Perhaps no other play written by a woman has received such diverse yet divisive criticism as Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. The drama presents the character arc of its protagonist, Heidi Holland, through nonlinear vignettes spanning two decades, as Heidi navigates choices in her personal and professional life during various stages of the feminist movement. With this work, which received a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989, Wasserstein solidified her reputation as one of the leading female dramatists of the twentieth century.
When the play opened on Broadway in December of 1988, many critics lauded it as a progressive drama that signified a new beginning of liberal feminist dramas for mainstream audiences. Wasserstein was praised for creating a heroine who many women could relate to—a strong, intelligent woman seeking harmony between independence in a male-dominated world and the desire for love and companionship.
Not all critics agree that Wasserstein’s play deserved top honors such as the Tony and the Pulitzer. The majority of criticism, feminist and otherwise, maintains that Heidi is essentially a static character without substantial presence, while male characters, in particular, Scoop Rosenbaum, overshadow her. Many believe that Heidi, despite her ambitions, is content to stay on the sidelines and embrace the role of victim rather than engage in her experiences and those of her friends. Feminist critics believe that Wasserstein’s play depicts an inauspicious view of the feminist movement and its accomplishments.
Such criticism, however, implies that Wasserstein held such personal views and invalidates, perhaps unfairly, her own experiences, which informs the creation of the play. (Wasserstein also was a successful, intelligent woman who struggled with failed relationships, and she became a single mother at the age of forty-eight.) Other critics observe that Wasserstein’s career choice of art historian for Heidi—a career they believe to be shallow—serves to weaken the image of women, rather than strengthen it. Still others argue that the playwright’s use of humor detracts from the seriousness of issues within the drama. However, perhaps the greatest complaint from feminist critics is Heidi’s choice to adopt a baby. Wasserstein is accused of turning her back on the feminist movement because Heidi ultimately takes on the traditional role of mother.
Wasserstein’s play, although still criticized, is being reconsidered by many; it continues to be staged, and in 2007, the play attained international status with performances in China. It also is being reconsidered by scholars, feminist writers, and activists. The renewed interest in her work is also due in part to the appearance of Wasserstein’s first and only novel, Elements of Style, published posthumously in 2006. The novel revisits interviews with the writer and includes scholarship that refutes past criticism of The Heidi Chronicles.
Although the existing criticism is noteworthy, perhaps what is most important to consider is Wasserstein’s intention for the play, which many critics either overlook or misinterpret. A feminist, Wasserstein is certainly aware of the achievements of the feminist movement, but she also is cognizant of its challenges and limitations. It is this complexity that informs not only the creation of the play, but that of Heidi.
Heidi’s character, her strengths and flaws (particularly her inability to commit fully to feminism or to a personal relationship), can be seen as an embodiment of those challenges facing the first and second waves of the feminist movement in the United States. Extensive interviews with Wasserstein demonstrate that she understands the past and present struggles of feminists to integrate the achievements of women, particularly those in the artistic world, into a historical account that too often omits these achievements or misrepresents them. For Wasserstein, the staging of Heidi and her story is a vehicle to expose these issues, and the work emphasizes the playwright’s intention to honestly examine the dissolution of the feminist ideal.
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