Orestes Utah Bean was a Richfield schoolteacher in the 1890s. He became enchanted with “Corianton,” a tale by Mormon general authority B.H. Roberts, based loosely – very loosely – on a Book of Mormon story about an ancient missionary who succumbed to the wiles of the harlot Isabel.
Bean dramatized the story. He added sword fights and a melodramatic love interest, and framed its speeches in bad imitation of Shakespeare: “Relia dear, thou lovest me; for thy heart speaks when thy lips would fain be mute.”
It was a dreadful script, but Bean believed in it. The force of his belief shaped his lifelong view of himself as a remarkable playwright, and thousands of Utahns fell under his spell.
Utah’s faith in Bean, and Bean’s faith in his play, led to its 1902 production on the Salt Lake stage, followed by a Midwestern road tour and countless productions in Utah’s tiny rural opera houses. Bean took his play to Broadway in 1912 (where his friends called for “author!” while drama critics cried for “ether!”). It became a movie in 1931, failing as quickly as it had on Broadway.
Bean never wrote another play, but in his mind he remained forever a playwright. He so described himself to census enumerators, journalists, and even to the clerk who issued his license to marry a woman who changed her name to that of a character from the play. Bean dressed the part of the artistic gentleman, “natty” and “dapper” frequently appearing in news accounts.
Bean’s obsession led to his involvement in multiple lawsuits over the years. During a 1933 court appearance in Salt Lake, the judge became impatient with one of Bean’s interminable, artistic, and irrelevant speeches. The judge demanded that Bean come to the point. Bean ordered the judge to shut up. The judge ordered Bean to report to the Salt Lake jail on Monday, to serve a five-day sentence for contempt of court.
Bean, one journalist noted, “walked out of court, swinging his cane.”
The sound of that cane rapping smartly against the jail door on Monday morning signaled Bean’s arrival.
In the days before orange jumpsuits, prisoners served in their own clothes. Bean’s dress, however, was a problem. Exactly where could jailer Mike Mauss house a prisoner wearing a morning coat and striped trousers, as if he were the groom at a society wedding? Putting the dandy in with hardened jailbirds would no doubt lead to blackened eyes and broken bones. Assigning him to shovel coal with the trusties seemed impractical. Mauss finally placed Bean in the hospital ward.
Having been jailed by order of the court, Bean proceeded to hold court of another kind, granting audiences to a parade of newspapermen. “Mr. Bean crossed one leg, encased in well creased dark blue trousers, over the other,” wrote one awed journalist. “He straightened a dark red tie and flicked a bit of lint from his double-breasted coat” while pondering the answer to a question.
The beds were comfortable, Bean acknowledged, and the food was fine. “However, I haven’t eaten much of it. I’ve been busy contemplating.”
His version of the contempt of court charge? “I told Judge Schiller I came as a native son and a gentleman. Judge Schiller remarked that I might be a native son, but that I was no gentleman. So I told him to shut up.”
Bean bowed low at the end of his interviews, and gallantly assisted his callers with their coats.
On the morning of his release, Bean stood patiently adjusting his cravat until jailer Mauss opened the door, then strode down the street, swinging that cane.