Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What Do You Get When an Aztec Crosses the Train Tracks?: A Review of B. H. Roberts's "Corianton, a Nephite Story"

Sunday night, The Book of Mormon won the Tony Award for (among other things) Best Musical. I don’t really follow musical theater these days, but from what I get this was hardly a dark horse victory. People really, really seem to like it.[1]

Of course, few people realize that this isn’t Mormonism’s first appearance on Broadway. In 1912, Mormon playwright Orestes Bean’s stage adaptation of B. H. Roberts’s novel Corianton, A Nephite Story ran for six nights of Broadway. Renamed Corianton, An Aztec Romance[2], the play was a disaster. If the Tony Awards had been around in 1912, it wouldn’t have even made the long list.

In short: the Titanic wasn’t the only thing that sank in 1912.[3]

Already much has been written about Corianton, An Aztec Romance and its subsequent film adaptation, the infinitely better-named Corianton: A Tale of Unholy Love.[4] To date, I haven’t seen either production. George Lucas willing, I’ll be able to take a look at the Tale of Unholy Love next time I’m in Utah.

I have read Roberts’s novel, though.[5] Written and serialized in The Contributor in 1889[6], Corianton was later published in book form in 1902 after Bean’s play had become a hit among Mormon audiences.[7] It was also, as far as I can tell, the first novel based on a Book of Mormon story.[8]

Corianton, of course, is the story of Alma the Younger’s youngest son, whose youthful indiscretions with a harlot named Isabel[9] are matter for one of the racier episodes of Nephite history.[10] They’ve also since become matter for countless seminary or youth fireside lessons on chastity.

You know what I’m talking about.[11]

Corianton, you’ll remember, was on a mission to the Zoramites when he skipped town and crossed over to the other side of the train tracks.[12] His father’s account of the story is unsurprising in its terseness:

For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom. And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted. (Alma 39:2-4)

Readers of Corianton will quickly discover, though, that B. H. Roberts has fleshed the story out a bit.[13] It begins, to Roberts’s credit as an author, with the dramatic trial of Korihor, the Book of Mormon anti-Christ.[14] Corianton, always something of a rebel, stands with Korihor throughout the trial—much to Alma’s regret. But Corianton is a young man of strong convictions: he’s not really a flighty guy who follows every whim. His actions have thought behind them:

I think this treatment of Korihor is too harsh. Our law protects a man in his belief and in the expression of it; and though Korihor hath a proud bearing and holds what you believe to be dangerous views, still I think the officers at Gideon exceeded their jurisdiction in sending him bound to this city. (Kindle Locations 155-157).

Of course, Corianton’s conviction and thoughtfulness are matched by his brashness. Intelligent as he is, he tends to flip the egg before its fried. Time and time again, he lets himself get caught up in the moment. After witnessing Korihor’s downfall, for example, he becomes a too zealous convert. Then, as a missionary, he tosses crucial doctrines[15] aside for a self-inflating “Gospel of Me”:[16]

Indeed it was his success that began to work a great mischief; for it filled him with pride and boasting in his own strength. By the force of his brilliancy, and a kind of genius for controversy, he discomfited the Zoramites, and exposed the shallowness of their principles to the great delight of the multitude who, though they believed not the message he was delivering, were immensely pleased with the youthful orator. (Kindle Locations 358-361).

Even the Isabel incident is a result of overthinking the situation. When she comes at him with an argument about liberty and free agency, he’s at a loss for words. And it doesn’t help that she flatters better than Eddie Haskell’s sister.[17]

Like the hero of a Shakespeare tragedy, the “vicious mole” of Corianton’s fall is with him from the beginning. If Roberts’s novel does anything well, it is its characterization of Corianton. Of all characters, only he possesses anything bordering on psychology. Everyone else, including Isabel, is like the paper bag puppet your kid brings home from primary.[18]

That’s not necessarily to say that Corianton is a bad novel.[19] A better word for it would be “inconsistent” or “uneven.” Take Roberts’s writing style, for instance. It fluctuates from the sublime:

The next morning the sun shone more brightly than on the day before. Through the night a terrific storm had raged. Black clouds burdened with moisture had been split by vivid flashes of lightning, and poured down all their floods. But with the approach of light the storm ceased, the clouds parted and drifted into great cumulous heaps lightened to snowy whiteness by the glorious morning sun. (Kindle Locations 187-191).

to the Edenic:

The house of Seantum was situated at the southern outskirts of the city, in the midst of a spacious and splendid garden [….] Here side by side, and in fine contrast, were rhododendrons, with their rose-colored flowers, and the coffee shrub with its clusters of delicate white blossoms. Other flowers and flowering trees there were in great profusion—the fragrant eglantine, the elegant, airy though thorny acacia, and now and then an aloe plant, and, ah, rare sight! several of them were in full bloom; these, with splendid magnolias, mingled their odors; and burdened the air with ambrosial fragrance, which, with the chirrup and hum of insect life, the gentle whispering wind, stealing softly through shrubbery and tree, and all kissed to beauty by the glorious moonlight, made up a night such as lovers love, and love's young dream expands. (Kindle Locations 401-410).

to the Baedekeresque:

The city of Zarahemla which our party of horsemen and their prisoner had entered, was the capital and metropolis of the Nephite Republic. Its exact location cannot be definitely fixed. According to the Book of Mormon it was situated on the west bank of tho river Sidon, a noble stream, supposed to be identical with the river Magdalena. It rises in the great mountain chain of western South America, and flows directly north through an immense valley to the sea. The city Zarahemla was originally founded by the descendants of a colony of Jews that escaped from Jerusalem, after the destruction of that city by King Nebuchadnezzar, early in the sixth century B. C. With the colony of Jews that escaped was Mulek, the son of King Zedekiah, and the colony took its name from him. They landed in the northern continent of the western world and afterwards drifted southward into the valley of Sidon, and there founded a city, but what name they gave it is not known. (Kindle Locations 62-69)

to the Stan Leesque[20]:

The summer's sun was just struggling through the mists that overhung the eastern horizon, and faintly gilding the towers and housetops of Zarahemla, as a party of seven horsemen, evidently weary with the night's travel, were seen slowly moving along the foot of the hill Manti… (Kindle Locations 14-16).

Roberts also has a tendency to favor dialog over action. Open the book to any random spot and you’ll likely land on a conversation. Perhaps this is part of why Corianton made such an easy transition to the stage and screen.[21] Unfortunately, though, Roberts frequently sums up in a paragraph scenes that should be treated to a half dozen paragraphs, if not a whole chapter. For instance, gone are scenes of missionary labors, sermons, and stonings.[22] Gone too are scenes of “Aztec Romance” and “Unholy Love.”[23]

Present, though, is the ingenious euphemism for Corianton’s sin: he and Isabel are seen beside the shores of a lake “in loving converse” (Kindle Location 514).

It is definitely a Nephite story.[24]

In fairness to Roberts, though, Corianton is interesting enough for sustained reading. It’s also relatively short. Since finishing it, though, I’ve been unsure about its place in the Mormon literary canon. Obviously, as the first fictional adaptation of the Book of Mormon, it is a forerunner of the Book of Mormon novels of Robert H. Moss, Chris Heimerdinger, David G. Woolley, H. B. Moore, and Orson Scott Card.[25] At the same time, it doesn’t really have the cultural resonance of a book like Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, Jack Weyland’s Charly, or even Levi Peterson’s The Backslider.[26] That said, in its heyday, Corianton was king.

If I had to say something about the legacy Corianton—let’s say someone was making a documentary on B. H. Roberts,[27] and they wanted a sound-bite about Corianton from someone who had glasses and disheveled hair—I would say this (gesturing wildly):

Corianton is really the first time someone sat back and said, “Hey, there’s a lot in the Book of Mormon that would be great for a novel.” I mean, these were the days before movies. Wallace had just published Ben-Hur, like, maybe nine years earlier and it was a hit. People wanted Bible stories. So here comes B. H. Roberts, one of the best writers in the church, someone really respected among the Saints, who tries to do what Wallace did with Ben-Hur, but with the Book of Mormon. And the Corianton story had it all: violence, sex, you name it. And it’s not like he had to do much research. You read Corianton and you find parts where Roberts is like “…and Nephite women were known to be very modest” and you’re like, “How in the world does he know that?” Well, he doesn’t. He used the Book of Mormon’s vagueness about geography and customs and whatever to his advantage. He made it all up! Genius!

So, Corianton deserves to be read as an early indicator of at least one direction that later Mormon literature would take.[28] It’s also an interesting relic from a time when a member of the Presidency of the Seventy could publish fiction[29] in one of the many literary journals closely associated with the church.[30]

Thanks to Ben Crowder and the Mormon Texts Project, Project Gutenberg has a version of the novel that can be downloaded to your Kindle software.[31] The Internet Archive, likewise, has a scan of the original edition of the novel that you can download and read as a pdf. While you’re there you can also pick up a scan of Orestes Bean’s stage adaptation of the novel.

You don’t even have to cross the train tracks to get it.



[1] Sadly, I can’t give my opinion on it since I haven’t seen it. Around the time it came out I started a blog post on it, but I quit after realizing that my ignorance about the musical seriously crippled my ability to write about it with any sort of credibility.

[2] Presumably for the Gentiles in the audience.

[3] Here’s a random biographical note: the middle school I attended was built in 1912. My friend, who was full of crap, claimed that at midnight on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, all the ghosts of the people who died on the ship held a meeting in our school's auditorium. The purpose of the meeting was to give the Captain, also a ghost, a hard time about running into the iceberg. Here’s the thing, though: no one from Milford, Ohio died on the Titanic. I’ve never broken into my old middle school at midnight on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, but something tells me that my friend was what we then called a “Big Fat Liar.”

[4] Check out Ardis E. Parshall’s fascinating “‘Corianton’: Genealogy of a Mormon Phenomenon” on Keepapitchinin. Also noteworthy are Rory Swenson’s, Michael De Groote’s, and Eric Samuelsen’s recent reviews of the film, which was screened at an AML conference a few years back. 

[5] Purists might call it a novella. Detractors might call it something worse.

[6] Before my middle school was built.

[7] According to Parshall, Bean totally filched the plot and title of Roberts’s novel for his stage play. Smart man that he was, Roberts had his book published to cash in on the free publicity.

[8] Parshall teases us with the title of another Book of Mormon novel from the early Home Literature era, i.e. Julia A. McDonald’s A Ship of Hagoth. I haven’t poked around to see if it is floating somewhere in the cyber-ether, but if it is…I’ll find it, read it, and write about it.

[9] Funny story: as a young missionary in Brazil, I spent my first three months in the field in a fairly remote place. We had no telephone in our house, so the mission office would call the phone number of the house two doors down if they ever needed to contact us. Incidentally, that house was brothel run by a woman named Isabel. I don’t know how these arrangements came to be, but once, while we were making our way down to the church for a zone meeting, Isabel stopped us and asked us if she and her household could hear our messages. My companion took her name and number and passed it along to the zone leader. She lived in his area, after all, not ours. As far as I know she was never baptized (like in God's Army). Nor did any of the missionaries go Corianton (like in God's Army 2). Anyway, I always thought it was rather funny that there was actually a living, breathing harlot named Isabel. I probably told that story at least weekly for the first eight months of my mission.

[10] Racy episodes are suggested throughout the Book of Mormon, beginning with the rude dancing aboard Nephi’s ship. Perhaps the raciest, though, is that of the daughter of Jared, who dances for Akish in order to con him into killing her grandfather, Omer.  

[11] Lessons on chastity are an important part of the Latter-day Saint youth experience. As a youth, I remember hearing Corianton’s story one early morning in seminary. It was accompanied by a viewing of the classic 1970s LDS film Morality for the Youth, which depicts an M.I.A. group on a metaphor-laden white water rafting trip. I have since wanted to show the film to my seminary students, but I have been unable to locate it. That’s probably for the best: generally when I use videos from the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, I become subject to jokes about my age.

[12] Anachronism intentional.

[13] Without fleshing the story out, if you catch my drift. Modesty, for the most part, is preserved within the pages of Corianton.

[14] Not to be confused with the forthcoming real Anti-Christ, who, believe it or not, is neither Barack Obama nor Sarah Palin nor the people who put together the Kidzbop CDs.

[15] i.e. the atonement, resurrection, justice, etc.

[16] In his letters to his mission president, he probably made it a point to mention two or three times how many people he converted and baptized.

[17] For those of you who are unfamiliar with my allusion, I direct you to the Wikipedia page on Eddie Haskell, a memorable sycophant from the late 1950s/early 1960s television comedy Leave It to Beaver. Note that I am not referring to the twentieth century American philosopher. Further note that Ken Osmond, the actor who played Eddie Haskell, was not a Mormon, despite his last name.

[18] Paper thin, drab, not well colored, limited in both expression and speech. Maybe a little waxy.

[19] Except, by most standards, it is.

[20] Excelsior!

[21] I use the word “easy” relatively.

[22] Corianton’s older brother Shiblon is stoned after he offends some high ranking Zoramite officials. Here’s how Roberts renders the scene:
The following day when it became known that Corianton had gone to Siron with Isabel, the excitement in Antionum greatly increased. Shiblon the day before had been released from his bondage and was stoned by the people in the streets, led on by some of the servants of Seantum. He escaped them, however, and joined his father and brethren, and told them of the blind infatuation of Corianton. (Kindle Locations 606-609).

[23] When I was a kid, I called racy scenes in movies the “hoo-hoo parts.” In Corianton, the closest we get to a “hoo-hoo part” is this:
Half seating herself on the inclined tree, she raised her hand to clutch a grape vine that drooped from a branch above, and as she did so the ample folds of her sleeve slipped back and left uncovered a beautiful white arm. And now Corianton noticed for the first time that the form was supple and finely proportioned. Her head, too, had been covered with a kind of mantilla which had also partly shrouded her face; this fell back now, revealing a face of uncommon loveliness, and a profusion of brown hair. (Kindle Locations 414-418).

[24] Its focus, in other words, in on the Nephite, not the harlot.

[25] If you count his Homecoming Saga as a Book of Mormon adaptation. (I do.)

[26] I had something witty to say right here, but I forgot what it was.

[27] Fictional Mormon filmmaker S. Norman Christiansen has for some time now tried to raise money for a Roberts documentary entitled B.H. Roberts: Mormon Maverick with a Pen, Ink, and Paper, which has been stuck in development hell since before Tom Cruise and John McCain made the word “maverick” commonplace. Because neither he nor his fundraising mechanism is real, it is likely that the film will never be made.   

[28] I wonder also if Corianton isn’t a forerunner of Mormon speculative fiction. So much of the novel, after all, is based on Roberts’s own speculations about Nephite culture, mores, and customs. How different is that than, say, what authors like Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, or David Wolverton do when they create new cultures in their works of sf&f?  

[29] Let alone have the time to write it.

[30] Theoretically speaking, something like this could happen today. It just hasn’t happened in a long time. Possibly not since Roberts.

[31] This is how I read it.

5 comments:

  1. Cool. And yes, I agree that the Homecoming series is a Book of Mormon adaptation. But I'm really writing to comment on your Big Fat Liar middle school friend from Note 3, who sounds like *he* should have gone into writing fiction.

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  2. Thanks, Jonathan.

    I've lost track of the Big Fat Liar, but I ran a Google search on his name and I don't think he ever went into fiction writing. Too bad. He could really tell a story.

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  3. .

    You're getting frighteningly entertaining. I have a suggestion on format: Instead of footnotes, use abbr. Put <abbr title="note here"></abbr> around the thing you're footnoting. It will make it easier for me at least to keep up with the flow of your thought.

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  4. FWIW, the broadway play actually didn't include the word "Corianton" in the title, if what I understand is correct.

    Some of the reviews of the time show that the press was quite confused by the show.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That could be true, Kent. At any rate, I can certainly understand why the reviewers were confused by the show. Bean wasn't exactly a gifted playwright.

    At least the history is interesting.

    ReplyDelete