John Patrick Shanley joked that when his family learned he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt, they warned him not to get a big head and “start wearing a white suit.”
On accepting his Tony Award for best play for Doubt, he thanked “the Irish Christian Brothers for kicking me out of school.”
Set in the 1960s in a Catholic school in the Bronx, Doubt explores what happens when a nun, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) thinks a priest (Brian O’Byrne) is taking too much interest in one of his young male students.
In a recent interview in Irish America, Shanley acknowledged that a member of his own family had been abused by a priest. But he says that was not the only reason he wrote the play. He says he wanted to explore the changes in the Catholic Church after the Second Ecumenical Council in 1962, “an era when people including the clergy were moving from a certainty about the way things should be into something quite different.
“Sister Aloysius Beauvier lives in a clearly defined black and white world and then out of the blue she starts to be plagued with modern problems…. They leave her shaken, but more modern, and that to me is compelling,” he said.
(Doubt also collected two acting Tonys for star Cherry Jones and featured performer Adriane Lenox — while Doug Hughes was named best director).
Shanley was born in a tough Irish-Italian section of the Bronx at East Tremont and Beach Avenues. His father, who worked as a meatpacker, was from County Westmeath. His mother was a first-generation, Brooklyn-born telephone operator, whose family came from Tipperary.
Kicked out of Cardinal Spellman High School, he eventually graduated high school and enrolled in New York University, but left soon after to join the Marines during the Vietnam War. (“I found the Marines to be more civilized than anything I experienced in the Bronx,” he told Irish America in 1988). After his stint in the Marines he returned to NYU and picked up a degree in educational theater.
After supporting his writing career with an array of menial jobs, Shanley’s first published play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, presented in the prestigious Circle in the Square theater in 1984, impressed critics and drew interest from Hollywood.
Shanley quickly wrote three screenplays, the first of which, Moonstruck, a delightful portrayal of an Italian-American family in Brooklyn, won an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1988.
Oscar aside, playwriting continues to be Shanley’s first love. He says that he feels he has “some genetic predisposition to be, not simply a writer, but a playwright,” and adds, “my father had the gift of language, so I was born with that.”
A prolific writer whose many other plays include Savage in Limbo, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, and Beggers in the House of Plenty, Shanley has collaborated with the LAByrinth Theatre Company on several of his recent plays including in 2003, Dirty Story, a brutal satire about the conflict in the Middle East.
He was on stage recently with the LAByrinth to present “Obsession,” a night of song and words about love, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melissa Errico, Maude Maggart and others, including Shanley’s fiancée Paula Devicq.
Just the day before, Shanley had picked up his Pulitzer, and tonight, as he points out to the audience, he’s wearing a white suit. ♦