Terryl Givens’ ‘People of Paradox’ is an important attempt to develop a theoretical and empirical account of Mormon Culture. In this post, I want to take issue with his exploration of the transition in Theatre. In short I believe Givens has failed to situate Mormonism’s approach to Theatre within the broader context of changes in class and highbrow culture in America.
Givens argues that the theatre was important for early Mormons, even though very little original work was published. This interest has diminished. However, his account fails to develop the association between changing Mormon interests and practices and the rise of the ‘highbrow’ in America. Consequently, he misses how the legitimation of the Theatre and the move toward middle-class assimilation shifted the cultural landscape of the Latter-day Saints. Moreover, in trying to provide a ‘cultural history’ of Mormonism he seems to have adopted too readily a contemporary frame of American culture which has invariably shaped that history. As a result, the data Givens pulls together suggest that his argument is a series of holes held together by string.
Informal productions, the ‘Nauvoo Dramatic Company’ and the Masonic/Cultural Hall became early symbols, at least in Givens’ reading, of a tolerant attitude toward the Theatre; a tolerance that ran counter to the religious sensibilities of that era. BY is famously recognised as the moving force behind the Salt Lake Theatre and Givens notes that Young’s ‘theatrical foray was propitious, for the theatre in America was at last entering into a period of respectability’.
This nod to ‘respectability’ reflects one of a series of moments when the connections between the wider context become apparent but are never explored fully. For example, when Emerson is quoted as opining that the Theatre is a ‘sewer’ there is never a discussion of how theatre was both counter-culture and entering respectability. When Givens resumes the narrative, his opening quotation brings the focus right onto the page when he cites a 1911 editorial: ‘when we really get a high class performance in that theatre, the seats are almost empty’ (p. 265). Class, respectability and consumerism could become key components of the argument but they not given life.
1928 saw the end of the Salt Lake Theatre and the emergence of the “road show”; it was in this year that the MIA formally adopted this form of ‘little theatre’ as an official programme. Concurrently, 1929 was the height of the ‘little theatre’ movement in America and, although the decline may have been a little more recaltricant among Mormons, “road shows” eventually (almost) died amongst them as well. The decline of ‘little theatre’ was matched by the rising legitimacy of the stage as a ‘highbrow’ form of aesthetic enjoyment.
This legitimacy emerged through a series of changes in the way in which theatre was funded and the process by which people could aspire to be the benefactors of these institutions. Theatres began to model themselves on symphony orchestras by professionally organising the company and then seeking trustees from the local area. In connection with these developments, the dramatic canon began to take shape and Art rather than entertainment became the principle focus. Theatre for entertainment (i.e. little theatre) was depreciated and considered of little significance. Givens himself, although somewhat optimistic about the possibility of “road shows”, laments the lowbrow quality of the productions.
Simply stated three transitions in American theatre culture also explain the major changes in Mormon culture. The segmentation of theatre moved from being centred on presentation and ambience to genre. Second, local control of theatre was reduced as the cost of production increased. Third, the explosion of film reconfigured the relationship between enterntainment and art in terms of the theatre. In fact, the lagged rise of the cinema in Utah may provide one useful explanation for the delayed decline of the roadshow.
Givens is perhaps guilty of trying too hard to defend the significance of Mormon theatrical life in order to demonstrate a degree of cultural sophistication (at least in embryo) rather than observing how Mormon theatre is a by-product of broader trends. Rather than ‘little theatre’ being a symptom of a unique cultural heritage it seems that this development is more easily situated within American culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead it would be more productive to examine these trends as localised aberrations that need to be accounted for: why did roadshows persist (my stake still has them yearly)? How did the types of productions permitted on the stage of the Salt Lake theatre differ from other similar venues? Clearly, more work needs to be done to unpack the decline of the roadshow, the rise of the legitimacy of the theatre in the American cultural field and the increased assimilation of Mormons into this culture.