I BLAME CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER
I know you won’t believe me, but it’s Christopher Plummer, the actor's, fault that I am an apostate to my church. You're probably thinking, who cares? How could anything to do with Mormonism be more interesting than watching wheat grow? Of course, you are dead wrong.
My father prayed for my immortal soul daily. A devout Mormon, he always worked in the church. As the train pulled away from Union Station, Salt Lake City, I saw his shoulders lift, then drop with relief. It was only later I realized my father had taken his first deep breath in a long time. Mom, tearful, waved with pride. I was a Mormon missionary. It would be two years before I returned to Zion.
Dad was never comfortable with my passion for live theater. He did his duty, came to opening nights at the university, never said much. This business about play-acting on a stage was beyond him. He thought people should do something useful with their lives.
Me? I was never fully alive until rehearsals started. A month earlier Professor Dodd, the director, called me to his office.
“Come in.” He pointed to a chair.
His hand held out a smallish, gray, soft-cover booklet.
Absently, I took it.
“It’s open casting,” he said, looking me in the eye.
“Yeah?” I wondered what he was talking about.
“Be ready for tryouts. I chose the play and the part with you in mind. I wouldn’t mention this to anyone. Okay?”
My head bobbed up and down.
“That’s all,” he said.
It was not just any part. It was a rich, juicy lead.
Most go to university to get an education. I went because because it was a calling, the stage always calling. One evening after classes, I vaulted into the house and was halfway to my room when I heard Dad’s voice.
“There’s a letter for you.”
The flat timbre of his voice struck me odd. I backed up, went to look. For a moment, the return address didn’t make sense:
The First Presidency
The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Salt Lake City, Utah 84321
God had come to my father’s rescue. There was never a question. I was a Mormon son, born and raised. At nineteen I would go on a mission for the Church. Still, it struck me like a hard, low blow to the groin.
How do you put your dreams on hold? Two years. An abandoned script? Torture! The timing could not have been worse.
“Dad, we have to write the Church! Postpone my mission one semester.”
Enthroned in his reading chair, Book of Mormon open, he didn’t look up, nor did he say anything.
“The First Presidency, Dad, they must consider special circumstances . . . you know . . . a temporary thing.”
I was desperate.
“It’s the Lord that’s calling you, son,” was all he said.
Nineteen years old. Dreams coming true. A director who believed in me. I had the world in my hands, for God’s sake. I was being disemboweled, dissected, torn apart. I honestly think I could have cut off a finger easier. Yet, always dutiful, I told myself there would be other parts and reported to the Mission Training Center in Salt Lake City.
Two weeks later, my father drove to Salt Lake to watch as I was set apart, an instrument of the most high, a representative of God’s true church. From that moment and for the next two years, I would be known as Elder Oborn.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Toronto Train Station.
There were two of us from SLC. As we stepped off the train, two senior missionaries were waiting for us. One, from Nephi, Utah, introduced himself as Elder Clanton and indicated I was to go with him. Elder Clanton was tall and lean and said he had one month left to serve. He opened the trunk of the car and took my suitcases from me. I was ready for a hot shower and a shave.
For about twenty minutes while he drove, we talked about Utah, people we both new. He was going to start school at Brigham Young University at his return.
“This is the Polish section of the city,” he said as he pulled over to the curb.
“Which one is the mission headquarters?” I asked.
Elder Clanton got out of the car. I followed. We approached a street filled with moderately sized clapboard houses.
“We don’t waste daylight hours. God’s harvest comes first,” Elder Clanton said.
I watched his hand come up head high and rap on the door we had just walked up to. A man with rolled-up shirtsleeves, a bored expression, and an open newspaper in one hand stood behind the screen door. My heart jumped into my throat.
“Good afternoon. We are ministers from the Church. We have an important message for you and your family. May we come in for a moment?” Elder Clanton said, and to my horror reached for the screen door.
A door slammed in my face. I blinked. For a moment, its weathered, veneered surface seemed curious to me. When I turned, Elder Clanton was halfway to the next house.
“Not interested,” I heard again.
One overnight in Toronto and I was back on a train headed for Windsor, Ontario, my first duty station.
A husky blue suit with crew-cut hair was walking toward me as I exited the train. My new companion, Elder Serious, had his hand out. As we shook hands, I noticed he had no neck.
Mornings we rose early to pray, study hour; pray, breakfast; pray, knock on doors. So it went, the daily challenge, minutes that were hours. Except for those times it rained hard and we stood under an awning in front of a florist shop or a grocery store, telling ourselves that God understood, it was one, long, repetitious blur.
The excitement of the theater pulled at me day and night. Walking, knocking, the days spawned a moiled routine of endless drudgery. God’s chosen was growing calluses on knuckles that would remain and remind for twenty years.
Once a year, an Apostle from the Quorum of the Twelve in Salt Lake City would visit for a mission-wide conference.
“Thank God. A respite,” I said one evening.
My companion, Elder Serious, took righteous offence at my poor attitude.
More than a hundred dark suits would gather in Toronto from all reaches of the Eastern Canadian Mission. Ottawa to the east, Tilbury north, and Windsor south.
Senior Elder Serious and I would travel by train.
“Have we heard which Apostle is coming?”
I was excited. We all were. Which Apostle would the Prophet send from Salt Lake?
“Our Apostles have stood in the presence of the Savior in the Salt Lake Temple,” Mom had said many times as I was growing up. Dad, looking up from his reading, would nod.
Expectations ran high among the missionaries. Everyone wanted to shake the hand of someone who had been that close to the Godhead. The message from our prophet would be exclusive insider information about our purpose in the changing events in these, the last days.
By this time, I had stumbled on the knowledge of a Shakespearian Festival in Stratford on Avon, Ontario, and guess what? Stratford was midway between my current field of labor in Windsor and Toronto, where the mission conference was to take place. Can you believe, the train would go right through Stratford on Avon? I became insatiable, read everything about the festival I could get my hands on.
Every Friday, each missionary wrote a letter to the mission president. I had worked on my letter for days, asking for permission to attend the festival. I explained that my major at Brigham Young University was theater and this was a tremendous opportunity. One performance. One afternoon. Nothing more. Hamlet was being performed, for God’s sake. It meant leaving earlier in the day. Some guy named Christopher Plummer, who was billed as up and coming, was playing the Dane Prince. My letter was crafted with great care.
Senior Elder Serious was a football hero from Idaho. Legend in his own mind. Arms as big as my thighs.
“Never seen a play in my life. Football, that’s my thing.”
“Football? What’s that, an Idaho potato holiday?”
But the Mission President had already given me permission, with conditions. No overnight. Mission rules prevailed. Always together and worse, Elder No Neck must agree.
He hemmed and hawed. I hung the letter giving us permission on the bathroom mirror. At that, it fell to a showdown. I knew that humor aimed in and about his physical prowess was his weakness, and I was getting good at using it. “You have one choice,” I said. “Either sit though Hamlet, or defend yourself.” He didn’t stop laughing for twenty minutes. I faked my reaction. Had counted on that – that the comedy of it would amuse him. It worked. Elder Football Hero sat through Hamlet, the entire play, but never, for the rest of our time together, did he stop kidding me about the boys in tights.
We were late for the first session of conference, that was all. It was a general session with the Canadian members also. The next day there was a meeting just for us, the missionaries, or as our mission president called us, God’s Commandos. We waited in rapt attention for God’s Apostle. The instructions he carried to us were direct from our prophet, essential to our work in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times.
As he took the podium, he adjusted his feet, extended his arms, and grasped the sides of the lectern. He was cool. As he looked out over us, the air was electric.
Curious, I realized as I listened to his message that a touch of guilt was building in me. My time and interest in the theater often drew me into a focus of attention off center of most.
As the conference progressed, I became suspended in a surreal otherworld. Something strange was turning inside me. Mission Conference enlivened me. I was exhilarated. Our Apostle had me in his hands. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. He called sin and righteousness into a room with skill and finesse. I had, just the day before, watched a twenty-two-year-old Christopher Plummer do the same thing in Hamlet. He had performed with a cast on one leg, broken a week before during a performance of Twelfth Night. He had gimped about the boards with grace and turned in a performance both robust and powerful. There I was, among the important, doing the important.
As I listened, I assimilated the heady flow of the Apostle's delivery. I measured the choice of a word, a phrase. The way he nudged inflection to accent and lift. He drummed out cadence, and it was breath-taking. The dark blue suit gave a serious and imperial presence. His immaculate white hair formed a halo about his long, even features. Softly at first, a voice mellow and soothing like my father’s when I was sick. Then, as a gathering storm, he called thunder and lightning into a pounding fierceness that pierced my heart with fear and elation. A master puppeteer played the strings of my emotions. Our speaker utilized a note of angelic lightness at one point and the sledgehammer of perdition at another. He knew exactly when to pause and how long to hold. Where was I, but transported to the dark battlements of a Denmark castle? Where was I, but equating the gesture and eloquence of a ghostly king to the horrors of a princely heir? A hell-bound king related a tale of deeds heinous and foul to a woeful son.
“My hour is almost come, when I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.”
Then, as he faced the other side of the podium, a son’s princely reply echoed in the bitter night air.
“O my prophetic soul.”
It was sheer, joyous reverie to be in that chapel as he carried us up into the ecstasy of God's revealed word and then down into the grip of evil, damnation, and apostasy. The way he turned inspired. His body gave us a half right with the restoration of the priesthood to Joseph Smith. With a half left we descended into the retching horrors of paradise lost.
Without fully realizing it, I locked into memory his entire speech. I gave his rendition of God’s word permanent category and reference, mine forever, vivid and ready, eager and waiting . . . waiting? For what? That’s when I knew the source of my guilt. I knew I hadn’t heard much of his message at all. I knew the adventures of that day would hang in memory until script and stage called for action. Somewhere in the future, a director would hand me a script.
“I need a preachin' man, a fire and brimstone guy. Can you do it?”
“Can I do it? Can air crackle? Can tongue titillate? Can thunder boil?”
But someone else would have to put the words to the script, because as the conference came to an end, I realized I couldn't tell you much of anything he talked about. Where was I, but hopelessly listening, not to the message, but to the delivery; not to the content, but to the expression; not to the good news, but to the gesture, the dramatic note, the man’s impeccable technique.
After, as I came down from the ecstasy of a brilliant performance, I knew Christopher Plummer too would not have been able to resist the thrill of an eloquent performance.
Why had I not listened to God’s words instead of the delivery? What was wrong with me? If I was immersed in the work of the Lord, would I not be fulfilled beyond the temptations of personal interest? What compels theater’s metaphor, life’s masquerade, evangelical parody? The stage holds no deceit. What it offers up, it offers honestly. An honest mockery. Was the wrong in me bad seed, the DNA of apostasy? Back and forth, animated elation, retching guilt. I had watched a performance and missed a message. Could I have tried harder, fought to see only the message and not the soap opera underpinnings of a heavenly drama? Had I traded something celestial for a third act?
It was a memorable performance, Mr. Plummer. I can still see Hamlet with a cast. I can still see one eloquent performance reflected against another. Two great actors. Two great scripts.
Dad hasn’t smiled in years. He blames himself today; not my sin, but his, something he did or didn’t do. That’s when I realized, it never ends, a circus of serious comedies that play out forever.