The Good Soldier Trudges On
April 26, 2000
The following article is based on a telephone interview with Vonnegut, comments he made at a public pre-performance discussion with Northwestern University professor Lee Roloff Sept. 29, 1996, at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago and a telephone interview with Eric Simonson, who adapted Slaughterhouse-Five for the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. All quotes from the novel are from the Laurel/Dell 1991 paper back edition.Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.Again. In October, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. premiered the first dramatic stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, which featured Billy Pilgrim as its time-traveling main character.Based on the Indianapolis-born author's World War II experiences in Germany, the novel has also been adapted as a 1972 movie, a musical in Moscow and an opera in Munich.Although faithful to the novel's events, characters and structure, the play, like the film, did not replace the experience of reading the novel. That's how Vonnegut wants adaptations to be."What you're going to see tonight is an utterly separate work of art, and it wouldn't be worth a damn if it wasn't," the 74-year-old Vonnegut told the opening night audience."I'm particularly fortunate in that all of my work is still in print, and that's what I do -- I write books," he said. "If people want to see what I do, they can go to the library."To Vonnegut, adaptations are somebody else's work, based on his own. "When somebody is adapting my work... I tell the adapters to think of my book as a friendly ghost around the house," he said. "But if the movie is going to be any good or if the play is going to be any good, it has to be different. It's not possible to make a direct adaptation." Vonnegut saw neither the Moscow nor the Munich productions, but heard about the former from a friend."Slaughterhouse-Five was a terrific hit in Moscow, because it was the only popular American novel that admitted the Soviets were in the war," he said. "A friend of mine went and said it was wonderful. It's the only pacifist show (to be) put on there (at the Red Theatre)."Vonnegut said he opted not to attend the German opera because he thought the adapters and company viewed him as an afterthought to the creative process. He received his invitation to the premiere a week before the opera's opening night. "I never heard from the German composer," he said. "That's one reason I didn't go to see it... I think the Germans thought my contribution was minimal. They gave us the city and the war."That wasn't Vonnegut's experience with Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, who wrote and directed the adaptation. They talked before Simonson started writing, and he received Vonnegut's permission to write the play as he saw fit."He's been very generous," Simonson said. "The first conversation I had with him, he acknowledged that I was doing an adaptation in theater form and not in novel form and that I should feel free to do with it what I needed to do." Simonson made some minor changes. He cut the character of Pilgrim's son, for instance, but otherwise the play is loyal to the story. As Simonson said, he wanted to keep his attention on Pilgrim.An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, 'There they go, there they go.' He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."Billy Pilgrim is not me," Vonnegut said. "I was a good soldier." Vonnegut appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as many of his other works, as himself. Chapter One details his 20-year attempt to write his "Dresden book," and announces that of what follows, the war material is true and the rest is fiction, a novel.The third person narrator that tells Pilgrim's story is actually Vonnegut, occasionally appearing in the action and making comments, not so much as a storyteller as a participant."I was an actual participant, so it was about my remembering, for one thing, to see what I remembered of it and what I thought of it now, now being 30 years ago," Vonnegut said of the novel's composition. "So in a way, it was a self-indulgent book."The book took more than two decades for Vonnegut to finish."I wanted Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and some of our other war heroes to be in my movie," he said. "I tried it and tried it, but it wasn't working."As the first chapter recounts, Vonnegut discarded the heroic war story model when he visited with a friend from the army, Bernard V. O'Hare. O'Hare's wife, Mary, reminded Vonnegut and her husband that they were virtually children themselves when they fought in Germany, hence the first subtitle to the novel. "O'Hare and I were both foot soldiers, and we both had been to college, and the only use the army had for us was as foot soldiers," Vonnegut said. "This was near the end of the war. We were almost all college students."Because the novel became an anti-war book, it gained a cult following during the Vietnam War, although Vonnegut said that war played no role in the writing of the book."I think it just took maturity," Vonnegut said. "The Vietnam War had nothing to do with it. It was an art experience. It was a book I felt I had to write somehow, and I did it. It was a job, completing an obligation, and it had nothing to do with what was going on at the time. During the '60s, much more of a cult book was Cat's Cradle."Although Slaughterhouse-Five gained its fame as an anti-war novel, Vonnegut said, "I wouldn't have missed (the war) for the world... It was a lark, and boy, did I see a lot of stuff."Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.Slaughterhouse-Five gives Vonnegut's first-hand account of the Feb. 13, 1945, Allied fire-bombing of Dresden that killed 135,000 people. Dresden had no troop deployments and no military industries, so it was considered an open city, unlikely to be attacked.Vonnegut was sent there as a prisoner of war following the Battle of the Bulge. The novel's title refers to where the POWs were housed, in the city's old abattoir. They and their guards survived the all-night attack by taking shelter in a subterranean meat locker."There was really no living through it if you were on the surface," Vonnegut said. "There was no oxygen on the surface. We were way down under the earth, (below) ground level. It was a place for storing meat... The guards went up first and came back down talking about how terrible it was. After it was all over, three, four, five hours passed before they thought it was safe to go up."The German guards marched the POWs from the city, in the countryside, where they eventually found shelter at an inn. To leave the city, they had to scale the moon-like craters the collapsed buildings formed along the bombed-out streets. "When we did get back up (to the surface), we would every so often see what looked like little logs, and there were really (burned) people caught on the surface," he said. "It was the largest massacre in human history. Auschwitz was a slow-killing process. In order to qualify as a massacre, it has to be quick." In the weeks that followed the attack, the POWs were sent back to Dresden each day to excavate the corpses, which were eventually burned when their decomposition became a health hazard.So it goes."I've seen a lot of (death)," Vonnegut said. "I was teaching at City College (in New York) a few years ago, and one of my students said she'd never seen a dead person. I said, 'Be patient.' ... In Dresden, I saw mountains of dead people, and that makes you think."The refrain "so it goes" appears 100 times in Slaughterhouse-Five, whenever a character dies or a person's death -- such as Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. or Vonnegut's father -- is mentioned. Simonson said he saw the novel as transcending war and reaching out to comment on violence as a general societal condition."I identify with Billy Pilgrim, as I think a lot of people do," he said. "He's reacting to a lot of unnecessary or inane violence that occurs daily in society. I think it's hard to know how to react to that, except to stare at it slack-jawed and wonder what to do."While Vonnegut and the O'Hares appear in the novel as themselves, Billy Pilgrim is modeled on another POW."Billy Pilgrim was an actual person who died in Dresden -- Edward Crone," Vonnegut said. "He shouldn't have been in the army. He was a very poor physical specimen."Vonnegut said Crone was a sophomore engineering student at Hobard College when he was drafted."He died of what's called the 'Thousand Mile Stare,'" he said. "He sat down against the wall. He wouldn't eat or talk, and the Germans wouldn't do anything. We couldn't give (him) any medical attention, so he simply died."After the war, Crone's parents went to Germany, claimed their son's body and brought him back to Rochester, N.Y., to be buried in his hometown. "Last year, I visited his grave when I was lecturing in Rochester, and that closed out the war for me," Vonnegut said.Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.Slaughterhouse-Five employs a non-linear structure so that time shifts backward and forward from scene to scene, for both the reader and Pilgrim.It's just one of the many literary devices and experiments Vonnegut uses in the novel. His own presence in the narrative, the mixing of memoir and fiction and the inclusion of a science fiction subplot are among the other devices."In my particular trade, paper is so cheap, you can try something and throw it out," he said of his experiments. "I'm a literate person. I was aware of locutions and periods of literature and was certainly willing to use them if they looked like fun."Although he acknowledges that the non-linear plot-line can be confusing for some readers, he also expects his readers to be literate, too."They have to be highly literate in order to put on shows in their head," he said. "It's amazing that people can do that with such minimal cues. Novels and short stories will always be an elitist art form, because it takes a highly literate mind to do that."One author to whom Vonnegut has been compared is Flannery O'Connor. It's a comparison with which he readily agrees."What we both do is get our characters into big trouble as soon as possible," he said. "(We) put people in awful trouble and apply stress to see what will make them break. I find when I teach creative writing, the students are too polite to do this."One of Mary O'Hare's complaints about the book Vonnegut tried to write was that heroic war stories romanticized war and helped to perpetuate it by making young people eager to enlist for the adventure. Vonnegut agreed that books and, in particular, movies do influence their audiences."Certainly, movies far more than books are teaching machines with enormous power," he said. "When (Oliver) Stone says something J.F.K., he says he's just an artist. He's a teacher, too. There's no way a movie maker can't be a teacher... I would be very sorry to teach horses--t."The novel's science fiction subplot involves Pilgrim being kidnapped by an alien race called Tralfamadorians. They take him back to their planet, where he is installed as a zoo exhibit. Eventually, they bring him a human companion, Montana Wildhack, a Hollywood starlet."You try to take care of the reader, and if the pressure gets too great, you go somewhere else," Vonnegut said of the science fiction subplot. Vonnegut said his own career is rooted in his mother's ambitions for a literary career."I have a theory that if a woman is kept from being something, if she has a son, the dream will come true through him," Vonnegut said. "My mother wanted to be a writer... I saw her doing it when I was 14, 15, and I got used to it... She also wanted to get out of Indianapolis and move to Cape Cod. So, when I became a writer, I moved to Cape Cod."After the war, Vonnegut moved to Chicago, where he was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. While in Chicago, he became a reporter for the City News Bureau."I'm very proud of it," he said of his time as a reporter. "I got to see the city as I never would have... You have to see a lot of stuff to be able to write truthfully about it."Vonnegut's fiction has earned him a reputation as a social critic, and he said the purpose of novels is "to tell people they are not alone in thinking what they think." His generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, had "great dreams for the future," he said. Not all of them panned out."What we had in mind was either Socialism or Communism," he said. "These were reasonable, or seemed to be... We thought after the second world war we would make it more just economically."That didn't happen, he said, "because people can't be trusted with wealth." At the moment, Vonnegut hopes people will rediscover the necessity of extended families."I say for human beings to do without extended families is to do without an essential mineral," he said. "When married people fight, what each one is really saying is, 'You're not enough people, and we don't have a chance.'"As for Vonnegut, he has an extended family of 17 novels in print and is content to leave it at that."I've finally retired," he said. "As an actuarial matter, American male writers have done their best work by age 55... Asking for another book from me is like asking Louis Armstrong to sing 'Mack the Knife' one more time."