"Encountering the Father in Arthur L. Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition" by Márta Ótott
Márta Ótott is a PhD student in the English and American Literature and Culture PhD program at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged. She specializes in American drama and theater, devoting special attention to experimental theaters, Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters and the plays they present. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“ They think nothing of the dead… I wonder what the dead think of them.”
1. The Off-Off Broadway, the Absurd and the Abject
Arthur L. Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition” (1960/1962)―as its subtitle suggests―is one of the prominent works signaling the abundance of absurdist plays (Aronson 114) written and performed during the peak of theatrical experimentation in the United States, the result of two quintessential ‘against Broadway’ movements that emerged in the center of American theater life, New York, by the 1960s (Gussow 196).
The Off-Off Broadway movement of the 1960s was an obvious consequence of earlier attempts, the Off-Broadway movements, which were in vogue between the 1920s and 1950s with the aim to challenge Broadway’s profit-oriented performances. The Off-Broadway events promoted theatrical experimentation, and advantaged marginalized plays that could not, in the given context, reach commercial success. While the Off-Broadway movement gradually abandoned its original objectives of going against profit-oriented performance-professionals, Off-Off Broadway consciously gave up profit for the sake of innovation in the dramatic and performance arts (Gussow 198). During the 1960s, the initial aspirations of the Off-Broadway movements decreased; instead the Off-Off Broadway embraced and developed them further, paving the way for the special eclecticism of the American postmodern theater. The longtime effects of earlier movements and the persistent presence of the latter theater movement inevitably led non-mainstream theaters to adopt and modify the dramaturgical devices of European avant-garde plays, and present them to a small but responsive audience in America, where the neo-avant-garde worked well previously on the American experimental stage, especially accompanied by political activism and social commentary (203).
The American experimental theater, which encompassed a diversity of noncommercial theaters, coffeehouses, and university clubs, among other venues outside Broadway (Bigsby 365), witnessed a major shift in the perception and representation of the human body in the 1960s. After the long-reigning psychological realism in the dramatic arts and the photographic accuracy of representation on stage, theater turned to the grotesque in the visual realm, to the deconstruction of language in terms of meaning-making, and to new forms of ritualization through the subversion of taboos regarding the play’s subject matter. This shift appeared in the decade of high social and political turmoil: the sense of community on the experimental theatrical scene worked as a catalyst for social changes in the sixties. The new rituals permeated theatrical happenings: the actor and the spectator became both players; new performances exhibited the body as the main instrument of presentation as opposed to various former issues of its representation; the traditional division of stage and auditorium to which the body became a central issue has also changed. Among many similar plays, Kopit’s drama Oh Dad, Poor Dad belongs to this last group of changes with its representation of the body as abject through absurdist means.
Oh Dad, Poor Dad is a play-long reflection on the expression “skeleton in the closet.” Its central characters are Madame Rosepettle, a wealthy widow, and her son, Jonathan, who visit Havana. Madame Rosepettle takes always with her the two Venus flytraps, a silver piranha, and a coffin; Jonathan cannot get rid of his collection of stamps, coins, and books he has accumulated by the age of seventeen. He has a rising interest in Rosalie, a girl two years his senior, whom he watches in the hotel room through a self-made telescope. Jonathan gets the chance to secretly listen to the story his mother tells her date, Commodore Roseabove, about how his father, Albert Edward Robinson Rosepettle III, died. Meanwhile, Rosalie wants Jonathan to marry her, and she does everything to achieve her aim: she even enters Madame Rosepettle’s forbidden bedroom to perform the nuptial ritual with Jonathan when, suddenly, the father’s corpse bumps out of the closet hitting the girl. At the end of the scene, the surprised and frightened Jonathan strangles Rosalie to death.
This essay focuses on the effects of Jonathan after he sees the dead body of his father. In a strange way, he perceives his dead father, which seems to be ‘revived’ by the end of play. The marginalized Jonathan, the teenager (with a similar situation described by Julia Kristeva’s “The Adolescent Novel” in New Maladies of the Soul published in 1995), his mother’s overwhelming power, and the murder of the ‘defiling,’ grotesque Rosalie are interrelated with the staging of the father’s corpse as abject. The circumstances of the boy’s ritualistic self-purification (seeing the body and sacrificing Rosalie) demonstrate Kopit’s novel take on the perception of the body, taboos, and rituals. Kopit builds these components into a parody of domestic drama in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, and by the exaggeration of the imagery into the realm of the absurd. The dead body of the father is not a decomposing mass of flesh here, but a well-preserved trophy prepared by a taxidermist, a body that the family, more precisely the mother, carries with her everywhere. Still, in the cartoonish world of the play, this body is the materialisation of the fact that a carefully sealed surface is not necessarily capable of concealing or confining repression as such. In this context, the questions this essay intends to elaborate on are: Why is the dead body of the father animated once again? How is Jonathan’s torment unleashed and ‘resolved?’ and How is the abject related to Jonathan’s entrapment? The theoretical frameworks that will help me answer these questions are based on Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and on Attila Kiss’s theory of anatomization, abjection and power, on Victor Turner’s concept of liminality (with special attention to Boróka Prohászka Rád’s interpretation of the term), and Michel Foucault’s concept of power as used by Suzanne Burgoyne Dieckman and Richard Brayshaw in their analysis of Kopit’s plays.
2. Watching and Being Watched
Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw in their interpretation of Kopit’s dramatic oeuvre entitled “Wings, Watchers, and Windows: Imprisonment in the Plays of Arthur Kopit” provide an intriguing reading of Oh Dad by using the Foucauldian metaphor of the panopticon (Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw 195). In their work, the mother is the ultimate watcher, who seeks out and destroys everything that does not fit her concept of purity and decency, while the son tries to find a way out of (t)his prison by way of watching people and objects. But the son watches and is also watched at all times. Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw use the Foucauldian metaphor to prove that Jonathan’s being supervised results in his internalization of the mother’s contempt of sexuality, which will eventually cause Rosalie’s death and the boy’s consequent confinement.
The feeling of being locked up either in the womb (Jonathan as a newborn was long overdue) or inside a hotel room is evident throughout the entire play and testifies to the impact the confinement as an absurd form had on the author. Jonathan is not allowed to leave the hotel room(s) even though he and his mother are on an endless pilgrimage, traveling from country to country. For him, the only instrument of seeing the outside world is the French window. He only goes out to the porch to feed his mother’s Venus flytraps, that is, to appease her hunger for mastery over him. The dramatic tools that determine what Jonathan can see are theatricalized on multiple levels: for example the hotel room, the window, the mother’s bedroom (which is beyond the designated boundaries, the coffin), all overstating the cage-effect, but these will not be strong enough to keep the various intrusive processes at bay.
Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw argue that imprisonment of Jonathan and of similar characters is “constructed by various social forces in Kopit’s plays” and on their list, the family is the first item (196). The characters want to flee from the dominance of these forces, with the possibility to fulfill this only outside (196). When Rosalie, the ‘invader,’ appears, she brings about a conflict that develops between the internal and the external world of the confined Jonathan. The thin, fragile and delicate demarcation line is now challenged for the boy who has never contradicted his mother. Madame Rosepettle, who appears as the ruler of both worlds, loses control over her son as soon as Rosalie gets hold of their internal cosmos. The mother’s original intention is to use Rosalie as a deterrent so that she can justify her views on sexuality and impose it upon her son. But as the outside world leaks in a heightened conflict, it is just a question of time – especially after the handles come off the coffin – when the abject body, that is, the hidden truth, will pop out of the closet. The restrictions imposed on and the agency of the body fluctuate in the drama. No body is allowed to feel pleasure in the play; its libidinal mechanisms are incapacitated, and these manifest in the imprisonment of Jonathan in the hotel room, surrounded by voracious Venus flytraps and the silver piranha as proper ‘guards.’ In contrast to the passivity of the living body of Jonathan, the father’s dead body becomes active due to gravitational forces. This activity perceived as transgression washes away of the border between the living and the dead and manifests in a shocking encounter leading Jonathan from his “psychological paralysis” to “desperate violence” (197).
For Madame Rosepettle, the watcher status is a “defensive stance assumed out of fear” (198), as she used to be watched by men when she was young. The traumatic experience of losing her virginity and the gruesome event of the only childbirth have (de)formed her identity as a mother. Her married name bears the symbolism of these traumas: the “Rosepettle” name links to rose petals that through their shape allude the labia minora while the implied color of roses (usually red) suggests a virgin girl’s blood. The Venus flytraps relate to the mother’s sexuality and are a reference to the vagina dentata. They want to grab and eat Jonathan when Madame Rosepettle is not at home, so he has to fight them and Rosalinda the fish (who is named after the former mistress of his father). There are certain similarities and contrasts between Madame Rosepettle and Rosalie; they both want to own the boy, but in opposite ways. The mother shows her love in the overprotection of Jonathan as a child, while Rosalie is interested in Jonathan as a lover. The two women are pulling the boy in opposite directions. The tension, to which he will find relief in the killing of the ferocious creatures and in the murder, is the result of the clash of principles.
To master her traumas, the mother acts as if she intends to protect her son from danger: she sees sexual intercourse as cannibalism, while she appears to be fierce, masculine and castrating (through the creatures she has as pets). She is thus a psychological cannibal. As Attila Kiss pointed out, “the subject internalizes and acts out identity-patterns” (104); this is true also of the way in which Rosepettle’s distortion misconstructs Jonathan’s subjectivity. From his point of view, the mother’s rules want him to internalize her imposed patterns; otherwise, she seems unable to control his masculine lust and the appealing pleasures of the flesh. By abiding to his mother’s rules of behavior, Jonathan constantly reestablishes them. For him, it is his knowledge of the possibility of being seen that makes him fear what the girl is offering in the mother’s bedroom. His refusal is rooted in a rather theatrical circumstance: the feeling of the mother gazing at him (she indeed peeks through the keyhole the first time Rosalie visits Jonathan) when Rosalie asks him to lie beside her. The mother’s rule is so powerful that can act even through the body of dead father, as a deadly prosthesis of Madame Rosepettle herself. But the agency of a dead and a living body together has here destructive powers. After Jonathan kills Rosalie, he looks at the sky through his telescope using his phallic prosthesis to withdraw to the order of things in the family. The plane passing by is the confirmation that his hope of escape remains “unrealized,” as Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw point out (196, 197, 202) because the mother’s “fear of sexuality is carefully inculcated in [him] through a system of external controls which [he] has gradually internalized” (200). Thus, the decision of killing the girl for the sake of restoring a previously ruling order is not originally his.
3. Abjection and the Macabre Fun House
One of the ways to approach Jonathan’s torment and ‘reconciliation’ with himself is through the problematization of the abjection in the play. Julia Kristeva, in her theory formulated in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980/1982), explains that the abject is the strongest manifestation of the protruding and even contaminating corporeal matter (bodily waste) the subject wants to separate and alienate from (2). Abjection is mere “ambiguity” (9); it “disturbs identity, system, order,” and challenges the symbolic order (4), yet it gives the symbolic a certain “pulsation” (14). The abject forces the subject to realize the corporeality and the temporality of the body (3). Seeing a dead body is the most violent form of encountering the abject (3), but what Jonathan has to face in the play is the dead father suddenly moving as though he was still alive and acting. The falling corpse ‘instructs’ Jonathan how to exterminate Rosalie right at the climactic point of the drama.
By using Lacanian theory along with Kristeva’s theory of abjection, Attila Kiss asserts that “the cadaver is the pure signifier” because it signifies “the absence of life” (31). Here, in the very same vein, the dead body signifies the presence of life through death. The encounter thus reflects the absurdity of the play’s world and the unbearable torment of the child figure at the same time. Kiss scrutinizes the changes in the iconography of death and the abject body in his study on Double Anatomy in Early Modern and Postmodern Drama (2010) inserting the memento mori tradition into the survey of the emblematic stage (40). Kopit’s subject matter in Oh Dad, Poor Dad resembles this tradition, but is subverted (for a comparison, see Phoebe S. Spinrad’s “Memento Mockery” in The Summons of Death on the Medieval and Renaissance Stage, 1987). The spark of life in the dead father – however short – fleshes out a peculiar form of agency. The father’s postmortem interruption of Rosalie’s flirtation with Jonathan serves Madame Rosepettle’s aims and is the ultimate parody of the combination of the human body, death, agency, repression, and power. The almost zombie-like state of Albert, the father, is the utmost instance of abjection that can be understood as a grotesque irony erected as a response to the political and social turmoils of the 1960s.
According to Kiss, the postmodern anatomization of the body revolves around the “interest in the socially and discursively determined constitution of identity [and] in the corporeal-material foundations of subjectivity” (96). By opening up of the body and the representation of its inner corpo/reality, postmodern theater attempts to investigate the mechanisms that “mark out the borders of culture” (105). In stage representation, the abject is a possible tool for this process (105), one that can be seen as “a representational technique […] to transgress, subvert or unsettle the dominant discourse” (24). Kopit’s strategy seems to adhere to this transgressive way. First, the play is a parody of the expression “skeleton in the closet:” in place of the husband’s skeleton, his corpse is in Madame Rosepettle’s closet. Burgoyne Dieckman and Brayshaw do not elaborate on the issue of abjection, but make a valid point by saying that “Albert wastes away and dies, as if this vampire watcher has sucked out his soul while he slept” (198). The preserved corpse of the man is the proof that the castrating mother figure scooped out everything from his body because she wanted to keep the earthly remains as her major trophy. This supports her predator/hunter characteristics and her attributes as an archetypical phallic mother. She has managed to consume both her son and husband psychologically and she has made Jonathan become psychologically disabled (similarly to Albert, he is almost a zombie), but she leads him to collapse exactly because of the corporeal foundations of her son’s subjectivity. The drama plays a double game on the understanding of corporeality and the body’s inside/outside division, which suggests, on the one hand, that there is a soul inhabiting the body as a core of existence; on the other hand, this division constantly reaffirms the fact that the flesh and the psychological traits of the subject are inseparable units.
Another problem arises when instead of hanging the trophy-corpse on her wall, Madame Rosepettle keeps it sealed. Although the faterh1s body is placed on the stage right (at the beginning of the play) together with the woman’s other possessions, it is not visible for a while; the audience can only assume that the coffin contains the dead body of Madame’s late husband. This is indicated by Madame Rosepettle’s black clothes and her constant allusions to mourning. The coffin signals something to be seen, but which remains, for the most part, hidden. This visual clue conceals and contains, at the same time, the abject. The coffin is later placed into the master bedroom with the body probably hung on a hook by Madame. The corpse is undisclosed throughout; therefore, the encounter at the end of the play is highly intense for both the son and the audience alike. It is important to note, however, that Madame Rosepettle wants to show the dead body to the Commodore, who believes she is joking, so the presentation of the abject in the play is delayed again – but the way she wants to show it is noteworthy comic, funny and mostly, absurd: “Wanna peek”? (Kopit 62, my emphasis). The abject, nevertheless, steadily “looms” (as Kristeva would put it) in the background.
At first, the mother prevents her son from seeing the trophy-corpse. Madame Rosepettle is in charge of the cadaver as well as of her beloved son, but ultimately, she fails in handling both. She contemplates about “Life” and muses about everything being in its right place. She even tells the Commodore: “Life, my dear Commodore, is never funny. It’s grim!” and goes on saying that “Worst of all, it follows you wherever you go. Life, Mister Roseabove, is a husband hanging from a hook in the closet” (Kopit 62). Replacing the concept of “life” with the dead husband as a euphemism, Rosepettle insists: “It’s a bad day, Commodore, when you have to stare Life in the face, and you find he doesn’t smile at all; just hangs there … with his tongue sticking out” (63) while she explains that the ideal day for her is when she “open[s] the door just a little ways, sneak[s] [her] hand in, pull[s] out [her] dress, and [her] day is made” (62). The dead body of the husband is reincorporated in the fabric of the family, yet it is “challenging its master” (Kristeva 2). The mother, the ultimate watcher, cannot stand the sight of it, but keeps it to see him from time to time – it is because the cadaver of her husband is her abject other. He is more than a trophy for her, because Madame Rosepettle can build up her own subjectivity in a distancing mechanism of which it is a significant element. Rosepettle as subject “can predicate a seemingly solid and homogeneous, fixated identity for [her]self” (Kiss 105) with its constant presence. But the corpse is, at the same time, also less than a trophy, because she never wants to display it. In her world of watching/gazing and mere theatricality, the corpse remains hidden. Madame Rosepettle wants to open it up but she also wants to maintains a safe distance to it. Furthermore, the mother addresses her son by the first names of the father, this way constantly ‘resurrecting’ her late husband. Madame Rosepettle compares her son to her husband with this act, although she states that Jonathan son is “as white as fresh snow” (46) and that she would do anything to protect him from becoming just like Mister Rosepettle. She “saved him” from the “sex-driven” (72) world of men and women who are not interested in real love but only in the consumption of one another. The abject, the unspeakable, the confusing, the ambiguous, and the liminal are all ever-present in the life of the Rosepettle family only because the mother needs her abjected other to construct both her and her son’s identities.
Upon entering the forbidden territory of the mother, Jonathan and Rosalie see the “macabre fun house” (Kopit 80) the master bedroom appears to be with its strange lights and furniture. The most conspicuous part of the room is the closet next to the bed, which “almost seems to tilt over” (80) it. Jonathan is horrified by the sight of it, as well as by the girl’s boldness. Rosalie’s determination is stronger than Jonathan’s fear; she starts to seduce the boy. He is disturbed and this triggers the closet door to swing open releasing the corpse, which will induce Jonathan’s even more desperate reaction. For a short while, the father’s ghost appears to re-enter his mounted body (which implies that Madame Rosepettle is successful as a psychological cannibal) but Jonathan’s need for initiation into adulthood gets out of her hands at this point. Jonathan cannot prevent Rosalie from lying down on the bed; the girl starts to take off her clothes and asks Jonathan to lie by her side. When he sits down and touches Rosalie’s hand, the dead body stumbles out. As the stage directions indicate, the boy “too terrified to scream, puts his hand across his mouth and sinks down onto the bed, almost in a state of collapse” (86). The girl puts the corpse back where it belongs, but when she starts to undress Jonathan, Albert falls out again but this time with its hands landing on the girl’s neck. Meanwhile, Jonathan almost faints: he is on the verge of a breakdown as he cannot bear the sight of the dead man he recognizes as his father. He can hardly utter: “It’s … it’s my … ffffather” (86). As Rosalie is stripping off her clothes, her real identity becomes more and more apparent. Jonathan weakly says: “Ma-Mother was right! You do let men do anything they want to you!” […] “You’re dirty!” (87). He wants to escape, but finds himself trapped behind the father’s corpse. When the girl is about to take off her slip, Jonathan smothers her. The sight is powerful, violent, and it crushes Jonathan who, after the burial ritual of the girl (with the stamps, coins and books), gets unexpectedly grabbed by his dead father’s hand.
The fact that the mother fails to be in full charge of the corpse leads to another problem. Madame Rosepettle not only drains everything out of her husband and keeps his skin (mummifies him), she also wants to gain control over the living flesh. For instance, she leaves for the night as a predator to frighten love-making couples on the beach, and she squeezes the Commodore when they are dancing: “When I squeeze you in the side, it means spin!” (54).
4. Ritual and Sexuality
In this part, I will inspect the issues of rituality and the reasons behind Madame Rosepettle’s failure to be stronger than Rosalie or the carnival that is taking place during the dramatic plot. In the play’s world, festive Cuba is a matchless destination for the mother, as she plans to spread her distorted stance on decency.
According to Victor Turner’s anthropological observations based on Arnold van Gennep’s theory of rituality and rites of passage, the point of rituals is to prompt change and reestablish order after a period of transition or crisis. The liminal person, who is in-between identities, has to go through an initiation in order to reintegrate into the social structure of a community (Turner 1990, 10-11). Turning points in the individual’s and hence, in the whole community’s life include “birth, initiation [puberty], marriage, and death” because they “change […] social relations involving movements between groups” (Gluckman 3). This is regularly implemented with the help of a separation process, which creates a distance between the threshold person and the other members (2). The rejection of clear-cut categories and the merger of binaries is part of a ritual (Turner 1974, 58) which helps to turn the usual order upside down in order to provide either a safety valve (as in carnivals) or to cover the former identities. Reintegration is the last step. This is the phase when the ‘reborn’ and completely transformed individuals reenter the normal structure of a community, and this is the period when order is restored (Turner 1990, 11; Turner 1974, 59). Schism might also happen if the crisis cannot be resolved by means of ritualized “redressive action” (Turner 1990, 9). Boróka Prohászka Rád’s opinion that the last step of crisis resolution is missing from the plays of the Off-Off Broadway playwrights Edward Albee and Samuel Shepard (32), is partly applicable to this play. Prohászka Rád finds the liminoid (on the basis of Turnerian theory “liminoid” means the not mandatory, as opposed to the “liminal,” i.e. obligatory ritualistic events of a society) theatrical event and the audience’s decoding capacities as replacements of the final step (4). She proves that this is significantly thematized in the works of the two dramatists where everyday rituals are “emptied of meaning” (17-18) and that the “mechanical reenactment” of rites of passage has its potential dangers (18).
Liminality is ambiguity, a “no-man’s-land,” a state of “betwixt-and-between” past and future (Turner 1990, 11). In terms of this, seventeen-year-old Jonathan’s puberty is the most salient element. He is an in-betweener seen as a child who is expected to remain pure, but already wanting Rosalie and interested in physical love. He is still dressed in childish clothes by the mother and is not allowed to spend too much time with the seductive girl, though they are allowed to meet the first time. The two of them then make a plan of their next meeting (the separation) for the time of the mother’s second absence, which could offer Jonathan the chance for transformation or escape. Rosalie is in the seduction scene also dressed like a young girl to make Jonathan believe that she is still innocent. The fact that the girl’s sexual maturity and promiscuity are ceremonially disguised in a young girl’s clothes points to the grotesque nature of the scenario. It turns out that Rosalie does not look after children to make a living but offers her ‘services’ in some other ways. Jonathan is scared of sexuality, especially by the way it is approached by Rosalie at the end of the drama, which is similar to his mother’s own fear of men. Chastity and promiscuity are major antagonizing forces clashing in and in front of Jonathan. Although the possible nuptial union is unfolding, and their nuptial bed is set, Jonathan’s rite of passage is not completed. He cannot break down from his mother’s condemnation of sexuality. Promiscuity, in the boy’s world, equals dirt and defilement, which are embodied by the grotesque Rosalie.
Kopit builds up Jonathan’s character as a teenage boy desperately in need of initiation, a shift to another identity, which could be provided only by Rosalie. However, by presenting the boy’s and the family’s perpetuated liminality – Prohászka Rád uses the expression “eternal liminality” (26) – Oh Dad serves as a ‘cautionary tale’ about repression, regression and the clash of values and identities. The festive outer world and the half-nakedness of the girl are as protruding for the boy as the sight of the father’s dead body with the only solution to bring the events to a halt by observing the mother’s laws (that is, here, the symbolic). The open ending enveloped in mere hopelessness will provoke the audience to draw their own conclusions ― a fitting ending for a play originating in the atmosphere of the Cold War period and in the time of the Civil Rights Movement, implying that many similar ‘skeletons’ hiding in the American society will unavoidably burst out of the closet unless they are unclosed in due time.
Music and the noises in the play also reflect ritual passages and their consequent psychological states; their intensity signifies the increasing torment of Jonathan. When the conflict is beginning to reach its peak, violent, amplifying carnival music is heard. For Jonathan, the carnival with its “orgiastic music” (Kopit 49) and strange lights are as dangerous as the celebration of the flesh with all its actions (temptation and the pleasures of the body) that challenge the order of the boy’s world. Jonathan shuts out the Cuban carnival, but is exposed to the ‘private carnival’ with Rosalie. This results in a disintegrating experience. To reconnect with his mother, has to sacrificially kill the outsider, Rosalie, whose name, suggesting a rose links her to Jonathan’s mother. The the invader/outsider is sacrificed “in order to save the still indispensable member of the community” (Prohászka Rád 85). With the sacrificial ritual Jonathan becomes the ‘hand’ of the punishing mother, an ironic agent. Jonathan kills his initiator after which he wants to withdraw to the French window, but the dead father grabs his leg to ‘reunite’ with him in a parodied danse macabre. As a sign of Jonathan’s resurrection, he can hear heavenly music and feels “immortal and weightless” (Kopit 88). He purifies himself and the family from the “polluting” element (Prohászka Rád 40), but his intended reintegration does not entail transformation. As Madame Rosepettle’s eternal child, Jonathan chooses the mother over Rosalie and returns to his former role and identity.
The mother’s trauma is her sexuality inflicted wound. Her acquired masculinity is what conceals her trauma; however, Jonathan castrates her when he kills the plants and the pet piranha in self-defense. Jonathan, in turn, refuses to be castrated, but does not realize that unless he assumes a new identity, he only reinforces the mother’s order, and with that, continually castrates himself. The sense of Jonathan’s entrapment for is obvious and his incapability to make any progress, to step out from his transition is another powerful element demonstrating the absurdist tone on the play. Moreover, the denied burial ritual of the father is also a powerful case of liminality and is one of the reasons behind Jonathan’s psychological paralysis. The father has no final resting place but is continually mobilized in the world of the living. The Rosepettles are on a constant pilgrimage with the corpse of the father still in its family. Madame Rosepettle concedes: “Only the very young and the very old have homes. I am neither. And I have none” (60). This piece of information gains significance when Madame Rosepettle talks about how she used to lock herself into her room, and that she used to occupy the private sphere as the housewife of Mister Rosepettle. Now, she wants to control life and death, inside and outside, but is stuck in a vicious circle. The “dead need to be severed from the living with utmost care […] [by] acknowledging the deadness of the departed and their careful seclusion from the world of the living” (Prohászka Rád 52). By this logic, the mother’s need to master her fear of sexuality, and to construct her identity for which she keeps the abject other composes the insurmountable in-between state for her and her son. Thence, it is the overwhelming fear of the mother that causes the conflict. The metonymical relationship with the abject dead father (which exceeds the phase of grief) constitutes their everyday life, and it is more powerful than the sacrificial ritual and more disturbing than Jonathan’s puberty or Rosalie’s arrogant sexuality. Following the logic of Gluckman, the movement between identities and groups is crucial in rituality, but Kopit’s play chooses to stage Jonathan’s movement as an act of regression to his original state: he returns to his telescope and thus, to his old self.
5. The Relation of Power, Ritual, and the Abject
When seeing the mess in her bedroom, Madame Rosepettle shouts at Jonathan questioning him in the last lines of the drama: “As a mother to a son I ask you. What is the meaning of this?” (Kopit 89), and as I would translate this question into one fitting the analysis of the drama: How are power, rituality and abjection interrelated here?
Attila Kiss claims that “in sight of the abject, meaning does not emerge, and the identity of the subject collapses: the borderline subject is brought back to its heterogeneous foundations with no symbolic fixation to mark out the poles of its subjectivity” (23). From this quotation, two interrelated conclusions can be drawn. First, in the encounter with the abject, the emphasis is on vision and visibility, and this is especially true because the play applies the abject as a representational technique. When Jonathan sees the corpse, he is horrified by its sight and thus he fears the possible outcome of entering the room and touching Rosalie. Jonathan the watcher is not blind anymore about the girl, and certainly has clairvoyance on the mother’s past. Second, the fragility of Jonathan’s subjectivity is exaggerated with the staging of the abject and the defiling, grotesque body of the girl. The mother reduces Jonathan’s subjectivity (she never addresses him by his name, “Jonathan”), because the only purpose of his existence (and the ever-present corpse’s) is to justify hers. Diminution was implanted in the son’s identity, and the reanimated body of the father designates a zone he should never enter. Jonathan has grown up since the death of his father and the phase of mourning and grief has expired a long ago. He would be ready to attain a new identity but upon seeing the corpse his fragile liminal subjectivity falls apart and finally he chooses to remain a boy as opposed to becoming a man. Without any kind of proper initiation, the abject body of the play crushes the boy, and the only way for him to overcome this dazzling meaninglessness is to refrain from learning about the unknown, and to escape to the safe zone. He obtains no bodily experience – the one that is expected from the scenario – but instead performs the role of an executioner. In a highly ironic manner, the feeble hands of the father and the absent hand of the mother are replaced by the innocent-turned-killer Jonathan; after plunging himself into murder, he needs to be reborn.
Jonathan is a separate subject, but the only language he knows composes of fear and uncertainty – his stuttering increases when he has to talk about his mother, and fades when he can talk about distant places and people, his unreachable sanctuary. The language of fear and uncertainty constitutes his reality and makes it possible for the various technologies of the self to make him apply modifications on [his] own bod[y], on [his] own thoughts, on [his] own conduct […] to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity” (Foucault 203). The mother has been crucial in forming Jonathan’s identity, but in the seduction scene, Rosalie wants to take her place. The two women represent two quite different poles of femininity (the virgin-like mother figure and the over-sexualized lover), and in order to seduce Jonathan, Rosalie states she wants to become the mother of his children. With this, she merges into one of the two identities truly compatible for Jonathan: the mother figure. He fears Rosalie’s sexual advances because he is scared to be owned by another woman. The way I which Rosalie wants to occupy the mother’s place is more apparent in her gesture to conceal the corpse in the bedroom (which should have been the responsibility of the mother). The two women want to control what Jonathan can see. The mother is in command of what and how her son can look at: she aims to destroy distracting elements in the outer world and wants to expose Rosalie as a prostitute, while Rosalie manages to deceive Jonathan until the end of the plot. Jonathan, the watcher of the outside world, can escape from their entrapment, but in connection with Rosalie, he stays blind for a while. During the time of the carnival, he tries to evade the intrusive dangers by hiding in the hotel room. However, the ‘initiation ceremony’ with Rosalie leads him to discover the unseen, inside world through theatrical means.
In Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the mother’s ultimately weak attempt to decontaminate the world surrounding Jonathan and maintain his childlike innocence is manifest in the encounter with the abject body. The mother fails to be in full charge of the corpse, to ward off Rosalie, and to construct a flawless, immaculate identity for her child. In the end, it is the mother’s failed overprotection and offered “identity-pattern” that taints the child figure in the drama. The mother’s laws are internalized by the boy; the reintegration of Jonathan does not follow the rules of rituality and schism is not likely to happen in his world either, because the boy obeys the rules of the mother. The open ending is ironic: Rosalie, the new corpse, is buried but the father is still not laid to rest – the boy agrees with his mother to keep Albert (going). Jonathan’s regained childhood is achieved through another type of sin, murder (which is the mother’s privilege), thus abjection is preserved. The boy will always be a child trapped in a man’s body. In the dramatic space, the staging of the abject is the means to “unsettle the dominant discourse” as Kiss argues. With its mastery of the abject into the absurd, Kopit’s drama significantly contributes to the postmodern conception of the body as a heterogeneous subject. Moreover, the ironized rituality of Kopit’s drama entwined with the disrupting corpse constantly stitched back into the tissue of the collective body of the family, together with the open ending of the play provokes the audience’s participation in the completion of the plot. At the beginning of the decade when the subversion of taboos and the new perceptions of the body spread in the American experimental theater, when the avant-garde was refueled, and when the social and political issues of the Cold War era did not remain immune to criticism, Kopit staged his farcical Oh Dad. This play was provocative enough to become a milestone for the Off-Off Broadway movement, possibly because it served as an inventory of pivotal concerns: changing attitudes towards the body, the problems of the youth, and dysfunctional family values.
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