We know that Steinbeck was a great lover of the stage. He mentioned attending several musicals in Journal of a Novel, his account of writing East of Eden. He had great respect for the magic of the theater, as the actors bring the characters to life. He adored playwrights like Arthur Miller, who gave characters life and drive. Although Of Mice and Men was the only play Steinbeck ever wrote himself, it stands as a pillar, a foundation, in the history of American theater. The story is as solid as oak, and at its very center is Steinbeck’s love for humanity; it's a story of a deep connection between two people.
Of Mice and Men, the novella, was written as an experimental hybrid form of play and prose. I genuinely believe that Steinbeck originally intended for the novel to be performable, given the highly dependent dialogue and its limited number of locations. It even follows all of Aristotle’s dicta of unity: place, time, and action. By 1937 those intentions came to the stage as Steinbeck adapted the novella into a play for the Broadway production, directed by George Kaufman, and I would argue that it is stronger than the novella—a more compressed and lean narrative of character and inevitable tragedy.
The story builds up to a “dream”—George and Lenny’s dream of the "Place.” “Not many guys travel around together,” the audience hears over and over again. It’s unusual to see two guys as close as Lenny and George, almost unnatural. If certain scenes evade the dream, those scenes antagonize the dream: the toughness of the ranch, the isolation of the migrant-worker lifestyle, the disregard for living things, like Candy’s dog, or the ostracism of the minority (Crooks because he’s black; Candy’s wife because she’s a woman; Candy because he’s old and crippled; Lenny because he’s slow).
As soon as any of the other characters hear about their dream, the "Place,” they jump on board with George and Lenny, because everyone shares the dream. We can identify with the characters because they stifle it within themselves, as many of us do with our dreams. Steinbeck draws a conflict of man versus the system in the friendship between Lenny and George; they’re almost two sides to one person. Lenny is the exposed heart, and George is the protective parent with his own kind of deep love. Throughout the play, George then dreams just as big as Lenny; he wants everything that Lenny does—to be free, to tend to the rabbits and the soft things in life—but he has suppressed it because he needs to protect himself, and Lenny, in such a harsh climate.
These characters got away from Steinbeck a little bit—especially in the play version—because the relationship between George and Lenny is closer than any other. Even Tom Joad and his mother aren’t tied by life and death as Lenny and George are. Steinbeck often wrote about groups, but with George and Lenny he wrote about the intimate love between two, and although Steinbeck has many indelible characters who shine throughout his works, he never touched on the deep and tragic tones that he used when Lenny and George were brought to life.
Of Mice and Men sits in a trio of books about ranch life—In Dubious Battle and Grapes of Wrath are the other two—but this story isn’t about ranch life, only using the ranch as a backdrop. It’s about the characters, focusing on the action created through tension and drama. The characters use their conflicts and desire—essentially their wounds—as torque. What makes this so beautiful is that there is hardly a villain. Even Curly is just trying to keep his wife under control: He obviously cares about her, he wears a glove full of Vaseline to keep his hand soft for her, and she just wants to “talk to somebody.” Everyone is essentially working toward the same goal, but their own socials dividers keep them from uniting.
The book, the play, and the films all contain these ideas. The book doesn’t have the experiential quality that the play has, and the movies have the pressure of becoming cinematic, of opening up the tight world of the bunkhouse to include the rest of the ranch. The tightest, most dramatic, most impactful incarnation of this material is in play form.
After doing it on Broadway night after night, I can attest to its power: Even if you know what’s coming, you want to believe that maybe this time things will work out, maybe it will end tragically, maybe the boys will get to the "Place” after all, and then the tears fall when they don’t. Boy, is it powerful.