North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996

By Juhnke, Anna Kreider | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996


Juhnke, Anna Kreider, Mennonite Quarterly Review


The late twentieth-century blossoming of fiction and poetry in English by North American Mennonites has resulted in many works of mature artistry and in national recognition for several writers, most notably the Governor-General's Award for Fiction twice won by Rudy Wiebe for his novels of Canadian history. Mennonite dramatic arts have lagged behind, but they are now starting to flower as well.

Jack Braun's 1969 master's thesis surveyed the beginnings in the United States--the short missionary, Bible and peace plays and a small number of full-length plays in the 1940s through the 1960s. The majority of these early Mennonite plays were by women. Braun praised two three-act musicals of the 1950s by Malinda Nikkel of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, with music by Paul Ratzlaff. However, he found little of literary interest except for Warren Kliewer's experimental plays. (1) The slow start for North American Mennonite drama reflected an opposition to theater, especially its worldly atmosphere and display, that went deeper than Mennonite suspicion of the arts in general. (2)

By the 1970s, as the secular dramas of television were invading Mennonite homes, most Mennonites were ready to attend plays by Mennonite writers and to use drama at church conferences to present Bible stories and Mennonite history. At the Mennonite Media Conference in 1975 Ervin Beck evaluated Mennonite dramas of the six years since Braun's survey. His bibliography had 47 entries, with 11 by Merle Good. Beck noted the upsurge of dramas sponsored by Mennonite conferences and institutions for historical celebrations or biblical interpretation. He identified the dominant style as literal, didactic, self-congratulatory and uplifting--almost like "socialist realism." As Beck also observed, the typical pageant form, with many little historical vignettes, tends to distance the audience from emotional involvement with characters and plot; it is a "cool" medium. (3) Lauren Friesen's survey article "Dramatic Arts," written a decade later for the supplement volume of Mennonite Encyclopedia, identified several new Mennonite playwrights. (4)

In the 1970s, Urie Bender of Baden, Ontario was commissioned to do several historical vignette dramas for anniversary celebrations. Tomorrow Has Roots, for the 1974 centennial of Russian Mennonites in North America, and This Land Is Ours (1972), for the 150th anniversary of Amish immigration to Ontario, drew particularly large and enthusiastic audiences. Robert Hostetter's Cheyenne Jesus Buffalo Dream (1978), commissioned for the Mennonite World Conference in Wichita, Kansas in 1978, is the most imaginative and unified example of the genre so far. Although characters are not fully developed, the tragic action is intensified by music and mysterious, symbolic dream dances. Hostetter, now of Chicago, is working on a folk opera for the Warwick Mennonite Centennial in Virginia in 1997.

In the 1980s and 1990s many writers have produced single plays or musicals in the historical vignettes category. Women have written some of the best musical dramas for congregational celebrations, for example, Margaret Baker's The Reflections of Seeking God (1993) for Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Smithville, Ohio and Jenny Schrag's Zur Ehre Gottes (1995) for Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas. The Dance of the Kobzar (1989), with libretto and music by James Bixel of Bluffton, Ohio, celebrates the life of an individual. Bixel portrays John P. Klassen, an outstanding sculptor and ceramicist, as a peacemaker. Episodes range from Russia in World War I and the Revolution to Klassen's court case in Ohio when he was denied U.S. citizenship for refusal to bear arms. The music of this long play deserves particular recognition.

The typically loose structure and the guaranteed audience and funding for celebrative history plays made them a relatively easy starting point for the full-length Mennonite drama. The greater artistic challenges of creating tightly structured plays are more than matched by the economic and technical difficulties that face a serious playwright. …

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