Department chair of French and Italian in BYU’s College of Humanities, Dr. Corry Cropper, presented his research at this year’s P. A. Christensen Lecture, where he examined Mormonism in nineteenth-century French theater.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 1, 2018)—More than a century before The Book of Mormon Musical hit Broadway, Parisian vaudeville regularly turned to Mormons as a source of laughs, but also, Dr. Cropper argued in his P.A. Christensen Lecture, Mormons and Cannibals: The [19th-century French] Musical, as a way to work through their own pressing social issues.
Before a large audience of eager students and faculty, Dr. Cropper argued that French playwrights used Mormons in the same way French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s used of cannibals: to point out the hypocrisy in their own culture. Cropper described Montaigne’s depiction of cannibals in these terms: “Yes, cannibals may kill and then eat their enemies, but they are courageous, egalitarian, and, above all, they don’t slowly boil still-living people in oil like the French had recently done during the war between Protestants and Catholics.”
While American authors underscored how different Mormons were to mainstream Americans, even arguing they were an inferior race, French authors tended to highlight the French shared with Mormons. Given the number of men who took mistresses, Le Journal Amusant claimed that “Paris, not Salt Lake, holds the distinction of being the world-leader in polygamy” in the nineteenth century.
With the help of his colleagues Heather Belnap and Daryl Lee, Cropper unearthed musical scores and manuscripts of four French Mormon musicals that premiered in Paris between 1874 and 1892: Les Mormons à Paris, Berthelier chez les Mormonnes, Le Bijou de Stéphana, and Les Douze Femmes de Japhet. These comedies usually hinge on a “hotly debated issue in 1870s France: namely, divorce,” which, as Dr. Cropper mentioned, was seen as synonymous with polygamy in France. Unlike Americans—who considered polygamy to be the “evil opposite of monogamy”—the French considered legal divorce and legal polygamy to be the same thing: legal adultery. Consequently, in parliamentary debates marriage laws, “divorce” was referred to as “successive polygamy.”
Ultimately, these French productions compared Mormon characters and their lifestyle to their own state of affairs. Cropper continued, “Mormons were viewed as chameleons of sorts and as such could be seen as a perfect metaphor for Third Republic France where wealth, class, political and cultural capital, gender, and marriage became fluid and negotiable”.
Les Mormons à Paris, written by Louis Leroy and Alfred Delacour in 1874, highlights the debate over divorce in France. The main character Albert Savarin, a polygamist who left his wives in Utah for a new French bride, soon runs into trouble when his wives follow their wayward husband to France. Dr. Cropper said that the musical “underscore[s] the hypocrisy of a system that prevented divorce and thereby, according to many lawmakers, encouraged lying, cheating, and hiding.”
The 1890 musical Les Douze Femmes de Japhet depicts Mormonism after France’s legalization of divorce in 1884. The work features a Frenchman, Japhet, who upon converting to Mormonism in Salt Lake City and obtaining twelve wives there, learns that the only way he can claim his inheritance is if he divorces them. Polygamy and divorce allow for a happy ending: upon his return to Paris, Japhet divorces his wives so that he can claim his inheritance and the newly single wives are wed to twelve lonely Parisian men.
Closing the 2018 P. A. Christensen Lecture, Dr. Cropper said, “Like Montaigne’s cannibals, Mormons allow French readers and theatergoers to see their own hypocrisies writ large, to feast on their own duplicities, to be shocked by their own bigotry.” In present-day France, Mormonism is hardly mentioned: “even with a temple in Paris and a concerted public relations effort.” But in nineteenth-century France, Mormons were featured in plays, novels, comic books, music, the press, political treatises, travel narratives, and more.
Watch the 2018 P.A. Christensen Lecture at https://youtu.be/OveW1_inqbk
—Shannon Waddell Laparra (B. A. News Media ’19)
Shannon covers Digital Humanities, Chinese Flagship, Comparative Arts & Letters and other events in the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in journalism with a minor in interdisciplinary humanities.