The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In the opening scene of Indians, a buffalo skull, a bloodstained Indian shirt, and an old rifle serve to provide historical atmosphere as Buffalo Bill Cody enters, riding an artificial stallion. At once, the audience learns that it is seeing a rendition of Buffalo Bill’s famous “Wild West Show.” Indians, too, are present; Cody claims to them, to the audience, and to himself that “I believe I . . . am a . . . hero . . . A GODDAM HERO!”

The next scene is set outdoors in the winter, somewhere in the West. Sitting Bull and other chieftains greet Buffalo Bill in the company of three United States senators, emissaries of and substitutes for the president, who has not come to the Indian council to discuss shared problems, even though Cody promised to bring him. Cody calls the Native Americans his brothers, but his use of the word is shallow and hypocritical. In the following scene, Cody continues to discuss the Native Americans’ plight with them, but the audience has seen him callously destroying the livelihood of the Native Americans, shooting one hundred buffalo. Ned Buntline, the reporter who first made Buffalo Bill a popular American hero, is oblivious to the import of this destruction. The Native Americans are depicted as victims and the white people as callous and unworthy adversaries and victors.

Scene 4, the shortest in the play, shows both the senators and Sitting Bull’s Lakota community watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Scene 5 is this show itself, something of a play-within-the-play: Geronimo, by reputation the fiercest fighter against the coming of the white settlers, parades around the stage pitifully, a pale imitation of his former self, while boasting vainly about past atrocities against white people.

The next scene is the structural center of the play. Here, the three senators interview John Grass, a Native American spokesman who has some knowledge of the ways and thinking of the white people. Grass wants to know what happened to the money the federal government had used to purchase the Black Hills from the Native Americans. Senator Dawes’s reply is that “the Great Father is worried that you’ve not been educated enough to spend it wisely. When he feels you have, you will receive every last penny of it. Plus interest.” The senator explains that the money is in a “trust.” Grass also lists other verbal promises that the whites have not kept, among them a promise to deliver a steamboat to the plains. The meeting ends with the native community reminding Cody that he has not brought the Great White Father himself, the president, to talk to them as he promised.

In the second half of the play the action shifts first to the White House and then back to the Old West. In scene 7, the longest one, Buffalo Bill, Buntline, and Wild Bill Hickok all play themselves in a performance wherein an indigenous...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Some critics have too quickly categorized Indians as an absurdist drama. Arthur Kopit’s play does meet some of the requirements of the Theater of the Absurd. His perspective of the human condition probably meets this criterion; the form of the play is not very realistic; its events do not unfold in a direct, connected fashion; and finally, and most important, the characters seemingly exist in a meaningless universe.

Kopit’s method, however, does not ultimately qualify the play as absurdist. The reality of what white individuals did to the buffalo and to the Native Americans was absurd, as Bill Cody comes to realize; the inability of the two races to communicate is absurd; for Cody to promise to bring the president to the Native Americans is absurd; and for the indigenous communities to demand a steamboat for the plains and mountains is absurd. These things show that life is absurd, but they do not make history into absurdist drama.

Similarly, the play’s unusual form and the nonchronological order in which events are given do not make the play absurdist. While the bulk of the play is based on historical facts, in many places Kopit takes dramatic license by having characters who never actually met each other talk to and interact with each other; episodes are not rendered sequentially; and conversations can be somewhat bizarre and existential. These devices make the play different and unusual, but there is an overall order to the play.

Of Indians’ other dramatic devices, the most prominent is that of the play-within-the-play. The various scenes of the Wild West Show are used to emphasize what Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, and others were reduced to: The Old West and the Native Americans were dead as people and as a way of life, long before these figures from history actually died. The playwright conveys the same point with Ned Buntline’s play, which is presented by Buffalo Bill and his friends at the White House. The audience is thus three times removed from reality (once in Buntline’s play, once in Kopit’s, and once in their own chairs) and should thereby have enough distance to have a healthy perspective.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a protracted military conflict between North and South Vietnam, lasting from 1957...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Kopit uses a non-linear plot structure to build dramatic tension in this play which is largely based on...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

In his play, Kopit explores the genocide of the American Indians at the hands of the U.S. government. Research another instance of genocide...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Indians was loosely adapted into the major motion picture, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The End of the World (1984), by Arthur Kopit, is a semi-fictional dramatization of the author’s struggle to write about nuclear...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive, “The Theater: ‘Indians’ in Washington,” in New York Times, May 27, 1969, p. 43....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Gross, Karl. “The Larger Perspective: Author Kopit’s Indians and the Vietnam War.” In Modern War on Stage and Screen. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1997.

Jenkins, Linda Walsh. “A Gynocratic Feminist Perspective in the Case of Kopit’s Indians.” In Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

Jiji, Vera M. “Indians: A Mosaic of Memories and Methodologies.” Players 47 (Summer, 1972): 230-236.

Jones, John B. “Impersonation and Authenticity: The...

(The entire section is 135 words.)