Art, Religion and Politics

In April of 2004, I went through a life experience. My debut play Farewell To Eden, which had premiered at UVSC, and then had been chosen by the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival’s Festival to be one of ten plays throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii and Guam to compete for a chance at the national festival. The production was then chosen as one of the four plays held over as a possibility for the National Festival but, alas, it was not ultimately chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.– however, I was selected as the recepient of the National Selection Team Fellowship Award for my region and was to receive second place for the National Playwriting Award. So I was to attend the festival, after all.
Now it sounds pretentious to mention this, but I do so to describe why I was in Washington D.C. for this festival. For it wasn’t honors or awards that made this such a significant and life altering experience for me. Although fun and certainly an honor, that was but tinkling cymbals and sounding brass compared to the inner journeys I had while I was there.
One of those many experiences will be my focus here: a writers/directors workshop I attended, led by professional director Oskar Eustis. That name may not ring a bell to most people, but Mr. Eustis works with playwrights as a developer of new plays and his most famous feat was mentoring playwright Tony Kushner in developing his Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels In America (which was also later made into a HBO mini-series). Oskar Eustis would direct both the San Francisco and Broadway versions of the play.
To have Mr. Eustis was a big deal to the people at the festival. Angels In America has been one of the most influential and celebrated plays of our time, and those who attended the festival referrred to it as a Born Again Christian refers to the Bible or as an English major refers to Shakespeare. They treated the play with awe– like a sacred relic. It was very in vogue to bring up the play up in conversation, as I soon found out in talking to people.
Why this may interest the readers of A Motley Vision, is that Angels In America is a play that dwells on Mormon characters and themes. Salt Lake City and the New York Visitors Center are a couple of locations in the play. Joseph Smith’s first vision is told by one of the Mormon characters. There are Mormon allusions in the themes and theatrical devices. The main character is a Joseph Smith archetype and (here’s the twist, where the controversy starts), he’s also homosexual.
Angels In America is a political piece set in the 80s attacking Reagan-style conservatism and the religious right. It tries to raise awareness of the plight of the homosexual, especially in reference to AIDS. And it often uses Mormon characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause. And at the end, it condemns God for abandoning the world, and a character urges the angels who were left behind to sue God for damages done against them and against humanity. To be fair, not all of the Mormon characters are presented in a negative light– there is a Mormon mother who shines as a kind of compassionate heroine of the story. But the play is certainly taking up issues against the current Mormon stance against homosexuality.
So here I am, the only Mormon in a room of people who are pretty much of one mind concerning this play. Oskar Eustis is a revered figure for being one of the chief forces behind this momentous play’s creation. As he speaks, he speaks fluently, intelligently, powerfully, charismatically, humorously– he’s an engaging and interesting figure.
He led the discussion group through his ideas of democracy and theater, referring that they are siblings in a way, both being born in Greece within the same decade. He talked about theater being a political tool. Not that it COULD be used as such, but that IS what it is, that is what it SHOULD be.
This may not be too surprising in reference to Angels in America, which is blatantly a political piece with a political agenda. It makes no pretensions on that front, it is unabashedly and proudly so. But to me at the time, this was a rather startling idea that theater was chiefly a political tool. I certainly knew that there were plays trying to shape political arena, and some of these plays I had even enjoyed and they changed my view on the world (Eric Samuelsen’s “Gadianton,” for one). But for some one to pretty much say that all art is and should be political– whether it is true or not– it was disturbing to me.
To me, the best of art always seemed to be the most universal of art. It transcended partisan squabbles and posturing. I could never quite see Shakespeare’s characters being card carrying Democrats or Republicans. They’re more complex than that.
And yet am I wrong about this? Great art often does have a strong social awareness. Consider Charles Dickens’ work. He actively took up social causes, and this certainly changed the world around him. He targeted hypocrites in high places and took on institutions that were abusing and misusing the unfortunates of humanity for personal gains. Are these chiefly political moves or universal concerns? I suppose that could depend on what one defines politics to mean. Is it a pursuit for public good (which seems to obviously be Dickens’ inetntion), or is it a means to sharpen the edge and influence of certain special interest groups, constituents, business interest or voting blocs, so that a politician can gain power and influence?
But back to my moments in the good ol’ District of Columbia. As Oskar Eustis played upon political themes, he had some actors read a scene from Angels in America and then, to my surprise, began talking about Mormonism. He talked about how he loved the idea of Mormon progression, especially in reference to God (which actually is a point to be debated on whether his interpretation of that doctrine wasn’t a little askew). But then he went on a mini-tirade against the Church’s stand against homosexuality and also brought up hot button items of FORMER practices in the Church, including denying the priesthood to blacks and polygamy. During this, I became increasingly uncomfortable and became even more so when a professor raised his hand and with even more acidic and volatile sentiments, railed against Mormons. “There goes their high aspirations for tolerance,” I thought to myself (or something to that effect).
I wish I would have said something there and then, but at the time I didn’t want to turn it into a huge controversy, so I quietly approached Oskar Eustis afterwards, stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Mahonri Stewart. I’m a Mormon Playwright.” At that point Mr. Eustis went several shades of white and started spilling out apologies. He knew that I had caught him in a moment of hypocrisy and insensitivity towards another faith. It is much to his credit that he recognized this and apologized, it certainly raised my estimation of him. I replied, “It’s okay, you get used to people disagreeing with you.” I then handed him a copy of Farewell To Eden and asked him whether he would be interested in reading a play by a Mormon playwright. Again to his credit, he accepted it. Whether he actually read the play or not, I guess I will never know.
I had a chance to bring up the subject with the angry professor as well. He and I happened to be sitting next to each other at a different workshop and we got to talking. Somehow in the course of the conversation, I conveniently slipped in the fact that I was a Mormon. Unlike Mr. Eustis, he did not take this fact gracefully. He gave me one of the coldest and most uncaring looks I have ever received, turned away from me and never spoke to me again.
My religion, to him, made me the enemy. Just as politics often demonizes and cannibalizes each other, so this was done to my religion, and those who dared to believe in it– it made us the other, the opposite, the negative to their positive. Not since my two year mission for the Church had I felt so targeted for negative feelings. It was a rather eye opening experience, one that I am very glad I had.
One of the discouraging experiences I had, however, dealt with the play Good Morning Athens. This is the play that had defeated mine for the National Playwriting Award (not to mention it won a great deal many other awards). I, however, thoroughly hated the piece. Some may chalk this up to envy, but I do not see it that way. When I watched the play, I was hoping for it to be a powerful piece, for it to deserve the award. I was excited to see it, at least until I saw it (or what I saw of it, I should say. I had hooked up with some BYU students during the trip and at intermission they wanted to leave because they had found it so offensive and badly produced. I went with them, grateful for an excuse to leave what I thought was a horrendous piece of theater).
The play was what Oskar Eustis said a play should be– very politically concious. It was absolutely thick with political agenda– with a buffoonish caricature of George W. Bush, an anti-war message combining Greek myth with modern society (it was an odd anachronistic world that never quite gelled). Its message, however, is irrelevent to what I think should be the merits by which it should be judged by in such a competition. If it had had artistry, originality of thought, lyricism, or just some semblence of sheer talent, then I would have thought it winning so many prestigious prizes as warranted and deserved, no matter what it was saying. However, this musical-so called was badly written, badly directed, badly acted, badly sung, and, in general, was in bad taste. I was trying to figure out why this play won– I had seen better things at the regional festival. What it came down to in my mind was that the play had what Mr. Eustis was talking about: politics. It was anti-war at the height of opposition against America’s presence in Iraq, it was sprinkled with anti-religious sentiment, had two men kissing on stage, it was filled with all sorts of sexual material and references (including a whole song dedicated to the different ways you can hace sex), it was in general keeping with leftist propaganda and agenda– and, as we know, the theater world is dominated by the left, much as the business world is dominated by the right. Oh, and we can’t forget that it was an election year.
So, although it lacked what I considered to be artistic merit, it had plenty of political points. While my play, although taking on a Dickensian concern for the poor and opposition to accentuated social classes, had another point against it– it had religious themes– themes, that is, supporting religion, with specifically positive Mormon characters.
Again, you have to take my comments with a grain of salt, since this was after all the play which happened to defeat mine.
So after thoroughly enjoying the rest of my evening with the BYU students I was with (and meeting up with BYU’s sparkling Barta Heiner– professor of theater– who had come to see her students win their prizes and compete), I went back to my room, where I found my room mate for the trip, Gregory Fletcher.
Gregory, you must understand, is a very good man. His intelligence, insight, warmth and general goodness I found to be admirable. And he is a great talent: he would tie for the prize for best ten minute play. He also happened to be homosexual. But instead of that causing any tension between us, we got along swimmingly, and had the most interesting conversations, including one where we were amiably agreed to disagree about homosexuality, each stating our reasons and able to accept them as such. He did have some naive ideas about Mormons (“Are you allowed to watch TV?”), as I’m sure I have about homosexuals, but he left with much more respect regarding Mormonism because of our amiable interaction (“You’re much better than the Catholics or Baptists.” Sigh. Abandoning one prejudice, only to cling to others). He and I, despite our differences, had developed a very positive relationship.
Yet this play, with its political themes probably very much aligning with Gregory’s own politics, should have resonated with him. But he thought Good Morning Athens was as much of an abomination as I did. The word he used was “sophmoric,” and when I told him that I had left at the intermission, he was heartily glad for me and wished that he had done the same.
I’m still digesting these experiences, and many others I had on that trip, but I came away with a strengthened, challenged and broadened worldview. The way that art, religion and politics played against the background of specific themes of homosexuality and unexpected prejudice from those who had endured prejudice themselves made a very coherent picture from this story of my life.
What is art for us? For what qualities is it to be valued? Is it political propaganda, as was experienced with Good Morning Athens and Angels in America? Is it an exploration of spirituality, like Farewell To Eden? Is it something that transcends all such boundaries to some universal common denominator? Or does it morph, change every time. Is it a mixture of all such things, a mutt mixed with group agendas and personal experiences?
Or is art a reflection of life? And will, as with life, our art will emphasize those experiences and associations we most value, whether they be personal, political, familial or religious?

16 thoughts on “Art, Religion and Politics”

  1. Wow I’m really glad I read this. I am a photographer and writer, and my roomate in college was a fantastic painter. We used to have long discussions about what art is and it became a fixation for me – defining art. I eventually came to the conclusion (with the help of The Tempest) that real Art is true. People often say art is beautiful, though not necessarily in strictly aesthetic way, and I feel that it is the truth in the work that radiates beauty. Thats the best I can describe it (in short). Thus, propaganda and agenda are not art and have no place in it, really, for they rarely tell the truth. I don’t believe real art can come of Hate, and work that comes from it is always easy to spot.

  2. This is a fantastic topic, and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about especially in terms of Mormon Literature.

    I agree with you that a work is weakened the more it serves an obvious agenda. Propaganda doesn’t make good art.

    This is the main reason why I think it’s unfortunate that Mormon lit has this incredibly strong dichotomy between works that are “pro” and works that are “anti”. It seems like there are other religious/social/ethnic/cultural groups that are better at producing and accepting works that are set and framed in the particular culture without having to being required to either build up the faith or tear it down.

    I’ve talked about this a few times on my blog, for example here where I suggested trying to create a larger community of cultural Mormon lit where works don’t have to fit a particular orthodoxy or opinion. Unfortunately nobody but nobody agrees with me ;^)

    But that won’t stop me from trying.

  3. The real measure of whether art should be political or not is the results. Political art is almost without exception dreadful. Art can have themes that are broadly speaking political (concern for family, religion, the plight of the poor, or what not) but when you get to the nitty-gritty it goes out the window.

    C.L. Hanson goes wrong in conflating art that comes from a particular worldview with art that tries to propagandize that worldview. Mormon literature is always either trying to propagandize orthodoxy or else is written outside orthodoxy. A literature that does neither is the thing.

  4. I am not saying that works that portray Mormonism in a positive light are inherently propaganda. Far from it. I like Mormon lit and have enjoyed many works both pro and anti. If you have a look at my blog, you’ll see I’ve posted reviews of various LDS works — analyzing them as literature — and I intend to continue to do so.

    However, I am being completely serious when I say that this dichotomy exists in Mormon lit, and it would be better if there were at least a little more leeway.

    Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m just trying to stir up trouble by taking pot shots at the Mormon lit community. I am trying to contribute in a reasonable, respectful, and positive manner to this discussion.

  5. Very interesting post from Mahonri. A few responses:

    1) Angels In America is one of my favorite plays, and although to some extent it does use Mormons as conservative straw men, that’s surely not the use Kushner makes of Mormon materials. In fact, since Mormons tend to be politically conservative and since we are fairly prominent participants in the gay marriage debate, it doesn’t seem unfair for Kushner to use us that way. His Mormon characters are richly human and fully realized–they also represent strongly held points of view. Both/and.

    Of course, politics can be a rich field for literature. Think of such recent, brilliant films as Syriana and Crash and Traffic. Think of the plays of Bertold Brecht. Of course, just because a piece is political doesn’t make it good. I just rewatched Fahrenheit 9/11, and it’s just not a good film; it’s too obviously one-sided. But This Divided State, a film about Michael Moore’s visit to UVSC, is quite lovely and wonderful.

    Eric Samuelsen

  6. I have a few exceptionally scattered thoughts on this suject…

    The problem with trying to define “art” is that we so often resort to abstract and unhelpful words like “truth.” Something that speaks to me — that tells the truth of my worldview — often will not speak to another. Although I certainly agree that intentionally propagandistic material is often easily spotted, I disagree that it is always completely without artistic merit. Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most celebrated artists of the early to mid-twentieth century, but her films are now labeled propaganda, void of art. They certainly are propaganda, but that doesn’t mean they are not art as well.

    As far as theatre, I agree with Eustis that all theatre is political, whether it intends to be or not. The elitist position of theatre in the modern (Western) world immediately places it in the realm of the political–either it is produced for money (Broadway) or it is funded by the state or educational instututions. In the former instance, polished, professional pieces are presented by multi-billion dollar media conglomerates in the hope of bringing in more money, and their ticket prices run from around $50 to $300+. In the latter, a repertoire is established based on local notions of a “canon”–works that are arbitrarily named as requirements to understand theatre. This canon is invariably established by those in power (a very Foucauldian notion, I know), and therefore reinforces a certain notion of what art should be that has little to do with anything concrete. This, too, is a political action.

    It is arguable that experimental, avant-garde, and even smaller community productions have the ability to circumvent these tendencies. But the life of these pieces are tied to politics as well: either they make enough money (appealing to current popular taste) to move into bigger, more visible arenas, or they recieve enough prestige (based on their alignment with a canonized system of Western artistic values) to continue to be produced. Either way, money is necessary.

    This monetary requirement is what makes theatre, in my opinion, more political than many other art forms. It takes a lot of money to stage even the smallest production, and the decision of what kind of theatre to financially support is always tied to politics.

    Clearly, I am not using politics as a repulican/democrat, left/right definition, but rather as a sociological term–theatre invariably is tied to the sociological life of the culture that produces it, and as such, is invariably political.

    I think Eustis is one of the most interesting figures working in American theatre today. He now helms the Public Theatre in New York, and it is interesting to see the political direction that theatre has gone. I find him to be a fascinating figure that is doing his best to expand this venerable theatre–but he, too, is limited by the financial and cultural position of theatre in Manhattan. How can new, small sociological plays (like the recent Satellites) compete with the Broadway juggernaut? Even (perhaps especially) in Manhattan, theatre is for those who can afford it. Tourists don’t come to New York to see new theatre, they come to see Disney.

    I’m sorry this is so long and disjointed. Hopefully at least a few of my ideas will come across as they are intended.

  7. Eric,
    Angels In America is a stunning set of plays, in regards to writing. Despite its overt politics, I certainly consider it high art. However, I do tend to agree with your essay “Whence Mormon Drama? Look to a Theater” that it has a skewed perspective on Mormons– they’re fully fleshed characters, just not particularly Mormon. And, as you say, Eric, the Church has certainly engaged in the homosexual debate– rightly so, I think. There are those who wish the Church would not get involved in “politics” (and for the most part, they try to stay out), but the homosexual issue falls plum right in the middle of what I consider to be their territory: morality and behavior. What else are churches there for, but to give out doctrine? I can see why many would see this as intrusive, but I support the Church’s engagement in that debate. And it is certainly Tony Kushner’s right to take us up to task on the issue, especially since he has a great deal personally involved in the issue. I just hope that to stay in step with the intellectual elite, that the intellectuals in the Church don’t turn against its leaders because of this issue. I looked over Sunstone’s schedule this year and was rather astounded to see how many homosexual themed workshops were going to be up and running. It really has become the issue of recent times. But, I must confess, I plan on writing a play on the subject soon myself. Something to balance the current tidal wave of art on the left with a thoughtful, compassionate piece with a character supporting the Church’s position.
    I want to make clear that I don’t think art can’t be political. I recently watched George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” (or is it the opposite?)– loved it. And I’m the play I mentioned that I’ll be writing won’t be devoid of politics (although I’m going to try my darndest not to make it too one sided). What surprised me with Eustis was his idea that all art should be political (and in context of his workshop, political in the most definite sense– as in political parties). As a political moderate, I see too much extremism on boths sides of the political spectrum– I would hate to see art completely dominated by those same polarizing forces.

  8. L.A.,
    If you term “political” in sociological terms, as you do, I agree– by that broad definition all art most likely stems from politics (and with this definition, when people say that the Church should stay out of politics, they are saying that the Church should stay out of everything).
    But I have a more narrow definition of the word in mind in context with this essay, and I think Eustis did, too, at least what I gathered from the workshop. He seemed to be narrowing on the politics of here and now, Republican and Democrat, engaging in the political hot topics of the then current election. At least that’s what I gathered at the time.
    And, as you said, Eustis was certainly a dynamic, interesting figure. Very personable, actually, an intelligent, well thought out man. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but he certainly caught my attention.

    I’m so glad that the essay was of help to you!

    C.L. and Adam,
    Very good comments, both! Although, I’m not sure that I was advocating that art shouldn’t have a particular view or othodoxy or anti-orthodoxy of its own. It’s called theme and most pieces of art have themes. What I think I’m more leaning towards is through those themes trying to make the work universal. To make it real to life experience. And take out the themes, the points of view, the central “orthodoxy” of each indvidual artist, then you rip out his artistic vocal chords.
    C.S. Lewis is very orthodox. I love his work. Neil LaBute very much less so, and yet still does astounding work. I think both very much deserve the title of “artist.”

  9. This is a great story, Mahonri. I admire your courage in pursing in faithfulness although surrounded by a world so different. Those kinds of situations are kind of discouraging to me.

    As for Angels in America ““ I watched the HBO version and found it very interesting. I really want to write a paper on it, but it is, of course, one that I will never write. The title could be, “Angels in America as an antithesis of the LDS temple ceremony.” It seemed to me that at nearly every point that Angels in America was saying the exact opposite of the temple and often saying it in mirrored ways. I realize that’s a bold claim to make, but honestly, I was seeing it all the way through and it was really freaky. And then at the very end, after all of these reverse parallels all the way through, Louis looks at the camera, addresses and admonishes the audience and then walks off with his boyfriend ““ I was seriously wigging out.

  10. Eric, that’s a very strong insight about the temple and Angels in America! I totally agree with it. A similar thing was bothering me about the play, how it twisted Mormon belief and theology and re-created it in its own image, trying to undermine the Church with the Church’s own most potent imagery. It was very clever of Kushner, while still, in my opinion, being rather demoralizing.

  11. My earlier comment was maybe a little too extreme.

    Obviously a work must express a particular perspective, I just mean that a lot of times if one starts with the “moral” before the story, it ends up heavy-handed.

    Then of course I always have to relate everything back to my “pet issue” which is that I think Mormon lit would be richer if there were less hostility in both directions between current and former Mormons. 😉

    (I haven’t commented specifically on “Angels in America” because I haven’t seen it.)

  12. C.L.,
    I agree. As when we try to “define” anything, we end up dancing on the heads of needles. I think we can all agree that didactic art mars art’s beauty.

  13. .

    I spend a lot of time experimenting with putting myself in social situations. Living in the SF area, it’s not hard to be the odd-Mormon out. I’ve yet to have an experience like yours with the professor and I don’t spend a lot of time in heavily arty groups (alas), but, to smaller degrees, I have had many of your experiences.

    Why should it be so amazing that a recognizably human being is also Mormon?

    Obviously, we Mormon writers need to get more nonMormon readers….

  14. Mahonri,

    Joining the conversation a couple of years late…

    I’m very touched by your experience. Obviously, in the light of the recent Proposition 8 issues, I have fears that civil discourse and mutual understanding will be harder to come by.

    On all art being political: This is one of those statements that I think is true if you redefine “political” sufficiently broadly. It’s certainly legitimate to look at the political implications of worldviews expressed in art that aren’t, on the surface, political. In fact, I think that’s one of the most valuable kinds of criticism. But it’s a cheap move to first (a) claim that all art is political (using this kind of argument), and then (b) use that fact to privilege art that’s more overtly political, or political in a narrower sense. I’m not saying that anyone in this discussion is doing that, but I’ve seen it done.

    I’ve written on Angels in America, and had my essay published in Irreantum several years back. Basically, my thesis was the same as what a couple of people here have said: that the characters aren’t particularly Mormon, and that the plays really aren’t about Mormonism at all. Which is fine, I suppose, but is (I think) an important caveat in looking at the plays.

    I think there’s an important work to be done in representing some of these issues in non-polarized ways. I was attending stake conference about a month ago. While listening to the various speakers (temple president, stake presidency, etc.) about the new Temple Ready program that just went active in our area, I kept feeling that writing in ways that increases mutual understanding among the children of our Heavenly Father–no matter how different they may seem to be to each other–is part of the Spirit of Elijah. (Actually, it kept making me feel like I need to finish my own novel on this topic…)

    I’m not sure that all the understanding has to exist in the non-Mormon world either. Certainly my own story is addressed primarily to Mormons. In fact, I have ambivalent feelings about even trying to attract non-Mormon readers. Not every story has to be written to every possible audience.

  15. .

    I agree that not every story needs to be for every audience, but avoiding those audiences at all times (as we often see in Mormon lit) seems like putting a bushel over that city on the hill. To mix my scriptural metaphors.

  16. Must be a mighty big bushel-basket. Or an awfully small city. One of the two.

    (Thanks. That put a grin in my day.)

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