People ask me in these crazy times if I, like so many others, am writing a play that might influence the course of American history in the coming years, a la "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I have replied that no work of art can do that nowadays. It would be nice if one could, but forget it.
I wrote my play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" in the 1960s, when another unpopular war, now generally acknowledged as having been cruelly nonsensical, in Vietnam, was going on. But the timing was purely coincidental. My inspiration wasn't the My Lai massacre or the bombing of Cambodia or whatever, but my having just read about the homecoming of the hero Odysseus after an absence of many years, as described by Homer so humorlessly in his "Odyssey" nearly 3,000 years ago. Not exactly news of the day.
My wife and I were studying Homer, not as peaceniks, which indeed we were, but as leaders of a Great Books program on Cape Cod. The "Odyssey" was simply what the Great Books syllabus said we were supposed to discuss next.
When my play was first produced in 1970, in what was then the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) in Greenwich Village, where Bertold Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" had played to full houses for years and years, the Vietnam War was still going on and making more people than ever die -- 20 Vietnamese for every American, for absolutely nothing. But I did not imagine for as much as a nanosecond that my burlesquing of blustery, blowhard tellers of war stories like Odysseus, or to some extent like Ernest Hemingway, would have the slightest effect on history. (Hemingway, incidentally, was never a soldier, and the only human being he ever shot, the toughest thing a real soldier has to do, was himself.)
All I wanted then, and all I want now, whenever my play is revived, is that actors and a small audience, about 200 people back in the old Theatre de Lys, have a good time for 90 minutes or so.
Wherever I teach creative writing -- and I have done it, God help me, at Smith and Harvard, the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and at City College in New York City -- I have never mentioned the possibility of changing the world for the better by means of a work of art. What I have tried to teach instead is sociability: how to be a good date on a blind date; how to show a total stranger a good time; or, if you like, how to run a nice restaurant or whorehouse. The same would have been my main lesson had I been teaching jazz.
As for hoping to improve people's morals, if not making history, by means of art: The playwright typically finds himself or herself "preaching to the choir," to the converted, so to speak. An audience, after all, has not been dragooned into a theater but has come there with the expectation that their morals will be confirmed, that a play will say to them, in effect, "You are not alone."
What "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" confirms, I hope, is that contrary to Homer's Odysseus, a war hero or hunter, a killer, is not the most glorious sort of person imaginable. Nor is it right, as Homer and Greeks of his time evidently believed, for a man to regard a woman, save for a witch or a siren, as an obvious inferior, as his God-given servant and property.
But get a load of this: The idea that women should be treated as the equals of men is so new, still seems so radical, is still so divisive, not only in other parts of the world but even in some parts of our own country, that we were a so-called beacon of liberty for almost 150 years before our women were allowed to vote or hold public office. That finally happened only three years before I was born.
Has "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," written 35 years ago now, become dated? It surely has in this way: One of the leading characters is a vacuum cleaner salesman. There really used to be such people, and they made good money too. Selling Electroluxes was the way my big brother Bernie put himself through MIT, all the way to a PhD. And then he went on to discover that silver iodide particles can make it snow or rain sometimes.
`Happy Birthday, Wanda June'
Where: Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 4
Contact: (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15