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Rob Weinert-KendtFebruary 23, 2024
John Patrick Shanley at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on March 23, 2015 (Sam Santos/George Pimentel Photography/Wikimedia Commons)

Three would seem to be a magic number for John Patrick Shanley. When his play “Doubt” first opened Off-Broadway in 2004, he was premiering another play at the Public Theater, “Sailor’s Song,” while a revival of his breakthrough two-person drama “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” originally written in 1983, was also playing.

This season finds the prolific playwright in the midst of another trifecta: A hit revival of “Danny” starring Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza recently closed after several months at the Lortel Theatre, while a revival of “Doubt” is about to open on Broadway, starring Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan, and “Brooklyn Laundry,” a new play about two mismatched souls played by Cecily Strong and David Zayas, is opening Off-Broadway.

In fact, as Shanley pointed out in a recent Zoom interview, “Brooklyn Laundry” and “Doubt” are opening 24 hours apart, on Feb. 28 and 29, respectively. “I have two opening nights in two days—I’ve never had that before,” said Shanley, now 73.

John Patrick Shanley: "My favorite part of the Mass was always the sermon."

Not bad for a writer who could have settled into a niche writing bonkers rom-coms like the film “Moonstruck” or the play “Outside Mullingar,” which was adapted into the film “Wild Mountain Thyme.” (He doesn’t like calling them romantic comedies, he told me; his original title for “Moonstruck” was “The Bride and the Wolf,” but the director, Norman Jewison, pointed out that it sounded like a horror movie.)

But there has always been another side to Shanley’s writing, which has ranged widely in form and content. The play he wrote immediately before “Doubt,” for instance, was “Dirty Story,” which staged the debate over Israel and Palestine as the story of a comically warring romantic couple. And he followed “Doubt” with a play called “Defiance,” which took a similarly sober-minded look at another institution that formed him, the U.S. Marines.

“Doubt,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony in 2005 and was made into an acclaimed film in 2008, has the subtitle “A Parable.” Set at a Bronx parish school in 1964, it follows the growing suspicion of the principal, Sister Aloysius, that a young teacher, Father Flynn, has sexually abused a young student, and traces her efforts to oust him.

Our interview touched on other subjects, but its main focus was this play, which I think is fairly judged a modern classic, and its continued resonances.

Rob Weinert-Kendt: I’ve heard other creative folks who grew up Catholic say that the Mass was the first kind of theater they saw. How did growing up Catholic influence you as a dramatist?

John Patrick Shanley:Well, my favorite part of the Mass was always the sermon. It was structured in two parts: They would tell a story from the Bible, and then they would talk about the story, what it meant. I always loved the stories from the Bible, and always took issue with the interpretation of what they meant—I basically wanted to get up and give my own sermon on what that story was really about. And guess what? In “Doubt,” I got to do it.

Father Flynn’s homilies in the play are indeed great monologues—it almost seems like you’d practiced the form.

My mother wanted me to be a priest, and it was because of the sermons. She said, “Boy, you could give some sermon.” I never had any interest in becoming a priest, but it was a matter of great pride for a family at that time.

Do you have any clergy in your family?

My father had two sisters who went to Australia to become nuns. He saw them last when they were 17, 18 years old, and then he saw them as old ladies in nuns’ habits. Can you imagine the shock of that? And there was another Sister, Mary Kate. I'm not sure of how we were related, but she would come and visit sometimes. She was basically nuts.

I know you’ve talked about how one of the things you wanted to do in “Doubt” was to show nuns as something more than silly caricatures and to give tribute to these women you feel gave so much.

Yeah, they were very committed to social justice, which was not known to me as a child. I learned that later because when I did “Doubt” I went and spent time with them. They were the happiest old ladies I ever met, and I believe it was because they devoted their lives to serving others.

You were a famously ornery student; I read that to get a rise out of your teachers, you told them you didn’t believe in God. If it’s not too personal a question, how do you feel about God now?

I believe everything and its opposite. And I mean that in passionate terms. I think it is through the utter commitment to opposites that one is capable of having a divine experience, a spiritual experience. As soon as it becomes linear and uncontradictory, it is no longer a spiritual experience.

I won’t ask the status of your Catholic practice, but I do want to ask if you follow news about the church, and what you think of Pope Francis. Is he leading a church you recognize?

I certainly read the stories about the growing division between the American Catholic church and the world church, and the areas that are important to the church, like Africa, that Francis is trying to encourage and nurture, and the warring factions that he’s dealing with. I’ve watched all of that, and I think his role has become increasingly problematic, of being an ex cathedra authority, the voice of God on earth. That’s harder and harder to maintain. I mean, I think that he’s a better pope than the last two popes before him. His intentions are pretty good. I feel like there are two parts: One is the political pull to see how far he can move the church from the orthodoxies of the past, but then he doesn’t want to lose everybody by going too far in any direction.

John Patrick Shanley: "You can’t know the truth of another person. And guess what? You can’t even know your own truth."

As a playwright and screenwriter, you’re known mostly for love stories about passionate, seemingly mismatched people coming together against the odds. But you also have plays like “Doubt” and “Defiance” and “Storefront Church.” Did “Doubt” feel like a departure from your usual when you wrote it?

I don’t think it felt like a departure at the time. But I did not feel that I was talking about my personal problems in the play. It had more to do with society and with how I see things, which is that you can’t know. You can’t know the truth of another person. And guess what? You can’t even know your own truth. The extent to which we lie to ourselves is so breathtaking, why even bother to worry about whether somebody else is telling the truth? You can’t even be certain, even in the throes of your deepest convictions, that you’re telling the truth. Because we deceive ourselves.

I’ve heard that you’ve told the actors playing Father Flynn what the truth of his character is—i.e., did he or didn’t he abuse young Donald Miller, which the play never definitively resolves. Is that a secret you keep close to the vest, and is it going to the grave with you?

No, I talked to Brian F. O’Byrne when he first played the role; we just talked about the backstory of the character. Then Brian began to tout that on closing night, he would reveal the truth. A reporter asked me about that and I said, “That’s all well and good, but I lied to Brian.” And that was the end of that. I also talked to Phil Hoffman when he played the part in the movie. Whereas I think Brian probably took what I said, Phil appeared to take what I said, but he was such a brilliant actor and an opaque human being that who knows what the hell he was playing?

Of course, that indeterminacy seems to be the key to the drama.

I think the key to the play is that you can’t know. It’s very difficult for people to accept that. If you’re going to be an effective human being in a social situation, you are going to have to proceed as if you do know when you don’t and hope for the best that your instincts are correct. But there is a price for doing that. It is a necessary activity, and there is a price for it.

“Doubt” had many inspirations, but I’ve read that one was the story of a relative you knew who had been molested by a priest.

It was a bunch of different things. One of the things was that I wrote it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, which we were doing because there were weapons of mass destruction. I kept waiting for the evidence that this was true, and it kept not being there. And this reminded me of another time in my life. I thought back to the neighborhood I was in, where everybody pretty much shared a worldview and a set of religious beliefs, and how underneath that certainty there was an earthquake, a social earthquake, going on, and everything was going to change very, very soon. And nobody realized that. One situation reminded me of the other.

Yes, I remember that “Doubt” felt very much like a Bush-era play, in that you took seriously Sister Aloysius’s position of authority, her need to act, but also questioned her rigid certainty. The line that stuck out to me was, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you move away from God, but in His service.” Every clause in that sentence is fighting the others, and it feels like the nub of the drama.

That is one of my favorite lines in the play.

How does it feel to watch the play now? Is it speaking differently to our current moment?

I feel like we’ve changed; the audience has changed. When we first did the play, there was a much higher degree of complacency in our society—we felt we didn’t have to worry about certain things, things were taken care of, in an institutional sense. Now nobody feels that way. So now the whole audience walks in wracked with doubt; I don’t have to do anything to get them to that place.

What I’ve found is that the audience is listening to the play in a different way. They are right there with it in a more powerful way than they were the first time we did it. What that means, I don’t exactly know. But I do know that the people in that room are more bound together by the play than they used to be. They used to be more at odds with each other. Now I feel like they’re huddled together on the same side in that sermon at the beginning.

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