The Evolution of John Patrick Shanley
From 'Danny' to 'Doubt,' the Bronx to Brooklyn Heights, the playwright contemplates a fate he never envisioned
By Robert Coe
John Patrick Shanley's Bronx characters don't sidle up and ask—they demand to be seen and heard. Saying exactly what they feel, almost without appearing to think about it, they're posturing and naked at once, far-fetched, mercurial and profane, and they effortlessly own the stage. This fall theatre season in New York is offering a major revival of Shanley's electrifying first drama, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a 1984 two-hander "dedicated to everyone in the Bronx who punched me or kissed me, and to everyone whom I punched or kissed"—by a man inducted this past summer into the Bronx Walk of Fame. The play opened at Second Stage on Oct. 21. Five days later, New York audiences began catching up to Shanley's present work at the Public Theatre's Shiva Theatre, where the LAByrinth Theater Company is presenting the world-premiere production of one of the playwright's most radical stylistic experiments to date: Sailor's Song, a love story with dancing (to waltzes by Johann Strauss), set in an imagined seaside town, about a cynical man and a true believer battling over two beautiful women and the nature of love.
A second new play will open on Nov. 22 at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage I, and will play this spring at California's Pasadena Playhouse: Doubt, a drama set in the 1960s at a Bronx Catholic School—the story of a stern principal, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who grows suspicious of a priest who seems to be taking too much interest in a young male student. Night and day from the animal vitality of Danny, Doubt unfolds in a spirit of poetic restraint and deep seriousness, and it reads as Shanley's most powerful play in years.
This would seem an ideal moment to reconsider the career of an off-center playwright frequently viewed as an eccentric, vulgar provisioner for scenery-chewing actors, but who is in fact a deeply ambitious artist working through primal themes, in a language that people actually use and a voice as recognizable as David Mamet's (although less easily caricatured). An overview of his work reveals a more substantial, shapelier body than this reader had previously imagined, as well as an integrity and steadily deepening gravitas suited to a writer now nearing 54 and living comfortably in Brooklyn Heights, with a leafy school ground for a backyard, since 2000.
Formerly married, now divorced and co-parenting 12-year-olds Nick and Frank, and after two decades toiling with mixed success and failure in the killing fields of Hollywood, Shanley has settled into a solid maturity that, as he once told a journalist, leaves behind the "electric leaps" of youth in favor of "a more considered attempt to converse and discover connection."
It was slightly over 20 years ago that Danny burst onto the American theatre scene with two vivid characters, described by the author as "violent and battered, inarticulate and yearning to speak, dangerous and vulnerable," locked in mortal combat, longing and, eventually, a kind of love. From the beginning Shanley exhibited a seemingly effortless mastery of the rhythms of hostility and longing, along with a natural gift for instilling tremendous spiritual ambition in his characters—a willingness to leap, to let go, far more often than to hesitate and cling. Whether in doubt or rapture, Shanley's characters are unafraid of speaking in banalities or in wild poetic flight—or, when they are afraid of something, then the playwright confronts those fears head-on. (Courage and determination are subjects that Shanley has revisited throughout his career.)
Each of the Bronx plays that followed Danny would be about people wanting either IN or OUT—another way of saying that these plays are about dramatic change and a challenge to imposed definitions and boundaries, especially the ones between the Bronx/Manhattan and victimhood/liberation. Shanley's characters seek transcendence, connection and new identities, via more than words alone: They touch, sweat, spit and spray every available bodily fluid in that alternately claustrophobic and explosive atmosphere that has characterized most of the canonical mainstream of 20th-century American drama.
Shanley worked outside this atmosphere as well. Welcome to the Moon…and Other Plays, which ran in the fall of 1982 at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre, introduced a strain of surrealistic experimentation that established Shanley's parallel career as a radical stage formalist, not unlike that of another hard-living, essentially naturalistic Irish-American writer, Eugene O'Neill.
Shanley remained in his imagined Bronx and delivered further on his promise with Savage in Limbo (1985), "dedicated to all those good assassins who contributed to the death of my former self." Working with multiple characters this time, Shanley stood closest to his eponymous heroine, the pained and caustic Denise Savage: "We're on the cliff. We were born here. Well, do you wanna die on the cliff?" Savage was in part about the animals lurking inside human beings, just as Danny was, but with a caveat offered by Denise's friend in boyfriend trouble, Linda Rotunda: "It ain't the new clothes that make the man. It's what he does with his dirty things." The project of self-discovery becomes one of finding determination within the grope and flailing of tongues. As the aptly named bartender Murk opines: "The problem with people is they think they're alone. They think what they say don't do nothing. So they say every stupid thing that goes through their gourd, and they do shit they don't even know why. Which leads to what? The world looks like homemade refried shit."
Shanley could not keep working forever in this tortured Italian-American ghetto. Women of Manhattan (1986)—this time the inevitable and telling dedication was "to women, women, women…[written 23 more times] and a guy named Larry Sigman [a dying friend, now deceased]"—headed down to a lower borough, away from working-class, ethnic concerns, to address the issue and substance of self-esteem, a screaming lack in all Shanley's earlier characters. Women of Manhattan moved through the animal appetites to search for grown-up identities. I have probably undervalued the verbal intelligence and wit on display in these early writings, but this play, while beautifully written and complete, feels a little weightless.
Shanley wasn't through with the Bronx: His 1985 fantasia, the dreamer examines his pillow, dedicated, simply enough, "to my family," introduced family members for the first time—a daughter, Donna, who is unable to live with her lover, Tommy, or without him (especially after she discovers he's sleeping with her 16-year-old sister). Like Women of Manhattan, the dreamer pursues questions of identity, as opposed to merely coping or desperately surviving: "You are somebody, " Donna tells Tommy. "Tell me who….You know what it is down there inside the last Chinese box?" Dealing with their pie-in-the-sky romantic dreams, she realizes they will always find themselves "back down in this shithole room or some other shithole room, and I can't feature that no more." The dreamer is a dark attempt to chart the intellectual/emotional terrain of Shanley's imagination, leading to an ambiguous recognition that in sex we can discover identity, and escape it.
Shanley's best work simultaneously imagines and exposes the failure of "the key that lets me outta my life," as Donna puts it. Self-knowledge is far more difficult to obtain than simply escaping the past or some shithole room. In the end, the dreamer reaches for a deeper question: Why live at all? A didactic element entered Shanley's work for the first time: "You gotta make the big mistakes," says Donna's dad. "Remember that. It makes it easier to bear. But remember, too, that Sex does resurrect. Flyin in the face of the truly great mistakes, there is that consolation."
Shanley's constant implicit theme—the marriage of two people—became comically overt in his popular Italian American Reconciliation (1988), the first of his plays the author directed, with a cast including John Turturro (the original Danny), John Pankow, Laura San Giacomo and Shanley's then wife, Jayne Haynes, at Manhattan Theatre Club. Reconciliation had a simple, outrageous plot involving an inappropriate seduction (the commedia aspect of which was inescapable), a hilarious momentum, and an almost maudlin denouement reached when Aldo (Turturro) announces: "And this is the lesson I have to teach: The greatest, the only success, is to be able to love."
Nineteen-eighty-two to 1988 were years of extraordinary creativity for the former juvenile delinquent and NYU grad. By the time of The Big Funk (1990), he was arguing for the interconnectedness of everything. But an undercurrent had entered his work that was not so empathic. Shanley prefaced the published version: "And so I ask the question: Why is theatre so ineffectual, un-new, not exciting, fussy, not connected to the thrilling recognition possible in dreams? It's a question of spirit. My ungainly spirit thrashes around inside me, making me feel lumpy and sick."
The Big Funk was formally adventurous, employing nudity and direct address of the audience, while also reminding us of the Greeks by essentially being about a dinner party—a Symposium. But it also removed all recognizable contexts of time and place—as if the playwright wanted to address the interconnectedness of everything at the expense of its specificity. From this turning point, Shanley wheeled back to a theatrical beginning he never actually had and wrote a nakedly autobiographical family play: Beggars in the House of Plenty (1991), about how some siblings make it and others don't. Beggars is arguably his most successful work employing surrealistic elements, while also breaking from his usual intense dramatic focus to explore a more studied irony. Out of the cauldron into what fire? (The old Shanley did periodically surface, as his stand-in "Johnny" intoned: "I look like the Bronx inside. I could vomit up a burning car.")
Inevitably, Shanley stepped back from his investigation of an increasingly distant past: Four Dogs and a Bone (1993) was his first play not driven by insatiable personal demons. Instead, it used bitter, excoriating comedy to limn a social world in which two actresses battle to have their parts beefed up during an indie film production. By the end of the play it's the screenwriter who grows some balls, or is corrupted (it's hard to tell which, but he does take over the show). Shanley knew something about Hollywood wish-fulfillment: Back in the early '80s, watching funds from a large NEA grant dwindling, he had decided that instead of returning to painting apartments, moving furniture or tending bar, he would write a screenplay. Five Corners (1987) ended up being produced by Beatle George Harrison, and was followed shortly by Shanley's signature achievement, Moonstruck, the Norman Jewison film and Cher vehicle that won Shanley a well-deserved Oscar for best screenplay.
Moonstruck brought together all his insights into Italian-American culture with a brilliantly funny, wise and balanced screenplay that holds up, to this day, as a masterful comedic melodrama. This was followed by The January Man (1989), a botched thriller; Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), which Shanley also directed, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, in an odd turn that died at the box office; Alive (1993), about a plane crash and cannibalism in the Andes; and Congo (1995) a jungle-based techno-thriller about mutant apes—none of which came close to matching his early success.
Shanley returned to the stage with new aspirations: Psychopathia Sexualis (1996) was a clever, entertaining boulevard comedy about sexual fetishism and a loony shrink. Cellini (1998), his first-ever stage adaptation, drew on the notorious Renaissance autobiography; Missing/Kissing (1996) proved a not-particularly-engaging romantic study; Where's My Money? (2001), his first experience with the LAByrinth Theater Company, was a wholly satisfying dark comedic drama about a kinky affair, a cynical marriage and the loss of romantic sentiment—for my money, Shanley's best play since the '80s, although more West Side comedy of manners than raw exposé.
Then came 9/11, which inspired Shanley's topical Dirty Story (2003), featuring characters intended to represent the U.S., Israel and Palestine—a comedic parable so cartoonish that some critics had a hard time taking it seriously, even while the New York Times called it "appallingly entertaining." [Denver Center Theatre Company's production runs through Nov. 13.] Shanley was staying on a Mideast beat: Live from Baghdad, a 2002 film written for HBO, about CNN at the start of the Gulf War, earned an Emmy nomination for him and other co-screenwriters. (My favorite line: "If we can keep talking, then maybe we won't kill each other.") Shanley also recently completed a new script for Moonstruck director Norman Jewison, The Waltz of the Tulips. Apparently the moonstruck writer is thinking in three-four time these days.
Which brings us up to Doubt and Sailor's Song—two new plays, each a major return to form, both resounding evidence of a new confidence, maturity and economy from an artist who has always maintained that "writing is acting is directing is living your life."
We meet at his request at the SoHo Grand Hotel for tea and cookies. Shanley is grayer than the last time I saw him, back in the early '90s, strolling in a black leather jacket down Lafayette Street in Manhattan with the actress Julia Roberts. His explosive, raucous laugh and the classic Irish twinkle in his eye haven't changed; he seems eminently sane, focused, amiable and self-examined. He tells me that today is his son Frankie's birthday, and that after our interview he will be picking him up to celebrate. Both sons were adopted at birth, four-and-a-half months apart, so for the next seven-and-one-half months, Shanley laughs, "both my sons are 12." Speaking with the rhythms of his native Bronx, he is still asking ambitious questions and giving big answers, but with a new subtlety, new tools and a steady, jovial demeanor.
ROBERT COE: When was the last time you actually saw Danny and the Deep Blue Sea?
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: It's been a few years. Some of my plays I've never seen done by anybody since the original productions. Danny I've seen done maybe three times in amateur productions that somebody got me to go to. Actually, the last time I saw it was in Paris, in French.
Did you think you were watching No Exit?
[Laughs] No! Because Danny has a catharsis. Catharses build up a lot of energy, and when the energy is metabolized, it is released, and the audience is released. That can be really important! You have to legitimately achieve it. It's one of the big reasons that I would go to the theatre—in the hopes of experiencing that.
Who will be playing Danny and Roberta this year?
I don't know. Second Stage suggested Leigh Silverman for director—she had done well at the Public [with Lisa Kron's acclaimed solo 2.5 Minute Ride], and I met with her and thought she was smart and driven and completely unlike me. I can't explain that any more than to say she's made of different stuff. So I said, "All right, let's see what you'll do. You're free. I want the Leigh Silverman production."
You really don't want to haunt the rehearsal hall?
Nah. I'm not much for going back. You can either have a career or chase it, and I don't particularly want to chase my own shadow back through time. With the number of workshops of my plays in New York alone, it could have been my career, just going to my own shows—and how sad would that have been!
"Is Shanley here again?"
[Raucous laughter] That's right. "Poor guy."
So let's jump forward 20-plus years to your new play Sailor's Song. The publicity makes it sound as if you were inspired by the two Genes: Kelly and O'Neill.
Sailor's Song is about—just to pull a figure out of the air—35 percent dance. But it's not performed by dancers, it's very much a play. A very, very romantic play—almost a tragic-romance. I'll be very involved in this one. Sailor's Song and Doubt are only four days apart in rehearsal schedule, so I couldn't direct either one of them. Doug Hughes is directing Doubt, and he's great; the other show's got a much greener director, Chris McGarry, who's been an actor mostly, and who I did Dirty Story with. He's very intelligent and I wanted to give him a shot. The music is extant—it's waltzes, used in a very unusual way. It's almost all three-four time—"Tales of Vienna Woods," "Blue Danube," all that stuff. Johann Strauss mostly, right down the line! And it works! I did a workshop of it last fall to make sure, and it's really fun to listen to that music. All the music that's ever been written is still around, but it's amazing how pop music has pushed out everything else, for the most part, except for in formal dance. And it doesn't have to be so.
You've written so much about the nature of love and romance. I sense in Sailor's Song a new wisdom and maturity—almost a mellowness that does not suggest complacency, just a longer overview and a deeper perspective.
Yes. I'm savoring life now, whereas I used to just wolf it down. This play is all about savoring the moonlit moment of romantic choice—that place on the dance floor of the heart when two people could kiss but they haven't yet. You are a dancer and the music is playing like a blue river around you. Everything is on the move and yet, paradoxically, time has ceased its forward motion. And this liquid pulsing photograph of possibilities is placed side by side in this play with mortality, with the certainty of death, with the brevity of youth, and with the importance of now. So Sailor's Song is about the almost unbearable beauty of choosing to love in the face of death. Love is the most essential act of courage, isn't it? Will you choose to love before you are swept away by oblivion? I hope so.
Now tell me about Doubt.
I went to a Catholic Church school in the Bronx and was educated by the Sisters of Charity in the '60s. That's a world that's gone now, but it was a very defined place that I was in for eight years. I realized later on when the Church scandals were breaking that the way a lot of these priests were getting busted had to be by nuns. Because nuns were the ones who were noticing the children with aberrant behavior, distressed children, falling grades, and in some cases they had to be the ones who discovered what was happening. But the chain of command in the Catholic Church was such that they had to report it not to the police but to their superior within the Church, who then covered up for the guy. This had to create very powerful frustrations and moral dilemmas for these women. It was very shortly after that that they started to leave the Church in droves.
I was not aware of that. Has this been noted elsewhere?
As far as I can make out, never. So showing this experience was one of the motivations behind Doubt. Another was that I saw a dark side to the Second Vatican Council's message of "go out into the community." When I was a kid, priests were not going to take boys out of church [to outside activities]. They were priests, they were in the rectory. And so I think this explosive combination of celibacy and "go out and make believe you're just one of the other folks" had a lot to do with the problems that followed.
But over and above that, the more interesting thing to me doesn't have anything to do with the scandals, and that is the cathartic, philosophical power of embracing doubt—of embracing not knowing, embracing that you may never know the truth or falsity of a story, of a scenario, and that you cannot morally stand in judgment from any place that is utterly firm in relation to another person's life. And yet actions must be taken if you feel the imperative, if you feel that you have the clarity of thought and know what should be done. And that powerful, explosive dilemma for an individual is really fraught for me. Here are these women who stumble on what may be something—and the choice is to go through the normal chain of command, which will lead to the complete exoneration and literally the safety of an abusive priest.
You know a member of my own family was molested by [Father John] Geoghan, the guy who was strangled in prison. And my family members went to Cardinal O'Connor, after they'd gone to everybody locally and gotten no satisfaction, and Cardinal O'Connor took them by the hands and said, "I am so sorry this happened. I will take care of it." And then he promoted him. Unbelievable. So they left the Church, but after 10 years they went back, and that Sunday the Monsignor got up and gave a sermon saying that these children who were abused, it was the parents' fault. That's when they left the Church again.
So this material is very close to home.
It is, but I think when you see the play you'll see that my relationship to it is very complicated. There's an even weirder level: Is what some of these guys do totally bad? That I also have doubts about. When I was growing up, at certain points I was championed by homosexual teachers who were the only people watching out for me. And why were they doing it? They were really into boys. They were really into my problems. Did they do anything to me? No. Did they want to? I don't know. Did they make a pass? No. Was that in the air? Somewhere yes, it was in the air. Did I take advantage of the good things they were offering me? Yes, because I needed to, because I was isolated and there was no one else. Did that make them bad people? Not to me. Not to me at all.
It's only acting out that compromises a child.
That is correct. And, even then, if it's like some guy putting his hand on my leg and me saying, "Get your hand off my leg," and that's it—frankly I wouldn't have been traumatized. But, of course, what happens is that a lot of kids who are more confused than that about their sexuality, which is perfectly natural at that age—and also out of tremendous need—can become very confused. So there are a lot of levels to it. I'm not interested in issue plays per se, although I'm more interested in them now than I used to be. What I'm not interested in is writing polemics on one side of an issue or another. Doubt does not have to dismantle passion. It can be a passionate exercise.
When you look back, do you see any arc or evolution in your career?
One of the ongoing concerns that I have is how to be intimate with another human being. Another is how to invite everybody to the party. We have to be able to find a way to communicate so that we can talk about anything. That's the one thing we should be able to do—to talk about anything.
We don't necessarily have to be able to do everything.
That is correct. Right now, the Democrats and the Republicans, for instance, are never able to cede anything to the other side. Everything has to be crossfire! Which can be a fun part of a play, but that's a play that never goes to catharsis. It ends up forever stuck in some kind of French existential hell! And that's not what's interesting to me. I want to find the dynamic door that leads out of the dilemma and on into the future.
I grew up in a violent place where people did not communicate well, but where there were big feelings and big longings, and I remember that some of the most interesting people were also the most doomed, because they had no tools to save themselves. In some weird way, the Palestinian character in Dirty Story is a descendent of those people: "If you won't solve my problem, if no one will listen to me, then I'm going to blow you and me up." I certainly knew that guy, I certainly grew up with that guy—and I've got a little bit of that guy in me. I always said that if things went well I would spend the first half of my life writing about my problems, and the second half I would write about other people's problems, and that's sort of what happened—I'm able now to start turning out. Maybe that's why I was able to write Doubt, and why I was able to write Dirty Story. Of course they're personal plays, but they are about larger social concerns.
Your own ethnic background provides a great example of communicating across boundaries and bridging differences.
Yes. I'm very Irish, from an Irish-Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. I grew up in a household where talk was important, music was important, clothing was not important, food was not important. Then I went over to my Italian friends' houses, where the guys were combing their hair with "Hidden Magic" which they'd stolen from their mothers and spending an hour getting dressed, and talking openly about sexuality, which was bad in my household! It was just a much more sensual, ebullient world, I went to their houses to soak up the sheer pleasure of it, the stimulation—and I was like, "I want what they got, plus what I got!"
My father came from Ireland when he was 24, had a brogue and was raised on a farm, basically in the 19th century. And my mother was first-generation—her parents were from Ireland as well. And when I went back to the farm where my father was born—he died two years ago at 96—the people on that farm spoke in poetry, and we really got along. And I thought, "This is much closer to my true family than the particular culture I grew up in!"
Most of your plays are language-driven, and yet we know movies generally aren't—the engine of a film is imagery. How do you think writing screenplays has affected your playwriting?
Actually, the influence is very much the other way around. Playwriting has continued to make my screenwriting possible. Without that constant feedback from the audience, writing can become ungrounded. Audiences show up too late in cinema; you don't get a chance to fix it after they get there. So you better have a very strong sense of what you've got, of what the music is between you and the audience. The theatre gives so much back in that way. I feel genetically born to be a playwright. When I started writing in the dialogue form, I had a complete moment of recognition, like, "Oh! This is what I do!" I'd written in many other forms before that—I started writing when I was 11 and I was a poet, exclusively, for several years. But it wasn't until I was 23, 24, that I tried the dialogue form, and it was instantaneous. I wrote a full-length play the first time I ever wrote in dialogue, and it was produced a few weeks later.
When you reflect back on your personal journey, are you ever amazed that here you are, this troublemaker from the Bronx, who ended up a playwright with something to say that lots of people want to hear?
Yes. My life is both inevitable and surprising to me. But I've never had the slightest sense of future. I did not envision a fate. So I don't know why I should have any feeling of surprise.
Robert Coe is a screenwriter, playwright and journalist living in New York City. This is his ninth article for American Theatre since 1986.
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