Doubt – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Doubt include observations on the cat and mouse duel between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, and the journey for Sister James from innocence to doubt and confusion.
Cat and Mouse
Lia Williams, the director of the 2022 production of Doubt at the Chichester Festival Theatre, described the play as a thriller. It certainly has the tension of a crime thriller, particularly in the cat and mouse duel between the protagonists. Sister Aloysius resembles the detective or prosecutor who pursues her prime target, her suspicions based initially on not much more than her instincts. Amusingly this metaphor of the deadly game that is played out between her and Father Flynn is explicitly signalled in the film version of the play when the housekeeper bursts in on Sister Aloysius and Sister James holding a cat and the mouse that it has just killed. “It takes a cat” she declares triumphantly, to which Sister Aloysius replies thoughtfully “Yes it does”, beginning to formulate her plan to entrap the priest. In the end she catches her prey.
Early in the play Sister Aloysius describes the enthusiastic young teacher, Sister James, as a “very innocent person”. She believes that “innocent teachers are easily duped”, so counsels her to be more “skeptical” about the motives and behaviour of her students, and perhaps of the adults as well. Sister James has doubts about looking “at things and people with suspicion”; it feels for her as if she’s “less close to God”. It certainly sounds like a less Christian view of others. However Sister Aloysius has a darker view of humanity, borne from experience: “If I could…I would certainly choose to live in innocence. But innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.” Even more than that she feels it is her duty to seek out evil, even at the expense of her own innocence: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in His service.”
Sister James’s hopeful view of people is not easily supplanted. She cannot conceive that anyone who had done something wrong and was confronted by it would not be repentant. Sister Aloysius advises her that she “must try to imagine a very different person than yourself” – someone not as innocent. But when Father Flynn explains the reason for his meeting with Donald Muller, she still readily accepts his account and even challenges Sister Aloysius in her persistent suspicion.
By the end of the play, Sister James, has been disabused of her innocence. She has withdrawn somewhat from the children in her class, uncertain how to relate to them. The truth about Father Flynn’s behaviour remains uncertain, but the possibility of his evil and his lying have been deeply unsettling for her. As Father Flynn himself said to her: “The truth…tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion”. She confesses that she can’t sleep at night: “Everything seems uncertain”. She has been expelled from the garden into the real world of doubt and confusion.
G.B. Shaw’s Arms and the Man is both a sparkling romantic comedy and a telling satire of love, war and social pretension. It was Shaw’s first public success as a playwright when it premiered in London in 1894, and is currently enjoying an acclaimed revival at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, Surrey.
I’m joined by Shaw expert Ivan Wise, who is a previous editor of The Shavian, the journal of the Shaw Society.
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The play is currently being revived at the Harold Pinter theatre in London with David Tennant in the role of John Halder, and I’m delighted to be joined by the production’s director, Dominic Cooke, to explore the contemporary resonances of this provocative play.
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I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Karen Leeder to explore the contemporary controversies and enduring relevance of this extraordinary play.
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Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
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