News & Articles

Hallie Gordon Interviews Director Michael Patrick Thornton

by Hallie Gordon and Michael Patrick Thornton

Hallie Gordon: When I first approached you about directing Of Mice and Men you said that it was one of your favorite stories. Why is it so meaningful to you? Michael Patrick Thornton: For me, it’s the relationship between George and Lennie, and the compassion that these two grown men feel for each other. When this book is taught, George is usually a pretty morally sanitized character, in terms of his reasons for traveling with Lennie. But you know, upon further reading the relationship gets more uncomfortable. George has a lot guilt when it comes to his friend – he feels awful for having abused Lennie in the past, making him the butt of jokes back home, basically playing a destructive game of Simon Says with him over the years. And I think he’s aware of that. There is also so much we don’t know about George and Lennie’s relationship. George plays his cards close to his chest. We don’t know what happened between George, Lennie and Lennie’s Aunt Clara. We don’t know the details about what happened in Weed, apart from what George tells Slim. There is just so much back story that remains a big question mark. HG: Do you feel like the book and the play are still relevant for high school students? MPT: Yes, certainly. Of Mice and Men is both a story about identity and a cautionary tale about what happens when people do not pursue their dreams. I think that all the men in Steinbeck’s story don’t really follow their dreams, and this essentially causes them to lose their identities. And high school is such a defining, wonderfully awful, purifying part of identity development. We all make decisions based on how we’re received or shunned, and on how much of ourselves we want to reveal to our peers. I think what we see in Of Mice and Men is what happens when people adhere to this “someday I’ll get there” mentality - which is really just a way of staying afraid. HG:Talk to me a little bit about how you’re going to approach the play. MPT: In keeping with the season of the imagination, I’m going to try and approach the play through Lennie’s eyes; to have the audience experience the world like he does. We as audience members are very interested in the world as we see it. But as soon as Lennie hits the stage, our “real world” will fade away and we will start to see the play in bright color and experience it through sound and touch - the way Lennie does. His world is a lot more sensorial than ours. And at the end of the play, once Lennie is gone, that high sensory world will fade away and we’ll be left with only what we started with. HG: And that brings up the question of the final scene. George’s decision really makes us consider what we value as humans, and where we stand on this very morally controversial act. MPT: You know, there doesn’t seem to be an overriding, objective morality in place in Of Mice and Men. Usually, when characters go against the moral order, there is punishment of some kind – from God, from the law. I can’t think of another story in which a character bucks, usurps the natural order of the world and nothing bad happens to him. A few seconds after the gunshot, the play is over. We don’t see any punishment, so it seems like Steinbeck wants to leave that judgment to us. It’s endlessly fascinating to me. HG: It brings up so many questions. Steinbeck’s characters are all so filled with defects; they all have dreams and desires that aren’t being met. MPT: Absolutely. There’s a line in the book that says Crooks has “reduced himself to nothing.” Steinbeck really insinuates that the characters are destroying themselves here. Dreams are great, but I wonder if on some level George keeps Lennie around because he knows that Lennie basically prevents the actualization of his dreams. As long as Lennie is around they’ll never get that farm, because they’ll always be on the run. This goes back again to the theme of identity and being careful how you define yourself. If you define yourself by things that are going to happen in the future, you’re not living in the now. You’re essentially missing life. HG: It seems like the only character who is true to himself is Lennie. MPT: But he doesn’t get moral credit for that because it isn’t a choice. Lennie can’t be anyone but who he is. HG: What do you think makes this story a classic? MPT: I think what makes it a classic is that culturally, Americans are very dream-oriented. These are familiar themes - the American dream, the act of going out west, Curly’s wife wanting to get into the pictures. We define ourselves by our possessions, what we are going to be, our status, our awards and our accomplishments. None of that has changed. But I think during The Great Depression, a time during which people couldn’t afford external things, they were left with a quite an uncomfortable spotlight on their identities. Because all you have is you; you’re reduced to your most basic levels. The questions become where are you going to sleep, where are you going to eat, how are you going to find work. And unfortunately, we have the unique opportunity to produce this play during a time that might very well be the beginning of the next Depression. HG: And when people fall on hard economic times their dreams become minimized, because it’s all about survival. MPT: If you really consider economic recession and depression, they are just natural parts of capitalism. Markets are run by human beings and human beings are driven by greed. We always want more - it makes up the story of who we are. HG: And now we’re come full circle, back around to the natural defeats in human beings. MPT: Exactly, but I think Of Mice and Men is not only about human defect. It’s also a wonderful love story about companionship, despite George’s character flaws. The theme of loneliness is pervasive too, and everyone has been lonely. We all know what loneliness can do to you. And in this play, Steinbeck really takes loneliness to its natural conclusions.