“Also Starring Brigham Young,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 51–52
A lost playbill of an early Latter-day Saint dramatic production has recently come to light. It announced the April 24, 1844, Nauvoo performance of Pizarro in the Masonic Hall for the purpose of raising funds to help Joseph Smith pay Missouri debts. This playbill, missing for over 100 years, was discovered in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis (which acquired it in 1967). In itself it spotlights interesting aspects of this now famous production, which may have been the real beginning of theatre in the Church.
As the playbill records, the drama was expected to be “grand moral entertainment,” presented “To aid in the discharge of a debt, against President Joseph Smith, contracted through the odious persecution of Missouri, and vexatious law suits. His friends and the public will respond to so laudable a call, in patronising [sic] the exertions of those who promise rational amusement with the usefulness.”
The play, Pizarro or the Death of Rolla, originally written by the German playwright, Augustus von Kotzebue, and titled Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod, had been popular in Europe, England, and America for nearly 50 years before it was produced in Nauvoo. The first English adaptation was made in 1800 by the great English dramatist Richard Sheridan. (Later William Dunlap, the “father of American theatre,” made an American adaptation.)
It is a sentimental, bombastic, pretentious, and turgid piece regarding the tragic fate of the Incas (led by Rolla) defending their king, country, religion, and lives against the rapacious Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro. Despite its shortcomings as literature, it was good theatre and was often produced throughout the nineteenth century.
The play was selected and directed by Thomas A. Lyne (Lynn). Brother Lynn, a professional theatre man in his native Philadelphia, had been converted to the Church in 1841 by his brother-in-law, George J. Adams, who was then on a mission in the East, and who was an actor that later became important in early Utah theatre. With a letter from George, Thomas went to Nauvoo where the Prophet Joseph Smith, who wanted to broaden the cultural base of Nauvoo and who believed that theatre could be a powerful medium of instruction, requested him to form a dramatic company and turned the Masonic Hall over to him for that purpose. During the next few years, Brother Lynn presented such plays (other than Pizarro) as The Orphan of Geneve, Douglas, The Idiot’s Witness, Damon and Pythias, The Iron Chest, and William Tell. He also formed a company that performed on a showboat traveling up and down the Mississippi River.
As the playbill records, several important Latter-day Saints were in the cast of Pizarro—including the apostles Brigham young and George A. Smith.
Other cast members listed on the playbill also carry names rich in Church history, such as Erastus Snow (who became an apostle five years later), “Mr. Kimball,” “Mr. A. Lyman,” “Master Woolley,” and “Mrs. Young.” Helen, a daughter of Heber C. Kimball, played one of the virgins in the cast. George J. Adams played the role of Pizarro.
The newly discovered playbill makes note of the fact that the 50 cent tickets were to be purchased in advance and that “Doors open at 6 o’clock, performance to commence at 7 o’clock. Good music will be in attendance; strict order will be preserved. No money taken at the door. Smoking not allowed. Front seats reserved for the ladies.”
Much in Church literature has been made of the fact that Brigham Young played the role of the High Priest. This fact has often been repeated without further comment. A fuller description is: the High Priest, costumed in robes of scarlet and gold, with white muslin, appears in two scenes in a nonspeaking part. In Act II, scene 2 (The Temple of the Sun) while the Incas invoke the blessing of their gods against the invading Spaniards, the High Priest enters, followed by other priests and virgins. Then, although the script does not specify it, the High Priest apparently leads the chorus of priests and virgins in the following hymn:
Oh, Power Supreme! In mercy smile
With favor on thy servants’ toil,
Our hearts from guileful passions free,
Which here we rended unto thee!
Then Parent Light, but deign to hear
The voices of our Feeble choir;
And this, our sacrifice of fear,
Consume with thine own hallowed fire!
(Fire from above alights upon the altar.)
Give praise, give praise, the God has heard,
Our God most awfully revered!
The altar his own flames enwreathed!
Then be the conquering sword unsheathed,
And Victory sit on Rolla’s brow,
His foes to crush—to overthrow!
Then, during the final scene of the play (Act III), there is a solemn march, or procession, in honor of Rolla, the fallen Inca hero, which is led by the High Priest. This apparently became a tableau vivant just before the curtain.
Although Brigham Young apparently never again performed on the stage, he was a great promoter of the theatre in Utah, and was in the audience in February of 1853 when Pizarro was first performed in the new territory of the Saints. The play was a favorite of Utah dramatic companies, and records indicate that the drama was performed until at least 1867.