Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Arthur Lee Kopit (KOP-uht) is a writer whose plays are noted for powerful social commentary and for innovations in dramatic form. He was born in New York City but grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, where his father was a jeweler. After finishing high school in 1955, he entered Harvard University on a scholarship, with a declared major in engineering. He was, however, also interested in the arts, and during his last three years as an undergraduate, he won two playwriting contests and saw seven of his works produced. The plays from this period depict Kopit’s early fascination with exploring the role of the hero in a specifically American context and with incorporating European avant-garde theatrical forms, such as the Theater of the Absurd, with which he was initially associated. Don Juan in Texas is a parody of the American Western, and Across the River and into the Jungle pokes fun at Ernest Hemingway. The theatrical styles of these works range from impressionistic drama to black comedy. In 1968, Kopit married Leslie Ann Garis, a concert pianist from Amherst, Massachusetts; they have three children.
The first play to bring Kopit international attention was Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. This play centers on a domineering woman, her overprotected son, and her dead husband’s body, which keeps falling out of a closet. It is an exuberant farce that satirizes American family life, Tennessee Williams, and the absurdists. Using macabre humor to distance the audience from the stage action, Kopit exposes the psychological dangers inherent in a society that blindly adheres to a belief in stereotyped family roles. The play won the Vernon Rice Award and the Outer Circle Award. It has been performed in London, Paris, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Mexico, the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, and (West) Berlin. A film version was released by Paramount in 1967.
In the next group of plays, Kopit presents another gallery of characters trapped in a chaotic world they can never come to understand. Chamber Music focuses on eight women in an insane asylum, each of whom assumes the identity of a celebrated woman—for example, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, and Susan B. Anthony. In The Day the Whores Came out to Play Tennis, Kopit lightly parodies Anton Chekhov’s 1904 drama...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Arthur Lee Kopit was born in New York City, New York, on May 10, 1937, the son of George Kopit, a jeweler, and Maxine (née Dubkin) Kopit. He married Leslie Ann Garis, a concert pianist and writer from Amherst, Massachusetts, on March 14, 1968; they have three children: Alex, Ben, and Kathleen.
During an “uneventful” childhood, living in a prosperous suburb in which he found himself to be the “victim of a healthy family life,” Kopit demonstrated an interest in dramatics by entertaining his friends with puppet shows. Radio was an important element in his development; he says, “It’s a much more exciting medium than TV because it involves your creative faculties.” Although he wrote for the school newspaper while attending Lawrence (Long Island) High School, Kopit showed little inclination toward a career in the arts when he was graduated in 1955, and he entered Harvard University with a scholarship to study electrical engineering. After taking some creative writing courses, however, he decided that he wanted to become a playwright, and he was graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor of arts degree in June, 1959.
Kopit’s first theatrical experiences at Harvard took place during his sophomore year; as he reports in the introduction to The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis and Other Plays, “My career was determined.” His class work with Robert Chapman and his success under the tutelage of Gaynor Bradish, a tutor in Dunster House who was in charge of its Drama Workshop, stimulated Kopit’s interest in the stage and introduced him to the fundamentals of playwriting. Over a period of three or four days during his spring vacation, the aspiring dramatist wrote The Questioning of Nick, a one-act play that won a collegewide playwriting contest the following fall; it was subsequently performed on television in New Haven, Connecticut, in June, 1959. The seven other dramas that Kopit wrote while studying at Harvard include Don Juan in Texas, written in collaboration with Wally Lawrence; On the Runway of Life, You Never Know What’s Coming Off Next; Across the River and into the Jungle; “Through a Labyrinth”; and the productions of his senior year, Aubade, Sing to Me Through Open Windows, and To Dwell in a Palace of Strangers, the first act of a projected three-act drama that was published in the Harvard Advocate in May, 1959. A revised version of Sing to Me Through Open Windows was produced Off-Broadway in New York in 1965 and in London in 1976.
During a tour of Western Europe in 1959, Kopit wrote Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad “to enter [in another] playwriting contest at Harvard,” this time in the Adams House competition. Again Kopit’s work won a prize, and the reaction when the play was mounted as a major undergraduate production was so overwhelming that, with the aid of a Ford Foundation grant, it was moved to the Agassiz Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January, 1960. Kopit had cast a young woman from Radcliffe College in one of his Harvard productions, and through his friendship with her, he was introduced to the Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad opened at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City on February 26, 1962, as part of their repertory offerings, produced by Stevens and directed by famed choreographer Jerome Robbins. The play ran for 454 performances before it closed on March 31, 1963, and it then toured for eleven weeks. On August 27, 1963, it returned to the Morosco Theatre in New York for a brief revival (forty-seven performances). Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad was the first of Kopit’s plays to be published by a major house, Hill and Wang, and it has been performed in London, Paris, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Mexico, the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, and West Berlin.
Asylum: Or, What the Gentlemen Are Up To, Not to Mention the Ladies, was scheduled to open at the Off-Broadway Theatre de Lys in March, 1963, but after five preview performances, Kopit decided to cancel the production. The dramatist reports that the bill was actually composed of two one-act plays, Chamber Music and a companion piece that he intended to expand into a three-act play...
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Arthur Lee Kopit was born in New York City on May 10, 1937, son to George and Maxine Dobin Kopit. He grew up in Lawrence, on Long Island, where his father worked as a jewelry sales manager. After graduating high school in 1955, he entered Harvard University on an engineering scholarship; but he was also interested in the arts, and after his first year he became involved in Harvard’s Dunster House Drama Workshop. He had seven of his plays produced there, directing six of them himself and winning two playwriting prizes. He graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1959.
Kopit’s earliest professional works—mostly oneacts— were parodies and tragicomic or black farces, prefiguring the play which solidified his reputation, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1960). After being staged at Harvard and a local commercial theater and later in London, Oh Dad began a New York run of 454 performances at the Phoenix Theatre on February 26, 1962. The play subsequently enjoyed a successful tour of the United States and Europe.
On the basis of Oh Dad, critics identified Kopit as a promising absurdist playwright, a judgment that, given Kopit’s great diversity, proved to be both premature and too restrictive a label. With the bow Arthur Kopit of Indians, first produced in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968, Kopit gave notice that his work defied categorization. A protest play, Indians simultaneously debunks the American myths created to vindicate both the massacre of native Americans and the Vietnam War using Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as its central metaphor.
Again, with Wings (1978), Kopit demonstrated that he was too much an innovator to be bound to a particular dramatic movement or subgenre. The work first appeared as a radio play, from research undertaken after Kopit’s father had a debilitating stroke. It was refashioned for the stage, becoming what many consider the writer’s best and most original work. It is almost a monologue, a dramatization of a stroke victim’s inner struggle to cope with the loss of coherent speech. Concurrent with his work on Wings, Kopit began teaching as a playwright in residence, first at Wesleyan and thereafter at other universities in New York and New England.
Throughout his career, Kopit has shown that he is one of the most careful and deliberate craftsmen in the American theater. He is also one of its most inventive and far-ranging playwrights. In addition to a variety of stage plays, many of which reflect an abiding interest in history and contemporary social problems, he has written librettos for musicals and diverse works for radio and television, including documentary mini-series. His grants and awards include a Vernon Rice Award (1962), Outer Circle Award (1962), American Academy Award (1971), CBS Fellowship (1976), Italia Prize (1979), and an Antionette (Tony) Perry Award (1982).