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 Friday, March 30, 2001 at McCarter Theater, under the direction of Emily Mann. That date 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 was 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, The 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 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 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.

Three elements thus 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 that 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 that play, 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 it's BecauseHeCan.



Key Subjects: 
Arthur Kopit, BecauseHeCan, Y2K, hackers
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
March 2001