Near the end of the Book of Mormon, the narrator, historian, and namesake of one of Mormonism’s most sacred texts, has just witnessed the downfall and near obliteration of his people. As he contemplates the carnage and the waste of potential in the multi-thousands of bodies he sees strewn across the landscape, he laments in a soliloquy worthy of a Shakespearean tragic hero:
O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return… O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state; and he doeth with you according to his justice and mercy.
For me, Mormon’s cry of anguish, “O ye fair ones…” is one of the Book of Mormon’s most memorable and haunting passages. Even as a boy, the tragic story of Mormon and the downfall of his people resonated with me on a visceral level. My parents had purchased the Living Scriptures videos produced in the 80s and 90s and the episode “Mormon and Moroni” was, by far, the one I watched the most. When I finally read through the Book of Mormon the whole way through for the first time as a freshman in high school (after lots of start and stop attempts previous to that), again, it was Mormon and Moroni who stood out to me, second in personal impact perhaps only to the first time I read through Christ’s visit to the Americas in 3rd Nephi.
My friend Natalie would often gently tease me in high school about how “sober” I was, which made me think of Ammaron’s comments about Mormon: “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe.” This gave me another connection to this plaintive and sensitive Mormon and his son Moroni. I felt kinship with tragedians like these.
And yet with one of our core books of scripture being a tragic work about the destruction of an entire civilization of people, we are certainly not known to be a “sober” people. Rather, we are caricatured as sunny, naive optimists with plastic smiles. A far cry from “sober…quick to observe.” In Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article about Mormon literature in the New York Times, the insinuation is made that Mormons have a difficult time creating “literary” work because of this cultural characteristic. As Mormons, should we have more sensitivity and tolerance towards the tragic instead of keeping up the façade of indomitable cheerfulness? Is there a case for Mormon tragedy?
Now I don’t make the odd distinctions that Oppenheimer seems to, excluding genre literature like science fiction, fantasy, and young adult literature from the canon. After all, Shakespeare himself was not above “genre” literature, with fantasy works like The Tempest, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and A Winter’s Tale in his folio. And you can’t tell me that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t fit as in the Young Adult category. I taught the play to my 9th grade English class when I was a high school teacher and it was one of their favorite things we read. One doesn’t have to look very far into Orson Scott Card’s work or Shannon Hale’s work to find strong literary qualities.
And, with my focus on tragedy in this essay, I certainly don’t exclude comedy. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and (again) Shakespeare were all lauded comedians and rank high in the literary pantheon. Also, I have no problems with the sunny, the triumphant, nor the optimistic, when it’s brought into a balanced context. In no way do I exalt the genre of tragedy as the sole heir of literary greatness.
However, I do think there are some uncomfortable truths in Oppenheimer’s article about Mormon culture. One of those truths is that as a culture we do seem to flock away from tragedy. In the article he quotes Mormon Young Adult author, Romance author, and now screenwriter Shannon Hale:
“It is a fair thing to point out,” said Shannon Hale, a Mormon who writes young adult fiction, “that there have been very prominent Jewish writers that have received a lot of accolades, and worldwide the number of Mormons are comparable to the number of Jews, so why hasn’t that happened?”
Ms. Hale’s theory is that literary fiction tends to exalt the tragic, or the gloomy, while Mormon culture prefers the sunny and optimistic.
“When I was an English major, then getting a master’s, most of the literary fiction I read was tragedy,” said Ms. Hale, whose Princess Academy was a Newbery Honor book. The books she was assigned treated “decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit” as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life.
But what if Mormons do not think that way?
“I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world,” Ms. Hale said.
Now I’ve known many Mormons who seem nearly allergic to the idea of tragedy, as Shannon Hale suggests. Anecdotally, I’ve encountered this attitude even with Mormon literary critics who have questioned my own work because it didn’t seem to be optimistic enough for them. Although Deseret News theatre critic Sharon Haddock thought my play Farewell to Eden was “brilliant” and said that it was “complicated, not very predictable and [had] a lot of depth and characterization,” yet she felt that it lacked the sunny optimism that she felt constituted a fulfilling theatrical experience. In this case, the girl not ending up with the guy and the story not ending neatly, nor unambiguously, was a cardinal sin:
It’s not a very cheery play, so don’t go for laughs… Again, it’s a story that doesn’t go where one expects, and there’s not a happy wrap-it-all-up ending, so one leaves the theater slighting dissatisfied. But it’s watchable. This play has definite potential. Maybe it just needs a bit more hope.
Now, firstly, I don’t believe that tragedy always has to be hopeless, nor do I believe that Farewell to Eden was hopeless (quite the opposite…it also has plenty of comedic elements). But she’s right that “there’s not a happy wrap-it-all-up ending,” and that it ends somewhat tragically, depend on one’s definition. But Ms. Haddock’s review certainly pointed out to me again the undercurrent in our culture that calls for a happy ending at any price…even an unearned, false happy ending.
George Handley over at Patheos wrote an engaging response to Oppenheimer’s article, in which he relates an opportunity he had to meet Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner. I thought the exchange between them was both insightful and problematic:
When I was in college, I had the privilege of listening to a reading by the great writer Wallace Stegner. He came to a student dorm and did a reading from his novel, Wolf Willow. In my family he was a revered name. He wrote some of the American West’s greatest novels, he understood Western history and the need for a stronger environmental ethic, and he wrote compassionately about Mormon history as someone who had spent part of his youth in Salt Lake City where he attended activities with a local Mormon Boy Scout troop. I am more disappointed every year to discover that LDS students do not even know who he was. At the time, I was writing a review of his novel, Crossing to Safety, and I was eager to talk to him about it, so after everyone cleared out, Amy and I found ourselves in a private interview with him. While I had his attention, I couldn’t help asking the question that was most on my mind: “Do you think Mormons will ever write great literature?”
He said with a warm grin, “Mormonism tends to produce a lot of happy childhoods. Not having had one myself, I am not sure that is good for literature.”
Now having had a relatively happy childhood myself, I can’t contest that element of Stegner’s analysis too vigorously. But there have been plenty of other tragic, even self destructive, threads in my life. And I know many Mormons who didn’t have a happy beginning, as there have been who haven’t had a happy ending. The amount of tragedy that I have seen Mormons endure has been no more, but certainly no less, than other people of comparable stations in other parts of the world. There are Mormons I know, or who I know of, who have endured homelessness, death of loved ones (including by suicide and murder), racism, sexism, poverty, self-mutilation, mental illness, kidnapping, abuse, depression, betrayal, failure, disfigurement, etc. Thus, if you can find it out in the world, you can find it also among Mormons, to a lesser or greater degree.
In the heart of Mormon central, Utah has the highest use of antidepressants; double that of the national average (twice the rate of California, three times the rate of New York and New Jersey). As the LA Times reports:
Few here question the veracity of the study, which was a tabulation of prescription orders, said Dr. Curtis Canning, president of the Utah Psychiatric Assn. But trying to understand the “why” has puzzled many, he said.
“The one true answer is we don’t know,” said Canning, who has a private practice in Logan. “I have some hunches.
“In Mormondom, there is a social expectation—particularly among the females—to put on a mask, say ‘Yes’ to everything that comes at her and hide the misery and pain. I call it the ‘Mother of Zion’ syndrome. You are supposed to be perfect because Mrs. Smith across the street can do it and she has three more kids than you and her hair is always in place. I think the cultural issue is very real. There is the expectation that you should be happy, and if you’re not happy, you’re failing.”
The study did not break down drug use by sex. But according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, about twice as many women as men suffer from depressive disorders.
Utah also has the fourth highest divorce rate in the United States, thus breaking the happy illusion that we are so much better at holding together marriage and family than the rest of the world.
And yet we like to present ourselves in the best light possible, even if it verges on dishonesty. And it can be awfully destructive to those who don’t fit into the unrealistically peppy, idealized “norm” that Mormons are trying to achieve. I thought the New York Times report of an outside of the box animator during a class film pitch was particularly insightful:
The last pitch of the night was for a film called “Bothered.” The student who got up to give it was a small woman with jagged bangs and cat-eye glasses named Christina Skyles. She wore black tights with skeleton legs stitched along the length of her actual legs.
Skyles is from Portland; she loves animé and Tim Burton, especially “Ed Wood,” in which Johnny Depp plays the cross-dressing B-movie director. She voted for Obama, not Romney. In all the most superficial ways, she screamed “film student,” which is to say, she couldn’t have seemed more out of place, slowly making her way to the front of this room full of film students. “I’m coming,” she called. Her voice was creaky, impatient — unburdened by any trace of pep. This felt like a formality to her; she expected her story would be too dark, too personal, to attract any interest. In fact, a friend had already encouraged her not to pitch the film, worried that her singular vision could only get diluted and scrambled if she subjected it to the program’s collaborative process.
Skyles elicited a mix of respect and protectiveness from the other students in the program. She later explained that she has a lot of social anxiety and doesn’t handle stress well. When she feels overwhelmed or intimidated, she starts crying. “It’s just this weird biochemical thing happening in my head,” she said. But it tends to startle and upset those around her, which upsets her more. The whole thing confused her. She wanted to make a film about it. 
The pitch about a monster who appeared to overtake a young girl when confronted by the manically happy people around her may have not been meant for small children, but it was certainly a poignant insight to her soulful struggle. The moody, emotional, surreal, some could say tragic animation piece that Skyles pitched received a passive aggressive reaction from the Mormon BYU students:
It was autobiographical, right? Was it meant to be funny? There had been a lot of uncomfortable laughter in the room. “The vibe that I got,” one guy ventured, “is that this is something really different for us, and we don’t know how to react.”
“Um,” another began, “how concerned should we be about children who are watching these?” And would the General Authorities see it — the government of the L.D.S. church?
Eventually Adams stood up. He noted that the version of the film Skyles just showed was composed of two-dimensional drawings. He worried that, animated in 3-D with computers, the protagonist could wind up coming off as either a gruesome animal, and you’d feel viscerally horrified by her instead of sympathetic, or like a campy B-movie demon, and you would laugh. “I’m just truly afraid we’ll ruin your film,” Adams told Skyles.
The conversation became scattered and confusing. There was technical resistance to the project but also, it seemed, emotional resistance that masqueraded as technical resistance. Parris Egbert, the head of the university’s computer-science department, told me: “From a C.S. perspective, I hated ‘Bothered.’ I don’t like it. I dislike it.” But when I asked him why, he said, “It’s just too weird for me,” a critique that was not computer-science-based at all. At one point, Skyles tried to speak and started crying instead.
Here was a young woman who was trying to express some of the distress in her life through her art. It was not sunny, nor cute, like many of the other pitches. But, for her at least, it was expressing a very real thing in her life. And yet her piece received a hostile response from many of her fellow Mormons.
There is definitely a danger in misrepresenting our culture as infallibly happy, as the Little Engine Who Could. If we can’t deal with these issues in our art, then they become trapped demons in our souls, with nothing to conjure them out. As the Book of Mormon says, “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.”
There’s a BBC America advertisement that I love not only because it’s hilarious, but because it has some startling insight for a TV commercial. Talking about why British dramatic television is so successful, it says, “When you take a class ridden society with no ability to address its emotions, and let it simmer for a thousand years, frankly, you have the perfect recipe for drama.”
Mormons have the same recipe, except we’re often not allowing ourselves that outlet of tragic literature, performance, and art. We’re still letting that pot simmer and boil, until the lid launches off, to a much more disastrous outcome. The British have a long history of successful dramatists, authors, and tragedians. This is in large part, despite the repression they endure, they at least allow a valve to blow off that steam.
In ancient Greece, there was a religious meeting called the Festival of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, wine, revelry and, important to this context, theatre. The Festival of Dionysus culminated with the presentation of a number of plays, comedy and tragedy both. This was a communal event. Everyone got work off, it was sponsored by the community, and even women and slaves (the bottom of their social totem pole, unfortunately) were able to attend. Now this was a religious event that allowed them two spiritual releases: laughter for the comedies, and catharsis for the tragedies. The fact that the Greeks felt that both laughter and catharsis were spiritually needed for their people is significant.
Catharsis, a word particularly associated with tragedy, is often described as a strong emotional release, especially the emotions of pity and fear. In the act of watching a tragedy, the Greeks were able to confront these emotions that were so daunting, and thus able to deal with them in a healthy, controlled manner. However, in our culture, many Mormons are trying to dodge or suppress those emotions instead. Whether through the sinking of emotion through the overuse anti-depressant drugs; or the escape of uncontested divorce; or the rising, frightening tide of the complete way out through suicide, we obviously need to find a better way than ducking our heads in the sand and pretending our tragic problems don’t exist.
Now many of the commentators are wrong. We do have tragic writers. Having compiled and edited Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama for Zarahemla Books, I can point to numerous plays that I know that are excellent examples of Mormon Tragedy (start, say, with Robert Elliott’s Fires of the Mind, or Thomas F. Rogers’ Huebener, even Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets has very tragic elements, as do many of Eric Samuelsen’s plays). There are also numerous Mormon novelists, short story writers, essayists, and filmmakers who are good examples of the tragic Mormon story. We are not without the talent, but sometimes we are without the cultural appreciation. We reward our excellent Young Adult and Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors handsomely, and so we should. But until we as a culture can have the bravery to look at the shadows in our souls and purge them through catharsis, we will not give our tragedians the honor due to them.
When our Heavenly Parents and our Lord Jesus Christ looked down at those of us who would become Mormons, to decide what kind of book they would give us, they did not decide to give us a comedy or even a romance. They gave us the Book of Mormon, the story of the downfall of a whole people. They gave us a tragedy.
 Mormon 6:17-22
 Mormon 1:2
 “Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness,” Nov. 8, 2013
 “Stage Review: Farewell to Eden absorbing, but bleak,” January 19, 2010.
 “The Quest for Great Mormon Literature,” November 10, 2013 (accessed November 19, 2013), http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/11/the-quest-for-great-mormon-literature.html
 Julie Cart, “Study Finds Utah Leads Anti-Depressant Use,” February 20, 2002, http://articles.latimes.com/2002/feb/20/news/mn-28924, accessed November 19, 2013.
 “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country,”
 2 Nephi 28:21
 Note my emphasis on the “overuse” of prescription drugs. Obviously, I am not criticizing the need for medical care in mental and emotional health.
 Again note my emphasis. Obviously, there are times where divorce is the best option, when other avenues have been exhausted.
 Neil LaBute got so proficient at pointing out the dark side in Mormon’s lives, that he got excommunicated for it.