On Arthur Kopit

KOPIT

Tribute today to the late playwright Arthur Kopit (b. 1937-2021)

I only know the plays below, but it seems to me he was one of our most important  dramatists, not far behind Shepard or Albee. He wasn’t real prolific, but his subjects were all carefully chosen, and the most important ones possible, i.e. he didnn’t waste his time (or ours) on anything trivial. These are the ones I know:

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Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1962) This is one of the first American absurdist, early off-off-Broadway plays. Sort of an American, post-Freudian Oedipus story. The father conveniently dead (literally stored in the closet), the mother—a wonderfully written LARGE character, who smothers the adult son to the point where he is a sort of invalid or prisoner. Most of the play has a light, satirical tone, but the end is quite shocking—though earned—indeed, it’s the only correct finish for the play. The son is interested in a girl he has seen out the window…they meet, flirt, etc. When she tries to move in on him sexually, he kills her. The symbolism of the mother’s pet Venus flytraps and piranhas becomes apparent. This play definitely feels of a piece of the same culture that produced Psycho and Dr. Strangelove both.

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It was made into a terrible movie in 1967. Rosalind Russell and Robert Morse are both perfectly cast, but the film is marred above all by the terrible (but deliciously weird) trope of having the dead father be a character, chiming in comments on the play’s events like a chorus. It is played by Jonathan Winters…sort of. He does it in the form of voice-overs, accompanied by still photographs of him making funny faces. The photos are in little circles placed at the edge of the frame where the rest of the play’s action is taking place. I rarely use this phrase, but in this case, I will: “What were they smoking?” This is a play the belongs on the stage, anyway. To even turn it into a movie was a dumb idea….all I can think is that it was inspired by the vogue for weird and experimental material that lasted for a few years.

Stacey Keach as Buffalo Bill in the original production of "Indians"
Stacey Keach as Buffalo Bill in the original production of “Indians”

Indians (1969) In certain respects this might be my favorite American play! The right subject matter, the right formal approach, the right tone. A meditation on the genocide of the Native Americans told using the techniques of nineteenth century theatre and starring Buffalo Bill Cody as a stand-in for US. As such he is not the evil, bloodthirsty imperialist that would have tempted a shallower playwright (for that Kopit could have chosen General Phil “The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian” Sheridan). Instead, Bill cheerfully does what he loves to do, hang the consequences. And then finds himself sad and a little confused when confronted with those consequences. It’s a story about the superficiality of the American project, about a nation of thoughtless blunderers fixated on their own pleasure at the expense of others. (A metaphor which had resonance in an age when millions of television besotted Americans callously allowed their government to wreak untold destruction in Vietnam). This play just does it for me. My only qualm (a typical one for me) is that the VOICE is a bit too contemporary for my taste…a bit too mid twentieth century. Kopit is competent with words, gets a little into 19th century style, but I think much greater heights of poetry are called for given the importance of the topic (and the time and place in which it is set). Otherwise, it comes close to the bull’s eye!

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Robert Altman’s 1976 film version feels oddly tone deaf. It’s neither done in the usual Altman overlapping-realism style…but oddly neither does it have the (ironical) show biz flash that would be right for Buffalo Bill. Instead, Altman allows Paul Newman to mar the film (as the latter had also marred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain) with excessive, self-indulgent brooding. Brooding’s alright for a Tennessee Williams character. And no doubt Buffalo Bill is blue –and confused — about the fate of the Indians. But it is a question of degree. Only a deep character broods. Bill Cody was a huckster…should have been played that way. Then his moments of questioning and sorrow would have had some force.

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Wings (1978)

A highly experimental attempt to communicate the subjective experience of a stroke victim onstage. The style reminds me a lot of Beckett. Interesting, too, that Shepard’s experiments with Joe Chaikin were around this time. The original production starred Constance Cummings, well known to fans of early thirties cinema. (She had starred in Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy and Frank Capra’s American Madness.

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Nine (1982). Kopit wrote the book for this musical based on Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is course recently made into an all-star movie. I confess I’ve never been tempted to check it out, but I suppose I eventually will.

The End of the World, With Symposium to Follow (1987)

Tremendous. An incredibly important play, incredibly well executed. I don’t know of a single other American play that deals with this subject—nuclear annihilation—and it’s the most important issue of our time. It’s full of absurdism…feels like Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut in some ways. A playwright is commissioned to investigate America’s nuclear policy. Kopit did real interviews, but then he gave it a sort of detective story flavor. They only thing he uncovers is what we already knew: we are living a nightmare, and humanity seems to have some sort of sick death-wish.

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