Soulful Theatre: Mormon Theology of the Body in the Science Fiction Plays of Orson Scott Card


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Soulful Theatre: Mormon Theology of the Body in the Science Fiction Plays of Orson Scott Card

Kristin Perkins

There are many moving parts to this essay—which is only fitting since it is performance analysis, and I am deeply invested in the theological and utopian implications of body, space, and time: moving parts that constitute the essential characteristics of theatre. This is an essay, then, about moving parts as much as it is an essay with moving parts. Since there are several threads I’m attempting to weave, or at least braid, I think it’s worth naming them as clearly as possible. This essay examines how theatre (Posing as People directed by Orson Scott Card, specifically) mediates and stages Mormon theologies of the body in the genre of science fiction. In these plays about time travel and body swapping, my understanding of Mormon doctrine of the soul and the import of the body helps parse meaning from the text. These doctrines, in turn, are illuminated in the reflection of science fiction’s speculative mirror. 

Theatre is not merely the site for this exploration but a form uniquely equipped to explore the significations of the body in theology and science fiction. Theatre often posits or implies a future using what Jill Dolan calls utopian performatives that have spiritual dimensions, but these performatives remain grounded in materiality and located in the embodied practice of the stage. Theatre is thus a productive site to analyze the convergence of the metaphysical and physical in the Mormon doctrine of the soul. I’ll return later to Posing as People, the collection of plays based on Card’s short stories, but first, I want to build out a theoretical framework as the scaffold to my case study.

Doctrine and Covenants 88 is a wide-ranging compilation of revelations Joseph Smith taught while at Kirtland, Ohio, from 1882-83. In it, Smith makes a distinction between “spirit” and “soul” (elsewhere used interchangeably), saying, “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul” (88.15-16). This doctrine, that the soul is the unification of both the animating spirit and physical body, is fundamental to Latter-day Saint doctrine and the Mormon worldview. It is evidenced repeatedly from adherence to the Word of Wisdom, Mormonism’s strict health code, to belief in the literal embodiment of God. The LDS church eventually codified this doctrine in correlated educational materials. This concept of “soul” effectively collapses the metaphysical dimensions of the spirit into the physical realm of the body, placing divine import on materialism in general and the human body in particular. 

Further Mormonism’s belief in apotheosis, the potential divinization of exalted humans, is contingent on human resurrection into “perfected” bodies. [1] God has a body, and so too, humans must reinhabit bodies after death to become like God. The doctrine of divine embodiment is almost science-fictional in its orientation towards a future utopia in heaven. How Mormons inhabit their bodies on Earth becomes rehearsal for their own divine embodiment. 

In Utopia in Performance, Jill Dolan makes an impassioned case for the necessity and relevance of theatre as a space of utopian performatives, a medium to envision and rehearse better futures and new subjectivities. She acknowledges a religious, or at least spiritual, dimension to her project, partly by way of addressing her critics, going so far as to use religious language — calling theatre a “temple of communion” and referring to the messianic quality of performance as a “deferred moment of transformation toward a better future” (135-6). Central to Dolan’s argument is the imbrication of this idealism and the body since “utopian performatives let us embody conditions of which we can otherwise only dream” (168). For Dolan, theatre is a uniquely capable tool for utopianism because it grounds idealism and civic transformations in embodied practice. Again using religious terminology, she writes, “Theatre can be a secular temple of social and spiritual union not with a mystified, mythologized higher power, but with the more prosaic, earthbound, yearning, ethical subjects” (137). In her good-natured attempt to defend her work from the critique that it is marked by religious-oriented sentimentality, Dolan emphasizes the importance of the “earthbound” and embodied nature of theatre in the pursuit of a spiritual union—this materiality is key to understanding the spiritual affect of theatre.

Dolan’s framework—the enmeshment of embodied performance and spiritual union—combined with the Mormon theology of the soul is one way to understand how theatre forms have functioned in Mormon cultural and religious life. Megan Sanborn Jones has argued that Mormon Pageants, large-cast spectacles performed outdoors around the United States, used embodied performance practices to invoke spiritual affect for both performers and audiences in their re-creation of the past (13). In the most sacred of Mormon rituals enacted in the temple, theatrical forms have been used for decades, with actors embodying characters to re-perform a speculative mytho-history and rehearse entrance into heaven. All temple participants, officiants or not, embody certain performative acts meant to help envision a future divine embodiment and elicit spiritual affect. Theatre thus becomes a site where the collapse of the metaphysical and the physical, the spirit and the body, the sacred and the profane is realized in Mormon traditions. In the formulation found in Doctrine and Covenants 88, we could say theatre is a soulful space where body and spirit become unified in salvific performance believed to be both effective (accomplishing ritual goals) and affective (invoking emotional responses that confirm religious truths).

Leaving to the side the speculative nature of the Latter-day Saint Temple itself, I’ll move to how this “soulful” theatre can function within the genre of science fiction by turning to a science-fictional case study. Posing as People, directed by Orson Scott Card, premiered in September 2004 at the Whitefire Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a collection of three plays adapted from short stories Card wrote early in his career. All three plays, “Clap Hands and Sing,” adapted by Scott Brick, “Lifeloop,” adapted by Aaron Johnston, and “A Sepulchre of Song,” adapted by Emily Janice Card, are faithful adaptations of Card’s work and were edited by Card himself. They include some added details, but the only major difference in the plot beats and characters are practical—adding theatrical devices to stage internal thought or commentary. The short stories, and thus the plays, like so much of Card’s science fiction work, contain Mormon themes, significantly themes around the theology of the body and the perfecting of the spirit and the body towards a unified soul using science fiction tropes. Yet while the adaptations remain faithful in terms of plot and character, the essential shift from the disembodied page to the embodied medium of the stage highlights and gives depth and texture to key themes of corporeality in the stories. 

Card is a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by far the largest denomination of the religious and cultural category of “Mormon.” Card himself has embraced the term “Mormon writer,” sometimes including Mormon characters in his oeuvre, though he remains agnostic as to Mormonism’s impact on his work, suggesting that, while his moral convictions inform his storytelling, “my theology and institutional membership have no place in [my work]” (Moser 33). That said, Card has acknowledged the essential autobiographical nature of any writing, admitting that Mormonism impacts him and condoning scholars like Michael R. Collings and Alma Jean Porschet who have excavated Mormon themes in Card’s work. As Collings says, many of Card’s symbolic references “only resonate fully in conjunction with an awareness of LDS teachings” (Collings 58). Drawing on this tradition but working with an unexamined subject, I uncover how Mormon theology of the soul plays out in two of the three plays in Posing as People, not as the key to the text but as a lens to elucidate one thematic dimension of Card’s work

“Clap Hands and Sing,” the first play presented in Posing as People and written by Card’s friend and fellow Mormon Scott Brick, is adapted from the short story of the same name. In “Clap Hands and Sing,” Charlie, played by Stefan Rudnicki, is the aging CEO of a company that pioneered the time-travel device known as THIEF, Temporal Hermeneutic Insertion into the Everwhen Field, which transports a consciousness into another body to live out a past day. Near death, Charlie remembers Rachel Carpenter (Emily Janice Card), a girl he used to know but never expressed his feelings for. Despite it being illegal to use THIEF in a way that might change the present, Charlie’s consciousness travels back in time to his younger body (Scott Brick) where he has one night together with Rachel. Remorseful that he may have ruined her life, Charlie is despondent when he returns to the present until his computer system, an AI named Jock, reveals that the young Rachel in the memory was also inhabited by her older consciousness. Right before Rachel died, she requested to inhabit her younger body and relive the same day with Charlie. Thus, both Charlie and Rachel were older consciousnesses inhabiting their younger selves, for as Jock says, “There are some things in this world so pure we cannot ruin them, despite our best intentions. Or our worst” (51).

As a writer deeply concerned with morality, “Clap Hands and Sing” is essentially about a pitiless and greedy man’s redemption, but corporeality mediates the redemption arc as the mature consciousness returns to the young body. Reinhabiting one’s own young body is an echo of Mormon beliefs in the final resurrection in which all spirits, retaining experience and wisdom, will be returned to a perfected body. This unification forms the “redemption of the soul” found in scripture. Both Charlie and Rachel, at the end of their respective lives, are returned with their matured consciousnesses to their young bodies. Using masculine language, Charlie says to himself in the mirror after his consciousness has traveled back in time, “And just like that, you’re young again, Charlie. Flex those muscles. Touch the toes you haven’t touched in forty years. . . . It’s all there Charlie. Your virility, your passion, your hunger” (39). 

Theology of the body features beyond the mechanics of time travel reflecting resurrection in the short play. More interestingly, the younger, more perfect body acts as the mediator of redemption. In Mormon theology of the soul, human embodiment is endowed with a moral dimension—the body has a “positive valence in the moral order of the cosmos” (Hoyt and Petrey 539).  Before the time travel, Charlie is self-absorbed, describing himself as both “cruel” and “lustful.” His choice to visit Rachel is an entirely selfish one, but when his consciousness returns twelve hours later, he is immediately remorseful, crying to Jock about his fear that he ruined Rachel’s life. It is not merely his meeting with Rachel that changes Charlie, but the mediation of his youthful, beautiful, virile body given the moral dimension of the perfect body in Mormon thought and emphasized in Mormon culture. [2]

Before Charlie even encounters Rachel for the second time, he behaves differently — an innocent demeanor and good-natured intent despite the play being clear that the consciousness is the same between the two scenes. This is made explicit in a moment when Rachel and Young Charlie are walking. The older Charlie, represented by a different actor, asks his younger self why he is nervous and responds saying, “Just a guess here . . . you are not a virgin, but this body does not know that. This body is alert because it hasn’t yet formed the habits of meaningless passion that you know far too well” (44).  Embedded in this internal musing is the notion that the younger body has a moral dimension and an ontology unto itself despite the implantation of the older and amoral (not to mention, sexually-experienced) consciousness. The body, not the mind, forms habits and the body that reacts to stimuli without conscious control. For Charlie, the time travel becomes not just a way of inhabiting the younger self and seeing Rachel again, but an essential mediation in his moral arc with his more youthful body possessing moral guidance in its fleshy materiality. 

The production choices concerning casting, and thus the presented bodies, drive this point home. Stooped and shuffling, Rudnicki plays Charlie in the opening scene with a grumbling callousness. His interpretation of the character is far from sympathetic, but his scene-partner, the android named Jock played by Scott Brick, serves and cajoles Charlie with good humor and kindness. Even if the audience assumes this is a programmed AI personality, Jock is likable in a way Charlie is not. When it comes time for Charlie to enter the body of his younger self, Rudnicki stands to the side of the stage, and Brick, still as Jock, lies down in the bed. When Brick “wakes” from his sleep he is Young Charlie. This is more than just a fluke born of the little necessities that so often drive double casting in small productions. For one thing, there are many bit parts in “Clap Hands and Sing” that could have been more easily double-cast as Young Charlie. For another, this casting is written into the stage directions, specifying for future productions that these characters are designed to be played by one actor. 

The characters ghost onto each other while Rudnicki as Charlie is free to stand alongside his younger body, observing it. This highly theatrical technique allows for positive associations to accumulate in Brick as Jock and Young Charlie, highlighting the moral dimensions of this individual body. It also clarifies the mediation that happens to Charlie by splitting his character into two parts so that there can be a functional teacher (Brick) of moral affect and embodiment to the embittered man (Rudnicki), completing his character arc in the final scene. And while it makes sense in the plot, it also aligns with Mormon cultural expectations for the morally good character to be young and handsome since youth and beauty are strongly associated with morality and divine corporeality. It is thus the medium of theatre that reveals and concretizes the theologies of the body at play in a time travel and body swapping play.

“A Sepulchre of Songs” was adapted for the stage by Card’s daughter Emily Janice Card, who also stars in it. It is the story of Elaine (Emily Janice Card) as told through the perspective of her unnamed therapist (Kirby Heyborne), named in the script simply “Therapist.”  After a gasoline explosion, Elaine, a teenager at the time of the play, is orphaned and left without her arms or legs, confined to a rest home for her life. Despite this event, she is gregarious, funny, and universally loved by the employees in the rest home. The rest home assigns a therapist to her after she talks about her numerous imaginary friends, including a pig made out of ice and a violent young boy. As she describes it, she knows that these friends aren’t real, but they help her occupy her mind and express her emotions. Relieved, the Therapist nonetheless continues to visit Elaine, mostly just enjoying her company and eventually falling in love with her despite a significant age gap. Elaine begins to talk about a new imaginary friend, Anansa, a spaceship that has contacted her to recruit her into becoming a spaceship, insisting that Elaine is “ just the right size” for it (131). At the end of the play, Anansa and Elaine have “traded places”—Elaine steering a ship through the stars and Anansa having a human body, although without arms and legs. The Therapist, who confesses his love to Elaine/Anansa, is the only one who knows this secret, and the ending leaves ambiguous whether Elaine is delusional. 

Even just in summary, the importance of the human body, the mutability of the body, and the perfectibility of the body are all clear themes in “A Sepulchre of Songs.” Given that body morphology occurs bi-directionally, with Anansa and Elaine “swapping bodies,” it’s worth looking at both instances of change. I don’t take at face value the character’s claim that she has, indeed, traded places with a spaceship. The short story is less ambivalent than the play in this regard—Anansa reads the therapist’s thoughts more than once, implying she is an alien being—but the play intentionally leaves it ambiguous. Ultimately, analyzing the body morphology and its relationship to the soul is less about claiming it “really” happens in the story’s world and more about its representational significance for the characters in the story. As Card says in his afterword to the short story, “Elaine chooses to leave her present life—no matter how you interpret the story” (203). 

The move Anansa makes from being a spaceship to an embodied teenager reflects the Mormon doctrine of the three estates; a conceit Card has used in numerous works, as Collings points out about Speaker for the Dead (58). The three estates represent the pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence. According to Mormonism, all current humans chose in pre-existence to have a body and come to Earth. In Mormon scripture, the forces of good and evil battled in pre-mortality, with good triumphing and gaining the right to come to Earth and be embodied. This is yet another Mormon tradition that imbues the body with a moral dimension. According to Joseph Smith, embodiment is the central reason for mortal existence. As he taught, “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body” (Ehat and Cooke 60). Anansa’s choice to leave her spaceship for a mortal body, even an “imperfect” one without arms and legs, reflects these theological commitments of embodiment. 

Elaine’s choice, too, holds resonance in Mormon teaching, and in particular, aligns with Mormon transhumanism. A sub-disciplinary field that has been gaining popularity recently, Mormon transhumanists argue that transhumanism is synchronous with Mormon theology and doctrine. As the group contends, “Mormonism and Transhumanism advocate remarkably similar views of human nature and potential: material beings organized according to natural laws, rapidly advancing knowledge and power, imminent fundamental changes to anatomy and environment, and eventual transcendence of present limitations” (Mormon Transhumanist Association). As Elaine leaves her bedridden body to become a spaceship, she changes her fundamental anatomy and present limitations in the pursuit of bodily autonomy. Despite it being clear that Elaine is, in fact, becoming a spaceship, the language used to describe her transformation is distinctly human. As Anansa says of Elaine after Elaine inhabits the ship, “she sang and danced and swung her arms. . . . She wouldn’t trade her new arms and legs for anything. They were so new” (144). With the help of technology, Elaine achieves body perfectibility, sailing through the cosmos. 

It’s worth pausing to critique the ableist language Mormons often employ to talk about the deification of the human body in the uniting of the soul. The implication in Mormon theology is that divine corporeality for all of humanity will consist of eliminating disability to align all bodies with a normative understanding of what a “healthy” or “whole” body looks like. Disability scholar Mandi Eatough has noted that, culturally, “Many are quick to tell disabled folks that ‘in Heaven you’ll be whole again’ or that ‘when you die you’ll be healed’. This relies on the idea that ressurected [sic] bodies fit into an able-bodied ideal of perfection/fitness” (@mandieatough). At the end of the play, the Therapist, in one of his narrations, says that he would “like to be God” (147).  He then imagines being God for a moment, describing Anansa/Elaine wheeled toward him and saying, “I give her a left hand and then a right hand, and she waves to me. I put a pair of sturdy legs on her, and I see her running toward me. . . . And then, one by one, I take them all away ” (148). For his patient-turned-lover, the Therapist imagines a body made perfect through alignment with the standard body, presumably the body “made in God’s image” as Mormons believe. Still, Elaine’s transformation into the spaceship can provide a counterpoint and a narrative that emphasizes the Mormon doctrines of bodily mutability, agency, and perfectibility through engaging in transhumanist thought. 

As in “Clap Hands and Sing,” the genre forms of science fiction take on added meaning when presented in embodied practice. The presence of the body in space re-emphasizes themes, as well as leads the audience to visualize (and perhaps model) the divine body through a highly theatrical technique signaling that parts of the body are “gone” without ever fully obscuring them. At the beginning of the play, on stage and in full view of the audience, Emily Janice Card dons long white gloves that cover from her fingertips to her shoulders and then steps to the hospital bed. As she enters the bed, her legs seem to “disappear,” but the theatrical technique, again done in front of the audience, is apparent. The hospital bed she lies in for most of the play has holes where she can insert her legs to give the appearance of not having any. 

The white gloves and the design of the bed together are meant to give the impression that she is missing both arms and legs, but rather than trying to ignore the realities of Card’s body, as the actress representing Elaine/Anansa, the play stages the disappearance of her arms and legs, reminding the audience continually of Elaine’s body’s potential for limbs, and thus the potential for “perfection”—or “wholeness” in the Mormon understanding of the word “perfect.” The limbs are, after all, right there, just “hidden” for the legibility of the story. As Card said in his afterward, “theatrical effects are not limited by realism the way movies are” (149), allowing for theatrical devices that actually stage and continually point toward the potentiality of the body. Indeed, in the final moments of the play, while the therapist describes playing God and giving Elaine/Anansa her limbs back, Emily Janice Card stands and has the white gloves removed by two other actors, staging the “perfecting” (or “making whole”) of her body for the audience, in a gesture of utopian performativity—a gesture only available in the theatre where the artistic medium is the body itself. 

To return to the notion of “soulful” theatre as a way of drawing in Dolan’s utopian performatives in conversation with the Mormon doctrine of soul equaling body and spirit, it is interesting to note that “Clap Hands and Sing” focuses on the healing of the spirit, Charlie’s moral goodness, through the mediation of the body, while “Sepulchre of Songs” focuses on the healing of the body through the mediation of the spirit, depicted through Elaine’s bright and hopeful personality. In both plays, the unification of the perfect body to the moral spirit points toward a utopian future of divine corporeality. Posing as People gestures toward utopian futures in its redemption of the characters and through the Mormon overlay. Through the plays themselves are not consistently effective, occasionally slipping into sentimentality, ableism, and sexism, they offer a productive site to explore the “soulful” theatre as a convergence of embodied practice with spiritual significations.Early in the essay, I cited a range of theatrical expressions in Mormon culture and ordinances, but many of the main expressions of Mormon theatre traditions are rapidly disappearing as the church moves to broaden its appeal to mainline Christians. Mormon pageants were discontinued in the last year, and the “live” temple ceremonies performed in the Salt Lake City Temple with embodied actors playing mytho-historical characters are also ending amid some protest. For many Mormons, these are disappointing or frustrating changes as Mormonism loses a rich historical art tradition that is, if not wholly unique to the Church, notably distinct. If it’s true, as I contend here, that theatrical forms are uniquely equipped to signify Mormon theological emphasis on the body, these changes represent more than a loss of a sacred art tradition—they are a loss of the marriage of form to doctrine to illuminate the significations of the body. The intervention of a pair of sci-fi plays might seem an odd place to hunt for resonances of divine corporeality, but in this context, these independent theatre productions might well become the only place to see these theologies of the body in embodied practice. Are these utopian performatives? Not exactly, at least not as Dolan explains the concept in her work, since these plays are not necessarily always successful in evoking the affect Dolan describes, but they do generatively point toward the future in their discourse on the body and toward the utopian promises of the unified soul. Posing as People not only finds resonance in Mormon theological tradition in its storytelling, but its theatrical form re-emphasizes these commitments to the human body and its divinity.

NOTES

[1] I’ll note that there are layers of ableism in how this discourse is formed that I will address in my case study.

[2] Mormon culture emphasizes attractiveness as a sign of morality in a host of ways. Two salient examples are descriptions of the “Mormon glow” — a term used to describe how people can recognize Mormons based of physical characteristics that are defined in various ways but include clear skin and bright smiles and are linked to inner goodness— and Arnold Friberg’s depictions of attractive/righteous and ugly/evil characters in the Book of Mormon as exemplifying “muscular Mormonism” through depictions of fit bodies (Kimball 564).


WORKS CITED

@mandieatough. “Many are quick to tell disabled folks that ‘in Heaven you’ll be whole again’ or that ‘when you die you’ll be healed’. This relies on the idea that resurrected bodies fit into an able-bodied ideal of perfection/fitness.” Twitter, 12 Apr. 2020, 12:11 p.m., https://twitter.com/mandieatough/status/1249369593807847426.

Card, Orson Scott. Posing as People: Three Stories, Three Plays. Subterranean Press, 2004. 

Collings, Michael R. In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.

Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Ehat, Andrew F., and Cooke, Lyndon W. The Words of Joseph Smith. Bookcraft, 1980. 

Kimball, Richard. “Muscular Mormonism.” The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 25, no. 5, Mar. 2008, pp. 549-578, DOI: 10.1080/09523360701875533.

Moser, Cliff. “Interview with Orson Scott Card.” Science Fiction Review, Aug. 1979, pp. 32-5.

Petrey, Taylor G., and Amy Hoyt, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender. Routledge, 2020.

Sanborn Jones, Megan. Contemporary Mormon Pageantry: Seeking After the Dead. University of Michigan Press, 2018. 

Kristin Perkins is an independent scholar and interdisciplinary artist. She has published scholarship in Ecumenica, Theatre Topics, Borrowers and Lenders, and AWE. As a playwright, Kristin’s work has been performed through Microburst Theatre Festival, Ouch! Theatre, and the V-Project in Utah and Texas, and she recently wrote and performed a solo show about Mormonism and the Tower of Babel for the Sunstone Conference. She has had poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction published in literary journals, including Degenerates: Voices for Peace, Peculiar, and Inscape. In 2019, she graduated with her M.A. in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote her thesis on the representations of LGBTQ+ Mormons in theatre. She is also an alumna of Brigham Young University, where she graduated magna cum laude with University Honors and majored in Theatre Arts Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies.


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