How I Came to Write “How I Came to be Buffalo Bill”

By 1999, actor Richard Glover had been in several of my plays and had become a friend. He lamented that he, like many actors, had gaps between gigs. I suggested I write a solo play for him that he could have at the ready and he loved the idea. But what?

My wife and I moved to Arizona from Boston in 1994 and we were in awe of the west and especially its rich frontier history. More than twenty years later, we still are. Now I’d been aware of William F. Cody from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” and thought he was worth exploring. So I read about six books on Cody and his era and discovered that he was a better subject than I could have imagined. First, he was born in 1846 and did actively participate in the taming of the American west in numerous ways. Second, he had a natural larger-than-life personality and was a gifted story teller of the tall tales so popular at the time. Finally, after I reading his autobiography, I was convinced. I knew I wanted to bring him to life.

Cody’s story is really two stories – Cody living his adventures as a frontiersman, and Cody recreating these adventures as a showman. It’s true that many men’s lives were similar to the life Cody lived, but it was only Cody and his unique personality who caught the eye of New York promotor Ned Buntline as he traveled the west. It was Buntline who discovered Cody and presented him as Buffalo Bill in dime store novels and later on-stage in theatrical shows. Back then the people of the east were fascinated by the west, so Buntline brought the west to them. Buffalo Bill was his star and Buffalo Bill loved it.

My play “How I Came to be Buffalo Bill” takes place in a New York City theatre as Cody steps back stage after a performance and greets a newspaper reporter. From there he recounts a series of stories recalling his childhood in Iowa, his growing-up in Kansas, his early forays into the west and finally his epic buffalo hunts securing food for laborers as they pushed the transcontinental railroad forward. During the play we see Cody slowly remove his stage make-up and costumes as he transforms himself into the showman he is about to become – partly truth and mostly fiction.

The play was applauded by many for its accuracy to both Cody’s personality and his adventures as we know them. But it was criticized by some for not exploring him deeper psychologically which I thought Arthur Kopit did admirably in his 1968 play “Indians.”

Richard Glover starred in “How I Came to be Buffalo Bill” for more than a year in theatres from Arizona to Virginia. Executives from a wild west attraction called “Rawhide” saw the show at Playwrights’ Theatre in Phoenix and contracted for it to move to their venue. They even built a special theatre for it. Because the play is episodic much like Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight,” Glover was able to tailor each performance to the venue and audience.

The play is still a favorite and can be read at Indie Theater Now. Check it out.

Richard Warren, playwright