Arthur Kopit Essay - Critical Essays


There has been relatively little scholarly attention paid to the works of playwright Arthur Kopit, with almost nothing written about his entire canon, and most of the criticism that has been published is not very impressive. Furthermore, those critics who attempt an overview of the plays usually devote a fair amount of time to discussing the plays that he wrote as an undergraduate at Harvard. While Sherwood Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, Eugene O’Neill, and other playwrights have moved from Harvard to Broadway in the past, critical studies of their works have focused on what they wrote as professional playwrights. There are three related reasons that have been used to justify a different approach to Kopit. First, the Harvard plays represent a goodly portion of the author’s output; second, the majority of his later plays have been short and relatively insignificant; and third, as a result of these first two points combined with the reputation established by his major plays, several of the Harvard pieces have been published and are thus easily accessible. Still, his major works are impressive and deserving of critical examination.

Despite the continued popularity among college students of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, Kopit’s reputation no longer rests solely on this work. With Indians and Wings, he proved his early promise; with his later work, such as Discovery of America and Y2K, his technical skills (in several genres) have served his personal voice to present strong dramatic statements on significant topics. He continues to have fun in the theater, too, experimenting to see whether he can stretch the medium’s dimensions, as was the case with Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, a collection of three ten-minute plays in serial form fashioned after the motion picture serials of the 1910’s through the 1940’s. After David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee, Kopit belongs among the major American playwrights of the late twentieth century.

Sing to Me Through Open Windows

The best of Kopit’s early plays is Sing to Me Through Open Windows. Clearly not meant to be realistic (the set is a bare stage hung with black curtains), the drama is in the tradition of Theater of the Absurd and shows the influence of Samuel Beckett in its setting, language, pauses, minimal plot, and mysterious characters. In spite of Kopit’s statement that Beckett “has had no influence on me as far as I know,” critics have pointed out structural and linguistic resemblances between this play and Beckett’s Fin de partie: Suivi de Acte sans paroles (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame, 1958).

The protagonist of the play is a boy, Andrew Linden, who visits the home of a magician, Ottoman Jud, and his helper, Loveless the Clown, in the middle of a dark forest. Ottoman and the Clown have entertained Andrew on the first day of spring every year for five years. This year, however, Ottoman’s illusions fail, and Andrew is exposed to the games that Ottoman and the Clown play, mysterious games that also prove unsuccessful. This year, too, Andrew announces that he wants to stay with Ottoman, but the announcement is made in the third person, answering a “Distant Voice of Ottoman,” as though the event is being recalled even while the present action continues: “And although I say them, some time later I will ask myself, Now what was it again that you said to him . . . back there? . . . And the boy said yes, he wanted to stay there. . . . I love you, Mr. Jud.” The play ends with Ottoman apparently dead and Andrew gone.

The format of the work combines with its symbolism to depict a transitional moment in life. Memory and the present intermix as Andrew must leave the unworried, love-filled, exciting, circuslike atmosphere of his childhood and move into manhood. Ottoman, a symbolic father figure, is failing, certainly growing old and perhaps even dying (another transition), and while he can put his arm around the boy’s shoulder to encourage him, the youngster must continue his journey through life alone. Symbolically, the time of year during which the action takes place represents hope, birth, and renewal, but it is cold, and snow is falling as the play ends, negating the positive aspects of spring and suggesting the fear that both old man and young man feel as they approach the unknown. Kopit has said that Sing to Me Through Open Windows is “about the necessity of certain things dying to enable certain things to live. It deals with memory and time. . . .”

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad caught theatergoing audiences in the United States by surprise, and a summary of the action provides a clue as to why this happened. The three-scene production, subtitled A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition, is set in a Caribbean island hotel where Madame Rosepettle, her son Jonathan, two large Venus flytraps, and a cat-eating, talking piranha fish named Rosalinda (after Rosepettle’s husband’s former secretary) are in transit. Also traveling with the family is the stuffed body of Rosepettle’s husband, which is kept in a coffin when traveling and hangs from a hook in Rosepettle’s bedroom closet the rest of the time: “He’s my favorite trophy. I take him with me wherever I go,” she chortles. In scene 1, Rosepettle harangues the bellboys and dominates her son. Scene 2, set two weeks later, brings Jonathan together with a young governess, Rosalie, who tries to seduce him, but who is run off by his mother. One week later, in scene 3, Rosepettle is courted by elderly Commodore Roseabove, but her story of how she brought about her husband’s death (a description that paints men as bestial and women as virginal) unnerves him. She proclaims that her goal in life is to protect her son (he was delivered after a twelve-month term, so she obviously began her campaign early): “My son shall have only Light!” Later, while Rosepettle is out on her habitual round, searching for couples making love on the beach so she can kick sand in their faces, Rosalie returns to try to persuade Jonathan to run off with her, but she is so self-centered and insensitive that her sexual desire arouses only terror in Jonathan. When his father’s corpse falls on them, Rosalie commands, “Forget about your father. Drop your pants on top of him, then you won’t see his face.” The play concludes when Rosepettle returns to find that Jonathan has killed the girl by smothering her.

There are many Freudian and Oedipal overtones to Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, with its theme of a domineering mother and Milquetoast son. The theme is not a new one, having been dealt with in Sidney Howard’s The Silver Cord (pr. 1926, prb. 1927) and later in Harold Pinter’s A Night Out (pr. 1960) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), yet Kopit’s embroidering of the theme with man-eating plants (symbolic of the emasculating wife/mother), maniacal cuckoo clocks, uncontrollable tape recorders (as in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, pr., pb. 1949), and self-propelled chairs, spiced with a loved one’s body (as in Joe Orton’s Loot, pr. 1965), results in a unique creation.

Some critics claim that Kopit is metaphorically portraying the neurosis brought about by the tensions of the nuclear age. This reading is certainly reinforced by the dramatist’s use of absurdist techniques, though this interpretation is not completely convincing. The play is not really an absurdist play, in spite of Kopit’s use of absurdist techniques—a careful examination of Rosepettle’s dialogue, for example, reveals the psychological realism that underlies the bizarre surface of the action. There are flashes of brilliance in the grotesque humor, but they are not sustained throughout the play. Some critics called the work a satire that mimics avant-garde conventions, while others dismissed it as an unsuccessful example of the Theater of the Absurd. In any case, the play conclusively established Kopit’s theatrical talent.


After a series of lesser works, Kopit surprised audiences again with Indians, his second major play. Indians fuses the principal themes and techniques of Kopit’s previous works. The conception of the play dates to March, 1966, when Kopit read a statement made by General William Westmoreland, the...

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