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.

 

Adam & Eve in 2016

.

AMV’s about page is very upfront about the inbred nature of the current Mormon-arts community, but this post seems to require a direct reminder of the fact.

The new online miniseries Adam & Eve is written and directed by Davey and Bianca Morrison Dillard. They were both early joiners of New Play Project, which began life as “mere” student works, yet gained acclaim, gathering words like renaissance and breakthrough and baby-this-is-the-future. It didn’t hurt that established playwrights like Eric Samuelsen and Melissa Leilani Larsen, and Mahonri Stewart were seduced by all this young blood and provided additional work for them to produce. No doubt, NPP, while it lasted, was a marvelous thing, and everyone involved deserves fond memories of their own and long memories of ourn.

My intimacy with NPP began with Davey approached me about publishing a collection of NPP work. I had a couple stipulations but was largely hands off, and the thing came out almost six years ago now, if you can believe it. Among the short plays included in the collections was Davey’s “Adam & Eve.” It was his first attempt at playwriting. One of his better NPP plays. And, apparently, has not unclutched him ever since as it appears now in serial film form as “Adam & Eve.”

[keep reading] Continue readingAdam & Eve in 2016″

Fires of the Mind as “Mormon Tragedy”

.

I’m reading the Mahonri Stewart-edited collection Saints on Stage, the first play in which is Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind (1974). One of the great things about Saints on Stage is Mahonri’s historical descriptions of the impact the plays had during their original productions. In the case of Fires of the Mind, seems like it was something of a doozy when it showed up on BYU campus. A contemporary account from the Daily Universe recounts this story:

Between acts on Saturday, a cast member found two girls crying and asked, “Is the play upsetting you? One of the girls responded, “Isn’t it supposed to?” Continue readingFires of the Mind as “Mormon Tragedy””

Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter

An interview with Mahonri Stewart on the Kickstarter to fund Zion Theatre Company’s 2014 season.

Prometheus Unbound promotional posterZion Theatre Company is running a Kickstarter to fund its 2014 season. Mahonri Stewart agreed to do a Q&A with me about it and what’s going on with ZTC.

What made you decide to use Kickstarter specifically for the 2014 season of Zion Theatre Company? And why fund a whole season rather than, say, just an individual play?

I had a definite, focused plan in mind for what I wanted Zion Theatre Company to do in 2014, but the past couple of years we had cut it close on some of our plays–some of our plays did exceptionally well, some barely paid the costs, and some lost money. It all balanced out pretty well, at times it strained our accounts, which was discouraging since it’s been with the last few shows that we’ve seen our most enthusiastic audiences, a plethora of extremely positive reviews, and realistic hope for future success. Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and my Farewell to Eden were especially impactful on audiences and critics and I think those shows did an excellent job in setting up expectations and enthusiasm for our future productions by showing exactly what kind of potential we actually have as a company.

So by trying to gain funds that would help us fund the entire season, instead of just going with money from play to play as we have, it takes off the nervous edge that if one show doesn’t do as well as the last one, then it doesn’t threaten to put the kabosh on the rest of our plans for the season. Having that nest egg allows us to focus on the quality of the current show instead of wondering if we spend our money on, you know, a good set, that we may not have enough money for the next show.  It was a nervous place to be and we almost closed up shop after a couple of our shows didn’t do as well as some others in our season. So this long game tactic gives us an opportunity to focus on making the best show possible in the present, without worrying about the future. It gives us the security to up our quality.

Tell us about the programming: why those four plays? I’d be especially be interested in hearing just a bit more about the two new ones.

I would love to!

We’re doing two of my new shows, and two from other well known playwrights (one a classic, one a premiere). The two from other Utah-based playwrights are as follows: Continue reading “Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter”

_Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama_ is Now Available

SaintsOnStage-Cover.inddSaints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama is now available at Zarahemla Books’ website, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

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.

_Saints On Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama_ is Off to the Printers!

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:

SaintsOnStage-Cover.inddSaints 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

_A Roof Overhead’s_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller

Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead

Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We’re Closed…but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar.

Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I’m currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.

When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU’s student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody’s play Sorry, We’re Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead …which became a rather providential move.

Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam’s character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what’s in my head!” It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places. Continue reading “_A Roof Overhead’s_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller”

My Final Verdict on “A Roof Overhead”

aroEarlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here)  shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”

Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.

First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.

Continue reading “My Final Verdict on “A Roof Overhead””