Thomas A. Lyne, Tragedian: Accidental Father of Theatre and Elocution Among the Latter-day Saints
Copyright ©2020 by Lee Krähenbühl. All rights reserved.
For a quarter-century now, I have been researching the life and career of Thomas Ackley Lyne (1806-1890, fl. 1829-1885), a prominent American tragedian, active from the Jacksonian era into the Gilded Age. He shared the stage with many of the nineteenth century’s most renowned theatrical personalities. At the time of his death in 1890, he was acknowledged as “the oldest actor in America” by a theatrical press that kept careful track of such things. Lyne was also present at a crucial moment in the history of the Latter-day Saints movement, and is almost single-handedly responsible for launching the practice of theatre among the Mormons.
His biographical sketch in the Pioneer Database of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once read, “Thomas A. Lyne was a professional actor who performed in Nauvoo, Illinois, after converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” but “little is known about him until 1862.” At least, that’s what it said before September 27, 2019, when happy circumstance led me to present my research at the annual conference of the John Whitmer Historical Society, and the new administrator of that page, historian Emily Crumpton, happened to be in the audience. The goal of my research had been simple: to rewrite that entry. Thanks to the swift professionalism of Ms. Crumpton, that goal was immediately and graciously met. You can read the revised page here.
My ongoing work reconstructs Thomas Ackley Lyne’s life and career from his birth until 1862, and adds information to what is already known about him thereafter. And it uncovers his influence on later developments in Mormon ritual, as shown here: The Latter-day Saints and American Theatre: Two Flow Charts — highly ironic in light of the battle against Brigham Young’s theocratic rule that consumed the last twenty years of his life.
Lyne made his stage debut at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre in 1829. A century later, he was mentioned in print for the last time as a performer prominent enough to evoke living memory; Lyne had pride of place in an encyclopedia of American history published in 1929 that highlighted theatre, replete with a large reproduction of the photograph at left.
Those two years, 1829 and 1929, act as bookends to the century in which theatre transformed from an English import into a robustly American art form. The first three decades of Lyne’s career in the antebellum era, 1829-1859, were divided evenly between engagements in urban playhouses and itinerant repertory troupes, traveling mostly over water into newly explored frontiers. His last two and a half decades of activity, 1860-1885, extended through Reconstruction into America’s Gilded Age, the era that changed the theatre from “Amusements” into industry. The Western frontier expanded, then receded, as water-borne transportation gave way to the dominance of the railway. Incidental newspaper items advertising individual plays were replaced by trade publications such as The New York Clipper and The New York Dramatic Mirror (which were eventually to merge into the weekly now known as Variety.) The repertory stock company yielded to the combination company, which found it more profitable to present the same popular production for months, even years, at a time.
Lyne left no known personal journal to posterity, and much of his correspondence has been lost—or, at least, has not been made public by his 21st-century descendants. Only two photographs of him survive in the public domain, and his career was over by the time that sound recording had been invented. But his notices in the press, his letters to various editors, and reminiscences about him by contemporaneous witnesses all combine to rescue him from his present obscurity. The pieces of the puzzle have always existed; all that was needed was to put them together.
I was a young theatre historian in 1993 when I first visited Nauvoo, Illinois, and toured the buildings maintained by the company then known as Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was there strictly out of genealogical interest, but when I first walked into the building at the southeast corner of Main and White streets and saw the Xerox copy of a 19th-century theatrical broadside on the wall, my professional interest was also piqued. I had never heard of Thomas A. Lyne. None of the kind Mormon missionaries stationed in the building could tell me who he was, or why the building known as the “Masonic Hall” was now called the “Cultural Hall.”
Upon returning to my office the next week, I put out a call to my colleagues on the state-of-the-art Theatre History listserv (remember listservs?) to which I had subscribed, asking for any information about Thomas A. Lyne. The uniform response I received was, “give up. You’ll never find him.” The information I needed, they said, was long gone. One well-meaning historian said, “In such cases we are fated to summarize as the back of one photograph put it: ‘An unidentified actor in an unidentified place, year unknown.’”
Nevertheless, as the now-popular saying goes, I persisted. And my discoveries over the past quarter-century have led to the biography in progress.
Why was Thomas A. Lyne all but forgotten? Prominent enough in his day, he fell victim to the Mormon version of what the ancient Romans called damnatio memoriae—a traitor’s condemnation to obscurity, all traces of him removed from the record, all memory of him erased. But in Lyne’s case, the sentence was subtler. His role in history was not so much intentionally expunged (although Brigham Young would have welcomed that) as gradually obscured by what Richard D. Poll identifies as a kind of willful amnesia, “idealized episodes” in Latter-day Saint history, scrubbed clean of complicating detail. And as we shall see, there is a great deal worth knowing about T. A. Lyne—rediscovered details that reveal a fascinating story of the development of both theatre and religion in America.
Sometimes these “idealized episodes” are fabricated out of misunderstandings. For example, my research demonstrates that an oft-repeated heroic story about Lyne and his brother-in-law raising money for the Latter-day Saints performing Richard III for a week in Philadelphia turns out not to be true: it wasn’t Richard III but Richelieu (likely mis-heard decades later by the reporter from an elderly and stroke-impaired Lyne), and it was not a week of performances but a single night of proceeds that Lyne probably donated to the local branch before heading to Nauvoo, Illinois. That’s an inaccuracy easily corrected. But what Poll calls “historical amnesia” is much more troubling when it assigns credit for significant events to the wrong people. Such is the persistent legend of the “Nauvoo Dramatic Association.” According to this storyline, the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844), founder of the Latter-day Saints movement, was so fond of theatre that he took it upon himself personally to organize a company of dramatic players at Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith is supposed to have summoned prominent tragedian Thomas A. Lyne from Philadelphia for exactly this purpose. This narrative did not, however, emerge until 1904, sixty years after the events in question. Even so, it persists not only in popular Mormon writing, but also in modern theses, dissertations, and scholarly studies. It was asserted again as late as 2016 in a major historical work about Mormons during the Civil War. None of these modern accounts question the myth.
It is only in mining the specific details of both Lyne’s and Smith’s lives that it becomes clear that things did not happen according to the myth, and, in fact, could not have happened that way. As it turns out, the earliest professional theatre among the Latter-day Saints was exclusively the work of Thomas A. Lyne, and Joseph Smith had virtually nothing to do with these origins apart from having conversed briefly and informally with him, and having been present at a handful of his performances. Indeed, before Lyne arrived at Nauvoo—possibly for the second time—in April of 1844, Smith seems to have been completely unaware of who he was. The present study demonstrates conclusively that no “Nauvoo Dramatic Association” ever existed as such. It was a creation of later generations, a gloss of Lyne’s contribution in favor of that loose collection of Mormon amateurs whom Lyne had drafted into minor roles to support his own performances over the handful of weeks immediately preceding Joseph Smith’s assassination.
Lyne is also representative of a significant but under-investigated area of Latter-day Saints history. As David J. Whittaker puts it, “we are accustomed to telling the story of the Church in terms of Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo,” the significant frontier sites of Mormon settlement as the community moved westward. “However,” Whittaker continues, “the Philadelphia branch identifies the importance of early Mormon urban history and suggests the importance of investigating New York and Boston as well.” Lyne began his career as an urban actor; his first contact with the Mormons was with his brother-in-law in New York City, in 1840, and he continued that contact in his native Philadelphia and then in Boston from 1844 through 1852. Lyne’s story interweaves with the early Mormon urban history Whittaker describes.
Such biographical details are significant. They offer what the late Douglas Adams (d. 2007) of Pacific School of Religion referred to as “grandparental stories,” in contrast to the “parental stories” that so often ossify into the Grand Narratives of history. Adams explained it like this: a parental story begins, “When I was your age, I was first in my class at school and graduated with honors.” A grandparental story begins, often in sotto voce, “Did I ever tell you about the time your father was suspended from school for two weeks?” Biographical detail is subversive, not only of hegemonic grand narrative, but of pseudo-biography intended to present a persona that is socially acceptable, expedient, or simply less embarrassing than the truth. Simply put, the “parental story” of the origins of Mormon theatre has thrust Thomas A. Lyne into the background. This biography is intended to restore the more accurate “grandparental story,” with all of its twists, turns, and complications. It is the story of a frontier explored and occupied; of the birth of a new American religion, Mormonism; and of a tradition of touring performance which, a generation after Lyne’s death, was to be eclipsed by cinema.
Lyne’s biography is also the story of a frontier culture based on the reinvention of the self—exiting, Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-like, from one scene to emerge into another with a different persona. Tom Lyne, the son of a British sea captain, remade himself many times: first as a sailor, then as “heavy tragedian” and Forrest acolyte Thomas A. Lyne; as survivor of a Seminole ambush; as “Joseph’s Actor,” confidant to the Mormon Prophet in life and his defender in death; as Mormon proselytizer and, almost immediately, as Mormon apostate; as “a citizen of Milwaukee”; as “The Pioneer Actor of Salt Lake City”; and, ultimately, as noted above, “the Oldest Actor in America.”
While T. A. Lyne has his place in the story of the early Latter-day Saints, this biography is not intended as a precise history of that movement. It is, rather, an attempt to reconstruct his encounters with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Sidney Rigdon, and the rest of the early Mormons—with all the confusion, ambiguity, and (at times) outright chaos of real-life experience. The story is told almost entirely from his perspective, and deals only with those figures with whom he came into contact.
Lyne never professed to be a theologian. He was not even a terribly effective proselytizer, though for a brief stretch of time he tried to be. Thomas A. Lyne was, first and foremost, a tragedian. From most accounts, he was a very good one. His manner of art and all its demands—physical, mental, spiritual, and entrepreneurial—belongs to a bygone age, lost to our era of mass entertainment. For many years, his experience was lost to us as well. This work is my attempt to excavate it to the best of my ability, to give him his due, and to lay the groundwork for research that will further illuminate his fascinating life.
But, at long last, why excavate this particular fossil? I cannot put it better than the playwright George Colman did in Act I, scene iii of The Iron Chest (1819). In the Spring of 1844, the fulcrum of his very full and colorful career, T. A. Lyne played Colman’s brooding character Sir Edward Mortimer, who challenges the audience with his passion for historical biography. Mortimer’s declaration as he stands in the fortress that is his library—the very words that T. A. Lyne gazed upon, memorized, and declaimed for a generation of frontier theatregoers—also speaks directly to my work’s inspiration and aspiration:
A selection of my articles and presentations related to Thomas A. Lyne, 1993-present
“Thomas A. Lyne, the Latter-day Saints, and the American Theatre: Confluences and Influences, 1844-1904.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 40 #2, Fall 2020.
“Rochester, New York: The Latter-day Saints and the Reshaping of American Theatre History in the Crucible of the Burned-over District,” John Whitmer Historical Association, Fairport, New York, September 27, 2019
“ ‘Joseph’s Actor’: Rediscovering the Life of Thomas A. Lyne,” Paul D. Lack Scholars’ Showcase, Stevenson University, March 29, 2019
“ ‘Eyes to See the Things Thou Dost Not’: The Boots of Maryland’s Promethian Actor Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) as Historiographical Relics of Interpersonal Communication,” Maryland Communication Association, Howard University, Washington, DC, September 15, 2018 (A video of this talk is available for viewing by clicking here. Facebook access needed.)
“Historiography in the Field: Nauvoo, Illinois,” Mercy College of Ohio, Toledo, Ohio, January 5, 2018
“The Florida ‘Theatrical Troupe Massacre’ of 1840: New Insights from Theatre History and Religious Studies,” St. Augustine Historical Society, St. Augustine, Florida, November 10, 2017
“Research in the Humanities: Faith-based Theatre in Early America,” Research, Assessment, and Best Practices Conference, Mercy College of Ohio, Toledo, Ohio, May 7, 2014
“With an Audience in Mind: The Place of Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints Movement in Jacksonian Public Relations and Popular Culture” Omaha, CSCA, April 11, 2003
“‘A Citizen of Milwaukee,’ or How Philadelphia Tragedian Thomas A. Lyne Re-Invented Himself,” CSCA, Milwaukee, April 5, 2002
“The Man Who Crowned the King of the Universe: Actor/Evangelist George Jones Adams (1811-1870),” Religion and Theatre Focus Group, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Chicago, August 9, 1997
“Joseph Smith (1805-1844): The Prophet as Performer,” Nineteenth-Century Religion and the Fragmentation of Culture in Europe and America, conference of Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom, July 18, 1997
“The Actor, the Prophet, and the City: Religion as Theatre / Theatre as Religion in the Early Mormon Metropolis, 1830-1870,” conference of Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz, April 9, 1995
“Tom Lyne, Tragedian, on the Mormon Frontier,” Religion and Theatre Focus Group, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Chicago, Illinois, July 29, 1994
“Performing the New Jerusalem: The Nauvoo Temple as Mormon Performance Space, 1840-46,” Religion and Theatre Focus Group, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Chicago, Illinois, July 28, 1994
“The Masonic Hall at Nauvoo, Illinois: The Earliest Mormon Playhouse in Its Community and in Theatre History,” American Theatre and Drama Society, Association for Theatre in Higher Education Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, August 7, 1993
 See e.g. “The Oldest Actor Gone,” The World (New York, NY), April 2, 1890, p. 2, col. 6, item 2; Weekly Register-Call (Central City, CO), May 2, 1890
 See Oral Sumner Coad and Edwin Mims, Jr., The American Stage, vol. XIV of The Yale Pageant of America: A Pictorial History of the United States, Ralph Henry Gabreil, ed. (New York: United States Publishers Association and Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co.) 153f
“Thomas Ackley Lyne,” Pioneer Detail, Pioneer Overland Travel, https://history.lds.org/overlandtravels/pioneerDetail?lang=eng&pioneerId=58894, accessed 15 July 2014
See e.g. Harold Ivan Hansen, “A History and Influences of the Mormon Theatre from 1839-1869,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, State University of Iowa, 1949, 8ff; Nola Diane Smith, “Reading Across the Lines: Mormon Theatrical Formations in Nineteenth Century Nauvoo, Illinois,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Brigham Young University, 2001, 28ff; Lori Hurd, “Theater as a Means of Moral Education and Socialization in the Development of Nauvoo, Illinois, 1839-1845,” unpublished thesis, California State University Dominguez Hills, 2004, 19ff
 See John Gary Maxwell, The Civil War Years in Utah: The Kingdom of God and the Territory That Did Not Fight (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016) 120f
 David J. Whittaker, “East of Nauvoo: Benjamin Winchester and the Early Mormon Church,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 21 #2, Fall 1995, 83
 “Remember the stories your parents told you about what it was like when they were growing up and how hard they worked? Now remember the stories your grandparents told you about what your parents really did when they were growing up. Both parents and grandparents tell stories, but the content varies: grandparents tell stories that are more truthful and have many rough edges. Parental stories are solemn and can kill by prescribing an ideal we cannot fulfill, but grandparent stories are humorous and give hope and life by sharing a reality similar to our own.” Douglas Adams, The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 1ff
 George Colman, The Iron Chest: A Play, in Three Acts, by George Colman, the Younger, as Performed at the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane (London: Longman, Hurts, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row, 1819) 31f
Copyright ©2019 by Lee Krähenbühl. All rights reserved.