The Heidi Chronicles

by Wendy Wasserstein

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The Heidi Chronicles is Wendy Wasserstein’s semiautobiographical play about life from the mid-1960’s through the late 1980’s. Although few of the incidents in the play have exact parallels in Wasserstein’s life, Heidi serves as the author’s witness to the confusion, frustration, and sense of disappointment that many young women felt during this period. It is not coincidence that the name “Heidi Holland” reflects the alliteration of Wasserstein’s own name. Moreover, she also shares the name of the title character in the children’s novel Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (1880; Heidi, 1884) by Johanna Spyri, about an energetic young girl who lives in the Swiss Alps. This character displays a mixture of youthful enthusiasm and maturity. While growing up, she helps the other characters deal with the problems that they encounter in their own lives. So, to a large extent, does the character of Heidi in Wasserstein’s play.

This connection between Wasserstein’s Heidi and the title character of Spyri’s novel is reinforced during a climactic scene in the play when Peter wonders, “Did you know that the first section [of Heidi] is Heidi’s year of travel and learning, and the second is where Heidi uses what she knows? How will you use what you know, Heidi?” Built upon this same structure, the first act of The Heidi Chronicles takes place in numerous locations as it follows Heidi’s period of travel and learning. The second act, set solely in New York City, illustrates Heidi beginning to use what she knows and gradually coming to terms with herself and her own identity.

One of the most important lessons that Heidi must learn in The Heidi Chronicles is how to balance her career with her need to serve others and find meaning in her own life. This, in fact, is the goal that all the characters in the play are trying to attain. Peter becomes a successful pediatrician who develops a special ward for children with HIV infections. Scoop ultimately realizes the importance both of his children’s future and of the political dreams he once had as a young man. Heidi finds a way of reconciling her need to love others with her desire to become a respected author and professor at Columbia University. In the final scene of the play, it is revealed that Peter has helped Heidi adopt a young daughter. Wasserstein indicates that this daughter, Judy, represents Heidi’s hope for the future.

Other characters in the play fail to achieve Heidi’s degree of balance. Susan, for example, tends to be motivated by whatever happens to be fashionable at the moment. During the mid-1960’s, she is almost the stereotype of the teenaged baby-boomer. Her interests do not extend beyond dating, boys, and being popular. During the 1970’s, Susan seems to have developed substantially and even appears to be more committed to feminist causes than Heidi herself, but this change of character is only a phase. During the economically aggressive 1980’s, Susan forsakes both her feminist ideals and her friends, settling for financial success in the television industry. The picture of Susan that emerges is of a shallow individual who reflects the ideas of others rather than developing her own.

In a similar fashion, Jill, one of the members of the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness Raising Rap Group, also fails to achieve the balance sought by the central characters. Though she speaks of her unhappiness in allowing everyone else to “lean on perfect Jill” while forgetting to take care of herself, Jill continues to demonstrate this fault. She nurtures the members of the discussion group as she had once nurtured her...

(This entire section contains 819 words.)

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husband and children, always putting the needs of others ahead of her own. Lisa, too, prefers to serve Scoop and advance his career rather than satisfying her own needs. Her frustration with, and at times blindness to, Scoop’s infidelity should prompt her either to leave home or to confront him with the situation. Lisa’s habitual role of subservience to Scoop, however, prevents her from giving serious consideration to either of these options.

Of all the play’s female characters, Heidi achieves the greatest balance between satisfying her own needs and meeting those of others. Nevertheless, Heidi still sees the final liberation of women as something that can be achieved only in the future. In 1986, she speaks to students of the girls’ high school that she herself had attended and complains of feeling “stranded” as a woman. She had thought that “we were all in this together,” and she is disappointed when other women fail to act this way. Even in the final scene of the play, she hopes that her daughter will “never think she’s worthless unless [some man] lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better.” For the moment, however, that hope has not yet been fulfilled.


Critical Context