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Sunday, April 6, 2014

True Myths and Spiritual Words: The Development of my Dramatic Voice, Part One

Note: This is the first draft of an essay I have to write to accompany my thesis play for my MFA program in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. It will change due to feedback I have received, and thus I will probably update it as I go along. I am posting it in two parts. The essay is meant to focus on my journey as a playwright, the development of my work at ASU, as well as the ideas and authors that have influenced my work (so pardon the navel gazing. It was part of the assignment...honest!). Here's part one:

True Myths and Spiritual Words:
The Development of my Dramatic Voice
The Essay for my MFA Thesis Play and my Body of Work at ASU
By Mahonri Stewart
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps the most influential theologian of Christianity in the 20th century, was once an avowed atheist. Not long after the death of his mother when he was eight years old, until his early thirties, his beliefs flatly contradicted the positions he would passionately take up later in his life.
Lewis was a great lover of mythology, of the Norse legends and the Greek tales, of all sorts of ancient stories. But he certainly didn’t believe they were real stories. He saw religion as another extension of just such a mythology. Despite his great love for magical stories and monumental myths, and the “joy” they brought him, he told his Catholic friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who would become the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, that these myths were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”[1]
Furthermore, when it came to Christianity, it wasn’t even original! It was the Johnny Come Lately of world religion, relying on the “dying god myths” of the past—the Greek Prometheus, the Egyptian Osiris, and C.S. Lewis’s favorite myth about the death of the Norse god Balder. Lewis saw the myth of Jesus Christ as a direct plagiarism of that which had come before it. A dying god made alive again? That story had already been told.[2]
In a late night conversation with his friend and fellow Oxford educator Tolkien, as well as their friend Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar who taught at Reading University, Lewis had gotten to the point of his spiritual journey in recognizing the possibility of God. He had become a theist. But Christianity was still incomprehensible to him, for the above stated reasons. As these three friends walked in the woods together, after dinner one evening, the old argument came out of Lewis, but J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson countered it.
I dramatized that conversation in my published play, Swallow the Sun: 
TOLKIEN. Has it ever occurred to you that Christianity is the true myth?
JACK. There’s no such thing as a true myth—myths are nothing but lies breathed through silver.
HUGO. No. No, I believe there’s more to them, to all myths. Perhaps something along the lines of inspired imagination, a pre-existent memory that subsists in all people which comes tumbling out in the form of stories.
JACK. Oh, you sound like a psychologist, full of Jung’s archetypes and common consciousness.
HUGO. Maybe there’s something to that line of thought.
JACK. The psychologists of our day do not lead to God, Hugo. Do you expect our friend Sigmund to jump on this bandwagon?
TOLKIEN: Christianity is the true myth to which all other myths are pointing. It is imagination made tangible, it is spirit made flesh![3]
This idea of the “true myth” has become one of the central concepts related to my body of work as a playwright and screenwriter. It is why mythological stories and figures appear so often in my plays, whether The Emperor Wolf, Evening Eucalyptus, Prometheus Unbound, Manifest, or my spec television series Myths. It is a conscious and purposeful recognition of the universal patterns that scholars and psychologists like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, or even pop culture storytellers like George Lucas, have found in mythologies the world over, no matter how far and disconnected the respective cultures perpetuating those myths are.
A universal story is being told, a monomyth pointing out a spiritual heritage that all humankind has in common, no matter what culture or religion they were born into. And, unconsciously, seemingly accidentally, it comes out in the stories that we tell each other.   
C.S. Lewis said that one didn’t even have to be religious to appreciate the life giving nature of such myths. Furthermore, he said that many of those who are outwardly religious, but have not internalized the meaning of those stories, are often cut off from the benefit associated with them, because they took their mythic nature for granted:
I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.
The man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it. [4]
            Thus I hope that one does not have to be religious to appreciate my body of work. The principles of spirituality I push forward, I believe, can have universal application. One doesn’t have to believe in Christ to appreciate the principles of love and sacrifice his story embodies. One doesn’t have to believe in the Mormon idea of personal revelation to value intuition. One doesn’t have to think that mythological figures such as Prometheus, or Fenris, or Dirawong, or Coyote, or Titania, or Eurydice, or Isis, who all appear in my work, are literal to find value in their metaphorical meaning. Lewis, again: “The man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it.”
I do not believe one has to feel threatened by my work because it derives from a spiritual worldview and pulls from many religious traditions and myths, including my native Christian faith of Mormonism. And yet, to my discouragement, “threatened” people have felt. But I will save that topic for later, to be addressed in the second section of this essay.    
In addition to myth, I am also attracted to the distant cousin of mythology—history. In my undergraduate work, I almost majored in history rather than theatre, so that interest has continued on in my work. Many of my plays have been based on historical stories and figures, including Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood, The Fading Flower, Friends of God, March of the Salt Soldiers, Swallow the Sun, and (if one takes the New Testament to be historical) Yeshua.  But rather than the “loose” take on history that even great playwrights like Shakespeare used, or the white washed version of history that many apologists employ, I try and dig into the meat of history, and present even the controversial moments.
One newspaper reviewer noted this tendency towards historical honesty in his review of my play Swallow the Sun:
This is a play built on the tension between spiritual and secular approaches to life. And the playwright pulls no punches. In the well-regarded biography of Lewis by A.N. Wilson, the biographer gives us the human side of [C.S.] Lewis — from the saucy jokes he shared with his fellows at the pub to the fact Lewis moved in with an older woman, Maureen Moore, and lived with her for years without bothering to get married.
To his credit, playwright Stewart doesn't gloss over such things but allows them to find their own level. He lets the audience decide what to think, while lobbying for us to dwell on Lewis' incredible insights into Christianity and the souls who choose to embrace it. I liked the play very much.
Yet I liked even more the notion that writers and playwrights are no longer giving us "dual versions" of religious souls — one version where the subject can do no wrong and a "revisionist" version where he or she sins at every turn. Artists have finally begun to offer us fully fleshed out, rounded portraits of spiritual souls…
I think no less of Lewis because he could be self-indulgent and even two-faced at times. For in the vision of Lewis offered by Mahonri Stewart, Lewis seems to be a man who was constantly "striving" in the right direction…
 And it's always nice to know that others — like C.S. Lewis — spent their lives striving, at times with great achievement and at times with muddled results.[5]
My notions about the dangers of censoring and hiding history come to the fore in my play The Fading Flower, where Emma Smith, the wife of the martyred Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, raises her children to only believe the non-controversial aspects of their father’s history. Most vitally, she neglects to tell them of the explosive facts surrounding him, like his practice of polygamy, knowledge which she had understandably struggled with. This set of falsely created beliefs, encouraged by their mother Emma, caused her sons to break off the main group of Mormons who live in the West and start their own sect in the Midwest.
However, one of Emma’s sons, David Hyrum Smith, goes to Utah to try and convert the “Brighamite” faction of Mormons. To David’s discomfiture, the very people he tries to convert turn the tables on him and convince him of the controversial elements of his father’s history, most notably his complicated and sometimes disturbing practice of polygamy. Unable to reconcile the false history constructed around his father’s history with the proven one presented to him by the “Brighamites,” he has a mental break down and ends up committed to an asylum.
It is a very sad, fascinating, but relatively unknown chapter in Mormon history. Some of those from my faith who saw the play struggled with my undaunted presentation of that history, including a member of my own family who was convinced, in consequence of seeing that play, that I was an apostate who was destined to leave the Church (and hasn’t changed his tune much since then). His “prophecy” is one that I have thus far been able to prove as a false prophecy, as I am still alive and kicking in my faith.
Yet that fear of uncomfortable history is sometimes potent in my faith community. Like many inconvenient truths, many people would prefer to just leave certain segments of history alone, lest the inspection of those truths cause the need for radical change. Many Mormons have seen people dislodged from their religion by discomfiting facts which those disaffected individuals had a hard time reconciling with the false, suspiciously uncomplicated picture presented to them over the years. Instead of seeing a need to prepare the faithful for those facts, and creating an atmosphere of inquiry that is able to ingest a more complicated view of their faith, many Mormons have tried to tuck such inquiry out of the way. Thus there are those in my faith who have viewed me with distrust, as I remain committed to presenting the best portrait of that history in my plays that I know how, even when it causes discomfort and points out a need for change in our community.
That philosophy of mine about forthright history is clearly laid out in The Fading Flower, when two of David Hyrum Smith’s siblings—the Smith’s adopted daughter Julia (who joined the Catholic Church as an adult), and the oldest son Joseph Smith III (who led the RLDS, the new faction of Mormonism they started)—are arguing with each other following their brother’s admittance into the asylum and their mother Emma’s death:
JOSEPH III. Julia—there was a day when I could not even think of our father practicing plural marriage. It was simply not an option. But…
JULIA. But? Did you just say…? 
JOSEPH III. Look, Julia, I’m not a simpleton, all right? Yes, yes, I have fought and struggled against the idea my whole adult life, and I still believe—but, if I’m wrong and he did practice polygamy…        
 JULIA. Am I really hearing this?
JOSEPH III. If father taught polygamy, he was wrong!
JULIA. (pause) You hypocrite. If you believe Father could have practiced polygamy, then why this posture to the world?
JOSEPH III. Julia, we can do great good, but we must be practical. If we insist on prying too much into complicated matters that are better left buried—well, then we’ll all end up like poor David, blinded by the fire.
JULIA. David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. [6]
Although I am a religious man, I have discovered that, because of the fear engendered in some of my community, as well as those outside of my community who are xenophobic, I am often seen as an unorthodox religious man, and thus perhaps a dangerous one. This attitude, especially from those within my own faith community, has often hurt me, as I’ve considered myself to only be seeking after truth and spirituality, and feel firm in my faith. In fact, it has been that very same faith that inspired me to take the honest and forthright direction I have, for I very much believe Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free.”[7]
Another influential aesthetic that has affected me derives from the use of heightened and poetic language. The poet and playwright W.B. Yeats wrote an essay that very much influenced me in how I approach dialogue and language in my plays. In the essay, Yeats explains his admiration for Henrik Ibsen’s plays, but then points out what he believes are their major flaw: a retreat from lyrical language.
“The utmost sincerity, the most unbroken logic, give me, at any rate, but an imperfect pleasure if there is not vivid and beautiful language. Ibsen has sincerity and logic beyond any writer of our time, and we are all seeking to learn them at his hands; but is he not a good deal less than the greatest of all times, because he lacks beautiful and vivid language?... Mr. Max Beerbohm wrote once that a play cannot have style because the people must talk as they talk in daily life. He was thinking, it is obvious, of a play made out of that typically modern life where there is no longer vivid speech… After all, is not the greatest play, not the play that gives the sensation of an external reality, but the play in which there is the greatest abundance of life itself, of the reality that is our minds? Is it possible to make a work of art, which needs every subtlety of expression if it is to reveal what hides itself continually, out of a dying, or at any rate a very ailing language…Have we not been in error in demanding from our playwrights personages who do not transcend our common actions any more than our common speech?”[8]
            Now I don’t go so far to say, as Yeats does, that all plays must have heighted or poetic language…or even that all of MY plays must adhere to those criteria. Not all stories fit into that kind of play. And I certainly don’t believe that we can “demand” anything from our playwrights. Each individual must be true to their own voice.
However, the plays that have most certainly influenced me personally do tend to live in that world of heightened language. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, the witty wordplay of Oscar Wilde, the achingly poetic work of Tennessee Williams, and, of course, William Shakespeare were all early influences on me, and all had that lyrical sensibility. Also, the beautifully verbose novels of Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen all inspired me to write my first full length Victorian play Farewell to Eden, in which language was a vital component. Later I discovered Lorrainne Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the plays of August Wilson, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Lorca in a Green Dress. Again, it was the soulful language that was a large part of what drew me specifically to these beautiful plays.
I met Nilo Cruz at the national conference for the Kennedy Center American College Festival in Washington, D.C., when I won my awards for Farewell to Eden. At his lecture, he spoke about need for more heightened language in our drama. His words really resonated with me, and I found an interview where he, again, expressed what I found so satisfying about the idea that dialogue not only served as a function, but also as an art form:
“I think that, being around the culture, the songs and literature coming out of Latin America, there's an inherent lyricism behind the way people speak. I've heard my grandmother and my sister speak very poetically at times. But, more than anything, I'm always aware that I'm dealing with an art form, and theatre is art, and art should be heightened, and one should rise above the norm. Through the poetic, I find the spiritual.”[9]
            I was surprised and delighted that Cruz used the word “spiritual” in his description of vivid language. Theatre is increasingly becoming a secular institution, despite its origins being deeply rooted in religious ceremonies like the Greek Festival of Dionysus. Thus when I hear people use spiritual language to describe it, it validates my own experiences within the artistic tradition. For me, walking into a theatre is much like walking into a church or temple—I get the sense of holy ground. It is no accident that in my own faith tradition’s highest form of worship, the temple endowment, Joseph Smith used a theatrical medium (which has now been adapted to film) to convey the messages he felt the Mormon people needed to hear.   
            In one of the most personally impactful plays that has influenced me, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, I found that spiritual connection to its heightened language to be particularly potent. The whole play blew from one vivid linguistic lightning bolt to another, as Bolt’s words electrified my soul. The issue of standing by one’s individual conscience, despite the persecution connected to it, became central not only to my thinking and philosophy as a writer, but also to my journey as a spiritual being.
When, in the play, Sir Thomas More is facing those in King Henry VIII’s government who have tried  to force him to deny his conscience for political expediency, More replies with a powerful set of words. When asked to respond to Richard Rich’s perjured statement, More replies:
MORE. (Looking at FOREMAN). To what purpose? I am a dead man. (To CROMWELL). You have your desire of me. What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.
NORFOLK. Then the witness may withdraw.
(RICH crosses the stage, watched by MORE).
MORE.  I have one question to ask the witness. (Rich stops) That’s a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly Rich faces him) May I see it? (NORFOLK motions him to approach.  MORE examines the medallion) The red dragon. (To Cromwell) What’s this?
CROMWELL. Sir Richard is appointed Attorney-General for Wales.
MORE. (Looking into RICH’s face with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…But for Wales![10]
            Now, not only does this passage resonate with me because of its incisive theme of personal integrity at all costs, as well as its soul awakening use of language, but it also ties into the C.S. Lewis passage I quoted earlier: “The man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it.” A Man For All Seasons is all about one man’s courageous adherence to his Catholic faith, even at the cost of his own life. It is filled with scriptural imagery and religious fervency. It is perhaps the most spiritually fulfilling play I have ever read. And yet the playwright, Robert Bolt, was agnostic.
Yet Bolt didn’t allow the chasm of differing beliefs to divide him from his chosen subject, Thomas More. Rather, he found the “true myth” in More, recognized the beauty in his personal convictions, and crafted a tale which delved into a spirituality Bolt did not believe in literally, but certainly understood morally and ethically.
In a similar way, I experience a great outpouring of my spirituality, “unorthodox” as some may feel it is, in my work as a playwright and as a theatre artist. I see my artistic labor as part of my spiritual progression, whether the specific work I’m then crafting is inherently “religious” or not.
Again, I hope that those who are not of my faith can find rich resonance with my work, because I feel that the “religious” have no monopoly on what I consider to be spiritual principles. The secular humanist can have as rich a morality and soulfulness as the Orthodox Jew.  The conscientious human rights activist can be as dedicated as the priest, whether she believes in God or not. In the end, I am not personally looking for consensus of opinion. I do not want everyone to believe as I do, for I know all too well that I have blind spots and weaknesses in my worldview. Surely, there is a universal truth out there somewhere, and although we are all striving towards it, none of us have reached it in its fullest. In that way, we need each other, different as we are.
Thus it is important that we all rely on each other and see our differing viewpoints as valuable contributions,  not reasons for divisiveness. Having diversity of thought, diversity of religion, diversity of experience, allows all of us to gather the scattered truths in our little piles and sift through them. We then can compare and contrast, share what each of us have learned, even unlearn what we need to unlearn, all with an open mind and an open heart. Then, together, we can assemble the fractured shards, even rearrange them, or discard the pieces which don’t end up being part of the true picture after all. We all adapt as needs be.
In return for my heartfelt concessions on these matters, and my pursuit of equality for all of God’s children, whether they’re “believers” or not, I also hope that the true myths, honest history, heightened language, and fervent spirituality I try to infuse into my work finds an equally open and welcoming soil to grow in. Even when people don’t see my theatrical myths as literal, I hope that doesn’t mean that my myths are any less true to them. Whether one sees them as emotional truths, metaphorical truths, or literal truths, there is value in exploring the belief systems of others and sifting through their stories and “true myths.” In doing so we often find the universal in the particular, and discover the power myth and story has to unite disparate factions into a single narrative.  

[1] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 43.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mahonri Stewart, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2012), 209, 211. 
[4]  C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, “Myth Became Fact,” (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), Walter Hooper, editor, 67.
[5] Jerry Earl Johnston, “Play Captures C.S. Lewis—Warts and All,” The Deseret News, September 16, 2012. Accessed March 22, 2014.
[6] Mahonri Stewart, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, 98-99.
[7] The Gospel of John 8:32
[8] Playwrights on Playwriting (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1960), edited by Tobey Cole.   
[9] Robert Simonson, “Playbill’s Brief Encounter with Nilo Cruz,”, January 5, 2004. Accessed March 22, 2014.

[10] Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 157-158

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