Although nearing the end of his life, Brigham Young steps without hesitation to the center of the Promised Valley Playhouse stage in Salt Lake City. He pauses, smiles genially at the 20th-century audience, then begins a two-hour, two-act presentation that demonstrates the compassion, humor, common sense, and prophetic vision that endeared him to the Saints of his own day.
James Arrington, the character actor and returned missionary who portrays Brother Brigham, said, “I first got the idea of doing somebody after seeing a one-man show on Will Rogers. I loved it! Right then I decided our people are great enough to have something done about them. I saw other one-man shows—Clarence Darrow, Harry Truman, Mark Twain—on TV and on stage, and wished somebody would write a script I could use. Then I thought, ‘Hey, I could write the script!’”
After concluding that Brigham Young would be a suitable subject for that type of theater, James went to work. For two years he gathered all the information he could find on the pioneer prophet. The more he learned about the colonizer, the more he grew to appreciate Brigham Young.
“Because of the hostile 19th-century press, Brigham was one of the most misunderstood men of his day, but his people loved him because of his kindness, his sweetness, and his humor,” James said.
The 20th-century version of Brigham, which will begin a national tour in February, has captivated audiences throughout the Intermountain West. On stage he reads letters, reminisces, carries on one-way conversations, and tells of his association with Joseph Smith.
“I want to shout hallelujah every time I think I ever knew Joseph Smith,” he tells his audience.
He then quickly points out that he had been a member for some time before he met Joseph. He recalls one occasion when he defended the prophet’s character, although he had yet to know him. At that time, he said, “I do not know Joseph Smith. I have never met him. I do not know his private character. I do not care anything about that for I never embrace any man in my faith. But the Book of Mormon and the revelations and the doctrine that have come through the Prophet Joseph Smith will save you and me and the whole world.”
Brigham then recounts a mission to Canada he served at his own expense. He traveled more than 2,000 miles on foot. “That shows the depth of his conviction,” James said.
Brigham Young also tells of his and Heber Kimball’s journey to Kirtland where they first met the Prophet of the restoration. He also comments on his subsequent missionary calls. “He traveled every summer on missions,” James added. “His mission to England, the one most Saints remember, did not come until after he had led the Saints out of Missouri and into Commerce, Illinois. Joseph later joined them when he and several companions escaped their captors in Missouri.”
Through missionary work Brigham’s self-confidence increased. He also learned principles of Church administration. This growth of confidence is revealed in the letters of Brigham to Joseph Smith.
“At first while on his England mission, he kept asking what he should do next. As the months progressed he began more and more to tell the Prophet what he had done and was planning to do,” said James.
“Brigham is one of the nation’s greatest men of letters. The Church Historical Department has more than 30,000 pages of letters on file. We don’t know how many were lost. These letters include messages to his family, advice to his children, communication with national leaders, and directives to Church officials.”
Remembered as an apostle and prophet and a colonizer, Brigham proudly tells his modern audiences that he is a skilled craftsman. “He specialized in carpentry, house painting, and glass glazing,” James noted.
“I’ve always felt that much of the happiness in this life comes from having something worthy to do and doing it well,” Brigham states. On occasion, the historical Brigham urged the Saints to habits of thrift and orderliness. He reported that he could go into his shop on the middle of a dark night and without any light locate whatever tool or item he needed.
Although his present-day performance is peppered with good humor, Brigham has moments of solemness. He tells the audience of the time he was stumping for Joseph Smith’s candidacy as president of the United States in 1844 and learned of the martyrdom in Illinois. He was in New York when he received notice of the assassination. “My first thought was whether Joseph had taken the keys to the kingdom with him. Then bringing my hand down on my knee I told them, ‘No, the keys of the kingdom are right here in the Church.’”
He then recounts that he and others of the Twelve who were then back east returned promptly to Nauvoo where they halted Sidney Rigdon’s effort to wrest control of the Church and proclaim himself guardian of the Saints and spokesman for Joseph.
The 20th-century Brigham intersperses historical accounts with interviews with his secretary, George Watt, and with members of the Church. James explained, “Brigham’s office was always open to any member of the Church and to outsiders. He called it interviewing and found a valuable means of correcting false concepts about himself and about the Church.”
Of such visits by nonmembers, Brigham says, “Though sometimes disagreeable, they are a valuable means of correcting false notions and extending courtesies to which the person, in some cases, is probably entirely unworthy.”
Naturally modest, Brigham never mentions the hundreds of communities settled under his direction, the beginnings of the vast sugar beet industry, nor the origin of Intermountain West drama under his urging. Instead, he passes by these major accomplishments, which have brought fame to him and to the Church, to remind the audience that he was also a painter-glazier.