In 1937 Covici Friede published John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men, the story of ranch hands George Milton and his feeble-minded but huge companion Lennie Small. Lennie is amiable, but doesn’t know his own strength. It is George who tries to keep Lennie in check and protects him even though Lennie’s actions have cost the pair job after job so that they become drifters constantly looking for work.
Lennie enjoys it when George repeats their dream like a mantra.
“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong to no place,” George repeats the story.
The delighted Lennie responds, “Now tell how it is with us.”
“With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.” He goes on, “Someday — we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and — “
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouts.
The book helped solidify Steinbeck as a major writer. He had already written The Pastures of Heaven, an extraordinary book that the public didn’t notice when first published in 1933, but then he broke through with the bestseller Tortilla Flat, followed by the best strike novel of the 20th Century, In Dubious Battle. Then came Of Mice and Men. It was to be followed by The Red Pony, then one of the best short story collections, The Long Valley, and then his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
It was a momentous decade for the still-young Steinbeck who decided to make Of Mice and Men into a stage play, the first and most successful of his three experiments with play writing. It was also made into a successful movie with Burgess Meredith playing George and Lon Chaney, Jr. playing Lennie.
So you would think that the Broadway production was its world premiere, but you would be wrong. The play had its first production by the San Francisco Theater Union May 21, 1937 which opened the theatre company’s new theatre at 629 Green Street. The theatre company’s “principal purpose is to develop a theatre which will deal adequately with current social, economic and cultural problems.” Sal Pizzo played George and Wellman Farley played Lennie. Farley was president of the San Francisco Theatre Union School.
On Broadway Wallace Ford played George and Broderick Crawford played Lennie. In that time when there were no Tony awards, the play won the 1938 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best play.