Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage and Screen

Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage and Screen


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In a time when Mormons appear to have larger roles in everything from political conflict to television shows and when Mormon-related topics seem to show up more frequently in the news, eight scholars take a close look at Mormonism in popular media: film, television, theater, and books.

Some contributors examine specific works, including the Tony-winning play Angels in America, the hit TV series Big Love, and the bestselling books Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. Others consider the phenomena of Mormon cinema and Mormon fiction; the use of the Mormon missionary as a stock character in films; and the noticeably prominent presence of Mormons in reality television shows.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874217735
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Mark T. Decker is assistant professor of English at Bloomsburg University. He has published essays on William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Wright, and Charles Brockden Brown. He is also interested in the connection between social thought and speculative fiction. His most recent essay on this topic appears in New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction (South Carolina 2008). Michael Austin is provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He has published books and articles on a variety of topics in 20th century American and 18th century British Literature. He is the editor of A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, also published by Utah State University Press.

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Peculiar Portrayals

Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2010 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-773-5

Chapter One

Center and Periphery

Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner's Angels in America

Cristine Hutchison-Jones

Literature and film have long provided ample evidence of mainstream America's conflicting and conflicted perceptions of and feelings about Mormons and their beliefs, and Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a case in point. Immediately accorded canonical status when it premiered in New York in 1992, critics labeled Angels "the most thrilling American play in years," and scholars have since declared that "Angels restored to American theatre an ambition it has not enjoyed since the days of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller." Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Part I: Millennium Approaches) and two Tony Awards for best play (1993 for Millennium Approaches and 1994 for Part II: Perestroika), Angels has also enjoyed international success with audiences. Since 2003, the HBO Films adaptation has garnered further critical accolades (two Screen Actors Guild Awards, five Golden Globes, and eleven Emmys, including outstanding writing for a miniseries, movie, or dramatic special for Kushner's screenplay), and the DVD release has created a much wider audience for Kushner's work than the stage could offer. Within this acclaimed exploration of AIDS, queer identity, and the conservative politics of the Reagan era, Kushner portrays three Mormon characters whose struggles with their sexual identity, love, politics, and religion are central to his larger vision.

In the afterword to Perestroika, Kushner points out, "We organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery and help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected." Just so, Kushner uses his play and the status it has granted him as a public intellectual to reflect, refract, criticize, and even grieve over Mormons and their place in the epic of American history as he sees it. In so doing, his play offers startling insights into the dark and difficult place of Mormonism in the American imagination.

Literature Review

Mormons, with the reputation they gained during the twentieth century as all-American conservatives, are not an obvious choice for a playwright seeking to explore issues of queer identity and the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. But in fact, Mormons were among the first things Kushner knew he wanted to write about in Angels in America: "All I knew," he says, "was that I wanted to write about gay men, Mormons and Roy Cohn."

In spite of this fact-and the remarkable presence of important Mormon characters in the play-Mormonism has often gone unnoticed by commentators: "only 68 of 370 reviews mentioned Mormons at all" according to a 1999 survey of critical responses to the plays. When it is noted, little is actually said. Whereas reviewers and scholars have minutely dissected Kushner's representations of Jews, homosexuals, and blacks, the importance of religious identity for the play's Mormons is often relegated to the status of window dressing, as when one scholar remarked on "Mormon Family Values" in the play without any explanation of what he meant by the phrase. Others simply refer, as did one reviewer, to the presence of "some extraordinary Mormons" in the play.

Not surprisingly, Mormon reviewers and scholars have paid far greater attention to the importance of Mormons and Mormonism in Angels in America. This scholarship has reached a limited audience, however, even by the standards of scholarly work, being published in such journals as Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and the Journal of Mormon History. Nor do such treatments situate Kushner's representation of Mormons within the history of American images of Mormonism. Instead, they focus on the potential impact of Angels on the faith of Mormon viewers, the relative positive or negative value of interpretations of those characters, or even the parallels that can be drawn between Mormon theology and Kushner's own theological perspective in the play.

So Why Mormons?

While Kushner's play is, first and foremost, an exploration of the place of the homosexual community in American culture and the devastation wrought in it by the combination of AIDS and political inaction in the 1980s, on a deeper level, it is also an exploration of minority experience in the United States. Kushner assembles a group of people whose only commonality is their marginal status at the fringes of national culture: Jews, Mormons, women, African Americans, homosexuals. Though these groups are generally not connected to one another, their outsider status unites them.

Although he clearly seeks to explore the experience of otherness, visible or not, Kushner anchors the story in Prior Walter, the only WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) in the play. This identity initially seems to privilege Prior, but in fact it also leaves him a blank slate. Because Prior does not carry a significant residue of any religious culture, unlike virtually every other major character in the play, he proves a receptive vessel for the Jewish and Mormon cultural ideas that his experiences teach him. Though he does not accept every religious idea presented to him, most notably the conservative proscriptions of the Angel, he does not have to overcome strong, inherited religious ideas to assimilate new ones. Further, Prior's WASP background makes him ripe for the influence of both Jewish and Mormon traditions because it looks to Judaism as a direct ancestor and serves as the cultural as well as religious ground in which Mormonism appeared in the nineteenth century.

Kushner places Prior at the end of an ancient line of Walters, a line that can be traced back through New England to the Mayflower and, further, to England. In fact, early in the play, his lover Louis declares that "there's a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux tapestry," thus carrying his family back into the eleventh century-shortly after the beginning of the current millennium. But with Prior, a gay man who will have no children (a circumstance noted by the ghosts of two prior Priors who serve as heralds to the Angel), the line will die out. Thus, while his pure WASP status may reinforce "the largest of the cultural themes of Angels in America: the resistance that biological descent and inherited tradition, embodied here in the body of the WASP, pose to political change," the natural result for Kushner is that the line is fizzling out because it has not adapted to changing historical and cultural realities. Prior himself acknowledges that such a fate awaits-or has already overtaken-America's WASP heritage: in the play's final scene, he notes that the trees in Central Park are "New England transplants. They're barren now."

Prior's WASP status also connects him to the American prophet whose experiences he will shortly recapitulate. Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, was also a Yankee WASP descended from English immigrants to the New World. In fact, both sides of his family were eminently respectable middle-class New Englanders in his grandparents' generation. Thus, the truly American religion-as Mormonism has been designated by observers-is as rooted in Yankee Puritan stock as the WASP mainstream that Kushner dismisses as sterile.

Here Kushner highlights the artificiality of distinctions of race, class, and sexuality that he himself is exploring. Although Mormons were represented (from outside) as a separate ethnic group as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, this distinction was largely artificial. By labeling Mormons as an ethnic other, scholar Terryl Givens asserts, "threatening proximity has been transformed into manageable distance." This strategy was necessary, he argues, because Mormonism was "very hard to see. Mormons were, after all, usually ethnically identical with one's neighbors and even one's family." Just as Allen J. Krantzen has speculated that Kushner knew what he was doing in assigning Prior Anglo-Saxon ethnic status and then undercutting that identity by tying Prior's family to the Bayeux tapestry-woven by the eleventh-century French conquerors of England-the connection between Prior's WASPishness and that of the prophet Joseph Smith undercuts assumptions about the tangible ethnic difference between Mormons and other Americans.

Mormonism's Yankee roots do not, however, change the fact that the group was accorded outsider status shortly after it appeared in upstate New York in 1830. It shares this status as other with the other religious community depicted in Angels in America-Judaism-which Kushner represents as the immigrant other in counterpoint to Mormonism's native origin.

But Mormonism shares more with Judaism than simple outsider status. Kushner himself has noted the similarities of practice and belief between the two communities, including their shared focus on a text, emphasis on actions over beliefs, experience of diaspora, and emphasis on gathering. These similarities are by no means accidental because Joseph Smith and his early followers saw the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as, among other things, a restoration of the religion of ancient Israel. This Hebraic emphasis fostered early Mormonism's focus on the tribes of Israel, temple worship, and patriarchal blessings as well as bloodlines and also had a profound impact on the Mormons' understanding of their trek west as a recapitulation of the biblical exodus.

Further, along with homosexuals, the two religious communities share a history of oppression at the hands of the majority in the United States. Both have negotiated, with some success, the tricky process of accommodating to American culture while maintaining a sense of their religious and cultural distinctness. So while some scholars argue that "the archetype for the transformation of identity, which is the mark of queer experience and survival in the play, is the wandering, rootless, shape-shifting Jew who never finds a home," in fact, the Mormons and their protracted migration west in the nineteenth century provide another example of the "rootless, shape-shifting" other.

The forms that intolerance toward Mormons, Jews, and homosexuals have taken in the United States share a number of commonalities. Certainly relevant to Kushner is the fact that "bigotry toward scapegoats often takes similar forms, painting the pariah group as inhuman sexual predators, especially dangerous to children." Just as late-nineteenth-century anti-Semitic propaganda employed images of lascivious, sexually perverse Jews, anti-Mormon materials from the nineteenth and early-twentieth century abound with images, both frightening and humorously demeaning, of wicked old Mormon polygamists with captive harems of innocent young women.

Some other prominent themes shared by anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual propaganda that Kushner explores in Angels in America include the power of the suspect community to manipulate government and economy, control the media, and acquire (through unethical and sometimes illegitimate means) ubiquitous wealth. These themes, too, are readily apparent in material on the Mormons, much of which is not avowedly anti-Mormon. For example, John Heinerman and Anson Shupe's book The Mormon Corporate Empire: The Eye-Opening Report on the Church and Its Political and Financial Agenda, originally published in 1986 and reissued in 1988, grounds its exploration of Mormonism in the story of the church and community's economic prowess and its political implications. Even Richard and Joan Ostling's more balanced and respectful 1999 book Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (reissued in 2007 as "revised and updated for the 2008 election") includes chapters with titles like "Mormons, Inc." and "The Power Pyramid." Thus, Mormons are a natural part of Kushner's community of suspect outsiders.

For each of Kushner's characters, "the marginality of each of these religious traditions is shown to contribute to the individual's sense of his or her place (or lack of place) in the structures of power." In spite of the clout he has achieved in his life and career as a Republican power broker, Roy Cohn is also keenly aware that the Judaism he barely acknowledges even to himself makes him an easy target because he will always be seen in some quarters as "some sort of filthy little Jewish troll." Roy's other mark of outsider status-the homosexuality that he viciously denies, along with the AIDS infection that is killing him-is also an issue not of identity but power. Thus, Roy tells his doctor that a homosexual is not a man who has sex with other men but one without power: "Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man ... who fucks around with guys." In the same way, Mormonism disempowers the Pitts in the eyes of the play's other characters: Roy uses Joe's Mormonism to trivialize him, and Joe's religion invites the suspicion that eventually leads Louis to abandon him. And Joe's wife, Harper, talking to her mother-in-law, Hannah, speaks for all three Mormon characters, struggling to leave behind the apparent cultural isolation that Mormonism has imposed on them yet unable to embrace the more liberal culture that beckons all of Kushner's characters: "You have less of a place in this world than I do if that's possible."

But Kushner is not just using the experience of other, longer-standing minority groups to illuminate the contemporary marginalization of the homosexual community. He also sees the country's behavior toward such minorities as a barometer of tensions in the mainstream: "It always seems to me that in the concerns of any group called a minority and called oppressed can be found the biggest problems and the central identity issues that the country is facing." Scholars of the experience of religious minorities in the United States would agree; put another way, the experiences of "subordinate peoples or groups have typically been represented in ways that justify the inequality of power relations and serve to rationalize or reinforce the identity, interests, or agenda of those in positions of dominance." Thus, the story of marginalized people becomes a window into the minds of those at the helm of the central or dominant culture.

For Kushner, America's marginalization of Jews and Mormons results in part from a sense of the otherworldliness of both traditions as embodied in their millennial traditions. Just as Jews end the yearly celebration of the Passover meal with the hope for a new future-"Next year in Jerusalem"-Mormonism was founded on the hope and expectation of Christ's imminent second coming and the construction of a new Zion. These beliefs open up Kushner's exploration of history and its end, as well as providing a platform for the supernatural visitations and visions that permeate the play. Such hope for the future, tinged with millennial expectation, is also an important part of America's national identity.

But while American millennialism focuses on the nation itself as the new Promised Land, Jews and Mormons look outside the nation both culturally and physically-Jerusalem for Jews; and Deseret, the nineteenth-century Mormon name for Utah, which was not a United States territory when the Latter-day Saints settled there. But unlike postmillennial visions of the advent of God's kingdom as generally peaceful, Kushner's vision of the future carries with it both the weight of the past and a sense of impending (and perhaps already-occurring) apocalypse: "The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you."

Thus, for Kushner, Mormonism becomes part of a conscious strategy to guide his viewers toward a progressive perspective on history and human relations where community is no longer based on tribe. Not family, nor ethnicity, nor religion determines human interactions in the glimpse of the ideal that Kushner gives in the play's epilogue. Now acceptance, not just tolerance, is the only legitimate principle guiding human behavior.


Excerpted from Peculiar Portrayals Copyright © 2010 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1. Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner's Angels in America Cristine Hutchison-Jones....................5
2. Four Consenting Adults in the Privacy of Their Own Suburb: Big Love and the Cultural Significance of Mormon Polygamy Michael Austin....................37
3. Teaching Under the Banner of Heaven: Testing the Limits of Tolerance in America Kevin Kolkmeyer....................62
4. Avenging Angels: The Nephi Archetype and Blood Atonement in Neil LaBute, Brian Evenson, and Levi Peterson, and the Making of the Mormon American Writer J. Aaron Sanders....................87
5. Elders on the Big Screen: Film and the Globalized Circulation of Mormon Missionary Images John-Charles Duffy....................113
6. "I Constructed in My Mind a Vast, Panoramic Picture": The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint and Postmodern, Postdenominational Mormonism Mark T. Decker....................144
7. Jane Austen in Mollywood: Mainstreaming Mormonism in Andrew Black's Pride & Prejudice Juliette Wells....................163
8. Reality Corrupts; Reality Television Corrupts Absolutely Karen D. Austin....................183
About the Contributors....................197

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