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.