This and next weekend, the teachers of the Shenzhen University Department of Acting are performing a Chinese adaptation of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, or 怀疑 as it is translated. After the show, several friends approached me and asked me what I thought of the acting. I said that I had enjoyed the performance. They looked at me strangely and pressed, “No, really, what did you think?” Evidently, they didn’t like it so I asked what they thought. Answers included, “I keep hoping that they’ll make me get nervous with the anticipation of waiting to see the show.”
“And you don’t feel that way?”
Flat out, “No.”
Another mentioned that he thought the actors were doing the best they could. But. But?
“They just don’t get the story. I mean, I don’t feel it with them.”
“What about the story?” I started asking, “Is the question of Doubt/ 怀疑 important to you?”
A considering look and then, “The actors are supposed to make me care about the topic. That’s their job.”
As the title suggests, Doubt is a teaching story, figuring the incessant problematic of faith in rigidly dogmatic Sister Aloysius’s certainty that the personable Father Flynn sexually abused Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. The story is set in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964 and the historical background matters because the characters also function allegorically for larger social shifts and ruptures. In 1962, Vatican II opened, but would not close until 1965, when the Council famously challenged the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world, acknowledging that truth could exist outside the community and declaring that the mass could be given in vernacular languages instead of Latin. Sister Aloysius embodies these past certainties and the Church’s previously unquestioned authority in all things moral, which tended to be, well everything; she suspected children of harming themselves to play hooky and saw sexual abuse in slight gestures. In contrast, Father Flynn represents the newer, hipper face of the Church; he plays basketball, wants to sing secular Christmas carols, and likes his tea sweet, perhaps even, too sweet, hmm?
Similarly, even though Donald Muller never appears onstage, his shadowy presence signals that like the Catholic Church, New York society was also changing and nowhere more than the Bronx. In 1963, Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway was completed. The bridge displaced families and businesses, was a constant source of noise and air pollution, and catalyzed the decline of the South Bronx from a district of family neighborhoods and businesses to the poorest district in the United States, despite its proximity to Manhattan. In fact, the South Bronx erupted into American national consciousness in 1977, when during a baseball broadcast, Howard Cosell exclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!” Sister James and Mrs. Muller are left to deal with the spiritual and practical aftermath, respectively. Sister James agonizes over the meaning of faith when innocence has been shatter and Mrs. Muller begs to protect her child despite his “differences”. Donald is black and may or may not be “that way” — his father and former classmates regularly beat him because they suspect he is — although Stonewall was only five years in the future, 1969.
Contemporary history also shapes reception. In 2002, the Boston Globe broke the story of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. Shanley first staged Doubt and won the Pulitzer in 2005. Soon, productions had been mounted in Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, and New Zealand. Roman Polanski directed the play in Paris; it was also staged in Venezuela and London. In 2008, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffmann performed the antagonists, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Clearly, Shanley’s nuanced exploration of moral ambiguity resonated with English-speaking audiences precisely because it resonated at so many levels — historically, spiritually, and personally. Or as an older Catholic friend summed up his response to the play, “Of course he did it and yes, she’s a bitch. But still, none of that changes the truth…” And implicit in this statement, reverberating through our souls is the desire to believe, to have faith. And yet, we doubt. As Shanley elegantly described our situation, “For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: ‘Help me!’ What if no answer comes?”
And therein lies our cross-cultural rub. For my Chinese friends there was no story except as conveyed by the actors. 怀疑 means doubt and suspect, and is often used to describe situations when someone may or may not be lying, as in, “I suspect she’s actually dating him,” or “I suspect he’s hiding something.” In the final scene, when Sister Aloysius cried, “我怀疑!” the audience seemed confused, unmoved by the Sister’s predicament. Maybe had cried, “无地自容” the audience may have understood that the foundation of her life had shifted, and she would never again act from life-affirming conviction. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, for those of us raised Irish-American Catholic, a profound chasm separates religious doubt from secular suspicions. We are taught, after all, to render unto Caesar, but in the last instance, when forced to choose, to vote our conscious, so to speak, we move within and against the heart’s fragile certainties; we yearn to be one with God and he is silent, but we must act as if he had answered our call. Thus, in the final scene, when doubt brings Sister Aloysius to despair, I understand. I am with her regardless of the quality of the acting. The acting was sufficient to move me because, as Stanley reminds us, “Doubt can be as powerful a bond and sustaining as certainty,” which I amend with the cross cultural caveat, “especially amongst former Catholics…”