Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

March 28, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Kopit’s Dangerous World

Arthur Kopit, author of "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s

Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad" (and other plays

with shorter titles), would probably like to be in two places at once.

His play "BecauseHeCan" (a revised version of "Y2K,"

which made its brief Off-Broadway debut at the close of 1999) opens

this Friday, March 30, at McCarter Theater, under the direction of

Emily Mann. This Friday also marks the world premiere of Kopit’s

"Chad

Curtiss: Lost Again," the umbrella title for three short one-act

plays with a common theme, presented at Louisville’s Humana Festival.

If a common theme can be said to run through Kopit’s plays, it is

expressed most succinctly by critic Brooks Atkinson, who has noted

that Broadway in the 1970s did not present many new plays that took

positions on public or moral issues. Of only two exceptions he cites,

one is Arthur Kopit’s "Indians," which "brought new

excitement

to the theater." Kopit’s subsequent canon, which also includes

"Wings," "Road to Nirvana," "End of the World

with Symposium to Follow," and the book for the musical

"Nine,"

has supported Atkinson’s early observation. Kopit has continued to

bring excitement to the theater. His plays are also singled out for

their biting satiric thrust, bitter humor, sinister doings, and for

exploring new and dangerous worlds.

"BecauseHeCan" gives the appearance of being Kopit’s most

timely and topical play set in a dangerous new world. It tells the

story of Joseph and Joanne Elliot, a high-powered New York City couple

who awake one day to discover that their private lives are no longer

private, thanks to a teenage computer hacker with a warped sense of

fun.

In a phone conversation following a McCarter rehearsal, the New

York-born

and raised Kopit describes the work as "part Internet thriller

and part psychological mystery." He says he wrote for no other

reason than that the subject matter just "hit me." Its theme,

the invasion of privacy and the issue of what we know about anything

or anyone, he says, is of great concern to him.

Kopit says it all began with Kenneth Starr’s

investigation

of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. His interest in personal

privacy was sparked when he read that Starr had subpoenaed all the

books that Lewinsky had purchased. Although he was appalled by

Clinton’s

purported conduct, "I thought that the book business was nobody’s

business, and that this was setting a very dangerous precedent by

intruding this way into someone’s life."

That the government, without a search warrant, can learn so much about

anybody and everybody, and that so little that we have is so truly

private, propelled Kopit to consider a play in which blackmail,

intimidation,

and the making of false claims play a major part. Intrigued by how

electronic data can be falsified, Kopit says he began to see the

dramatic

possibilities in what is called "theft of identity" and what

happens when hackers break into computers and manipulate information.

Thus three elements came together: the right of one’s privacy being

violated, how much of someone’s life is based upon assumption, and

what happens when you lose faith and trust. Kopit sees

"BecauseHeCan"

as a sort of Orwellian vision of the future, about something that

plays and fiction have dealt with for a long time — the

distinction

between truth and illusion.

"I never started out to write about moral issues, but just about

what grabbed me," says Kopit, who relishes tackling an issue he

doesn’t fully understand. He says a playwright must not simply write

an editorial or opinion piece. "You have to feel the moral

outrage,"

he says, "and there has to be a story that does more than try

to teach."

"With `Indians’ I wanted to deal with the building of a mythology

of legends by which the United States could justify what it was doing.

Although it was about Buffalo Bill, it was a simplification of complex

issues," says Kopit. He adds that the play’s true subject was

the Vietnam War, what we were doing there, and what we felt justified

in doing to another culture.

Although Kopit liked "BecauseHeCan’s original title, "Y2K,"

for its cryptic nature, he eventually realized that it really wasn’t

about that specific event or a single point in time. The play’s irony,

as Kopit sees it, is that the hacker is not out for vengeance or to

destroy anyone, but merely to rearrange things. "It’s a work of

art."

"A friend of mine, the head of a very large financial

organization,

read the play and said organizations are very scared of hackers, not

because they fear they may be stealing secrets or money, but that

they do it just as a work of art," he says. "The disempowered

now have power. It’s the ability to rewrite and revise someone’s life

that’s scary. Some reviewers thought this couldn’t happen."

"We are all involved in a major change, a paradigm shift. The

rate at which change is changing is profound," says Kopit who

has re-thought this new world. He expresses some anxiety about how

data and discoveries are coming in so quickly that most of us find

we are entering an unknown world. "For my play, I went online

and found out what hackers did and how they did it. During my research

I found out that the New York Times had been hacked. And with

hyper-links,

I found out what happened to them. In about three hours I had reams

of interviews with hackers. Why do they do it?, I asked myself. The

answer: `Because they can.’"

Kopit isn’t reluctant to express his disappointment with the play’s

poor critical reception in New York, especially after what he calls

"its more effective premiere" in Louisville.

"I was startled by the reviews. I was baffled and pissed off.

I read through them and learned nothing. There was no pattern. But

it was clear, they didn’t get it."

Thank goodness the critics did get "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad" back

in 1962. I asked Kopit if he felt that the sudden and unexpected

success

of "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad," its black humor still something of

a novelty in the early ’60s, was an influence on his future writing

and choice of subjects. "I felt when I wrote it that it didn’t

have any commercial potential," he says. "So I was encouraged,

but I knew that I never wanted to write another play like that."

Kopit confesses that part of him didn’t take that first

great success all that seriously. Although he does remember thinking,

"Maybe I can indeed earn a living writing plays right out of

college."

Kopit was an engineering major at Harvard when the playwriting bug

hit him. "Although there was no official theater department,"

he says, "I saw a lot of theater there and decided that was what

I wanted to do." He next big success came in the 1969-’70 season

when "Indians" opened on Broadway and the play topped several

lists for best play of the year.

He concedes that the first version of "BecauseHeCan," which

he says "is very good," did not work as well in New York as

it did in Louisville, and he has continued to make changes. Emily

Mann has worked with him to make sure the play has more emotional

impact that it did in New York. One problem that hasn’t been addressed

or solved is how Kopit can arrange to be, short of astral projection,

in two places at the same time. Let me suggest "BecauseHeCan."

— Simon Saltzman

BecauseHeCan , McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Opening night for Arthur Kopit’s drama, directed by

Emily Mann. Performances continue to April 15. $22 to $36. Friday,

March 30, 8 p.m.


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