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You Can't Fix Stupid

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The word "stupid" first entered the English language in 1541. Today, T-shirts proclaiming "I'm With Stupid" are proudly worn by thousands of people.

In his essay entitled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Carlo Maria Cippola stressed that, "A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process." But in the three decades since the intentional dumbing down of America began, an astonishing transformation has taken place.

Cultural illiteracy and willful ignorance (as displayed by people like Sarah Palin and Congressman Allen West) have become points of pride rather than embarrassment. The Farrelly brothers (creators of Dumb and Dumber and their newly-released tribute to The Three Stooges ) have made millions from their glorification of idiots on the silver screen. So, for that matter, has Adam Sandler.

In a recent "must-read" article entitled "The "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" Gambit," Robert J. Elisberg criticized Senator Chuck Grassley for pandering to the lowest common denominator. Never one to leave a political turd unpolished and unthrown, Stephen Colbert picked up on Grassley's recent tweets and hit them out of the ballpark in the following segment from The Colbert Report:

Words commonly used to describe people who are genuinely stupid include airheaded, birdbrained, boneheaded, brain dead, brainless, bubbleheaded, chuckleheaded, dense, dimwitted, doltish, dull, dumb, emptyheaded, half-witted, knuckleheaded, lamebrained, lunkheaded, mindless, oafish, pinheaded, simple, slow-witted, softheaded, thickheaded, vacuous, weakminded and witless. Nevertheless, in 1994, audiences were captivated by a movie whose protagonist had an IQ of only 75. Here's the trailer for Forrest Gump:

One of the most memorable characters in American literature is stupid in the oldest and truest sense of the word. Although he appears to be warm, human, and inhabits the body of a man, his mind and personality never progressed past childhood.

One reason I was looking forward to seeing Of Mice and Men in a fully-staged production was that, prior to this year, my only experience with it had been a 1983 New York City Opera production of composer Carlisle Floyd's treatment of John Steinbeck's novel. Lovingly directed by Robert Kelley (in a handsome production designed by Tom Langguth), the folks at TheatreWorks have done a bang-up job of bringing this beloved California story to life.

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Tom Langguth's set model for Of Mice and Men

The story focuses on a pair of migrant workers who have been friends since childhood. George (Jos Viramontes) is an average man who has grown used to working as a farmhand. Like many hobos, he's often dreamed of owning his own land -- a dream which is complicated by the constant misdeeds of his companion, Lennie (AJ Meijer). In an interview with the New York Times, Steinbeck once confessed that:

"I was a bindlestiff (migrant worker) myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks."

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George (Jos Viramontes) and Lenny (AJ Meijer) rest by the river
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While George may joke that Lennie got kicked in the head by a horse when he was young, the sad truth is that Lennie has developed into a gentle giant who doesn't know his own strength; a grown man with the mind of a child. Lennie likes soft furry things -- like bunnies, mice, and puppies -- but accidentally keeps killing them whenever they start to struggle in his strong hands. An unfortunate situation when they were working on a farm in Weed, California, caused the two men to flee for their lives after Lennie became obsessed with the feel of a young woman's velvet skirt.

No matter how carefully George drills Lennie in what to do (and what not to say), Lennie's poor memory and unpredictable behavior keep getting him in trouble. After being provoked by Curley (Harold Pierce), the frustrated Lennie's determination not to speak gets him in even bigger trouble. Things only get worse when Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to strike up a conversation with him and invites Lennie to pet her soft, blonde hair.

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Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to get friendly with Lenny (AJ Meijer)
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Under Kelley's direction, the TheatreWorks ensemble turned in beautiful performances as men who knew enough to avoid the ranch owner's lonely wife. Jos Veramontes was a patient and protective George; as the old farmhand, Candy, Gary Martinez agreed to have his mangy old dog put down. While Slim (Chad Deverman) attempted to keep peace in the bunkhouse. Michael Ray Wisely did double duty as Carlson and the Boss. Charles Branklyn was appropriately irascible as Crooks, the only black man on the premises.

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Charles Branklyn and AJ Meijer in a scene from
Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Any production (legit or operatic) of Steinbeck's work rests, in large part, on the shoulders of the man portraying Lennie. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, AJ Meijer delivered a performance of such childlike beauty and naive strength that the audience completely embraced his enthusiasm for petting a puppy, his innocent fantasy about tending to a collection of rabbits, and the fearsome volatility of his emotions. Because Meijer is tall, lean, and able to be convincingly clumsy without appearing bloated or fat, his Lennie is an especially poignant performance to treasure -- a gifted portrait by a very gifted young artist.

It's interesting to note that Steinbeck wrote the stage adaptation of his novel, which he then turned over to the play's director, playwright George S. Kaufman, for editing. Of Mice and Men had its world premiere in San Francisco on May 21, 1937 before moving to New York that November. As I sat watching the TheatreWorks production, I was amazed at how easily the scene in which Curley's wife and Lennie are alone in the barn cried out for operatic treatment.

In the following clips from Opera Australia, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey discusses some of the challenges posed by the role of Lennie (and sings the duet "An' we'll live off the fat of the land" with baritone Barry Ryan):

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape