John Steinbeck's 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, about the tragicfate of two migrant farm workers in Depression-era California, isone of the most famous works in the American canon. Most of us readit for school. It's been adapted twice as a film and twice fortelevision. The book inspired Chad Floyd's 1970 opera. Referencesto it have popped up in everything ranging from episodes ofSaturday Night Live to Warner Brothers cartoons.
But before all that came the stage play, which will open Palm BeachDramaworks' 2013-14 season Friday in West Palm Beach.
Steinbeck wrote the book as an experiment that he hoped couldtransfer without alteration to the stage. It couldn't -- at leastnot until playwright and director George Kaufman got hold of it.Kaufman, whose dramatic work included You Can't Take It With You,The Man Who Came to Dinner and the Marx Brothers' A Night at theOpera, was the go-to play doctor of the times. He bought the rightsto Of Mice and Men, and he and Steinbeck worked together onadapting it for the stage.
Steinbeck "thought the novel would reach only a novel- readingaudience," said Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar and authorof Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. "What hewanted with all his work was to reach a broad audience."
The Kaufman-steered 1937 Broadway production was a hit, and thenovella quickly transferred to film. The work establishedSteinbeck, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes ofWrath in 1940 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, as ahousehold name.
In the story, George and Lennie are best friends. George looks outfor Lennie, a giant of a man with a limited intellect, and keepsthem motivated with stories about the farm they will buy when theyfinally save up enough money. But their dream cannot withstand themany forces stacked against them.
"Steinbeck was so aware of how society had dissolved intoindividual lost souls," said J. Barry Lewis, who directsDramaworks' production. "What was lost was the soul of the nation.He sees it in these workers who have nothing and are trying to findsomething to care about."
Loneliness, dispossession, and the power of friendship and dreamsare themes that pervade Of Mice and Men.
"We are lonesome animals," Steinbeck once wrote. "We spend all ourlife trying to be less lonesome."
As John Leonard Thompson, who plays George, said, "these charactersare so full of yearning, but they just don't have the vocabulary toexpress it."
George's most eloquent refrain is that he and Lennie are not likemost ranch hands, who have no family, because they have each other.
Steinbeck knew what he was writing about. He was born in theSalinas, Calif., farm belt and worked alongside migrants as ayoung man.
"When you get a writer with that kind of authority on the subjectmatter, it makes you look at what he's writing about and trust it,"said Brendan Titley, who portrays Lennie.
"What these characters want is quintessentially American," saidJerry Manning, artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, whohelmed a production of the show in 2011. A straying wife in theplay dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. George and Lennie yearnfor their plot in the sun. An elderly ranch hand craves a dignifieddeath.
"What people wanted in the 1930s and what they want now is not thatdissimilar," he said.
-- jsjostrom@ pbdailynews.com
IF YOU GO
'Of Mice and Men'
Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
Friday through Nov. 10
For more information
Call 514-4042 or visit palmbeach dramaworks.org
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