“Not that there’s anything wrong with sugar”:
Reading Sugar for Meaning in John Patrick Shanley’s Play Doubt: A Parable
By Bric Barker
When is it normal to wear a duck for a hat? Answer: when most people wear a duck for a hat. In Psychology, we determine normality by simply counting. The majority of people exhibiting a behavior determines normality for that group. Determining what is natural is simply looking around and seeing what occurs in nature. But for most people, it is a little more complex than that. Our values help us measure the difference between what we determine as normal versus unnatural. In polite society, though, we often do not challenge openly that which we find unnatural unless it directly affects us. Juxtaposition of normal next to the unnatural always creates tension. What then are the consequences of articulating that difference? Bring into the mix that society looks to the institution of religion to help guide us in our determinations of normal versus natural, and John Patrick Shanley’s setting of his play in a Catholic school provides an appropriate battleground for a conflict of normal versus unnatural. Two opponents (Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn) both with some authority, yet both also bound by their vows to the rules of the church, represent traditional versus modern approaches to the church’s relationship with its parishioners. What is normal behavior (traditional) for the clergy in our lives as opposed to what is unnatural? Many would see the fact that nuns and priest take vows of celibacy as an unnatural act in itself, so how can we hope or be expected to submit to its ideas of normal versus unnatural? Shanley, in his play Doubt: A Parable, explores the complexities of our ideas of normal versus the unnatural and the tensions created in judging through perhaps an outdated value system such as religion to show us that ultimately conflict of purpose in regards to perceptions of normal versus unnatural leads to less clarity rather than more. He does all this through the use of sugar.
Although sugar makes only a brief appearance in Shanley’s play Doubt, its significance cannot be underplayed. Shanley paints Sister Aloysius as an unlikable authoritarian from the opening of the play. It is in this characterization that Shanley wishes the viewer/reader to continue to see her as the play continues. This sets her as a foil against the character of Father Flynn whom she accuses of child molestation. The fact that sugar is an extra, a means of sweetening something else, can be read as representing a certain value of wastefulness that Sister Aloysius deems sinful enough to give up for Lent, a religious holiday that warrants a sacrifice specific to the parishioner. Sister Aloysius holds it against Father Flynn that he takes three sugars with his tea, to her…a wretched excess. Father Flynn further belittles her sacrifice by pointing out the fact that she does not know for sure if the sugar is even in her drawer by saying, “It mustn’t have been much to give up then” (Shanley 27). This personal dig combined with the fact that Sister Aloysius already sees his “sweet tooth” (Shanley 28) as proof of his decadence and guilt, delineates clearly the values of each character. Father Flynn is modern and liberal while Sister Aloysius is traditional and conservative.
In the play, sugar comes in the form of cubes with six sides. This can be linked to the unspoken tensions of all six of the characters of this play. Shanley uses these unspoken tensions to amplify the conflict between different characters. Though two of the characters, Donald Muller and William London, do not physically appear in the play, they are both responsible for creating the dramatic situation of events that inform both the conflict and tension of the plot. Donald’s presence as the first and only black student in the school creates such tension that Sister Aloysius knows that someone will inevitably do him harm. We see this when she asks Sister James, “Has anybody hit him?” (15). This creates a social tension that rings true for the time period setting of the play, 1964, a time of Civil Rights movements and race riots. William London, also not physically in the play, by actions witnessed by Sister Aloysius causes tension between Aloysius and Father Flynn, as she recalls: “On the first day of the school year, I saw you touch William London’s wrist. And I saw him pull away” (47). This action creates a narrative of possible physical and/or sexual abuse, thus the tension between Flynn and London.
Another example of how unspoken tensions amplify the conflict between different characters is exists between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, Donald’s mother, due to the fact that Mrs. Muller’s perspective of the situation is very different from the sister’s. Aloysius is trying to protect Muller’s son from a perceived sexual threat while Mrs. Muller sees the situation as temporary and almost necessary to get her son through to the next level of his education. During a time of race riots in the United States and being a female in an abusive relationship, Mrs. Muller is well aware of the sacrifices needed in order to get ahead…and after all, as she keeps repeating, “It’s just till June” (41). You see this tension play out in a poignant exchange between the two women: