Buffalo Bill: Did you really think that the buffalo would return magically?
Sitting Bull: It seemed no less likely than Christ returning, and a good deal more useful. Though to look at their reception. I don't see any reason why either of them would want to.
WILLIAM CODY killed 4280 buffalo in 1868, thus managing at the same time to feed the white men who were running a railroad through the plains and deprived the Plains Indians of their food supply. The buffalo slaughter wasn't the first atrocity committed by Europeans against the native American. When you consider the French wars against the Indians in New York and Canada, and Lord Jeffrey Amherst's gift of smallpox-infested blankets to his Indian friends, it was not the greatest. In fact, in Arthur Kopit's Indians Buffalo Bill even shows remorse for the slaughter. "I didn't know they reproduced so slowly," he says.
Kopit's Buffalo Bill is a Kiplingesque figure, ready to bear the white man's burden manfully to feed and clothe and look after the savages and try to civilize them. He shows genuine anger when the government leaves the Indians to starve, and even goes to Washington and tries to get the President to act. He is a civilized man.
The genocide of the American Indian is a natural subject for drama. The scope of the human tragedy it involves dwarfs anything produced in an average Broadway season. But the American theatrical Indian has always been of the Tonto variety, the faithful Indian sidekick, a caricature with almost no resemblance to reality. In Kopit's Indians, the white man becomes the caricature, the braggart soldier and cowardly liar, an image all too close to what he really was.
HAROLD SCOTTS production of Indians is a well-crafted piece of theatre scaled down in script and staging from the unwieldly Broadway version. The staging, and Franco Colavecchia's compact Wild West show focus the action of the play neatly. The play opens with dance, performed in silence by eight Indians, who disperse when Buffalo Bill rides onstage. The Indians are dimly lit; Buffalo Bill gets two bright follow spots and an accompaniment of carnival music. Douglas Nielson's Bill is flexible, almost always on top of his part, whether it calls for theatrics or remorse. Bernard Holmberg's Sitting Bull, Bill's friend-enemy throughout the play, carries himself with an unstrained dignity and poise, yet manages a great fluidity of motion. Ralph Martin, the "Ol' Time President" to whom Cody appeals, and Samuel Wiseman's Wild Bill Hickok, are convincing as impervious zanies who never let the plight of the Indians penetrate their well made up minds.
In fact, if any fault is to be found with this production, it lies in the play itself. Kopit's script is uneven, scurrying unpredictably from brilliance to pathos. Some of his lines carry a sublime irony, as in the death speech of Spotted Tail, the young Indian played articulately by Fletcher Word. Bill Fuller's comic Russian Grand Duke Alexis is moved to kill a Cherokee by Bill's pompous and flatulent boasting of his slaughters of the tribe, and shoots the first Indian who comes in sight. Spotted Tail falls dead, and then rises to address the audience:
My name is Spotted Tail. My mother was a Sioux, my father part Cherokee, part Crow. No matter how you look at it, I'm just not a Cherokee.
Buffalo Bill's description of Sitting Bull's assassination is likewise filled with a bitter irony:
The greatest Indian that ever lived, shot by order of government. Shot with a gatling gun, while the wonderful grey horse I gave him for performing in my show danced his repertory of tricks in the background, since a gunshot was his cue to perform.
BUT KOPIT is not content to let his play end on a moment of high drama, when the ghost of Sitting Bull confronts Cody after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Rather, he makes a stab at the grotesque, forcing Buffalo Bill to read a catalogue of atrocities and try to justify them. His attempt fails, for this is a distortion of the character Cody has established, and the play lapses into incoherence. The dramatic affect of the play is irreparably marred by its ending.
Except for a general looseness in its first act, this is the only major flaw in Indians, which usually manages to maintain a high level of dramatic tension from beginning to end. Some scenes, like the self-mutilation in the Sundance, a sacred Indian ritual which Cody used for entertainment in his Wild West Show, have a deep visceral impact. Scott's Indians despite its inherent flaws is an inventive, well-directed, moving evening of theater which should help dispel the image of the American Indian as a cigar store ornament.