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Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form…
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Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (Penguin Classics) (original 1951; edition 2006)

by John Steinbeck, John Ditsky (Introduction)

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4041337,397 (3.31)15
Member:pbirch01
Title:Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (Penguin Classics)
Authors:John Steinbeck
Other authors:John Ditsky (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (2006), Paperback, 128 pages
Collections:Your library
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Burning Bright by John Steinbeck (1951)

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» See also 15 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Self-described as a 'play-novelette', John Steinbeck's Burning Bright is an experiment that does yield results. Steinbeck wanted to provide the experience of a stage play by enhancing it with contextual prose, and Burning Bright does have the vibe of a theatre production. How much of this is down to the power of suggestion created by Steinbeck's introduction I do not know, but it is an interesting experience. Even if the plot itself is not particularly remarkable – standard 1950s soap-opera fare about whether a put-upon girl caught in a love triangle should keep the baby – the book is a worthwhile novelty.

But beyond the concept of a play-novelette, there is another (less successful) experiment: how to find honour in cuckoldry. The central idea is that a woman and her husband want a child (he seems desperately to need one) but the husband believes he is sterile. So, without his knowledge the wife sleeps with another man – a hired hand – and gets pregnant so her husband can have a child. As you can imagine, this does not go as planned and in true stage-play fashion these three characters bounce off one another in small confines as they work through the emotions and problems their situation presents.

It is quite interesting, but there is one flaw in it that almost proves fatal: is Victor (the other man) the only other man around with working semen? The husband, Joe Saul, hates this man and with good reason; particularly in the first Act, Victor comes across as a sleazeball, and takes pleasure in cuckolding Joe Saul (who is, as cliché demands, a thoroughly decent and trusting man with a bit of a slag for a wife). But the reader comes to terms with this as it is a necessary conceit so that Steinbeck can explore the moral of the story. It's awkward, but we can sort of play ball with the author here.

But then, when Victor threatens to tell Joe Saul (of course – I bet you didn't see that coming!), the wife, Mordeen, offers to keep sleeping with him so he stays silent (I don't know, presumably until the kid graduates from college). The love-triangle dynamics did have me questioning my own views on the whole affair – and on family, legacy and the like – so credit to Steinbeck there, but it is undermined a bit by Mordeen's willingness to do whatever it takes, particularly when that whatever it takes conveniently involves spreading her legs for other men. It is one of the tell-tale signs that drama is being manufactured when characters are tying themselves in knots and backing themselves into corners over things that in real life could easily be resolved by a simple conversation.

When it comes to the role of the characters in the play, Mordeen's not really playing her part (and that's on Steinbeck). Victor and Joe Saul both represent the contradictions of fatherhood and manhood (one is sterile but kind-hearted and strong; the other is virile but vindictive and feckless), but for the play to work Mordeen has to be seen as some sort of self-sacrificing, put-upon woman, helplessly torn between two strains of 'toxic masculinity' (as some might call it today). She is the pivot to the story, but it is a role that the character fails to fulfil. She's just too damn easy. Now, God knows there are self-justificatory women like Mordeen in this world, but it seems strange for Steinbeck to aggrandize trampiness, to try and portray it as some sort of sacrifice on behalf of the human race, as though putting it about indiscriminately is keeping the torch of humanity going (the 'burning bright' of the title). It is certainly a peculiar literary creation: the noble slut. For this reason, and for the more prosaic ones mentioned earlier, Burning Bright is a novelty. And perhaps because of that, it may just be worth your time. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Dec 8, 2017 |
John Steinbeck is universally known for his gritty tales of realism. Most people associate Steinbeck's name with The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Some know the author's family epic, East of Eden, while others relish in his humorous tales of drunken exploits, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat... Few seem to recognize Steinbeck for his vast trove of work, not only in print, but on screen and on stage. Throughout his career, from beginning to end, Steinbeck refused to grow stagnant by merely reinventing his most famous work. From Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown, through Viva Zapata and The Wayward Bus, and concluding with The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck dabbled in many styles and mediums. Although he was very frustrated with the outcomes of his work in film and theatre, he never gave up. In the middle of all this was one experimental play full of potential, but which flopped and has largely been forgotten.

Burning Bright may be the most strange remnant of Steinbeck's existing work. The story itself is fairly straight-forward, but the approach in setting and dialogue are experimental. In his hope to create a modern morality play, Steinbeck utilized language in a tone that bore similarity to the Greek tragedy. With a cast of only four characters, the play is simple, yet in an attempt to make the story universal (implied by Steinbeck's original title “Everyman”), these four characters are transplanted from the transient life of circus workers to a farm and then out to the sea. There is no explanation for these shifts, and though they are out of place, I don't think an explanation is needed.

As a play, particularly one written by John Steinbeck, produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, enacted by a stellar cast briefly on Broadway, Burning Bright was a failure. Steinbeck was overambitious and this may have come across to many as pretentiousness. In no time after the play had opened and quickly folded, Steinbeck issued an apology in which he addressed the response the play garnered and expressed his own disappointment. He concludes the apology
I have had fun with my work and I shall insist on continuing to have fun with it. And it has been my great good fortune in the past, as I hope it will be in the future, to find enough people to go along with me to the extent of buying books, so that I may eat and continue to have fun. I do not believe that I can much endanger or embellish the great structure of English literature.
Indeed, there are those who were and continue to be disappointed with Steinbeck's desire to have fun; they want the serious author whose entire focus is on migrant workers. And there were and continue to be those who point to works such as Burning Bright and say, “Steinbeck was immensely overrated—look at this drivel!” Steinbeck, just wanted to have a little fun. And though the subject of Burning Bright is rather dark and dramatic, the presentation allowed the author certain freedoms that must have been amusing.

Burning Bright is clearly not Steinbeck's best moment, but it is not a bad work at all. Its ambitions and charm make up for its showy appearance. And yet, despite its exaggerated delivery, it is such a simple play, devoid of any extra ornamentation, which deals with questions of love and sacrifice. So that whether you're a circus clown, a farmer, or a ship's captain, you may be drawn into this universal and poetic tale. ( )
  chrisblocker | Feb 17, 2017 |
Steinbeck was experimenting with this book. He tells the reader so in a foreword in which he explains that plays for the theater are rarely read by anyone other than the actors. Steinbeck wanted to create something more accessible to general readers and to keep alive the stories that are within plays. He also thought that more description of characters within the format of a short novel/play would give actors a better base to work from. That's the theory here anyway. The story was published in 1950.

The result for me: I didn't really like this. Didn't hate it. It didn't feel like a Steinbeck novel. The story and characters couldn't get a hook in me. Lots of angst over achieving immortality by passing on one's bloodline. A man is going crazy about not fathering a child. Did I say this was heavy on the angst? The 4 characters here don't act like people. What I like about Steinbeck is the sense of place. Of course characters are important but Steinbeck had a skill with giving one a sense of the land the people in his stories were tied to, and that gets short shrift here. This short novel is a play/melodrama thing initially set in a circus then a farm, then the sea. I think I'll watch a Douglas Sirk film when I want 50's melodrama. Steinbeck was trying something different and this is different, and strange. Steinbeck is a bit clever here though, telling us the story in three different places and ways in the three acts. Unlike the play "Of Mice and Men" however, this just isn't very good. I'm not sorry I read this but I suspect this must be the weakest thing Steinbeck ever published. ( )
  RBeffa | Jul 12, 2016 |
Steinbeck describes this as a play in story form. In his introduction, he suggests that this form of writing has a lot of potential because it makes plays easier for people to read and it gives actors and production crews more insight into what the author intended the performance to be like. It's an interesting idea, but I think the story he chose to tell needed a bit more development than could be included in such a short novel.

The characters are Joe Saul; his wife, Mordeen; their friend, Ed; and a hired man, Victor. Joe's family has been in the same profession for as many generations as they can trace back, and Joe is very upset that he hasn't had a child yet to pass on his bloodline and all the history that goes with it. When she realizes that Joe is the one who is biologically unable to father a child, Mordeen's love for him leads her to sleep with Victor so that she can give Joe the child he so desperately wants. The really interesting thing about this novel/play is that each act continues the same story with the same characters, but places the story in a different setting. The characters are circus performers in the first act, farmers in the second, and sailors in the third.

This book has a lot of good qualities, but I don't think Steinbeck reached it's full potential. Since it was a play, he kept it short and didn't have enough time to fully develop the characters or the story. I also found myself doubting that any of the characters were educated enough to be having some of the really deep conversations that they had. It is a very interesting read, however, and worth the time. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
I love this book so much - if anyone ever puts it on as a play i want to see it! ( )
  RowanShield | Oct 24, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Steinbeckprimary authorall editionscalculated
Binnendijk-Paauw, M.G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ditsky, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stahl, BenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The canvas walls of the dressing-tent were discoloured with brown water spots, with green grass stains and grey streaks of mildew, and the prickles of sun glittering came through.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
1950 novella written as an experiment with producing a play in novel format. Rather than providing only the dialogue and brief stage directions as would be expected in a play, Steinbeck fleshes out the scenes with details of both the characters and the environment. The story is a simple morality play concerning Joe Saul, an ageing man desperate for a child. His young wife, Mordeen, who loves him, suspects that he is sterile, and in order to please him by bearing him a child, she becomes pregnant by Saul's cocky young assistant, Victor. The fourth character in the story is Friend Ed, a long time friend of Saul and Mordeen, who helps the couple through the ordeal after Joe discovers that he is indeed infertile and the child can not be his.
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A man can't scrap his bloodline, can't snip the thread of immortality. Such is the strength of Joe Saul's desperate longing for a child, that he feels as if a dark curse is upon him after three unfruitful years of marriage. Yet unbeknownst to him, he is sterile. His beautiful, young, devoted wife loves him so much that she secretly conceives the child of another man. But when Joe discovers her deception, his anguish is greater than ever before.… (more)

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