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.
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).
One of the notable aspects of early Mormon statements about entertainment and media is the focus on discouraging the reading of novels and “light” literature, while other forms of entertainment, notably theatre, were encouraged. Brigham Young acted in Nauvoo, encouraged the early performances in Salt Lake City as early as 1853, and even promoted plays and attended the theatre himself. He announced the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre and vigorously pursued its construction until its completion in 1861.
However, by the turn of the century, Church leaders were also warning members about the theatre, as well as the nascent film industry.
Instructing yourself has, perhaps, never been easier than it is today. Perhaps the greatest library every assembled, the Internet, is available to us every hour of every day, providing unrivaled resources to anyone with a smart phone or laptop. And supplementing these resources are a growing body of courses, many free of charge, on subjects as broad as any school. In comparison to the situation in early Utah we have riches of knowledge indeed.
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.
As I’ve looked at 19th century newspapers and other documents, I’ve come across literary works or references to literary works that I didn’t know about, and that, apparently, are unknown among those of us interested in Mormon literature. Yesterday, I discovered another.