We Talk, You Listen
Custer Died for Your Sins
Man’s Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State
There is a fine moment of provocation in Arthur Kopit’s play, Indians. Buffalo Bill, resplendent in buckskin and beadwork, astride a wooden horse, enters alone upon the bright center of the rodeo ring. Annie Oakley and the Roughriders of the World have just taken leave of the stage in triumph; the brassy fanfare ends in the solemn roll of a drum.
Buffalo Bill: THANK YOU, THANK YOU! A GREAT show lined up tonight! With all-time favorite Johnny Baker, Texas Jack and his twelve-string guitar, the Dancin’ Cavanaughs, Sheriff Brad and the Deadwood Mail Coach, Harry Philamee’s Trained Prairie Dogs, the Abilene County Girls’ School Trick Roping and Lasso Society, Pecos Pete and the…
Buffalo Bill (startled): Hm?
Voice: Bring on the Indians.
Buffalo Bill: What?
Voice: The Indians.
Buffalo Bill: Ah.
But for those damned Indians, and the sort of moral dilemma they had already begun to symbolize, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” might indeed have been great; at least it might have been a reflection of something like national greatness, an affirmation in grease paint of nineteenth-century American heroism. Certainly it must have seemed so in the 1880s, anyway, to all but a very few, and it might have seemed so to us. But the Wild West Show of Kopit’s play is another matter, and we are another audience. Our attention is drawn through the alembic of experience, real and recent, and as we follow the action on stage we have in mind, if not in view, the long aftermath of the Indian Wars, an intervening destiny that remains to be understood, the rise—and perhaps the fall—of American nationalism from Wounded Knee to My Lai.
We have in Kopit’s conception of Buffalo Bill a sensitivity of tragic proportions; the old scout is alive to himself at last, and the hard irony of his situation is not lost upon him. His barely audible “Ah” in the banter above may be perfectly ludicrous as rejoinder, but in the best sense it is pathetic as well, for we can believe that it proceeds from genuine anguish. It is the very syllable of sorrow, the vocalized pause in which the whole weight of conscience bears down and settles in. The burden is even more effectively realized in a later scene, and there we are reminded that the tragedy is not Buffalo Bill’s alone. Bill says to Sitting Bull, “We had…fun, though, you and I…. Didn’t we?” And the old chief answers:
Oh yes. And that’s the terrible thing. We had all surrendered. We were on reservations. We could not fight, or hunt. We could do nothing. Then you came and allowed us to imitate our glory…. It was humiliating! For sometimes, we could almost imagine that it was real.
Poor Bill, there is an element of betrayal here. The red man protests too much; a simple reply, even a nod and a grunt, should have sufficed—but this. Who does …