Arthur Kopit wrote Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad while he was studying European theater on a postgraduate travel scholarship earned at Harvard. His aim was to enter the work in a school playwriting contest, never anticipating that it would bring him worldwide acclaim at the age of twenty-three. As its subtitle indicated, he wrote the play as a parody— ‘‘a pseudo-classical tragifarce in a bastard French tradition‘‘—in the new, avant garde French theater of Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett. It was this subgenre of the theater that, in 1961, Martin Esslin labeled the Theatre of the Absurd.
Kopit’s work won both the contest and an undergraduate production at Harvard. The play created such a stir that it was moved into a Cambridge, Massachusetts, commercial house, the Agassiz Theater, where it garnered very positive reviews. The favorable notices attracted the attention of the Phoenix Theatre in New York, a major Off-Broadway house that staged alternative theater works. The play opened there on February 26, 1962, running for 454 performances, an extraordinary achievement for an unknown playwright with no previous New York production credits. The work also won both the Vernon Rice and the Outer Circle Awards.
The offbeat, dysfunctional characters—especially Madame Rosepettle and her son, Jonathan— caused some critics to complain about a lack of serious purpose in the play as well as its derivative elements, but the farcical and fanciful treatment of an overly-protective, domineering mother and her neurotic son gave New York and European audiences little pause. Most commentators could not argue with success and found the play a engaging spoof of everything from Tennessee Williams’s Rose Tattoo to Freudian psychology.
Although Kopit, like Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), was initially tagged an absurdist, his subsequent work showed him to be capable of a wide variety of theatrical styles. A careful craftsman, over his career he has experimented widely with both form and content, establishing himself as one of the most diverse and innovative playwrights that America has produced. Oh Dad remains a psychedelic romp, a popular chestnut for small theaters and repertory groups both at home and abroad. It can be argued that the play’s characters lack psychological complexity but most viewers agree that they are unforgettable.
Scene I Summary
Oh Dad opens in a luxurious hotel suite in the Caribbean Port Royale hotel. A squad of bellboys scurry in, bearing the exotic belongings of Madame Rosepettle and her son, Jonathan. Two bring in a coffin and, confused by Madame Rosepettle’s directions, pull the handles off and dump the coffin on the floor.
Madame Rosepettle begins issuing orders with a wilting, supercilious sneer. She also begins an endless litany of complaints with both the hotel’s personnel and the accommodations. She directs two bellboys to put the coffin in the master bedroom, next to the bed, while other bellboys continue carting in more things, including two black-draped Venus flytraps, a dictaphone, and mourning drapes. When the Head Bellboy asks where to put the dictaphone, she scoffingly remarks that any nincompoop would know where.
Bristling at the Madame’s contempt, the Head Bellboy at first tries to be tactful, but as she grows more insulting, he demands her respect. Madame Rosepettle, however, quickly reduces him to compliant jelly. She is, she reminds him, a very rich Tourist, greatly outranking him. She sends him off to hang the drapes on the windows in the master bedroom, then tells Jonathan to remind her to have him fired. Jonathan, variously called Edward, Albert, and Robinson—names belonging to his deceased father—dutifully begins taking notes on a pad.
More bellboys enter with chests containing Jonathan’s stamp and coin...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
Scene II Summary
It is two weeks later. In the suite, Jonathan is talking with Rosalie, two years his senior but dressed ‘‘in a sweet girlish pink.’’ She asks why he can not go out. He haltingly explains that he has duties, that he must stay to feed the Venus flytraps. She presses him further, and he explains that he has at least gone out to the balcony and watched her, which encourages her to make him tell her more. She learns that he has watched her through a homemade telescope, fashioned from a blowgun and some lenses used to examine his stamps. Rosalie tries to look through the telescope but sees nothing on the horizon, prompting Jonathan to respond that the failure to see anything is what his mother calls ‘‘a Lesson in Life.’’
When Jonathan admits to spying on Rosalie and the children after whom she looks, the girl explains that she is their baby sitter. She tries to entice Jonathan to visit her after the children are asleep, but she only sets him to trembling and stuttering incoherently. He explains that he has too much to do inside. He admits that Madame Rosepettle locks him in, but he says that it is only for his own good.
When a cuckoo clock sounds, Jonathan tries to usher Rosalie out. He begins to panic when it sounds again and urges Rosalie to leave before it is too late. Delaying, she makes him promise to call. Terrified, Jonathan pleads with her to go, then suddenly collapses, confessing that he loves her. The cuckoo clock goes...
(The entire section is 434 words.)
Scene III Summary
It is night, a week later. Jonathan, alone, sits in a chair near Rosalinda, the fish. Exotic carnival sounds invade the room, and Jonathan jumps up to shut the French windows but the panes come alive and sway with the music before crashing on the floor. Jonathan moves to the balcony, past the two growing Venus flytraps that begin to growl and lunge at him.
Madam Rosepettle and Commodore Roseabove waltz into the room under a follow spot. They dance around the table, stopping momentarily as he romantically pleads for her hand and she, coyly at first, resists. The intoxicating interlude is fleeting, for Madame Rosepettle takes charge and makes a mockery of the Commodore’s suite. She spins him around, makes him dizzy, then violently kisses him, making him gasp for air. He tries to sit down at the table, but his chair suddenly pulls out from under him.
Finally seated, he attempts love overtures again. He pours champagne, but when the pair clink their glasses in a toast, the glasses break. Madame Rosepettle snaps her fingers, and a waiter appears from the shadows with another table, complete with tablecloth, candles, glasses, and a bucket with champagne.
Madame Rosepettle admits that the Commodore’s money is attractive, but she complains that he is ‘‘a bit too bulky’’ to make him worth her while. Then she begins a long, meandering confessional, explaining her dark views on life and love. She tells Roseabove that she had killed her husband and now carts him about like a trophy. He grows apprehensive and wants to leave, but she insists that he remain to listen to her ‘‘bedtime story.’’ She divulges that she only slept with her husband once, a union that produced Jonathan. She also reveals that she spied on her husband, trying to understand him, more like a specimen than a human. She also admits that she hid Jonathan from him. She almost gleefully recounts, too, that Mr. Rosepettle had died and lain next to his...
(The entire section is 800 words.)