John Patrick Shanley writes the drama play, “Doubt”, in which he covers a spectrum of moral, religious, and social issues. The play is centered around a stringent nun’s (Sister Aloysius) allegations towards a priest’s (Father Flynn) sexual advances on one of the students (Donald) at a Catholic school where they serve. Shanley eventually adapts the play into a film, maintaining the plot’s core while adding a few characters. In both the play and film, Shanley illuminates the motif of motherhood through the character of Mrs Muller (Donald’s mother) and her response to Sister Aloysius’s allegations. Shanley is keen to provide depth of character with background circumstances forcing Mrs Muller to overlook these allegations for her son’s education. This event forces the audience to question Mrs Muller’s compassion and motherhood. The film provides a different emotional outlook on the situation, albeit it does not alleviate its gravity. The social-cultural background of Mrs Muller/Miller plays an instrumental role in shaping the perception of her response towards these allegations.
In the play, Mrs Muller’s primary concern for her son is education attainment. First, it is important to understand that Donald is the first and only colored student in the school; as Mrs Muller explains in the 8th scene, “He’s the only colored here. He’s the first in this school.” (Shanley 40). She also explains that Donald “knows what opportunity” he has in the school (Shanley 40). Mrs Muller finds it hard to confront any possibility that her son is being abused in a school that offers him an immense educational opportunity. Even before Sister Aloysius lets her in on why she summons her, Mrs Muller appears defensive, claiming that Donald only has until June. She says, “whatever the problem is, Donald just has to make it here till June.”(Shanley 41) She goes on that graduating from that Catholic school offers him “a better chance of getting into a good high school. And that would mean an opportunity at college.” (Shanley 42). Mrs Muller is not ashamed to admit that she only cares about her son graduating from school, regardless of the circumstances.
Mrs Muller shows another secondary reason that makes her adamant about her son’s stay in the school. She views the relationship between Father Flynn and Donald as positive, claiming that Flynn has “been watching out for him.” (Shanley 41). In this situation, too, it is crucial to comprehend the background circumstance. Before being moved to this Catholic, Donald was in a public school, which was rough for him. Donald’s father resisted his move to the Catholic school as he “thought he’d have a lot of trouble with the other boys.” (Shanley 41). Mrs. Muller defends her son’s act of drinking altar wine as a reaction to the pressure of being the only colored student in the school. However, she says her husband sees it differently, having “beat the hell out of him over that wine.” (Shanley 41). Donald’s father, who is supposed to be Donald’s male role figure, treats him harshly. Therefore, when a compassionate male figure appears in Donald’s life as Father Flynn, Mrs Muller becomes appreciative. As such, she is not being defensive of Father Flynn; rather, she is acting in what she terms as her son’s best interests.
Upon reading the play, Mrs Muller appears quite non-compassionate. Her tone is devoid of emotion and does not uphold her son’s emotional well-being. One would claim that a good parent ought to take Sister Aloysius’s allegations seriously, given that the child might be undergoing potentially traumatic experiences. However, Mrs Muller treats them as mere allegations and takes on a legal tone of asking for evidence of wrongdoing. This situation is further exacerbated when she appears to believe Sister Aloysius but insists that her son does not initiate the allegations. “Not to be disagreeing with you, but if we’re talking about something floating around between this priest and my son, that ain’t my son’s fault.” (Shanley 43). Here, she treats her son as an adult and purposefully dodges the Sister’s principal concern to avoid any troubling issue that might compromise Donald’s education in that school. The cold non-compassionate tone that doe not seem quite motherly peaks when Mrs Muller outrageously responds to the Sister, saying, “Let him have ‘im then.” (Shanley 43).
Mrs Muller’s character in the film sheds further light on her perspective. The audience changes its perception of how it views the character Mrs Miller in the film. While the dialogue remains mostly similar to the play, the film portrays Mrs Miller as heartbroken and distraught. The scene between her and Sister Aloysius is full of tears. Here, the audience understands that her actions are motivated by desperation and compassion for her son’s future. Viola Davis, who plays Mrs Miller, brings the character to life and breaths empathy into her, stringing the audience to understand the plight of black motherhood.
The conversation in the film between Sister Aloysius and Mrs Miller reaches its climax when the nun asks Mrs Miller, “What kind of mother are you?” (Shanley 2008). While intended as a rhetorical question, Mrs Miller replies tersely, citing the hallmarks of black motherhood. As a black working-class mother, Mrs Miller’s priority is ensuring her son experiences more opportunities than she had. She undergoes intense agony in pursuit of this interest and willingly shoulders the burden of white authority figures and an abusive husband. Beyond her survival, all she holds in dear esteem is Donald’s positive future. Sister Aloysius cannot understand this because she belongs to a different demographic of women who enjoy white privilege, thus making emotional well-being a significant priority. For Mrs Miller, Donald’s emotional well-being is secondary to his education, which she views as critical to a bright future. Whether or not she is a good parent depends on the audience’s socioeconomic position, influencing the character’s relatability.
Shanley, John Patrick. “Doubt: A Parable”. 2004.
Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt. Miramax Films. 2008.