is more modern and unbuttoned. She suspects he has unbuttoned himself too far with the boys in his care; he is protected by the masculine church hierarchy and her total lack of evidence. In the Machiavellian power-play that follows, the ‘facts’ of guilt and innocence are never revealed.

    Shanley himself, when pressed on how much room he left himself for doubt when he was writing the characters, chuckles enigmatically. ‘I had a definite back-story in mind, but even the back-story leaves the jury out.’ The very careful balance of ‘Doubt’ – which teeters between nun and priest even in the conclusion – makes it the opposite of the usual courtroom drama: Shanley’s intention being to sustain reasonable doubt, rather than to achieve conviction. ‘The play truly belongs to the audience,’ he says. ‘When I was writing it I noticed that certitude was valued very highly in things like confrontational TV shows. And that reminded me of another time, when I was a kid, and being taught a very Manichean worldview where the good people were not to be questioned.’

    The play’s reception in America was inflected by the Catholic Church scandals there. But Shanley made his drama out of a more personal and universal crisis: ‘The lack of conclusive outcome, and the sense that what is said is just the tip of a great unknowable iceberg is,’ he says, ‘an accurate rendition of my interior landscape. I sense great forces at work which I dimly perceive if I perceive them at all. I see things going somewhere with increasing momentum and I don’t know where and I accept I can’t know.’

    One thing that is certain, is that ‘Doubt’ divided Broadway audiences, and not in the usual way. ‘Arguments in the cab on the way home or at dinner about who was in the right, the nun or the priest, formed,’ says Shanley, ‘the last act of the play.’

    To achieve this level of dissent and debate, a very finely pitched production is also required, to sustain the balance of ‘Doubt’ throughout. New
    York critics praised the original pairing of Cherry Jones and Brian F O’Byrne for its subtlety and its ambivalence (Jones won a Tony for her performance). But it’s easy to imagine that the play’s powerful sense of moral unease could be lost if a production gave too much weight to either character. It is, of course, impossible to know whether the Tricycle production (directed by Nicolas Kent, with Dearbhla Molloy as Sister Aloysius and the thirty-ish Padriac Delaney as Father Flynn) will prove as popular or as divisive as its Broadway predecessor. But that’s fine by Shanley, who’s happiest whenever there’s room for ‘Doubt’.

    Doubt’ previews at the Tricycle Theatre from Thursday.

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