Sundry Moldy Solecisms #5 The Drown’ed Book by Mahonri Stewart, (play review)

A few weeks ago our son told us one of his co-workers was performing in Annie at the American Fork amphitheater. The night we went there was some light rain making a beautiful pattern in the spotlights. At the end of the play Annie’s optimism inspires President Roosevelt’s cabinet to come up with ideas that will pull America out of the great depression, including the Works Progress Administration, which put men across the country to work doing things like building stone amphitheaters on hillsides in small towns like American Fork and Provo. There’s a third amphitheater up Provo Canyon at BYU’s Aspen Grove campground. I believe it has a stream running between the stage and audience.

I’ve never seen a performance there, but I have performed at the Castle Amphitheater in Provo. In the mid-1970s Orson Scott Card got a $10,000 grant for his Utah Valley Repertory Theater Company and made some improvements, like replacing the crumbling stone and mortar stage with cement, which now is showing some wear.

I had a minor part in Romeo and Juliet, and remember large audiences for the plays there, so I was a bit surprised that the audience for Mahonri Stewart’s new play, The Drown’ed Book, or, the History of William Shakespeare, Part Last was fairly small.  The Castle could easily hold an audience 20 times as great, the kind of audience the play deserves. (Parking is another matter, but the Seven Peaks parking lot is a short walk away.)

Playgoers will recognize echoes of situations from Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Thomas Quiney (Sam Schofield)’s funny mocking soliloquy against Stratford’s wealthiest citizen, apparently inspired by his father’s having had to beg a loan from Shakespeare. His anger and vituperation seem as out of proportion to the humiliation as Iago’s rage at being passed over for a promotion.

The rage colors his courtship of Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Zel Bromley), who has her own rage against her father for being absent when her twin Hamnet died. “That was really his name?” my son asked. “I thought he said ‘Hamlet’ the first time.”

Hamnet is not haunted by a ghost, though–he is a ghost (Hyrum Stewart, the playwright’s son playing the playwright’s son). He has a single line, repeated throughout the play, “Joy,” and it contrasts with the sorrow the characters feel, especially when he tries to comfort Judith.

Thomas and Judith’s courtship proceeds, as you would expect, like Katherine and Petruchio’s from Taming of the Shrew, but as the play progresses he begins to feel more like Bertram from All’s Well That End’s Well. (Words Anne Hathaway (Shawnda Moss) says at the end of the play.)

The costs to the family of William  (Bradley Moss) being absent for so much of his family’s life ripple throughout the play. Anne’s statement “Come home, William” brought to mind a visual image of the same line in Tim Slover’s March Tale. (Tim played Romeo in Card’s aforementioned production.) I hear the line as a homage to March Tale, which takes place at the other end of Shakespeare’s career, the beginning.

But if March Tale is about a young playwright beginning to come into his own, The Drown’ed Book is about the costs of that art. Bradley Moss flubbed a few lines and I found myself wondering if that wasn’t deliberate, part of the poignance of William’s words being inadequate to solve the problems and salve the sorrows of his family life when it mirrors situations he was able to resolve in his plays.

The play begins with William borrowing a device from Much Ado About Nothing to nudge his daughter Susannah (Belinda Purdum) and her suitor John Hall (Peter F. Christensen) toward the altar, but as the tension in the family builds, Anne says to him, “No more poetry!”

The wit and eloquence Shakespeare used to shape his plays and the world they shaped fail William’s family as they wonder what characters they represent to their father. Am I Goneril or Regan, Judith asks at one point.

At the end of the play William presents his wife and daughters with newly written  plays, telling them he has been working in a new form that mixes comedy and tragedy, and The Drown’ed Book does as well.

I  chatted with Mahonri during the intermission, mentioning an essay where Robert Graves said that when he was writing A Wife For Mr. Milton he only used words that had been in the language at that time. Mahonri laughed and described his own stack of books and online dictionaries to accomplish the same feat.

The result is a delightful play with an ensemble that works well together. My son, who played Leonato in a high school production of Much Ado About Nothing–and who greatly enjoyed catching Hero as she fainted each night, thought it was a little slow, even boring at times, but was gratified to hear Dogberry’s comment about his piece of flesh echoed in the play. So there’s even something for the groundlings–along with a great view of Provo at night, and even heated seats.

Joy and enjoy.

Tickets for the Sept. 1-2 performances are still available

Sundry Moldy Solecisms #4 Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays by Mahonri Stewart

Title: Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays
Author: Mahonri Stewart
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Plays, Fantasy
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 451
ISBN: 9-780988-323384
Price: $18.95

Why, when I think about Mahonri Stewart’s recent collection, Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays, do I want to call it Evening Primrose? Oh yes, that’s the classic story by John Collier about a secret society living inside a department store.

Evening Eucalyptus does not take place in a department store at night, or within miles of one, indeed within miles of any urban setting, being set in the Australian outback, but it is a dark story about light-skinned dark people who despise dark-skinned light people, people with dark secrets and healing light.

Shortly after reading it I came across a book on the sales table at the American Fork library, Banjo Paterson’s People. Paterson is mentioned a few times in the play in the same way Americans might mention Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost, but his poetry is more like cowboy poetry in its setting, more like poetry you would expect from Louis L’Amour.

What serendipity. Hugh Nibley said if you pay attention to serendipitous moments you will see more of them, meaning they’ll happen more often, (see the link on the phrase sees the world as soulless below, which I found just after finishing this review) meaning they’re not simply coincidences, meaning there are intelligences besides our own acting in the universe. This idea that there are intelligences in nature besides our own runs throughout Evening Eucalyptus both as a play and a collection. This can be difficult for 21st century rationalist skeptics to understand, or to stand under. And I’m not talking about scientists.

Suppose there’s a landslide inside the strip mine across the valley–the one I lament each time I walk around the building during lunch–we don’t say, “The Oquirrh mountains are showing their displeasure at being desecrated,” or “the ghosts of the Oquirrhs are rising up to take vengeance.” Instead, we talk about shoring up the sides of the pit, clearing up the landslide, or closing the mine. It’s an engineering problem, not a problem of being out of community with other intelligent beings or entities we share the earth with.

No, the earth is here for us to use, and we’re the ones in charge. That attitude is also apparent in our relations with each other, not just with the world around us.

Consider the American national motto, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Lay aside the merits or demerits of the idea and consider the grammar, which invites us to see the world in terms of our desires. No, that’s wrong, there’s no us in the statement. The pronouns are second person and not necessarily plural.

Power in twenty-first century post-industrial capitalism comes from setting objectives and goals and deadlines and measuring my progress towards them, from exploiting my resources to the fullest.

Now, what happens when a culture that sees the world as soulless, as resource to be exploited, meets up with a culture that doesn’t? Mahonri Stewart explored the disaster that encounter brings upon a contemporary middle-class urban/suburban American family in A Roof Overhead.

In Evening Eucalyptus he explores the effects of that encounter on a whole culture, Australian aborigines.  That term is capitalized when it refers to a specific culture, or to someone who fits the Australian legal definition of an Aborigine, but does not appear in the play. Rather, Pindari tells his childhood friend,

Arthur, there is something I haven’t told you. My family was part of the Bundjalung Nation there. We were in Northern Australia when I was born.

ARTHUR. How did you end up in Melbourne when we were children then? Your tribe was on the other side of the continent.

PINDARI. My family had a dream We followed a series of songlines to travel there.

I take it that means Pindari’s family was called across the continent to meet and help Arthur’s family just as he has now been called into the outback to help Arthur.

ARTHUR. Okay, Pindari, I don’t know what your game is, but it’s not funny anymore.

PINDARI. It never was a game! You never understood.

(p. 120)

I hear an echo here of that moment in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle where one of the Pevensies refers to Narnia as “all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

Much of the play’s action revolves around trying to remove two eucalyptus stumps left by the previous owners. (Rich symbols. They remind me of a comment I read once to the effect that Eugene O’Neill loved symbols so much I’m not sure he was always aware when he was using them.)

Arthur points out ax marks on another eucalyptus tree to the housekeeper,

ARTHUR. The marks–they tried to cut this one down, like the ones in the back.

ABIGAIL. Yes, but they had a hard time doing it. It was like the tree was deflecting their axes.

ARTHUR. Truly?

ABIGAIL. When they took down the other trees in the back, I had nightmares about it for weeks. I am grateful this one put up a fight.

(p. 103)

A fight indeed, telling them in a dream to move out, that the land was waiting for the next inhabitant. (Surely I hear an echo of the scene in The Two Towers where the Ents  go marching one by one to battle, especially since the book’s introductory essay begins, “The great god of Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a jealous god.”)

The book documents two productions. One was recorded in three parts, and Duckduckgo  has links to them.

Looking at my reading log one night I noticed I had recorded the title as The Death of Eurydice and Other Plays, perhaps because it’s the first play in the volume, but also because of what the story means to me. Walking down Stone Way in Seattle one night I imagined Sisyphus at the top of Stone Way watching his stone roll down the hill into Lake Union, then going to retrieve it. That inspired a story about a young man’s grief at becoming a visitor to his children. A few years later I wrote a companion, the story he writes.

It involves that moment I had heard about in Ovid where Orpheus sings and all activity in the underworld stops, Ixion’s wheel stops turning, Tantalos’ water stops receding. Sitting there on his stone Sisyphus realizes that if such beauty can stop all activity the decrees of Zeus must not be unalterable, and when he reaches the top of the hill, instead of stepping back from his rock he pushes it off course, knocking over Ixion’s wheel and splashing through Tantalos’ pond, giving him a drink. Then all Hades breaks loose from their jail.

This is not at all what happens in The Death of Euridyce, but it applies Mormon ideas to the Underworld, as does Eurydice,  which reminds me a great deal of that poem I came across where Oedipus meets the sphinx in his blindness and she tells him he gave her the wrong answer. (With just that much to go on the Duckduck tells me it is Muriel Rukeyser’s Myth.)  There’s another person involved in the riddle, just as Orpheus is not the only person puzzling over Eurydice’s death.

(There is an honorable tradition going back beyond Dante, or even Boethius, of Christianizing the Greek myths, but I suspect Stewart’s example here is more modern, something like  C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, given his admiration for Lewis expressed in Swallow the Sun.)

And what playwright among you, if his children ask for a play will give them a frozen heavy rock? So The Snow Queen‘s dedication invites his children to see it as a little closer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original than is Disney’s Frozen.

The many many glass bottles around the shop in Jinn remind me of all those prophecy containers in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it raises a question related to Dumbledore’s question to Harry about whether prophecy is destiny, whether a prophecy has to be fulfilled just because it’s been uttered. That is, the bottles in this shop are not simply colorful containers, and though they may look empty, they do contain, and they pertain to individuals coming into the shop.

Various members of the Slover family hometaught my parents for years, so when Tim’s play about the trial of Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s murderers, Hancock County, premiered at BYU as part of a Cultural Olympiad connected to some sporting event in Salt Lake, they invited us to go with them. But first an ice cream social down at the church, where Tim spoke briefly about writing the play. He said he offered redemption to every character. Some took it, some did not. (Mahonri included Hancock County in his anthology Saints on StageI think there are videos of the production on Ewetube, where we like sheep like to go astray–though I haven’t looked for Joyful Noise there.)

Tim’s comment moved me greatly, and I look for offers of redemption in art. I  often don’t see them, especially in shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and NCIS, where the antagonists are mostly presented as implacable, dangerous and unredeemable. So I was happy to see the offer of redemption feature prominently in the next two plays, Evening Eucalyptus, and The Rings of the Tree. 

The Rings of the Tree also takes on the theme of imposed immortality, Serendipitously, Frankenstein and Dracula came up on my listening list in October. I finished the one on the 30th and started the other on the 31st. It was a much better novel than I had expected, and the scene where Jonathan watches Dracula crawl down the wall reminded me of something my brother Dennis had read to the effect that T.S, Eliot didn’t gloss a reference to that scene in his notes to The Wasteland because he figured all his readers would just understand the reference.

Then came Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s Dracula: The Undead. I hesitated because the copy on the CD holder made it sound like Dracula was the hero of the novel, but I wondered what Stoker’s great-grandnephew would make of the story. Dacre Stoker noted that the action of the novel takes place around the time of Jack the Ripper, and Van Helsing’s dismemberment of vampires is similar to the Ripper’s dismemberment of prostitutes.

The novel gets progressively more ingenious, or silly, I’m not sure which—including that moment where, like Oedipus and Luke Skywalker, our hero learns of his true patrimony. But Dacre Stoker doesn’t have his ancestor’s sensitivity to moral ambiguity. When the Romanian actor Basarab defends Dracula as the Christian savior of Transylvania who rode into battle with 40,000 prisoners impaled on pikes, thus causing massive fear in the invaders, no one challenges Basarab’s dismissal of his action as just what needed to be done.

There’s nothing in it to match the priest’s question to Ben Mears at the end of Stephen King’s prologue to his retelling of Dracula, ‘Salem’s LotThe priest tells Ben the boy he travels with has revealed a very serious situation, and asks Ben what he will do to rectify it.

That’s not the kind of imposed immortality we see in The Rings of the Tree or The Opposing Wheel, but the moral ambiguity of releasing someone from imposed immortality is similar, and the dangers of revising a classic are as well. So, what if that Connecticut Yankee coming to King Arthur’s court was a Mormon? Why not involve Mormons in the tropes and conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres? The Opposing Wheel does that, but I’m not sure how successfully.

In junior high I graduated from Earle Stanley Gardner to Agatha Christie  (In elementary school it had been my goal to read all 80 Perry Mason novels, but after spending my 7th grade year in Finland, where I was only able to find one in Oulu’s Kirjasto, and none in the university’s, I lost interest.) Needing a topic for my 9th grade English paper I decided to look at Christie’s use of nursery rhymes and other poetry in her titles, like this one

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

But I never read Tennyson’s full poem, never read Idylls of the King, (though I did buy a copy of Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and listened many times) and the legend of King Arthur has never captured me, so I’m not sure whether the twists and turns in The Opposing Wheel are ingenious, silly, campy or what, though I quite like one character’s declaration that in discarding Guinevere Arthur threw away the true scabbard for his sword. I should also mention that the absurdities I see in the play may reflect what happens when you try to work out the intricacies of the convention that Merlin lived backwards in time.

Most of the plays in this volume have some kind of multi-media elements, including rear-projection screens, video, dance, and puppetry, and I kept wondering what Mahonri Stewart would do as a director with a play like Eugene O’Neill’s late one-act Hughie, where O’Neill indulged his penchant for novelistic stage directions, describing night clerk Charlie Hughes’ thoughts, including a fantasy about riding on the back of a fire engine, in great detail as he listens to Erie Smith’s monologue about Charlie’s predecessor.

I read an article years ago which said most productions don’t depict Charlie’s thoughts–traditionally they’re supposed to provide a rich interior presence conveyed by the actor playing Charlie, but one production filmed them, and rear projected them on a screen. O’Neill was much too theatrical to have been satisfied with rich undepicted thoughts going through an actor’s mind–just consider the incessant drumbeat in The Emperor Jones. (Incidentally, Wikipedia says Paul Robeson’s 1933 film adaptation was the first to give a black actor top billing over a white actor. A few years ago I came across an LP on the Orem Library’s sales table of James Earl Jones in the role. I look forward to listening.)

O’Neill drew heavily on Greek myths for his plays, but not as a world where his plays would take place–though perhaps setting Mourning Becomes Electra after the Civil War suggested that the myths replay themselves in our lives in the rationalist-skeptical 20th century. Mahonri Stewart feels quite comfortable giving his plays mythical or fantastic settings. Indeed, a Sphinx is a character in the last play, The Emperor Wolf: A Post-Apocalyptic Fairy Tale, which feels to me a lot like The Roada listen I found surprisingly tender given all the violence I’ve heard about in Cormac McCarthy’s work. (And then I remember what Eric Samuelsen told me about the final image in No Country for Old Men being an image of atonement.)

I just now reread the Playwright’s Note for The Emperor Wolf and found this paragraph:

I am a religious man. The theology, ritual and meaning making of my people is very important to me, so if you want to read with that lens in mind you’ll find much to mine in this play about who I am religiously. But I am also a mythical man. I believe there is a rich spirituality in myths to be discovered even for the irreligious. Even when a myth is non-literal it does not make it any less true. This is the world I find myself continuously drawn into and where my spirituality continues to flourish and change in unexpected ways as I’ve opened myself up to stories from many cultures that are not my own–but have become a part of me, nonetheless (365).

Compare that with this sentence I read and noted just last week:

This absence of tension between pagan and Christian tradition was able to foster a milieu in which the concept of a twofold approach to truth, one via the exercise of the reason, one via revelation, was natural and easy to maintain.

Last summer I came upon a Librivox recording of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, something I’ve long wanted to read, which inspired me to make a note to myself about writing a dialogue between Boethius and that other worthy murdered in jail, Joseph Smith (and Scott Hales agreed it would make a fun paper for this year’s AML conference). And John who baptised his beheader in his blood should surely make an appearance, and why not Jeremiah and Joseph’s namesake ancestor in their pits–yea, even Jonah?

So last week I started reading Victor Watts’ translation of The Consolation, and came across the sentence quoted above (viii). Serendipity. For the last year and a half nearly, in my column over on Dawning of a Brighter Day I’ve been exploring how scripture and prophets behave rhetorically, countering the oft-heard assertion that everything in the scriptures is figurative and was never meant to be taken literally. And here I come upon two quotes about revelation and myth existing side-by-side with no irritable reaching after hierarchical dominance.

Indeed, if I’m rightly reading that comment about Excalibur’s true sheath, stories are much more important here than hierarchy, and hierarchy may be inimical to the redemptive power of story. It is my pleasure to read, write, work and live among people who seek after that redemptive power. Thank you all.

 

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?” Continue reading “Fires of the Mind as “Mormon Tragedy””

Just a reminder

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If you’re in California or Arizona, Ben Abbott’s Questions of the Heart is only halfway through it’s tour and you’re still in its future.

It’s been getting great reviews as it goes and, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only bit of theater performed to acclaim in both LDS churches and gay bars.

Don’t miss it!

8/23 ““ Berkeley, CA

The Osher Studio
2055 Center Street

9/2 ““ 9/3 ““ San Luis Obispo, CA

Steynberg Gallery
1531 Montery Street

9/9 ““ Ventura, CA

Location TBA

9/11 ““ Los Angeles, CA

Location TBA

9/15 ““ Mesa, AZ

Location TBA

 

Back in the doll’s house, one woman said, while another but smiled and shook her head.

. I was doing some reading about The Relief Society Magazine last week and came across this article which made me horribly melancholy for a world I never knew. I recognize that Correlation was vital in terms of managing a single faith of many languages, but some real losses accompanied those real gains, one of which was the rich literary culture of the Church’s previous generation of periodicals. I commend the article to your soul. Today on the Relief Society’s birthday however, on this, an arts site, I am writing about the article’s revelation that one of the texts recommended for sisters’ consideration and study was Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. A daring choice, it seems to me, even now when the recommendation is 80 years old, given the nervousness allegedly revealed in many Relief Society book group’s rules. From the 1934 recommendation (I have made some slight adjustments without having recourse to the original scans or much concern with its paragraphing): Continue reading “Back in the doll’s house, one woman said, while another but smiled and shook her head.”

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #83: Orson F. Whitney on sincerity and oratory

OFWhitneyPerhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.

Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #83: Orson F. Whitney on sincerity and oratory”

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.

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