DUBOV: I’m joined today by John Patrick Shanley, the author – playwright – of DOUBT: A PARABLE, and we’re going to speak to him about his thoughts on the play and our production of it coming up in April, in Bethesda, Maryland.
You call it DOUBT: A PARABLE. How does the metaphorical structure of parable, which you used – how do that work in the play itself?
SHANLEY: I guess, when I was a kid, I grew up in the Bronx, and I was a little Irish Catholic. On Sunday we would go to church; a priest would give a sermon, which was based around stories from the Bible, and then what the priest made of that story. And I always loved the stories, and then when the priest said what it meant, I wanted to get up and go down front and say, “I don’t think that’s what it means.” And that very basic objection, or desire to put my two cents’ in – is kind of the drive that led me to become a playwright in the first place. And so what interests me is to tell a story and leave it to the audience to say, “Well, this is what it means to me.”
DUBOV: Was there any particular parable that you were thinking of as you were writing?
SHANLEY: Actually, there’re a lot of parables that hold particular validity for me, but I wouldn’t moor the play to any one of them, because I do like the idea of the audience getting to say what they think it’s about, for themselves.
DUBOV: And along those lines, when you were writing, you – I think, in another interview [by Michael Riedel for] Theater Talk with the original Broadway cast – you talked about your thoughts when you were writing, about how deeply alienating the culture of debate was at the time and how people tended to either embrace or fight change, based on kind of a change going on in the Catholic Church, and Vatican II, and those kinds of issues surrounding the Church in the 1960’s. Does that hold any relevance today?
SHANLEY: Well, sure. You know, on the political landscape, or on any other landscape in which people talk about anything, discuss any idea, there is a tremendous amount of the “will to power,” and people aren’t just trying to win. There’s a kind of conversation that we’ve all been in, where we’re arguing with somebody, and we want to prevail in the argument, and the person that we’re talking to wants to prevail in the argument, and in our perhaps excessive desire to win the argument, we go further than we feel true conviction about, and we find ourself on increasingly thin ice, or maybe even standing on air, like [Wiley] Coyote and the Road Runner. At that point, all we’re trying to do is win, and we’ve lost the ability to listen to the other person, to be affected by them, to be swayed, or just informed. And that lack of humanity in conversation, in debate – in politics, in religion, in anything – leads to airlessness, and loneliness, and I’m against it.
DUBOV: And when you say “airlessness,” what do you mean by that?
SHANLEY: There’s nothing going on, truly, between you and the other person; You’re just pushing and pulling.
DUBOV: So it becomes kind of a power struggle.
SHANLEY: It’s about power. It’s not about ideas. It’s certainly not about the best idea in the room, and it’s a lesser thing than what we as human beings are capable of.
DUBOV: And do you see the characters of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn… how do they move into that?
SHANLEY: Certainly, in the play, there is vigorous debate, toward theater at various points in the play, of different people with points of view, trying to sway or overrun other people with their point of view. And one of the things that I was able to do in this play, which perhaps I haven’t done that often, and I should do more, is … I’m not in the play. You know, I’ve written a lot of plays where I’m one of the characters, and in this play certainly I’m all of the characters; I’m also just none of them, which gives it a kind of freedom for me as an artist and for the audience as participants, to go wherever in the play they want to go. If I exist in the play, I exist in that space between all of the characters, and the play itself is my description of what it’s like for me to experience being alive.
DUBOV: So you say you are not any of the characters. How did you then relate to … well, I guess, you’re all of the characters, or none of the characters …?
SHANLEY: You know, I’m kind of like the mob – you know, like, in Shakespeare, there’s the mob, and they start off, you know, they kill the king, and the guy makes a great speech, and they’re like, “Become king!” And – I don’t know how many people are willing to admit this, but I’m basically that way. If I’m listening to a bunch of compelling people talk about what they believe, and they hold different points of view, the longer they talk, the more I come around to their point of view. And then, when the next person talks, and expresses well another point of view, I start to find myself agreeing with them. And, you know, the question comes, “How can you agree with oppositional forces with ideas?” And actually, I can. And that’s one of the reasons I’m a playwright.
DUBOV: That makes a lot of sense. In one of the other questions one of our cast members talked about was, I believe, it was in another interview you did, with the American Theater, with Conor McPherson, and we did his The Night Alive, just this last fall …
SHANLEY: …terrific play…
DUBOV: It was a wonderful play. I was able to play Doc, which wa… it was a great honor to do that. And you talked about that a play was very much a product of the time in which it was written, and couldn’t be rewritten the same in another time …
SHANLEY: …that’s true…
DUBOV: …do you still feel that way?
SHANLEY: I certainly do. Any of the plays I’ve written, any other time but the time when I wrote them … and, in the case of Doubt, I wrote it in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, where they said there were weapons of mass destruction, and then we went in and there weren’t any; and during all of the ….I was listening very carefully to the news, and reading all of the newspapers, and I was looking for that piece of information that would confirm for me that there were weapons of mass destruction, and I couldn’t find it. And so I realized, when I was watching all of these talk shows, with people arguing really confidently about why we had to invade, I’m like, oh, this is just an act of faith. These people are actually offering …. just saying, “Believe me. Just believe me.” As we know now, there were no weapons of mass destruction. And Saddam Hussein was, in fact, writing a novel.
DUBOV: And we have someone in the White House today who says, “Believe me” a lot.
SHANLEY: An awful lot. But there’s a sort of hollow conviction that can feel very solid coming out of the mouths of many politicians, and it’s up to sagacious and mature people to be able to see through that, and not embrace humbug. You want to have the nuts and bolts of reason holding together the arguments and ideas of the people that we vote for.
DUBOV: And do you see – and this may be a bit of a stretch – but Father Flynn having that same kind of … “Just believe me, trust me, I’m a priest. I hold the power in the Church in this setup.”
SHANLEY: All of the characters are basically asking you to believe them, each in their own way. What if Mrs. Muller is actually lying about what’s going on at home? We don’t know. That certainly would change everything, wouldn’t it? And that’s true of all four characters. All four of them have a secret. There’s no question about that in my mind.
Tickets for DOUBT: A PARABLE, which opens April 7, 2017, are available at http://qtcdoubt.bpt.me.