Brigham Young, thespian

Bill left an interesting comment on my Freemasonry post at BCC. He mentions his visit to the National Heritage Museum in Boston, where he found a copy of the playbill for Pizzaro, a Grand Moral Entertainment, a play put on by the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge on April 24, 1844. The bill gave the purpose of the play:

“To aid in the discharge of a debt, against President Joseph Smith, contracted through the odious persecution of Missouri, and vexatious law suits. His friends and the public will respond to so laudable a call, in patronising the exertions of those who promise rational amusement with usefulness.”

Among the cast were E. Snow (a Peruvian), G. A. Smith (an old blind man), B. Young (a high priest), and a Mrs. Young (one of the Spaniards). This is a play I would love to have seen (along with the fiddle-concerts that used to break out in the Nauvoo temple after a day of endowments).

The Missouri Republican gave the following report of the play:

“There are about fifty masons and stonecutters about the Temple. It will be the most extraordinary building on the American Continent. We have a regular theatre, got up by the Mormons themselves. Last night the play of Pizarro went off in good style to a large audience, of which about one hundred were ladies. I was astonished to see such an array of beauty in the New Jerusalem.”

If anyone in Boston can go to this museum, I would love a copy of this playbill.

8 Responses to Brigham Young, thespian

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am sometimes disappointed as I look back on the day of the church and see some of the casualties of modernization and progress.

    I remember when the budget was raised by the congregation. We had auctions, dinners, and such. I guess it was where I lived at the time, that was so poor, but it seemed we were always doing some sort of service for someone. We had dances and activities all the time.(This was also at the tail end of split blocks… Sacrament in the morning, and then sunday school in the evening.)We traveled so far to church, that we usually stayed with friends that lived closer on Sunday, then drove home later that night.

    I remember when the family was called into the Bishops office and asked how much we could contribute to the new temple that was being built, and going with my dad to guard the temple site since people were vandalising it and handcuffing themselves to the gate.

    Maybe it was the farm community I lived in, but it sure seemed different now. WE see most of our member friends on sunday, and we go back home and hide all week, excepting to go to the prescribed activities assigned to our callings.

    Huge cookouts…camping, we did so much more… it was great. Not that I am unhappy now, it has just changed, that’s all.

    It would have been very interesting to live in that time, however to be under the constant threat of attack by mobs, or living some of the odd rules they had… I am happy to be here now.

    It seems though, the BY was a fan of the theater. to my best recollection, he pushed to get one built pretty quick once they came to the Salt Lake Valley. To be a fly on the wall. I think that much like Brother Nibley (R.I.P.) I will have a list of questions I will want to ask once I get to the other side… If we have a bright recollection of all our guilt, do you think we will be able to look back in time and see stuff like that?

  2. Rusty says:

    Ooooh, the “history VCR (DVD player)” that I always fantasized about. I’d love to watch a lot of stuff. I always thought a “history smell machine” would be great too, to smell stuff and relive those experiences.

  3. Justin B. says:

    Ronan, the October 1975 Ensign has an interesting article by Stan Kimball on the playbill.

  4. HP says:

    I always thought a “history smell machine” would be great too, to smell stuff and relive those experiences.Next on Smellovision, Brigham Young on a hot and humid Nauvoo evening wearing a costume on stage.

    Perhaps some things are best left to the imagination…

  5. Ronan says:

    Thanks Justin (is there anything you don’t know?)

    Here’s the text of the Ensign piece: (can’t imagine this being in the Ensign nowadays!)

    Stanley B. Kimball, “Also Starring Brigham Young,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 51

    A lost playbill of an early Latter-day Saint dramatic production has recently come to light. It announced the April 24, 1844, Nauvoo performance of Pizarro in the Masonic Hall for the purpose of raising funds to help Joseph Smith pay Missouri debts. This playbill, missing for over 100 years, was discovered in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis (which acquired it in 1967). In itself it spotlights interesting aspects of this now famous production, which may have been the real beginning of theatre in the Church.

    As the playbill records, the drama was expected to be “grand moral entertainment,” presented “To aid in the discharge of a debt, against President Joseph Smith, contracted through the odious persecution of Missouri, and vexatious law suits. His friends and the public will respond to so laudable a call, in patronising [sic] the exertions of those who promise rational amusement with the usefulness.”

    The play, Pizarro or the Death of Rolla, originally written by the German playwright, Augustus von Kotzebue, and titled Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod, had been popular in Europe, England, and America for nearly 50 years before it was produced in Nauvoo. The first English adaptation was made in 1800 by the great English dramatist Richard Sheridan. (Later William Dunlap, the “father of American theatre,” made an American adaptation.)

    It is a sentimental, bombastic, pretentious, and turgid piece regarding the tragic fate of the Incas (led by Rolla) defending their king, country, religion, and lives against the rapacious Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro. Despite its shortcomings as literature, it was good theatre and was often produced throughout the nineteenth century.

    The play was selected and directed by Thomas A. Lyne (Lynn). Brother Lynn, a professional theatre man in his native Philadelphia, had been converted to the Church in 1841 by his brother-in-law, George J. Adams, who was then on a mission in the East, and who was an actor that later became important in early Utah theatre. With a letter from George, Thomas went to Nauvoo where the Prophet Joseph Smith, who wanted to broaden the cultural base of Nauvoo and who believed that theatre could be a powerful medium of instruction, requested him to form a dramatic company and turned the Masonic Hall over to him for that purpose. During the next few years, Brother Lynn presented such plays (other than Pizarro) as The Orphan of Geneve, Douglas, The Idiot’s Witness, Damon and Pythias, The Iron Chest, and William Tell. He also formed a company that performed on a showboat traveling up and down the Mississippi River.

    As the playbill records, several important Latter-day Saints were in the cast of Pizarro—including the apostles Brigham young and George A. Smith.

    Other cast members listed on the playbill also carry names rich in Church history, such as Erastus Snow (who became an apostle five years later), “Mr. Kimball,” “Mr. A. Lyman,” “Master Woolley,” and “Mrs. Young.” Helen, a daughter of Heber C. Kimball, played one of the virgins in the cast. George J. Adams played the role of Pizarro.

    The newly discovered playbill makes note of the fact that the 50 cent tickets were to be purchased in advance and that “Doors open at 6 o’clock, performance to commence at 7 o’clock. Good music will be in attendance; strict order will be preserved. No money taken at the door. Smoking not allowed. Front seats reserved for the ladies.”

    Much in Church literature has been made of the fact that Brigham Young played the role of the High Priest. This fact has often been repeated without further comment. A fuller description is: the High Priest, costumed in robes of scarlet and gold, with white muslin, appears in two scenes in a nonspeaking part. In Act II, scene 2 (The Temple of the Sun) while the Incas invoke the blessing of their gods against the invading Spaniards, the High Priest enters, followed by other priests and virgins. Then, although the script does not specify it, the High Priest apparently leads the chorus of priests and virgins in the following hymn:

    Oh, Power Supreme! In mercy smile
    With favor on thy servants’ toil,
    Our hearts from guileful passions free,
    Which here we rended unto thee!
    Then Parent Light, but deign to hear
    The voices of our Feeble choir;
    And this, our sacrifice of fear,
    Consume with thine own hallowed fire!

    Fire from above alights upon the altar.)

    Give praise, give praise, the God has heard,
    Our God most awfully revered!
    The altar his own flames enwreathed!
    Then be the conquering sword unsheathed,
    And Victory sit on Rolla’s brow,
    His foes to crush—to overthrow!

    Then, during the final scene of the play (Act III), there is a solemn march, or procession, in honor of Rolla, the fallen Inca hero, which is led by the High Priest. This apparently became a tableau vivant just before the curtain.

    Although Brigham Young apparently never again performed on the stage, he was a great promoter of the theatre in Utah, and was in the audience in February of 1853 when Pizarro was first performed in the new territory of the Saints. The play was a favorite of Utah dramatic companies, and records indicate that the drama was performed until at least 1867.

  6. Bill says:

    Thanks for digging this up. I wanted to find out more but hadn’t yet got around to it

  7. diane jortner says:

    I am helping my professor find information about the beginnings of community Drama in America, and your article from the church magazine was most helpful. Do you know of any writings of Brigham Young, or Joseph Smith which promote activity in the theater. It seems as if the other religions of the day frowned on this type of activity for their young people. Any help would be appreciated.

  8. Ronan says:

    Diane,
    Sorry, this is the extent of my knowledge!

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