Mahonri Stewart Uncut: Telling Our Own Stories

Here’s the uncut text of my Modern Mormon Men interview with Mahonri Stewart, author of Zarahemla BooksThe Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

SCOTT HALES: Tell us a little about your plays The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun. Why did you decide to have them published by Zarahemla Books, a publisher known primarily for publishing Mormon fiction?
MAHONRI STEWART: Both The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun were plays that I produced through New Play Project in Provo several years ago. Unintentionally, the two plays have some subtle similarities despite being very different plays on the surface.
The Fading Flower tells the story of Emma Smith (widow of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet) and her children, primarily her youngest son David Hyrum Smith. After Emma’s son Joseph Smith III took the invitation to lead the Reorganized branch of the Latter-day Saint movement, David joined his brother’s church and went on missions to Utah to convert us “Brighamites.” Once there, David confronted a very different version of his father, which conflicted with what his mother had taught him. The play’s conflict centers on this tension, and addresses how honesty (or the lack thereof) plays into the worldview of our faith.
Swallow the Sun tells the story of a young C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian author and apologist who wrote The Chronicles of NarniaThe Screwtape Letters and (his best work) Till We Have Faces, among a lot of other incredible work. What is less known about C.S. Lewis (who actually went by Jack), was that he was once a passionate atheist. It’s his journey from atheism to Christianity that the play follows.
As to why I chose Zarahemla, I had already established a working relationship with the publisher Chris Bigelow when I pitched an anthology of Mormon Drama by some of Mormonism’s best playwrights that they’re publishing later this summer. Once my work was finished on that project, I pitched this book of plays, which he accepted.
Even more than that, though, I really like what Zarahemla Books is doing and what they’re publishing. They are publishing some of the best Mormon literature on the market right now.  Mainstream Mormon publishers like Deseret Book definitely have their place, and of course it would be great to be picked up by a national publisher, but these particular plays (especially Fading Flower) seemed to fit well with Zarahemla’s more adventurous take on Mormon literature.  Zarahemla Books is brave and honest and can take on challenging material, but they’re also intent on taking an approach that is not at odds with the Church. I’m not a dissident and I don’t want to be seen as a dissident, so that was important to me as well. They were a perfect fit to my approach to the Gospel.    
SH: My experience has been that many members of the LDS Church are unfamiliar with the details of Joseph Smith’s life. They know the basics, of course, like the first vision and martyrdom, but they don’t really know much about the day-to-day Joseph Smith. This extends even more so to his family, his sons and daughter, who don’t really have a place in the LDS story. What drew you to Joseph Smith’s children? How is their story relevant to Latter-day Saints?
MS: That’s a rather bizarre, beautiful story, but I’ll share it. I was on my LDS mission in Australia when I had this vivid dream. In the dream I saw an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color (that’s why she becomes the “truth teller” in the play).
When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma. I wrote things down that I had no clue about, about Joseph F. Smith visiting her, about Parley P. Pratt visiting her (which ends up being Parley P. Pratt’s son), things I had no clue about but which later were confirmed to be true. That morning I stumbled across an old Ensign in our apartment that had this very revealing article about Emma written by one of her descendants, Gracia N. Jones. That Ensign article was my first piece of research for the play.
When I came home from my mission I found this wonderful biography by Valeen Tippits Avery about Emma and Joseph’s youngest son David Hyrum Smith. It’s called From Mission to Madness: The Last Son of the Mormon Prophet. It’s a brilliant, fascinating book and that’s when the play began to focus on David. He has since become a personal hero of mine, although his story is not a happy one. I consider him the Mormon Hamlet. Joseph Smith prophesied to Emma that David (who she was pregnant with at the time) would make his mark in the world. This is my small way of trying to help fulfill that prophecy.
In general, though, I think people know too little about the Smith children. That’s all considered separate from us, the history of the RLDS, the Community of Christ, and some people in the Church see Emma and that branch of Mormonism as a bunch of apostates. That’s not true. They were living by their principles and the light that they had and were beautiful people who I fully expect to find in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. Joseph Smith told Brigham Young that the Lord would look after his family, and I believe the Lord fulfilled that promise. I just hope that awareness can be raised in the Church about them… they were an amazing family who suffered much and achieved much. 
SH: When you write a play like The Fading Flower, how obligated to you feel to the historical record? What’s the relationship between the artist and history?
MS: I love history, especially Mormon history. I almost majored in history at one point in college and have been studying Mormon history since high school. Can’t get enough of it. So I’ve known for a long time that I’d write Mormon History plays and historical fiction. 
But I believe a lot of writers are way too casual when writing history. They flippantly change facts, reverse positions to make a point, or conveniently forget to give the context for an action. I find it highly annoying. As much as I love the Bard, Shakespeare’s famous for it… look at what he did to poor Joan of Arc. He turned a compelling, powerful young girl into a Satan worshipping witch worthy of that flaming stake. Yeah, not cool, Will.
So I find it highly annoying when writers go beyond the tasteful bounds of artistic license and fling themselves into this historical free for all. Nine times out of ten, I think a lot of that kind of attitude has to do with politics or, worse yet, they’re too lazy to research their subject properly.  I feel an obligation to these people I write about.  I develop a relationship with them. I try not to mess with the facts of their lives. Both The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun are deeply rooted in the historical records of these individuals.
Do I have to create dialogue and read between the lines? Sure. But, where I can, I’ve brought in things they actually said, people they actually knew, and things they actually did. In The Fading Flower there’s an entire scene where David Hyrum and his brother Alexander confront Brigham Young and some of the apostles in Brigham’s office. About three fourths of that scene is word for word. There’s a scene in Swallow the Sun where they’re reading “Turn of the Screw” together. That’s because I found in Jack’s early journal a moment where they were actually reading that particular story together. C.S. Lewis knew this person named Mary “Smudge” Wibelin—some people thought her portrait wasn’t very flattering in the show. I didn’t think so either, but as sympathetic as I tried to make her, I based her words and actions on things she actually said and did. I’m not messing around with these people. They were real and deserve to be portrayed as accurately as I can manage… flaws and all, virtues and all.
SH: Has there been a Community of Christ response to The Fading Flower
MS: Not really that I know of, but I’d be very curious as to their response. There’s an LDS man who saw the play, though, who works at the Community of Christ university back East, and he seemed interested in exposing it to the people back there. I would love to see how it would play among them. I feel like I’m very fair with all of my characters and allow them their positions, although I don’t always treat Joseph Smith III with kid gloves. I love and admire the man, but some of the ways he handled his approach to the history of his father I feel were less than honest, regarding some of his statements and letters. I have great love and respect for all the Smiths and their descendants, Joseph Smith III included, and I have a hearty respect and love for the Community of Christ. They’re good people and even when I disagree with certain positions or historical quandaries in their mix, I believe they are a people who the Lord is very aware of and who the Lord loves.
There was a young woman who saw the play who was a Utah polygamist, though, and her reaction was very interesting. During one of the talk backs after the show, the conversation naturally went to polygamy. I was very supportive in the play of the polygamous characters (after all, some of my ancestors were polygamists), but in the talk I mentioned that I’m definitely supportive of the Church’s current position. When I mentioned how modern polygamy is handled by monsters like Warren Jeffs, she spoke up. “We are not all like Warren Jeffs,” she said.  She was perfectly right and I’m glad she called me out on it. I had a wonderful talk with her afterwards and she really did seem to enjoy the play. There are polygamists who are more moderate, less manipulative and conniving than someone like Jeffs, women and men who are simply following the same faith that my own ancestors followed. I have deep respect for that.
SH: One of my professors at BYU once referred sarcastically to C.S. Lewis as the Patron Saint of BYU. Why do Mormons love C.S. Lewis so much?
MS: C.S. Lewis’s connection to Mormons is interesting. First off, being Christians ourselves, we love reading his powerful defenses of Christianity. Yet it’s even deeper than that. C.S. Lewis touches on some themes that are very Mormon. There are several places where he seems to insinuate that men and women can become gods and goddesses. It’s very in keeping with Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow’s teachings on the subject. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis said in “The Weight of Glory.”  “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory himself, is truly hidden.” Those are very Mormon statements he’s espousing.
And this all makes sense, considering his background. Jack loved mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson were able to help guide him to Christianity partially because of their argument about Christianity being the “true myth,” the true story all the other myths were pointing to. And, as we know, the myths he loved when he was young were polytheist. I honestly think he would have loved to join a neo-Pagan religion if he could convince himself into actually believing it. But that sense of a council of gods stayed with him. His love of the old stories stayed with him (look at what his subject matter is with The Chronicles of Narnia and Till We Have Faces—he’s steeped in mythology!). So, as a Christian with this background, when he reads in the Gospel of John Christ saying, “Ye are gods,” he takes the Savior at his word. He seems to realize that Christ is being literal. The old myths, although imperfect, are pointing to the true myth, the one that became embodied in Christ. 
Yet, in all fairness, C.S. Lewis wasn’t a Mormon in this life, as many times as I’m sure he’s been proxy baptized for the dead by zealous Mormons since then. But, at least in this life, he would have had some problems with the Church. The devil’s argument in Perelandra about the Fall being good for mankind sounds very Mormon, and Jack is setting those arguments up as persuasive, but heretical and devilish doctrines. So he would have had some issues with The Pearl of Great Price. And he certainly had no tolerance for a religion that had a health code that prohibited alcohol and tobacco, both of which he was very fond of.  Jack loved discussing with the Inklings with a mug of beer and his pipe!  He said that Jesus drank wine and that was good enough for him. So yeah, he didn’t always see eye to eye with us.
But the connections are tantalizing… try reading Prince Caspian and placing Caspian as a Joseph Smith archetype. It becomes an allegory for the Restoration if you read it that way. Or notice that the character of Eustace in the Narnia books seems to be a Mormon (his family follows a peculiarly familiar health code and “wore a special kind of underclothes”). I’m sure a lot of Mormons think that since we weren’t able to get C.S. Lewis in this life, we’ll find a way to convince him in the next.      
SH: Last month I saw your most recent play, A Roof Overhead, at the Little Brown Theater in Springville, Utah. Do you feel this play, because it tackles the controversies of the current “Mormon Moment,” has taken your writing in a new direction? What kinds of challenges surface when you write about current events?
MS: Yeah, it’s one of my few contemporary plays, first of all. For a while I was in a continual circle of period pieces, which I still love and will still write plenty of. I’m a BBC period drama buff and I love writing that kind of work. But [BYU theater professor] Eric Samuelsen once asked me when I was going to pull out my play about contemporary Mormons and that got me to thinking.
I actually wrote the first “draft” of A Roof Overhead in high school (that was my first “contemporary” period of writing!). But I revisited it and overhauled it into a very different play (for one thing, the family wasn’t originally Mormon, but mainstream Christians, and Sam used to be a guy… although still named Sam). The play definitely brought me into a different direction in my writing. There are a couple of contemporary plays I’m considering now. One may be my next project, which deals with some subjects that have been made more important to me since I moved here to Arizona, especially after I have made some good Latino friends and seen the Church’s compassionate stance in the immigration debate. I already wrote a short version of the play for a class, and will now be expanding it. Yeah, A Roof Overhead helped me to live more in the moment and address topics that were pressing us now.
SH: What’s your process as a playwright? How do you choose the next play to write?
MS: Honestly, I just write through it. Unless it’s a historical piece, then I try to outline pretty extensively and find themes and trends in my research. But when it comes to a piece that comes chiefly from my imagination, then I usually have a couple of central ideas and characters I start out with and I see where those characters bring me. I rarely revise in the middle of the writing, but just push through and revise after I have a first draft in front of me. More often than not, my characters write themselves. There was one play where I didn’t know a character was an embezzler until it was revealed as I was writing the scene half way through the play. And that was a pretty crucial plot point, by the way, that affected the story and its climax in huge ways. So usually the story leads me, I don’t lead the story.  
SH: How do Mormons respond to your work? What about non-Mormons?
MS: Oh, there’s a whole spectrum of responses! One particularly hostile reviewer recently called one of my plays “Mormon apologetics,” while one of my brothers told me that he thought I was going to leave the Church after he saw one of my plays (the same play which a lot of people told me they had a spiritual experience with). With Mormons, it’s a mixed bag, some thinking me too moralistic and didactic, some thinking me too honest with controversies, and some loving the spiritual nature of my work.
There was one play that was particularly divisive among Mormons who saw it, my play about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Friends of God.  The play deals pretty extensively with Joseph Smith’s involvement with polygamy. I had people come up to me in tears after the play, telling me that they had struggled with the issue of polygamy in the Church’s history for years and that I suddenly lifted a huge burden off of them. Others were deeply disturbed that I so publicly portrayed Joseph Smith as a polygamist. One of the actors in the play, who is now a good friend of mine that has participated in several of my shows, had at that point been inactive, but felt the Spirit in the shows rehearsals so much that he decided to go on a mission in consequence. The producer of the play, once he got around to actually reading it, almost cancelled the production. About half way through his reading, he called me over and really reamed me out. Then, when he actually finished reading the play, he talked to me again and was tearing up and commended me on what a great testimony it was of Joseph Smith and how spiritual it was. Sigh. 
As to non-Mormons, surprisingly I’ve had less antagonism. My professional associates and non-Mormon friends have been very supportive. My first play Farewell to Eden was a Victorian British piece which had some strong Mormon characters and themes. The play won some national awards through the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival and the judges were very glowing in their assessment of my writing. Audiences during the regional festival in California were also very positive and the play was packed and got a lot of buzz.
With A Roof Overhead, though, so far the play has been a mixed bag with secular audiences. I had one friend who was pretty offended by the ending, although he loved the play and its characters, while I have another non-Mormon friend who absolutely adores it. The real test will when it plays outside of Utah next October at Arizona State University, where it’s been accepted as part of the season for the student run theatre, The Binary.
I’ve found that there is no way I’m going to please everyone, though, so I just aim to be brave, true to my convictions, and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
SH: Mormons have not always liked how they are represented in critically-acclaimed plays like Angels in America and The Book of Mormon. Can Mormons and Mormon playwrights learn anything from these plays?
MS: I have strong issues with how Mormons are portrayed in both of those plays you mentioned. I see The Book of Mormon Musical as a Mormon minstrel show. The characters are broad, the satire is irresponsible, and it re-enforces stereotypes of Mormons (and Ugandans, by the way) just like minstrel shows re-enforced stereotypes of African-Americans in the 19thcentury.
However, I don’t want to dismiss the show out of hand. There’s a reason it legitimately won so many Tony Awards. It’s a genuinely funny show and oddly affectionate about its Mormon missionary protagonists and there are some moments of that show which are actually pretty moving. And there are points where it seems the creators almost would like something like Mormonism to be real, just because they think Mormons can be so nice and wonderful. But Matt Stone and Trey Parker think Mormonism is a bunch of bunk, that’s clear. But at least their stereotypes are affectionate, and that’s nice. But let’s also remember, the minstrel shows were affectionate in their own way, too. There’s a lot to like about that show, and a lot to be legitimately alarmed by.
As to Angels in America, that’s a powerfully written set of plays. It brings in Mormonism in some very interesting and brilliant ways, especially with how the play integrates Joseph Smith’s first vision as an archetype. Kushner is super talented . The play deserved the Pulitzer Prize. But let’s face it, beyond the superficial understanding of Mormonism one can find from pamphlets and the New York Temple Visitor’s Center, Tony Kushner doesn’t have a clue about Mormonism and its culture. That much at least is painfully obvious. His Mormon characters are well rounded and compelling, but they are not characters that seem in any real ways connected to real world of Mormonism and its culture. The same can be said of The Book of Mormon Musical. That’s why it’s important that we are able to tell our own stories, hopefully someday to a national audience. It’s important because these other writers, talented as they are, get us dead wrong.
The only mainstream show I’ve seen get Mormonism even close to right is Big Love, which actually had some legitimately moving moments in telling the Mormon story. Of course the show (especially in the first few seasons) has a content level that prevents me from suggesting it to most people, and I probably wouldn’t have watched it myself if I hadn’t felt compelled to (I learned to make good use of that fast forward button during some of the more gratuitous scenes, though). But those Utah polygamist characters were compelling and beautiful and pretty accurate in their Utah environment. You could tell that the writers hadn’t been lazy in their research, despite some anachronistic and out of touch moments that are bound to happen when an outsider is writing about another’s culture. But the writers, actors and producers did an otherwise top notch job. But the show’s major flaw was its didactic stance against the official Church. Their treatments of the Church was way too one sided and hostile. I saw none of the wisdom and compassion of a Thomas Monson, or Henry Eyring, or Dieter Uchtdorf, or Jeffrey Holland in the characters that were supposed to represent Church officials. Almost all the characters—non-Mormon, Mormon and polygamist—were compelling, powerful, and decently accurate except for those who were supposed to be connected to traditional LDS leadership. It really became disproportionate. That’s where they really dropped the ball and failed to understand just how good and compassionate many of these men we call prophets are.  
SH: What’s up next for Mahonri Stewart? Any plans to write more plays about lesser-known moments in Church history? The Joseph Standing martyrdom, perhaps?
MS: Wow, I had to look that one up. Not many people can do that to me anymore. Joseph Standing would be interesting… the persecution that Mormons have received in the Southern States is a compelling story to me, there’s an interesting book out about that subject matter right now which I’ve wanted to look up. But, no, Joseph Standing’s not on the radar, not currently. But now you’ve got me thinking…
Swallow the Sun just got optioned to be made into an independent film by some great producers in Utah, Lightstone Pictures. The talks I’ve been having with them have been very encouraging, and if they can get the funding in place in time, I may even be able to help in the filming of it this summer while I’m on my summer break from ASU’s Dramatic Writing MFA program. I’m super excited about the possibilities of making the play into a film. The screenplay has gone through a few drafts already. I really want to do some work in film and/or television and this would be my first screenwriting credit.
I’m also working on the first of a series of Mormon History novels. Which, tying back to the Church History part of your question, is something I’m very eager to do. Mormon History is a well I’ll keep going back to. I want to write a play about Parley P. Pratt’s martyrdom, a play about the three witnesses, Mormon history graphic novels, a Joseph Smith musical (which I’m working on with my talented composer friend Nate Drew)… I could just go on and on and on in that vein, if I was immortal. I love Mormon history, we have one of the most compelling stories in the world, and so few people (even in the Church) realize how powerful our story really is. I believe it was the New York Times in the 19th century that called the Mormons a “nation of heroes.” Our story could populate epics and intimate plays from here to eternity.
But my work will extend beyond Mormon history. I want to write some pretty mainstream novels, films, TV shows and plays. I’m in the midst of refining a script for a TV pilot currently.  I also love… LOVE… mythology. A lot of my plays deal with world mythology, including one called Manifest which will be playing next year. I’m running my theatre company in Utah Zion Theatre Company from a distance while I’m in Arizona, with the essential help of some very supportive friends who are acting as producer, directors, etc. I produce my own plays with ZTC, as well as other plays from Mormon and non-Mormon writers that I think will connect with Utah audiences, including productions of The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeSwallow the Sun and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (adapted by the brilliant Mel Larson) this summer at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake and the Castle Theater in Provo this Fall. I’ve always got something in my main pot and then a few other things on the back burners. I try to keep myself pretty busy. 
Photo by
Naoma Wilkinson

Mahonri Stewart is a Mormon playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, husband and father of two who is currently working towards his MFA in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Over a dozen of his plays have been produced and he is the recipient of several playwriting awards, including the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival’s National Playwriting Award (second place); the KCACTF National Selection Team Fellowship Award; the LDS Film Festival Screenwriting Award; the Ruth and Nathan Hale Comedy Playwriting Award; and the UVU Theatre Student of the Year Award. His plays, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, were just published by Zarahemla Books. His screenplays of Swallow the Sun has been optioned for an independent film and he is also the executive producer for Zion Theatre Company.


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