Essays and Criticism
Kopit’s Characterization of Buffalo Bill
Indians, by Arthur Kopit, is a difficult play to absorb because the message about the genocide of American Indians at the hands of the U.S. government is frank and unavoidably accurate. Buffalo Bill was a unique figure in this conflict historically because he had a foot in both camps. Advancements in civil rights since the 1960s have reduced the shock of Kopit’s message, which was also intended to comment on the U.S. role in Vietnam. Critic Lewis Funke quotes Kopit as explaining his inspiration for Indians: “I was reading a newspaper in which General Westmoreland expressed regret for the accidental killing and wounding of innocent people in Vietnam. These, he said, were the inevitable consequence of war.” This sentiment is repeated in the last scene of Indians when Colonel Forsyth congratulates himself on his so-called victory against Sitting Bull and his tribe.
One can always find someone who’ll call an overwhelming victory a massacre. . . . Of course innocent people have been killed. In war they always are. . . . In the long run I believe what happened here at this reservation yesterday will be justified.
The fact is Colonel Forsyth’s hope for justification never came. Buffalo Bill pursues justification even as he tries to help the American Indians survive, but to no avail. Throughout Indians, Buffalo Bill wants to be understood and forgiven; therefore, he seeks justification as a means toward understanding. The horror of what has happened to the American Indians at the hands of white people is too painful for a single person to contain. Buffalo Bill seems to be the only white person at the time who is taking in the whole of this experience, and his conscience is tearing him apart as a result.
The title of Kopit’s play is deceiving because the focus is actually Buffalo Bill and not the Indians. The Indians, some named and many nameless, come and go throughout Buffalo Bill’s story, already ghosts of their true selves. Even John Grass and Sitting Bull, who are the most animated of the Indians, seem to have seen their fates and know that they are going through the motions in a history that has long since become inevitable. It is this inevitability that Buffalo Bill cannot face because it means he has lost control—or never had any control to begin with. It means that his good intentions were not good enough.
Indians is not about what happened in the United States in the late nineteenth century, but why it happened. Indians is based on historical figures and events, so the audience already knows the basic plot. Kopit, an avant-guard, absurdist playwright, has elected to use a non-linear structure, weaving together several episodes in time without conventional regard to chronology. The play is framed by Buffalo Bill’s public face, his Wild West Show. It is grotesque and opaque, repulsive in its unreality. The Wild West Show also appears near the middle of the play, both before and after the central three scenes which feature John Grass’s testimony at the Senate congressional hearing and Buntline’s play at the White House. These two Wild West Show exhibitions feature American Indians: Geronimo as a caged animal, Chief Joseph blandly reciting his surrender speech, and an imitation of the American Indians’ sacred Sun Dance. In the scenes of the Wild West Show, beneath the bravado, one can see Buffalo Bill’s nervousness. His nervousness stems from his guilt over the suffering of the American Indians, but Buffalo Bill also worries about his identity. He...
(The entire section is 1471 words.)