Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

12.15.12 | | 13 comments

Farewell to Eden_Georgiana and StephenNOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own  work. Thus the navel gazing…

In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.

Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is…

Memory:

In her book, Bogart states:

Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).

For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia.

In my senior year in high school I wrote a short play called “White Mountain” for my school’s student directed one-act plays (which I re-mounted a few years ago in a set of my one-act plays, with very few changes). Although the characters were completely fictional (although deeply personal to me), I drew from my budding interest in Mormon History and placed it in the early days of the Latter-day Saints. That historical setting of time and place was central to the story and its characters and reflected the continuation of the spiritual re-awakening I myself had already begun a few years earlier.

The play’s religiously historical setting allowed me to explore my own spirituality and religious ideas during a very formative time in my life. The spiritual quest of some of its characters, while the very personal resistance to those religious ideas by another character, bore direct corollaries not only to my historical cultural heritage as a descendent of Mormon pioneers, but also bore a direct reflection to my own life and inner identity. By combining that sense cultural memory with that sense of personal memory, it allowed me to create a play that reflected me on many, many levels.

Farewell to Eden_Apostles' VisitThat interest in my Mormon heritage and history only continued in earnest after I came home from an LDS mission in Australia and made playwriting a huge focus of mine. In my play Farewell to Eden I once again took fictional characters and put them in them in the historical context of my Mormon heritage, this time in Victorian England when Brigham Young and other Mormon apostles visited as missionaries to England.

The majority of my characters in Farewell to Eden were not Mormon, but a short visit from Brigham Young and John Taylor (they’re literally on stage for only about 10 or 15 minutes total) was the impetus for a huge, personal conflict for the characters that escalates throughout the play. Much like “White Mountain,” Farewell to Eden combined my historical memory within my culture with my own personal history, as I blended history, biography and fiction.

In many ways, Farewell to Eden wasn’t a “Mormon” play at all. The journey of its main protagonist Georgiana Highett was very much a personal microcosm rather than an epic macrocosm. It certainly wasn’t a proselyting play meant to convert anyone to my faith—it just happened to have some Mormon characters that were important to the play and its conflict.

Yet I was determined to keep these Mormon elements. I would be lying, though, if I didn’t admit that I thought about how it would impact the play’s reception. How would the non-Mormon audience members react to these elements? Would they feel threatened? Would it alienate them in a play that would otherwise have universal appeal?

As it turned out, the Mormonism within the play was a complete non-issue. When the play premiered at Utah Valley University, it had largely Mormon patrons (although I received compliments from my non-Mormon friends as well, who thoroughly enjoyed it), but when the production went on to compete at the regional level of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in California, I was astounded by the hugely positive feedback we were getting from non-Mormon judges and audience members.

The KC/ACTF playwriting judge Gary Garrison called Farewell to Eden, “One of the most intelligently written plays I have read in a decade.” The judges then sent me to Washington D.C. for the National Festival, where the script received the National Playwriting Award (Second Place) and the National Selection Team Fellowship Award for my region (California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam).  Apparently I didn’t need to worry about my cultural memory somehow “tainting” my work. On the contrary, that Mormon cultural memory became one of the strengths of the piece which the non-Mormon audiences and judges seemed fascinated by.

I went on to write and produce other Mormon History plays, including two plays, Friends of God and The Fading Flower, which addressed the abandoned, yet nonetheless historical practice of polygamy in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For Mormons polygamy is a hot button issue, which many of my faith would just as soon leave as a relic of the past. Thus in this circumstance memory is not the soothing, comforting and sentimental force that could be associated with the concept, but rather was something that was possibly dark and even frightening for many people. So much so that polygamy has become buried, hidden, but never truly forgotten in my culture. In that way history and memory was more in the category of afflicting the comfortable rather than comforting the afflicted.

Friends of God focused on the events that led up to martyrdom of Joseph Smith, a pivotal pillar of my faith in my personal worldview. The fact that Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith willingly gave up his life to defend the faith he helped create is something that is very significant for me and for many other Mormons. However, the real story behind that sequence of events creates as many questions as it does answers, as it is steeped in the practice of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.

For many Mormons the fact that the second prophet of the Church, Brigham Young, practiced polygamy is common knowledge and even the source of a good natured joke once in a while, poking loving fun at Brother Brigham and his over 40 wives. For some reason it seems to make sense with salty, tough, idiosyntric, uncouth, untraditional, lion-like, go-against-the-grain Brother Brigham. His polygamy is famous and most Mormons have settled comfortably into the idea.

Paradoxically, however, Mormons seem much less comfortable with associating polygamy with the man who taught Brigham Young the idea, Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith, the founder of our faith, the man of kindness and warmth and love… the image we Mormons conjure of Joseph Smith is so potent that combining it with the practice of polygamy (which most Mormons have gleefully abandoned in their hearts, even when their own ancestors practiced the principle) can have very disturbing effects. There are even some Mormons who are ignorant of the fact that Joseph Smith was a polygamist at all (which I imagine is becoming increasingly more rare with the advent of the internet and the publicity of such monumental histories and biographies like Mormon historian Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling).

Thus Friends of God met with some very strident resistance at various points leading up to its production. I told the producer of the play to read it before accepting the production at Art City Playhouse, but he seemed unconcerned. It was a faith-promoting play about Joseph Smith, after all. What could be wrong with it? He did not heed my warning and took his good time in reading the script.

About ¾ of the way through the rehearsal process I get a call from my producer and he tells me to come over to his house. Once there I proceeded to get a tongue lashing as he questioned my faith, questioned the accuracy of my research, questioned my depiction of prophetic figures, and threatened to close the play. I stood there, mainly bearing the insults in silence, wondering where else I could find to put up the play if this producer pulled the rug out from under us.

Fortunately, I got another call later from this good man who had been disturbed by my play. During that first confrontation he had only read a little over half of the play. This time, however, he had finished reading it and his tune had changed. The depiction of the martyrdom was beautiful! What a fervent testimony of Joseph Smith! What a wonderful play! So, knowing that our production was indeed going to go on in that space, I let loose a sigh of relief and continued to direct my wonderful cast without interruption.

The run, although not creating lucrative, sell-out crowds, was respectable despite its huge three hour running time (I’ve learned to trim my epic pieces down at least a little since then). The responses I got were fascinating, warming and heart-breaking.

There were Mormons who came up to me literally in tears, telling me how much it had helped them put context to a historical principle they had struggled with so much. I had former Mormons come up to me willing to engage in a very open and helpful dialogue. And I even had one cast member who had been inactive in his Mormon faith for years, but due to the spiritual experiences we had as a cast in the show, he decided to come back to Church and go on an LDS mission. We are still great friends.

But still I sensed with some people, they struggled with the material I had written, even some members of my own family. This was a sensitive topic in our cultural history for them, which I understood only too well.

Yet still I marched on, for I felt in my heart of hearts that this was important, that this was a very personal and needful mission. I produced some more plays in the interim (some of them not Mormon at all, or at least not blatantly so), but one of the more significant of my plays was produced by the New Play Project, The Fading Flower.

The Fading Flower was a play that I had been planning ever since I had a very powerful and vivid dream as a missionary in Australia. I will refer to my description of this event that I mentioned elsewhere, as it’s about the best description I’ve given of the events leading up to the play:

I was on the last leg of my mission when I had a dream where I saw a black-and-white photograph of Joseph and Emma Smith’s family. Joseph was a kind of ghost standing to the side, and Emma and the children were all very somber-looking, except for Julia, who was in bright color (which is significant because she becomes a kind of truthteller in the play). I woke up with this very intense, beautiful feeling and had all of these thoughts tumbling into my head.

I had to grab a pencil, and then I was writing down all these things that really surprised me—things about Emma, things about Joseph F. Smith visiting her while he was on his mission, a whole slough of things I had no clue about but (when I did my research later) ended up being true

When I came home from Australia… I found a book about David Hyrum Smith (Joseph and Emma’s youngest child), called From Mission To Madness: The Last Son of the Mormon Prophet, which was an absolutely fascinating read and which tied directly into the stuff I had learned about Emma on my mission. The result became The Fading Flower.

It’s a heavy play in some ways—polygamy, madness, spiritualism, conflicts between the LDS and RLDS factions of Mormonism—but it also has required a lighter touch (romance, gentle humor, very personal heartbreaks). I have a lot of myself invested in this play. My testimony, my personal struggles, my heartache—they found their way into these historical characters. It’s been one of my most personal and spiritually invested plays (David Habben, “Mahonri Stewart,” Mormon Artist Magazine, p. 33).

The Fading Flower was kind of a sequel to Friends of God, as it dealt with the effects of polygamy and the martyrdom upon Joseph Smith’s family (especially his first wife Emma and his son David Hyrum) decades after the event, as well as the rising conflict between two factions of Mormonism that had come to prominence.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as led by Brigham Young (and the vast majority of the practicing Mormon community), was on one side of the conflict supporting the principles that Joseph Smith, Jr. had taught the Church in his later years (including polygamy). On the other side of the conflict was The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as led by Joseph Smith’s oldest son Joseph Smith III (and supported by Joseph III’s mother Emma, his brother David and his brother Alexander, although his sister Julia and brother Frederick never joined them). The RLDS was decidedly anti-polygamy, denying that Joseph Smith even taught it, and rejected many other principles that Joseph Smith taught in his later life, clinging rather to the more simple principles of early Mormonism.

Much like Friends of God before it, The Fading Flower didn’t go off without controversy. I was very happy to discover that The Fading Flower was accepted as part of Brigham Young University’s Writers/Dramaturgs/Actors Workshop that developed new plays, culminating in a series of staged readings at BYU. Especially since I wasn’t a BYU student, but rather attended UVU , I was pleased to be accepted as part of this program.

However, there were two young women who were part of the workshop that really struggled with the material in my play. One was a strong Mormon feminist who obviously had some concerns about polygamy, and was particularly sensitive to how Emma Smith was portrayed (her feedback caused me to make some changes to the text that seemed to soothe some of her worries). The other was a recent Hispanic convert who had been struggling ever since she came to BYU with what she saw as veiled racism among some of the people she had encountered at BYU, among other issues. This good young woman had never even heard about Joseph Smith practicing polygamy and it threw her for a loop.

I worked hard to address the concerns of both these wonderful people, within the work itself and on a personal, spiritual level. In the case of the feminist, I believe her concerns within the text were resolved (I consider myself a feminist, so was very open to her suggestions). With the new convert, though, my play seemed to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. When she left the Church, she assured me it wasn’t because of the play—as I said before, she was already having other issues at BYU and within the Church. However, I sensed that my play hadn’t helped her in this regard.

That was hard for me. I write my plays from a viewpoint and worldview of faith. I usually view the events of scripture and Church History as literal and they fit into my personal worldview quite prominently. So to see someone so fragile in the faith react in such a discouraging way to one of my plays, that was rather devastating to me. Even when I handled the difficult history, even when I stepped up to the daunting tasks, I always wrote with faith in the forefront of my heart.

So this is where the concept of “memory” becomes tricky. What happens when memories cut, when they hurt? What happens when the truth, when told in its plainness, becomes a destructive force?

Paradoxically, this is one of the major themes of The Fading Flower.   Joseph Smith’s first wife Emma and their youngest son David (who wasn’t even born yet when Joseph was killed) have to face the memory and legacy of Joseph Smith, their husband and father. Polygamy hurt Emma deeply, while David, after finding out that his mother had lied to him to cover up polygamy and that he had been preaching a lie, literally went mad and spent the last chapters of his life in an asylum in Illinois. It in this context that Joseph and Emma’s adopted daughter Julia confronts her brother Joseph Smith III:

JOSEPH III. Julia, we can do great good, but we must be practical. If we insist on prying too much into complicated matters that are better left unburied—well, then we’ll end up like poor David, blinded by the fire.

JULIA. David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he wasn’t told the truth in the beginning. If he hadn’t a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one (The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, p. 98).

In the case of my friend who left the Church, I believe the case was similar. The problem wasn’t my play, or the very real history that informed it, but rather that my friend had never been told that history. She felt as if she had been brought into the Church under false pretences and thus felt betrayed when she discovered she hadn’t been told the whole story. Cultural memory, even when it’s difficult, can be absorbed and learned from and dealt with. However, when it is suppressed or hidden, and then rises again unbidden and unexpected, then that memory can be devastating. In this way my friend was like David Hyrum Smith, “blinded by the fire” because she had been kept in darkness.

After seeing the production of The Fading Flower, which I ended up directing for New Play Project in Provo, Utah, one of my brothers told me he believed I was going to be excommunicated from the Church. No such excommunication ever came (in fact, during that time I served in the Elder’s Quorum Presidency), and I am very grateful because I have never done anything with my writing except that I felt it was true to my testimony and belief in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Fading Flower went onto be one of my more successful and personally meaningful plays and my cast and I had beautiful, spiritual experiences connected with it. It was also recently published by Zarahemla Books, along with my play Swallow the Sun (a history play of a different sort…about C.S. Lewis). The Fading Flower, like much of my work, was a play I truly felt compelled to write.

In addition to various other types of plays, I continued to write my Mormon History work, including March of the Salt Soldiers which I co-wrote with James Arrington about four modern historians warring at a conference celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. March of the Salt Soldiers played at UVU, Utah State University and the Salt Lake Library. It, too, dealt with potentially explosive subject matter and was very well received (and created quite a dialogue among those who saw it and participated in the production—and once again my faith was questioned by a few misguided souls).

Currently I have jumped head first into a series of novels about Mormon History which I have been planning for over a decade. In the first novel I am addressing early Mormon history, including the events surrounding the First Vision and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, which means I’m dealing with the context of Joseph Smith and his family’s seer stones, treasure digging, and folk beliefs. Which are, again, controversial subjects… but written from a believer’s perspective. My life and my writing really have become a pattern of “rinse and repeat.”

But throughout all of this, this concept of memory—and supporting a true memory, instead of trying to plant a false memory—becomes a vital component for me. I feel deeply for my friends and family members who I see stumbling because of the cultural memories they struggle with in Mormonism. But I don’t think that burying the memory deeper into our subconscious will do us any good for, as I have Julia tell Joseph III in The Fading Flower, “The truth is a pesky thing, Joe. No matter how deep we try and submerge it, it will always rise back to the top” (The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, p. 99). It is far better to face the memories of your past rather than suppress them deeper into the dark water.

13 comments: “Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

  1. Jettboy

    Fascinating story, although I will probably never see one of your plays. What I would really like to see is a full play on the life of Joseph Smith (maybe two plays because of his huge life). If you could do that then I honestly would find a way, any way, to see it.

  2. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Jettboy,

    I’m planning on a musical about Joseph Smith someday with my composer friend Nate Drew. We’ll see when that happens. And I’ll be writing Church History plays at various points until I die probably.

    I’m still waiting for a definitive treatment of Joseph Smith on film. If somebody doesn’t do one at some point I’ll just have to write it myself. :) What I would really like to see, though, is an epic Joseph Smith mini-series.

  3. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Scott,
    Bogart’s book is very personable and engaging, so that doesn’t surprise me. She seems like she would be great.

  4. Sarah Dunster

    Like you (I think), I have been frustrated by the Selective memories we (Mormons) have of our past. Polygamy, for instance. If we don’t feel the pain of some of these women, then we can’t honor their strenght. I think there is also a lot to be learned from the Mountain Meadows Massacre that we just can’t get at because one audience doesn’t even like reference to it and the other wants to demonize those who participated and not examine the very human flaws and experiences that lead to the events.

    I am really interested in Fading Flower, now.

    Like I said on your post over at AML blog, though, I do feel the market is opening up for fiction that treads the line between inspirational and realistic. I tried hard to get that balance with Lightning Tree, and so far I’ve had positive reviews from most everyone, including those who enjoy fiction that doesn’t paint over the past. I’m proud to be a part of this movement… I hope many more join in and the market continues to open up. Bushman is one of my heroes.

  5. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Sarah, you assume right that I agree with you on those points.

    I think there is a middle way in representing Mormon history that has been rarely taken in the past, but is now flowering in the wake of works like _Rough Stone Rolling_ having a place at the table in Church culture. As you said, there tends to be extremism in how our history is represented, the sweet and the faithfully dishonest on one side, and the hostile and viciously unfair on the other side. But the work that writers like you and I and many others are trying to do in honestly representing our history without flinching in the face of controversy, while still maintaining our faith claims and Mormon worldview, is gaining traction in our culture.

    There’s still plenty of the those who out of fear or misunderstanding that will see that kind of work with suspicion, but I think Church leadership have given good indications that this is a new day for Mormon writers, artists, historians and scholars. Writing forthright Mormon History that includes the complexities no longer puts us in a position of suspicion.I’m currently working on a series of Church History novels, and it would have been extremely difficult for me to write those ethically and honestly without feeling like I had that freedom.

    And, if you’re interested in Fading Flower, Zarahemla Books published it along with Swallow the Sun, my play about C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. I would love if you could buy it directly from my at http://www.ziontheatrecompany.com in our online store there (more of the funds go directly to my theater company that way), or you can buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble Online, or from Zarahemla Books’ website. The Fading Flower is still one of my favorite and most personally important of my plays, especially with my love for Mormon History.

  6. Sarah Dunster

    I’m excited to try these out. Thank you. I have a kindle now, too, hurrah!!! Didn’t last year, and I’d hear all these titles mentioned & feel quite jealous, so.

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