[Note: I've made no effort to select quotations from their term as Church president. The words quoted may have been spoken at any point during their life.]
By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.
Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. 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.
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 →
The other day I came across an old mole-skin, black notebook my wife Anne had given me on my birthday when we were dating (including a poem which my friend Nate Drew put music to and which I sang to Anne after I asked her to marry me… a totally different story). Instantly knowing what it was, I reviewed it with fondness.
In its early pages are some overwrought and very loving poems I wrote for Anne. But after several pages nearly all the rest of the notebook is dedicated to things I wrote during mine and Anne’s honeymoon in Nauvoo. Those who know my play The Fading Flowing will also see my pre-occupation on David Hyrum Smith at this time, as I was in the midst of revising the play during that time.
After our wedding we went to Salt Lake City for our honeymoon for the weekend and saved up our major trip to Missouri and Illinois Mormon History sites a few months later in the late Spring. As I looked through the poems, quotes, notes, and drawings that I filled the notebook with, a gentle stirring came back to me. It was a beautiful time during mine and Anne’s early marriage and I wanted to share some of those pressed flowers of my life. This is a simpler time in my life, but a beautiful one.
Orson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.
While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall sense—i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the press—he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.
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.
Was Joseph Smith a poet? In the first post in this series Orson F. Whitney argued that Prophets are the greatest poets, implying that he was. But in 1905, 12 years earlier than the source of that initial post, The Strength of the Mormon Position, Whitney looked at Joseph Smith’s literary role in an article published for the centenary of his birth.
Whitney not only had an expansive view of poetry, he also had an expansive view of literature in general, which also comes out in the excerpt of his 1905 article included today. Here Whitney claims that “Learning is another name for literature” and claims that Joseph Smith’s teaching that we should seek learning also means that we should cultivate literature.
I recently finished At the Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole. It was okay to pretty good. It’s American colonial alternate history with (limited) magic. There were things I liked, and things that bugged me. But what I found interesting for this audience was Stackpole’s mention of the Joseph Smith story. Of course, if it was analogous to U.S. history, the timing of this book would be 50-75 years prior to Joseph Smith even being born, but that’s neither here nor there since it’s alternate history.
On page 146, a couple of the main characters are speaking about the frontier of Mystria (aka America) and about an encounter they have just had with a young man who was preaching democratic/republican ideas from a Thomas Paine-style book but adding in some of his own extra radical revolutionary fervor, and one of them says:
“Makes a man wonder why a man would be saying them sort of things.”
And the other replies:
“Oh, I don’t know, Magehawk, seems obvious. Men, they come out here, they cut a town from the wilderness, they have an edge to them. The ones that come after, though, ain’t leaders. They’re followers. Sheep. Every now and again comes a wolf looking for sheep. If it weren’t Qunice, it would be some minister or a messiah. Down Oakland I hear a man dug up his own Bible and has been preaching it. Says Mysteria is the promised land and that the Good Lord wants us to make a Celestial City in the hear of the Continent. He says every man should have a dozen wives and they should bear a dozen children and God will come again to bless them all.”
“Cain’t find me one wife, so I don’t reckon there’s a point to it.” (146)
I found the reference amusing. Reductive and not flattering, I suppose, but it works well enough for the scene, and I found it amusing because it was both obvious and very almost inevitable. This is the first in the series so I wonder if it will come up again in the story (although I don’t know if that curiosity is enough for me to read the next book), but even if not, it suggests, yet again, how irresistible the Joseph Smith story is to fiction writers (and even just Mormonism as a movement [cf. all the Mormon references in science fiction]).