That Singular Sensation
The opening night of Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN was a dazzling, if improbable success. Curley’s missed entrance during the bunkhouse scene, and the hilarious five-minute improvisation that it provoked, only added to the joy of bring this beloved American story to life.
In the final scene, a lynch mob is chasing Lennie, the big, retarded sidekick. The ranch hands are intent on hanging him in the nearest California oak. George decides he will execute (euthanize) his friend himself to spare Lennie the terror and pain of being strung up by the gang of drunken roughnecks.
The director, Stan DeHart, having limited high school resources, decided to stage the climactic moment by having George lower a large handgun to the back of Lennie’s head. Just before the shot, the lights would crash to blackout, so that the actual mercy-killing would happen in the dark. DeHart had found a realistic 45-caliber handgun into which he had loaded an extra high-powder blank.
It went something like this:
Are we gonna have rabbits, George?
Lots of rabbits, any kind you want.
And I get to hold the rabbits?
Take off your hat, Lennie. The air is fine.
George strokes Lennie’s hair. Sounds of drunken men yelling close by.
Tell me about the place we gonna have.
We’re gonna have a little place all our own. It’s right across the river. Just look across the river and you can almost see it.
George brings the gun out from his coat and lowers it to Lennie’s head.
The blank detonates with a muzzle flash so bright that the audience can see Lennie’s body blasted forward. His body hits the floor.
Long deep silence. No one is clapping.
Then, at last, from out in the audience, a lanky, lovely lass (Judy Vance), begins to sob. It is contagious. There, in the dark, other people begin to cry. Soon the entire audience is in tears.
Backstage, members of the cast and crew are blubbering.
From his position on the stage floor, dead Lennie is weeping.
I’m standing there over Lennie’s body, in the dark, with the big fake 45-caliber gun in my hand, listening, just listening to it all. Surrounded by it, immersed in it, the great communal sharing of deepest emotion, the ephemeral, transformational power of the moment, coming together right NOW in this place, to experience the wondrous story of human love and loss.
I knew in that singular moment, in a flash of certainty as bright as a muzzle flash, into which profession I would take my life.
Perhaps it would be more truthful to say that, in that exact moment, on that hallowed stage, my life found me.