Link: Actress Leighton Meester on Curley’s wife

Meester plays the character of Curley’s wife in a current Broadway production of “Of Mice and Men.” In a piece at HuffPost titled “I’m Not a Tart: The Feminist Subtext of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men,” she writes of her character:

A few months ago, I read a piece by Daisy Eagan, a Tony Award-winning actress who was aiming to condemn a misogynistic comment on my character in a New York Times review. The review stated that my version of the character was intentionally lacking in the vamp department so as to dissuade the viewer from thinking that “she was asking for it,” — “it” being her death. Of course, I agreed with Ms. Eagan’s opinion in that no woman ever asks for violence or rape, and that ignorance was most likely what brought the Times writer to his conclusion.

However, during our four-month run, I’ve had ups and downs with this notion, in my own feelings of insecurity, and in studying the words of Steinbeck; not just the play itself, but in a letter that was passed on to me by our director at the beginning of our run, written by Steinbeck to Claire Luce, the actress who originated the role on stage. In the letter, Steinbeck sheds light on what is behind this character without a name, writing that, “She was told over and over that she must remain a virgin because that was the only way she could get a husband … She only had that one thing to sell and she knew it.” He goes on, “She is a nice, kind girl and not a floozy. No man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make … As to her actual sex life — she has had none except with Curley and there has probably been no consummation there since Curley would not consider her gratification and would probably be suspicious if she had any.” I can barely read the letter now without tearing up at the thought of this imaginary woman, what she stands for, and what she loses. It’s only become clear to me during my time with Curley’s wife exactly how subversive Steinbeck’s work is, and how he must have intended it.

If this woman is purely a victim, why is she so hated? And if she is truly harmless, why is she so threatening? Without question, it was a commentary on the social climate at the time, which still surprisingly applies today. But if sexism is one of the featured themes, why not say it? Crooks, a character who is forced to live in the barn and away from the other men, says that it’s “because I’m black. They play cards in there but I can’t play cus I’m black.” As clear as day, the color of his skin is the reason for segregation. A modern audience cringes and immediately identifies. Such an explanation is never given as to why Curley’s wife is shunned.

From an outside perspective, one might see her desperate attempts to make a connection to these men as innocent: “There ain’t no women. I can’t walk to town … I tell you I just want to talk to somebody.” Yet somehow, invariably, a large portion of the audience seems to agree with George. They want her to leave so she doesn’t cause any trouble. I understand, because watching Chris O’Dowd, Jim Norton and James Franco make their plans for a utopian ranch, I want them to have that dream, too. But why is Curley’s wife’s presence so disturbing? And why does the audience agree? It’s the subconscious and inflammatory nature of Steinbeck’s writing that makes the viewer join in on the bashing of this woman, punish her existence, snicker at her mishaps. The genius and relevancy behind Steinbeck’s mission in writing this piece is that, to this day, it forces you to see yourself, to expose the depth of your own intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and naiveté.

2 responses to “Link: Actress Leighton Meester on Curley’s wife

  1. Steinbeck had such depth to his writing that you could never get far into it without realizing that you were still at the surface and that he was saying much more than it appeared. I remember being forced to read “The Red Pony” In English class. I had no clue then, but once I reread the book on my own, I realized what he was truly writing.

    • I too was forced to read “The Red Pony” in junior high, but I haven’t braved a second read. I taught “Of Mice & Men” this year to my high school sophomores and sometimes I think there’s more going on in that book than meets the eye, but sometimes I think that there is less.

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