Study Guide

Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein Essay - Wasserstein, Wendy (Vol. 183)

Wasserstein, Wendy (Vol. 183)

Introduction

Wendy Wasserstein 1950-2006

American playwright, essayist, librettist, children's writer, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Wasserstein's career through 2001. See also Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 32) and Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 90).

Best known as the author of the award-winning play The Heidi Chronicles (1988), Wasserstein is regarded as one of the most recognizable female voices of the American postwar generation. Ranging from Any Woman Can't (1973), Uncommon Women and Others (1975), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and An American Daughter (1997), Wasserstein's plays concern well-educated women who came of age during the rise of feminism in the late 1960s and who strive to balance the demands of professional careers with their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Noted for their comedic story lines, complex characters, and witty dialogue, Wasserstein's works explore the difficulties many women face when choosing between marriage and a career and the feelings of anguish, confusion, and liberation associated with that decision. Furthermore, critics have credited Wasserstein with influencing the direction of American drama by greatly expanding women's roles in modern theater and by offering significant alternatives to the happy endings of conventional comedies.

Biographical Information

Born on October 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein is the youngest daughter of Morris and Lola, a successful textile manufacturer and a dancer. Wasserstein first encountered the theater as a child, performing in school plays. In 1962 her family moved to Manhattan where Wasserstein regularly attended Broadway matinees. While enrolled in a private academy, the Calhoun School, Wasserstein studied dance with June Taylor, whose professional troupe often danced on The Jackie Gleason Show. After graduating from high school, she attended Mount Holyoke College. During her junior year, Wasserstein became seriously involved with theater for the first time after taking a drama course and acting in several plays. In 1971 Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke with a B.A. in history. She then returned to New York City and enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at City College of the City University of New York, studying under playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller. Wasserstein earned a M.A. in 1973, the same year her first professional drama, Any Woman Can't, was produced by Playwrights Horizons, a small experimental theater group that proved influential in establishing her career. In 1973 Wasserstein was accepted to the Yale University School of Drama, where she studied with such noted playwrights and actors as Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. Under the tutelage of renowned American drama critic Robert Brustein, Wasserstein wrote the one-act plays Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (1974), which comments on the social maneuvering that occurs at college parties, and When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth (1975), which mocks beauty pageants. In 1975 Wasserstein staged the one-act play Uncommon Women and Others, which originated from her master's thesis—she graduated Yale with a master of fine arts degree in 1976. The next year, Wasserstein revised Uncommon Women as a two-act drama, which attracted widespread critical acclaim and received national attention as part of the Public Broadcasting Service's televised series Theatre in America in 1978. Throughout the 1980s, Wasserstein nurtured her growing theatrical reputation with such plays as Isn't It Romantic (1981), Tender Offer (1983), and Miami (1986), culminating with the production of The Heidi Chronicles. Wasserstein's most popular show to date, The Heidi Chronicles, has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Tony Award for best play, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Since 1990, Wasserstein has also published several prose works, such as the essay collections Bachelor Girls (1990) and Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties (2001) and the children's book Pamela's First Musical (1996).

Major Works

Often informed by her own life experiences and typically imbued with humor, Wasserstein's dramas examine the conflict that many women of the postwar “Baby Boom” generation have experienced between their newfound spirit of feminist independence and the traditional values of marriage and motherhood. In addition, her works have evolved from the broad mockery that characterizes her earliest productions to more subtle character studies that mark her later efforts. Her first professional drama, Any Woman Can't, is a bitter farce about a woman's efforts to dance her way to success in a male-dominated environment. Set in the early 1970s at a reunion six years after their college graduation, Uncommon Women and Others focuses on five Mount Holyoke alumnae. The women are all approaching the age of thirty and range in personalities from a traditional wife to an ambitious career-woman to a radical feminist. As they trade quips about men and sex, they also speculate about their futures with a mixture of hope and apprehension since none of the women have decided what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The play contrasts the carefree optimism of their college years with their present sense of confusion and disappointment, illustrating the uncertainty such women experienced after feminism swept college campuses in the 1960s with promises of new opportunities but with few assurances. Similar to Uncommon Women in many respects, Isn't it Romantic follows the lives of Janie and Harriet, two upper-middle-class single women who search for professional and romantic fulfillment in New York City while resisting the urgings of their respective mothers to marry. Consisting of several short scenes and abundant comic one-liners, the play explores the complexities behind how women make important lifestyle choices. The play concludes with Janie's pointed refusal to move in with her boyfriend after she learns that Harriet plans to marry a man whom she does not love. Despite its lack of dramatic action, the serious one-act drama Tender Offer subtly conveys the emotions that led to a rift in the relationship between an absent father and his rebellious, aggressive daughter, focusing on the necessity of empathy for effective communication to occur. In 1986 Wasserstein experimented with the musical comedy genre in Miami, which recounts a teenage boy's experiences while on vacation with his parents in the late 1950s.

Explicitly focusing on the consequences of feminism, The Heidi Chronicles examines the social and intellectual development of an unmarried art historian named Heidi Holland who finds that her successful, independent life has left her alienated from both men and women alike. Told through a series of flashbacks spanning from 1965 through 1989, the play relates Heidi's personal and professional experiences of the student activism of the late 1960s, the feminist consciousness-raising of the early 1970s, and the tough-minded careerism of the 1980s. Central to Heidi's development are her relationships with two men and a group of women who first introduced her to feminist ideals. As the play progresses, Heidi's peers adopt the materialism that they once denounced, filling the idealistic Heidi with feelings of disillusionment and isolation. At an alumnae luncheon at a private school for girls, Heidi delivers a long monologue, in which she confesses her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with contemporary women, explaining that “I thought that the whole point was we were all in this together.” In the play's conclusion, Heidi finds happiness and fulfillment as the single mother of a newly adopted daughter. Reminiscent of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, The Sisters Rosensweig presents a drawing-room comedy that centers on three conspicuously different middle-aged sisters. The siblings have gathered in London where the twice-divorced Sara is celebrating her birthday with her two younger sisters, Pfeni and Gorgeous. As the party progresses, the women reveal their secret yearnings and emotional dilemmas concerning their professional ambitions, love interests, and identities as Jewish women. The play concludes when Sara realizes that real love is possible despite abandoning hope of ever finding it in her life. A satire on the manners and mores of Washington, D.C., An American Daughter indicts the state of contemporary American politics and the role of the media in determining political outcomes. The play concerns Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, a feminist physician who is nominated for the post of U.S. Surgeon General. However, her confirmation becomes problematic after the media reports that she forgot to participate in jury duty years earlier. Hughes is ultimately forced to withdraw from the position due to objections from political pundits, ranging from a crusty Southern senator to a closeted homosexual conservative. Wasserstein has also composed several shorter one-act comedies—including The Man in a Case (1986) and Waiting for Philip Glass (1998)—as well as the libretto for The Festival of Regrets (1999), a one-act opera that was part of the collaborative musical triptych Central Park at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Despite being known primarily as a playwright, Wasserstein has additionally developed a reputation as a skilled and insightful essayist. Comprising of humorous essays that originally appeared in New York Woman magazine, Bachelor Girls blends social commentary with autobiographical accounts of the trials of being a single, Jewish woman living in New York City. Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties collects essays originally published in the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times Magazine, which expand on several of the themes presented in Bachelor Girls and continue Wasserstein's satiric commentary on single life, celebrity, and popular culture. In 1997 Wasserstein released her first children's book, Pamela's First Musical. The story follows a young girl, escorted by her eccentric aunt, as she travels to her first Broadway show as a present for her ninth birthday.

Critical Reception

Critics have often praised Wasserstein's plays for their acute social observations and perceptive insights on the consequences of feminism. While the humor that informs the majority of her work has attracted considerable attention, several commentators have debated its ultimate purpose. Some reviewers have complained that the liberal use of wisecracks undercuts the thematic gravity of her plays, but others have countered that the humor and witty dialogue serve to balance the more serious material of her comedies. Although many have observed her potential as a playwright from the beginning of her career, most critics have acknowledged that The Heidi Chronicles remains as Wasserstein's most accomplished work. Despite the play's overwhelmingly positive critical reception upon its premiere, the overall reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed. Some reviewers have commented that the flat, passive characterization of the titular role undermines the significance of the play's feminist themes, while others have pointed out that the implausibility of the ending also contradicts its feminist premise. Other detractors have also found the play too dependent on situational humor and have questioned the emotional appeal of such popular social issues as homosexuality, AIDS, and single motherhood. In addition, feminist scholars have debated the degree of reality reflected by the play, conceding that it raises issues important to women but also observing that it never fully addresses the significance of those concerns. Scholarship has also investigated the significance of Jewish identity in Wasserstein's major works by analyzing her oeuvre's contributions to the Jewish-American community. Among Wasserstein's later works, The Sisters Rosensweig has often been singled out as her technically strongest and most hopeful play to date, particularly as it shows strong, intelligent, middle-aged women whose lives still hold professional and romantic possibilities.

Principal Works

Any Woman Can't (play) 1973

Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (play) 1974

Uncommon Women and Others (play) 1975; revised and enlarged two-act, 1977

When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth [with Christopher Durang] (play) 1975

The Sorrows of Gin [adapted from the short story by John Cheever] (screenplay) 1979

Isn't It Romantic (play) 1981; revised, 1983

Tender Offer (play) 1983

The Man in a Case [adaptor; from the short story by Anton Chekhov] (play) 1986

Miami (libretto) 1986

The Heidi...

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Criticism

Wendy Wasserstein and Esther Cohen (interview date August 1987)

SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy, and Esther Cohen. “Uncommon Woman: An Interview with Wendy Wasserstein.” Women's Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 257-70.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in August 1987, Wasserstein discusses the impetus behind her career, the inspirations for her comedy, the importance of humor in her dramas, and the gendered differences of her critical reception and popular appeal.]

Challenged by my esteemed editor to write a printable article on women writers and humor in theatre (try to imagine a scene from The Front Page, only in an Indian restaurant—“Esther, get me that article, and pass the poori!”), I decided that I had...

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Gerald Weales (review date 5 May 1989)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Prize Problems: Chronicles & Cocktail Hour.Commonweal 116, no. 9 (5 May 1989): 279-80.

[In the following review, Weales highlights the weaknesses of The Heidi Chronicles, examining the effects of its protagonist's flat characterization on the whole play.]

Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepherded by the Seattle Rep's Daniel Sullivan, it moved to a well-received off-Broadway debut and then to Broadway; it has now been blessed by the Pulitzer Prize committee. It is a typical American-theater success story of the 1980s, but I have...

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Kate Davy (review date March 1990)

SOURCE: Davy, Kate. Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 42, no. 1 (March 1990): 107-08.

[In the following review, Davy assesses the critical and commercial success of The Heidi Chronicles within the context of contemporary feminist concerns.]

The Heidi Chronicles is a rare play for Broadway. Written by a woman, its central character is an unmarried professional woman. It won the Pulitzer, Tony, N.Y. Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Hull-Warriner, and Susan Smith Blackburn awards. Ostensibly a triumph for women, Heidi is instead a problematic example of how the male-dominated production...

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Helene Keyssar (essay date March 1991)

SOURCE: Keyssar, Helene. “Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends.Modern Drama 34, no. 1 (March 1991): 88-106.

[In the following essay, Keyssar contrasts the semiotic differences between The Heidi Chronicles and Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends, refuting the contention by philosopher-critic Mikhail Bakhtin that all dramatic literature is “monologic” by demonstrating the confluence between Bakhtinian criticism and contemporary feminist thought.]

I first came to know the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin in the mid-seventies.1 Increasingly hailed as one of the most daring and...

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Wendy Wasserstein and The Playwright's Art (interview date 9 October 1991)

SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy, and The Playwright's Art. “Wendy Wasserstein.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 257-76. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on October 9, 1991, Wasserstein discusses her early career and the implications of her success, aspects of her writing process, the influence and role of women in contemporary theatre, and the critical and popular reception of her plays, particularly The Heidi Chronicles, both in the United States and abroad.]

Wendy Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn, New...

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Alex Raksin (review date 30 May 1993)

SOURCE: Raksin, Alex. Review of The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 May 1993): 6.

[In the following review, Raksin focuses on the relationship between the plot and the characterizations of the protagonists in The Sisters Rosensweig, underscoring the play's central theme.]

One reason Wendy Wasserstein's characters are so compelling is that they have been invented by such a half-breed: a feminist playwright who can't seem to ignore the enticing call of the comfy Jewish suburban family. You can hear this call in the play that won her the Pulitzer Prize, The Heidi Chronicles, which ended happily when the...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 20 August 1994)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Gnice Gnew Tribute.” Spectator 273, no. 8667 (20 August 1994): 37.

[In the following review, Morley notes the realism of the characters and setting of The Sisters Rosensweig but criticizes the play's lack of dramatic action and the predictability of its conclusion.]

Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig is that rarity, a new play still on Broadway after more than two years. It is also now at Greenwich in a new production by Michael Blakemore with an all-local cast who point up the failings of the drama while celebrating its commercial viability.

This is Chekhov for the matinée matrons: three sisters,...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 7 November 1994)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Past Imperfect.” New Leader 77, no. 11 (7 November 1994): 22-3.

[In the following excerpt, Kanfer reviews a revival of Uncommon Women and Others, situating his assessment in light of Wasserstein's accomplishments since the play's original premiere.]

Wendy Wasserstein has yet to become a Nobel Laureate. But she has been given just about every other honor: the Pulitzer Prize, plus the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Circle awards. All these kudos lead to two possible conclusions: Either Wasserstein is one of the most original and brilliant talents of our age, or contemporary theatrical standards are so...

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Richard Donahue (essay date 22 April 1996)

SOURCE: Donahue, Richard. “Opening Night.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 17 (22 April 1996): 31.

[In the following essay, Donahue details the circumstances surrounding the publication of Pamela's First Musical, summarizing the book's storyline and Wasserstein's expectations.]

Meryl Streep proclaims it “a hit,” Carol Channing says it's “funny and adorable,” and it made Glenn Close “laugh out loud.” The newest smash from Broadway or Hollywood, perhaps? Not exactly. It's Pamela's First Musical, a picture book in which a girl goes to the theater for the first time and with which a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist makes her debut in the world of...

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Ilene Cooper (review date 1 June 1996)

SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Pamela's First Musical, by Wendy Wasserstein. Booklist 92, nos. 19-20 (1 June 1996): 1732.

[In the following review, Cooper evaluates Pamela's First Musical, observing that children's-book publishers often sacrifice literary quality for corporate profits.]

Anyone can write a children's book. At least, that's what lots of people think, particularly celebrities and, worse, authors who have made their names by writing adult books. Do they believe writing kids’ books is an easy way to make money? Or that kids’ books are just so gosh darn easy to write?

They're wrong, of course, and most of them prove it...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 7 April 1997)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Fiasco on the Potomac.” New Leader 80, no. 6 (7 April 1997): 22-3.

[In the following negative review, Kanfer examines the characters and plot of An American Daughter, pronouncing the play's central conceit as “false.”]

Given the headlines, it becomes increasingly difficult to view Hillary Rodham Clinton as a dupe. Unless, of course, you live in Barbra Streisand's part of Hollywood, where the First Lady has become a classic feminist icon: Woman as Victim. Or you happen to stop by the Cort Theater, where Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter is being performed.

The story begins merrily enough in the...

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Claudia Barnett (review date December 1997)

SOURCE: Barnett, Claudia. Review of An American Daughter, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 49, no. 4 (December 1997): 520-21.

[In the following review, Barnett appraises the cultural significance of An American Daughter, contrasting its feminist perspective with that of The Heidi Chronicles.]

Wendy Wasserstein's earlier protagonists would consider Lyssa Dent Hughes [in An American Daughter] “pretty fucking amazing” and would say she “has it all.” Compared to Heidi Holland, Janie Blumberg, and even Sara Goode, she knows what she wants. Wife, mother, and doctor, she has been nominated as Surgeon General of the United States. Confident...

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Stephen J. Whitfield (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “Wendy Wasserstein and the Crisis of (Jewish) Identity.” In Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers, edited by Jay L. Halio and Ben Siegel, pp. 226-46. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Whitfield investigates the thematic significance of Jewish identity in Wasserstein's major plays, comparing the verisimilitude of their autobiographical dimension with the collective experience of Jewish-Americans.]

Born in Brooklyn on 18 October 1950, Wendy Wasserstein has drawn on features of her family life to inspire all four of her major plays. She was the youngest of four children,...

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Jan Balakian (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Balakian, Jan. “Wendy Wasserstein: A Feminist Voice from the Seventies to the Present.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, edited by Brenda Murphy, pp. 213-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Balakian traces the evolution of Wasserstein's feminist dramaturgy from Uncommon Women and Others through An American Daughter, highlighting the cultural confusion regarding contemporary women's roles that informs the characterizations of each play's respective protagonists.]

As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, and later in New York, Wendy Wasserstein experienced the conspicuous double...

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David Shengold (review date March 2000)

SOURCE: Shengold, David. Review of The Festival of Regrets, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 126-28.

[In the following review, Shengold comments on the humor of The Festival of Regrets—which was first performed as part of a production of three one-act operas titled Central Park—noting the comic effect of the interplay between the libretto and the musical score.]

Since moving to the intimate, comfortable, and technically outstanding Alice Busch Theatre in 1987, Glimmerglass Opera has maintained an increasingly high musical standard while offering some of the most theatrically innovative and satisfying opera...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 23 April 2001)

SOURCE: Review of Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties, by Wendy Wasserstein. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 17 (23 April 2001): 60.

[In the following review, the critic praises the “pedestrian” themes of Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties but finds the collection repetitive and stale except for the last two essays.]

Noted playwright Wasserstein offers up 35 essays [in Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties], most of which have appeared over the years in such publications as the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Allure and the New York Times Magazine. Now in her late 40s, the humorist tackles topics such as...

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Miriam M. Chirico (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Chirico, Miriam M. “Female Laughter and Comic Possibilities: Uncommon Women and Others.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 339-59. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Chirico examines the traditional comic structure, characters, and spirit of Uncommon Women and Others, arguing that the formal features of comedy suit the play's feminist perspective on women's place in patriarchal society.]

But when I grew weary or disgruntled—I too, like Emily Dickinson, tired of the world and sometimes found it lacking—the gentler joys of tea,...

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