The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In 1988, Heidi Holland, a professor at Columbia University, discusses paintings by Sonfonisba Anguissola, Clara Peeters, and Lily Martin Spencer, observing that they, like many other notable women artists, are still excluded from art history survey textbooks. Referring to a slide of Spencer’s “We Both Must Fade,” she reflects that it reminds her of a high school dance, where “you sort of don’t know what you want. So you hang around . . . waiting to see what might happen.”

After this prologue, the play unfolds in a series of flashbacks beginning with a 1965 high school dance attended by Heidi and Susan Johnston, both sixteen years old. Although Heidi is content watching the dance alongside her girlfriend, the libidinous Susan insists that they stand apart, claiming that their proximity might dissuade boys from approaching; she also plans to downplay her intelligence to make herself more appealing. When Susan departs to seek a partner in a “ladies’ choice” dance, Heidi seats herself and reads a book. Soon Peter Patrone sits beside her. After they indulge in some witty repartee, he shows Heidi how to dance.

Two years later, Heidi meets Scoop Rosenbaum at a New Hampshire dance for Eugene McCarthy supporters. Editor of The Liberated Earth News, the flirtatious Princeton University dropout barrages Heidi with disturbing questions; taken aback, she tries to distance herself from him, even introducing herself as Susan Johnston. Reflecting on Scoop’s unbridled assertiveness, Heidi wonders “what mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.” Scoop eventually reveals that Heidi’s real name has been plainly in sight on her name tag and observes that she represents an “unfortunate contradiction in terms—a serious good person,” whose unwavering idealism, he foresees, will make her an anachronism. They leave together.

In 1970, Heidi visits Susan at a meeting of the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness Raising Rap Group. After observing Susan (now a law student), Jill (a housewife), Fran (a lesbian physicist), and Becky (a troubled teenager) praise one another’s achievements and accept their differences, the recalcitrant Heidi, now a Yale University art history graduate, reveals her emotional dependency on Scoop. She then declares, “I hope our daughters never feel like us. I hope all our daughters feel so . . . worthwhile” and receives the support of the group.

Four years later, Heidi and Peter meet at the Chicago Art Institute, where she and a small group of women are demanding greater recognition of women in art. Heidi still sleeps with Scoop but claims that she is no longer emotionally attached to him; she adds that Susan recently abandoned a Supreme Court clerkship alongside Scoop to live on a woman’s health and legal collective in Montana. Peter, at first joking that he has “developed a violent narcissistic personality disorder,” eventually confesses that he is “a liberal homosexual pediatrician.” This revelation angers Heidi, who had assumed that Peter desperately loved her. Heidi, however, remains with Peter after the protest leader excludes him from the rally because of his gender, and the two...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The episodic structure of The Heidi Chronicles and its references to popular trends tend to emphasize ephemera rather than spotlight the work’s serious themes. Told in flashbacks that span more than twenty years of changing social mores, the play relies heavily on elements of setting to lend humor, nostalgia, and other elements of color to its story line. Instructions to use “The Shoop Shoop Song” (“Does he love me? I wanna know. How can I tell if he loves me so?”) in the first scene, the music of Janis Joplin in the second, and Beatles music at Lisa’s shower indicate the playwright’s interest in details that not only speak of the interests of Heidi’s generation but also comment on the action. References to figures such as Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, David Cassidy, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep also speak to the character of the times.

Wendy Wasserstein, however, also employs her entertaining and witty dialogue, indicative of her main characters’ sophistication, to add crucial elements of foreshadowing to her play. A most telling exchange occurs between Susan and Fran in act 1, scene 3. After Susan announces that she “was seriously considering beginning a law journal devoted solely to women’s legal issues” but instead has “decided to work within the male establishment power base to change the system,” Fran mocks the choice as indicating a lack of commitment: “Either you shave your legs or you don’t.”...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Columbia University

*Columbia University. Ivy League university in New York City in a lecture hall in which the prologue to this play is set. Now a successful art historian, Heidi Holland is surprised to find herself lecturing on woman painters in so august an academic setting. Her very presence in this lecture hall proves that she has come a long way from her turbulent life in the 1960’s and 1970’s to have a meaningful career and still be a woman who has everything.

Church basement

Church basement. Place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Heidi and other women meet to discuss women’s issues in 1970. The emergence of socially conscious groups such as hers reflects the rise of collective movements during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Heidi herself merely observes the group’s discussion in the play.

*Chicago Art Institute

*Chicago Art Institute. Place where Heidi and a friend try to persuade passersby to participate in a protest against the lack of representation of women in art in 1974. Heidi speaks on a bullhorn, purposely creating a spectacle to attract an audience. She appropriately chooses an art institute to protest because the setting is patriarchal in itself.

Television studio

Television studio. New York City television station in which Heidi and some of her associates are interviewed for a program in 1982. Heidi and the other interviewees represent the baby-boom generation, who are well off, white-collar professionals living in cosmopolitan cities such as New York City. Their presence in the studio gives them a sense of success, as the studio offers them exposure as representatives of an elite who have it all. However, Heidi is reticent to speak during this interview because she senses that the limelight is not really what she wants. With bright lights pouring on her and a camera aimed at her, Heidi realizes that the limelight of any aspect of a person’s life is ephemeral.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The story of The Heidi Chronicles is told through a series of vignettes that extend from a high school dance in 1965 to Heidi’s near future in 1989 (Wendy Wasserstein completed the play in 1988), when Heidi is a successful professor of art history at Columbia University. Throughout the play’s thirteen scenes, the audience witnesses Heidi’s development from an ordinary schoolgirl through her increasing dissatisfaction with her life before she finally develops greater acceptance of her career, her goals, and herself. The play also explores Heidi’s evolving relationships with Susan, Peter, and Scoop, the three friends with whom she shares many of her most important moments.

While Scoop is always Heidi’s friend, he is also occasionally her lover. She meets him in New Hampshire at an event supporting Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president. Heidi finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by Scoop’s overwhelming confidence. His readiness to be judgmental exasperates Heidi, though she envies his self-assurance and the faith that he has in his own opinions. Unwilling to make a commitment to Heidi, Scoop ultimately marries Lisa, an illustrator of children’s books who readily places Scoop’s needs ahead of her own. By the end of the play, however, Scoop has grown as a human being. He sells his magazine, demonstrates concern for his children’s future, and considers running for public office.

Peter functions in the play...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Heidi Chronicles examines the frustration and disappointment that many women felt as they examined their opportunities and relationships throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. The play explores these problems, however, without developing a tone of rancor toward men. Even Scoop, the one character whose cockiness and self-interest make him almost a villain for most of the play, is allowed to grow as a human being by the end of the drama. Fran, the character who is most bitter toward men and who blames them for most of the problems in the world, is a comic figure. Wasserstein’s point is that women should regard men as sources of neither their self-worth nor their problems. If women hope to achieve balance in their lives, they must take charge of their own lives, realize that they are “all in this together,” and create a future that will be more satisfying both for their daughters and themselves.

The importance of The Heidi Chronicles is that it expresses these ideas in a form that is palatable to a large popular audience. Rather than speaking of women’s issues only to women, Wasserstein creates a work that entertains audiences of both genders. By including references to popular music, current events, and fashions that many viewers will remember from their own youth, Wasserstein presents characters with whom it is easy to identify. Because of its widespread appeal, The Heidi Chronicles won not only the 1989 Susan Smith Black Prize for the best play by a woman playwright but also the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the New York Drama Critics Award, and a Tony Award for the best play of 1989. Its success transcended boundaries of gender and allowed men and women alike to reflect upon the shared experiences of their young adulthood.

Perhaps for this reason, feminist reactions toward The Heidi Chronicles tended to be largely negative. Many critics did not regard Wasserstein as going far enough in explaining Heidi’s unhappiness. A number of these authors also thought that the play dealt far too much with Heidi’s romantic relationships and not enough with her work or her friendships with other women. The result, several critics have noted, is that Heidi gives lip service to feminist values but still appears to be dominated by the male characters in the play.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Women’s Issues
As the 1980s came to a close, conservative forces remained in control of the White House and other aspects of...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Heidi Chronicles is a comedic drama that spans the years 1965 to 1989 and employs numer ous locations for its...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1989: There are many unknowns about the AIDS disease, its causes and cures. The number of deaths from AIDS is on the rise.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the paintings that Wasserstein mentions in The Heidi Chronicles. Discuss the parallels between them and the events depicted...

(The entire section is 107 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Heidi Chronicles was adapted into a television movie for Turner Television Network (TNT) in 1995. The production stars Jamie Lee...

(The entire section is 32 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Eastern Standard is a play by Richard Greenberg written in 1989. The play concerns several professionals living in the 1980s and...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Austin, Gayle. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in Theatre Journal, March 1990, pp. 107-08.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Arthur, Helen. “Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.” Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Nation 261, no. 12 (October 16, 1995): 443-445. Discusses the play as adapted for television rather than the original play. Criticizes the drama’s use of historical markers (events, songs) as ineffective.

Austin, Gayle. Review of The Heidi Chronicles. Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 107-108. Austin regards the play as simplistic and insufficiently feminist. She notes that Heidi is always depicted as deriving her happiness from the traditional roles of mother or lover and rarely from her...

(The entire section is 416 words.)