You’re looking for a book

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Two Sundays ago, a member of my ward engaged me on the old question of the Great Mormon Novel. We were interrupted before we could finish our conversation so I wrote him an email. (You’ll note references to that conversation in the first couple books mentioned.) But hey—why not send it to you all as well?

The main difference between the email and this post is that I’ve added Amazon links since I’ve already promised to lend my copies to someone else.

Looking for those links, Amazon suggested some other books I might have liked to add to this list. Yup, Amazon. You’re right. I missed a few.  You should all feel free to fill in the gaps down below.

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Hello, J*****. Here are some books I can lend you.

My criteria were: Written by a Mormon. About Mormons. Very good. That was it.

First, Magdalene by Moriah Jovan. This is the sex book that takes its shape from the Atonement story. It’s part of a series of novels about a Mormon family that date back to the 1700s up to the present day. You don’t have to read one to understand another, but they do share nice resonances when read together. This is my favorite. And, if memory serves, it’s the only novel here with the bishopric meetings and disciplinary counsels you were asking for. (when I’ve written more about a book, I’ll link to that writing in case you decide you care to read more, like so: more)

The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple. This is the 1942 novel we talked about that had Mormon up in arms. The novel has the sort of nuance we talked about, but it was about polygamy at a time we really really did not want to talk about polygamy. Any talk about polygamy was too much talk about polygamy and needed to be shut down. Any book that can be this hated deserves a second look. (more)

Dorian by Nephi Anderson. This one’s even older than Whipple’s. Anderson was working hard to make Mormon art good art, but then he died. It’s almost that simple. Anyway, Dorian is his final novel and although I no longer consider it his best, it’s good. The first time I read it I had an experience similar to the first time I read Jane Austen. Bonus: I can give you a copy of this one, since I have like thirty copies (not an exaggeration.). In short, it’s about a Mormon kid from a small town who’s intellectually ambitious. The only educated man in town is theologically minded and has a plan to combine science and religion into one great whole. Meanwhile, there are two girls and a boy’s got to choose. (more)

The Backslider by Levi Peterson. This is the first novel I thought of when I was trying to come up with Great Mormon Novels that Jordan Might Like. In part, because Peterson is clearly following in the path of people from the Faulkner/Hemingway era and I seem to remember you being a fan of that era of American lit. This is the story of a cowboy with good moral intentions and plenty of moral failures. His groin does a bit too much of the decision-making here, but even more controversial is the theophany at the end of the novel. Which for my money is one of the most beautiful passages in Mormon lit. (more)

Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. I love this book so much. One of the best books of any stripe I’ve read the last five years. I do think the final pages are a misstep, but they’re the only part of the novel Lynsey liked, so take that as you will. (I handed it to her saying she had to read it that this was a novel about us and—it didn’t take.) Anyway, if you read the title carefully, you’ll catch on to the novels central conceit way quicker than I did. This is the only novel listed here that’s about Mormons but in a way that only Mormons will be able to tell it’s about Mormons. But it’s unquestionably a portrait of a Mormon marriage and one that I find heartachingly beautiful. (moremoremore)

The Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark. This poor book has the worst cover of the bunch, but it’s a terrific read. Its protagonist is a deacon in Arizona coming of age just as his senile grandmother moves in with the family to die. It’s funny and it’s potent. (more)

City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus. This is the only missionary story I’m including. mostly because I’ve kind of avoided it as a genre and kind of because the few others I’ve read aren’t that great. But I haven’t read the ones that are supposed to be best so … who knows. Anyway, this one is a missionary / mystery / noir / gangster / magical realism novel. Plus it takes some digs at multi-level marketing, but you’ll be spending most of your time in Brazilian slums, so bring soap. (more)

Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom. This I put last because it might not be a novel. It’s a short-story collection about a single family and they tie in well enough for me to consider it a novel, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Incidentally, the author also put together the most important / most broad recent collection of Mormon short fiction. (moremore)

Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Wives by Karen Rosenbaum. This is another collection that might be a novel but it’s a little further away from noveldom than the last one. But of course you should read it because you know Karen and because she is an amazing writer. I can give you a copy of this one too because I bought a copy and then she gave me one. I haven’t finished it yet, so it’s not officially on this list, but hey. Karen.

Byuck by Theric Jepson. I can give you a copy of this too. I have loads. (more, but not by me)

An conversation with Melissa Leilani Larson about Third Wheel and the writer’s life

William Morris and Melissa Leilani Larson discuss her two peculiar plays of women in love, food, ink, football, Jane Austen and being single and Mormon.

Earlier this year BCC Press published Third Wheel: Plays by Melissa Leilani Larson. Subtitled “Peculiar Stories of Women in Love”, the book collects two of Larson’s most Mormon, most interesting and provocative plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Not only is it worth picking up (in electronic or print form–or both!), it also makes for a great excuse for me to pick Mel’s brain. This is our conversation:

There are so many places I feel like I could start, but let’s start here: did you learn something by putting these two plays together in this particular context–a book published by a Mormon publisher meant for reading as a book? Or were those things already there when you went to write Pilot Program because of what you learned writing Little Happy Secrets? I’m thinking about theme and plot and characters here, but also things like form (the monologues, the silences) and voice and conceit (third wheel!).

It’s a good question. I did intend for the plays to go together stylistically. When I started writing Little Happy Secrets, it was very much an experiment. I was trying to be as honest as possible in telling Claire’s story, and the character became very real to me. Somewhere in that first weekend I realized she had to give permission for the story to be told, which is how she ended up actually doing the telling. I usually avoid narrators, but Claire had to tell this story—because she had reached that place in the world of the play, and because it would help us as an audience to accept it.

When I first began drafting Pilot Program, there was a correlation, but it started in a different place. As a single woman, I was thinking about Heather’s role in the marriage. But as I started writing, I realized it was Abigail’s play. It’s a play about being married and then single, not the other way round. Abigail, like Claire, had to sign off on things. She had to talk to me. Breaking the fourth wall would allow Abigail to say things to us she might not otherwise. Almost like a confessional, but without touching on sin. Abigail, like Claire, is at a place where she can tell us what her life has been like.

So there are similarities in tone, in format, and in theme. I think of the plays as a duet; they complement each other. The “third wheel” conceit came naturally into the conversation, as both women identify with the idea and comment on it. Eventually I would like there to be a third and final play in the trilogy, aptly named Third Wheel. It’s about being a single woman in a culture of marriage, and will be told in the same style as the other two—a mix of monologue and scene. It’s the bridge between the other two and, also like the other two, it’s a story we don’t always acknowledge within Mormon culture.

That makes sense. One of the things I discovered when collecting my short stories together is that it was quite clear they were by the same author even though there was some variation of situation and structure. Of course, my stories stay on a page. I’m both fascinated by and a little scared of the whole process of staging a play. Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsal and staging of one or both of the plays in Third Wheel that spoke to you in some way?

I love being in rehearsal. It’s where I know that the words on the page are in the right order because I get to hear actors bring them to life. I’ve always been rather amazed at how naturally actors take the words from the page and made them their own. For example, the actors cast in Pilot Program at Plan-B Theatre Company were all so comfortable with each other, and with Jerry (the director) and with the script. They inhabited the story and let it unfold organically (it’s a word that gets overused in the theatre world, but really it’s the best choice). I remember feeling a little guilty because there was a scene I added after we settled on the cast. As Heather, Susanna Florence was playing her first role at Plan-B while April and Mark Fossen, playing Abigail and Jacob, have been staples at Plan-B for years. April and Mark are married in real life and were playing a married couple—married to each other, anyway—f or the first time. So there were a lot of ways in which Susanna was the outsider, just like Heather is. And I wrote this scene that is basically Abigail walking in on her husband making out with his second wife. I felt bad, like I was piling stuff on April (I guess I didn’t feel bad enough, because I left the scene in). Naturally April is a professional and took what I gave her in stride. But they were all so good at filling those roles that I sometimes had to remind myself they were acting. Hence the guilt.

Ah. That’s interesting. Taking that back into the work itself–what is it about the experience of the modern Mormon woman (especially single woman) that feels so urgent and rich and dangerous and interesting as a subject for narrative art? I’ve tried writing characters that fit that profile myself and done so with mixed feelings because I’m outside or adjacent to that experience but at the same time want more of those stories. Perhaps it’s as simple (and somewhat condescending, to be honest) as feeling sympathetic towards single Mormon women, but I’m sure there’s also a bit of that artistic selfishness of just: hey, this is an interesting position to be in that if explored could say something unique about the Mormon experience.

I think it’s a point-of-view that seems simple and easily understood from the outset. “Hey, in this faith it’s important to be married, but here is a person who is single.” And it is that. But at the same time, it’s not.

Recently I was working on a project and getting feedback from others on the team. I had written a scene in which the main character, who is single, sees a couple steal a romantic moment. In that moment she realizes that they have something she doesn’t, and that she may never have, and that is heartbreaking to her. The moment happens very quickly; we don’t dwell on it, we just go on. But it affects who she is as a person.

That day, in the feedback session, the responses were like, “This moment is unnecessary. Why do we have it? It’s kind of creepy that she’s watching them. Nothing is happening. This character is weird and voyeuristic. Who cares?” I realized, looking around the room, that I was the only single person there. Everyone was married, and none of them got the point of the scene because none of them felt the same sense of loss. I think they would if they saw it, but they didn’t get it on the page. The point of the moment was like what happened to me in that room: the character realized she was expected to be paired with someone but she wasn’t. In our culture, everyone talks about how great marriage is and how important it is. How you need it to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. But there are good people who just aren’t married. They aren’t weird or voyeuristic or creepy. They are—we are—unattached, and that’s just the way things are.

Another quick experience. A few months back the podcast The Cultural Hall had an episode about mid-singles. I was so excited to listen. What were they going to discuss? But the whole episode was about dating. Because that’s all singles and mid-singles are supposed to be doing? Ugh. What about what the Church and its married members are supposed to be doing in regard to single members? No, it all comes back to marriage. Thing is, I don’t need other people to tell me I should be married. I am well aware.

We all have moments in our lives when we think about what’s missing—what we’re doing wrong in this life that will keep us from ultimately getting where we want to be.

We definitely do. That actually relates well to something else I wanted to ask: in his introduction to Third Wheel, Eric Samuelsen coins a phrase that I found very interesting. Speaking about your stage managing, in particular, he says that you possess a “formidable omnicompetence”. Do you have any sense of where that came from? Do you experience that as a gift or a curse? I’m asking this strictly out of self-interest, by the way, because while I’m not sure about the formidable, I’ve found in my work and church career that being competent at a lot of things often just means that you are expected to do more things and be competent at all things and that’s both gratifying and frustrating. And this is especially true when you’re trying to figure out how and when to also make art.

To be honest, I don’t think that term applies to me in any context but a theatrical one. Stage management is an all-encompassing job, which is part of the reason I had to give it up; I love it, but I didn’t have enough time to write. If I ever had the “omnicompetence” Eric mentions, I don’t think I have it anymore. Culturally, as Mormons, I think it could be equated with the things you mention—expectations, and how they tend to stack up before we can really catch up. As a people, we’re obsessed with perfection even though we know it’s not possible—at least not at this point in our existence. I try not to think too much about expectations; I disappoint myself before anyone else gets the chance.

I can relate to that. The weird thing about expectations–especially in relation to Mormon culture and the arts–is that there are none in terms of being an artist. But the if you do tackle the challenge of being an artist in Zion, there are a ton of (often competing) expectations. We could chat in depth about that, I’m sure, but I’m thinking now about expectations people might have about you and your work, and, not to be Captain Obvious, but I’m going to bring up Jane Austen. Everybody knows you’re the go-to for adaptation of her work (and if they don’t know, they should know). I want to ask about you as a reader of Austen: what do you go to certain Austen novels for and how has that changed over the years? For example, in my early twenties I went to Emma because of Mr. Knightley. Because, I suppose, I wanted to learn to be the mature romantic hero who attracts the bright young thing. Now, I’m more interested in Emma and who she is and what she wants and why.

Sense and Sensibility was my gateway drug to Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice the first time because someone recommended it, but I set myself up to not like it because that friend was so insistent. I read it, and it was fine. I don’t think I even found it very funny. In undergrad, I read Sense and Sensibility and I got it. I related to Elinor in a way I hadn’t related to a character in a long time. She was trying so hard to do the right thing, to do what was expected and to figure things out—she thought she had to sacrifice her relationship with Edward because it’s the proper thing to do where honor is involved. And then I saw the 1995 film adaptation, and it blew my mind. 1995 was a big year for Austen: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Clueless, the Amanda Root Persuasion, and of course the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which I didn’t see then, because we didn’t have cable).

I watch Sense and Sensibility at least once a year because the story is so great and the film is just brilliant. Eventually I figured out that Pride and Prejudice is funny and that Persuasion is heartbreaking. Sense and Sensibility falls somewhere in between. I love them all for different reasons, I think. I re-read Persuasion frequently because the prose is quietly beautiful. Plot-wise, I love both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility because you don’t really know where they’re going to end up; they both have moments where you think everything is going the way of tragedy. That’s a sign of greatness—when a writer can make you wonder what’s going to happen, honestly make you wonder, with just the right level of frustration.

I used to go back to Sense for the romance, but lately I’ve been going back for the family relationships. People accuse Austen of sameness, but I find that ridiculous. I look at all of the families she portrays across her novels, and they are all different and complex and human. Really there are so many different family groups in Sense, and those families affect who the characters are and the choices that they make. The last several times I’ve gone back to Pride (including to adapt it) have been to study Darcy, actually. I wanted to figure out why so many people are so obsessed with him as a character. As much as I love the book, I think a lot of the obsession comes down to Colin Firth. It’s interesting that we can’t seem to separate novels from their adaptations. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Though there is a lot about him to like, I don’t personally see Darcy as the perfect romantic hero. Now, Colonel Brandon or Captain Wentworth… Ah, choices.

Speaking of choices (and good ones at that): you know we have to talk about food at some point here. What are some of your go-to food rewards after you finish a first draft or on opening night, etc.?

It’s so true. I love food so much I wrote a play about it. If we’re celebrating and being fancy, I could do with filet mignon, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic butter. On an opening night, I’m usually too nervous to do dinner before the show but I’m ravenous afterward. That’s usually a cheeseburger and milkshake situation. Sushi is great. Fish and chips! Biscuits and gravy. Schnitzel! Chicken tamales. Num. Look, writing is hard and deserves a reward. I should get all the foods. Plus an ice-cold Coke.

You’ll get no argument from me on food-based rewards for writing. There’s something about the emptying out of the mind and soul that is the writing process, and the subsequent buzz after you’ve put in that mental and emotional work that demands reconnecting with the body through food. I mean, I never need an excuse for all the foods, but I am often famished after a writing session.

Based on your tweeting at certain times of the year, you have a fondness for college football. Competitive sports are great, right? I mention this because sometimes people are surprised to discover how much into sports I am. But writers can (and do) like sports that aren’t baseball! So what do you like about sports and do you see any intersections between that fandom/experience and your interest and participation in narrative art, especially theater?

College football is a pageant of sorts. The players are out there to put on a show. What matters is what the ref sees. A receiver will move his body in such a way that pass interference gets called on the defender, even though nothing happened. An offensive lineman will trash-talk the defense, trying to goad them into jumping the line. It’s all a show.

It’s fascinating how football can sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two teams will meet, and everyone seems so certain that one team will win, which makes the upset that much sweeter. So much can hang on a single play—sometimes that play is executed perfectly, and sometimes it isn’t. An intense game can make my breath catch in my throat, just like well-acted Chekhov. How will it end? That’s the question—in sports and in drama. I love the Olympics for similar reasons. Human effort. Human drama. It comes down to inches and seconds. Being in the right place at the right time, or the opposite. NBC tends to lay it on a little thick, both with the human interest and the spoilers, but I can’t turn it off. There is something epic and beautiful about sports that aligns rather perfectly with the stories we enact on stage.

Agreed! The NBA has been my favorite soap opera for three or four seasons now. And it just keeps getting better (and weirder!). I’ve pretty much stuck to fiction in my writing; whereas, you’ve worked across several different narrative arts. What art form/mediums and/or subjects would you like the opportunity to tackle that you haven’t yet?

I would love, love, love to write for television. Television drama right now is very cinematic as far as design, direction, and cinematography go. At the same time, TV writing is actually very close to playwriting; it depends on dialogue, and a lot of it—much more so than your typical film. You have fewer scenes in TV than you do in film, and yet you have more time to explore characters. You get to know a character over several scenes, perhaps even over a number of episodes, which is closer to what happens in plays than in film. The possibility to tell a story serially over a series of episodes is just so cool. There is so much you can do in TV that you can’t really do with any other form of storytelling. I have a couple of ideas for pilots and series. Who’s got several million dollars they can loan me?

I would also like to write a novel. I have a couple of YA novels that I started way back when that was the thing I was going to do with my life.

As far as genre goes, I’m presently writing a Western, which was a bit unexpected. I would love to do something creepy on stage. A ghost story. Ooh. I think I just gave myself a chill.

Sadly, I don’t have a million dollars to loan you, but if you get it, I’d be happy to write a spec script and apply to be in the writer’s room. Oh, something else I’m curious about: are you a listen to music while you write person or not? If so, what parameters do you require? If not, why not?

Typically I don’t listen to music while I’m working because I’m easily distracted. Music is an emotional experience for me. I want to pay attention to it. I can’t seem to listen to music without getting caught up in it, and then no writing happens, because the writing is where my focus is supposed to be. That said, it can depend on where I am in the process. When I’m trying to figure out a character, I often will make her a playlist—not necessarily songs she would listen to, but songs that fit her and help explain her. If I do listen to music while I’m writing, it’s instrumental. Usually classical.

Give me three inks that fountain pen or calligraphy neophytes should try. Also: what are the colors you’re currently obsessed with and/or have an eye on?

For the neophytes, I would recommend:

  • Waterman Inspired Blue, a beautiful turquoise with some surprising pink shading. Waterman is a classic brand, and you can use it in just about any pen without problems. I love turquoise ink; it’s probably my favorite color family as far as ink goes. I have a range of them, some leaning more green and others more blue.
  • Robert Oster Dark Chocolate, a perfectly named ink. Somewhere between burgundy and brown. Just pretty. And dressy enough that you could away with using it at work. Robert Oster is a new ink maker from Australia who comes out with new colors all the time. Great stuff.
  • Diamine Oxford Blue, classic and classy, a dark and intense blue.

As for the ones I’ve been playing with myself, Diamine Blood Orange is an intense red/orange I just discovered and like a lot. I have been playing with Japanese inks lately and enjoying them immensely. Examples: Sailor Jentle Yama-Dori (“copper pheasant teal”) and Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-budo (“crimson glory vine”). Even the names are great. I’m not a fan of black inks; I know they are practical, but they are also boring. I do, however, enjoy grey inks; they have a lot more going on. My favorite grey at the moment is Papier Plume Oyster Grey, handmade in the shop that sells it—a stationary shop in New Orleans.

Going back to your question about getting myself a reward for finishing something—I get myself a fountain pen as a present when I have a show or a film open. It’s really something to look at a pen later and remember the stories that go with it.

That sounds very cool–and dangerous. I think I’ll stick to food for now, although I find the fountain pen life very tempting. Okay, final question: what creative works–theater or not, Mormon or not–are you finding particularly interesting, powerful, etc. right now?

The recent film Jackie is pretty fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful portrait of Jackie Kennedy; it’s also an incredible and compassionate portrayal of a woman in mourning. The shots are beautiful, and Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar. It kind of blew my mind. I had never thought of the parallels between Jackie Kennedy and Emma Hale Smith, but they hit me hard watching that film. I’m working on a piece right now in which Emma deals with the trauma of her husband’s death, and seeing Jackie was a timely and beautiful experience.

I’m a subscriber to NT Live, which is a really great service that screens performances from London’s National Theatre to movie theaters around the world. I go about once a month and the productions are almost always fantastic. The Bristol Vic did a wonderfully theatrical retelling of Jane Eyre that has just stayed with me. It was a simple show, with a few actors who each played multiple roles and a set that was basically a ramp with a few choice pieces of furniture. There was a live band, and the accompaniment really added a lot to the performance. The dialogue was lean and to the point, and yet the story was perfectly clear to those who had no experience with the novel. The emotion between the characters was palpable even though I was watching it several thousand miles away. Wow. It’s the kind of stuff I want to be making. Just beautiful.

Thanks, Mel!

“An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life”

When I don’t have other things occupying my mind (and often when I do), I think a lot about language and kinship, about the potential of words to forge new relationships among people and between people and things and thereby to shape new neural, emotional, physical, and social worlds. Because I believe that language has this cosmoplastic capacity, I’m convinced that it has the potential—more than violence and threats of violence—to lead us to better, more sustainable versions of ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species.

In light of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I needed to remind myself of my convictions, which inform my writing and my teaching; so, egoist that I am, I turned to an essay I had published on the topic in Sunstone last year: “‘An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life’: Three Meditations on Being-with Others.” The essay explores the implications of a question Adam Miller asks in Letters to a Young Mormon: “The question is, will we greet [the] passing [of everything and everyone we know] with a closed fist or with an open palm and a consecrated life” (75)? My response to Miller grapples with the ethics of state-sponsored violence, lyrics from Emma Lou Thayne, and Enoch’s vision of a God who weeps over human violence.

Here it is. Take my words however you will.

https://app.box.com/embed/s/oewmdtv49p7lmm24h9yv3kv2e8c3e2kd

Mother’s Milk

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The first impression Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s Mother’s Milk gave me—and this may sound negative, but, for reasons I’ll explain, it needn’t be interpreted that way—was of a notebook filled with bits and pieces of poetry yet to be written. Many small fragments, repetitions, recursions, moments, ideas, pieces, jots, tittles. It feels like finding a poet’s moleskine on a bus bench and piecing together what she was working on.

Here’s my spin on why this … chaotic unfinish is appropriate for Mother’s Milk: Although there is plenty of evidence Heavenly Mother is in our discourse (evidence, evidenceevidence, evidence), it definitely feels like there isn’t. (Likely reason for this feeling [outside most people being unaware of what does exist]? There plain is not enough stuff.) Certainly we have not seen a single-author collection exploring this theology (I suppose this comes closest). Therefore: A collection that feels like the first steps of order being formed from chaos is exactly what people wanted to read—even if they didn’t realize it. Continue reading “Mother’s Milk”

Claire Åkebrand’s What Was Left of the Stars

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You likely remember Claire Åkebrand from your studious rerereading of Fire in the Pasture. I’m happy to say you can now add an all-Claire volume of poetry to your shelves.

What Was Left of the Stars came out earlier this year from Serpent Club Press. I’m not sure how aware the Mormon poetry-reading public is of her collection, but I fear the release of this volume has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for Mother’s Milk (which I am currently about a third through and will write about when finished).

Now, I’m not about to claim that this is a “Mormon” book in the way some books are—this may be by a Mormon, but it’s not exclusively for Mormons nor indeed is it even about Mormons unless you know The Code.

But with that in mind, I’m going to do a Mormon reading of the collection’s first section, which is heavily centered on the Garden of Eden.

The first time I read this first section, I was amazed by how every poem was a distinctly Mormon look at Eden—or, to be more specific, how the poems seemed to be about the Endowment. Not just the Endowment’s version of that tale, but the actual physical act of being in the temple and “doing” an Endowment.

Rereading those poems, I wonder if my first read wasn’t a tad overread, but certainly that reading is valid and it’s the angle I want to present now.

(Incidentally, scripture is one of Åkebrand’s go-tos in the collection, even beyond this first section—among others, expect startling appearances from Lazarus, Lot’s Wife, and the angels of Revelation.) Continue reading “Claire Åkebrand’s What Was Left of the Stars”

Sundry Moldy Solecisms #5 The Drown’ed Book by Mahonri Stewart, (play review)

A few weeks ago our son told us one of his co-workers was performing in Annie at the American Fork amphitheater. The night we went there was some light rain making a beautiful pattern in the spotlights. At the end of the play Annie’s optimism inspires President Roosevelt’s cabinet to come up with ideas that will pull America out of the great depression, including the Works Progress Administration, which put men across the country to work doing things like building stone amphitheaters on hillsides in small towns like American Fork and Provo. There’s a third amphitheater up Provo Canyon at BYU’s Aspen Grove campground. I believe it has a stream running between the stage and audience.

I’ve never seen a performance there, but I have performed at the Castle Amphitheater in Provo. In the mid-1970s Orson Scott Card got a $10,000 grant for his Utah Valley Repertory Theater Company and made some improvements, like replacing the crumbling stone and mortar stage with cement, which now is showing some wear.

I had a minor part in Romeo and Juliet, and remember large audiences for the plays there, so I was a bit surprised that the audience for Mahonri Stewart’s new play, The Drown’ed Book, or, the History of William Shakespeare, Part Last was fairly small.  The Castle could easily hold an audience 20 times as great, the kind of audience the play deserves. (Parking is another matter, but the Seven Peaks parking lot is a short walk away.)

Playgoers will recognize echoes of situations from Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Thomas Quiney (Sam Schofield)’s funny mocking soliloquy against Stratford’s wealthiest citizen, apparently inspired by his father’s having had to beg a loan from Shakespeare. His anger and vituperation seem as out of proportion to the humiliation as Iago’s rage at being passed over for a promotion.

The rage colors his courtship of Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Zel Bromley), who has her own rage against her father for being absent when her twin Hamnet died. “That was really his name?” my son asked. “I thought he said ‘Hamlet’ the first time.”

Hamnet is not haunted by a ghost, though–he is a ghost (Hyrum Stewart, the playwright’s son playing the playwright’s son). He has a single line, repeated throughout the play, “Joy,” and it contrasts with the sorrow the characters feel, especially when he tries to comfort Judith.

Thomas and Judith’s courtship proceeds, as you would expect, like Katherine and Petruchio’s from Taming of the Shrew, but as the play progresses he begins to feel more like Bertram from All’s Well That End’s Well. (Words Anne Hathaway (Shawnda Moss) says at the end of the play.)

The costs to the family of William  (Bradley Moss) being absent for so much of his family’s life ripple throughout the play. Anne’s statement “Come home, William” brought to mind a visual image of the same line in Tim Slover’s March Tale. (Tim played Romeo in Card’s aforementioned production.) I hear the line as a homage to March Tale, which takes place at the other end of Shakespeare’s career, the beginning.

But if March Tale is about a young playwright beginning to come into his own, The Drown’ed Book is about the costs of that art. Bradley Moss flubbed a few lines and I found myself wondering if that wasn’t deliberate, part of the poignance of William’s words being inadequate to solve the problems and salve the sorrows of his family life when it mirrors situations he was able to resolve in his plays.

The play begins with William borrowing a device from Much Ado About Nothing to nudge his daughter Susannah (Belinda Purdum) and her suitor John Hall (Peter F. Christensen) toward the altar, but as the tension in the family builds, Anne says to him, “No more poetry!”

The wit and eloquence Shakespeare used to shape his plays and the world they shaped fail William’s family as they wonder what characters they represent to their father. Am I Goneril or Regan, Judith asks at one point.

At the end of the play William presents his wife and daughters with newly written  plays, telling them he has been working in a new form that mixes comedy and tragedy, and The Drown’ed Book does as well.

I  chatted with Mahonri during the intermission, mentioning an essay where Robert Graves said that when he was writing A Wife For Mr. Milton he only used words that had been in the language at that time. Mahonri laughed and described his own stack of books and online dictionaries to accomplish the same feat.

The result is a delightful play with an ensemble that works well together. My son, who played Leonato in a high school production of Much Ado About Nothing–and who greatly enjoyed catching Hero as she fainted each night, thought it was a little slow, even boring at times, but was gratified to hear Dogberry’s comment about his piece of flesh echoed in the play. So there’s even something for the groundlings–along with a great view of Provo at night, and even heated seats.

Joy and enjoy.

Tickets for the Sept. 1-2 performances are still available

Artists and Doctrine & Covenants section 58

What D&C 58 means in relation to Mormon artists when it chastises Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps.

I listened to section 58 of the Doctrine & Covenants this morning on my walk to the bus stop. Verses 26-28  are the ones that tend to get quoted in classes and talks—that’s where we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”, etc.

But as I listened to the rest of the section, I was struck by a few verses down from those oft-quoted ones. Specifically:

38 And other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit, that he may receive his inheritance as seemeth him good;

39 And let him repent of his sins, for he seeketh the praise of the world.

40 And also let my servant William W. Phelps stand in the office to which I have appointed him, and receive his inheritance in the land;

41 And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek before me.

I can’t really relate to Joseph Smith. He’s too much of a true prophet, a revelator who used his many gifts to try to get people to see (and live) a grander vision of life. Nor do I quite track with Brigham Young who has this pragmatic, unwavering, sometimes ruthless streak to him that kept the body of Saints together and going. 

But Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps? Yeah, I can very much relate to the desire to seek the praise of the world and to excel. Because (which I keep finding myself surprised to discover) I’m an artist, and the formula for an artist to succeed is to excel and gain praise (e.g. a certain measure of fame) so that fortune and influence will follow which will then (hopefully) facilitate the creation of further excellence.

Fame, fortune and influence—they each influence the other in such a way that all three increase. There’s a very high level of fame that messes up the equation, but for the most part the three are a powerful engine, and one that can be very important for an artist because without a working engine of that sort it’s very difficult to find the time (and other resources) to create powerful art and then get it in front of an audience. Fortune (money) is the best way to free up that time. Fame not only help with fortune, but also grows audience further. And without influence, your position becomes more precarious and your ability to effectuate your artistic vision lessens.

The problem with this engine and its’ three parts is that it’s very easy to be seduced by it to the point where you feel like you deserve the fame, fortune and influence and for those to continually increase. I was going to say that’s especially true for artistic types who tend to have at least to a small degree a measure of narcissism of “look at me! Validate me! I exist!” but then I think it’s probably actually most of us. 

And yet: I still believe in the importance of art. And artists have to have enough encouragement (praise) and time/space/means to create good art (excel).

Which means, if my reading of D&C 58 is actually applicable to the situation, that artists who are also interested in building up Zion need to be sufficiently meek.