John Patrick Shanley finished the first draft of the play that is now called Defiance - it started life as Chain of Command - on the night before the announcement of the 2005 Pulitzer Prizes. "I did that intentionally," says the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Moonstruck" who did, in fact, go on to win a Pulitzer, a Tony, an Obie and everything else in sight for his high-tension gripper, Doubt. "I didn't want the Pulitzer dangling over my head when I was writing my next play."
In Doubt, a struggle of truths, wills and suspicions takes place in a Roman Catholic high school in the Bronx in the 1960's. The setting of Defiance, opening this month at City Center in a production by Manhattan Theatre Club, is 1971 North Carolina. A battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield (Stephen Lang), is admirably tough on race relations ("…as for this racial nonsense, it matters to me not at all if you're black, white, blue or stupid. You are Marines") but has not too admirably had sexual intercourse with the wife of a distraught, Southern, white enlisted man under his command. The crisis hits home with the colonel's own wife (Margaret Colin), of course, but even more so with Littlefield's executive officer, the stoic, black, rigorously principled Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), whose personal dream "was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968."
Was the name King, for that officer, just a coincidence?
"I suppose so," Shanley says over the phone from his digs in Brooklyn Heights. "There was a definite black-white rift in the U.S. military all over the U.S. and the world as a result of the Martin Luther King assassination." Then, after a pause: "There are lots of different things I do that I don't know why they happen." What he does know is that Doubt and Defiance are the first two legs of a trilogy of plays, he says, "exploring specifics of my life story as it overlaps with major changes in the social fabric of this country." Shanley indeed went to St. Anthony's School in the Bronx "when the women [nuns] still wore black habits and had men's names, in an era that was coming to an end even though they didn't know it." He did indeed serve in the U.S. Marine Corps - at Camp Lejeune, Guantanamo Bay, Panama and elsewhere - from August 1970 to August 1972, going in at age 19, coming out at 21. "It was the nadir of the history of the Corps in terms of race relations, drug abuse, court-martial overload" - and, yes, Shanley did, at one station, have a barracks-mate from the deep South "whose newlywed bride had been [taken to bed] by a staff sergeant. The kid came to me, somebody to talk to; it was awful."
So what's the third play in the trilogy going to be about? "I don't know yet. But doubt is something born in the individual breast. Defiance is social: what you do after you begin to doubt. America's adolescence." After adolescence? Stay tuned.