February 2009

Doubt Changes Everything

Can the uncertainty of the future bring us closer to one another?

John
Patrick
Shanley

John Patrick Shanley Portrait by Scott Council

During the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, I was in rehearsal in New York with a play I wrote called Dirty Story, about Israel and the Palestinians. We were on a break. I was sitting with a member of the cast, staring at the empty stage, sharing a blank moment of silence. I suddenly said, “I think I want to write a play called Doubt.” He asked what it was about. I didn’t know. It was the word. The word was powerful to me.

On TV, everybody was talking about weapons of mass destruction, but there was no proof. Still, the pundits and politicians who came off best in the debates were the ones who were assertive and certain. The weapons were there. It was ridiculous to think otherwise. Those who expressed doubt, who asked for evidence, were perceived as weak. I watched with an ache in my chest, a familiar feeling of oppression, devoid of words. This mute anguish is familiar to me. It is the beginning of a new work.

As the invasion unfolded, I felt alone, left out, which reminded me of my childhood in the ’60s. When I was a kid in the Bronx, I had no real opinions—which was fine, because no one ever asked what I thought about anything. I was like a witness who was never called to testify. I took everything in—a cultural freak, I guess. I wrote poetry, often about the beauties of nature. I was preoccupied with Wordsworth, Homer and Socrates. I was not exactly part of my time, not part of the zeitgeist. I picked up what people around me were feeling. I heard what they said, but I did not participate. When people got worked up and started heading in some direction, I watched and walked along beside them, feeling their feelings, maybe even sharing them. But at bottom, they were not my feelings. In the deepest part of me, I was like a ghost.

I don’t seem to have the same opinion about the ’60s as others. Many remember them as a wonderful time. From my point of view, they started off that way. I lived in this quiet, tough, working-class neighborhood, a place of shared values and stability. When Kennedy was elected, people were euphoric. The world was changing, and here was its new face: handsome, young, terribly intelligent and charming.

It was a nun who told me Kennedy had been shot. She was my teacher. She was a Sister of Charity named Sister Christopher. I remember the look on her face. Her world had collapsed. She sent us home. I lived only three blocks away, but I have never been able to find again the world I left that day.

A kind of hurricane of slowly building force followed. Vietnam was on television every night. Guys in my neighborhood were being drafted. My brother Tom went to Da Nang. Parents and children fell out over politics. The neighborhood flooded with heroin and other drugs. Criminality and arson skyrocketed. The Bronx caught fire. I was classified 1A for the draft, and the Bronx was burning. I felt an inarticulate crushing weight on my heart. What was happening? I was 19. I was writing, but I had nothing to say about this. All I had was the picture of that nun’s devastated face, like a locket under my shirt. The events of the world were too big. In 1970, I knew I had to do something to change my life, find my life. I joined the Marine Corps and left. The world I knew was gone.

I was an outsider in the Bronx maybe because I was a poet, and I was an outsider in the Marine Corps maybe for the same reason. And I was never a true believer. Not in the Catholic Church, not in Woodstock, not in the Vietnam War. I just couldn’t get caught up in the whirlwind. I did try. It’s lonely when you don’t believe. I wanted to believe. I envied those who did. For a while.

So there I was, reminded in 2003 of that earlier time. The difference was that now the pain and exclusion I felt had a name, and that name was Doubt. I felt a long overdue rage at those who had paraded their assumptions about what was for the best and had been wrong so often. I felt angry on behalf of my silent majority, those who, all my life, have been steamrolled by louder voices. I took that nun’s face from around my neck and began to write a story, the story of a little world of certainty that was about to be swept away. I wrote the play Doubt as we invaded Iraq, as Bush landed on the aircraft carrier. And I felt very alone. The story told itself: a nun—a formidable woman, an intellect, a moral force—coming face-to-face with modernity. And make no mistake, modernity is a storm. I saw the truth of that in the fate of my home, the Bronx. As I wrote, I was filled with grief and excitement for this nun, for a lost world, for myself.

Now I’ve made a film of the play, and the world has changed mightily in a very few years. I don’t feel alone anymore. It seems everyone is uncertain, tentative and open to discussion. Good. I can’t help but think it’s temporary, though I would like to hope the new attitude is more lasting. I want to live in a world where we reason together, where true discourse replaces crude posturing and rash conclusion. I miss Socrates.

There are so many different kinds of bubbles. The only thing they have in common is that they burst. The confidence of the world seems to me to have evaporated in such a short time. Everyone admits the future is unknowable, and we face it with apprehension, some hope and per-haps a nascent feeling of community.

I hope so. We are in this world together, breathing the same air, facing the same difficulties. Many ideologies and economies lie in shattered fragments on the ground. Many believed in the government. Many believed in Wall Street. Maybe we have taken things on faith long enough. Maybe it’s time we all started thinking again.

Our common bond now is a rueful admission that we have been mistaken in some things and now have a new humility and openness. I, for one, am glad, but it is frightening, too. We have the opportunity here and now to listen to one another.

The film version of this story is running in theaters. When I wrote the play, I felt relatively alone in expressing my uncertainty. Now I feel the whole world is in doubt. I am not alone anymore.

The future is here. The storm is upon us again. New ideologies will be thrust at us with loud voices. I pray we meet them with good questions and honest doubt.