East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
This fall, the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company brings a new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epic family saga East of Eden to the stage. Founded in 1974 by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and H.E. Baccus, the company has developed into one of the most respected and innovative theaters in the U.S. Even if you do not live in Chicago, you probably know it as the birthing stage for many successful and honored Broadway productions, among them Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win the 1990 Tony for Best Play. That’s relevant here because Galati and Terry Kinney are the creative force behind the new adaptation of East of Eden.
To learn more about Steppenwolf, the theater’s principals, and its new season, including East of Eden, click here. For Playbill’s blurb on the play, click here. To refresh yourself on what Steinbeck called his best novel, read our previously published review that follows. And if you will find yourself in Chicago in the fall, think about tickets (at Chicago prices, we might add, typically half what you will pay should it make its way to Broadway).
Where do you begin with East of Eden, for it offers the reader a bounty of pleasures and ideas to contemplate? The beautiful tone of the prose flows along like a gentle breeze, while increasing the intensity of dramatic moments. Steinbeck’s characters, as they always do, capture you, but even more so in this magnum opus, in particular Samuel Hamilton, the polymath progenitor from whom Olive and then John Steinbeck descended (the novel contains autobiographical elements), a man you wish you could spend an hour or two with; Lee, the highly educated, very wise, completely unassuming Trask housekeeper and companion, who gives rise to the central, hopeful theme of the novel, summed up in the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest, Steinbeck’s translation in support of the theme of choosing between good and evil); and Cal Trask, self-aware of the potential for evil and good within him, probably the most dimensional character in the vast cast. Steinbeck renders the epic, sequential story arcs of good versus evil, with permutations, on the most personal level of family, in a way we can feel and identify with. Yes, East of Eden is his greatest novelistic achievement, among the greatest family sagas of any century, and one of the best American novels by any American writer, and the best because, put plainly, it is a pleasure and inspiration to read. If you haven’t read it, please do yourself a favor and do so now.
You’ll also find the novel timeless. After all, don’t we all still struggle with good and evil; don’t we all yet make choices that lead us down paths we wish we did not find ourselves treading; don’t we all yearn to turn our lives around at some point but wonder how to do so? If only we had a Samuel or Lee to nudge and guide us; if only we could grasp our plight and wrestle our nature into obedience as Cal will. Well, at least you’ll know you are not alone; you’ll know you’re just human.
As you read the novel, and perhaps critiques of it as well, you’ll find the central theme to be that a person has it in his or her power to choose between good and evil. Adam and his son Aron are the symbols, the suffering symbols, of good. Charles, Adam’s brother, and Cathy, Adam’s wife, are evil, and choose to be such. Cal, who possesses evil tendencies, recognizes his predilection to evil. He strives mightily to choose to be good. But we ‘d add that Steinbeck might be also telling us that with each generation we trend more to the good, making the individual struggle more hopeful. You’ll see this vividly illustrated in Cal, who appears to have descended from Cathy and Charles.
Finally, should you explore information on the novel, you’ll discover that readers have pulled many quotes from East of Eden. It’s that kind of novel, a place to find any number of thoughts meaningful to you and your life. This passage, which we haven’t seen quoted, struck us the moment we read it. It demonstrates Steinbeck’s keen understanding of the American character, a summation well worth keeping in mind today. Lee addresses Cal after a devastating turn in the story (page 568, Penguin Centennial Edition):
“We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed–selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful–we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic–and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture?”
Highly recommended as a vital, brilliant masterwork that will never lose it relevancy, as well as for its superb style. It will be interesting to see how Galati and Kinney bring the essence of the novel to life on stage. w/c