Happy Birthday, Wanda June (Kurt Vonnegut)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a play by Kurt Vonnegut, his take on Odysseus’ return to Penelope.

Penelope and her son Paul have been living on their own ever since her husband and his father, big game hunter Harold, left 10 years earlier and wasn’t heard of since. In the meantime Penelope has started dating two men, Herb Shuttle – a “manly man” much like her husband – and Norbert Woodly – a studied man and pacifist. But then Harold returns quite surprisingly.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a strange play that falls between the cracks a little bit. It feels completely surreal but it isn’t, not really. Despite that, or maybe because of it, I liked it a whole lot.

Vonnegut prefaces his play with a short introduction to how and why he wrote it and he starts by saying:

This play is what I did when I was forty-seven years old – when my six children were children no more. It was a time of change, of goodbye and goodbye and goodbye. My big house was becoming a museum of vanished childhoods – of my vanished young manhood as well.

I can not tell you how much I love this paragraph. It’s beautiful and evocative and just plain wonderful. Every book should start this way.

But turning to the play itself: I really loved the idea of it: a play calling Odysseus out on his assholery, making Penelope more than just a lady in waiting and talking about pacifism as the new heroism. And it works extremely well when you combine this with Vonnegut’s depressed, melancholy sense of humor, like so:

Paul: I was going to a funny movie, but I changed my mind. If you’re depressed, laughing doesn’t help much.

But it’s hard to talk about this play. Which is not a bad thing – it might make you read/watch it for yourself. And it’s worth it for the moments like this:

Penelope: (to Woodly) I loved you when you stayed away.

Summarising: Totally recommended.

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