Arthur Kopit's first hit play, produced when he was barely out of Harvard in 1960, was called "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Bad." His parents received some ribbing about that title, says Kopit.
But they didn't mind. Someone else entirely was the inspiration for "Mamma," and Kopit's parents "instantly" recognized who she was, says their son. As far as Kopit knows this other woman saw the play and never realized she was its model.
Kopit emerged from "Oh Dad" as the wunderkind of the American theater. But it took almost a decade for him to turn out another major hit, "indians," and it took nearly as long for his third major success, "Wings," to be produced. "Wings" arrives at the Kennedy Center next week (preview on Tuesday, opening on Wednesday) for a four-week run.
A cursory glance at the script makes (Wings" look even crazier than "Oh Dad." At one point the central character is asked to repeat the phrase, "We live across the street from the school," and replies, "Malacats on the forturay are the kesterfats of the romancers."
Actually, the "We live across the street/kesterfats of the romancers" exchange was recorded by Kopit in a therapy session at a New York institution for aphasics-people who, because of accidents or strokes or other trauma, have lost their ability to use or understand words.
"Wings" takes its viewers into the brain of asphasic Emily Stilson, a former aviator and wingwalker whose old age has been rudely interrupted by a terrifying stroke. Emlily has trouble expressing herself, but she isn't half as crazy as Mamma of "Oh Dad" or Buffalo Bill of "indians." Kopit concentrated on sober research instead of wild-eyed flights of fantasy while writing "Wings."
And unlike Mamma or Buffalo Bill, Emily earnestly tries to salvage her mind.
Kopit, 41, is tall and lanky and confidentl that he has shaken off a period in which his work went nowhere. He speaks easily and steadily and appears completely capable of meeting his goal of writing two plays every three years from now on.
Two additional plays are already near completion, including an epic about Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca that sounds like an intriguing companion piece to "Indians." Kopit says he has been writing constantly since "Indians," but has found it difficult to complete anything.
Kopit came out of his dry spell by switching to "a completely diffrrent impulse" from that evident in his earlier work. "I've tried to efface myself in 'Wings,' to give it no Arthur Kopit coloration. I have a facility to write comedy, but I've tried very hard to keep it under wraps here."
He attempted this depersonalization of his work while tacking some of the most personal material he has every faced. His father suffered strokes in 1971 and 1976 and "Wings" is the result of Kopit's observations of his father's fellow patients at a New York rehabilitation center.
Kopit wants it understood that "Wings" is not about strokes. "If it were about strokes," he says, "it should be a documentary. It shouldn't de done on a stage. It would be too grim. We didn't want to leave the audience depressed." So " Wings" shows no wheelchairs, no "drooling," nothing clinical. He subject is what's going on inside Emily's head.
What's going on inside Emily's head is almost "a sound and light show," says Kopit. The distorted images and sounds she experiences are shared with the audience. Emily initially thinks she may have been captured by an unknown "enemy." She finds it all quite exciting.
The challenge defined by Kopit was "to convey the exhilaration of her experience without romanticizing it, without suggesting for an instant that it might be a trip you would want to go on." One of the solutions was to make Emily "an uncommon woman," someone whose daredevil youth had conditioned her for a life of thrills and chills. He didn't have to look very far for the details-one of the patients in his father's rehabilitation center was a former aviator.*tKopit is both attracted and replied by flying. "I still can't believe earthlings stay up there," he said after a windy flight from New York the other day. An Amelia Earhart character appeared in an earlier play of his, and a character in a burlesque show he wrote in college was named Crash Landing and talked in gibberish as result of an airplane crash.
"Planes shouldn't be up in the air," says Kopit. "They come down." But he concedes that he is fascinated by them or he wouldn't write about them so much.
By playwritings' standards, Kopit's life has been a smooth flight "Oh Dad," "Indians," grants, teaching at Yale and scattered TV work have given him a decent living.
But those long stretches when nothing was produced were depressing, he says. In the '60s he ventured to Hollywood twice to work on abortive Otto Preminger projects, but he says he felt as if he were in a foreign land.
One of his more vivid Hollywood memories is the day he was introduced to cocaine and, just like the character in "Annie Hall," sneezed on the white stuff, dispersing it all over the room. He says his hosts didn't seem to mind. Then there were the L.A. "hippies" he met who rented other people's children for Sunday strolls, so they could pretend they were parents without going through all the hassels.
Kopit now lives with his wife and six-year-old son-his own-in Westport, Conn. When not writing plays, he teaches how to write them at Yale. But he not disavowed Hollywood forever. He has developed a pilot for CBS, "a domestic comedy set 200 years in the future."
The show would be a satire, says Kopit, but he doesn't want the word to get out. "CBS mustn't know it's a satire," he says, "or they'll never put it on the air." When Kopit is "scrambling," he says he also dabbles occasionally in rewriting other people's TV scripts. "I like to know I can make money from something other than the theater," he says, "because if you have to depend on it, you have to compromise your (theatrical) work."
For a while after his father's strokes, Kopit shied away from writing about them. He felt he was too close to the situation, and his father had been rendered completely speechless, which would have meant no dialogue.
Seven months after his father's 1976 stroke, however, National Public Radio's "Earplay" series commissioned Kopit to write a radio play, and he turned to some of his father's fellow patients for inspiration. The ex-aviator was an obvious choice, but Kopit didn't feel her speech patterns were sufficiently stageworthy. So he added elements from the speeches of a younger, more fluent patient, and he relied on the advice of one of the therapists who had once been an aphasic herself.
"Wings" opened the 1977 season for "Earplay," and then the Yale Reptory Theatre's Robert Brustein offered to expand it to a stage play. A number of visual details and several new scenes were added, but the length has not greatly increased; it runs about 85 minutes, without an intermission. The Kennedy Center in association with Claus von Bulow is producing it for Broadway. The Center's Roger Stevens has worked with Kopit several times, and Washington's Arena Stage presented the American premiere of "Indians."
The younger woman whose speech was Kopit's guide in the writing of "Wings" saw the play and reacted principally to the physical movements, says Kopit. It's difficult enough for her to comprehend normal speech, and it was impossible for her to follow the nooks and crannies of the language in "Wings." When Kopit was writing the speech, he would occasionally block out words at random in order to make the patterns more halting and unpredictable. Kopit likes to compare Emily to Alice in Wonderland, who had her own problems with language.
The older woman, the ex-aviator, never heard or saw the play. Kopit is not certain she's still alive, but thinks she may be living in a nursing home.
Kopit's father died last year. After his stroke in 1976 he was bothered more than anything else by his speechlessness, says his son. Kopit's father had sold jewelry, then real estate: "He was s salesman," says Kopit. "If he only could have expressed himself, he could have dealt with any physical incapacity."