Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423
The Grapes of Wrath is a 1988 play adapted by American actor, writer, and director Frank Galati. Galati based his play on John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel of the same name. The title of the novel was apparently suggested by Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, referencing the lyrics from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (a.k.a “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”) by Julia Ward Howe:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
The plot of the play revolves around a fictional family living in the Great Depression and their daily struggles. Galati manages to bring Steinbeck’s characters to life and to incorporate the same social and economic themes of the novel into his drama. The main protagonist of the story is Tom Joad. After seeing that their crops were destroyed, Tom and his family realize that there is nothing left for them in Oklahoma and they decide to move to California alongside some of their friends and extended family. On the way, they experience grief and sorrow as some of their friends abandon them and as Grandpa and Grandma Joad die.
Once they arrive in California, they realize that the state is in a very poor socioeconomic condition: the wages are low, the workers are being exploited and underpaid, and the people are living in poverty and starvation. The remaining family members manage to find jobs at a peach orchard at first, but this is short-lived, as they must soon leave because of Tom’s unfortunate situation.
After witnessing the beating of his childhood friend Jim Casy—a former preacher-turned-atheist—Tom vengefully kills the man who attacked Casy and flees the scene. The family then retreats to a cotton farm, and Tom must leave them, as he is wanted for homicide. Before leaving, however, he promises Ma Joad that he will always be with them, if not physically then spiritually. In the end, the cotton farm is flooded because of the heavy rain, and the family takes shelter in an old barn where they save a young boy and his starving father from death.
The Grapes of Wrath was first performed at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 1988. It had eleven official previews, and it had its official opening in 1990 at the Cort Theater in Manhattan. According to the theater’s archives, the play was performed 188 times.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399
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’ arrival at a “Hooverville” camp, where the dispossessed gather on the edge of town. There, ragged, sick, and hungry people move about, with one man wrapping a baby in layers of fabric for burial and another grinding the valves on a decrepit old car. A man demented by abuse, whom the others call the “mayor” of Hooverville, greets them. Floyd, the man grinding valves, tells Tom about the dire nature of the migrant situation—the lack of jobs and the starvation wages paid for such work that is available. Tom decides to move on when their truck is repaired.
Accompanied by a deputy sheriff, a contractor arrives in the camp to offer jobs, but the ensuing scene reveals how bad the situation really is. When Floyd asks to see the man’s license for hiring, inquires about wages, and insists on knowing exactly how many workers are needed, the sheriff tries to arrest Floyd for hanging around a used car lot that has been robbed. When Floyd starts to run away, the deputy raises his gun to shoot him, but Tom trips him, and a bullet hits a woman’s hand. When the deputy starts to fire his gun again, Casy kicks him in the face and tells Tom to hide in the willows. As a prisoner parolee, Tom cannot risk being arrested, so Casy takes all the blame for assaulting the deputy himself.
In short succession, Uncle John goes off to get drunk, Connie deserts his pregnant wife, Rose of Sharon (Tom’s sister), and the Joads must pack up and leave because of a rumor that the camp is about to be burned. The demented mayor of Hooverville remains behind—wandering about the deserted camp, looking for junk left behind, ignoring the sheriff’s deputies.
The Joads’ next stop is Weedpatch Camp, a clean, well-kept, government-operated site with a kindly and humane director. There, a religious fanatic, Elizabeth Sandry, frightens Rose of Sharon by telling her about a woman who lost her baby because she went hug-dancing and complains about the camp’s Saturday night dances. Ma Joad furiously insists that the woman leave, pierces her daughter’s ears, and gives her her cherished gold earrings. Meanwhile, Al leads a girl into the shadows, where they kiss, and promises to marry her. At the camp’s Saturday night dance, Ma and Tom dance together and then move offstage, with Rose of Sharon following them.
As the narrator describes the migrant way of life, always on the move, Pa announces that the family must head north in search of work. The Joads stop next at the Hoover Ranch, where they work for starvation wages and again encounter Casy. In trouble with the law because he is now a strike leader, Casy is murdered by a deputy, whom Tom then kills, receiving a head injury in the process. When Ma insists that Tom go into hiding, Tom takes on Casy’s mantle of advocacy for the downcast and promises Ma that in spirit he will be wherever his people are.
A narrator describes the boxcars that are the Joads’ next place of shelter. As Pa reminisces about the past, Ma looks to the future, insisting that they keep on going. Al announces his engagement to Aggie Wainwright, daughter of the family in the other side of their boxcar. The two families celebrate with pancakes and syrup, but Ma urges Al to wait until spring before leaving the family.
The migrants worry because rising creek waters threaten to flood the boxcar. Rose of Sharon emits a terrified cry of terror as her labor pains begin. To the sounds of screams and thunder, the migrant men build a bank to hold back the rising floodwaters. Struck by lightning, a cottonwood tree falls and tears up the bank. The water rises as the men go into the boxcar to find a stillborn baby in an apple box. Pa turns the burial over to Uncle John, who sends the box downstream, mute testimony to their suffering.
Leaving Al behind with Aggie to watch over their belongings, the rest of the family head for higher ground to take shelter in a barn. There they find a young boy and his starving father. Telling them that Rose of Sharon needs to get out of her wet clothing, Ma asks if they have a blanket. The boy gives them a blanket and asks for help for his starving father. Ma and Rose of Sharon exchange a glance and reach a silent agreement. The family leaves the shed, and Rose of Sharon kneels beside the starving man, takes him into her arms, and begins to nurse him with her breast. She looks up with a mysterious smile.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 78
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.
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