Playwright and performer Seth Bockley answers questions following his performance of "Nauvoo," the story of how a town in western Illinois was founded as a utopia by Mormon leader Joseph Smith, Jr., and later inhabited by another utopia-seeker, Etienne Cabet.
Playwright and performer Seth Bockley answers questions following his performance of "Nauvoo," the story of how a town in western Illinois was founded as a utopia by Mormon leader Joseph Smith, Jr., and later inhabited by another utopia-seeker, Etienne Cabet.
"In my day, there are 100 saints and prophets, and I'm going to be one of them," playwright Seth Bockley stated in character as he portrayed the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Jr., also the founder of a small town in western Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi called "Nauvoo," the site of two unprecedented utopian experiments. "The ground is full of stones...I've seen stones."

Last Saturday evening at DreamAcres Community Supported Agriculture Farm, rural Wykoff, Bockley portrayed Smith in his self-penned production of "Nauvoo" telling how Smith rose to recognition as a young religious leader who sought Paradise on Illinois' fertile ground in 1840, when he established Nauvoo in an attempt to create a utopian village. Smith's childhood was influenced by his father, who told him that he was destined to become someone great, even if that greatness had to be invented. Bockley interjected Joseph Smith, Sr.'s dialogue - thoughts in Smith, Jr.'s mind - into "Nauvoo," saying, "You've got to give them a sign, but you've got to leave them wanting more."

Smith's conversations with his wife, Emma, revealed how his ego had inflated in conflict with his desire to serve God. "'Emma, I was walking in the woods today, and I was talking to God. He gave me this magic rock'...so we packed up everything and headed west. Emma followed reluctantly...I said, 'Emma, there's no room for us in New York'. It was a time of fanaticism, of men giving sermons in tongues. 'I'm no farmer, Emma. I was born for greater things'." And in preaching to his followers, he said, "Oh, my people, have you dreamed of a Promised Land, a bountiful place where you don't have to work from sunup to sunset just to grow a few potatoes? I have seen a vision...have become a smooth and polished shaft for the Lord Almighty."

His ego showed itself once more as he spoke, saying, "My kingdom is of this world. If you think I'm going to wait for Heaven, you are mistaken. I intend to build my temple here on Earth. I came to a place called 'Illinois.' I will call it 'Nauvoo,' or 'beautiful place.' I will build a paradise...I will remember my father's dream." His own dreams became entangled with doubt, with the need to control, and in the end, he saw only people "who incited prejudice against me in their profession of religion, bitter persecution, all to persecute me...they've united to persecute me."

The self-proclaimed prophet was lynched by his followers in 1844, who then moved on to greener pastures in Utah - Smith's Mormon mission was carried on by Brigham Young - and left Nauvoo. Less than a decade later, a band of French communists, the Icarians, attempted to inhabit Nauvoo, now known as "Icaria," based on the literary visions of their charismatic but tyrannical leader, Etienne Cabet, who saw the land neatly laid out in equal grids, everything straight and orderly.

Bockley, as Cabet, strung twine from one end of the barn to the other, then up and down and once the grid was constructed and everything at right angles, all the paper-doll "happy people" strung out on the grid and the land well-behaved, he hoisted himself and the chair he was seated on up a rope and pulley, first pointing out the neatness of the land, how it conformed. "It will be a model for men, a perfect city with perfectly equal inhabitants - happy women, happy men, the land growing symmetrically and perfectly across the great American West."

But in surveying the land, Cabet saw that there were people violating his "48 directives," going fishing in public and violating other ordinances. "They turn against me...they expel me from my Icaria...I've got more ideas...maybe I'll go west, maybe to Iowa. I will do it better next time, I'll start over."

Following the performance, Bockley took questions from the audience, including why he chose to write a play about Nauvoo, Ill., and how it evolved. He stated that he had visited the rebuilt temple at Nauvoo approximately eight years ago and was fascinated by the establishment of order between the Mormons who attend there and the effort to determine who was simply a visitor, and that at about the same time, he had begun experimenting with physical theater as an extension of his art form.

He was also fascinated by the "idea that Joseph Smith wanted to have the Garden of Eden on the banks of the Mississippi, because that was kind of romantic...these were New Englanders trying to escape the rocks of the New England ground, a western migration to fertile ground."

And this was one of his first roles portraying a religious fanatic, exploring the tenets of being a megalomaniac, someone whose ego battled with the need to submit to a higher power. Bockley admitted that the play has changed how he views the world in part because "I've come to be closer to the age that Smith was when he was killed, and you definitely get a different perspective...when I first made the show, I definitely felt the audience needed to know about this young, prophetic leader, that was something the audience could take on." He added, "It's really exciting, refreshing to come back to work and do this show. It's about geography and history, and it's exciting to me, not having touched this type of work in years."

Bockley was born in Minneapolis, grew up in Boston, and has written, directed and performed in various theaters, including Double Edge Theatre in Massachusetts, Redmoon Theatre in Chicago, New York's Public Theater, Dog & Pony, and Goodman Theater. According to his biography, he was a recipient of Theater Communication Group's New Generations grant and is playwright in residence at the Goodman Theater. "Nauvoo" was originally produced in 2006 by Walkabout Theatre for Chicago's PAC/Edge Festival. It was subsequently featured as part of 2007's "Impossible Cities: A Utopian Experiment," a curated series of solo performances focusing on the theme of American utopias.

Bockley's production of "Nauvoo" at DreamAcres was funded in part by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council through the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature, with money from a vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.