In the Steinbeck Canon, the play Of Mice and Men occupies a curious place. Although other Steinbeck novels were adapted to the stage, Of Mice and Men is the only truly successful play by Steinbeck, adapted, of course, from his short novel of the same name, a work which he described as a play "in the technique of the novel" and which became his first critical and popular success. The play became an immediate hit upon its 1937 opening on Broadway, a testimony to the talent of director, George S. Kaufman. Steinbeck, an essentially shy and private man who felt entirely out of his element around theatre people, adapted the novel into a script per Kaufman's careful and thoughtful suggestions, attended the auditions, and then returned somewhat abruptly and hastily to California to work on his next major novel.
Perhaps to Kaufman's chagrin, Steinbeck simply entrusted the play to its director and never attended a rehearsal nor a performance of the original Broadway production which opened in the Music Box Theatre on November 23, 1937. "I'd like to have seen the play," he wrote to Elizabeth Otis, his agent, "but I wouldn't go six thousand miles to see the opening of the second coming of Christ" (Steinbeck, Life in Letters 164-65). Arguably one of the true geniuses of the American drama of the first half of the twentieth century, Kaufman may be credited with restructuring the novel into a dramatic chronicle of the contemporary American scene. For instance, Kaufman wrote to Steinbeck suggesting that he introduce elements of humor to "heighten the ultimate tragedy of the play. . . [and] to invent more appearances for Curley's wife, [End Page 79] the unnamed woman who inadvertently precipitates the tragedy of the migrant workers Lennie and George and is herself a tragic victim" (Goldstein 288). The result of Steinbeck and Kaufman's collaboration is a play with a depth, honesty and sincerity that Eugene O'Neill or Thornton Wilder might have envied. Of Mice and Men's success, which included winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award over Wilder's Our Town, Steinbeck readily attributed to Kaufman's directorial or dramaturgical efforts. He wrote Kaufman:
That we—obscure people out of a place that no one ever heard of—should have our first play directed and produced by the greatest director of our time—will not bear too close inspection for fear we may catch the gods of fortune at work and catching them, anger them so they hate us. Already I have made propitiation—thrown my dear ring in the sea and I hope no big fish brings it back to me.
To say thank you is ridiculous for you can't thank a man for good work any more than you can thank him for being himself. But you can be very glad he is himself and that is what we are—very glad you are George Kaufman.
Nonetheless, Kaufman cannot take the entire credit. Inherent in the novel, "one of Steinbeck's most compressed and unified works," (Timmerman 96) lies a story whose dramatic structure, character relationships and thematic content achieve mythic proportions. For in spite of Kaufman's efforts, Of Mice and Men is essentially a California writer's tale of two migrant farm workers who dream of someday owning their own ranch and "livin' off the fat of the land" (Steinbeck 15). Joined in a symbiotic partnership, George and Lennie are naively and genuinely American in conception, and they pursue a vision of the American Dream that is as sweet as it is unattainable. Steinbeck's intense sympathy for these characters, lost and dislocated in Depression-era America, creates in this "play-novelette" possibly one of the few real American tragedies.
Ironically, however, Of Mice and Men contains a rising dramatic structure that is deceptively simple and seemingly lacking in the grandiose gestures associated with the tragic form. When he wrote the story, Steinbeck employed a non-teleological [End Page 80] approach in its composition: in other words, the novel's—and the play's—action does not evolve out of a series...