Yes, John Steinbeck wrote plays, but he won’t be remembered for them. Actually, Burning Bright is part play, part novella, edited by Lifeline’s Meryl Friedman for the stage. Still, it remains an essentially undramatic tale and a likely disappointment to fans of Steinbeck’s novels.
The story goes like this. Joe Saul wants a child in the worst way, but he and his much younger wife, Mordeen, can’t produce one. So Mordeen, who knows herself to be fertile, secretly conceives a child with the help of the hired hand, Victor. When the news is broken, Joe Saul is elated at the prospect of fatherhood, but Victor feels sorely used. Eventually he blackmails Mordeen, threatening to tell Joe Saul the truth if she doesn’t run away with him. Mordeen tries to reason with him; she sympathizes with Victor’s pain but she loves Joe Saul too much to leave him. When this bit of persuasion fails, Mordeen decides to kill Victor. It’s all for nothing anyway, since Joe Saul finds out from the doctor in the meantime that he never could have impregnated Mordeen. And, to top this off, Mordeen suddenly goes into labor and the baby is born dead. The play ends with Joe Saul professing his love for his dead son.
Sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it? But then a plot synopsis of Desire Under the Elms would sound almost as dumb. The crucial difference is Eugene O’Neill knew how to write dialogue. Steinbeck didn’t; he was a prose writer. Strip away the power of Steinbeck’s narrative and you’re left with a script as gawky and contrived as it sounds here.
The first thing that strikes you about Burning Bright is the stilted dialogue: Joe Saul says, “I love you, Mordeen, starvingly.” Sometimes symbolism (“I guess I’m digging like a mole into my own darkness”) and clever ambiguities (“There are many Victors; there will always be a Victor”) show up in the dialogue, always calling excessive attention to themselves. I can only imagine that Steinbeck used such stilted language deliberately–either as an expressionist device or to alert us to some deeper meaning to the play that, frankly, escapes me. It’s a moot point anyway. Whatever Steinbeck’s intentions, the tone of the dialogue has little tangible effect except to strike the ear as something poorly translated from medieval French.
Steinbeck uses one other theatrical gimmick to an even more obscure end. In the first scene, Joe Saul, Mordeen, and Victor are all trapeze artists. In scene two, the pregnancy scene, they’re all farmers. They’re merchant sailors in scene three, and scene four takes place in the hospital with Joe Saul wearing a surgeon’s gown.
Well, I’ve doped it out a couple ways. The first three scenes respectively place the drama in the air, on the land, and at sea. But what the hell does that stand for? The armed services? Three of the four elements? What about the fourth element, fire, and what’s that got to do with a hospital? The other way I figure it is that everything’s up in the air during the seduction scene. It could go either way. Then Mordeen gets pregnant, and the farm is an obvious symbol for fecundity. Next, when Victor threatens to expose Mordeen, her marriage finds itself in troubled waters. Maybe I should stop here before I get into all the Ben Casey symbolism–man, woman, birth, death, infinity–evoked by the hospital scene.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is the most valid. Occam’s razor. The scenic drift is an arbitrary and meaningless bit of embroidery. It’s no Rashomon by any means.
What’s unfortunate about this production is that Meryl Friedman, who both edited and directed the play, neglected to resolve any of Steinbeck’s theatrical problems. The production style–sort of expressionist, sort of symbolist–can only be described by that appropriately vague term “stylized.” Which is to say that the unnatural dialogue is played neither up nor down, that gestures are occasionally exaggerated, and that the cast turns in some shaky performances. Jeanne Dwan (Mordeen), for instance, gets stuck in a preposterous bathing suit trimmed with pink fur, trying to force down a horrified self-consciousness with a pretense of casual sexuality. Steve Totland (as Friend Ed, Joe Saul’s buddy) puts up a more decisive front, glossing over his character’s two-dimensionality with a likable stage presence. And Randy Colborn (Joe Saul) simply looks like he’s nervously awaiting further direction. Overall, it appears that not only did no one interpret this play, but no one knew how to get it from the page to the stage.
I really don’t think Steinbeck belongs on the stage, although two fine movies–East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath–prove that cinematography can do some of the work of a prose narrative. But without either Panavision or the author’s brooding perspective, Steinbeck’s themes of redemptive love and of man trying to realize his dreams in an imperfect world start to appear not a little bit sophomoric. So, when Joe Saul sums it all up with “That is the most important thing: somewhere there is a shining,” chances are you’ll be thinking of the exit sign.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.