Reflecting on a Mormon Renaissance: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part One

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I’ve had an interesting and fruitful relationship with New Play Project over the past several years. They have helped me produce three of my plays (including two of my favorite pieces, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun), and were excellent collaborators, critics, visionaries, and artisans.  However, although I count many of their members as dear friends, I was never in the center of the organization, but rather an occasional partner, flirting with the group on the outskirts… an outsider who occasionally came in from the cold. This put me in an odd position, where I was able to watch their inner workings, while never really being a part of them. This allowed me to be both a cheerleader and a critic. A confidante and a stranger. A partner and a rival. We had similar visions, but different paths.

A good example of this divergence of paths can be gleaned from  the beautiful anthology of New Play Project’s best plays which this series of posts is going to review and reflect on… Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project. I was originally asked to contribute one of my full length plays produced with NPP, either The Fading Flower or Swallow the Sun as part of this volume. However, I chose to opt out, as I have been in talks with a publisher to possibly publish a selection of my plays. In deference to this possible volume of my plays, I decided against being included.  My individual project took precedence for me over this superb collective collection. Which is an interesting illustration of how NPP and I have found ourselves on different trajectories the last few years (hold on, I promise, this is not simply self conscious navel gazing, there’s a reason I’m inserting myself into this narrative).

NPP is a wonderful group effort, adapting and morphing as people enter in and out of the organization. That’s their strength and their weakness…it’s the vision, the movement that is the emphasis, not the individual artists. It’s very Zion-like that way. Its roster of leaders and foot soldiers have been in constant flux since their inception, while their vision of “values driven theatre” informed by a varied range, but ultimately collective, set of Mormon beliefs.   Meanwhile, my work has been centered on, well, frankly, my own vision of Mormon beliefs and values. It’s been very artist-centric, for better or worse.

Which brings up an interesting correlation. In this volume, one of NPP’s founders, as well as one of Mormonism’s best playwrights, James Goldberg writes about the Harlem Renaissance in his essay, “Towards a Mormon Renaissance.” I’ll touch even more on this more later, as the Harlem Renaissance has been a subject that has been dear to my heart for many years, ever since I took a class on it in my early college days. But a similar division, between the movement and the individual artist, arose in the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the African-American artists were intent on being part of this larger artistic movement that was occurring in Harlem at the time, while others saw the movement as stifling their individual voices and visions.  Pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois were trying to make the African-American artistic community a cohesive unit while other artisans chaffed at what they thought was a group who were more interested in their common heritage, rather than their individual voices. 

This played out in a dramatic way when two of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, decided to come together in this spirit of collaboration to create a play called Mule Bone. The results were rather disastrous, as the two strong minded artists eventually came to their inevitable differences. As the project neared its completion, issues involving who to credit (including the typist Lousie Thompson, whom they dictated the play to); their relationship with a patron (Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, with whom Hughes was severing his relationship, while Hurston wanted to remain in her good graces); plus an eventual theft of intellectual property (when applying for the copyright, Hurston had the gall to list herself as the sole author); all led to an explosion of their once strong friendship. The play was not produced until 1991, over 60 years after they first began on the project, and long after both Hughes and Hurston were dead. After the production, most critics agreed… for all that fuss, the play wasn’t actually all that good.

Ironically, NPP helped me understand this conflict between the individual and the group after they had planned on helping me produce the revival of my play Farewell to Eden, but then dropped out after NPP’s board decided it wasn’t worth their involvement after all. The individual had been ushered out by the group. A good deal of money, time, manpower, and rehearsal had already been invested into Farewell to Eden by that point, so my producing partner Jacob Figueira and I had to make a quick decision. We had the funds, but not the organization. So I quickly and somewhat haphazardly created my sole proprietorship organization Zion Theatre Company, and that’s the banner my work has gone under since then. I had intended to travel with New Play Project a little longer, but was forced from the nest on this occasion. I’ve been trying to keep in the air since then, and it’s gone relatively well.

After all, I started out independent of NPP, having had a number of my plays associated with Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, and other organizations. With the help of some wonderful mentors, I had already carved out my identity as a Mormon playwright long before I came across NPP. I was an independent agent then, I was when I worked with NPP, and I continue to be one. I’m set in a very specific, very individual course, which I feel the Lord outlined to me many years ago.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect and fondness for New Play Project, its mission, and its members. I have bright, beautiful memories collaborating with them, which is a far cry from the kind of tension that grew up between artists like Hughes and Hurston. NPP are doing something utterly magnificent with the barest of resources… they’re running on the fumes of the Spirit and the calls of prophets like Spencer W. Kimball and Orson F. Whitney, who have long called for the kind of work that they are delivering. Having been a producer, director, writer, actor, assistant stage manager,  assistant props master, costume designer, stage crew, house manager, “fill in the blank here” for many productions, I know how difficult what they do is, and how miraculous their outcome has been. Out of the Mount

This volume of NPP’s plays, Out of the Mount, is yet another outgrowth of their miraculous movement. I received my copy of it in the mail last night (for my upcoming birthday), and I have plowed through a good portion of it already. It has brought back many wonderful memories, including my first experience with NPP, seeing a collection of their early plays at the Provo Library, when they were performing on planks and cinder blocks. It was a pretty rough operation back then, a strange and potent mixture of the painfully amateur and the sublime.  And I believe it was also on that occasion when I was thrilled to hear James Goldberg address one of my favorite subjects in the pre-show essay… the Harlem Renaissance. And he even tied it to Mormon Literature and Drama, a correlation I had often thought of myself when I took my Harlem Renaissance class at UVSC. In this instance, Goldberg had found a ready and enthusiastic audience member for his sermon. This clear outlining of vision was powerful and dynamic, and at that moment James Goldberg became the W.E.B. DuBois of Mormon Drama.

Since then NPP has gone through quite the metamorphoses. Gone are the boards and cinder blocks, gone are the amateurish scripts. The vast majority of their work, despite their still limited resources, are polished and powerful, especially the quality of NPP’s writers. Their semi-permanent home (at least for the past few years) at the Provo Theatre is a lovely space. They have established a loyal audience and corps of now experienced volunteers. Their productions of “Prodigal Son” and Little Happy Secrets have won back to back Association for Mormon Letters Awards for Best Drama. New Play Project is a respected and vibrant force within the Mormon theatrical community. Vision is becoming reality, a prophetic fulfillment. If they can keep their momentum, New Play Project could still be a power player in the Mormon Arts scene for years to come.

With James Goldberg, Adam Stallard, Melissa Leilani Larson, Arisael Rivera, Eric Heaps, and many of the old guard bowing out, or having long bowed out, for other projects and life focuses, leadership of the group has been passed down to the very able hands of Davey Morrison, Bianca Dillard-Morrison (who has been with the group from the beginning), and Steve and Teresa Gashler. All of them are very talented, able, and intelligent individuals. New Play Project still has a very promising future.

So… are we really in a Mormon Renaissance? Or have we been in one for quite a while? After all, we’ve had powerful writers, dramatists, visual artists, and musicians before now. Our literary heritage links all the way back to Parley P. Pratt. One could even argue that its linked back to Joseph Smith. We had our own “lost generation” of writers in the 1920s. BYU has been a huge force in Mormon Arts, Music, and Letters for decades. We’ve had our Orson Scott Cards, our Levi Petersons, our James Christensens, our Minerva Teicherts, our Eric Samuelsens, our Thomas Rogers, our Osmonds, our Gladys Knights and, yes, our Stephanie Meyers. It’s not an impossible feat to hear of any number of famous Mormon artists, musicians, and writers.

But a movement. A renaissance. That’s actually different, quite different, in fact, than a handful of successful artists with a common heritage. One could argue that the Mormon Renaissance began with the advent of Richard Dutcher and the LDS film movement he created. Perhaps even earlier with the school of thoughts within the BYU Theatre Department under the opposing tutelage of Charles Whitman and Max Golightly. Or perhaps it can be connected to the pioneering of people like Eugene England, Margaret Young, Douglas Thayer, Susan E. Howe, and Levi Peterson. Or perhaps the creation of the literary arm of Deseret Book. Or the establishment of the Association for Mormon Letters and other like groups.

Whatever the case, groups like New Play Project, Zarahemla Books, and, yes, even modern blogs like A Motley Vision have been rising up, all with defined visions and strong, artistic ambitions. They strive to connect their art to their religious heritage in a very purposeful, vibrant way. Whether the larger world takes notice or not, I believe we may very well be in the midst of a Mormon Renaissance now, or at least the beginning of one. And we’re starting to realize it. With projects like  Out of the Mount, their short play festivals, and their productions of longer works,  New Play Project has gained a well earned, prominent place among this supposed movement.

But, for just a moment, let’s take a look at Shakespeare. Yes, Shakespeare. Isn’t that what Orson F. Whitney called for “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own?” Shakespeare was not of an age “but for all time,” as Ben Johnson put it. Which was a very prescient  and unselfish comment coming from a contemporary playwright and rival of Shakespeare. It’s a very true and prophetic statement. Shakespeare lived in a competitive time, artistically. His plays had to go up against playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Phillip Massinger, Thomas Kyd, and, as before stated, Ben Johnson. Talented men, all. Some of them were even attached to groups and movements, as Marlowe was. But he is not often directly associated with them, he is not part of their elite group. Robert Greene even went so far as to purposely snub and distance Shakespeare from the artistic groups of the age by calling Shakespeare an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.” An Elizabethan and Jacobean playwight as Shakespeare was, and as part of the original Renaissance as he was, the Bard created his own identity that rose above all those labels. He had his very own adjective created for him… “Shakespearean.”

The reason I bring that up is that I think that New Play Project, perhaps  accidentally, but I suspect purposefully, is fulfilling the vital role of helping its writers rise above its movement. Both Melissa Leilani Larson and James Goldberg have been making independent names for themselves, before and after their involvement with NPP, and are known as writers within their own right. And I think that is a good thing.

Art can be associated with a movement but, in the end, it has to be much more personal and soulful than that for it to have any sort of resonance within the human heart. Artists within the Harlem Renaissance found Shakespeare’s maxim in King Lear, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” very difficult to fulfill when they were asked to have their art continually correlated and directed towards the propaganda of the African-American movement.

This a very real, and very important tension which has been noted by nearly all artists associated with a community throughout the ages. And I think that the tension created is vital. Whether you’re Chaim Potok, Zora Neale Hurston, or Orson Scott Card, the reigns of a moral culture and the freedom of the individual heart are both valuable tools, if used correctly. Renaissances are powerful things, creating a focused change, a powerful thrust forward for entire communities. However, Humanism, the power of the individual, was at the heart of the original Renaissance. And the individual civil rights of all humankind, was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. These were necessarily balanced by the needs of a community that transcended the selfishness that would be so easy to give into.

If we are indeed emerging into a Mormon Renaissance,  I hope that groups like New Play Project continue to use their organizations as a stepping ladder for its individual artists (as I believe they currently do) and realize that the organization is not the end, in and of itself. Rather, that they are providing an invaluable (and changing) service that may one day truly create “Shakespeares of our own.” Mormonism itself provides a model for that. It is a religion that both focuses on creating a society, a communal Zion, while still making room for individual exaltation, where each of us can literally become gods and goddesses. This is the perfect marriage, a Bride and Bridegroom that give and take, serve and be served, exalt and debase themselves for the good of the community and the individual. I have seen for myself New Play Project do just this with their art, for the good of all involved.

The further installments of this series on my reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 Plays from New Project will focus more specifically on the content of the anthology, the plays themselves. I will also do longer, more in depth reviews on the plays of James Goldberg and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets.

30 thoughts on “Reflecting on a Mormon Renaissance: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part One”

  1. Well written, Mahonri! That is what I see as the strength of NPP, it takes people who are interested in theatre and produces Playwrights, Actors, Directors, and Techies. I had no real theatre experience when I started with NPP, but have been their Technical Director for the last three years. I have seen so many others who have come to NPP with just the desire to do theatre, and here they have the opportunity to learn and grow and perfect their skills.

  2. What New Play Project did in 2006-2009, in my opinion, was to rally significant amateur human energy around the idea of supporting local writing, which for most participants also involved the idea of Mormon writing. Hundreds of people got involved as actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, stagehands, ushers, workshop respondents, and writers. A few thousand people got involved as audience members. That energy gave us room to do some real thinking about what the writing people were so excited about might be: we explored Mormon letters, and lots of Mormons invested themselves in the conversation! Not bad, and an important step in figuring out what sort of Renaissance we might want to be part of.

    As you know and mention, we never had much money, making us both a study in what can be done without money. We were also a study, though, in what can’t be done easily without money: I don’t know the details of your experience with Fading Flower, but my guess is that it came at the same time most leaders happened to move on at once: the organization didn’t support you largely because the organization was no longer very organized. Why? Without money, turnover will always be high and stability low. That was less to do with “group vs. individual” then with losing core leadership to economic pressures b/c you don’t pay anybody.

    In 2009 and this year, New Play Project has been re-forming itself, remaking the company vision in the process. Looking at the season, it seems like there will be more focus on showcasing individual writers than on the chaotic energy of mobilizing a crowd (a task which is admittedly exhausting)–it will be interesting to see how the focus on fewer writer will play out. Will it do better than the old system in developing major voices? Will it do better at exploring the questions about what we Mormons might yet want or get from our art? I have no idea, but I’m glad to see it happen. (If there were modest wages and perhaps even health insurance involved, I would be happy to spend my own energy helping find out.)

  3. I appreciate this in-depth look to NPP and the exciting work that is being promoted. It’s inspiring to watch the progressing strength of such an association of artists. This project is exciting and filling a need within the immediate and extended community.

    That said, though many artists involved in this company have truly hit the ground running due in large part to NPP, I think it’s important to point out that a lot of real, hard, recognized work was done before NPP was even conceived– a key factor to its success. For example, Melissa Leilani Larson wrote and workshopped “Little Happy Secrets” during her studies in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop MFA program at the University of Iowa (where she received numerous honors and awards). She also had original and adapted works produced at Iowa, BYU, BYU-Hawaii, and Cal State-LA long before she was ever involved at New Play Project. To imply that she, and others, are only recently evolving as artists “in their own right” thanks solely to NPP sadly downplays the range and level of education and experience that has contributed to the success and value of the company.

  4. Money wasn’t as much the issue with Farewell to Eden, James… Jacob Figueira was providing the bulk of it. I was never quite sure what the issue was actually, except I think there was a communication gap at some point, where one person was telling one thing, but after he had to report back to the group, I got a totally different thing when he came back to me. I’m not worried about it, though, as it ended up being a very good thing, allowing me to create my own organization, which has always been my ultimate goal from the very beginning. As I said in the article, NPP should keep being a workshop and a laboratory that CREATES dramatists and artisans.

    I do stand by my observations about the individual vs. the group, not only with NPP, but with movements and groups in general. That’s nothing against NPP, that’s going to naturally occur. I do believe, however, that as time went along, NPP invested more in highlighting individual artists like Mel Larson, Ari Rivera, Katherine Gee, me, and (to a certain extent, although you kept your work in the short format) you. We were all able to get great exposure from NPP.

    As to the “amateur human energy” that NPP created, I totally agree with you and David on that. The volunteer aspect of NPP is what is so beautiful and so strenuous about NPP. The work is so much better than it really ought to be, when you consider that its produced by a group of volunteers. That’s why I think there are so many single, childless students involved. As you know now, providing for a family makes doing work for free that much more difficult.

    I think what NPP did in the past was a miracle. And I look forward to seeing what further miracles it crafts.

  5. Emily,
    I totally agree. I didn’t mean to imply that many of these artists were created by NPP, especially somebody like Mel who had many successes chalked up before she ever interacted with NPP. That was my own experience with the group, as I had come with my own previous productions and experiences, and NPP even had people like Eric Samuelsen jump on board for the ride… Eric definitely lended his light to NPP, not the other way around. Thank you for clarifying that.

  6. Money for any given production is not the issue. I’m talking about payroll and money as a means of organizational stability. If NPP had the money to keep a staff, I doubt you would have gotten support early and then not later. Because no one in NPP got paid and a bunch of people left at once, leftover leaders would have had to make decisions based on what energy they had.

    Without money, the human resources of an organization are always more vulnerable. That’s what I’m talking about.

  7. I see what you mean, in which case it may be beneficial to rephrase your wordage, since they’re not singularly associated whatsoever.

    “Both Melissa Leilani Larson and James Goldberg have been making independent names for themselves lately, being less and less singularly associated with New Play Project and more and more associated as writers within their own right.”

  8. Emily,
    I’ve changed it to: “Both Melissa Leilani Larson and James Goldberg have been making independent names for themselves, before and after their involvement with NPP, and are known as writers within their own right. And I think that is a good thing.”
    Thanks for the input!

  9. Totally agree with that assessment, James. So much of Theatre, unfortunately, relies so much on volunteer work because, let’s face it, you’ve got to put money into make money out of it, and not many of us have that kind of cash flow, especially nowadays. Once you pay people, the value of the work goes up, because they’ll be working rather than playing. But when you’re being paid, your loyalties all come together. Or, best of all, they’ll be working AND playing, which is why we all want to be in Theatre in the first place. Not to say that NPP volunteers don’t work…they work really hard. REALLY hard. And that work moved mountains and, more importantly, touched hearts and souls.

  10. “If we are indeed emerging into a Mormon Renaissance”

    We are not in my opinion. Who reads these authors other than Mormons? Of those who are read by non-Mormons, how many have very specific Mormon themes, characters, and geography? Those that write about these are talking to themselves, even as the work might be more sophisticated than typical Deseret Book romances. Most Mormons don’t even read or watch them.

    Richard Dutcher is a horrible example of a Renaissance. I believe he started something with his talent and killed it just as quick by his personality. From what I have noticed, most of the artists who could be spearheading the Mormon Renaissance with few exceptions are leaving the Church once they have any real influence.

    There are a handful of talented Mormon writers, playwrights, and artists. What we don’t have is recognition, organization, and frankly numbers. Most of all we really don’t have more than a slim self-congratulatory artistic culture that loses artists like a sieve.

  11. “Who reads these authors other than Mormons?… Most Mormons don’t even read or watch them.”

    Indeed, Jettboy. But the question I pose to you is this: who read the work of the authors of the Harlem Renaissance during their time? Only the African-American literati of and some other interested outsiders. Do you think the common Joe off the street had a clue who Zora Neale Hurston was in the 1920s?

    Even today, I’m aghast at how few of my students, even my African-American students, have even heard of Langston Hughes, or more modern artistic landmarks in their culture such as “A Raisin in the Sun,” or the plays of August Wilson, or the poetry of Maya Angelou.

    And if you trace back to the original Renaissance, it was an exceptional man who could even read at all. It was really only the rich and the powerful, who were few, who had any real idea about the artistic culture (this may have been different, though, with “popular” entertainers like Shakespeare who were more akin to Hollywood blockbusters rather than Pulitzer Prize winning work).

    When you really look at them closely, almost all artistic circles, no matter what the culture, are “slim” and “self congratulatory.” It’s the nature of the beast. But these names and their works are passed down and remembered, and over time that “slim” audience increases by increments until they have a healthy, robust, if not still insular, following and appreciation. Or at least they’re taught to uninterested high school students.

    Shakespeare himself was doomed to be forgotten for a time, until groups like the Pre-Raphaelites (another insular, self congratulatory group) breathed air back into his reputation and revived him.

    A Renaissance, I suggest, is not so much about a wide readership (if that were the criteria, though, you can put Stephanie Meyer up there, for I can tell you all of my generally non-reading high school students have at least heard of her and formed opinions about her work). Instead I think a Renaissance is much more about a defined movement with specific ideals or goals which gives a culture an artistic identity. The fact that most of my high school students, even my African-American ones, have never heard of the Harlem Renaissance (they’re much more interested in the drama created around events like the Kayne West/Taylor Swift/ Beyonce bruhaha which they were all abuzz about last year), does not mean that the Harlem Renaissance was not important to their culture and community.

    As to Richard Dutcher, etc., the Mormon Cinema he helped create, whether it’s dead (which I don’t think it is) or not, it still made an impact on Mormon culture, just as Saturday’s Warrior did in the 1970s. It will be remembered in our culture, even if only by the Mormon literati. The Harlem Renaissance self destructed in the 1930s with the onslaught of the Great Depression, but it was remembered and still left an impression upon its culture for further generations.

  12. “From what I have noticed, most of the artists who could be spearheading the Mormon Renaissance with few exceptions are leaving the Church once they have any real influence.”

    And I completely disagree with this sentiment. With every Richard Dutcher, or Brian Evanson, or Neil LaBute that leaves the Church, there is a Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, J. Kirk Richards, James Goldberg, or Margaret Young who is digging in their heels and remaining loyal. Those leaving the Church may be pretty loud on their way out, but that doesn’t negate the influence of those who have remained.

  13. There are any number of ways one could define a “Mormon Renaissance,” and I think it’s necessary to define the term before we talk about it.

    A renaissance, by the standard definition of the word, arises of itself as the result of larger historical, political, sociological, and scientific events, which coalesce to allow for an explosion of talent and progress. “Movement” might be a better word in the world of Mormon arts–indeed, the Harlem Renaissance was known by its contemporaries and its creators as the “New Negro Movement.” A movement can be self-described, but a renaissance is part of an historical narrative; a movement is set in motion by a contemporary artist or group of artists, while a renaissance is described by historians decades or centuries later.

    That said, forces certainly seem to have come together over the course of the twentieth century to allow for something of a second western renaissance–perhaps even a worldwide renaissance–with the advent and implementation of the internet acting as the arguable climax up to this point. This is particularly notable for Mormon arts and letters because this new democratic distribution and dissemination of information allows for formerly “niche” markets to thrive in new ways. The rise of indie and DIY music, movies, journalism, and everything else gives Mormon artists (like any minority) opportunities they never would have had previously.

    Still, there are many of the same strong cultural forces still in place within Mormonism that have always provided unique challenges for artists interested in engaging with their specific faith and heritage, and these potential difficulties show little sign of letting up. The LDS church has a relatively tiny history compared with most world religions. Mormons are largely (practically only) defined as such by church activity–there isn’t really much of an ethnic or genealogical component to Mormon identity. And, of course, for all the positive words and all the support, there’s also a lot of discouragement towards intellectualism and the humanities within mainstream Mormon culture.

    Will we see an explosion of talent in the world of Mormon arts and letters? Who knows. Unlike the legacy of slavery and illiteracy of African-Americans, Mormons have always had an emphasis on education, and great art and literature has quietly thrived within Mormonism for the better part of a century now, albeit on a very small scale. I think it’s more likely that we’ll continue to have miniature ebbs and tides of great artists and great artworks within the Mormon community, and that if there is a real “renaissance” it will be more on the end of distribution rather than creation.

    But is that really so bad? I mean, look at what several decades of Mormon arts and letters has produced. Read “The Backslider” or “The Lonely Polygamist” or “Heaven Knows Why” or “Leap.” They are all some of the best books I’ve read, and they all deserve a national and international audience, and hopefully someday they’ll find that audience. They are specific to Mormonism in the same way as the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” is specific to Judaism (and that movie also also deserves more attention than it’s received–it may well be the Coens’ best film, and anyone interested in religion and the arts should be required to see it). “Little Happy Secrets” is one of the best new plays I’ve read or seen in years. Richard Dutcher’s films are among the best independent American films of the last decade. Douglas Thayer and Margaret Young’s best short stories rival the best short fiction of practically anyone out there. Read “Harvest,” the anthology of Mormon poetry, and try not to be blown away by some of those pieces. Heck, read the New Play Project anthology–not all of these plays are masterpieces, but they’re all worthwhile, and many of them are just great great great any way you look at them (I realize I edited the book so I obviously have something of a vested interest in people buying copies of it, and, more than that, it makes sense that I’d like the plays since I chose them, but really–there’s some amazing stuff in there). For my money, there have been at least as many great artists and works of art within Mormon literature as there were during the Harlem Renaissance. “Their Eyes Where Watching God” is a masterpiece of a novel, but so are “The Backslider” and “The Lonely Polygamist.” And I’d take Eric Samuelsen’s plays over Langston Hughes’ plays in a heartbeat, or May Swenson’s poetry over Hughes’ poetry for that matter.

    Rather than hoping or calling for a renaissance, I think we should spend a lot less time talking about how much we want good Mormon literature, and more time actually reading and writing it. There’s enough of it out there already that it will probably take most of us a good long while to catch up with it.

  14. Excellent points, Davey. I’ve been mulling a series of posts unpacking the notion of a Mormon Renaissance for some time now, but I think you’ve summarized things well — any conceptualization runs in to the difficult questions about Mormonism as an ethnicity (or more like not-quite-an-ethnicity-but-more-than-some-religious-groups).

  15. Mormonism strikes me as being closer to Indian religions than American ones in terms of constituting a distinct community within a larger society. It’s not like American conceptions of ethnicity, exactly, but it’s not quite like American ideas of mostly private religious belief which happens to have public expression either. So the idea of literature being a place for intra-community discourse and community self-representation resonates differently with Mormons than it might with, say, Presbyterians. It may be intellectually problematic to decide how much Mormonism is an “ethnicity” but Mormons on the ground know they share a religious language and idea of history, and are usually prepared to think in community terms.

    A second use of the community-literature model (to avoid using “ethnic”): it gives artists a little more breathing room in terms of the dilemma of the didactic. We Mormons run pretty utilitarian and want our literature to serve some purpose: the easiest defaults are to teach a simple moral lesson or promote the faith. If artists want to do something else, they have to articulate it. That’s where the notion of Renaissance is useful: some Mormon artists use it to emphasize craft instead of message only. I tried to use it at New Play Project to refocus attention on the notion of community self-expression. Saying we’re like Hughes isn’t useful b/c it’s entirely correct: it’s useful b/c it gives us permission from mainstream religious Mormon audiences to write for reasons not reduce-able to the purely didactic.

  16. We Mormons run pretty utilitarian and want our literature to serve some purpose: the easiest defaults are to teach a simple moral lesson or promote the faith.

    Is it really primarily utilitarianism, or is there something else at play? A fear of the unknown (and uncorrelated), perhaps?

  17. This has spurred a great conversation, which I’m glad of. I tend to side with James on this one…

    And the kind of renaissance being discussed here (at least that I’m discussing) probably is not the larger term Davey cited. I would like to see one more in terms of the Harlem Renaissance (which Davey relates more to a movement) than the more wide sweeping one that ocurred in Europe. Which is appropriate, because it’s the Harlem Renaissance that we were using as our model in the first place.

    And I’m sticking with the word Renaissance, because it sounds cooler than movement. 🙂

  18. Katya,

    Valid point. If you want to speak in the community, it’s probably essential to understand the context of defensiveness in the community.

    At the August 2008 BYU commencement (when my wife got her M.A.), Elder Ballard gave an address about how Mormons are widely and accurately perceived as defensive about our faith and called on people to calm down. The talk got me thinking about what creates the cultural defensiveness–my theory is that perhaps it has something to do with the overwhelming amount of criticism Mormons are prone to getting from loud members of mainstream society of various religious and political persuasions. Growing up in Columbus, OH, I got grilled on my Mormonism by all kinds of people, from evangelicals who called us a cult to liberal Christians who thought we were fundamentalists and a transparent fraud to agnostic friends who accepted my beliefs but were shocked that I would be doing something as politically incorrect as going on a proselyting mission.

    The point is: Mormons get criticized a lot by the broader society and are therefore naturally inclined toward heightened defensiveness. So in addition to the utilitarian impulse to have useful writing, there are siege-mentality fears about what “side” a writer is on.

    Personally speaking, my approach to that dilemma is to make clear that you speak from the community to begin with. I find that audiences are often willing to listen to a lot if you can establish audience trust that you are supportive of the community.

    Langston Hughes actually discussed a sort of similar dynamic in the defensive, nervous black community (especially in the wary black middle class). We don’t have exactly the same situation since Mormonism isn’t a race, but there’s some overlap.

    Anyway, probably a discussion for a different day, but well worth bringing up. Thanks!

  19. .

    Why is it so unusual to find such thoughtful discussion in blog comments. This is what blogging should look like! I feel edified having read through all this. Thanks.

  20. Agreed. Good discussion.

    Looking at things historically, it seems to me that literary production is often stimulated by interactions within what is typically quite a small group of practitioners who wind up writing largely for each other, as opposed to any larger (or less involved) audience. The interest and attention they get from other group members frees them to innovate. When such groups include talented writers who go on to develop names for themselves, these small groups enter literary history — e.g., not just the Harlem Renaissance but also groups like the Inklings (a writing group that boasted C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, among others).

    Artistic production is an inherently social act, and humans are inherently social creatures — but primarily at a tribal level, I think. I’m not sure how real communities are to us on an emotional level once they exceed the size where we can personally know most or all of the other members. Any theory of literary production that emphasizes either (a) the individual artist or (b) the larger audience without (c) taking into account small artistic communities is missing something, in my opinion.

  21. Great thoughts, Jonathan. This is something I’ve been vaguely mulling over as well over the past couple years. In the last couple hundred years, at least, artistic and literary movements have frequently been born as a result of a few guys at a cafe sitting around deciding they’re going to do something awesome, writing up a manifesto (sometimes), and doing something awesome. I’m curious how this dynamic is evolving (or has evolved, or will evolve, or maybe it won’t) in an increasingly globalized world community. Are the cafes moving to internet forums? I have no idea. I expect (as with most other things) that many of these interactions will move online and many of them will not, but I really have no idea.

  22. I also have given a lot of thought a lot about groups like the Inklings over the last several years (J.R.R. Tolkien would have left Lord of the Rings sitting on his desk collecting dust if it hadn’t been the encouragement of C.S. Lewis). There was a group of Mormon playwrights who benefited from this kind of dynamic called the “Playwrights Circle” which included some very important Mormon playwrights like Eric Samuelsen, James Arrington, Elizabeth Hansen, Tim Slover, Marvin Payne, Stephen Perry, Thom Duncan, and Scott Bronson. There’s no doubt that very small groups like the Inklings, The Bloomsbury Group, The Pre-Raphaelites, the Romantics, etc. have all spurred whole revolutions of thought among the larger public. That’s why groups like NPP have to realize they can have great power, even with the barest of funds and smallest of numbers. But if they have a cohesive vision and great talent, they can be earth shattering.

  23. Mahonri,

    I agree with your last (#23), except perhaps the “cohesive vision” part — which I notice is the part that’s also problematic in the Harlem Renaissance example. I recall Lewis complaining that he’d tried (and failed) to influence Tolkien: “You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch,” he said. But as you also point out, Lewis’s encouragement was vital.

    Attempts to promote a cohesive vision seem to me likely to wind up diverting attention away from artistic production into arguments about ideological (and/or aesthetic) purity, and indeed we’ve seen some of that in Mormon letters from time to time. I don’t think it really serves much positive purpose, though. Artistic credos and apologia are, I think, valuable primarily for their inspirational value, but become problematic when they are used as prescriptions.

  24. Davey (#22),

    We may be moving back toward something more similar to the situation that prevailed in the time of Chaucer, when his artistic “community” consisted of a few like-minded people (e.g., Petrarch and Boccaccio) scattered across multiple countries, who seldom if ever met each other. That’s one reason why literary letters have been such an important genre over the years. I think a long-distance community may function just as well as a geographically centralized community when it comes to encouraging artistic production. The exception to this would be in drama, since it requires a sizeable body of people in one location to bring a play into production.

  25. Excellent points, all, and very much in tune with my understanding of literary communities (which is focused on literary schools and national literatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

    Regarding letters and online: I think that those interactions can be critical. In fact, I know that they are — that’s a major reason for the existence of AMV. But I do think that in-person, regular interactions are very important for creating energy and relationships that really allow art to flourish. For all the good that AMV does (as well as other online communities), I would trade it in an instant for the ability to have a bi-weekly writer’s group with some of my compatriots in the radical middle. It’s just too easy to not go full throttle when all the interaction is online.

    That said, there may be more we could do to support each other and actual projects that lead to specific products like Monsters & Mormons or Segullah or Zarahemla Books. And that’s actually my goal for the next decade — to always have one project cooking (in addition to what I do at AMV and with my own writing).

  26. William (#26),

    I’d trade it all for in-person gatherings too, as you know well. (Speaking of which, if any of the rest of you are ever in the Twin Cities Minnesota area, William and I will do our best to meet you for lunch or something.) That said, I’m not sure that a certain degree of isolation may not actually help to stimulate artistic production. Put bluntly, when I’m around other people who share my interests, I’m too inclined to talk and not enough inclined to do.

    It hasn’t escaped my notice that I finally wrote my first novel shortly after my oldest child departed for college, leaving a significant void in my personal interactions. Sometimes you write to fill up the silences.

    The combination of long-distance communities of interest and immediate isolation may be particularly fruitful when it comes to stimulating artistic production. You create things, partly so that you have stuff to write about to your friends. Certainly that dynamic appears to have been at work in Benjamin Franklin’s interactions with other electrical scientists in England and France. It’s not precisely the same as artistic production, but close.

    I don’t insist on this. Mostly, I simply wonder if I would *really* get more written if I lived closer to other AML/AMV members.

  27. Jonathan, I actually really agree with you comment (#24) about the negative influence of prescriptive visions and aesthetics. I guess what I mean is a sense of common values, even if simply being Mormons, or Christians (in the case of the Inklings), etc., no matter how loose that common bond is (like being African-American with the Harlem Renaissance). There’s usually some common bond, either culturally, stylistically, etc. that binds these sorts of groups together… even if its just the bread of friendship. With the Inklings, Charles Williams was certainly a much different kind of Christian than Tolkien was (and was a point of conflict at times, especially regarding their rival-like friendship with Lewis).

  28. Re interactions: At the risk of looking like a shameless self-promoter, I set up a chatroom for writers to interact real time, do challenges (writing sprints), have online meetings, and, well, anything that might prove useful to a writer needing interaction.

    I met most of my beta readers in the chatroom from whence this one sprang:

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