From Bestseller to Broadway: A History of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

By Robert Simonson
19 Jan 2014

John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men's Broadway bow was instigated by Kaufman, who, shortly after reading the book, reportedly said, "I don't know if there's a dollar in it, but it's got to be prepared for the stage and Steinbeck's the man to do it," before wiring Steinbeck at his California ranch asking for the dramatic rights.

A week after the deal was made, Steinbeck began writing the play; he finished the work at Kaufman's Pennsylvania estate. The writer left the casting to the more experienced Kaufman, saying, "I don't go the theatre much, and I don't know a darn thing about actors."

The play opened at the Music Box Theatre Nov. 23, 1937. The production was a critical hit, running for 207 performances (a healthy run for a play in those days). New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Mr. Steinbeck has caught on paper two odd and lovable farm vagrants whose fate is implicit in their characters. As the director, George S. Kaufman has put it on the stage with consummate adroitness. Although many people may shy away from the starkness of the fable, everyone will admire the honesty of the author's mind and the clarity of its statement in the theatre. There is considerable magnificence in the tight-lipped telling of this singular tragedy in the comradeship of two footloose men."

Of Mice and Men was chosen by the august New York Drama Critics Circle as the Best Play of 1938, besting Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which was produced the same season. Years later, Atkinson — though he had liked the work when it came out, calling it a "masterpiece of the New York stage" — would observe in his book Broadway, "Of Mice and Men became a statistic, Our Town became a classic."

Critic Harold Clurman, writing about the plays of the 1930s years later, noted that Of Mice and Men represented "a time when the theatre, along with the other arts, rediscovered America," grouping it with such plays as Green Grow the Lilacs, Tobacco Road and Morning's at Seven.

In 1939, the production moved to Los Angeles. Ford repeated his work as George, but Lennie was played by film actor Lon Chaney, Jr. As a result of his appearance in the show, Chaney was then cast in the 1939 film, opposite Burgess Meredith as George.

Strangely, Steinbeck never saw the Broadway production. He reportedly told Kaufman that, since he felt the play was perfect as a piece of writing, any physical production of it could only prove a letdown. However, he did instruct his publisher, Pascal Covici, to attend the opening night of the play and then relay a blow-by-blow account over the phone.

Of Mice and Men was revived in 1974 on Broadway, starring Kevin Conway and James Earl Jones as George and Lennie. The production, directed by Edwin Sherin, ran for 61 performances.