The Heidi Chronicles

by Wendy Wasserstein
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

Critical reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed since its debut in 1988. Many feminists critics applauded the fact that a play about women and women’s issues was such a smashing success. The depiction of a modern woman living an anxiety- filled life was a concept with which many women identified. But some such critics believed this success came at a price, complaining that Heidi and the other female characters are not as well-rounded as they could be. Heidi merely reacts to what is going on around her, while the male characters tend to dominate the action. Gerald Weales wrote in Commonweal that ‘‘Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as a little more than a foil for the more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots.’’

Many critics debated the strength of the characters in The Heidi Chronicles, with criticism focusing on the fact that they are at once complex and oversimplified. They have a self-depreciating sense of humor and are aware of their faults, yet can question others. Some critics felt that Heidi is too self-aware and unbelievable. Other critics disliked the way Heidi’s friend Susan is little more than a recurring punchline, an indecisive wanderer who drifts toward whatever trend is in vogue at the time. A feminist critic, Gayle Austin writing in Theatre Journal, stated: ‘‘Wasserstein portrays Heidi’s women friends as trivial and her men friends as serious and has Heidi blame the women’s movement for that situation.’’ Indeed, Wasserstein’s chiding of the women’s movement is not always appreciated, especially by feminist critics. Still, Moira Hodgson in the Nation, commented, ‘‘The most moving insight comes when Heidi, who feels betrayed by the women’s movement, says, ’I was a true believer who didn’t understand it was just a phase.’’’

Wasserstein often plays such differences for their humor, which many regard as her strong point. But some critics argued that her humor in The Heidi Chronicles can be ill-timed and is not up to the standards of her previous work. They believed that her humor weakens the potency of the timely topics she addresses. While Robert Brustein, writing in the New Republic, said, ‘‘Wasserstein has a wry, selfdeprecating humor that helps her avoid self-righteousness without losing her sting,’’ later in his review he stated ‘‘Their [the characters’] weakness for wisecracks makes them seem shallower than intended and undercuts the seriousness of the work.’’

Another facet of the play that was received with mixed praise are the scenes in which Heidi directly addresses the audience, lecturing about lost women artists. Several reviewers pointed out that Heidi’s unprofessional behavior, especially her titters and jokes, perform a disservice to the message. They argued that Wasserstein makes fun of such lectures when their point is highly relevant to her play.

The construction of the play itself also came under critical fire. Some critics believed that the episodic nature of the plot weakens the impact of The Heidi Chronicles. Some also argued that the ending seems contrived and does not fit with the tone of the rest of the play. Feminist critics, especially, saw Wasserstein’s conclusion as a cop-out rather than true closure because Heidi’s adoption of a baby girl seems to replace all her other relationships, especially with women. Still, Cathleen McGuigan in Newseek wrote: ‘‘Wasserstein sometimes can’t balance savagery and heart, but her satire is never empty; she has a strong point to make about lost values.’’

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