Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut

How do you do. My name is Penelope Ryan. This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing--and those who don't.
This is the first Vonnegut play I've ever read (I didn't know he wrote plays!), but it was exactly as you'd expect. It's darkly funny, bitingly sarcastic, and deeply critical of government, the military, and institutions of all kinds. As Penelope states, it is a play about men obsessed with killing--humans, animals, living things of all sorts--and men who don't. Harold, the Odysseus of this saga, is a man who loves killing. His home is plastered in taxidermied beasts, and he's been missing for eight years. He and his pilot, Colonel Looseleaf (another man who loves to kill; he dropped the bomb over Nagasaki), went missing in a plane over the Amazon while hunting for diamonds. In his absence, Penelope has taken up two suitors: Dr. Woodley and Herb Shuttle. Woodley is a kindly obstetrician; he lives across the hall, cares for his mother, and values human life. Shuttle is a sycophantic vacuum salesman who appears to be interested in Penelope mostly out of adoration for her heroic husband.

The play opens as Harold and Looseleaf return to find the world changed. Not only is Penelope engaged and their son, Paul, grown, but the wider world has changed. As Looseleaf remarks: "Now everybody says 'fuck' and 'shit,' 'fuck' and 'shit' all the time. Something very big must have happened while we were out of the country" and "Something very important about sex must have happened while we were gone." Both men are bowled over by the changes they see around them, and both struggle to find their places in their families and the world.

A bizarre side plot involves Wanda June, a girl who died on her birthday, and whose birthday cake was purchased by Shuttle to honor Harold's birthday--Harold happens to return that night and finds the cake with Wanda June's name on it very confusing. Wanda June ends up in heaven, and the play alternates between scenes of Harold's return and abuse of Penelope and Wanda June in heaven playing shuffleboard with Hitler, Einstein, and Jesus.

Vonnegut does his usual surreal, over the top everything, and the play absolutely has moments where the absurdity is funny, but it also (classic Vonnegut) dips into the serious. Harold is overbearingly awful, but he seems somewhat self aware. Even as he swaggers back into his old life, he acknowledges just how awful he is: "When I was a naive young recruit in Spain, I used to wonder why soldiers bayoneted oil paintings, shot the noses off statues and defecated into grand pianos. I now understand: It was to teach civilians the deepest sort of respect for men in uniform--uncontrollable fear." But, as can be expected, he is proud of his awfulness, not remorseful.

This was a quick read, and fun. The dark twist on the Odyssey narrative still works and feels relevant today, and the ending is satisfyingly odd and confusing.

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