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Stewart, "The Fading Flower" and "Swallow the Sun" (reviewed by David Allred) Options · View
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 12:09:10 AM

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Title: "The Fading Flower" and "Swallow the Sun"
Author: Mahonri Stewart
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Drama
Year: 2012
Pages: 218
Binding: Softcover
ISBN: 978-0-9843603-7-6
Price: $15.95

Reviewed by David Allred for the Association for Mormon Letters

Those who are unable to attend Mormon literature-themed plays on the Wasatch Front will cheer the recent publication of Mahonri Stewart’s two-play compilation, “The Fading Flower” and “Swallow the Sun.” The volume, which is another stellar release from Zarahemla Books, presents two very different plays, at least on the surface. “The Fading Flower” follows the adult children of Joseph Smith as they confront the rumors and facts of his polygamy. Occurring around the time Joseph Smith III was taking the reins of the Reorganized Church, the play captures the tension of the post-martyrdom Smith family including Julia Murdock Smith’s estrangement from members of the family, Emma Hale Smith’s marriage to Lewis Bidamon, and especially David Hyrum Smith’s quest to know his father. Born after Joseph’s death, David’s search in “The Fading Flower” is both poignant and tragic.

The second play, “Swallow the Sun,” depicts the conversion of C. S. Lewis. An unabashed atheist as a young man, Lewis gradually transformed into a believer and eventually became a well-known apologist for Christianity. Opening with Lewis in the British Army preparing to fight in World War I and ending with his conversion in 1931, the play also deals with the complicated and still opaque relationship Lewis had with Jane Moore, his adopted mother figure with whom he lived for two decades. Some suspected that Lewis and Moore’s relationship had romantic elements as well, something that Lewis did not discuss, even with close friends or with his brother. Although his religious conversion and his relationship with Moore may appear to be thematically separate, they complement one another well in the play: beyond the fact that they are historically accurate of that time in Lewis’s life, they also highlight the early search of a man, whose mother died when he was a child and whose father was at times distant, for connections to family and to the divine.

This focus on earthly and heavenly family relationships is something that links the two plays. In “Swallow the Sun,” Lewis is at odds with his brother and father through most of the play, and in “The Fading Flower,” we see a family divided again. This is not only true of differences between Joseph’s children, but also of the extended family, and one of the most fascinating scenes of the play comes when the sons of Joseph and Hyrum and of Parley Pratt, Thomas Marsh, and Samuel Smith meet, not just to chart the future, but also to negotiate the legacy offered to them and all Restoration believers by their fathers. Furthermore, both plays feature powerful father-son meetings. In the first play, the spirit of Joseph Smith looks after his family, including David Hyrum, as they need him, and in the other Lewis is able to emotionally connect with his father before his death. Given these father-son scenes, Lewis’s eventual submission to a heavenly father serves to further the motif.

Another way in which these two plays complement each other is that they both explore areas of Mormon consciousness that are less well known. Of course, C.S. Lewis’s connections to Mormonism are few and minor--despite the numerous legends of his temple work being done. However, his embrace by Mormons makes him part of Mormon consciousness. “The Fading Flower” is more obviously Mormon, but still deals with areas of Mormon history that receive less attention. I had a friend in graduate school who was a Mormon history enthusiast, and he said once—only half joking—that Mormon history ends in 1844. His joke (some might call it a bias) has a kernel of truth since early church history is so much better known than late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Mormon history. And because they did not come to Utah, Joseph’s children are virtually unknown among many Mormons.

Because Stewart writes on topics related to Mormon worldviews, many Mormon audience members will come to these plays with background knowledge that will enable them to see a greater significance in certain scenes. However, these same audience members will also be surprised with the complexity of what was assumed to be familiar territory. This is especially true of “The Fading Flower” because many Mormons have not come to terms with Joseph’s polygamy (which is much less discussed than Brigham Young’s), and thus they will inhabit a space with David Hyrum Smith, discovering more about his father, the Prophet.
For such a situation to happen, it is important for the plays to be historically accurate. In a recent interview, Stewart affirmed that historical accuracy is a priority:
“I find it highly annoying when writers go beyond the tasteful bounds of artistic license and fling themselves into this historical free for all. Nine times out of ten, I think a lot of that kind of attitude has to do with politics or, worse yet, they're too lazy to research their subject properly. I feel an obligation to these people I write about. I develop a relationship with them. I try not to mess with the facts of their lives. [1]

“The Fading Flower” obviously makes use of historical studies of the Smith family and of polygamy, and I suspect Stewart knows well studies like Newell and Avery’s “Mormon Enigma,” Avery’s “From Mission to Madness,” and Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness.” Stewart also has a deep knowledge of the writings and biography of C. S. Lewis. In many places, Stewart draws on Lewis’s own words and concepts for the content of dialogue. For example, when Lewis explains how reading enables one “to see through the eyes of another character, not through an alternate version of yourself” (189), Stewart is drawing from Lewis’ epilogue in his collection of essays “An Experiment in Criticism.”

Furthermore, Jack’s concept of Joy (167) and his self-characterization of being “the most reluctant convert in all of England” (20cool both come from Lewis’ autobiography “Surprised by Joy.” The list could go on and on. Stewart uses Lewis’ ideas and words from “The Four Loves,” the Chronicles of Narnia, “The Weight of Glory,” and significantly, the novel “Till We Have Faces,” a portion of which appears in the epigraph. This accuracy is an authorial choice that respects the people and that ultimately adds to the believable and unique characterization and setting of the plays.

Ultimately, writing a review of a play is a complicated task because the “text” is less stable than it would be for a work of fiction or poetry. Is the play the script—the dialogue and stage directions—published in book form? Or is the text the script’s performance, with movement, sound, sights that are embedded in a specific historical moment? Of course, the answer is that both can be the play’s text. However, there are places in these plays that I wish I had seen in performance. The scene depicting Lewis’s conversion seems flat when just reading the script, and I am left excited about the ways it could be performed.
The interaction of Joseph Smith in spirit form with his living family members is another element that actors and directors could do much with. Thus, as good as Stewart’s writing is, reading the plays also leads the reader to imagine the script being brought to life on the stage, and as a book reviewer, I felt that my task was like reviewing the aesthetic effectiveness of a building by looking at the blueprints and architectural drawings. Still, the literary qualities of the plays are real and the historical accuracy is remarkable. Stewart’s drama deserves its prominent place in contemporary Mormon letters.

1. Scott Hales, “Telling Our Own Stories: An Interview with Playwright Mahonri Stewart.”_Modern Mormon Men._ 6 June 2012. Web. 7 Jun 2012. http://www.modernmormonmen.com/2012/06/telling-our-own-stories-interview-with.html.
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