- A Dream Deferred
- In Print, On Stage, and On Film
- Tensions on the Ranch
- The Reluctant Celebrity
- Hard Livin'
A Dream Deferred
Jerry Manning on why Of Mice and Men remains
the American story
By Joanna Horowitz
Actor Charles Leggett as Lennie. Photo by Keri Kellerman.
The simple answer is: it’s an American classic. But in many ways, that’s the boring answer, the easy one. Why bother with Of Mice and Men, a play that is rooted in Depression-era 1930s, except as a time capsule?
“It would be very easy to say times are hard now, and look at these guys also in an age of deprivation,” says director Jerry Manning. “And that’s not interesting to me.”
Manning has done a lot of thinking about what’s interesting in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella and subsequent stage adaptation. Roughly eight years of thinking, at least. In 2005, he was approached by two actors with the idea of adapting the play for a pair of performers. The three spent the better part of a year sketching out what that would look like. Ultimately, getting the rights from the Steinbeck estate made that unfeasible, but the play remained ingrained in Manning’s artistic consciousness. It came up again and again in season planning conversations at Seattle Rep, and finally this was the year where it found its home.
What has continued to draw Manning to the story is the characters—what these people want and never can get.
“I’ve always felt that Steinbeck was writing an allegory and that in each of the characters, starting with Lennie, there is a depiction of a dream. That dream, particularly as articulated by George, is the quintessential American Dream: ‘I just want a house with ten acres, a white picket fence with an apple orchard, and we can raise rabbits and be self sufficient.’” Manning says, “To have a piece of property and thereby become better and more moral people—that’s the American Dream. But in Of Mice and Men, it’s not attainable.”
Each of the characters in the play has their own version of that dream to chase. George and Lennie want land and rabbits. Curley’s Wife wants to escape abject loneliness by becoming the next Lana Turner. Young ranch hand Whit just wants a comfortable chair.
“Whit’s dream is so meager, so seemingly attainable, but he can’t even get that,” Manning says. “So why is this story important to tell again and again? I think Steinbeck is making a statement about American society. I could take it even a step further and say that if Lennie on some level represents the American ethos—which is to say, well-intentioned, lumbering, essentially naïve but ultimately violent—that matches up with what many historians, many essayists, might claim about America. America is the most powerful nation, we have the weaponry, but we don’t seem to have the judgment to deploy it rationally.”
Manning acknowledges that this metaphor is dangerous territory to venture into for a director. “You can’t hit that over the head in a production because what the production comes down to are the characters and the character relationships.”
But it’s also clear that Steinbeck had some specific thoughts about American culture that he was expressing through those characters.
The fact, for example, that Curley’s Wife is the only character without a name. “The dogs in the play have names. Curley’s Wife doesn’t have a name. That wasn’t an accident,” Manning says. “It suggests at least that Steinbeck is making a statement about women in the country and their place in the American Dream and that they’re relegated to being models. She just wants nice clothes and to sit in a comfortable chair and to be photographed. Well, there weren’t a lot of options for women in the ’30s.”
Similarly, Steinbeck takes a stab at racism with his depiction of Crooks. “He puts a face and a pretty bald stamp on the question of racism in this country. And it’s undeniable in the play. You’d have to scratch you head and search for a white writer in the mid ’30s who is addressing it so honestly,” Manning says.
And those questions—of racism, of sexism—are still plaguing us.
“I mean, you tell me, are the issues of racism no longer a problem in the country, especially since the election of Obama? Well, in my opinion, no,” Manning says. “Are women in this society treated essentially equal to men? I don’t think so.”
In the years since Of Mice and Men was first written, the details of our society have changed and the scale on which we operate has expanded. You can imagine the ranch in the play—a 120-man operation—exploding into the agri-business of today. Yet in many ways, the characters’ aspirations continue to drive us. Dreams of fame change: Lana Turner becomes Kim Kardashian. A piece of land becomes a two-bedroom house. But the American Dream remains, deferred.