Perhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.
Where should literature fit in our priorities? Is it more important to preach the gospel than put on a play? Is culture worth time away from service? While its probably not that simple—one of these things doesn’t necessarily take away from another—still our Mormon culture and its products are often assumed to be less important than the stated gospel priorities of teaching the gospel and redeeming the dead. The following passage shows that the Church doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see it that way.
For many Mormons today, a play about a murderous school teacher would be hard to classify as “uplifting.” And while I would be surprised to hear anyone today suggest that all drama was in conflict with the gospel, the condemnation of the media today by many Mormons hardly seems different. But in the search for what is “uplifting” it might be nice to define what we mean by that term.
When we hear principles taught from the pulpit, they sometimes seem remote, disconnected from reality. So speakers often add stories, sometimes fictional, to their sermons, so that we can put the principle in context. The stories produced during the Home Literature movement are often in that vein, what are sometimes called “didactic” stories, with a clear moral teaching the principle that the author wants to communicate.
In this series I’ve presented excerpts from many sermons and essays that demonstrate what Mormons have thought and discussed about literature. Today’s text is a little different, because it is an excerpt from a short story. But, it still fits, because in this story Nephi Anderson, dean of the Home Literature movement, preaches about literature—specifically what kinds of drama should be presented.
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.
Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company is staging the world premier of Matthew Greene’s Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea at the end of this month. The play opens Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 10. Tickets and details are available at planbtheatre.org or 801.355.ARTS.
Here is the description of the play from Plan-B:
Adam is LDS. Steve is gay. Set against the backdrop of the passage of Prop. 8, these childhood friends grapple with religion, sexuality,politics and adulthood. A world premiere by LDS playwright Matthew Greene. Featuring Logan Tarantino as Steve and Topher Rasmussen as Adam, directed by Jason Bowcutt.
AMV readers may recall that I interviewed Greene is about his play #MormoninChief. LDS playwright, retired BYU professor and literary/cultural critic Eric Samuelsen recently interviewed Greene about Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Greene attended BYU during the time Eric taught there so that also is discussed. Enjoy!
One Playwright to Another: Eric Samuelsen’s Interview with Matthew Greene
I guess it would have been five years ago now that Matthew Greene showed up in my beginning Playwriting class at BYU. Mild-mannered kid, obviously exceptionally bright, but rather quiet. I assigned the kids to write a ten minute play, due the next class period—jump right in and start writing something, anything. And his play was smart and funny and real. I knew I had someone special in that classroom. He’s had his New York debut, with #MormonInChief. And now Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake is producing his play Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. more
I’ve written before about the once great status of Mormon theatre, and the infrastructure it once enjoyed. So I was pleased to find comments about the beginning of this infrastructure from Horace G. Whitney, longtime Deseret News editor-in-chief and the paper’s drama critic. In my opinion infrastructure, broadly conceived, accounts for much of what has happened in Mormon drama over the past century. Whitney, in the article below, describes a vision of how drama could operate under the MIA and ward amusement committees (which were roughly the equivalent of the recently disbanded ward activities committees, I assume).
I must be honest. This quotation, although delivered in the tabernacle, isn’t so much literary criticism as drawing a lesson from contemporary literature. But the work involved is available, and the idea that Brigham Young both saw the play and commented on it. Perhaps more surprisingly, his comment fits well with the theme of the play itself.
The comments below were made in early February, 1853, just months (and perhaps just weeks) after the Social Hall, the first entertainment venue in the Salt Lake Valley, had been completed. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, drama has traditionally been an important part of Mormon culture, and support for drama can trace its history to Nauvoo, where even Brigham Young played at being an actor. In Salt Lake, his support led to not only the construction of the Social Hall, but to the Salt Lake Theater, the principal home for drama in Utah for 40 years.