Endowment: Theatre as Devotion

UVSC's production of _Farewell to Eden_

Sometimes I’ll just sit in an empty theater just to partake of its quiet peace. It’s a sacrament for me. Besides when I’m in holy places like temples, or during tranquil moments in nature, I find that it’s difficult for me to recreate the gentle, reverent feeling that I naturally get when I’m sitting alone in those seats. Again and again in my life I’m drawn to Theatre not only as an artform, but as a form of worship. I’m not involved in theatre for the money (what money?), the personal glory (which can be pretty faint anyway, especially once critics get involved), nor even for the “art” or self expression of it. I’m involved because I feel closer to God when I’m writing a play, performing a role, or directing a production that I find personally meaningful. It’s a sacred space for me, where we come together to eat pieces of each other’s souls and are edified together.

I teach my high school students about the Festival of Dionysus. In ancient Greece the Festival was a celebration to Dionysus (god of wine, revelry and, yes, theatre) and the whole city would be excused from work and other activities to see a series of plays. I have read sources that suggest that there is evidence that even second class citizens in Greek society, such as women and slaves, were also encouraged to attend. Thus the Festival of Dionysus was a truly universal event for their society, for the marginalized and the mainstream alike. My students and I discuss why that was… what could make theatre such an important event in the lives of the ancient Greeks that even their commerce, their economy, their class systems took a back seat to this sacred event of Theatre?

It was a pagan thing, it could be argued.  What does that have to do with modern religion? Well, first of all, I’m not yet convinced that the Greeks didn’t have certain truths passed down to them from previous ages which are sometimes closer to the pure Ancient Religion than the corrupted and apostate creeds that have been passed down to modern ages.  Second, Mormons specifically partake in a theatrical ceremony that ties us intimately to performances like the Festival of Dionysus. Our Church performs a cosmic drama everyday in our temples. It’s now performed more cinematically than in previous days, but sections of the LDS temple endowment were originally conceived as a play, to be performed like a play. When Joseph Smith originally taught the endowment in the upper rooms of his Red Brick Store to his closest and most trusted associates, he was directing a play about the Fall of humankind and then the Redemption and Exaltation of humankind through Jesus Christ.

In college, one of my professors Randy King talked to me about this. Of all the ways to teach us, he asked me, was it truly an accident that the Lord chose Theatre as the primary tool? Even today, the Salt Lake Temple and the Manti Temple continue the tradition of a live endowment which solidly connects our faith to something ancient, something long forgotten by most faiths. There’s something about the ritualistic aspect of a play that can make it holy, something that brings up stirring feelings of smoke, and veils, and an ancient vibration that connects us to to a feeling that is deep and distant, but ever so faintly familiar.

I’ve been asked on a couple of occasions why I chose to focus on writing for Theatre rather another form of writing, like novels. Although I hope to make solid contributions in other forms as well, it is valid to say that Theatre is my true artistic love. Especially considering the focus of this essay, I find it appropriate that I was in the temple when an event happened that solidified that theatrical direction in my life, rather than letting it simply fall to the status of a hobby.

It’s nearly a decade ago now that I was sitting in the Provo Temple in an endowment session that changed my life. Sitting in that sacred space I was contemplative about what I had just been through in my life and what yet still lay ahead of me. I had been home from my mission just a matter of weeks, and I was still waiting for my new semester (my new life!) of college to begin. After two strenuous and exhilarating years of spreading the good news in Australia I had suddenly found myself with a lot more leisure time, so I had been reading Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend on the suggestion of a friend. I was enthralled with the novel. Despite the awareness that it had some severe critics, Victorian literature was quickly transforming into a passionate favorite of mine, the Brontes and Dickens becoming intimate friends. But that’s not what I was thinking about in the endowment room, at least not yet. As my thoughts reached for possibilities, I was thinking about the empty paper my life was and how I was going to fill it. I was thinking about my religious life, my social life, my romantic life, my writing…

Then I had the sudden, vivid thought, “Write a British play.”

When the Spirit touches your life with one of those paradigm shifts, sometimes you’re hardly aware of them. It’s only when you look back that you realize that something significant changed. There are other times, however, when you somehow know that something divine just happened to you, something that will bleed like ink through the rest of your life’s narrative. That prompting in the Provo Temple was the latter. I knew this play I was going to write would be monumentally important to my life, which turned out to be prophetically correct.

That “British play” eventually became my theatrical debut Farewell to Eden. Drawing upon my recent reading of Dickens, it was a Victorian costume drama, steeped deep into that dramatic (even melodramatic) tradition. I invested a lot of personal and religious themes into the text, worked hard to tighten its initially elusive plot, and its characters came to me like Ebenezer’s Scrooge’s ghosts and visions, almost as if they were writing themselves. I would turn a corner in the story and be utterly shocked by what had just happened. I would feel that I understood a character until a veneer was taken off from him or her that knocked me back out of my chair, changing the whole story and the whole meaning of what would transpire thereafter.

My theatre and playwriting professor James Arrington liked what he saw of a section of the play I turned in for an assignment in his Introduction to Theatre class. Right then and there James offered me the opportunity to include it in one of the college’s theatre seasons, if I could finish writing it and shape it into a performable, full length script.

I cruised through those drafts (I believe there were 12 of them!) as James mentored me through the process. At one point before it was apparent that the play was actually good enough to be produced, I had a vivid dream. I was among a large group of young people who had gone to see the prophet (Gordon Hinckley) and we were standing around waiting for him, when he came to mingle with the crowd. He was talking to a group nearby me, when suddenly he stopped mid conversation and looked at me. His eyes were penetrating, but kind, and he asked me, “How is your play going?” The other people around him were a little surprised, even miffed, that his focus had suddenly shifted to me and there seemed to be this attitude of “what’s so important about awkward, insignificant him?” But the Prophet came to me anyway.

I explained the progress I had made with it, but confided that I still wasn’t sure it was going to happen. “I will make sure it is produced,” he told me. Then we continued to talk about other religious and personal items (I felt much like Peter with the Savior, where I felt both honored and rebuked at the same time) and we came to an ascending set of stairs. As we climbed those stairs, I felt a sense of both lack and progress, as if I had suddenly become aware of shortcomings I didn’t know I had, but that I was also being placed on a journey that would cause me to ascend, like I had been finally given wings to climb a previously insurmountable distance. I awoke from that dream with a vivid sense of awe and peace.

Farewell to Eden would premiere at Utah Valley State College (later Utah Valley University) and be chosen by the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival to perform in the Region 8 competition in California. Then I would later be invited to Washington D.C. to receive two awards at their national festival. It was a hugely impactful event in my life.  Every success I have had since then, from my current job, to my marriage, to recently being accepted to grad school, can one way or another be tied back to a chain of events that started with the genesis of that play.

Since then I have had many similar sacred experiences with my work in Theatre. There have been times I have felt unseen hands around me; unseen counselors guiding me; a soft, gentle voice whispering to me; a dream inspiring me. This in no way obligates those who watch my plays to view them as some sort of sacred text. Far from it, my work is very flawed and I know that I have offended some with the places I have chosen to investigate. However, what it has done for me is show me that my own personal spirituality is closely connected to my work in Theatre. Whatever my personal mission or path is in this life, for some reason it’s tied to my creative work in Theatre. Lately I have been working on a play based on the Gospels, and working on that has returned to me an extra portion of the Spirit which I had felt that was being elusive as of late and reminded me why I do all of this. Again and again, working on my dramatic writing makes me feel as if I’m ascending those stairs once again.

Which brings me back to Ancient Greece. The Festival of Dionysus in many ways is not what we would imagine to be a particularly spiritual event. The comedies and satyr plays the festival started out with were hardly what we would call “appropriate” entertainment, filled with lewdness and bawdiness. And there was definitely some good old fashioned competition going on, as the playwrights vied for awards for the best play.

However, when you look over the tragedies (or even better yet, see them performed), which were the culmination of the day’s performances,  you get a sense of the divine catharsis these plays instilled in their audiences. Plays like Oedipus the King, Antigone, Elektra, Trojan Women or Iphigenea had immensely personal and spiritual implications in their lives, they helped explain their relationship to their gods and to each other.  The Greeks felt that the tie between their religion and theatre was so important that they centered a whole complicated, involved religious celebration which lasted from first light to last light, setting aside all of the other pressing concerns of their lives so that they could participate. In a similar way, Mormons since Joseph Smith have fled their place in this fallen world to attend divine theatricals in their temples so that they can re-connect to God. So when I step into that empty theater, I do not consider it a heresy that I have this prescient and abiding feeling that I am stepping into a House of God.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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11 Responses to Endowment: Theatre as Devotion

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thanks for sharing that highly personal experience.

    Thinking about what you’ve written, I see a parallel to something I realized a year or two ago with respect to the priesthood. Fundamentally, the priesthood isn’t about our relationship with other people. Rather, it’s about our relationship with God.

    The same is true of what we may feel about a personal call to act as an artist (or in any other arena of life). That call isn’t about how other people will or ought to react to us or what we create. Rather, it’s about what our art means to us as a matter that is between ourselves and God.

  2. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Thanks, Jonathan!
    Yeah, looking over my work sometimes I wonder if what I write is TOO personal to share, but then again if I’m self editing out the most spiritual moments from my life’s narrative– what’s the point? So I often let the experiences stand, whether people react uncomfortably or not, for inhibitions like that will kill any sense of holiness or personal devotion I want to include in my writing. Like you said, I just can’t worry how people are going to react to my writing– I just have to make sure that I’m right with it and that God is right with it, and everything beyond that will fall into its proper place.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      And Mahonri, this is precisely why you are and will continue to be a successful writer. I truly believe writers need to have the courage to pour themselves out in front of people, come what may. Don’t change your posts. Don’t hold back. This was lovely and sent my mind whirling through some of the tenderest moments of my life. You definitely connected with me.

      • Lisa, you are always so kind to me! Thanks for the encouragement! I totally agree by the way. My essays become increasingly autobiographical and personal, partially because it allows me to be more introspective rather than showy, and that’s when I feel writing becomes the most natural and the least forced. When I can truly be more honest.

  3. Well, I was touched by this post, Mahonri. Thank you.

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    I find it intriguing that the Greeks started out their theatre day with comedy and ended it with tragedy. This seems almost the opposite of what our culture would dictate (notably, in 18th and 19th century Britain, the main play was usually followed up by a farce). Viewed as a type of worship, however, this makes a great deal of sense. You’ve given me a lot to think about, Mahonri! Thank you!

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I hadn’t thought about why theater is, in essence, the crux of the temple ceremony. It occurs to me that, in acting, we are able to present by rote without the appearance being rote. Ideally anyway. So the ceremony must be a particular way, but the repetition, the roteness of a thing often makes it seem unimportant. But put the rote in the hands of actors and it remains a living, breathing experience. Hm.

    • Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have trained Mormon actors perform those ceremonies rather than sweet senior citizens. What kind of pathos and meaning could be added if it were treated even more like a play?

  6. Jayme says:

    I know how you feel about theatres. My favorite place on SUU campus has always been the outside Shakespeare theatre. Thanks for the great post!

  7. Ronnie Bray says:

    Dear Mahonri,

    Your article rung several bells for me, especially those connected with drama as access to God, and the eternal nature of Dickens’ thought freed from its time and place then applied to the common human condition.

    Drama has the universal appeal of the parable, since each person in the audience is likely to hear a different voice speaking a different message, much like the congregation does hearing Sunday sermons. Martin Buber touched on this phenomenon, and Mircea Eliade’s wonderful book, ‘The Sacred and Profane,’ finds its voice in your ideas.

    It was my re-acquaintance with Dickens during research for a Christmas CD that floated the idea for a book I have on the stocks, ‘A Yorkshire Carol,’ in which the Scrooge character is a textile mill owner and grinder of the faces of the poor during
    the Luddite uprising in my old home town of Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

    However, what ought to have been a walk in the park led me into some dark places as I unearthed the history of that time and my quill took on a more sombre, tragic aspect.

    The spiritual dynamics of the time are such that the characters either ignore the voice of God that urges them to walk higher paths on the one hand, and the voice of God that is ignored or else denied, because He just ‘cannot be’ because of the terror and deprivation of the times. Yet, I am confidant that regardless of how dark the plot-way becomes, and it is already become Plutonian, that the light must shine, albeit not the light of triumph, but glimmering rays of hope, however faint the glow.

    Your sketching of the theatre as temple and temple as theatre encourages me to look for God in unlikely places in the unfolding drama, for it is only by the hand of God that lives improve, consciences are touched, revenge is laid aside, and reconciliation at best, and armed truce at worst is accomplished.

    Thank you for your thought provoking writing.


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