The Ohio State University History Department


Contemporary American Theatre Company 


Department of History at The Ohio State University


 The “Actors’ Book” and Stage Notes

 for CATCO’s production of

Frank Galati’s Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s

 The Grapes of Wrath -Spring 2001

 Written by Bill Childs

Web Design by Sharan Majmudar


The Department of History at The Ohio State University is proud to host and support these web pages for CATCO’s production of The Grapes of Wrath. Outreach to the community is an important element of Ohio State’s mission and of the Department of History’s effort to bring the power of history into the public debate. We wish CATCO success in this production.

David Staley, Director of the Goldberg Teaching Center

Department of History, The Ohio State University

CATCO is very grateful to the Department of History for the opportunity to share with Central Ohio--and via the web, the world--insights into the process of "putting on a show."

For every production, CATCO hires a dramaturg to collect information about the play (its structure and setting), the playwright, and past productions.  This information, which is put together into an “Actors’ Book,” aids the director in establishing an approach and it helps the actors prepare for their different characterizations.  It is supplemental information that furnishes facts and context, for the director(s), actors, properties master, music director, and costume, scenic, lighting, and sound designers, always do their own research as well.  The key word is “collaboration”; everyone collaborates and shares information with everyone else

The dramaturg prepares not only the Actors’ Book, but also Stage Notes, which is a shorter published version of the Actors’ Book.  This publication is made available to high school students and, sometimes, the subscribers.  For the production of The Grapes of Wrath, this web site is taking the place of Stage Notes.

This web site will be updated periodically throughout the rehearsal process.

Bill Childs, Associate Professor of History and Dramaturg

Table of Contents



America in the 1930s

The Political-Economic Context

Cultural Transformations

New Deal and the Common Man

Critics of the New Deal

The Documentary Movement

John Steinbeck

The Novel


Structure, Meanings, and Influences

Is the novel true?

  Dust Bowl

  Agriculture in California

  Migrant Patterns

  Migrant Life

The Film

The Play

The Adaptor:  Frank Galati

Production History

Critics’ Views

Other Productions by Frank Galati

CATCO’s Approach to the Production

What Happened to the Okies?

Migrants in Ohio

Terms of Interest

Questions to Consider

Selected References/Suggestions for Reading


The historian Alan Brinkley (in a review of Steppenwolf’s New York production) has written this about The Grapes of Wrath:  “... Steinbeck’s novel is more than an intriguing period piece.  Despite its many flaws it speaks to modern audiences, as it did to audiences in the 1930’s, by evoking one of America’s most powerful and cherished images of itself.  It suggests that running like a river beneath the surface of the nation’s cold, hard, individualistic culture lies the spirit of Ma Joad, a spirit of ‘fambly’ and community that, once tapped, might redeem us all.”  (“Why Steinbeck’s Okies Speak to Us Today,” New York Times, 18 March 1990, Arts & Leisure section, p. 13).  The novel that had challenged a nation’s soul late in the Depression decade still resonates in American hearts and minds over a half century later. 

CATCO put together the following overviews, analyses, and references to help the actors, technicians, and audience more fully appreciate CATCO’s production of Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  We look first at the nature of American culture in the 1930s and how John Steinbeck and the documentary tradition interacted with that culture.  Then we present a brief biography of John Steinbeck, a discussion of the novel’s history and structure, and analyses of the novel’s relation to history, particularly the Dust Bowl, migrant patterns, and migrant life.  A brief section on the film follows.  A longer section on Steppenwolf’s adaptation includes discussion of Frank Galati, the production’s development, a brief synopsis of the adaptation, critics’ views, and a list of other productions by Galati.  There will follow a section on how CATCO decided to approach the production.  Finally, sections on what happened to the Okies and migrants in Ohio in the 1930s precede the final section, a list of references and suggestions for further research.  All of this information is intended to present a glimpse into the creative process and to enrich the audience members’ experience of one of America’s most significant play adaptations.

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America in the 1930s

 In hindsight, the strong and sharply divided reaction to the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, and to the film adaptation in 1940, is not surprising.  Steinbeck’s artistic achievement tapped into and embodied some significant cultural transformations that had been occurring in the United States for over a generation.  The novel also joined a plethora of criticisms of the changing political economy.  And it challenged some American beliefs and new cultural trends as well as reaffirmed long-held American values.

The Political-Economic Context 

Historians who study the Great Depression, alas, do not agree on what caused the horrendous economic downturn, which affected most of the world.  Some emphasize monetary policy (the increase or decrease in the money supply); others suggest that a major change in the structure of the economy brought on the downturn (similar to recent debates about “old” and “new” economies).  Generally speaking, however, we can point to some significant facts and trends.  By the late 1920s, Americans were producing more industrial and agricultural goods than they were consuming.  By 1933, one out of four Americans who wanted to work could not find jobs; “service” enterprises like fast foods, laundries, and motels did not constitute a significant portion of the economy to which the unemployed could retreat.  Throughout America, “Hoovervilles” sprung up in urban and rural areas.  Named after President Herbert Hoover, who many blamed for the downturn, these shanty towns constructed of plyboard and cardboard housed many of the unemployed.  Many of these turned their pants pockets inside-out, which were in turn called “Hoover flags.”    

While there was lots of political conflict across the land, and some localized violence here-and-there (labor-management conflicts, farmers fighting sheriffs who were selling neighbors’ farms, California farmers mistreating migrants), the fact remains that Americans’ responses to the Great Depression did not include widespread violence and attempts to overthrow the government.  Instead, Americans hotly debated the issues and competed in the political arena to have the right to determine appropriate responses.  For example, thousands of unemployed veterans congregated in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1932 to demand that the government give them the bonus Congress had authorized for them to receive in their old age (in the 1940s).  President Hoover ordered the protesters removed in a peaceful manner, but unfortunately, the officer in charge, Douglas MacArthur, exceeded his orders and many of the Bonus Army were injured.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in March 1933, did not agree with the veterans either, but he treated them more humanely than had his predecessor’s administration.  Beginning in March 1933, and employing many of Hoover’s ideas, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party worked hard to stem the economic downturn.  Their efforts over the next six or so years boosted the American spirit and strengthened the Democratic Party, but their so-called “New Deal” never did bring about economic recovery; only mobilization for World War II brought back full employment.

Nonetheless, we must remember that if one-in-four were jobless, three-in-four had jobs (by the late 1930s, unemployment remained at a high 17 percent).  Many workers took pay cuts (President Roosevelt ordered a 10 percent pay cut for Federal workers shortly after taking office in March 1933), and many others were underemployed, but they held jobs.  While the Joad family lumbered across the desert in search of work, others motored across that same desert to enjoy family vacations in California and other areas of the American Southwest.  (My maternal grandfather, for example, was a government employee at the San Diego Navy Yard and he began a rather expensive hobby around 1936--home movie production).  For the majority of Americans, the Great Depression was an inconvenience that occasioned lots of fear--would they be next to lose their jobs? would the government be up to the task of preventing revolution?--but it was not the experience for them that it was for those like the Joads, who we shall learn below, represented a very small percentage of the American population.

The plight of the unemployed not only attracted the attention of the New Dealers, but it also joined with other cultural transformations to focus the majority of Americans’ attention on something they had not seen much of before:  the marginal or common man in society.  This discovery had profound implications for the culture and the politics of the American nation and set the stage for stormy reactions to the publication of The Grapes of Wrath.

Cultural Transformations 

Americans had discovered “culture” in the 1920s, and by the Depression decade, the attempt to define “the American way of life” in cultural terms was well underway.  Several forces introduced Americans to the concept of culture.  America’s growing prominence in the world arena, the emergence of the social sciences, particularly anthropology, the spread of new media (photographs, film, radio, mass circulation magazines like Time and Life), and the resurgence of an old medium (books! for Americans began to read more non-fiction than fiction in the 1930s) prompted Americans to look at themselves in ways that they had never done before.  Two anthropological works, Stuart Chase’s Mexico:  A Study of Two Americas (1931) and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) strongly influenced American views towards culture.  So too did historical romance novels, with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) leading the way, introduce Americans to other ways of life (in Mitchell’s case, the American South, which even today remains somewhat mysterious to many Americans).  In the words of American cultural historian Warren I. Susman,

            Americans began ... thinking in terms of patterns of behavior and belief, values and life-styles, symbols and meanings.  It was during this period that we find, for the first time, frequent reference to an ‘American Way of Life.’  The phrase ‘The American Dream’ came into common use; it meant something shared collectively by all Americans; yet something different than the vision of an American Mission, the function of the organized nation itself. (Culture as History, 154)

In one sense, Americans were trying to define their civilization in relation to the other great civilizations of history.  

And, rather than reject the “marginal man” in their midst, Americans began to incorporate him--and her--into their 

cultural definition of “American.”

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tapped both an old and new sense of being American.  As Susman has argued, “it is a novel of the enforced wanderings of marginal men with a difference, in fact with several crucial differences.  Marginal man here was not alone; the strength and power of the family as a unit went with him.  ... he shared with other travelers ... common purpose ... destiny.” (170-171)  Indeed, while American artists in the 1920s and 1930s (John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, photographers) focused on the “marginal” or “common man,” they did so for an audience that represented the majority of Americans--the middle class.  And Americans embraced the “folk” American in mythic terms, identified with the “folk” as part of the American tradition.  This sense of many different kinds of Americans belonging together was very strong by the 1930s.

The diversity theme emerging in the 1930s was found also in the nation’s music.  “Folk” music became especially important, but other musical styles co-evolved with folk music, including country swing, jazz (which some see as the indigenous music of the U.S.), big band, and blues.  For the migrants in California who played music, “The minstrel stage, tin pan alley, early country, and cowboy music were all popular music sources that fed the performers’ repertoires.”  [] The migrants liked especially the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, and Gene Autry.  The migrants’ music--that which they listened to and that which they created--included themes of hardship and disappointment and the desire to return home.

New Deal and the Common Man 

Political change underscored the cultural change.  The Franklin Roosevelt-led New Deal Democrats, which took over the reins of government from the Republicans, who had maintained for a generation control of the government, utilized the mass media to promote their politics and American values, including belief in the “common man” and the power of technology to solve any social problems.  For example, they hired the balladeer Woodie Guthrie to write songs that reflected the “common man” in America and how the common man contributed to the strength of the nation.  Later in the decade, government agents fanned out across the land to record the folk music of America.  And they influenced Hollywood and even hired filmmakers to produce films touting the American way of life.

New Deal Democrats also constructed institutions intended to structurally change the political economy in order to combat the Depression and prevent another one from occurring.  The New Deal did not bring the economy out of the Depression; only mobilization for World War II did that.  Nonetheless, the New Deal Democrats were successful in three areas.  First, the various relief programs lifted the spirits of the American people simply by showing them that someone cared.  Second, they reformed the political economy so that another great depression would not occur.  They established a plethora of “alphabet agencies” to regulate particular sectors of the economy (banking, stock market, transportation, agriculture, etc.). 

Third, the New Dealers mixed their economic programs with cultural ones that focused on the “common man.”  For example, the Works Progress Administration (1935ff) included not only relief and work-relief programs for the unemployed laborer, but also cultural programs (a theatre project, Post Office murals, jobs for writers, etc.) for unemployed artists.  The New Deal included the Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935-1937) and then the Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1937ff) to help displaced farmers deal with the economic changes that so concerned Steinbeck.  But the RA and FSA ran into cultural traditions (which Steinbeck alludes to) that made it difficult for the reformers to convince those being reformed to follow the new cultural values.  Coupled with the political thrust of New Deal initiatives, these institutions underscored the American quest for cultural definition and led to Americans discovering that their culture, their civilization, was very different from others.

In the 1930s, Americans discovered the heritage not only of the various ethnicities of the European immigrants who had helped America industrialize, but also of Native Americans and, more slowly, (prompted in part by the New Deal-inspired WPA State Guidebooks) that of African Americans (who became by 1936 an important part of the New Deal Democrat coalition).  Marginal or minority groups now mattered (Hispanics and Asians were still excluded), not only at the ballot box (which the Democrats exploited well), but also in the culture at large; strength through diversity, reflected in the Democratic Party’s majority, was becoming a recognized American cultural trait.  If the New Deal programs did not bring about economic recovery, they did help Americans see themselves as made up of diverse peoples.

Critics of the New Deal

Not all Americans supported the New Deal programs.

For some, the Democrats were doing too much to alter the economy and help the common man.  In 1934, with executives of key corporations in the lead, the Liberty League began a campaign that painted the New Deal as worse than fascism or communism.  For the most part, the Liberty League did not matter all that much until later in the decade, when more conservatives (Democrats from the South and Republicans) began to fight the perceived nationalization of politics that they alleged the New Dealers had created.  (Actually, most of the major New Deal laws and agencies included a role for the states; Roosevelt, for the most part--the Court Packing scheme was an exception--promoted “federalism,” not nationalization.)

Most critics of Roosevelt and the New Deal, however, argued that the New Deal was not doing enough to help the common man deal with the economic depression.  These critics mattered much more than the Liberty League, and they pressed President Roosevelt to expand the Federal government more than he wanted to.  These “critics on the left” included Senator Huey Long (D-La) and Father Charles E. Coughlin, and, in Steinbeck’s California, Francis E. Townsend and Upton Sinclair.  Huey Long (who President Roosevelt once labeled one of the two most dangerous men in America), promoted his own political fortunes through the “Share Our Wealth” program.  Long, who as governor of Louisiana in the 1920s had elevated that state’s infrastructure (schools, highways) to aid all citizens of the state, argued that the government should make sure that every American had a middle class life.  To do this, he advocated liquidating all personal fortunes over $3 million dollars and distributing that money to all Americans.  Father Charles E. Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Michigan, exhorted millions of Americans to demand social justice for all and less power for the private sector banks and corporations.  While initially drawing from the Catholic Church’s long tradition of promoting social justice, Coughlin eventually turned to anti-Semitism to promote his political agendas.  Finally, in 1942, the Church ordered him to cease his political activities, and he did.  Significantly, both Long and Coughlin tended to attract members of the middle class--those who had not succumbed to the ravages of the Depression but who feared that they might one day be out of a job.  (These were Steinbeck’s audience as well.)

California in the 1930s seemed especially affected by political movements.  Francis Townsend was different from Long and Coughlin in that he concentrated on one interest group--the elderly--and proposed a plan to help them and the nation’s economy.  While overly expensive and perhaps too bureaucratically complex to administer, his plan (each person over 65 was to be given $200 a month on two conditions--they quit their jobs and spend every penny of the monthly stipend) held some merit with millions of Americans.  A more modest New Deal program, the Social Security Act of 1935, rendered Townsend’s political movement moot.  Upton Sinclair, on the other hand, focused his energies on eliminating all poverty in the state.  Persuaded to change his party affiliation from Socialist to Democrat, Sinclair ran for governor of California in 1934.  He established EPIC--End Poverty in California--as his basic platform.  It directly challenged the capitalistic, private property basis of the state’s economy:  The state would take over idle factories and fields and allow the unemployed to produce their own food and goods for their own use.  Sinclair and his followers, in effect, were saying that Roosevelt’s New Deal had simply not gone far enough.  Having won the Democratic primary handily, Sinclair faced in the general election a well-orchestrated campaign of distortions, lies, and dirty tricks, funded by California conservative business leaders and supported by Hollywood studios and actors.  The old economic system endured in California.

In sum, then, The Grapes of Wrath appeared at a time in which Americans were receptive to stories of “other cultures” and particularly attracted to the “common man”; many were fearful that they, too, might succumb to the economic changes occurring; many were suspicious of the large-scale corporations that had funded the Liberty League and the attack on Upton Sinclair; and, a majority of Americans voting in the 1934 and 1936 elections demanded that the Federal government do more than it had been for the down and out among them.

Steinbeck’s novel also reflected another cultural movement in the U.S. that did much to focus Americans on the common man.

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The Documentary Movement in the 1930s

Steinbeck had intended the novel to “document” the plight of American migrants.  He saw himself--and in fact he was--part of the documentary movement of the 1930s.  The documentary approach began in the mid-to-late nineteenth century in England; in the U.S., it was Jacob Riis, with his publication of How the Other Half Lives (1903) who publicized the style in America.  The muckrakers, such as Upton Sinclair, who published The Jungle in 1906, are also ancestors of the 1930s documentary style.  In one ironic sense, The Grapes of Wrath grew out of Steinbeck’s failure to follow this tradition:  He had intended to publish a story with photos of migrant life in California for Life magazine; but, to him, the facts he uncovered and the events he had experienced could not be adequately conveyed in a text-photo journalism style; it required a long novel.  But as many have noted, the novel included many elements of the documentary style.

What is the documentary style?  Many in the 1930s saw the documentary as “propaganda,” which in a sense it was, for it advocated a particular view of a particular situation.  But the movement was more complicated than that; it included a sense that “art” was a legitimate vehicle for exposing the problems of the times.  As William Stott points out in his book, Documentary Expression in Thirties America, “documentary,” “[L]ike ‘document,’ from which it derives, ... has two meanings, ...  These meanings are not mutually exclusive ... The first ... has been defined as ‘presenting facts objectively and without editorializing and inserting fictional matter, ....’” (5-6)  A second kind of document, the “human document,” is not objective but personal.  “... a human document carries and communicates feeling, the raw material of drama.  Such a document gives some information that would be found in an impersonal document.” (7)  “We understand a historical document intellectually, but we understand a human document emotionally.  In the second kind of document, as in documentary and the thirties’ documentary movement as a whole, feeling comes first.” (8)

Stott points out that Warren Susman “affirmed that ‘the whole idea of documentary--not with words alone but with sight and sound--makes it possible to see, know, and feel the details of life, to feel oneself part of some other’s experience.’  [Susman implied that] one knows another’s life because one feels it; one is informed--one sees it--through one’s feelings.  The practitioners of the documentary genre in the thirties realized, if dimly, the same thing:  emotion counted more than fact.” (8-9)  Clearly, with his focus on the Joad family, Steinbeck employs “a human document”; but, in the intercalary chapters, Steinbeck also employed facts about the economy and the migrants that he had gathered during the decade.

Pare Lorentz, who was a friend of Steinbeck’s, and who hired Steinbeck to work on some of his films, reigns as the most important documentary filmmaker of the period.  Yet, some do not agree with that assessment; instead, they argue that Lorentz was a propagandist because he worked for the New Deal administration.  His most famous productions (The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, both produced in 1936 under the auspices of the RA) included both facts and emotions; but they also included--against Lorentz’ request--sections that praised the New Deal programs designed to attack the consequences of the Depression.

Another form of documentary prominent in the 1930s, which drew from the legacy of Jacob Riis, was the photograph-text book.  Many photographers, many employed by New Deal agencies, made their artistic reputations chronicling the common man in America.  They included women (Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White) and men (James Agee and Walker Evans, of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941).

John Steinbeck was of these cultural forces, if not always in them.

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John Steinbeck

          Born in 1902, John Steinbeck remained in the Salinas Valley area of California until he went to Stanford in 1919, where he took writing courses.  Exhibiting a tendency to fall behind in his studies, Steinbeck did not graduate.  The Monterey peninsula was his favorite community, and from his experiences there, he wrote much of his best work.  He left California for the first time at age 25, when he went to New York City as a journalist and sometime laborer.  He returned to California, working for awhile as a caretaker of a Lake Tahoe estate, and in 1929, published his first novel, Cup of Gold.  Two novels and short story writing barely sustained him until his first major success in 1935, the publication of Tortilla Flat.  During the late 1930s, Steinbeck focused on California’s white laboring class, publishing In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which won in 1940 both a Pulitzer Prize and the Award of the American Booksellers Association, which is now called the National Book Award.  He entered the filmmaking business (The Forgotten Village, 1941) and supported the war effort as a journalist and author (Bombs Away, 1942). 

Although his literary reputation waned somewhat after 1939, Steinbeck continued to publish regularly, even as he traveled widely around the world (he returned to California only occasionally in the 1940s):  Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), Burning Bright (1950), The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), and East of Eden (1952).  In the 1950s, New York and Sag Harbor became the home of Steinbeck and his third wife, Elaine, a native of Texas, until his death in 1968.  His Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962) revealed a man somewhat unsettled with the changes occurring in America, particularly the loss of community that he had grown up with in Monterey.  In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize.  He died in 1968, within a year of returning from a trip to Vietnam (which President Lyndon B. Johnson had asked him to make).

John Steinbeck had many friends, some of them rather prominent in artistic circles.  Indeed, his friends and the strain of buying a new ranch house interfered with his writing Grapes of Wrath between June and October 1938.  Visitors included Lorentz and Charles Chaplin.  His first wife, Carol, was his sounding board; he trusted her judgment implicitly and completely.  He also had a good relationship with his editor and publisher (helping the latter out of bankruptcy when he agreed to go to Viking Press, but only if his old publisher was given a job).

Two important individuals who influenced Steinbeck in the 1930s were Pare Lorentz, noted above, and Tom Collins, manager of a government migrant camp.  It was from Collins that Steinbeck received--even while he was writing the novel--important gritty details of the migrant camp experience.

Tom Collins, manager of Kern migrant camp talking with drought refugee and her four sons. California.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. 1936 Nov.
COLLECTIONFarm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection
REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

Steinbeck believed in the migrants.  He saw them as the future of California:  “The Californian doesn’t know what he does want.  The Oklahoman knows just exactly what he wants.  He wants a piece of land.  And he goes after it and gets it.”  And, “Their coming here now is going to change things almost as much as did the coming of the first American settlers.” [quoted in DeMott, Working Days, from Louis Walther, “Oklahomans Steinbeck’s Theme,” San Jose Mercury Herald, 8 January 1938]  While he was embarrassed by the treatment they received and worried that the failure to change the circumstances would undermine California’s economy, he also saw in the migrants themselves a resoluteness that would eventually save California.

Steinbeck consistently refused to go beyond the book to promote actively the migrants’ cause.  He was not “political” in the sense that he leant his name to various causes or even led rallies (one exception was the “Steinbeck Committee,” which supported strikers, but Steinbeck himself did not actively promote this organization).  Steinbeck did offer a solution to the migrant problem in California:  The state should establish a Migrant Labor Board, which would regulate the number of migrants, oversee the camps, and during the off-season provide the migrants some land on which they could grow their own vegetables.  Hardly a radical plan, it reflected Steinbeck’s basic conservatism:  He believed in the migrants, but he also believed in “America.”  He understood that the economic changes occurring meant that the large-scale corporations were not going to go away and that ways must be found to make the corporation act more morally.  The novel implies that the strength of family and communities coming together (“I to we”) might work, but there is no real conviction behind it.

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The Novel


The publication of Grapes of Wrath in 1939 created, as Steinbeck predicted, a firestorm of controversy.  Several cities in the U.S. banned the book because the sexual content and “leftist” views offended some citizens.  The novel sold more copies than any other contemporary work, except Gone with the Wind (it was a best seller in Oklahoma).  Politicians in California and Oklahoma criticized Steinbeck’s emotionalism, charged him with misrepresenting the facts, and accused him of supporting “anti-American” values.  Others praised Steinbeck for being the conscience of America.  Certainly, for its content and style and for the responses it elicited, The Grapes of Wrath must be considered as one of the most important works in all of American literature.

Indeed, this novel represented Steinbeck’s third attempt to write the story of the migrants in Depression America.  In Dubious Battle (1936) dealt with striking California migrant farm workers, but it cynically concluded that communist leaders organized only to serve the party, not oppressed individuals, and that individuals were incapable of organizing collectively against oppression.  The next effort Steinbeck burned:  L’Affaire Lettuceberg, in his own words, was a “mean, nasty book.”  But writing it allowed Steinbeck to get the hate out of his system so that he could produce the masterpiece.

The Grapes of Wrath represented Steinbeck’s final effort to explore the reasons behind and the possible responses to the failure of American society that the plight of the migrants reflected.  That the migrants existed at all in a country based on the worship of and the achievements in material progress framed the story in terms of failure.  There was a loss of spirit or hollowness in the plight of the Joads (‘that’s not supposed to happen in America’).  Steinbeck wondered if the Joads--and the American people--could rise to the challenge.

The novel had an important impact on other social commentators.  Dorothea Lange, infamous photographer for the Farm Security Administration, had traveled about the South, Southwest, and California documenting life of America’s poor even before the novel was published.  After Steinbeck’s masterpiece came out, she went looking for migrants who reflected the Joads and she found them.  Perhaps her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” was in fact one of half a dozen photos she took of the same woman; the two of them experimented until they got the “look” that each wanted; emotion more than fact or reality ruled Lange’s photography.

Structure, Meanings, and Influences

Good fiction fractures reality and puts it back together in such a way as to lead the reader to a comprehension of central truths and realities that were hidden from everyday life.

Three perspectives frame the novel:  the economic (agriculture, technology, banks, management/labor); the social (how individuals behave alone and in groups; how they respond or not to change); and, the philosophical (and/or religious; how Steinbeck relates human experience to the larger natural view of the world).  While through each of these perspectives universal truths and realities are revealed, the American setting of the novel reveals as well specific American truths and realities.

The novel is broken into three chronological narratives: 

(1)  Chapters 1 - 11 focus on the land, the drought and dust, and why the Joads left;

(2)  Chapters 12 - 18 present the migration or exodus of the Joad family to the promised land of California;

(3)  Chapters 19-30 present the sojourn in California, Jim Casy’s death and Tom Joad’s decision to carry on his fight, and Rose of Sharon’s unselfish act.

Steinbeck interspersed intercalary (interconnecting) chapters (a technique he borrowed from John Dos Passos, who had great success with his USA trilogy in the 1920s and 1930s).  These “generalist” chapters offered the reader the broader story within which the Joad family’s saga took place.

Steinbeck’s novel clearly reflects religious inspirations and other American cultural themes and myths.  The Joads represent the chosen people, the Iraelites, Americans.  The preacher, Jim Casy, just like Jesus Christ (both have the same initials), wanders for awhile, thinking, and rejects old religion for a new one; sacrifices himself for others unselfishly; tells his murderers they know not what they are doing; inspires others (Tom) to carry on the fight.  Rose of Sharon’s unselfish act at the end of the story represents the resurrection of Christ.  The Bible contains numerous references to “grapes” and “wrath.”  In Numbers 13:23, grapes represent abundance; in Deuteronomy 32:32, grapes represent wrath and vengeance.  And, of course, Julia Ward Howe’s song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” relates to Revelation 14:19--”the great winepress of the wrath of God.”  The phrase in the song, “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,” clearly is reflected in the last scene of the novel, if one sees the serpent as big business agriculture/capitalism, which had manipulated the Joads, the starving man and boy, and all migrants.  Fittingly, perhaps, it was Steinbeck’s wife Carol who came up with the title, after hearing the song.

    Steinbeck re the title: "...I like it better all the time.  I think it is Carol's best title so far.  I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march--because ot is in our own revolutionary tradition..."  (Working Days, p. 169).

The novel reflects many American traits as well, although the way Steinbeck portrays them, they too are about morality and the spiritual.  The plight of the Joads represents the loss of Jeffersonian values of attachment to the land, small-scale farming, individualism, and freedom.  Absentee landowners led to erosion of morality (tractors tearing down homes); loss of land led to human erosion (the Joad family breaks up).  Steinbeck’s progressive, liberal politics (not communism, which he detested) infuse the novel:  Large-scale institutions (the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company, the banks, the California Farmers’ Association) oppress the people; the people themselves hold the key to change, but not through individualism or self-reliance; only by banding together can they throw off the oppressive institutions (the smooth operation of the Weedpatch Government camp operations shows this very clearly).  Steinbeck was not calling for outright revolution, but rather for enlightened responses to the problems.  This “progressive” or “liberal” politics, which emerged at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and was exemplified on the national level by President Theodore Roosevelt, held within it a message to the wealthy:  Reform the unintended and unwanted consequences of industrial capitalism or face more radical upheavals within society.  First Jim Casy, then Tom Joad becomes the messenger; by rallying others to organize, they will raise their voices to a volume that will demand a respons.

Steinbeck on Tom:  “... Tom - half bitterness,  half humane. ... Escapes in the night.  Hunted, hunted.  Over the last pages Tom hangs like a spirit around the camp.”  (Entry #87, Working Days).

While Tom is clearly an important character (and the essence of the novel’s main thrust for adapter Frank Galati), Ma Joad is arguably as important a character.  Steinbeck was very interested in the evolutionary change from matriarchal to patriarchal societies, as outlined by anthropologist Robert Briffault in The Mothers:  The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins (New York, 1931).  Steinbeck, according to his wife Carol, created Ma from Briffault’s ideas.  In the matriarchal society, the sense of belonging to a group revolved around the woman; her brothers often performed the duties that in later patriarchal societies the husband and father did.  Equality and egalitarianism marked matriarchal societies.  Because women worked hard at various domestic labors (which included directing the economic pursuits of the household industries such as tanning, potting, building the home, and tool-making), they achieved status and influence within the clan.  With the rise of industrialism, however, and an attendant emphasis on sexual relations, men gained power and established patriarchies.  Economic wealth, based on individualism and land ownership, overtook the more communal approach of matriarchal societies.

But Steinbeck shows (through the characters of Grandpa and Pa Joad particularly) that the patriarchal society, based as it was on independence, individualism, and land owning, was no longer capable of surviving within the emerging 20th century economy.  Beliefs in individualism and private property had blinded the men to the fact that large scale corporations held an economic advantage over the individual farm owner.  Perhaps, Steinbeck suggests through the character of Ma Joad, a return to a matriarchal society was what Americans needed to do in order to respond to the economic situation of the 1930s.

Thus, Ma Joad’s matriarchal society dovetails with the insights of Jim Casy (“I to we”) to suggest that the solution to the problems of the migrants rested, at least in part, on the migrants joining together to more effectively react to the new economic realities.  It is Ma’s influence on Tom, as much as Jim Casy’s influence, that forces Tom to trade-in his male-oriented individualism for a more matriarchal emphasis on working together.  Adding to the dramatic tension, moreover, is the insight that Ma herself does not understand how she has influenced Tom; her focus is on her family, while her example has shown Tom that a larger family--the migrant workers--should be his focus.

Steinbeck on Ma:  “And I want to build her up as much as possible.  Her possibility of an organized society.  I want to show how valuable Ma is to society--what a waste there is.”  (Entry #68, Working Days)

“Today Ma meets the ladies committee and it must have some charm.  It must.  It can’t flop because here is the great contrast.  Here is the tremendous contrast.  It must be charming.” [Entry #69, Working Days]

One other theme is noteworthy (indeed, it caused much criticism):  Steinbeck constantly put the Joads and the larger story within a larger natural world.  The sexual antics of Granpa, the turtle (which does not appear in the play), the land itself--all of these indicates Steinbeck’s belief that humans were only part of a larger universe; their actions--like farming the Great Plains--had consequences elsewhere in the natural world, just like the actions of uncaring large-scale corporations had consequences on families and individuals.

Is the novel “true”?

Within two months of the novel’s publication, Marshal V. Hartsanft published Grapes of Gladness:  California’s Refreshing and Inspiring Answers to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  In this rejoinder, a migrant family is welcomed with open arms to California.  In Thormis Miron, The Truth About John Steinbeck and the Migrants (1939), the author posed as a migrant, averaged $4 per day, and was asked by the growers to stay on.  Steinbeck knew these sorts of attacks were forthcoming; but his own experiences gave him the strength to move forward.  On the other hand, investigators for Darrell Zanuck, who produced the John Ford film of the novel, found conditions to be worse than Steinbeck had depicted.

To appreciate how true the novel was, we need to understand the relationships between history and fiction, the facts behind the Dust Bowl and agriculture in California, the migration patterns of Southwesterners over time, and migrant life.  Generally speaking, the last half of the novel, the scenes in California, is more accurate than the first half; but a certain authenticity still pervades the entire novel.

The work is fiction, not history, in the sense that the characters are not “real,” nor are the various stories factually true.  But Steinbeck did not create the characters and the plot lines solely from his imagination.  He drew from his experiences while traveling in Oklahoma and along Route 66, but mostly from living in California.  As noted above, the government agent, Tom Collins, sent Steinbeck statistics from the camp he superintended.  But Steinbeck also experienced the migrant camps firsthand (living and working in one for several weeks) and was repulsed by what he discovered.  In fact, the last scenes representing the flood reflected real events that Steinbeck witnessed in February 1938 in Visalia and Nipomo, California; arguably, this horrific reality was the final push that enabled Steinbeck to produce the masterpiece he had been trying to create for several years.

Steinbeck did not attempt to be evenhanded and he made some small mistakes.  He focused narrowly on agriculture and left out other contemporary aspects of the Bear Flag State, such as its tremendous urban growth, especially in the southern half of the state, and the fact that Mexican and Asian migrants also lived in California.  (Indeed, the Mexicans and Asian migrants, who had been there first, gave way before the quarter million or so “Okies” who trekked to California in the late 1930s.  Once mobilization for war stimulated the economy, however, California growers petitioned the government to bring back the Mexican migrants.)  Some errors do appear in the novel.  Sallisaw, Oklahoma, is located near the Arkansas border, nearly 400 miles to the east of where the Dust Bowl actually was, and it lay in a grape growing region.  Large corporate farms existed in California in the 1930s, but had not yet overtaken the Sooner state.

Nonetheless, mechanization of agriculture, particularly cotton production, had advanced the most in the area of the Dust Bowl; 40 percent of the farmers, like the Joads, were tenants.  Most of the so-called Okies did not leave because of the dust, but rather because they had long since lost the ability to make a living off the land.  They--not the corporate farms--had worn out the land.  (Ironically, New Deal agricultural programs pushed even more tenant farmers off the land:  In an attempt to control production, the government paid farmers not to plant; landowners took the tenant farmers’ lands out of production, told them to leave, received money from the government for doing so, and continued to farm their own land.)

The Dust Bowl

Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area. Oklahoma.

Rothstein, Arthur, 1915- photographer.  1936 Apr.  COLLECTION:  Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection   REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

      The drought of the 1930s began early in the decade in the East--Maryland and Virginia.  By 1931, portions of Montana and the Dakotas had been hit hard.  The drought then spread from the east in a band southwest to Missouri and Arkansas and continued westward throughout the decade.  In 1934, the financial loss attributed to the drought equaled one-half the cost of U.S. participation in World War I.  By the mid-1930s, the southern plains were the most severely hit; the rains did not return there until 1941.  May of 1934 saw the worst of the dust storms--350 million tons of dirt in the air, with 12 million tons falling on Chicago.  “Blackouts” lasted from one hour to three and one-half days; one could not see one’s hands in front of him during the worst of these storms.  Inhabitants suffered from “dust pneumonia” and other respiratory infections.  Houses could not be kept clean; the dust came in through the smallest of cracks.

The Dust Bowl consisted of 100 million acres, 500 miles North to South, 300 miles East to West, and covering land in western Kansas, the panhandle of Oklahoma, two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, northeast New Mexico, and southeast Colorado.  The Dust Bowl existed because human intervention (Muley:  “We never should have broke her up”) exacerbated natural cycles of drought.  In the area of the Dust Bowl, mechanization of cotton production had advanced further than anywhere else in the Plains states.  Less than one-half of the land was owned by residents of the state; 40 percent of the farmers were tenants or share croppers.

  Agriculture in California 

While technology exacerbated the effects of the drought in the 1930s, technology made possible the development of the lush valleys and fruit groves in California.  Water--and the transportation of water--dominated California agriculture.  Dams on rivers, especially the Colorado River, enabled Californians to capture water; irrigation ditches and canals enabled the farmers to transport that water to their farms.  Such technology (which in hindsight probably did more ecological damage than was necessary) was expensive.  And California had higher taxes than other farming states.  Thus, high costs of operations dominated agriculture in California.  High costs can be mitigated through combining operations and that is exactly what happened in California.  Ten percent of the farms produced over 50 percent of the crops.  This concentrated power in the hands of a few.  The large-scale farmers controlled the California Farmers Association; small-scale farmers discovered that it was prudent to follow the dictates of the Association.  Another problem faced the farmers:  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 175,000 workers were needed at the peak of the harvest season in California, but most of these were not needed during the rest of the year.  Coupled with the influx of migrants from the Southwest, these facts established the conflicts between the workers and the land owners that Steinbeck portrays in his novel.

  Migration Patterns

Steinbeck’s story of the Joads’ exodus from Oklahoma contains some truth.  But, unstated in the novel is the fact that farmers and others had been leaving Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas since World War I, and continued to leave during the 1940s; the Dust Bowl did not create a sudden exit from the area.  For example, as many Southwesterners travelled to California in the 1920s (when rainfall was plentiful) as migrated during the dirty thirties, when drought supposedly drove off the Joads (about 250,000).  Twice as many Southwestern migrants, or nearly one-half million, went to California in the 1940s, when the economy was much better in the plains states than it had been in the 1930s.  Thus, Steinbeck’s emphasis on the drought, while partially correct (indeed, the migrants of the 1930s were slightly more poor than the migrants of the 1920s because the drought had made them more destitute), is also not totally accurate.  Most migrants from the Southwest in the 1930s, moreover, did not travel very far at all; most moved only to the next town or next county.  Between 1935 and 1940, Oklahoma lost 309,000 migrants; 142,000 did not go far (no farther than contiguous states); 167,000 traveled farther, but not all of those went to California.

Other factors pulled the Okies to California in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  The pull factors were strong and long in the making.  California had begun in the 1920s to advertise its many attributes--jobs, beautiful scenery, chances to start anew, and, significantly, a mecca for vacationing Americans.  California agriculture needed workers in the 1920s; farmers often paid migrants’ railway fares to lure them west.  And, as with all migrating populations in American history, many returned home and extolled the virtues of their new land.  In fact, farmers did not make up a majority of migrants to California in the 1930s.  Only 43 percent were farmers, with 21 percent being white-collar/professionals, 14 percent unskilled/domestic laborers, 13 percent semi-skilled/service workers, and 8 percent proprietors or professionals.  Thus, Connie and Rose of Sharon’s dreams represented the majority of the migrants’ dreams.

Given that the novel was very much a “road novel,” were its depictions accurate?  The Joads appear to have been rather slow travelers, taking several months to make the trek of 1,200 miles.  Migrants who traveled to California took much less time to do so than did the Joads.  The average length of a trip from Oklahoma to California, with a decent car, was only three or four days.  In addition, the Joads did not represent a typical migrant family.  The average Southwestern migrant family consisted of 4.4 members.  The Joads did not reflect the average ages of migrants, either.  Out of the twelve people in the Joad family, five were over 40.  But 60 percent of most migrants were under 35.

Although Steinbeck did not include in the novel allusions to other groups of migrants, he was well aware of the history of migration in America and in California. 

The history of California’s importation and treatment of foreign labor is a disgraceful picture of greed and cruelty.  [The Chinese were followed by the Japanese, Mexicans, and Filipinos.]

Foreign labor is on the wane in California, and the future farm workers are to be white and American.  This fact must be recognized and a rearrangement of the attitude toward and treatment of migrant labor must be achieved. (Harvest Gypsies, pp. 52, 57).


Migratory families at 7 a.m. near Imperial Valley, California.
Lange, Dorothea,
photographer.  1939 Feb.  COLLECTION:  Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection  
REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

Migrant Life 

If one has read the novel and done some research on the lives of migrants in America, one is struck by how accurate Steinbeck’s depictions really are (surely a tribute, in part, to his use of Tom Collins’ information).  [For an accessible internet site at the Library of Congress, see Selected References/Suggestions for Further Reading.]   Migrants’ lives were ones of constant travel, for they needed to look for work and often drive some distance to the work that they found.  Not surprisingly, information gathered by government researchers in the late 1930s and early 1940s reveal a complex community.  Some migrants had succumbed to the hazards and travails of the road and lost much of their dignity.  Many did not.  These insisted on staying clean, when possible, and wearing clean clothes when engaging in various recreational activities, such as singing, playing music, and dancing.  Californians, however, who had already established a legally-based segregated world separating Anglos from Asians, and who also discriminated against Hispanics and African Americans, tended to segregate themselves from the Okies; one movie theater sign instructed, “Negroes and Okies upstairs.”

California migrant camp.
Lange, Dorothea,
photographer.  1936 Feb.
Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Saturday night dance
Tulare Migrant Camp, Visalia, California
Date:  1940/03
Photographer:  Rothstein, Arthur; Farm Security Administration

Many of the Okies were extremely religious--holy rollers and Pentecostals particularly.  While Steinbeck saw the Okies as being very strong and determined and, indeed, the hope for California’s future, he could not abide their religious fervor.  In fact, this religious fervor conflicted with the Democratic Party ideologies behind New Deal programs, especially in the government migrant camps.  Thus you have the scene at Weedpatch (Elizabeth Sandry character).  There is in an historical sense, then, a direct thread from the Okies back to the Second Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (Oklahoma’s government was heavily influenced by the Klan in the early-to-mid 1920s) and forward to the Far Right movement of present days.  Their religion enabled them to put one foot in front of the other and to focus intently on the task at hand--getting work.

The Joads loaned their barn to traveling preachers.

Sunday Revival
Source Media Type: 
Goldberg Center
Source:  Lesy, Michael: "Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945."

In brief summary:  The novel reflects some of the history of the 1930s; other than a few errors in the Oklahoma section, Steinbeck reveals much truth in his novel, especially in California.  He omits, however, much truth as well (where are African Americans?  Hispanics?  They, too, were members of the migrant movement but they are not depicted in the novel).

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The Film

Both John Steinbeck and John Ford fell within the emerging documentary tradition of the 1930s, but each chose to employ documentarian approaches in different directions.  Steinbeck chose to place the Joads within a penetrating vision of a larger family of humans, indeed within the larger natural world that humans shared with the land, vegetation, and animals.  John Ford chose to narrow the documentary vision to emphasize the Joad family; in so doing, he left out the larger connections between the Joads and the land and the Joads and society.  Ford also encouraged the actors to overdramatize the words, which made them less plausible as real, everyday people.  A rather haphazard movie studio system lay behind the production of the film, which explains in part the poor results.  (That same system, or course, accidentally produced the contemporary classic Casablanca).  Despite the media and Hollywood attention given the film, it is a poor substitute for the novel or even Galati’s adaptation.

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The Play 

Frank Galati’s work has usually focused on the visual, and often included music; his Grapes of Wrath is no exception.  In any play adaptation of a novel, the adaptor must make choices; not all material and themes can be replicated on the stage; yet, the adapter should stay true to the author’s intentions.  Most critics believe Galati did this.  He chose to fuse the scenes in Oklahoma and on Route 66 into Act I; all of Act II occurs in California; this division reflects Steinbeck’ choices in structuring the novel.  While he underplays the theme of the land in Act I, Galati does emphasize the various people the Joads encountered (although not all of them) and other themes from the novel (individualism, community).  He does so through dialogue and music; the latter conveys themes underplayed in the dialogue and often compresses several themes together.

The Adaptor:  Frank Galati

Frank GalatiFrank Galati first thought about adapting The Grapes of Wrath to the stage in the 1970s.  He envisioned a three-night extravaganza similar to England’s Nicholas Nickleby.  Once he hooked up with Steppenwolf in the 1980s (he was still affiliated with the Goodman Theatre), he revisited the concept, but made a false step, thinking in terms of a deconstruction of the novel that might incorporate contemporary images, be Brechtian-didactic, and use images from the 1940 John Ford film.  “We had some ideas about Svoboda-like screens, and most definitely a turntable--a huge disc of earth, and the truck moved on it.  We were very, very smitten by that idea. ... A terrible idea.”  Then, during a two-week vacation in January 1987, Galati completed most of the script.  [All quotations in this section come from Jonathan Abarbanel, “The Chicago Troupe Shoulders a National Epic and Heads West,” American Theatre (June 1989), 22-28.]

At the center of his vision were the elements fire, water and rain,” which together “offered both symbolic and architectural symmetry.”  His dramaturgical solution to the interchapters was to create musical interludes; Galati “wrote” the lyrics, and Michael Smith created the music.

Galati’s principle arch was straightforward:  “Tom is the hero, and the result of the conflict is Tom’s revelation of Casy’s gospel or message.  This is offered to Tom in the very first scene of the novel, but Tom doesn’t get it until he makes his last appearance in the story.  The catalyst is Casy’s death--that’s the crisis, and it leads inexorably to Tom’s revelation.  So, I started there.”

“The locations of the fire and water traps and the limited range of motion of the Joad’s truck pre-ordained the placement of many key scenes.  Moving on a track, the truck could pivot on its own axis and move from wing to wing, but it could not move upstage or downstage or at a diagonal.”

Galati:  “We had to figure out how many times the truck was going to stop, and where exactly it was going to stop.  Kevin [Rigdon--designer] and I went very carefully through the show many times to accomplish the sensual images we needed.  We still wanted earth, air, fire and water.  That was our governing principle.”

Galati added different narrators to enhance the “vox populi” effect.  He added humor (especially between Grandpa and Al) and the second act square dance to lighten the “awful lot of bad news” in the story.

 Play Synopsis

 In Act I, Galati put the first one-half of the novel--establishing the reasons the Joads were leaving, packing up, and the road trip to California.  All of Act II takes place in California, just as in the last one-half of the novel. 

In Act I Tom meets up with Casy, and for a brief time, Muley, reunites with the family, and is informed of the decision to leave.  Having bought a Hudson Super Six and converted it into a truck, the family packs up and begins the trek along the migrants’ highway, Route 66.  Along the way, the family buries Granpa, dreams about California, meets The Man Going Back, who suggests that their dreams will be dashed, learn the lessons of the road and various camps, and finally arrive in the promised land (with only $40), where they bury Grandma.

In Act II, the Joads experience a Hooverville in California, where Floyd Knowles again indicates that their dreams will not be fulfilled and Casy takes the blame for a confrontation between Tom and a deputy.  They transfer to one of the government camps, Weedpatch, where they learn that working together as a community can be successful.  Lack of work in the area, however, forces them to move on to the Hooper Ranch and a private camp.  Tom discovers here that Casy has joined a group of migrants on strike.  A horrific fight breaks out when a private police force attacks the strikers.  Tom kills the man who killed Casy and he must say goodbye to Ma and the family.  The family--what is left of it--ends up in a boxcar camp, where flooding rains ruin the car and force them to move to a barn on higher ground.  Rose of Sharon bears a stillborn baby and, in the play’s (and the novel’s) final scene, presents Steinbeck’s hope that the strong, moral fiber of the migrants will make the future better than the present.

Production History

 At least two other adaptations of the novel have been produced.  One was developed by Terence Shank at L.A.’s Colony at Studio Theatre Playhouse, 1980; this production was featured at Humana Festival of new plays.  Another, adapted by Peter Whitebrook, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe in late summer 1987.   But Frank Galati’s production is the only one to have the sanction of the Steinbeck family.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago first presented The Grapes of Wrath at the Royal-George Theatre in Chicago in September 1988.  La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, produced the play in May 1989 and the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain produced it in London in June 1989.  The Schubert Organization, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and Suntory International Corporation produced the Broadway stage version at the Cort Theatre in New York City in March 1990.  Galati won a Tony for his direction and the adaptation won the Tony for Best Play.

Other productions of Galati’s adaptation include The Theatre Academy of Los Angeles City College, in collaboration with the City Playhouse, a then-new resident professional theatre company, 1992; Washington Shakespeare Company, Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, Washington, 1992; the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1993, in Hebrew (“a colossal flop”); Cal State Fullerton in 1993; another English production at the Sheffield Crucible in 1994; Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA, in 1994; California Lutheran University in 1994; Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (CA) in 2000; and, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Little Rock, AK, 2000.

Critics’ Views

 Below I have included extended excerpts and summaries from articles and reviews on the Steppenwolf adaptation.  In some places I have bold-faced interesting comments.  In others, I have annotated (in italics) some of the critics’ views in order to highlight some of the problems associated with adapting and understanding an adaptation of an historical novel to the stage.


Jonathan Abarbanel, “The Chicago Troupe Shoulders a National Epic and Heads West,” American Theatre (June 1989), 22-28.

There was some criticism of the cost of the original Chicago production ($500,000), which an AT&T foundation bankrolled.  “The argument goes that accepting corporate money was a violation of Steinbeck’s political point-of-view in a work in which bosses, banks, and corporate entities are the enemies.”

These critics did not understand Steinbeck.  He was not anti-capitalist.  In fact, while writing the novel he was very concerned with his own personal finances, was involved in the negotiations surrounding his changing publishers, and buying a new ranch.  Steinbeck refused several opportunities to go on the radio or lend his name to causes supporting the migrants’ plight.  Steinbeck did not want to eliminate the corporations; he wanted them to act more responsibly.  Thus, the corporate sponsorship of Galati’s adaptation reflects a kind of corporate responsibility Steinbeck would have supported.  Indeed, his widow strongly supported the production, and introduced the PBS broadcast of the play.


“Chicago’s Steppenwolf Group Adapts ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” Frank Rich, New York Times, 6 October 1988, Royal-George Theater, Chicago. [$500,000 budget, 41 performers, 3 hours long]

“... an entirely theatrical work that, at its best, leaves the film and even the novel in the dust.”

Galati planned to continue refining the production, particularly the sluggish first act.  Galati and scenic designer Kevin Rigdon have “created a stark, brooding stage environment - a barnlike shell of dark weathered wood - that smartly makes no attempt to compete with the Depression photography of Pare Lorentz or Walker Evans.”

“If Mr. Galati has a visual sense that merges Thomas Hart Benton with Peter Brook, he also has the literary sense to downplay the novel’s soupier, sometimes patronizing passages of rustic dialogue.” [Unlike in the movie, Galati moves Ma’s speech forward in the narrative, following the novel.] ... “The Steppenwolf adaptation also restores Steinbeck’s harsh portrait of evangelical zealots and, better still, his searing finale.” 

In the Steppenwolf production, black actors play the young boy and old man whom the Joads encounter in the barn.  I have found no evidence that something like this might have occurred.  In fact, historical evidence suggests that this was most unlikely.  Steinbeck had little appreciation for people of color and did not include them in the novel.  Oklahoma was part of the segregated South, which again raises questions about Galati’s choice here.

“Yet the play could use more historical detail.  While the novel is a cry of nonideological rage against injustice rather than a highly specific radical tract, Mr. Galati nonetheless overgeneralizes the Okies’ economic plight to the extent that the uninitiated will not know why the characters are trapped on their long road.”

Rich noted that it was difficult to overcome Steinbeck’s “characters’ shallow depth and lack of introspection.  Here, as in Steinbeck, the Joads are symbolic figures from a W.P.A. mural:  the heartland family in extremis. ... the real drama is in their circumstances, which gather momentum as slowly as their trucks.”

“Perhaps no moment is more typical of the production’s strengths and failings than the one that occurs when Ms. Smith [Ma Joad], having been left by Mr. Sinise [Tom Joad], remains seated in a pool of dim light on a vast, blackened stage.  What does Ma Joad think and feel as she contemplates her son’s departure?  The play is as frustratingly reticent as the novel.  But the image of Ma Joad, keeping quiet counsel and strength under the stars, reminds us of what still endures in Steinbeck - an indestructible American mythology that finds its match in Steppenwolf’s brawny pioneering vision of American theater.”


“La Jolla’s Rich Harvest of ‘Grapes,’” Sylvie Drake, Los Angeles Times, 16 May 1989 La Jolla Playhouse, CA.  [35 member cast; 3.5 hours long]

“... it’s a tough and richly poetic dramatization of the John Steinbeck novel.  Emotionally stark, visually bleak and aurally sustaining (composer and musical director Michael Smith has created a mood-setting musical frame performed on harmonica, a musical harp, banjo, fiddle and guitar), this lament for the destitute farmers who left Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl in the ‘30s in search of work and survival in California has profound resonances in the present.  The Okies were the first homeless.”

This, of course, is incorrect.  The U.S. had homeless before the late 1930s.  A decade before Steinbeck was born, the first great depression of the 1890s produced Coxey’s Army, a movement similar to the Bonus Army of 1932 and 1933, a group of homeless demanding relief from the Government.  John Dos Passos, in The Big Money (1933), had highlighted the homeless through his “Vag” character.  (“Vag” is slang for “vagrant,” as in “vag-law” for vagrant law.  See Woody Guthrie, Library of Congress Recordings, 1988, 3-CD collection).

“The echoes, however, run even deeper -- backward as well as forward.  If the itinerant Joads are the quintessence of displaced America, they’re only an extension of others:  the displaced Native Americans and African Americans. 

This makes some sense, but not in terms of what Steinbeck intended; it reflects post-novel interpretation, as well as a slow coming of age of American cultural identity.

“Thus the desperation of the Joads, trying to stick together and survive in a country that (failing other ideas) can think only of exploiting them, informs the larger story of a nation set on a socially tragic course, in which the distance between the haves and have-nots relentlessly, endlessly widens.

This is presentism; in the 1930s, I would argue, the fear was the opposite--’would I slip back?’; yet, see USA Today review below--it states this theme better.

Galati’s adaptation “understands something vitally important:  that the only requirement for any play is that it be true to its intent.  In the case of an adaptation, that means the original author’s intent.  On that level, the Steppenwolf ‘Grapes of Wrath’ succeeds better than its predecessors.”

“... it doesn’t compromise its bleakness and knows how to convey the poetry within it -- exactly as Steinbeck has done.”  “... a testament to the rarely seen virtues of ensemble performance.”

“The torn and faded costumes by Erin Quigley and Kevin Rigdon have the drab authenticity of economic condition all over them.  The spare lighting and set designs by Rigdon create a deft, depressing mood, at once lyrical and stern, with clotheslines replacing the barbed wire in the second half, isolating pools of light, recessed bonfires, a waist-deep water channel representing the river, white lightning and sheets of rain crashing down to the sound of apocalyptic thunder during the rainstorm (Rob Milburn designed the sound) -- and of course the truck.

“This key player in the story has to be moved around on a special radio-controlled frame.  That’s the only time that technology hinders rather than helps.  But theater is not about realism.  It is about poetic illusion.  And, in this case, it is also very much about words.”


“Stage Wire:  London Critics Praise ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” Dan Sullivan, Los Angeles Times, 8 July 1989.

“’As shatteringly perfect a piece of American theater as you are likely to experience in a lifetime of trans-Atlantic travel,’ wrote critic Jack Tinkder in the Daily Mail.”

“’You would have to have a heart carved out of granite not to be moved by this magnificent production,’ wrote the Sunday Express’ Clive Hirschlhorn.”

“... was praised for retaining its epic quality without getting bogged down in rhetoric.  Michael Billington of the Guardian thought that in one respect, the stage version improved on the book.  ‘Speeches that on the page looked sentimental or rhetorical, come alive in the mouths of these excellent Chicago actors.’ ...  Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard spoke of the company’s ‘almost balletic precision.’”

“John Peter in the Sunday Times:  ‘It is the best kind of American acting, gritty and gnarled with a simple rhetoric which knows that is has no need of bombast or hysteria.  The actors are sharply individualized and yet self-effacing.’”

Jeremy Kingston, Times, focused on Sinise:  “intense and sinewy”

“Several critics also pointed out that ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ hasn’t lost its relevance in the 1980s, a time when migrant workers and farm foreclosures are still in the news.  This made Steppenwolf’s guest production, not only admirable but, in Billington’s view, ‘necessary.’”


“Steppenwolf’s Gritty Honesty Dazzles in Clear, Classic Style,” David Patrick Stearns, USA Today, 23 March 1990, New York

The production at the Cort Theater:  “More bedraggled and less tuneful than “Les Miserables,” this 44-character epic by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre is too big for Broadway to finance; too unvarnished for the matinee crowd.”

“The actors build performances slowly, emerging out of the spare, colorless set that conveys the drab Oklahoma Dust Bowl.  Stage effects (campfires, rivers, rain storms) are functional rather than spectacular.”

“...  A nighttime brawl is portrayed by a sea of flashlights chaotically stabbing each other in the dark.”

“... “The Grapes of Wrath” is about a society in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  It’s about how we deal with holocaust, and the truth is often heartbreaking.”


Frank Rich again:  “New Era for ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ New York Times, 23 March 1990. [Cort production]

“It’s not just because audiences must step around homeless people to get to the theater that the time is right for the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s majestic adaptation of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’

“... [Steinbeck] was also writing about a nation in search of itself.  After a decade of dog-eat-dog boom and another of Depression, Steinbeck wondered what credo the survivors could still believe in.  Fifty years later - after another 1920’s-style orgy of greed and with many bills yet to be paid - Americans are once more uncertain in their faith.  While an all-night party celebrating democracy is being uncorked around the world, the vast inequities of our own democracy leave some Americans wondering whether they deserve to be invited.”

“... On the surface, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is one of the worst great novels ever written.  The characters are perishable W.P.A.-mural archetypes incapable of introspection, the dialogue is at times cloyingly folksy and the drama is scant. ... Steinbeck wasn’t trying to be Dickens or Hugo or Dreiser.  Without embracing either a jingoist’s flag or a Marxist ideology, he was simply trying to unearth and replenish the soul holding a country together.  That’s the simple, important drama that Steppenwolf, with incredibly sophisticated theatrical technique, brings to the stage.”

“What one finds in place of conventional dramatic elements - and in place of the documentary photography possible only on film - is pure theater as executed by a company and director that could not be more temperamentally suited to their task.  As Steppenwolf demonstrated in “True West,” “Orphans” and “Balm in Gilead” - all titles that could serve for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ - it is an ensemble that believes in what Steinbeck does:  the power of brawny, visceral art, the importance of community, the existence of an indigenous American spirit that resides in inarticulate ordinary people, the spiritual resonance of American music and the heroism of the righteous outlaw.  As played by Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney, Tom Joad and the lapsed preacher, Jim Casy - the Steinbeck characters who leave civilization to battle against injustice - are the forefathers of the rock-and-roll rebels in Steppenwolf productions by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson just as they are heirs to Huck and Jim.  The get their hands dirty in the fight for right.”

“... If he [Galati] has an esthetic model, it is Peter Brook, not ‘The Waltons.’  His ‘Grapes’ looks a lot like the Brook ‘Carmen,’ for its atmosphere is created with the basic elements of earth, water, fire and air.  Even so, Mr. Galati and Mr. Rigdon do not regard homespun simplicity as a license for improvisatory amateurism.  Elegance may seem an odd word to apply to ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ but it fits this one.  While a stage production cannot compete with the photography of Walker Evens or Pare Lorentz, it can emulate the rigorous, more abstract painterly imagery of Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton or Georgia O’Keefe.

“Though trimmed since its premiere in Chicago in 1988, Act I ... still requires perseverance.  Mr. Galati, like Steinbeck, demands that the audience sink into a jerky, episodic journey rather than be propelled by the momentum of character or story.  Act II pays off with the flood sequence -  ...  When Ma Joad ... delivers her paean to the people’s ability to ‘go on,’ it isn’t the inspirational epilogue that won Jane Darwell an Oscar but a no-nonsense, conversational reiteration of unshakable pragmatism.  When Mr. Sinise leaves his already disintegrated family to join a radical underground, his ‘I’ll be all around in the dark’ soliloquy is not Fonda’s Lincolnesque address but a plain-spoken statement of bedrock conviction.

“... the tableau is religious theater in the simplest sense.”

“Some of the audience seemed to be weeping, too, and not out of sadness, I think.  The Steppenwolf ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is true to Steinbeck because it leaves one feeling that the generosity of spirit that he saw in a brutal country is not so much lost as waiting once more to be found.”


“Steppenwolf alters Pace Powerfully for ‘Grapes,’” Hap Erstein, The Washington Times, 29 March 1990, New York.

“Because he [Steinbeck] found aching, timeless truths about human endurance in times of crisis, his tale has never faded into the safe perspective of history.”

“’The Grapes of Wrath’ always was intended as a cautionary social document and it retains considerable emotional impact in today’s uncertain climate.”

“... a largely downbeat, albeit impeccably performed production.”

“It was probably Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and its landmark adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ that gave rise to the genesis of this ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”

“... Mr. Galati opted for an arid elegance, a Dust Bowl directness that perfectly fits this emotion-laden tale of the impoverished.”

“The message of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is one of interdependence, underscored by the production’s final image.”

“Even without the cinematic eye, the Steppenwolf production manages a fluid, mythic sweep as it follows the Joad family ...”


“Chicago Troupe Gives Broadway Potent ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” John Beaufort, Christian Science Monitor, 10 April 1990.

“The joys and perils of the momentous journey unfold in a series of fluid sequences artfully composed by adapter-director Galati.”

Note how the critics contradict themselves:  some see episodic; others see fluid/poetic/elegance.


“Amazing Production of ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” Kevin Kelly, The Boston Globe, 11 April 1990.

“Purer in its poverty, less of a grandstanding expose, this ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is even an improvement on the novel.  Frank Galati ... has reduced Steinbeck’s famous intercalary chapters to a few cohesive lines.  And the result is a drama that takes hold in its opening moments and doesn’t let go until the end.”

“Galati understands the material’s elemental appeal, the awful, dehumanizing struggle of the Joad family to escape from the calcified earth to a fallow future, from certain death to the promise of life.  Striking out Steinbeck’s self-conscious symbolism, cutting back on the historical sweep and, perhaps best of all, restraining the allegory, Galati has come up with his own kind of fidelity.  He lets the book speak for itself.”

“... Galati errs once.  He uses no less than four narrators who, taciturn, as they are, sometimes mouth material so incidental it’s worthless.  Despite this minor flaw, and it is minor, what we have here is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ enriched.”

Other Productions by Frank Galati

The Grapes of Wrath was not Frank Galati’s first nor his last historical adaptation.  In the mid-1970s, Frank Galati directed a musical adaptation of Mike Royko’s book, Boss, a biography of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.  In 1988, he re-staged Grason Kanin’s 1945 play, Born Yesterday, which reflected wartime corruption in the nation’s capital.  In 1988, he moved on to Hollywood and co-wrote, with Lawrence Kasdan, the screenplay for The Accidental Tourist.  (Interestingly, David Q. Combs, who plays Casy in CATCO’s production, played a preacher in that film!)  Galati has directed Shakespeare (Winter Tale, 1990, Goodman Theatre, Chicago) and that same year conceived and directed “She Always Said, Pablo,” a mixture of images and paintings (Pablo Picasso), music (Virgil Thomson and Igor Stravinsky), words (Gertrude Stein), and dance.  The Goodman produced this offering at the Kennedy Center Opera House to disappointing box office returns.

In 1991, Galati adapted Anne Tyler’s novel, Earthly Possessions, with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  Frank Rich, of The New York Times, wrote that “The qualities that Mr. Galati brought to ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ are all apparent in ‘Earthly Possessions’:  the keen visual sense, the scrupulous respect for the language and intentions of his literary source, the conviction that even the most intimate drama can have a cinematic sweep on stage.  As the Joads’ truck dominated the last Galati production, Jake’s getaway car is usually at the center of ‘Earthly Possessions,’ with the homesick restaurants and lonely Edward Hopper vistas on its route filled in by animated, black-and-white slide projections (by John Boesche) in a funky Jim Jarmusch style.”  [NYT, 4 September 1991 Section C, p 13]

In 1992, Galati (“a renowned refugee, as it were, from the so-called legitimate theater”--Martin Bernheimer, LA Times, 21 September 1992, Part F, p. 1) directed Puccini’s opera, “Tosca,” in San Francisco, at the War Memorial Opera House, with Tony Walton on set design.  Alas, it was a “clumsy, contrived and confusing” production.  In 1993, Galati adapted and directed (at the Goodman) Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” (1949) “a musical tragedy,” retitled “Cry, the Beloved Country.”  Dealing with race in South Africa, this production called for compassion from men of all colors. [David Richards, NYT, 25 July 1993, Sunday, Sec 2, p. 5]

In 1994, Galati directed Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1945) for the Roundabout Theatre Co. in New York City, with Calista Flockhart and Julie Harris. [David Richards, NYT, 16 November 1994, Sec. C, p. 17]

In 1995, Galati and Steppenwolf staged William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in Chicago.  Dealing with rural poverty Mississippi 1930s, the play contrasted with “The Grapes of Wrath” adaptation.  David Patrick Stearns [USA TODAY, 9 August 1995]:  “While Steinbeck had a highly visual style, Faulkner tended to go straight into his characters’ souls, often without telling us who they are or how they connect to each other.  ...” 

In 1999, Galati directed another adaptation of an historical-novel at the Colonial Theatre in Boston (produced by Pace Theatrical Group and Broadway)--the musical adaptation by Terrence McNally of E. L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime.  [Ed Siegel, The Boston Globe, 22 January 1999, ARTS & FILM, D1]

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CATCO’s Approach to the Production

Given all of the above, and the physical layout and size of the Riffe Center Studio One Theatre, director Geoff Nelson, assistant director Maureen Ryan, scenic designer Dan Gray, lighting director T. J. Gerckens, costumer Cindy Turnbull, musical director Tammy Hansan, sound designer Brian Kallaher, props master Elizabeth Langford, and the cast and production crew had to make choices.  One overriding goal was to make CATCO’s production “fresh,” and not to give in to expectations.

From an initial “approach” outlined by Nelson, the collaborative approach taken at CATCO, where everyone is encouraged to participate in shaping the production, was designed to bring forth a rich and fresh approach to the classic American story.

Note:  Additions to this section will be made throughout the rehearsal period.


"Show Pre-set"

Scenic Design by Dan Gray

Photo by Mary Sullivan/David Combs

CATCO --Quick Production FACTS

The Grapes of Wrath is CATCO’s largest production to date.

Twenty-three actors, two musicians, two assistant stage managers (one who doubles as an actor), and two backstage runners join the Stage Manager and lighting and sound board operators for each performance.

The two musicians play guitar, fiddle, harp, and saw (which the musician learned for this production). Four actors join the musicians with other instruments: washtub base, harmonicas (2), and banjo.

Costumes: There are 90 different characters depicted on stage. On average, each actor has at least two costumes; one has seven costume changes.

Props: There are over 230 different props, ranging from barrels to crates to guns to bundles of clothing and eating utensils. One of the assistant stage managers "tracks" each prop and knows where it is at all times.

Specialists: In addition to the usual lighting and sound directors, CATCO hired a music director, a choreographer, and a fight-movement director (who doubles as an actor).

CATCO’s budget for this production was about one-fifth the budget of the original Steppenwolf production.

Geoff Nelson—The Director’s Approach

Geoffrey Nelson, Artistic DirectorGeoff Nelson, Founder and Artistic Director of CATCO, handed out the following “approach” to all cast and crew members at the first rehearsal.

GRAPES is the biggest production that CATCO has ever staged—biggest not only in the number of performers onstage (twenty-five) but more so in terms of story. We don't have a simple action here, with a single protagonist; we have instead a complex, interwoven series of actions involving an entire family as protagonist. The power of this play lays in this very epic quality: the audience becomes involved in all the separate plot lines of the Joad family. It is also epic because the Joads represent "The People," the working class family that has so little voice in America then and now. And it is epic because of the sheer cumulative power of twenty-five performers.

The idea of "The People" is at the heart of this production. Our premise is that the ensemble—all twenty‑five of you, representing "The People"—tell us the story of the Joads. Some of you step out of the Ensemble to become individual Joads, others play a variety of the people they encounter on their Odyssey. Dead Joads—disappeared Joads—are recycled and come back to play other people.

[A note here on costuming and makeup: There's a lot of doubling in this show and we're certainly not trying to fool the audience. When the actor playing Connie Rivers returns to the stage as a striker the costume will make it clear that this is a different person. But it will be up to the actor to find a different physicality, vocalization, temperament, etc.]

This idea of "The People" animates the casting and musical assignments as well. I'd like to spread the telling of the story among many performers. Our skilled musicians will necessarily carry the bulk of the music, but we are also looking for places where a few of the actors who play instruments or sing take on a number. I have also replaced the largely male narrators in the original script with purely female narrators. There's a wonderful image in the book:  the men squatting in a circle to make big decisions, while the women stand with the children on the periphery waiting. At the end of this play, though, the women clearly provide much of the strength that keeps us going.

This is not the Steppenwolf Production. We don't have the resources, nor the space, to fly scenery nor to store a real truck. Galati's original production used real fire, real tanks of water, real rain—and we could probably do that. But instead we have chosen a more theatrical approach.

One of the interesting elements in the script is the idea of transformation—how the band's music becomes the sound of the engine stalling, how the jaw harp becomes a heartbeat, how the square dancers become the strikers, etc. In our production this concept will guide a lot of the staging. Music or live sound effects will create the effect of mimed shoveling (no real dirt) when Grandpa is buried; actors and long pieces of cloth will create the Colorado River; the barn at the end will be created by the Ensemble holding planks, etc. We don't have all the details worked out, but my expectation is that we will use the Ensemble and music and live sound effects more than the Steppenwolf Production.

The settings will also be created out of a lot of the same units that will be re-used in different ways, as well as with new scenic pieces. The truck—as Dan will explain—is created largely out of non-truck parts--again, the idea of transformation.

The scene changes in this play will be big production numbers, accomplished by the Ensemble rather than by technology. These scene changes are usually accompanied by songs or text. There are also a number of crowd scenes where the Ensemble will be actively involved in creating distinct, believable characters who don't speak and aren't listed in the script! When I say that the cumulative impact of twenty‑five actors will help create that epic feeling in the audience, it is because the Ensemble will be such a strong presence onstage from first to last. (In the Steppenwolf production, the ensemble and the music petered out as the story progressed. Not here.)

One staging note: we will be using the full auditorium. Moments will be staged out in the house. I think it's important for the audience to enhance that feeling of scale and space.

And a few words on some central acting issues....

If we play the Joads as victims, the production will fail. The goal is not for the audience to feel sorry for this family. The goal is for the audience to admire them, to be in awe of their strength and generosity and perseverance.

The important thing is not what happens to the Joads, but how they respond, how they change as a result of what they experience. They are not whiners. They are a tough, hard-working, proud (sometimes too proud) people who put a very, very high value on self-reliance.

At heart, this play is about values—about one family and how its values (self-reliance, family, religion) change. How community, how responsibility for your fellow man becomes crucial to them. How "I" becomes "We." It's a movement from ignorance to knowledge. It's also the recognition of how one gains power over one's own life from being part of a powerful group. In the end, self-reliance is an illusion. And family values are only significant if they are supported by community values.

Be careful of playing sentiment. Rarely do these people have the time, or inclination, to sit around and feel sorry for themselves. This is THE GRAPES OF WRATH, remember, not ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY. These are also people who distrust sentiment as a sign of weakness: if you let yourself be emotional you're done for, you won't have the strength to fight on 

The humor in the play is crucial. It counterpoints all the hard stuff, which would get unbearable without it.

For the Ensemble: don't play everyone as villains. The worst people the Joads encounter are rarely conscious of who they are and what they do. They think they are right, that they are justified. They are driven by fear, or need, or mistaken notions. Find the positive side of these characters—it will make their actions all the harder

And finally and most importantly: be honest. You are speaking for people who had (and have) little voice in our culture.


Scenic Design

Dan Gray, Resident Scenic Designer and Assistant Professor
Department of Theatre, The Ohio State University

Transformation, adaptation, and determination were essential to the Joad's survival in a harsh world.  These qualities drove and defined the scenic approach to our production.

Conceptually, my initial scenic-design response to The Grapes of Wrath was driven by some very practical concerns.  How would we create a space that would support a cast of 25 people, a truck to transport 13 of them to California, and a sense of the expansive vistas of the Joad's journey on a relatively small stage?  How could we show the desperation and transformation of these characters in a way that reflected the realities they encountered day after day?  The answer to these and other questions came from the texts--John Steinbeck’s novel and the Frank Galati-Steppenwolf adaptation.

The novel is a story of real characters (who have all seen better days) told in simple, direct language.  The stage environment would have to reflect this straightforward approach. Honest materials, worn and blown raw by the elements, would frame this world.  The stage would be a wide open space with a series of levels to create a varied palette for composing our performers. Different locations would be suggested by elements found within the environment and manipulated by the actors.  We would make no pretense of hiding the theatrical nature of our communication with the audience.  Large scenic changes made by unseen hands and other "theatre tricks" had no place in this production.

The famous "Joad Truck" would also be created in this manner.  Practically, we had no room for even a scaled down version of a Hudson Super Six on (or off!) stage.  We needed to find a way of suggesting this emblematic vision of migration in a way that was consistent with the approach we had embraced.  In my research for the production I saw many video and still images of Okies fleeing to California with their belongings strapped all over their vehicles.  I was struck by the idea that in many cases you couldn't really see the vehicle for all the stuff that surrounded it.  This would prove to be the key to our truck.  We would create the suggestive silhouette of a period Hudson on a roving platform with items from the destroyed Joad place.  A round top trunk formed the engine bonnet; a bench made the seat; fence pieces defined the truck bed; a headboard separated the cab from the bed of the converted car-into-a truck. Most of these items could then be used as props in other scenes as needed. Thus, the truck reflected the themes of transformation, adaptation, and determination.


Costume Design

Cindy Turnbull, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Resident Costume Designer
Department of Theatre, Denison University

As Costume Designer for The Grapes of Wrath I have had many challenges. There are over 90 characters acting in diverse locations from Oklahoma to New Mexico to Arizona and California. I am focusing on the "clothes" of the period and making these garments look worn, lived in, and authentic to the 1930's and the characters. I am also working with textures of all kinds, combinations, and different colors. All of this must be created within the time, labor, and money constraints that all theatrical artists work within.

My general process in designing is:


Read the script several times

Research using period sources

Prepare character analysis of all characters within the show

Draw preliminary sketches and get feedback from the director

Make changes to the sketches

Shop for fabric for garments we are constructing

Shop for garments at thrift stores

Fit the actors in their costumes

Build and alter garments

Laura Dana is Costume Shop Supervisor at CATCO and is doing a wonderful job overseeing the building and construction of the costumes. She also organizes the fast changes and running of the show as it goes into dress rehearsals.


In this production process, I am also serving as the dyer/painter. To achieve the worn, tattered, and dirty look of some of the clothes, I am painting them with dye and over dying some of them to create a faded look. I had to purchase new denim pants for some of the men and I have bleached and faded them so that they look old and lived-in.  After the dyeing and painting is done sandpaper and cheese graters are used to fray the fibers. This also adds a three-dimensional texture to the garments.  Other textures I am working with include fabrics with stripes, plaids, and prints and different weights and drapes of fabrics. This variation creates a visual variety and an earthy quality for the characters. Sometimes there are even stripes and prints used within the same costume.


Creating the world of the characters and clothes that make sense in that world is my goal. But this production is not reality, not real life; it is its own theatrical and artistic statement based on the visions of the various artists working on it. I want the clothes to say something about the characters that might help the audience understand the story a little better. This is subtlety at its finest. No sequins or metallic fabrics are found in this show. I hope all audience members discover themselves transported back in time over sixty years ago and that, without consciously noticing, the costumes blend into that world created on stage.

Tammy Hansan—Musical Direction

Since the founding of our country, music has provided our society with reasons to believe.  Music continues to carry the country from the protest songs during the civil rights and antiwar movements through the global activism we see today.  Civil rights activist and musician Harry Belafonte said, “ Wherever I go in the world and I look for forces that are struggling against injustice, I always seem to find somebody with a guitar and a voice and they’re always singing to something that inspires the community, no matter how ravaged that community may be.”  The Joads came from a community ravaged by Mother Nature and big corporations; the same community that triggered Woody Guthrie to create songs of desperation, songs of hope and songs of promise.
I chose the music used in CATCO's production of The Grapes of Wrath to do several things.  First, generally it reflects the attitudes and emotions of the Joads. For example, "The Waltz," heard throughout the play, serves as Ma’s memories of the past, the security she finds in her family and the promise of a better life.  Woody Guthrie’s "Goin; Down This Road" is presented as traveling music and helps give the sensation of the Joads' truck rambling across the country on Route 66.  Other Guthrie tunes, such as "Dust Bowl Blues" and "Mountain Railroad," reveal how closely Woody’s own life parallels the lives of the Joads.  Second, the music helps carry forward the action of Frank Galati's adaptation.  Third, in some cases the lyrics help fill-in sections from the novel that could not be included in the production without making the saga too long for the audience.

"DC? DR? UL?"

Musicians Jim LeGrand (L) and John Shomburg (R)

Costumes by Cindy Turnbull

Scenic Design by Dan Gray

Photo by Mary Sullivan/David Combs


Elizabeth Langford

The biggest responsibility of the properties master is to be as realistic and historically accurate as possible. The challenge, as is normal for any period play, is finding items currently available that are close enough to what was used "at that time" (e.g., cotton clothes line, wooden clothes pins or the red rags gas station attendants used to use). Conveying the desperation these people went through and the fact that they were not always destitute, that they had been prosperous before they lost their farm, and that they were proud were key goals to meet. Their belongings should show extreme overuse, worn down by the elements; but they also needed to look as if they were nice things at one time in the past. Magazines of the day (Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Good Housekeeping) and photographs from the Dust Bowl (especially by Dorothea Lange) were particularly helpful in revealing the types of things people used in the 1930s--what kinds of dishes, pots and pans, baskets, appliances of any type, what products were available (i.e. Morton Tender- Quick for salting the pork, Havoline oil used by the gas station attendant). Photos of the fleeing Okies in their trucks loaded down with all of their worldly possessions were particularly helpful in "loading" the Joad truck. The trick, given the limited amount of space and the number of people needing to be in that space, was to make it look as if the Joads took everything but the kitchen sink.

Shopping the antique/vintage shops and thrift stores usually turns up many treasures.

As with the costumes, items purchased new must be distressed. For example, the plates for "supper" were new pie plates. I sprayed them down with black spray paint first, then used a combination of other colors of paint for texture and finally gave them the "well-worn" look with a hammer. The slabs of "salt pork" were made using several layers of foam of different thickness, modeling clay, and a lot of glue.

In creating the world of the Joads and the other displaced people they meet on their trip to California, as well as the migrant life in California, the use and re-use of all props and set pieces to build the truck and define the locations (Hooverville, Weedpatch Camp, etc ) is reminiscent of the migrants’ use and re-use of items, sometimes to the point of wearing them out.


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What Happened to the Okies?

 According to Jules Loh, a California journalist in the early 1990s, Ma Joad’s prediction that the Okies would simply go on actually understated their impact on California.  For example, Dale Scales (who was 57 in 1992), and who was a baby in 1936 when his family of six arrived in Bakersfield, owned 1800 acres, which he leased out, and made “his living trading in huge tracts of farmland for corporate investors, lives in the highest hill in Bakersfield, keeps a $45,000 custom car in the garage and golfs at the country club.”  Perhaps as many as one-eighth of California’s population in 1992 could trace ancestry to the Okies--about 3.75 million.  Many had stayed on in California when mobilization for World War II presented good job opportunities.

A native Californian who witnessed the Okie invasion in the 1930s, Doris Weddell, “watched her native valley [San Joaquin Valley] ... steadily take on manners and folkways of the rural Southwest that weren’t there before.” …  “The churches illustrate one obvious change. ...  When I was a girl in Modesto there were five -- Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopalian.  Now only the Catholic Church is prominent.  It serves the Mexicans, today’s Okies.  Now we have Pentecostals, Evangelicals, various fundamentalist congregations, and there are scads of them all over the valley.  What used to be the main-line churches are almost insignificant.”  The infamous Weedpatch government camp of the novel (actually titled Arvin Labor Camp) was still in operation in 1992.  Established in 1937 by the FSA with concrete floors and tents, it had improved by the 1990s to include two-bedroom plywood houses that sheltered 130 families; signs were in Spanish.  [Jules Loh, “California’s Okies,” 15 October 1992, The Press-Enterprise, E-11.]

For other information on the Okies today, see Selected References/Suggestions for Further Reading.  Dan Morgan’s book, especially, underscores the religious aspect of Okie lives.

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Migrants in Ohio

The plight of the Joads as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath was a universal one.  Only the particular crops and the background of migrants in other areas differed.  The economic forces behind agriculture in Ohio were not all that different from those in California, although sugar beets and onions comprised the major crops in Ohio for which casual workers were needed (for weeding several times a year and for the final harvest).  A handful of large-scale agribusinesses dominated the state’s agriculture and the small-scale farmer found it difficult to compete.  The small-scale farmers could not even match the below-poverty wages that the large-scale farmers offered to the migrant laborers.  The farmers complained to the state government, but received little help.  There appeared to be among the small-scale Ohio farmers a greater sense of concern for the plight of the migrants, but they did not have the resources to furnish a decent, living wage.

In Ohio, migrants from Appalachia and from Mexico dominated the farm laboring community.  Those from Appalachia, particularly from Kentucky, were very similar to the Joads:  religious, prideful, family-oriented, hard-working.  Those Ohioans who knew of the migrants treated them, like Californians did the Okies, with disdain and misunderstanding.  Ohioans saw migrants as a burden on local relief rolls, as choosing their existence out of ignorance.  When migrants remained in the area, crime rates did increase.  And the migrants tended to bring their inter-family feuds with them, thus sparking an increase in violence when they were out of work.  For the most part, however, the Ohio migrants were unseen to most Ohioans until a strike caught the attention of the state’s press.  The strike began in June 1934 in Hardin County, in the marshes that provided good soil for onions.  Local law enforcement officials joined private citizens and the Ohio National Guard to break the strike.  Riots occurred in Alger; local citizens captured and beat the leader of the strikers.  Eventually, strike-breakers left the area and the migrants returned to the fields, but without having won any of their demands for better pay and housing conditions.  After that was settled, however, the migrants became invisible once again to most Ohioans.  The onion fields proved less profitable, and Mexican migrants began to supplant the Appalachian workers.  The story of the Mexicans, alas, repeated that of the Appalachians.

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Terms of Interest

 Bulls:  Private, but sometimes public, policemen that the California farmers and town officials hired to run-off migrants from the areas.  

 Hooverville:  These were camps that migrants and unemployed established on the road and in American cities.  They were named after President Herbert Hoover, whom many blamed for the Great Depression.

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 Questions to Consider

How does the concept of the American Dream lace the novel and the play?  Why have the Joads lost the American Dream?  Indeed, is “loss” the correct description?  Will they ever (re)discover or realize the dream?

 Does Steinbeck believe that capitalism has failed the Joads, or that the Joads have failed capitalism?

 How does the land figure in the novel? in the play?  Do the individuals and institutions have the proper respect for the land that Steinbeck thinks they should?  Can they develop such respect?

 Similarly, is the notion of capitalism (especially individualism and land ownership) incompatible with conservation and concern for ecological balance? 

 Note the relationships between genders:  how the men and women characterize their plight; the solutions offered; and the attempts to realize appropriate responses.  Do the women or the men have the answers?

 Does Steinbeck offer clear cut solutions to the problems presented?  Who or what is responsible for the plight of the migrants and who or what should respond to their plight?

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Selected References/Suggestions for Further Reading and Viewing

Frank Galati, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1991).

Jay Parini, John Steinbeck:  A Biography (1996).

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (with an introduction by Robert DeMott) (1939, 1992).

John Steinbeck, Working Days:  The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1928-1941, edited by Robert DeMott (1989).

John Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies:  On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath (1936, 1988).

Peter Whitebrook, Staging Steinbeck:  Dramatising The Grapes of Wrath (1988).


Literary Analyses:

Warren French (ed), A Companion to the Grapes of Wrath (1963).

Tetsumaro Hayaski (ed), A Study Guide to Steinbeck:  A Handbook to His Major Works (1974).

Hayaski and Kenneth D. Swan, (eds), Steinbeck’s Prophetic Vision of America (1976).

Peter Lica, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1981, 1958).

Warren Motley, “From Patriarchy to Matriarchy:  Ma Joad’s Role in The Grapes of Wrath,” American Literature, 54(October 1982)3, 397-412.

E. W. Tedlock Jr., and C. V. Wickers, Steinbeck and His Critics:  A Record of Twenty-five Years (1957).



John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Hal Ashby, Bound for Glory (1976) (video and DVD).

Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, USA (1976).

Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River (1936).

John Sales, Matewan (1979).

The Great Depression and the New Deal (Knowledge Unlimited, 1996).

The Great Depression (A&E Home Video, 1999, Mario Cuomo narrates).

Riding the Rails (WGBH Boston, 1997).


Film Analyses:

Joseph R. Millichap, Steinbeck and Film (New York, 1983).

Vivian C. Sobchack, “The Grapes of Wrath (1940):  Thematic Emphasis Through Visual Style,” American Quarterly, 31(Winter, 1979), 596-615.


Historical Analyses:

Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest:  Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression (New York, 1982).  

Cletus E. Daniel, Bitter Harvest:  A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941 (1981).

James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, “Dust Bowl Odyssey,” in After the Fact:  The Art of Historical Detection (2000).  

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear:  The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999).

Geta LeSeur, Not All Okies are White:  The Lives of Black Cotton Pickers in Arizona (2000).

Jules Loh, “California’s Okies,” 15 October 1992, The Press-Enterprise (CA).

Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression:  America, 1929-1941 (New York, 1993, 1984).

Steve McGann, “The Joads in Ohio:  Migrant Workers in the 1930s,” A Senior Honors Thesis, Ohio State University, December 1998.

Dan Morgan, Rising in the West:  The True Story of an “Okie” Family From the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years (1992).

William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago, 1986, 1973).

Warren I. Susman, Culture as History:  The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984).

Studs Terkel, Hard Times:  An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970, 1986).

Donald Wooster, Dust Bowl:  The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1970) and Rivers of Empire:  Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (1985).


The Adaptation

Jonathan Abarbanel, “The Chicago Troupe Shoulders a National Epic and Heads West,” American Theatre (June 1989), 22-28.



Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tome Joad,” CD (Columbia Records, 1995).

Nipper’s Greatest Hits--The Thirties (3 vols).

Woody Guthrie:  Library of Congress (Alan Lomax, 1940 recordings).


Pertinent Web Sites:

Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University:

American Memory at the Library of Congress:  Voices from the Dust Bowl:  The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941:  

Route 66: [for other internet sites]  



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