Wheelhouse Theater Company presents Happy Birthday, Wanda June – An Interview with Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington

In December 1970, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his friend, fellow novelist Jose Donoso, “…The adventure of having a play produced was harrowing…But I had to begin my theatrical career with something—and now I have in fact begun. I’ve written six novels. Now I want to write six plays.” (Kurt Vonnegut Letters, Delacorte Press, 2012 p. 165.)

Vonnegut’s adventure was the New York debut of Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the only full-length play Vonnegut published in his career. Hard to find in print, and rarely performed, Wanda June is among Vonnegut’s lesser known works, but that may change with the upcoming production by New York’s Wheelhouse Theater Company at The Duke on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Tickets are now available for this limited run beginning October 18th through November 29th.  Purchase tickets here.

Wanda June

Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington, Founding Members of the Company, shared their thoughts on the play in a recent interview with The Daily Vonnegut. In the current production Matt plays the role of Dr. Norbert Woodley while Jeff is the play’s Director.

Q: What inspired you to stage “Happy Birthday, Wanda June?” It’s not among Vonnegut’s most well-known works?

Matt: Yeah, it’s definitely not among his known works, and the most common response I get when I talk about it with people is “Wait, Vonnegut wrote a play?” I had seen a production that some friends of mine from college did about twelve years ago now, and it stuck with me. We were trying to put out heads together and think about our next production, and it kind of floated back into my mind. I found a copy of it, and I remembered that it was compelling; I remembered that it was funny and provocative, but then when I started reading it I thought, “Oh shit, this is so much more relevant and topical and compelling for a contemporary audience than I even remembered it being.

Read the full interview:

Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington – Wheelhouse Theater Company presents Happy Birthday, Wanda June.

Tilting the Axis: Kurt Vonnegut and the Environment – An Interview with Christina Jarvis

Even casual fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s work recognize him as a writer engaged with the issues of his time. Vonnegut’s range of interests was vast: the waste and futility of war, the dangers of excessive automation, the conflict between scientific progress and human welfare, gun violence, inequality, rampant pollution and the degradation of our beautiful planet Earth. While the latter is sometimes overlooked as an influence, environmental concerns are prominent in much of Vonnegut’s work. It’s an area of Vonnegut studies ripe for further study, and Christina Jarvis is up for the challenge. In her upcoming book, Jarvis, a professor at SUNY Fredonia, explores Vonnegut’s work through an environmentalist lens.

Professor Jarvis shared her thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: What inspired you to write about the environmental aspects of Vonnegut’s work, or as you describe it, his “lessons in planetary thinking?”  

A: It’s hard to trace the project’s inspiration back to a singular moment, but one key event that stands out was coming across Vonnegut’s comments in a March 1969 New York Times interview about a working draft of Breakfast of Champions in which he had the Great Lakes disappear under Clorox bottles and excrement. This small detail resonated with me because I’d been leading Lake Erie beach cleanups for years, and plastics pollution is such a huge global environmental problem. While everyone knows from the opening lines of Breakfast of Champions that the novel addresses a host of environmental issues, I became intrigued by the idea that Vonnegut had intended to explore other topics. Anyway, the more I dug into Vonnegut’s manuscripts and my secondary research, I kept finding new examples of Vonnegut’s planetary citizenship—examples that went well beyond his late-career incessant warnings about climate change and unchecked fossil fuel consumption. We all know about Vonnegut’s important anti-war speeches and unflagging dedication to pacifist, humanist, and social justice ideas, but many people don’t know that Kurt spoke at the first Earth Day, participated in key anti-nuclear demonstrations, was an avid gardener and birder, etc. I suppose that popular images of him as a chain-smoking, apocalyptic prophet of doom probably don’t conjure up the label “environmentalist.” Key Vonnegut scholars, such as Peter Reed, Loree Rackstraw, Jerome Klinkowitz, Eric Sumner, Marc Leeds, Said Mentak, and Todd Davis, have long noted Kurt’s environmental commitments; however, there’s so much more to the story. That’s where my book project comes in.

Q: While Slaughterhouse-Five and Vonnegut’s experiences as a POW in Dresden take center stage in most appraisals of Vonnegut’s work, you propose some different ways to “tilt the axis” of his career and gain some new perspectives. Tell us about it.

A: I know it might seem blasphemous to some fans that I’m decentering Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s masterpiece, break-through novel, and most significant contribution to American war/anti-war literature. However, I think Slaughterhouse-Five’s canonical and cultural position often shifts attention away from other important threads and specific texts in the Vonnegut canon. In some ways Slaughterhouse-Five is becoming the Vonnegutian equivalent of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Aside from “Harrison Bergeron” or perhaps Cat’s Cradle, it’s the one text students are reading in school (which is kind of funny given the novel’s long history of being censored). Ultimately, though, very few of the students who take my Vonnegut classes or seminars would select Slaughterhouse-Five as their favorite or as Vonnegut’s most important work.

By tilting the axis of Vonnegut’s career to focus instead on his environmental commitments and engagements with sustainability, I hope to offer some new ways of thinking about specific works and the Vonnegut canon as a whole.

Read the full interview here.

Harmful Untruths – An Interview with Kevin Brown

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring phrases is foma, harmless untruths that can make life easier. Yet Vonnegut also explored the opposite—harmful untruths, lies people believe which create havoc for individuals and society. Professor Kevin Brown, in an essay titled “No All Untruths are Harmless: Minor Characters’ Narratives in Slaughterhouse-Five,” examined how Vonnegut brought these harmful untruths to life in his classic novel.  Brown presented the essay to the Kurt Vonnegut Society at the American Literature Association conference in 2017.

Brown shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: There are two dominant critical interpretations of Billy Pilgrim’s creation of Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five. One sees it as a coping mechanism, the other as a means of escape. Which interpretation do you argue in your essay?  

A: I argue that Billy’s creation of Tralfamadore is a means of escape, that he is unable to cope with what he saw in Dresden and the emptiness of his life otherwise. I can understand how other critics view Tralfamadore as a creative and productive reaction for Billy, I just don’t see enough evidence in the novel that Billy ever copes with what he has experienced. His acceptance of the Tralfamadorian philosophy of fatalism (or quietism, as some say) seems to go against everything else Vonnegut seems to be doing in this novel and in his other works.

For the complete interview, click below:

Harmful Untruths – An Interview with Kevin Brown

Vonnegut and Hemingway: An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer

Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War – An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer  

While a surface reading of each man’s fiction might find little connection between Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway beyond the trauma of war, as Lawrence R. Broer shows in Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War (The University of South Carolina Press, 2011) the relationship between the two writers is deep and complex. Broer’s work “maps the striking intersections of biography and artistry” between Vonnegut and Hemingway, exploring the ways in which they blend life and art.

A long-time Vonnegut scholar, Broer’s earlier book, Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, offered a broad psychoanalytic study of the author’s work, and was called by the Journal of Popular Culture “…among the very best in Vonnegut studies.”

Broer shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: In Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War, you describe Hemingway as the “secret sharer” of Vonnegut’s literary imagination. How so?

A: I, of course, allude to Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novella, “The Secret Sharer,” about two sea Captains who represent opposing sides of the same individual, mankind’s impulse to cruelty and violence versus a capacity for self-awareness, control, and cooperation. Like Conrad, like Einstein and Freud, Vonnegut understood that unless human beings learn to understand and control their destructive tendencies, civilization is doomed. Vonnegut viewed Hemingway’s love of blood sports, killing big animals for pleasure, in this context. But just as in Conrad’s story where the protagonist’s bestial self is unconscious, I suspect Vonnegut was never fully aware of the deeper, more personal reason for his compulsive portrayal of Hemingway as his “bête noir,” a fatalistic self for whom suicide was forecast from an early age, and to which Vonnegut repeatedly refers in and out of his fiction, e.g., “I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to seventy-two. Hemingway almost made it to sixty-two” (Timequake). I think Vonnegut believed that resisting the pull of his defeatist self was necessary not only to fulfilling his role as canary-bird-in-the-coal mine, but to life itself. As I wrote in Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War, Hemingway joins Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, and Kurt Vonnegut Sr. as the author’s chief scapegoats, carrying his burden of trauma and despair.

Read the complete interview here:

Vonnegut and Hemingway – An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer