Two of the most talked-about Broadway plays of recent seasons were “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon.” “Doubt,” by John Patrick Shanley, dealt with a nun’s suspicions of sex abuse in a Catholic school in the Bronx. Though set in 1964, the play responded to scandals in the present. “Frost/Nixon,” by Peter Morgan, focused on the famous television interviews of 1977, when the lightweight British talk-show host effectively put our 37th president on trial for abuses of executive power. It, too, resonated with contemporary concerns.
Now, in provocative counterpoint, powerful film adaptations of the two plays are showing concurrently in American movie houses: a parable and a docudrama both crackling with urgency.
To extract a confession: that is the objective for Sister Aloysius, the principal of Shanley’s fictional parochial school, as it is for David Frost. As the world knows, Frost succeeded, ambushing Nixon in front of the television cameras with documented fact.. Sister Aloysius, as Shanley’s play has it, fails.
“It’s my job to outshine the fox in cleverness,” Sister Aloysius says, the fox being one Father Flynn, who has taken the school’s first black student under his wing. Her ammunition when she confronts Father Flynn in the privacy of her office amounts to no more than circumstantial evidence and her convictions. When the game seems lost, she bluffs—and lo, Flynn caves, requesting a transfer from the bishop, as she dictates. Between her and Flynn, that amounts to a confession. But the public exposure that would put him out of commission does not occur. In the final play, we learn that he has been appointed pastor of another school.
“It’s a promotion,” Sister Aloysius tells Sister James, the guileless young nun who has been her reluctant confederate. When Sister James claims still to be convinced of Flynn’s innocence, Sister Aloysius breaks down. “I have doubts!,” she cries out. “I have such doubts.”
I have heard four formidable actresses as Sister Aloysius deliver that line: Cherry Jones, in the original production, directed by Doug Hughes; Eileen Atkins, who took over from her on Broadway; Dominique Labourier, in Roman Polanski’s staging in Paris; and Meryl Streep in the movie, directed by the playwright. Until that moment, each had me hooked. Then, with a stroke, I disbelieved. You have doubts, Sister? Oh, no you don’t.
That about-face has continued to bother me, and now I think know why. I had not stopped to ask the obvious question. Sister Aloysius is in no doubt about Flynn, surely. So what is she in doubt about?
For possible answers, it helps to think back to Father Flynn’s sermon that opens the play. “What do you do,” he begins, “when you’re not sure?” What follows is a meditation on doubt that is emotionally suggestive but highly nebulous. In a first dialogue with Sister James, Sister Aloysius wonders what he was talking about: “Is Father Flynn in Doubt,” she asks, “is he concerned that someone else is in Doubt?”
Sister Aloysius, too, has her secrets. Out of charity, she covers for a sister who is going blind. Under fire from Flynn, she admits having committed mortal sin. She lies to trap Flynn.
“When you take a step to address wrong-doing, you are taking a step away from God, but in His service,” Sister Aloysius says for the benefit of Sister James. But where does it leave Sister Aloysius in stalking Father Flynn? “I don’t know what to do,” she continues. “There are parameters which protect him and hinder me.” By the end of the play, it may be those parameters she is doubting, which is to say the Church that has exacted her vow of obedience.
David Frost’s coup de télé offered the nation the comfort we like to call closure, and so does the movie “Frost/Nixon.” “Doubt” calls that very notion into question. “If I could, Sister James, I would certainly live in innocence,” Sister Aloysius says while on her journey. “But innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.”
Truth will out. Or so they say.