A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: Drama

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors

It is my purpose in this play to show the close connection between heaven and earth. --Clinton F. Larson

Unlike other nineteenth-century Christian American faiths, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has. from its beginnings, officially encouraged drama as an integral part of Mormon life. Joseph Smith established the Nauvoo Dramatic Company, and Brigham Young continued the tradition by creating and fostering the famous Salt Lake Theater. Modern Church authorities have encouraged, through the Church Drama Committee of the Aaronic Priesthood Mutual Improvement Association (AP-MIA), the local performance, in ward and stake productions, of one- and three-act plays and musical dramas. In recent years Church support was again confirmed in the revival of Promised Valley, which plays to full houses for several weeks each summer. And the Church and its members continue to throng to such elaborately staged pageants as those performed yearly at the Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, New York, and at the Manti Temple in Utah.

Because the Mutual Improvement Association has become the vehicle for producing the many plays which have enlivened the stages of ward houses throughout the Church, such dramas follow rigid standards set by Church committees. Cast with young people, often with little regard for their abilities, and produced in a short time and on low budgets, such plays are generally looked upon by Church members as sources of amusement and entertainment rather than as profound or thought-provoking literary experiences. For the most part, such dramas avoid confrontation with serious issues, and the generally bland production usually ends up offering more stereotypes than insights, more cliches than clarifications of the human predicament.

Despite such natural limitations, however, one- and three-act plays continue to be popular, and many young Latter-day Saints have emerged from several years' experience in the MIA roadshow and drama productions with a new appreciation for the theater. Indeed, nearly every ward and branch in the Church numbers a few members who can claim considerable practical expertise in the dramatic arts, much of it arising from years of experience in Mormon productions. Though still in its adolescence, Church drama may yet encourage a more significant contribution to contemporary religious drama.

Till now, however. it is primarily the Utah universities and colleges which have led the small but burgeoning movement toward a more sophisticated rendering of the Mormon experience in theater. Of these schools, Brigham Young University, naturally, has made its stages most available for Mormon-oriented productions, and the annual Mormon Arts Festival at Brigham Young University has contributed significantly to the fostering of the Mormon drama. Productions of such works as Douglas Stewart's A Day, a Night, and a Day, Orson Scott Card's Stone Tables, and Charles W. Whitman's Play the Drum So It Is Heard Again are three among a number of examples which could be cited as important contributions to the Mormon stage. David Wright's Still the Mountain Wind, and Speak Ye Tenderly of Kings were produced at Utah State University and Brigham Young University, and underscore the keen loss the Mormon culture suffered in Wright's early death.

Martin Kelley's And They Shall Be Gathered, included in this section, is one of the better plays to have been produced at Brigham Young, one which may well be enjoyed by other than Mormon audiences. It shows what might be achieved by the Mormon who sees the peculiarities of his faith in the context of difficulties common to human nature. The result is a warm, poignant play. moving to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

Also included in this section is Clinton F. Larson's poetic drama, The Mantle of the Prophet. A remarkably literary piece, the grand rhythms, the vivid language, and the lyrical passages perhaps make this piece better suited for reader's theater. Certainly, at its best, the poetry of this play raises the audience from the mundane to the aesthetic and spiritual. as well-known events of Mormon history become impressive moments of universal insight. In other plays such as The Brother of Jared, Coriantumr, and Moroni, Larson uses stories from the Book of Mormon as his point of departure. The result of these and his other plays about Church history. LDS scripture. and the Holy Bible is a spiritual enrichment which would be unlikely in other genres.

Space does not allow us to include a representative of yet another significant branch of Mormon theater, the dramatic musical, generally in the tragi-comedy tradition. Carol Lynn Pearson's well-wrought The Order is Love stands clearly at the head of this form. The Order is Love, with music by Lex De Azevedo, is the finest in the line of musical dramas characterized by Promised Valley (1947). Evoking a similar respect for the sweep of Mormon history. Mrs. Pearson's play discovers in that history a vigorous universality at times sobering and at other times wonderfully funny. Skirting the in-group narrowness typical of so many Mormon productions, Mrs. Pearson deals with a number of human problems which are not easily solved' the pressures of the group against the ideals of the individual. the conflicts between generations. the dissonances that resonate where the old meets the new. Thus her play can be enjoyed on several levels and becomes, as a kind of Mormon Fiddler on the Roof, a harbinger of good things to come.

Promised galley and The Order is Love seem to spring from the roadshow tradition of Mormonism, a tradition still alive, still popular, probably because of its insistence on didacticism amidst earthiness-a kind of Mormon Pragmatism. Perhaps this tradition flourishes in Mormon culture because the Mormon sees himself as a self-conscious protagonist, a child of God set upon the stage of Time and torn between the great dualities of Good and Evil, being anxiously observed for any miscue, and eagerly awaited in the wings of Eternity when he completes his significant leading role. This self-consciousness will doubtless continue to evoke a desire for quality drama, a desire being fostered at Rick's College, Brigham Young University, and other Church institutions where examination of the Mormon experience is being encouraged in increasingly popular and significant festivals and contests. All of which suggests the possibility, perhaps the promise, of developing a significant tradition of Mormon theater.

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