When John Patrick Shanley went back to the Bronx district of New York where he grew up to film exteriors for the film of his play, Doubt, it was an odd sort of homecoming. There he was, on the corner of his old street outside the Catholic school he’d attended until, as would be the case with a few more educational establishments besides, he was removed from class. Except now, here he was standing besides one of the nuns who’d taught him and who he’d based a character in the play on, and once again he couldn’t get inside.
Shanley had been reunited with his former first grade teacher Sister Margaret McEntee when his original stage play of Doubt was en route to winning the 2005 Pullitzer Prize for Drama. Sister Margaret was the basis for Sister James, the idealistic novice in Doubt who becomes embroiled in her Mother Superior’s machinations to rid the school of a priest she believes to be abusing one of the boys. There is no clear evidence for such an accusation. Yet, in the post JFK 1960s when old certainties have given way to something less secure, suspicion alone is enough to mount the increasingly pernicious campaign.
Sister Margaret had got in touch with Shanley after hearing about his play, and they went to see Doubt together. Now Sister Margaret had become an advisor on a film that starred Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and, as Sister James, Amy Adams. Doubt, which would go on to be nominated for five Oscars, was dedicated to Sister Margaret.
“I was terrified,” laughs a bluff Shanley today. “I hadn’t seen this woman since I was a child, and I didn’t know what to expect outside of my six year old impression of her all those years before. She turned up, and she doesn’t wear the habit anymore, but she still teaches in the west Village. And when we watched the play, we looked through a window into the past. It turned out that she’d been twenty-one years old when she arrived at the school, and I was in her first ever class.”
Following Doubt’s global success both on stage and screen, it’s unlikely that either Shanley or Sister Margaret will make it to Theatre Jezebel’s new production of Doubt which opens this week at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. Sister Margaret has classes, while Shanley, the single father of two boys, has some new work on the go in-between his domestic commitments. One suspects, though, that Shanley has faith enough in Doubt to know it can survive on its own merits.
“At the time the play is set,” Shanley relates, “there had been a real air of certainty. That was how we were taught, with this idea of a belief in something that’s presented as fact. That’s something that happens every so often in the world, but when things become less certain, that changes everything forever.”
This is where Doubt’s subtitle, A Parable, comes in to play. While the Catholic church went through a tumultuous time during the 1960s with their attitude to women, sexuality and abortion in particular coming under scrutiny, Shanley’s inspiration for the play came from more recent events.
“About five or six years ago,” Shanley remembers, “there seemed to be an age of certainty again with weapons of mass destruction and so on. Once that was questioned, that too was less certain.”
Recent scandals in the contemporary Catholic church involving scenarios not that far removed from that depicted in Doubt have further damaged its reputation.
“What’s going on in the Catholic church is extraordinary just now,” Shanley observes. “There’s a tidal wave running right across America, which shows how the Catholic church is incapable of dealing with its own shortcomings and is incapable of humility. I’ve spent a lot of time with nuns ass technical advisors on Doubt, and these are women who were totally disenfranchised in the sixties, some of whom left the church in their droves. Today, as then, the tone deaf quality of leadership of the Catholic church in America and Europe has been jaw-dropping.”
Shanley was born to Irish parents, who emigrated to New York when Shanley’s father was aged twenty-four. By the time he was ten, Shanley was reading five novels a week, and had already begun writing. While he was in his own terms “troubled but gifted,” there were no role models for him to aspire to, and teachers didn’t know what to do with him until he wound up being sent to a private school in New Hampshire. It was here he met a teacher not unlike the one in Doubt.
“He turned out to be a predator,” Shanley remembers. “He didn’t lay a hand on me, but at the same time I knew something was wrong, even though I couldn’t articulate it to myself.”
Shanley carried on writing after joining the Marine Corps, never associating his gift with earning any kind of income from it. His first play, Welcome To The Moon, appeared in 1982. His follow-up, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, caught the attention of ex Beatle turned movie mogul George Harrison. Shanley went on to script Moonstruck, the 1987 triple Oscar winner starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, for which he picked up the Best Screenplay accolade. Moving into direction himself, Shanley made Joe Versus The Volcano with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles. Shanley’s film version of Doubt was the first motion picture he’s directed since.
This new production of Doubt is Theatre Jezebel’s second slice of contemporary American drama. It follows on from Autobahn, the compendium of six short works by Neil LaBute that marked the debut of Kenny Miller and Mary McCluskey’s shoestring company. With Pope Benedict XV1 due to give mass in Bellahouston in September, Doubt’s appearance is timely.
“On a theological level,” Shanley points out, “Doubt is about the Catholic church, but on another, it’s about the idea of being certain, and how far that might take you. Because, in order to let other people into your life, you sometimes have to admit that you’re wrong. Now, I have faith that there’s a powerful force in everything, but which I have no name for. On some level I’m like Dr Pangloss,” he says, referring to the doomed optimist of Voltaire’s satirical novel, Candide, “I do actually think things will turn out for the best, and that communally, the population of the world is doing the best it can. No one person wrote the American constitution or the Bible. They were communal efforts. But also, I’m full of doubt. I can say with a steady gaze, ‘I’m not sure.’”
Shanley quotes Saint Peter’s questioning of Jesus as the pair met going opposite directions to and away from Rome.
“He asked, ‘Quo vardis?’” Shanley recalls, Sister Margaret’s early teachings still clearly fulminating in his brain. “’Where are you going?’ Well, for me, I don’t know. Questions can be very dangerous, because sometimes there are no answers, and when I pick up a paper, I read it to see what isn’t in there. Art fills the vacuum.”
Doubt: A Parable, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, June1-5.
The Herald, June 1st 2010