A Series of Accidents #8: Happy Birthday, Wanda June

A Series of Accidents is A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June - Wikipedia

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is the best known of Vonnegut’s generally not very well-known plays, but it is a deeply strange text. The narrative is a modern revision of the final chapters of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus returns home after twenty years at sea to find his faithful wife Penelope besieged by suitors who have occupied his home. Odysseus responds to this rationally, by disguising himself as a servant and then slaughtering the suitors with a bow. Our Odysseus is Harold Ryan, an explorer, soldier and general icon of an antiquated type of warlike masculinity. One of his son’s teachers describes him as “a legendary hero out of the Golden Age of Heroes.” And unlike Homer, Vonnegut understands such a hero to be a figure not of inspiration but of revulsion.

Ryan proves himself to be a lout, taking an unseemly pride in his trail of blood, treating his wife as little more than a sex doll, and being abusive to just about everyone. He is most likely a war criminal and rapist. At one point he tells the story of stumbling across a tribe whose “blue soup” made them happy and peaceful, a period he looks back on with revulsion. The ultimate consequence of this perspective is reflected in Ryan’s sidekick Looseleaf, who dropped an atom bomb, and is now mournful and longing for home. A review of a recent revival of the play describes Harold as an icon of “toxic masculinity”, and while the phrase rings a little anachronistic to my ears, it’s essentially true.

Harold returns from abroad to find not just his home changed but all of society. Here Vonnegut comments on the ongoing cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s, in which the ideals of masculinity and femininity and how they related to each other underwent a seismic shift. The John Wayne of cowboy movies been replaced by the Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider. Harold, a success in the old world of he-man violence, is adrift from and disgusted by a world of psychiatry and protest marches. Vonnegut uses Ryan, who has been lost in the jungle for a decade, as a Rip van Winkle device to comment on how American culture had changed in his lifetime. As Harold quickly deduces, “Something very important about sex must have happened while we were gone.”

Penelope’s two suitors are both foils for Harold’s exploits: Herb Shuttlecock, a car dealer who idolizes him, and Norbert Woodley, a psychiatrist and committed peacenik. This, then, is the duality facing modern men: either hopelessly emulating images of the past, as with the endlessly juvenile Shuttlecock, who boasts of making Eagle Scout at 29; or rejecting them entirely in favour of an aching, embarassing sincerity. Another foil is Harold’s son Paul, who finds himself completely unable to relate to this alien artifact. But perhaps the biggest antagonist to Harold is Penelope herself, who has developed her own life in his absence and is unwilling to submit to his patriarchal domination.

In theory, Vonnegut’s sympathies — and perhaps ours — should be with Norbert, sensitive and antiwar. But he always comes off as a wimpy caricature, the type of person whose long-winded and well-intentioned statements you would privately roll your eyes to. (His name is Norbert, for crying out loud.) The play seems to reluctantly acknowledge that Norbert, with his emphasis on love and self-examination, is in the right, but the suddenly-displaced Ryan is still the more dynamic and sympathetic figure. (Vonnegut’s marriage was also slowly unraveling during the writing process, so no doubt he had some sympathy for the concept of an out-moded husband.)

The play gets its name from a strange aside about the titular Wanda June, a dead little girl. Penelope buys her unclaimed birthday cake, and we later see a blissful Wanda June in heaven. There the syrupy-sweet Wanda frolics with Siegfried von Koenigsweld, a Nazi war criminal who Harold boasts of killing with his bare hands.

Like Norbert, I think these asides are meant to push us to a point where we a typical audience remember may be repulsed by what is required by the alternative to Harold Ryan’s model of violent masculinity. Vonnegut takes the kind of forgiveness required by liberal (and, at least in some places, scriptural) Christianity to its most vulnerable point. Can we really offer forgiveness, or at least nonviolence, to men like van Koenigswald? Doesn’t it irk you, the liberal theatre-goer, to see a Nazi in heaven? Are we willing to become Norberts, allowing evil men to walk over us in the name of peace?

Vonnegut’s answer to these questions is still, I think, “yes” — but he feels it must be a hard-won “yes.” Perhaps, following his sudden rise to the status of anti-war celebrity, he found the simplistic and evasive answers produced by some on the left to be unsatisfying. Or maybe this was just Vonnegutian satire at its broadest, cranking up the absurdities in every position to their highest.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June was the product of a rush of commercial interest in Vonnegut following his breakthrough with Slaughterhouse-Five. In a short period of time he signed contracts for several adaptations of his work for stage and screen. Many of them never saw the light of day, but among those which were produced were a musical version of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five which I briefly discussed in the last entry. Wanda June was perhaps the most enticing of these projects, an all-new (at least, outside the realm of Cape Cody community theatre) Vonnegut story written specifically for the stage.

Well, it was enticing on paper. New York theatre critics gave Happy Birthday, Wanda June a muted reception. While the play had some admirers, others criticized its satire as broadly-drawn and its plot as shaky. (These criticisms are not entirely groundless.) Wanda June ran for a respectable six months at the off-Broadway Theatre de Lys before closing.

The play was also adapted into a 1971 film, directed by Mark Robson and written by Vonnegut himself, and starring the young Susannah Yorke as Penelope. Vonnegut hated the movie, to the point of trying to get his name taken off it, a process he describes in a very Vonnegutian way:

“I had heard of other writers doing that. What could be more dignified? This proved to be impossible, however. I alone had done the thing the credits said I had done. I had actually written the thing.”

I couldn’t find a copy of the film, or any full-length recording of the play being performed. Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a play that today exists entirely on paper (although that’s true of most plays now.) That’s certainly the way I encountered it, and I suspect most people who read it do the same: as an eccentrically-formatted part of the great novelist’s prose corpus. Perhaps there wasn’t that much of an audience for “a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing – and those who don’t.”

Despite its relative failure, I have a certain amount of affection for Happy Birthday, Wanda June. It’s remarkably earnest in its willingness to tackle its themes, and to try to find sympathy for its largely ridiculous cast of characters. If nothing else, it’s a time capsule for a particular moment in American culture, when cultural norms and gender ideas were in flux and radical new possibilities seemed imminent. The he-men would be back in favour within a decade or two. But in 2020, we still find ourselves wondering what to do with violent masculinity, and with those tragicomic figures who can’t let go of it.

Next time: Vonnegut confronts fame in Breakfast of Champions.