by Eric Altheide
It sometimes seems the one thing that our society simply cannot allow is innocence.
I had my first child, a son, one year ago last week. I think my students have grown tired of my talking about him, but I am fascinated by how his day-to-day explorations pertain so closely to the work we do as theatre artists. I am in awe at his sense of openness, curiosity, fearlessness, and mostly, his wonderful sense of joy at the simplest things. I watched with rapt attention the other day while he explored one of the closure flaps on his box of diapers . . . for thirty minutes.
It is this same sense of childish joy and exploration with which Lennie Small approaches the world. He never expects that anyone would want to hurt him or keep him from achieving his dream: to tend rabbits on the farm George keeps promising him they will one day own.
However, the migrant workers’ world of the 1930s provides a dangerous backdrop for such innocence. Drifting from place to place, these men lack any ties to home or family. When men belong nowhere, they belong to no one and are ruled by no law. Friendships do not flourish on this dry and lifeless land, so the men regard its rare appearance with suspicion and contempt. Having no control over the world beyond them, they exert their power within their diminished one, attacking any weakness and killing any sentiment or love.
Rising above all of this, George has accepted the greatest responsibility of all: that of another person’s life. He protects the innocence in Lennie by filling him with dreams in which he no longer himself believes. But as the events of the story begin to conspire against them, George must do more to guard Lennie from the world raging to confront him. He preserves the dreams he has instilled in Lennie by forever shielding him from seeing the realities and the darkness that have always surrounded them. His is a profound act of love; the only one in the play.