Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_

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.

Continue reading “Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_”

Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

Farewell to Eden_Georgiana and StephenNOTE: 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…

Memory:

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. Continue reading “Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays”

Leaves of Nauvoo: Reflections of Mormon History From my Honeymoon

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.

Freedom’s Bonds

by Mahonri Stewart

Cramped Cold Creased–

Six men in a prison.

Saints not criminals

A prophet, not a traitor

Like their Ancient Master

Unjust Justice

afflicts their backs

and cools their lungs.

They’re fed afflicted flesh,

but they will not eat.

They wait for their Father’s feast

when, lifted from cramped dungeons,

they inherit kingdoms.

–May 3, 2005, Liberty Jail Missouri

Continue reading “Leaves of Nauvoo: Reflections of Mormon History From my Honeymoon”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two

As outlined in my last post , Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and concepts like Carl Jung’s archetypes and “collective unconscious” seem to tie well into J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson’s conversation with C.S. Lewis that helped convince him to become a Christian… that the similarity between world mythologies and Christianity is because they are being drawn from the same source, a pre-existent memory, a collective unconsciousness that is guiding mankind towards the “true myth” of Christianity.

The Christ story, however, is not the only “true myth.” I’ve seen Campbell’s pattern not only pop up in religious narratives such as the life of Christ and Buddha and Muhammad (some whose historicity is obviously debated depending on your religious views), but also in the lives of more established historical figures… try applying Campbell’s pattern to Joan of Arc for example, and other epic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. You’ll find some striking consistency. One of the most perfect examples I’ve found, however, is the life of Joseph Smith. His life plays out like an epic myth, the kind of stuff which would be seem obviously constructed after the fact, if we hadn’t so many historical proofs to back up the basic outline of the story. Now, obviously, events like the First Vision are up for debate, if you’re not an orthodox Mormon, but other events like Liberty Jail (which I’ll figure conveniently in Campbell’s “Belly of the Whale” stage) are without question historical facts in the American religious narrative. So I find it interesting that this pattern can crop up is non-structured scenarios in history, which attests to the universality of the Hero’s Journey model and how it is not only a convenient way to plot a story, but also an immortal way to show the truth of how spirituality plays out.

Which brings us not only to the life of Joseph Smith, but the pattern he layed out about man’s existence, what Mormons like to call the Plan of Salvation. In the rest of my essay, I’ll go through Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and apply it first to Joseph Smith’s life and by then I think you’ll also see how the pattern applies to the Plan of Salvation and our individual journeys through mortality:

JOSEPH SMITH AND THE HERO’S JOURNEY

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the Hero is always first called to leave his past life of obscurity and day to day existence and chart into a world of wonder and danger, where the Hero is to obtain some great boon or accomplish some great goal, which generally will be to the benefit of his fellow man.

Joseph’s early life is a perfect fit to this sort of beginning. Joseph Smith, the young farm hand whose strong body is hired out for his labor, but has very little room for upward mobility in his life. From all outlooks, his best hope is to become a farmer like his father, if he can escape the crushing dillemmas and ill twists of fate that kept his parents from escaping the constant threat of crushing poverty. Like Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars, King Arthur as a lanky squire, or an obscure carpenter’s son from Galilee, Joseph Smith at first glance would be an unlikely figure to make any sort of impact on the world around him. Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two”

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical

Previous Posts: Part I: Origins | Part II: The Middle 

So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.

Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…

Radical history and doctrine

Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical”