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Jones, "​Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon melodrama" (reviewed by Greg Seppi) Options · View
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Title: Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon melodrama
Author: Megan Sanborn Jones
Publisher: Routledge
Genre: History and criticism of American drama
Year Published: 2013 (1st printing in hardback, 2009)
Number of Pages: 208
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 041584987X
ISBN13: 978-0-415-84987-6
Price: $44.95 (list)

Reviewed by Greg Seppi for the Association for Mormon Letters

In the U.S. today, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are generally mocked for being uptight, repressed Christian do-gooders. In the 19th Century, however, Utah Mormonism represented licentiousness, murder, heresy and anti-Americanism—it was a foreign menace capable of subverting the American experiment with a theocratic regime directed from Salt Lake City. The exact extent to which anxiety about Mormonism influenced American society is difficult to determine. In this book, Megan Sanborn Jones analyzes a number of melodramas to begin to construct an answer. Jones is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Brigham Young University-Provo. This book is essentially a reprint of her PhD thesis, and it is an impressive work, though not revolutionary. That being said, a reader who is mostly unfamiliar with contemporary critical theory may not enjoy this book. Personally, I would have loved reading this book in one of my 2nd or 3rd year English classes at BYU.

The term “melodrama” refers to a theater production with a fairly standardized form. Extrapolating from Jones: Boy meets girl; villain meets girl; girl runs from boy due to her feminine foolishness; girl is kidnapped by villain; villain does evil things, generally to girl and other girls; boy attempts to rescue girl; boy gets into trouble; all seems lost for boy and girl; something exciting happens; boy kills or bests villain; girl, having learned her lesson, swears to remain loyal to boy and American values forevermore. I’ve oversimplified, but hopefully this makes sense (p. 23).

Recognizing that her study of these texts is hardly comprehensive, and that significantly more work needs to be done before we can begin to grasp the relationship between Mormonism, anti-Mormonism, and American identity, Jones is cautious of drawing any definitive conclusions from her work (p. 15). Because she grounds her work in studies of American perceptions of Mormons by Gary L. Bunker and Davis Bitton (in The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914, 1983) and Terryl L. Givens (The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, 1997), as well as past work on the role of melodrama in informing American identity by Jeffrey Mason (Melodrama and the Myth of America, 1993) and Gary A. Richardson (American Drama from the Colonial Period Through World War I: A Critical History, 1993), she is able to link her arguments to existing scholarly traditions. Her work intersects a number of additional texts, and Jones demonstrates a strong grasp of existing scholarship throughout. This enables her to strike out on her own with our confidence that she understands the implications of the arguments she is making.

Jones’ stated purpose in the text is to “[analyze] nineteenth-century anti-Mormon melodramas to expose how their representation of Mormon deviance was a foil against which American virtues and values were performed” (p. 2). Recognizing that the ways Americans perceived Mormons in the nineteenth century were informed by a sense that Mormons were a real threat to American culture, Jones examines three areas—“sites of anxiety that recur in anti-Mormon melodrama—gender, violence, and race—in order to trace the various tactics by which the anxieties were alleviated by the action in the plays” (p. 4). Jones describes these sites of anxieties by drawing on two dozen nineteenth-century melodramas.

One of Jones’ conclusions is that the threat of violence (generally depicted by the presence of murderous Danites and liberal reference to the Mountain Meadows Massacre) mixed with anxiety for the sexual welfare of the female victim of the Mormons created a pornographic experience for viewers. Jones here draws on Gloria Steinem’s definition of pornography:

[A]ny depiction with sexual elements… in which there is a clear force, or an unequal power that spells coercion… [T]here is no sense of equal choice or equal power… pornography is about power and sex-as-weapon… its message is violence, dominance, or conquest (p. 69).

In anti-Mormon melodrama, Mormonism was reduced to “polygamy and polygamy was a hypocritical excuse for unchecked lust that leads to enslavement and murder” (p. 60). Moreover, at the end of most of the melodramas described by Jones, some women are left behind in polygamy (p. 71). The audience returns home, relieved that the heroes of the play emerged victorious, but likely unsettled by the continued survival of the institution that made polygamy possible—the LDS Church.

The Church plays a historical and dramatic role within the action of the play. The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 and the Church’s confession that it practiced polygamy in 1852 provide the dramatic tension needed for the melodrama to play to its audience. Without a sense of the continuation of sex and violence—without a sense that what the audience was seeing could still be happening even at this very moment!—the melodramas lose their social currency. Indeed, once the Church issued the Manifesto in 1890, anti-Mormon melodrama largely died out (p. 151). With the separation of the sexual element from the tableaux, the foundational myth of Mormonism in popular culture was reoriented in a way that rendered it mostly unsuitable for use as the threatening backdrop for a melodrama.

I do wish that Jones had taken her study up to 1920 and included early anti-Mormon films. The villainous Mormon was a well-known archetype in early twentieth-century movies. Regardless, this text at least maps the route that such a study would take. I was also disappointed that Jones did not extend her use of critical theory in the introduction to the rest of the text. I also suspect that the work of Slavoj Zizek, with its focus on the psychological and economic currency of popular culture, might have interesting applications to Mormon and anti-Mormon theatre. In any case, Jones is almost certainly correct to avoid descending into an extended philosophical exegesis, since that might distract from her focus on nineteenth-century melodrama.

While this is a specialist text that will not interest most readers, I think that scholars interested in understanding the role of Mormonism in nineteenth-century popular culture will probably find this book to be an interesting read. It is certainly not the most approachable text ever written. That being said, after the Introduction, the philosophical-critical language largely drops off, and Jones’ descriptions of anti-Mormon melodramas give the reader a good sense of those works. I hope to hear that some of these dead works get performed some day! They sound delightfully campy.
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