By Larry Kirwan
I don’t know why he stuck in my mind all those years? He was just another boozer a couple of stools away mouthing off about being a writer. Nothing new in the Bells of Hell – yet something caused me to inquire who he might be!
“Some narrowback down from the Bronx, Shanley or something.” Nick Browne, that most misanthropic of barmen, replied.
Years later I read a review of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and the penny dropped.
John Patrick Shanley’s name has rarely been out of the papers since. You might know him best for writing Moonstruck, one of the all time feel-good movies.
Or you might recall that he wrote Doubt, a very fine play – I never saw the movie but given the material and a cast that included Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all under Shanley’s direction, it had to be on the money.
Shanley has won the big three: Pulitzer, Oscar and Tony. On Monday night, he’ll add the Irish American Writers and Artists Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award to his trophy chest. And it’s well deserved.
He’s from the Bronx and it shows. The Bronx is poorer, more working class, and arguably more dangerous than the other boroughs. The people are outgoing and outspoken – hell, they created a world language up there, Hip-Hop! Shanley may be far removed from that particular vernacular but his plays are fearless and his characters can be both troubled and troublesome.
He shows you both sides of an argument, then steps away and allows you to make up your own mind. Less preachy than Miller, less gloomy than O’Neill, he’s definitely less fragile than Williams.
I have to admit that while watching Doubt I was often on the side of the charismatic Father Flynn rather than the dogged, Sr. Aloysius. I left the theatre disturbed by the play – probably the playwright’s desired reaction – for who has not been bothered by the Catholic Hierarchy’s disastrous and often puzzling response to accusations of child molestation aimed at their clergy.
A relative of John’s had been subjected to this criminality and the family watched with horror while the Church not only did not publicly censure the cleric, but promoted him. And yet while attending Doubt, I felt for the misguided priest as much as for the good sister who exposed him – a sure sign of a fine playwright at work.
Shanley’s father was from outside Mullingar and though the son’s work is invariably set in the city, yet there is an ineffable sense of the Irish midlands in both his plots and language. Apparently, he had a troubled relationship with his mother.
Ah, the Irish mother, where would we be for drama without her? No doubt it’s the mix of steady Mullingar father and self-contained mother that gives Shanley his ability to show both sides of an argument so flawlessly while forsaking the usual preachy theatrical judgment.
The young man I heard mouthing off in the Bells had to crash through many barriers of class and perception on his way from the Bronx to Broadway. Irish American Writers and Artists was established to make that route easier. We provide two monthly salons, one on the Upper West Side at the Thalia and a downtown venue at The Cell on 23rd Street where playwrights, musicians, writers, actors, graphic artists and all other workers in the arts, can strut their stuff in an empathetic environment.
Members are encouraged to present their work on a regular basis – it costs less than a buck a week to join. The public is permitted free of charge to all salons.
Olympia Dukakis, Debra Messing and the esteemed director, Doug Hughes, will be on hand Monday night at Rosie O’Grady’s to toast and roast John Patrick Shanley of the Bronx for a distinguished artistic life.
If you hear a young playwright mouthing off at Rosie’s bar, take note of his or her name. You might be in the company of another great artist in the making.
The Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award will be awarded at the Manhattan Club, Rosie O’Grady’s in Times Square. For information and tickets, visit www.i-am.wa.org.