Friday, November 7, 2014

Of Mice and Men: Classic & Timeless

Have you every read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men? Published in 1937, the novella/play was required reading for my high school English program and I fell in love with it then. I'm thrilled that it's required reading this year for my son. It is one of the most beautiful stories ever written with a theme that is relevant and stirring even today.

Did you realize that or did this classic work appear dull, dated, or unworthy of note? Did you know that Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for its vulgarity and what some even consider offensive and racist language? It's a story about some rough, real people so it doesn't sugar coat. Did you know it appears on American Library Association's list of Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century

Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck at his best, telling the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant ranch workers in California who move from place to place in search of job opportunities and a dream during the Great Depression. These two men maintain a unique though volatile friendship and face more than just the challenges of getting work and surviving during a desperate time in our history.

Lennie is mentally-challenged. He's sweet and simple and hopes for a day when he and George have their own place and he can tend the rabbits there. Sounds nice, huh? But it's Steinbeck so we know there will be a catch. Well, Lennie is also very strong and very big ... and this simple-minded man is drawn to soft things which he likes to touch.  He has no filters. This makes him very dangerous. In his past he's done bad things that he didn't mean to do. There have been consequences. But George has taken responsibility for him. And though George is harsh at times, he genuinely cares for Lennie.  

Enough of the plot. You'll have to read it to discover what happens.

Of Mice and Men takes its title from a Robert Burns poem To A Mouse, which read: "The best laid schemes o mice an' men / Gang aft agley."  In plain English: "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry." 

Yes, yes they do.

See all the characters in this story share a similar longing and a similar dream. They do their best in non ideal circumstances and despite all odds to nurture hope. They struggle with the same things -- no matter how different they are physically, emotionally or personally.  The characters seek to connect ... something that in some amazingly unique way, George and Lennie have already achieved. Against all odds, George and Lennie have built a bond and connection that the other people in this story envy and are desperate to find.

Curley's Wife, the only woman in the play, simply wants someone to talk to. And someone to listen to her.

Curley, the boss' son, has an inferiority complex because he is small of stature. And he's always picking fights and running around the ranch looking for his wife.

Candy, the oldest character, has an old dog. His only friend. And when he loses that dog, he loses a part of his soul.

Slim, the main driver on the team, is a loner by nature. He recognizes and is fascinated by George and Lennie's genuine care for each other. The idea that they travel together is foreign to him. He envies their friendship.

Crooks is the black man on the ranch. Though allowed to play horse-shoes with the men 'til dark, he's banished to separate quarters and denied access to the bunk-house.

George and Lennie have a dream. They hope one day to settle down on their own piece of land. To live a simple life as they please on their terms. Together. Candy is drawn in to this dream. This dream gives him -- along with George, Lennie and even Crooks  -- hope. And it is hope and a longing for a connection to others that fundamentally drives these characters. It bonds them. They desperately long for a connection.

These characters are not all that different from you and me ... from people today. The characters dream of a place where they can be themselves. They dream of people who understand them and to whom they can connect. They hope. 

So do we. We hope. We seek genuine, authentic relationships. Oh we don't do it in a bunkhouse on a ranch. We use other methods and media. But the goal is the same. Genuine Connection. And that's why I love this play. It has meaning and it is relevant ... even 75 years after original publication.

Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to see the Broadway revival of the play staring James Franco and Chris O'Dowd. The final performance was filmed and aired for one performance only nationwide on November 6. My friend who joined me had never read the play or story. She was moved to tears.

The theme is not so complex. To hope for simple pleasures. To seek someone to talk to who will genuinely listen and care. To find someone who you truly connect with. And to honor that connection. 

That's Of Mice and Men. And yes, sadly Steinbeck was right. Those kind of simple plans often go awry. But there is always Hope. Steinbeck gives us that. 

                                                                                                                     -- Jenni