Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2
And the Desert Shall Blossom Reviewed by John Bennion
The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses Reviewed by J.B. Bancroft
Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V Reviewed by Jerry L. Crawford
Great Basin Kingdom Revisited Reviewed by John Sillito
And the Desert Shall Blossom by Phyllis Barber. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991, 281 pp., $23.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by John Bennion, Department of English, Brigham Young University
In Phyllis Barber's novel, And the Desert Shall Blossom, a Depression era family hopes to find success with Six Companies, the coalition building the Hoover Dam. As they work on the massive project, Esther and Alf Jensen are driven by the same dream which motivated their Mormon ancestors—that lives of faith, culture, and beauty can grow in an arid wilderness. But the story is much more than a vehicle for communicating Barber's research into the taming of the Colorado River; it also explores the psychological effects of western Mormonism, an ideology which paradoxically embraces both the ethereal and the earthy.
In this novel Barber reminds me of Maurine Whipple. Both authors were raised in the harsh but beautiful desert of southern Utah and Nevada; both have a perspective of Mormonism which allows them to see as insider and outsider; and both have created complex characters with feet planted on the earth but hands reaching for heaven.
Esther is the faithful one in Barber's story. Leaving the relative moisture and security of her hometown in northern Utah, she finds herself in a tent city where red dust sifts into clothing and food; clear and cold water doesn't exist; and the heat burns righteousness out of her body. Her refuge is in the romance of the theater, the only building in the area that boasts a swamp cooler.
Alf's imagination takes him elsewhere. His life has followed a set pattern—talking his way into a promising situation, growing dissatisfied after a year or so, and retreating to live with his in-laws. But the money involved in such a large project gives him revived confidence. Unlike the spiritually minded Esther, Alf's flowering is materialistic: he connives his way upward in the company, trades cash under the table for company scrip, enjoys bootleg gin and an occasional outside woman. Despite their differences, Alf and Esther both violate the stereotypes of the faithless and faithful, largely because of their love for each other. "My songbird," Alf says, "wilting in this desert" (40).
The narrative voice is sometimes close to these characters, a finger tracing their inner complexities, sometimes distant, a bird hovering above the river. Because of this technique, the company's conflict with the desert and river is registered as the hope and despair of individuals. Both Alf and the highest officer of Six Companies are gripped by the vision which is as old as America, of riches which will come by conquering the West. The dam is a Sphinx or Wall of China constructed by muckers, nippers, cabletenders, high scalers, stompers, finishers, tuggers, and truck drivers: "Fourteen hundred men . . . jammed into 4,000 feet of canyon" (68). As the dust jacket suggests, the novel is both epic and particular.
Barber's challenge is to blend language suitable to both these extremes. Note the following passage:
Alf arched over her, poised. Esther, habitually submissive, pelvis tipped forward, took his penis in her hand to guide it. The silhouette, the man and the woman, about to imitate the eternal round, the thousands of years of anticipation, legs bowing, legs astride. Alf and Esther sharing the same pleasure as kings and queens in royal chambers, the king touching the queen with a curved finger, her hair flowing, her skirts falling, her eyes saying, "Yes." The same riches, the same wealth. (22-23)
Such variation in tone produces a disjointed effect, which some readers may find distracting. But the stark contrast embodies the way Alf and Esther think. Raised on an idealized vision but struggling with sand, lust, and spoiled hope, their lives are a confusion of romance and actuality, of images and flesh. It is macro-history made individually relevant by recognizing the myth-making propensities of people who attempt feats which seem beyond them.
During a flood the river "flowed in legend-making proportions, and machines floated away on the hackles of the water dragon's raised back." The excitement brought the language of the dam into their everyday conversations, where it "took on mythic overtones because of a river that could rise forty-six feet in a few hours, lash through tunnels and drown thousands of hours of hard manual labor, not to mention an unlucky laborer" (149). In their talk they make heroes of the workers:
Townspeople forgot Bernie Wilson's real name. He was no longer himself, but "Bull," the Bull of the River, a modern-day Minotaur in the labyrinth of the diversion tunnels. The language [of the dam] became part of the town, a fabric woven by the people to magnify their purpose, a warp of desert-colored, wind-washed, sun-soaked, water-stained threads with bold blues and glaring yellows, strengthened by a weft of steel threads shaved from hard edges of shovels, sprockets, and nail tips. (154)
By carefully manipulating the narrative voice, Barber makes the prose into a psychological signature of the characters and of the dam-building community; she transcribes theology as personality, landscape as inscape. Although this stylistic technique at times seems self-conscious, the book is the clearest account of people struggling with the double bind of western economic and Mormon spiritual idealism I've read since The Giant Joshua.
The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses by Grant Hildebrand. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991, 192 pp., $29.95 (paper).
Reviewed by J.B. Bancroft, Assistant Dean, College of Arts and Architecture, Montana State University, Bozeman(Return to top of page)
This is an important book in the nearly one-hundred-year evolution of understanding the domestic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's houses have been described as willful, eccentric, and self-indulgent with significant problems of habitation, construction, and maintenance, yet they inspire a dedication and admiration unparalleled by any other American (or possibly world) architect. Why? Grant Hildebrand offers a uniquely pragmatic yet literate hypothesis regarding the fundamental magnetism of Wright's residential work. Unlike traditional Wright scholars, such as Manson, Hitchcock, and Scully, Hildebrand chooses not to seek causal issues but to understand and interpret effects of the built works.
Hildebrand's hypothesis is that Wright's houses possess qualities that evoke emotional responses, once fundamental to survival, now fundamental pleasure stimuli. Hildebrand states, "I began to recognize that Wright had developed with consistency and richness an architecture that stimulated powerful, genetically driven responses of Homo sapiens." He argues that Wright intuitively discovered a specific combination of architectural conventions that taken together produce in the viewer profound and compelling reactions transcending characteristic aesthetic responses. Scully asserts: "Wright . . . preferred to view men and nature as flowing together in a kind of evolutionary flux, like the semi-Darwinian 'morphology' that Sullivan loved so well." Even Manson, in his ceaseless quest to divine the influences in Wright's work, admits to the possibility "that the architecture for which he [Wright] stands and which he brought forth in his first maturity is so radical and so personal that it can only be explained as coming from within." Wright makes continual reference in his voluminous writing to nature, native, and organic notions as being fundamental to his work, but refers little to the effects caused by these considerations. This omission appears to lend credibility to Hildebrand's observation: "There is no evidence that the pattern was other than just such a subconscious predilection for Wright."
Hildebrand defines what he calls Wright's pattern (of dwelling) as ". . . a particular repetitive configuration of key elements: the entry, the fireplace, ceilings, solid and glazed walls, openings to adjacent interior and exterior spaces, and terraces." The pattern is manifest in thirteen building characteristics with ten or more of them appearing in all of Wright's major houses over the next fifty years, except the Ocatillo Camp and Taliesin West. The characteristics are: 1) major spaces elevated well above the terrain they overlook; 2) a fireplace at the heart of the house on the internal wall; 3) a low ceiling edge in front of the fireplace with flanking built-in seating or cabinetwork; 4) the ceiling in front of the fireplace sweeping up into roof volume; 5) the distant edge of the ceiling returning to fireplace height; 6) interior views to contiguous spaces seen through architectural screening devices; 7) extensive glass and glazed doors located on walls distant from the fire; 8) generous, elevated terrace(s); 9) an exterior with deep overhanging eaves; 10) an evident central chimney; 11) broad, horizontal groupings of window bands; 12) conspicuous balconies or terraces; and 13) a long and circuitous path from exterior to interior. Hildebrand offers convincing analyses of houses from every period of Wright's work after 1900 to illustrate the power of the pattern to inform architectural composition.
Hildebrand modeled his analysis upon correlations with a theory of landscape aesthetics developed by English geographer Jay Appleton in The Experience of Landscape. Specifically, Hildebrand employs Appleton's theory of prospect and refuge, modified by considerations of complexity and order with concern for hazard and mystery. Prospect is the ability to see over considerable distances, and refuge is a place where one can hide. Together they connote a place where one can see without being seen, a fundamental condition for survival in a hunting species. Hidlebrand cites numerous biological affirmations for seeking this primal shelter condition—and several literary examples of its portrayal by authors depicting prototypical shelter conditions. The contention is that Wright's houses possess these considerations in unique (extreme) degree and that they are reduplicated on multiple experiential levels.
The worth of this book seems twofold. It is at once a scholarly work offering significant speculation into the allure of Wright's houses. At the same time it is exciting to find in this work insights, presented in a design-useful manner, that might inform contemporary architecture in elemental spirit while not in historical style. In this regard a superb series of original planaxonometric drawings by architect William Hook form the graphic armature around which the arguments coalesce and which greatly enhance spatial understanding for houses not familiar to the reader.
One might contend that if the book has a weakness it is in Hildebrand's effort to convince the reader of the uniqueness of the pattern to Wright's work. Although given several examples of the work of Wright's contemporaries and current practitioners, the reader is left with questions of exclusion. Of the architects not shown, do any demonstrate the pattern? Is the residential work of any other architect comparable to Wright's? It would be impossible to include "all" other possibilities; therefore, the question is unanswerable in the negative. Seemingly it would have been better to present the work, acknowledge its authority by the unparalleled critical and popular acclaim accorded to it, and let that stand as the ultimate proof and power of Frank Lloyd Wright's uniqueness—and (perhaps) the pattern that informs it.
Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V by Ace G. Pilkington. Cranbury, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1991, 210 pp., $36.50 (cloth).
Reviewed by Jerry L. Crawford, Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Nevada, Las Vegas(Return to top of page)
A long-held view has it that great art results from the fortunate union of material or subject with artist or interpreter. As examples, people tend to connect Marlon Brando with Stanley Kowalski, Shakespeare with Prospero, Mozart with "Requiem," and Picasso with "Guernica." In Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V, another unique union has resulted. Author Ace Pilkington, educator, scholar, poet, and aficionado of film, matches up expertly as the person to explicate and illuminate heretofore ephemeral analysis, namely, valid and meaningful study of four of Shakespeare's plays on film. The research tool that allows such in-depth critical examination of these films is the videocassette. The text presents detailed "readings" of four plays in six films, the BBC television's version of the second Tetralogy, Laurence Olivier's Henry V, and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. This incisive analysis moves beyond the naive prejudices regarding "expectational" reactions to the work of Shakespeare, the commercial motivations of film studios, and the personal motivations of producers, directors, and actors. It stands as a truly refreshing, indeed, remarkable book of our times, one that personifies both the contemporary relevance of film versions of Shakespeare's plays and the importance of drawing from traditional scholarship and contemporary criticism to illuminate our understanding of the films.
Following the introduction (an analysis of the difficulties in Shakespearean film criticism), Chapter 2 focuses upon a clear explication of the circumstances surrounding the huge BBC venture to film all 37 Shakespearean plays for videocassette. The analysis underscores the tensions and expectations which ruined the initial production of Much Ado About Nothing (causing it to be destroyed) and severely weakened the quality of most of the early BBC work. Problems were abundant, including the inexperience of directors relative to both film and Shakespeare, and the lean production budgets averaging $367,000 per play: "It was against these background tensions and expectations that the BBC version of the second tetralogy was constructed."
Chapter 3, the longest chapter in the book, reveals an author impeccably specific in examining Richard II, moving scene by scene to cite examples of poor camera work, restrictive directing, and weak actor reactions which plagued much of the process in filming that play. What is striking about this analysis is Pilkington's sound grasp of the art and mechanics of filming a play. He is well aware, for example, why a reverse-angle camera shot might have been used to enhance a three-dimensional feeling needed between the characters of Gaunt and Bolingbroke. To appreciate the subtle nuances of camera work, one should view simultaneously the videocassette of the play under discussion, using a "stop-and-go" or scanning device.
Ace Pilkington is more than fair in his treatment of the David Giles company responsible for filming Richard II, qualifying the negative criticism by duly observing that technical mistakes in filming decreased as Giles moved through his four BBC Shakespeares. And the author also acknowledges that the design and direction in the productions improved. Throughout Chapter 3 Pilkington is as incisive in examining the critical reactions to the BBC Richard II as he is in examining the film itself, making an inspiring call for the BBC Richard II as being historically accurate.
In Chapter 4, "The BBC First and Second Henry IV," the analysis details convincingly how the BBC essentially used the two parts of Henry IV to focus on the maturation of Prince Hal. In Chapter 5, "The BBC Henry V," that focus on Hal continues as a boy grows into a man and king. This film used a two-dimensional theatrical style, yet that style in no way limits the clear, consistent, and believable characterization of Hal/Henry created by actor David Gwillin and director Giles. The analysis then focuses on Laurence Olivier's famed film version of Henry V (Chapter 6). In this film, "auteur" Olivier dominated all facets of the production, serving as producer, director, lead actor, co-author, and editor. Pilkington is one of the scholar-critics who recognizes and praises the fundamental value of Olivier's attempt to re-create an historically accurate stage production on film, true to its Elizabethan roots, including a boy actor as Katherine. He forgives Olivier for the heavy pruning of Shakespeare's text, fully justifying why he supports the courage, complexity, and value of Olivier's film interpretation.
In Chapter 7, the focus shifts to still another film "auteur," the incomparable Orson Welles, and the film Chimes at Midnight. This film is an amalgamation of characters and lines from the second Tetralogy and The Merry Wives of Windsor, intended to create a "new" piece of art focused upon the Falstaff/Hal relationship. This painstaking study of the Welles's film on videocassette goes a long way toward successful demonstration that Chimes at Midnight deserves scholarly attention and critical respect.
The end material in Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V is impressive. An astute conclusion not only summarizes the study, but points to the bright future of Shakespeare on film, provided that "imagination" continues to be applied in the manner of the auteur innovators, Olivier and Welles. Voluminous reference notes are cataloged effectively at the back of the book, along with a helpful and interesting Filmography and an Index.
This compact, readable book ably demonstrates the author's premise regarding videocassettes as a key aid to research as well as entertainment. Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V is a remarkably enjoyable, as well as informative, read. One might wish for a shorter, metaphorical title to the book, with the present title serving as the literal subtitle. Also, while one might yearn for more of Ace Pilkington's subtle, rich humor (as often demonstrated in his Utah Shakespearean seminars), there is enough wit in this book to move the overall style well beyond that of an academic tome. In fact, this book may be a landmark publication in the demonstrated use of the videocassette as a tool to properly investigate a film world once thought beyond precise analysis.
Great Basin Kingdom Revisited, edited by Thomas G. Alexander. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1991, 164 pp., $17.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by John Sillito, Archivist, Weber State University(Return to top of page)
In the preface to New Views of Mormon History: Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, Davis Bitton observes that Arrington is "the single most important Mormon historian of his generation." Bitton makes this assessment not only on the basis of Arrington's voluminous scholarly output, but also because of his directorship of the church's historical department, and his commitment to "communicating interest and enthusiasm about history to ordinary people." As one who participated in a modest way at the historical department during what has been called the "Arrington Spring," I heartily concur. Moreover, I agree with Bitton and others that, from Arrington's vast outpouring of scholarship, two works—Brigham Young: American Moses and Great Basin Kingdom—stand out as his most important contributions.
Accordingly, it is fitting that in 1988—the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Great Basin Kingdom—Utah State University brought together a number of scholars to commemorate its publication and to assess the impact Arrington's work has had on their various disciplines. Great Basin Kingdom Revisited brings together the work of historians, geographers, economists, anthropologists, and sociologists to assess a book that, as Alexander observes, "provides a scholarly model for the interaction between spiritual and temporal life," while constituting "a point of comparison for studies of settlement and development patterns in other regions and for other groups within the Rocky Mountain region" (19).
Recognizing, in Alexander's words, that "interdisciplinary critique has long been the lifeblood of serious historical enterprise," the selections in this book address a wide range of topics running the gamut from spirituality to irrigation to community building. Each selection, in its own way and fashion, fulfills what Alexander has labelled the enduring legacy of Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom: "It speaks both to those inside the Mormon community and to scholars and laypersons outside the community," and can be read "with equal benefit by persons of various persuasions" (19).
The various essays in this collection use Arrington's approach as a point of departure. In "The Kingdom, the Power, and the Water," Donald Wooster argues that an anticipationalist ethos led the Mormon pioneers to adopt a "collectivist spirit" that was central to the Mormon identity, and later "intensified significantly by a local environmental condition—the arid climate." The specific response to this condition rested with irrigation, but a larger issue was involved—the creation of an "irrigation myth" that counterpoised Mormon cooperation with the growing trend to accept the materialism of late 19th and early 20th century America. Wooster asserts that "Arrington called his people back to the memory that they had once stood forth and opposed coercive American values." The importance of this communitarian heritage is found in several other essays including those of Jonathan Hughes, Mark Leone, and others. These scholars realize that, in Alexander's words, "although Mormonism sprang from American roots it remained at odds with American culture in many ways" (9).
For me as a historian, the most provocative essay is Charles Peterson's "Beyond the Problems of Exceptionalist History." In this essay, Peterson seeks to assess the impact of Great Basin Kingdom, while offering it as a point of departure for a different approach to Mormon studies. It should be noted that Peterson's critique was controversial when first delivered, and continues to provoke the practitioners of what has been called the "New Mormon History." This term has come to mean a reassessment of the Mormon past by scholars both within and without the fold, who recognize that Mormonism is "essentially a religious tradition, but that it could be studied with the tools of academic scholarship" (2). Historians, whose work falls in this genre, have sought to bring scholarly balance to their work while trying to avoid "the pitfalls of interpreting a religious tradition in exclusively secular terms, or of producing 'faith-promoting' accounts . . . of Mormon thought, institutions and practices" (3).
Peterson recognizes that the publication of Great Basin Kingdom represented the "most important event" in Mormon historiography. Yet, says Peterson, "at the end of a generation, the book's very success is associated with several problems in Mormon history." Comparing Arrington's work to that of Frederick Jackson Turner, Peterson believes that both men "founded what may be called exceptionalist schools of history which in time isolated their followers, leaving them outside mainstream studies, and subject to various pressures, and without effective direction" (133). Peterson sees evidence for this assertion in the tendency of New Mormon historians to become "increasingly introverted," abandoning larger regional perspectives to focus on their "cult of the Prophet." In the effort to produce "faithful history," Peterson believes these scholars have had " a preoccupation with the esoteric," rather than the placing of Mormonism within the larger context of regionalism. As Peterson sees it:
Long ago Great Basin Kingdom pointed the way to successful Mormon history by broadening its spectrum. As it turned out, its success in its narrowest construction led to the emergence of an isolated school of history that may yet serve Mormon and regional studies best by broadening its interests, associations, and the way it applies to history. (151)
Peterson is both right and wrong. He's right to the degree that the narrowness of some recent research in Mormon studies has produced works of limited appeal. Peterson is also right in his view that the need to produce "faithful history" or "faithful" art, literature, or music draws the attention and the energy of the scholar away from the larger task at hand. Yet I think Peterson overstates his assertion of the New Mormon History's narrow focus. I have always believed that the significance of Mormon history rests in the degree to which it helps us understand larger issues. Regionalism is only one way of avoiding exceptionalism. The task for the next generation of historians of the Mormon experience is not only to build on the foundation of Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom, but to go beyond it. As always, the example and works of Leonard Arrington will be prompting that challenge.