The Mormon Ibsen: A Tribute to Eric Samuelsen

When I discovered that Eric Samuelsen was retiring from BYU as the playwriting professor, I have to admit a little bit of my heart broke. In many ways it may the best decision. From what I understand, Eric’s battle with polymyositis, a degenerative auto-immune disease, has been tough and painful and has limited his freedom to do what he would like to do. So retiring from BYU may have been inevitable. Yet the good he has done there, the good he has done Mormon Letters, the lives he has impacted along the way–I had hoped that he would still be forging the way for Mormon Drama at BYU for many years to come. He is not only one of Mormon Drama’s best representatives and talented pens, but also a man fierce intelligence, warm hearted kindness, and integrity. It is a great loss for BYU not to have him on their active staff anymore.

Now I did not attend BYU. I graduated from Utah Valley University in Theatre Arts, chiefly under the playwriting mentorship of the remarkable James Arrington (and I’m currently at Arizoana State, working towards my MFA in Dramatic Writing). However, in a way, Eric Samuelsen has been my teacher since I was a freshman in high school.

I was 15 when my parents brought me to a play at BYU’s Margetts Theater called The Seating of Senator Smoot. I had been actively involved in drama since the fifth grade (around the same time I also became actively involved in creative writing), so my parents brought me along to this play that I knew very little about. I had never heard of the playwright, Eric Samuelsen, and I knew very little about the subject matter of the play. However, as the performance progressed I was utterly enraptured.

The play told the story of Reed Smoot, who was the Senator elect from Utah at the turn of the century… and the first Mormon to be allowed into that position. However, the fervent anti-Mormon prejudice at the time almost derailed his chances as the Senate almost denied him his seat due to his religion. It made for a compelling drama, especially formed with Eric’s remarkable talent.

The next year, for one of my early dates after I turned sixteen, I brought a good friend with me to see Eric’s next play at BYU, Gadianton. This play targeted corporate downsizing from a Mormon context. Sure, it had an overt agenda attached to it, but it was deftly told and was stirring in its execution. My date and I walked out of the theater thoughtful, animated in our discussion and having both thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the play.

But it was more than that. I found Gadianton to be a powerful play filled with compassion, Spirit, and insight. It more than any other play during this period of my life changed me on a deep, fundamental level. I re-thought my politics, my worldview, my inner world.

Although I have never ended up as far left on the spectrum as Eric is, this play certainly started me in that direction and I now consider myself a moderate, politically speaking. Would have I voted for Obama last term, if it hadn’t been for Eric Samuelsen?

But more important than politics (much more!), it made me look at my own writing and what I was producing with it and how that related with my religious identity as a Mormon. For most of my young life up to that point, a lot of my writing had been pretty secular… influenced either by pop culture icons like the X-Men or “high art” playwrights like Tennessee Williams. But around the same time I was introduced to Eric’s work, I was re-introduced to the work of C.S. Lewis,  so the both of them together caused me to re-form my approach to my writing.

Suddenly my Christianity and Mormonism was infused in my writing and I started caring less about becoming part of the sophisticated world of the literati, but instead focused on how my writing reflected on my most deeply held beliefs and worldviews. My religious identity became a core part of my writing, and anybody who is familiar with my work knows, for better or worse, my Mormonism is an essential influence on what I write. Personally, it’s made all the difference for me and the value I derive from my work, and I have the early plays of Eric Samuelsen to thank for that.

Since then I have become personally acquainted with Eric and consider him a friend. I was even able to fulfill that teacher/student relationship I wanted with him when my play The Fading Flower was accepted as part of BYU’s Writers/Dramaturg/Actors Workshop (even though I was a UVU student), of which Eric was one of the instructors. It’s an experience I cherish and Eric (as well as some of the others involved in the workshop) influenced some significant changes in that script which enhanced it greatly. By being in that workshop, I felt it made me officially his student, even if for just a moment, and I treasured that. After all, his writing more than any other author (with perhaps the exceptions of C.S. Lewis and Charles Dickens) influenced my work.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep track of Eric’s work. I haven’t been able to experience all of his plays (especially since I moved to Arizona), but I’ve either read or seen a majority of them, and I can say that Eric continues to be one of Mormonism’s most skilled, insightful, and powerful writers. He is absolutely prolific with the amount of work he has put out; his characters always feel real and layered; his use of language is vividly contemporary and memorably stirring; his plays are topical and timely; and he certainly isn’t afraid to make a moral stand for what he believes in, religiously, politically, or socially. His work has integrity, depth and compassion.

Because of the topical nature of much of his work, I see him as a kind of Mormon Ibsen, Dickens or Upton Sinclair. He is a Mormon reformer who, though at times at odds with the social majority of his culture, wishes to use his work to improve Mormon culture by championing what he sees as the most important elements of the Gospel and how those core principles ought to be better reflected in our social context. I have always known him to be a powerful writer but, even more important, a good man. He has influenced a generation of young Mormon playwrights; has tirelessly advocated the cause of Mormon Letters (he even served as the AML president not too long ago); is an Ibsen scholar/translator (interesting, knowing that he has Norse heritage and served in Norway on his mission); and has been a voice for progressive Good. It is a loss to the theater department at BYU not to have him in their midst anymore, but as he continues to write plays, contribute literary criticism and remain as active as possible in the Mormon Drama and Mormon Letters communities, he will keep being a formidable and positive force within our culture.

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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12 Responses to The Mormon Ibsen: A Tribute to Eric Samuelsen

  1. Cory Huff says:

    As a fellow Mormon theater artist, I agree that Eric’s influence has been singular. Just the fact that a skilled writer has managed to capture the spirit of our culture in so many of his works makes me realize that there is a depth of experience to be made known to the rest of the world, and it doesn’t have to always be made known in an overt “sharing the gospel” way.

    Thank you Eric!

  2. Wm says:

    I have never seen one of Eric’s plays performed so I mainly know him through conversation — and what excellent conversation that has been over the years, especially during the heyday of the AML-List.

    So, yes, Thanks Eric! (also: love your new blog — your defense of Barry Bonds was fascinating).

  3. Angela H. says:

    I count getting to know Eric Samuelsen as one of the great benefits of my membership in the AML. His work never fails to impress and move me — it’s so full of his goodness, intelligence, and generosity of spirit. We are so lucky to have his voice in Mormon letters.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Eric’s work provides a sterling example of how the specifics of Mormonism can provide important settings for talking about universal gospel themes through high-quality literary output. Mormonism in his work isn’t just the culture of his characters, but informs his characters’ lives and the themes of his work. It’s a depth of resonance that I feel even many of our best Mormon novels and short stories still lack, and remains a challenge to us all.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    Eric’s presidential address to the AML remains one of my go-to documents, good for almost any occasion.

    Say, could we get a link to that blog?

  6. Tom says:

    Can I chime in here singing Samuelsenian praise? I was in a student-written play that he directed that was absolutely excellent and a huge highlight to my BYU career.

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