Thomas Rogers interview

Thomas F. Rogers

An interview with the playwright

Q. When did you start writing plays and what drew you to the genre.

A. In 1951 I was a freshman at the University of Utah involved in both debate and theater and I was given to understand that I had to choose between the two, which is probably wise. So I asked myself which of the two was more sophisticated. Which of the two really tries to tell us about real life. It seems that debate tries to reduce everything to black and white. It seemed to me that so often the position one takes on an issue is colored by one's emotional stance. That interested me a lot more, why people take the positions they do.

I eventually took a play writing class and did a full-length script there. It got produced, but it was a pretty bad play. I was mucking around trying to be imitative of the icons of the day, Miller and Tennessee Williams. I probably had something to say, but I didn't realize that you had to be driven by your own conventions and concerns to have anything to say.

After that there was a hiatus before I found myself at the Yale School of Drama and wrote a number of bad scripts for the same reason. Eventually I became interested in Russian literature, got my Ph.D. at Georgetown and forgot I had even written a play. Maybe two or three years after I had joined the BYU faculty Alan Keele, suggested that I write a play about a young German dissident from the Nazi period, Helmut Huebener. Totally out of the blue he saw me in the audience at a lecture he was giving and commented, "Tom, you should write a play about this."

Q. As a Mormon playwright how do you approach materials differently. I would especially like you to comment on how you write about subjects that a Mormon audience might feel uncomfortable with.

A. After I wrote Fire In The Bones it was awarded to the Greenbriar Theater by the Utah Division of the Arts which had awarded it a prize. That gave them the legal right to assign the play to any theater in the state to produce. I was in Europe at the time and all of this occurred without my knowledge. Well, the pre-publicity in the Tribune made it sound like a dissident play, like it was going to expose Mormonism. I was worried. I didn't know what would happen with the Church and with my work. It turned out to be a very tame production and Ivan Crosland later wanted to produce it at BYU. Charles Metton, who was chair, wanted to back him up. They even conned Layle Woodbury, who was the Dean of College of Fine Arts, into putting it on. But being more politically savvy than the rest of us, Layle sensed that since it dealt with the Mountain Meadows massacre, we ought to consult with the academic vice-president. For various reasons it never got off the ground.

At that point I looked at what I had done. Two plays that were about excommunicated Mormons. I thought I was getting in a rut and, moreover, I knew there was a point that people would wonder what my motivations were. So the next play I wrote was Reunion. With this play I wanted to show that neither side is correct in the debate between Liahonas and Iron-rodders made famous by Richard Paul's essay in Dialogue. The point of that play is that neither the reactionary or the totally liberal-skeptical position can be totally correct. After Reunion, sometime in the early eighties, there was a sort of pressure for Mormons not to deal with LDS subjects as freely as we had. I despaired about writing about Mormon life anymore. I was no longer a Mormon playwright. I dealt with more secular themes.

Q. Do you see yourself as returning to certain themes that have special significance for you.

A. When I wrote the preface to the first Signature Book publication of my plays I wrote a preface. That's when I discovered what I was into--the pattern of my innermost concern which is the search for the father. This reflects very personally on my own terrible, terrible relationship with my own schizophrenic father. I could see where Huebener and Sander had that sort of relationship. John D. Lee had the same sort of thing with Brigham Young. There came a time when the father would not stand by his son anymore. In Reunion that is not the case, there is more of a positive betrayal there. But the pattern persists in my other plays.

Q. Why does so much of your early material deal with Church figures and history?

A. I was once asked to talk at Payson High during vocation day. I guess I was supposed to encourage all the kids in Payson to become playwrights. And the small group that was there, you know how high school drama kids are. They are really stuck on themselves, I guess I was in my day too. I was talking about Huebener. By this time I had also written Fire In The Bones. One of them asked: "Why do you just write about Mormon stuff.? Local stuff?" It was such a dumb and naive question. I responded: "You can only write about what you know. What you care about." At the time that is what I cared about.

Q. With this latest play it would seem that you are returning to some of those old themes.

A. Yes, that's true.

Q. Was there a big difference in writing this play and your earlier works?

A. I'm awfully close to the material, I'm not sure if its a self-indulgent endeavor. We will find out. We put such an emphasis in the Church on family. We have a College of Family Science here at BYU. I'm not sure there's another one of those anywhere else in the world. The very fact that I'm dealing with ancestral matters--I'm hoping there will be some resonance there for other people with similar roots, pioneer roots and so forth. That is would seem to have a kind of universal significance.

Q. Other people have been reading this play as it has gone through various incarnations in the writing workshop you are participating in. How has that influenced what you have done with it so far?

A. The last time we read it over someone said, "I don't care for all this family material." I responded that he was producing an Irish play now that is based solely on old women reminiscing about their families. I asked my friend, "What does he have that I don't?" He responded, "Well, this is dramatically driven--as a lot of your material isn't." To a certain extent I agree with him. I have pared away what for me was interesting and poignant, but didn't seem to drive the play. I have tried to shape my it with each revision so that the stakes are relevant to my characters. Q. The play is set around the trial of one of your own ancestors. What were you hoping to accomplish when you chose the subject matter?

A. There are some allusions in the play and I have tried to be very light-handed about them, but in the trial itself this was suggested by the defense, that just like John D. Lee, my ancestor was scapegoated. The preachy conclusion is that this has been a trial not of the defendant, but of everybody else, including the family members. We need to accept him and let the Supreme Judge determine his guilt. I hope there are some contemporary resonances here with the way some people have felt about actions taken against individuals by authority in our own time. Q. In the Church?

A. Yes, yet I'm trying to take a metaview of this. Without saying that these things don't happen, but instead asking how we cope with what we consider unrighteous dominion.. Maybe I don't have the total answer there, but it is a kind of answer.

Q. Talk about how you developed the characters in this play.

I'm at the age when I want to look back at my roots. Again, it is a search for the father. I would like to know those forefathers. I look forward to making their acquaintance They mean so much to me. There is nothing objective about it. It's the heart's journey to the fathers--which is prescribed to us by scripture. Q. Does that seem to be a theme common to a lot of Mormon literature.

A. I hope so. Just because they sired us shouldn't mean a thing, but it does. It means the world to us.