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Arthur Kopit


By Gregory P. Pressman

Arthur Kopit is too impatient to take anything seriously. If you saw him navigate his little black Porsche through Mass. Ave. traffic, you'd conclude, there goes a man completely out of his head. In God knows how many gears, he cut off buses, trucks, and pedestrians, ignoring the laws of Cambridge, physics, and common sense. "I got by 'em before they knew where I was," he claimed. His driving was almost a happening. Had it been less absurd he'd have been mashed, but as it was it was outrageously funny.

"I came to see a happening," Kopit told the senior tutor of Dunster House, though officially he had been invited for a week by the House, whose dining hall had been the proving ground for his first plays. Now he was again roaming through the House and holding forth in the common room, playing the house grad made good on the outside and loving every minute of it. He looked quite the serious playwright, too, smoking slim cigarillos, and sporting a well-trimmed beard and a natty continental suit. But his mood contained more nostalgia than triumph.

"This is the only place I've ever had fun putting on plays," he mused to some half-drunk actors from the Dunster Christmas play, himself not entirely sober at the time. "We didn't have to worry about reviews, the stage hands union, Actor's Equity, or our backers. We could do whatever the hell we wanted."

During his years at Dunster, before his graduation in 1959, Kopit wrote two Christmas plays and several one-actors. "My Christmas productions, Don Juan in Texas and Across the River and Into the Jungle, had everything in them, even huge barroom brawls. We threw them together in two days, but the audiences loved them anyway. Everyone was always drunk." One of his other plays, The Questioning of Nick, about a high school basketball player accused of throwing a game, was later put on television.

Kopit's greater success, the one that carried him into the legitimate theatre, was produced not by Dunster but by the Adams House Drama Society. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad premiered at Agassiz Theatre in January, 1960. Within a month it was snatched up by New York agents and moved to an off-Broadway house, whence it was again snatched up, this time by Hollywood.

"I couldn't write that play today," Kopit told his Dunster Forum audience, speaking in the sincerely self-critical role of the serious playwright. "There's too much wrong with Oh Dad, too much that I wouldn't do now that I did then. In fact, there's a good deal wrong with almost everything I've written. I've got two full-length plays sitting in my bottom drawer, and they'll probably stay there."

As an exercise in self-criticism, he read to the Forum a short unproduced play called M'hill Daiim, about Sally, a beautiful girl in the Peace Corps,--"She's got to be beautiful, she's got to be the American dream"--who, on the New York-to-Washington Limited, gets eaten by her three African guests. The title, incidentally, is translated "Meal Time." Kopit has provided such touches as a Hammacher-Schlemmer electric cannibal pot in which Sally is cooked, offstage, although she is eaten onstage. "I think I went too far here," Kopit explained, "not just in showing cooked portions of Sally, but in the play's whole conception. The play's intent is unclear, and could easily be interpreted as anti-Negro, though I certainly never intended it to be."

His other plays include two giant man-eating venus flytraps, in Oh Dad, and 18 whores who simultaneously break wind, offstage again, in The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis. And through these moments, one glimpses the grinning Arthur Kopit, boy playwright, who writes like he drives, outrageously. He's funny because he shatters all expectations, because he either parodies our reality or substitutes his own absurdity.

He likes to shock mildly stuffy people, though it's not the Edward Albee bludgeon of agonized revelation but the pinch of a grown-up undergrad. He served up Peace Corps Sally in the same spirit that he offered conversation at Radcliffe, breaking the white tablecloth and candlelight quiet of the dinner by singing, "I would have let him see me naked," a lament from his dramatization of The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. "This girl's boyfriend goes to a brothel," Kopit happily explained, "and she sings this song describing what she would have done for him. It's got violins and everything." After that he turned to the dorm's head resident. She just smiled weakly.

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