Friday, July 6, 2012

Truth and Madness: A Review of Mahonri Stewart's "The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun"



For many Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s history ends on the day he was martyred in 1844. After that, the story of Mormonism is the story of Brigham Young and the pioneers: wagons, handcarts, crickets, seagulls. If Joseph Smith ever has part in this story, it’s as a spirit in a dream.

Mahonri Stewart’s The Fading Flowerrecently published, along with Stewart’s Swallow the Sun, by Zarahemla Books—seeks to change this. Focusing on Smith’s widow, Emma, and their five children, the play provides a counterpoint to the rote myths and legends of the pioneer era, examining, among other things, how those who knew Smith best sought to shape his legacy for the next generation. At the center of this struggle is David Hyrum Smith, the prophet’s youngest son, who never knew his father and spent twenty-seven years of his life in an insane asylum. His descent into madness, spurred by his mother’s fierce refusal to acknowledge the truth about her husband’s involvement with polygamy, gives the play its emotion and tragedy. More familiar historical figures, like Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith, help give context to the play’s action for readers less familiar with this side of Mormon history.

The Fading Flower begins sometime in the 1860s. Joseph Smith III, David’s oldest brother, is assuming leadership over the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In Utah, Brigham Young is preaching against them and their mother. Latter-day Saint missionaries like cousins Joseph F. Smith and Samuel Harrison Bailey Smith pay regular visits to the Smith family. Tensions between the two faith groups are high, and as the play progresses, David becomes caught between them. Along with his brothers, he serves missions to Utah, where he comes under the influence of Amasa Lyman, a backsliding apostle, and learns the truth about his father’s polygamous marriages from the former wives themselves.

A sensitive soul with a strong desire for truth, David seeks to reconstruct his father’s past, but finds troubling his mother’s and older brother’s efforts to keep that past a secret. Like Hamlet, his quest for knowledge is not without its consequences. In fact, one of David’s strengths as a character is his determination to discover the truth no matter the cost. It is one of many attributes that set him apart from Joseph Smith III, who is a far more complex and conflicted character, but one who is much less endearing. If David is this play’s Hamlet, then Joseph Smith III is its Claudius.

But, really, a comparison between this play and Hamlet works only so far. The Fading Flower is ultimately about love and not revenge. The Smith family is bound together by the marked absence of a loved one, Joseph Smith, whose life—now in shadows—has significant bearing on how each character conducts his or her life. This also is the case for the play's Utah characters, reminding readers that the martyrdom not only deprived a people of its prophet, but also fractured a family of believers. In Brigham Young and Emma Smith, we see a pair of feuding siblings; in Joseph Smith III and Joseph F. Smith we see—quite literally—rival cousins; in David and Eliza R. Snow, one of his father’s former plural wife, we see what could have been a wonderful mother-son relationship. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in the play comes when Eliza, recalling days before the animosity between the groups, reads David a poem she wrote for him when he was born.  Afterwards, a rare moment of kindness and honesty unfolds:

Eliza: I . . . I know people think I’m severe, sometimes even cold. But my heart is tender, David, and it has a very warm place for you.
David: If this principle is wrong, may God cleanse you, for you truly are beautiful women.
Eliza: And if it’s right?
David: Then may God not let it destroy us. (68)

Perhaps the tragedy of The Fading Flower, then, is not so much what happens to David, but rather what happens to the followers of Joseph Smith after they are no longer able to rely on the anchor of his faith and leadership. In this play, Joseph Smith III and Brigham Young are competent prophets, but neither is the Prophet. Both depend upon their memory of Joseph Smith, as well as their interpretation of his legacy, for legitimacy and authority, and that mantle weighs heavily upon them. “Don’t you see?” Joseph Smith III says at one point. “[…] Father’s Church and his name are now both literally mine. Whatever tarnishes Father’s Church tarnishes my Church, and whatever tarnishes Father’s name tarnishes my name!” (98).

Clearly, Joseph Smith haunts this play, and he in fact makes appearances as a kind of ghostly figure who returns as an unseen reminder of who he really was. In my opinion, it is one of the weaknesses of an otherwise excellent play. I’ve never seen The Faded Flower performed, so I readily acknowledge that Stewart’s use of Smith might work better on stage than on paper, but I found the ghostly presence distracting. I wonder, that is, how the play might work if Joseph Smith were physically absent from it. Would that help to enhance its themes of absence, doubt, and dislocation? Would it situate the play more ambiguously in respect to truth and error? Or, does his presence bring in a necessary element of love and compassion?

As I mentioned earlier, The Fading Flower has been published together with Stewart’s Swallow the Sun, a play about C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Lacking Mormon characters, this second work is somewhat lighter in toneStewart seems to have a knack for subtle comedyand has great potential to reach a broader audience, although I personally found it less interesting than The Fading Flower. Not because it is a bad play—in fact, it might be the better written of the two—but because I’m drawn to work like The Fading Flower that uncover previously untold stories from Mormon history. I think Mormon literature need works that probe these unseen corners of the Mormon past, works that try, like David, to get at the truth behind the mysteries and obscurities—or go mad in the attempt.  

For more about The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun read my recent interview with Mahonri Stewart.

NOTE: I received a complimentary review copy of The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun from the publisher.

Joseph Smith's four sons with their step-father, Louis Bidamon


3 comments:

  1. .

    Eugene England says Hamlet's about nonviolence. Sort of. Fwiw.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have heard of the essay, but I've never read it. It's a fairly non-traditional reading of the play, right?

    ReplyDelete