“The guy who makes coffee for me I every morning in my local coffee shop in Brooklyn congratulated me when I won the Pulitzer,” recounts John Patrick Shanley with a big grin. “Then, when I won the Tony, the guy says, `This cuppa coffee’s on me.'”
Shanley, the Irish-American playwright and screenwriter, lets out a hoot of laughter. “God knows what I have to do to get a free sandwich!”
His play Doubt, as frugally acknowledged by the proprietor of his local coffee shop, not only won Shanley the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, but since opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it has become the largest grossing play in the history of Broadway. A major accomplishment even allowing for the fact that the price of tickets is at an all-time high and we are talking about straight plays, not musicals.
As dusk falls over Times Square on this chilly afternoon, the twinkling lights on Broadway provide the perfect backdrop to catch up with the prolific writer. Taking tea at the Paramount Hotel, Shanley talks about his new play, Defiance, due to premiere in February at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.
Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket, beige T-shirt and jeans, Shanley, without blinking, switches from being boyishly funny to being didactical and unnervingly direct.
“When I wrote Doubt I kicked myself out of the play,” he says, meaning that he did not see himself as one of the characters in the play, as he had figured in most of his own scripts in the past. “And I did the same with Defiance,” which will be the second of what he calls his hierarchy plays.
“In Doubt I’m dealing with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and how it deals with a problem that is not really modern, but one that has come to light in a dramatic way only in recent times. In Defiance I’m dealing with a different institution, the United States Marine Corps, and the American military in general,” he explains.
Doubt is set in the 1960s in a Catholic school in the Bronx, where a nun becomes suspicious when a priest begins to take too much interest in the lives of the young male students.
“The Church was an institution that was very accepted by the order in the society of the day, but it now seems antiquated. I wanted to go back and look at what was alive and what was dead about that institution, and reveal both through a dramatic series of events.”
Shanley often delves into his past for source material. The fact that a member of his family was abused by a priest was “the provocation” for writing Doubt, and his own experiences have also inspired his latest play.
Shanley grew up on Archer Street in the Bronx with four siblings in “a very predictable Catholic household where we said the rosary every Friday night on our knees in the living room.” He was taught by the Sisters of Charity at St. Anthony’s School before being sent to the Irish Christian Brothers, who he says were “violent and bigots.” After being expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School, he joined the Marines Corps. His brother Tom was a marine in Vietnam and his brother Jim was in the Navy, “so then it was my turn,” he says.
“It was during the Vietnam War, but I didn’t have to go,” he explains “I was sent to train in jungle warfare in Panama and Guantanamo Bay, and I was stationed in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.”
Camp Lejeune is where Defiance is set, and central to the play is an incident that happened to a fellow marine there.
“I was in the Marine Corps from 1970 to 1972,” Shanley says. “When I was in advanced training I had a bunk mate, he was 18 or 19 years old, from the deep South. He was married and his wife had come to live in off-base housing. Because we were still in training we were not given any liberty, and I remember him telling me about this terrific staff sergeant who had befriended him, and was looking after them with this off-base housing.
“Then he came to me one day, his face ashen, and said, `The sergeant fucked my wife.’
“He had brought his eighteen-year-old bride to be with him and the sergeant, whom he trusted, had used him to gel close to his wife.
“He was helpless, he couldn’t even get off base. He was married to her, but he couldn’t be there, and this staff sergeant was around all the time to keep her company.”
Shanley recalls the incident with disgust. “I thought it was horrible; it was an unbelievable betrayal of trust under circumstances where somebody was helpless to defend himself.
“We were best friends,” he says, “but after training we were stationed in different places and I lost track of him for over a year.
“Then I ran into him one day, and while he had been this most sweetnatured, straightforward, goodhearted guy, he had become a cynical drug dealer. And I have no doubt that the antecedent of that personality change had been the unbelievable shock and disenchantment he had gone through when that authority figure in the Marines that he had so trusted, betrayed him,” he says.
Another encounter that Shanley had in the Marines also stuck with him.
“They had these `get-to-meet-the-chaplain’ sessions,” he recalls.
“This chaplain had us all sitting around in a circle on the lawn so we could ask him whatever we wanted. Personal problems, how to handle girlfriends giving us trouble long distance, whatever. My question was, `How does it feel to be a man of the cloth, wearing the uniform of a killing machine? And how do you justify that?’
“It seemed to me to be the most obvious question one could ask,” Shanley says explaining further.
“He might have had an answer that would make me burst into tears and have an epiphany that he was right. But this particular chaplain was not the man who could do that. He got out of it by saying something really inane. I don’t think he’d ever really thought about it, so that stayed with me in a special way.
“And now, I see in the press the confluence of the evangelical movement with the military, not just among the chaplains but also amongst the officers who are caught up in this movement. And that raises so many interesting scenarios, and arguments and questions that it all tells me that I have a play.”
Doubt is set in 1963 when the style of the Catholic Church was about to change after Pope John XXIII had called the Second Ecumenical Council. Defiance is set in 1971 and also involves an institution that was about to change.
“The U.S. Marine Corps and the military in general changed a tremendous amount within the two years after the time of this play,” explains Shanley. “For one thing, it switched over to an entirely volunteer force.
“At the time of the play — the dying days of the Vietnam War — the military was manned by the draft, as it had been for many years. But during the time I was in training at Camp Lejeune, the transition of hiring civilians had already begun. And just toward the end of my enlistment, they were switching over from marines doing mess duty, to having hired restaurant personnel taking over.
“This farming out of responsibility has become much greater over the years; a bonanza for companies like Halliburton. Now things have gotten to the point that we are even hiring people to do our killing for us,” Shanley says.
Another factor that Shanley deals with in Defiance is the issue of race and the military.
“In the very early seventies, there were race riots within the military which were deeply destabilizing and disturbing,” he recalls. “It was an incredibly racially explosive atmosphere — on and off the base. There was a lot of racially motivated mayhem, and in part, that is what my play is about.
“When I went back recently to question higher-ups in the Marine Corps, who had been serving as company and battalion commanders at that time, they theorized that all those riots were a direct result of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
“Blacks were widely represented in the military during the Vietnam War and when King was assassinated many said, `We don’t know who these people are that we are fighting; they are racially different, we are racially different. I don’t know what I’m fighting for and they’ve just killed Martin Luther King back home — I’m dropping my rifle — I’m out of here.’
“And we were having race riots in the cities. I remember going to my cousin Mary Anne’s wedding and passing Newark. It was in flames.
“My family had hired a bus to take people to the wedding. And some well-oiled relative was going up and down the aisle serving everyone martinis out of a pitcher. So there we were all sitting on the bus, drinking martinis watching Newark burn. That’s an image I’ll never forget,” he says.
At the time Shanley says he accepted everything that was going on as just part of the fabric of life. But now, he says, “I can look back and see what was so very extraordinary about it, what was going to change, what was going to date, and what was going to seem eternal.”
Shanley’s bio in theater programs reads like a Monty Python sketch. It tells how he was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten, banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life and expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School; but it ends with a touch of defiance and a tongue-in-cheek assurance that he’s doing just fine!
“I think that being in these institutions helped to define me. And not just in a negative sense, and not in a sense of `this bunch of hypocrites is not what I’m about,'” he says with insight. “But when you are up against something that is incredibly defined and you are young and therefore not well defined, it most certainly helps to define you,” he adds.
“It can define you by telling you flat out who you are, which is the dogmatic route, but it wasn’t my nature to accept that. Or it can make you come up with an answering philosophy, which is a big job for a young guy to take on and it can mean years and years of wrestling with the questions that they posed for you, that you could not answer at the time.
“It’s very good for an artist, so I guess artists should all go into institutions.” He laughs.
“Doubt and Defiance are both about going back and looking at institutions that you have always had a lot of assumptions about, and questioning whether they were good or bad, effective or not effective, antiquated or not antiquated, and making you look at them in a different way,” he says.
“With Defiance I’m asking you to think about what makes you defiant, why you were defiant in the past, what you defied. I’m saying, have a look at what we rebelled against in our culture in the past; how right we were and how wrong we were.
“I think Defiance will be very enlivening for people,” he adds. “Perhaps it will make them stop and reevaluate. And maybe wake them up to their own past, their own rebellions.”
But one must be careful not to allow emotion to diffuse the experience, Shanley explains.
“I’ve become very, very suspicious of emotions in the last several years. I describe my emotions as children on a school bus that I’m driving.
“They are all acting up and throwing stuff around and I’m like `All right now, settle down and shut up! And I’ll take you where you need to go, to learn.’
“But I’ve got to drive the bus; I can’t let those kids drive the bus. I can like them, I can dote on them, but I cannot let them, my emotions, be in charge.
“It’s hard to get through emotionalism to the truth,” Shanley admits.
“I would say both of my parents were truthful people. My mother was very occasionally in the grip of emotions that she could not control. She was very intelligent but unable to break out of the grip of those, or even see past them in certain key moments; very dispassionate at most other times.
“A hundred people could say a thousand things and then my father would say one word and it would be the truth and everything else would fall to pieces. My father was an Irish farmer who didn’t come to this country until he was twenty-four and he was very rarely caught up in popular follies. Also, he had tremendous self-confidence. He looked in the mirror and he saw there the greatest man he’d ever seen in his life; he was, to put it bluntly, delighted with himself.”
Shanley admits that he has some of that self-confidence, but he says, “I’m more humble than my father. I’ve been made humble probably by having a life that has covered more ground than his did and by having to come up against my own shortcomings over and over again.
“Most of the time, what prevents us from taking or arguing for the right course of action is not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of courage,” he argues.
“Even unjust, stupid laws are obeyed for a long time until somebody says `I’m not doing it; I’ve had it and I’m not doing it. That’s it. Shoot me. Do whatever you want!’
“Consider Rosa Parks, the lady who started the confrontation with stupid segregation laws in the South. When Rosa Parks died she was broke. She was a stubborn woman who refused welfare just as she had refused to sit in the back of the bus.
“And those kind of people are a pain in the ass, and they are the most important people in any society,” Shanley concludes.
At 55, he has garnered a Pulitzer a Tony Award, and an Academy Award (for Moonstruck), but he is not one to rest on his laurels. “Right now I’m doing a lot of stuff, I’m working on a movie as well as this play. But Defiance is what I’m most excited about because this is what I want to say right now!” ♦