Life During Wartime

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: A. Robert Johnson/Courtesy of New York Philomusica

In 1993, New York Philomusica commissioned Kurt Vonnegut to write a new libretto for L’Histoire du Soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s theatrical work about a violin-playing grunt’s deal with the devil. Vonnegut—the novelist was, as his readers know, a World War II prisoner of war—replaced the narration, by C. F. Ramuz, with a new text about Eddie Slovik, who in 1945 became the last American soldier to be shot for desertion. A legal fight—after a change in copyright law, the Stravinsky estate tried unsuccessfully to claim control over the new version—has kept the piece off stages for almost a decade, but it’ll be back on March 30.

Tell me how you ended up with this project.
Maybe 30 years ago, a small orchestra asked me if I would be the narrator for a concert, so I said, “Sure. Send me the libretto.” The story is about a soldier carrying a violin—you know, soldiers get rained on, and a violin wouldn’t have a chance, and so I thought it was just preposterous, and was somewhat troubled that this thing was premiered in 1918, during the most horrible war for soldiers in history. So I said no, thanks. Many years later I was at a party at George Plimpton’s. And Bob Johnson [the orchestra’s artistic director] was there, and I mentioned what a piece of crap I thought the narration was for L’Histoire du Soldat. So Plimpton said, “Oh, yeah? Why don’t you write a good one?”

Stravinsky certainly was not known for his graceful marriage of text and music.
The music itself had a nasty edge—sort of a Kurt Weill sound, which was quite appropriate for 1918. I don’t think he gave a damn about the text, and the war was unthinkable, it was just so awful. The folk legend came into being maybe 100 years before. A soldier was just another guy—there wasn’t a huge war going on, modern war hadn’t begun yet. In 1918, to be a soldier was really something.

So you changed the story completely.
I lucked out when I thought [of] Private Slovik. He was the only person to be executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy since the Civil War. Ike signed his death certificate. They stood him up in front of his comrades, and they shot him.

In the libretto, you quote an Army manual’s execution instructions. Is that real?
Yeah, oh yeah. They talk about a restraining board, in case the guy can’t stand up.

You’ve written so often from an autobiographical point of view. Did you consider doing that here?
No, that would make me an asshole. I’d written enough about myself.

But it must have been visceral to write.
Yes, it was. It was a unique event in American history, and The Execution of Private Slovik, the book, was out of print—one of the singers says “out of print.” Slovik deserves to be kept alive. If his name had been McCoy or Johnson, I don’t think he would have been shot.

When your version premiered in 1993, the country wasn’t at war. Is there anything you would change now?
I don’t think I have that kind of power. What holds me down is futility. The last book to be influential was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And you know what Lincoln said to [Harriet Beecher Stowe]: “Are you the lady who caused this war?”

Some critics really disliked what you did. The Times critic wrote, “It was difficult not to imagine the ghosts of Stravinsky and Ramuz … glowering at the proceedings.”
Well, it was a desecration. It was a sacred text, and I dared to fool with it. And some people just find that unbearable. That critic—I spoiled his evening.

Have you worked on other musical projects?
I wrote a secular requiem, where [I say] there’s nothing to fear in the afterlife. I just had everybody sleep—’cause I like sleep. Seymour Barab, a cellist and composer, set it to music, and we made a recording. And the director of the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, Richard Auldon Clark, is turning a play of mine, Happy Birthday Wanda June, into an opera.

By the way, I hear that you don’t have a copy of the libretto anymore—that you lost yours in a fire. Do you want mine?
Well … I got too much crap now.

L’Histoire du Soldat
Libretto by Kurt Vonnegut. New York Philomusica. Broadway Presbyterian Church. March 30.

Life During Wartime