Doubt focuses around a small Catholic school in the 1960’s and the insidious things that may happen within. Not only do we the reader get a sense of the turmoil in society during the time, we get a hint of what lies underneath all of the smiling faces of the church. Here we will delve into the effect of society upon the world of Doubt and look at the effects of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the effect that the outward sources have on the internal sOciety of the catholic school and church and it’s handling of old vs. new.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement sought to end segregation and discrimination against African Americans, who were constantly mistreated and separated from white people solely due to the color of their skin. In Doubt, we are focused around the well being of one little boy, Donald Muller, who is African American. The Civil Rights Movement began in 1954, and seeing how the play is set in 1964, we can rightly assume that Donald’s presence at the school is in directly correlation with new civil liberties that were being fought for by thousands of people. 1964 also gave the American public the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While Donald Muller may have been let into the school without this act in place, it is clear that the old biases still stand. In Act 1 Scene 4, Sister Aloysius is speaking with Sister James in her office.
When Donald Muller is mention, Sister Aloysius inquires about Donald Muller personally, by name. Sister James then responds that he is doing well but that is he no friends. Sister Aloysius then asks if anyone has hit him, and when Sister James replies no, Sister Aloysius gives us the following, “There is a statue of St. Patrick on one side of the church alter and a statue of St. Anthony on the other. This parish serves Irish and Italian families. Someone will hit Donald Muller.” (p. 23) This line shows us the views on African Americans by “whiter” Europeans during this time period, saying that because of their skin color vs. Donald Muller’s, someone will hit him (This scene then opens up another can of worms in terms of plot, but that is a question for another time.) This quote, as well as Act 1 Scene 8 which gives us Sisters Aloysius’s conversation with Mrs. Muller, give us a look into how race related tensions were affecting the school and the society at the time.
Along with race related tensions, in Doubt we see the mounting tensions within the school and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the idea of sexual abuse of children was not only happening in the 60’s, it is still current today. Studies find that sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church began to be more prevalent during the 1960’s for unknown reasons. One can speculate that this may have come about because of a change in Popes, from Pope John XXIII to Pope Paul VI, in 1963 (which was only one year before the year in which the play is set.) Pope Paul VI was drastically different from his predecessor, and that shook the church. In a way, one can see the Popes in the characters in Doubt. Sister Aloysius being Pope John (the old, the steady, the constant) and Father Flynn would be Pope Paul (the new, the exciting, the inclusive.) Seeing the head of the Catholic Church shift almost radically, it was a giant change in the church. In the text, we see that Father Flynn is trying to be progressive and mover the church forward, he also accuses Sister Aloysius of single handedly holding the parish back. She asks from what, and Father Flynn responds, ” Progressive education and a welcoming church.” (p. 46) This quotes shows us that Father Flynn is trying to open the church up and make it more inviting, but is being met with resistance from (mainly) Sister Aloysius. Whether the resistance comes from Sister Aloysius’s personal beliefs or from her resentment towards Father Flynn is for the actor to decide, but both are plausible and feasible.
All in all, the world of Doubt is complicated. Politically, emotionally complicated. There’s so many societal factors and turmoil that playwright John Patrick Shanley masterfully crafts into the text, it’s a lot to uncover. Thankfully he’s done so, because it shapes the world of Doubt into something real and believable. The societal turmoil may have eventually subsided, but the effects of the troubles live on in heart and mind, as we see with Doubt and it’s unresolved plot. Society will always change and grow, but will we as people adapt? Will we thank this text and be able to look through it and see how it still applies now to the struggle in race relations and turmoil in the Catholic Church? That is yet to be seen, but given the changes that we have already survived, we have a strong chance or growing and shaping up for the better.