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Steinbeck's plays: from realism to abstraction.

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 ... and sycamores....

      There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a
   path beaten hard by boys coming down from ranches to swim in the
   deep pool and beaten hard by tramps.... In front of the low
   horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by
   many fires.... (1-2)

The play reduces this to "A sandy bank of the Salinas River sheltered with willows--one giant sycamore up R.... A sparrow is singing. There is a distant sound of ranch dogs barking aimlessly and one clear quail call" (7). Thus the play focuses on George and Lennie and their plight (and that of Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife), dispensing with local history and the implication that what George and Lennie will suffer has been endured by other tramps before them. But even the curtailed stage description does insist on some "local color": willows, sycamore, ranch dogs, quail.

The play makes clear its theme of the need of humans for each other, not just of biological interdependence but also of emotional needs:
      "A guy needs somebody ... [Steinbeck's ellipsis] to be near him.
   A guy goes nuts it he ain't got nobody." (51)

      "They ain't got nobody in the world that gives a hoot in hell
   about 'em!"
      "But not us...."
      "But not us."
      "Because I got you and...."
      "And I got you. We got each other." (69)

A variation on the group-man theme of In Dubions Battle and Grapes of Wrath, the message is clearly stated by the play, but it comes in the form of dialogue between George and Lennie. and since George is always repeating mantras to Lennie, repetitions within the play seem in character, not sermons inserted by the author for the benefit of the audience. As Mimi Gladstein says: "Of Mice and Men is a light, well-structured tale in which symbolism and philosophical content are sufficiently submerged in a straightforward story about itinerant laborers in the Salinas Valley," (Benson, Short Novels, 235). But the reality that grounded this novella and play in actual experience and actual locations, as well as known characters, disappears in the next two plays.

The Moon Is Down was written in Burgess Meredith's farmhouse in Suffern in fall of 1941, then in the Bedford Hotel, New York City, under the influence of the Foreign Information Service, a propaganda arm of what became the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. Originally set in an American town, but rejected by the Information Service as being destructive to morale to depict an occupied American city, Steinbeck reset the play in "an anonymous coastal town in Europe." As the first of Steinbeck's contributions to the war effort, "The Moon Is Down was written" in Jay Parini's opinion, "as an unabashed piece of propaganda" (263). The play was finished on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day; that is, it was, completed before America entered the war. although rewriting the play during production added some more-current touches. The novella was published in March 1942; the play opened April 8, four months after America entered the war.

Thus its depiction of a foreign country is almost completely imaginary, as is its depiction of occupation. The enemy occupiers are never identified as Germans or Nazis, just as followers of the Leader, imposing his Order oil the world. The occupied are never identified either, but, following Quisling's manufactured defeat of Norway, the play's references to a coastal community in touch with England, heavy winter snows, and a defeat through the careful planning of traitors, everyone assumed that Norway was intended. (Steinbeck had briefly visited Denmark and Sweden in 1937, but never Norway.) Steinbeck said, "I placed the story in an unnamed country.... The names of the people in the book I made as international as I could. I did not even call the Germans Germans but simply invaders" (Parini 261, citing Steinbeck's "Reflections on a Lunar Eclipse"). Never a "Heil Hitler," although Captain Tort clicks his heels in answer to orders. Stage directions read that the helmets "should be a variation on any obvious shape which will identify these as being soldiers of any known nation. Uniforms are as plain as possible" (4), and of course, in a standard play or movie convention, everyone speaks the same language without interpreters. These generalities miss a grounding in physical reality. What kind of trees are outside? What birds sing? Since the play is set on a coast, and the Anders are fishermen, what do they catch, cod or herring? Is the body of water a fjord or the ocean? The details that make us accept George and Lennie as real are missing. The characters in The Moon Is Down are developed as lifelike--Annie's throwing water on the soldiers, Joseph's fastidiousness, the marital by-play between the mayor and his wife, the tear and loneliness of the soldiers--but generally lifelike, not specifically so, exactly as Steinbeck intended. His success is also his failure.

Comforting Alex Morden, the Mayor says, "'You will make the people one'--thus identifying the process of creation," as John Ditsky says, "of the Steinbeckian 'group-man'..." (Benson, Short Novels, 103). Steinbeck wrote about humans' need to be free, "the durability of democracy" (Parini 266), the townspeople's organization into resistance fighters in the face of having their liberty taken from them, and their willingness to die for the cause, as the Mayor and Dr. Winter do. But Mayor Orden (the name is from the German root word for order) lectures the occupying colonel and concludes, as he is about to be executed, with Socrates's peroration to the citizens of Athens who are about to execute him, thus further generalizing the resistance of individuals to tyranny. We do not weep for Mayor Orden because he's an allegorical figure for human resistance, not a flesh and blood human being, not the pathetic child-man that Lennie is.

The Moon Is Down, a Book of the Month Club selection, sold 1,000,000 copies the first year (Parini 268), outselling Grapes of Wrath by far, and went through 76 editions in numbers of countries. Critics, James Thurber among them, attacked the novel for Steinbeck's lack of patriotism in making the invaders (Nazis) as human. Overseas--in France, England, Italy, and Scandinavia, in particular--the play-novella was a tremendous success. But not so as a play in America--with only an eight weeks' run--since America was not occupied. Moreover, in making his characters' language non-specific, Steinbeck lost the tang of the slang from Of Mice and Men and his non-play novels. As Robert Ditsky says, "In The Moon Is Down, then, character emerges from a dialogue that is midway between the ostensibly naturalistic speech of Of Mice and Men and the exalted rhetoric of Burning Bright." Charles Clancy quotes other critics who felt similarly: "Reloy Garcia feels that attempting to contribute to the war effort prompted Steinbeck to 'narrow moralizing and thin propaganda; [becoming] a disseminator of parables, of thin moral tracts.'" And "[Warren] French conclude[d] that the didactic impulse of the fabulist (moralist) in the novella forced Steinbeck 'to strain too hard to make his points'" (Hayashi 106). I agree with these critics: Steinbeck's efforts towards the group-man theme he had introduced earlier in his novels dominates to such an extent that individual identity is lost.

As with The Moon Is Down, the play form of Burning Bright was written first, then revised in production and hence is different from novella. Joe Saul is not masked in the finished playscript. Writing began January 9, 1950, and the first draft was finished January 31 (letters, p. 401: January 31, 1950); intensive thought, however, had begun earlier. He wrote wife-to-be Elaine that "Everyman continues to grow in my mind" (Letters 380-381; October 11, 1949), continuing, "My Christ! It's a dramatic thing"--although the play did not go to rehearsals until September 5, 1950 (Letters 402: late July 1950). His working title, "Everyman," reveals his purpose to write a moral fable. Burning Bright is about a man sterile through rheumatic fever and his concern for progeny, with the ultimate recognition that all children belong to us. What may have sparked the play's creation was his second wife's, Gwyn's, accusation that John Steinbeck the Fourth was not, in fact, the author's son (Britch and Lewis 218). From that anguish grew Steinbeck's thinking about paternity and relationships--group-man again. "He informed journalist Harvey Breit that he intended to 'lift theatre above the realistic'" (219) and did so in a number of ways. The first act is set in a circus tent, an unspecific circus with calliope and circus music, in an unspecific city, except that it has an intersection of 12th and Main, with four characters: Joe Saul, his wife Mordeen, young aerialist Victor, and Friend Ed (probably named for the recently dead Ed Ricketts). It's always Joe Saul, never just Joe or Mr. Saul, and it's always Friend Ed, never just Ed. (One has to wonder whether the initials J.S. of Joe Saul also represent John Steinbeck.) The same four characters, Mordeen now pregnant by Victor, show up in Act 2, which takes place on a farm, again location unspecified, except that it snows in winter. A farm, a place for growing, is of course ideal for a fetus, and in the course of the second act, with Victor and Mordeen on stage, six months elapse in minutes of stage time while a storm rages outside the farmhouse set. The first scene of Act 3 takes place on a docked ship, the second in a hospital where Mordeen's child is born on Christmas day. Steinbeck has universalized not just characters but even setting and theme.

The language, too, is stylized, with a minimum of contractions, the repetition of Ed's title throughout, and kennings, like "laughter-starving time" (11), "love-ridden" (14), and stilted expressions such as "I've got a rustle in me.... You're putting an itch in the air" (8-9)--although the play has fewer kennings than the novel. Steinbeck said that he wanted a "universal language," a language that "did not intend to sound like ordinary speech, but rather by rhythm, sound, and image to give the clearest and best expression of what I wanted to say" in order "to lift the story to the parable expression of morality plays" (Benson 656). One critic was so annoyed as to respond: "Have I, I wonder, the admirer's-right to tell Mr. Steinbeck that this trick has set me screaming silently in my reader-loss?" (L. A. G. Strong, Spectator, August 10, 1951, 198).

At the hospital, Joe Saul, knowing finally that Mordeen conceived the child as a gift to him, not out of desire for Victor, grandiloquently and portentously declares that the baby has taught him "Every man is father to all children and every child must have all men as father.... Mordeen, this is The Child I love. I love our child" (55, with caps on "the" and "child"). Each child is everyone's. Though produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, directed by Guthrie McClintic, designed by Jo Mielziner, and starring Barbara Bel Geddes, Kent Smith, and Howard Da Silva, the play closed after only thirteen performances. The audience simply did not have flesh and blood people to identify with--just ideas about overcoming one's personal desire to extend one's blood lines and recognizing one's part of group-man. As Britch and Lewis say, "In the barn Rose of Sharon assumes the role of universal mother; at the hospital Joe Saul proclaims himself the universal father" (219). Mimi Gladstein says that Steinbeck's best contemporaries "were wary of statements of theme, relying on readers to abstract meaning from the language and sequence of events.... He ... moved from the terse, concrete objectivity of Of Mice and Men and the honest inarticulateness of the Joads to the mouthy platitudes of Burning Bright.... Word replaces flesh, and the reader/audience is left with empty abstraction" (Benson, Short Novels, 236, 244).

What Steinbeck forgot, especially in the two later plays, is that any character extremely well-drawn from life, a George Small or Cal Trask, will have enough common experience in him for us to identify with, however unusual the character or the situation, although even the characters in the novels were often accused by critics of being straw figures, mouthpieces for what Steinbeck wanted to say. Audiences identify with real life in real situations. Steinbeck did not need to label his characters as Everyman or humanity for us to see that they were; what he needed to do was endow them with greater particularity, with flesh and blood and recognizable roots. Then they and their messages might have lived longer.


Benson, Jackson J. John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Penguin, 1984.

--, ed. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Britch, Carroll and Clifford Lewis. "Burning Bright: The Shining of Joe Saul." Benson, Short Novels, 217-234.

Clancy, Charles J. "The Moon Is Down." Hayashi 100-121

Ditsky, John. "Steinbeck's 'European' Play-Novella." Benson, Short Novels, 101-110.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. "Straining for Profundity: Steinbeck's Burning Bright and Sweet Thursday." Benson, Short Novels, 234-248.

Goldhurst, William. "Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck's Parable of the Curse of Cain." Benson, Short Novels, 48-59.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A Study Guide to Steinbeck (Part II). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.

Morsberger, Robert E. "Steinbeck and the Stage." Benson, Short Novels, 271-293.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Steinbeck, John. A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Penguin, 1976.

--. Burning Bright. London: Heinemann, 1951.

--. Burning Bright. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1950.

--. Of Mice and Men. New York: Bantam, 1937.

--. Of Mice and Men. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1937.

--. The Moon Is Down. New York: Viking, 1942.

--. The Moon Is Down. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1942.

--. "Reflections on a Lunar Eclipse." San Francisco Examiner, 6 October 1963, 3.

Strong, L. A. G. Spectator, August 10, 1951, 198.


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Title Annotation:John Steinbeck
Author:Hays, Peter L.
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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