Robert Benchley Gives a Sacrament Meeting Talk


RBenchleyGood morning, brothers and sisters. Don’t you all look so nice in your Sunday finery! I see Sister Rosenthal picked up some of that charming purple lipstick she noticed on my collar last week. I feel obliged to admit that same purple mark is there this week as well, but it has nothing to do with Sister Rosenthal who, as the credit-card record will doubtless prove, purchased hers this week on my collar’s recommendation. My own shirt remains unlaundered because putting it in the laundry is my own treasured responsibility and last week, as with every week, I rushed home after Church, removed my white shirt, and shoved it in the back of the closet where I would not have to see its blinding whiteness each morning as I stumble through my new coffee-free, white-shirt wearing existence.

Which, by tidy coincidence, brings us to this week’s topic given to me by that most marvelous of men, that giant of spirituality, that titan of tithing-observance, that glutton for goodness, that stallion on . . . of . . . . I say, Brother Marshall, what was it you wrote here? (Laughter.) I would apologize, but even old gags deserve a night on the town now and then.

Which again brings us back to my topic today, fidelity in marriage. I would like to address my comments to the unmarried members of our ward who I suspect may otherwise feel a bit left out, fidelity rhyming, as it does, with gelati, the plural of gelato, being the preferred vice of my fellow teetotalers in the crowd today. That said, I should admit that fidelity in marriage is certainly something Sister Benchley and I have always gotten a real kick out of. In fact, the only reason I’ve never joined the Marines to get away from her is I’ve got semper fidelis enough already, thank you very much, and I understand the Corps does not offer recruits the more interesting flavors of gelato such as cardamom and burnt hazelnut and tuna.

So fidelity in marriage is terrific, just terrific, and something to keep working towards if you feel you must, but for those of you young and old without marriage to fidel to, let me tell you the story of the orangutan. Until modern zoology showed up in Borneo to get their story straight, orangutans were understood by themselves and other not to be red apes at all, but red men with long arms who lived sober, solitary lives in the jungle. Sober, solitary and wise. Wise probably because of the solitude, and solitary no doubt due to the sobriety. Presumably there were orangutan women as well, but such hair would give them enough to talk about that the whole solitude part of the equation might have broken down immediately. In my experience, excepting purple lipstick, nothing excites feminine conversation like bounteous red hair, particularly when it covers the body entire. Which is getting to my primary thesis that if you live in the tops of trees, people are less likely to ask annoying questions of you such as which half of the future baby do you keep in your trousers. Not that arboreal life is for all of us—I’m much too fond of a gin and tonic for that lifestyle (a joke I now see will need to be recalibrated for this particular audience)—but the metaphor remains a certain beauty all the same.

Trees being, of course, God’s favorite metaphor, whether it’s knowledge for Eve or no figs for Jesus or shiny lightbulbs for Lehi to prank his children with, God likes to put his best ideas at the end of a nice limb, if you know what I mean. And this is why fidelity in marriage is exactly what it’s cracked up to be, and so am I.

In conclusion, as long as we have fidelity in marriage we will never have to ask whose purple lipstick that is, and I think we can all agree that leaving that particular question unasked can only be the best for everyone.

Posted in Funny Stuff | 1 Comment

On Mormon Alternate History Stories

Last year, William Morris announced on A Motley Vision that he would be putting together an anthology of Mormon alternate history stories. As William explained in his first post on the subject, Mormon writers seem to be turning to alternate history in the wake of the Mormon Moment for “more compelling ways of expressing our culture and help[ing] us think through both our past and future trajectories in interesting and fruitful ways.” As evidence, he cites D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints and several Mormon Lit Blitz entries. To this list you could add Steve Peck’s “A Strange Report from Church Archives,” published in the final issue of Irreantum, and a handful of stories and comics in Monsters and Mormons.

I’ve always preferred historical fiction to other genres, and alternate history has fascinated me since I was a kid playing Civil War video games that allowed me to change the outcomes of famous battles. In the last few years, I have thought much about the common ground between fiction and history, particularly in the writing of it. Aside from the academic work I’ve done in this area, which has dealt somewhat with alternate history, I’ve done some creative work as well. On Wilderness Interface Zone, for example, I published two works of historical fiction—“The Curse of Eve” and “The Mechanics of Creation.” Of the two, “The Mechanics of Creation” is more of an alternate history—if only because the main characters are actual historical figures engaged in a situation that, while possible, likely never happened.

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In Tents #49 This Jesus Whom Ye Slew and Other Texts That Don’t Behave

In the mid 1970s some theatrical entrepreneurs started thinking about a movie theater statistic: Attendance was lowest onTuesday and Wednesday. Could they fill more seats by offering a subscription film series on those nights, presenting great plays to a nationwide audience? I got season tickets (or saw a lot of the films, anyway), as did some of my high school friends, my father, and some of his faculty friends. I was excited to see Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and enjoyed Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as the leads. Lost in the Stars was haunting, and I loved Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which included Brel singing one song–”Ne Me Quitte Pas”–after the intermission. I recognized it as the original of Terry Jacks’ hit “If You Go Away,” but better. (I found out Jacks’ other hit, “Seasons in the Sun” was also drawn from Brel.)

I saw a lot of other films and enjoyed them, including Robert Shaw’s take-off on the Eichmann trial, The Man in the Glass Booth. Israeli agents kidnap Arthur Goldman and take him to Jerusalem to stand trial as a Nazi war criminal. At one point in the trial his assistant, Charlie, says something like, “Of course he’s a Jew. Who else could possibly be so anti-Semitic?” (I think it was at the end of Act I, but when I perused a copy of the play on a recent visit to BYU’s library I couldn’t find it.) A nice bit of comic relief in a fairly dark play, and poignantly prophetic.

I think about that line often when thinking about Jesus’s conversations with the Pharisees. Nothing Jesus says to them is harsher than the opening chapter of Isaiah.

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2014 Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part 1, National Market

I am splitting up the yearly review into two parts, first nationally published fiction by Mormon authors, then in February I will cover fiction published in the Mormon and independent markets.

I start with the surprising flow of Mormon literary fiction that appeared in the second half of the year. Then I will look at best-sellers and particularly well reviewed juvenile and speculative fiction books. And continue from there.

s WifeFor many years Mormon literature fans have been waiting for (quoting Theric) “A novel (1) about active Mormons (2) written by an active Mormon (3) is placed before a national audience where it makes a notably broad impact on discourse.” There have been several novels in recent years that met two of those criteria, but not one that met all three. In December we finally got one, Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife. Harrison has produced a murder mystery that explores Mormon beliefs, practices, and culture at the center of the discussion. She goes beyond stereotypes, creating complex, fleshed-out characters, whose relationships with each other are all informed to one degree or another by their membership in the Church. Although some have criticized what they see as an info dump explaining Mormon practices through internal dialogue early in the book, apparently requested by the publisher, overall it is an exciting development to see a real insider provide her take on Mormon culture to the broader world. Also, her New York City publisher decided to make promoting the book a priority, ensuring that unlike other such books, The Bishop’s Wife will reach a wider audience. Hopefully some of those readers will then seek out more literature about Mormons. Harrison has had several YA fantasy novels published in the past, this is her first adult mystery novel. It will be the first in a series. Don’t miss Theric’s reviews and discussion of the novel at A Motley Vision.

cityofbrickandshadowIt is inevitable to compare The Bishop’s Wife to another Mormon literary mystery published just weeks earlier, Tim Wirkus’ debut novel City of Brick and Shadow. Continue reading

Posted in This Week in Mormon Literature | 4 Comments

in verse #49 : Voice of the paper

In responding to my last post, “Voice of the turtle,” Jonathan Langford wrote:

It’s interesting that in your reading, Whitman — who was all about “voice” — is actually print-oriented, while Joseph Smith (source of some of our most striking scriptural quotes about the importance of written records, including but not limited to scriptures) is oriented toward [the] speaking voice.

I was, myself, surprised to learn that Matt Miller, in Collage of myself : Walt Whitman and the making of Leaves of grass, apparently argues that Whitman speculated that Leaves of grass might be a novel or a play as late as 1854, the year before the first edition was published.[i] But then I had never heard before what Miller claims Continue reading

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The Power of Not Preaching

When one says the word “religion,” there are a number of images and ideas that come to mind. One of the strongest, complete with positive and negative implications, is preaching. To those who don’t align themselves with an organized religion, just the idea of preaching leads to deep sighs and eye-rolling. And even for those of us who do, a good, old fashioned preach-fest can make us squirm in our hard, wooden pews.

Why is that? What is it about preaching that just turns us off? Looking at myself, I don’t do well with lectures. I never have. There’s a negative bent that comes with parents in stern voices telling their children to not put their elbows on the table, to vacuum the family room, to scrub behind their ears—usually because the more even-keeled first request has been ignored.

I think about the the Great Awakening, about pastors and preachers getting up on their soapboxes to testify of pending hellfire and damnation. Preaching tends to have a negative connotation because it often carries a negative tone. I don’t know about you, but hearing someone tell me I’m bound for hell no matter what I do— Well, that doesn’t exactly make me want to sit and listen. The fact that it was against such a backdrop that Joseph Smith, an ordinary man touched with spiritual gifts, received his First Vision is poignant.

Even when preaching takes on a more positive tone—General Conference is the most positive example that comes to mind—it is what it is. A spiritual leader stands before a congregation and meditates on the gospel. And while I look forward to General Conference as much as anyone, there are places preaching does not belong. One of those places is the theatre.

There is an age-old argument that the theatre is a place of enlightenment, not entertainment. That entertainment is in fact an unworthy pursuit. Like most issues in this life, the question of enlightenment and entertainment is not simple. It’s very much a gray area. The very best plays—the work of luminaries like unto Ibsen, Chekhov, Hellman, and Shakespeare—use drama as a shell for social commentary and suggested improvement. They suggest rather than preach.

It’s not to say that there aren’t playwrights and filmmakers who do take audiences captive and sermonize. I think sometimes that writers approach their work backwards: they start with the message and try to clothe it in a story. But the message, the preaching, the sermon—whatever you want to call it, if it’s the starting place of the work, it lingers. Looms. Considering my own work, as much as I know I want the story to trump the message, I might not always succeed. In the instances where I’ve started working with a specific agenda in mind, the play proves incredibly difficult to write. I’ve found that if I focus on the story built around relatable characters, powerful messages will come through and audience members will hear what they need to hear.

This weekend I saw the much-lauded film Boyhood. While I don’t personally find it the best film of the year, there is a lot about it to be praised, particularly in regard to its primary conceit. Writer/director Richard Linklater chose to tell a coming-of-age story quite literally, following a young boy for a week or so each year over 12 years. The cast, including well known actors Ethan Hawke and Rosanna Arquette, age right alongside the young protagonist. While there isn’t much plot, there is something quietly engaging about watching a boy mature before our eyes. Linklater doesn’t preach, and Boyhood is moving and effective in its tiny moments of real, familial affection. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be to see an ordinary Mormon family like this. What could we learn from such an exercise? And how would the world react to it?

Posted in On-screen, On-stage, Storytelling and Community | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments