Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

When is a play not a play?

The American writer, John Steinbeck (1902-1968), invented a new literary form which he called ‘the play novelette’. He described it as ‘a play that is easy to read or a short novel that can be played simply by lifting out the dialogue.’ He wrote three play novelettes, only one of which, Of Mice and Men, is well known. The others, The Moon is Down and Burning Bright, have been more or less forgotten.

The conventions of script writing change over time. Today, stage directions tend to be sparse. Directors and designers discourage playwrights from interfering in what they regard as their domain. It was very different in Steinbeck’s day. Which of these two extracts is fiction and which is drama?

1) A door opened and Eben Cabot came to the end of the porch and stood looking down the road. He had a large bell in his hand and this he swung mechanically, awakening a deafening clangour. Then he put his hands on his hips and stared up at the sky. He sighed with a puzzled awe and blurted out with halting appreciation, “God! Purty!” His eyes fell and he stared about him frowningly.

2) The low-tone clarinet moaned. The door upstairs opened again. Stella slipped down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes were glistening with tears and her hair was loose about her throat and shoulders. They stared at each other. Then they came together with low, animal moans. He fell on his knees on the steps and pressed his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes went blind with tenderness as she caught his head and raised him level with her. He snatched the screen door open and lifted her off her feet and bore her into the dark flat.

Both are from plays. The first is from Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill, the second from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The only changes I have made are to put both passages into the past tense and to delete from the first the words ‘to the right’ after ‘the road’. If you put Steinbeck’s narrative into the present tense and turn his speech into dialogue, you have the same effect in reverse.

Noiselessly Lennie appears in the open doorway and stands there looking in, his big shoulders nearly filling the opening. For a moment Crooks does not see him, but on raising his eyes he stiffens and a scowl comes on his face. His hand comes out from under his shirt. Lennie smiles helplessly in an attempt to make friends.
CROOKS (sharply): You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me.
LENNIE (gulps, his smile grows more fawning): I ain’t doing nothing. Just come to look at my puppy. And I seen your light.

In the introduction to Burning Bright, Steinbeck explains why he thinks there is a need for his new hybrid form. One reason, he says, is that ‘I find it difficult to read plays, and in this I do not find myself alone. The printed play is read almost exclusively by people closely associated with the theatre, by students of the theatre, and by the comparatively small group of readers who are passionately fond of the theatre. The first reason for this form, then, is to provide a play that will be more widely read because it is presented as ordinary fiction, which is a more familiar medium.’

How he puts this is worth noting. If his aim is ‘to provide a play that will be more widely read’, the story itself must be conceived as a play, not as a novel. He acknowledges this a little later in the introduction, when he says that ‘writers of regular fiction do not care, or are not able, to submit themselves to the discipline of the theatre.’ He goes on to enumerate some of the constraints of the new form. ‘There must be no entrance into thoughts of a character unless those thoughts are clearly exposed in the dialogue. People cannot wander around geographically unless the writer has provided some physical technique for making such wanderings convincing on stage. The action must be close-built, and something must have happened to the characters when the curtain has been lowered on the final line.’ And finally: ‘The piece must be short.’

In other words, the play novelette is not merely a story told largely through dialogue, as is the case in a great deal of ‘regular fiction’, it has to be written so that it works on stage. Of Mice and Men works very well on stage. It also reads very well. If Burning Bright and The Moon is Down are less successful, the fault is not so much in the form as in the characters, none of whom quite manages to get off the page into the reader’s imagination. Perhaps they would work better as plays than they do as novels, perhaps the characters need actors to bring them to life. Their failure as novels makes it unlikely that we will ever have the opportunity of finding out.

‘Despite its difficulty,’ Steinbeck concludes, ‘the play novelette is highly rewarding. It gives a play a wide chance of being read and a piece of fiction a chance of being played without the usual revision. I think it is a legitimate form and one that can stand a great deal of exploration.’

Which leaves me with two thoughts. First, why has it not be taken up by other writers? After all, it gave Steinbeck perhaps his greatest success. Second, if novels can be adapted for the stage, as they often are, why should plays not be turned into novels? Steinbeck was certainly right that most people find it difficult to read plays. So why not bring plays to a wider public by presenting them in the ‘more familiar medium’ of ‘ordinary fiction’? All you would have to do would be to put the stage directions in the past tense.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)

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Wednesday 17 February 2016
Italo Calvino

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2016 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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