Of the many novels by John Steinbeck that have been brought to the screen or stage, his 1937 work Of Mice and Men has proved an enduring favorite. The reasons for this are arguably twofold. First, the story of two itinerant farm workers looking for work in California is less attached to the social politics of the time in which the story is set, as is often the case in other Steinbeck works such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl. In other words, the story is less dated; it's a tale of people more than grand themes.
More importantly, however — in terms of the title's producibility — is the allure of the two leading roles to actors. Since the book came out, the parts of smart, protective George and his large, dim-witted friend Lennie have been catnip to performers. It is no wonder that the book was adapted for the stage the same year it was released, and was made into a film just two years later.
The 1937 Broadway stage production of Of Mice and Men was written by Steinbeck himself — the first stage work to reach Broadway, as well as the first Steinbeck story to be mounted there. The book, in fact, was written by Steinbeck as a kind of hybrid between a novel and a play, with the story divided into three acts consisting of two chapters each, and was intended to work both as a literary and theatrical text. (Steinbeck would attempt a similar thing with his later works The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright, both of which would also play on Broadway.) The Broadway production was backed by a team of seasoned pros. It was produced by Sam H. Harris, the onetime producing partner of George M. Cohan, and staged by playwright-director George S. Kaufman. The cast included Wallace Ford, an English-born actor with numerous stage and film credits, as George and Broderick Crawford, then an unknown, as Lennie. Crawford would go on the Hollywood fame as the Oscar-winning star of "All the King's Men" and "Born Yesterday." Sam Byrd played the taunting Curley, Claire Luce was Curley's flirtatious wife, Will Geer was cast as the kindly Slim and Leigh Whipper — the first African-American member of Actors' Equity Association — played Crooks.
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.