Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The MIA “Dramatic Clubs”

HoraceGWhitneyI’ve written before about the once great status of Mormon theatre, and the infrastructure it once enjoyed. So I was pleased to find comments about the beginning of this infrastructure from Horace G. Whitney, longtime Deseret News editor-in-chief and the paper’s drama critic. In my opinion infrastructure, broadly conceived, accounts for much of what has happened in Mormon drama over the past century. Whitney, in the article below, describes a vision of how drama could operate under the MIA and ward amusement committees (which were roughly the equivalent of the recently disbanded ward activities committees, I assume).

Because of his background in theatre, which I described last week, Whitney was well placed to discuss what needed to happen in the theatre. He helped found the Home Dramatic Club in 1880, serving as its manager, and later managed the Salt Lake Opera Company. And as a Drama critic, he knew both the works available for performance and the quality of those works. Apparently his belief in ward-based theatrical performances was shared widely enough that by the 1920s the MIA was publishing plays for use in ward MIA activities.

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A Word to Dramatic Clubs

by Horace G. Whitney

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Every one who has followed the trend of public amusements of late years must rejoice to note the awakening which is taking place in the midst of the Latter-day Saints in regard to this subject. It is especially fitting that the hand of guidance and correction should be extended from the Mutual Improvement Associations of the Church; that they can exert a powerful influence, there can be no two opinions. Nearly every ward has its amusement committee, appointed by the bishopric, and regularly sustained by the people at their conferences, with the other ward officials. These committees are powerful agencies, and if the Mutual Improvement Associations work in harmony with them, as they should do, great good can be accomplished. These amusement committees ought to be made up of bright, wide awake minds, of young men and women who, if possible, have had experience in music, the drama or art of some class; those who know the good from the bad, who are in touch with what is going on in the world, who read, and who keep in communication with dramatic societies, clubs, or the other wards of greater age and experience, who are trying to exercise an elevating influence in the productions they put forward. To uplift, to instruct, at the same time that they amuse, ought to be their motto. Nothing is more painful to the discerning mind than to see in our missionary farewells, for instance, selections from the rag time, slang, or trivial classes of music.

In our musical renditions especially, care should be taken to secure selections of a higher grade than that which we often use. It is pleasant to note that the published programs of the joint meetings of the Mutual Improvement Associations on the first Sunday of each month, show an improvement over those of only a short time ago. The ward authorities, who are accustomed to leave the choice of these numbers to the younger officials of the associations, should see that there is a kindly censorship exercised over the class and grade of selections announced for Sunday evening renditions. The careful president and amusement committee, by noting what other wards are doing, from the publication of these programs in the Deseret News and the Improvement Messenger, can soon become posted as to what represents the best in the list of renditions, and learn the class that ought to be avoided.

The amateur dramatic clubs and societies which are constantly springing up throughout the Church, especially in the wards which are provided with suitable amusement halls, deserve encouragement, but they need, at the same time, the guiding hand of an experienced mentor, and if they have not such a one at their head or among their number, they ought to be required to work in harmony with, and under the direction of the amusement committee of their wards. There is so much to be avoided, such a wilderness of trash from which to choose, that the inexperienced are almost certain to select the wrong thing in making their choice of a play on which to begin work. Assuming that the local forces have only a fair amount of histrionic talent, there is a limitless field of standard plays, short or long, easy or difficult, suited to all grades, from which selection can be made. These are published at prices within the reach of all, and catalogues describing what the plays are like, naming the number of characters, describing the scenery, costumes, etc., required, can be obtained without any charge whatever. Those who have had experience along those lines, know where such catalogues and plays can be obtained. To such as have not, a letter to the Deseret News Book Store, which maintains a play department and has close relations with the leading dramatic publishers, or to the dramatic or music instructor of the University of Utah, the Latter-day Saints’ University in Salt Lake, the Brigham Young University of Provo, or the Agricultural College of Logan, will bring the necessary advice and counsel as to the proper steps to be taken. While you are choosing, let me advise that the widest of berths be given to the “blood and thunder” dramas, plays of gore and revenge, and dramas or comedies in which the sex problem is made to play a leading part, and that preference be given to the clean English comedies and dramas, such as Robertson and Henry J. Byron delighted the world with a few years ago. Such plays as Our Boys, Uncle, Sweethearts, School, Caste, Engaged, Home, etc., are samples of good language and interesting plots, and they point a clean and healthy moral at the same time.

A very entertaining and instructive evening’s entertainment, and one that gives opportunity to a large amount of talent, is to arrange a concert program interspersed with recitations, vocal and instrumental music, etc., as a first part, and to conclude with a comedy or farce which runs thirty or forty minutes. There is an endless field from which to choose of such works; one act pieces that can be recommended are such as My Turn Next, Lend me Five Shillings, A Clerical Error, The Highland Legacy, Old Cronies, A Cup of Tea, The Happy Pair, Barbara, Sunset, My Milliner’s Bill, Comedy and Tragedy, Drifted Apart, etc. A number of these are serious and should not be attempted unless the talent selected to portray them is of a high character. One act operas and operettas are also most pleasant forms of amusement, and correspondence with any of the leading music firms will bring a list of works well within the average company’s ability to render.

If your society or club is older and more experienced and can depend upon the financial patronage that will justify it, copyrighted plays such as Esmeralda, Hazel Kirke, Young Mrs. Winthrop, the Banker’s Daughter, Confusion, The Private Secretary, The Silver King, An American Citizen, The Money Spinner, etc., can all be recommended, though some of them require special scenery.

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Improvement Era, v13 n6, April 1910

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I love Whitney’s qualifications for those involved with ‘amusements.’ While there certainly are today people that meet these qualifications, I’m not at all sure we can find them in all wards. I wonder how many Church members are “in touch with what is going on in the world, who read, and who keep in communication with dramatic societies, clubs, or the other wards of greater age and experience.” Fortunately, it isn’t hard to develop that competency; but it does take work and a willingness to see and be involved in the world of theatre–something that may even suffer from a certain stigma among Mormons today.

I also enjoyed some of Whitney’s language. “A wilderness of trash” has to be more accurate today than when he described it, given the ease of distributing works digitally. It also, I think, justifies the need for “mentors,” in Whitney’s day, or “gatekeepers” as we might describe them today (although I like the idea of mentors better). Regardless of what we call them, they are part of the kind of infrastructure we need for Mormon theater, and indeed literature, to be successful.

Other elements of Whitney’s essay are a bit more anachronistic. MIA programs are no longer published in the Deseret News, and before reading this I didn’t even know what the Improvement Messenger was[1. A search of the Church History Library catalog shows that it was a periodical for the MIA published from 1897 to 1931.]! In addition, I can honestly say that I’ve never heard of a single one of the plays that Whitney recommends[2. Then again, I am not familiar with any plays from that period, with the exception of those by Shaw and Oscar Wilde.].

Also perhaps anachronistic is Whitney’s suggestion that MIAs and amusements committees consult with the “Deseret News Book Store” and its play department. I’m sure that its successor, Deseret Book, does not have a play department (would we even find plays there today?). We might have better luck checking with BYU for recommendations (although I’d bet that whoever responded would be surprised at the request because I doubt they get such requests anymore), but I’m fairly sure that places like the University of Utah and Utah State (successor to the Agricultural College) would today find such a request amusing and not be sure how to respond.

This then brings us back to the issue of infrastructure. At the cusp of a golden age for Mormons participation in drama, Whitney could make many assumptions that were true in the vast majority of wards; that there was interest in drama, that someone in each ward had participated in or knew the local theatrical groups, that the academic institutions could respond to requests for help and give good, reliable information that fit community values, that wards had a stage, that the Church saw dramatic activities as part of its mission, etc.

Today, do we have that interest? Do we have a place where Mormons can go for advice? Do we have stages in most ward buildings? Is drama considered part of the Church’s program? Sadly, and perhaps rightly in some cases, these things are not true today. But, for Mormon drama to flower, we do need a substitute for these things, for this infrastructure. And for Mormon literature to flower, we need similar infrastructure in the other literary forms. And for the forseeable future, the responsibility for creating and maintaining that infrastructure is on us.

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