You probably know of Kurt Vonnegut as Indianapolis’s beloved author and and writer of such novels as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. It’s less likely you know that Vonnegut penned a short play inspired by Frankenstein. We asked Marc Leeds, editor of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia and longtime correspondent of the author, to join us for a conversation about the play, “Fortitude.” Dr. Emily Beckman was the moderator for the evening, and her expertise as a professor of medical humanities at IUPUI was a perfect fit for the ideas at work in the play. Read on for five things we learned from the conversation!
1. “Fortitude” was written in 1968, the year before Slaughterhouse-Five was published.
The play, now 50 years old, was written when Vonnegut was still a struggling writer. Just a year later, Slaughterhouse-Five would become a critical and commercial success and launch Vonnegut’s notoriety. By 1991, Vonnegut hosted his own television show, Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House. “Fortitude” was one of seven stories adapted, airing just before Christmas of 1992. Watch the episode here.
2. Like Mary Shelley, Vonnegut was inspired by big questions.
How do we take care of each other? Should we prolong life? Is all progress good? These questions are central to “Fortitude.” While both Shelley and Vonnegut were interested in concepts such as love and what a creator owes to his or her creation, the stories differ in their outcomes. Victor Frankenstein flees from his creation, and Dr. Norbert Frankenstein does the extreme opposite.
3. “Fortitude” is full of references and has inspired other adaptations.
Dr. Norbert Frankenstein takes his name from Norbert Wiener, the “father” of cybernetics, and the fictional Victor Frankenstein. Tom Swift references the children’s sci-fi fiction series that praises progress in science and technology. Finally, the closing song, “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life!” is sung in Young Frankenstein, released six years after “Fortitude.”
4. Vonnegut weighed in on the “who’s the monster” debate.
In his 1999 collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Vonnegut conducts fictional interviews with historical figures. Vonnegut “hoped to get Mary Shelley’s opinions of the atomic bombs” and shares with Shelley that “many ignorant people nowadays thought ‘Frankenstein’ was the name of the monster, and not of the scientist who created him.” The fictional Shelley’s response? “That’s not so ignorant after all. There are two monsters in my story, not one. And one of them, the scientist, is indeed named Frankenstein.”
5. We have more reading to do (and films to see)!
Interested in medical humanities? Check out the writing of Lewis Thomas, Michael Sandal’s The Case Against Perfection or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Prefer a film? Check out Mike Nichols’ Wit (2001). Want to discover more from Vonnegut? Galapagos picks up on themes similar to “Fortitude.” Happy reading!
Want to hear more of the conversation? Watch the recording here.
Kudos to Marc Leeds and Emily Beckman for a wonderful conversation, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library for its support and Scarlet Lane Brewing for the horror-themed beverages. Finally, thank you to all of our readers for helping bring Vonnegut’s play to life! Want to keep up with all the programs happening as part of One State / One Story: Frankenstein? Subscribe to our monthly FrankenNews!