Theatre: Doubt

Father Flynn: "You haven't the slightest proof of anything!"
Sister Aloysius: "But I have my certainty!"
Father Flynn: "Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion, not a fact."

A 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley (famous for writing Moonstruck), Doubt: A Parable also won the Tony award for best play, Cherry Jones (Sister Aloysius) won for Best Actress, and Adriane Lenox picked up the Best Supporting Actress trophy. A film version was released in 2008, adapted by its playwright and starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

In 1964, a Roman Catholic school in the Bronx welcomes a new priest, Father Flynn, into its circle. Fr. Flynn wants a "friendly, open" atmosphere in the church and school. One woman not embracing Flynn's views is a strict nun, Sister Aloysius. One day, a younger nun, Sister James, tells Aloysius of Flynn's relationship with the school's first black student, Donald Muller. Suspecting that the relationship is far from innocent, Sister Aloysius vows to go against the system itself to expose Father Flynn for what she thinks he is.

This work features examples of:

  • Ambiguous Situation: The entire story. And, considering the title and central theme, this is very much the point. The experience of watching it as an audience member can cause someone to see-saw back and forth in their opinion of Father Flynn's doubt or innocence.
    • Apparently Shanley wrote the play with a very specific idea of whether or not Father Flynn is guilty, but refuses to tell anyone except the actors who play him. Everyone else (including the other actors) are left to guess.
  • Berserk Button: Sister Aloysius has a number of minor ticks that cause her to come down hard on her students, such as use of a ballpoint pen. Father Flynn displays these qualities, causing Sister James to suspect her hatred of Flynn is simply personal.
  • Double Standard: The play is in part about double standards for priests and nuns. Even the ostensibly liberal Father Flynn assumes that the nuns are there to serve him (sometimes literally, as when he sits down in Sister Aloysis' chair). The film pushes this theme even further: at one point, we see the nuns glumly eating a bland, sparse meal, interspersed with shots of Father Flynn and his bishop having a jolly time over wine and steak.
  • Dutch Angle: The movie uses this a lot.
  • End of an Age: Shanley pointedly sets the action in 1964, the year before the Second Vatican Council ended. The Council made a number of changes in the church that were hoped would make it more progressive, open and welcoming, just as Fr. Flynn hopes.
  • The Fundamentalist: Sister Aloysius, at least until the last line or two.
  • The Ghost: Everyone not named Sister Aloysius, Sister James, Father Flynn, and Mrs. Muller in the play. Averted in the film version.
  • Good Is Not Nice: One of the central issues in the play. Aloysius is unfriendly, unforgiving, cold and cynical. She treats her students like inmates, unlike the liberal and friendly Father Flynn. But, as mean as Aloysius is (and as much as we want her to be wrong), she may be right.
  • Holier Than Thou: Invoked but complicated with Sister Aloysius, who is perfectly conscious that her crusade against Father Flynn may itself be sinful.
  • Hollywood Nuns: Sister Aloysius (harsh disciplinarian) and Sister James (sweet and innocent). The habits, however, are appropriate for the time (1964). Specifically, they are the habits of the Religious Teachers Filippini.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Aloysius gets Flynn to resign, but he is then made the pastor of another church and school, which is more of a promotion. Truth in Television, unfortunately.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: This is the most favorable interpretation of Aloysius. Although she is mean and unpleasant to nearly everyone, she is dedicated to the welfare of her students and will not stop at anything to ensure their safety. She breaks the chain of command, which is as important to nuns and priests as it is in the Marines. Of course, whether the threat she's acting on is real is still an open question.
  • Knight Templar: This is the other major interpretation of Aloysius. She decides that Flynn is a child molester because she sees a boy pulling away from him from a distance, and acknowledges that he can do nothing to change her mind that he's a rapist.
  • Lying to the Perp: Aloysius lies that she interviewed one of Flynn's former priest coworkers, which causes Flynn to get hot under the collar as he assumes she knows a dirty secret of his.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor: The original Sister Aloysius, Cherry Jones, is one of the friendliest human beings on the planet. The same can be said of her successor in the film adaptation, Meryl Streep.
  • Minimalist Cast
  • No Ending: Cast members have said that the third act of the play is the discussion that takes place amongst the audience afterward. Also, the question of whether or not Flynn is guilty is never resolved (see Shrug of God below).
  • Oscar Bait
  • Pet the Dog: Played with. Father Flynn comforts Sister James about her brother and life under Sister Aloysis partway through the story. Whether this is actual dog petting or him just trying to throw her off his trail is unclear.
    • Sister Aloysius protects a senile and blinding nun from getting kicked out. (Whether this is actually altruistic is debatable, as the sister in question would be taken care of...but she would likely be replaced by a lay teacher, something Sister Aloysius dislikes.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Is Father Flynn guilty or innocent?
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The play and film are inspired by the now-infamous Catholic sex abuse cases.
  • Shown Their Work: John Patrick Shanley actually attended and graduated from Catholic schools. It's probably not a coincidence, then, that Doubt offers up one of the only remotely realistic portrayals of Catholic schools in fiction.
  • Shrug of God: Shanley has been rather hesitant, if not unwilling, to say whether Flynn was guilty or innocent. The only ones who also know this are the actors who have played him, and they aren't telling either.
    • Only the actors who've played Flynn on Broadway and in the movie version get this luxury. In community theater/college productions, even the actor playing Flynn has to figure it out for himself.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Donald Muller, which is amended to Miller in the film version.
  • Title Drop: "I have doubts! I have such doubts!"
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Sister James initially seems to belong to this trope, although the play and film eventually call that judgment into question. (Not incidentally, Sister Aloysius isn't virginal: she joined the convent after her husband's death.)
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Sister James. Father Flynn can come off like this at first, due to his liberal views. Whether he is or not, or it's merely a facade, is open to debate.