Gender Power Structure in The Heidi Chronicles

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1917

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Despite its reputation as a feminist play, the male characters and their values dominate The Heidi Chronicles. In a review of the original Broadway production, Cathleen McGuigan said in Newsweek: ‘‘The men in Heidi’s life are more interesting [than her female friends].’’ Another critic, Gayle Austin from the Theatre Journal called Heidi passive and claimed the play ‘‘gives them [men] all the best lines.’’ Many of Heidi’s choices are made for and defined by men. Indeed, her role in many scenes is limited to a reactive one; she responds to the sentiments of her male counterparts. Save Heidi, the women in the play are reduced to stereotypes: aggressive businesswomen, single-minded feminists, doting wife and mother. They are often regarded as the weakest part of the play.

The problem with the female characters is embodied in Susan, Heidi’s best female friend. Susan has no real depth, none of the heart and selfawareness that Scoop and Peter frequently display. Wasserstein emphasizes Susan’s shallowness by having her change careers and attitudes with the trends of the times. She goes from being a law student to a feminist collective member to a business school grad working as a power-hungry Hollywood executive. In her last appearance on stage, Susan even states: ‘‘By now I’ve been so many people, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t care.’’

Susan also shows disregard for the well-being of her fellow woman in two key scenes. In Act One, scene one, the teenaged Heidi and Susan attend a high school dance. Susan abandons Heidi to dance with a boy who can twist and smoke at the same time (a superficial attraction that reveals much about Susan’s attractions later in life). This occurs after Heidi has refused to dance with a boy because she didn’t want Susan to feel left out. In Act Two, scene three, when Heidi invites Susan to lunch to talk about personal matters, Susan, in her Hollywood dealmaker persona, turns the friendly gettogether into a business meeting and tries to convince Heidi to help her with the development of a television series. She pitches it as a project that will benefit Heidi, but it is clear that Susan cares little for her friend’s well-being; her intentions are only for her own success.

In Heidi’s climactic monologue, Act Two, scene four, Heidi sighs, ‘‘I thought the point was that we were all in this together,’’ the ‘‘we’’ meaning women. This is clearly not the case with Susan and Heidi’s relationship. Even Heidi’s own support of other women is, at times, questionable. When Heidi and her colleague Debbie stage a protest outside of the Chicago Art Institute lamenting the lack of women artists, Heidi abandons Debbie to be with Peter. Debbie says, ‘‘God, I despise manipulative men.’’ Peter can’t resist responding, ‘‘Me, too.’’ He should know. Both Peter and Scoop undermine Heidi’s relationships with women—and her feminist allegiances—from the first scene of The Heidi Chronicles.

As the primary male characters in Wassersteins’s play, Peter Patrone and Scoop Rosenbaum are portrayed as opposite sides of the same coin. Peter is a gay pediatrician with a ready wit. He practices a traditional, hallowed profession, which gives him a certain status in society. Scoop also has a pithy sense of humor and makes commonly accepted choices. He is a lawyer and a journalist. He marries well, expecting his wife to have a career that is not as important as his so that she can rear their children (Lisa’s career as an illustrator of children’s books is portrayed as more of a hobby than an occupation; she is primarily Scoop’s wife and the mother of his children). These male characters are shown to have lives beyond their careers, they are not ruled by trends. In contrast, Susan is nowhere near as wellrounded as either man. But there are similarities in the way these three characters respond to Heidi’s needs. While both Scoop and Peter can be supportive, they, like Susan, show little regard for Heidi and her choices.

Peter regularly insults Heidi’s female friends. Heidi meets Peter at the same high school dance that she attended with Susan. After Susan leaves her, Heidi pulls out a book and begins to read. Peter approaches Heidi, complimenting her by saying: ‘‘You look so bored you must be very bright.’’ Peter proceeds to cut down Susan, sarcastically calling her an ‘‘unfortunate wench.’’ He then teaches Heidi a dance. Heidi learns something from him, not another woman. A few scenes later, during the protest, Peter also insults Debbie’s name and her feminist attitude. Such comments, while presented as humor, undermine Heidi’s relationships with women, they erode her respect for feminist ideals. Peter can be an equal opportunity prig, however. He also insults Scoop and his overbearing personality.

Peter also makes Heidi feel guilty in a number of scenes. In the protest scene, Peter berates her for not calling him while she was in Chicago. He happens across her because he is meeting someone. But when she tries to express what she is feeling, Peter turns the tables and says that she made him feel guilty about his homosexuality. In the second to the last scene of the play, Heidi visits Peter at his hospital ward late at night on Christmas. She has been, unsuccessfully, trying to reach Peter all week. She intends to say goodbye to him and move to Minnesota the next day. But Peter dismisses her problems and the unhappiness that has prompted her decision to relocate, calling her ‘‘insane.’’ When the discussion is about Peter—especially the overwhelming emotional pain he feels as many of his friends die of AIDS—Heidi is supportive. Having turned the focus from Heidi to himself, Peter convinces her she is a bad friend for leaving him in his hour of need. Heidi decides to stay in New York for Peter, saying ‘‘I could become someone else next year.’’ For the most part, however, her feelings are of little interest to Peter.

While he is in many ways her soul mate, Scoop is even more manipulative of Heidi and repeatedly illustrates his insensitivity to her needs—and those of all women. While Peter does show his support for Heidi at key moments (at Scoop’s wedding reception, for example), Scoop is too self-absorbed to notice when he is hurting her. Scoop tells Heidi at one point: ‘‘Why should you like me? I’m arrogant and difficult. But I’m very smart. So you’ll put up with me.’’ And she does. Like Peter, Scoop insults Susan. At the time of the wedding reception, Susan is living in a women’s collective in Montana after abandoning a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship. Of this choice, Scoop says: ‘‘She could have been brilliant,’’ implying that an allegiance to the women’s collective somehow diminishes Susan’s intelligence. Heidi defends her friend, who is standing right there, but Scoop gets away with it. When Susan walks away, he further ridicules her beliefs, calling her ‘‘a fanatic’’ and ‘‘crazy.’’

In comparison to Scoop’s treatment of Heidi, however, Susan gets off relatively easy; Scoop continually undermines Heidi’s sense of herself. At their initial meeting, a dance for college students working for the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, Scoop questions everything Heidi does or says in a manner that makes him seem intelligent and reduces her to a stereotypical woman with little social merit. Heidi tries to be polite, asking him questions about himself. He responds with ‘‘Did they teach you at Vassar to ask so many inane questions in order to keep the conversation going?’’ He scorns her career choice of art historian as ‘‘suburban.’’

Scoop’s final affront, the one that rings throughout the play, is a condemnation of Heidi’s feminist ideals. He dismissively tells her: ‘‘You’ll be one of those true believers who didn’t understand it was all just a phase.’’ In Wasserstein’s world, a female character like Susan is never this insightful about herself or another woman. At the end of the scene, Scoop admits he is trying to ‘‘go to bed’’ with Heidi. Heidi allows him to passionately kiss her before he leaves, and they eventually become romantically involved.

Scoop eventually marries Lisa because she fits his ideals for wife and mother. Still, he manipulates Heidi’s emotions at his own wedding reception, telling her he couldn’t marry her because of her ambition and her need to be an equal partner in a marriage. While Scoop talks about his own unhappiness to Heidi, he chooses not to be his wife’s partner for her first dance at their wedding. Scoop wreaks havoc on these two women’s lives, then has the impudence to ask Heidi ‘‘Why did you let me do this?,’’ implying that Heidi somehow is responsible for his decision.

Wasserstein allows men to have a measure of control over Heidi’s life and emotions. Scoop goes on to be right about the women of Heidi’s generation— especially Heidi, telling her, ‘‘you ‘quality time’ girls are going to be one generation of disappointed women. Interesting, exemplary, even sexy, but basically unhappy.’’ Scoop does attempt a halfhearted apology by the end of the wedding scene, however.

Heidi stands up to Scoop in the last scene, after she has adopted her baby. Scoop continues to ridicule her, calling her ‘‘prissy’’ but then says she’s important to him. He is in turmoil because he has sold his magazine and is uncertain about his future; he looks to Heidi for comfort and assurance. Heidi tells him, ‘‘Don’t look at me with those doe eyes and tell me how spoiled you are. Next thing I know, you’ll tell me how you never meant to hurt me.’’ This is a small victory and an encouraging show of independence. It is noteworthy that Heidi’s new resolve occurs following her adoption of a child, a life-changing choice.

The depth of male dominance in The Heidi Chronicles is exemplified by the two scenes in which no men appear. In the women’s consciousness raising group in Ann Arbor, Heidi admits she will drop everything just to be with her thenboyfriend, Scoop. She does not say that he drops everything to see her, but she admits he is really only attentive when she tries to leave him. Heidi calls him ‘‘a creep,’’ qualifying her insult by adding: ‘‘But he’s a charismatic creep.’’ Though the women bond over her breakthrough, it only emphasizes the relative importance of the men in The Heidi Chronicles. The same thing happens during Lisa’s baby shower scene. Much of the conversation revolves around Scoop, Peter, and other men. Lisa believes her husband is at a conference in New Jersey. But Heidi has seen him in Central Park with another, younger woman who works at his magazine.

Heidi makes only two significant choices for herself in the course of The Heidi Chronicles: her career choice and adopting the baby. Nearly every other action is influenced by or dictated to her by the other characters. And, almost always, these other characters are Scoop and Peter. To say that The Heidi Chronicles is a feminist play is incorrect. While Heidi has a career, Heidi becomes exactly what traditional (male-dominated) society defines as the ultimate female role: a mother.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Prize Problems

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Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepher ded 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 trouble working up much enthusiasm for its triumphant journey.

The Heidi of the title is an art historian, a presumably intelligent and sensitive woman who moves from 1965 to 1989, picking her way through the ideational thickets of those years, only to find that the goal of her generation, to become an independent woman in a male world, brings emptiness with it. The audience follows Heidi’s progress in brief scenes that teeter on the edge of broad satire and sometimes, as in the consciousness-raising meeting, fall over completely. Heidi remains pretty much the same throughout the fifteen years—concerned, but a little cold, a little distant, her involvement tinged with self-irony. On her stroll down memory lane, she is accompanied by the two men closest to her—a homosexual doctor who remains her best friend (and incidentally provides an excuse to bring in AIDS as an item in Wasserstein’s cultural catalogue) and a fast-talking charmer, sometimes her lover, an intellectual conman who plays the main chance and persists in confusing the fashionable with the significant. Heidi’s oldest woman friend, the only other important character in the play, is a Wasserstein joke, a chameleon who becomes whatever the moment requires: a ditsy sexpot, a jargonesque feminist, a member of an ecological commune, a power-lunch paragon in the entertainment business.

The chief weakness of the play is that it has no dramatic center. Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as little more than a foil for the more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots. Joan Allen is one of the finest reactors among American performers (consider last year’s Tony-winning performance in Burn This), but however fascinating it is to watch Allen work, Heidi remains flaccid. We are supposed to understand the distress within the character, which surfaces primarily in runs of nervousness and in one unlikely overt moment in which she turns a speech at an alumnae gathering into a high whine of generational regret. At the end of the play, she has adopted a child and the suggestion is that she has found a certain solidity as a single mother, but nothing in the play or the character makes motherhood look like anything but an occasion for Heidi’s next disappointment. The ending is as arbitrary as that of Wasserstein’s earlier hit, Isn’t It Romantic, in which the heroine decides for no very clear reason not to marry the man she loves; perhaps she had been to see My Brilliant Career at her local moviehouse.

If Heidi as activist and Heidi as unrealized lover are a bit difficult to accept in her Chronicles, Heidi as art historian is impossible. She is supposes to be an expert on female artists, correcting the sexual imbalance in the history of art, and we see her in lectures at the beginning of each act. Her manner is oddly frothy, her disclosure decorated with what I think of as wee academic jokies. The wee academic jokie, of which there are far too many on campuses, is not funny if it sounds as though it were written into the lecture, if it is taken out of the classroom context, if it makes the speaker sound as though she were apologizing for her subject matter. So it is with all of Heidi’s jokies. Her lectures diminish the whole enterprise of rethinking the female presence in art. In part, that is a product of the unanchored Heidi described in the paragraph above. In part, it grows out of the play’s tendency to trivialize the genuine concerns of women in particular, radicals in general, by emphasizing the fashionable patina on social change. As a comic writer, Wasserstein can see what is ludicrous in the convoluted social history of the last fifteen years. On the serious side, The Heidi Chronicles is one of those gee-it-didn’t-turn-out-the-way-we-expected plays, another offspring of The Big Chill.

Source: Gerald Weales, ‘‘Prize Problems’’ in Commonweal, Vol. CXVI, no. 9, May 5, 1989 , pp. 279–80.

Review of Play's Broadway Debut

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Having been less enthusiastic than other critics about Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles Off Broadway, I hasten to point out that, reversing the pattern, it looks and plays better on. Thomas Lynch has skillfully adapted his tongue-in-cheek scenery, Pat Collins has made her good lighting even more evocative, and the bigger space allows more room for the play’s grand ambition to portray two decades of change in our society. A school dance looks more like a school dance, a pediatrics ward is more up to the old pediatrics, etc. And it’s nice to bask in oversized slide projections in the hall where Heidi Holland—Wendy Wasserstein transmuted into a feminist art historian—lectures on women in art, even if the splendid Joan Allen mispronounces Sofonisba Anguissola as no art historian should.

The play chronicles Heidi’s progress from a frightened but fast-quipping wallflower at a 1965 Chicago high-school dance, through becoming a timid onlooker at a New Hampshire Eugene McCarthy rally (1968), to being a Yale grad student in fine arts visiting a friend in Ann Arbor and shyly observing her consciousness-raising group in session (1970), then to a women-in-art protest march on the Chicago Art Institute (1974), and so on through thirteen scenes—all the way to 1989, when Heidi moves into a commodious New York apartment and adopts a baby girl. Cautiously, she does not name her Sofonisba, Artemisia, or even Angelica, after one of her beloved women artists.

Here the first problem surfaces: the inconsistencies in Heidi’s character. In contrast to her feminist and postfeminist friends, Heidi remains an almost Candide-like innocent, despite one of the sharpest and fastest tongues this side of the Pecos. When she lectures, however, her humor changes from vertiginous epigrams to patronizing downhome jokiness. Further, she seems to have an ample and diversified offstage sex life with one editor or another, yet is involved on stage with only a couple of unlikely men throughout.

There is Scoop Rosenbaum, a dazzling opportunist who goes from liberal journalism to putting out Boomer, the slickest of slickly upward-mobile magazines, and thence (as I understand it) into politics. Heidi has an off-and-on affair with him, but he wenches around and finally marries an intellectual 6 (instead of her 10)—a wealthy young woman who becomes a leading book illustrator, which is not bad for a 6. And there is Peter Patrone, as cynically scintillating at repartee as Scoop; he, however, becomes an earnest and distinguished young pediatrician. We follow him, a homosexual, through a number of liaisons with men; as far as I can tell, he never sleeps with Heidi. But she is, for obscure reasons, enormously important to him as, in the end, we see him bitterly grappling with AIDS among both his special friends and his child patients.

Now, there are in life beautiful women who have weird problems with men, and witty women who are nevertheless shy; but to make them credible on stage takes a heap more than we are accorded here. When Miss W. had herself portrayed on stage by the portly, ethnic Alma Cuervo, she automatically spoke a good part of the truth; belief boggles at the elegant, glamorous Joan Allen in that role. Equally hard to take are the smart-aleck rapid-fire epigrams from almost everyone; this fits into the unrealistic, stylized milieus of Wilde, Coward, and Orton, but clashes with W.W.’s naturalistic ambience. Finally, the play is a mite too much of a survey course in women’s studies; or, to put it bluntly, a check, or even laundry, list. All the same, it is clever and funny and sometimes even wise, and there is, under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, good acting from all, and much more than that from the subtly complex Miss Allen, the trenchantly ebullient Peter Friedman and Boyd Gaines, and the especially cherishable Joanne Camp.

Source: John Simon, review of The Heidi Chronicles in New York, Vol. 22, no. 13, March 27, 1989, pp. 66–67.

Portrait of a Lady

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At the emotional turning point of ‘‘The Heidi Chronicles,’’ Wendy Wasserstein’s manless heroine Heidi Holland (Joan Allen), an essayist and art-history professor, is supposed to deliver a speech at the Plaza Hotel. The occasion for the speech is an alumnae luncheon, the topic ‘‘Women, Where Are We Going?’’ We’ve seen Heidi speak in public before—in the classroom sequences that, prologuelike, begin each act—and we’ve grown familiar with the mock girls’-school bonhomie she exhibits toward the women painters who constitute her particular area of expertise. Ordinarily, the public Dr. Holland is a model of wry composure. On this occasion, however, instead of giving a speech (she hasn’t prepared one) Wasserstein’s heroine gets up and extemporizes. She begins by sketching a fictional portrait of herself as an ‘‘exemplary’’ New Woman, whose busy and full life—complete with ideal husband and children—would excuse her showing up speechless at a luncheon where she herself was the featured event. Then, in an apparent non sequitur, she tells a story about going to the health club and being too much affected by the other women in the locker room to go through with the exercise class she had planned to attend. Wasserstein never makes the connection between the two halves of the speech; she leaves it to us to infer that Dr. Holland was ‘‘too sad’’ to produce a speech for the Miss Crain’s School luncheon, just as she had been ‘‘too sad to exercise’’ that day. Moreover, the cause of Heidi’s depression—her manlessness—is never alluded to. Instead, Wasserstein duplicates that feeling in us by having Heidi describe the women in the locker room: two girls discussing ‘‘the reading program at Marymount nursery school’’; a woman her mother’s age complaining about her daughterin- law; another older woman ‘‘extolling the virtues of brown rice and women’s fiction.’’ She imagines the young mothers thinking that women like her ‘‘chose the wrong road’’: ‘‘‘A pity they made such a mistake, that empty generation.’ Well, I really don’t want to be feeling this way about all of them. . . . It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded, I thought the point was we were all in this together.’’

‘‘The Heidi Chronicles, ’’ which opened last week at Playwrights Horizon in a bangup production directed by Daniel Sullivan, is actually a very funny play. The scene at the Plaza is a tour de force: it justifies the whole play, yet nothing in the play has prepared us for it. We have never been told that the heroine is to make a speech; we have never heard of the Miss Crain’s School. We arrive at the Plaza not by any dramaturgical route but by a device of Thomas Lynch, the set designer. That we are able to feel, once we’re there, that this scene is where Wasserstein’s play has been leading all along is a mark of her artistry.

‘‘The Heidi Chronicles’’ is probably Wasserstein’s best work to date. What distinguishes it from her earlier plays is that it actually says something. It’s one thing to be able to record an experience or capture the spirit of a time—to write bittersweet autobiography about the bright, promising people one knew in college (‘‘Uncommon Women and Others’’) or how hard it is to grow up and break free of overprotective parents (‘‘Isn’t It Romantic’’)— and quite another to send us out of a theatre feeling that we see something in a different light. ‘‘The Heidi Chronicles’’ is autobiographical only in the most interesting way: Wasserstein’s heroine is, like Wasserstein herself, a student of other women— particularly women engaged in creating images of womanhood. It’s significant that the women we see Heidi lecturing on belong to another time: it suggests that Wasserstein’s subjects—the young men and women who came of age in the sixties and dropped out to work on radical newspapers or in women’s collectives—stand somehow outside the purview of her own and her heroine’s experience. Wasserstein wants Heidi to be not an advocate of the women’s movement but one of its victims—a vessel carrying around the ideals and experiences of her time. Throughout the play, Heidi remains mostly mute and passive, aloof from the proceedings. That’s one of the reasons it’s so good to see Miss Allen in the role—of all our younger actresses the most eloquent in silence or repose. ‘‘You’re the one whose life this will all change significantly,’’ warns a charismatic pseudo-radical young man Heidi meets at a McCarthy rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1967, and we see his prophecy fulfilled. At a consciousness-raising session in Ann Arbor in 1970, Heidi is an interloper, forced by feelings and circumstances into ‘‘sharing’’ with the other women and surrounded by them, at the end of the scene, in an uncomfortable embrace. We witness Heidi’s seduction by the women’s movement just as we witnessed her seduction by Scoop, the charismatic young man in the scene before—one of that horde of clever, intense young men who knew how to badger women into profound conversations and shallow beds by making astute personal remarks. It’s one of the clevernesses of Wasserstein’s play that she makes Scoop (Peter Friedman) a pseudo-radical. ‘‘You’ll be one of those true believers who didn’t understand it was just a phase,’’ she has him say. Twenty years later, a routine philanderer and the editor of his own lifestyle magazine, Scoop will be thinking of going into politics, and Heidi will be adopting a baby. We’ll never find out exactly what makes Heidi tick, but then we never really find out what makes Isabel Archer tick.

This moving-snapshot style of theatre, in which the progress of a particular character is charted through a succession of years in different towns and cities, is popular among playwrights of Wendy Wasserstein’s generation and is most often used to chronicle their disillusionments and disappointments, as Wasserstein uses it here. The danger inherent in such an approach—one that has to go so far afield in space and time in order to make a point—is that what the playwright has to say may turn out to be either trivial, as in the case of Michael Weller’s ‘‘Loose Ends,’’ or untrue, as in the case of David Hare’s ‘‘Plenty.’’ Freed from the necessity of discerning some pattern of truth in human action, one can, after all, say anything.

Like the health-club speech, Wasserstein’s entire play is a tour de force: it mimics the faults of her generation’s style of theatre yet manages to transcend them. It spans twenty-three years and rockets us back and forth in time and place. And though it tracks the main characters from the sixties to the present there isn’t a single scene in which anything that anyone does has consequences in a later scene. That the play manages to seem economical can only be attributed to some alchemical combination of graceful-mindedness and good writing; the Chekhovian fabric of the dialogue—the degree to which characters’ ways of talking differ from one another or change over time—creates a Stanislavskian offstage life, so that to witness one conversation between Scoop and Heidi is to know what their subsequent relationship as lovers will be like. Wasserstein never states anything that can be inferred; it’s one of the ways she keeps her heroine free of righteousness and self-pity. We aren’t shown Heidi’s disappointment when her charming, selfeffacing friend Peter (Boyd Gaines) announces that he is gay, just at the moment when we’re wondering why Heidi doesn’t settle down with him (the way we keep wondering why Isabel doesn’t settle down with one of the nice young men in ‘‘Portrait of a Lady’’); instead, we feel disappointed ourselves.

There’s generosity in the writing, toward the characters, certainly, not one of whom is made to seem ludicrous or dismissible, but also toward the performers, who get to engage in a delicious brand of highly specific character acting: Mr. Gaines and Mr. Friedman, irresistible as the two principal men; Drew McVety, making frequent cameo appearances (as a preppie, a bullied waiter, a pediatric resident); Ellen Parker, Anne Lange, Joanne Camp, and Sarah Jessica Parker, playing a host of different women of such varying degrees of liberatedness and niceness that Wasserstein’s portrait of womanhood always remains complex. She is herself too much a lady to moralize. She condemns these young men and women by simply capturing them in all their charm and complexity, without rhetoric or exaggeration. They are measured and found wanting. Her final comment on the me generation is contained in Heidi’s wish for her daughter: that no man should ever make her feel she is worthless unless she demands to have it all.

Source: Mimi Kramer, ‘‘Portrait of a Lady’’ in the New Yorker, December 26, 1988, pp. 81–82.

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