This piece appears in the program to Page 93's production of Kurt Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June, appearing at the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood, October 26 - December 9, 2001.
Kurt Vonnegut has this theory about our artists being like the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. When our society is in trouble, the artists sensitivities will be tuned in to the danger in advance of the general populace. So, like the canary keeling over in its cage, when the artist warns us that were screwing up, we either need to fix the problem, or run for our lives.
On the evening of September 11, our countrys most recent Day of Infamy, we were scheduled to hold a rehearsal for ''Wanda June'' at my home. Linda and I had spent that day, like the rest of the country, in shock and glued to the TV. It felt like there had been an unexpected death in the family. Or more accurately, a multiple homicide. By mid-afternoon, I had called each actor who was scheduled to come that evening, and gave them the opportunity to forgo rehearsals until the collective wind had returned to our sails. To my surprise, every actor chose to rehearse that night, each one saying that they were looking forward to the company and the distraction from the unfolding nightmare.
My own secret fear was that our little comedy would now seem irrelevant. In one day, it seemed, the world had changed. Could this quaint little play, written in 1970, matter to anyone anymore? As we ran through the opening scenes that evening, we were all stymied to realize how certain passages from the play had taken on a chillingly contemporary resonance. From Penelopes introduction, telling us that this is a ''play about men who enjoy killing and those who dont,'' to Dr. Woodly, the middle-aged peacenik, telling us that ''Gentleness must replace violence everywhere, or we are doomed'' and admonishing us to ''simply stop dropping things on each other, eating each other alive.'' The hawkish Herb Shuttle expounds on his belief that ''If you elect a President, you support him, no matter what he does.'' The dialogue from this Viet Nam-era play now sounded like conversations we would overhear the next morning in any one of a dozen Starbucks down the block.
Earlier, I had added two new lines to the play (with Vonneguts approval). I was concerned that Woodlys stock greeting of ''Peace, everybody'' would seem preciously anachronistic to anyone who may not realize that this play was written more than thirty years ago. So Penelope now provides the disclaimer that ''this is a period play.'' Maybe I jumped the gun to assume that greeting someone with those two words would seem inappropriate in any era.
Whenever people refer to Vonnegut as a ''futurist'' he takes the well-meaning label with a grain of salt, even though many of the futuristic musings offered by his early novels now read less like science fiction and more like journalistic reportage. His first novel ''Player Piano'' (1952) imagines a future in which machines and computers have done such a good job of taking over our trivial tasks, that most humans have nothing but free time and no longer feel useful, inspiring a new revolution by modern-day Luddites who smash all the machines to bits so they can go back to work and feel useful again. The book describes huge warehouses which store the brains of these computers in the form of countless gigantic vaccum tubes. Vonnegut once confessed to me: ''Thats the one thing I got wrong... the tubes.'' Who could have envisioned the microchip in 1952?
Likewise, many of our past literary and cinematic potboilers have envisioned an apocalypse brought on by two superpowers battling it out with nuclear weapons. Could they have missed the mark that much? Might World War III have commenced with weapons no more high-tech than airplane tickets and box cutters?
I called Vonnegut on the afternoon of September 11 for a simple reality check.
''Can you believe this?'' I asked him. ''Is this really happening?'' As we discussed the days events, I never doubted that he was concerned and mortified, but his voice had a certain ring of detachment that seemed somehow atypical for someone who made their home in Manhattan. I didnt think hard about it until the next day when someone on CNN suggested that no U.S. native had ever witnessed anything like the devastation in lower Manhattan, unless they had been in Dresden, Germany when that city was firebombed by Allied forces in 1945 (claiming the lives of an estimated 135,000 people, mostly civilians).
Vonnegut, of course, was an eye-witness to that event so long ago, having survived as an American prisoner of war, housed in a deep underground meat locker -- slaughterhouse #5. I realized that when Vonnegut watched news coverage of the rescue workers digging for bodies at ground zero in New York, the phrase, ''Been there, done that'' must have played on his lips.
So it goes.
The second line I added to the play was lifted from a piece Vonnegut wrote for Playboy magazine in 1999. As a futurist, he was asked to speculate about life in the coming millennium. One of the topics he touched on was how badly we have managed to damage this nourishing blue-green ball called Earth in such an infinitesimal period of time. Our disregard for the long-term effects of our behavior was of course only biting us in the ass as we continued to poison our own air, water and topsoil. I managed to neatly slip Vonneguts theory into a speech of Dr. Woodlys, who considers how weve managed to turn our planet into a ticking doomsday device.
The paraphrased line is this: Maybe our planets immune system is trying to get rid of us.
''Canaries are dropping dead all around us,'' Vonnegut points out. ''But is anybody listening? Does anybody care?''
I digress... Did I mention that ''Happy Birthday, Wanda June'' is a comedy?
October 7, 2001