As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:
1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?
Melissa Leilani Larson, photo taken by Alisia Packard
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
As far as what makes me distinct… Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them—several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.
2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction? more →
I’m not going to make any notable efforts to prevent “spoilers” in this review. For a few reasons. First, if you haven’t read the book yet, no one’s making you read this review. Besides—I’m pretty sure you already know the gist of this story. So any spoilers have little to do with what and much to do with how.
2. Uncorrelating the Savior
To start with, he’s generally called Jesus in this novel. Compare that to these instructions from the General Handbook of Instructions:
If the Savior is portrayed, it must be done with the utmost reverence and dignity. Only brethren of wholesome personal character should be considered for the part. The person who portrays the Savior should not sing or dance. When speaking, he should use only direct quotations of scriptures spoken by the Savior. more →
This week I finished Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship: A Story of the Echo Canyon War(1909), one of the first Mormon novels. Below are some notes I drew up to gather my thoughts on the book, which I think is fairly typical of the kinds of fiction Mormons were producing at the time. A few things set it apart, though, and I try to highlight those aspects in my observations.
As best as I can tell, John Stevens’ Courtship is the first novel published in book form by Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many daughters. It might also be the first novel published in book form by a Mormon woman, but I could be wrong. Earlier novels by Mormon women had been published before 1909, in serial form, including Emmeline B. Wells’ Hephizibah (1889) in The Woman’s Exponent and Gates’ The Little Missionary (1899) in the Juvenile Instructor.
It is probably the best example we have of early Mormon historical fiction. It certainly uses Mormon history in a way that compliments the narrative better than either Nephi Anderson’s Marcus King, Mormon (which is superficially historical) or John St. John (which is textbook historical). I imagine Gates’ models are the works of Walter Scott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and their imitators. Here, the action of her characters play out against the pageantry and crises of the Utah War in a way that does not sacrifice character and plot development to the facts of history. In other words, I feel Gates allows the events, atmosphere, and attitudes of the Utah War to unfold through her characters’ stories rather than through pedantic narration. more →
NOTE: 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…
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. more →
So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so). So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).
So, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing forSaints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Melissa Leilani Larson’s Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”
FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE
Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief, but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. more →
In 1941 when Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua was released, her publishers anticipated huge sales and an endorsement from Church leadership. Whipple doubted this very much. In the end—and the publisher blamed this on the advent of WWII—the book was not the breakout success New York anticipated.
Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.
The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.
David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.
Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.
Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.
Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).
Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.
Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.
Maybe it was because I had just finished reading the first book of the new series, The Lunar Chronicles, when I received Sarah’s Dunster’s novel, Lightning Tree, in the mail but the tale of Magdalena Chabert is every bit a Cinderella story–and then a whole lot more.
Magdalena (Maggie) is a poor girl with a rich inner life who spends an awful lot of time mucking out chicken coops and trying to explain things in broken English. With a cold stepmother, an ineffectual father figure, and step-sisters who are by turns loving and awful, all this story needs is a glass slipper-toting fairy godmother for Maggie to get her ticket to the corn husking party for some “sparking” of her own. But Maggie has no glass slipper. Only dead parents, an uncared for younger sister, a lost brother, and violent nightmares about the suspicious death of her baby sister. Set against the backdrop of “The Cedar Incident” and the prejudices of small town pioneer Utah Lightning Tree is a dramatic story that will keep readers turning pages until every nightmare is brought to light.
Most of the strength of this novel come from the characters created by Dunster. Maggie is a pleasing blend of sarcasm, spunk, and idealism. Her little sister, Giovanna, is just the right amount of charming and exasperating. Their stepfather, Pa Alden, is both stoic and tender and the tension this creates in his character is quite winning. Ma Alden’s (Maggie’s evil stepmother) character is puzzling and contradictory–but in a way that builds tension. Even more secondary charcters, like the Holdens (the token polygamists) are surprising in their nuance. My only wish was that the bad guys, Jed and Uncle Forth, were a little more threatening early in the novel. The Cinderella set-up had me so focused on Ma Alden as the villains that the true bad guys were too unclear for me to take them seriously.
As historical fiction, this book is closer to Ann Rinaldi than Herman Wouk. Or, to put it in Mormon terms this book is closer to Gale Sears than Margaret Young/Darius Gray. All the characters in the book are fictional, except for Maggie’s backstory about the Waldensian Saints. There are no end notes or references. And while questions surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre weave in and out of the story if readers don’t have a fairly firm understanding of “The Cedar Incident” already this book won’t give them any help.This is not to say the book isn’t well-researched; it clearly is. But it is more of a period coming-of-age novel than strong historical fiction.
What really sells the book is the overarching philosophical questions–questions that push beyond the realm of a princess rising from the ashes. At one point in the story Henry (Maggie’s love interest) says to her, “One thing you need to learn, Mag. When people love you, you’re accountable to them. Time to throw away that pride of yours, because what happens to you isn’t just your affair” (p 241). Questions about pride versus self-reliance and self-righteousness versus love and family make Lightning Tree a good read and great discussion fodder. It’s your everyday Cinderella story and so much more.
Lightning Tree is available for purchase today. For more about Sarah Dunster check out her website. And, yes, I did receive a free review copy of this book.