The Questioning of Nick, pr. 1957 (staged), pr. 1959 (televised)
Gemini, pr. 1957
Don Juan in Texas, pr. 1957 (with Wally Lawrence)
On the Runway of Life, You Never Know What’s Coming Off Next, pr. 1957
Across the River and into the Jungle, pr. 1958
Aubade, pr. 1959
Sing to Me Through Open Windows, pr. 1959, revised pr. 1965
To Dwell in a Palace of Strangers, pb. 1959
Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition, pr., pb. 1960
Mhil’daiim, pr. 1963 (one act)
Asylum: Or, What the Gentlemen Are Up To, Not to Mention the Ladies, pr. 1963 (also known as Chamber Music, pb. 1965)
The Conquest of Everest, pr. 1964
The Hero, pr. 1964
The Day the Whores Came out to Play Tennis, pr., pb. 1965 (one act)
The Day the Whores Came out to Play Tennis, and Other Plays, pb. 1965 (includes Sing to Me Through Open Windows, Chamber Music, The Conquest of Everest, The Hero, and The Questioning of Nick; reissued as Chamber Music, and Other Plays, pb. 1969)
An Incident in the Park, pb. 1967
Indians, pr. 1968
What Happened to the Thorne’s House, pr. 1972
Louisiana Territory, pr. 1975
Secrets of the Rich, pr. 1976
Wings, pr. 1977 (radio play), pr., pb. 1978 (staged), pr. 1983 (televised)
Good Help Is Hard to Find, pb. 1982 (one act)
Nine, pr. 1982 (music, libretto, and lyrics by Maury Yeston; adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film 8½)
End of the World with Symposium to Follow, pr., pb. 1984
Bone-the-Fish, pr. 1989 (also known as Road to Nirvana, pr. 1990)
Phantom of the Opera, pr. 1991 (music and lyrics by Yeston; adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel)
Success, pr. 1991
Discovery of America, pr. 1992
Three Plays, pb. 1997
Y2K, pr., pb. 1999 (retitled BecauseHeCan)
Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, pr. 2000
The Conquest of Television, 1966
Promontory Point Revisited, 1969
Hands of a Stranger, 1987
Phantom of the Opera, 1990 (adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel)
Treasure Island, 1994
“The Vital Matter of Environment,” 1961 (in Theatre Arts)
Ghosts, 1984 (of Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere)
Arthur Lee Kopit (KOP-uht) is a writer whose plays are noted for powerful social commentary and for innovations in dramatic form. He was born in New York City but grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, where his father was a jeweler. After finishing high school in 1955, he entered Harvard University on a scholarship, with a declared major in engineering. He was, however, also interested in the arts, and during his last three years as an undergraduate, he won two playwriting contests and saw seven of his works produced. The plays from this period depict Kopit’s early fascination with exploring the role of the hero in a specifically American context and with incorporating European avant-garde theatrical forms, such as the Theater of the Absurd, with which he was initially associated. Don Juan in Texas is a parody of the American Western, and Across the River and into the Jungle pokes fun at Ernest Hemingway. The theatrical styles of these works range from impressionistic drama to black comedy. In 1968, Kopit married Leslie Ann Garis, a concert pianist from Amherst, Massachusetts; they have three children.
The first play to bring Kopit international attention was Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. This play centers on a domineering woman, her overprotected son, and her dead husband’s body, which keeps falling out of a closet. It is an exuberant farce that satirizes American family life, Tennessee Williams, and the absurdists. Using macabre humor to distance the audience from the stage action, Kopit exposes the psychological dangers inherent in a society that blindly adheres to a belief in stereotyped family roles. The play won the Vernon Rice Award and the Outer Circle Award. It has been performed in London, Paris, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Mexico, the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, and (West) Berlin. A film version was released by Paramount in 1967.
In the next group of plays, Kopit presents another gallery of characters trapped in a chaotic world they can never come to understand. Chamber Music focuses on eight women in an insane asylum, each of whom assumes the identity of a celebrated woman–for example, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, and Susan B. Anthony. In The Day the Whores Came out to Play Tennis, Kopit lightly parodies Anton Chekhov’s 1904 drama The Cherry Orchard. The Hero, a play without words, was written in the tradition of Samuel Beckett. In the midst of all this, Kopit underscores the tragicomic vein so characteristic of mid-twentieth century drama.
Kopit’s major work is Indians, which has been called one of the most important American plays of the 1960’s. His central argument is that the United States has consistently used romantic myths and legends to justify questionable political policies. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for the play, and Kopit generates the conflict through William Cody, who is made into the instant “hero” Buffalo Bill by Ned Buntline, a dime novelist. The action is framed by a Pirandellian play-within-a-play, where the scenes from the Wild West Show are alternated with historical scenes depicting Bill’s abuse of American Indians’ trust in him to represent their needs to Washington. The play is very theatrical, making full use of nonnaturalistic staging and acting. The parallels between the American treatment of the Native Americans and the Vietnamese are not readily apparent, and Kopit’s political message is oblique.
During the decade following Indians, Kopit was a Fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a playwright-in-residence at Wesleyan, and a Fellow at Yale University. Reacting to a stroke suffered by his father in 1976, Kopit next wrote–after exhaustive research–the innovative Wings, which depicts the struggle of a female stroke victim to overcome aphasia. The play, which depends on soliloquies to represent the woman’s fragmented thoughts as she gradually learns to use language, celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit.
In End of the World with Symposium to Follow, Kopit uses the conceit of the playwright as a mystery-story private investigator who is hired to expose those who are responsible for nuclear proliferation. Again utilizing the play-within-a-play frame, Kopit attempts to convey a complex message about the seductiveness of destruction and how even good people can fall under its spell. Most reviewers criticized the play’s dramaturgy, especially in its attempt to render the material comic, and the language, which is conspicuously lacking his usual wit.
Y2K (later retitled BecauseHeCan) was first staged at the Humana Festival, where theater critics voted it the best play. The title plays off the (unfounded) fear of the chaos that was predicted to accompany the year change from 1999 to 2000, which not all computer programs were designed to recognize. The theme of this thriller is the erosion of personal privacy–in this case, the invasion of a couple’s private life by a computer stalker. Y2K, which insists that paranoia can be based on reality, ends without a resolution.
Kopit’s dramatic canon reflects well a certain political and theatrical orientation in the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He sees the United States as corrupt and corrupting, creating heroes out of antiheroes and legends out of political atrocities, and deeply in need of a moral consciousness and awareness to redeem it. The complexity of these views could not be accommodated by traditional realistic/naturalistic staging and form, so Kopit borrowed from and adapted the work of Eugène Ionesco, Bertolt Brecht, Luigi Pirandello, and other European dramatists. Through his experimental efforts, he extended the use of language and the range of comedy in the theater. As critic Gautam Dasgupta remarked, “Kopit creates a frightfully effective universe where both the tragic and the comic straddle each other in plays that are parodistic and serious at the same time.”