Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Whaddaya do when yua not shua?

So asks the priest in the opening line of a sermon on doubt that’s also the opening line of Shanley’s amazing and deservedly lauded Broadway play, Doubt. The thick sixties Bronx accent, coming out of the mouth of a sweet-faced, fully-kitted out young priest (Brian O’Byrne) sets the tone for the play: far funnier than I’d expected.

I knew, ahead of time, the story: in a Catholic junior high school in the Bronx, 1964, a nun suspects a priest of improprieties with a young student, the first black student at the school. What course of action should she take in the absence of evidence?

What I didn’t expect was for the play to be so amazingly funny, so deeply moving, and so much richer for the humor than it might have been. A solemn play about sexual abuse hardly sounds entertaining or cathartic, but this funny and troubling one with three incredibly sympathetic characters will stay with me for a very long time.

The third character, Sister James, a young, enthusiastic and intelligent nun, is the foil for the audience as she shuttles between young priest, eager to bring the church into the modern era, and the older nun, Sister Aloysius (the magnificent, towering Cherry Jones), who clings to the virtues of tradition, discipline, and distance. Watching this play with my mother-in-law (a retired ninth-grade English teacher) and my husband (also a professor) only emphasized for me how much this is a play about what kind of teacher one wants to be, about the dangers of making friends with students and the dangers of being feared by them. When Sister James is told that her enthusiasm for history may put other subjects at a disadvantage, she immediately promises to feign greater enthusiasm for other subjects. No! comes the swift counsel: just teach, don’t enthuse.

I may pretend that I’m thinking about the ways in which the play itself offers a prehistory of the church’s current sexual abuse scandal but I’m thinking as much about how the nun makes clear that the priest’s request for sugar—three lumps!—is read as a sign of decadence or her speech on the ball point pen as a sign of general social decay. Painful, insane, hilarious.

  1. The brilliant, sharp and admirable Katha Pollitt takes on Maureen Dowd,
  2. Fareed Zakaria celebrates Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia’s new president) as part of a larger international trend of women in politics (oh, let it be so! Oh, let the US join in!). Most heartening of all, he notes that, internationally, women in power seem to be fulfilling the dreams of the early feminist-pacifists: “There is growing evidence that, at the very least, where women make up a significant percentage of government, they tend to hold priorities that are different from men's. The World Economic Forum found…that women wanted more money for health care, education and social welfare, and less for the military.”
  3. although Uma offers a discouraging international reminder of the real plight of ordinary women who are not President, and
  4. Bud Parr launches Metaxu Café, a compendium of the best of the litblogs—check it out! (He explains the name here.)



Michelle said...

Thanks for the review of Doubt! Someone else recommended it to me also, so now I'll definitely put it on my list.

And speaking of Maureen Dowd, did you see the Newsweek cover story for (I believe it was) October 24? It was titled "How Women Lead" and profiled several very smart, very successful women. If we use theory debunking a la Dowd (that is, my male friend doesn't like smart women, therefore all men don't like smart women), then this article completely debunks her theory about the chances of a successful woman getting married and having children, because ALL of the women profiled in this article are married, and most have children. Do men really have a problem with successful women? Or do they just have a problem with Maureen Dowd herself?

Unknown said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Michelle. And yes, do put "Doubt" on your list.

I skimmed the Newsweek piece--now I wish I hadn't recycled it, thanks you the smart connection. I think you're right about Dowd & marriage. When I was single and longing to fall in love, my mom kept sayiing to me that people who want to get married do get married. I doubted but have come to believe that that's true. What is interesting is not whether or not someone's married but what kind of marriage they have, how they manage the difficult daily negotiations of marriage. But that is a mystery that few understand or write about with much insight.