Sundry Moldy Solecisms # 3 Mahonri Stewart, A Roof Overhead

Title: A Roof Overhead and Other Plays
Author: Mahonri Stewart
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Plays
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 390
Binding: Paper
ISBN13: 978-0-9883233-7-7
Price: $17.95

The summer after my junior year in high school, or maybe the year after, I saw an audition notice for a BYU graduate student production, The Persecution and Crucifiction of Jesus: Four Plays from the Wakefield Mystery Cycle.

Our director, Rodger, explained how mystery plays were performed by medieval guilds, so we would be playing both medieval guildsmen and the characters they were playing. And since the plays were travelling shows, Rodger built a pageant wagon for the set and planned to perform at the University Mall.

He decided later that the sacred character of the plays didn’t lend itself to audiences wandering in and out as they would at a mall, so we set up the pageant wagon and the audience seating on the Pardoe Theater stage, close enough to see the audience jump when the Roman soldiers were pounding the nails into Jesus’s hands. (There was a washer in his palm that the end of the wooden nail fit into, so there was no damage, but what the audience could imagine.)

Then they raised up the cross and dropped it into a hole at the back of the pageant wagon. (Audience gasps.) My character was the one who took Jesus down, draping a long cloth around his waist and up over the arms of the cross to hold him in place so the others could undo the ropes holding his arms and legs to the cross. Then we would lower him down into the arms of Mary and the burial party. Of course, Rodger cautioned us to be very careful not to drop him, as the actor would have no way to break his fall, but would surely break his legs.

So when I heard that Mahonri Stewart’s new book of plays, A Roof Overhead. concluded with Yeshua, A Gospel Play, I was interested to see what he would do with the mystery play form.

I opened the book and looked at the blurbs, and this one for Friends of God caught my eye:

Good script, good story, good actors, good Lord go see it. . . This is a story about how the good Lord tries his friends.

Oh dear. I wish I had been a little more circumspect with that mild oath. I remember the old joke prayer “Good food, good meat, good Lord let’s eat!” coming to mind while I was writing the review and thought it would be a nice phrase to play with. It was an enthusiastic review of a good production, though I don’t recall whether I said that I thought Friends of God was actually two plays, one about the introduction of polygamy in Nauvoo and one about the Martyrdom.

Part of my impression it was two stripped down plays came from the scene where Heber and Vilate Kimball come to Joseph after he has revealed the law of plural marriage to the apostles. If you were in seminary about 40 years ago you’re likely to have received a handout called “The Testing of Heber and Vilate Kimball.”

Asking the DuckDuck to go get it I find it comes from that most interesting writer about tendrils, motley visions, and Shaxberds and Miltons, Orson F. Whitney, in his biography of his grandfather, Life of Heber C. Kimball An Apostle: The Father and Founder of the British Mission Ch. XLVI, 331-338.

Whitney relates how Joseph told Heber and Vilate the Lord had given Vilate to him, Joseph, as wife. The play barely shows the last part of this story, Heber and Vilate coming to Joseph. If you didn’t know Whitney’s story you would think they’re just coming to assent to polygamy.

I wondered if this was the playwright’s way of suggesting the story was questionable, or just severely cutting things for lack of time, so when I read the play I wanted to test that perception. Mahonri notes that he cut out Brigham and Mary Ann Young to shorten the play, and the impression I got from reading is of a lot of things happening very quickly, too quickly to tell everything, too quickly, maybe to take it all in.

The natural followup would be a play about the succession crisis in Nauvoo, but that’s the male point of view, the mens’ struggle. A few years after Friends of God Mahonri produced The Fading Flower, and I kept thinking that it does for Emma Smith what Thomas Pasatieri’s The Trial of Mary Lincoln (I always think of it as The Insanity Trial of Mary Todd Lincoln) did for another wife reeling after her husband’s assassination. I don’t remember if I saw the full PBS production of Pasatieri’s opera–it’s been more than 40 years–but it was gripping, and so is The Fading Flower.

The next play in the volume is “White Mountain,” a short piece. When I read it I had just finished listening to Orson Scott Card’s Heartfire and wondered briefly if I was in the same world. In Heartfire Alvin Maker finds himself in a world where practicing his gifts is considered witchcraft, a capital offense.

(It’s a very odd story that sounds like a retelling of Alvin Journeyman, complete with the dramatic trial, but with Alvin refusing to let his lawyer argue for the abolition of anti-witchery laws, because they might eventually do some good. Suggesting we need corrupt laws, laws forbidding the exercise of gifts given from God violates the logic of the story-it would be like having Joseph Smith argue for the necessity of creeds–and I kept wondering if Card wasn’t making some point about the dangers of legislating from the bench–as if the judiciary wasn’t where we test the constitutionality of our laws.)

“White Mountain” is not the alternate America of Alvin Maker–it’s the spiritually burning over America of young Joseph Smith’s time–but it is a time where there’s some peril or disrepute in exercising spiritual gifts, so it works as a nice coda for Friends of God.

This is a book about tradition, and how we place ourselves relative to tradition, so the next play, also short begins with a sonnet containing a pun reminiscent of Robert Greene’s famous comment about an upstart playwright who considered himself “in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

From Gospel traditions and Elizabethan theatrical traditions the title play brings us to American tradition, with the opening stage directions reminiscent of the stage directions in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. (Some of the staging in Evening Eucalyptus and Other Plays reminded me of O’Neill’s late one-act “Hughie,” but I’ll save that for the next review.)

As T. S. Eliot reminded us, the counterpart to tradition is the individual talent, and in A Roof Overhead Sam Forest–an individually talented Sociology graduate student–takes lodging in a traditional Mormon home. Eliot says the individual talent absorbs into the tradition, both changing and being changed by it–but in this play it’s nothing that simple.

I was looking in some library in Seattle one day for a funny piece Leslie Norris had read in class a few years earlier, “Smokey the Bear Sutra” by Gary Snyder, and came across Snyder’s two-page essay “The Yogin and the Philosopher.” I didn’t think Snyder’s environmentalism would take a congenial view towards patriarchal culture generally, but I found Snyder’s spirituality, his distinction between the yogin’s way of knowing and philosophical empiricism, quite in line with a lot of things I had been thinking the last few years.

I mentioned that in Charles Johnson’s Aesthetics class and he said, “That doesn’t surprise me. Gary started out as a priest.”

Likewise in this play we wouldn’t expect someone named for the Goddess, Sam’s friend Ashera, to feel at home among a Mormon family, but the Fieldings know Ashera is Yahweh’s consort, and have read Margaret Barker’s account of “the Deuteronomists and King Josiah taking away plain and precious truths out of the Bible about our Heavenly Mother . . .” (p.193). So she does feel at home.

For Sam, living with the Fieldings is an exercise in boundary crossing, since she has to pass through their living room to get to her basement apartment. Or is it to go down into the belly of the beast?

(For a good backdrop to this play read Mahonri’s essay on Dawning of a Brighter Day, “Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright.”)

Shortly after reading this play, July 24th, we went to our stake’s Trek fireside. You know it’s Trek time when you see the stake presidency and various other leaders sporting beards (or you get confused wondering why a clean-shaven hierarchy is suddenly wearing facial hair). I think trekking started as a Utah tradition, going out to Martin’s Cove in Wyoming and pulling handcarts along some of the Willey and Martin trail, but it has grown. I remember my sister-in-law mentioning the Elma Stake trek in southwestern Washington a few years ago, and this trek took place in the Manti-Lasal National Forest, where they met a much larger party of trekkers coming in the opposite direction.

Trek is a way of guiding youth through an ordeal, giving them tools to deal with future challenges. The theme was “I Can Do Hard Things,” and at one point I supposed that one of the hard things ahead of some trekkers might be graduate school, but that things could be as hard at a conservative school as at a liberal.

Thinking about how many treks there are it occurred to me someone might write a story about trek culture and the industry around it. Oh, I’m a writer, I could do that. But how would I balance the sacred aspect of trekking with the more secular aspects of reporting, of looking at the sociology and commerce of a trek? For the participants Trek is a sacred experience. Would I want to detract from that? At the end of the fireside I realized A Roof Overhead deals with just this question, not with the tensions with conservative modernity–that comes up in Evening Eucalyptus (review forthcoming)–but with Sam’s inability to make room in her formal academic training to respect the emotional and spiritual lives of the people she’s studying.

Put another way, consider Heisenberg’s insight that the act of observing changes what we’re observing. Sam is a Sociology student, but when she focuses her sights on the Fielding family, not as an equal but as a superior looking down in derision, the act of focusing changes the situation and leads to consequences she didn’t anticipate.

Without saying more about the play I’ll just say that the announcement of those consequences is a powerful dramatic moment, maybe the best in a book of fine dramatic moments.

So now we come to Yeshua: A Gospel Play in Two Acts. I’ll start by mentioning one of many delights in the play. Scholars typically see the betrayer’s name as coming from Ishkerioth, the man from Kerioth, but Hebrew/Aramaic is written without vowels and with dots to indicate where the vowels should be. So the Aramaic letters that got transliterated into Greek in the gospels would have been *SC*R*T with vowel points before the first, third and fourth letters. But put the first vowel point after the first letter and what you get is Sicari–revolutionary, zealot, assassin, terrorist, freedom fighter, depending on whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the blade.

So in an early scene we have Yehuda Sicari meeting with Bar Abba who instructs him to infiltrate Yeshua’s inner circle and destroy him if he can’t turn him to Bar Abba’s cause. (Yeshua knows this and tells Yehudah he’ll have to choose which Son of the Father he will serve.) It’s a brilliant scene, telling us right up front why a group of Jews would be shouting for a rabbi’s death and Bar Abba’s release, as if answering objections of scholars like Willis Barnstone in his translation and commentary, The New Covenant.

Several of Mahonri’s scenes read like he is answering the objections of biblical scholars. For example, in The Gospel According to Jesus Steven Mitchell does not include the scene where Jesus commends Mary into John’s keeping at the foot of the cross. Mark 15:40 says the women were “looking on afar off,” too far to hear Jesus, so this touching moment must be fictional. Mahonri places this scene at the Last Supper suggesting that though John’s account may not have been chronologically accurate it still records a historical moment.

We know a depiction can be historically inaccurate and yet still historical if we think about something like Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting  “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The flag has the wrong design, the crossing was in dark night, not at first light, and Washington wouldn’t have been standing in a heroic pose which could capsize the boat, to name a few inaccuracies, but the inaccuracies hardly means Washington didn’t cross the Delaware.

Similarly, just because John places the account in an unlikely spot in his narrative doesn’t automatically mean Jesus didn’t commend his mother to John’s care. It only means John had dramatic or rhetorical purposes in placing the incident where he did, which were more important than strict accuracy.

I’ll leave you to find other ties with biblical scholarship, and end with a tie to Friends of God. Yeshua begins with a Pharisee coming to The Baptist for baptism, which The Baptist refuses because the Pharisee has been very rude to another baptism seeker and refuses to apologize.

The moment ties back to that electrifying moment in Friends of God where an apostle brings his wife to Joseph to be sealed and Joseph refuses. Why? Joseph wants to discuss the matter privately, but the apostle insists his wife can hear the reason. “You are an adulterer, William.”

A Roof Overhead and Other Plays traces early work of a promising playwright with a rich dramatic sense and some nice comic timing. I wish it a long shelf life, but I wish the plays an even longer stage life, broken bones and all.

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