After a half decade of delays, obstacles, research, and revising, I am so pleased that this behemoth is now ready to release onto an unsuspecting world! The plays it includes (from such Mormon Letters luminaries as Eric Samuelsen, Margaret Blair Young, Melissa Leilani Larson, Thomas F. Rogers, Susan E. Howe, James Arrington, Scott Bronson, Tim Slover, Robert Elliott, and Thom Duncan) have effected my life in profound ways and I hope other people will feel the same. They make up some of the finest accomplishments in the history of Mormon Drama. The volume is huge… nearly 700 pages. It has 11 plays, playwright biographies, and a 30+ page introduction on the history of Mormon drama. We’ve tried to be thorough, we’ve tried to give you something meaningful. I hope you’ll see why this is a project I thought was worth working and waiting for.
It’s taken the better half of a decade, but Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama is off to the printers. This is the description of the book on Zarahemla Books’s website:
Saints on Stage is the most comprehensive and important work on Mormon drama ever published. This volume anthologizes some of Mormonism’s best plays from the last several decades, many of them published here for the first time. Several of these plays have won honors from institutions as varied as the Kennedy Center and the Association for Mormon Letters.
This volume includes historical backgrounds and playwright biographies, as well as an introduction that provides an extensive overview of Mormon drama. The following plays are included:
Fires of the Mind – Robert Elliott
Huebener – Thomas F. Rogers
Burdens of Earth – Susan Elizabeth Howe
J. Golden – James Arrington
Matters of the Heart – Thom Duncan
Gadianton – Eric Samuelsen
Hancock County – Tim Slover
Stones – J. Scott Bronson
Farewell to Eden – Mahonri Stewart
Martyrs’ Crossing – Melissa Leilani Larson
I Am Jane – Margaret Blair Young
I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:
MS: First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.
FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university. The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself. The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends. I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind. Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building. What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting. And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more. That being said, I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.
However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful. I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me. I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room. It is still there. The wounds are still palpable. However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.
Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young. I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer. Terryl was seated on the back row. I was seated on the front. He was self-effacing. I was not. We were married a year later. He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak. more
Note: Both my wife Anne Stewart and I read Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl over the holidays and were deeply affected by it. I asked her to write a guest post on her response to it here, and I will write my own thoughts on the book at a later date. –Mahonri Stewart
A number of years ago, while I was working at a book store in Springville, Utah, called the Red Leaf, I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I can’t remember the moment I picked it up or why I decided to read it (other than the obvious: women and the Old Testament). In the fictionalized world Diamant creates, Dinah (daughter of Israel) is surrounded, not by twelve brothers, but by women. While I was ever aware that these were fabricated tales, I was struck by the way she fully structured the story around the Biblical women. While I’d read many fictionalized accounts from the point of view of Biblical women, this was the first that felt so singularly focused on the woman’s journey. Here were women, strong women. These were not women whose rituals and practices were a shadow to the men in their lives; these were women with rich, powerful stories who led lives of their own. The Red Tent filled in the absence that is present in so many religious narratives: the women’s story.
Like other religious narratives, the Mormon story is starved for female narrative. In the Book of Mormon there are six named women, the Doctrine and Covenants only two, and even our female deity remains mostly veiled to us. In The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, Joanna Brook’s narrative connects to generations of Mormon women and makes a place for women who are less orthodox. more
It is wonderful to come across completely new information on one subject when you are searching for information in a completely different area. In my case, I was looking for background on Edward Tullidge and why he was in New York City in 1866, and I discovered the Edward Tullidge who tried to create a Mormon literature in 1864. I also discovered that my impression of Tullidge, as an inconstant and unfaithful Church member involved in the Godbeite schism, was not a fair impression. And I came to the conclusion that we, in Mormon letters, need to give Edward Tullidge, the author, poet, playwright and editor, more attention when we look at Mormon literary history.
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
For those Latter-day Saints uninitiated in the intricate details of Mormon History, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet would be a complete shock to the system. Most Mormons are aware that Brigham Young was a man who many took offense to because of his frank talk, combative tongue, and indomitable will. However, many are less aware of how truly radical and assaulting he could be in his most extreme moments. Condoning and covering up (if not authorizing) moments of extreme violence. Deeply disturbing racial and gender prejudice. And his language! I’m not just talking “damns” and “hells” here… sensitive Mormons will be shocked to find a prophet of God using profanity, vulgarity, and racial slurs that they would wash their children’s mouths ten times over for using (and these were often speeches he gave in public! Or in letters that were meant for the President and Congress!).
Fortunately, I do know my Mormon History well enough not to have an honest and forthright biography like this shake the foundations of my belief system. I was familiar with the vast majority of the events and context of the history (and also knew enough to recognize moments when Turner was abridging information and knew which”side” he was taking in certain thorny historical debates). Having been the research assistant and co-writer on a play about the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, not to mention the writer of a number of other Mormon History plays that included Brigham Young as a character, I had to get to know Brigham Young pretty intimately. My persistent interest in and study of Mormon History really does make it hard for people to surprise me (I love it when antagonistic anti-Mormons try to shock and rattle me with Mormon history facts and I can tell them, “I know. And did you also know that…”).
So that background helped me in the more disturbing episodes of the very informed journey that Turner brings his readers on. However, Turner, capitalizing on the new opportunities that the Church’s more freeing attitude about its history and archives have afforded, did bring me to depths even my amateur Mormon historian experiences hadn’t made me aware of. There were times that I had to stop, digest what I had read, and do an internal check on how it fit into my belief system (and if there was anything in that belief system I had to modify as a consequence). There were times that I was disturbed by what I had read and had to backtrack through my mind and heart and fortify my faith by connecting it to other just as real facts and context that were part of the fabric and tapestry of Mormon History. But those kind of facts can rub the soul raw after a while and leave you feeling sensitive.