[Editor’s note: We are honored to welcome theatre scholar Callie Oppedisano, who is beginning a series of posts on Mormon theatre. For more about Callie, see her bio below, and her reviews at the Utah Theater Bloggers Association, such as this recent blog about the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant.]
Allow me to introduce myself:I was born and raised in Utah and spent my formative years in St. George back when it was small and its population even less diverse than it is today. I was one of a few Catholics in a sea of Mormons, and when I graduated from high school, I declared that I was leaving Utah and never coming back. Off I went to a Catholic university near Buffalo, New York, where I double-majored in theatre and English. This was followed by a year in Ireland where I pursued my love of Samuel Beckett while earning an M.Phil in Irish Theatre and Film. Next came marriage and a short stint working in a cubicle before I left for Tufts University in Boston to obtain my PhD in Drama. It was there that I realized how saturated my field really was and how difficult it would be to carve out a niche. Here I was investing an incredible amount of time and treasure on a PhD program, and it really seemed that the last thing the world needed was another Beckett scholar.
A seminar paper led me to my interest in contemporary Mormon theatre. My colleagues didn’t realize that such a thing even existed, despite some familiarity with the pageant at Hill Cumorah, and they were fascinated. I had found my niche, and, equally important, I realized that dissertation research grants would pay for my flights back to Utah to visit my family. So, I immersed myself in Mormon theatre, discovering along the way that my great-great-great grandfather George Wardle, who had entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young, had been one of the eighty-six men and women who formed the Deseret Dramatic Association in 1852. Mormon theatre was in my blood, and it became a part of my life’s work. That still doesn’t mean I’ve come up with the definitive definition of what Mormon Theatre is. Six years, a completed dissertation, and a move back to Utah, and my opinion of “Mormon theatre” is still evolving. So, when I was asked to write this blog post on Mormon theatre, I didn’t quite know where to start. My primary research has been in contemporary dramatic works by LDS playwrights, but it doesn’t seem as if I can adequately do justice to this specific genre without first addressing the fascinating beginnings of the LDS stage. The following is an abbreviated account of early Mormon theatre history, leading right up to the Road Shows. Hopefully it will be followed by another post that picks up where I leave off.
Mormon Theatre: Nauvoo, Salt Lake, and Ward Houses Everywhere
Upon first glance, it seems as if nineteenth century Mormon theatre was intended to serve the same purpose as other Victorian theatre: It was a recreational diversion with some claims to edification. An example of this is found in the days of Nauvoo, when Brigham Young took the prophetic role as High Priest in a production of Pizarro (a melodrama by Richard Brinsley Sheridan about the European conquest of Peru that supported commonly-held notions of white superiority at the time). This early theatrical interest of the Saints continued to Salt Lake, where, as noted above, the Deseret Dramatic Association was created for a more organized recreational diversion in 1852. It quickly became more than an entertaining pastime, however, when Young proclaimed theatre’s moral purpose, quoted recently in one of Mahonri Stewart’s blog posts. And, yet, despite this early and important theatrical defense, the idea of a uniquely Mormon theatre was not given adequate consideration. History leads us to believe that although Young was a champion of art, he was uninterested in any type of cultural transmission, or crafting of a drama that could capture the Mormon story in performance. He may have encouraged Mormon hymns, a Mormon alphabet, and a Mormon language, but not Mormon plays—this, despite the desire of at least some of the faithful. In 1861 a man by the name of E.W. Tullidge aspired to help establish a Mormon drama and wrote a letter expressing this desire to Young:
I do not fear that you will misunderstand my earnestness nor deem me presumptuous or otherwise in this address to you. It is the father of our people that I address, and therefore, I shall write without restraint. . .
It seems that the stage really takes hold of some of the legitimate wants of civilized man. You sir, have recognized these social wants of your people, and accepted the mission of the stage. You are giving to them a national theatre, and setting up the stage for its legitimate functions.
But as yet, your people have no national drama; and in fact, properly speaking no national literature. Every nation has its own literature, embracing its national history, national poetry, national drama, national theology and philosophy, and in modern times, its national magazines and newspapers.
Like as you have in other matters recognized and supplied the social wants of the Saints, and led them, step by step, in the path of civilization, so also will you in the proper time, cause to be worked out all the surroundings of a high civilization. Our people will then possess a truly national or Mormon literature, national education of every kind, national music, painting and every other branch of art. We shall not then have to depend upon the gentiles for any of this, nor need to borrow from the dramatists of other nations, before we can put a play on the stage.[i]
There is no evidence of Young’s reply. Tullidege proceeded to write one play, entitled, Eleanor DeVere, which performed at the Salt Lake Theatre, but few other plays by nineteenth-century Mormon writers exist.[ii] Leonard Arrington made note of this, stating, that the Salt Lake Theatre was “not to be a theatre to dramatize themes important to the Mormon story or a ‘restored’ Christianity; it was to be a professional organization producing secular plays.”[iii] As a Mormon theatre historian, I am puzzled by this. Young’s ambition for the Church and its people was so great, but why not in the world of theatre, especially when its importance in the life of the Church in Salt Lake is considered?
Most Mormons probably don’t realize that the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre was a matter of great urgency when the Saints arrived in the valley.Young took laborers away from the construction of the Salt Lake temple to build a $100,000 theatre, using money “borrowed” from the Quorum of the Seventies, funds that had been previously allocated for their own meeting space, one that never materialized because the “borrowed” money was never returned.[iv] Completed in 1862, over thirty years before the temple, the Salt Lake Theatre was a grand edifice. It was modeled on London’s Drury Lane, and it was the largest theatre west of Chicago, sitting roughly 7,500 spectators (nearly half of the population of the Salt Lake Valley at that time). Each night, forty of the seats were set aside for Brigham Young and his extensive family (with a plush rocker in a private box for the patriarch). He was, after all, the Salt Lake Theatre’s manager, enlisting actors, setting ticket prices, inspecting the building, establishing rules, and forming a type of early Mormon dramatic theory that addressed the age-old questions of the function and most proper forms of theatre.
According to Young’s daughter, Jeannette Young Maston, Young uttered these words in 1861: “If I were placed on a cannibal island and given the task of civilizing its people, I should straightaway build a theatre for the purpose.”[v] “Hear! Hear!” shout all the advocates of the dramatic arts. Moreover, this sentiment appeared to govern Young’s management at the Salt Lake Theatre. For his flock, theatre was not meant to just civilize, it was meant to bring them closer to their own Mormon faith. In her memoirs, Annie Adams (Salt Lake Theatre actress and mother of famed nineteenth century actress Maude Adams) records the statement of a fellow Mormon actor who insisted that, “President Young…told us we were only doing our share towards the uplift of the community, in the same way as were the elders and missionaries who were sent into foreign fields to make converts; only our work, he said, was being done at home.”[vi] This idea is clear and inspiring, but in practice it is somewhat less impressive. Of course performances were ushered in and out with prayer, but this would have been expected in nineteenth-century Mormondom. The performances themselves were standard melodrama of the age: The Octoroon, The Stranger, William Tell, and Pizarro were frequently staged (to be sure, the popular anti-Mormon melodramas of the time never made an appearance). In fact, Young’s comparison of the actors and actresses to missionaries abroad seems much like the assertion of vaudeville actors in the First World War, that their service to the country took place in theatres. While not actively facing battle or bringing converts to the fold, the actors were creating a diversion of extreme importance. And, like the vaudeville performers in WWI that would have to prove their patriotism, Young made sure that the actors on the Salt Lake Theatre stage were Mormons in good standing and models of virtue (the models, therefore, were frequently taken from Young’s own flock of beautiful daughters to help encourage other Mormon men to allow their feminine brood to take the stage).[vii]
Young’s early rule that no gentile actor should take the stage reaffirms the close embrace with which the theatre was held by the early LDS Church. First, it was not to be defiled by unclean actors (despite instances of great celebrity, for the most part, nineteenth century performers were held in very low esteem). Second, it does seem that there was a sense of ownership of their art. It was Mormon theatre if it was created by Mormons. Despite the standard melodrama fare, there must have been an understanding of shared values and faith in its interpretation, especially when censorship is considered. Young initially claimed to dislike Tragedy, noting, “Tragedy is favored by the outside world; I am not in favor of it. . ..I want such plays performed as will make the spectators feel well; and I wish those who perform to select a class of plays that will improve the public mind, and exalt the literary taste of the community.”[viii] Despite this statement, however, Tragedies were seen very early on in the Salt Lake Theatre’s repertoire, but with certain scenes, such as lynchings and beatings, removed. The practice of selective exclusion continues to this day. Art from the outside is welcomed, but sometimes in bits and pieces.
The desire to maintain a Mormon identity but also to be a part of the wider American culture was clearly a struggle within the Salt Lake Theatre. Once the golden spike was pounded down in 1869, there was no stopping the infiltration of touring theatre companies, and Young allowed them on his theatre’s stage, welcoming some with open arms (he reportedly asked Julia Dean to join his company of wives and then christened his sleigh after her upon her refusal[ix]) and boycotting others for various alleged sins. One thing is for certain, the steady stream of Mormon and gentile produced plays on the Salt Lake Theatre’s stage created a steady stream of money in Young’s pocketbook. At his death in 1879, his personal financial interest in the theatre was valued at a staggering $125,000.[x]
The Salt Lake Theatre lived on even after Brigham Young left the earth, of course, but it could be said that it never did get another manager that could quite fill his shoes, and after some years of success, revenues steadily declined. In 1928, it was finally torn down for an office building to the horror of many of Salt Lake’s citizens; one, in fact, defaced the retaining boards surrounding the theatre prior to its demolition with the words “BUILT BY A PROPHET and TORN DOWN FOR PROFIT.”
A new stage of Mormon theatre was to be ushered in after the demolition of the playhouse. In fact, in 1928, the same year that the Salt Lake Theatre was leveled, the Road Show program was officially adopted church-wide by the Church’s youth organization, the Mutual Improvement Association (MIA), for the purpose of entertainment and education. Of course the roots of the Road Show stretched back far into the 19th century when Orson Whitney issued an official appeal for members to take up their pens. He longed for a time
when Zion, no longer the foot, but as the head, the glorious front of the world’s civilization would arise and shine ‘the joy of the whole earth,’ when, side by side with pure Religion, would flourish Art and Science, her fair daughters; when music, poetry, painting, sculpture, oratory and the drama, rays of light from the same central sun,. . .would through their white radiance full and direct upon the mirror-like glory of her towers. . .[xi]
The home literature movement that coincided with this appeal could be said to have nudged the Road Show into existence. It was helped along, too, by the Little Theatre Movement, during which communities across the nation produced independent amateur theatre. Like the Little Theatre Movement, the Road Show program fostered new drama, and, finally, Mormon plays that were about Mormons and for Mormons began to appear on stages in ward houses everywhere. More importantly, the Road Shows provided theatrical experience that would influence the first major playwrights of contemporary Mormon theatre. This is not to say that contemporary Mormon playwrights weren’t also influenced by the Salt Lake Theatre and its manager. Most can quote Young’s maxims on theatre by heart. The early dramatic involvement of the Saints, their commitment to dramatic entertainment at home, and their official use of theatre in the MIA program have all led Mormon Theatre to its current place with a love for English drama, the Great American Musical, tear-jerking tributes to the trials of the pioneers, and thoughtful observations on Mormonism today.But more on that later.
[i] E.W. Tullidge, Letter to Brigham Young, 25 November 1861. Brigham Young Papers.MSd 1234. quoted in Roberta Reese Asahina, “Brigham Young and the Salt Lake Theatre, 1862-1877” (Ph.D. diss, Tufts University, 1979), 165-6
[iii] Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 288.
[iv]Asahina provides detailed records regarding the fascinating finances behind the theatre in Chapter Three of her dissertation. Asahina, 73-102
[v] Brigham Young, quoted. in Harold I. Hansen, A History and Influence of the Mormon Theatre from 1839-1869 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Publications, 1976), 42.
[vi]Annie Adams Kiskadden, “Maude Adams and Her Mother.”The Greenbook Magazine, June 1914, p. 897, quoted in Asahina, 120.
[viii] Brigham Young, Discourse of Brigham Young, John A., Widtsoe, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954), 375-6.
[ix] Hansen, 73
[xi]Eugene England, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day; Mormon Literature after 150 Years,” Brigham Young University Studies 22.2 (1982), 141.
Callie Oppedisano is an independent theatre scholar. She earned her PhD in Drama from Tufts University in 2009 after completing her dissertation titled “Worthy of Imitation: Contemporary Mormon Drama on the Latter Day Stage.” Other research interests include Irish theatre and gender and performance. She has taught at Tufts University and Eastern Nazarene College and continues to present her work at local and national conferences. She writes theatre reviews for Utah Theatre Bloggers Association, and her book reviews have appeared in Theatre Journal and Theatre Survey. She is otherwise occupied as a full-time mom to a pair of joyfully active boys.