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.

 

Author: Harlow Clark

"I have committed sundry moldy solecisms, yet I was not born to desecrate literature." "the obscurest man of letters in America" These are two of my favorite quotes. The first comes from Edward Dahlberg's introduction to Bottom Dogs, From Flushing to Calvary, Those Who Perish: And hitherto unpublished and uncollected works, and reminds me to be humble. I tried several times reading the introduction as a linear argument, looking up words like solecism and priapus, then finally realized it is a collection of aphorisms, and had lots of fun reading them. The second is from the preface to Twice-Told Tales, and I want it to go on the cover of my first book. Not every writer gets a blurb from Nathaniel Hawthorne. I earned a BA from BYU half a lifetime ago and an MFA from the University of Washington a few years less than that. I taught for a short time after returning to Utah, but I was not born to desecrate teaching, so I have redirected my moldy solecisms to computer screens and the printed page. For the last several years a lot of my writing has examined scriptural transmission and the rhetoric of prophets and scripture.

6 thoughts on “Sundry Moldy Solecisms #4 Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays by Mahonri Stewart”

  1. .

    You sure do cover a lot of ground, Harlow. I’m not sure even how to comment.

  2. Harlow, your reviews are such a strange delight. Discursive, brilliant, deeply read, playful, enigmatic. It’s been so interesting to have my work reflected back at me through your reviews in such transformative ways that make my plays familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Thank you for the time and thought put into these. I have really enjoyed reading them, probably much more than the stray reader who comes across them and may come off them bewildered, if they haven’t read my plays or the other works you refer to, or even if they have. But that is part what I like about your reviews… they are not reviews in the traditional sense, but streams of consciousness essays, full of meaning and chaos both. Though definitely not easy to get blurbs off of (not quite the point of them in your mind, I imagine), it is a uniquely fascinating style that values the reaction to the work as much as the work itself. I love to see your reaction to my play and where they brought your mind. Awesome.

  3. P.S.- I can see why Opposing Wheel could be off putting if you weren’t a regular reader of Arthurian tales like Morte de Arthur and Tennyson’s poetry…plus it has a quirky Doctor Who vibe infused in it that may throw it off-kilter. But then again, I’ve also had some people point to it as one of their favorites of my plays. As for me, I haven’t a fully formed opinion on the piece yet, as it is yet unfinished. Rings of the Tree and Opposing Wheel both have characters that will feed into another play (tentatively called The Fiery Sky) that will complete my trilogy about Immortality. I will have to reserve judgment on my own feelings on it until I feel like the story is done.

    Whether OW is any good or, you really should give the Lady of Shallott and her ilk a chance. I’m definitely a fan of the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility, so maybe I’m too decidedly Romantic that way.

  4. Just say whatever comes into your mind, Theric. That’s what I do :) –which makes makes a lot of my writing thoroughly Marxist, in the same way so many sitcoms are thoroughly Marxist, though they descend from Harpo and I from Groucho. (Sitcoms may think they descend from I Love Lucy, but Lucille Ball knew better and acknowledged it in that wonderful mirror routine with Harpo.) My writing has a lot of the spirit of Groucho and his brothers, their playfulness and chaotic joy, but also their self-indulgence–which can make it difficult to think of myself as a serious, disciplined writer.

    I’m impressed by the breadth of Mahonri’s work, history, scripture, fantasy, contemporary drama, social issues, children’s theater and more.

  5. Thanks for your kind words, Mahonri. I suspect my approach to reviewing owes a lot to discovering Pauline Kael in high school. She had such an encyclopedic knowledge of film that she might reference a dozen other films in a review, trying to place actors, directors, writers, in social, historical, economic, and artistic contexts.

    I wonder if my lack of blurbability might be related to Kael’s long think-piece in Reeling about the state of the industry, and the studios’ cynicism in not promoting films they don’t think will make much money, and how discouraging it is to include a nice blurb in a review and have the studio ignore it.

    (How about, “The Emperor Wolf has a very different post-apocalyptic landscape than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I kept thinking of The Road because the tenderness between parent and child is there, and the hope we see in the novel’s closing scenes”?)

    I also took a religion class in fall 1980 from the father of some high school classmates, a fellow notorious for seeing parallels everywhere. I recently finished an essay, Tenting, Toll, and Taxing, so full of parallels that two-thirds of it is 202 footnotes. He parodied himself in a widely circulated essay called Bird Island. I would love to claim his mantle, but I don’t know 16 languages.

    On a more serious note, Lois Johnson, the director of my thesis, once called me into her office to talk about a long story called “And” (later published in Dialogue, Summer 1990). She told me about a student whose writing was dense, subtle, and allusive. “I told her, ‘I want you to rewrite this story so that everything is so obvious, so blatant it makes you want to puke. Then rewrite it, somewhere in between the two versions.’ When she came back I said, ‘Was it hard?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it better?’ ‘Yes.’ I’m going to give you the same assignment,” she said. I did some rewrites that improved it a lot, and made some cuts for length for Dialogue, which improved it, but I never carried out the full exercise. I probably should.

    Other people have told me what Lois did. Leslie Norris urged simplicity in the story I sent with my application to the U of Washington–too much of the characters quoting T.S. Eliot to each other (partly, I think, the influence of all that poetry quoted back and forth in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night). Benson Parkinson said an essay I was writing for Irreantum about Cathy Wilson’s poetry was nearly as dense and allusive as the poetry and I rewrote it. More recently my niece, who asked me to write a novel with her about a homeless man she met in Portland, points out enigmatic passages needing some expansion and clarity.

    And there was my neighbor across the street whose son died of leukemia. I wrote a piece about him in Irreantum, using the image of a Moebius strip, noting that if you place your finger on the edge of the strip and trace it around the strip back to the place where you started you’ll be on the opposite edge you started from. In just such a way life moves seamlessly into death which moves seamlessly back into life. “You’re very smart, Harlow, but I can’t follow this at all,” she said, so what was meant to comfort her failed because I had compressed too much to get it down to 800 words.

  6. P.S. That story I mentioned sending with my UW application, “Against the Dying of the Light,” was published in BYU’s literary magazine, Inscape, around 1983, possibly in the same issue as Joseph K. Nicholes’ “Virtuous Visions: The Pre-Raphaelite Movement as a Victorian Phenomenon.” (The Mormon Literature & Creative Arts database lists both, but without bibliographical information for either.) I have extra copies I could send you, but it may take a while as our great-niece and our son have piled many boxes in my office, making it difficult to get to my books.

    I think that essay was where I first saw John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia floating down the river on her back, beautiful and haunting.

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