John Steinbeck wrote about America and Americans
Of Mice and Men — An Experiment
“A play written in the physical technique of the novel would have a number of advantages…”
In 1938 John Steinbeck wrote an article for Stage about Of Mice and Men as a Play-Novelette, which was something of an experiment, and, as Steinbeck writes, it was :
“…an attempt to write a novel that could be played from the lines, or a play that could be read. The reading of plays is a specialized kind of reading, and the technique of reading plays must be acquired with some difficulty. The tools are a visual imagination and an unconscious awareness of dramatic symbols so complete that the reaction to them is automatic. These two implements are not very widely possessed…”
Which is a good point, with the reading of plays for most people, still something of an obstacle today, even though, in the eighty years since Steinbeck’s article, and the eighty-one since Of Mice and Men was published, we have perhaps become, generally, a little more used to reading plays and screenplays (especially screenplays),when, a few years ago, there was something of a fad for publishing such things that went hand in hand with a cinema release, and, in the case of the RSC, of any new play they were producing. As fads go that one seems to have gone.
But Steinbeck’s experiment, all those years ago, was timely, and something that has remained with us, influencing the way some playwrights set down their work, most notably, in the UK, Harold Pinter, and in the US, Arthur Miller. Their work can certainly be read as literature.
As Steinbeck goes on to write:
“ A play written in the physical technique of the novel would have a number of advantages. Being more persuasive than the play form, it would go a great way toward making the play easy to read for people who cannot and will not learn to absorb the play symbols. It is much easier for the average reader to absorb without difficulty the easy ‘he said’ manner of the novel than the ‘character, colon, parenthesis, adverb, close parenthesis, dialogue’ manner of the play.
“ In the second place the novel’s ability to describe scene and people in detail would not only make for a better visual picture to the reader, but would be of value to director, stage designer, and actor, for these latter would know more about the set and characters.”
As a young writer in 1937, Steinbeck was keen to set out his own ideas about writing, therefore, his idea that a novel, written in the manner of Of Mice and Men, could just as easily be read as a novel, or as a screenplay, or a stage play. For Steinbeck the writer this was important because it gave the reader, actor and director, an insight into the writer’s thought processes, ensuring, or trying to ensure, that the writer’s intentions with regard character, setting, emotions, conflict and mood are not hijacked by directorial flights of fancy once it has left the reader’s hands and hits the rehearsal room.
Here’s a snatch from Of Mice and Men…
“ George knelt beside the pool and drank from his hand with quick scoops. ‘Tastes all right,’ he admitted. ‘Don’t really seem to be running, though. You never oughta drink water when it ain’t running, Lennie,’ he said hopelessly. ‘You’d drink out of a gutter if you was thirsty.’ He threw a scoop of water into his face and rubbed it about with his hand, under his chin and around the back of his neck. Then he replaced his hat, pushed himself back from the river, drew up his knees and embraced them. Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly.”
That is a perfect scene to read because it gives a real feel for place and character, with the dialogue an integral part of the description, therefore emotionally committed.
Although enthused by his idea Steinbeck wasn’t sure if it could work, citing the following:
“ War cannot be understood by an individual, nor can many forms of religious experience. A mob cannot be understood by a person sitting alone in an armchair.”
Post 1945, maybe we, the individual sitting in a chair in front of a screen can understand religion and war better, or perhaps misunderstand them completely.
I think what the thirty-six old Steinbeck was trying to say is that if you can somehow transfer the immediacy of the novel (being read by one person) to the stage or cinema screen, then you have achieved something quite remarkable. It has to be said, unlike the works of Hemingway, Steinbeck’s work does transfer to the stage and screen superbly well because the transfer is always controlled by Steinbeck’s writing.
Later in his article Steinbeck writes about the modern novel, and I’m pretty sure he had Hemingway in mind when he writes:
“ For some years [remember this is 1938] the novel has increasingly taken on the attributes of the drama. Thus the hard-finish, objective form which is the direction of the modern novel not only points in the direction of the drama, but seems unconsciously to have aimed at it. To read an objective novel is to see a little play in your head. All right, why not make it so you can see it on a stage.”
As already stated, in 1938, Steinbeck thought his experiment had failed. It has not, and is alive and well, perhaps not in the form he imagined, but it’s there nevertheless, as is the book’s message about mental illness, love and responsibility.
Steinbeck’s work — not least Of Mice and Men, which is probably one of the most produced ‘dramas’ of the last eighty years — has changed the modern novel, and by association, modern drama and cinema. The reason is that the inherent emotion and honesty within Steinbeck’s work cannot be dissipated by directorial whims and fancies. What is true for the single reader is true for the larger audience.