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Theatre / Doubt

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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 Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 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, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.

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 guilt 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 (Philip Seymour Hoffman even took it to the grave with 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Father Flynn. Maybe. At the very least, his terror and anger at learning that Sister Aloysius has been digging into his past shows he's not quite as on the up and up as he would like to seem.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: It's clear from Father Flynn's actions that he's done something that would ruin him if it ever became public. Whether or not it is something as vile as child molestation, of course, is entirely up to the audience's interpretation.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: As per the times, male homosexuality and pedophilia are considered one and the same.
  • 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).
  • 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.
    • Donald being the only black student in his school foreshadows the rapid demographic shift and "white flight" that would soon occur in the Bronx in the late 1960s.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Sister Aloysius is introduced walking down the aisle of the church harshly rebuking children who are misbehaving during the sermon.
    • The personalities of Aloysius and Flynn are most contrasted in the dinners they hold. Flynn laughs and tells jokes over liquor with the male clergy, while Aloysius holds an austere and silent meal with the nuns, reigning over the table like a tyrant yet also quietly helping an aging nun find her fork.
  • The Fundamentalist: Sister Aloysius, at least until the last line or two. In particular, Sister Aloysius embodies the values of the pre-Vatican II Church, and its stress on discipline, obedience, and absolute certainty. As such, Father Flynn's sermon on the necessity and even holiness of doubt morally offends her. It's a toss up on which disgusts her more, Flynn's possible pedophilia, or his vision of an open, welcoming Church more concerned with love than holiness.
  • The Ghost: Sister Aloysius, Sister James, Father Flynn, and Mrs. Miller are the only characters who appear in the play. Averted with the film version, however.
  • 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 she does seem to have the best intentions. In the film, she works to protect a nun whose eyesight is failing, and she refuses to stand by when she believes that a student is being preyed upon.
  • 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.
  • Hope Spot: For Sister James, Flynn's explanation for why he's been interacting with Donald Muller/Miller is this.
  • Hypocrite: Both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn have their moments, as when she's caught listening to the radio she took from one of the students and later when, despite her staunchly traditional and authoritarian approach, breaks the chain of command in her vendetta against Father Flynn, or when he, for all his supposed progressiveness, has no problem lording his position over the sisters.
  • I Did What I Had to Do:
    • When Sister James confronts Sister Aloysius about lying to Flynn in the final scene, the latter notes then "In the pursuit of steps away from God." She then sadly admits that "there is a price."
    • After Aloysius calls out Mrs. Miller for adamantly staying passive about her son's possible molestation, she explains with anguish that exposing it would get her son killed by his abusive father, while allowing it to continue "just until June" will do more to protect the boy.
  • 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 talked to a nun at one of Flynn's previous parishes, which causes Flynn to get hot under the collar as he believes she knows a dirty secret of his.
  • Minimalist Cast: Only four named characters appear in the play.
  • Moral Sociopathy: The least charitable interpretation of Sister Aloysius; she only cares about being right, and the fact that innocent children might be suffering is entirely secondary.
  • Morton's Fork: Sister Aloysius at the end. If she is correct about Flynn's guilt all she's done is gotten him Kicked Up Stairs into a position where he can do even greater harm. If she is wrong, her own petty prejudices led her to persecute a completely innocent man, and deprived a vulnerable student of his only protection.
  • 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.
  • Noodle Incident: Exactly what happened at Father Flynn's former parish and why he left are never specified but, based on his reaction, it's clearly something bad.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Sister Aloysius talks big game but it's made clear that her actions and suspicions are motivated far more by a petty dislike and disagreement with Father Flynn's views than concern for the boys under his care.
  • One-Word Title: The title of Doubt, which is about doubting whether Father Flynn is guilty or innocent. It could also be about faith itself, suggested by Aloysius's final confession of having doubts.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
    • Father Flynn, who is much more relaxed and informal—he wants a friendlier, more open atmosphere in his church and in his school, seems to casually disregard rules regarding how nuns and priests should interact, and wants to put secular music in the Christmas pageant—suddenly flies into a rage when Sister Aloysius admits to subverting the church's strict hierarchy to speak to a nun instead of the pastor at Father Flynn's former parish. He's clearly hiding something...
    • To that end, Sister Aloysius herself. She is a dedicated traditionalist who firmly believes in rule-following and proper behavior; the fact that she broke or rather, implied that she had broken church policy in going around the hierarchy indicates just how convinced she is that there's something terrible going on.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Flynn gives a sermon against gossip as a passive-aggressive rebuke of Aloysius's inquiries against him. He doesn't try to deny that it was directed at her.
  • Pedophile Priest: Father Flynn may be one. The entire point of the play is not knowing the truth of the situation.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Played with. Father Flynn comforts Sister James about her brother and life under Sister Aloysius 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 ailing 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.)
  • Red Right Hand: Father Flynn's strange fondness for growing his fingernails long, which helps suggest that he might be a weird guy. Aloysius's last line to him in the story is to tell him to clip them.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Is Father Flynn guilty or innocent? And what exactly is he so frightened of Sister Aloysius finding out by digging in to his past?
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons:
    • The film implies that Aloysius might have been right about Flynn molesting an altar boy, but William London instead of Donald Miller. William is shown recoiling from Flynn on several occasions and is said to take any excuse to escape from school. In the end, he smiles when Flynn announces his transfer, while Donald weeps.
    • Similarly, it's made clear that, while she may very well be right about him, Sister Aloysius' campaign to get him removed and suspicions are motivated far more by her personal dislike of his more liberal views and more progressive approach compared to her staunchly conservative views and desire to see him removed for that reason. There's even a hint that she is jealous of how popular he is among the students who see him as a friend and guide while only seeing her as a disciplinarian and glorified jail warden.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The play and film are inspired by the now-infamous Catholic sex abuse cases. The debate within the Church between traditionalists and progressives has only grown more heated since The '60s, with each side blaming the other for the crisis.
  • 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. The nuns are noted for their unusual bonnet-like headgear. This is also real. They are the Sisters of Charity of New York, founded in 1809 by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton — the first American saint. The outfits are based on the Italian-style mourning attire she wore after her husband died.
  • Tautological Templar: Sister Aloysius doesn't have any concrete proof against Father Flynn? No matter. She doesn't like him or his vision for the Church; that's the only proof she needs.
  • Tender Tears: Sister James has her heart on her sleeve quite a bit. Helps that in the movie she's played by Amy Adams.
  • Title Drop: Father Flynn's first sermon touches on doubt. In the end, Aloysius admits, "I have doubts! I have such doubts!"
  • The Unreveal: Wheter Father Flynn actually is molesting young boys or if it's all been a misunderstanding and paranoid campaign by Sister Aloysius is never answered.
  • 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.)
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Sister James more than once gets saddened by Aloysius's actions towards Flynn.
  • 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.