Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shadow of Doubt

While watching David Davalos’ Wittenberg last month at B Street Theatre, I experienced something like an electric shock toward the end of this witty and challenging drama. Set in the sixteenth century, the story pits Martin Luther (Greg Alexander) against the historical yet legendary Johann Faustus (David Pierini) [picture], with Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Jason Kuykendall), then a student, in the middle.

Until the end, when his “theses” are published, Luther is the champion of unquestioning faith, while Faustus embraces free thought. Dressed in a devil’s costume, Faustus declares that “if the Church is wrong about Purgatory, couldn’t it also be wrong about Hell—about our souls, about everything?”

Then came the clincher, the line that made me feel as if I’d poked a finger into a live electric socket. “No,” he says, “You’ve got to put your faith in doubt!” The line has a wonderful ambiguity: Should you doubt your faith or have faith in the virtue of doubt itself?

But the ambiguity was not what caused the shock. What got to me was coincidence—or was it fate? This was the third time this year that I had seen a play sanctifying doubt itself. In February-March B Street had staged the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, subtitled “A Parable,” by John Patrick Shanley, whose stunning Dirty Story had kicked off the previous season at Capital Stage in Old Sacramento.

Set in a Bronx parochial school, Doubt revolves around a potential scandal when the school’s stiffly correct principal, Sister Aloysius (Catherine MacNeal) suspects Father Flynn (Kurt Johnson) of corrupting a black male student. What distinguishes the play is that the issue is never resolved. It’s like a courtroom drama where the accused is released because the evidence is insufficient, though we still suspect his guilt.

But that’s not the point. Ordinarily we demand resolution, closure, before the curtain comes down. And yet we do have closure as Shanley defies dramatic gravity by elevating uncertainty to a virtue.

Early on, Flynn delivers a sermon through a parable about a sailor lost at sea, trying to find his way to shore through guesswork. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” the priest declares. “When you are lost you are not alone.” Though he survives Sister Aloysius’ inquisition, he secures a transfer from the school to escape the suspicion hanging over him.

Yet there is a resolution, the triumph of doubt as a virtue. To quote myself in the review I wrote for Life Newspapers, I praised the cast, who “gave a finely nuanced performance, letting uncertainty hover like a ball on an air stream.”

The similarity between Shanley and Davalos, author of Wittenburg, could be dismissed as coincidence, except for another eerie coincidence. A few days before seeing Wittenberg, my wife, Pat, and I happened to catch The Divine Court-Martial of Field Marshall William Keitel, by local playwright Charles McIntosh, at Tom Kelly’s iconoclastic Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre, now dedicated to giving a showcase to local playwrights.

Taking a traditional approach to the same theme, the play posits a trial in the “celestial court” of Jehovah after Keital was hanged in 1946 for rubber stamping Hitler’s orders authorizing atrocities. Like many others who were also condemned during their earthly trials, he pleaded that he was merely following orders, like a good soldier.

Except for Beelzemar (Stephen Kauffman), a devil who acts as prosecutor, and Azura (Susannah Nelson), an angel who defends Keitel (Keith Letl), all the rest are spirits of the earthly dead, including the judges and the jury. While McIntosh displays an impressive grasp of Nazi history, as well as events from Joan of Arc to the Holocaust, the play almost bogs down in hair-splitting debates about moral and legal questions.

Still, its ingenuity holds our attention as we await the verdict, which comes as a surprise. Ultimately Keitel is condemned, not for blindly following orders, as he was condemned in life, but rather for failing to doubt. And Jehovah, who never appears, does come up with some hopeful surprises at the end.

So how come I saw three plays this year that praise doubt as a moral virtue, superior to firm conviction, even faith? Are we seeing a sort of twenty-first century philosophical revolution? Should we revise the U.S. Constitution to say that “all men may or may not be created equal” and “are endowed by their creator (whoever or whatever he or she is) with some not quite inalienable rights?”

On the other hand, if we are all taught to question authority, wouldn’t we see an end to suicide bombers?

Or, after all, maybe seeing these three plays in such a short space of time isn’t really a big coincidence. Maybe the virtue of challenging authority came to us with the Renaissance. Or again, maybe it’s been lurking backstage since the worship of reason in ancient Athens. There, in the fifth century B.C., the philosopher Protagoras boldly declared, “I know not whether the gods exist or do not exist. I know only that man is the measure of all things.” Today we’d have to add “woman.”

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