The play-novella is a unique literary form that was largely developed by American author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck is famous for his novels about the experience of working class Americans. He is especially well known for his novels Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, and The Grapes of Wrath. Many Steinbeck readers are not aware of the play-novella form, even though Of Mice and Men follows this form.
The play-novella is a novel that exists, like a play, in either three or four major acts. Generally, the novel is written in a way that makes it seem much like a play. Dialogue follows theatric forms and scenes are set similarly to the way playwrights describe a stage before launching into the dialogue and action. Books in the play-novella form also include heightened forms of drama and ritual that are meant to translate onto the stage. Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, The Moon is Down, and Burning Bright are all examples of novels that Steinbeck wrote in the play-novella form.
One of the key features of a play-novella is the length. Because the novella is meant to translate onto the stage, it is approximately the same length of a play. Furthermore, the play-novella is very often based on dialogue and action. Psychological novels, wherein the main action takes place within the mind of the main character or characters, are difficult to adapt to the stage or the screen. Therefore, play-novellas are generally full of dialogue and action.
While much of Steinbeck’s work has been adapted for movies, Burning Bright is the only Steinbeck play-novella that was followed by a theatrical interpretation shortly after publication date. Furthermore, while many of the films based on his novels had Steinbeck’s blessing, he actually worked on the theatrical production of Burning Bright. The play-novella form, according to Steinbeck, was meant to yield plays that could be read as if they were novels and novels that could be read as plays.
However, the Broadway version of Burning Bright, which debuted in the 1950ss, was a complete flop. The entire production was scrapped after only 13 performances due to bad reviews and attendance. Since the curtain closed on the first production of Burning Bright, few directors have tackled the play-novella. Although there are a number of novels that fit into the play-novella genre, Steinbeck was one of the only authors to work intently on this form. For that, he is largely credited with the form.