Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #79: Joseph J. Cannon on Why the M.I.A. did Drama

Where should literature fit in our priorities? Is it more important to preach the gospel than put on a play? Is culture worth time away from service? While its probably not that simple–one of these things doesn’t necessarily take away from another–still our Mormon culture and its products are often assumed to be less important than the stated gospel priorities of teaching the gospel and redeeming the dead. The following passage shows that the Church doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see it that way.

Its author, Joseph J. Cannon, was a son of George Q. Cannon born in 1877. He served an LDS mission to Sweden in 1899, and accompanied Apostle Francis M. Lyman to Russia and Finland, where they dedicated both lands for the preaching of the gospel. After returning from a mission, Joseph married Florence Groesbeck and then served a single term in the Utah House of Representatives from 1909 to 1911, while investigating business pursuits in Colombia. After Florence died unexpectedly in 1912 he married Ramona Wilcox in 1913 and spent the rest of the decade trying to build a business in Colombia. After he ran into legal troubles in 1921, he returned to the U.S. and started a poultry farm and milk supply business. In 1930 he became Vice-President of the Theater’s Guild in Salt Lake City and in 1931 he was named managing editor of the Deseret News. Just 3 years later he was called as president of the British Mission. On his return to the U.S., Joseph was called as President of the Temple Square Mission and named to the YMMIA General Board, where he served until his death in 1945. During his life, Joseph maintained a strong interest in literature and writing, especially drama. He wrote several plays that were published by the YMMIA, and several others are among the family papers. In addition he wrote frequently for LDS publications, including the following article.

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The Little Theater Movement of the Church

By Joseph J. Cannon,
First Assistant General Superintendent, Y.M.M.I.A.

“¦

SOMEONE asks, in these serious times and with the great message the Latter-day Saints have to bear, should we be putting on plays? The answer is decidedly, yes. Narrowing individual or community life too much is not wholesome. Except professionally no one wishes to spend all his time at putting on plays, but there are many reasons for keeping the theater alive during these and all times. Morale is an elusive but great part of living.

The message was just as important during the days of Nauvoo or the settlement of the Utah valleys, but Joseph Smith and Brigham Young not only encouraged the theater, they themselves acted on the stage. With the Latter-day Saints, this art has had a romantic past. Since the M.I.A. has been given the responsibility of carrying on recreation for the church, the church authorities, past and present, have given unwavering and substantial support to dramatic art. Many thousands of dollars have been invested in little theatres–recreation halls with their stages and equipment.

And why?

The Latter-day Saints believe in education and culture, and drama is one of the fine arts.

They believe in recreation, and the stage provides wonderful entertainment for those both behind and in front of the curtain.

Taking a part on the stage, whether it be villain or hero, servant or grand dame, when done with sincerity and intelligence, is a broadener of personality.

Putting on a play well requires about as high a degree of cooperation as any shared effort.

The power to express thoughts and emotions so that they are conveyed truly to others is one of the highest manifestations of life. This is of course the very essence of the play. Because of that fact a performance may be put on without stage–penthouse style[1. He doesn’t mean the magazine, of course. He means the following OED definition for “Penthouse”: “Designating a theatre-in-the-round, or a style of production employing this method of staging”]–and if well done, move the audience deeply.

Ours is a vocal mission in the world. Preaching the gospel is done very largely and most effectively by personal contact. The gospel conversation, the discussion, the sermon, the stormy street meeting where questions are asked and answered, these are the common means of spreading the great message.

This is a highly dramatic dispensation. The history of the people is written in fire. The individuals are accustomed to great and significant changes of fortune. The future promises to be equally as dramatic as the past, perhaps more so. If we are to carry on such a movement, should we not develop our understanding of the basic principles of drama, so that we may appreciate this wonderful movement we are helping with our lives and our might?

Improvement Era, v. 46 n10. October, 1943.

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There is a lot for the literature buff (to say nothing of the dramaturg) to like here. Cannon is clearly saying that drama and literature are important, even in the face of priorities like missionary work. And he points out that the mission of the M.I.A. was to “carry on recreation for the church,” although with the demise of the M.I.A. in the early 1970s the Church doesn’t seem to have any organ that still has this responsibility.

Cannon also sees as important the training that drama gives participants in expressing themselves “so that they are conveyed truly to others.” And he points out that since “ours is a vocal mission to the world” and “this is a highly dramatic dispensation,” such skills are needed in “spreading the great message.”

Unfortunately, Cannon doesn’t go to the next logical step (perhaps because he felt his audience wasn’t ready for it?) and suggest that creating literary works–theatrical productions in this case–could be used to spread the gospel. Fortunately, at the time this was written, Mormon culture already had those who were doing so.

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