Arts & Culture

‘When I wrote a play, I found that I lost myself’

5 min read

Distinguished playwright Arthur Kopit returns to his alma mater to talk theater

A black comedy from the early 1960s with a title too long to fit the average marquee may seem an odd choice for the New College Theatre’s first production, but once you’ve heard the story behind the play, it makes perfect sense.

The play is “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad,” by Arthur Kopit ’59. The playwright was at Harvard Friday (Nov. 2) to discuss his career in the theater. Also on hand was David Gammons ’92, director of the current production. Robert Scanlan, professor of the practice of theater in the Department of English and American Literature and Language, served as moderator.

Sitting before the play’s garishly surreal set, Kopit talked about how Harvard changed him from a prospective engineering concentrator to the enfant terrible of the American stage.

“I wrote plays because it was possible to get plays done here,” Kopit said, describing Harvard in the late 1950s as “a chaos of creativity with theater going all over the place.”

Kopit entered that chaos when Gaynor Bradish, a tutor in Dunster House with an interest in theater, told a group of students that if any of them wanted to write a play over spring break, he, Bradish, would see that it got produced. Kopit went to work and immediately found writing for the stage to be an exhilarating and freeing experience.

“I had been writing short stories, and I was having a lot of trouble with the narrative point of view. When I wrote a play, I found that I lost myself as Arthur Kopit and I just wrote down what the characters said. I wasn’t anywhere in the play, and I liked that. In my fiction I was everywhere, and I didn’t like that.”

The result of Kopit’s first foray into playwriting was a one-act play called “The Questioning of Nick.”

“When I saw the play produced, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Could I be a playwright?’”

Kopit’s fellow students were quicker to answer that question in the affirmative than was Kopit himself. The success of his first production soon won him a College-wide reputation as an outstanding talent. When he was asked to write a play for Dunster House, he decided to create a work of lasting significance.

“I had just seen ‘Waiting for Godot’ [by Samuel Beckett], and I thought, OK, I’m going to write something better than that.”

Full of symbolism and mythological references, the play went into production, and Kopit watched it take shape feeling that he had produced a masterpiece. Some time after opening night, however, his opinion of the work underwent an abrupt reversal. Kopit immediately went to see Robert Chapman, the English professor whose course in playwriting he had been taking.

“It suddenly hit me,” he told Chapman, “That play I wrote, that’s a piece of shit!”

“Yes!” Chapman replied.

“But why didn’t you tell me?”

“I knew you’d figure it out for yourself.”

The experience did not dampen Kopit’s newfound passion for playwriting, but it did help him to realize that writing out of a sense of fun and adventure is a far more reliable method of producing good work than the determination to create masterpieces. Kopit went on to write half a dozen more plays during his undergraduate career, some of which were later produced professionally.

But Kopit’s big breakthrough occurred the summer after graduation. Having received a traveling fellowship, he was planning on going to Europe in the fall to study playwriting. But the announcement of a Harvard playwriting contest with a $250 prize prompted him to produce another play.

The result was “Oh Dad, Poor Dad,” an outrageous farce about a sinister widow traveling with her virginal son and the stuffed carcass of her murdered husband. The play won the competition, but it was so unconventional that Kopit feared audiences would reject it.

“I thought I’d be lucky to be out of the country when it opened. Not for a nanosecond did I think it had any commercial potential,” he said.

Not only did audiences like the play, it also attracted critical attention from outside Harvard. Within a few years it was playing on Broadway in a production directed by Jerome Robbins with Hermione Gingold as Madame Rosepettle and Sam Waterston as her son. A film adaptation with Rosalind Russell and Robert Morse came out in 1967.

Kopit has gone on to a long and distinguished theatrical career. Among his many successful plays are “The Conquest of Everest” (1964), “Indians” (1968), “Wings,” (1978), “End of the World with Symposium to Follow” (1984), and “Because He Can” (2006).

Kopit said that a great deal of his success as a playwright can be attributed to the creative atmosphere he found at Harvard and the feeling that it was all right to fail because failure was just another learning experience.

He had a word of caution, however, about the state-of-the-art theater in which his play was being revived.

“Be very careful how you use this theater,” he said. “The seductiveness of going for technical effects is very great, and it distracts you from thinking about characters and what’s going on between them. If I had been offered this space to write for, I think I would have been a different writer.”