Kurt Vonnegut On Playwriting

September 28, 2011

Adapted from: It May Not Make History, But That’s Not The Point

By Kurt Vonnegut, The Los Angles Times, October 24, 2004

People ask me in these crazy times if I, like so many others, am writing a play that might influence the course of American history in the coming years, a la “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I have replied that no work of art can do that nowadays. It would be nice if one could, but forget it.

I wrote my play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” in the 1960s, when another unpopular war, now generally acknowledged as having been cruelly nonsensical, in Vietnam, was going on. But the timing was purely coincidental. My inspiration wasn’t the My Lai massacre or the bombing of Cambodia or whatever, but my having just read about the homecoming of the hero Odysseus after an absence of many years, as described by Homer so humorlessly in his “Odyssey” nearly 3,000 years ago. Not exactly news of the day.

When my play was first produced in 1970 . . . . the Viet Nam war still going on and making more people than ever die . . . But I did not imagine for as much as a nanosecond that my burlesquing of blustery, blowhard tellers of war stories like Odysseus, or to some extent like Ernest Hemingway, would have the slightest effect on history . . . .  All I wanted then, and all I want now, whenever my play is revived, is that actors and a small audience, about 200 people . . . have a good time for 90 minutes or so.

Wherever I teach creative writing . . . I have never mentioned the possibility of changing the world for the better by means of a work of art. What I have tried to teach instead is sociability: how to be a good date on a blind date; how to show a total stranger a good time; or, if you like, how to run a nice restaurant or whorehouse. The same would have been my main lesson had I been teaching jazz.

What “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” confirms, I hope, is that contrary to Homer’s Odysseus, a war hero or hunter, a killer, is not the most glorious sort of person imaginable. Nor is it right, as Homer and Greeks of his time evidently believed, for a man to regard a woman, save for a witch or a siren, as an obvious inferior, as his God-given servant and property.

Has “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” written 35 years ago now, become dated? It surely has in this way: One of the leading characters is a vacuum cleaner salesman. There really used to be such people, and they made good money too. Selling Electroluxes was the way my big brother Bernie put himself through MIT, all the way to a PhD. And then he went on to discover that silver iodide particles can make it snow or rain sometimes.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


May 5, 2009


By Shirley Lupton

I can’t help wondering what my manicurist thinks as he bows his head close over my hands. They retain a scent of garlic and onions from the preparation of a stew I left to walk over to this new salon in my neighborhood. He examines them with Asian solemnity and without discernible judgment brings a bowl of hot suds and guides both hands into it. Then with a dancer’s swing he dips under the table to remove his tools from the sterilizer. With the clank of metal on his tray my mind flashes back to the preparation for surgery ten years earlier and the chemotherapy that destroyed my nails. The smell of yellow flesh and fresh gauze comes, but leaves fast, a hit of angst in one intake of breath. Then back to onion and garlic worry as I exhale.

We proceed. Our right hands are locked as he files and pares in silence. Pinned on his shirt pocket is a small metal plate with an improbable name, Fred-Ho. He is small, under a hundred pounds, so delicate and young, with intermittent black fuzz around his chin and upper lip and his black hair is slicked back Alec Baldwin style. His hands are strong as he gives me a hand massage, the mid-point ritual. He hurts me. He presses on arthritis points I forget I have. I practice my own inscrutability and study the empty chairs.

Suddenly his face lights up from an internal jolt and he speaks in that lyrical Vietnamese sing- song trill and somewhere in the salon, like a parrot in the jungle, another manicurist answers in the same trill to share a joke. Then he cues me to leave him to wash my hands of the flaky material used in the massage. I pad over to the customer sink against a far wall, set about with soaps and dried flower scent baskets. I see him in the mirror talking on his cell phone, smiling – no – laughing – free of me. As I wash away the crusty stuff I feel like a hostage. I look like one too, distress all over my face. Why so tense? You don’t have to re-write Atonement. It’s a simple manicure -not a massacre. I imagine us as in a musical where I return to him dancing and singing, all the manicurists rising from their stations bursting into a chorus and we high kick past the pedicure island happy and united.

“Fred-Ho?” I ask, as he paints my nails in quick strokes, a colorless gloss with a hint of frost – my choice. I bring my own Chanel, White Satin. “Is that your real name?” “My name Ho,” he answers, “my Vietnam name Ho.” He frowns and signals for the other hand I offer. I want to ask him why did he leave Vietnam? I want to apologize to him for the war – to tell I did protest marches and sit-ins and leave out the parts about sex, drugs and the Stones at Altamont. But I say nothing.

Ho leads me to the nail-drying bin – a long chin-high table with UV blue light glowing in a slot for hands just under the top. Without the use of my hands there is nothing to do but think. Ho’s grandfather or uncle could have been the child who begged on the side of the road and blew away the GI who handed him a chocolate. Or, maybe some Marines, while passing through a hamlet on the way to nowhere and for no defensive reason, gunned Ho’s cousins down. But Ho was born ten years after the choppers lifted cringing Americans off the embassy roof in Saigon. If I believe what I read about his generation, he knows or cares little of the war. It was your government – not you, they say. Even the older people there say that.

At the cashier I watch Ho sitting on a stool bent over the bare feet of a young redhead in a pedicure chair. As he scrubs her pink heels she is reading Newsweek. The cover shows a man in a black turban and the caption says War Escalates in Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2009 Shirley Lupton.