Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Hornby, Richard

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

IN THE JANUARY 17, 2005 ISSUE of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin published an article entitled “Killer Instincts,” about an Arizona prosecutor who was disbarred for intentionally presenting false evidence in death-penalty cases. Toobin interviewed staff members at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University Law School, who pointed out that such prosecutors never set out to frame someone they know to be innocent. They always believe the person to be guilty; a “gut instinct” takes over, which becomes the ultimate reality. Since they just know whether a defendant is guilty or innocent, why worry about niceties of evidence? Unfortunately, that kind of arrogance is all too common, which is why there are so many wrongful convictions. Self-righteousness tends to corrupt.

I thought of Toobin’s essay while watching John Patrick Shanley’s splendid new play Doubt, which transferred from the Manhattan Theatre Club stage last fall to Broadway in spring. I had been dubious about the piece, because descriptions made it sound as if it was merely exploiting the child molestation scandals now plaguing the Catholic Church, but it turned out to be a beautifully crafted psychological thriller that was anything but exploitative. It is set forty years ago, long before the molestation scandals, when Catholic priests were still highly respected even by non-Catholics for their uprightness and dedicationthough certainly not for their brains. It contains astute observations into Church politics and personalities, especially the kind of personalities that lead individuals to become priests or nuns. As the title of the play implies, it depicts a Pirandellian situation in which guilt or innocence cannot be determined, but even more it depicts the way that a prosecutorial mentality can run amok.

Doubt is set in a parochial school in the Bronx, which has a convent attached. Both priests and nuns teach at the school, but contact between them is limited; priests may not enter the convent, of course, and a nun and a priest must never be alone together. A young priest, Father Flynn, has recently been transferred to the school, where he is well liked by the students and most of the staff, including his unseen superior, Monsignor Benedict. An eager young nun, Sister James, who teaches history, admires him immensely. Their situation is reminiscent of Leo McCarey’s 1945 movie The Bells of St. Mary’s, with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman as a priest and nun teaching in the same school, in which sexual attraction is never acted upon, but which nonetheless underlies the relationship. The story as it develops in Doubt, however, is much darker, with possibilities of child molestation.

The play begins with Father Flynn preaching a sermon on the “crisis of faith” that many contemporary Catholics feel; he counsels them not to feel ashamed, that doubt can be a bond, that “when you are lost you are not alone.” It is a surprisingly modern, offbeat homily, especially since Father Flynn, like all the other clergy in the play, seen and unseen, is basically conventional and not particularly intellectual. Other speeches he delivers in the play, on the importance of cleaning under your fingernails or how to shoot a basketball foul shot, are more what we would expect from a typical American priest in 1964.

The sermon on doubt turns out to be the inciting event for the play. Sister James finds it brilliant, but her superior, Sister Aloysius, is disturbed by it. “Is Father Flynn in doubt, is he concerned that someone else is in doubt?” she asks. Sister Aloysius is a cold, shrewd older woman, who seems to know everything about all the students at the school, and who counsels Sister James to be less familiar with them and to be less enthusiastic about her subject, history. The older nun’s aloof, selfrighteous nature makes her the polar opposite of the concerned, caring Sister James and Father Flynn, but there is no question about her sincerity. If anything, it is her tragic flaw.

Thus, when Sister James reports to Sister Aloysius that she saw Donald Muller, the first black student at the school, coming from Father Flynn’s rectory looking frightened and upset, with alcohol on his breath, the suspicious older nun immediately concludes the worst. Father Flynn’s modernist sermons were evidence of wickedness, while his using a ballpoint pen, having long fingernails, taking three lumps of sugar in his tea, and putting the song “Frosty the Snowman” into the Christmas pageant, all signaled depravity. Thus Sister James’s story about Donald is of course irrefutable evidence that the priest is a sex abuser.

Confronted by Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn maintains that Donald, an altar boy, had been caught drinking sacramental wine, which is the actual reason for the alcohol on his breath and for the distressed looks after Father Flynn met with him over the transgression. It is a plausible story, but perhaps a cover-up. But how can the two nuns determine the truth? Going to Monsignor Benedict, who “thinks the sun rises and sets on Father Flynn,” would get nowhere. Donald, if questioned, would probably be too ashamed to verify any molestation. As in most child abuse cases, it is impossible to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sister Aloysius, however, harbors no doubts. She embarks on a quest that only a full confession will satisfy. She is unconcerned with explanations, alternative interpretations of the evidence (which is flimsy to begin with), extenuating circumstances. Even a visit from Donald’s tolerant mother, who admits that her son is gay (for which his father beats him), and who is pleased that Father Flynn is kind to the boy even if it involves sexual intimacy, cannot shake Sister Aloysius from her purpose. “I will step outside the Church if that’s what needs to be done,” she shouts at Father Flynn in their final confrontation. “I will do what needs to be done, Father, if it means I am damned to Hell!”

Father Flynn does seem to have a troubled past; this is his third parish in five years, and he seems nervous when Sister Aloysius claims that she called a nun at his previous parish to inquire about his prior indiscretions. But not only did she make no such call, the indiscretions, whatever they were, may have had nothing to do with molesting children. In the end, Sister Aloysius’ vigilante search for justice dissolves into thin air. She has known from the beginning that she operates in a male-dominated Church, in which even her confrontation of Father Flynn goes against the rule of a priest and a nun never being alone together. Even more than most bureaucracies, the Catholic Church is dominated in its upper hierarchy by timeserving officials who are out to protect the reputation of the institution at all costs. When Father Flynn afterwards goes to the Bishop, he gets appointed pastor of another church and school-a promotion! Perhaps Father Flynn is a pederast priest who is being shifted to a new stalking ground, as we now know was a common pattern, or perhaps he is an innocent person who has been unfairly hounded out of a parish he was honorably serving. Only at the end, when the transfer is a fait accompli, does Sister Aloysius suddenly cry, “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” like a person awakening from a bad dream.

In an era when hysteria over child molestation has led to terrible injustice (as in the infamous McMartin childcare case), when media outlets like CNN and Fox News act like cheering sections for the prosecution in high-profile criminal trials, when terrorist suspects are warehoused for years with rights of the accused suspended, when dozens of death row inmates are suddenly and incontrovertibly exonerated, Doubt is a reminder of why we have rules of evidence, why suspects are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and why guilt must be proven in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt. While I was writing this review, Michael Jackson was acquitted in his molestation trial. He was probably guilty, but “probably” is not good enough for a conviction, and should never become so. Unlike Sister Aloysius, the Jackson jury knew its duty, and did it. But the Catholic Church is also depicted as reprehensible in the play for not providing fair, impartial procedures for ascertaining abuse. Unlike Sister Aloysius, the Jackson jury was fully able to do its duty.

Doubt won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, then ran off with four Tony Awards at the end of the season, including Best Director (Doug Hughes) and Best Play. The incomparable Cherry Jones won for Best Leading Actress, with a bold performance that depicted all the negative qualities of Sister Aloysius, yet made us see all the complex reasons for them. Adriane Lenox won Best Featured Actress for her understated, sincere performance as Donald’s mother. Unfortunately, Brian F. O’Byrne did not win for his Father Flynn, but deserved to, for giving us a muscular Christian with sensitivity and depth. (As a result of his performance in the role in the initial run of the show Off-Broadway, Glint Eastwood cast him as the priest in the film Million Dollar Baby, showing that Eastwood has a better eye than the Tony voters.) The one false note in the show was Heather Goldenhersh in the role of Sister James, which she overplayed, mugging constantly as if trying to show us that the character was a fool. Otherwise, this play (which Shanley aptly calls “a parable”) was perfect, a small but shimmering gem.

Even more than Doubt, Martin McDonagh’s new play The Pillowman floats in a lake of indeterminacy. Even its locale is mysterious. McDonagh’s other plays are set in an Ireland of his imagination (although Irish by extraction, he grew up in England), but at least are recognizably Irish, while The Pillowman is set in some totalitarian country that remains a literary abstraction out of Kafka or Pinter or Beckett.

The protagonist is a writer named Katurian (note the initial) who has had only a single story published. To support himself he works in a slaughterhouse, which, as we shall see, is appropriate. As the play opens, he is being interrogated by two menacing policemen named Tupolski and Ariel, who are good cop and bad cop respectively, but both of whom are cheerfully ready to murder their suspect once they get information from him. Katurian’s profession as a writer, and the interrogational style, in a dreary high-ceilinged room in which screams can be heard in the distance, lead us to believe that he is being detained for his political views, as a prisoner of conscience, especially when we learn that the cops have taken his stories away to examine them.

In fact, Katurian is basically apolitical; his stories have nothing to do with politics but instead focus on the abuse of children, as fairy tales for grownups. Furthermore, it appears that the crimes he is accused of are genuine; someone has been murdering children using the stories as a model, a case of life imitating art. Katurian, however, insists that his writings are strictly imaginary, that he hates stories that are even remotely autobiographical, and that he certainly does not act out his stories nor encourage anyone else to do so. In a strange, deadpan, yet brutal and even hysterical way, the play seems to be recapitulating all the debates about the relationship between life and art of the past century and a half.

It turns out that the offstage screams have been coming from Katurian’s retarded younger brother Michal. The cops believe that he is the murderer, acting out stories that his brother told him. A box containing razor blades and the toes of a child were found in his home, recalling a Katurian story in which a stranger cuts off a boy’s toes as “a gift,” since it turns out that they are living in Hamlin, where the only child not lost to the Pied Piper will be a little crippled boy who cannot follow along. Katurian responds with yet another Kafkaesque horror tale, about two brothers, one pampered by their parents and the other tortured. This may refer to Katurian and his brother, but since the former has insisted that his stories never draw on his own life, who knows?

Michal is brought in, and the two have a confrontation in which the retarded brother admits he killed the children, acting out his brother’s stories. This is the one solid truth in the play. The mystery instead concerns how much the murders were Katurian’s fault. How much is a writer of fiction responsible for the influences his stories might have? We recall Goethe writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, which set off a wave of suicides in Europe in imitation of the eponymous hero. At any rate, Katurian feels some responsibility, because he kills Michal, smothering him with a pillow in the manner of his story “The Pillowman,” and with the same purpose as in the story, to prevent further suffering.

In the end, Katurian himself is summarily executed, after some deadpan literary criticism of more of his stories. (Everybody is a critic, even including totalitarian policemen.) His stories were supposed to be burnt, but in the end the bad cop, Ariel (who has literary pretensions himself, of all people), changes his mind and saves them.

Except for its non-Irish setting, The Pillowman is typical McDonagh, in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition, brutal, shocking, yet drab and workaday. The breakthrough for the playwright here is in presenting a convincing artist onstage, that most difficult of literary accomplishments. Short, pithy, unfashionable (who writes fairy tales these days?), and shocking though his stories may be, Katurian is “the real thing,” as Fitzgerald told Maxwell Perkins on first reading Hemingway.

Billy Crudup played Katurian in the Broadway production (based on a National Theatre production in London, which I did not see), which was deftly directed by John Crowley, who perfectly understood the play’s oddities. Crudup is a movie star who is also a fine stage actor; see him in the little-noticed film Stage Beauty, where he plays a Restoration actor specializing in drag roles, in which he is totally convincing, feminine without being effeminate (see Bert Cardullo’s review in this issue, pp. 461-463). He was equally convincing as Katurian, the talented, selfconfident writer.

There is a saying that every great play has a mystery in it. Why does Hamlet delay, who is Godot, why is Oedipus so blamed unlucky? In Molière’s Tartuffe, the mystery is not in the title character, whose pious hypocrisy is so obvious that nearly everyone in the play sees through him, but in his patron, Orgon, who dotes on Tartuffe despite all the evidence. In fact, the stronger the evidence against his protégé, the more Orgon idealizes him. Tartuffe devoured a leg of mutton and a brace of pheasants? “Poor man!” cries Orgon. He knocked back four beakers of wine? “Poor man!” And so on.

As one might expect, the most common “explanation” for Orgon’s behavior in theatrical productions these days is to make him gay, with a gnawing lust for Tartuffe. This is not only unsupported by the text, it also takes the mystery out of the play, reducing it to a simplistic piece of psychological realism. Orgon’s irrationality is the defining quality of Tartuffe; give him an explanation, and you have explained away the play.

The best production of Tartuffe that I have ever seen in any language was presented by The Actors’ Gang at its Hollywood theatre last spring. The Actors’ Gang, founded by movie star Tim Robbins long before he became famous, has been developing into the best theatre company in America for stylized drama. Lately they have been experimenting in commedia dell’arte style of acting, using masks, facial painting, and fullbody mime. This is never style for its own sake; the mask work in particular helps to liberate the actors, making them funnier and livelier and their characterizations more powerful. This was particularly apparent with the production of Robbins’ own Embedded (reviewed by me here in Volume LVII, No. 1, Spring 2004), in which the actors in masks impersonating the members of the Bush administration were far more effective and “real” than they were when playing realistic scenes as journalists and soldiers in Iraq.

In The Actors’ Gang Tartuffe, Orgon was played by P. Adam Walsh. Despite wearing a three-quarter black mask, and white clown makeup under it, Walsh was not only hilariously funny, he revealed Orgon through the mask, which even seemed to take on differing expressions. He gave the character a petulant whine sounding suspiciously like George W. Bush, but even more he used revelatory body language. Feet together, his body twisted in a contrapposto position with his arms pinned to his sides, he seemed like a spoiled child manipulating his parents via a temper tantrum. I understood for the first time the importance of Orgon’s family in the play; Orgon senses that Tartuffe is a phony, and that the family and servants are quite right in seeing through him, but he wants them to share his adoration for the man anyway, out of malice, out of an infantile lust for power. Credo quia absurdum est, and you had better go along with me! “I shall defy you all,” he shouts at his son, “and make it clear that I’m the one that gives the orders here!” Lines like these make it clear that his motivation is not religion, and certainly not homosexuality, but dominance for its own sake. Like a small child banging his head on the floor, he will even injure himself in his power lust. I had never noticed before seeing Walsh in the role that signing over all his property to Tartuffe is entirely Orgon’s own idea, not asked for by Tartuffe. It follows directly from the above tirade against his son and is obviously done to spite him and the rest of the family for not following Orgon down his self-destructive path.

Walsh was supported by a fine cast, The Actors’ Gang at its best. (Tim Robbins at times seems to cast shows on the basis of friendships rather than talent, but this show, directed by Jon Kellam, did not fall into that trap.) Just as one cannot review Hamlet without mentioning the Dane, I would be remiss if I did not mention Andrew Wheeler, who was splendid as Tartuffe. True, it is not all that difficult a role, but I have certainly seen other actors fail in it. Wheeler caught just the right hushed tone, the bogus over-sincerity of Tartuffe; although not wearing a mask, his strong features, feline movements, and intense concentration on his victims made him an archetypal figure equal to those of the others in the cast.

In early May, New York magazine abruptly fired John Simon, its theatre critic for thirty-seven years, and onetime theatre critic of The Hudson Review. Although nearly eighty years old, he has shown no diminution of his powers, continuing to write with his incisive, knowledgeable, entertaining style. His removal seems to have been political, with a new editor-in-chief acceding to the usual pressure from theatrical producers to replace him with someone more positive.

This was a sad day for the American theatre, where reviewing has been deteriorating for decades. Most of our theatre reviewers are journalists rather than critics (e.g., Ben Brantley at the New York Times), and almost none has the scholarly credentials of Simon, with his doctorate from Harvard in comparative literature. The best critics in the weekly magazines-Robert Brustein at The New Republic, John Lahr at The New Yorker-write only occasionally. There are far fewer newspapers and magazines than there used to be, while many of the surviving publications have no serious theatre criticism at all. My hometown newspaper, for example, the Los Angeles Times, no longer has a full-time regular theatre critic, despite a thriving theatrical scene. The venerable weekly The Nation, which published Joseph Wood Krutch for twenty-eight years and then Harold Clurman for twenty-seven, no longer has a theatre column.

Right after Simon’s departure, newspapers dragged out the old stories of his negativism-Liza Minnelli’s face compared to a beagle’s, Kathleen Turner described as “a braying mantis,” plus the perennial story of the actress who dumped a bowl of pasta on his head in a restaurant. (Or was it a glass of whiskey thrown in his face?) In fact, Simon was no more negative than most critics, but his lively writing style meant that his gibes were more memorable than those of the others. His enthusiasms were expressed with the same vigor-after heaping praise on the writing, acting, directing, and even the set designs of Doubt, for example, he described it as “a theatrical experience it would be sinful to miss.” But positive reviews tend to be taken for granted, while negative ones are seen as personal insults. (I regularly get angry letters and e- . mails of complaint from actors and theatre companies, but no one has ever thanked me for a favorable notice.) Theatrical producers in particular become enraged when reviews do not sound like one of their press releases. They finally seemed to have prevailed.

Here’s hoping that Simon, the only New York theatre critic whom I read on a regular basis, finds another outlet soon. The American theatre needs him, and more critics like him.

Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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