Wendy Wasserstein Essay - Critical Essays

Wendy Wasserstein American Literature Analysis

Wasserstein ventured into playwriting partially because she felt that there was more comedy in her life than on the television situation comedies she saw as a girl. Primarily, though, she began writing plays because she believed that the women in the plays she saw were stereotypes that did not reflect the women that she knew. She set out to write meaningful comedies about women; Wasserstein’s plays thus deal primarily with the relationships among intelligent, educated, and often highly successful women who are trying to come to terms with both their own identities and society’s expectations. In Uncommon Women, and Others, all the women characters are graduates of Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college for the academically superior. Harriet in Isn’t It Romantic is an up-and-coming executive with an M.B.A. from Harvard University, and the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles is an art professor with a degree from Yale. Wasserstein deals with exceptional women.

Wasserstein’s exceptional heroines are asked to live up to new expectations for women, but the pressure to be exemplary has left them confused and uncertain about their identities. Much of modern drama focuses on characters who have lost their sense of purpose and cannot figure out who they are or where they belong. Wasserstein works out this theme by exploring the lives of troubled women who are trying to discover what they want in the age of women’s liberation. Both Holly in Uncommon Women, and Others and Janie in Isn’t It Romantic wish that they were somebody else. Susan in The Heidi Chronicles has been so many different people that she does not know who she is anymore.

Outside forces bear down on Wasserstein’s heroines as they try to sort out their many choices. They are often torn between their inner yearnings and the many models that are given them by society. Janie and Heidi, like most of Wasserstein’s women, are deciding if they want to “have it all” (a husband, children, a career, an active social and community life)—and whether having it all will even make them happy.

Wasserstein’s characters are haunted by a sense of loneliness and alienation. In a world of many options, they often do not want to choose, or they become self-absorbed, always questioning their choices. Janie is afraid of living alone, but she feels that she must be true to herself and must not marry a man out of sheer desperation. Heidi, who has fulfilled her potential as a historian of women’s art, feels stranded and adopts a child.

The characters in Wasserstein’s plays, like those in most modern dramas, are waiting for life to change and for someone or something to transform their worlds. At a party, Holly says she has two months for something to happen before she goes out in the world; six years later, however, she is still exploring her options. Desperate not to find herself living alone like her mother, Harriet marries the first man who comes along, hoping that he will change her life. Often, fulfillment seems to lie in a distant future. In college, Rita says that she will be amazing by the age of thirty. As time passes and she has still accomplished nothing, she keeps pushing the age of success back. Heidi can see hope only in her daughter’s future somewhere in the twenty-first century.

Although Wasserstein deals with the characteristic themes of modern drama, her plays do not display the harsh violence and crude realities of a world gone mad, as many contemporary dramas do. Instead, she creates nostalgic memory plays and romantic comedies focusing on rapidly changing events in which both society and individuals are in a permanent state of transition. Though inwardly confused, her characters are always witty and literate. To break the tension, they play games and act out roles. Frequently, they create romantic fantasies. For example, Heidi and Peter act out a melodramatic romance scene at their first meeting, and Mervyn in The Sisters Rosensweig fictionalizes a romantic night of lovemaking out of his past. In Wasserstein’s plays, the pain and loneliness of life is broken up by harmless fantasies, and intense emotional confessions are followed by singing and dancing, often to corny romantic and nostalgic music.

Wasserstein’s plays are built on episodic scenes that have a cinematic quality. Often she used framing devices, beginning her dramas in the present and then flashing back to the past, thus juxtaposing present realities with past expectations. Her plots depend less on strong central conflicts than on impressionistic glimpses of characters sorting out their lives. Her dialogue is full of one-liners, witty comebacks, and clever put-downs. Although she employed stereotyped characters, she gave them a sense of believability. Her comedy is often charged with a sense of feeling that either masks the pain that the characters are feeling or helps them to celebrate a moment of joy. Often, tense moments that can turn into nasty confrontations are broken up by humorous lines.

Wasserstein’s satire of modern life may be brittle, but it is rarely caustic. Like her favorite playwright, Chekhov, Wasserstein tried to skirt a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Her Chekhovian characters—wacky, neurotic, but thoroughly human—are lost in their self-reflective worlds, entangled in hopeless relationships, reminiscing about past events, and looking forward to some vague future. As a playwright, Wasserstein was committed without being preachy, serious in her view of the world but comic in her expression of it.

Uncommon Women, and Others

First produced: 1975, one act; 1977, two acts (first published, 1978)

Type of work: Play

Amid the social changes of the 1970’s, a group of young women express their confusion about their goals in life.

Uncommon Women, and Others traces the choices and frustrations of a group of young women attending an exclusive women’s college in the early 1970’s, a time of social change in which the traditional family expectations for young women were giving way to new possibilities. The women are confused by the options open to them after graduation. The play depends less on plot than on character groupings. The characters form a spectrum of...

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