When we hear principles taught from the pulpit, they sometimes seem remote, disconnected from reality. So speakers often add stories, sometimes fictional, to their sermons, so that we can put the principle in context. The stories produced during the Home Literature movement are often in that vein, what are sometimes called “didactic” stories, with a clear moral teaching the principle that the author wants to communicate.
In this series I’ve presented excerpts from many sermons and essays that demonstrate what Mormons have thought and discussed about literature. Today’s text is a little different, because it is an excerpt from a short story. But, it still fits, because in this story Nephi Anderson, dean of the Home Literature movement, preaches about literature–specifically what kinds of drama should be presented.
While far from the best of Anderson’s short stories, this story was written relatively late in his career. But despite the weakness of the story, it was awarded first place in the Improvement Era‘s short story contest in 1916 and published in June accompanied by illustrations by Mormon artist Le Conte Stewart. Like most of the rest of his work, Anderson can’t help but put a positive spin on the story as he tries to make a point about what literature should be. But I haven’t included the full story below; I’ve excerpted the part that makes Anderson’s point about drama. To read the full story follow this link.
The Testing of Gilda
by Nephi Anderson
The third act of the play was hastening to its dramatic close, and the packed house sat breathlessly awaiting the climax.
Would Laura go back to her life of sin? Would the polished, wealthy, influential man of the world prevail upon her to give up the struggle with failure and poverty and go back to him? Laura was unable to pay the landlady the rent for her simple lodgings. She lunched in her room on crackers and a bottle of milk. Her clothes were getting shabby. She was financially “down and out.” She was discouraged beyond words. And just then came this man and offered to take her back, clothe her in silks, feed her with the finest in the land, and see that she had a leading part in the theatrical world in which he was interested. The struggle to decide was on.
But what would John say, John, the man whom she had left back in Colorado–the man who loved her, and whom she loved? They had met out there, they had forgiven each other their failings for the sake of the true love which had come to them. They had parted, she to go back to New York and make her career on the stage, he “to make his pile” before he would come to claim her. But John had, seemingly, forgotten her, had not sent her any money to help her. What would John say?
It was so much easier to go with this man who would provide her with all the material luxuries she desired, yes, so much easier. Could she not go back to the old life just for a little while? She would not tell John, though she had promised to tell him if she ever did. She had to live–
There was a period of tense silence on the stage as well as in the auditorium. Laura stood by the open window looking out at the smoke and traffic of the crowded city. The man stood at the farther end of the room, watching his victim, waiting for the decision which he knew would be for him. Laura turned slowly, lifted a haggard face to the man, and began: “I will–”
Just then a young girl arose from a seat in the front row of the gallery of the theatre, and in a voice loud enough to be heard in all parts of the house, she cried:
“Don’t go, oh, don’t go with him!”
There was a momentary pause in the play, a murmur of amused comment by the audience, and then the act was closed. Laura went back to her life of shame–she chose the easier way.
Following the above, the story focuses on the actress who plays Laura, Gilda Edgeworth. A local amateur actress, Gilda had found success in the plays produced by Walter Holt, a newcomer to the small western city where he had started a stock company that gave daily performances. But after the above performance, Gilda asked Walter to talk with her at her home the next day.
“Thank you for coming,” [Gilda] said, as she seated herself in a chair opposite him by the grate. “I wanted to tell you that I cannot go on with the play we are rehearsing.”
“Oh, what is the matter? are you not well?”
“I’m well enough. It isn’t that. I don’t think I’m doing just the right thing to present to the public what I am doing–to hold up to them such ideas and ideals.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“Well, that you may understand, let me make some comments on the play we have just closed. All along I have been troubled about it, but I closed my heart against what I supposed was foolish sentiment, and went on with it to the end.”
“You don’t mean that interruption last evening. Why, that was a wonderful compliment to your acting. The girl was carried away. She thought for the moment that it was real.”
“No, Mr. Holt, I don’t mean that, although the incident had a deep meaning. It was more than an incident, it was a warning, an expression of a feeling that was general in that big audience last night. Listen”–the speaker leaned into the glow of the fire which played on her expressive face–“that girl who could not keep still is a neighbor of ours. I know her and she knows me. This morning she came to beg my pardon. She sat right there in the chair you are in, and, with tears in her eyes, she said this:
” ‘Miss Gilda, it may have been foolish of me, but I couldn’t help it. Your acting became real to me. I followed you in your struggles to do the right thing–there were twelve of us girls up there, and some of them I know need just now all the assistance they can get to keep right. We followed you. We gloried in your pluck. We felt for you, we lived with you. You became our goddess. And then just when you should have shown your grit, when you should have spurned the base propositions of your tempter, why, you failed–you failed us. You chose the easiest way. Oh, if you had only died fighting! What an inspiration you would have been to us.’ “
Walter Holt did not smile at this recital. When he was not watching Miss Edgeworth’s face, he was looking into the fire.
“What could I say to that, Mr. Holt? I tried, in a halting way, to explain that it was just a play; but to tell you the simple truth I had no argument to refute that girl’s case against me.”
“Well, you know, Miss Edgeworth, art is not always pleasant. Ours is to hold up the mirror to nature, and often ugly and sad things are reflected.”
“I don’t object to holding up the ugly and the sad, if there is some good end to be gained; but consider, for a moment, ‘The Downard Road.’ All through the play, the sin of immorality is treated as something quite commonplace. Virtue is disposed of for fine food and clothes. Mr. Holt, you have not lived in this community long; perhaps you do not know that nine-tenths of our audience, last night, have been taught that adultery is the greatest sin one can commit, next to the shedding of innocent blood. Our young men and young women have been admonished to guard their virtue as sacredly as their lives. I shudder when I think that by my acting I might have lessened this teaching, that I might have intimated to those young girls that to sin is a possible way of escape from poverty.”
He murmured something about art.
“Art,” she exclaimed, in tone and gesture which she could never hope to equal on the stage, “the art of living is greater than the art of acting. What are the things of art in comparison to the things of life? What is my stage career when weighed against even the humblest of God’s creatures?” She arose and stepped to the table where she nervously opened and closed the book she had been reading. “No, I’m through with acting, if by it I may suggest that the downward road is preferable because it is easiest.”
“Another thing,” she interrupted him as he was about to speak, “did it ever strike you that ‘The Downward Road‘ makes the sin of lying grosser than that of immorality. Why, the male characters prate of the despicableness of the deceit of lying; but there is no evidence of a troubled conscience in regard to the immoral lives they lead.”
“What then shall we do with ‘Without the Bonds?’ ” asked Mr. Holt. “Of course, I see why you refuse to play Valerie West in that.”
“That’s why I am telling you now so that you may get someone else to take my part. I’m through.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Edgeworth.”
“I don’t know what you are sorry for–excuse me, Mr. Holt,” she smiled at him as he looked up from his contemplation of the fire; “but if you are sorry unto repentance, don’t put on ‘Without the Bonds.’ ”
“It’s a bad play, bad for this community, bad for my girl friends. Listen, Mr. Holt: Valerie West, the pure, simple-minded artist’s model draws everybody’s sympathies to her. She and the artist, for whom she poses, fall in love. He wishes to marry her. She refuses, because such a marriage would estrange him from his family–it would ruin him socially. Then, in one of the great climaxes of the play she seems to rise above commonplace conventionality and offers to be his wife, without the marriage form; and she does this in a way that implies that she is not doing a great wrong, but that she is sacrificing for the sake of love. The impression goes out that she is doing a truly heroic act. Now, Mr. Holt, I can imagine my girl friends sitting in front of me, following my every word and gesture in the part of Valerie, wrapped up in me, and then, being shocked with such a proposition from a pure minded girl.”
“Perhaps they would not be shocked,” suggested he.
“Your New York or Chicago audiences may not be, but I would be sorry indeed if ours were not shocked. I don’t think our people are calloused to such things, and I hope they never shall be. A tender consciousness of right and wrong is a strong safeguard.”
“But in the end Valerie learns that she is wrong in her views.”
“In the book, that is true, but not in the play. Someone with a distorted idea of art has taken liberties with the story. The play is bad. I wouldn’t present it.”
Improvement Era, v19 n8, June 1916
I don’t know if I can explain his point any better than he has. But while I agree in theory with Anderson’s claims, I don’t think that many plays, or much of any form of literature, is so easily characterized. Literature isn’t usually that black and white, and when it is, it usually isn’t very good.
As far as I can tell, neither The Downward Road nor Without the Bonds were plays that were actually produced, so we have to rely on Anderson’s characterization of these imaginary works. But I can imagine similar works being written and performed today, especially Without the Bonds, which doesn’t seem too far from what appears in many films today.
But, the case that is more likely today, I think, is that the immoral actions that Anderson and that Mormons today would object to are only a part of a more complicated plot, in which other actions may even show moral courage and be highly laudable. The difficulty then becomes how to judge the whole when parts show disparate moral value.
One thought on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Nephi Anderson on the immoral in drama”
A couple thoughts.
1. This issue seems to have mattered a lot to Anderson. Not just these fictional plays and this short story, but his entire ouevre keeps returning to this conflict.
2. I think this issue is slightly different in that the protag is an LDS artist. And she might be right. Consider they uproar when Kirby Heywood did a beer commercial. Act is the word we use both for pretending and for doing. It can be hard to tell them apart.
3. In conversation with Thomas Glenn when he was in town doing a performance with a local opera company: he talked me out of coming to the show because he wasn’t sure he wanted me seeing him mostly naked in BSDM gear doing bad things. Like Glinda, he has things he will not do on stage, but the gray area is large and uncomfortable.