By Dawn Watson
Creating a masterpiece wasn’t enough for John Steinbeck when he wrote “Of Mice and Men.” He also needed to write something that would make people think.
The prolific Sag Harbor-based author, who also wrote “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden” and “Travels With Charley,” felt that it was his responsibility as a writer to challenge his reader. Even today, nearly 80 years after “Of Mice and Men” was published, his work still resonates, urging readers to take deeper looks into their own lives, thoughts and actions.
This was no accident, as Steinbeck penned the story of George and Lenny, two displaced migrant workers in search of the American Dream, as a morality tale. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author felt it was his mission to illustrate the themes of fate and injustice in order to create peace and understanding.
“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love,” he wrote in his personal journal not long after “Of Mice and Men” was published in 1937. “There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”
The novella is already compulsory reading in most secondary education programs. And the story of “Mice and Men,” adapted into a stage play by Steinbeck, will be performed at Bay Street Theater for this year’s installment of the “Literature Live!” series for Long Island-based middle-and high school students, as well as for adult audiences, from November 9 through November 28. It’s a brilliant fit, as the topics explored in the book and play are still achingly relevant today, says director Joe Minutillo.
“There’s the humanity, the need for people to connect with one another, loneliness, trying to make a better life for yourself, understanding special needs, giving people a chance,” he says. “These are all universal themes.”
Ava Locks, Bay Street’s Director of Education agrees that “Of Mice and Men” is an extraordinary addition to the series, especially as she discovered that Steinbeck himself wrote the play/novelette in order for it to be performed on the stage as well as read. According to her research, Ms. Locks found that the author felt that seeing the novel come to life would prove persuasively greater impact.
“This great American classic, Steinbeck’s first experiment with theatrical adaptation, speaks volumes,” she says. “It’s an engaging piece to read, but seeing it live—there’s no comparison.”
This year’s “Literature Live!” series, which is being offered for free for students, will really pack a punch, says Ms. Locks, who officially settled into her position at Bay Street in September. For the school day performances, which are expected to be attended by 3,000 students from 25 schools this year, there will be talkbacks and Q&A sessions, par usual. Additionally, select school day performances will also include a number of local experts, who will discuss the various themes explored in the novella and play. Confirmed speakers include representatives from the HH=include Long Island Parent Center, John Jermain Library, and the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars, who will address Steinbeck’s writings, the Great Depression, and the acceptance of people with visible and invisible disabilities, among other topics.
Supporting the production, which offers weekends performances for all, will include a detailed history of Mr. Steinbeck, and his wife, Elaine, who first ventured out to Sag Harbor in 1953. The author wrote many of his later books here and Ms. Steinbeck was a Bay Street trustee until her death in 2003. This information will be part of an extensive exhibit—courtesy collaborations with local organizations and artists such as the Bridgehampton Historical Society, Rogers Memorial Library, Canio’s Books, and more—in the lobby to further contextualize the serious themes explored in the play, says Ms. Locks.
The entire experience should be a powerful one for the students and for the adults who come to see the show, says Mr. Minutillo.
“Everybody has needs. Everybody can feel lost and lonely. And everyone deserves compassion” he says. “It’s important that we have empathy and sympathy for each other. That we can look at that and see it through the eyes of these characters. At the end of the day, we should be asking ourselves, ‘are we treating each other the right way?’”
“Of Mice and Men” will stage at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor from November 9 through November 28, with public performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and matinees at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 15, and Saturday, November 28. The show stars Preston Truman Boyd, Joe Pallister, Terry Brockbank, Josh Gladstone, Jon Kovach, J. Stephen Brantley, Georgia Warner, Sawyer Spielberg and Chauncy Thomas. For reservations and additional information, visit www.baystreet.org.