Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review - Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
John Steinbeck © 1950

This is one of Steinbeck's play novelettes, a format he created and unfortunately doesn't appear to have caught on. Like a play, the story is short, confined to few “sets”, and the action is carried by the dialog. But unlike a play, the supporting narrative paints a vibrant scene, paints the characters and otherwise fills out the sparse canvas that is the usual written play. It is an utterly enjoyable and fulfilling read, that I'd also love to see in a theater.

This story was written in three acts. A young wife yearns to give her beloved husband the child he craves. Unbeknownst to the husband, a childhood illness has left him sterile. He descends into a frightening depression, obsessed with the idea that the blood is where his considerable talents are stored and can only be passed in this way. Then there is a young man who works her husband with the same black eyes, and his wife wonders…

The remarkable thing about this book is that the scenes are completely changed for each act. In the first act the characters are circus performers, in the second they are farmers (and had always been farmers), in the third they are sailors. At first I wondered if Steinbeck had been smoking something funny when he wrote it this way, then I as I read on I could see the genius in it. The characters and their roles were unchanged, but the change of scene brought out different aspects of the characters and added an entirely new flavor and enhanced the mood of the scene. It was fascinating to watch one plot be told in three different parallel lifetimes.

Steinbeck was an artist of the truest kind. He could paint within the lines of reality in the most compelling fashion, but then he could go abstract and bend your mind and create something unique, heartbreaking and beautiful—all in about an hour and a half of your time.


I read that this book was subjected to intense criticism that derailed his play novelette writing. I wish he would have written his detractors and play novelette of their own, in which they meet a grisly end—he certainly had the talent for grisly endings. It is startling to know, that a writer as ballsy as Steinbeck could be hurt by criticism—he certainly didn’t write to bring warm fuzzy tingles to the masses—and I'll always wonder what stories he kept to himself because of it.

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