Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #78: David O. McKay on the purpose of Drama in the MIA

David O. McKayFor many Mormons today, a play about a murderous school teacher would be hard to classify as “uplifting.” And while I would be surprised to hear anyone today suggest that all drama was in conflict with the gospel, the condemnation of the media today by many Mormons hardly seems different. But in the search for what is “uplifting” it might be nice to define what we mean by that term.

Unfortunately, President David O. McKay, in discussing the purpose of drama, didn’t really define what he meant by “uplifting,” although he does dispute the claims of those who say drama is in conflict with the gospel. He also gives two reasons why drama should be “uplifting and educational”–which might help define what “uplifting” means. Or, we might find a clue in the examples he gives.



by David O. McKay

Throughout the years many people, particularly church -going people, have considered the stage more of an evil than a good influence, one worker going so far as to declare that if one accept the Bible, one must condemn the stage, or vice versa — “The same individual cannot defend both.” Such an extreme attitude, of course, condemns the theatre as being “from first to last an evil place.”[1. “The only way to justify the stage, as it is, as it ever has been, as it is ever likely to be, is to condemn the Bible: the same individual cannot defend both.” Rev. John Angell James (1785-1859) in “The Christian father’s present to his children.” (R. Carter, 1824). In the 1853 edition, this quote is found on p. 252 in the chapter “On Theatrical Amusements.” The book was published in the U.S. the following year (1825).

James was a “non-conformist” congregational minister in Birmingham, England who was best known for his popular writings, although critics claim that few of his ideas were original. He was a founder of the Congregational Union and an abolitionist.

Rev. James’ claim was controversial at that time, and was challenged that same year (1824) by Joseph Parkes, who published “The plagiary “warned”: a vindication of the drama, the stage and public morals” (J. Drake, 1824) in response.]

The theatre can be made a wholesome means of recreation and entertainment, or it can be used to present the sensual and base in human nature. Hamlet was right when he said,

The purpose of playing, both at first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature; scorn, her own image; and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.[2. Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2.]

Now, as there are some human relations in life which are proper in privacy but objectionable in the presence of others, so there are phases of social relations which never should be depicted on the stage. Some theatre owners justify such objectionable presentations by claiming that the “public demands them.” The fact is that only the low and vulgar, whose daily thoughts and actions are so tinctured, are pleasantly entertained by vulgarity, obscenity, or even the depicting of the “shady” side of society.

It is the duty of the M.I.A. to present in the drama that which is not only entertaining but uplifting and educational — plays that emphasize the best in human relations rather than the lowest. This should be done for several reasons; two, particularly:

In the first place, young people memorizing their roles may retain throughout their lives passages learned and repeated in these home dramatics. As I write this line, there come to mind lines in “Eugene Aram,”[3. Thomas, William Thomas and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. “Eugene Aram; or, Saint Robert’s cave, a drama in three acts.” (1832). Play was based on Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, “Eugene Aram” (1831)] presented by an M.I.A. group in Huntsville, sixty years ago.

Ye mystic lights — worlds upon worlds — infinite, incalculable — Can we look upon you, note your appointed order and your unwavering course, and not feel that we are indeed the poorest puppets of an all-pervading and resistless destiny?

Over sixty years — and the sentiments, and even the scenes still remain!

A second reason, and more important, for presenting meritorious plays is their effect upon the audience. To young people especially, a well-written, well-enacted play is not only a “mirror” of nature — it is reality itself; and formative impressions are made for good or ill.

The drama is a very important phase of the M.I.A. It is entertaining, contributes to social refinement and to educational development. It should create a taste for the best and highest in literature and in life.

McKay, David O. Pathways to Happiness (Bookcraft, 1964)


I enjoyed researching his reference to the claim made by Rev. John Angell James (see footnote 1)–I’m now fascinated with the history of how the idea that drama somehow conflicts with the gospel might have been introduced. Given that Rev. James wasn’t known for original ideas, it doesn’t seem likely that he originated the idea. But it is an idea that seems to have been perpetuated among some parts of Christianity until today, although it has apparently been controversial since the beginning.

I’m intrigued by McKay’s claim that there are “some human relations in life which are proper in privacy but objectionable in the presence of others” as a basis for what can be portrayed in media. The idea seems unworkable in today’s society, in which we seem to want to unmask everything. And since what is private seems to change with changes in culture, what would be proper at one point in time might be objectionable in another. Still, I don’t think the idea should be dismissed lightly.

Perhaps the most enlightening part of this quotation is not its preference for drama that is “uplifting and educational,” as McKay says is the MIA’s duty–we still hear echoes of that statement today. It is instead in McKay’s first example. In suggesting that he still remembers lines from an MIA play he participated in 60 years earlier, he gives us insight into what might be meant by “uplifting.”

The play he mentions, Eugene Aram, was based on the life of an 18th century Yorkshire schoolteacher of that name who murdered a friend in 1744 but escaped suspicion for nearly 15 years, during which he continued to work in schools. The case was famous in England and the trial proceedings were published, leading to several treatments in fiction, including an 1831 novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which Aram is a romantic figure torn between violence and visionary ideals. The play McKay was in was first produced the following year. McKay’s quotation also appears in the novel.

I wasn’t been able to find a copy of the play on the Internet (although the novel is easy to find), so I have no idea if the murder is portrayed in the play. [Is murder the kind of private human relation which is objectionable in the presence of others?] Even if it isn’t, the subject seems a little salacious, and I wonder if it would fit what many Mormons today consider “uplifting.” Is McKay trying to give a negative example? He doesn’t say, but I get the feeling from the quotation that he doesn’t see it that way. Am I wrong to think that McKay sees the play “Eugene Aram” as “uplifting?”

While all this helps us understand a little better what McKay is saying, I still believe we need a better, more objective, definition of “uplifting” in order to use it as a criterion for media.



3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #78: David O. McKay on the purpose of Drama in the MIA”

  1. As I understand it, Christian concerns about theater began in the Roman period when theater was sometimes kinda crazy. Like: real body parts being thrown out on stage for special effects crazy.

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