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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Oscar Nominee John Patrick Shanley: Transcending Fame

About a million years ago, I used to hang out with the author and director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and Oscar-nominated movie Doubt. We were in the same playwrights group. I read his stuff. He read mine. I don’t really remember his writing. I remember that he was cute, a little scary, a bad-ass romantic.

Today, John Patrick Shanley is still all the things I remember, but wise in a way that can take your breath away. In the foreword to the published version of Doubt, he says:

“What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There's the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who's your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.”

Doubt (subtitled “A Parable” in the play version) is a story about the possible molestation of a boy in Catholic school in 1964 and the duel that ensues between Father Flynn, a progressive, possibly pedophile, priest and the frighteningly rigid Sister Aloysius (played in tour-de-force performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep). Watching the movie, I felt my inner “You” raging. It did so because the movie insisted I hold — what to call it? Well, doubt. I remained in a holding state of complex doubt, never clear on who was a villain, who was right, who was good. It was like life. And real life with all of its complexity and contradictions, if you let it, will shred you — pull your heart apart, so that when it heals, it’s bigger, more capable of compassion.

I haven’t talked to John Patrick Shanley in a long time, but I’d bet money that he’s been shredded in this good way. In 1987 he won an Oscar for his screenplay of Moonstruck. He’s done lots of stuff since then, but it’s not important. What’s important is that, like so many of us who work in the arts or toil at jobs where we feel insignificant, he needed attention. But unlike so many of us who demand to be heard, who perhaps feel more worthy when we are — unlike those of us who wail, “I’m here, pay attention to me,” John has experienced being the focus of the fickle finger of fame. So he knows what it is. And more importantly, what it is not.

In the hope that you will feel what I felt, I will not edit his response to my recent question about his success:

“Dear Betsy, I'm glad you liked the play. There’s sometimes a storm around the work that I do, or so it seems to me. And then the storm passes and I recede once again into some obscurity. The day after the Academy Awards is usually like the falling of a curtain. Everyone goes away and you are left in silence again. The raging interest that was shown for a time evaporates. The bright lights move on to the next fellow, as they should. That is the day I hope I find something inside that sustains me. When the world is through with you, you remember, for better or worse, the true circumstances of your life. Love, John”

I hope these words will evoke your inner You — that which truly sustains you.

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