Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama

Conflict of Cultures

As a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and an active member of the theatrical community, the conflict between the LGBT community and the Church is an issue that has been impossible to avoid for me. Some people’s reluctance in talking about the issue altogether has not been an option for me. I have a number of friends and loved ones (both with connections to the Church and those without) who identify themselves as somewhere on the LGBT spectrum.  I mean, let’s be frank, I’m in theatre. In or out of Utah, there are always going to be many of my peers, co-workers, fellow artists and friends who are going to be gay. So it’s something I have had to face, even within my own soul and identity.

I personally know a number of gay Mormons. Many have left the faith (sometimes hostilely), feeling as if their worldview and practices are simply incompatible with the Mormon culture. Yet some have desperately tried to hang on, groping about for some middle way, whether by trying to make a heterosexual lifestyle work for them, living celibate, or hoping (sometimes beyond hope) that the Church will one day change its stance regarding gay marriage. And then there are those Mormons who feel so attached to the issue, even when they are not personally gay, that it has caused some painful soul searching of their own.

Conversely, I have also experienced some very personal and pointed prejudice directed towards me from members of the theatrical community because I am a card carrying, committed Mormon. I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached , but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.

I have no easy answers for any of it, but I have made a study of a number of plays that have dealt with the conflict between Mormonism and homosexual lifestyles and tried to grapple with the conflict between these two cultures in the best way I can. Searching through these plays has been at times uncomfortable, often challenging (in both the positive and negative aspects of that word), and at choice moments even enlightening and inspiring.  However, it’s made me doubly sensitive to how Mormons are represented in such stories, as well as tender hearted towards those who are caught between the monoliths of these cultures, especially those who identify with both. Continue reading “Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama”

Nephi Anderson, WWI, and the Curse of Sexual Sin

If you read Nephi Anderson’s fiction for its aesthetic value, as the Mormon critics of the 1960s and 70s did, you’ll likely be disappointed–unless your aesthetic standards allow for “preachiness,” that catch-all term commonly used when describing Mormon fiction’s apparent tendency to use art as a vehicle for gospel teaching.

If you read his fiction as products of turn-of-the-century Mormon and American culture, however, you’ll likely have a more satisfying experience. Anderson, after all, was very much a man of his day–and keenly aware of the world around him. Rather than being an aesthetic failure, his work is a rich repository of responses to the cultural changes happening in Utah and the rest of the nation.

In fact, looking at Anderson’s work from this perspective helps us better understand some of his more problematic works, like his 1918 short story “Forfeits,” a second place winner in one of the monthly fiction contests the Improvement Era sponsored for a time. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can check it out here.)

In the story, a young man, Gale Thompson, returns to his Utah hometown nearly five years after “seek[ing] adventure and perchance fortune in the world” (519). By chance, Gale meets up with Dick Stevens, a friend who once accompanied him in his wanderings, who has since returned home and married Gale’s sister, Laura. During this reunion, it comes out that Dick and Laura’s child–an ambiguously sexed child that both men refer to only as “it”–was born blind because of a sexually transmitted disease Dick had contracted while he and Gale lived in Chicago and “dabble[d] in forbidden things” (521). The news sobers Gale, who fears that he may still carry the disease–even though a quack city doctor once pronounced him cured. His joyful return is over in an instant:

Continue reading “Nephi Anderson, WWI, and the Curse of Sexual Sin”

An Online Mormon Literature Course?

itunesu_iconWhen I was given an iPhone for Christmas last year, I began exploring the apps and other materials that are available for the iPhone and came across iTunes U–Apple’s open courseware platform, which currently hosts thousands of “courses,” all available for free. [Unfortunately, since Apple’s courses are generally just video or audio files of lectures, they aren’t fullfledged courses.] Apple isn’t the only platform. Perhaps better known is MIT’s Open Courseware project, which includes 2,100 courses (full-fledged courses this time), also all for free. There are many others also.

But I didn’t find any courses in one of my principal areas of interest: Mormonism.

Continue reading “An Online Mormon Literature Course?”

Apropos of nothing 2012 edition

Apropos of nothing, I present “Speculations: Wine III”. You can read the rest of Speculations: Wine as well as its companion piece Speculations: Oil in the Spring 2012 issue of Dialogue. If you are not a subscriber and have no desire to be one, then you can download Speculations: Wine/Oil for $1.99 via Dialogue‘s new Premium Digital Articles offering.

Speculations: Wine

III.

If you refuse to eat beef Burgundy because of the wine, you might be a Mormon.

If you refuse to eat beef Burgundy because of the beef, you might be a Mormon.

If you don’t make beef Burgundy at home or order it in a restaurant but will eat it if served to you at a luncheon or in a friend’s home, you might be a Mormon.

If you make beef Burgundy at home with a non-alcoholic red wine, you might be a Mormon.

If you make your beef Burgundy with Two Buck Chuck and bring it to a rolling boil for a good twenty minutes, you might be a Mormon.

If you make your beef Burgundy with a California Burgundy and let it gently simmer for five minutes, you might be a Mormon.

If you make your beef Burgundy with a French Burgundy and take a quick sip before pouring the wine in, you might be a Mormon.

If you have a glass of wine along with your beef Burgundy, you might be a Mormon. But only as long as you either (1) feel as if you’re doing something totally transgressive, or (2) feel guilty about it afterwards. Or both.

If you make beef bourguignon instead of beef Burgundy, then you might be a Mormon. But you definitely are a food snob. Repent and snob no more!

If you make bÅ“uf bourguignon instead of beef Burgundy, then you served a mission to France. We’re so sorry. Now get over yourself and call it beef Burgundy like the rest of us.

I Will Praise Thee with the Psaltery & Lyre

Psaltery-&-Lyre

Psaltery and Lyre images from Wikimedia Commons

(Cross-posted here.)

In early June, Dayna Patterson launched a new poetry publication called Psaltery & Lyre. It’s housed under the auspices of Doves & Serpents, a group blog that, Dayna told me in an email interaction, “caters to [the] sort of open-minded/misfit Mormon crowd.” In fact, the blog’s byline is “With open minds and Mormon hearts,” a statement that wants to bridge the gap between mind and heart, faith and doubt, although I’m not completely convinced it does that; that, however, is beyond the purview of this post. What matters at the moment is how the relationship Doves & Serpents posits between mind and heart, faith and doubt translates into the cultural work Dayna hopes to accomplish with Psaltery & Lyre. As she comments on the column’s “About” page,

In the words of Canadian poet Anne Simpson, “Poetry dares us to locate the white heat in ourselves, but that isn’t enough: it dares us to translate that searing heat into language that can burn the page” (www.poetryfoundation.org [scroll down]).

In Psaltery & Lyre, we want to publish poetry that burns the page (or the screen). We want poems that push the borders of faith and doubt, sacred and secular. Above all, we seek excellence.

The monotheists of the Old Testament used the psaltery to accompany religious verses (think Psalms). The pagans of ancient Greece played the lyre while singing passionate love lyrics (think Sapphic odes). In Psaltery & Lyre, the sacred and profane share a bed.

So, while the larger blog project of which Psaltery & Lyre is a part is all about boundary pushing, Dayna wants the column to be, as she’s also told me, “just about good poetry. Period. No matter where/who [the poetry] comes from and no matter what [the poetry] is about.” Dayna herself is quite an accomplished poet and her sense of what makes for good poetry seems rooted in her own poetic practice and passion. I trust this means quality verse will take center stage at Psaltery & Lyre.

In my efforts to highlight the emerging faces and spaces of Mormon poetry and to provide a sense of Dayna’s editorial vision for Psaltery & Lyre, I asked her a few questions to which she graciously responded: Continue reading “I Will Praise Thee with the Psaltery & Lyre”

Review: Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_ is a Lonely, Lovely Journey

I had planned on reading Stephen Carter’s What of the Night? on the side, as I worked to plow through other books I wanted to get through. It was a book of personal essays, so it would be easy I thought to read one or two a day, while focusing on the full length fiction on my new pile of books I wanted to read and review. About a day and a half after starting the first essay I had read the entire book in two sittings. Granted, the book is a slim one (168 pages), but the book had caught me off guard with how entrancing and poignant it truly was.

Carter’s voice is intimate–exposed. He speaks of faith and doubt and spirit and family and struggle with the disarming honesty that causes you to lay your judgmental attitudes aside and simply listen to his complex thoughts and simple heart. His tales include his time with Eugene England before he died, the disappointments and triumphs of a Mormon mission, a tutorial through clippings with his grandmother, bright Alaskan lights and dark Alaskan doubts, a black sheep brother who showed him the way, the weight of priesthood, and the liberation of the Spirit. Each essay was carefully crafted like a sonnet or a piece of excellent cinema. Ponderous, vulnerable, honest, loving, good, afraid. Many of the things we carefully sidestep, Carter plunged into and felt his way through it, even when it became painful. It’s a brave, beautiful piece of work. Personal essays aren’t my typical reading, but this particular collection had me enraptured and made me want to pick up some more of Eugene England just to get some more of that style of intimacy and quietly spoken lives.

Now I do have a beef with one of the essays, “The Departed.” I started writing it about in this review, but then realized how disproportionate my discussion about that one essay was becoming in regards to the context of the whole book. So if you’re interested in reading my comments about Richard Dutcher and Eugene England in context of What of the Night? go to this other post here.

As it is, though, I wanted this short review to highlight how truly moved I was by Carter’s work. I recommend it enthusiastically without hesitation. Those who read it will be blessed by an insightful mind, a compassionate soul, and a troubled heart.

Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight

Zarahemla Books hits the sweet spot again with its latest book offering, Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited. The supernatural thriller/YA dark fantasy is a worthy addition to Zarahemla’s quality library of Mormon literature, and continues to showcase the diversity Zarahemla displays on its shelf. Zarahemla is as much of a home for genre fiction, as it is high brow literary novels, as it is for personal essays, as it is for short stories, as it is now for Mormon drama (full disclosure: Zarahemla Books will be publishing a book of two of my plays in the next few weeks, as well as an anthology of Mormon Drama which I helped pull together later this Summer… but I was a big fan of ZB’s approach long before those projects). Dispirited continues Zarahemla’s big tent tradition with its blend of dark, magical realism and young adult sensibility (with a dash of the bizarre just to throw you off kilter).

Dispirited jumps right into the conflict in its first chapter when a young boy named Blake is grieving for his dead mother and so stumbles upon the ability to separate his spirit from his body (astral projection). Thus he travels to the astral plane in search for his mother. However, Blake is in for a rude awakening (or unawakening) when he tries to get back into his body, as he discovers that it has been possessed by a powerful evil spirit who has no intention of giving the poor child his body back. In the next chapter we are introduced to Cathy, years after the inciting incident. Cathy is the step sister of “Blake,” and becomes our main protagonist. The real Blake, now an exiled spirit out of his body, enlists Cathy in the battle over the possession and right to his body.  And then we’re off to the races, plot wise.

I found the initial premise fascinating, partly because I felt it was plausible. I have known people (including a personal friend of mine, as well as a Wiccan who I baptized on my mission) who had claimed to have accomplished this feat of “astral planing,” where they could separate themselves from their bodies, travel in a different plane of existence, and then return to their body (although my friend from my mission claimed that she had difficulty getting back into her body, so she never attempted the experience again). As a believer in this kind of supernatural possibility, having had a few difficult to explain supernatural scenarios in my own life, Perkins had me at the get go with this initial conflict. The central premise seemed real and organic, especially from a Mormon worldview. Sometimes magical realism, from the perspective of a Mormon, simply becomes realism. Continue reading “Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight”