Steinbeck in Avalon by Ray Brown

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BBC Radio 4, 14 August 2008

Ray Brown’s play focused on a period in the novelist John Steinbeck’s (Kerry Shale’s) life in the mid-50s when, having published numerous best-selling novels, he arrived at an artistic crossroads. This was only resolved when he elected to translate Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and traveled especially to southwest England to immerse himself in Arthurian culture. Steinbeck imagined himself in Camelot, seeking to understand the behavioral codes that governed the knightly existence, aided and abetted by Merlin (Philip Madoc) who acted as his father-confessor.


Brown drew a parallel between the knight and the author; while the former used iron weapons to win their battles, the latter used their pens. Knights struggled with physical enemies – other knights, dragons, etc. – artists battled with unseen enemies within themselves (everyone must have heard of writer’s block). The end result was the same for both of them, as they embarked on quests for their particular Holy Grails. Steinbeck imagined himself as Sir Lancelot, the doughty fighter undergoing a herculean series of tests and being rewarded with Guinevere’s hand. The idea might have seemed infantile – especially for a novelist associated with works of uncompromising realism such as The Grapes of Wrath. But Brown’s play revealed a sensitive side to the author’s character; one that yearned for more innocent times as a way of re-energizing his talent. In a coda Merlin informed us that Steinbeck’s quest proved successful as he embarked on his translation of Malory’s text. Sadly he failed to complete it before his death, even though it was eventually published. Gary Brown directed an affecting Afternoon Play presentation.