This past weekend, I went to see the Wheelhouse Theater Company’s revival of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” in New York City. I am a huge fan of Vonnegut’s books and I wanted to see if Vonnegut’s unique writing style would transfer well to the stage. And transfer it did, as the play was filled with obscure 1970s cultural references and Vonnegut’s signature dark, absurdist humor.
As I left the play, I began to piece apart my thoughts on the work. I had definitely enjoyed the play, but I was also very confused, struggling to understand both the intricacies of the plot and the meaning of the work itself. I would definitely recommend the work to a friend, but I’m not sure if I could ever summarize for anyone what happened in the work.
I realized that I almost enjoyed the play because it was confusing — the complexity and irregularity of the plot forcing me to concentrate and engage more with the work. It had jumped between memories and actual events, between heaven and earth. It jumped all over the place, and much of my energy as an audience member was spent on keeping up.
The work was also thematically ambiguous. I know it focused on hypermasculinity and death. It juxtaposed the horror we express over car accidents with the excitement and awe we express over wartime deaths caused by American soldiers, but these themes weren’t developed. They were frequent, recurrent aspects of the plot, but they never moved past that.
This wasn’t my first experience with complexity on the stage. If anything, this play was less abstract than some other works I am familiar with. Compared to many of Samuel Beckett’s plays, for example, this play was accessible on the surface. Conversations between characters flowed logically and characters’ motivations and emotions were frequently made explicit. Compared to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” for example, this play followed a small cast of six in a single-room set.
And this wasn’t my first experience with complexity in Vonnegut’s work. Compared to “The Sirens of Titan,” the first Vonnegut novel I read, this work was remarkably static. It never moved to any unfamiliar planets or dealt with any fictitious, alienistic creatures. What then, I asked myself, was making this work so difficult for me to fully understand?
“Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” I eventually realized, refuses to conform to the linear conception of time inherent to the performing arts. Almost all works of performance art involve development over the course of time — much as our lives inevitably evolve over time, so do works of performance art. In works of theater, this involves characters that change or refuse to change as the world around them changes as well.
Yet Vonnegut specifically avoids this linear transformation. None of the characters in the play develop, they only react to the outside forces that bring them together and pull them apart. The work darts between memories and the present without any noticeable changes occuring in any of the characters. And though the viewer can easily understand this concept on the surface, larger thematic meaning behind this stasis gets lost behind the alinear intricacies of the plot.
This alinear conception of time is not new to Vonnegut. He does this frequently in his novels to great success. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” for example, events do not happen chronologically and characters profess not to believe in chronological conceptions of time. “It is just an illusion we have here on earth,” says the main character at one point, “that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Others artists have taken inspiration from Vonnegut in applying this structural alinearity to performance art. Andrew Norman, for example, composed his orchestral work “Unstuck,” based on the concept of time laid out in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” When I first discovered this piece, I was fascinated by how it challenged my perception of time — I knew the recording of the piece lasted nine minutes and 33 seconds on YouTube though I couldn’t imagine that I had only been listening for around nine and a half minutes.
Norman achieves this effect by jumping between disparate musical ideas without transitional material. He constantly varies the tempo and gestural pacing of his ideas, preventing the listener from becoming comfortable with any specific conception of time. He also carefully develops the relationships between ideas throughout the piece without developing the ideas themselves.
The result is jagged and complex, violating the steady, tempo-based conception of time endemic to contemporary orchestral music. It is an incredibly complex piece to fully understand even as it is an incredibly simple piece to consume on the surface. I believe that I could listen to the piece for months without ever finding it to be predictable or routine.
Another example of an alinear conception of time that I like is Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” For those unfamiliar with the movie, it follows main character Leonard Shelby as he investigates the murder of his wife. Shelby suffers from anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories, and he resorts to tattooing himself to maintain some memory of his investigation as it progresses.
In the beginning, this non-chronological structure is extremely confusing. Events are being portrayed in black-and-white and in color — two separate plot lines that don’t seem to connect. As the movie progresses, however, the structure of the movie slowly comes into focus: The black-and-white footage depicts events chronologically while the color footage depicts events in reverse chronologically.
As with the other alinear works, this proves to be extremely off-putting to first-time viewers. To obsessive viewers like me, however, it creates ambiguities that leave the work open to endless analysis.
So what makes these works successful even as “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” fails? What makes some alinear works successful and others confusingly unsuccessful? What defining feature separates the good alinear works from the bad?
Alinear conceptions of time, I realized, are only successful when they still exist within the confines of larger structural linearity. To put it in simpler terms, alinear conceptions of time only work when contrasted against linear structures of long-term development.
The performing arts, after all, are confined and defined by time. There is something beautiful, I find, in the fragile impermanence of these artforms — they exist over the course of an hour or two; they must be experienced over the course of an evening. The best alinear art creates connections between disparate moments in time, allowing for development to take place over the course of a work though time may not be contributing to this development.
And in this regard, “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” failed to deliver. I felt no different leaving the theater than I did after witnessing the first scene. The entire play was a wash of individual scenes with no overarching concept — I left the play noting no overall development that extended beyond any individual scene. And without this development, the work failed to move beyond the realm of the absurd to the realm of the powerful. And this, after all, is the ultimate goal of every work of art — to present some aspect of the human condition that we as audience members can relate to, allowing us to come to new realizations as we reflect on the lives of others.