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Doubt: A Parable

A book by John Patrick Shanley

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"I have doubts! I have doubts!" (Scene Nine)

  • Mar 14, 2010
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The odds are long that you have seen either in a movie theater or via DVD the lauded 2008 feature film, DOUBT, starring Meryl Streep as 50-something Sister Aloysius Beauvier. To the nuns in her small Bronx convent  and to  others who teach in the Catholic parish school, Sister Aloysius is the Principal.

She confronts late 30s, working class, articulate, popular Father Brendan Flynn, the parish's assistant pastor, with her worries that he is improperly interested in and protective of Donald Muller, a 12- year old boy who is the school's first  black student and who is soon to graduate from eighth grade and possibly go on to a college prep school and steadily rise out of poverty. Tough, shrewd, judgmental Sister Aloysius, whose husband had died fighting in World War II, also interacts with the boy's mother and a younger (20-something) sentimental, kindly nun Sister James, who is Donald's teacher.The film also shows a few more persons. It is a justly lauded feature film, with four of the cast being nominated for Academy awards.

Odds are, however, slim that you have either seen the 2004 stage play behind the film or read the slim play book called DOUBT: A PARABLE. The book is short. You can read it aloud from beginning to end in well under an hour. It has a cast of four.

It is the book, not the movie, that I am reviewing here and commending to you. I will assume that you have seen the film. Indeed, if you have not, you are not likely to want to read the book behind the film.

Like the movie, the play DOUBT: A PARABLE is set in the Bronx in 1964, in St. Nicholas's, an inner city Catholic parish. That parochial school (grades 1 - 8) for both girls and boys is run by Sisters of Charity, under the command of the parish's kindly older male pastor with the Rome-bestowed title of Monsignor. The children are, with one exception, white, from working class and lower middle class families, either Irish or Italian. 

The book of the play moves very fast through only nine brief scenes. Father Flynn dominates three of them:

Scene One: in church preaching a sermon on doubt;

Scene Three in the school gymnasium coaching boys' basketball;

and Scene Six in the pulpit preaching on gossip. That second sermon was probably inspired by a meeting Flynn had with Sisters Aloysius and James about altar boy Donald Muller's having been caught drinking some Mass wine.

Principal Sister Aloysius appears in each of the other six scenes, usually with Father Flynn and/or young Sister James, but in one powerul one interacting with Mrs Muller, Donald's mother. Mrs Muller says that her husband dislikes their son and beats him, apparently thinking him homosexual. She also makes it clear that even if Father Flynn is doing something bad with her son, it will only be for a few more months and it would be worth it, if it helped moved Donald upward academically. Sister Aloysius is appalled.

Through a lying claim that another nun has told her about something bad Father Flynn did in his last parish, Sister Aloysius manages to cause him to ask for a transfer. But the priest's possible disgrace turns into a promotion. He becomes pastor of another church with a parochial school. The play ends in Scene Nine with Sisters Aloysius and James reflecting on the strange turn of events. Sister James is thoroughly confused: "I have doubts! I have doubts!"   -OOO-

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review by . May 10, 2013
Gripping and thought-provoking: ripped from the headlines.
Sometimes a media blitzkrieg on a particular issue, in this case, the unraveling clergy sex scandal within the Catholic Church, can be so over dominant to the extreme that the genuine horror of its totality and those directly and indirectly affected, can regrettably seem like an unreality, a movie scene where human detachment is at its strongest. Where the media oftentimes fails to evoke a mood of empathy and personal involvement to what they are reporting--as they are covering facts--art, particulary …
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(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
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I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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About this book


“A superb new drama written by John Patrick Shanley. It is an inspired study in moral uncertainty with the compellingly certain structure of an old-fashioned detective drama. Even as Doubt holds your conscious attention as an intelligently measured debate play, it sends off stealth charges that go deeper emotionally. One of the year’s ten best.”—Ben Brantley, The New York Times

“[The] #1 show of the year. How splendid it feels to be trusted with such passionate, exquisite ambiguity unlike anything we have seen from this prolific playwright so far. Blunt yet subtle, manipulative but full of empathy for all sides, the play is set in 1964 but could not be more timely. Doubt is a lean, potent drama . . . passionate, exquisite, important, and engrossing.”—Linda Winer, Newsday

Chosen as the best play of the year by over 10 newspapers and magazines, Doubt is set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, where a strong-minded woman wrestles with conscience and uncertainty as she is faced with concerns about one of her male colleagues. This new play by John Patrick Shanley—the Bronx-born-and-bred playwright and Academy Award-winning author of Moonstruck—dramatizes issues straight from today’s headlines within a world re-created with knowing detail and a judicious eye. After a stunning, sold-out production at Manhattan Theatre Club, the play has transferred to Broadway.

John Patrick Shanley is the author of numerous plays, ...

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