Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086
As Kopit indicated in the subtitle of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, he was influenced by the ‘‘bastard French tradition,’’ meaning the plays of the avant garde Parisian dramatists, some of whom, like Beckett and Ionesco, were expatriates living in France. Elements of the absurd include highly exaggerated, dysfunctional familial relationships, which is most notably present in the play in the maltreatment of Jonathan by his mother, whose overprotectiveness is simply destructive.
There are many other absurdist elements in the tragic or black farce, however. Among them are the surrealistic, nightmarish motifs, including the ever growing Venus flytraps and the body of Mr. Rosepettle, which not only falls out of its closet at a most inconvenient time but also, momentarily, comes to life to grab Jonathan’s ankle and trip him. There are also the absurdist anomalies, like the haywire cuckoo clock that sounds not to measure regular time units but to reflect human moods, as do the growling Venus flytraps, gleefully gulping piranha, and the dancing French windows. There are, too, the lapses into pure nonsense, like the comic bits in which Madame Rosepettle produces a hammer from her purse or explains that a 1572 Javanese Yen-Sen that she gives to Jonathan for his collection is the rarest of all coins because it was never minted at all, and that, in fact, she had made it herself. Like most of the absurdists, Kopit attempts to show that language and logic are both inadequate and unreliable tools in human discourse, more likely to mask honesty than reveal it.
Jonathan Rosepettle’s obsessive fears arise from his total obedience to his mother and her tyrannical control of him. He is a devastating caricature of the dutiful son, locked away from the outside world that his mother believes would corrupt him and turn him into another despicable man. His repressed hatred for her emasculating authority starts to well up in him, but he is so afraid of her that the most he can manage is an attack on her pets, surrogate targets that in the most primitive sense embody what she herself is: a man-eating carnivore.
With the squad of bellboys who first accompany the Rosepettles into their suite, Madame Rosepettle issues orders like a military drill instructor, with mocking comments on the inadequacies of the staff and whispered promises to see them all dismissed. Her wealth cowers them, and they hop about like Keystone cops under her wilting barrage of threats and enticements. Although the segment is humorous, it is also an indictment of the incivility and thoughtlessness of the idle and capricious rich, those who abuse the authority that wealth affords them.
A common feature in the Theatre of the Absurd is a farcical treatment of both death and the dead, matters that are normally treated with solemn reverence. It is their disrespectful and at times zany approach to such things that explains these plays’ paradoxical description as tragifarces. In a very twisted sense, Oh Dad is a threnody (a dirge or lamentation of loss). Initially, Madame Rosepettle is decked out in mourning black. She and her son accompany the coffin of her departed husband in something like a funereal procession. She even totes around black drapes, used to cover the windows in the master bedroom, where she keeps Albert Edward Robinson Rosepettle III’s remains in the closet, as if the suite somehow serves as a transitional mortuary for the yet to be buried corpse.
The atmosphere, however, is outlandishly irreverent. The coffin no sooner enters the suite than it is dropped unceremoniously on the floor. The widow grieves not a jot, and before the play draws to an end, Mr. Rosepettle’s corpse tumbles twice from the closet and is finally kicked to the floor as Rosalie tries to seduce Jonathan. Rosalie’s own death and burial on the bed under a mountain of stamps, coins, and books is merely dark slapstick, more funny than shocking or serious. Death in Oh Dad wears a clown’s face and makes audiences laugh, if at times uncomfortably.
Alienation and Loneliness
Sequestered in the hotel suite by his mother, Jonathan’s sole companions are his mother’s pets and his books, stamps, and coins. She deliberately cuts him off from the outside to ensure that he will remain innocent and pure. His is an enforced alienation. He begins to experience some natural though terribly confused longings, but until Rosalie appears in the suite, he is restricted to observing life vicariously, looking off the balcony and reading his books. He is otherwise afraid, having bought into his mother’s jaded view of the world, especially her attitude towards love, which she finds repulsive. His hope is Rosalie, in whom he takes an interest. Madame Rosepettle’s own sexual frigidity—passed on to Jonathan—wins out in the end, however, and he smothers the girl to death. Madame Rosepettle’s triumph seems complete, though she herself seems unable to find the meaning of the bizarre situation at the play’s end.
Rites of Passage Oh Dad plays off against a traditional sexual rite of passage into adulthood, both parodying the process and aborting it. Jonathan’s initiation into the joys of sex is initiated by Rosalie, but because Madame Rosepettle’s has instilled her warped world view in Jonathan, the process ends badly, with Rosalie’s seriocomic death. All hope for Jonathan’s sexual maturation seems to die with her, whatever the implied aftermath to the situation that exists at the play’s end.
Victim and Victimization
Madame Rosepettle is a power figure, an emasculating and demanding woman who tolerates no ideology save her own. She is a victimizer, and everyone else in the play is her victim, even her deceased husband. Her chief victim is, however, is Jonathan, whom she browbeats unmercifully. From the outset, it is clear that she has reduced him to a terribly insecure, frightened, and emotionally arrested youth incapable of functioning without her.
Commodore Roseabove is also a victim, as is the Head Bellboy. The former is quickly put in his proper, subservient place by Madame Rosepettle, who has not a shred of respect for any male. Roseabove has the temerity to romance the frigid widow, for which he is both savagely mocked and terrorized. Indirectly, Rosalie is also the woman’s victim, for it is Madame Rosepettle’s aberrant views infecting Jonathan that lead him to kill the girl.
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