Review: The Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

2013-05-20 Fading Flower And Swallow the Sun

Mahonri Stewart recently released two of his plays–The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun–together in a single volume. I found both of them to be so compelling, that I’m truly sad that no productions have been put on or are scheduled within 1,000 miles of where I live on the East Coast. More than just enjoyable, however, I found that they presented a strong and compellingly Mormon artistic perspective. While there is no doubt that the subject matter of both plays is Mormon, what really struck me was less the viewed and more the viewpoint.

The Fading Flower centers around the faith struggles of Joseph Smith’s youngest son David, who was born after his father’s death. As he grows older, he is  caught between the rival factions of the RLDS Church (with whom he was raised and with his brother serving as President) and the Brighamites (the objects of his missionary endeavors). So the setting is clearly Mormon, but what is really Mormon is David’s tortured journey to pursue the truth about his father’s practice of polygamy. Anyone can write about the subject of Mormon polygamy (just ask HBO), but looking at the issue through the lens of David becomes a powerful and uniquely Mormon reflection on the peril and promise of living in such close proximity to our historical legends.

Of course with such a controversial and painful topic at the heart of the play, Stewart could easily have veered into advocating a particular conclusion or lesson, but the play remains too sensitive and nuanced to be reduced to simple morals. Although there seems to be a clear lesson to apply to the CES view of our history when Julia, David’s brother, says near the end of the play that “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning,” the play doesn’t end on that potentially didactic note. It continues on until the final scene where David and his family sing together a hymn he had written for the RLDS hymnal. Which is one of the most interesting things to me about the play: it only succeeds in so accurately reflecting a Mormon sensibility by having the main characters all view Mormonism (as we know it today) from the outside. As “the Brighamites”. Stewart succeeds in capturing the historical Mormon sense of longing and exile even in a play about our own history.

At first glance, Swallow the Sun isn’t as overtly Mormon because neither Mormons nor Mormonism make any appearance at all. On the other hand, it centers on the life and conversion of C. S. Lewis, and if Mormons had patron saints, he’d be one. But, as with the first play, it’s not the content but how it is viewed that struck me as powerfully Mormon. For me, the most powerful scene in Swallow the Sun is when John “Doc” Askins suffers an apparent mental breakdown. During this scene Doc raves:

Children, the lot of you. The incense of this world has you so drugged that you can’t even see the shadows on the wall. You can’t see the creatures just waiting to prey upon our souls and feast upon us, if we don’t cannibalize each other first! Screwed to the wall, each of us–taped and bound.

Two things give this scene it’s powerful impact. The first is the clear overtones of the supernatural in a play otherwise studiously devoid of anything conventional spiritual or otherwordly. Despite being a conversion story, it tends towards the intersection of the intellect and the spirit rather than a repetition of the conventional Mormon narrative of personal conversion through warm feelings about historical propositions. The second, of course, is that the audience knows more about Doc’s raving than any of the characters do: “screwed to the wall, each of us–taped and bound.”

In this play as in The Fading Flower, a lot of the pivotal details are drawn from actual history. Just as I knew nothing about the life of David Smith, I had never heard of C. S. Lewis’s friend, Doc. But Doc, his obsession with the occult, his subsequent mental breakdowns, and their impact on C. S. Lewis are all factual.

In any case, this passage also struck me as distinctly Mormon as it reflects the pressures we feel living in an increasingly secular world and yet so temporally proximate to supernatural historical claims. Christians and Jews have had 2,000 years to mythologize burning bushes and the Resurrection, but Mormons have had less than two centuries to culturally metabolize our angels and gold plates. In addition, any supernatural claims at all are much more discordant in the 21st century than in the 1st. This leaves us as Mormons, like the reader, uncomfortably incapable of writing off the deeper meaning of what others may dismiss out of hand. Like the audience of Swallow the Sun: we see too much.

2013-05-21 Mahonri StewartOf course I have been clumsy in the sweeping use of the term “Mormon” throughout this review. There are many, many different kinds of Mormons from a wide variety of backgrounds and living in many different cultures and situations. I should be more careful, and say that I personally felt that these plays spoke deeply to me as the kind of Mormon who inhabits a largely secular world (both by trade and because I live outside of Utah) and views my own faith through the lens of the perpetual tensions this exacerbates: tensions between secular and sacred, insider and exile, spiritual and intellectual, narrative and history. I think that I am far from alone in that category, however, and that there will be many more people for whom these plays will resonate deeply.

In this review I have also chosen to focus narrowly on two specific elements (one from each play) that stood out to me as representative of the kind of analysis that these plays lend themselves to. That I can delve this deeply is, in my mind, a testament that that the source material has real substance. That I wanted to do so in the first place, on the other hand, is a testament to the Stewart’s craft and artistry as a playwright. I look forward to more from Stewart in the years to come.

(Note: I received a review copy of The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun.)

20 comments for “Review: The Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

  1. Thanks for this review. My reading list grows…

    “David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning,” Wow!

    You can listen to a podcast of Mahonri here with excerps from the play “The Fading Flower”:

    Seems to be a powerful rendition of the complexities that were reamaining as “the church left Emma in Nauvoo..”

  2. Nathaniel, are you actually endorsing Stewart’s claim that flawed accounts of LDS history induced David Smith’s mental illness?

  3. Thanks for the notice that these are available in print. I saw Fading Flower on stage in Provo a few summers back and was overwhelmed. I’d love to have the script.

  4. (I should mention that there’s a DVD of a stage performance of Fading Flower available. I don’t know how easy it is to get a copy, and of course a filmed stage production isn’t much to get terribly excited about….)

  5. Dave-

    Nathaniel, are you actually endorsing Stewart’s claim that flawed accounts of LDS history induced David Smith’s mental illness?

    I’m not a historian and I didn’t even know David Smith existed before reading this play, so I wouldn’t make that kind of claim. But I didn’t even take Stewart to be making that claim. Maybe he really does believe that, but–despite my surprise that so many of the elements of these plays turned out to be historical when I looked into them–they are still plays based on history. Not history. At least, that’s how I read them.

  6. Addendum to Dave-

    Might be worth repeating that what fascinated me in these plays was, after all, the viewpoint and not the viewed. I think that postulating that David’s breakdown was a reaction to learning the truth about his father’s polygamy is a powerful expression of the fraught relationship Mormons have with our history. That was my focus.

    Whether or not David Smith actually went insane due to the the facts is simply not something I was focusing on.

  7. Dave,

    Nathaniel doesn’t have to “endorse” any view in the play to appreciate it. It is, after all, a play, not a literal history (although I’ve tried, at great pains, to make my plays as historically accurate as I can). One doesn’t have to endorse Shakespeare’s questionable use of history to enjoy Richard III, or his totally inaccurate version of Joan of Arc, to appreciate his history plays themselves.

    A play works by different rules than a history book or biography and thus one needs to take in account artistic license when analyzing the text. However, as I’ve stated, and as Nathaniel mentioned, I strive to make my historical plays as accurate as possible. I don’t like to warp other people’s lives just to gratify my own world view. However, an interpretative lens is definitely a playwright’s prerogative (a historian’s as well, actually…even “history” requires interpretation).

    As to David’s insanity, there are a number of theories about what caused David Hyrum Smith’s breakdown. Joseph Smith III believed it was his involvement with spiritualism that led to him being possessed (a view he expresses in the play). Interestingly enough, both Doc in _Swallow the Sun_ (as Nathaniel mentions) and Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd could also fit into this pattern of spiritualism followed by (spirit induced?) insanity. Coincidence? Perhaps. But it is a tantalizing possibility, especially to people who have had experiences with the supernatural like I have.

    Others mark up the breakdown as a strictly clinical matter, separate from any outside influences (a view which Lewis Bidamon expresses in the play).

    Then, as you’ve stated, there’s cause in the text to believe that David’s mental break down, if not caused by his worldview about his father and his religion crumbling around him, was at least exacerbated by it. The sequence of events, if nothing else, gives legitimate room for this theory.

    But I have also purposely left room in the play for adherents of any of the above theories to interpret the text in their preferred light. Just because Julia says one thing in the play, and Joseph III says another, doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and the other wrong–unless the reader/audience member is personally convinced by their arguments. I obviously have my own bias in my own interpretation, but not even the author has the only say, especially when it comes to texts based on historical events. As Nathaniel has suggested in this insightful and very aware review, I’ve tried not to make the text too didactic. There’s many ways to interpret the play, which I hope makes it a more substantial experience.


  8. Joe, I’m so glad you saw the original production! I’m not sure if Fading Flower is available anymore or not on DVD (which reminds me, I may need to take down the ads on Zion Theater Company’s website that are still advertising it). It depends on whether the videographers still have it on file.

    In its latest incarnation, the file lost some of the original visual quality, so I hope to produce Fading Flower again in the next few years and record it again and offer it as a download. Digital theatre, to me, has a strong allure especially in Mormon drama. It’s not quite the same as the live experience, but it does allow Mormon drama, which is usually produced solely in the Book of Mormon Belt, to have a wider audience for Mormons and other interested parties who live outside of Utah. But, as it is, buying the book is currently the best way to access these plays.

  9. Thanks for the response, Mahonri. For all the ink we spill on the life of Joseph Smith, it is ironic how few LDS are familiar of the lives of his children, or even know of their existence. I encountered their stories in the second half of Mormon Enigma; the children are as enigmatic (to the modern LDS Church) as is Emma. So the subject matter of the play is certainly well chosen. Fertile ground for a playwright.

    I guess what I don’t like about the allusion quoted in the OP is the echo there of the idea that when someone we disagree with encounters mental illness or a disability, we can explain it by reference to their politics, their religion, their lifestyle, their nationality, or whatever it is we disagree with. Recall the Puritans in Massachusetts ascribing Anne Hutchinson’s stillborn baby in 1638 to her heretical (in their eyes) religious opinions. Recall charges against Mormons in the 19th century that Mormonism and polygamy resulted in defective children (predictably countered with Mormon claims of having healthy and robust children). We even see the idea in the New Testament: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This general way of thinking about mental illness and disability is simply wrongheaded.

  10. Disagree with? Who said I disagreed with David Hyrum? He was seeking the truth. You’ll find that it’s Joseph Smith III I disagree with in the play (although there is a lot of room for admiration for him as well, in my mind), not David. David is an admirable character, a Mormon Hamlet who is risking all to seek the truth.

    As to his madness, again there is a lot of room for interpretation as to its cause.

  11. Dave-

    I guess what I don’t like about the allusion quoted in the OP is the echo there of the idea that when someone we disagree with encounters mental illness or a disability, we can explain it by reference to their politics, their religion, their lifestyle, their nationality, or whatever it is we disagree with.

    I applaud your concern with the way people may use mental illness as convenient proof of their enemies’ errors, but that trope is entirely incompatible with my review because, as I saw the play, David is not the enemy (or “someone we disagree with”). On the contrary, David is us.

  12. Recall charges against Mormons in the 19th century that Mormonism and polygamy resulted in defective children (predictably countered with Mormon claims of having healthy and robust children).

    Recall this, indeed!

  13. BHodges, I really enjoyed your paper on that subject at the AML Conference, by the way. Very interesting how we view mental illness and use it as a weapon against other groups.

    Having had some friends and loved ones who have struggled with a myriad of issues on that spectrum, I can definitely understand the need for sensitivity on the issue.

    Again, though, as Nathaniel points out, the one who suffers mental illness in the play is the “good guy.”

  14. “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning.”

    I just really liked this line for what it did for me. As a missionary in the bible belt I saw many of us emerge through a spiritual version of insanity as we deny, then discover, then contextualize, then embrace (or struggle) with truths previously not known.

    Was this line just artistic license or were you playing off of a historic source?

    Either way I like what the quote meant to me, not necessarily taking it as a simple, literal, explanation for a sad life.

  15. The line is mine, n8c, but it was spurred by what I was reading into the history. To me, is is a nice two line summary of the theme of play.

    Most people who I come across who have experienced disillusionment of the Church, have felt so because they felt the world that had been created for them was not the one they discovered when they dug deeper. I think we can fight against that disillusionment factor better if we are upfront from the beginning. Polygamy, seer stones, Mountain Meadows, pioneer women giving faith healings… these do not have to be faith shattering issues when they are understood in their context. It’s when they are hidden out of the context and then broken off the original story that they suddenly acquire the sharp edges used to cut the ill prepared faith of the membership.

    What is it the version of the story we choose to tell? Do we truly trust the Savior when he says the truth will make us free?

  16. Mahonri,

    Thanks for the update, the link, and most especially the play. If there’s another stage production, and I can manage to make it, I’ll be there, and with as many friends as I can get to come.

  17. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence, Joe! Fading Flower may take a couple of more years to put up again (it has to get in line), but we are producing plenty of my other plays in the meantime through Zion Theatre Company. :)

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