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

by Arthur Kopit

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Historical Context

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The 1960s was a decade of tremendous turmoil and change in the United States. It was a Cold War decade, a period in which the threat of a nuclear holocaust seemed almost probable, especially after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed attempt to assassinate Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro, in 1961. At that time, Castro put Cuba firmly in the Soviet camp. Billboards across America reminded people that Communism was only ninety miles off the Florida coast. When the Soviets put missiles in Cuba, the greatest crisis of the Cold War met the administration of President John F. Kennedy head on.

Despite Cold War fears, when Kennedy took office as the country’s thirty-fifth president, there was hope for a new government that would redress domestic social problems, including racial unrest and poverty, and achieve justice for all Americans. The hope seemed to end with Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, despite the fact that his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, committed himself to securing passage of much of the civilrights legislation first proposed under the Kennedy Administration. Still, a darker mood settled on the country, leading to new demonstrations, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and new outbreaks of violence, including the Newark, New Jersey, race riots of 1967.

By the mid-1960s, the U.S. was also bogged down in Vietnam, fighting a war that for many Americans seemed both strategically unwarranted and morally reprehensible. Along with racial problems, the war divided the country and led to unrest and open dissent that coincided with the rise of a counter-culture with its memorable ‘‘make love, not war’’ slogan and uninhibited sex and open use of illicit drugs like LSD and marijuana. In the last year of the decade, 300,000 young people gathered at Woodstock, a music festival in upstate New York, to celebrate life and hope for peace. In that same year, 1969, Chicago police gunned down Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to tread on the moon.

The divisiveness of the 1960s produced terrible violence, including more assassinations. Besides John Kennedy, the decade claimed the lives of important leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. There was senseless violence abroad as well. In 1968, American soldiers killed five-hundred unarmed Vietnamese men, women, and children in the Vietnamese peasant village of My Lai. The violence continued into 1970, when four students protesting the Vietnam War were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.

The violence was partly prompted by changes threatening the establishment, much of it springing from Vietnam War dissent and a quest for racial justice. However, other movements emerged in the 1960s that forced the nation to reassess its values and social mores. Almost single-handedly, with her publication of The Silent Spring in 1962, Rachael Carson launched the environmental movement, resulting in, among other things, the Clean Air Act of 1963. Three years later, in 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was organized to promote women’s rights. The American Indian Movement’s foundation followed in 1968, fighting for the rights of Native Americans. The next year, 1969, at a bar in New York, the so-called Stonewall Rebellion initiated a crusade for gay rights and equality before the law.

Culturally, the 1960s were also a decade of great change. Rock music became the most popular form, turning artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin into icons for a generation. Film also evolved into a social voice, as independent productions such as Easy Rider,

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,Medium Cool, and Zabriskie Point spoke directly to the youth culture. In theater, the Off- and Off-Off- Broadway movements were thriving, introducing important new voices like Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Kopit. Dramatic works like the rockmusical Hair (1968) broke down barriers against such things as on-stage nudity and obscene language and openly assaulted the values of the establishment. In general, the arts reflected the new political and social currents and helped foster change.

Literary Style

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Although the immediate setting of Oh Dad is an elegant suite in a luxurious resort hotel, the exotic sounds and lights of the world outside invade the room and suggest both an exotic and romantic atmosphere. It is the world of Port Royale, the Caribbean city that exists only in fantasy. The location throbs with the sounds of a life denied to Jonathan, who is locked away from it.

The light, music, and other sounds awaken in Jonathan some primitive longings. Madame Rosepettle’s warping influence on his psyche has been so total, however, that he is terrified at the prospect of doing anything more than watching life pass by him from a distance. She intends to keep in a world of ‘‘light,’’ beyond ‘‘the world of darkness,’’ the ‘‘sex-driven, dirt-washed waste of cannibals eating each other up while they’re pretending they’re kissing.’’

Although in part a parody, Kopit’s play also makes use of absurdist drama. For example, language falters, making communication difficult, particularly for Jonathan, who stammers and stutters his way through the play. Characters are also dysfunctional and exaggerated types. Madame Rosepettle is a monster of maternalism, for example, while Jonathan, her victim, is a hyperbolic bundle of inhibitions and fears. There is also an irreverent treatment of serious matters, especially love and death. Havoc is played with logic as well, when, for example, the stuffed body of Jonathan’s father momentarily comes to life, or when the Venus flytraps start growing at an unnatural rate.

Black Humor
A specific quality of much absurdism in both drama and fiction is black humor, evoked in places in which grotesque elements commingle with serious concerns—especially death. The bellboys who carry in the coffin of Madame Rosepettle’s dead husband comically pull its handles off and drop it on the floor, and later, while Rosalie is attempting to seduce Jonathan, Rosepettle’s corpse becomes a macabre Jack-in-the-box, interrupting the seduction by falling twice from the closet on top of the pair.

Kopit parodies other playwrights in Oh Dad, especially Tennessee Williams. Madame Rosepettle’s long confessional in the third scene is a send up of confessionals made by tormented females in Williams’s plays—Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, for example. In his bizarre use of ‘‘rose’’ in all the characters’ names, including Rosalinda, the fish, Kopit also takes comic swipes at another Williams play, The Rose Tattoo. Presumably, Kopit is also taking an irreverent swipe at the heavy-handed Freudian underpinnings of much realistic drama, especially Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956).

Femme Fatale
Rosalie is a comically distorted familiar type, the femme fatale, a female character who brings misfortune, often death, to men. Rosalie attempts to seduce Jonathan, an ironically fatal enterprise, as it ends up costing Rosalie—not Jonathan—her life. She is bundled in the robes of girlish innocence, a frilly, pink party dress that suggests that she is a young innocent; this presentation is comic misdirection, since, as she finally admits to Jonathan, she has already had many sexual encounters.

Among the grotesque elements of Oh Dad is Madame Rosepettle’s menagerie of pets. These are not warm and cuddly animals but rather malicious creatures, like the piranha Rosalinda, that eat such traditional pets. Rosalinda’s favorite meal is a fresh Siamese kitten. The other pets, two large Venus flytraps, grow enough in size to threaten Jonathan or any other man—much like Madame Rosepettle herself. These omnivorous pets seem ideally suited to the woman, for, metaphorically speaking, she is on a mission to chew up and spit out any male she meets.

Pathetic Fallacy
Madame Rosepettle’s pets are animated and endowed with human-like responses, expressing a consciousness of what is happening around them. For example, the Venus fly traps growl and bob and weave like fighters when Jonathan tries to cut them to pieces with an axe. When he turns the axe on the mocking, giggling Rosalinda, the fish screams in terror. Even Madame Rosepettle’s dictaphone comes to life on its own when Jonathan jars the table on which it rests, issuing a ‘‘strange noise’’ before ‘‘speaking’’ in Madame Rosepettle’s voice.

Through the two main characters in Oh Dad, Madame Rosepettle and her son, Jonathan, Kopit satirizes the sexual mores of what the avant garde in the early-1960s viewed as an ‘‘uptight’’ America. Both are bizarre exaggerations. Madame Rosepettle is the chaste and moral matron turned into an emasculating monster, while Jonathan is the protected son reduced to a neurotic mess, full of inhibiting fears of natural desires. They provide a mordant commentary on middle-class, sexual morality, and the destructive potential of such trappings.

Kopit’s play is rife with symbolism. Madame Rosepettle’s pets are vivid representations of the woman’s omnivorous nature. Just as the pets literally devour living things, the Madame symbolically devours men; she has more than likely killed her husband, and she has ‘‘devoured’’ any shred of independence that Jonathan may have had. The recurrent use of the word ‘‘rose’’ in many characters’ names also serves an ironic, symbolic purpose. A rose is typically associated with love and purity. Yet none of the characters named after the flower are even remotely connected to such concepts. Rosalie, while making a superficial attempt to appear pure, is actually something of a sullied tramp. Commodore Roseabove, while professing to ‘‘love’’ the Madame, is really after sex. Rosalinda, the piranha, is a carnivorous killer of cuddly kittens. And Madame Rosepettle, whose name most explicitly evokes the flower (‘‘rose’’ ‘‘petal’’), exhibits behavior in direct contrast to the common ideals associated with the rose.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: The Cold War and the threat of communism looms large in the American consciousness throughout the decade, cresting during the Cuban missile crisis of 1963.

Today: The Cold War threat has largely evaporated with the dissolution of the Soviet empire. There remain communist strongholds, including China, North Korea, and Cuba.

1960s: The Civil Rights Movement begins, struggling against segregation and social injustice. The decade will also see the flowering of the women’s and gay rights movements.

Today: Some now say that the Civil Rights Movement has gone too far, particularly in quota and set aside programs, called reverse discrimination by their critics. However, statistics argue that Black Americans still have a long way to go to achieve social justice and a fair share of the economic largess of the country. Similarly, while women, gays, and minority groups such as Native Americans and Chicanos have made some progress towards achieving social justice and equitable treatment, none has seen its goals completely met.

1960s: The Theatre of the Absurd in the early- 1960s offers a fresh theatrical perspective. The new, shocking, and perplexing drama is an important catalyst in the rise of the experimental Off-Broadway movement.

Today: Works by first generation absurdist playwrights like Ionesco and Beckett are now considered classics, and although the techniques and some of the themes of the Theatre of the Absurd have left an indelible mark on drama, its most famous pieces are now more venerated than imitated.

Media Adaptations

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Oh Dad was adapted to film in 1967 under the play’s full title. Directed by Richard Quine, it starred Rosalind Russell, Robert Morse, Barbara Harris, Hugh Griffith, Jonathan Winters, Lionel Jeffries, and Cyril Delevanti. The film is available on videocassette.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert. ‘‘The Absurd and the Ridiculous’’ in the New Republic, Vol. CXLVI, March 19, 1962, p. 31.

Buckley, Priscilla L. ‘‘Well Now, Let’s See . . .’’ in the National Review, Vol. XII, June 6, 1962, p. 416.

Clurman, Harold. Review of Oh Dad in the Nation, Vol. CXCIV, March 31, 1962, p. 289.

Gilman, Richard. ‘‘The Stage: The Absurd and the Foolish’’ in the Commonweal, Vol. LXXVI, April 6, 1962, pp. 40-41.

Hewes, Henry. ‘‘The Square Fellow’’ in the Saturday Review, Vol. XLV, March 17, 1962, p. 35.

Review of Oh Dad in Theatre Arts, Vol. IL, May, 1962, p. 61.

Taubman, Howard. ‘‘One Work at a Time’’ in the New York Times, March 11, 1962, p. 1.

Further Reading
Auerbach, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off- Broadway Theater, Twayne, 1982. Besides offering useful critical analyses of Kopit’s early work, especially Oh Dad, Indians, The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis, and Wings, this study has an important chapter surveying the history of the Off-Broadway Theatre.

Bordman, Gerald. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1930-1969, Oxford University Press, 1996. This work documents the production history of American theater over four decades and provides a good survey of the dramatic milieu in which Kopit and other early American absurdists wrote. For Bordman, the American theater went into a decline in the 1960s, after having passed through ‘‘Golden’’ and ‘‘Silver’’ periods.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd edition, Peregrine, 1987. Important chapters on the absurdity, tradition, and significance of the absurd remain mandatory for an understanding of the aims and methods of those writers lumped under the absurd rubric by Esslin. In ‘‘Parallels and Proselytes,’’ Esslin gives Kopit early notice as an American example, along with Edward Albee and Jack Gelber.

Kopit, Arthur. ‘‘The Vital Matter of Environment’’ in Theatre Arts, Vol. XLV, April, 1961, pp. 12-13. In this brief article, Kopit offers important insights into the state of the American commercial theater—its ‘‘inability to assimilate traditions’’ and its lack of invention. Although not an artistic manifesto, the article reveals the playwright’s mind set at the time Oh Dad was being readied for its London production.

Little, Stuart W. Off Broadway: The Prophetic Theater, Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1972. Little’s study is a documentary history and useful guide to the Off-Broadway movement from 1952-1972, the period during which Kopit rose to prominence.

Wellworth, George. The Theater of Protest and Paradox, New York University Press, 1964. This study discusses the new, alternative theater of the 1950s and early-1960s and is valuable for its coverage of the early critical responses to Oh Dad.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide