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Doubt: Renew Humanity or Become a Lie?

TW: Sexual Abuse; Religion

Parable (n): a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. The Tortoise and the Hare: “The race is not always to the swift.” The Emperor’s New Clothes: “We must not let pride or fear keep us from speaking up.” The Boy Who Cried Wolf: “Nobody believes a liar … even when he is telling the truth!”

Upon first glance, Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, may seem simple and straight-forward enough: a no-nunsense (see what I did there?) Catholic principal, Sister Aloysius, suspects the charismatic priest, Father Flynn, of doing the unthinkable with the school’s first Black student. Using whatever tools necessary to uncover the truth, Sister Aloysius stops at nothing to expose Father Flynn. But Father Flynn is protected. Not only by the tender-hearted Sister James and the long-suffering Mrs. Muller, but by the very system within which all of the characters operate.

The script’s accolades are vast: nominated for eight Tony Awards; winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play; and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2008, the film adaptation, simply titled, Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis, was also nominated for five Academy Awards. It is clear this parable has audiences and critics in agreement: We desire truth when faced with doubt.

Doubt’s conception was brought to pass by the 2002 Boston Globe’s expose on the Catholic church’s widespread sexual abuse scandals as well as the United States invasion of Iraq in 2004. Not only was this time period socially and culturally tumultuous, but a time of personal wrestling for John Patrick Shanley. Father Flynn's character is based partly on a teacher from Shanley's own life:

“He took me under his wing. I had a heavy Bronx accent, I wasn’t popular with the students, and I was even less popular with the teachers -- I had some emotional problems -- and this guy really championed me, and saw something in me, and educated me; gave me a great classical education. But he was a predator, and in my case he did nothing about it.”
“I didn’t know it at the time, but there was something in the air, and by degrees I became more and more disturbed, and finally many years later I got corroboration from an eye witness. Shortly after that I got a letter from him that he was dying, and invited me to visit him, and I didn’t go. I wished him well, but I couldn’t honor him in that way. I wrote Doubt shortly after that.” (John Patrick Shanley on “Doubt.” Studio 360, December 13, 2008).

It is tempting to desire the simple. To seek after the moral lesson. To define our lives by what is black and what is white. But what this parable asks from us, dear reader, is not so simple. It asks us to look at our own complacency. Our own blind spots. Our own shortcomings. And, after looking at these stains on our mortal coil, we are asked to act. We are asked to decide.

In the preface to Doubt: A Parable, Shanley writes, "The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie." How do you, dear reader, define your truth? What is your personal relationship to truth? How do you find it? And, when faced with the unknown, will you look at it? Or will you turn away?

Chelsea Hickman

Literary Manager

An Other Theatre Company

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