Mormon Drama reached something of a high point in the 1950s. Hundreds of performances of plays occurred in wards and stakes under the auspices of the MIA, which published as many as a dozen or more plays in its annual MIA Book of Plays.
Terryl Givens, in his recent People of the Paradox writes that this anthology contained “offerings largely obtained through national playhouses.”1 However, depending on how you read “largely” this might be misinterpreted. By my count nearly 25% of the plays in these anthologies were Mormon works.
Initially, the Book of Plays, first published in 1929, contained only national works and the occasional prize winning play from the MIA’s annual playwriting contests. By the 1940s LDS works appeared in most editions and in the 1950s they dominated the annuals, with the 1955 edition (volume 27) the first to contain only “plays by our people.”
In total, from 1929 to 1970, the Books of Plays included at least 105 LDS works, varying in length from full 3 act and longer dramas, to one-act plays.2 Not included in my 105 works are many short pieces called “blackouts” in these anthologies (meant to cover the delays from scene changes, I assume). The plays were written by dozens of playwrights, several of whom produced multiple works, such as Utah’s well-known local-theatre couple Ruth and Nathan Hale (who wrote a total of more than 40 plays, most of which are Mormon in content), Keith M. Engar, Luacine C. Fox, Stanley B. Kimball, L. Clair Likes, and Albert O. Mitchell.
While certainly the principal publisher of new LDS drama, the MIA wasn’t the only one. The Relief Society Magazine, Young Woman’s Journal and other Church magazines also carried drama. [It is possible that the Juvenile Instructor and its successor, the Instructor, also carried drama, but since these publications are not available digitally and have never been indexed, it isn't easy to know what they contain. IMO, this is one of the great stumbling blocks to Mormon Studies today.] The MIA also published some works separately from the annual anthology.
While it is tempting to dismiss these plays as light, simplistic fare intended for amateur production, my cursory review of the LDS works shows some challenging subjects (sorry, I haven’t yet read through all these!!), including the life of Christ, the Mormon experience in Far West, Missouri, the Utah War, the Mormon trek, Nauvoo, and the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
But, it would also be wrong to expect too much of these dramas, for, they are products of their time and place. An idea of their different viewpoint can be seen in the following opening paragraph from the essay “This Is Ours,” found in the 1951 edition of the Book of Plays:
Would you believe it? President Heber J. Grant made his only stage appearance as a picaninny in one of the Salt Lake Theatre’s earliest productions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”3
I’m not sure today that we would want to trumpet the prophet’s appearance in a play as a “picaninny.”
While the 1950s was the height of this kind of Mormon drama, at least in terms of production, this period also began a long decline. While I’m not aware of any research into this decline, I think it is possible that it began with the long illness and death of one of the principle supporters of the program, MIA General Board member and University of Utah Speech Professor Maud May Babcock, who died in 1954.4
Just a few years later, in 1958, the MIA essentially stopped publishing its annual play anthology, except for scattered editions published in 1965, 1968 and 1970. In the last of these years, the Church youth program changed significantly, and the MIA’s cultural emphasis was largely dropped.
Undoubtedly other factors beyond Babcock’s death and the change in the youth program in 1970 also influenced the decline in support for plays. The advent and increasing popularity of radio and television, along with subsequent forms of entertainment, had to have eroded interest in local drama over time, perhaps making Church support of local drama seem unwanted.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that an independent Mormon drama began just as the MIA program ended. The best known LDS plays, including Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Order is Love and Stewart’s Saturday’s Warrior came along in the 1970s and benefited from the decades of MIA dramatic training and the custom of theater attendance. Shows like The Order is Love and My Turn on Earth were produced both by local units and regional groups, often using stages in LDS buildings for rehearsal, if not for performance. But over time the dramatic training and cultural theatrical custom has died, and independent works are rarely produced, especially not by local Church units, given that most new LDS buildings don’t have stages any more. Today, Mormon drama is limited to BYU and a few Utah-based independent companies, and most members are unfamiliar with any Mormon works aside from Saturday’s Warrior and the recent LDS Church productions in the new Conference Center.
This complete turnaround since 1970 can, I think, be best described as a loss of venue and institutional support. Without the annual Book of Plays, local leaders don’t think of producing plays. The few who do are faced with finding what works are available, assessing somehow what works are suitable for LDS audiences, and figuring out how to get permission and pay royalties for a production. The vast majority of units now don’t produce anything. And without the resources… the venues, the evaluation, and the experience once found in LDS wards and branches, fewer members see Mormon drama and fewer participate.
This isn’t a criticism of the decisions that led to the demise of Mormon drama, but rather and observation that the development of Mormon drama depends on re-establishing a network of venues, sources for providing and evaluating works and a community of experienced participants and audiences.
The plays found in the MIA Books of Plays could provide a part of what is missing — a body of already evaluated works that might be used. At least they are, taken together, an important part (perhaps more than 20% of all LDS plays ever written!) of Mormon literary history, and a source that needs to be better explored.
1Givens, Terryl. People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 266.
2Bashore, Melvin L. M.I.A. Plays Index. The Church Library, 1980. Bashore’s index indicates which plays were original to the M.I.A., instead of purchased from national drama publishers like Samuel French, providing a close estimate of the plays by Mormon authors.
3M.I.A. Book of Plays, v.23. Salt Lake City, Utah, Mutual Improvement Association, 1951. p. 5.
4Op. cit. The 1951 volume includes a dedication to Babcock on its first page.