Roadshows and the rising legitimacy of the theatre

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.


  1. Meldrum the Less says:

    Why They Canned Roadshows:

    Our ward had about 250 youth, big bucks, and a few creative adults with actual theatrical experience and spare time. The rest of the Stake roadshows were probably somewhat less than one might expect from religious zealots about 30 years behind the times.

    At the end of our stupendous performance with elaborate costumes, brilliant casting of youth in the roles of hoodlums and innocents they didn’t actually have to act to pull off, strobe lights, great sound track, etc., the current came down at the end to thunderous and amazed applause.

    Then the most sociopathic of my many peers dropped his trousers and stuck his bare arse out between the curtains. His wierd girlfriend had climbed up on his shoulders and monkeyed the act. A vertically-oriented bisexual double mooning of the audience for a finale.

    On the way home a carload of my ward scamps including the two with intentional wardrobe malfunctions slid off an icy road into the river and nearly drowned. I didn’t see why they cancelled the roadshow since the Lord seemed perfectly capable of taking care of things.

  2. Susan W H says:

    Early Mormon theater fascinates me. I read Givens’ book several years ago. The theater was extremely important to my mother’s family. When I was growing up in the 1950s she was still mourning the loss of the Salt Lake Theater and talked about it a lot. Her aunt was married to Phil Margetts and I heard more about him than I did about most movie stars. Her grandfather, Charles Penrose, was born and raised in London and had a love of the theater from an early age. His missionary diaries (four missions to Great Britain including time in New York) contain many brief reviews of plays he saw whenever he had the chance. Thanks to the joy of Google Books I have read contemporary reviews of the plays and actors he saw. Several of his children, including my grandfather, acted in some of the dramatics at the Theater. Mom said her grandfather had a box at the SL Theater and whenever he couldn’t go, the family got to take his place. I didn’t know my grandfather was on stage until I started going through the online newspapers.

    The first old book I bought at Sam Weller’s is a signed copy of George Pyper’s Romance of an Old Playhouse. I found it there not long after my mother died and had to get it. Again, if it weren’t for my family history, I probably wouldn’t find it so fascinating. Aaron, I agree that the questions you raise are deserving of more study.

    Meldrum, your roadshow tale reminds me that I have a collection of newspaper articles from the 1880s about a play called “The Danites.” The group performing it were on tour and planned to do a show in Salt Lake around April conference in 1885 when the situation in Utah Territory was already tense due to the prosecutions under the Edmunds Act. The editorial staff of the Tribune was looking forward gleefully to the performance, while at the same time the Deseret News denounced it and advised the Saints to stay away. Apparently the tour never made it to Salt Lake–they were trapped snowbound in the Rockies.

  3. I think the decline of theater among the Mormons tracks not only the decline of “little theater” in the wider culture, but also the shift in music and sports and similar activities: somewhere along the line, Mormons and others stopped being willing to engage in any activities as amateurs or semi-professionals. Instead of making our fun ourselves, we became content to be entertained by watching other people make our fun for us. Hence, the decline in community singing, athletic leagues, and little theater.

    I like your descriptor “a series of holes held together by string.” That describes my dissatisfied reaction to several places in Paradox, where Givens seems to scoop up miscellaneous data and thread them together as argument without really exploring the continuity of Mormon cultural history.

  4. Word. Thanks Aaron. It seems we listen to _Barefoot to Zion_ every Sunday.

  5. oh, meldrum the less — i cannot stop the laughter! that there is a most awesome story, even sans the parabolic outcome. but the karma element does add a priceless touch. best. roadshow. story. EVER!

  6. Ardis, I agree there was a cultural shift. Most people don’t like stage performances despite occasional reprieves when things like Phantom of the Opera become popular and husbands are drug by wives to watch. But I think I disagree with the passivity argument. It’s true more Americans are quasi-passive. (Although are video games passive?) But honestly tons of men and women still play sports. There are a ridiculous number of dance studios in Utah so obviously that is popular as well. There are people mountain biking, four wheeling, rock climbing, skiing and a lot else. It’s primarily theatre that has declined. And I’d argue it’s more a decline by replacement.

  7. kentslarsen says:

    I agree with your assessment of Givens’ take on Mormon Theater. In his defense, “People of Paradox” is really the first attempt at a book Mormon cultural history, and a history that didn’t have the benefit of a lot of previously published research on Mormon cultural history.

    But I do think that, even with your observations, there is an interesting story in the development of theater under the MIA, and the encouraging of Mormon playwrights for nearly 30 years mid-century. I wrote something about this in a couple of posts on Motley Vision:

    and here:

    BTW, the Mormon interest in Theatre started well before the Salt Lake Theater and theatrical performances in Salt Lake. Brigham Young’s support may have developed after his own performance in Pizarro in Nauvoo before the martyrdom, a performance that benefited from the presence of then well-known theatre actor and LDS convert Tom Lyne (see

  8. I have nothing to add to this highbrow discussion except that my final roadshow production was as the drummer in a lip-synch performance of Starship’s “We Built This City.”
    Talk about cheese served on a slice of cornbread. It was probably the lowpoint of my teenage life.

  9. Susan WH, thank you for sharing how this narrative intersects with your family history.

    Ardis, you are spot on; that is a very important dynamic and one which I also think reflects these broader trends that I suspect are very important. Unfortunately I cannot claim credit for the phrase (cf. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot) but it certainly seemed apt.

    Clark, although there is a certain degree of replacement I do think that those activities have not necessarily been community-centred in quite the same way that ‘little theatre’ et al. were. That seems to me to be Ardis’ point there. In fact, it has been interesting to watch the Church do more in relation to various competitions and venues to submit creative work.

    Kent, I am actually very fond of the book for a variety of reasons and it seems that did not come across. Givens also mentions BY’s performance and I alluded to it above. You raise an interesting issue in connection with the MIA and I agree it is worth exploring more fully.

    WaMo, I was once asked by the director of one of our roadshows to come out from the group performing a song so that she could hear it without my contribution. After she heard it, she turned to me and said: “Yep, that’s lots better, maybe we could get you something else to do!”

  10. Kent, that makes me wonder if that’s the reason why Young didn’t care for George Adams!

  11. kentslarsen says:

    LOL, I’m not sure. I’ve always assumed that George Adams was the reason that Young didn’t care for George Adams!

    Seriously, Adams wasn’t a wall-flower from what I can tell. He seemed to want to be a star.

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