Sunday, September 5, 2010

A fresh perspective on death from Kurt Vonnegut and Wanda June

Pamelyn Ferdin as Vonnegut's doomed "Wanda June"

Kurt Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a story that has existed in several forms (novel, play, film), but you needn't feel obligated to investigate any of them too soon. Vonnegut himself has dismissed this tale in all its incarnations. But there is one scene from the play and film that has stuck with me for years because it offers a startlingly unique perspective on death and dying. 

A little background first, though: the story's title comes from the words written in icing on an unclaimed birthday cake. In the following monologue, the cake's intended recipient, ten-year-old Wanda June, tells us her story. Take it away, Mr. Vonnegut...


MUSIC indicates happiness, innocence, and weightlessness. Spotlight comes up on WANDA JUNE, a lisping eight-year-old in a starched party dress. She is as cute as Shirley Temple.

Hello. I am Wanda June. Today was going to be my birthday, but I was hit by an ice-cream truck before I could have my party. I am dead now. I am in Heaven. That is why my parents did not pick up the cake at the bakery. I am not mad at the ice-cream truck driver, even though he was drunk when he hit me. It didn't hurt much. It wasn't even as bad as the sting of a bumblebee. I am really happy here! It's so much fun. I am glad the driver was drunk. If he hadn't been, I might not have got to Heaven for years and years and years. I would have had to go to high school first, and then beauty college. I would have had to get married and have babies and everything. Now I can just play and play and play. Any time I want any pink cotton candy I can have some. Everybody up here is happy -- the animals and the dead soldiers and people who went to the electric chair and everything. They're all glad for whatever sent them here. Nobody is mad. We're all too busy playing shuffleboard. So if you think of killing somebody, don't worry about it. Just go ahead and do it. Whoever you do it to should kiss you for doing it. The soldiers up here just love the shrapnel and the tanks and the bayonets and the dum dums that let them play shuffleboard all the time--and drink beer.

Spotlight begins to dim and carnival music on a steam calliope begins to intrude, until, at the end of the speech, WANDA JUNE is drowned out and the stage is black.

We have merry-go-rounds that don't cost anything to ride on. We have Ferris wheels. We have Little League and girls' basketball. There's a drum and bugle corps anybody can join. For people who like golf, there is a par-three golf course and a driving range, with never any waiting. If you just want to sit and loaf, why that's all right, too. Gourmet specialties are cooked to your order and served at any time of night or day...

Sudden silence.

Ha ha ha ha ha!
(pistol shot)You got me, pal.
I do believe Wanda June's perspective on death is even sunnier than mine. Way to look on the bright side of things, WJ!

P.S. If you missed that link at the beginning, here is a clip of that scene from the film version in which former child actress and current animal rights activist Pamelyn Ferdin gives a rather brilliant reading of Vonnegut's monologue. Useless trivia: Pamelyn almost got the lead role in The Exorcist but lost out to Linda Blair. No foolin'.