With the publication of Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mormon drama and how it currently stands as it own niche genre. The whole reason I pitched the idea of the anthology to Chris Bigelow at Zarahemla Books was because of the.impact that Mormon drama and its playwrights had made upon me when I was younger. I wanted to honor that powerful influence of a genre I loved and the Mormon playwrights who I owe so much to.
In high school, I attended a number of Mormon themed plays at BYU which inspired me…Eric Samuelsen’s The Seating of Senator Smoot and Gadianton; Elizabeth Hansen’s A String of Pearls; James Arrington’s Farley Family Christmas. My own youthful writing before that had largely been non-religious or, if religious, of a general Christian variety (my interest in C.S. Lewis in high school jump started this kind of writing). But it was Mormon drama that really made me investigate my own specific faith, artistically. Seeing my faith on stage, in the spotlight, drew me even deeper into a desire to more deeply investigate my closely held spiritual beliefs.
So this month I want to go into why the plays I chose made it into the anthology—what I think they contribute to Mormon drama and what impact they had on me personally:
Fires of the Mind by Robert Elliott: I came across this play as I began researching the history of Mormon Drama as an undergrad. References to it kept being made as a particularly influential play in Mormon drama when it was having one of its most important growth spurts in the 1970s. In 1986 Eugene England called it “the best single play written about the Mormon experience.” So I looked for it and discovered it in the UVU library in the inaugural issue of Sunstone. Fires of the Mind is a play about a set of missionaries in Taiwan, centering on Elder Johnson, an intellectually talented missionary who is having deep struggles gaining a spiritual testimony of the Restored Gospel.
In its intellectual sophistication, spiritual insight, and nuanced characterization, the play is a powerhouse. In reading it I was electrified by its deeply philosophical, yet natural dialogue, and its compelling spirituality in the face of intellectual doubt. I heartily endorse England’s statement that, even after all these years since Fires of the Mind debuted at BYU in 1974, it still holds up as one of the best plays Mormon Drama has to offer, although it’s gained good company since then. The real tragedy, however, is that Elliott has written very little since then. He’s a ghost of Mormon Drama past that I would gladly see resurrected.
Huebener by Thomas F. Rogers: In any serious modern study of Mormon drama, Huebener will show up. It premiered in 1976 at BYU to an electrifying response which many people have since written about. The play is based on the true story of Helmuth Huebener, a teenaged Mormon in Nazi Germany who fought against the Third Reich with a printing press. Its history is marked with controversy (see the anthology’s bio on Rogers for more on that), but it has steadily held its position as one of the best known and most influential plays in the history of Mormon drama.
I encountered the play when two actors did a scene from it at a BYU theatre summer camp I attended when I was 15. The scene intrigued me and was filed in my memory under “works to look up.” Thus when I, years later, was looking through BYU Bookstore’s interesting selection of playbooks, I stumbled upon a published collection of Rogers’ plays. I bought it without hesitation. Since that first reading, Helmuth Huebener’s example of a vocal conscience in the face of unrighteous dominion has stuck with me in a way that I have never been able to shake off.
When I later attended a ceremony where Thomas Rogers spoke at BYU (my sister’s graduation ceremony maybe?), his words about Joseph Smith words resonated with me even more because of the background I had in reading his play. The Joseph Smith quote he used was this famous one: “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.” It is in this strain of thought that Rogers’ pursues his excellent work.
J. Golden by James Arrington: There was no way I wasn’t going to include James Arrington in this anthology. Not only have his one man shows and other plays been widely seen and widely loved (he’s even given performances where President Hinckley, President Kimball, and other LDS general authorities have been in the audience), but he’s had a deep impact on me personally as a person and as a playwright, as it was under his tutelage at UVU that I had one my first full length plays produced.
My friend Alex Parent and I had a tradition going in high school where every Christmas season we would go see James’ Farley Family X-mas with our pair of dates. I laughed so hard and so constantly every year that my cheeks literally hurt after the play was done. I also bought a set of tapes before my mission based on his one man play Here’s Brother Brigham which I listened to often and found deeply edifying. I also later bought a CD recording of Bruce Ackerman’s performance of James’ J. Golden (I find Ackerman’s much superior wry subtlety on this CD better suited to James’ excellent script than the clowning and mugging that occurs during Dallin Christensen’s performance on the DVD version). I have very fond memories of alternately laughing and feeling a profound sense of the Spirit while listening to the CD in my car.
It would have probably been more appropriate to include either of James’ more famous plays Farley Family Reunion or Here’s Brother Brigham, but he explained that he still performs those regularly, so he didn’t want to give people the excuse not to see one of his plays because they had already read it. I am of the opposite opinion, where I am more likely to see a play after I have read it, because I am very curious to see the performers’ interpretation. Either way, J. Golden is certainly a hilarious and touching favorite, so I was very pleased that James agreed to have it included.
Burdens of Earth by Susan E. Howe- The first time I heard of Burdens of Earth was when my friend William Taysom wrote to me about it while I was on my mission in the early 2000s. He had seen a revival production of this drama about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail at BYU (the original production was performed in 1987) and knew I would be interested in hearing about it. Later after I had come home from my mission and was in my early undergrad, I found the script and was deeply impressed by it.
Susan E. Howe is chiefly known as a poet, and that background is very evident in the script. It has an introspective, almost dream-like quality about it that serves well the claustrophobic experience of Liberty Jail, where the men had very little else to feed on other than their thoughts and regrets. It’s an insightful, brooding, poetic play that is a beautiful addition to the anthology.
Matters of the Heart by Thom Duncan- My first exposure to Thom Duncan’s work was when I saw Marvin Payne, Sam Payne, and Johanne Perry in a production of his Joseph Smith musical Prophet at the Scera my senior year in high school. There were some issues I had with the play (why he anachronistically used Simonds Ryder as the chief antagonist behind the martyrdom instead of the multitude of interesting people surrounding Joseph Smith’s martyrdom is beyond me), but there was still a lot to admire about the play and its production, including a guitar toting angel and an interesting treatment of Joseph Smith’s relationship with Emma in the latter part of his life.
A few years later I came across Thom Duncan when he and Scott Bronson were a part of the founding of the Nauvoo Theatrical Society, which was a theatre company dedicated to performing specifically to Mormon Drama. Sadly, NTS had too short of a life, but as part of a fundraiser they were doing for the theatre, they put up a staged reading I attended of Thom’s Matters of the Heart (which had originally been produced in 1985 by Theatre-in-the-Square in Provo, UT). The staged reading, very ably played by Elwon Bakly, Scott Bronson, and Lynne Bronson, was compelling, centering around a young man who has returned home early from his mission due to intellectual and spiritual issues. His Stake President father, and closeted feminist mother, strive to pick up the pieces of their relationship with their son and strive to understand and connect with him.
It is a strongly written, compassionate play and highlights Thom’s great strength as a writer…his ability to write compelling, relationship driven characters.
Gadianton by Eric Samuelsen- Including a play by Eric Samuelsen was another must. There are few who have devoted as much to Mormon drama as he has. His years as a playwriting professor at BYU, as a president of the Association for Mormon Letters, and as a playwright who often wrote quality work about Mormon subject matter have made him an indispensable part of the genre. He is one of our most talented and prolific playwrights.
Perhaps only James Arrington’s mentorship has had more of an impact on me than Eric has. It was seeing Eric’s The Seating of Senator Smoot and Gadianton at BYU when I was in early high school that changed my trajectory as a writer and inspired me to dwell more directly on my Mormon faith and spirituality in my plays. I had a hard time choosing which of his plays would be included in the anthology—The Seating of Senator Smoot and Family were both strong contenders. But Gadianton is probably one of his most influential and known plays, and it had a particularly powerful impact on me when I saw it on one of my early dates my sophomore year in high school, with my friend Tricia Harris.
I still remember the conversation it spurred between us, as Tricia and I walked around the bell tower at BYU after the play. Tricia was a “liberal,” which I had never considered myself at that point, but she was a good friend to have along for that particular play. Gadianton dealt with business practices many Mormons have blindly accepted, which have ethical repercussions that the play forced me to confront. Gadianton literally changed how I think. Although I still consider myself very much a moderate, politically and culturally, if anyone who knows me has been alarmed that I have a “liberal” streak on certain issues that I didn’t have before, they can blame Eric Samuelsen and Gadianton.
Hancock County by Tim Slover- I saw Hancock County when it premiered in 2002 and I found it to be an extremely satisfying play. I love Mormon history, so its storyline about the murder trials of those who assassinated Joseph and Hyrum Smith was one I was already on board with. The fact that it had strong, compelling writing was what put it into the stratosphere for me, however.
I had seen Slover’s more widely played Joyful Noise (about Handel’s writing of The Messiah), both at BYU and at the Nauvoo Theatrical Society. So the fact that it was a solid historical drama (which Slover has the penchant to write—most of his work centers around historical figures) wasn’t a big surprise to me. I already knew he was a very talented playwright, and certainly one of our most successful (Joyful Noise has played all over the country, including with professional companies in San Diego and New York). But over the years, Hancock County is one of the Mormon plays that I can say I enjoyed the most, a play that hit very high on my personal satisfaction meter. Early Mormon history, compelling moral and ethical themes, strongly defined characters, sparkling dialogue, and a sense of redemption and catharsis… Hancock County is my kind of play.
Stones by J. Scott Bronson – Stones was one of the few plays (along with Carol Lynn Pearson’s My Turn on Earth, Eric Samuelsen’s The Way We’re Wired, and Tim Slover’s Joyful Noise) that was performed by the Nauvoo Theatrical Society before a litany of issues led to their tragic closure. It was that production that I first saw and the sense of Spirit and emotional power I experienced watching the play is hard to describe. In addition to Scott’s soulful script, it had a talented cast with Elwon Bakly, Kathryn Laycock Little, and Scott Bronson playing the roles.
When I saw the play, I knew none of these actors, although I came to know and care about them later (Kathryn, especially, as she has been an actor and director for a couple of my own plays and a good friend). But the performances of these then strangers were so vulnerable and intimate, that I feel like I started to get to know them even then. Scott has been wise to bring in these same actors for every production of the play since then. They have literally come to own those roles.
Every time I have seen the set of two short plays (one about Abraham and Isacc, one about Jesus and his mother Mary) since then, the production has had the same profound effect on the audience that it did in that NTS production I saw years ago. It’s a literal emotional outpouring, as a good portion of the audience inevitably end up in tears, and a deep reverence comes over everyone. Every. Single. Time.
Farewell to Eden by Mahonri Stewart: Now you didn’t think I’d be in charge of an anthology of Mormon Drama and not include one of my own plays, did you?
Seriously, though, I get kind of embarrassed about including one of my own plays, especially when I recently realized my playwright’s bio in the anthology is longer than everyone else’s. It was too late to change it once I realized that embarrassing fact, since the anthology was already sent to the printers (and it would have cost me $40 to do change it later, and yet ANOTHER delay, which after five years I was unwilling to do). But I mean that looks super vain, right? So I’m a little sensitive about some of the self promotion that seems necessary as a writer, especially compounded with little hiccups like that. Fortunately, Farewell to Eden has won enough national awards and positive reviews to at least make its inclusion feel justified. But if you want to start singing some Carly Simon at me, I wouldn’t blame you.
Martyrs’ Crossing by Melissa Leilani Larson- Because of its sheer impact and importance, Mel’s play Little Happy Secrets, about a faithful Mormon woman’s struggles with her homosexuality, would normally have been the play to include in an anthology about Mormon drama. Little Happy Secrets is an amazing play and one of the best plays in the Mormon theatre repertoire…ever. However, it had already been published in New Play Project’s anthology of plays Out of the Mount, so I decided to include Mel’s play Martyrs’ Crossing about Joan of Arc instead (I mean, the more Mel, the better!), which play has actually been a personal favorite of mine ever since I saw it performed at BYU (then under the title Angels Unaware).
Joan of Arc has been a figure dear to my heart ever since I read first read George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (actually, I’ve really liked her since I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when I was a kid, but Shaw sounds more literary, doesn’t he?). In fact, this is yet another case where Mel has beat me to the punch in composing a play that I alos wanted to write (we have frustratingly similar tastes sometimes). Fortunately, however, the play really isn’t about Joan, but more about the martyred saints/angels who are guarding her, so maybe I’ll still write that Jean d’Arc play someday. As it is, Mel’s beautifully written take on those events may intimidate me from writing it for a number of years yet.
Mel is one of the best playwrights we currently have. Consistently and persuasively she has shown herself to be a master writer who has a personal ache, vibrant spirituality, and clear voice that permeates all of her work. She is certainly one of Mormonism’s most talented playwrights and one I expect to hear more great things from.
I Am Jane by Margaret Blair Young- If you have read Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s Standing Upon the Promises series (about historical black Mormon pioneers) then you will find some strong similarities with I Am Jane. I believe certain scenes are nearly identical with the novel versions. However, I Am Jane narrows its focus on the historical Jane Manning James, one of Mormon History’s most vibrant figures, a black Mormon pioneer who could put the faith of some of the faith’s most pious Latter-day Saints to shame.
I love this play. It wasn’t part of the original cut, however, because when I first heard about it, somehow I thought it was a one-woman show (which it most clearly is not). Thus I didn’t think to investigate it for inclusion in the original line up, as I already had a one-person show represented with J. Golden. However, after I read Standing Upon the Promises and saw the play in Salt Lake a couple of years ago, I fell in love with the story. So I was very happy when a slot opened up that justified me bringing in another play to an already huge anthology. Margaret’s writing in the play is, as with her other novels and plays, superb.
There were other plays that barely didn’t make the cut which, if a second volume ever materializes (which is doubtful, considering how long the first one took!), would be on top of the list to include. Carol Lynn Pearson’s Mother Wove the Morning is a beautiful feminist Mormon play about the idea of a Heavenly Mother; Saturday’s Warrior, of course, would be a natural inclusion, considering its cultural impact; Martin Kelly’s And They Shall be Gathered was an admired family conversion play much talked about in the 70s; James Goldberg’s powerful one act play “Prodigal Son” wasn’t included only because it had already been published in Out of the Mount; Elizabeth Hansen’s A String of Pearls was a play I loved when I saw it at BYU in high school and it would be a high priority in a second volume; Tony Gunn’s Smart Single Guys and Josh Brady’s Joyce Baking were both very biting satires about BYU students; Elizabeth Leavitt’s play Stuck on the Edge was one the best written plays I’ve seen in recent years by a BYU student, and was only not included in this volume because it didn’t have any overt Mormon content or characters, although I might overlook that in a second volume.
Yet, with the anthology at nearly 700 pages, I obviously had to even cut off works that I deeply cared about. As it is, though, every play that is included, I am certain, is worthy of its prominent place in the history of Mormon drama. I hope the anthology is a gateway to a greater awareness and appreciation of a genre I so love.
 Eugene England, Review of Thomas F. Rogers, “God’s Fools: Plays of Mitigated Conscience.” BYU Studies 26, no. 3 (Summer 1986): 114–18.
 Probably because I naturally had a lot more material about myself on hand to incorporate. My father taught me to collect newspaper clippings pretty thoroughly.
 Originally, Orson Scott Card’s Stone Tables was going to be included, but the formatting needs of that particular play and OSC’s tight schedule eventually caused both our parties to mutually agree it may be best for the anthology to move on without it and not add on yet another delay to an already delayed work. With that opening, I swept up I Am Jane to take its place.