Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 5 · no. 4 · July 2005
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Jeremy Ravi Mumford
The Inca Priest on the Mormon Stage
A Native American melodrama and a new American religion

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

I.

On a warm April evening in 1844, in the social hall of Nauvoo, Illinois, Latter-Day Saint Brigham Young strode onto the stage in costume and makeup. In Nauvoo, the Mormons’ utopian city on the Mississippi, Young was one of the most trusted lieutenants of Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormons’ founder and prophet. No one in the theater could have known that within a few months Smith would lie dead at the hands of an anti-Mormon lynch mob; or that Young would take command of the community and lead it to a new home in the far west, by the Great Salt Lake. This April night, with the first play ever to be staged in a Mormon theater, was a night for escape for the embattled community. Yet there was something curious about the role in which Brigham Young was cast.

I had a longtime fascination with both the Latter-Day Saints and the Inca Empire. To find this point of contact across centuries and hemispheres gave me something of the confused pleasure one feels on learning that two good friends know each other independently from oneself.

Brigham Young took the stage as a high priest, but not a Mormon or other Christian high priest: he played, rather, the pagan high priest of Peru’s prehispanic Inca Empire. He led a solemn procession of priests and virgins to the sacred altar of the sun. Singing a hymn that began, "O Pow’r supreme!" he called fire down from the heavens to set alight his offering at the altar—a trick that the amateur stagehands successfully managed at this maiden performance in Nauvoo. At a moment when Protestant America looked upon Mormons as an alien body in the heart of the republic, one of their highest priests indulged in an extraordinary act of cross-dressing, flaunting the Mormons’ affinities to a barbaric empire and a pagan faith.

The play was Richard Sheridan’s Pizarro (1799), a melodrama about the Spanish conquest of Peru, and a popular stock play in England and America. It was not an unusual selection for Nauvoo’s first play; but Young’s cameo appearance suggested a special self-consciousness in this particular staging. Pizarro, in fact, went on to become something like the Mormons’ national play, a reliable favorite over the decades. When the first theater opened in Utah in 1852, its maiden performance was again Pizarro, and another rising elder in the church played the high priest. Why Pizarro, why the high priest?

I first learned of the Mormons’ love of Pizarro while working as a research assistant for a distinguished historian of the American West. I had a longtime fascination with both the Latter-Day Saints and the Inca Empire. To find this point of contact across centuries and hemispheres gave me something of the confused pleasure one feels on learning that two good friends know each other independently from oneself. What had brought the Incas and Mormons together?


Fig. 1. "Portrait of Mr. Forrest, in the Character of Rolla"; frontispiece from Richard Brinsley Seridan, adapt., Pizarro (Philadelphia, 1827), engraved by A.B. Durand from a painting by J. Neagle. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

As I pursued this question, I followed a trail that led from the theatrical fads and racial prejudices of Jacksonian America, past fraternal clubs such as the Masons and the Improved Order of Red Men, past the Enlightenment revival of Hispanic scholarship and the anthropology of the nineteenth century, to the synthesis of all of these in the extraordinary cultural creativity of the early Mormon Church. This odd footnote to theatrical history, the striding on stage of one high priest to play the role of another, in fact holds within it a miniature panorama of the fantasies and enthusiasms of the early United States.

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