Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Happy Birthday, Wanda June, by Kurt Vonnegut

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is Kurt Vonnegut's response to the uber-macho values of Ernest Hemingway, whose ideas of manliness involved killing animals for sport. This didn't just include Hemingway's fondness for bullfighting, whose goal is killing bulls as efficiently and elegantly as possible, but also Hemingway's hunting of exotic animals. Vonnegut wonders at the destructiveness of this sort of "heroic" manliness. It's the sort of thing that led to the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. Vonnegut inserts his Hemingway caricature into a modern version of Odysseus, who returns home to a different sort of woman than the Greek hero did. Whether or not this is fair to Hemingway as a person, Vonnegut has nonetheless managed to write a witty, entertaining play, even if it does grow a little too preachy at the end.

Penelope Ryan's husband, Harold Ryan, went on a safari and has been missing for eight years. His son, Paul, was four when Harold left, but Paul worships the father he wished he'd had. Many people, in fact, worship Harold Ryan. That's because Harold is a war hero, having killed hundreds of Nazis, some with his bare hands. The killing didn't stop with the war, however. Harold loved to hunt, but after eight years he had been long assumed dead. Penelope finds herself with two suitors chasing after her: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum salesman who dreams of being Harold, and Dr. Norbert Woodly, who opposes violence of any kind and despises the hunting trophies that still litter the Ryan household. Unlike Homer's Penelope, Vonnegut's Penelope encourages both men, alternating between dates with each one. Paul hates them both, but he hates it even more that nobody seems to care it's his father's birthday.

But then Harold makes his return, along with his friend, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, who is haunted by his decision to drop the first atomic bomb. He just goes along with what others tell him, including Harold. Harold believes that when he returns home, everything will return to normal. And if his wife is a bit hesitant in her enthusiasm, well that's nothing a trip to the bedroom won't cure. In this he is sadly mistaken. Even his son is uncertain of what to make of him. Harold seems to despise his own son, believing him not to be manly enough. He even shoos Paul outside in order to get a chance to be alone with Penelope, but Penelope locks Harold out of the bedroom. She's had a college education and she's gotten different ideas of her husband now. Heroes are the type of people, she says to him, who hate home and try to stay away as often as possible, but when they are home they make "awful messes." That's exactly what Harold Ryan does.

Wanda June is also a character in the play. She's a ghost of a ten-year-old girl who was struck and killed by an ice cream truck. So it goes. She's in the play because Shuttle, wanting to appease Paul's anger over people ignoring his father's birthday, buys a birthday cake. This one was on sale because the little girl's parents didn't pick it up. Wanda June is a ghost in heaven, and heaven is such a great place because people can do anything there. She befriends Major Siegfried von Konigswald, a Nazi officer who is also known as the Beast of Yugoslavia. The Major was killed by Harold Ryan. But he and Wanda June say you shouldn't be mad at people who kill you. In fact, it's so great to be up in heaven that people should kill each other more often. This is obviously satire aimed at the likes of Harold Ryan, who believes that being killed in battle is an honor. It's not, Penelope counters, because being killed means you no longer exist. To the Harold Ryans of the world, dying means going to a heaven where you can play shuffleboard all you want and tornadoes will bounce you around but never hurt you. It's a grand place, so nobody should be upset over a little bit of killing.

Harold Ryan truly is a piece of work. He's the most interesting part of the play because he's such a monster. He has a manliness that's tough not to admire, but a personality that's easy to hate. He treats others with derision. He tells his wife to make breakfast without an ounce of gratitude and toys with the emotions of his son. Nobody is good enough for him. There's a part of Hemingway's own work that Vonnegut seems to be reflecting in Harold Ryan. Hemingway is critical, in his prose, of those who don't fit in with his ideals of manliness, which is hardly anybody. Just think of Robert Cohn, from The Sun Also Rises, and the hatred poured on him by the main character. Harold Ryan is the behind the scenes manly man, who drives several wives to drink themselves to an early grave and is now struggling to keep his current wife in his good graces. Vonnegut's values tend to match our own modern values of gender, where men have a growing role in raising the child and taking care of the home and even, God forbid, cooking and doing laundry. Gasp!

The one problem with the play that I have is its turn into moralizing and explaining at the end. There's a verbal showdown between Woodly and Harold where Woodly explains who Harold is and Harold, unbelievingly, sees himself in a new light, as though the conceited man the audience has grown to hate could be so easily swayed. Not that I am going to ruin what happens, as it isn't quite so predictable as you think. While I do agree with Vonnegut's message, the delivery is too direct. His depiction of Wanda June in heaven is effective because of its subtlety, and Vonnegut should have stuck with subtlety rather than pointedly stating his play's overarching "message." Yet I would still highly recommend this play. It has plenty of moments of witty humor and plenty more moments of tension-filled dialogue. Besides, people should read more, no matter what it is, because then there would be more peace and less killing. Dr. Norbert Woodly would love that.

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