This is the paper I read at the recent Mormon History Association meeting. I post it now in connection with T&S’s Mormon Writers Series commemoration of the 30th anniversary of President Spencer W. Kimball’s call for a renaissance in Mormon cultural arts:
The Book of Mormon records four biographical details about a minor character named Corianton:
* He was the son of Alma the Younger, and brother of Shiblon.
* He went on a preaching mission to the apostate Zoramites.
* He left his ministry to follow the harlot Isabel.
* Twenty-two years later, he sailed to â€œthe land northwardâ€ on one of Hagothâ€™s ships.
Despite this scriptural brevity, the story of Corianton was arguably the most widely known and most popular of Book of Mormon stories for two generations of our Mormon ancestors.
In Print: â€œCoriantonâ€ as Home Literature
In 1888, Bishop Orson F. Whitney issued his famous call for a home literature based on Mormon themes and aspirations. â€œWe will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. … In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.â€ Perhaps in response to that call, B.H. Roberts published his short novel â€œCorianton,â€ one year later.
By many measurements, Robertsâ€™s story is not great literature. It is melodramatic, with characters falling in and out of love whenever the plot needs to change direction. Coriantonâ€™s brother Shiblon is a caricature of annoying nobility. Everything of any real interest occurs in the first half, leaving the second half to collapse into tedious didacticism.
Yet despite these faults, Robertsâ€™s â€œCoriantonâ€ has successful elements:
Roberts uses the Book of Mormon episode of Korihor, the anti-Christ, as a powerful context for Coriantonâ€™s behavior. Corianton is a follower of Korihor, and is persuaded of Godâ€™s power when Korihor is struck dumb by the high priest. This conversion, which causes him to accompany his father as a missionary to the Zoramites, is a shallow and temporary one: when Corianton later witnesses Korihorâ€™s miserable death, he rebels against a God he sees as vengeful. This rebellion prompts Corianton to seek out the company of Isabel.
Because Isabel is known as a harlot, Sunday School lessons usually assume Corianton to have been guilty of sexual sin. In Robertsâ€™s version, Corianton is the almost-innocent victim of a Zoramite plot. Isabel lures Corianton into the house of a Zoramite leader, one of her lovers. Corianton joins an attractive party feasting and drinking â€“ but not to excess, Roberts stresses. Isabel dances for Corianton, who, unused to wine, drinks a very little and falls into a stupor, waking the next morning in the wreckage of what became a boisterous and licentious party while he slept. Corianton goes into the streets and finds that the story of his having spent the night with Isabel has been industriously circulated, discrediting the church and leading to the expulsion of the missionaries and their converts.
Robertsâ€™s portrayal of Korihor is especially noteworthy. We might expect the anti-Christ to be a one-dimensional melodramatic villain. Instead, Roberts paints him as genuinely charismatic and supplies him with intelligent, persuasive speeches. He is arrogant and evil, but appealing at the same time. Roberts demonstrates here the same devilâ€™s advocacy he displays in some of his later scholarly work.
Roberts also displays his sensibilities as an historian. His inventions flesh out the Book of Mormon record without straying beyond it. Aside from minor guards and members of the mob, he invents only a single significant character â€“ Seantum, Isabelâ€™s lover and chief plotter â€“ and even then Roberts christens him with a name appropriated from a minor character in the book of Helaman.
Other Mormon melodramas with scriptural settings appeared in following years. The only one relevant to us was published in 1896-97. Julia A. MacDonaldâ€™s â€œA Ship of Hagothâ€ focuses on Coriantonâ€™s preparations to sail to the â€œland northward.â€
MacDonaldâ€™s story strays far beyond the Book of Mormon. She invents major characters and plot lines, most especially a love triangle: Shiblon loves a new character named Relia, who loves Corianton, who canâ€™t seem to decide between Relia and Isabel. He finally settles on Relia, who, while continuing to love Corianton, will not marry him. Corianton sets out to prove himself worthy of Relia, whose heart softens toward Corianton when a repentant Isabel speaks of her love for him. Isabel dies, Shiblon dies, Corianton returns from his quest, Relia forgives him, they pledge their mutual love, and we leave them gazing into the future together, in true melodramatic style.
â€œA Ship of Hagothâ€ would be utterly forgettable, if not for the next step in the â€œCoriantonâ€ phenomenon.
On the Boards: â€œCoriantonâ€ as Stage Play
Enter a young Mormon schoolteacher from Richfield, Utah, with the delightful name of Orestes Utah Bean. Bean was an eccentric with an unshakeable confidence in his own genius. In addition to teaching school, Bean was an actor, playing first in local Mutual productions, and eventually organizing his own acting company. While his troupe toured only the most provincial of southern Utah towns, he did gain valuable experience in stagecraft.
At some point, Bean read both Robertsâ€™s â€œCoriantonâ€ and MacDonaldâ€™s â€œA Ship of Hagoth.â€ Plagiarizing both shamelessly, Bean combined the stories into a single narrative, adding some comic characters, sword fights, and songs. He published his play in 1902 without acknowledging his sources.
Neither story was improved by cobbling the two together. The play remains excessively melodramatic. There are too many subplots, characters continue to fall into and out of love without sufficient motivation, and Beanâ€™s pseudo-Shakespearean language is clumsy. Yet somehow â€“ perhaps due to the force of Beanâ€™s personality, perhaps due to the extreme popularity of playacting in Mormon culture â€“ Bean found backers to produce his play.
A syndicate of Salt Lake businessmen, headed by George Elias Blair, financed the production. Blair and Bean, working together in New York City, attracted a professional cast for the leading roles, including the notable Joseph Haworth as Corianton, and Rose Agnes Lane, both a professional actress and Manhattanâ€™s first Relief Society president, as Isabel. Other performers were recruited in Utah â€“ a son of Brigham Young played Alma, the high priest; Isabelsâ€™s 24 dancing girls were young ladies from the MIA, and both their choreography and costumes reflected the modesty of the dancers, not the realism of the brothel inmates they represented.
Following months of publicity, â€œCoriantonâ€ opened at the Salt Lake Theater on August 11, 1902. Reviews were mixed: critics noted the sincerity of the production and the fact that audiences felt great pride in an elaborate production written, scored, and produced by local talent. However, one critic wrote that while its scenery and costumes were â€œsuperb,â€ â€œIn literary merit, it is … downright bad.â€ Another critic wrote, â€œAn audience sits through the first and second acts [B.H. Robertsâ€™s Korihor chapter] almost spell-bound, but … The last act is … too melodramatic, too senseless to be taken seriously.â€ It was far too long, and should be shortened â€œby the elimination of scenes that can be improved only by elimination.â€ Another critic claimed that it had sent him to the hospital, where â€œice compresses are being applied half hourly.â€ He thought it might have been an Elks Club initiation, he said, but the Elks denied this, â€œsaying that [they] would not require anything so rough.â€
Yet despite this panning by critics, the play was, more or less, a popular success among Utah audiences who were eager to support a home-grown production. It played to large houses; 12 of its Salt Lake performances were reported as heavy money-makers, with comparable success in Ogden and Logan. After six weeks at home, its ambitious managers took the play on the road, first to Denver, with plans to go on to Helena, Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago, and eventually New York City.
Gentile audiences were bewildered and bored. The play failed in Kansas City, forcing the stranded company to find their own way home.
Anxious to recoup their losses, the syndicate opened â€œCoriantonâ€ in Salt Lake in January 1903 with a new cast of Utah players. Improvements in the script continued. Management narrowed its goals to the playâ€™s natural audience, Mormons in and near Utah who were both already familiar with the story and eager to support a Mormon-themed production. â€œCoriantonâ€ was performed not only in the theaters of Utahâ€™s larger towns, but in the tiny opera houses of central and southern Utah. Amateur theater groups added it to their repertoires. By 1909, when â€œCoriantonâ€ was revived for Salt Lakeâ€™s Colonial Theater, the play had been shortened, revised, and polished to the point where critics could say that â€œthe play is staged in a most magnificent manner … [T]aken in its entirety, [it] is a splendid production.â€ Unfortunately, no marked copy of the script documenting the changes has yet been located.
On Broadway: â€œCoriantonâ€ Appears for a National Audience
The near-constant production of â€œCoriantonâ€ during its first years cemented the playâ€™s position in the hearts of that generation. The opera houses of Parowan and Panguitch, however, could not satisfy the ambition of Orestes Bean â€“ New York was the hub of the theatrical world, and only New York could do justice to Beanâ€™s literary genius. Throughout the decade, brief notes in the columns of New York theater gossip hint at Beanâ€™s active pursuit of a New York sponsor for â€œCorianton.â€
However, it would be years before Bean was successful in bringing â€œCoriantonâ€ to Broadway, and he did so only by financing the project himself. Early in 1912, Bean opened an office above the George M. Cohan theater on Broadway, and began assembling the cast and crew for â€œCorianton,â€ rechristened â€œAn Aztec Romance.â€ He hired Harold Orlob, a Salt Laker who had built a successful Broadway career, to write new music, and he hired some of New Yorkâ€™s best designers to translate his sketches into scenery and costumes.
After toying with the idea of opening in Philadelphia and Washington, and then bringing â€œAn Aztec Romanceâ€ in triumph to Broadway, Bean decided finally to open in New York City, in Oscar Hammersteinâ€™s Manhattan Opera House â€“ a theater which, while not technically on Broadway, was considered by New York audiences and critics as part of the Broadway theater world. â€œAn Aztec Romanceâ€ opened on September 16, 1912.
Reviewers were blunt. Perhaps the kindest described â€œAn Aztec Romanceâ€ as â€œâ€˜Ben Hurâ€™ minus the chariot race.â€ Another called it â€œa mixture of Shakespeare and … the Bowery.â€ The New York Times called it â€œsound and fury signifying nothing,â€ and its critic claimed that when Beanâ€™s loyal friends called for the author, a more sincere voice pleaded for ether.
â€œAn Aztec Romanceâ€ struggled through six performances before ridicule and indifference brought it to an end.
On Screen: â€œCorianton,â€ the Movie
You might think that â€œCoriantonâ€ had reached the outer limit of its possibilities, especially if we had time to go into the lawsuits over debts and stock fraud that followed the end of its Broadway run. You would be reckoning without the unshakeable confidence of Orestes Bean in his genius as a playwright.
Throughout the 19-teens and twenties, as â€œCoriantonâ€ appeared regularly on the small stages of Utahâ€™s opera houses, Bean worked to recoup his finances. Then, in 1928, whispers of a new life for â€œCoriantonâ€ began to circulate. Brothers Lester and Byron Park negotiated with Bean to produce a film version of â€œCorianton.â€
The Park brothers had been involved in motion picture work at least as early as 1912, and probably earlier. Their work included some melodramas typical of the silent era. In 1916, the Park brothers received an official endorsement by the general board of the MIA to film Bee-Hive girl activities. In the â€˜20s, they formed a partnership with a Utah man named A.L. Stallings, whose work included either sex education or soft porn, depending on your definitions.
Their sights were set high: the movie was to be an early talkie, with music written by Edgar Stillman Kelly, who had scored â€œBen Hur.â€ It was to be one of the worldâ€™s first Technicolor films. And it was to be completed very quickly, in time to debut on the churchâ€™s centennial, April 6, 1930.
The filmâ€™s producers met with early success: The church consented to having the Tabernacle Choir and organ record background music, although neither would actually appear on film. Lester and Byron Park, and their brother Allen, partnered with Napoleon Hill, that generationâ€™s incredibly popular power-of-positive-thinking guru, to tour Utah and convince many hundreds of Mormons to invest their savings in â€œCorianton,â€ with exactly the promise of impossibly high returns that led to the euphoric stock market of the late 1920s, and the collapse that came in October 1929.
The onset of the Depression was only one of the crises faced by the producers. The Park brothersâ€™ contract included not only working with the fussy, interfering, and impossible-to-please Bean, but also the hiring of numerous Bean relatives who drew large weekly salaries as â€œconsultantsâ€ and siphoned off much of the money raised by the Parks to produce the movie. They missed their anticipated 1930 release, were forced to cut back from color to black and white film, and, in order to make any progress at all, resorted to filming behind Beanâ€™s back â€“ they took advantage of Beanâ€™s May wedding in Los Angeles to do as much filming in New York as possible. â€œCorianton: A Story of Unholy Loveâ€ was ready for the public on October 1, 1931.
The special collections library at BYU has scored a major triumph in locating what is probably the only remaining copy of this first commercial Mormon movie, and reports success in digital restoration of the movie, and I look forward with eagerness to their debut of this important artifact of our culture. Without having seen it, however, I can only report on its content from hints in the public record.
The cast of characters indicates that the movie followed the basic story line of the stage productions. The style of the film, however, was apparently somewhat different from the earlier versions: The change in subtitle to â€œA Story of Unholy Loveâ€ suggests a somewhat racier flavor. Isabelâ€™s dancing girls, originally portrayed by modest Mormon maidens, were played in the movie by â€œBunny Weldenâ€™s Greenwich Village Dancers.â€ Surviving publicity photographs depict a vampish Isabel lounging on a couch with a â€œcome hitherâ€ look, wearing an elaborate beaded headdress and not much else. The historical record includes the shocked reaction of theatergoers, who recommended that children not be allowed to see the movie.
On the other hand, it bears repeating that I have not seen the movie and am not in a position to judge its content with any confidence. It may be that viewersâ€™ negative reactions were based not on the filmâ€™s actual merits, but rather on disappointment in any discrepancies they found between the film and the stage productions they remembered so fondly.
There is apparently some uncertainly on the part of BYUâ€™s curators as to whether or not â€œCorianton: A Story of Unholy Loveâ€ was shown only to investors, or was actually released to the general public. The documentary record leaves no doubt on this point: â€œCoriantonâ€ premiered to the public on October 1, 1931, at Salt Lake Cityâ€™s Playhouse Theater, and on October 2 at the Kinema in Richfield, Beanâ€™s hometown. The movie ran nightly in Salt Lake for two weeks. The Salt Lake newspapers carried daily advertisements and critical reviews, praising especially the music, scenery, and the special effect of Korihor being struck dumb by a bolt of lightning. A series of ten interrelated lawsuits that later arose record disappointment and accusations by everyone involved, but leave no doubt whatsoever that â€œCorianton: A Story of Unholy Loveâ€ was released to a generally disapproving public.
In the Mind of Orestes Utah Bean: The Afterlife of â€œCoriantonâ€
While the closing of the movie marked the passing of â€œCoriantonâ€ as a public spectacle, it did not end Beanâ€™s involvement with his creation. For six more years, until his death, Bean was involved in lawsuits over the movie, even spending five days in jail for contempt of court for talking back to a judge â€“ yet one more instance of Beanâ€™s unconquerable self confidence. Bean moved to Los Angeles, where in 1936 he delivered a series of lectures on the Book of Mormon. His surviving notes demonstrate the extent to which Beanâ€™s devotion to his play controlled his reality: he taught his fictional creation, quoting at length from his own script, as if from the text of the Book of Mormon itself. Bean died in 1937.
Bean was survived by his widow, a woman who formally changed her name to â€œZoan,â€ the pseudonym Bean created for Isabel as a plot point in his play. Zoan Bean drafted her own version of â€œCoriantonâ€ as a script for television in the 1960s. Her â€œOut of the Dustâ€ marks â€œCoriantonâ€™sâ€™ lowest point, recasting Isabel as the central character of an unimaginably bad story. One can only hope that the old womanâ€™s friends indulged her writing but advised her not to inflict the script on an unprepared Hollywood.
In the years since â€œCoriantonâ€ was last seen, its existence has faded from our collective memory to the point where only students of Mormon letters are aware of Robertsâ€™s short novel. With the exception of a handful of scholars at BYU who were aware of both the stage play and the movie, but not the Broadway production, no one to whom I have mentioned â€œCoriantonâ€ in the last five years has ever heard of it.
Its intrinsic merits may be such that it deserves to lie in obscurity. However, â€œCoriantonâ€ deserves an honored place in our history as the first popular Mormon stageplay, the first Mormon dramatic work presented to a curious if unimpressed non-Mormon world, and the first commercial Mormon movie. I look forward to the day when I can see the movie, and applaud BYU for its success in finding and restoring this important part of our Mormon cultural past.