Doubt is a complex play in that, at the plays end, there is no definitive and clear answer as to whether Father Flynn is guilty. The complexity of the play is also due to the allegories and connections that transcend the page, stage and screen. The list of ‘isms’ that arise from the play’s subtext and the questions we are confronted with are heavy and clear.
The play, although it is set in a Catholic school, “is not a religious play,” as director Whitehill would remind you, it does, however, through the artfulness of the playwright, use the function of the parable to introduce the audience with the very real moral issues of the 60’s and of today. The sixties birthed a revolution where the societal norms of racism and sexism in the fifties had begun to be challenged. Again, the religiosity of the play is not called into question inasmuch as is the humanity and moral questions asked and made between the relationships of the characters within it. Following are a few important thematic issues posed from the play:
Moral Obligations: Through the whirl wind of issues that arise within the play the idea of what the characters feel as though they are morally obligated to do is laid bare. Is Sister James obligated to bring to Sister Aloysius’s attention what she witnessed? Is Mrs. Muller morally obligated to protect her son from his father and the outside world? Does Father Flynn’s resignation over what happened in the rectory with Donald reflect a sense moral obligation to the church?
Racism: Donald is the only African American boy within “…a parish that serves Irish and Italian families.” Within the play Donald’s mother suggests that he might be safer within the walls of the school amid the racially charged and tumultuous outside world of 1964. Mrs. Muller says, “Things are in the air and you leave them alone if you can.” There is a lot whirling around in the air of this play. Mrs. Muller also states that Donald’s father beats him and “don’t like him.” Abuse comes in many forms and hides behind many labels.
Sexism: Sexism piggybacks racism, insofar as sexism deals with the prejudice of women and racism deals with the prejudice of a person due to the color of their skin. Humanity has grappled with prejudice and bigotry throughout the world’s history. Father Flynn’s lines– “I am not one of your truant boys,” and, “You have no right to act on your own! You are a member of a religious order. You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside of the Church!”, reflect the sexist views of the era.
Feminism: Plays a big role within the play; Sister Aloysius does not have authority over Father Flynn. She is able to accuse him of abuse, but she has no authority to dismiss him. Living in a man’s world and not receiving the respect she may think she deserves might blind and bias her convictions against Flynn.
Authoritarianism: One conflict between Aloysius and Flynn is Aloysius’s method of teaching. Aloysius’ method borders on tyrannical, she is representative of the old way, or traditional way of teaching. How do the children receive Sister Aloysius’ method of running the school, versus Flynn’s ideas of “Progressive education and a welcoming church.”?
Forgiveness: C. S. Lewis once wrote…“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” What, if anything, is forgivable within the play? How do we forgive someone for something they have or have not done? How do we forgive ourselves and others of their own convictions?
Misandry: Sister Aloysius’s disdain for Flynn may be harbored in an underlying dislike of men due to their authority within the church and over her. When speaking with Sister James about how to handle Flynn’s supposed abuse within the church she states– “If I tell the monsignor and he is satisfied with Father Flynn’s rebuttal, the matter will be suppressed,” and “the hierarchy of the church does not permit my going to the bishop. No. Once I tell the monsignor, it’s out of my hands, I’m helpless.” And, within the line, “…Here there is no man I can go, and men run everything. We are going to have to stop him ourselves. This ‘helplessness’ and ‘men run everything’ may serve as fodder for Sister Aloysius’ convictions, it also echoes what nuns dealt with and were expected to do within the hierarchy of the church and what would soon be challenged with the proclamations of the Vatican II (more to follow with Vatican II).