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Passing Into History

Dr. Megan Sanborn Jones on Pageants and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Dr. Megan Sanborn Jones' new book, Seeking After the Dead opens with an arresting image. In the middle of the Clarkston City Cemetery in Utah, there's a large amphitheater with enormous light towers that loom over row after row of Mormon graves. The Martin Harris Memorial Amphitheater is home to an annual Mormon pageant that draws thousands of spectators every year. It's an example of how theatre and performance form an important element of Mormon culture.

Remarkably, the pageants that occur there have also become examples of how present-day performance becomes history before our very eyes. On October 27, 2018, as we prepared to record this episode, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that while local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate to celebrate and spread the gospel message, larger productions such as pageants are discouraged.

We're very lucky to have Megan here with us today to talk about these pageants and how they relate to Mormon history. She's a full professor of theatre at Brigham Young University, and her book, Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, won the Mormon History Association, Smith-Pettit Best First Book award. Megan, thank you so much for joining us.

Megan Sanborn Jones: I'm so glad to be here. Thank you, Michael.

Mike: Before we talk about the pageants themselves, can you give us an overview of how theatre and performance have been an important part of Mormon culture throughout its history?

Megan: Absolutely. It's kind of an interesting anomaly in the nineteenth century where, for the most part, the rise of Protestantism—with the Great Awakenings and the Second Great Awakenings—had preachers over the pulpit using theatre as the bad example of how, when things go awry—Not just a waste of time, but also the spread of immoral ideas, of inappropriate people. A lot of the anti-theatrical sentiment that has always been attached to theatre, but it was particularly focused in the 19th century in America.

Unlike that, though, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under particularly the leadership of Brigham Young, who was the second president of the church, his idea was that theatre could actually be instructive. And that by participating in theatre, and certainly by watching uplifting theatre, that morals could be taught. And so very early days, whenever the Saints who were moving slowly across the country from the founding of the church in 1830 in upstate New York, until they ended up in the Utah Valley in 1847, those seventeen years, every place they'd land, they'd build a cultural hall.

They called them cultural halls, where they would do culture: music, dancing, new compositions created by the Saints, the writing of hymns, and the productions of melodramas. That is what Brigham Young meant by uplifting things because there was always a clear moral dichotomy. The good won. The bad was punished. It was very conservative in its morals, particularly its sexual morality.

So by the time they get to Salt Lake City, the very first building they build is a theatre. The Salt Lake Theatre was the first large, public meeting house constructed in the Salt Lake Valley, well before the Salt Lake Temple was completed, and it ran a regular season of theatre— up to and including Brigham Young would go and actually talk to members of congregations and invite them to be on stage.

A notable production was called The Mountain Sylph, where he called all ten of his sixteen-year-old daughters, because he had sixteen—a they were called the big ten, there were ten of them that were all the same age at the same time from his different wives—and they were all called to be in the chorus of The Mountain Sylph. So they were all in the show together to model for the Saints that theatre could be appropriate. Theatre should be uplifting. And so it's always been a part of the cultural presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mike: And at the same time, I understand from your previous book, Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, that Mormons also featured prominently at one point in other kinds of American theatre, albeit not in the best light. Could you also tell us a little bit more about that?

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. So in the nineteenth century, as much as the Mormons thought they were doing great—hanging out in Utah, living their truth, having their many wives, establishing welfare systems, and a government system, and an elaborate education system, and doing theatre at the Salt Lake Theatre Company—the rest of the country was sort of terrified by this growing group of people who, at that point, were outside the United States but very close in Mexico territory with lots of immigrants who were converting and moving in there… sort of the growth of this theocracy in the mountains where no one could reach them. And the fact that polygamy was considered one of the twin relics of barbarism—you had slavery and you had polygamy, sort of an equal platform against which the Republican party ran.

And so what becomes interesting, at least throughout the nineteenth century, is in a limited number of the American mountain melodramas, rather than having evil English landlords or the evil miners, the villains were Mormons. Who were kidnapping girls, largely kidnapping girls, but also practicing violence against honest settlers who wanted to travel through Utah to get to a better place. And so, the Mormons were featured as sort of violent, rapacious, bad guys.

And so, the image of Mormonism outside of Utah was certainly not a positive one and continued to not be positive well into the twentieth century, when a sort of switch was made, and the church refigured itself publicly as sort of the most American of Americans, and the cleanest cut, and the most supportive. Rather than being the bane of the Republican party, they became its greatest supporter. And sort of there was this, in the mid twentieth century, there was a refiguration. And now Mormons hold, while still not necessarily an entirely mainstreamed part of American society, a different one than they did when they were like kidnapping people's daughters to sacrifice to their Mormon gods in strange temples.

Mike: So bringing us at least closer to the present day. Could you tell us what modern Mormon pageants are about and what it's like to witness one of them? Also, I'm curious, what are some major examples of these pageants?

Megan: Well, Mormons have always done sort of big productions that would bring a lot of people together to celebrate certain things—as many faith traditions do, as many communities do. The Mormon pageant tradition developed straight out of the American theatrical pageant tradition. Perhaps theatre historians would remember best the Masque of St. Louis in 1912, which was this elaborate community production with thousands and thousands of cast members and tens of thousands of people that came to see it.

And there was… every community in America it seems was doing these sort of historical, patriotic pageants, generally connected with holidays. That started to wane in the teens and the twenties, and people sort of mark that St. Louis pageant perhaps is the peak, the pinnacle of the pageant tradition. But by the early 1930s, a group of LDS congregants in upstate New York thought, well, if everyone is celebrating the Fourth of July, why don't we celebrate our founding and our heritage on the twenty-fourth of July? And began putting on a pageant straight out of what everybody else was doing.

So at the time it wasn't a remarkable thing. It wasn't a different thing. It was just a community-based pageant where the community got together, and they performed vignettes of the founding of the church and stories from the Book of Mormon, stories from the Bible. And they set it on a church history site, one of the founding places of the church. They said, “We'll actually do it on the site where all these things happened.” And that became the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which has been running without a stop, except for a couple of years in the middle of World War II, for eighty-one years and continues sort of this unbroken trajectory of those Mormon pageants.

And so, a Mormon pageant still looks a lot like the pageants of the early twentieth century: enormous casts; huge stages; communities that come together to tell their own story for, by, and about themselves; where everyone donates their time and their talents to put this thing on; episodic vignettes of large chunks of history that are conservative in their outlook, that are uplifting in their spirit. And the idea is that people come away sort of feeling better about the history of the Mormon church having seen a pageant.

The church—there's a number of small ones that happen all over the place—but the church formally sponsors seven. There are five annual pageant: the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which is the pageant that got canceled this last weekend and will be doing its last performance in the summer of 2020. And the Manti Pageant, which is in southern Utah, that will no longer have church financial or administrative support starting next summer in 2019. The other two annual pageants—one is in Mesa, Arizona, that they do an annual Easter pageant. It was already on hiatus because they were remodeling the temple and creating a brand-new permanent stage for the pageant when the church announced that they were no longer support pageants. So no one's quite sure what's going to happen with the Mesa Pageant. It was supposed to come back in 2020. And then the last pageant is the Nauvoo pageant, which happens in Nauvoo, Illinois. It is the one pageant that's been told it's going to continue to have full church support.

And so, what do these look like? They tell stories from scripture, the Hill Cumorah Pageant and the Manti Pageant from the Book of Mormon. They tell the story of the founding of the LDS Church, the Nauvoo pageants and the Manti pageant. Or they tell the story of Jesus, the New Testament story of Jesus, that's the Mesa Easter pageant. The other two pageants are biennial. They run every other year. They're tiny. They're here in Utah. They tell very narrow stories of a much smaller scope, and there's been no news yet about their ongoing presence.

So to see a pageant, it's like watching a Superbowl halftime show with thousands of people, and pyrotechnics, and loud, booming music, and amplified voices on outdoor amphitheaters that are enormous and spectacular, and thousands of people on stages. Yeah, so elaborate costumes and evocative music.

I think a large part of the pageants, if you go to see one, is the immense emotions that the music, and the spectacular effects, and the spiritual stories that they're trying to tell are. Because the hope is that people have a spiritual experience watching these. It's not just a celebration of community, but it's meant to be a means of enlivening and welcoming the Holy Spirit so that people will have a conversion— whether that's the people on the stage or people watching it—and be recommitted to following the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So there's also a very particular purpose to them that rides alongside of the Mormon pageants, in addition to it being a fascinating piece of American theatre history.

Mike: Yes, I'm really interested—you talked about sort of a little bit of the history behind these pageants. I'm curious why, both in the past and now, staging the past, sort of doing theatre about history, was so important for the performers and audiences. How does that tie in with the faith, and why is that staging of the past so important?

Megan: It occurs to me that when you're talking about… there's two separate pasts that get represented in pageants. And the first is a scriptural past, stories of the Bible for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stories of the Book of Mormon. But then there's also the stories of the founding of the church, which for Mormons is also scriptural because in terms of the Mormon scripture, there's also a work of the collected revelations that helped the founding of the church.

So these are stories of scripture, and so I think the first reason that you turn back to them is the same reason any Christian turns back to the scriptures. It's to better know the word of God that has been canonized in works of scripture. And certainly no one thinks twice about saying, “Ah, I read the Bible, I try to live the things that are there.” When Mormons then are restaging the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, or the doctrine and covenants, which would be the founding revelations, they are just trying to live scripture. They're trying to make that a part of their lives.

So I think one of the clear connections is using performance as a means of better applying scripture to oneself. I also think that there's something very powerful, and this is the main argument of my book, about the LDS Church tradition of reenacting these historical facts. Because the church has, as part of its worship service, a doctrine for the redemption of the dead. The idea being that everyone who ever lived on the earth at any time should have the opportunity to know Christ, be converted to his gospel, and be baptized using the priesthood that he established when he was on Earth. And one of the founding principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that the priesthood held by Mormon men is that priesthood. And so people need to have the opportunity to be converted, baptized by that priesthood.

And since not everybody could because people die, the way to do that is through temple rituals and ceremonies that allow Saints to go in and be baptized for, and on behalf of, those who have passed on that they're related to, their relatives. And it's a unique practice, but it's a powerful practice. And it's a sense… people who go to temples to practice these baptisms for the dead feel that they're giving a gift. That it's a generous offering to their beloved ancestors who have passed on to say, “Hey, I've done this for you. You can accept it, you can reject it, but that's on you.”

So they are already practicing, religiously, this notion of taking on someone who has died. So to then get on stage and play a character who is from the past, a prophet, or Mary Magdalene, or Jesus Christ himself, or to play a believer, or to play an unbeliever, is taking upon you the past in a way that echoes and resonates, I believe, with this doctrine of the redemption of the dead. And so that the reception of these pageants by those who are believers is always encoded by that belief structure, and makes the performances perhaps more meaningful, both for those in them and those watching them.

Mike: Yeah. Kind of along those lines, I was so struck by this passage from your book. You write that, quote, “Pageant participants directly encounter the dead they are portraying as they faithfully reenact them. And they are sometimes even literally inspired by the ghosts of the dead they are embodying.” Can you explain that in further detail?

Megan: Yes. I spent about eight years on-site at these seven different pageants—interviewing people, talking with people, attending. Some of the pageant directors were lovely, and generous, and welcoming, and allowed me backstage glimpses or even insight into the casting process at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They allowed me to intern as a director, so I actually got to help stage the pageant. So I've talked to a lot of different people.

And certainly the idea of being inspired by someone is… it's about the secular idea, right? I have a creative inspiration. But it's also deeply religious. It's a spiritual inspiration as well. And in the LDS faith tradition, the idea is that one is inspired by the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead who awakens a sense of truth, who warns, who comforts. And all of this comes sort of directly from the New Testament revelations where Jesus says, “I will leave you a comforter. He will be with you. So I won't be here. I leave you this guy, he's going to help.” That would be the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost.

But additionally, because of the cosmography of the LDS world vision, which is we lived before we came here. We are here on earth to get bodies and make choices, and after this life we continue on as spirits just as we are, in the same sort of sociality, in the same family relationships. That the veil between living and dead is thin. And they actually call it a veil, this idea of a transparent movement back and forth. That death is not something to be feared; it's actually something to be embraced. That you just move on to another sphere, where you can continue to be as you are and continue to learn and continue to grow. And as such, the veil is thin. People can move back and forth between those two spaces.

So participants in pageants report that they actually felt moved and inspired, perhaps whispered to, by the people that they were embodying on stage. I believe them. The people who report these are moved by these experiences and feel as though they are inspired by literally the people who they are representing on stage. It both enhances their own spiritual experience of portraying the past, but that it also might open up a sense of spirituality, more broadly construed, so that the audience would be inspired as well.

Mike: And you speak about this sort of direct experience of conducting research, if you will, by actually participating in the pageants. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that experience?

Megan: Yeah. Full disclosure, I have not ever performed in a pageant. My research had me working more in terms of staging or helping see how auditions happened. And certainly, as an audience member, multiple times to all of these different pageants. The pageant in which I was the most heavily involved is the Hill Cumorah Pageant, where I served for the full two weeks as an intern, a directing intern, on the pageant and was welcomed to come in and see the entire process from beginning to end.

And so it was an interesting thing. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I go to church on Sundays, and so I am a believer and a member of that religious community. I'm also a theatre historian who is constantly both checking, questioning, taking notes, wondering why things are going on, contextualizing larger things than the spiritual experience that other people who are involved in the pageantry may be thinking about.

Most of the participants are there for a very specific uplifting family experience. The directors are there to try to create an environment where these families can have immense spiritual experiences that will ground their own testimonies. And I found that that happened for me in many ways, but I also was taking notes and going, “This is fascinating. Why are we doing this? And how does this function in terms of a directorial practice, but is different than the practice I practice when I'm on stage directing Shakespeare at my university?” So I found myself moving in and out of role a lot, but I was also grateful for the opportunity to actually try to, not just try to, but to involve myself. To pray on knees before casting and saying, asking the Lord to give us help, to be inspired, to pick the right people to play these different roles.

That was a remarkable experience to have. And I also can report that from the back end, watching these people perform, that I feel there was something to it. That we maybe were inspired to pick particular people, that the show was more meaningful or more moving because of the casting practices. I don't know, maybe somebody else sitting next to me had a totally different experience. But I think that that's part of the joy of participant observation research, is that you get a chance to step in and out of role, and really try to be part of the thing you're studying. And I'm grateful I had that chance.

Mike: Now, as we noted in the introduction to the show, these pageants seem to be sort of passing into theatrical history as we speak, or at least some of them. Can you explain what you understand of why this is the case? And maybe speculate a little bit about what this will mean for members of the church, how they express their faith in performance going forward?

Megan: Yeah, it's an interesting time in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints right now. We have a new prophet, Russell M. Nelson, who since being ordained has been making a lot of changes. Not just to pageantry, but to the way church is structured, from the name of the church—where he's encouraged members to stop using the word Mormon at all, ever, and instead use a host of other recommended ways of talking about membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—through pageants, through our Sunday meetings schedules. Our Sunday meeting schedules got changed for the first time in thirty years, forty years.

So there's a lot of changes going on, and it seems to be centered around a phrase that I've heard repeated fairly frequently from church leadership, which is a move towards a home-and-family-centered, church-supported model. And so I wonder about that in terms of pageantry: how do you have a home-and-family-centered experience, artistically, that is church supported? Certainly large elaborate pageants out in the middle of nowhere, where people have to take two weeks off of work, drive across the country, dedicate all this time to being there—or in the case of the Mesa pageant, where everyone is local, but it's several months of people's lives where they're at rehearsals every night and all day Saturdays—that takes you out of the home. And that is not necessarily with your family.

So while I am no way trying to second guess or interpret the church's recent statements about art and pageants, it does occur to me that, in the context of home-and-family-centered, church-supported, that I could see why you might say these big, elaborate things that take people out of the home are discouraged.

Although there's always other things at play, right? Some of these pageants have been unchanged for forty years. They sound dated. It's a huge time commitment to the people who live in the areas where these happen. It entirely absorbs their whole lives for weeks, trying to produce and support. That can be onerous after eighty-one years, perhaps. So I think there's a lot of reasons, but they've said nothing publicly. So that's all just my guesswork about reasons why that would be changing.

As the church moves ahead in terms of its cultural expression, I don't know that I have any predictions. But what I do have is a fond hope, a desire that what this doesn't do is signal the end of the use of theatre, and performance, and the arts as a means of expressing spirituality. As we talked at the beginning of this conversation, that's always been a part of LDS worship practice and cultural expression. And I think there's real power in the arts to envision new worlds, to bring people together, to express one's belief structure. So I hope that there will continue to be a place and space for that in the LDS Church as things move ahead into the future.

Mike: We'll post links and additional sources in our show notes that will let you explore Mormon pageants and the history of Mormon theatre. Megan, thank you for introducing us to these pageants, and their unique fusion of faith, history, and performance.

Megan: Thank you so much, this was a real pleasure.

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