The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Wings is an attempt to portray the world as it appears to a person who has just suffered a stroke. Spoken thoughts, recorded voices, and fragmented images all help to create the chaotic perceptions of the leading character’s mind. The “Prelude” to Wings begins with a simple picture: a cozy armchair in a pool of light with the sound of a clock ticking in the darkness. The lights fade, and when they return an elderly woman, Emily Stilson, is sitting in the armchair reading a book. The ticking sound is louder than before. Suddenly, Mrs. Stilson looks up and a portion of the setting disappears into the darkness. She tries to continue reading, and the clock skips a beat. The clock stops, and Mrs. Stilson drops her books and stares into space. The lights go to black.

Next a collage of images and sounds fills the stage. These consist of the images that Mrs. Stilson perceives, the sounds that surround her, and the words she thinks and speaks. The author clearly states that the particular order of these images and sounds will be developed in rehearsal. Visual images include dazzling whiteness, explosions of color, mirrors, and partial glimpses of doctors, nurses, and hospital equipment. The sounds include wind, random city noises, a siren “altered to resemble a woman screaming,” incomprehensible questions, and endless echoing. At the same time, Mrs. Stilson’s voice is heard questioning, reacting to her visions, describing her physical sensations, and attempting to determine a rational order.

The chaos fades to reveal Mrs. Stilson in a chair surrounded by darkness. Act 1, “Catastrophe,” depicts her struggle to overcome the effects of the stroke. She struggles with her sense of isolation and her inability to identify clearly the sounds and images that surround her. In broken speech interspersed with moments of clarity and some totally incomprehensible series of words, she attempts to create order out of the chaos. Gradually the outside world begins to take form, and Mrs. Stilson exclaims, “Oh my God! Now I understand! THEY’VE GOT ME!”

In a series of short scenes, Mrs. Stilson gradually is able to piece together some sense of her world, although speech is still impossible and information is presented too randomly and rapidly for her to discern clear meanings. Struggling to explain her condition and her surroundings, she comes to the conclusion that she was flying a plane and...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Wings employs a wide range of dramatic devices to portray the inner experience of the leading character. The structure of the play is fluid, with no clear demarcation between scenes. It allows the audience to experience Mrs. Stilson’s temporal and physical world, in which time is no longer linear and in which space is no longer discrete. She moves without warning forward and backward in time and “discovers” herself in a different space rather than consciously moving from place to place. At the same time, the play maintains its cohesiveness by projecting a fundamental sense of progression. There is a forward movement in time, but it is not a direct path. At the same time, Arthur Kopit does not allow the play to become random or structureless. He interweaves some scenes that are traditional representational drama with people interacting in normal ways while time and space remain discrete. Such scenes occur with more regularity as the play progresses, paralleling Mrs. Stilson’s recovery.

Much of the play’s effectiveness is accomplished through the use of set, lighting, and sound. Kopit describes the set as a system of black scrim panels that move silently and easily to create featureless corridors. Some are mirrored to multiply and refract images. These panels serve at times to surround Mrs. Stilson in a black void. At other times, characters appear behind the panels, clearly separated from Mrs. Stilson’s world. Alternatively, the panels...

(The entire section is 521 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Auerbach, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit and the Off-Broadway Theater. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Kopit, Arthur. “The Vital Matter of Environment.” Theatre Arts 45 (April, 1961): 12-13.

Myers, Norman J. “Two Kinds of Alaska: Pinter and Kopit Journey Through Another Realism.” Pinter Review, 1992-1993, 11-19.

Rose, Carol. “Killing Pain in the End Beds.” In Plays of Impasse. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Secrest, Meryle.“‘Out West’ with Kopit.” Washington Post, April 20, 1969, p. K1.

Weales, Gerald. “Arthur Kopit.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.