On-Stage: “What Hast Thou Been?”

A very good friend once told me that there was nothing in the world that he could do that would be more important than his writing. Not too long after that conversation he became a former Mormon. Speaking scientifically, I have no real evidence to prove a correlation between these two events. On the other hand, after years of casual observation, I feel strongly that I can claim there is at least a relationship involved; one does tend to follow the other. I have watched many of my friends and acquaintances leave the church in what appears to be — to me — a desire to devote more time, effort and allegiance to their art.

Another friend told me once about how he’d prayed fervently for God’s help in becoming a great writer so that he could use that talent to help build the kingdom of God here on earth. The essence of God’s reply to this humble request was simple and direct: “I don’t need great writers in order to build my kingdom. I need devoted disciples.” Of course, my friend did not give up the idea of becoming a great writer, he simply changed the focus of his labor. He’d figured out that seeking talent would not necessarily lead him to the kingdom, but that seeking the kingdom would almost certainly allow him the opportunity to develop his talents. Thinking about these friends and their philosophical divergence always brings to mind Elder Boyd K. Packer’s infamous talk delivered at BYU in 1976, “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.” I know a handful of artistic types, who are roughly of my generation (but usually older), who are still perturbed by at least some of Elder Packer’s remarks. Most artistic types that are of younger years are completely unaware that such a talk exists, which is a shame, because I think it’s inspired and worthy to become a sort of creed for Mormon artists. I use it as such in my own work.

One of my favorite statements in the talk — and I do have several favorites — refers to the usefulness of a devoted artist in God’s kingdom: “Because of what they do, we are able to feel and learn very quickly through music, through art, through poetry some spiritual things that we would otherwise learn very slowly.” I have had personal experience with this concept.

Many years ago I participated in a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Castle Theater in Provo, Utah. On several levels, that production remains one of the most influential of my theatrical career. I loved the rustic, picturesque setting; I thrilled at working with the incomparable Ivan Crosland; and I came to feel and learn some spiritual things sooner than I otherwise would have because of one rehearsal in particular.

Playing the part of Kent, Lear’s devoted friend, on the night in question I huddled on the stage pretending to be thrashed and pummeled by a raging storm while Ivan scurried madly about in a serendipitous encounter with another crazed individual, Reese Purser as Edgar as Tom O’Bedlam– the mud covered, unjustly ousted heir of Gloucester. At a key moment, Ivan took Reese’s hands and held them out until Reese’s body formed a cross. Then Ivan said, “What hast thou been?” Reese replied, ” A servingman, proud in heart and mind.” Shivering there in the “cold,” it suddenly struck me that this was all very Messianic.

“I am a servingman.”

I am the servant of God and mankind.

“Proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart…” And many more sins that Edgar, in fact, had never committed.

I have suffered for the sins of all mankind.

There was poor Edgar, the son of a Lord, alone in a storm, people who should have loved him, seeking to take his life, innocent of any wrong doing, and yet suffering as if he were the most vile creature in the kingdom. Tears ran down my cheeks and I was lost in the idea of the sheer terror that must have gripped our savior as he fell to his face in the dust of that garden where he purchased my soul.

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6 Responses to On-Stage: “What Hast Thou Been?”

  1. Ed Snow says:

    Scott, I like this a lot. Two thngs:

    1. As earthy as Shakespeare was, these moments you point out are also always present in his works as well. He plays are perfect examples of the "radical middle" Boyd mentioned in his first AML blog post.

    2. I’m reminded of Ingmar Bergman saying he viewed his work as being a part of the building crew for a cathedral. He would be pleased to have created a saint, a devil or a gargoyle, in that collective project on the plain. I’ve set my sights a bit lower; I’ll be happy to be a janitor in that great cathedral.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    Scott,

    I’d highly reccommend Harold Bloom’s essay on [i]King Lear [/i]in his [i]Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [/i](you can pick up a used copy for six or seven bucks — well worth it). [i]King Lear[/i], which I consider Shakespeare’s and the English language’s finest work, is a running series of Christ images. The play ends, in fact, in a reverse-gender [i]Pietà[/i].

    – Lee

  3. jendoop says:

    "seeking the kingdom would almost certainly allow him the opportunity to develop his talents." The problem with seeking the kingdom first is that it doesn’t necessarily mean developing the specific talent an artist would like to develop.

    In prayerfully deciding where to focus my efforts I haven’t been told to write or paint, two things I feel I have a talent for and would very much like to pursue. I’ve been prompted to do something that makes me feel uncomfortable, isn’t a talent, and doesn’t come with many (if any) public accolades. I’ve been told to continue mothering and housekeeping (um, blah?). No one knows that I’ve heard that prompting but me and the Lord (well, now all of you). If I were to disobey the prompting no one would know but Him and me (and now all of you). But I would not be very surprised to eventually find myself out of the church if I continued to disobey a direct prompting in that way.

    Not everyone who wants to be an artist should be right now. This life has a multitude of temporal needs which must come first. Maybe all those things that will be added after we seek the kingdom of God is literal in it’s timing. In this life we physically have to build the kingdom and in the next life, or next phase of life, we will have the opportunity to add other talents.

  4. J.Scott Bronson says:

    Lee, I used to have that book. Don’t know where it is now. Must have loaned it out and never gotten it back. Same with "A Fire Upon the Deep," and "Chaosbound." And many more. <sigh>

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    jendoop, I know you’ve seen Jack Harrell’s post on this blog on "Time Is on Our Side" http://blog.mormonletters.org/post/2010/02/03/Time-Is-On-Our-Side.aspx but I thought I’d mention it here for those who may read your comment and be in the same situation, but who might not have seen what Jack has to say. I, too, found his post very comforting. There really are so many things we wish we could do with our time and talents, and it’s good to know that waiting to do that is not wasting them.

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