Reading Across the Lines : Mormon Theatrical Formations in Nineteenth Century Nauvoo Illinois
Brigham Young University Department of Theatre and Media Arts
In the spring of 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois, LDS professional actors Thomas Lyne and George Adams created the Nauvoo Dramatic Association and organized performances of the first plays staged by and for Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ, Mormons). Leaders of the Church, including Joseph Smith, participated in producing theatre. Theatre was later promoted by Brigham Young for the recreation, unification, and instruction of the Saints in pioneer Salt Lake City.
This study (1) examines the LDS historical context within which these plays were presented; (2) examines the texts of plays performed in Nauvoo to extrapolate imbedded messages which would have been perceived as morally appropriate and instructive by audiences in general in the mid-nineteenth century; and (3) considers ways in which this particular audience might interpret these theatrical texts in ways different from other American audiences. Some of the plays performed by the NDA were Pizarro, or the Death of Rolla, John Jones of the War Office, Thérèse the Orphan of Geneva, Douglas, The Idiot Witness, a Tale of Blood, Damon and Pythias, The Iron Chest, William Tell (Knowles), and Virginius.
The study draws three conclusions. (1) The Nauvoo audience had unusual factors within its paradigm through which to read dramatic texts. American converts to the Church had survived the trauma of the Missouri expulsion. British converts had experienced economic and physical hardship. In 1844 all members were being threatened by opposition to their existence as a religion and as a people. (2) British and American audiences in general viewing productions of these nine plays would receive messages seen as agreeing with cultural norms, including themes of honor, loyalty, family, chastity, and virtue rewarded and evil punished by law and by heaven. (3) Their experiences magnified the LDS reaction to the messages presented in the plays, reinforcing self-identity as a persecuted and undaunted people. These plays resonated with the essentially Romantic nature of Mormonism itself.