Wendy Wasserstein Drama Analysis
Wendy Wasserstein’s plays are, for the most part, extremely consistent in their emphasis on character, their lack of classical structure, and their use of humor to explore or accompany serious, often poignant themes. Throughout her career, Wasserstein’s central concern has been the role of women—particularly white, upper-middle-class, educated women—in contemporary society. Though her plays are suffused with uproarious humor, her typical characters are individuals engaged in a struggle to carve out an identity and a place for themselves in a society that has left them feeling, at worst, stranded and desolate and, at best, disillusioned. This is not to say that Wasserstein’s worldview is bleak. Rather, the note of slightly skewed optimism with which she characteristically ends her works, along with her prevailing wit, lends them an air of levity and exuberance that often transcends her sober themes.
These themes—loneliness, isolation, and a profound desire for meaning in life—are examined by Wasserstein chiefly through character. One of the playwright’s great strengths is her ability to poke fun at her characters without subjecting them to ridicule or scorn. Her women and men, with all their faults and foibles, are warmly and affectionately rendered. They engage their audience’s empathy as they make their way through the mazes of their lives, trying to connect and to be of consequence in the world.
Wasserstein was a unique and important voice in contemporary American theater. As a woman writing plays about women, she was a groundbreaker, though never self-consciously so. Despite her often thin plot lines, she found and captured the drama inherent in the day-to-day choices confronting the women of her generation. As a humorist, too, Wasserstein was unquestionably a virtuoso. Her ability to see the absurdity of even her own most deeply held convictions, and to hold them deeply nevertheless, is perhaps the most engaging and distinctive of her writing’s many strengths.
Wasserstein is best known for her four full-length, professional plays, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic, The Heidi Chronicles, and The Sisters Rosensweig. The first three plays have in common their episodic structure and non-plot-driven narrative. In each of the three, scenes unfold to reveal aspects of character.
Uncommon Women and Others
Uncommon Women and Others begins with five former college friends assessing their lives as they reunite six years after graduation. The body of the play is a flashback to their earlier life together at a small women’s college under the often conflicting influences of the school’s traditional “feminine” rituals and etiquette and the iconoclasm of the blossoming women’s movement. In each of the two time frames, events are largely contexts for discussions in which Wasserstein’s women use one another as sounding boards, each one testing and weighing her hopes, fears, expectations, and achievements against those of her friends.
Isn’t It Romantic
Similarly, in Isn’t It Romantic, two former college friends, Janie Blumberg, a freelance writer, and Harriet Cornwall, a corporate M.B.A., move through their postcollege lives, weighing marriage and children against independence and the life choices of their mothers against their own. The play climaxes at the point where the two women diverge: Harriet, who has formerly decried marriage, accepts a suitor’s proposal out of fear of being alone, and Janie chooses to remain unattached and to seek happiness within herself.
The Heidi Chronicles
The Heidi Chronicles, though more far-reaching in scope, is also a character-driven play. Here, Wasserstein narrows her focus to one woman, Heidi Holland, but through her reflects the changing social and political mores of more than two decades. From the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s, Heidi, like Wasserstein’s earlier characters, struggles to find her identity. Moving through settings ranging from women’s consciousness-raising meetings and protests to power lunches in trendy restaurants and Yuppie baby showers, Wasserstein’s Heidi functions as, in her words, a “highly-informed spectator” who never quite seems to be in step with the prescribed order of the day. In a pivotal scene, Heidi, now an art-history professor, delivers a luncheon lecture entitled “Women, Where Are We Going?” Her speech, which disintegrates into a seeming nervous breakdown, ends with Heidi confessing that she feels “stranded”: “And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded,” she concludes, “I thought the whole point was that we were in this together.”
Isolation and loneliness and, contrastingly, friendship and family are themes that run throughout these three earlier plays. Heidi’s wish,...
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