Synopsis of the Play
Frank Galati succinctly captures the essence of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath for the stage. He tells the story of the Joad family, struggling to survive their epic journey from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California, the fictitious land of 'milk and honey'. This politically-charged tale explores the corrupt policies of short-sighted politicians and big business who drove struggling farmers into the dust.
The play begins with the return of Tom Joad, the prodigal son, fresh out of jail for murder. He has returned just in time to witness his family's decision to pack up and leave Oklahoma in search of employment in California. Unbeknownst to the Joads, the flyers which promise employment prove to be a fraudulent gimmick devised to draw a surplus of workers to California in order to force labour costs down.
This is but one of the many obstacles for the Joads on their arduous journey westward. By leaving Oklahoma parolee Tom, must risk infringing his probation, a risk he takes anyway. Grandpa Joad is not so keen to make the journey - leaving the family with little choice but to take drastic steps to ensure his chance of a better life in California. The journey then begins for the family of 12 and one ex-preacher, Jim Casy, but it is soon soured by the heartbreaking deaths of Grandpa and Grandma Joad. Yet their passing signals an end to the 'old' lifestyle left behind in Oklahoma as they pass through the border into California. Here, they are subjected to oppression by police, who refer to the migrant families as 'Okies'. Tom Joad breaks and physically abuses
an officer. But it is the Christ-like Jim Casy, knowing that Tom could be sent back prison, who takes the blame.
The family are moved to Hooverville, a community (paradoxically named after a President blamed for the Depression) where they realize California is not at all a 'promised land'. Slowly they comprehend the position of the whole country where masses of people have flocked to California with the same hope and intentions as them. Further strife between strikers and strike breakers brings murder again into the Joad's realm resulting in Casy's death and Tom's almost certain jailing after avenging his friend's murder; this ensures the family's continuing journey as they flea for his safety.
The play's ending contains some of the most powerful imagery every seen on the stage. As the rains begin to flood, the jalopy which the Joads have made their home, begins to sink. The pregnant Rose of Sharon goes into labour and delivers a stillborn child. As the family finds shelter on higher ground, they find a man dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon, weak from the birth yet encumbered with breast milk is encouraged by her mother to feed the man back to life. This final image encompasses the undying power of the human spirit which we are reminded of again and again throughout this resonant play.
Ask students to explore the concept of a 'political advocate' and what it would take to make a difference in our world today. Ask them to contemplate the social context we live in and what can be changed. Consider creative and productive ways to do this. In pairs, ask students to devise a short improvisation where one is a figure in society and another a political advocate – performing their ideas about how we can change things.
You may like to continue exploring this by creating scenes of the oppressed in such situations, like the Joads are during the depression, to open the classes eyes to all different circumstances in our world today.