Friday, June 19, 2015

Annie Clark Tanner, A Mormon Mother and Plural Wife

In April (2015), I presented a scene from the verbatim drama I'm currently writing about 19th-century polygamy (in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), at a small works-in-progress event for local performing artists (with an organization called Artist, Interrupted). At that event,  I received feedback that led me to start seriously considering the idea of creating a narrator that could better link together the many real-life accounts of plural wives that I wanted to set on stage. I was torn, because in the spirit of verbatim drama, I wanted the play to be entirely composed of the words of historical women--I had no interest in adding on a fictional character with fictional dialogue. And I certainly didn't want to create a cheesy, modern, character who, for instance, "stumbles over a box of diaries in the attic." On the other hand, I agreed that establishing a central character for the audience to follow throughout the whole play would deeply enhance my work, and make it more enjoyable for my audience. In the end, the solution was Annie.

Annie Clark Tanner (1864-1942)

 Annie Clark Tanner (1864-1942) wrote an incredibly well-researched autobiography entitled, A Mormon Mother. In addition to a vivid description of her life, this book dedicates itself to telling the story of polygamy. She goes into the history, beginning in the Nauvoo period, cites primary and secondary sources, including Church historian, B.H. Roberts, and includes several essays on the doctrine, culture, persecution and eventual decline of the practice of plural marriage. She reminds me of myself--researching and writing to present as truthful a picture of polygamy as possible. I originally chose to include Annie as a character due to her candid feelings about her own experience, but it was easy to see that her biography had opened itself as the umbrella under which all the characters in my play could stand. The moment I began my search for a narrator, Annie seemed to be vying for the position. Suddenly, everything became clear--with Annie as my narrator, I could stick to my verbatim dialogue plan, and present a central story with a clear protagonist.

As the play has evolved in the last few months, the character of Annie has become a researcher, looking to the writings of other polygamous wives, comparing their experiences with her own in a quest to sort through the evolving feelings of her own experience as a plural wive. And this is how, without even altering her words, I can put myself into this play. Annie is me, a faithful Latter-Day Saint who wants to tell the story of polygamy from start to finish in all its sacred simplicity, and terrible complexity.  In a way, I feel that I become the main character of this play--and I want my audience to feel that way, too--I want to invite them to take the emotional, paradigm-shifting journey that I've come to enjoy as I study the words of historic plural wives.

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