This work is in an experimental format that Steinbeck called a “play-novelette.” Burning Bright was Steinbeck’s third attempt at this format, which included Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down. However, of the three, the final form of Burning Bright cleaves most closely to the format as Steinbeck original conceived of it.
Rather than providing only dialogue and short stage directions, as with a traditional play script, Steinbeck fleshed out the characters, situation, and environment to provide actors with clearer directions and understanding of the play. The goal was to create a theatrical piece that could still be easily read by the single, non-theatrical reader. While providing much more detail than a play script would, in terms of background information, Steinbeck provided less physical description of the characters to allow a director greater freedom in casting the play.
Burning Bright is a morality play, centering on Joe Saul and his wife Mordeen. While Mordeen loves Joe Saul, she suspects that he is sterile. She sleeps with Victor, Joe Saul’s assistant, in order to fulfill Joe Saul’s desire for a child. Ed, a longtime friend of the couple, helps them through the conflict between Joe Saul and Mordeen after they discover that he is, indeed, sterile and not the father of the child.
Steinbeck re-casts the actors and story into different settings and situations through the three acts of the play, to further convey that these characters and the conflict could be anyone. Initially, Steinbeck wanted to call the play Everyman.