Fires of the Mind as “Mormon Tragedy”

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I’m reading the Mahonri Stewart-edited collection Saints on Stage, the first play in which is Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind (1974). One of the great things about Saints on Stage is Mahonri’s historical descriptions of the impact the plays had during their original productions. In the case of Fires of the Mind, seems like it was something of a doozy when it showed up on BYU campus. A contemporary account from the Daily Universe recounts this story:

Between acts on Saturday, a cast member found two girls crying and asked, “Is the play upsetting you? One of the girls responded, “Isn’t it supposed to?”

As I read the play for myself, I found myself thinking of the recent Scott Hales post on “Mormon Tragedy.”

“Mormon writers,” Scott writes, “who want to deal in tragedy, therefore, must be willing to damn characters–especially characters who are worth saving.”

Fires of the Mind‘s character-worth-saving is Elder Johnson, one of a handful of American and Canadian missionaries we meet in Taiwan. One of the play’s delights in 2014 is its snapshot of the 1970s missionary world, a world similar but changed:

LUCAS. I wonder if he could teach me how to live on eighty bucks a month.

JOHNSON. Is that all you get?

LUCAS. Well, my folks don’t have much. They’re not too jazzed about my mission anyway. Our seventies quorum is helping out.

Johnson’s problem is a shaky faith. He feels he gets answers to his prayers then talks himself out of those answers. He’s looking for a bigger answer, a more undisregardable answer, an earthshaker. His fellow missionaries’ tolerance for his ongoing skepticism-slash-sign-seeking ranges a lot—from the sympathetic to the you-don’t-even-belong-here. Johnson, meanwhile, finds distinct pleasure in saying the shocking thing and in his radically honest agnosticism.

But how honest is he really?

LUCAS. Come on, Johnson. Nobody lives in uncertainty. You may think you do and torment yourself with arguments to keep yourself satisfied, but agnosticism has become your creed. You’re proud of it. It’s made you an individual. You’ve found your niche. The good but dissenting Mormon, who lives the principles but questions the doctrines. The man above. Pride, Johnson, and a pattern for life every bit as tight, if not so common, as the bourgeois Mormon lifestyle that bugs you so much. You’ve told us all what a puppet your father is. Well, the world pulls your strings too, buddy. And you jump.

Johnson, of course, has “thought of all this before.” Lucas, kindly, argues that ultimately Johnson’s “agnosticism is one big front of fear.” Johnson feels what Lucas says is true, but he utterly refuses to accept God on mere feelings. He wants to move beyond any possible intellectual uncertainty as well. But, of course, he also knows that does not describe faith. And although he “believe[s] in God . . . at least part of the time, and the rest of the time [he] hope[s],” he remains unwilling to choose sides.

Elliot manages to make Johnson’s faith appear deep and significant even while Johnson himself refuses to recognize it as such. And so, at the end, when Johnson moves from mere spiritual coldness to sins of the flesh (the sin Lucas claims to be his peculiar temptation among the missionaries in the house), it’s hard to be sure how much of his decision is based on his crush on a girl (which has been clearly demonstrated, though never stated) and how much is his desire to prove he’s not subject to an uncertain God.

Either way, the decision is a deliberate move from seeking for grace to embracing access to sin. Although Holly is hardly a trollop, by removing his necktie and sneaking out the backdoor with her even as his companion shares the good news of their mission “promotions,”*  Johnson marks a clear symbolic moment of decision. He has rejected faith. And he may damage a teenage girl in the process.*

As Scott, wrote, ” in fiction, characters become tragic when they seek escape from the present and fail to find the pathway back from the delusion of their distraction.” Johnson has chosen his delusion again and again. Which is tragic, but a minor tragedy as long as he keep juggling delusion with faith. When he drops faith—and takes another along with him—then he becomes a tragic character, and one worth weeping over.

40th anniversary:
Fires of the Mind was first performed at Brigham Young University
from October 31 to November 15, 1974.

9 thoughts on “Fires of the Mind as “Mormon Tragedy””

  1. An excellent illustration. Which makes me wonder: How many genuinely tragic (by this definition) characters does Mormon literature offer? Not all that many, I suspect–because faithful Mormon readers find them too painful to read/watch (especially when there are so many real-life examples around us), and because non-Mormon audiences fail to see the tragedy in a rejection of Mormon ideals and teachings.

    Which is an oversimplification, because obviously some Mormon readers *can* appreciate works of this type, and some Mormon writers probably can write about rejection of faith effectively enough to move even non-Mormon readers. But I think it’s an uphill battle in both cases. (I suspect that much also depends on the particular nature of the fall from grace that is being depicted, both in how it is received by other Mormons and in how it is viewed by non-Mormons.)

    What other examples come to mind of Mormon tragedy by this particular definition? Maybe Tom Rogers’s play “Fire in the Bones,” about John D. Lee. Others?

  2. .

    When Scott was talking about it before, I had a hard time of thinking of concrete examples—especially if we limit the lists to protagonists (rather than minor characters—which is a large part of why I needed to write about this play.

    Speaking of Rogers though, I also read his Huebener recently (the next play in Saints on Stage) and while Helmuth’s decision to die rather than refute his principles or betray his friends could be read as traditionally tragic, in the sense discussed here, fully the opposite.

  3. Exactly. Huebener is hardly a tragedy in that sense. I’m not even completely sure about Fire in the Bones, because — as best I can recall — we don’t actually see Lee’s mistaken decisions on-stage. Rather, what we see is the fallout from decisions that he clearly *thought* were the right decisions, but that brought on him the condemnation of those he most wanted to please.

    FYI, as of next summer sometime (as currently estimated), all of Tom Rogers’s plays will be available electronically from the Maxwell Institute website, as an adjunct to a collection of Tom’s essays that they’ll be publishing. At least, that’s the plan as I currently understand it…

  4. Thanks for revisiting my blog post on tragedy. I keep meaning to develop it into an essay and shop it around.

    Based on what I’ve read of his work, I think Levi Peterson is one of our more tragic writers. Aspen Marooney, in my mind, ends on a more tragic note than most Mormon novels. As Jonathan points out, though, it is extremely hard to find pure tragedy in Mormon literature.

  5. Excellent analysis of the play, Theric! I especially like your take on Mormon Tragedy, which I would like to see more of. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think our greatest text of Mormon tragedy is the Book of Mormon itself, if you take the Nephites as a collective character (http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=6972).

    I really do hope that Robert Elliott gets out of the writer’s block he’s had since the 70s and gives us another play. Fires of the Mind is brilliant and one of Mormonism’s best plays.

  6. I’ve seen Eric Samuelsen write in a tragic vein, by the way (Gadianton may or may not fit). My Fading Flowers may count?

    Also, I don’t think tragic characters are without redemption–sometimes they’re redeemed through the tragedy. King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet–they’re all characters who receive some redemption in the end. Usually tragedy is coupled with “catastrophe,” not necessarily “damnation” (although there are cases, like Faustus or Richard III, where damnation certainly is thrown in). The tragic flaw often works in spite a character’s good parts, but it doesn’t necessarily overwhelm those qualities.

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