The Contentious Playwright John Patrick Shanley

Sparring with a Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Winner

By: - Apr 03, 2015


Born October 3, 1950 now middle aged and honored with a table running Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer John Patrick Shanley exudes the rough edged persona of a Mick from the Bronx who can give and take a good punch.  He grew up being pummeled with tough love by the Mom who shaped his aesthetic as well as  nuns and priests who knocked sense and atheism into him.

As he informed us at a playwrights panel during the recent Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival writing comes relatively easily to him. When he told a friend that he had an idea for "Doubt" he said that it would win a Pulitzer Prize. It did. Although at the time he didn't quite know what it would be about. He said that it just tumbled out of him in a couple of weeks.

As backstory he disclosed that there was just one black kid in his catholic school. He was intrigued by doing a play with nuns. There was also intimate familiarity with priests molesting boys. The elements fell together in 2005 earning as much or more fame and cash as his 1987 Oscar winning hit "Moonstruck."

Having written some 26 plays and film scripts not everything is a hit. Still there are some 80 annual productions of his work globally.

While dedicated to theatre he makes a considerable amount of money working for Hollywood. Now and then one of his films gets made.

In the beginning reviews could be brutal. He described with contempt an early one by Frank Rich in the New York Times. He made a gesture like crumpling the paper into a ball and flinging it in the gutter. To this he recalled proclaiming "I'll be around longer than you will." That has proven to be true but he added that eventually he went out to dinner with Rich and that "He's a nice guy who since then wrote one and a half good reviews."

He puts his e mail in the program of new plays inviting the audience to respond. With the universal gesture of 'bring it on' Shanley stated that he answers each and every e mail. Unlike many in theatre he admits to reading reviews. He appears to be genuinely interested in how audiences and critics respond to his work. There is a curious sense that he conveys a down to earth, accessible, guy from the hood persona as well as a streak of defiant arrogance.

Tall and athletically trim Shanley trades jabs with critics and audiences like an aged boxer looking for one more purse. There's a time in a career when it's better to stay down for the count.

Like many compelling playwrights he writes about himself and hard knocks experiences. The black classmate who inspired "Doubt" was about nine.

Jim the lead character in "Prodigal Son" which is headed to Broadway next season is fifteen.

Stating that this is as far as he has gotten in his creative chronology there is concern that his characters will never catch up with current experiences.

He explained it as like reading the dozen or so volumes of Casanova's "Story of My Life." After that kind of commitment he felt he deserved a conclusion. Instead the legendary Venetian degenerate just died. The audience laughed as he mimed an expression of being cheated. I have a set of  Casanova's works but am awaiting another stint of solitary confinement to start reading them. Shanley says that its worth the effort.

The new play "Prodigal Son" is inspired by his experience at Thomas Moore Preparatory School, a private school with a Catholic orientation, in Harrisville, N.H. As an inner city kid with some talent Jim has been given a break and scholarship.

Suffering from glaucoma resulting in five operations has deprived him of 50% of his vision. There have been operations and periods of recovery in which he has been blind in one eye. That has meant adjustments like a decision not to direct when three of his plays were mounted in New York at the same time. He is able to function including writing,  directing and driving a car.

During an evening of readings from Tennessee Williams we were thrown off  that his Whitey Bulger leather jacket, so Bronx macho, wasn't buttoned properly. It was an odd image seeing him standing there askew delivering a herky jerky reading of Jim confronted by the religious head master who wants to expel him just before graduation. There have been fights and accusations of smoking pot. Only one teacher has nurtured and inspired him. One could feel anger drawn from life experience but it wasn't a polished performance. Shanley is more skilled as a director and putting words in the mouths of others.

What then to make of his performance as the anchor man of a panel of playwrights?

We heard New Orleans based playwright John Biguenet express his anger over the post Katrina outrages of FEMA that resulted in loss of life. That evolved into his play "Rising Water." He was followed by the Nigerian playwright Dr. Femi Euba who described the tough critical environment of being one of six playwrights in his class at the Yale School of Drama.

When it came time for Shanley there was a pregnant pause and silence. He just looked out at us while musings on silence as metaphor and its relative virtue. There was an absorbing rumination on the notion of I am here and you are there. Shanley was inching toward Beckett. Throwing the audience off was indeed absurd. It was an initiative both to draw us in as well as create distance and an artistic barrier. One wondered where this would go either as performance art or an eventual exchange of potential relevance and insight.

Working without a script Shanley was a compelling and even fascinating performer.

Only now do I better understand how he looked at but never really focused on the audience. His facial expressions were remarkable fluid and verging on the comical. One of them is a kind of pout with pursed lips giving way to broadly expansive gestures.

That idea about silence came from the earlier session with former New Yorker critic John Lahr. He described several last days of silence when Williams was spent with nothing left to say or write. There had been dialogue about how Sebastian in "Suddenly Last Summer" was cannibalized by a gang of poor boys he had paid to have sex with. It was the ultimate nightmare of rough trade. Lahr described the mother of Williams as a hysteric who never stopped talking but lacked the ability to listen.

So Shanley was riffing on the notion of silence as a metaphor for an artist who's well had run dry. For years Williams created incessantly and neurotically on the self medication of booze and alcohol until nothing worked. With some humor Shanley discussed reading bios of playwrights to learn what fueled their muse. Or stopped the flow of creative juices. That might be a switch from hand writing to learning to type. When coffee doesn't work changing to decaf. During his sober years as a Hollywood hack F. Scott Fitzgerald got by with coca cola. Whatever works was Shanley's message.

With all the talk of alcoholism, addiction and creative self cannibalism during Q&A I asked Shanley about the role of morbidity in the arts. How can it result in the Catholic suicide of Kerouac, O'Neill and Williams or the faster overdose of his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman and suicide of Robin Williams. He shot back that it was the work that saved them while everything else was problematic.

After the panel I approached to catch more comments. Since he writes inspired by his own experiences I asked what was private and off limits. The response was basically nothing as that wouldn't be honest to the audience.

Trying a follow up I launched another question. Catching me before I could duck he said "I'm not giving you an interview."

As reported by a guy from the Times at a family reunion Shanley thanked  ''everybody who ever punched or kissed me in my life and everybody who I ever punched or kissed?''

Among working class Irish that's known as love.

Given the chance "I couldah been a contendah."

Instead it was more like "No mas."