Kandiss Chappell and Corey Brill in Seattle Repertory Theatre's Doubt, from the Seattle Weekly's Review
This past Saturday night, Anjie and I were fortunate to see Seattle Repertory Theatre's closing night performance of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Doubt, which was running in New York when Daniel and I were there last year, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, and no wonder.
Shanley, best known in pop culture as the writer of the film Moonstruck, wrote one of my favorite plays, a short romantic piece exploring teenage romance called The Red Coat. I knew Doubt would be good, but it's elegance and power caught me by surprise.
Going to Seattle Rep usually gives me a case of the regrets because of my short stint there in 1984. My resignation from an internship in artistic direction there was a turning point in my life, and not necessarily a good one. It was the foolish act of a young man who knew little about the world of professional theatre, and even less about the difficulty of mixing faith and art. As a result, the times I've been to the Rep since have always been laced with notalgia and thoughts of what might have been. Needless to say, this is not helpful when wanting to engage a play.
But Shanley's Doubt blew past all of that. When I first sat down, I read his essay-- "Embracing Doubt"--in the front of the program, a piece which apparently he wrote for the LA Times. I'd hoped to find the essay and link to it, but it doesn't appear to be online. For reasons that were clear to me, the essay spoke some healing into me even before the curtain went up.
"We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it's because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don't know...anything. But nobody's willing to say that."
The way I've put it in conversations is that public discourse these days is all about power and not illumination. Shanley's assessment resonated immediately. The rest of the essay is making a case for the good of doubt. And he is not talking a small dose of it--Shanley's doubt is the soul-rattling kind.
"It is Doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he's on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake, like you've gone the wrong way and you're lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present."
"Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite--it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time."
While I can't subscribe to the "no last word" theory, Shanley's belief that doubt is a humanizing force, creating humility and the possiblity for true diverse community, is a welcome idea. I could breathe easier as I settled in for the opening of the play, knowing that perhaps these are days of growth, as hard as they are.
Tomorrow, the play...