John Patrick Shanley’s aesthetic U-turn fascinates me. He made his reputation with plays so loosely structured and conversational that they often had the quality of discussions or Platonic dialogues rather than dramas. The very idea of action and the moral questions that it raises were often excluded. (What kind of dramatic action could you expect in a play called the dreamer examines his pillow?) Around the time of his movie success with Moonstruck, Shanley began to write plays in which the loose discussions, though still not exactly plot driven, began to coalesce around narrative points. Soon he was offering Cellini, a historical play, tragically mishandled in production, that was all sequential narrative, built up much the way a 19th-century playwright might have built it.
Then came Doubt. Suddenly Shanley, revisiting the well-made play, was the hero of those whose sensibilities had never left it, considerably widening his theater audience. Now he’s continued the experiment with Defiance, announced as the second play of a trilogy with Doubt, and suddenly the air is thick with the cries of those who want every theatrical experience to be the same and claim that Defiance is nowhere near as good as Doubt, merely because it’s different. But Shanley knows better than to tell every story the same way: Part of the complainers’ distress comes from the cunning pains he’s taken to make Defiance both a parallel and an alternative to its predecessor. Scholars will have years of fun tracing the hidden correspondences between the two; I personally can’t wait to see how a writer who constructs with such care will seal the deal with the trilogy’s final play. To me, Defiance is a very rich and satisfying piece that takes the tactics of Doubt, along with some of its themes, and applies them to a different realm in a different manner. However good we ultimately think it, it’s quite a hat trick for Shanley to have brought off.
Defiance takes place at a Marine base in North Carolina in 1971, during the upheaval brought on by the Vietnam War. Even within the military, dissent is spreading; casualties are mounting as we pour more and more manpower and money into what increasingly looks like a disaster. It would be hard to miss the analogy to our own time. A battallion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang, whose rasping, jut-jawed performance evokes late-period Cagney), is anxious to solve the camp’s discipline problem, part of which is racial. The opening half of Shanley’s taut, 90-minute work spreads out for our inspection the colonel’s ganglion of intertwined motives: Aside from being determined on principle, like a good Marine, to conquer the problem, Littlefield wants to impress his devoted but distant wife (played with exquisite, contained subtlety by Margaret Colin); he wants to demonstrate his bona fides as a believer in equal justice to his men; he wants to impress his benevolent rectitude, and the honor of the military, on his son, who has gone to Canada to dodge the draft; he wants to impress his superiors so he can be promoted to full colonel and retire in honorable comfort. While taking steps to enforce discipline, he simultaneously moves to redress local discriminatory practices that have heightened racial tensions on the base.
While attempting this two-directions-at-once strategy, Colonel Littlefield commits, midway through the play, a small, unexpected act that causes his undoing, ultimately wrecking his career, his marriage, and the lives of several other people, including the black officer he has chosen, in a part-symbolic gesture, as his aide. With marvelously economical dramaturgy, Shanley makes Littlefield a microcosm: While his motives are explicitly laid out, hints in the writing convey that everyone else involved is driven by an equally thick—and contradictory—mesh of needs, desires, ambitions and hopes. In the controlled environment of a military base, the difference between motives and intentions merges with that between intentions and actions to build a rack on which the characters are stretched to the breaking point. It’s a perfect instance of Shanley’s cunning that Littlefield, the character we think we know best, is the one who does the unexpected thing (about which Shanley, in a bow to his previous play, makes sure we have no doubt).
Littlefield’s act is irrational, a gesture of defiance against his own principles and the system they embody. But it’s not Shanley’s main point: What locks the play together so elegantly is that every other action taken in it, from declining a drink to requesting combat duty, likewise turns out to be an act of defiance: Life in this conflicted society is an endless war of wills, the war with others an extension of one’s war with oneself. The colonel, who speaks for absolute justice on earth, is trumped at his own game by a resentful chaplain who speaks, from whatever motive, for a higher justice. Caught between them, the black officer, Captain King (a nervy, riveting performance by Chris Chalk), has to choose, in effect, which set of principles to defy. And his choice, like every other choice the play offers, is beset with all the ironies that his specific personality brings to the situation. Social pressures of all kinds loom over the drama, but individual passions drive it on its collision course.
Like Doubt, Defiance ends in a general defeat: Nobody onstage gets what he or she wants. But where Doubt set personal motives loose in the spiritual world, Defiance locates them politically. The loss of confidence that plagues Sister Aloysius at Doubt‘s end is matched here by a loss of credibility in the American institutions the military is supposed to be defending. The tiny, openly admitted fault that brings down the colonel is only a symptom of the great sociopolitical faults that, in 1971 as now, America’s public face was busily denying. It’s in defiance of that relentless denial that Shanley offers his second tightly woven parallel—less flashy, but maybe longer lasting, than his first.