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John Steinbeck called his book Of Mice and Men "a playable novel." This was mainly because he had an agreement to have the story produced as a play in New York in 1937, the very same year the book was published. This fact explains why the book is so short. It also explains why so much of the exposition is presented in the form of dialogue. On the stage the characters have to convey information to each other in the form of dialogue. Lennie makes a good character for this purpose because George has to explain everything to him, and at the same time he is explaining a great deal to the audience. Steinbeck wrote the book in such a way that it would be extremely simple to convert to a script for a play.
The opening of the second chapter, for example, reads almost exactly like the stage directions for a second act of a play. Steinbeck describes the bunkhouse as he wants it to be shown on the stage. The chapter begins with these words:
The bunkhouse was a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted.
The setting is very simple. It calls for eight bunks with an apple box over each bunk with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk. Steinbeck suggests that these shelves should be
...loaded with little articles, soap and talcum powder, razors and those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe. And there were medicines on the shelves, and little vials, combs; and from nails on the box sides, a few neckties.
The set designer for the New York stage play would have no trouble following these directions to make the bunkhouse look authentic. There would also be a black cast-iron stove and a big square table with boxes around it for card-players to sit on. We can imagine how this would look on the stage as the curtain came up. This would appear to be a low-budget theatrical production. It was experimental, and the producers probably did not want to risk a lot of money on something so new to the theater-going New Yorkers. Most of the play takes place in the bunkhouse or the barn, and the barn would be even simpler than the bunkhouse. The scenes at the riverside campsite could be simulated onstage by nothing more than a couple of bedrolls and a fake bonfire lighted by a couple of colored bulbs. The horses are never shown but only represented by stomping hooves and jingling harnesses offstage. The horseshoe pitching is represented by clanging iron offstage. The men are never shown working in the fields but only shown when they come back to the bunkhouse all tired out. The stage play was definitely a low-budget and low-risk venture. However, both the book and the play were very successful, largely because of Steinbeck's skill at characterization and dialogue-writing. Of Mice and Men, the book and the play, made Steinbeck famous.
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