Happy Birthday, Wanda June

A Play

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On Sale 2020-05-05

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“Richly and often pertinently funny [with] a sure instinct for the carefully considered irrelevance . . . a great deal of incidental hilarity [and] inspired idiocy.The New York Times

Happy Birthday Wanda June was Kurt Vonnegut’s first play, which premiered in New York in 1970 and was then adapted into a film in 1971. It is a darkly humorous and searing examination of the excesses of capitalism, patriotism, toxic masculinity, and American culture in the post-Vietnam War era. Featuring behind-the-scenes photographs from the original stage production, this play captures Vonnegut’s brilliantly distinct perspective unlike we have ever seen it before. 

“A great artist.”—The Cincinnati Enquirer 

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Happy Birthday, Wanda June

ACT ONE

SCENE ONE

Silence. Pitch blackness. Animal eyes begin to glow in the darkness. Sounds of the jungle climax in animals fighting. A singer is heard singing the first bars of “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes.” Harold, Looseleaf, Penelope, and Woodly stand in a row in the darkness, facing the audience. They are motionless. A city skyline in the early evening materializes outside the windows.

The lights come up on the living room of a rich man’s apartment, which is densely furnished with trophies of hunts and wars. There is a front door, a door to the master bedroom suite, and a corridor leading to other bedrooms, the kitchen and so on.

PENELOPE

How do you do. My name is Penelope Ryan. This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing—and those who don’t.

HAROLD

I am Harold Ryan, her husband. I have killed perhaps two hundred men in wars of various sorts—as a professional soldier. I have killed thousands of other animals as well—for sport.

WOODLY

I am Dr. Norbert Woodly—a physician, a healer. I find it disgusting and frightening that a killer should still be a respected member of society. Gentleness must replace violence everywhere, or we are doomed.

PENELOPE

[To Looseleaf]

Would you like to say something about killing, Colonel?

LOOSELEAF

[Embarrassed]

Jesus—I dunno. You know. What the heck. Who knows?

PENELOPE

Colonel Harper, retired now, dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki during the Second World War, killing seventy-four thousand people in a flash.

LOOSELEAF

I dunno, boy.

PENELOPE

You don’t know?

LOOSELEAF

It was a bitch.

PENELOPE

Thank you.

[To all]

You can leave now. We’ll begin.

WOODLY

[To the audience, making a peace sign]

Peace!

[All but penelope exit]

PENELOPE

[To the audience]

This is a tragedy. When it’s done, my face will be as white as the snows of Kilimanjaro.

[Hyena laughs]

My husband, who kills so much, has been missing for eight years. He disappeared in a light plane over the Amazon Rain Forest, where he hoped to find diamonds as big as cantaloupes. His pilot was Colonel Looseleaf Harper, who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

[Hyena laughs]

I should explain the doorbells in this apartment. They were built by Abercrombie and Fitch. They are actual recordings of animal cries. The back doorbell is a hyena, which you’ve just heard. The front doorbell is a lion’s roar.

[To the wings]

Would you let them hear it please?

[Lion roars]

Thank you.

[Paul, her twelve-year-old son, enters from corridor, a sensitive, neatly dressed little rich boy]

And this is my son, Paul. He was only four years old when his father disappeared.

PAUL

[Radiantly, sappily]

He’s coming back, Mom! He’s the bravest, most wonderful man who ever lived.

PENELOPE

[To audience]

I told you this was a simple-minded play.

PAUL

Maybe he’ll come back tonight! It’s his birthday.

PENELOPE

I know.

PAUL

Stay home tonight!

PENELOPE

[Ruefully, for they have been over this before]

Oh, Paul—

PAUL

You’re married! You’ve already got a husband!

PENELOPE

He’s a ghost!

PAUL

He’s alive!

PENELOPE

Not even Mutual of Omaha thinks so anymore.

PAUL

If you have to go out with some guy—can’t he be more like Dad?

[Sick]

Herb Shuttle and Norbert Woodly—can’t you do better than those two freaks?

PENELOPE

[Resentfully]

Thank you, kind sir.

PAUL

A vacuum cleaner salesman and a fairy doctor.

PENELOPE

A what kind of doctor?

PAUL

A fairy—a queer. Everybody in the building knows he’s a queer.

PENELOPE

[Knowing better]

That’s an interesting piece of news.

PAUL

You’re the only woman he ever took out.

PENELOPE

Not true.

PAUL

Still lives with his mother.

PENELOPE

You know she has no feet! You want him to abandon his mother, who has no husband, who has no money of her own, who has no feet?

PAUL

How did she lose her feet?

PENELOPE

In a railroad accident many years ago.

PAUL

I was afraid to ask.

PENELOPE

Norbert was just beginning practice. A real man would have sold her to a catfood company, I suppose. As far as that goes, J. Edgar Hoover still lives with his mother.

PAUL

I didn’t know that.

PENELOPE

A lot of people don’t.

PAUL

J. Edgar Hoover plays sports.

PENELOPE

I don’t really know.

PAUL

The only exercise Dr. Woodly ever gets is playing the violin and making that stupid peace sign.

[He makes the peace sign and says the word effeminately]

Peace. Peace. Peace, everybody.

[Lion doorbell roars]

PENELOPE

[Cringing]

I hate that thing.

PAUL

It’s beautiful.

[He goes to door, admits Woodly, whom he loathes openly]

WOODLY

[Wearing street clothes, carrying a rolled-up poster under his arm]

Peace, everybody—Paul, Penelope.

PAUL

You’re taking Mom out tonight?

WOODLY

[To Penelope]

You’re going out?

PENELOPE

Herb Shuttle is taking me to a fight.

WOODLY

Take plenty of cigars.

PENELOPE

[An apology, secret from Paul]

We made the date three months ago.

WOODLY

I must take you to an emergency ward sometime—on a Saturday night. That’s also fun. I came to see Selma, as a matter of fact.

PENELOPE

She quit this afternoon.

PAUL

We don’t have a maid anymore.

WOODLY

Oh?

PENELOPE

The animals made her sneeze and cry too much.

WOODLY

I’m glad somebody finally cried. Every time I come in here and see all this unnecessary death, I want to cry.

[Winking at Paul, acknowledging Paul’s low opinion of him]

I don’t cry, of course. Not manly, you know. Did she try antihistamines?

PENELOPE

They made her so sleepy she couldn’t work.

WOODLY

Throw out all this junk. Burn it! This room crawls with tropical disease.

PAUL

Everything stays as it is!

WOODLY

A monument to a man who thought that what the world needed most was more rhinoceros meat.

PAUL

[Hotly]

My father!

WOODLY

I apologize. But you didn’t know him, and neither did I. How’s your asthma?

PAUL

Don’t worry about it.

WOODLY

How’s the fungus around your thumbnail?

PAUL

[Concealing the thumb]

It’s fine!

WOODLY

It’s jungle rot! This room is making everybody sick! This is your family doctor speaking now.

[Unrolling the poster]

Here—I brought you something else to hang on your wall, for the sake of variety.

PENELOPE

[Reading]

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” How lovely.

WOODLY

No doubt Paul thinks it stinks.

[Lion doorbell roars]

I hate that thing.

PAUL

[Going to the door]

Keeps fairies away!

[He admits Herb Shuttle, who carries an Electrolux vacuum cleaner]

SHUTTLE

[To Paul affectionately, touching him]

Hi kid.

[Seeing Woodly]

Would you look what the cat dragged in.

WOODLY

I’m glad you brought your vacuum cleaner.

SHUTTLE

Is that a fact?

WOODLY

The maid just quit. The place is a mess. You can start in the master bedroom.

PENELOPE

Please—

SHUTTLE

He’s not anybody to tell somebody else what to do in a master bedroom.

PENELOPE

I’ll get ready, Herb. I didn’t expect you this soon.

[To all]

Please—won’t everybody be nice to everybody else while I’m gone?

[All freeze, except for Penelope, who comes forward to address the audience. Lights on set fade as spotlight comes on]

Most men shunned me—even when I nearly swooned for want of love. I might as well have been girdled in a chastity belt. My chastity belt was not made of iron and chains and chickenwire, but of Harold’s lethal reputation.

- About the author -

Kurt Vonnegut was a master of contemporary American literature. His black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and established him, in the words of The New York Times, as “a true artist” with the publication of Cat’s Cradle in 1963. He was, as Graham Greene declared, “one of the best living American writers.” Mr. Vonnegut passed away in April 2007.

More from Kurt Vonnegut

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

A Play

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

— Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback —