Doubt won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, and after seeing it this weekend (the last weekend with the original actress, Cherry Jones, in the lead role, unfortunately) I think it richly deserved the win. The play deals with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and what’s particularly remarkable about it, in this year of hectoring works of art (most of them involving George Clooney), is it’s steadfast refusal to filter its story through an ideological lens. Set in 1964, Doubt follows a nun who suspects that a priest in her parish is molesting students, and given that description, it’s easy to imagine a bad, fashionable play about a heroic feminist nun taking down an evil, repressed, pre-Vatican II priest. But the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, is smarter than that: he makes the nun a tough-minded, old-school Catholic who sees the world in black and white, and the priest a young, hip, progressive figure who embodies all the ideas about religion that a Broadway audience is likely to find appealing. She seems heartless, tyrannical, and prejudiced; he’s questing, broad-minded, charismatic. But over the course of the play, the audience is invited to recognize the virtues contained within her old-fashioned attitudes, and the weaknesses at the heart of his charm.
Not that the priest ever entirely forfeits the audience’s sympathy, or that the nun is without her faults – again, the play is too intelligent to fall into a schematic view of its protagonists. What it does instead, more effectively than any work of art I’ve seen, is dramatize both the weaknesses of old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholicism – the legalism, the occasional cruelty, the seeming heartlessness – and the ways that the 1960s reforms went so quickly wrong, good intentions and all. It dramatizes, as well, the central paradox of the entire sexual abuse scandal, which is that it partook of the worst of both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism – the former’s sexual permissiveness and contempt for time-tested traditions, rules and safeguards; and the latter’s clericalism, its insistence that the hierarchy knew best and the laity should just “pray, pay and obey,” its willingness to use authority as a screen for irresponsibility. In the name of freedom and progress and experimentation, priests justified their own sins and those of their fellows; in the name of order and tradition and obedience, their superiors protected them.
And everybody meant well. True monsters like Fathers Geoghan and Shanley aside, this the reality of the sex abuse scandal, but also of nearly every great historical tragedy – and it should be written in gold letters on the wall of every screenwriting workshop and creative writing class in these United States. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but not nearly enough to justify the number of “serious” works of art that take an absurdly Manichean view of the world, and never even attempt to plumb the motives, or the humanity, of their villains. Terry Teachout (who loved Doubt) summed up this tendency earlier in the year:
. . . great art “takes you out of yourself.” By definition, it then puts you into somebody else, and in so doing enriches your understanding of reality. To do this successfully, it must be in the deepest sense sympathetic. The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as “the fact or capacity of sharing or being responsive to the feelings or condition of another or others.” Such a capacity is a sine qua non of all serious art. It is what makes Shakespeare’s villains believable: We feel we can understand their motives, even if we don’t share them. It is also central to the persuasive power of great art. Without sympathy there can be no persuasion. Even a caricature, however cruel, must acknowledge the humanity of its subject in order to be funny. The artist must create a whole character and not simply show the side of him that will most convince us of his villainy.
What I find striking about much of today’s political art, by contrast, is its unwillingness to make such acknowledgments. Instead of seeking to persuade–to change the minds of its viewers–it takes for granted their concurrence.
Teachout was talking about plays, for the most part, but his comments are even more telling after our autumn of Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana and The Constant Gardener – all skillfully-made movies that would have been worlds better with some bare acknowledgement that not every anti-communist was a McCarthyite, and not everyone who works for an oil company, a pharmaceutical company, or the CIA has knowingly sold their soul to the devil. Doubt is a welcome exception to this depressing habit. May there be more like it.
– posted by Ross