Mormon Arts Sunday for 2017 is June 11

Mormon Arts Sunday is the second Sunday in June, which means it’s June 11 this year. This is an occasion to celebrate the creativity of our fellow Saints (and others) as well as the important role the arts can have in bringing goodness, joy and wisdom into our lives.

We invite you to celebrate it as individuals, families, friends and wards. There are many ways to do this, here are some:

  1. Wear dark red/maroon to church on June 11 to show support for Mormon art and artists.
  2. If you will be giving a talk, teaching or selecting music for meetings on June 11, consider using work from/referencing Mormon poets, composers, fiction authors, playwrights, visual artists, etc.
  3. If appropriate, talk about creativity and art as part of a lesson, talk, family home evening (perhaps the Monday before) or conversation.
  4. Recommend works of art (especially those by Mormon artists) to friends and family members.

Read these previous AMV posts for mores ideas for celebrating and the history of the day.

A conversation with Luisa Perkins about her short novel Prayers in Bath

cover of Prayers in Bath

Luisa Perkins was kind enough to indulge me in a conversation about her novel Prayers in Bath, which was published earlier this spring by Mormon Artists Group.

But first here’s the back cover blurb to provide some context for our discussion:

After several attempts at in vitro fertilization, Ted and Julia Taylor are out of money and out of hope. In an attempt to shake herself out of her depression, Julia accepts an internship on an archaeological dig in Bath, England. When she finds an ancient scroll while working in the sewer connected to the Roman baths, she sneaks it back to her flat, translates it, and discovers a secret previously lost in the shadows of legend. But her new knowledge poses significant risks, and the repercussions leave her career, her faith, and her marriage hanging in the balance.

And now on to our conversation…

WM: So I really liked Prayers in Bath, Luisa. I want to talk about it, but I also very much don’t want to spoil too much of the plot for other readers so we’re going to talk around it a bit instead of diving into the text itself. On your author website, you reveal the initial germ for the novel. Could you expand on that a bit? What came after the two initial ideas of a Mormon woman as the main character and curse tablets in the hot springs of Bath? Was there a particular image or sentence or scene or additional theme or idea that arrived next? Or to put it another way: what were the next layers of sediment that settled down as you built the bedrock of the stream of the novel? Also, what was your reaction to that first glimmer of ideas?

LP: Well, that is hard to talk about without dropping a lot of spoilers, but the William Blake poem/hymn and its allusions to the Glastonbury legend were the next big pieces of the puzzle.

As I started building Julia as a character, I knew I didn’t want her to be what some might expect a Mormon woman character to be. She’s not from Utah; she’s a convert; she doesn’t have kids. And I wanted her to question some of the things that I question: how do we navigate the tension between personal revelation and institutional revelation? What about the tension between faith and knowledge? What do we do with a character (like Nephi) who feels inspired to break a commandment?

I also think a lot about all the scriptures we don’t have. I teach early morning seminary, and one of the things I try to teach my students is how and why to cherish the scriptures we do have–but there’s so much we don’t know. And I often wonder when we’ll get more scriptures, when we’ll have an outpouring of knowledge of the magnitude of the Kirtland years. My grandfather once quoted someone to me–I don’t know whom–and said we wouldn’t get any more scriptures until we knew and lived the ones we already have. So I guess it’ll be a little while.

My reaction to thinking about all these questions in the context of my new characters was excitement. I did a lot of very diverse research before I settled into the plot the book has now. It’s a short book, but it took a long time to write, to feel like I’d gotten it right.

WM: Short is usually more difficult than long because you have to do the work to reduce the story. You said it took a while to settle into the plot. It’d would have been very easy to take the core elements of the story and blow it out into a much larger and/or more melodramatic plot. I like that you didn’t do that.

Another thing I found interesting is that Julia and Ted, the married couple at the center of the story, are academics. Ted comes from pioneer stock; Julia is a convert. They struggle with fertility. Setting aside their individual personalities and, as we find out later, some plot reasons for these attributes, I think there’s something very interesting about layering those three experiences onto a fictional Mormon couple. What did you find interesting about that particular combination?

LP: I love Ted. He thinks he’s very progressive, but his self-conception gets challenged pretty strongly by the events of the book, and he realizes he’s more a product of his upbringing than he’d like to think. I think most self-aware adults go through that struggle at some point. As for Julia, we need more convert stories. There are so many more converts or children of converts in the church today than there are people with pioneer ancestry. It would be great if our books reflected that. As for fertility, I pictured, Julia joining the church and wanting to buy into the dream of the Ensign cover family–but having a hard time with it for a lot of reasons. She’s an outsider, but then in the story, she becomes a very particular kind of insider. I like that kind of reversal.

WM: I hadn’t thought of Julia in terms of the reversal that happens in relation to Ted, but that’s definitely one of the things I responded to. Getting more specific: I think that infertility is something that could use more attention from Mormon artists (and Mormon culture in general). I really responded to Emily Adams’ essay/poetry collection For Those With Empty Arms and was sad but also strangely happy that it turned out to be one of the elements of Prayers in Bath. What other kinds of works would you like to see that deal with infertility?

LP: I’d love to read more fiction and non-fiction about adoption. As Mormons, we have this huge culture of symbolic adoption in the gospel. The realities of adoption can be very tough. But in any circumstance, families are hard, families are crucibles. Our ancestors had to deal with infant mortality rates and a rate of mothers dying in childbirth that I simply cannot imagine. But maybe they look at us, with the seemingly ever-increasing rates of infertility, and are similarly astonished.

WM: Modern Mormons sometimes pay lip service to the idea that our times are just as challenging for us as their own times were for the Mormon pioneers. But it’s usually cast in terms of “they had to face super difficult physical challenges, and we face super difficult spiritual ones”. But I’m pretty sure they faced spiritual challenges too. And we face physical ones—they’re just not quite the same ones (at least for those of us who live in first world countries).

Switching gears: there’s a “Mormon expats hosted by bemused but game local Mormons Thanksgiving dinner scene” in the novel. I had a couple of moments on my mission in Romania of awkward-but-charming attempts to celebrate American-Mormon holidays. What’s your favorite traditional Thanksgiving dish? What’s your favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish? What was the most memorable Thanksgiving dinner abroad experience you have had?

LP: My favorite Thanksgiving dish is stuffing with gravy. But it has to be my mother’s recipe, or I won’t eat it. I’m kind of a fascist about our Thanksgiving menu, but I haven’t heard anyone complaining.

My favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish is carrot soup. My second favorite is a course of French cheeses. I’ve never eaten Thanksgiving dinner abroad, but the first time I had Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, it felt like I was in a foreign country. My mother–in-law is Swiss, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and my husband’s family grew up having very traditional French dinners–several courses spread over several hours.

So my husband’s family’s Thanksgiving turned out to be this perfect amalgam of French and American cultures. The meal started with this amazing, creamy, rich, pureed carrot soup. Then came the recognizable course–the turkey, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, and cranberry. (I took it as a sign from heaven when my mother-in-law’s stuffing turned out to be nearly identical to my mother’s.) Then came the salad course, and then the cheese plate, and then finally, the pies. Oh, and fresh apple cider from a local farm throughout, served in wine glasses. We were at the table for five hours, and I felt like I was in heaven. Lively conversation, fantastic food. And that’s how I’ve done Thanksgiving–or any holiday meal–ever since.

Um, obviously, I’m very into food.

WM: Same here. All my conversations eventually end up on the subject of food, fashion or narrative art (books, TV, film).

Okay, let’s get to a core AMV topic: Prayers in Bath is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to me and my half-baked theories about Mormon literature but because of that very fact, it’s hard to categorize generically. I suppose one could simply give it the “contemporary literary fiction” genre label, but that sidesteps the fact that there are elements to it that go beyond mundane realism. For one thing, it treats its supernatural element seriously. That is, Julia is a believing Mormon character, which means she seeks for and receives revelation from the Holy Ghost, which an LDS reader will see as simply realism while non-LDS readers will see it as non-realism. And yet other genre categories/labels commonly used don’t fit either. It’s not magic realism [for readers wondering why not, see my AMV series on Mormon magic realism]. It’s not paranormal fiction in the way that term is used for horror/urban fantasy/weird fiction. I’ve used the term Mormon folk realism to describe creative works that take Mormon doctrine (and especially Mormon folk doctrine) at face value and extrapolate from there. But I’d say that Prayers in Bath doesn’t even quite fit that because whatever is supernatural about it is well within the borders of current Church doctrine and practice, albeit a somewhat unusual/unique manifestation of it. There are, certainly, versions of this novel that could have put you more solidly in any number of genres. What parameters and/or influences and/or inclinations influenced how you calibrated your approach to the genre of the novel? And how did genre labels factor into discussions with Mormon Artists Group on how to position the novel?

LP: When Gideon Burton teaches my novel Dispirited at BYU, he calls it “spiritual realism.” I thought that was pretty genius and have adopted it to explain most of the stuff I write, including Prayers in Bath. It may not be PC to admit it, but Orson Scott Card’s Alvin books had a big influence on me. His folk magic is just one step removed from a lot of stuff that we as Mormons believe and witness. A story I wrote just came out in the latest issue of Sunstone, and I have another one coming out in a Segullah anthology soon. They’re very much in the same spiritual realist vein.

WM: Excellent. I look forward to those stories. Whether we call it Mormon folk realism or spiritual realism or something else entirely, it’s a type of Mormon fiction that I very much enjoy reading and writing because it takes LDS doctrine and experience seriously but does so as a matter of theme and aesthetics rather than sermon or personal essay, and there’s something about that translation to the idiom of fiction that gets at aspects of the Mormon experience that I, personally, don’t find anywhere else.

Okay, next question: what was your initial reaction to seeing the four works Jacqui Larsen created for Prayers in Bath? How awesome is it that she incorporated the words of William Blake?

LP: First of all, I was over the moon when Jacqui agreed to join the project. Her work is amazing. So before she turned in the pieces, I had high hopes. She exceeded them, to say the least. I wish I could have afforded to buy all four originals from her, but I am delighted that the color reproductions in the limited edition turned out so beautifully. The Blake poem/hymn is one of my favorite things, ever. I’m pretty anti-patriotism; I feel like it’s idolatry and does no one any good. But when people sing “Jerusalem,” I choke up every time.

WM: We should all have more Blake in our lives.

So. It’s impolite to ask about sequels, but I’m very curious about this: do you see yourself returning to the characters of Prayers in Bath? Or if not the characters, this style of fiction? Why or why not?

LP: I don’t see myself returning to Ted and Julia, but I won’t rule it out. But this style of fiction is generally what I want to be writing. I’m in an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts right now, and my professor this semester has strongly encouraged me to write stories that only I can write, to draw on deeply personal experiences. Maybe that’s self-evident for other writers, but it was not for me. I grew up reading a lot of English literature and British fantasy, so in a way, Prayers in Bath is a little bit of a literary homecoming for me.

But another thing I love is how these days, it’s more common to see fantasy and magical realism set in this hemisphere. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “There is the dearest freshness deep down things,” and that can’t be true just for England. There has to be magic everywhere. I live in Southern California now, and I’m trying to find the beauty and magic here and write about it.

WM: You know, in my early days of participating in discussion about Mormon literature, I railed against all the stories set in small Mormon corridor towns. But now I’ve written six or seven stories set in Southern Utah. And the majority of them have some sort of weird or magical element to them. There’s something about place and magic that’s a beguiling combination. I didn’t read a lot of British fantasy, but I remember first reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as a young boy and feeling like I was reading about home.

Last question: what’s the one thing (and it could be anything) that you’d like to see happen in Mormon fiction over the next year or two?

LP: The same thing I’d like to see in Mormondom in general–more faithful questioning. How will we ever get answers if we don’t ask questions? But also, a greater inclusiveness. The concept of “own voices” is a big deal in the writing world these days. Mormons need to have their own voices, but it hopefully won’t all be the same voice. Are there any Mormon writers in Guatemala or Ghana or Bulgaria? I have no idea, but I’d sure like for us to find them if there are.

WM: Amen to that. Thanks, Luisa!

My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?

On sentimentality, cynicism and Mormon art

I recently ran across an Oscar Wilde quote that stopped me in my tracks. I’m only going to pluck out the beginning and end of it, the full thing is available at Goodreads:

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. … And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

I am often uncomfortable with the grand pronouncements made about the Mormon audience by artists who want to be better received and understand by that audience. I think it’s condescending, short-sighted and uncharitable to dismiss Mormons who look mainly to Deseret Book for their cultural consumption. While I agree that much of the art that American Mormons produce is poorly crafted, insipid, and simplistic, I also think many of the alternatives that are offered are not much better. They may be better crafted, but that doesn’t mean what they have to say is more interesting and profound. Or to be simplistic about it myself, while the former may sell out to the Deseret Book audience, the latter too often sells out to the New York Times audience.

And as I’ve said many times, the Mormon audience(s) doesn’t owe us anything. Artists are the ones who are asking for their time and money. We have to prove that we can be trusted with it. It’s up to us do something about it rather than whine about what others should do more of or be less of.

But that doesn’t mean any of us are off the hook for what we’re supposed to learn in this world, and I firmly believe that what we don’t learn in this life, we have to learn in the next (if we can). Which means that eventually we’ll all need to grow out of our sentimentalism and our cynicism. The reason Wilde connects those two–and the reason why each of them is dangerous–is that both sentimentalism and cynicism are an attempt to protect oneself by shying. One does so by wanting to only focus on a simplistic picture of the good. Of taking a static image of pleasantness and mistaking it for something beautiful and secure. The other by seeing everything as tainted and not worthy of trust.

Nothing is static. That’s fundamental to LDS doctrine. Agency is given to individual beings as an engine for progression. Heaven is a state of creation not of being. Perfection is faith, hope and charity–not a cool, self-sufficient completeness.

Everything is tainted, but it’s tainted with goodness and the desire to love others. Humans are fallen, selfish being–who are also capable of great acts of charity. We all have the seeds if divinity inside us. Nurturing them is difficult, slow work that requires developing trust (in ourselves, in God, in Christ’s atonement, in others) and being vulnerable.

The Deseret Book Mormon is being cynical when they refuse to engage with art that makes them uncomfortable. The NY Times Mormon is being sentimental when they applaud uncomfortable art that pushes their particular socio-political buttons. Yes, it’s okay to be discriminating. Yes, we all live in our own culture bubbles. Yes, there’s an element of subjectivity to matters of taste.

But in our creation and consumption of art, we should do our best to avoid sentimentality and cynicism.

Enter the Poetarium:
On the Problem and Promise of Alex Caldiero’s Sonosophy

After nine years of doctoral study, I’m finally putting my PhD to bed. I defend my dissertation the morning of May 1 and will be presenting some of my research in a colloquium that afternoon. If anyone’s in the Pocatello area and would like to drop in for my presentation, here are the details:

  • Title: “Enter the Poetarium: On the Problem and Promise of Alex Caldiero’s Sonosophy”
  • When: Monday, May 1st, 3-4pm
  • Where: Room 329, C H Kegel Liberal Arts Building, Idaho State University (880 South 5th Street, Pocatello, Idaho)

Here’s a rundown of what I’ll be discussing:

Utah-based poet Alex Caldiero calls his performative poetry and poetics “sonosophy.” This mode of poiesis calls upon various cultural figures and performance traditions to explore and practice language as a process of communion and relationship-making; I call this intermingling of figures and traditions Caldiero’s performance ecology. In this colloquium, I will introduce sonosophy and discuss this ecology of influences, which include Caldiero’s Sicilian cultural heritage; his mystical experience; his participation in Catholic and Latter-day Saint faith communities and religious rites; the embodied poetics of the Beat generation; the playfulness of Dada plastic, performance, and language arts; and a tradition of seers that contains (among others) the Paleolithic shaman, the premodern bard, and ancient Hebrew prophets. I will focus specifically on how this ecology was cued in Caldiero‘s 2010 “Poetarium” performance at the Utah Arts Festival and explore ways that an understanding of his performance ecology can both shed light on and provide a lens through which to interpret what Caldiero seems to be doing with sonosophy.

(The event poster.)

(Cross-posted here.)

Paragraphs on
three very different things

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let Me Drown with MosesLeters to a Young Mormon Pilot

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let Me Drown with Moses by James Goldberg (2015)

This collection consists of just fewer than fifty poems so no single description will cover all it has to say, but here, I think, is a key thought to carry into reading it: The speakers of these poems (generally, one assumes, Goldberg himself) genuinely love what they are writing about (their faith, their family, etc). But this love does not cause them to fall into blind raptures. No, love rather allows them to see more clearly all their beloved’s features, whether cracked or smooth. This is perhaps clearest and most moving in “And the People Deceived Me (The Prophet’s Lament).” Brigham Young’s lament follows a series of poems that reenacted grotesque actions taken by Mormon settlers against their Native neighbors. The prophet is horrified by the evil his people have done and wishes to have his mantle removed—but simultaneously he is grateful to have sipped God’s bitter cup and to have had his heart broken open in similitude thereof.

Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller (2013)

Sometimes the way we teach the gospel does not in fact suggest that the Lord’s yoke is easy nor that his burden is light. I remember plenty of self-recrimination in my younger years as I examined my many failures as a Latter-day Saint. In this slim volume that takes the form of letters to his daughter, Miller addresses basic-if-fraught concepts like sin and love, and spins them out in new ways that feel true and generous. His means of taking these bits of gospel and connecting them one to another into a sensible whole can seem simple at times, but simultaneously reveal the complexity of a religion that transforms lives. As someone who views life as narrative, I was particularly struck by Miller’s descriptions of people creating their own story instead of trusting the story God has planned for them. This is thinking rich for further exploration.

Pilot by pd mallamo (2017)

I read Mallamo’s new novella as a proof provided by the author, but the nature of the work is such that some aspects—such as its paucity of terminal punctuation—may be errors about to be removed or may be a deliberate artistic choice and, really, how could one tell? The story is of a Moldovan girl deceived into a life of prostitution in more Western lands, making it as far as L.A. as she is bought and sold. The story itself is something of a phantasmagoria of hope and despair and bemusement filtered through a series of benefactors and pimps and, perhaps, God. Although the novella, I would argue, is nearly areligious in its attitude, it is rife with religious thoughts and feelings and even one of the better written scenes of revelation I’ve read. This story intends to upset the possibility of answers even before asking any questions. In the end, even happy endings are unlikely to satisfy in this world. But if we must live a fallen life, at least we can experience pleasure and pain along the way.

#MormonArtsSunday in Berkeley

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This is our ward’s fourth annual Mormon Arts Sunday, though I’m the only one really aware of that fact. This year I brought back the sacrament-meeting topic from year one, What Creating Teaches Me About the Creator.

Speaker One

Our first speaker was a fifteen-year-old writer of stories, novels, and screenplays. He noted two things about God he’s learned from creating:

First, sometimes he feels frustration when art doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to. Yet our Heavenly Parents don’t strike us down with lightning!

Second, sometimes when writing you can get in the zone and that is true joy! This, he said, helps us understand our Parents love for us.

The rest of his talk, for a while, had me worried he was going off the rails comparing Odin to Jesus (he started, after all, by comparing Odin’s mead to Jesus’s Holy Spirit), but he ended up having a great point. Continue reading “#MormonArtsSunday in Berkeley”

Sundry Moldy Solecisms #4 Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays by Mahonri Stewart

Title: Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays
Author: Mahonri Stewart
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Plays, Fantasy
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 451
ISBN: 9-780988-323384
Price: $18.95

Why, when I think about Mahonri Stewart’s recent collection, Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays, do I want to call it Evening Primrose? Oh yes, that’s the classic story by John Collier about a secret society living inside a department store.

Evening Eucalyptus does not take place in a department store at night, or within miles of one, indeed within miles of any urban setting, being set in the Australian outback, but it is a dark story about light-skinned dark people who despise dark-skinned light people, people with dark secrets and healing light.

Shortly after reading it I came across a book on the sales table at the American Fork library, Banjo Paterson’s People. Paterson is mentioned a few times in the play in the same way Americans might mention Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost, but his poetry is more like cowboy poetry in its setting, more like poetry you would expect from Louis L’Amour.

What serendipity. Hugh Nibley said if you pay attention to serendipitous moments you will see more of them, meaning they’ll happen more often, (see the link on the phrase sees the world as soulless below, which I found just after finishing this review) meaning they’re not simply coincidences, meaning there are intelligences besides our own acting in the universe. This idea that there are intelligences in nature besides our own runs throughout Evening Eucalyptus both as a play and a collection. This can be difficult for 21st century rationalist skeptics to understand, or to stand under. And I’m not talking about scientists.

Suppose there’s a landslide inside the strip mine across the valley–the one I lament each time I walk around the building during lunch–we don’t say, “The Oquirrh mountains are showing their displeasure at being desecrated,” or “the ghosts of the Oquirrhs are rising up to take vengeance.” Instead, we talk about shoring up the sides of the pit, clearing up the landslide, or closing the mine. It’s an engineering problem, not a problem of being out of community with other intelligent beings or entities we share the earth with.

No, the earth is here for us to use, and we’re the ones in charge. That attitude is also apparent in our relations with each other, not just with the world around us.

Consider the American national motto, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Lay aside the merits or demerits of the idea and consider the grammar, which invites us to see the world in terms of our desires. No, that’s wrong, there’s no us in the statement. The pronouns are second person and not necessarily plural.

Power in twenty-first century post-industrial capitalism comes from setting objectives and goals and deadlines and measuring my progress towards them, from exploiting my resources to the fullest.

Now, what happens when a culture that sees the world as soulless, as resource to be exploited, meets up with a culture that doesn’t? Mahonri Stewart explored the disaster that encounter brings upon a contemporary middle-class urban/suburban American family in A Roof Overhead.

In Evening Eucalyptus he explores the effects of that encounter on a whole culture, Australian aborigines.  That term is capitalized when it refers to a specific culture, or to someone who fits the Australian legal definition of an Aborigine, but does not appear in the play. Rather, Pindari tells his childhood friend,

Arthur, there is something I haven’t told you. My family was part of the Bundjalung Nation there. We were in Northern Australia when I was born.

ARTHUR. How did you end up in Melbourne when we were children then? Your tribe was on the other side of the continent.

PINDARI. My family had a dream We followed a series of songlines to travel there.

I take it that means Pindari’s family was called across the continent to meet and help Arthur’s family just as he has now been called into the outback to help Arthur.

ARTHUR. Okay, Pindari, I don’t know what your game is, but it’s not funny anymore.

PINDARI. It never was a game! You never understood.

(p. 120)

I hear an echo here of that moment in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle where one of the Pevensies refers to Narnia as “all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

Much of the play’s action revolves around trying to remove two eucalyptus stumps left by the previous owners. (Rich symbols. They remind me of a comment I read once to the effect that Eugene O’Neill loved symbols so much I’m not sure he was always aware when he was using them.)

Arthur points out ax marks on another eucalyptus tree to the housekeeper,

ARTHUR. The marks–they tried to cut this one down, like the ones in the back.

ABIGAIL. Yes, but they had a hard time doing it. It was like the tree was deflecting their axes.

ARTHUR. Truly?

ABIGAIL. When they took down the other trees in the back, I had nightmares about it for weeks. I am grateful this one put up a fight.

(p. 103)

A fight indeed, telling them in a dream to move out, that the land was waiting for the next inhabitant. (Surely I hear an echo of the scene in The Two Towers where the Ents  go marching one by one to battle, especially since the book’s introductory essay begins, “The great god of Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a jealous god.”)

The book documents two productions. One was recorded in three parts, and Duckduckgo  has links to them.

Looking at my reading log one night I noticed I had recorded the title as The Death of Eurydice and Other Plays, perhaps because it’s the first play in the volume, but also because of what the story means to me. Walking down Stone Way in Seattle one night I imagined Sisyphus at the top of Stone Way watching his stone roll down the hill into Lake Union, then going to retrieve it. That inspired a story about a young man’s grief at becoming a visitor to his children. A few years later I wrote a companion, the story he writes.

It involves that moment I had heard about in Ovid where Orpheus sings and all activity in the underworld stops, Ixion’s wheel stops turning, Tantalos’ water stops receding. Sitting there on his stone Sisyphus realizes that if such beauty can stop all activity the decrees of Zeus must not be unalterable, and when he reaches the top of the hill, instead of stepping back from his rock he pushes it off course, knocking over Ixion’s wheel and splashing through Tantalos’ pond, giving him a drink. Then all Hades breaks loose from their jail.

This is not at all what happens in The Death of Euridyce, but it applies Mormon ideas to the Underworld, as does Eurydice,  which reminds me a great deal of that poem I came across where Oedipus meets the sphinx in his blindness and she tells him he gave her the wrong answer. (With just that much to go on the Duckduck tells me it is Muriel Rukeyser’s Myth.)  There’s another person involved in the riddle, just as Orpheus is not the only person puzzling over Eurydice’s death.

(There is an honorable tradition going back beyond Dante, or even Boethius, of Christianizing the Greek myths, but I suspect Stewart’s example here is more modern, something like  C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, given his admiration for Lewis expressed in Swallow the Sun.)

And what playwright among you, if his children ask for a play will give them a frozen heavy rock? So The Snow Queen‘s dedication invites his children to see it as a little closer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original than is Disney’s Frozen.

The many many glass bottles around the shop in Jinn remind me of all those prophecy containers in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it raises a question related to Dumbledore’s question to Harry about whether prophecy is destiny, whether a prophecy has to be fulfilled just because it’s been uttered. That is, the bottles in this shop are not simply colorful containers, and though they may look empty, they do contain, and they pertain to individuals coming into the shop.

Various members of the Slover family hometaught my parents for years, so when Tim’s play about the trial of Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s murderers, Hancock County, premiered at BYU as part of a Cultural Olympiad connected to some sporting event in Salt Lake, they invited us to go with them. But first an ice cream social down at the church, where Tim spoke briefly about writing the play. He said he offered redemption to every character. Some took it, some did not. (Mahonri included Hancock County in his anthology Saints on StageI think there are videos of the production on Ewetube, where we like sheep like to go astray–though I haven’t looked for Joyful Noise there.)

Tim’s comment moved me greatly, and I look for offers of redemption in art. I  often don’t see them, especially in shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and NCIS, where the antagonists are mostly presented as implacable, dangerous and unredeemable. So I was happy to see the offer of redemption feature prominently in the next two plays, Evening Eucalyptus, and The Rings of the Tree. 

The Rings of the Tree also takes on the theme of imposed immortality, Serendipitously, Frankenstein and Dracula came up on my listening list in October. I finished the one on the 30th and started the other on the 31st. It was a much better novel than I had expected, and the scene where Jonathan watches Dracula crawl down the wall reminded me of something my brother Dennis had read to the effect that T.S, Eliot didn’t gloss a reference to that scene in his notes to The Wasteland because he figured all his readers would just understand the reference.

Then came Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s Dracula: The Undead. I hesitated because the copy on the CD holder made it sound like Dracula was the hero of the novel, but I wondered what Stoker’s great-grandnephew would make of the story. Dacre Stoker noted that the action of the novel takes place around the time of Jack the Ripper, and Van Helsing’s dismemberment of vampires is similar to the Ripper’s dismemberment of prostitutes.

The novel gets progressively more ingenious, or silly, I’m not sure which—including that moment where, like Oedipus and Luke Skywalker, our hero learns of his true patrimony. But Dacre Stoker doesn’t have his ancestor’s sensitivity to moral ambiguity. When the Romanian actor Basarab defends Dracula as the Christian savior of Transylvania who rode into battle with 40,000 prisoners impaled on pikes, thus causing massive fear in the invaders, no one challenges Basarab’s dismissal of his action as just what needed to be done.

There’s nothing in it to match the priest’s question to Ben Mears at the end of Stephen King’s prologue to his retelling of Dracula, ‘Salem’s LotThe priest tells Ben the boy he travels with has revealed a very serious situation, and asks Ben what he will do to rectify it.

That’s not the kind of imposed immortality we see in The Rings of the Tree or The Opposing Wheel, but the moral ambiguity of releasing someone from imposed immortality is similar, and the dangers of revising a classic are as well. So, what if that Connecticut Yankee coming to King Arthur’s court was a Mormon? Why not involve Mormons in the tropes and conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres? The Opposing Wheel does that, but I’m not sure how successfully.

In junior high I graduated from Earle Stanley Gardner to Agatha Christie  (In elementary school it had been my goal to read all 80 Perry Mason novels, but after spending my 7th grade year in Finland, where I was only able to find one in Oulu’s Kirjasto, and none in the university’s, I lost interest.) Needing a topic for my 9th grade English paper I decided to look at Christie’s use of nursery rhymes and other poetry in her titles, like this one

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

But I never read Tennyson’s full poem, never read Idylls of the King, (though I did buy a copy of Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and listened many times) and the legend of King Arthur has never captured me, so I’m not sure whether the twists and turns in The Opposing Wheel are ingenious, silly, campy or what, though I quite like one character’s declaration that in discarding Guinevere Arthur threw away the true scabbard for his sword. I should also mention that the absurdities I see in the play may reflect what happens when you try to work out the intricacies of the convention that Merlin lived backwards in time.

Most of the plays in this volume have some kind of multi-media elements, including rear-projection screens, video, dance, and puppetry, and I kept wondering what Mahonri Stewart would do as a director with a play like Eugene O’Neill’s late one-act Hughie, where O’Neill indulged his penchant for novelistic stage directions, describing night clerk Charlie Hughes’ thoughts, including a fantasy about riding on the back of a fire engine, in great detail as he listens to Erie Smith’s monologue about Charlie’s predecessor.

I read an article years ago which said most productions don’t depict Charlie’s thoughts–traditionally they’re supposed to provide a rich interior presence conveyed by the actor playing Charlie, but one production filmed them, and rear projected them on a screen. O’Neill was much too theatrical to have been satisfied with rich undepicted thoughts going through an actor’s mind–just consider the incessant drumbeat in The Emperor Jones. (Incidentally, Wikipedia says Paul Robeson’s 1933 film adaptation was the first to give a black actor top billing over a white actor. A few years ago I came across an LP on the Orem Library’s sales table of James Earl Jones in the role. I look forward to listening.)

O’Neill drew heavily on Greek myths for his plays, but not as a world where his plays would take place–though perhaps setting Mourning Becomes Electra after the Civil War suggested that the myths replay themselves in our lives in the rationalist-skeptical 20th century. Mahonri Stewart feels quite comfortable giving his plays mythical or fantastic settings. Indeed, a Sphinx is a character in the last play, The Emperor Wolf: A Post-Apocalyptic Fairy Tale, which feels to me a lot like The Roada listen I found surprisingly tender given all the violence I’ve heard about in Cormac McCarthy’s work. (And then I remember what Eric Samuelsen told me about the final image in No Country for Old Men being an image of atonement.)

I just now reread the Playwright’s Note for The Emperor Wolf and found this paragraph:

I am a religious man. The theology, ritual and meaning making of my people is very important to me, so if you want to read with that lens in mind you’ll find much to mine in this play about who I am religiously. But I am also a mythical man. I believe there is a rich spirituality in myths to be discovered even for the irreligious. Even when a myth is non-literal it does not make it any less true. This is the world I find myself continuously drawn into and where my spirituality continues to flourish and change in unexpected ways as I’ve opened myself up to stories from many cultures that are not my own–but have become a part of me, nonetheless (365).

Compare that with this sentence I read and noted just last week:

This absence of tension between pagan and Christian tradition was able to foster a milieu in which the concept of a twofold approach to truth, one via the exercise of the reason, one via revelation, was natural and easy to maintain.

Last summer I came upon a Librivox recording of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, something I’ve long wanted to read, which inspired me to make a note to myself about writing a dialogue between Boethius and that other worthy murdered in jail, Joseph Smith (and Scott Hales agreed it would make a fun paper for this year’s AML conference). And John who baptised his beheader in his blood should surely make an appearance, and why not Jeremiah and Joseph’s namesake ancestor in their pits–yea, even Jonah?

So last week I started reading Victor Watts’ translation of The Consolation, and came across the sentence quoted above (viii). Serendipity. For the last year and a half nearly, in my column over on Dawning of a Brighter Day I’ve been exploring how scripture and prophets behave rhetorically, countering the oft-heard assertion that everything in the scriptures is figurative and was never meant to be taken literally. And here I come upon two quotes about revelation and myth existing side-by-side with no irritable reaching after hierarchical dominance.

Indeed, if I’m rightly reading that comment about Excalibur’s true sheath, stories are much more important here than hierarchy, and hierarchy may be inimical to the redemptive power of story. It is my pleasure to read, write, work and live among people who seek after that redemptive power. Thank you all.