He’s a combative guy’s guy from the Bronx. She’s a polite British divorcée who came out as a lesbian late in life. But these playwrights have the same topics in mind: the certainty of death and the ambiguity of everything else. This season, each has a play triggered by personal tragedy—Shanley’s sister’s death from cancer and Bryony’s ex-husband’s suicide (after they’d divorced). In a conversation with Ada Calhoun, each revealed strong feelings about organized religion. It’s a small world after all.
John, your play Doubt is about the conflict within a Bronx Catholic school. Autobiographical?
John Patrick Shanley Absolutely. I was educated by the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx in 1964. That’s when I left and went to the Irish Christian Brothers—God help me! I missed those Sisters of Charity after those guys.
Was there a priest like the play’s Father Flynn at your school?
J.P.S. Not that I know of, but John Geoghan, who was killed in prison last year, molested a child in my family. And the other biggest predator priest is named Paul Shanley, which, frankly, I don’t like. I’d like to take back the family name. I looked us up in a book of heraldry once. Shanley had two lines: “A small group of excessively quarrelsome, excessively religious people.”
In Last Easter, a cancer patient’s three friends use a holiday to Lourdes to help their friend die as graciously as possible. Where’d this come from?
Bryony Lavery I went by chance to Lourdes, and I found it one of the most dreadful places I’d ever been in my life. Actually, I think I’ve been to one worse place, and that was Albania.
What was wrong with Lourdes?
B.L. It seemed to me to be full of the wrong kind of hope. And of course the people there were all religious! And not my religion.
What is your religion?
B.L. It’s nothing, really. I was brought up in the Church of England, but I pretty much approach all religions and take the best bits and drop the bits I find troublesome.
Why are romance and mortality such a compelling topic?
J.P.S. Well, we’re just here for a time, and whatever’s happening, that’s your precious life shooting by. A lot of people have a problem with choice, and as a result they live on the balcony. They don’t even see that their life is melting away into a dream.
Lavery: Last Easter, Lucille Lortel; previews September 15, opens October 7.
Shanley: Doubt, MTC at New York City Center Stage I; previews November 3, opens November 22. Sailor’s Song, The Public’s Shiva Theater; opens October 26. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Second Stage; opens October 21.