Trail of Dreams (drama)
Steven Kapp Perry, James Arrington, Marvin Payne
Literary Combine: A Writer Retraces The Trail of Dreams
The actors filed off the stage. The house lights came on. I sat there stunned, unable to move, unable to clap, unable to speak.
I have been to see Legacy. I have watched The Mountain of the Lord at the Church Museum. I have seen several of the flurry of centennial and sesquicentennial presentations that have popped up in Utah in recent years. I've seen the other audiences, gaily chatting as they leave, a tear or two on the cheeks of some. I've never before seen the almost subdued hush of the audience leaving The Trail of Dreams, a pioneer musical by James Arrington, Marvin Payne, and Steven Kapp Perry.
Many of the other presentations aimed to tell our story to the world. Legacy, Mountain, and Barefoot to Zion, in fact, were produced by the Church to do just that. Aiming for the Mormon audience was only secondary.
The Trail of Dreams, however, is -- to borrow from a Madison Avenue ad campaign -- the theatrical celebration "for the rest of us." It is our story told to and by and for Mormons. In that, it succeeds. Triumphantly.
Triumph. During the 1947 centennial, the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers entitled a commemorative book Tales of a Triumphant People. We seem to have lost that sense of triumph. Our celebrations are on one hand apologetic and perhaps self-conscious and defensive, on the other they place those early pioneers on pedestals so high as to put them out of reach.
Trail neither apologizes for the epic heroism of the pioneers, nor casts them as unearthly paragons of virtue. Rather, it sounds the clarion notes of triumph -- not the self-congratulatory hubristic triumph Kipling warned of in "Recessional" -- but a rejoicing of the past peculiar to Mormons: great accomplishments serve to open the way for greater works ahead. Where much is accomplished, to paraphrase, much is expected.
It is telling, I think, that Trail's great show-stopping number "Rolling On," the triumphal march of the pioneers across the plains, occurs not as the pioneers look down upon the Valley from Big Mountain, but as they step away from Iowa and begin the trek proper across the wilderness . Knowingly, they sing: "Ev'ry step we've taken, one less step remains."
The play definitely succeeds in capturing the hearts of its target audience. And were I solely a member of that audience, I would have left the play with fond memories and that would have been that. But as a writer wanting to capture that same audience, I was amazed at what Arrington, Payne, and Perry have accomplished. I have over a half-dozen times now -- studying over and over what they have done the way I would the Rodin exhibit were I a sculptor.
The mechanics of the play have been discussed on the list before. The play is actually one long dream sequence of John Brown, a pioneer who captained several immigrant wagon trails across to Utah. The set and props are minimal (the set itself are a few sheets and box-like blocks). With the exception of John Brown, Angela Hopewell, and three 'families' (Grants, Nielsons, & Robert Pearce), the remainder of the cast of twenty play multiple roles -- pioneers, mobocrats, and even oxen. Much of the play's dialog is taken directly from pioneer journals and other first-person accounts from over sixty primary sources.
If the above sounds more than a little overwhelming, it almost is. Trails attempts the largest scope of any of the celebratory productions. It's primary focus is not a region (Utah!), or a family (Legacy), or the building of an edifice (Mountain) -- Trails attempts to portray the migration of an entire people, an exodus lasting twenty-two years and numbering seventy thousand souls.
Obviously, the play can't parade wagon trails across the prairie twenty-two times -- while the play is long (two hours), it isn't that long! It's the solution Arrington, Payne, and Perry came up with that has me particularly fascinated.
As previously mentioned, the framing device is that of the play being John Brown's dream (a recurring dream he's had six times before). As such, as you might expect, people and scenes fade in and out seemingly at random with an unreal dreamlike quality. But the play's structure is far from random.
Arrington, Payne, and Perry have chosen to combine twenty-two years of the exodus into one single crossing. A relatively new technique in historicism is one based on Derrida's call to "reread past writing according to a different organization of space." This technique is called "spatial history": telling history in terms of spatial relationships, rather than chronologically linear narratives. Australian historian Paul Carter is an early pioneer and advocate of spatial history in his histories of the colonization and settlement of the Australian continent. The controversial technique has been praised and pummeled by other historians. Carter uses spatial history to tear down his heritage; Arrington, Payne, and Perry build theirs up with it instead.
The Trail of Dreams, after the opening dream sequence, starts in Nauvoo, and then proceeds in geographical sequence across the plains. Indeed, the play is divided into thirty-six scenes total. In the script, each scene is titled by its geographical location. The play's authors then fold into this single geography pioneers from all twenty-two years. The geographically singular/temporally complex narrative is then anchored on the Grant family (1847), and the Nielsons and Robert Pearce (1856 handcarts), but the several players and their multiple roles drift from year to year as the composite singular trail led by John Brown rolls across the plain. As the play progresses, the barriers between the years thins to the point where characters begin to interact with each other.
The train's great crisis comes when the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856 are snowed in, without food, shelter, or warmth -- while members of the big companies of 1847 look on. An anguished Capt. Brown cries:
& & & & "They share ideas, tears, faith with one another across the years. Why can't they share food and firewood and good weather? I need to borrow from '47 and '48 or '56 will perish altogether! I need seasoned handcarts from 1857! I need .& .& .
& & & & " .& .& . I need the Union Pacific Railroad." [Scene 26]
And as the companies of other years attempt to offer aid ("Those of you from the big companies of 1847 need not vote .& .& . "), as the elders of the 1856 General Conference volunteer to come to the aid of not only the handcart companies, but the struggling Grant family of 1847, the veil between the years is rent asunder this entire people become a single "cloud of witnesses" testifying of the work and the dreams these pioneers lived and died for. The play conjures up for me David Linn's painting, "Ascent," or the image of all our generations past and present and future, all striving for Zion.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic moments in the play is Scene 31 ("Rescue"), where John Brown struggles to return to the '56 handcart companies, but is blocked in the attempt by the cries for help from the companies of other years crowded around him. Each of them struggle to gain his attention, to have him address their needs, petty or great.
As a writer of historical fiction, this scene hit me like a sledgehammer. This was the perfect personification of writing historical fiction. Like Captain Brown, the writer has his eye set on a goal of a certain historic setting, but as he attempts to reach that goal, other eras, other personages call out for his attention, hedging up the way. Each of them are deserving of his attention, but he has to force his way past them, leaving them for another day.
Yet, as complicated as this sounds, this merging of dreams and spatial history, of over lapping years and multiple roles by players, Arrington, Payne, and Perry carry it off quite convincingly -- making it seem oh-so-simple. Listening and watching audience reactions during the play, during intermission, and after the show, I've heard only one elderly gentleman say "I don't get this." Trails manages to carry along its audience across the plains.
It was not, however, the techniques used in Trails that so captured me, but what was done with them. Mormon literature tends to the didactic; it is a inherency in our culture, not easily excised, nor do I really wish it to be. The trick is to blend in the didacticism skillfully then. Trails surface motive is to tell the epic of the Mormon exodus. Under that surface, lies its true aim.
It would have been easy for a pioneer musical to turn "Come, Come Ye Saints" into kitsch. Trail's use of the song does not. In fact, the familiar hymn is truly what the play is all about: the reason that William Clayton and the pioneers who took the song to heart can honestly say "And should we die, before our journey's through, Happy day! All is well."
I realize this sounds corny. Trail's handling of it is anything but.
A few weeks back, AML-List hosted a protracted discussion on why God allows bad things to happen. The ensuing argument -- the hoary "Butler Escape" of theologians -- is not new, nor particular to Mormonism. Trails attempt to grapple with that issue, at least as far as the particular sufferings and deaths endured by the pioneers on their trek.
It is those who suffer most, who experience the most grievous losses that John Brown finds himself dreaming of this seventh night of his dreams. Yet, something is different in this dream -- the appearance of an Angela Hopewell. When John Brown at last realizes who she is, what role she's played in midwiving the trains, he confronts her, grapples with the impossibility of keeping her away from his people. He demands:
John Brown: "Were you with Herod's soldiers when the babies were killed . . . or Pharaoh's bloody squads?" Angela Hopewell: "..They needed help." John Brown: "They couldn't swing their own swords?"
© 1997 Lee Allred < firstname.lastname@example.org >