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The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's portrait of a farming family forced to abandon their land is a prescient story of the climate refugee.

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Company: New Theatre
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The Grapes of Wrath

Date: 1 Jul 2019

John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) was an American author of novels, non-fiction and short stories.

He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Red Pony (1937).

His novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, is considered his masterpiece. The book won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, one of the thousands of poor tenant farming families driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures.

Severe drought hit the Midwest and Southern Great Plains regions of the United States in 1930. Massive dust storms began in 1931, and a series of drought years followed, further exacerbating the environmental disaster. By 1934, an estimated 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land had been rendered useless for farming, while another 125 million acres – an area roughly three-quarters the size of Texas – was rapidly losing its topsoil.

The gale-force winds carried the Great Plains topsoil as far as Washington DC, New York city, and the Atlantic Ocean. The worst of the storms occurred on 14 April 1935, which news reports dubbed ‘Black Sunday’, when as many as three million tons of topsoil are estimated to have blown off the Great Plains in a wall of dust and sand that started in the Oklahoma Panhandle and headed east.

The area affected became known as ‘The Dust Bowl’ and this phenomenon intensified the crushing economic impacts of the Great Depression. Roughly 2.5 million people left the Dust Bowl states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico during the 1930s in search of work and better living conditions. It was the largest migration in American history.

Oklahoma alone lost 440,000 people to migration, with many travelling west. From 1935 to 1940, roughly 250,000 Oklahoma migrants moved to California, a third settling in the state’s agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley.

These Dust Bowl refugees were called ‘Okies’, which soon became a term of disdain used to refer to any poor Dust Bowl migrant, regardless of their state of origin. Many of them lived in shantytowns and tents along the irrigation ditches that bordered the fields in which they worked. They faced discrimination and drew pitiable wages from their menial labour as pickers of peas, potatoes, carrots, cotton, and fruit.

The US Government wasn’t blind to the severity of the situation and, as part of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the Farm Security Administration was established to fight rural poverty. The FSA is most famous today for its small but highly influential photography program: between 1935 – 44, photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein were employed to document the challenges of rural poverty. These evocative images, numbering well over 170,000, are a lasting testament to this terrible period of natural and human disaster.

John Steinbeck was no stranger to the lives of the ‘Okies’ and based his epic on visits he made to the migrant camps and tent cities of the workers, seeing firsthand the horrible living conditions of migrant families. He masterfully depicted the struggle to retain dignity and to preserve the family in the face of disaster, adversity, and vast, impersonal commercial influences. His novel, with its easily accessible, colloquial style, was widely welcomed and hailed by working-class readers, though it was just as widely panned by business and government officials who took umbrage at its socialist overtones and denounced it as “communist propaganda”; some local areas, including Kern County, California, where the fictional Joad family settles, branded the book libellous and even burned copies of it and banned it from libraries and schools. Nonetheless, it was the top-selling novel of 1939.

Steinbeck plainly stated his purpose in writing the novel: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Depression and the plight of the worker].” The title was taken from The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored). “I like the song because it is a kind of march and this book is a kind of march,” said Steinbeck.

Frank Galati adapted and directed The Grapes of Wrath for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The production marked the company’s Broadway debut, and went on to win the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play. New Theatre is thrilled to be presenting the Sydney premiere of this sweeping adaptation.

– Helen Tonkin, Artistic Associate, New Theatre

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