Monday, December 21, 2015

A One Act Review of Vonnegut's First Play

Act I

Scene I

SILENCE. Pitch blackness. A door opens and a light switch is flicked, illuminating the small room. A 35 year old man looks at the bookshelf near his bed, overflowing with books he has sworn to read in his lifetime. Gifts, spontaneous purchases, long-sought after novels, all stacked together to create a seemingly infinite abyss of words and ideas and stories.

Among the spines of all colors and sizes, a name sticks out: Vonnegut.

Hmm. Haven't read any Vonnegut in like 6 months. It's about that time.

He picks up the thin book with the soft, black cover. Printed in bright yellow letters are the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE. A quick perusal of the back cover lets the man know this is the first, and one of the very few, plays Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote.

He opens the cover and flips through the first pages. After a few stage directions, a character named Penelope opens the play:

This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don't.

The man closes the book.

Good enough for me.

The man sits down in his recliner and finishes the play in 3 hours. As a composition instructor at the end of a long semester, it is a pleasure to read professional, interesting, clever writing. Vonnegut's writing is typically sparse, simple, yet elegant. He doesn't give overly descriptive stage directions, so there is a lot of room for interpretation from the actors, which means there is a lot of room for interpretation as a reader.

The play deals with identity, post-war masculinity, and social conceptions of a hero. Harold Ryan is a retired soldier and an old school adventurer. After serving in World War II, he immediately went to the South American jungles to explore, leaving his new wife and young son at home in New York. The wife, Penelope, has tried to accept his disappearance and move on with her life, but her son, Paul, envisions his heroic father coming home every night. Everybody knows his father as a hero and Paul has heard all the stories. Even his mother's new suitors admire and fear the very idea of Harold Ryan

In fact, Harold does return after 8 years. He is the stereotypical alpha male. He demands his wife serve his every need. He knows his reputation as a heroic soldier and he makes sure everyone else does, too. He brags about killing hundreds of men. That number is only eclipsed by his good friend Looseleaf, who was the pilot that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Looseleaf is less enthusiastic about the lives he took.

Things eventually fall apart for Harold upon his return home, culminating in him smashing the prized violin of Penelope's neighbor and friend. Upon seeing the damage and the turmoil Harold's return is causing, Looseleaf opens up to him:

You're an imbecile.

I know you think that.

Everybody thinks that.

Anybody who'd drop an atom bomb on
a city has to be pretty dumb.

The one direct, decisive,
intelligent act of your life!

(shaking his head)
I don't think so.
It could have been.

If what?

If I hadn't done it. If I'd said
to myself, "Screw it. I'm going to
let all those people down there

They were enemies. We were at war.
Yeah, Jesus--but wars would be a
lot better, I think, if guys would
say to themselves sometimes,
"Jesus--I'm not going to do that to
the enemy. That's too much." You
could have been the manufacturer of
that violin there, even though you
don't know how to make a violin,
just by not busting it up. I could
have been the father of all those
people in Nagasaki, and the mother,
too, just by not dropping the bomb.
I sent 'em to Heaven instead--and I
don't think there is one.

The man underlines this section of the dialogue and puts the book down. He gets up from the chair in which he had been tirelessly reading the book and walks to the closest window. The moon sends its pale blue light through the curtains onto the man's solemn face. He looks out longingly. A single tear falls down his cheek.

He returns to his chair and finishes the play. He then finds a pen and paper and begins to write:

Vonnegut has captured an idea I've tried to articulate for years now. Vonnegut, through Looseleaf, envisions a world where those who kill the most people in the name of war are not looked at as heroes; a world where those who decide to not retaliate are seen as heroic.

One of Penelope's suitors, the neighbor with the violin, is a doctor who considers himself a healer. He is a pacifist who says "peace" all the time. Harold constantly attacks his masculinity and mocks his speech. He considers the doctor "unmanly", but this is the exact type of person Looseleaf envisions as a true hero: the type of person who meets hatred and violence with love and compassion; the type of person who seeks to understand and comfort even the worst among us, like the teacher who stopped a mass shooter with a hug.

Society generally recognizes the heroic nature of this kind of act on an individual level, but as a whole, we are a society that still romanticizes deadly force. We cheer when we drop bombs on an entire country in retaliation for the actions of a few. Even though those bombs achieve absolutely nothing, the "civilized" world wants--needs--the show of force and destruction. We need to satisfy our thirst for revenge. We idolize soldiers with the highest kill counts, despite the fact those kills occurred in wars that the majority of us see as unnecessary. We may disagree with the war, but we still celebrate the warrior.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June questions the role of a hero (defined by violent, hyper-aggressive masculinity) when the wars end. It examines the place of this "traditional" masculinity in times of peace. As Harold discovered, soldiers are often lost in a peaceful environment. They end up abusing their offspring or significant others. They alienate themselves from their friends and family. They kill themselves

If the goal of war is to create peace, how do we reconcile our perceptions of violence as heroic when we reach that goal? The loss of traditional ideals of masculinity is widely believed to be a major cause for much of the violence we see today. As aggressive as it can be, masculinity can also be very fragile. It feels threatened by change. Masculinity prefers black and white, binary definitions of truth, so it doesn't understand the fluidity of gender roles and identities, or terms like "transgender." Widening the definition of "man" means that the traditional view of masculinity, that hyper-aggressive, violent machismo, is no longer the only accepted view.

People who define themselves by the old traditions and definitions struggle to accept these changing views and feel as if they are losing power and relevance. That was Harold's problem. He was unable to adapt to a peaceful world. He did not recognize as "Man" anyone who refused to kill or aggressively take what they consider theirs. He identified pacifism as weakness, as an emotional problem, instead of an ideal, and he couldn't accept the fact that the entire world no longer idolized his type of masculinity.  

Harold was unable to adapt to society's changing views, so he lashed out. As a society, and as individuals, we need to continue to re-examine our traditional notions of heroism and manliness; otherwise, fragile men who believe the only masculinity is a violent one will continue to express themselves violently in an effort to attain the masculine identity they so desire.

The man puts down his pen and paper, satisfied. Time to choose another book.


I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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