In a rare appearance, novelist Kurt Vonnegut took the stage of the Access Theatre for a talk-back session immediately after the April 1 performance of his only play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
His own harshest critic, the 81-year-old author commented that the Vietnam-era update of Homer’s Odyssey was “overwritten in spots.” (In both Homer’s epic and Vonnegut’s less-than-epic, a warrior returns home to face problems with his wife, her suitors, and his son.) He went on to say that, while he was “charmed” by the 7th Sign production, his play “does seem dated in some ways” and “I would like to have changed a lot.” When asked by director Rachel Chavkin (who emceed with actor and 7th Sign co-founder Jake Thomas) what he would change, Vonnegut said with a laugh, “None of your business.”
Addressing an audience populated primarily by young theatergoers who may not even have been born while American soldiers were still in Vietnam, Vonnegut spoke readily about what was clearly the real reason for the chat: an interest evinced by the 7th Sign organizers in how relevant Vonnegut considered his 1970 work to the current U.S. invasion of Iraq. The impression that the revered author gave was that he considered the “purposelessness” of both undertakings to be comparable. He seemed to reveal discontent with the current administration when he talked more or less in the abstract about the formation of an “oligarchy that might have to lie to keep the ‘know-nothings’ under control.” He pointed out that, in the next election, voters get to choose between two members of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones. “I worry about Yale,” he said as a smile crossed his famously craggy face.
Vonnegut, who sat on his chair as if impersonating a pretzel, talked on broader subjects as well. About contemporary script authorship, he said that he’s become impressed with the concept of “team-writing” for television. Suggesting that this is the wave of the future, he praised the method for allowing writers to delve “deeper into subjects than used to be done in Broadway plays years ago.”
Despite mentioning the rewrites he’d do on Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Vonnegut remarked that the 1970 production would “still be playing today” were it not for an Off-Broadway strike that closed theaters including the Edison, where his piece opened and ran for 96 performances. He characterized the audiences then as being “in full sympathy” with the play’s tenets. On the other hand, Vonnegut also said of his foray into playwriting that he “didn’t expect it to be produced” in the first place. Over the years, he said, he’s had people speculate that the work’s protagonist, Harold Ryan, is a version of Ernest Hemingway. While Vonnegut admitted that he saw a resemblance, he insisted that the blustery Hemingway was not a model for the character. Asked to discuss the villainous Ryan at greater length, he noted that he’s said in the past that there are no villains in his work but now remarked: “Often, I’m full of shit.” The confession was in keeping with his overall affability, which lasted through a series of questions from the audience. Finally, he did say that he was ready to go home.
Audience members responded to Vonnegut with the same enthusiasm that they’d shown his play. The revival will play through April 18.