The Playgoer: Doubts about "Doubt"?

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Doubts about "Doubt"?

Reading Ella Taylor's Voice review of JP Shanley's film of his mega-successful Pultizer and Tony-winning play Doubt (a major December release & Oscar contender in case you hadn't heard), I wondered why we never heard such critiques of the play on stage.

Shanley pushes moral relativism as far as it will go, which is all the way to preposterous via obnoxious in a key scene between Sister Aloysius and the black boy's mother that's meant to make us go "Aaaah," but made me go "What?!!"

If Doubt has a point to make about not rushing to judgment, it is overwhelmed by the force of Shanley's profound ambivalence toward women. True, he throws in a biographical tidbit or two to reassure us that Sister Aloysius is not just a man-hating, dried-up old cartoon virgin. But she sure behaves like one, and for that she must be punished with a final meteorological flourish, in which the anguished old nun sits surrounded by snow and ice. It's telling that the movie is dedicated to the real-life Sister James, Shanley's history teacher. But it's history that lets Shanley down: Inadvertently, Doubt shows us that there are limits to an open mind. Knowing what we know now, I wish there had been more vigilant old bats around like Sister Aloysius to shield Catholic children from the predators within.

On stage I found Doubt a very well-crafted and extremely well-performed piece of parlor theatre. But one that disturbed in a way not seemingly intended. I don't think my response to the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal was we should grant church hierarchies more benefit of the doubt. (As Taylor points out, in the film Shanley shows Father Flynn "furtively stuffing a boy's undershirt into a locker," which indeed seems to give Sister Aloysius "reasonable cause for further research")

But is it possible, that under his own direction, Shanley's distaste for the Sister Aloysuis character--and sympathy for the progressive male priest--gets the better of him? And, as Manohla Darghis' NYT review suggests, does cinema tempt Shanley to show too much of the backstory and make the boy-victim too real to still treat the play's conflict as an abstract philophical quandry?

More to the point, did the paucity of female drama critics on the NYC scene cause such valid questions as Taylor raises to be ignored? Or just the disengagement of the print-media theatre press from civic life in general and an unwillingness to engage a play ideologically as well as aesthetically?

(I often find I can still respect a play aesthetically and not ideologically. Which can make for a more interesting review!)


Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that the lack of female critics is a huge problem in theatre, which is why it is lamentable that Margo Jefferson is not longer writing theatre reviews in the Times. I think it is interesting that you find the film reviews well-crafted. I find Isherwood's frequent references to TV shows in his theatre reviews troubling. Has anyone ever done a survey of how many times Isherwood has made a reference to a TV show (as opposed to other plays i.e. other works in the same genre) in his theatre reviews?

Theater of Ideas said...

I wondered the same thing when I saw the reviews (I reviewed it myself for the National Board of Review web site in a more positive light) My personal theory is that film audiences are much more used to seeing a story about certainties, so that when a story is presented in which who is actually right and wrong remains in doubt, they have to assume a strong opinion one way or the other by the writer/director. Since Meryl Streep's character seems meaner, the writer/director must was us to believe she is in the wrong. Right? Wrong...

Anonymous said...

I agree -- more women as theater critics would be an excellent thing. But may I also suggest that there be more FEMINIST critics of any gender? Women are likely more apt to bristle at sexism for obvious reasons, but, hey, male critics ought to be able to notice and point to it, too.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sometimes called a feminist critic, usually in connection with more pejorative adjectives. But my real problems with the play weren't of that kind. My review of the Melbourne Theatre Co production here.

Anonymous said...

A few African American critics wouldn't hurt, either. The scene in question, in which an African American mother circa 1962, decides to send her precious son into an environment she knows is threatening, rings completely, preposterously false to anyone who, like me, has an African American mother. Shanley's ability to imagine a woman may be narrow, but his ability to imagine a black woman is absolutely nil. And absent any critics to call him on it, his view to every imaginable prize is clear.

-- G. Lane