Critical Context

Indians was first produced in the summer of 1968, the year of the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had recently been shot, the country had just experienced explosive racial tension in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War was in one of its bloodiest periods. Because of these social and political realities, Arthur Kopit took the play to London for its world premiere. Although early reviewers were not unanimous in their praise, it seems clear that Indians will survive (it is being reprinted in anthologies) not because of its implicit criticism of the Vietnam War but because it is so effective at raising questions about American identity and self-image. The play transcends its immediate political context. It is a haunting reminder that the United States, despite its many accomplishments, has faults at its core that have not yet been fully confronted in the national conscience. Whether American involvement in Vietnam was just or unjust is not now at issue. More important, and far more central to Indians, is the problem of American identity. The play succeeds because it pricks the collective conscience—and perhaps the collective guilt—about its subject matter.

Of other plays written by Kopit, Indians most closely resembles End of the World (pr., pb. 1984). The latter looks to the United States’ future rather than its past; in this future, the playwright finds certain nuclear destruction. The nuclear arms race and the ineffectual treaties it occasions are shown to be as absurd as the American conquest of the West; as in Indians, there is a play-within-a-play; life is depicted as absurd and uncontrollable; and the main character, a private investigator-playwright, is much akin to Buffalo Bill. Other Kopit plays include Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition (pr., pb. 1960), Wings (pr., pb. 1978), End of the World with Symposium to Follow (pr., pb. 1984), Success (pr. 1991, pb. 1992), Discovery of America (pr. 1992), and Y2K (pr., pb. 1999; later retitled BecauseHeCan).