Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1721

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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.

Wasserstein’s purpose is not to present a derogatory portrait of feminism; instead, her objective is to present, through an honest portrayal of a female lead, the complexity of the movement—its triumphs and downfalls and its effect on a woman who believes in its purposes but who also has questions and doubts. Heidi struggles with personal and professional decisions; she triumphs in her career as an art historian, a lecturer, and a writer; she advocates for and withdraws from activism, realizing that feminism is not a simplistic panacea; and she struggles with loneliness and a sense of disconnect as her friends retreat from her life. She often refers to herself as a spectator, which perhaps is Wasserstein’s emphasis on cynical postfeminist discourse—that women often do not claim active roles in the making of history. However, this portrayal of Heidi makes her human, a truthful, well-rounded character rather than a static one.

Heidi’s relationships with her friends also serve to emphasize, rather than weaken, her presence in the play. Ironically, it is Heidi, as a teenager in 1965, who voices that there are no differences between men and women, while friend Susan Johnston is distancing herself from Heidi to pursue a young man. Susan eventually abandons her activism to become a producer profiting from television shows centered on successful women, while Heidi becomes financially independent and successful through her own accomplishments. Her friend and would-be lover Scoop Rosenbaum is a domineering character, but he does not dominate Heidi. If she was dominated by him, she would not challenge him as she does in conversations (and emphasize that he is not her intellectual equal). More important is that she chooses not to marry him. Because of this choice, Heidi stresses that her self-value is not measured by her partnership with a man. Although many critics assert that Heidi is dependent upon friend Peter Patrone, who she emotionally connects with more than any of her friends, it can be countered that her decision to stay in New York to maintain close proximity to him is a selfless, rather than a submissive decision.

The use of humor throughout the play, also a point of contention for many critics, is a stylistic element of the playwright and actually serves to give depth to the character of Heidi and to the play overall. First, the humor can be considered high, rather than low, comedy, as it surfaces in witty, acerbic, intelligent banter between Heidi and the other characters. Heidi is a multidimensional character, rather than a flat and static one, and her sense of wit contributes to her development while simultaneously making her an appealing character. The play can be considered realist—Heidi is someone who could exist, and her experiences are true to life; therefore, one can assume that her emotions and behavior are real as well. As the play exposes inequities within society and its personal effects on Heidi, including disappointment and disillusionment, humor becomes a necessary (and healthy) coping mechanism. The seriousness of the issues examined in the play is not upstaged by Wasserstein’s stylistic use of humor; rather, balance is achieved between the play’s dramatic elements and its comedic elements.

Later scholarship, such as that by Courtney Barko, defends Wasserstein’s choice of art historian for Heidi’s profession. Earlier arguments considered Heidi’s accomplishments in this field to be inconsequential; that they had minimal impact on others. However, as Barko and others argue, as an art historian, Heidi is continuing the task of placing women of merit within a historical context. Because she is aware of the omission of female artists within this context, her work as a historian, and a lecturer, attains significance, as she attempts to revise that history. Wasserstein’s selection of painters, whom Heidi presents to her students, including Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) and Clara Peeters (1594-c. 1657), cannot be considered random. These artists had attained great notoriety through their work in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, respectively. Although Heidi stresses to her students that often these painters are not included in textbooks, she lauds their talents as exceeding those of their male contemporaries.

Although the greatest criticism of Wasserstein’s play is that Heidi chooses to adopt a baby, insight on this decision comes from the playwright herself. Wasserstein acknowledges the criticism, but she stands by her decision from an artistic standpoint. The choice that Heidi makes is one that is true to her character. She opts for motherhood, but not in a traditional sense. Wasserstein emphasizes the belief many postfeminists had during the 1980’s—that the movement was abandoning its original purpose, and this is embodied in Heidi’s choice to adopt a daughter. However, she has also chosen to be a single mother, one who will raise her child without the financial or emotional support of a man. This decision, according to Wasserstein, is a brave, rather than a defeated, decision.

Barko makes another observation, one that is mostly unknown even to those familiar with Wasserstein’s play. The play’s 1978 first edition originally presents the ending scene with Heidi rocking her daughter as the lights fade. In the background is a slide of Heidi holding her daughter up in front of a museum displaying a Georgia O’Keeffe banner. However, the 1990 version of the play (published by Dramatist Play Service), the version with which most people are familiar, omits this image of the slide. Barko contends that without this impressionable final image, many viewers (and readers) may adopt the view that Heidi submitted to the traditional role of mother; however, with the presence of O’Keeffe, a painter who challenged expectations of women, a vision emerges of Heidi as an empowered woman raising her daughter to be strong and independent, much like herself.

That The Heidi Chronicles is still being staged, nationally and internationally, is a testament to Wasserstein’s talent as well as to the memorable character of Heidi. The play does not rest on its laurels solely as a unique social commentary concerning the feminist movement. It also continues to resonate with modern audiences because of its universal theme of identity through individuality, rather than reliance on solidarity through a cause. This is captured through the role of Heidi, a protagonist who ultimately remains true to herself and her ideals. More important, the discourse, debate, and scholarship that continue indicate that The Heidi Chronicles and its playwright and heroine are significant and enduring participants of theatrical history.

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