Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 16, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 53
by John Lahr
Arthur Kopit’s “INDIANS” is a major event in American theatre. It is the most probing and the most totally theatrical Broadway play of this decade. “Indians” muscles in on the flab of old mythologies, discovering nerves which connect us with the past. Coming so close to the imaginative center of middle-class America, the play can produce violent reactions. Because “Indians” lacks the comforting conventional structure of a visible beginning, middle, and end, some — like David Merrick — may scoff at this nightmare of the American consciousness, “this is not a play.” But the play exists, luminous above even pertinent criticism — a stage document which goes beyond an easy liberal protest to dramatize the intangible psychic confusions of modern America.
The fury behind the play’s laughter as well as its anger is not simply over the plight of the Indian but the process by which a nation, yearning for heroism in a capitalist society which denies innocence and purity, puts itself quietly, irrevocably to sleep.
“Indians” deals with the most incendiary truth: myth being created to justify a lost dream. Buffalo Bill is the play’s central figure, a buckskin backwoodsman who allows himself to be merchandized into a hero at a time, between the late 1860s and 1890, when capitalism gradually turned the frontier into franchises. Through Buffalo Bill, Kopit finds a resonant image for American paranoia. Buffalo Bill is a figure caught between the demands of a modern pragmatism and the pastoral dream at the base of democracy’s great experiment. In him, we see the paradox of the United States: a society which began with perfection and aspired to progress.
Buffalo Bill explains his passion for self-improvement to an old crony, Wild Bill Hickok: “When a man…has a talent, I think it’s his godly duty t’make the most of it…Ya see, Bill, what you fail to understand is that I’m not being false to what I was. I’m simply drawn’ on what I was…and liftin’ it to a higher level.”
A one-time scout and hunter, Buffalo Bill is part of an authentic frontier which he later markets for his Wild West Show. He sees himself as a friend to the Indian, yet he unwittingly slaughters for profit their main source of food, the buffalo. He is the interlocutor between the U.S. government and the Indians in public hearings to air grievances, yet he bastardizes the Indian experience by incorporating the great warriors into the three-ring melodrama of his Western spectacle. He allows them to speak their passionate words as they once did in real battles for survival. In giving them their freedom to perform (Sitting Bull was released from jail in order to appear in Buffalo Bill’s show), he institutionalizes their slavery.
Buffalo Bill is the quintessential American. He believes in a vague, simple Christian heritage, that capacity for goodness and generosity. At the same time, he is slightly conscious that he has violently betrayed these ideals. Buffalo Bill’s mental collapse, which is the central drama of the play, brings all these conflicting ideas into thrilling tension. The Indians become not merely the victims of an inexorable capitalist process which must crush what it cannot absorb, but, more important, the scapegoats for a society which needs a violent enemy to justify its own preposterous inhumanity. Like Nixon refusing to take notice of anti-war protest, like the red-baiting of the ’50s, Buffalo Bill cannot face the reality behind his rhetoric. He withdraws into himself in a furious, insane certainty. Puffed with fatigue, he lashes out at nameless critics: “Anyone who thinks we have done something wrong, is wrong!” At one point in the play, Ned Buntline, the eastern journalist who comes west to seek pulp heroes for his pot-boilers, says to Buffalo Bill: “Tell the truth. Make something up!” Buffalo Bill’s dilemma — like the nation’s — is his growing inability to separate what is true from what he has made up.
By taking the form of a dream, “Indians” throws the stage open to an inventiveness and a richness of theatrical imagery which is rarely achieved. The audience is sucked into the vortex of Buffalo Bill’s memory. Events tumble into view as vivid and breathtaking as a buffalo stampede, as cruel and haunting as the hands of dead Indians, frozen toward the sky, after a winter cavalry massacre. The lighting, which sends the set flashing with the neon buzz of a circus arena, is tempered brilliantly by Thomas Skelton to a kind of mythic glow in which Buffalo Bill, astride a wooden white stallion, rides into heroic consciousness. The horses, the Indian masks, the buffalo heads designed gorgeously by Kurt Lundell for the Washington production and used here, have a cunning, surreal craft to them.
The sureness in the stagecraft is matched by the writing. Kopit knows exactly what he wants from his characters and from the audience. His play is a uniquely American melange of high seriousness and broad comedy. Kopit is at home with ambiguity, and he refuses to let his audience off the hook by allowing them to cry or hiss the villain. He denies them the bourgeois amenities of intermission chatter and curtain-call applause. The play’s broad humor keeps self-righteousness at bay — an Indian shot as a Cherokee rises form the dead to explain his real heritage; Wild Bill Hickok forgets his White House manners and humps an Indian maiden in front of the President; a Russian Grand Duke picks off Indians from a wooden stallion. Kopit’s preposterousness matches the outrages of history and objectifies the terror. The heritage of the American Indian is sadly in the past, but the process which destroyed the Indian so efficiently in the name of humanity is alive.
The play has improved immensely from its american debut at Washington’s Arena Stage. The expanded Broadway proscenium gives it a focus and impact it lacked in the more diffuse Washington arena. Yet not everything has travelled well. The most serious problem has been the directorial transitions between the scenes. Strobe lights, slow motion, and balletic tableaux worked in the arena where an audience was looking down on the production, but they are unnecessary and over-long when the audience look up at the play. Gene Frankel, the director, has done imaginative, intelligent work on the play. At its best, his direction exhibits the gaudy obsession and care the play inspires. But his transitions have added a complication to a work whose structure is delicate and whose power lies in simplicity. While most of the transactions work despite their galling self-consciousness, they tend to confuse an audience rather than clarify Buffalo Bill’s confusion. Buffalo Bill himself is lost in a morass of murky bodies and grimacing faces…
Yet whatever the excesses, “Indians” is never less than scintillating. As Buffalo Bill, Stacy Keach gallops on stage miraculously in control of his wooden white horse. To see him maneuver it, stomping the ground, bucking to punctuate his monologues, is worth the price of admission. The part is immensely difficult, demanding that an actor live with deep emotional failure on stage. Keach tackles it courageously. Sometimes his actor’s yearning for sympathy modifies a character who should be strong but self-righteous. In an otherwise brilliant performance, he whimpers at times where he should be stiff-jawed. As a result, the trial scenes occasionally miss the sparks written into the text, and the ending, with Buffalo Bill showing Indian artifacts to the audience, flirts dangerously with sentimentality.
Manu Tupou as Sitting Bull adds the weight of royalty to the Indian delegation. He is mammoth in his strength and confidence. The energy which galvanizes his frame sometimes spills over into eccentric posturing, but no one takes their eyes off him on stage.
Where most serious Broadway theatre is compromised before it reaches the customers, “Indians” is ruthlessly tough-minded. It does not dress up European ideas in American styles like Edward Albee, nor fudge history in order to earn sentimental kudos like Howard Sackler. The themes, the sights and sounds, are cut from the American cloth — material which has never been touched with such intellectual sophistication and theatrical savvy. By dramatizing the destructiveness of America’s myopic frontier mythology, “Indians” demands a new, more humane world. Americans do not know their American history. The play interprets our past, to help us define the future. Buffalo Bill haunts us as few contemporary stage characters have ever done. He is both victim and perpetrator of a violence reinforced by American materialism. The sin may be in the land, but it is primarily in the mind. The Indians were at once our first Vietnam and our first ghetto. To achieve this revelation on stage, Arthur Kopit and the entire ensemble take tremendous risks before our eyes. And it is beautiful to behold.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]