Discuss the social and historical implications of the dreams of American migrant workers in the 1930s and compare the ways these are expressed through the media of Steinbeck’s novel, cinema, stage and contemporary country music
In the 1930s, a Great Depression spread across America, dominating the political landscape. Thousands of Americans lost their jobs as banks collapsed and industries closed. Many men turned to, what the critic Morseburger calls, “Jeffersonian agrarianism”; they roved west, seeking jobs on farms. Jefferson was an American President who believed that many opportunities were to be taken in the West. These were known as the migrant farm workers. Many families and friends were pulled apart, rendering many people lonely and cynical about success and dreams. However, many people shared a dream: the American Dream – the dream of getting your own land and living happily and comfortably on your own ranch.
In Steinbeck’s novel, two main characters share this dream – Lennie and George. Lennie and George are different from most migrant farm workers in that they travel together, almost as brothers, and protect each other. They plan to “get the jack together” and “have a little house and a couple of acres”. The most dramatically significant part of their dream is Lennie’s wish to “tend the rabbits”. Steinbeck energises this semantic field around animals throughout the novel to create a sense of fate and tragedy. Lennie’s dream is very childlike, but it also has tragic undertones.
During the course of the novel, we meet a character called Candy, a “tall, stoop-shouldered old man”. Steinbeck immediately makes a point of that he is old and disabled, telling us that American society discriminates against the elderly – “I got hurt four year ago. They’ll can me purty soon.” The dog he owns is also old and “useless”. The other workers decide to shoot the dog in the back of the head, simply because he “stinks” and is not helpful in work. Candy’s dog was his only friend, and Steinbeck is telling us how profoundly cruel American society is. Candy turns to Lennie, another victim of society, for companionship. Lennie is described as an animal, “a bear” that “drags his paws”, and this may be the reason why Candy feels close to him; he can relate Lennie back to his dog.
Candy, like many migrant farm workers, shares the American Dream and wishes to join Lennie and George in theirs. His offer of money makes the dream seem realistic for a brief period, as it is physically possible to buy the land they are after. However, the dream runs deeper than the physical world. If Candy did achieve his dream, questions would be raised such as, ‘has he truly escaped discrimination in American society?’ and ‘what will he live for now?’ Steinbeck clearly does not believe that the poor and dispossessed can ever share the American dream, and he is almost speaking of the dream as though it is a tragedy in itself. Very few people achieve and live the Dream to its full, and minority groups certainly do not.
Another character in the novel is tempted to join in with Lennie, George and Candy’s dream, but he realises that he’ll never achieve it to it’s full. The character, Crooks, is discriminated against in society because he is black and disabled – “the stable buck’s a nigger”. Initially, Crooks is very sceptical of the dream. He says it’s “Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan'”. Steinbeck is saying that many people don’t ever achieve the Dream. Steinbeck clearly did not hold conventional religious beliefs, as he is saying that the Dream does not exist… just like Heaven. He is also linking this metaphor of Heaven with the Garden of Eden imagery we see at the beginning of the novel, creating another semantic field round religious themes. Steinbeck is stating that religion has also failed American society, as it is of no consolation to the lonely migrant farm workers and minority groups.
Lennie’s child-like, innocent persistence eventually convinces Crooks to “come an’ lend a hand”. However, he is shortly pushed out of the dream when Curley’s wife threatens to have him lynched – “I could get you strung up on a tree”. He tells George to “jus’ forget it”, realising that there is no escape from racism in society. His American Dream is completely hopeless.
The dreams that these characters share in “Of Mice and Men” are expressed in very different ways throughout the different kinds of media. What might work well for one type of media may seem out-of-place and create problems for another kind of media. For example, Lennie hallucinates his Aunt Clara and a giant rabbit in the novel. The mood of the scene is intended to be very tragic and upsetting, but it would be comical to an audience in a theatre if a giant rabbit suddenly appeared on-stage. It would ruin the scene and the climax of the novel.
In the novel, the dreams and the reality of them are expressed remarkably clearly. Steinbeck uses all kinds of different techniques to do this, primarily by forming images in the readers mind – religious imagery, political issues and vivid descriptions. In writing, it is possible to delve deeper into each character’s feelings and intentions. Because the reader cannot physically see the characters, the intrinsic elements of them are conveyed more vividly than in cinema or stage. Steinbeck’s novel allegorises the roles each character plays and what it is they stand for, making Steinbeck’s own political views become apparent.
Because of this, the American Dream and the tragic reality of it become harshly clear to a sensitive reader. The death of Curley’s wife is the turning point in the story when George’s, Lennie’s, and Candy’s dream is destroyed. Steinbeck expresses the destruction of this dream by ‘stopping’ time – “sound stopped and movement stopped”. This surrealism has an emotional impact on the reader that would be difficult to effectively recreate on film or in theatre. Also, after the death, Steinbeck starts to emphasise the tragic inevitability that is present throughout the novel. He refers back to the start of the novel with the ‘Garden Of Eden’ setting and animal imagery – “George ain’t gonna let me tend no rabbits now”. This makes it much more upsetting because it reminds the reader of the brotherly love present at the beginning.
A sentence that could be used to summarise George’s and Lennie’s failure to get their dream is “The best laid plans o’ Mice and Men, Gang oft a gley”. These words are from the Robert Burns’ poem ‘To A Mouse’. The title of the poem is an important reference to Lennie’s dream of rabbits. Burns’ uses the mouse as a metaphor for the dream, and is lamenting over the tragedy of the dream just as Lennie killed the mouse.
When a novel is adapted for theatre, the characters and issues that arise need to be expressed in a much more explicit way than the novel. The same is of ‘Of Mice and Men’. Steinbeck intended his novel to be performed on stage from the start, evident through his vivid description and use of ‘theatre-friendly’ geometrical lines – “long rectangular building”. Jonathan Church produced the stage production I went to see, and Matthew Kelly played the part of Lennie. Church stuck closely with Steinbeck’s script, but due to the limitations of stage, he was not able to re-create the dreamy opening sequence that is present in the novel. Instead, Simon Higlett’s setting at the beginning consisted of six stacks of hay and a water pool (which remained there throughout the production) in the foreground.
I think he was trying to establish the farming environment where much of the events take place, making everything clear to the audience early on. Jonathon attempted to recreate the fire that George and Lennie sit around. The fire has some significance to the narrative in that it represents the beginning and end of something, in this case, the start of the tragedy and the destruction of the dream. However, this did not work particularly well in the theatre as other lighting was dominant and it was small – not much emphasis was placed on it.
Despite this, Tim Mitchell followed Steinbeck’s lighting very carefully. For example, when the tragedy of Curley’s wife occurs, the source of light was very low, casting long, gloomy shadows across the stage. The effective use of this lighting added to the mood of the play and emphasised the failure of the American Dream. The setting and lighting throughout the novel was extremely effective and helpful for the audience to recognise the wider significance of the dreams and events that occur in the production.
Jonathon Church decided to leave some pieces out of the theatre version that were present in the novel. For example, he excised Curley’s wife’s threats that undermine Crook’s enthusiasm for the dream. This may be because this would have made Curley’s wife appear malicious to the audience, while Steinbeck wanted her to be seen as a victim of society. If the part had been included in the theatre, this could have misled the audience into think she ‘is just the same as bad as the other workers’, but with the novel, it works because a greater interest in Curley’s wife’s inner life is taken. It would not have been as clear on-stage.
The actor who played Lennie was Matthew Kelly, well known to the British public for his appearance in numerous productions and programs, such as Stars In Their Eyes. Matthew had evidently put a lot of thought into his character. He very cleverly kept as close to the character George as he could most of the time, successfully showing the audience how dependent Lennie was on George. Matthew was also good at imitating a man with learning difficulties; he ‘correctly’ slopped beans down his dungarees at the beginning (as in the novel) and he was generally clumsy in his actions. However, there were times when Matthew reverted from his ‘Lennie voice’ back to his usual voice.
On the whole, I enjoyed the production. It expressed the American Dream in a very explicit way through the use of imaginative acting not described in great detail by the book, especially by Matthew Kelly (his constant need to be close to George).
‘Of Mice and Men’ was also adapted for cinema, by Gary Sinise. It is similar to the stage production in that it has to express everything in a crystal clear way to the audience (including the dreams!). However, I did not enjoy the film as much as I did the theatre version, as the actors did not seem to take a genuine interest in their characters (apart from John Malkovich, who played Lennie). The acting was generally very wooden and unimaginative. This may be because the film was shot about five decades after the events in the novel, and the actors did not fully invest their characters with enough depth and feeling. This is where I tend to agree with Geoffrey Macnab’s criticism of the film being a “lacklustre ramble through an old favourite”.
Gary Sinise has attempted to build up an iconography in the film with close-up shots of items such as the weapon used to kill Candy’s dog and Lennie. However, the hallucination of Aunt Clara and the giant rabbit by Lennie is still not feasible in cinema, as the same comical effect described previously would be achieved. Despite this, the scene at the beginning with the fire in worked really well compared with the theatre version. There were virtually no other light sources present, emphasising the fire and its significance with the dreams.
As Jonathon Church did, Sinise left out Curley’s wife’s threats to Crooks. He did this probably for the same reason as Church did, but other issues may have needed consideration, such as the running time of the film! Sinise also changed a few other elements around. For example, the opening and closing sequences of the film feature George lost in thought on a train and travelling alone, enveloped with shadow. The establishing shot of the film is rather unusual in that it is not wide angle, and does not inform the audience of the setting of the film. However, it does set the tone of the narrative, adding to the sense of fate throughout the production, as the audience knows what is to become of George. Another thing Sinise has changed is the placement of the sequence involving the girl with the red dress. We do not learn of this until later on in the novel, but Sinise places it right at the beginning; probably for clarity once again.
Colour is used extremely well throughout the film, which I think is the advantage that cinema has over the novel and theatre. The colours express the dreams and reality of them more vividly than the colours described in the novel, and emphasis cannot really be placed on colour as easily in theatre. Sinise cleverly used light and shadow in the production, creating and continuing a constant paradox between them as one scene cuts to the next. This may be an implicit way of showing the audience the positive side of the American dream and what could possibly be achieved, the light, and what in reality the dream actually is, the shadow.
Like Matthew Kelly, John Malkovich plays Lennie with imagination and originality. He constantly gestures with his hands and becomes very close to touching anyone he interacts with, especially George. This tells the audience that he needs to be in contact with everything; he needs to communicate in a way other than words. This adds to the imitation of a man with severe learning difficulties, but it also symbolises that Lennie is within touching distance of achieving his child-like dream of rabbits. Another, more explicit symbol of Lennie’s childishness are the costumes that Malkovich and Matthew wore; blue, ragged dungarees with a hat, very much like what a child would wear in that era.
Although the novel made me recognise the reality of many dreams and the stage and cinema productions reinforced this by expressing the dreams in different ways, for me the far most touching and sincere media that did this is contemporary country music. The people who sang these folk songs did so right from their hearts. The song I listened to was called ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’, which on the surface appeared to be very child-like, just like Lennie – “The cops have wooden legs, The bulldogs all have rubber teeth”. The singer is mocking the American dream.
This mockery sheds light on where Steinbeck began with his novel; he started writing for children and the song is apparently for children. The singer is also very mocking of the dream of Heaven – “streams of alkyhol, Come trickling down the rocks”. This semantic field links in with when God told Moses to strike the rock so streams of milk will come down. Also, the ‘big rock candy mountain’, can be seen as a metaphor for heaven.
The singer evidently does not care much for law and order – “The cops have wooden legs”, and his hopes about the weather are very unrealistic – “Where there ain’t no snow, Where the sleet don’t fall, And the winds don’t blow”. He is saying that the law doesn’t exist in dreams, and the weather is not an issue at all in dreams! The impossibility of these hopes backs up the idea that the American dream can never be achieved.
I find that novel and song are the most effective ways of expressing the tragedy of the American dream. However, all of the dreams evoked from all kinds of media are tragic, and it is upsetting how so many people need to believe in a dream to find something to live for. All of the media deliver one message: dreams don’t come true.