Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Steinbeck's Plays: From Realism to Abstraction

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Steinbeck's Plays: From Realism to Abstraction

Article excerpt

John Steinbeck wrote three novellete-plays--Of Mice and Men, The Moon Is Down, and Burning Bright--as experiments in a new form of drama. He was concerned that too few people saw plays and that the ideas expressed in them would therefore not be widely disseminated; moreover few people read plays, stumbling over stage directions. His experiments were novellas that consisted of description, dialogue, and action--no extensive history of a locale or interior monologue--thus the story itself could be played, being lifted from the book, the description guiding the set designer, the dialogue spoken, the action portrayed. In this paper I will talk only about the plays Steinbeck himself wrote, not the adaptations of his work by others. Of Mice and Men ran for 207 performances, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, beating out Wilder's Our Town for the prize; The Moon Is Down ran for 71 performances, Burning Bright for just 13. Whatever else hindered their success (and the novel form of The Moon Is Down had great success overseas as a work about resistance during the war and in occupied countries afterward) one factor was their increasing degree of abstraction and didacticism. Although Steinbeck's work is grounded to a greater or lesser extent in realism, in these works he is essentially a fabulist, a writer of parables or fables with morals. In his desire to convey a general message, he progressively diminishes stories of individuals, making the characters in his plays into types and thus harder to identify with.

John O'Hara was hired to adapt In Dubious Battle (1936) for the stage and failed, but said that Steinbeck should consider writing drama: O'Hara considered him, as Curley's wife would have phrased it, a natural. Steinbeck tried to adapt In Dubious Battle himself but didn't like the result and discarded it. Thereafter he wrote a friend that "I'm going into training to write for the theater.... I have some ideas for a new dramatic form which I'm experimenting with" (Benson 327). However, he wrote the novella of Of Mice and Men (1937) first, writing a novel of "description-dialog-action" (Goldhurst 49). After the novel was done, he turned it into a play with George Kaufman's help, expanding the role of Curley's wife. Stark Young's New Republic review of the play "appreciated the stylized quality of the melodrama, and understood that Steinbeck was not attempting anything like realism. What he had created, in both novel and play versions, was a type of morality play" (Parini 195).

But Young is wrong. Unlike his two subsequent plays, Of Mice and Men, however much a parable, is grounded in reality. It's based on labor Steinbeck did; in the summer of 1922 he had worked on a Spreckels Sugar Company ranch near Chualar along with Mexican, Filipino, and bindlestiff labor. As he later told an interviewer, as Of Mice and Men was running on Broadway:

   I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same
   country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to
   a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane
   asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many
   weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore
   because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right
   through his stomach. (New York Times May 12, 1937, p. 7; quoted in
   Benson 364, who questions Steinbeck's veracity.)

Even the landscape is based on reality. While Steinbeck may have heightened the idyllic nature of the riverside oasis, and purposefully placed in it a water snake to remind us of the snake in Eden, and moved the locale from Chualar to Soledad to emphasize the solitude (which "Soledad" means in Spanish) of homeless wanderers, he describes, in the novel, a landscape he knew:

      A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to
   a hillside bank.... On one side of the river the golden foothill
   slope curves up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on
   the valley side the water is lined with trees--willows fresh and
   green . … 
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