Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vonnegut Lost and Regained

Library of America, Facebook photos stream
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950-1962
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976-1985
(Library of America)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1970; out of print)

Between Time and Timbuktu
Based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1972; out of print)

     Few writers who could be claimed by the science fiction genre were as feted in their lives as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. During his lifetime his titles were sometimes put in the Literature section of bookstores. Not just fiction, but actual high-fallutin' lit'rature.
     He died just seven years ago last Friday (April 7), but already the prestigious Library of America has put out two volumes of his collected works, with a third scheduled for later this year. This is more impressive when you consider that most of his books haven't been in danger of being unavailable, although many are no longer in hardcover editions.
      The novels included are Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night in volume one; Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions in volume two; and Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Galápagos  in the forthcoming volume three. That's a pretty good assortment of his novels, including all but his final three. 
     I wish there were more short stories included (there are six in volume one -- “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” “EPICAC,” Unready to Wear, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” 2BR02B, and “Harrison Bergeron” -- and three in volume two -- Welcome to the Monkey House, Fortitude (though this might be a play) and The Big Space F***), but perhaps the editors didn't consider enough of his short fiction worthy of preservation, or at least not enough for a separate volume.
     They also didn't make room for his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which is out of print and I think deserves preservation. 
     Based (as Vonnegut explained in an introduction) on the story of Odysseus returning home and slaying the suitors of his wife, Penelope, the play concerns another Penelope, the presumed widow of Harold Ryan, a Hemingwayesque adventurer, missing for more than eight years and now declared dead. She has a son and two suitors: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Norbert Woodley, a physician (with whom she is secretly affianced). Harold returns home, along with a friend who was also missing, Col. Looseleaf Harper (who is said to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki). 
     (By the way, although Penelope declares this play is a tragedy, it's a comedy.) 
     Who is Wanda June of the title? She's a little girl who died when an ice cream truck hit her, so consequently her parents never picked up her birthday cake. Coincidentally it is Harold's birthday also, and Herb buys the cake to mark Harold's birthday for the son. Wanda June appears as a ghost, speaking to the audience almost like a Greek chorus, as do other spirits, including Harold's dead first wife and a Nazi soldier whom Harold killed during WWII. 
     In the original cast (photos of which appeared in the book), Kevin McCarthy (from the 1957 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) played Harold, Marsha Mason (many Neil Simon plays and films) played Penelope and William Hickey (an elderly mob boss in Prizzi's Honor and a semi-frequent guest star on TV's Wings) played Col. Looseleaf. 
     It's a very stagy play, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience. In his introduction, Vonnegut says there isn't a villain, and that may be a problem for some readers. Worse, there isn't really a hero either. Harold is the obvious villain, but he's also pitiable. His main antagonist in the play, his wife's physician suitor, doesn't get out unscathed either. Penelope isn't quite active enough to be a hero. 
     The villain may be the whole idea of heroism. Harold is a hunter, proud of his he-man ways, but Woodley points out that he didn't kill them defending his home. Harold's dramatic and maybe heroic killing of the Nazi soldier didn't affect the outcome of the war and resulted in an entire town being destroyed in retaliation. Col. Looseleaf killed more people than Harold, thousands, with one bomb, but doesn't feel it was a heroic or significant act; he was just following orders. 
     There was a film version, which I haven't seen, with Rod Steiger, Susannah York and Hickey reprising his role. It's not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray.

     Hickey also starred in a teleplay based on Vonnegut's works. Vonnegut didn't write it (though he did have input), so it's understandable that it isn't included. It's also out of print but I think it worth preserving.
     Between Time and Timbuktu mashed together elements of almost all of Vonnegut's novels to date (plus Wanda June). Poet Stony Stevenson wins a cereal box top contest to become an astronaut and travel through space to the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (if memory serves), a spot where you can exist in different times and places simultaneously. Once he arrives, he becomes unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, and appears in scenes from other Vonnegut works, including Cat's Cradle (a meeting with Bokononon, played by Kevin McCarthy, and a discussion of Ice-Nine between a scientist and a general), the everyone-is-equal dystopia of "Harrison Bergeron" and an encounter with Wanda June in the afterlife, ending at Stony's tombstone that bears the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt."
     It's at times very funny -- some of it was ad-libbed by comedy duo Bob and Ray, who play TV announcers covering the rocket launch -- but it's also a good, entertaining introduction to some of Vonnegut's concepts. 
     To  my knowledge, the telefilm has never been available on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Pity.

     The scripts of both works are available for borrowing through the Suburban Library Cooperative, including the St. Clair Shores Library. 

     While researching a post on Edward Gorey (who died 14 years ago April 15), I ran across a forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut title I had to mention.

     Kurt Vonnegut DrawingsIntroduction by Nanette Vonnegut (The Monacelli Press) features drawings (duh!) by the late author, I believe his illustratrations graced a few of his book jackets ion recent years, and he extensively illustrated his novel Breakfast of Champions (the original hardcover edition at least).  He wasn't Aubrey Beardsley or N.C Wyeth, and I don't think you could argue he should have given up his day job and become a graphic artist, but it's another interesting aspect of his creative muse to explore.


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