Benedict Cumberbatch & Ian McKellen Read Epic Letters Written by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Von­negut is one of those writ­ers whose wit, human­ism and lack of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty leave you han­ker­ing for more.

For­tu­nate­ly, the pro­lif­ic nov­el­ist was an equal­ly pro­lif­ic let­ter writer.

His pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence includes a descrip­tion of the fire­bomb­ing of Dres­den penned upon his release from the Slaugh­ter­house Five POW camp, an admis­sion to daugh­ter Nanette that most parental mis­sives “con­tain a par­en­t’s own lost dreams dis­guised as good advice,” and some unvar­nished exchanges with many of famil­iar lit­er­ary names. (“I am cuter than you are,” he taunt­ed Cape Cod neigh­bor Nor­man Mail­er.)

No won­der these let­ters are cat­nip to per­form­ers with the pedi­gree to rec­og­nize good writ­ing when they see it.

Hav­ing inter­pret­ed Shake­speare, Ibsen, and Ionesco, book lover Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch obvi­ous­ly rel­ish­es the straight­for­ward ire of Vonnegut’s 1973 response to a North Dako­ta school board chair­man who ordered a school jan­i­tor to burn all copies of Slaugh­ter­house-Five assigned by Bruce Sev­ery, a recent­ly hired, young Eng­lish teacher.

In addi­tion to Slaugh­ter­house-Five, the board also con­signed two oth­er vol­umes on the syl­labus — James Dick­ey’s Deliv­er­ance and an anthol­o­gy con­tain­ing short sto­ries by Faulkn­er, Hem­ing­way and Stein­beck — to the fire.

Revis­it­ing the event, the Bis­mar­ck Tri­bune reports that “the objec­tion to (Slaugh­ter­house-Five) had to do with pro­fan­i­ty, (Deliv­er­ance) with some homo­sex­u­al mate­r­i­al and the (anthol­o­gy) because the first two ren­dered all of Severy’s choic­es sus­pect.”

A decade lat­er, Von­negut also revis­it­ed the school board’s “insult­ing” objec­tions in the pages of  the New York Times:

Even by the stan­dards of Queen Vic­to­ria, the only offen­sive line in the entire nov­el is this: ”Get out of the road, you dumb m(———–).” This is spo­ken by an Amer­i­can anti­tank gun­ner to an unarmed Amer­i­can chap­lain’s assis­tant dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge in Europe in Decem­ber 1944, the largest sin­gle defeat of Amer­i­can arms (the Con­fed­er­a­cy exclud­ed) in his­to­ry. The chap­lain’s assis­tant had attract­ed ene­my fire.

Word is Von­negut’s let­ter nev­er received the cour­tesy of a reply.

One won­ders if the recip­i­ent burned it, too.

If that 50 year old let­ter feels ger­mane, check out Vonnegut’s 1988 let­ter to peo­ple liv­ing 100 years in the future, a lit­tle more than 50 years from where we are now.

In many ways, its com­mon­sense advice sur­pass­es the ever­green words of those it namechecks — Shakespeare’s Polo­nius, St. John the Divine, and the Big Book of Alco­holics Anony­mous. The threat of envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse it seeks to stave off has become even more dire in the ensu­ing years.

Vonnegut’s advice (list­ed below) clear­ly res­onates with Cum­ber­batch, a veg­an who lever­aged his celebri­ty to bring atten­tion to the cli­mate cri­sis when he par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Extinc­tion Rebel­lion Protests in Lon­don.

1. Reduce and sta­bi­lize your pop­u­la­tion.

2. Stop poi­son­ing the air, the water, and the top­soil.

3. Stop prepar­ing for war and start deal­ing with your real prob­lems.

4. Teach your kids, and your­selves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhab­it a small plan­et with­out help­ing to kill it.

5. Stop think­ing sci­ence can fix any­thing if you give it a tril­lion dol­lars.

6. Stop think­ing your grand­chil­dren will be OK no mat­ter how waste­ful or destruc­tive you may be, since they can go to a nice new plan­et on a space­ship. That is real­ly mean, and stu­pid.

7. And so on. Or else.

Von­negut, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, nev­er lost his touch with young read­ers. Who bet­ter to recite his 2006 let­ter to his fans in New York City’s Xavier High School’s stu­dent body than the ever youth­ful, ever curi­ous actor and activist, Sir Ian McK­ellen?

Cum­ber­batch is a won­der­ful read­er, but he’d require a bit more sea­son­ing to pull these lines off with­out the aid of major pros­thet­ics:

You sure know how to cheer up a real­ly old geezer (84) in his sun­set years. I don’t make pub­lic appear­ances any more because I now resem­ble noth­ing so much as an igua­na. 

Now if only these gents would attempt a Hoosier accent…

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ian McK­ellen Recites Shakespeare’s Son­net 20, Backed by Garage Rock Band, the Flesh­tones, on Andy Warhol’s MTV Vari­ety Show (1987)

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Nick Cave’s Beau­ti­ful Let­ter About Grief

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Mas­ter Class on Macbeth’s Final Mono­logue

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads “the Best Cov­er Let­ter Ever Writ­ten”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Its cur­rent issue cel­e­brates Kurt Vonnegut’s cen­ten­ni­al. Her most recent books are Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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