“The canvas walls of the dressing tent were discolored with brown water spots, green grass stains and grey streaks of mildew, and the prickles of sun glittering came through.”
This is a book I bought and almost immediately regretted because the more I looked at it and thought about it, the less I wanted to read it. It reminds me of a weird mix of the Christopher Isherwood/Aldous Huxley book “Jacob’s Hands” mixed with a Thornton Wilder play. It says it’s a play in stories. But really, it’s a story. It’s kind of three, but really it’s one. What Steinbeck means by the subtitle is that he was trying to effect a new genre or form where a fictional piece has a lot of dialogue, and plenty of narration, but the narration is objective third person, and scene setting, but not essential to meaning. The dialogue could be lifted and the resultant text could be performed as a play. Not a terrible thing, and plenty of plays read like this and plenty of fiction reads like this. The problem is that the story is terrible and so is the writing. I normally like John Steinbeck a lot and some of his writing is as good as it gets in American literature. And it’s not like he’s lost the plot here, he still has East of Eden, Winter of our Discontent, and Travels with Charley in the tank here. This one is just a dud.
The play is morality play about a married couple — an older man and a much younger woman — the man desperately wants a child, but seems past his prime. The wife sleeps with the man’s employee and conceives, but that man now feels owed to the child and her love. A fourth character is often on the scene acting as a kind of chorus figure. The issue is that each act changes the scene inexplicably. I don’t mean the action move, but instead the play transforms into a new setting, carrying along the plot in this new context. First, it’s a circus with clowns (the characters are clowns), next it’s a farm, and finally aboard a ship. Why? Why not? (Oh why not? Because it’s bad.)