One of the central points of Gavin de Becker’s terrific book The Gift of Fear is how often we (especially we women) talk ourselves out of listening to our fears. Something seems off–about this person, this relationship, this joke, this dark alley–and yet we tell ourselves not to be so suspicious, not to be hysterical, it’s only a joke, surely I’m imagining things. And de Becker points out that our instinctive sense of something wrong in a situation, something not quite true, exists to protect us and is right more often than we’d like. We carefully train ourselves to walk unprotected through a world which, as Stephen King put it, is full of teeth.
I haven’t seen Doubt, the movie, though I knew the basic premise: An old-school religious sister who runs a Catholic school in the early ’60s begins to suspect that the hip new priest is molesting a student. The play, by John Patrick Shanley (at Studio through October 6), opens with a homily/monologue on the experience of doubt, delivered by Fr. Suspect, which suggests that the play will be a meditation on the pain but also the protective nature of doubt. Perhaps doubt is a source of human solidarity, our common lot; perhaps, a riskier proposition, it protects us from fanaticism. In the end I didn’t think the play had so much to say about doubt, nor is it quite the ’60s Catholic culture-clash it appears to be.
It’s a sharp and painful portrayal not so much of doubt as of responsibility (my old nemesis!), its demands and temptations. It’s also very intensely and recognizably about the sex-abuse crisis in the Church. (I note that my assessment of where the play offers insight and where it doesn’t is nearly the opposite of what David Muse’s note in the playbill says Shanley’s own intentions were!)
From the second scene I was surprised by how much angular insight Shanley gave to the old sister, Sr. Aloysius Beauvier (Sarah Marshall). She works her lips like a cow chewing the cud of her experience and then spits out these perfect shivs of wisdom: “Innocence is laziness.” “If you are looking for reassurance, you can be fooled.” Her foil is the flighty young Sr. James (Amelia Pedlow), a sincere pre-Raphaelite beauty who seems constantly on the verge of fainting, the embodiment of “isn’t it pretty to think so.” Sr. Aloysius has the mind of Miss Marple, always awake to the possibility of folly or sin; she’s especially alert against deception, including self-deception. She is in fact suspicious. She is also aware of how easily an unsuspicious woman can talk herself out of protecting those entrusted to her, because it’s easiest to just assume everything’s all right.
Fr. Brendan Flynn (Christian Conn), our doubtful priest, is above all a man: comfortable with power. He plumps right down in Sr. Aloysius’s chair when she calls him into her office. In one scene he uses his height to try to dominate her. He is not particularly laid-back, my friend. I get that one critique of “spirit of Vatican II”-type antiauthoritarianism argues that rejection of traditional authority is always imposed by fiat and with even more dictatorial vigor than the old ways ever imagined (and I’m very sympathetic to this line of thinking, nobody’s as self-willed as an antiauthoritarian in power) but I’m not sure what Fr. Flynn even says, other than the doubt stuff, that would make him a “spirit of Vatican II” priest. Is that enough? He has no social concerns, he has no liturgical opinions, he proposes no changes, he does not feel like he even intends to be a breath of fresh air sweeping into the claustrophobic Church.
Sr. Aloysius is the best and worst of the old ways. She’s the strict, loving general who doesn’t expect her kids to open up to her because “They’re children! They can talk to each other,” who through iron discipline creates a haven in a heartless world; but also the grouch who grumps about the pagan witchery of “Frosty the Snowman,” and the martinet who insists so firmly on discipline and humility above all that she nearly crushes a teacher’s love of her work. She’s got a touch of Frost in May, you know. But Fr. Flynn doesn’t particularly represent the new ways at all, let alone both the best and worst aspects of them.
The play intends you to remain uncertain about whether Fr. Flynn actually did what he’s accused of. I was not that uncertain tbh. To me it is a harder play than mere uncertainty would allow: It played out like a story about what it’s like to know something terrible is happening, something which it is your responsibility to prevent, yet find no way to stop it. She lacks evidence–that’s true–but her real temptation imo is not fanatical certainty. Sr. Aloysius goes far past the boundaries of her obedience–and past the last buoy of Catholic faith, I think–and what tempts her is her responsibility. She begins to believe she has a right to do anything in the service of that responsibility. That is her idolatry.
A few caveats and miscellaneous notes: One situation where the “gift of fear” may predictably mislead us is when we confront someone we’ve been trained to view with hypersuspicion. White women clutching their purses at black men on the street are listening to their fear, you know? And this role in Doubt is played by Fr. Flynn’s effeminate long fingernails. Are they signaling something? And is it the awful signal Sr. Aloysius imagines? Or is it just that she’s been trained to view any man who doesn’t conform to very strict gender roles as a predator? OTOH when homosexuality is explicitly discussed in the play it’s in a context which, frankly, fits the pattern of a lot of sexual predation. …Also Sr. Aloysius’s final collapse and confession is cheesy, sorry. Some of her dialogue gets a bit cartoony toward the end, and that last line in particular should’ve been cut–the play is more powerful if she cries but says nothing. …And last–Sr. Aloysius tries to find an alternative source of authority and power, against the unlistening men of the hierarchy, but gives up quickly. What cleansing has happened in the Church–a process barely begun–has happened in large part because Catholics overcame their reluctance to turn to secular powers. They turned to the press, the state AG’s office, etc, in order to expose evil and thereby protect the Church, Christ’s flock. In 1964 perhaps that path wouldn’t really be imaginable to a Sr. Aloysius, which fuels her desperation.
Photo of an unrelated Catholic school via Wikipedia.