The Truman Show and Slaughterhouse-Five: Performance Art

In our increasingly senseless modern society, one of the most revisited topics in fiction is the idea that everyone performs a character on a stage, but no one holds control over his own fate in the drama. Many, in seeking to grasp for some sense of meaning in their lives, attempt to find some greater entity or design at work and ultimately, to take control. As vastly different as they are in theme and subject matter, both Peter Weir's paranoia film "The Truman Show" and Kurt Vonnegut's antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five explore this idea of puppetry. Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim feels like a performer because he never knows which part of his life he will be called upon to rehearse; Weir's Truman Burbank is an unknowing performer because one stagemaster manipulates his entire life for the benefit of voyeuristic entertainment. Neither character has much control over his life. However, while Billy chooses to remain powerless in his situation, Truman decides to leave the production and become his own dynamic character.

Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim feels like a performer because he already knows the script to his life line for line, scene for scene. Despite this knowledge, Billy chooses to go along with this script for fear of destroying the way each moment is "structured"(117). As a performer, Billy has seen all the events of his life many times, but he is "in a constant stage of stage fright ... because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next"(23). Because of the influences the Tralfamadorians have on him, Billy does not believe he can change the way his life unfolds; he makes no effort to change his fate. He merely acts out his life as it has been scripted. For instance, Billy boards a plane that he knows is going to crash because he does not want to "make a fool of himself by saying so"(154). Here too, he performs a role for the benefit of not appearing out of place, to help a predestined scene in his life transpire without incident. He faces every situation he encounters with the same nonchalant attitude. To Billy and the Tralfamadorians, "there is no why"(77). In another example, Billy stays married to Valencia, the girl "nobody in his right mind would have married"(119), because he knows that his marriage would be "at least bearable all the way"(120). Similarly, Billy acts out his allotted fate in life because he has neither the will nor the ability to change his life: "Billy didn't really like life at all"(102). He says "so it goes" to each death that he sees just as he says "so it goes" to his own destiny, his own assassination. In this sense, he has no character as Vonnegut's Edgar Derby had character when he did not acquiesce to the norm, when he chose to challenge Howard Campbell's call for the Americans to fight the Russians. Rarely in his life does Billy show this kind of motivation to act out of his own will rather than according to a script.

The only time Billy feels compelled to "become" a character occurs when he can become someone above his own existence: when the Tralfamadorians exhibit him at their zoo. Billy performs self indulgently, almost enjoying putting on a show. For the first time in his life, Billy is proud of his body because the Tralfamadorian audience believes in his perfection. They have "no way of knowing Billy's body and face [are] not beautiful"(113). Conscious that he represents the entire human species, Billy even attempts a speech on the atrocious wars humankind has waged against himself. This is the only instance that Billy is aware of his own value. In the Tralfamadorian zoo, Billy becomes a noble character, a loving mate. Ironically, it is the Tralfamadorians who teach Billy that there is no free will, providing Billy with his fatalistic outlook on life.

Similar to Billy Pilgrim, Truman Burbank also does not have control over his destiny, at least not the first thirty years of his destiny. He is unaware that he serves as the central character of a revolutionary television show, unaware that his whole life--from which friends he makes, what profession he chooses, to whom he marries--has been a performance mapped out for him. However, Truman does not stoically accept his fate as Billy Pilgrim does. Sylvia Garland's mysterious disappearance prompts in Truman a desire to explore, to visit the world outside Seahaven. "I wanna get away, see some of the world," Truman exclaims enthusiastically to his wife. Outwardly, he puts on a performance for his friends and family and pretends to be content with his mundane, unchanging life. Secretly, he tries to reassemble Sylvia's likeness from magazine cut outs and calls Fiji looking for her. Even when Truman does not know the truth of his existence, he comes off as someone not quite content with his surroundings. While he is an unknowing performer on a larger stage, in his own life Truman acts out a role to achieve some of his own purposes. In this sense, even when lacking control Truman comes off as more of a character than Billy is.

Ironically, Truman does not realize that he is actually part of a live television performance put on to entertain millions twenty-four hours a day, that during his formative years his character has been deliberately shaped and molded by a higher power. He does not know that whenever he wears a shirt or drinks a beverage he serves as a walking advertisement for a sponsor. He does not know that Kristoff, "The Truman Show's" producer, has planned out his whole life for him. Truman's character traits are largely influenced by strategically placed pointers. By having Truman's father drown at sea during Truman's childhood, Kristoff effectively induces an extreme fear of water in Truman. Everywhere, Truman runs into signs that aim to keep him on the island. As a child, Truman tells his teacher that he wants to become an explorer. His teacher's discouraging reply is thus: "You're too late. There's really nothing left to explore." At the local traveling agency, posters warn of the hazards of air travel. Coworkers thrust newspapers with the headline "The Best Place on Earth: Seahaven" in Truman's face; Truman's best friend Marion exclaims repeatedly that he's "never found a place like [Seahaven]." Obviously, Kristoff's clever designs shape a large portion of Truman's character.

However, when Truman realizes that his whole life has been staged, his earlier unrest develops into a strong desire to leave his artificial world and his suspicions become full-fledged paranoia. Like Derby in his finest moment, Truman now becomes his own true character because his fears and his emotions are his own. He no longer wanders through life feigning cheerfulness and exchanging empty formalities with neighbors and coworkers but decides to attempt in every possible way to get out of Seahaven. Kristoff, Truman's creator, questions his determination: "If his was more than just a vague ambition; if he was absolutely determined to stop the truth, there's no way we can prevent him." Ultimately, Truman proves him right.

At first glance, the two characters seem to suffer from the same predicament. Both Billy and Truman have their lives paved out for them; in a sense, both are actors on a metaphysical stage. However, here the similarities end. Billy has, for most of his life, lived under the Tralfamadorian philosophy: "All time is all time ... It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations"(Vonnegut 86). He has had the power to change his life every step of the way, but he chooses to remain powerless. In contrast, Truman Burbank has been kept in the dark for most of his life. Intrusions from the real world--the parachuting man, the man leaping out from a gift box, and Sylvia--are silently swept under the carpet. When Truman finds out that his life has been a hoax, he chooses to live life another way, to take a bow and walk out the door and off the stage of his pretend-life. Billy says, "So it goes"; but Truman waves farewell to Kristoff and his Seahaven in his famous manner: "Good afternoon, good evening, and good night"(Weir). He walks off stage and ceases to exist as a performer or a fictional character. He acts as himself, for himself now. One man content with death and the other discontent with life: perhaps Truman Burbank is modern society's answer to Billy Pilgrim.