Thursday, January 17, 2008

Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley

I recently saw a regional production of this play and came away from it convinced that the text had been incorrectly interpreted and so decided to read it for myself. Doubt is set at a Catholic school in the 60s and is about a nun who accuses a priest of molesting a child. My fellow playgoer and I both came away certain that the priest was guilty, that the acting had given us no other way to see it. But given the title of the play and the lines of the play (if separated from the people saying them), we thought the author wouldn't have wanted us to be so sure. And the text (not to mention the author's introduction) definitely supports that the audience is supposed to feel uncertain at the end.

Which leads me to consider how much the physicality of a person lends itself to judgement. One of the reasons this production made the priest seem so guilty was he was soooo smarmy and sleazy. And he had this horrible way of smiling at the boys (who were offstage in the imagination). His same lines spoken from a different face with different physical actions would have made him seem more ambiguous. (Which means I probably shouldn't be on a jury--who needs facts when there is a face to judge?) (actually I was on a jury and I was elected foreman, thank you very much). Anyway, my point is... I hadn't thought very much about how much the actors can affect the very meaning of a play, which leads me to wonder what does this mean for fiction, which is dependent entirely on words for creating the physicality that actors put across. This is a very obvious point and is probably behind all that "show don't tell" that gets spread around: in real life much of our judgement of a person comes from how they seem on the outside, but in fiction we get to let readers into the heads of the people, so a lot can be done with the difference between how the characters seem (to other characters and to the reader) and what they really think. So the "showing" gets much more interesting when it's combined with "telling," especially when they contrast some. But! But! I think what matters more in helping readers interpret both the showing and the telling is tone.

The recent issue of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story includes the script for Wes Anderson's short film Hotel Chevalier which when you watch it is quirky and sad and romantic and funny but when you read it is just a bit strange. So the tone, which is created by Anderson's sets, his camera angles (often characters are centered in the frame), his cuts, and of course the intonations of his actors are what give the story it's emotional feel. And tone for writers comes mostly from voice, grammar, image--in both scene and summary. So it's not just point of view or sensory detail that matters--it's the sound of the whole.

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