A British Pageant? Part 2

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-DhtK1tGOwwQ/TZD9stcsitI/AAAAAAAAA9Y/mMrBqrJqkzU/s1600/Medieval-Mystery-Plays-image.jpgIn my last post I outlined what I see as the major challenges with trying to hold a British pageant. Pageants are likely to focus on spectacle and fail to reflect the lived faith of those who suffered and struggled for their religion. They will not work as a missionary tool (this will not be The Book of Mormon musical). And they draw on an American model of cultural expression that is somewhat alien to many British Mormons. Creativity and the arts are not areas where I am particularly gifted and so I am sure that others could offer far more exciting possibilities than the ones I outline below. Nevertheless I have offered some ideas around how we might develop this idea of a British Mormon pageant.

If the pageant were to go ahead, what could be done to solve some of these problems that I see. First, connecting the restoration with the reformation might make the narrative more relevant to other UK christians. There are problems with this suggestion, but one approach to the UKs religious history is to the frame the reformation as asking the questions to which the restoration provides the answers. In this narrative, tribute could be paid to religious reformers who have shaped British society. Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery (although this might raise other problems for Mormons) could be represented. So too could we honour musically the hymns of the Wesley’s or Isaac Watts which still remain in our hymnal. It might be wonderful to dramatize the conversion and ministry of the Wesley’s amidst a rendition of ‘Christ the Lord is risen today’.  This approach could allow those who are not of our faith to connect with our story by drawing parallels between Joseph Smith personal conversion and the Wesley’s.

Second, the pageant could highlight narratives of faith that involve transnational migration both from and to the UK. Mormons know well the struggles and sacrifice of those who left Great Britain to worship their God among the Latter-Day Saints. This same narrative of religiously motivated migration is not unique to the Latter-day Saints. Yet, stories of hope and sacrifice are common to many other nationalities and faiths.  Through this perspective it would be possible to tell the story of Mormonism through those who have joined the church in other countries and moved here or who have moved here and joined the church. I do not know whether this would be easy to capture but it would begin to represent the ethnic, cultural and narratival diversity of Mormonism.

Third, while discussing this with Ronan, he reminded me that Britain is the home of the Mystery Play. These tableux-based local productions would tour local towns dramatizing scenes from the Bible. They often involved music and some form of antiphonal song (chant and response). There a number of texts available of these mystery plays and our pageant might draw on these ritual and dramatic forms as a means by which to explore the biblical narrative within the British context.  Mystery plays are not so common today but they are still a part of the faith tradition of many and so, again, this may be a way to speak of our faith across religious divides. We could even develop a Book of Mormon tableaux – though no Aztec iconography please! Although these plays became more dramatic over time they were not always extravagant productions. This is the type of theatre that Mormons could potentially do quite well with our limited resources. Such revivals of the Mystery play have happened at other points in British history and it could be that British Mormons are able to offer their own approach.

To reiterate, I am not convinced that this is the best way forward. In fact, I am certain that others would be able to suggest far more interesting ideas. And yet, I hope that these suggestions show that there are ways of pursuing this project that draw explicitly from the cultural heritage of the UK and from other parts of the world.

Comments

  1. On the other post I suggested telling the twin story of the Saints’ emigration in the 19th century to Zion (and framing this in the wider British Christian story) and the conversion of those new members who immigrate to Britain in the 21st century. They sought Zion there, they find Zion here.

    Do you know who has been charged with writing the Pageant?

  2. On the website there are details of the committee who are working to organise this but I do not know who is involved in actually writing the script.

  3. I like the ideas of reformation and Mystery Plays, but as you said the migration theme might be hard to realize.

  4. Niklas, but not impossible. In fact, I am confident that a number of excellent examples could be found if we worked hard to find them. I can think of one in our stake alone. The one issue might be whether these people can still be alive and whether representing live persons in this way would be appropriate.

  5. Aaron, link?

  6. OK, I found it:

    http://britishpageant.org/

    A cursory look suggests that they main characters will include William Tyndale, Heber C. Kimball, and Jane Benbow, so that’s the English Bible, the 1837 mission, and the United Brethren accounted for. The artistic director is Alexandra Mackenzie-Johns, who has staged LDS events in the US. They have closed applications for composer and music director. They also want folk dancers and bagpipers. It looks like it will be massive and I suspect a very memorable event for those who participate. One hopes that prayers against “moisture” are already being said.

  7. Isn’t it great that they mentioned Jane instead of John Benbow? It is good to have some women in the main characters.
    It is also nice that at least Tyndale is in it, so reformation is at least somehow in the pageant.

  8. Thanks for your very interesting posts Aaron. If I’m allowed I’ll cross post this response on both threads. I must say that I shared your concerns when I first heard of the Pageant- it’s an American thing, but it won’t translate to this country. I do have to admit a conflict of interest at this point as I serve on the committee- but as I have worked with many great people over the last few months to get the pageant up and running the importance of stories from the British Isles to the growth of the Church has remained preeminent in all of our thoughts. I attended a read through of the first draft of the script this past weekend which I have to say both moved and impressed me (neither of which is an easy feat). I am hoping that the healthy British scepticism of which I suffer in abundance can be overcome and people enjoy an experience that is distinctly British. Without giving too much away, the religious history of the Britain does not begin in 1837 and this is explored in the Pageant through figures such as Tyndale and Wycliffe. We are working hard to make sure it appeals to the non-LDS audience as well, but in essence it is an opportunity to strengthen as well as to share our faith. The people who form the committee, have written the script, will write and perform the score, sing in the choir, act the parts will be British and as such aim to provide a “British pageant.” Like Nauvoo it will be spoken live, rather than having a recorded audio track which should help. I’ve rambled, but I guess I’ve had six months to get used to the concept- it should be fab:)

  9. James,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do not know any of the other people involved on the committee but I was pleased to see your name linked with the project.

    Your ‘thumbs-up’ is reassuring and I will be much more positive about the pageant in the future.

    Good luck to all involved.

  10. It was the English Reformation that outlawed the pageant (popish), so a Mormon pageant making connections to the Reformation seems misapplied (and Tyndale really isn’t our kind of guy). Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars has a lot of saw on this topic; that the medieval play was an effective way to teach the populace, much better than Protestant methods. I actually am arguing in my dissertation that medieval mystery plays played an important role in the Restoration. Something to embrace I think.

  11. Steve,
    Interesting stuff. Tyndale is an “officially recognised” non-Mormon good guy (cf. BYU’s “Fires of Faith” doc), so in that sense he’s correlation friendly. John Dee is the most Nauvoo Mormon of the non-Mormon Englishman — maybe he should make an appearance? The United Brethren converts were decidedly un-Nauvooian, of course. Perhaps George Fox or John Wesley would be better? Perhaps an off-Pageant play should be put on in some dusty theatre in Preston.

  12. I certainly think the final result would be interesting to have the narrative arc of a book or movie follow the restoration out of reformation line.

    But a pageant should focus on “our” religious history without co-opting that of others (against their likely wishes) and develop the story around that. If you want to make the story a celebration of how great, noble figures in British religious history asked questions and laid foundations that were later built upon by the Mormons I think you’ll have a LOT more Brits being upset. You’re co-opting stories about their religious history and putting it in a spectacle to further the church’s gains. You’ll have every religious historian decrying this approach and being quoted in articles saying “why Tyndale would have vehemently disagreed with the Mormon pageant” and the like.

    It seems to me the likely story for the pageant would be one of conversion and sacrifice of British at the teaching of living apostles. I realize this story must uncomfortably, for those with a soft anti-American flair, end with the emigration to Zion, but it ultimately doesn’t have to end there. Modern day parallels can be drawn with each of us being responsible to create a bit of heaven on earth by lifting where we stand, so to speak.

    Of course, I can’t help but thing the ultimate pageant would simply portray what we actually believe – the plan of salvation – creation, fall, redemption, continuing revelation, and our role and the church’s role in all of this.

  13. If James is involved, I too am greatly reassured.

    The Mormon pageant idea does seem like an American import; maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. As I see it, there is no harm in experimenting.

  14. Ronan, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and kaphor makes a lot of good point. The only part of Fires of Faith that I was was the end where Tyndale, More, and Boleyn were executed. I really liked that (at least at that point) they included More in the narrative. The bottom line is that More lines up with Mormon doctrine and practice much better than Tyndale did. At the same time, Tyndale’s important and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing him (the people kaphor mentions are right though, Tyndale would have hated Mormonism). I wonder if something like a pageant celebrating the advance of religious freedom in England would be possible. Or that was eclectic and celebrated lots of different groups (groups like Quakers and Methodists were very important for the Restoration, though, as kaphor mentions, celebrating them may offend Quakers and Methodists). And it’s probably a bad idea to mention Dee. But something that show an reasonable accurate portrayal of the the advance of religious freedom in England may be possible.

    The history of religion in England is extremely important for understanding the Restoration, it’s just a veyr complicated story.

  15. I was being tongue-in-cheek about Dee. I take kaphor’s point that co-opting non-Mormon history might be a bad idea actually. I like the religious freedom angle, but I doubt many British Mormons would think of that: we have adopted the idea that religious freedom began in the United States.

  16. After reading Ronan’s comment 6 above (about dancers, bagpipers, composers, it being a massive production, etc.), it hit me: the British Pageant is a Mormon version of the “British History” show put on at the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympic games! (I wonder if they’ll get President Monson to parachute in?)

  17. Full-on religious freedom does find it’s fruition in the US earlier than it does in England but it’s very much an English process. I know an historian named Jordan wrote an important muti-volume history of the development of religious freedom in England about 100 years ago. But that way you could bring up the Baptists and the Quakers since they both advocated religious freedom and they were both persecuted (in both England and New England). Just a thought.

  18. If they can replicate that opening scene of Brunel’s forging of the rings, it will be the greatest thing to happen in the north since the Beatles first played in the Cavern.

  19. I agree — it was an impressive show. In a related question, I wonder if the Pageant would pick up on the England-as-New-Jersualem concept . . . does that theme figure at all in the British Mormon consciousness?

  20. W. K Jordan, The development of religious toleration in England, 4 vols, 1902. I haven’t read it but its a classic. It’s useful to distinguish between religious tolerance and religious freedom. Religious tolerance is “we’re not going to hunt you down and beat you and throw you in jail but you still have certain retractions.” So the Quakers were persecuted in their earliest years, and then tolerated, but because they wouldn’t swear oaths they were not allowed to go to university in the 18th century in the UK. Religious freedom is “you can sort of do what you want within reason.” Tolerance can lead to freedom but both are a process.

    But tolerance is very important for the Restoration. If they Mormons had showed up in England in 1637, it would have been bad news. Much better to show up in 1837.

  21. To illustrate further, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed 4 Quakers in 1660, the King (who of course hated the Puritains) revokes their charter and told them they were not aloud to execute Quakers. So that was one small step and it was imposed in colonial America by the crown.

  22. What I’d love to see is a pageant about Pendle Hill: Catholic resistance, cunning-folk, George Fox, all leading up the Mormons’ success at Chadburn and Downham. It would be really cool to do it on Pendle Hill (I’m joking, sort of).

  23. While I am not personally familiar with them, I know the church has put on a number of successful cultural pageants before the dedications and rededications of temples worldwide. Rumor has it they’re not so bad. I went to one in Anaheim, California for the Newport Beach temple dedication, which of course was super American, but the point is they can be kind of cool. Or super weird. Either way, it can be a cathartic experience for the British Mormons as a whole, and I hope it’s not the disaster you seem to be expecting.

  24. 9 and 13) Aaron and David- no pressure then:) don’t forget applications for auditions are still open!!!

  25. Pendle Hill is the summum bonum, the perfect uniting of virtue and happiness.

  26. There are some wonderful examples of English communities recently resurrecting mystery plays on a very low budget. Even more to the point, one can look to something like the late Peter Bellamy’s folk opera, “The Transports.” Bellamy took a local Norwich story of two of the first Australians, set it to folk-derived tunes, and in the process conveyed a powerful story of suffering, injustice, love, and determination that not only ends well, but shows how that couple helped create a new nation. http://www.bens.connectfree.co.uk/pb/TRANSP.HTM

  27. James, on your head be it. Expect a scathing personal attack if this fails to meet the exacting standards of the BCC community…

  28. I grew up in Oregon, and still live here. Because of the Oregon Trail connection, I think we come in before Utah for the number of pageants. When the church did a multi-stake pageant about 15 years ago, the writers, directors, song writers and actors were all local, and all had previous pageant experience. I have been to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, but even being LDS, it didn’t connect with me in the same way that the Mormon pioneer pageant, written and performed by Oregonians did.

    I think that if members of the church in Britain are writing a pageant for a British audience, that as an American who has to go back 8 generations to find a Welsh born ancestor, all I can do is support those who have been chosen to create the pageant there. I heard a number of the concerns from the first post, about having the pageant here written by Oregonians without significant ties to Utah. Could the pageant be authentic if it was being told by first or second generation members with no Utah pioneers? If you only had one person involved in the writing of the script, songs and lyrics that had gone to BYU, would it be the wrong kind of Mormon? Would the Oregon tradition of Oregon pageants help or hinder non-LDS audiences?

    I worked behind the scenes, and did a lot of the correlating of feedback from members and nonmembers alike. We didn’t specifically ask if anyone was offended by parts of the pageant, although I was in charge of typing up the “other comments,” and trying to keep them in categories. Overwhelmingly, the feedback from nonmembers (not covered by the generic feedback questions) was that they hadn’t realized how bloody the history was that caused the saints to move to Utah, that they hadn’t known early Mormon pioneers had served in the US military as the Mormon Legion, and that they didn’t know that so many people had died on the trek to Utah.

    The goal had been to have at least 100 people accept Book of Mormons, and it was decided that instead of handing them out, that they would simply be under a coveted area, lot for that people would know they were there, with two children from the pageant to answer questions about them being free, and letting them know they could take more than one if they wanted. Each cast member wrote their testimony in two Book of Mormons, and each copy had a pass-along card with information on how to contact the missionaries.

    We ran out of Book of Mormons before the end if the first weekend, and so along with cast members writing in them, the YM and YW in each of the stakes involved got boxes of Book of Mormons to write their testimonies in, since the second weekend had more total tickets, and more tickets that had been given to nonmembers. The two kids became eight, with a couple over the age of twelve who could route people to missionaries on-site with complicated questions about doctrine. There were jokes about the Book of Mormon loaves and fishes, because on the last night there were seven left by the time all was said and done. 693 Book of Mormons had been taken, and youth from all over had been able to add their testimonies to that of the cast. There were many other miracles along the way, for members of the cast, the general membership of the stakes, and members and nonmembers who attended the production.

    I have faith that British saints will find ways to make their pageant meaningful to them and their neighbors, whatever direction it goes. If people can feel the Holy Ghost while singing a song about barrels pickles, I am sure there will be something thoroughly British that does the same. That belief comes not because I have any insight into British customs and mores, but because the Gospel is true, and the Holy Ghost testifies to that truth, in every place, language and culture.

  29. In 1965 there was a pagent called PROMISED VALLEY which was presented in the Glascow Concert Hall. I had a part and still remember some of the choruses. It was “The story of the mormon pioneers crossing the wilderness of the west in the 1840s”. The male start was Dennis Clancey and the female Isobel Green. It played for 2 nights and 3500 attended according to the article my mother has saved.
    I would culturally cringe now, but it was fun at the time.

    So it has already been done in UK, but perhaps the new one could be more relavent to Poms.

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