The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Grapes of Wrath opens during a dust-obscured dawn, depicting the Dust Bowl conditions of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Two unidentified tenant farmers, one on each side of a worn barbed-wire fence, survey their ruined crops as their wives watch them anxiously. This general setting then shifts to a narrative of the Joad family, with the preacher Jim Casy singing “Yes, sir, that’s my Saviour.” Returning home after four years in McAlster Prison for a homicide committed in self-defense, Tom Joad enters the scene and renews his acquaintance with Casy, who decides to accompany Tom and visit the Joads. The two men find the Joad home destroyed and deserted. A man named Muley Graves tells them that the bank has tractored the family off the land, knocking their house itself off its foundations. Muley also tells how his own home was demolished and asserts his determination to stay on the land, even though the rest of his family has joined the migration of dispossessed tenant farmers to the promised land of California.

Tom and Jim eventually find Tom’s family at Uncle John’s farm, where Pa Joad is pounding nails into the wooden sides of an old truck in preparation for a long trip to California. Pa surprises Ma by asking if she has enough food to feed two strangers, and she is startled when Tom walks in. The members of the family decide to leave the next day, and they make their preparations for the journey. When Grampa Joad decides he does not want to go, others give him a soothing tonic and hoist him up onto the truck.

Ma sorts through her personal belongings, burning those that she cannot take with her and pocketing her treasured gold earrings. When Al Joad tries to start the truck, it sputters and dies. After he finally gets it started, Uncle John’s house vanishes in the distance as the family begins its westward migration. Along the way, Grampa dies, and the family buries him alongside the road.

Sitting together in the front seat of the truck, Ma and Al discuss their apprehensions about going to a new place. Ma assures Al that most of her attention must be focused on how she is going to feed the family. Leaving the others to set up camp for the night, Al, Tom, and Casy drive to a town to get the truck repaired. When they return, the proprietor of the camp refuses to let them stay unless they pay an additional fifty cents.

In the camp, the Joads meet a man returning from California who tells them that he could not find adequate work and that his wife and children have died of starvation. When Pa starts to tell the man’s story to Ma, Tom intervenes, sparing her the knowledge of the bleak prospects they may be facing. Pa and Casy agree that the man may be telling the truth but he also might be a troublemaker.

When the Joads reach the Colorado River, Noah leaves the family, continuing down the river. Ma is dismayed by the prospect of the family’s breakup, and Pa blames himself. Later, when the Joads prepare to cross a desert, state agricultural officers stop them to inspect their belongings; Ma insists that they cannot wait for an inspection because Granma is desperately ill. Not until they reach California does she reveal that Granma is dead; Ma has held the old woman in her arms all night. With only forty dollars left, the Joads set out to find a coroner.

The second act opens with the twang of a Jew’s-harp and the Joads’...

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The Grapes of Wrath Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Stage props are sparse, more suggestive than substantive, such as a barbed-wire fence, the shell of a truck, a water tank representing the Colorado River, a simple sign labeled “Weedpatch Camp.”

Music is a primary dramatic device in this play. The whistled tune to “California, Here I Come” provides a scene shift from used car salesmen to Pa’s thundering in nails as he puts wooden sides on the family’s just-purchased Hudson sedan in preparation for their odyssey. Accompanied by a guitar waltz, Ma sorts through keepsakes, burning those that she cannot keep. When Al tries to start the vehicle, music captures its initial rumblings, as it sputters and dies. When he finally gets the vehicle going, a band plays, and a guitar player plaintively sings of Route 66 as Uncle John’s house vanishes in the distance and the Joad truck slowly and ponderously begins its westward movement. They travel to a song of the Dust Bowl, a guitar churning out the noise of the engine, the twang of a Jew’s-harp, a song about the growing wrath of the migrants as their situation worsens. Finally, a violin plays as Rose of Sharon nurses the starving stranger. Throughout the play, music contributes to the play’s empathic appeal.

Another major device is the appearance of a narrator who describes the migrant way of life, always on the move—from Oklahoma to the boxcars where Rose of Sharon’s baby is born. His depiction of a dust-obscured dawn captures briefly the essence of the Dust Bowl. Occasionally, the narrator’s objective description mingles with the Joad narrative, as when Pa tells him that they are going to have to head north in search of work. The narrator serves to give the play depth and dimension, placing the Joads within the context of a larger migrant world.

The Grapes of Wrath Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Dillon, John, and Thomas Connors. “The Paradoxical Professor.” American Theatre 12 (October, 1995): 20.

Disch, Thomas. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. The Nation, April 30, 1990, 610.

Galati, Frank. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1991.

Resnikova, Eva. “Theater: Sentimental Journey.” National Review 42 (June 11, 1990): 58.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, edited by Peter Lisca. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Weales, Gerald. “Stage: Vintage Production—Galati’s Grapes of Wrath.” Commonweal 117 (May 4, 1990): 294-297.