Of Mice and Men
By George Fleeton
Just around the corner
There’s a rainbow in the sky,
So let’s have another cup of coffee
And let’s have another piece of pie.
(Irving Berlin, Songs of the Depression).
More so than is the case with his later masterpieces The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s 1937 play-novelette Of Mice and Men is written from the inside out.
Steinbeck had been there, before he turned thirty, alongside Depression drifters such as George and Lennie, grubstaking his own way through the vast fertile agricultural tracts around Salinas and Soledad in western California.
He had bucked barley as they had done and lived to tell the tale of how and why marginalised workers must pull together to survive.
By 1932, the fictional Joads were already on their way west from the Oklahoma dust bowl, and Steinbeck would tell their story too, in 1939.
In Steinbeck’s California fictions, the struggles of two individuals notionally and emotionally joined at the hip (or indeed those of one extended family of Okies harvesting the grapes of wrath) mirror the hardships of an entire nation in the ten years between the stock market crash on Hoover’s watch, in October 1929, and the tangible effects of F D Roosevelt’s New Deal, inaugurated in January 1933 and extending to the outbreak of war in Europe, in September 1939.
As both a realistic and an imaginative observer of that dark decade young Steinbeck chronicled the period better than most, including his well written contemporaries Hemingway and Faulkner, while in the realm of black and white photography no one excelled in complementing Steinbeck’s depiction of the Depression more than Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in their iconic photos.
Irving Berlin reflected on it all in his Songs of the Depression.
Steinbeck was the twentieth century’s Mark Twain, and his equally evocative sense of place, his sympathetic humour and his keen social eye – focussing on the unadorned truth of human strengths and weaknesses – earned him both Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for fiction and literature respectively.
Of Mice and Men is his only work which he also adapted for the theatre, and it was written with that outlet in mind: three acts with two scenes in each, produced on Broadway in late 1937, with Broderick Crawford (whose first movies had not then been released) as the first Lennie.
That great actor’s centenary is later this year.
Will anyone notice?
A company new to the district called Stageworks Theatre brought Alan Cohen’s version of Of Mice and Men to Newcastle on October 1st (as part of a UK tour which continues until November 12th).
As visiting theatre to these parts goes, this production was up there with the best we have seen in, say, the last seven years, and a capacity house in the Annesley Hall reinforced that.
In the central performance of the piece, Christopher Brand (Lennie) bonded this ensemble of nine actors together, sometimes implying his character’s intellectual handicap, sometimes spelling it out for us whenever he lost control.
The penultimate scene in the barn with Curly’s wife (Katie Beard) is the key to the dramatic truth of Steinbeck’s little melodrama, and if that set piece doesn’t work the play fails.
It was spellbinding.
The interplay was pitched perfectly, the effect of her neck being broken stunned the audience, and old, one-handed Candy’s short soliloquy just after it screwed it all to the floor in no uncertain terms.
So much so that George’s subsequent execution of Lennie was a veritable anti-climax.
Never in theatre had the ‘American Dream’ (as defined by James T Adams barely two years into the Great Depression) tasted sourer.
For the loneliness and powerlessness of these men – bindlestiffs, barley buckers and jerk line mule skinners – and the ache in Curly’s wife’s head (Steinbeck never gave her a name) are all so well caught in the contrapuntal writing, in the five deaths (which include a mouse, an old dog and a pup), in the sound of the cicadas in the opening scene, in the impersonal furnishings of the bunkhouse and of Crooks’ marginalised space, in a little touch of high wired fiddle and five-stringed banjo (anticipating Flatt and Scruggs’ bluegrass music of the 1940s?), and in the transitory, seasonal nature of work in the breadbasket counties of California.
These elements conspire to make Of Mice and Men such a convincing observation of an economy on its knees and a society in crisis. Fast forward 74 years later, et plus ça change …
As no programme was available on the night (and this should not be the case), for the record the other players were: Belfast-raised Chris Patrick-Simpson – spot on as the diminutive bully Curly, Gary Hope (Candy), Andrew Dennis (Crooks), Damien Lyne (Slim) – a nicely judged performance, Garry Cross (Witt) and Peter Warnock doubling as the Boss and, European accent correct, as Carlson.
Stageworks caught most of this up in an intelligent embrace (although the set design of the bookend scenes was inadequate, and James Kermack as George tended to declaim too loudly in the first half) and they will be welcomed back here.
Of Mice and Men was filmed twice: in 1939 by Lewis Milestone (Lon Chaney Jr as Lennie) and in 1992 by Gary Sinise (John Malkovich as Lennie).
And speaking of suchlike adapted screenplays, at the recent Venice Film Festival I saw several: James M Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, of which only the last mentioned made any impression.
None of the rest came near either of the two film adaptations of Of Mice and Men, and all lacked measurable insights into what makes their respective source texts tick.
The reception which this play received in Newcastle does beg the obvious question, which I first raised over two and a half years ago: where is our own about-to-be-newly re-opened Arts Centre-based theatre company?
We know of towns half this size with vibrant semi-professional performance groups, in both music and drama. Downpatrick remains the only county town on this island outside that particular fold.
A little more vision and imagination is required if the only improvement we can look forward to in Scotch Street from December 1st is what the builders left behind.
For we clearly have the audience in the hinterland.
Yet for the excitement and stimulation of live theatre which that audience anticipates and relishes, we depend on visiting, fit-up troupes.
Around us theatre studies is flourishing in further and higher education.
And while the new Lyric theatre is in a league of its own, this part of the world needs an equally imaginative theatrical entrepreneur to step up to the home plate.
First and second bases are already in place.
What we need is the guy or the gal with the bat and the balls.
The first live ballet, from the newly renovated Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, La Esmeralda, based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame, will be screened in the QFT on October 9th.
And the first live opera of the new season from the Metropolitan in New York, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, will be shown in the Omniplex Cinema in Dundonald on October 15th.
George Fleeton is presenting Robert Wise’s film West Side Story, on the 50th anniversary of its release, in the QFT on October 22nd and, later, he introduces the re-release of Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) on November 20th, also in the QFT.