“Upon the Stage of a Theatre”: Reflecting on Mormon Drama at the Advent of the Saints on Stage Anthology

Saints on Stage Cover copy

This is not the final cover. For one thing, Lavina Fielding Anderson was too modest to want to get the kind of official credit she deserved in helping refine and edit the text.

Christopher Bigelow (publisher), Ben Crowder (layout), and I (chief editor) have been pounding out the last minor details of the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama being put out by Zarahemla Books. Considering that I pitched this idea to Chris several YEARS ago, I’m very excited that it is finally coming to fruition after numerous obstacles, delays, and hold ups.

As we’ve been going through the last motions, I’ve become reflective about Mormon Drama. It’s an idea and a genre that I’ve personally invested a lot into during my experience as a playwright. When I was a young writer in middle school and early high school, I wasn’t as eager to declare my Mormon faith through my writing, although it was tinged with my early spirituality. When I encountered C.S. Lewis on a major level, however, my writing took a turn towards the overtly religious. But even then, Tennessee Williams was more the tradition I was going for, not John Milton.

That all changed when I attended a lot of BYU’s theatre department’s productions and I encountered the work of playwrights like Eric Samuelsen, Elizabeth Hansen, and James Arrington during the 1990s. Especially Samuelsen’s work had a huge impact on me, and I found myself with a deep desire implanted into me to infuse more of a my faith into my writing. It may sound arrogant to say that I feel like I received a spiritual calling as a Mormon Dramatist, but I don’t exactly know how else to say it. I felt compelled to invest in Mormon Drama and I’m grateful that I did.

Now not all of my work is overtly Mormon, or even religious. I’ve written some of my pieces with a more broad tapestry in mind, especially recently as my grad school experience has taken me out of Utah and in the midst of a different kind of audience. I aim to try and make attempts as a professional writer in the wider, secular world, and so I know Mormon stories can’t be all I write about. But at the core of even my most universal of work, my Mormon spirituality can be found. It’s a deep part of my world view and it shows up in my work, either subtly or very overtly.

But a part of me never wants to be divorced from my relationship with Mormon Drama, no matter what else I may do in my life or work. I am proud of my Mormon heritage, and I believe in the Church’s origins. To me the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s visions, etc. … those are all very real things. I don’t consider myself a “cultural Mormon,” or even a New Order Mormon. I haven’t distanced myself from the Church’s faith claims. Those experiences of Mormon pioneers, as well as my devout belief in Christianity and the Gospels, are infused into my personality and belief system. In one of her reviews of my plays, Mormon theatre critic Nan McCulloch once jokingly referred to me as “thoroughly Mormon Mahonri.” She’s not off base with that comment.

As a culture, Mormons have a long history with theatre, ranging back to when Brigham Young stepped on a staged with other Mormons in Nauvoo and acted in the play Pizarro. Young would later famously say,

[There are Christians] who are against all amusements because of the evils attendant at public places. Now it is for the saints to neither follow the traditions of the one, nor fall into the errors of the other. . . . Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. . . . [T]he Lord understands the good and the evil. Why should not we likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do unless we understand the evil as well as the good.[1]

I’ve found a great deal of justification in my career and educational choices from statements like this from Young and other Mormon leaders.

But more than an institutional approval of the arts from Mormon leaders, it hits a more personal, spiritual chord within me. I don’t know what my future holds as a writer… I would love to break into national television or screenwriting. Something, you know, that will really pay the bills. But wherever my left foot is, I always hope that I also have a foot planted squarely in the field of Mormon Drama.


[1] Ila Fisher Maughan, Pioneer Theatre in the Desert (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 84; and Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 289.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a national award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri is currently attending graduate school in ASU's Dramatic Writing program. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, Zion Theatre Company, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, Arizona State University's 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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8 Responses to “Upon the Stage of a Theatre”: Reflecting on Mormon Drama at the Advent of the Saints on Stage Anthology

  1. Thought-provoking and refreshing essay. Thanks.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very much looking forward to this anthology. Thanks, Mahonri and Chris (and everyone else involved), for persisting with this!

  3. Thom Duncan says:

    Mahonri,

    Your reference to BY reminded of another one of his that has guided my LDS-oriented playwriting career. I will paraphrase but it was something like, “If I were on a deserted island and had the opportunithy to civilize a primitive people and my choices were to introduce them to theatre or religion, I would chose theatre first.” It’s in volume 9 of the Journal of Discourses I believe.

  4. Thom,

    Ronald W. Walker and D. Michael Quinn also use that quote in their: “‘Virtuous, Lovely or of Good Report’: How the Church Has Fostered the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977, 81.

    I’m pretty sure you’re probably already familiar with that article, though.

  5. I love Horace Whitney’s description of the production of Pizarro in Nauvoo:

    “[George Adams] was a very good actor, and J. Hatch, a young lawyer . . . was also good as well as Amasa Lyman and W. H. Folsom and others. But no part in ‘Pizarro’ was better played than was the priest by Brigham Young. There was some good acting done—some so life-like that at times nearly the whole audience would be affected to tears. Joseph [Smith] did not try to hide his feelings, but was seen to weep a number of times. Among our best comedians was Hiram B. Clawson, who I think was the youngest of the boys. That was forty years ago, and the scenes have been changing until but few are now left who took part in the first dramatic entertainments held in our beautiful city.”

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