Indians, by Arthur Kopit, was first staged at the Aldwych Theatre in London on July 4, 1968. It is a long one-act play that is about the genocide of the American Indians and the legendary figure of Buffalo Bill who is both sacrificial hero and sly showman. Indians is an experimental, absurdist piece that eschews conventional plotting and characterization. These qualities brought Indians a fair amount of criticism of the play's structure. Nevertheless, the power of this play's message and the new presentation that it attempts garnered Kopit admiration, launching his career as a playwright from collegiate productions to the professional realm.
The late 1960s, when Indians was first produced, was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. Minority groups, including the American Indians, were fighting for equal civil rights, which were legally granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Abroad, the U.S. government had involved itself in the Vietnam War against which many U.S. citizens protested. Kopit was inspired to write Indians after reading that the deaths of innocent people killed in the Vietnam War were viewed as the "inevitable consequences of war," reports Lewis Funke in the New York Times. Indians is a critical look at a brutal period in U.S. history—the consequences of which Americans were still trying to face and acknowledge in the early 2000s.
Arthur Lee Koenig was born May 10, 1937, in New York City, but his mother, Maxine, divorced his father when he was very young, and she then married George Kopit, a jewelry salesman. Kopit grew up on Long Island in New York and graduated from high school in 1955. He attended Harvard University on an engineering scholarship but discovered theater while there and spent a lot of time writing and directing plays. Kopit had seven of his own plays produced at Harvard's Dunster House Drama Workshop, six of which he directed. He graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in engineering. While traveling Europe the following year, Kopit wrote Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad in five days for a small contest at Harvard, which he won. The play was a wild success, eventually making its way to Broadway in 1963. Kopit also won the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for Oh Dad.
Kopit's accidental career in playwriting continued with Indians (1968), which was inspired by the Vietnam War. He saw what was happening in Vietnam as "a continuation of cowboys-and-Indians on another continent," Don Shewey wrote in the New York Times. Indians was the inspiration for the 1976 Robert Altman film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, starring Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The play was published in 1969 by Hill and Wang. Kopit received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969 and spent ten years experimenting with avant-garde theater before his next major play was produced. Wings (1978) is one of Kopit's most avant-garde plays and was inspired by his father who lost his ability to speak from a stroke in 1976.
The semi-autobiographical End of the World (1984) is drawn from the playwright's experience of being hired to write a play about nuclear weapons, a subject Kopit found very difficult to handle. The turn-of-the-century success, Y2K (2000), delves into fears about computers, security, and identity theft, themes which remained relevant even as technology continued to evolve.
Kopit married Leslie Garis in 1968. He has taught playwriting at Wesleyan University, Yale University, and the City University of New York. As of 2006, Kopit lived in Connecticut.
Indians opens with three glass cases displaying an effigy of Buffalo Bill, an effigy of Sitting Bull, and, in the last case, a buffalo skull, a bloodstained Indian shirt, and an old rifle. Buffalo Bill himself appears on stage, riding an artificial horse and his Wild West Show coalesces around him. He starts off speaking with confidence about his Wild West Show until a Voice interrupts him, telling him that it is time to start. Buffalo Bill is distraught. Indians appear and the Voice continues to urge him to start. Buffalo Bill goes on the defensive, declaring, "My life is an open book." He calls himself a hero and the scene ends.
Sitting Bull and his people are starving on the reservation where they have been relocated. The president (the Great Father) sends three senators out to investigate their complaints, and they bring Buffalo Bill along to help them. Buffalo Bill promised Sitting Bull that the Great Father himself would come, and Sitting Bull and his people do not understand why the Great Father did not come. They are very angry. Buffalo Bill tries to keep Page 152 | Top of Article relations calm between the Indians and the senators. John Grass speaks first for the Indians; he tells the story of how the Great Father convinced them to take up farming but gave them poor farmland. The Great Father also sent Christian missionaries who beat the Indians. Now they are starving and the buffalo are all gone, and the Great Father has yet to fulfill his promises to give them clothing, food, and money. All they want is what they have been promised—and for the buffalo to return.
In a flashback, Buffalo Bill is shooting buffalo for sport, to impress the grand duke of Russia. He is thrilled with his success and then comments to himself that the buffalo are getting harder to find. His enthusiasm turns solemn. Spotted Tail, who has been watching from afar, confronts Buffalo Bill about shooting so many buffalo. Bill invites Spotted Tail to help himself to the meat and talks about how things are changing. He seems to feel some guilt but confesses to Spotted Tail that he hopes to be famous someday. The grand duke appears with his entourage, including reporter Ned Buntline. The grand duke gives Buffalo Bill a medal and asks him to come back to Russia. Buffalo Bill declines. Encouraged by Buntline, Buffalo Bill launches into a fantastical story of how he got into a fight with fifty Comanches and killed their chief. The grand duke declares that he wants to be like Buffalo Bill and kill a Comanche also. Buffalo Bill tries to explain that the Comanches are in Texas, and he is in Missouri. The grand duke fires into the darkness and kills Spotted Tail. Buffalo Bill is stunned, saddened. Buntline and the grand duke are thrilled.
This scene returns to the discussion between the senators and Sitting Bull's people. Buffalo Bill pleas with the senators to understand how important it is that Sitting Bull's Indians' lives are saved. "For it is we, alone, who have put them on this strip of arid land. And what becomes of them is … our responsibility."
The scene shifts to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Geronimo is announced and appears crawling through a tunnel. He is prodded by two cowboys into a cage. Geronimo shouts about his conquests over white people. Buffalo Bill enters his cage, walks up to him, turns his back, and then walks out. Geronimo is worked up to a fighting frenzy but does nothing to Buffalo Bill.
At the Senate Committee, Senator Logan asks John Grass to be more specific about the Great Father's promises. The senators deny knowledge of any promises. They discuss a treaty in which Sitting Bull's Indians sold the Black Hills to the U.S. government. The money from the sale is supposedly held in trust at a bank, and the senators will not give it to the Indians. Frustrated, Grass keeps trying to walk away, but the senators and Buffalo Bill make him come back. Grass describes where the treaties were signed and what was promised to them. The senators point out that the Indians do not know how to read and cannot be sure of the content of the treaties. Grass is confused and appeals to Buffalo Bill, asking him why he could not get his friend, the Great Father, to come himself.
Scouts of the Plains, a play about Buffalo Bill written by Buntline, is being performed at the White House for the Ol' Time President and the First Lady. Buffalo Bills plays himself, as does Wild Bill Hickok. They are on a mission to stop the Pawnee tribe's "dreadful" Festival of the Moon and rescue the maiden Teskanjavila. Hickok is not really interested in acting and quickly abandons his lines. He argues with Buffalo Bill and then stabs and kills Buntline because he feels humiliated "‘[b]out havin’ to impersonate myself." Hickok then lustfully goes after Teskanjavila, hiding with her half-naked behind the curtain. Throughout the fumbled production, the Ol' Time President and the First Lady are blissfully unaware of the reality of what is happening in front of them. They think the Page 153 | Top of Article play is fantastic. Buffalo Bill is left alone on stage, in a daze, spinning in circles.
At the Senate Committee hearing, Senator Logan challenges John Grass, insisting that it was the Indians who did not fulfill their terms of the Fort Lyon Treaty. Grass insists that the Indians did not know they were giving up their land in exchange for twenty-five thousand cows; the Indians thought the cows were a gift. The Indians understood the white people wanted to take the land, but they also seemed to think they could stay there. Grass tells the senators that they were intimidated into signing the treaty. When pressed by the senators, Grass says that he and his people prefer to live like Indians, not white people—and they want their promised money. Senator Dawes refuses because Indians only spend money on alcohol. Grass retorts that the Indians are only imitating white people, making all the Indians laugh and irritating the senators.
At the Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill is introducing his performers when the Voice returns, reminding him to include the Indians. Buffalo Bill is uncomfortable but complies. Indians set up for a recreation of their sacred Sun Dance while a very old Chief Joseph recites his surrender speech for the audience. Then Buffalo Bill introduces the Sun Dance. It is a gruesome and brave ritual particular to the tribes of the Plains, and Buffalo Bill's Indians are only imitating it because it has been outlawed by the government. John Grass appears, affixes the barbs to his chest, and goes through the ritual in the traditional fashion. At the end, he collapses and dies from loss of blood.
Buffalo Bill goes to visit the Ol' Time President and ask him to come to Sitting Bull's reservation and speak with the Indians personally. The Ol' Time President is riding a mechanical horse. He refuses to go to the reservation, saying that the Indians are beyond his help. Buffalo Bill pleads with him, and the Ol' Time President agrees to send a committee since he is so grateful to Buffalo Bill for his Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill knows that a committee is useless but cannot change the president's mind.
At the Senate Committee hearing, Sitting Bull is upset with Buffalo Bill that the Great Father (the president) did not come himself and sent stupid men instead. Buffalo Bill sees a fundamental, cultural misunderstanding between Sitting Bull's Indians and the senators. He tries to explain the Indian point of view to the senators: that plowing land to farm is harmful to their sacred earth and land ownership is a concept that does not exist in Indian culture. Senator Logan invites Sitting Bull to speak, and Sitting Bull tells them of the depravation his people are experiencing. He says he wants to live as white people do since the old way of life is gone. This stuns his Indians, but he continues by asking the senators to send enough animals, tools, and other material items for them to set up life as farmers. On the surface his demands are not unreasonable because he is only asking for what white people have, but his request is so enormous that it underlines how little the Indians have by comparison. Sitting Bull is also insulted that the senators do not recognize his authority as chief. Senator Logan belittles Sitting Bull, denies him any further speech before the committee, and closes the hearing for the day. Sitting Bull gets in the last word: "If a man is the chief of a great people, and has lived only for those people, and has done many great things for them, of course he should be proud!"
In a saloon full of cowboys, Jesse James is singing a song about a dead man. Buffalo Bill enters, asking for Wild Bill Hickok. Suddenly Buffalo Bill is involved in a stand-off against Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Hickok enters and he and Buffalo Bill go off to a corner to talk in private. Buffalo Bill is consumed with guilt for killing the buffalo and driving the Indians to starvation. But he does not believe he is responsible because he was only doing his job, while working for the government. He tells Hickok that Sitting Bull's Senate Committee hearing went poorly, and the government had Sitting Bull murdered. Buffalo Bill wants Hickok's help to know who he is so that he does not die wrong, in the middle of his show. Hickok calls forth a group of Buffalo Bill look-alikes. Buffalo Bill tries to shoot them down and begs for the show to close, but the Voice says, "Not yet " and reports that the rest of Sitting Bull's tribe were also murdered.
The bodies of Indians lay in heaps in the center of the stage. Colonel Forsyth tells two reporters that he and his men wiped out all the Indians in this Page 154 | Top of Article tribe, making up for Custer's slaughter. He describes it as "an overwhelming victory" and an end to the "Indian Wars," although some call it a massacre. The colonel, his lieutenant, and the two reporters leave for the barracks, and Buffalo Bill stays behind to honor Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull's ghost appears, and Buffalo Bill yells at him for not listening. Sitting Bull points out that although Buffalo Bill was trying to help the Indians with his Wild West Show, he was also exploiting and humiliating them. Buffalo Bill reiterates his fear of dying in the middle of his show. Sitting Bull, just before he leaves, tells Buffalo Bill "how terrible it would be if we finally owe to the white man not only our destruction, but also our glory." Alone with the Voice, Buffalo Bill is excited to almost be done. He delivers a prepared speech about how Indian tribes across the United States were decimated by the government in various ways, but his speech is sympathetic to the government's position. While he is speaking, the dead Indians rise and surround him. Other Indians appear onstage as well. Individual Indians announce their names and that they are dying while Buffalo Bill is speaking. Buffalo Bill denounces any responsibility on his part or the government's for the termination of the Indian way of life. He cuts himself short and pulls Indian artifacts out of his bag and shows them to the audience. Buffalo Bill sits by his display of trinkets and falls silent. Chief Joseph repeats his surrender speech. The stage gradually fades to dark and then comes back to full light with the Roughriders circling. Buffalo Bill enters on a white stallion. Indians lurk in the shadows and move toward him as the lights fade again. When lights are restored, the stage is set with three glass boxes as seen at the beginning of the play.
Grand Duke Alexis
Grand Duke Alexis of Russia visits the United States, and Buffalo Bill escorts him on a tour of the wild west. The grand duke is excited by Buffalo Bill's cowboy lifestyle and kills Spotted Tail in an effort to be more like Buffalo Bill. The grand duke's simple-minded view of the Indians is similar to that of the Ol' Time President.
Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid is a famous outlaw who appears near the end of the play at the Dodge City saloon.
Buffalo Bill is the central character of Indians. He is a cowboy, a scout, a showman, and a humanitarian. Wild Bill Hickok is Buffalo Bill's foil: whereas Hickok is hard-edged, dangerous, and interested in immediate satisfaction, Buffalo Bill is easy-going and hopes to be famous. Buffalo Bill's name, like his Wild West Show, is a mockery of American Indian naming conventions. The irony of his name is that it does not refer to a reverence for the natural world but instead Buffalo Bill's slaughter of enormous numbers of buffalo. Buffalo Bill, as a young man, tells Spotted Tail that his people must assimilate to survive. He also declares that he wants to help people and become famous. This sentiment sets the tone for the play. Buffalo Bill believes that in helping people, he is a good person and deserves accolades and fame. So when the American Indians continue to die despite Buffalo Bill's efforts to help them, he is demoralized and wracked with guilt. He believes the Indians are going about things all wrong and perhaps deserve what is coming to them. But he also has compassion for them as suffering humans and wants to help. Guilt and compassion do not seem to be enough to absolve Buffalo Bill of his mixed involvement in the decimation of the American Indians. Buffalo Bill wants to absolve himself of responsibility, but his monologue at the end of the play underlines his basic hypocrisy, which has been apparent since the beginning but clouded by Buffalo Bill's good intentions and clumsy follow-through. After the death of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill's monologue of self-absolution, Bill is reduced to pathetic peddling of American Indian trinkets—all he has left of his Indian friends.
Ned Buntline is a writer who chooses Buffalo Bill as the subject of his work. He wants to make Buffalo Bill famous, which the cowboy finds intoxicating. Buntline urges Buffalo Bill toward tall tales and unnatural behavior to improve his stories. Buntline's play Scouts of the Plains is performed at the White House, starring Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok as themselves. Like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Buntline's play is a sad caricature of the real experience. Buntline is stabbed and killed when Hickok realizes the humiliation Buntline's play is attempting to put him through. Like the American Indians, Buntline dies with Buffalo Bill standing there, doing nothing, unsure of whom to please next.
William Frederick Cody
See Buffalo Bill
Senator Dawes is one of three senators sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.
The First Lady is married to the Ol' Time President. She is as delighted as her husband is with Buntline's play, which is performed by Buffalo Bill, Buntline, and Wild Bill Hickok. In true absurdist fashion, the First Lady does not seem to realize that Buntline's death and Tenskajavila's rape are real and not part of the script of Buntline's play.
First Reporter gathers information from Colonel Forsyth about the death of Sitting Bull.
Colonel Forsyth is responsible for the slaughter of Sitting Bull and his tribe. He does not see what he has done is a massacre even though many of the people killed were women and children. Instead, the colonel sees the attack as a victory that wins the U.S. government the war against the American Indians. He has not bothered to count the dead Indians, and they are left on the ground, being covered by snow, while the colonel goes inside the barracks for warmth and conversation.
Geronimo, an Apache leader, was renowned for his fierceness in fighting back against white aggressors. He appears in the play as a caged animal in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. It is unclear whether Geronimo is acting for benefit of the show or is actually imprisoned.
Grass is an articulate Indian belonging to Sitting Bull's tribe. Grass is supposed to understand white people better than many in his tribe because he attended a white school. Grass even has a name that sounds more white than American Indian. Sitting Bull asks Grass to be the first to speak for the tribe at the Senate Congressional hearing, but Grass is unable to successfully negotiate an agreement. He states his tribe's grievances over promises made to them and signed in treaties, but the senators refute these claims, saying that these things they were promised were not actually detailed in the treaties and that the American Indians have not behaved in good faith toward their agreement. Frustrated, Grass makes fun of the senators which angers them and effectively ends the day's hearing. Grass next appears at the Sun Dance imitation going on at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He interrupts the performance and does the Sun Dance the traditional way with barbs through his chest, which is illegal according to the U.S. government. Although the Sun Dance does not have to be lethal, Grass pushes himself until he tears free of the barbs and falls to the ground, bleeding to death. Traditionally the Sun Dance is for penitence so this is probably not intended as suicide.
James Butler Hickok
See Wild Bill Hickok
The interpreter works for Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. He translates Russian and English between his duke and the American hosts.
Jesse James is a famous western outlaw whom Buffalo Bill meets briefly at the Dodge City saloon near the end of the play.
Chief Joseph appears in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a shadow of the powerful man he once was. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce is famous for helping his tribe escape and evade U.S. soldiers for years in the Pacific Northwest. His eventual surrender, when his people were starving and greatly diminished in number, was considered a significant victory by the government. Chief Joseph, weak and defeated, recites his surrender speech at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a way to earn some money. He now lives a half-life.
The lieutenant serves Colonel Forsyth.
Senator Logan is one of the three senators sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.
Senator Morgan is the lead senator sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.
Ol' Time President
The Ol' Time President is a foolish man, caught up in the romantic view of the wild west as full of adventure, romance, and cowboys fighting Indians. He has no compassion for the American Indians and refuses to personally meet with Sitting Bull in case it would send the wrong message to other American Indian tribes.
Poncho is at the Dodge City saloon near the end of the play.
Second Reporter is gathering information from Colonel Forsyth about the death of Sitting Bull. Second Reporter is more outraged than the first over the slaughter of Sitting Bull's tribe.
Sitting Bull is the leader of a Sioux tribe of displaced American Indians. Originally living in the Black Hills, Sitting Bull's tribe was displaced by the U.S. government when gold was discovered there. Sitting Bull spent some time working for Buffalo Bill in his Wild West Show. He appears to foresee his tribe's fate and tries to make the senators see the errors in their understanding of native ways, particularly in relation to ownership. The senators are rude to him, perhaps because they feel threatened. Sitting Bull and his people are killed in a raid commanded by Colonel Forsyth. His ghost visits Buffalo Bill soon thereafter and will not absolve the cowboy of his guilt. Sitting Bull's greatest sorrow is the thought of "how terrible it would be if we finally owe to the white man not only our destruction, but also our glory."
Spotted Tail is a Sioux Indian who is shot and killed by the Grand Duke Alexis for sport. Buffalo Bill pretends, for the sake of the grand duke and Buntline, that Spotted Tail was actually a dangerous Comanche warrior—from Texas.
Teskanjavila is the so-called Indian princess created by Buntline for his play Scouts of the Plains, which is performed at the White House. She is played by an Italian actress.
Uncas is the evil Indian chief created by Buntline for his play, which is performed at the White House for the Ol' Time President and the First Lady.
Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill Hickok is an unapologetic, classic cowboy and scofflaw. Hickok, because of his straightforward nature, is uncomfortable with Buntline's play in which he is supposed to perform as himself. He finds this to be shameful—just like the Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show—and refuses to go on. Hickok kills the writer and makes off with the buxom actress. Buffalo Bill seeks Hickok out at the end of Indians to ask him for help in identifying Bill's true self.
Kopit's primary theme in Indians is genocide (mass murder). Genocide is usually motivated by racial, ethnic, or nationalistic prejudices. Kopit was motivated to write about the U.S. government's genocide of American Indians because of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in which he saw a similar arrogance. In this play, Kopit unabashedly points out the unethical treatment, dispossession, suffering, and death brought upon the American Indians by the U.S. government. Bolstered by greed, nationalism, and presumed ethnic superiority, white Americans of European descent in the U.S. government of the nineteenth century repeatedly lied, cheated, coerced, and murdered the native inhabitants of North America. They perpetrated these crimes in an effort to gain fertile or otherwise rich land and to eliminate a culture that they saw as obstructing this appropriation. Indians represents some of the ways in which the U.S. government brought harm to native tribes people: the futile Senate Committee hearing, the wasteful hunting of buffalo, the surprise-attack slaughter of entire tribes, and even Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill tries to bridge the gap between his government and the American Indians, but although he understands the Indians more than many white people, he does not understand them well enough to find a solution amenable to both sides. Genocide has occurred throughout human history and includes events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as those in World War II Europe, in Rwanda, and in Darfur.
Guilt and Responsibility
Buffalo Bill feels guilty about his role in harming the native way of life. As a young man in the
employ of the U.S. Army, Buffalo Bill slaughtered thousands of buffalo, driving the species to near extinction. He is undeniably responsible, in part, for the destruction of the Indians although he did not directly lay his hand against them and even actively tried to help them. Buffalo Bill's guilt drives him to find ways to help the American Indians adapt to their new neighbors. He also wants to be famous. Joining these disparate ambitions, he starts up a traveling Wild West Show, which is hugely popular and even exhibits some famous American Indians such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph. Buffalo Bill's efforts to help and support the American Indians are finally ineffective in holding off the grim determination of the U.S. government to clear American Indians from the land they occupy. His solution, assimilation, is a different, slower death which also causes the American Indian culture to break down.
The Ol' Time President and Colonel Forsyth, in contrast to Buffalo Bill, actively and consciously participate in the destruction of the American Indians and feel no remorse because they have objectified the Indians as the so-called bad guys while they identify themselves as the good guys. This binary, us/them approach dehumanizes the opponent as the other. The only responsibility the president and the colonel feel is toward their own government, which, they believe, is threatened by the native way of life.
Wild Bill Hickok is portrayed as the stereotypical cowboy—brash and fiercely independent. He is so straight-forward that he never behaves contrary to his nature. He suffers no guilt because he does not second-guess himself and is not introspective. Near the end of the play, Buffalo Bill feels he has lost himself and asks Hickok for help, but Hickok's twisted solution of multiple Buffalo Bills only exacerbates Bill's guilty conscience. Consumed by remorse and yet confused because he believes he is a good man, Buffalo Bill is the one left suffering at the end of Indians; he is the most human and humane of the white people in the play.
Ownership versus Stewardship
The difference between the concepts of ownership and stewardship define the difference between white people and American Indians in Kopit's play. Western white people believe in individuality and property. One's success is intrinsically tied to one's wealth, which may be measured in possessions, property, and land. American Indians, by contrast, have a communal lifestyle in which property is shared collectively but not owned personally. American Indians see themselves as stewards of the land, responsible for its care. The land is a gift to them from the Great Spirit, and they see the land as a living entity which cannot be bought, sold, or traded but instead belongs to everyone. As Kopit expresses in his play, the Indians are baffled by the white men's request to buy their land, such as in the Laramie Treaty. The Indians accept the offer, seeing it as a type of gift since of course the land cannot actually be transferred from one person to other; however, the white men are offended that the American Indians are not upholding their side of the agreement, uneven as it was, because they understand the treaties to be legally binding documents. This misunderstanding fuels the arguments that American Indians are not as smart as white people and not as honorable.
Kopit uses a non-linear plot structure to build dramatic tension in this play which is largely based on historical events and is thus a story with which audience members are already familiar. At the center of action is Buffalo Bill and throughout the play, viewers see events from his youth, from the recent past, and the present time of the telling of his story which takes place toward the end of his life. Throughout the play, Buffalo Bill feels varying levels of guilt over his involvement in the genocide of the Indians, and this guilt seems to increase as he grows older. The non-linear plot may also be an acknowledgement of an American Indian world view, where history is perceived as cyclical. Kopit combines several threads of Buffalo Bill's life, but the image finally depicted is not of a humanitarian. Buffalo Bill has tried to connect with the American Indians but failed to be a hero or their friend.
Absurdism is a literary style that emphasizes the disconnection and meaninglessness in human experience. When the style is used in drama, the plays do not provide rational sequences or realistic portrayals of action, and these plays may collectively be referred to as theater of the absurd. Characters in absurdist plays are often disorientated and feel threatened, like Buffalo Bill. In Indians, Kopit shows how Buffalo Bill is overcome by guilt and cannot come to terms with what has happened to the American Indians. He is jumpy and rubs his head and squints often as if he has a headache. The other white men in the play are absurdist in their unreal, over-the-top behavior.
Theater of the absurd is highly unconventional and purposefully strives to keep the audience off balance. Kopit achieves this effect with his grotesque presentation of the Wild West Show and direct look at the brutality perpetrated against Indians. Theater of the absurd rejects language as a reliable means of communication and seeks to evoke myth and allegory to find alternative meaning. Buffalo Bill's attempts to serve as an interpreter between the senators and the Indians, between Hickok and Buntline, between the grand duke of Russia and the Indians, all underline a breakdown in language as an effective means of communication. The allegory of Indians is in its similarity in theme and outcome to the Vietnam War, which was contemporary with the first production of the play.
Tone is the writer or narrator's attitude toward the story, which helps to set the mood. Tone influences how readers feel about the characters and what happens to them. The tone of Indians is one of anxiety, outrage, and futility. Kopit knows there is nothing that can be done to change what has already come to pass, but if his message can be communicated to audiences, then perhaps genocide may be averted in the future. Kopit communicates his frustration and anger through Buffalo Bill's quiet desperation, the irresponsible behavior of the other white men in the story, and the edgy resignation of the American Indians. Indians is a play of difficult emotions, but Kopit avoids heavy-handed badgering by making Buffalo Bill a flawed yet somewhat sympathetic character.
The Vietnam War was a protracted military conflict between North and South Vietnam, lasting from 1957 until 1975. Vietnam was a proxy war for the cold war going on between communist and democratic nations. The United States was involved in Vietnam on the side of the South Vietnamese starting in 1955, but it was not until the appointment of General William Westmoreland in 1964 that the numbers of U.S. troops engaged there rose significantly. It quickly became apparent that the U.S. military was unprepared for the guerilla style of fighting used by the North Vietnamese. Guerilla warfare is a decentralized approach that works well for defending against foreign invaders. U.S. soldiers, never knowing who was friend or foe, were demoralized. Their fear contributed to their perpetrating crimes against civilians. Many Vietnam War veterans suffered from psychological trauma as a result. In the United States, many people were outraged by what they learned from daily news reports. Large numbers of citizens, especially young people immediately affected by the involuntary draft, began to protest publicly against the war. These protests polarized public opinion, causing sharp division between those who disapproved of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and those who accepted the government's argument that the United States was defending democracy against communism. By the end of the Vietnam War, two to four million people—military and civilian and of all nationalities—were dead and South Vietnam, along with her allies including the United States, had lost the war.
American Indian Rights
American Indians, along with other minorities, gained civil rights protection with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still trying to bring American Indians into mainstream U.S. culture in order to do away with reservations. In the 1970s, a group called the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged several highly publicized protests to bring further awareness to the rights of native peoples. Their goals included improving living conditions, protecting Indians from police brutality, and working to remove Indian caricatures from sports. Their methods were sometimes dramatic, but AIM overall made progress in raising awareness and respect for the cultures of American Indians. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American Indian tribes have federal rights of self-government, much like states have. Almost three million American Indians live in the United States, divided into 563 tribal governments. Efforts to disenfranchise some tribal governments continued in the early 2000s as their land was sought for the valuable resources it contains. Other areas of the country resist permitting the formation of tribal governments because of concerns over gambling and casinos, which are often built and run by tribes to generate revenue.
Theater of the Absurd
The term, theater of the absurd, was coined by Martin Esslin in his 1962 book of the same name.
It refers to existential playwriting that asserts the meaninglessness of life. Esslin formulated his theory of the theater of the absurd after reading Albert Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which the meaninglessness of life is a central idea. The four playwrights Esslin identified as being the forerunners of the absurdist movement are Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Arthur Adamov. Theater of the absurd is, in essence, a type of avant-garde presentation. It employs unconventional and unrealistic settings, characters, plot development, and dialogue. Experimental literature has been written for centuries. Avant-garde was coined in Paris in 1861 to refer to those works that test conventions and initiate change. Avant-garde works such as those produced by surrealist poets and cubist painters were especially popular in the early twentieth century, paving the way for the rise of theater of the absurd in the 1950s and 1960s.
The 1968 opening of Indians in London was greeted with a mixture of puzzlement and guarded praise. People wondered why a show that was so thoroughly American would first be staged in Britain. Irving Wardle, reviewing for the London Times proclaims: "the play is one of the few necessary works to have appeared from the America of the sixties. Whatever holes you care to pick, it is a work of high ambition." Stateside, drama critic Clive Barnes, also reviewing the London production, writes that Kopit's play is "only partially successful" and that "the play is at its best at its most serious, when it is making substantial and documented charges against the Government." British critic Martin Esslin, writing for the New York Times, considers Indians to be both "moving" and "amusing."
When Indians was restaged in Washington, D.C., a year later, Julius Novick found it to be "more annoying than satisfying" and "not yet a good play," while acknowledging that the merits of this play establish Kopit as more than a one-hit wonder. Barnes also reviewed the D.C. production and found it to be greatly improved, structurally, over the London production. While Barnes is overall positive about the show, he tempers his review by observing that "there is still an odd strain of facetiousness in the play, although not nearly so much as before." In October 1969, Indians moved to Broadway where Barnes reviewed this third production, summarizing his position: "It is not the greatest play ever written—far from it. But it does, even by the freedoms of dramatic form it grandiloquently permits itself, extend our theater."
Lewis Funke, in the New York Times, takes a far more positive position, declaring that Indians is "one of the most theatrically spectacular productions to reach Broadway in years." But Walter Kerr's review of the Broadway production was more harsh: "Everywhere substance has been skimped. Sometimes the skimpiness is covered over by attitudinizing, sometimes it is covered over by moralizing (because we are guilty, must we accept weak dramaturgy?)." Indians was restaged twenty-two years later and received an even more negative review from Alvin Klein, who found the play to be shapeless and polemical. He writes in the New York Times that Indians "comes off as more diatribe than drama" and that it is "perhaps most unsettling for being so relentlessly penitential and uninvolving."
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses Kopit's characterization of Buffalo Bill and whether the character's efforts to help the American Indians are disingenuous.
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 Page 162 | Top of Article 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 is afraid of dying onstage and being lost to history as a mockery of his true self. He is scared because he is no longer sure what his true nature is.
Buffalo Bill has only wanted to help others. The main, repeating episode in Indians is the Senate congressional hearing which makes up five out of thirteen scenes. In these scenes, no agreement or solution is achieved, no resolution even attempted between the government and Sitting Bull's Sioux. The senators, John Grass, and Sitting Bull, all speak their parts and seem incapable of understanding one another's point of view. They do not even try. Buffalo Bill intervenes, first begging the Indians for cooperation and later trying to explain each side's position to the other. But his pleas for middle ground are ignored. The Indians are stubborn, sad, and resigned. The senators are stubborn and ruthless. Buffalo Bill is thus defeated in his not-quite selfless quest to help. He can give jobs, money, and supplies to the American Indians, but he is incapable of changing history. Buffalo Bill is, by increasing degrees, hypocritical because although he wants to help American Indians, he believes more strongly in assimilation than in finding a way to live as neighbors. He does not understand the gravity of what he asks when he presses the American Indians to assimilate. Hickok senses it when he refuses to perform in Buntline's play. The American Indians performing in the Wild West Show also understand the humiliation of assimilation.
In scene 3, Buffalo Bill is seen at his youngest, shooting buffalo for sport and to entertain the grand duke of Russia. His infectious enthusiasm engages the duke, who takes up a gun and shoots the nearest Indian—Buffalo Bill's friend Spotted Tail. To bolster his career and reputation, Buffalo Bill barely reacts to Spotted Tail's death, staying in showman form. It is his first step down a long path of self-aggrandizement at the expense of his Indian friends. When Buffalo Bill employs American Indians to perform in his Wild West Show, so that they might have jobs and more easily assimilate to white culture, he fails to recognize the humiliation his show costs them.
Ned Buntline's Scouts of the Plains extends this humiliation to Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok recognizes the exploitation right away and refuses to perform. Although he is a scofflaw who kills Buntline and rapes the Indian princess Teskanjavila, Hickok never pretends to be anything different. He knows himself and is content with his life. Buffalo Bill, as he grows older and more confused about his role in history, yearns for Hickok's surety and goes to the saloon in Dodge City to find himself, with Hickok's aid. Hickok shows him a group of Buffalo Bills, declaring that now he can help more people because he can be in more than one place at once. This idea horrifies Buffalo Bill because he has grown to hate himself. He does not want to discover his true identity; he wants to become something else.
Buffalo Bill is a proud man with a troubled conscience. Through the various scenes, we see increasingly into his heart. He is disturbed by the harsh treatment of American Indians, which the audience sees when Buffalo Bill argues with the senators about their responsibility for the livelihood of Indians they have displaced. He even appears to understand something of the Indian worldview when he tries to convince the senators that the American Indians do not understand ownership the way white people do. But Buffalo Bill is haunted by the faces of dead Indians.
Buffalo Bill's sincerity is ultimately undermined in the final scene when, in a passionate, almost angry monologue, he argues the government's view that the American Indians were difficult to deal with and fought unfairly: "I am sick and tired of these sentimental humanitarians," he says in ironic reference to himself. All around Buffalo Bill American Indians are dying, and he, having failed at being greater than the sum of his parts, is reduced to selling Indian trinkets. He is a shadow of the great man he envisioned himself as being, reduced to arguing his own innocence with himself.
Buffalo Bill, as characterized by Kopit, is earnest but hypocritical. While he proclaims concern for American Indians, he believes that their only salvation lay in cooperation and assimilation, which assumes the supremacy of white culture over Indian culture. Early in Kopit's play, Buffalo Bill says to Spotted Tail, "things're changin' out here…. So if you wanna be part o' these things, an' not left behind somewhere, you jus' plain hafta get used to 'em…. you've got to adjust." His viewpoint of assimilation was one held by many Americans and was actively practiced by the U.S. government through the 1970s.
"No one who is a white man can be a fool," Spotted Tail says to Buffalo Bill after Buffalo Bill has slaughtered a hundred buffalo for sport. Spotted Tail's statement, as understood in the context of Kopit's play, is ironic: Buffalo Bill, at the center of this tale, is king of all fools.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Indians, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Vera M. Jiji
In the following review, Jiji explores four main theatrical conventions that Kopit employs in Indians.
Indians, Arthur Kopit's first major serious play was, in the words of one London reviewer, "one of the few necessary works to have appeared from the America of the sixties." It is not difficult to see why it merited such praise.
The play takes place on what Peter Brook would call "holy ground." Brook was speaking of that common groundwork of community feeling when he instanced "the great Kazan-Williams-Miller hits, Albee's Virginia Woolf, [plays which] summoned audiences that met in the true shared territory of theme and concern—and they were powerful events, the circle of performance was riveting and complete." In Indians, the true shared territory of theme and concern is not merely white America's guilt about its treatment of the red man, but of the black man, the yellow man, the native of Vietnam.
Kopit conceived of Indians when he heard General Westmoreland express regret for the accidental Page 164 | Top of Article killing in Vietnam. Although the Vietnamese are never mentioned in the play, every spectator can identify as contemporary the press conference in which the victor rationalizes his sword—the U.S. Colonel who exterminated Sitting Bull and his tribe, justifying the measure on the ground that no more skirmishes between Indians and whites would now occur: "in the long run I believe what happened here at this reservation yesterday will be justified."
Kopit's choice of the Indian Massacres for his theme was most apt. Most white Americans are still unaware of the terrible events which led to the Indians' incarceration. On the simplest level, Kopit wanted to inform the audience as to how it had happened. But more than that, as the audience mourned for the dead Indians, they were to feel that no massacre could ever "be justified." Thus Kopit hoped to build from the sympathy Americans can now feel for the slain warriors whose remains adorn Museums of Natural (sic) History, to a sympathy for those still being slain. The bridge was to be the play's central character: William Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill.
It was a brilliant idea for a play. Cody had seen himself as the Indians' friend. But through his exploits as Buffalo Bill he had contributed significantly to the Indians' defeat. In the gradual loss of Cody's integrity, Kopit saw a ready-made mythic symbol of all ignorant exploiters. The Wild West Show, which converted slaughter and warfare to entertainment, was a documented symbol of American hypocrisy. As the audience watched Cody's impotent grief over deaths he had hastened, they were to be moved to alter their behavior lest the callous disregard of human life, the cruelty, self-justification, cowardice, and complacency shown by the white Americans toward another weaker people be unchecked. The play is all but too timely in its treatment of its flawed, guilt-ridden central character.
Kopit's desire to share his concern with his fellow Americans was shaped, however, by a sophisticated and ironic view of the limitations of propaganda art as a vehicle for expressing a message. That Kopit felt a direct political statement would not do is clear from the comments about the "value" of art built into the play itself, as we shall see. Since the oblique treatment of the theme seemed necessary to Kopit, the form was burdened with carrying much of the play's message.
Kopit had conceived of the form along with the theme. At the moment of hearing Westmoreland's statement, he happened to be listening to a symphony by Charles Ives in which chamber music is played against distorted marching band music. In the contemporary symphony, the grave, sweet, measured assonance of the chamber music clashed ironically with the harsh dissonance of the military band. Kopit intended to create the same irony in his play, the same discomfort with the dissonances of American military policy in the minds of his audience as the music created in his ears. Thus was the form dictated: in Kopit's words, "a mosaic, a counterpoint of memory and reality."
Kopit's form, then, is "a mosaic," in which various theatrical styles are employed: sometimes in alternation, sometimes simultaneously. This article is in two sections, for I intend to show first how Kopit counterposed four disparate kinds of theatrical conventions in the play, and second, why that "riveting circle of performance" remains incomplete.
The play is written in thirteen scenes. The first and last scenes use three presentational conventions: the theatre of fact, the Brechtian theatre of alienation (which derives, of course, from Shakespeare's theatre), and the expressionist theatre. Scenes Two, Four, Six, Eight, and Eleven actually constitute one long representational, naturalistic scene in which the protagonist appears as William Cody, a sensitive man who loves the Indians and is trying to intercede on their behalf with a Senate committee. In contrast, in Scenes Three, Five, Seven, and Nine, which are in the ironic Brechtian mode, William Cody is shown in his fictionalized persona as the opportunistic Buffalo Bill. Scene Ten is representational again, but is a flashback to action which is antecedent to Scene Two. Here Cody visits the President to plead for the Indians, but the President is willing to see him only because he had been entertained (in Scene Seven) by the nonsense of Buffalo Bill. Now the two sides of Cody's
personality are being seen together. In Scene Twelve, Cody's conscience torments him for what Buffalo Bill has done; the scene is pure expressionism and leads to the ultimate agon of Scene Thirteen. There, William Cody—Buffalo Bill expresses his anguish and ours. We have, then, a musical or rondo form, in which the themes and conventions are introduced in an overture, developed in ironic juxtaposition throughout the work, and recapitulated in a coda. Let us examine this process in Scene One in detail (using the New York production, for that is the basis of the published script).
As the audience comes into the theatre, it hears "strange music coming from all about" and finds itself facing three museum cases holding larger-than-life-size effigies of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill and Indian relics. The setting is contemporary (the figures represent the past) and documentary: there is no curtain, no realistic reproduction of a recognizable "set" or locale. Thus, the conventions are of the theatre of fact. These conventions are commonly understood to mean that the author has done massive research on his subject, and that what is shown onstage conforms to the demands of historical accuracy. Thus, the audience, clued in by the play's title and its antiseptic setting, prepares its collective mind to receive the facts—straight.
But then a "voice over" is heard calling "Cody, Cody;" Wild West music is played; spotlights crisscross the stage, and Buffalo Bill prances in on an artificial white horse, "a great smile on his face … proudly waving his big Stetson to the unseen surrounding crowd" (Scene 1). A great shift in the audience's relation to the play is thus quickly achieved.
When Buffalo Bill canters in, the audience faces a new set of conventions. Buffalo Bill is "acting" as the showman. From the first speech of Scene One, "Yessir, BACK AGAIN," to the last one of that scene, "I dunno what you folks know 'bout show business, but le' me tell you, there is nothin' more depressin' than playin' two-a-day in a goddam ghost town," he presents himself as a narrator about to start his own story: confidential, gossipy, at ease with his audience.
But his posture of self-confidence is undercut in several ways. First, the audience is placed in a false relationship to the event onstage. From the contemporary theatre-of-fact setting, the actor's entry has transported the audience into the past. Moreover, the audience is no "unseen surrounding crowd" come to see a Wild West Show. Its awareness that the play is forcing it into an unreal position already creates a sense of irony and Brechtian alienation. Then too, when Buffalo Bill begins to speak, the patently false relationship between his Wild West persona and his real personality is emphasized. After the solemn brooding silence of the effigies, his cheerful show-biz manner sounds a false note. The voice-over urges him on: "And now to start …" He replies by getting out of character as Buffalo Bill, showman, and losing his temper: "WHAT'S THE RUSH? WAIT A SECOND !" (Scene 1). Thus the character is introduced on two levels simultaneously: as William Cody, the man who can lose his temper, acting as Buffalo Bill, the cheerful performer.
Buffalo Bill's reference to a ghost town is followed immediately by the sudden appearance of some ghostly Indians "around the outside of the ring. The horse senses their presence and shies; Buffalo Bill, as if realizing what it means, turns in terror" (Scene 1). Thus, the third theatrical convention, expressionism, is introduced.
These Indians derive from Bill's imagination. They loom out of the darkness, embodying his guilty conscience. As he explains later, "I see them everywhere…. Took a drink from a river yesterday 'an they were even there, beneath the water, their hands reachin' up, I dunno whether beggin,' or t' … drag me under" (Scene 12).
By the end of Scene One, then, the audience has been introduced to three of the play's four themes: first, the play has reminded us, through the theatre-of-fact framework, of the death of the Indian culture in this country; second, through Buffalo Bill's appearance and speeches, it has offered an ironic, even burlesque commentary on part of the West's history; third, through the silent appearance of the ghostly Indians, it depicts Cody's inner struggle with the forces of his conscience, showing his degradation and remorse.
And Kopit introduces a fourth convention and fourth theme in the play's second scene. The transition to the naturalistic convention is handled by an actor in Indian regalia using direct address to the audience. "I am Sitting Bull." He explains the reason for the meeting with the Senate committee, which the audience is about to see, and introduces "William Cody," who enters on the cue line. When Cody addresses the Indians directly, the audience becomes invisible and the naturalistic convention has been established. From this point on in the play, Kopit will use the naturalistic convention exclusively to reveal the history of Sitting Bull's tribe. He has chosen a penultimate moment of high tension for his setting: a meeting between the tribe and a Senate committee which could, if it chose, save the Indians.
The audience's attention has been captured in this scene by the impending conflict. It knows that the Indians will lose, but it wants to see that fate realized theatrically. Primed by Cody's guilty response to the apparitions at the end of Scene One, and by its prior knowledge of Indian affairs, the audience finds John Grass' speech detailing the Indians' cause against the government very convincing. There is no reason to doubt that this is an imaginative recreation of what actually occurred during that historic meeting. In fact, John Grass' statement Page 167 | Top of Article that "the buffalo had gone away" while the Indians had been learning to farm will be illustrated in Scene Three where Cody is seen again, at an earlier time of his life, shooting the buffalo for sport.
Why, when Kopit has begun picking up some narrative interest in the dramatic confrontation between Sitting Bull and the Senate committee, does he drop it in favor of returning Cody to center stage? Because the destruction of Cody's character must also be detailed. Thus Cody makes a significant choice in Scene Three. While the slaughter of a hundred buffalo with a hundred bullets to win a bet may be regarded with displeasure by the audience, it is probably forgivable. But when the Grand Duke of Russia shoots an Indian in the same cavalier spirit, Cody stifles his desire to protest the senseless murder. Instead, he spouts nonsense to the Grand Duke while Ned Buntline writes it all down.
Now Kopit, in Scene Three, has returned to Brechtian conventions. Thus the "buffaloes" are not handled realistically, but are "played by" Indians. When the Grand Duke shoots the Indian, the latter falls dead and immediately rises to tell the audience that it is a case of mistaken identity before he falls down again. The Duke, not astounded by this Ascension, merely wants to know what the fellow said. And Cody lies.
We should assume that in this scene Kopit is enlightening the audience through the Brechtian "Verfremdungseffekt." He is showing how "history" is made of lies, and how a foolish boy's head can be turned by publicity. Pretty soon, Cody will be believing the myth of himself as Buffalo Bill as distorted by Buntline. But there is a problem here. The burlesque elements in the scene, the obviously mock buffalo and obviously mock death, prevent the audience from taking Cody's moral turpitude seriously. In each of the first three scenes we have had to orient ourselves to differing conventions. Assuming that we are sufficiently entertained by the prospect of gore and anguish to give the play our full attention, we have had to turn from a suffering (and therefore sympathetic) Cody in Scene One to a weak raisonaire of a Cody in Scene Two, to a callow opportunist in Scene Three. When Scenes Four, Five and Six rotate rapidly between the meeting and a scene from Cody's life as Buffalo Bill which shows him at his most cowardly, the audience's detachment from the protagonist has gone very far. It is not retrieved until Scene Nine
In the meantime, in Scenes Six and Eight, John Grass is emerging as the play's "hero." Humiliated by the Senators for having signed the false treaty which he now wants to repudiate, he is sufficiently flawed to be human and sympathetic. To our antiheroic age, his is the noblest available response: to protest, though it be only with his own death that he may speak. These scenes are powerfully, effectively written.
But between them, in ironic juxtaposition, is a key scene: the play within the play, and this produces another problem. What is wrong about Scene Seven is not necessarily that it abrogates the tension building in the alternating representational committee scenes. Scenes Six and Eight are strong enough to bind audience interest right through. What is wrong is that the burlesque of Seven is simply too farcical, too silly, too inconsequential to be occupying our attention while important affairs are going on elsewhere.
Some telling ironic points are made in Scene Seven. For example, the President is shown enjoying "the girl. Note her legs. How white they are. For an Indian." The First Lady is pleasantly stimulated by Hickok's genuine violence. When Hickok stabs Buntline (whose collapse is ignored by everyone except Buffalo Bill) and proceeds to undress the "Indian maiden," only Buffalo Bill is concerned. In fact, he is left "in a daze" at the President's final comment: "Good show, Cody! Good Show !"
This scene has shown Buffalo Bill's increasing complicity in his own prostitution. In his quarrel with Hickok he remarks, "Ya see, Bill, what you fail to understand is that I'm not being false to what I was. I'm simply drawin' on what I was … [pause in script] and raisin' it to a higher level" (Scene 7).
More important, the play-within-the-play shows that the President is eager to swallow any cheap melodrama about the Indians. He is no more anxious to learn the truth than any other customer for the Wild West Show. There is a guilty partnership between Buffalo Bill who purveys such nonsense and the President who stands ready to accept it.
Last, the playlet offers an ironic comment on the worthlessness of any straight-forward propaganda play. Had the President been the least bit open to seeing what was before him, he would have found Hickok's senseless violence repellent. But Hickok stabs Buntline and prepares to rape the actress (who turns out to be compliant) and the President and First Lady merely applaud the show.
Kopit's construction of his play here has been hampered, perhaps, by the rich ore of his factual material. Certainly Buffalo Bill's life did have Page 168 | Top of Article many such unsympathetic aspects. As William Coleman has recently shown, even the employment of "the beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and a weakness for scouts" is historically accurate. When Hickok appeared with Cody's show, the latter said, "I could not do much with him as he was not an easy man to handle, and would insist on shooting the supers in the legs with powder, just to see them jump." The change from gun powder to the stabbing of Buntline is both poetically and artistically justified. Kopit's point here, that the meaningless violence of the Wild West stereotype fed into and encouraged an equal real-life violence which had actual consequences, is an important aspect of his theme. The indifference of the President, the Italian actress and the First Lady (despite her remark that Buntline "looks kind of dead") are also important.
However, the playlet is already so bad that the additional twists of the Italian and German accents and the "seduction," while they may be historically accurate, are unjustified artistically. They distract the audience and provide another level of alienation when it is hardly needed. Since Buffalo Bill is responsible for the show, we lose any remaining sympathy for him as well as for his burlesque production. This is not to say that the play is ineffective at this point. As the measurement of the human pulse can indicate health or sickness, so the measurement of a play's rhythm and intensity can indicate much of its condition.
There is an effective beat of intensity which picks up from Scene Six when the audience begins to be strongly involved in the committee meeting. Scene Seven, though burlesque, has a second death onstage, a bit more serious than the first (insofar as Buffalo Bill's "dazed" condition indicates that the stabbing is real to one person of the half dozen or so on stage at the time). In Scene Eight, the earlier candor and dignity of the Indians gives way to exasperation and insults, culminating in a highly effective, angry exchange. The Indians, having demanded the cash that the government is "holding in trust" for them, are told that they would only use it to get drunk if they had it. John Grass retorts that, if this is so, "when an Indian gets drunk, he is only imitating the white men he's observed!" It is this retort, called forth by his personal humiliation, which engenders the vindictiveness of the Senators.
Scene Nine returns to the Wild West Show. As Scene Eight raised the tension of the committee meeting scenes, this scene too raises the tension of the Wild West scenes. But more importantly, Buffalo Bill's inner conflict becomes dramatized effectively for the first time in the play.
In Scene Nine, the manipulation of the Indians' courage into a source of audience titillation is continued. Chief Joseph repeats his heart-rending speech of surrender, explaining that he does so "twice a day, three times on Sunday," because Buffalo Bill has promised that, in exchange, his people will receive food. He distances the speech by "exaggerated and inappropriate gestures," and his comment: "after which, the audience always applauded me." After Chief Joseph's "act," the Wild West Show Indians are to perform an imitation of a religious rite involving self-mutilation. They "take the barbed ends of long leather thongs … and hook them through plainly visible chest harnesses" while Buffalo Bill explains that no one will be hurt.
Now John Grass appears. By the time he comes onto the scene, the audience's concern and sympathy for the Indians is strongly focused in him. Few people in the theatre will note that his appearance in Scene Nine is anachronistic, the Wild West scene in progress presumably occurring well before the committee meeting. He begins to perform the rite authentically. He "pulls the Indians out of their harnesses, rips open his shirt, and sticks the barbs through his chest muscles. He chants and dances. The other Indians, realizing what he's doing, blow on reed whistles, urge him on. Finally he collapses, blood pouring from his chest." Thus in this scene, the play's two strands are joined for the first time in the person of John Grass. He attempts to express the extremity of his need to be authentic as an Indian brave in the face of the show's whoopdedoodle.
Again Cody, seen as Buffalo Bill, must react silently to an onstage mutilation. But now, for the first time, as the actor gathers the fallen Indian tenderly in his arms, the audience can feel that Cody has taken the Indians' agony into himself. It is a physical, a corporeal and thus truly theatrical gesture: a feint, I would call it, in that the audience's gut sympathy moves from Grass' self-mutilated, physically heavy body to Cody, as Cody takes the weight of the body.
It is with that weight and sympathy behind him that the audience watches his vain appeal to the President in Scene Ten. The furious ending of the committee meeting in Scene Eleven is almost anticlimactic. The play is then over; the history is unfolded. What remains is only the agony of the protagonist, who has, at last, earned the audience's sympathetic hearing.
As the focus has shifted to Cody's inner conflict, the conventions shift again to pure expressionism. Thus Scene Twelve takes place in a ghostly saloon whose customers include Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Wanting to ease his conscience, Bill confesses his failure to warn Sitting Bull and begs Hickok to teach him to be authentic as Hickok was in the playlet scene. But Hickok has meanwhile adopted Buffalo Bill's solution; he brings on a group of apparitions, copies of Buffalo Bill personified in "a group of men … their faces … covered by masks of his face." Buffalo Bill tries to shoot them but, in true expressionist fashion, "they fall and immediately rise again. They slowly surround him. He screams as he shoots. They disappear" (Scene 12).
The psychological conflict between Cody's idealism and Buffalo Bill's callousness to the consequences of his actions has been one of Kopit's main themes, since he introduced the dual aspects of Cody's personality and his weak self-justification in the first scene. But after that, he has split the aspects in two.
This division of the main character into his contrasting aspects would appear on paper to be a brilliant notion, much more viable here than was, say, Eugene O'Neill's similar attempt in The Great God Brown and Days Without End. But the confusion which had vitiated The Great God Brown is still produced in Indians. Not only did Walter Kerr, for example, call the conflict undramatized, but Julius Novick, reviewing the Washington production, remarked that the play was half over before he knew it had a plot. When the personality is already split in two, it is very difficult to dramatize the agonizing attempt to harmonize its warring elements. The fact that Kopit almost succeeded is a tribute to his ingenuity. But the expressionism carried a good thing too far.
That the expressionism is a weak crutch here can be seen in that Kopit treats ghosts and apparitions differently, depending on whether the scene is expressionist or Brechtian. If the convention is Brechtian, Buffalo Bill has no fear of the ghosts. Thus he "translates" the ghost's remarks in Scene Three, reacts emotionally but without fear to the possibly dead Buntline and John Grass in Scenes Seven and Nine respectively, and talks to the dead Sitting Bull in Scene Thirteen with love. But he turns to the ghostly Indians in Scene One with horror. In the expressionist Scene Twelve he is terrified of the copies which have been made of him.
Kopit has structured Scene Thirteen as a reprise, in an attempt to bring the themes and disparate conventions together in consanguinity. There are Brechtian elements: "The Indians cover the center area with the huge white sheet, then lie down upon it in piles" (to represent their massacre). Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull have a philosophical discussion of their relationship in which both talk as if they were dead:
Oh, God. Imagine. For a while, I actually thought
my Wild West Show would help. I could give
you money. Food. Clothing. And also make
people understand things … better.
(He laughs to himself.)
That was my reasoning. Or, anyway, part …
of my reasoning.
Your show was very popular.
We had … fun, though, you and I.
Oh, yes. And that's the terrible thing. We had all
surrendered. We were on reservations. We
could not fight or hunt. We could do nothing.
Then you came and allowed us to imitate our
glory…. It was humiliating! For sometimes,
we could almost imagine it was real.
Thus we have the ghost of a real Indian describing himself and other real Indians playing fake Indians in order to feel like real Indians.
The "interview" between Colonel Forsythe and the reporters also works on several levels. It is supposed to be about the Indian massacre, but the tone and diction are strongly contemporary as the Colonel says, "Of course innocent people have been killed. In war they always are." The reporters enter in 1970's clothing. Thus the events of the play are "distanced" forward to our involvement in Vietnam.
The expressionist elements also appear briefly in the last scene. The Indian apparitions reappear, as do the "Roughriders of the World." Chief Joseph reprises his speech. (The use of another expressionist device, the bloody plastic masks, was Stacy Keach's idea, rather than Kopit's. Kopit— rightly, I think—would have preferred not to have them, for the play is moving, at the end, towards a simpler resolution.) The factual material, the philosophical query as to the nature of their existence,
the emotional response of anguish to the sense of guilt are to be heard and seen at the end in the context of the audience's recognition that a subject of great human significance has been explored "in the round," so that all its aspects have been voiced, and so that the play corresponds deeply to man's experience. Thus in Scene Thirteen various figures: the military, the "liberal" press, the government as quoted by Cody, express their views about the Indians' death. Cody meets the dead souls, Sitting Bull's at length, and expresses his sorrow in an ambivalent, highly moving, lyrical coda.
As I have shown, one of Kopit's purposes has been to teach the audience a lesson from history. Thus Buffalo Bill's recital of the facts of U.S. Indian policy in Scene Thirteen, deriving from the theater of fact, provides the outermost framework. At the beginning and end, we contemplate the remains: the museum cases and the trivial junk of Indian tourist trade. But we are expected to remember that the entire work represents a mosaic of Cody's memories, and is therefore as factual as memory can be. How factual is that?
Despite my great admiration for this play, I have shown why it failed to arrive at that riveting circle of performance for many of its audiences. The reasons are easy to see. Reviewers noted many of them. Stanley Kauffmann felt Kopit's language was inadequate. This objection, I feel, is valid, insofar as the substitutes for eloquence used in the play, except in Scene Nine, are external to the character and thus comparatively weak. Walter Kerr found the "argument unorganized, the conflict undramatized." But we have seen how carefully the argument is organized. However Kerr is right in saying that the conflict is undramatized, because the play has, as we saw, four distinct themes.
On the simplest level, Kopit uses the naturalistic convention for the committee scenes. As he allows John Grass and Sitting Bull to argue with the Senators, the audience may interject or accept uncritically Kopit's view of the Indians' suffering at the hands of the whites. But Kopit has not intended to write a propaganda play about the Indians which will have no more effect than the play-within-the-play had upon the sensibilities of the President. For he knows how easily people can turn any onstage horrors into "entertainment." Thus he has used the Brechtian techniques of alienation for his second aim; to force the audience to think critically about the material of the play.
The use of the voice-over narrator, the deliberate alienation of the audience from the play through the many distancing devices of the various other narrators (Cody, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph who narrates his own performance rather than putting on such a performance), the play-within-the-play for the President inside the Wild West framework inside the museum-theatre-of-fact framework, are all very complex alienation techniques.
To make the audience think, to make them appreciate the ironies of the situation, Kopit also uses many reversals of pretense and reality. The meeting between the Senators and the Indians appears real, but Scene Ten tells us that it too is but a meaningless performance, for the committee's visit is only a "gesture." The Indians have been condemned already. Which is real—the William Cody of the committee scenes who loved the Indians and played Buffalo Bill, or the Buffalo Bill of the Wild West show who played into the false myth of manifest destiny and destroyed the Indian way of life? Cody pretends to ride a prancing stallion; the Indians pretend to be wounded buffalo. The Wild West Show pretends the Sun Dance, but John Page 171 | Top of Article Grass "really" performs it. The White House playlet pretends the rescue of a maiden by a Western Scout, but the Scout "really" knifes a comrade instead. Cody pretends a defense of his government's policy in Scene Thirteen, but embodies the living hell of the white man's guilt. The Brechtian method, with its refusal to allow the audience to fall into the complaisant position that it is being entertained by a fantasy, is heavily relied on. However, as the acerbic John Simon said, "now it may be right and desirable to make the audience temporarily lose its intellectual bearings, but it is risky, indeed unwise, to play games with its emotional responses, ceaselessly inflating, undercutting, manipulating, till assimiliation becomes impossible on any level."
As this example illustrates again, the Brechtian convention has never worked, per se. People do not learn from "facts." They learn only from facts tied to cases, examples, instances which may have captured their sympathetic attention. Brecht's plays work in spite of him, because he failed to alienate his audiences from the characters as he had wished to do. For example, Brecht wanted his audiences to see Mother Courage as stupid—to learn that one who ties herself to the war machine is bound to be mangled by its operation. Yet audiences continue to admire this foolish, persistent creature.
For Indians to "work," the audience must sympathize with Buffalo Bill even as it sees his weaknesses. Yet with all the brilliance with which Kopit has manipulated the manifold conflicts and conventions of the play, it fails to develop an organic forward motion until the split personality of Cody coalesces into one struggling human being. While the alternating structure is perfectly appreciable upon analysis, its effect in the theatre is to halt the flow of the audience's involvement and excitement. It is as if the play must begin all over again in Scenes Two, Three, and Five. Unlike the Ives' symphony in which two sets of conventions are simulaneously heard, the play's sets alternate here.
Kopit has done some interesting work before Indians, but there has always been an imitative element in his work which threatens to overwhelm it, so it loses its own structural autonomy in favor of a schematic imitation. Oh Dad, Poor Dad took off on Tennessee Williams. Chamber Music was an impressionist exercise. The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis was a parody on The Cherry Orchard, with the tarts' farts as the Rabelaisian counterpart of Chekov's delicate broken string. Indians was a major theatrical achievement, but Kopit was still too closely tied to the Brechtian conventions for the play to be completely authentic on its own terms. Perhaps in his next play, he will sever his dependence on authorial models and produce an authentic masterwork of his own.
Source: Vera M. Jiji, "Indians: A Mosaic of Memories and Methodologies," in Players: The Magazine of American Theatre, Vol. 47, No. 5, June-July 1972, pp. 230-36.
Barnes, Clive, "The Theater: ‘Indians’ in Washington," in New York Times, May 27, 1969, p. 43.
—, "Theater: Irreverence on London Stage," in New York Times, July 9, 1968, p. 30.
—, "Theater: Kopit's ‘Indians,’ " in New York Times, October 14, 1969, p. 51.
Esslin, Martin, "Osborne's Author and Kopit's Indians," in New York Times, July 21, 1968, p. D12.
Funke, Lewis, "Origin of ‘Indians’ Recalled by Kopit," in New York Times, October 15, 1969, p. 37.
Kerr, Walter, "But If the Play Is Sick at Heart," in New York Times, October 19, 1969, p. D1.
Klein, Alvin, "‘Indians,’ an Echo of Vietnam," in New York Times, October 20, 1991, p. NJ13.
Kopit, Arthur, Indians, Hill & Wang, 1969.
Novick, Julius, " ‘Liberty and Justice’—for Indians?" in New York Times, May 18, 1969, p. D3.
Shewey, Don, "Arthur Kopit: A Life on Broadway," in New York Times, April 29, 1984, p. 91.
Wardle, Irving, "Moral Pageantry from the West," in Times (London), No. 57295, July 5, 1968, Arts, p. 7.
Adams, Alexander B., Sitting Bull: An Epic of the Plains, Putnam's Sons, 1973.
Adams's popular biography of the Sioux chief explores
the complex relationships of Sitting Bull and
his contemporaries, such as Crazy Horse, Buffalo
Bill, Spotted Tail, and General Custer.
Brown, Dee Alexander, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:
An Indian History of the American West, Holt, Rinehart, and
Brown's book was a breakthrough in historical
interpretation at the time that it was published.
Using primary sources, the author showed white
Page 172 | Top of Article Americans the Indian side of what happened in the
Cody, William Frederick, An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill
(Colonel W. F. Cody), Cosmopolitan Book, 1920.
Buffalo Bill revised his autobiography until his death
in 1917. The story of his life reads like a novel in
some parts, with dialogue and action. Buffalo Bill's
romanticized interpretation of the events of his life
are reminiscent of Kopit's characterization.
Young Joseph, Chief of the Nez Perce, "An Indian's Views
of Indian Affairs," in North American Review, Vol. 128, No.
269, April 1879: 412-33, http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgibin/
(accessed September 21, 2006).
Chief Joseph's essay explains the culture and laws of
American Indians to white people who have been
taught that North America's native inhabitants are
savage and barely human.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420800019