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What is a Play-Novella?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By NathanG — On Dec 30, 2011

@everetra - I’ve never read Of Mice and Men. Strangely enough, I’m aware of it, because the novel has been invoked in common slang as kind of a metaphor, like where you say if someone is a mouse or a man.

Regardless I think it would be worth a read. I’d be more interested in the novella though and not its adaptation to the big movie screen. I say that because in general, movies don’t always work well when adapted from novels.

At least this has been my experience, and I think that it would be even more so with the play novella.

By everetra — On Dec 29, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - In principle, I would agree, but look at what happened to Burning Bright. It was a disaster. So this begs the question: can a novel faithfully be translated as a play script and work well on stage?

Maybe in theater the answer is no, but in movie format the answer is maybe. With movies you can do a lot of editing and stuff to make the film work. That’s why you have experimental movies and things like that.

With theater, what you see is what you get. If it’s not working, you’re pretty much failing “live.”

By SkyWhisperer — On Dec 28, 2011

While I’ve never read the novels here – or seen them performed – I’m pretty sure already that I would like them, given the description that I’ve read so far.

Why do I say that? Because the play novella is built around dialogue and action, and that’s what I like. I tire of novels that linger long on description but are slow to move the plot along.

Frankly, I think most contemporary readers are the same way. We want our stories to get to the point and move swiftly through the rising tension, climax and resolution.

I believe the play scenes in the Steinbeck novels would do just that. Perhaps I should check them out online.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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