Shanley, John Patrick
John Patrick Shanley
Born October 13, 1950, in New York, NY; son of a meatpacker; married and divorced first wife; married Jayne Haynes (an actress; divorced); children: Nick, Frank. Education: New York University, B.S., 1977.
Addresses: Agent—Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-1815.
Career as off-Broadway playwright began in 1978 with Saturday Night at the War; a collection of one-act plays were staged in 1982 as Welcome to the Moon; made London theater debut with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, 1984; first two screenplays, Moon-struck and Five Corners, both produced by Hollywood studios in 1987; made screen directing debut with Joe Versus the Volcano, 1990; made Broadway debut with Doubt, a parable, 2005. Also author of the teleplays Danny i Roberta, 1993, and Live from Baghdad, 2002.
Awards: Academy Award for best screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for Moon-struck, 1987; Writers Guild of America award for best screenplay written directly for the screen, for Moonstruck 1987; Pulitzer Prize for drama, for Doubt, 2005; Lucille Lortel Award for best play, for Doubt, 2005; Outer Critics Circle Award for best Broadway play, for Doubt, 2005; Obie Award for Doubt, Village Voice, 2005; Drama Desk Award for best play, for Doubt, 2005; Antoinette Perry (Tony) award for best play, League of American Theaters and Producers and the American Theatre Wing, for Doubt, 2005.
John Patrick Shanley has written some two dozen off-Broadway plays since the 1970s, but New York theater critics were rarely kind in their assessments. That changed when he made an impressive Broadway debut in 2005 with Doubt, a parable, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama as well as the Best Play honors at the season-ending Tony Awards. "The play's not so much about the scandal itself, but the philosophical power in embracing doubt," he remarked in an interview with Everett Evans of the Houston Chronicle. "If I'm proselytizing at all, it's to say, 'Live with it, brother. Doubt is part of life.'" Doubt was not the first time Shanley seemed to hit one out of the ballpark, however: in 1987, his screenplay for Moonstruck won him an Academy Award.
Born in 1950, Shanley grew up the youngest of five children in an Irish-Catholic family whose home was in the Bronx neighborhood of East Tremont. His father, a meatpacker, was an Irish immigrant, while Shanley's mother was herself the daughter of Irish immigrants. The East Tremont streets were home to similar working-class Irish and Italian families. "It was extremely anti-intellectual and extremely racist and none of this fit me," the play-wright revealed in an interview with Alex Witchel that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. He recalled being "in constant fistfights from the time I was six," though he asserted he rarely picked the fight himself. "People would look at me and become enraged at the sight of me," he explained. "I believe that the reason was they could see that I saw them."
Shanley spent the first eight years of his formal education at St. Anthony's, a Roman Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity religious order. He went on the all-boys Cardinal Spellman High School, where he rebelled against the strict, no-nonsense priests who taught at the school. During his two years there, Shanley spent every single week in after-school detention, until he was asked to leave. Instead of a public high school in the Bronx, he opted to attend a private school in New Hampshire that was affiliated with the Catholic church.
At the Thomas Moore school, away from the Bronx, Shanley began to thrive. His teachers encouraged his writing talents, which started around the age of eleven, and as a teen he wrote reams of poetry. When he graduated, he went on to New York University, but left after a semester of poor grades. He enlisted in the Marine Corps which, somewhat perversely, he liked for its Catholic-school style of discipline. He returned to New York University after his Vietnam War service ended, and in 1977, the year he turned 27, graduated as the valedictorian of his class.
Shanley had already started writing plays by then. In his early twenties, he later recalled, "I tried the dialogue form, and it was instantaneous," he told American Theatre 's Robert Coe."Iwrotea full-length play the first time I ever wrote in dialogue, and it was produced a few weeks later." By the early 1980s, he had written a half-dozen works, and some of the one-act plays were staged together in a late 1982 production titled Welcome to the Moon. Its collective themes centered around love and the absence of it, and were filled with rather fanciful characters and props, such as a mermaid and a magical coat. Critics were less than kind. Frank Rich, later the New York Times op-ed columnist, was once the paper's theater critic, and reviewed Welcome to the Moon that year. Rich opened his critique with a line of dialogue, "It's a relief to say things, even if they are sophomoric," Rich quoted one of the characters as saying. "No doubt that's true for the person who's doing the talking," the critic quipped, "but what about those who have to listen? "
Shanley had somewhat better luck with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, first produced in Waterford, Connecticut, in 1983. It went on to the New York stage the following year and then a London production as well that same year when it was included as part of the traveling arm of the Louisville Festival, a relatively new event at the time that showcased the best new American plays in the Kentucky city first. The play's action focused on two star-crossed lovers who meet in a seedy Bronx bar. John Turturro, who later went on to fame in films by Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, was the original Danny.
Shanley's rising star gave him access to a generous National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant, which freed him from the long series of jobs he usually held in order to make ends meet, including elevator operator, apartment painter, and bartender. When the NEA funds began running low, he thought that if he wrote a screenplay instead of a play, he might earn enough from selling it to Hollywood to get by for another year or so. He mined the familiar territory of the outer New York City boroughs and voluble Italian-American families for a script he originally titled "The Bride and the Beast." The title used instead, after a moderately well-known Hollywood director Norman Jewison filmed the story, was Moonstruck. It starred Cher as an Italian-American woman, widowed young, whose is engaged to be married again. When her fiancé visits Italy, she attempts to make peace on his behalf with his brother (Nicolas Cage), a baker with one wooden hand, and winds up falling in love with him instead. A strong supporting cast and interesting subplots centering around love and infidelity rounded out the work, which won Shanley the 1987 Academy Award for best screenplay.
Shanley had little success in Hollywood after that point, however. His next work was a 1989 thriller, The January Man, which starred Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, and Harvey Keitel. It earned terrible reviews, as did Shanley's next, Joe Versus the Volcano, which he directed as well. The film starred Tom Hanks as a man who learns he has a fatal brain tumor, and heads to a remote tropical island to throw himself into a volcanic crater. Despite the presence of big-name box-office draws such as Hanks and Meg Ryan, the movie tanked at the box office.
Shanley went on to write a few more Hollywood projects, such as the adaptation of a popular book from the 1970s based on a true story about an Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains of South America in 1972. Ethan Hawke was one of the stars of the 1993 film version of Alive, but the most memorable feature of both the book and the movie may have been that the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Shanley also wrote the screenplay for 1995's Congo, a reworking of a Michael Crichton bestseller about apes and genetic mutation.
Shanley was still active in the New York theater world during these years. His plays included Italian American Reconciliation, from 1988, and Beggars in the House of Plenty, which was first produced in New York in 1991 and featured the typically dysfunctional characters who had become the hallmark of Shanley's work. In it, a Bronx butcher terrorizes his meek wife and adult children, one of whom turns to writing as a solace after finding little satisfaction in starting fires. Two more plays, Kissing Christine and Missing Marisa, debuted at the Louisville Festival in the 1990s, but Shanley found a more permanent home for his work finally in 2001 when he became involved with New York's LAByrinth Theater Company. His first play to be staged there was Where's My Money?, a drama about several jaded New Yorkers whose adulterous lives intersect. It contains one of Shanley's most-quoted lines of dialogue, as one of the play's lawyer-characters asserts, "Monogamy is like a 40-watt bulb. It works, but it's not enough."
Shanley wrote a few more plays, including 2003's Dirty Story, set in a post-9/11 world and dramatizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through its main characters, and Sailor's Song, a romantic fairy tale set to the waltzes of nineteenth-century German composer Johann Strauss. "This is not Mr. Shanley at his best," remarked Charles Isherwood in a New York Times review, who found it "drenched in ponderous, explicit talkit has the soggy consistency of an overdressed salad. "
By contrast, Doubt, a parable earned outstanding praise from critics, as well as the most impressive honors for which a playwright could ever hope: the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 2005 Tony Award for best play of the 2004-05 season. Doubt began its off-Broadway run in November of 2004, and went on to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre the following March. The story is set on familiar territory for Shanley: a Roman Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. The original leads were Cherry Jones as the school principal Sister Aloysius (Mrs. Clack in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village), and Brian F. O'Byrne as Father Flynn, one of the parish priests whom the Sister suspects of molesting the school's first African-American student.
Again, Shanley's intense dialogue served to anchor the drama, while the conclusion failed to answer any of the questions the play raised. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley claimed that as the play's author, "Shanley is on no one's side. It seems safe to say the playwright agrees with Father Flynn when he explains his preference for parables over reality: 'The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.' But Doubt presents each point of view with reasonableness and an eloquence that never seem out of sync with the characters' Bronx accents and ecumenical backgrounds."
Part of the reason that Doubt resonated with theater audiences was the timeliness of its subject matter, with new revelations of past sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests—and the ensuing legal proceedings—a frequent media topic over the past two years. As Shanley said in the American Theatre interview with Coe, those news stories prompted him to think about the nuns who taught him during his formative years at St. Anthony's. "I realized later on when the Church scandals were breaking that the way a lot of these priests were getting busted had to be by nuns…. But the chain of command in the Catholic Church was such that they had to report it not to the police but to their superior within the Church, who then covered up for the guy. This had to create very powerful frustrations and moral dilemmas for these women."
Shanley was working on a screenplay for a movie called Bread and Tulips, and his next play, Defiance, was scheduled to premiere on February 28, 2006, in a production by the Manhattan Theater Club. He lives in New York City's Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, and is parent to two teenagers, whom he and his former wife adopted within months of each other and now share joint custody. He has undergone several surgeries for glaucoma, and lost some of his vision despite them. Uninterested in returning to Hollywood, he said in the New York Times Magazine profile that the lucrative screenwriting work he once did seemed to satisfy his desire for fame and fortune for good. "Money is like heroin, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was destroyed by heroin," he told Witchel. "I've watched addiction all my life. Celebrity is like heroin. And constant praise is like heroin. And, you know, no one can resist constant praise. I had to get out."
Saturday Night at the War, produced in New York, 1978.
George and the Dragon, produced in New York, 1979.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, produced in Waterford, Connecticut, 1983; New York, 1984; London, 1984.
Savage in Limbo, produced in New York, 1985; London, 1987.
the dreamer examines his pillow, produced in Water-ford, Connecticut, 1985; New York, 1986.
Women of Manhattan, produced in New York, 1986.
All for Charity, produced in New York, 1987.
Italian American Reconciliation, produced in New York, 1988.
The Big Funk, produced in New York, 1990.
Beggars in the House of Plenty, produced in New York, 1991.
What Is This Everything?, produced in New York, 1992.
Kissing Christine, produced in Louisville, KY, early 1990s.
Missing Marisa, produced in Louisville, KY, early 1990s.
Psychopathia Sexualis, New York, 1998.
Where's My Money?, produced in New York, 2001.
Cellini, produced in New York, 2001.
Dirty Story, produced in New York, 2003.
Doubt, a parable, produced in New York, 2004.
Sailor's Song, produced in New York, 2004.
Five Corners, 1987.
The January Man, 1989.
Joe Versus the Volcano, 1990.
Contemporary Dramatists, sixth ed., St. James Press, 1999.
American Theatre, November 2004, p. 22.
Entertainment Weekly, January 22, 1993, p. 40; April 1, 2005, p. 78.
Houston Chronicle, May 22, 2005, p. 6.
Maclean's, January 23, 1989, p. 45.
National Review, March 4, 1988, p. 53.
New York Observer, February 26, 2001, 17; March 24, 2003, p. 19; December 13, 2004, p. 25.
New York Times, October 14, 1982, p. C15; November 24, 1982, p. C14; June 8, 1984, p. C3; November 12, 2001, p. E5; November 8, 2004; November 24, 2004; April 1, 2005, p. E3.
New York Times Magazine, November 7, 2004, p. 31.
Times (London, England), March 29, 1984, p. 8.
"John Patrick Shanley," Doollee.com, http://www. doollee.com/PlaywrightsS/ShanleyJohnPatrick. htm (August 16, 2005).