Kurt Vonnegut’s takedown of heroism

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s only play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, is about the homecoming of Harold Ryan, an adventurer, war hero and big game hunter, after having been lost on the Amazon rain forest for eight years, and how his wi.

The play was first produced in 1970 and revived many times, including this year.  I read it early this month as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

Ryan’s only moral values are competence, physical courage and strength of will.  He validates himself by killing and risking death on the battlefield and hunting ground, and by dominating women and weaker men.

Vonnegut’s play is a savage and hilariously funny critique of those values, which are now called toxic masculinity.

The wife’s name is Penelope, which is a reference to the homecoming scene in the Odyssey.  Odysseus has spent 10 years at the Siege of Troy and 10 more years wandering the Mediterranean, including several years marooned on an island having sex with a beautiful nymph.

He is the prototype of the action hero—brave, strong and resourceful.  He is able to deal with any situation no matter how perilous.  Homer gives no evidence, though, that he cares for anyone or anything but himself, his rights and his reputation.  All the men under his command perish.

When he arrives home, he expects to resume his role as patriarch as if he had never left.  He expects and gets deference from his wife, son and old servants, and, without mercy, kills not only the unwelcome suitors for his wife’s hand. but also the servants who had given him up for dead.

The Ryan character, fought in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two and was a big game hunter in Africa, is also based on Ernest Hemingway.  A quotation attributed to Hemingway goes, “There is no hunting like the hunting of men, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Hemingway was not actually a hunter of men.  He was an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War One, and a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.  There is no questioning his physical courage.  He was seriously wounded during World War One, and seriously injured in two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa, leaving him in physical pain for the remainder of his life.  He was married four times, and was not a home body.

One recurring theme in Hemingway’s fiction is manliness and honor in a world that doesn’t value them.  Many men from the 1920s through the 1950s looked to him as role model of masculinity.

Ryan’s opponent in the play is the pacifist physician, Norbert Woodley, one of Penelope’s suitors.  He loves his mother and doesn’t believe in fighting.  His basic decency is contrasted with Ryan’s bullying.

He confronts Ryan in the final scene, and I understand there are different versions of what happens next.  In the version I read with my friend Walter, Woodley punctures Ryan’s ego by convincing him that people think his heroics are comical.

A synopsis I read on-line gives a more believable ending.  Ryan throws Woodley out the window while Penelope and Ryan’s son Paul walk out on him.

The title “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” comes from an early scene in which another character buys a cake at the last minute in honor of the missing Ryan’s birthday.  The cake had been baked for a little girl, Wanda June, who was run over by an ice cream truck and never got to eat it.

Wanda June is in Heaven, where everyone is happy, no matter what they did in life.  She is friends with Major Siegfried von Konigsvald, the Nazi “Beast of Yugoslavia,” who was assassinated by Ryan during the Second World War.  The two of them join Mildred, one of Ryan’s previous wives, in observing the events of the play.

Von Konigsvald says he is a greater success than Ryan because he killed more people.  But he admits the two of them are outdone by Ryan’s bumbling, good-natured sidekick, Col. Looseleaf Harper, who happened to be the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

It is a measure of Vonnegut’s genius that he can make the killing of a Nazi torturer and executioner seem pointless and ridiculous.

Vonnegut’s pacifism and nihilism were a product of his experience.  He was a combat infantryman during World War Two, was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing there.  He survived by taking refuge in an underground meat locker.  Afterwards he and other POWs were given the job of excavating corpses.

I enjoyed the play without being completely won over to Vonnegut’s point of view.

Not everybody can be expected to be a hero.  I myself am a mild-mannered bookworm who’s led a long, safe and easy life.  I am grateful there is a place for people like me.

But I don’t think we as a society can safely devalue competence, resourcefulness, strength and physical courage, or the other traditionally masculine virtues.  Rather we need to recognize that these virtues do not stand alone.  They need to be wedded to a sense of responsibility, concern for others and chivalry to the weak..

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2 Responses to “Kurt Vonnegut’s takedown of heroism”

  1. whungerford Says:

    Thanks for this; while a Vonnegut fan, I didn’t know he had written a play.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fred Says:

    Chivalry. What a concept! I think we have lost it.

    Liked by 1 person

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