Virtually every playwright of the 20th century has attempted to reproduce the scope of the novel by expanding the limits of theatrical convention. Thornton Wilder, for example, attempted to illustrate the universality of human experience by spreading it over time and space. In The Long Christmas Dinner, he stretches the frequently banal experience of one family's annual holiday gathering over five generations, repeating dialogue to show us how things seem to change while remaining essentially the same.
The story line of John Steinbeck's 1950 "play-novelette" Burning Bright is spread over three locales in three acts. The first setting is a circus, where we meet the three members of an aerialist troupe--Joe Saul, an aging man who wants nothing more from life than a son, his young wife Mordeen, who would do anything to please the husband she loves, and Victor, a virile ne'er-do-well who lusts after Mordeen. In the second act we find these same people living on a farm owned by Joe Saul. He learns that his young wife, Mordeen, is pregnant; Victor, the hired hand, is distressed by this announcement, declaring his love for Mordeen and vowing to change his amoral ways. The third act takes place in a seacoast village. Mordeen is in the first stages of labor, Victor is determined to carry his child and the mother away with him, and Joe Saul has discovered the truth about how the child he thought was his was actually conceived. Watching over this petty, all-too-common intrigue is the looming figure of Friend Ed--first a circus clown offering sympathy, then a neighboring farmer offering advice, and finally a ship's captain who sets things right.
Burning Bright represents a radical departure from Steinbeck's customary naturalistic mode. But without even a veneer of realism, the sentimentality lurking beneath his gritty masculine vision is ludicrously full-blown--on occasion repugnantly so, as when Joe Saul and Victor persist in caterwauling over their paternal rights while Mordeen is in the throes of childbirth. Compounding the awkwardness of the sordid story is the uncharacteristically elevated speech, which cries out for a third-person narrator. It's one thing to say of someone that he is "released from a prison of silence," but for an earthbound mortal to say it of himself raises immediate suspicions as to his sincerity. In a novel we might accept a character who says, "I had to hide my hurt in a mountain cave of love," but when such euphuistic language is uttered before our eyes by what we are supposed to believe is an unlettered farm wife, we have to doubt. The only character who manages to escape this posturing is Friend Ed--possibly because he functions as an outsider much like a third-person narrator, more interested in the inner workings of others than in his own. And his no-nonsense advice rings truer than the egocentric revelations of those caught up in the unhappy triangle.
The Touchstone Theatre cast, directed by the always-competent Ina Marlowe, struggles with this monumentally flawed script and almost manages to rescue it by the final curtain. Major credit is due Jonathan Wilson, whose combined heroic stature and underplaying make Friend Ed a compelling selfless companion. Larry Hart and Rohanna S. Doylida pull out all their vocal tricks, trying to give verisimilitude to the stilted drivel they're forced to speak--and to their credit they succeed much of the time. But they never really achieve the Homeric stature necessary to make us believe in their high-flown professions of devotion ("You're a burning flower in my heart"). As Victor, Michael Nathaniel Robinson strives mightily to generate the requisite animal magnetism but rarely goes beyond Calvin Klein model. Kevin Snow's set and Nanette Acosta's costumes are more than adequate for the unspecified period (though the tight, fashionable boots Mordeen wears in her ninth month of pregnancy, a time when most women are barely able to cram their feet into house slippers, strike a false note). Jim Ragland's original incidental music is well chosen and orchestrated.
All their efforts can only partly save Steinbeck's weary script, an attempt ill suited to his talents. While it may be a writer's privilege to experiment, we must count ourselves fortunate that this experiment was not repeated.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barbara Hansen.