Another Early Mormon Drama

12.2.11 | | 8 comments

As I’ve looked at 19th century newspapers and other documents, I’ve come across literary works or references to literary works that I didn’t know about, and that, apparently, are unknown among those of us interested in Mormon literature. Yesterday, I discovered another.

At one point I had the opinion that Orestes Bean’s Corianton (1902) was the first Mormon play produced (I do know of an unfinished work from the 1850s that might be called the first Mormon drama). But a couple of years ago I discovered a reference to a 5-act play, “Celestial Marriage,” written by LDS Church member George A. Hicks. The play isn’t extant (as far as I can tell), but BYU has a flyer Hicks published to publicize the 1886 performance of the play in Clinton, Utah.

Yesterday’s discovery is new. And, since I haven’t really done much research on it, I don’t know much more than what I found, an 1897 Salt Lake Herald review talks about a play (no title given) that explores the life of Joseph Smith:

JOSEPH SMITH

A curious gathering which filled about one-half of the Lyceum auditorium came out to see what sort of a play the author had succeeded in making out of the life of Joseph Smith. Probably there was more surprise than anything else felt after it was all over, for despite the great length of piece, its decided preachiness and some ludicrous mishaps, one in the first representation and the smallness of the stage, there was still a great deal in the play to commend and to entitle it to a respectful hearing. It is written entirely from the Mormon standpoint and Joseph Smith, who is on the stage almost constantly, is little short of deified, while all who oppose him are made vipers and fiends of a description that caused the shudders to run down the auditors backs.

The play is nothing but a series of the dramatic episodes of the Mormon prophet’s career; the prologue shows his visit from the angel Moroni; the next act shows him in the hands of a mob which starts to tar and feather him, heavens lightning interposes and baffles them; the next shows him as a general, and in an act too long, the actor delivers almost verbatim the celebrated speech Joseph Smith rendered just before his assassination; the last act shows the death of the two brothers and the wounding of John Taylor.

The play is set in heroic, almost grandiloquent cast, and the actors rendered it in a style tragic to a degree. Many of the sentiments, and much of language, was undeniably striking, and the actors were all above the average seen in cheap houses. Mr Hosmer, the leading man, and the others had a prodigious role, which he knew none too well. If he would rant less he would be more effective. Miss Ross, who played Emma, was acceptable, and Charles Edier, cast for both Joseph Smith, sr., and Mehains, the apostate, was vigorous The actors who essayed the roles of Hyrum Smith, Willard Richards, the angel, John Taylor and James Arlington Bennett, were equal to their surroundings.

The crowing of the cock in one of the solemnest moments of the piece turns it into the ludicrous, and it should be dispensed with, while other music than “The Wedding March” should be selected for the thrilling episodes. “Nearer My God to Thee” can also be improved upon for an incidental selection, and the gentlemen of the mob who their necks should fall away from the curtain line when prostrated by lightning. We shall not be surprised if the play attracts a great deal of curious attention before the week is out.

[Reprinted from the Salt Lake Herald, Tuesday, July 20, 1897, pg 8]

A few comments:

  • The Salt Lake Herald, as I understand it, was generally pro-Mormon at this point in time. However, the author sounds like he perhaps isn’t Mormon himself.
  • The last sentence hints that perhaps this play ran for just 1 week — a very short time.
  • I don’t know who “Mehains, the apostate” is. As far as I know there wasn’t any apostate by that name in Mormon history. It could be that the image of the article I got this from isn’t clear enough to give the correct name, or it could be that this character was a composite of the apostates Joseph Smith faced in his life.
  • James Arlington Bennett is perhaps not known among many Mormons today. He was a resident of Brooklyn, New York who corresponded with Joseph Smith and apparently joined the Church at some point. He was Joseph Smith’s first choice as a running mate in his 1844 Presidential bid, and was a reporter for the New York Sun (the first scandal sheet in the U.S.) who came to Nauvoo after Smith’s death. He returned to Brooklyn and died there in 1863. I was looking for information about Bennett when I chanced across this review.

I think it would be interesting to find these missing plays. But, if nothing else, it helps disabuse the assumption that Mormon Drama took more than 50 years to get started when Salt Lake City was a beacon for the theater in the second half of the 19th century.

8 comments: “Another Early Mormon Drama

  1. Eric Heaps

    One week was not an incredibly short running time for late 19th century American theatre. The long runs that were accustomed to now didn’t become prominent for another couple decades and even then, you’re looking at months, not years like we get sometimes today.

  2. Th.

    .

    Fascinating. I’m glad you’re finding these. I sure hope we can collect them some day.

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    Eric, thanks for that information. I’m no expert on that time period (or on theatre for that matter), but I’m trying to learn.

    Th., I sure hope they get collected also. I’m not sure, but I assume that the MLCA database at BYU is including works like this — where we don’t actually have a copy of the work but we know it existed. Of course, its hard to know if they are even updating the MLCA anymore! It sure seems like nothing changes from year-to-year.

    I do remember that there is a wiki doing the same thing, but I don’t know its status.

  4. Wm Morris

    I would like all of my work to be referred to from now on as “almost grandiloquent”.

  5. Randy

    Last I heard the Mormon Media Committee at the HBLL was envisioning a major overhaul of the MLCADB. They weren’t updating as they were preparing for that, but since it hasn’t happened maybe they’re maintaining it again. But yes this is exactly the type of thing that would go in, extant or not.

  6. Scott Hales

    This may be a stretch, but “Mehains” could be derived from “Master Mahan.” It’s possible he was a composite character given a name that is suggestive of the first apostate.

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    “The Almost Grandiloquent Wm Morris” — I like it! Sounds kind of like patent-medicine era self promotion [GRIN].

    Randy, thanks for the update. I’m still pining away for a way to add the information I have to the MLCA. The current system of sending in information and waiting forever for something to happen takes too long for results for my taste. It would be nice if they made some kind of indication about what is going on.

    Scott, thats a good possibility and one I didn’t think of when I was trying to read the original Herald article. But it will be tough to verify without finding alternate sources of information or the script.

    I do hope to research this a bit further.

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