Lennie Small is a physically strong but simpleminded man. His companion and de facto caretaker is the small and quick-witted George Milton. They work as migrant ranch hands, traveling through California’s Salinas Valley in search of their next job. George does the planning for the duo. They hope to buy a farm of their own where they can live off the land and Lennie can raise rabbits. Because of his mild retardation, Lennie doesn’t realize his own physical strength, which has gotten him into serious trouble in other towns on their journey.
Once George and Lennie begin working on a new farm, Lennie becomes a victim of the bullying of Curley, the boss’s son. Curley pushes Lennie too far, and Lennie uses his incredible strength to crush Curley’s hand. Curley’s wife is intrigued by the strong and often silent Lennie, and she attempts to get closer to him in private—something that George had warned Lennie against. At first, their meeting is harmless. Lennie opens up about his dreams of tending rabbits, and Curley’s wife tells him about her dreams of starring in pictures. When their conversation gets more intimate and Lennie tries to show affection, he loses control and accidentally kills her.
Lennie flees the farm and heads to a prearranged meeting place where he was told to wait for George if something went wrong. George discovers Lennie’s misdeed and quickly realizes that their dreams of moving on and living peacefully can never be achieved.
George finds Lennie, but an angry mob—led by Curley—is not far behind. George decides that he will kill Lennie to spare his friend from a violent death at the hands of Curley.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He began college at Stanford but never graduated. In 1925, Steinbeck tried to establish himself as a freelance writer in New York, but he failed and returned to California.
After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos (country men). From the rough and earthy humor of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck moved on to fiction that was often aggressive in its social criticism; In Dubious Battle (1936) deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations.
Steinbeck next wrote Of Mice and Men (1937), a “play-novelette,” as one critic called it. Steinbeck wanted to write a novel that could be played from its dialogue, or a play that could be read like a novel. Steinbeck was given the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Of Mice and Men’s 1938 Broadway premiere.
In 1939 Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California to become migratory workers; the novel won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. His later works include East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962), a travelogue in which Steinbeck wrote about his impressions during a three-month tour in a truck that led him through forty American states. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” Steinbeck died in New York City in 1968.
Man, mouse and field
Something That Happened was author John Steinbeck’s initial working title for Of Mice and Men, but he ultimately decided on a title borrowed from a line of poetry. “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough” was written in 1785 by Robert Burns. The poem is a farmer’s ode to a mouse he accidentally killed while plowing his field. Burns wrote in Scots language, a Germanic variety of Middle English spoken in Lowland Scotland and parts of Ireland. Steinbeck took Of Mice and Men’s title from the second-to-last stanza of Burns’ poem:
|Original Scots||English Translation|
|But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
||But Mouse, you are not alone,|
|In proving foresight may be vain:
||In proving foresight may be vain:|
|The best laid schemes o' mice an' men||The best laid schemes of mice and men|
|Gang aft agley,||Go often askew,|
|An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,||And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,|
|For promis'd joy!
||For promised joy!|
Writing in the Great Depression
The social criticism in Steinbeck’s work reflects the prevalent concerns of the Great Depression. The characters in Of Mice and Men face challenges of social change, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe. The effects of Black Tuesday, the stock market crash of 1929, spread quickly from Wall Street to middle America. Unemployment soared, and displaced workers moved from place to place, hunting for work. This nomadic living made it hard to start or maintain a family. It was a virtual impossibility for a migrant worker to earn enough to purchase land or a home, a reality Steinbeck reflects in George and Lennie’s shared—but seemingly impossible—dream of owning a farm. In an effort to counteract the country’s financial troubles, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in 1993; the series of central economic planning and stimulus programs was to create jobs and ensure fair labor practices. Some New Deal programs, like Social Security, still exist today, but most ended by 1938. The U.S. finally emerged from the Great Depression as the country entered World War II.
Barter Theatre: Taking Stock (and Produce) for Theatre
The Great Depression gave Steinbeck copious story material; the era also fostered the inception of the Barter Theatre. Enterprising young actor Robert Porterfield and his fellow actors found themselves out of work and hungry in New York City. Porterfield contrasted the New York City living conditions to the abundance of food, but lack of live theatre, in his native Southwest Virginia. He returned to Washington County with an extraordinary proposition: bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the area to gain admission to see a play.
Barter Theatre opened its doors on June 10, 1933 proclaiming, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent in produce—the concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly. Playwrights, including Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder, even accepted Virginia ham as payment for royalties. An exception was George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, who bartered the rights to his plays for spinach.
Farmers even brought livestock. Actors were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. In spite of these unusual performance interferences, by the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly and enjoyed a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds. Barter celebrates its heritage by having at least one performance a year where admission is a donation to a local food bank.
In 1946, Barter was designated as The State Theatre of Virginia—the first theatre in the U.S. to receive this designation. Barter was a founding member of the League of Resident Theatres, a national association of resident theatres. Barter alumni include Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty, Frances Fisher, Wayne Knight and Hume Cronyn. Barter celebrated its 75th birthday in 2008, and is the longest running professional Equity theatre in the nation.
Of Mice and Men – Director’s Notes by Katy Brown, Barter Theatre Associate Artistic Director
What strikes me now, as much as it did the first time I ever read this story, is the strength of the dreaming. How each person, despite and, indeed, because of the harshness of the their reality, lives by dreaming about what is to come. Recently I read that this novel has been called “the novel of the American Dream,” and I believe that’s true in large and small ways. These people’s dreams are palpable; you can feel them hanging in the air, smell them, taste their need for land and home.
What is our American Dream now, when we communicate virtually and more than half of us live in cities? Surely it is something different than before—and yet, there are aspects that remain constant. Though it may not always be for land or some version of the white picket fence, it still centers around many of the same thoughts: freedom, security, community, a place that is ours. These are all things that lit their dreams from the inside all those years ago. In these dark times and in theirs, it is the dreaming that raises us up, that connects us to each other.
There is no greater need for the American Dream, whatever our definition of that may become, than times when the world around us seems out of our control. There is something powerful in the reaching, no matter if we attain the dream or no. Let us be brought together then, dreaming, reaching for the beautiful ‘what might be’ no matter what may come.