The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
In 1988, Heidi Holland, a professor at Columbia University, discusses paintings by Sonfonisba Anguissola, Clara Peeters, and Lily Martin Spencer, observing that they, like many other notable women artists, are still excluded from art history survey textbooks. Referring to a slide of Spencer’s “We Both Must Fade,” she reflects that it reminds her of a high school dance, where “you sort of don’t know what you want. So you hang around . . . waiting to see what might happen.”
After this prologue, the play unfolds in a series of flashbacks beginning with a 1965 high school dance attended by Heidi and Susan Johnston, both sixteen years old. Although Heidi is content watching the dance alongside her girlfriend, the libidinous Susan insists that they stand apart, claiming that their proximity might dissuade boys from approaching; she also plans to downplay her intelligence to make herself more appealing. When Susan departs to seek a partner in a “ladies’ choice” dance, Heidi seats herself and reads a book. Soon Peter Patrone sits beside her. After they indulge in some witty repartee, he shows Heidi how to dance.
Two years later, Heidi meets Scoop Rosenbaum at a New Hampshire dance for Eugene McCarthy supporters. Editor of The Liberated Earth News, the flirtatious Princeton University dropout barrages Heidi with disturbing questions; taken aback, she tries to distance herself from him, even introducing herself as Susan...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
The episodic structure of The Heidi Chronicles and its references to popular trends tend to emphasize ephemera rather than spotlight the work’s serious themes. Told in flashbacks that span more than twenty years of changing social mores, the play relies heavily on elements of setting to lend humor, nostalgia, and other elements of color to its story line. Instructions to use “The Shoop Shoop Song” (“Does he love me? I wanna know. How can I tell if he loves me so?”) in the first scene, the music of Janis Joplin in the second, and Beatles music at Lisa’s shower indicate the playwright’s interest in details that not only speak of the interests of Heidi’s generation but also comment on the action. References to figures such as Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, David Cassidy, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep also speak to the character of the times.
Wendy Wasserstein, however, also employs her entertaining and witty dialogue, indicative of her main characters’ sophistication, to add crucial elements of foreshadowing to her play. A most telling exchange occurs between Susan and Fran in act 1, scene 3. After Susan announces that she “was seriously considering beginning a law journal devoted solely to women’s legal issues” but instead has “decided to work within the male establishment power base to change the system,” Fran mocks the choice as indicating a lack of commitment: “Either you shave your legs or you don’t.”...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Columbia University. Ivy League university in New York City in a lecture hall in which the prologue to this play is set. Now a successful art historian, Heidi Holland is surprised to find herself lecturing on woman painters in so august an academic setting. Her very presence in this lecture hall proves that she has come a long way from her turbulent life in the 1960’s and 1970’s to have a meaningful career and still be a woman who has everything.
Church basement. Place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Heidi and other women meet to discuss women’s issues in 1970. The emergence of socially conscious groups such as hers reflects the rise of collective movements during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Heidi herself merely observes the group’s discussion in the play.
*Chicago Art Institute
*Chicago Art Institute. Place where Heidi and a friend try to persuade passersby to participate in a protest against the lack of representation of women in art in 1974. Heidi speaks on a bullhorn, purposely creating a spectacle to attract an audience. She appropriately chooses an art institute to protest because the setting is patriarchal in itself.
Television studio. New York City television station in which Heidi and some of her associates are interviewed for a program in 1982. Heidi and the other interviewees represent...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The story of The Heidi Chronicles is told through a series of vignettes that extend from a high school dance in 1965 to Heidi’s near future in 1989 (Wendy Wasserstein completed the play in 1988), when Heidi is a successful professor of art history at Columbia University. Throughout the play’s thirteen scenes, the audience witnesses Heidi’s development from an ordinary schoolgirl through her increasing dissatisfaction with her life before she finally develops greater acceptance of her career, her goals, and herself. The play also explores Heidi’s evolving relationships with Susan, Peter, and Scoop, the three friends with whom she shares many of her most important moments.
While Scoop is always Heidi’s friend, he is also occasionally her lover. She meets him in New Hampshire at an event supporting Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president. Heidi finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by Scoop’s overwhelming confidence. His readiness to be judgmental exasperates Heidi, though she envies his self-assurance and the faith that he has in his own opinions. Unwilling to make a commitment to Heidi, Scoop ultimately marries Lisa, an illustrator of children’s books who readily places Scoop’s needs ahead of her own. By the end of the play, however, Scoop has grown as a human being. He sells his magazine, demonstrates concern for his children’s future, and considers running for public office.
Peter functions in the play...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Heidi Chronicles examines the frustration and disappointment that many women felt as they examined their opportunities and relationships throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. The play explores these problems, however, without developing a tone of rancor toward men. Even Scoop, the one character whose cockiness and self-interest make him almost a villain for most of the play, is allowed to grow as a human being by the end of the drama. Fran, the character who is most bitter toward men and who blames them for most of the problems in the world, is a comic figure. Wasserstein’s point is that women should regard men as sources of neither their self-worth nor their problems. If women hope to achieve balance in their lives, they must take charge of their own lives, realize that they are “all in this together,” and create a future that will be more satisfying both for their daughters and themselves.
The importance of The Heidi Chronicles is that it expresses these ideas in a form that is palatable to a large popular audience. Rather than speaking of women’s issues only to women, Wasserstein creates a work that entertains audiences of both genders. By including references to popular music, current events, and fashions that many viewers will remember from their own youth, Wasserstein presents characters with whom it is easy to identify. Because of its widespread appeal, The Heidi Chronicles won not only the 1989 Susan Smith...
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As the 1980s came to a close, conservative forces remained in control of the White House and other aspects of American society. Republican George Bush assumed the presidential office in 1989, following eight years of conservative rule under President Ronald Reagan. The largely conservative U.S. Supreme Court upheld state restrictions on access to abortions. Though this ruling did not overturn Roe v. Wade, the case which legalized abortion in America, the ruling was seen as a victory for pro-life activists. Another victory came when President Bush vetoed a bill that would allow the federally-funded Medicaid to pay for abortions for women who were victims of rape or incest.
It seemed that the pro-life movement, often regarded as the antithesis to the women’s movement, was gaining in power and prestige because of these important political victories. Still, the women’s movement, which was primarily pro-choice, did not take this assault on what they regarded as a woman’s fundamental right without a fight. They also demonstrated and supported political candidates that were pro-choice. One of the largest rallies they held was in Washington, D.C., in 1989, when approximately 600,000 women marched on the Capitol.
Despite such activity, feminism and the women’s movement was on the decline in the late-1980s. After the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed addition to the Constitution that would have barred...
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The Heidi Chronicles is a comedic drama that spans the years 1965 to 1989 and employs numer ous locations for its setting. The play is framed by two scenes that open each of the acts. These are set in the present in a lecture hall at New York City’s Columbia University where Heidi teaches. While these scenes frame and define the action, the main body of the play is told through a series of flashbacks that span Heidi’s adult life.
In Act I, locales include a high school dance at Miss Crane’s School in Chicago in 1965; a party for Eugene McCarthy in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1968; a church basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the women’s group meets, in 1970; outside of the Chicago Art Institute in 1974; and the anteroom to the Pierre Hotel in New York City where Scoop has married Lisa Friedlander in 1977.
Act II takes place entirely in New York City. The first scene occurs in Scoop and Lisa’s apartment in 1980. The next scene shifts to 1982 and a television studio where the show Hello, New York is taped. Susan, Denise, and Heidi have lunch in a trendy restaurant in 1984, and two years later, Heidi gives an address to a luncheon at the Plaza Hotel. Heidi visits Peter in the children’s ward at a hospital in 1987. The final scene takes place in Heidi’s new, unfurnished apartment in 1989.
By spreading the play across some twenty-five years, Wasserstein is able to illustrate the...
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Compare and Contrast
1989: There are many unknowns about the AIDS disease, its causes and cures. The number of deaths from AIDS is on the rise.
Today: The number of deaths from AIDS has stabilized. Much is known about the disease and there are a number of drugs to treat symptoms of AIDS on the market. While there is still no cure, these new treatments have proven to retard or halt the disease’s progress and thus prolong and improve victims’ lives.
1989: George Bush enters the White House, following the two-term reign of Ronald Reagan, insuring twelve years of Republican rule in America. The Democratic control of Congress makes for considerable gridlock in the legislative process.
Today: Democrats control the White House, in the form of two-term President Bill Clinton. The Republicans now control Congress and partisan politics still make for lethargic policymaking.
1989: The Women’s Movement is on the decline in the United States as many find the goals and ideals of feminism out of step with their reality.
Today: In a post-feminist society, women’s organizations regroup to address concerns of many women. The National Council of Women’s Organizations (representing 6 million women) draft potential legislation for the National Women’s Equality Act, calling for the end of sex discrimination, in 1998. The threat of losing abortion rights has also galvanized many women (and men)...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the paintings that Wasserstein mentions in The Heidi Chronicles. Discuss the parallels between them and the events depicted in the play.
What is the role of feminism and other women in Heidi’s life? Are her male friends ultimately more important? Is The Heidi Chronicles truly a feminist play?
Compare and contrast The Heidi Chronicles and The Big Chill, a movie about the same generation. Do both groups of characters share similar problems and concerns?
In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi says ‘‘Have you ever noticed that what makes you a person keeps you from being a person?’’ What do you think Wasserstein meant by this comment?
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What Do I Read Next?
Eastern Standard is a play by Richard Greenberg written in 1989. The play concerns several professionals living in the 1980s and finding their Yuppie lives meaningless. One character, a writer, suffers from AIDS.
Isn’t It Romantic, written by Wasserstein in 1984. Like The Heidi Chronicles, it employs an episodic structure and music to set the tone of the play. The plot centers around two women and the choices they make for personal fulfillment.
In the Company of Woman: Voices from the Women’s Movement (1998), edited by Bonnie Watkins and Nina Rothchild, is a collection of essays. They tell the stories of eighty-three women and their experiences in the women’s movement from the 1960s to the present.
The AIDS Crisis: A Documentary (1998), edited by Douglas Feldman and Julia Wang Miller, is a comprehensive study charting the history of the disease.
The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, published by The Guerilla Girls (a group of women artists). This book is a feminist history of art and includes many women artists.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Austin, Gayle. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in Theatre Journal, March 1990, pp. 107-08.
Brustein, Robert. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in the New Republic, April 17, 1989, pp. 32-35.
Hodgson, Moira. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in the Nation, May 1, 1989, pp. 605-06.
McGuigan, Catherine. ‘‘The Uncommon Wasserstein Goes to Broadway’’ in Newsweek, March 29, 1989, pp. 76-77.
Wasserstein, Wendy. The Heidi Chronicles in The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990, pp. 155-249.
Ciociola, Gail. Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices, and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998. This book discusses several of Wasserstein’s plays in depth, including The Heidi Chronicles. Ciociola often relies on a feminist perspective.
Franklin, Nancy. ‘‘The Time of Her Life’’ in the New Yorker, April 14, 1997, pp. 63-71. This article discusses Wasserstein’s life and background, as well as the subjects that inform her plays.
Keyssar, Helene. ‘‘Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends’’ in Modern Drama, March 1991, p. 88. This academic article discusses The Heidi Chronicles in terms of the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, a philosopher-...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arthur, Helen. “Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.” Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Nation 261, no. 12 (October 16, 1995): 443-445. Discusses the play as adapted for television rather than the original play. Criticizes the drama’s use of historical markers (events, songs) as ineffective.
Austin, Gayle. Review of The Heidi Chronicles. Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 107-108. Austin regards the play as simplistic and insufficiently feminist. She notes that Heidi is always depicted as deriving her happiness from the traditional roles of mother or lover and rarely from her work.
Brustein, Robert. Review in The New Republic. CC (April 17, 1989), pp. 32-34.
Carter, Graydon. Review in Vogue. CLXXIX (March, 1989), p. 266.
Finn, William. “Sister Act.” Vogue 182, no. 9 (September, 1992): 360. Summarizes Wasserstein’s career and themes.
Henry, William A., III. Review in Time. CXXXIII (March 20, 1989), p. 89.
Hoban, Phoebe. “The Family Wasserstein.” New York 26 (January 4, 1993): 32-37.
Hornsby, Richard. “Interracial Casting.” Hudson Review 42 (1989): 464-465. In a scathing analysis of The Heidi...
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