Drama and Religion: The Best of Friends


The theater at its best goes beyond costumes and makeup. It teaches us lessons about life.

The Young Women president stands at the front of the room with that very enthusiastic smile she uses when there is yet another thing she’s going to ask you to support. “Our road show last year was so terrific we decided we’re ready to put on a real play. Brother Harris is going to direct, and we want you all to be in it. May I see by the show of hands who would … ?”

Oh, no, you think to yourself. Rehearsals! On top of homework, seminary, volleyball, three hours of church on Sunday, cleaning out the aquarium, doing dishes two nights a week, keeping the upstairs bathroom clean, music lessons, and everything else? And now Mom wants me to be in the choir. They’re crazy! Well, the road show was pretty fun. But I’ll never be an actor, and I don’t have time for anything else. Why do they put all this stuff on us?

“Why?” is a very healthy question. And we have a right to ask it. Many of us are overworked and overscheduled, it’s true. And we don’t all need to participate in all of the activities all of the time. We need to be selective and do well the things we do, leaving a little time for gazing out the window and dreaming.

But of all the activities the Church occasionally involves us in, and all of them are worthwhile, the one that I can raise my hand most quickly to defend and support is that of drama.

When I was seven years old I made my performing debut in a Primary operetta in the Douglas Ward in Salt Lake City. I played Raggedy Andy, and the night of our performance is one of my first truly vivid memories. I remember the costume my mother made out of white wool with red, green, and yellow stripes and the large buttons covered with the same material. (Patches of that costume are now in a well-worn quilt in my closet.) I remember the smell of the lipstick making large round circles on my cheeks. I remember the duet I sang with a little friend, “I’m Raggedy Andy—and I’m Little Anne. We’re sewed together, you see. If some little girl chooses one of us, she’ll have to take both you and me.” (We were separated, of course, and the story hung on our getting back together again. It was a sad story with a happy ending, as many stories are.) I remember walking home on that summer night, thrilled with the adventure of performing. And from then on, whenever being in a play was suggested, no hand shot up faster than mine.

And now, many years later, I still raise my hand. Besides being just about the funnest thing I can think of, besides the tremendous personal growth and development of poise and skill in using the language, besides the wonderful relationships formed—there is something about the theater that is magic, something that comes close to spiritual experience. In fact, after years of working with both, I believe truly that drama and religion are—or can be—the best of friends.

Did you know that drama was actually born of religion? Ancient rites evolved into formal presentation. And in the first great flowering of drama, in classical Greece, fifth-century B.C., the stories enacted in their large amphitheaters were stories of the dealings of humans and gods.

And the next great period of the theater, Elizabethan England that produced the plays of Shakespeare, was also born of religion. The miracle and morality plays of the Middle Ages, used by the church to teach simple lessons to the peasants, gradually evolved into the rich and undying stories of Macbeth and Hamlet. I think that an ancient Greek watching the bitter fruits of revenge in Medea or an Elizabethan watching the hatred of two families destroy young lovers in Romeo and Juliet might truly have had a kind of religious experience. Certainly they were being offered marvelous two-and-a-half hour talks.

The great possibilities of the theater were recognized by farsighted men in the early days of our own church. In Joseph Smith’s time, the theater was not an acceptable institution. In fact, many cities had laws against theatrical performances, feeling that they were the work of the devil. Sometimes dramas, to gain a little respectability, were billed as “lectures.”

However, in direct contrast to this condition, Joseph Smith not only approved of but actually encouraged the theater. Along with all the other developments in his beautiful city of Nauvoo—the temple, a choir, schools—Joseph established a dramatic company. Brigham Young, Erastus Snow, and other of the leading brethren took part in many of the plays. Brigham Young himself played the part of the high priest in Pizarro, a popular drama of the day.

And then when the Saints moved to Utah, hardly had they begun planting crops when Brigham Young began the building of a theater in the wilderness. “If I were placed on a cannibal island,” he said, “and given the task of civilizing its people, I would straightway build a theatre for the purpose” (Harold I. Hansen, A History and Influence of the Mormon Theatre from 1839–1869, Brigham Young University, 1967, p. iii). Utah was not a cannibal island, and his people were already fairly educated. But build a theater straightway he did. The Bowery was built immediately, a large structure made of hewn logs and roofed with brush and willows. It was located on what is now Temple Square and was also used for worship and for general meetings.

The next home of the drama in Utah was the Social Hall, dedicated in 1853, the first actual theater west of the Missouri River. But Brigham’s dream of a theater for his people was not fully realized until the completion of the Salt Lake Theatre in 1862, a theater that would rank for years with the best theaters in the entire country.

It was dedicated by Daniel H. Wells, who prayed that order, virtue, cleanliness, and excellence would characterize the theater, and “‘Holiness to the Lord’ be forever inscribed therein” (Deseret News, 12 Mar. 1862, p. 291). High ideals, excellent musicals and plays, popular support by the community both in attending and acting in the plays, and guest artists from among the best professionals of the day—all made the Salt Lake Theatre thrive. To ensure his stamp of approval, Brigham Young insisted that his ten oldest daughters, known as the “Big Ten,” perform in the plays.

The theatrical heritage of those great pioneer days has been passed on to the Church today. An objective observer has stated that the LDS church has the most wide-spread “little theater” movement in America. And although there’s no doctrine that says, “We believe in putting on plays,” it’s practically impossible for anyone to grow up in the Church without participating in one way or another.

Why? What is the importance? Why was Brigham Young so enthusiastic? I believe it is because there is no more effective way than through drama to view life as we live it, to step back a bit and see what it all means. Life is story. It has a beginning and an ending and, though sometimes hidden, cause and effect. A play is story. Life is laid out for us, condensed, clarified. There is insight, sometimes even revelation.

During a performance of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness at Brigham Young University, a young man became so moved that he had to leave his date and go out to cry in the men’s room. Seeing the play examine family relationships had forced him to examine his own relationship to his family in a more intense and poignant way than he ever had before. He faced some things, admitted some things, learned some things. Sometimes two hours in the theater can do for us what years of professional counseling might not.

I will never forget my first viewing of The Man of La Mancha, a play about growth and redemption. Don Quixote will not permit Aldonza, a woman sadly abused by men, to be what she thinks she is. He calls her his lady, his beautiful, pure, fair, lady. He gives her a new name, “Dulcinea,” which infuriates her. But over the course of the play his view of her takes hold, and at his deathbed someone speaks to her, calling her Aldonza. “My name,” she replies with great feeling, “is Dulcinea.” The audience breathed as one. We were all caught up in the marvelous spiritual triumph that had taken place before our eyes. And as we left the theater there was an almost tangible bond that united us.

And if an audience can be made to feel deeply, how much more deeply do the performers feel? That’s why watching a play is wonderful, but being in a play—that is much more wonderful. An actor must develop empathy; he must come to feel as the character would, to understand why he behaves as he does. The character I have played that has most deeply affected me is Joan of Arc. Becoming deeply involved in her life, in her triumphs and her tragedy, crying her tears, left me a different person than I was before. And it made me much more able to appreciate the lives of all who sacrifice for what they believe in—such as my own pioneer ancestors who gave up a great deal to be with the Saints, and such as the Prophet Joseph Smith, who, like Joan, gave his life.

What sorts of subjects are proper for the theater to examine? Isn’t the story of a “fallen woman” one we should stay away from? Brigham Young had some thoughts on that too. “Upon the stage of a theater,” he said, “can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls … can be revealed, and how to shun it” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1941, p. 243).

Of course the key idea there is that we can examine evil and its consequences, so that we can see better how to shun it. Dramas that present evil in a way that does not help us to avoid it are failing in what they should do.

And plays that do not teach a heavy lesson but provide fun and entertainment contribute much that is good also. To celebrate life, to laugh at ourselves, to have our spirits lifted is something we badly need. There is even some indication that laughter has an effect on the entire body that may be very health promoting. To leave the theater smiling is a wonderful thing.

So, if “men are, that they might have joy” as the Book of Mormon teaches us (2 Ne. 2:25), if our purpose here is to learn all we can about the human condition and how to improve it—then drama and religion can truly be the best of friends in helping us achieve it.

To have the privilege of participating in such an exciting thing might even be worth losing a little sleep, or cutting down on TV, or scheduling our time a little better, and raising our hand when the Young Women president announces a play and says, “Now who would like to … ?”

Sources:

  1. Hansen, Harold I. A History and Influence of the Mormon Theatre from 1839–1869, Brigham Young University, 1967.

  2. 2.

    Henderson, Myrtle E. A History of the Theatre in Salt Lake City, Evanston, Illinois, 1934.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Brian Bean