Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on The Serious Family

SeriousFamilyI must be honest. This quotation, although delivered in the tabernacle, isn’t so much literary criticism as drawing a lesson from contemporary literature. But the work involved is available, and the idea that Brigham Young both saw the play and commented on it. Perhaps more surprisingly, his comment fits well with the theme of the play itself.

The comments below were made in early February, 1853, just months (and perhaps just weeks) after the Social Hall, the first entertainment venue in the Salt Lake Valley, had been completed. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, drama has traditionally been an important part of Mormon culture, and support for drama can trace its history to Nauvoo, where even Brigham Young played at being an actor. In Salt Lake, his support led to not only the construction of the Social Hall, but to the Salt Lake Theater, the principal home for drama in Utah for 40 years.

Here is what brother Brigham said:

From Organization and Development of Man.

by Brigham Young

The human family are like so many children that have just learned how to walk, in the eyes of a person whose mind has been opened by the light of the Holy Ghost. The sage, greyheaded grandfathers, and those of fewer years, but not of less experience and wisdom, have viewed the eagerness of children to possess mere trifles, and often something that would be their sure destruction if they obtained it. So it is with the inhabitants of the world. A company of little children at play is a perfect miniature picture of the life of man: “Give me this, and give me that; and I want to have the other thing;” still you are not willing I should possess it; and the parent knows that often its possession would be an injury.”¦

The thousand-and-one inconsistencies of childhood have their parallel in the actions, and doings of many of this people. Theatrical companies try to exhibit traits of human life; but a better stage cannot be than the world, nor better actors than men, to a man of understanding. It is pleasing and instructing to see certain characters personified upon the boards of a theater which is managed upon righteous principles. A prominent feature of the human world was most admirably portrayed by our performers the other evening, in the melodrama called “The Serious Family.” When the mother told the daughter to say to the friend of her husband, they had no spare rooms in the house, the daughter replied, “Shall I tell a lie?” “Yes,” answered the old dame, “if it is to promote our holy cause.” Do anything, no matter what, whether it is right or wrong, to gain the end we wish, is the language of unenlightened, unregenerate man. If the Lord Almighty should give the human family their desire in full, they would not keep the broad road to destruction, but they would go across lots, quick to hell.

delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City,
February 6, 1853. Reported by G. D. Watt.

Given the timing of his remarks, The Serious Family must have been one of the first plays performed in the Social Hall, though not the first, which we know to have been Robert Macaire, or the Two Murderers, jointly with a dance performance and a performance of a farce, Dead Shot. But, as near as I can tell, it is the first play mentioned by name in a talk by a General Authority.

If you wish, you can read the play, which was first performed and published in 1849 and was quite popular. It is a free adaptation by Morris Barnett of a French play, Le mari à la campagne (1844), by Jean François Bayard. [The French play was later adapted again in English as The Colonel, which again was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, this time in the 1880s.] While it is a farce, The Serious Family is also a criticism of overly strict religious families, especially those that prohibit entertainments like parties and dance. Utah’s audience may have also enjoyed the play’s oblique criticism of those who see charity as being for those who live far away, as opposed to those who are neighbors.

Regardless of all this, Brigham Young saw enough value in the play to mention it in his sermon–something that does happen, but perhaps not very often for drama. As conference approaches, it will be interesting to see what works are mentioned this year.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on The Serious Family”

  1. One thing I love about our church’s leadership is the sort of intellectual speculative bent that sometimes emerges along with the usual admonition and sermonizing. Literary critique from the mouth of Brigham Young–how fun is that.

  2. So by admirably performed he meant not that the attitude was admirable, but rather that it was an effective performance of attitudes that LDS should not have?

  3. BTW, I did read The Serious Family yesterday. It isn’t very long — three acts of one scene each, a total of less than 50 pages. Its a quick, easy read.

    I understand why Brigham enjoyed it.

  4. Kent–of course. It just struck me with extra resonance in this post. Thinking about how the community at large probably went to see this show, and then the prophet stands up in conference to add to the discussion.

    I’d love to see my pioneer ancestors crafting a good performance of attitudes they shouldn’t have had.

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