The Heidi Chronicles

by Wendy Wasserstein

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Themes and Meanings

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Amid more than two decades of social change witnessed by her baby-boomer friends and acquaintances, Heidi’s chronic unhappiness emerges as one of The Heidi Chronicles’ most significant constants. It is certainly her most troubling character trait: Peter justifiably states that this sadness “seems a luxury” in comparison with the difficulties faced by AIDS victims and their loved ones; Heidi herself is puzzled by her feelings of worthlessness and isolation. By the end of the play, however, it is clear that her discontent emanates from a profound awareness that she is living in an era during which her cherished ideals have become as passe as any other trend embraced and then discarded by her peers.

As Scoop tells Heidi in the 1960’s: “You’ll be one of those true believers who didn’t understand it was just a phase.” Indeed, while her mild temperament precludes her becoming a radical activist, she devotes her career to advancing the cause of women in art, even when this sort of dedication is no longer in vogue among her friends. Susan, for example, distances herself from the movement’s concerns when she immerses herself in a business career in the 1980’s.

If Heidi’s feeling of estrangement from other women intensifies during the latter portion of the play, her lack of self-esteem, particularly in relation to Scoop, persists throughout the work. “I keep allowing this guy to account for so much of what I think of myself,” she admits to the encounter group three years after meeting him. Heidi’s feeling that men of her generation have a psychological edge over their female counterparts is evident as late as the last scene, when she envisions her daughter encountering Scoop’s son on a plane over Chicago. Hoping that her child “will never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all,” Heidi voices her dream for the future and thereby expresses her dissatisfaction with the present.

Although Heidi’s relationships with Susan and Scoop cool during the course of the drama, her friendship with Peter deepens with time. To be sure, Peter angers Heidi when, with Scoop, he prevents her from having her say on “Hello New York.” Yet the two are ultimately bonded by a friendship bulwarked by shared values: Neither of them will find contentment until conventional society changes to respect women and homosexuals as equals. While Scoop and Susan find their niches within the establishment, Heidi and Peter count themselves among the disenfranchised, for whom happiness, contingent on a change in mainstream values, seems remote.


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Success and Failure Underlying much of the tension of The Heidi Chronicles is how success differs for men and women. Though it is known from the prologue of the first act that Heidi has a successful career as an art historian, the play focuses more on her success as a feminist and autonomous person; unlike the male characters, career success for Heidi does not equal a fulfilled life.

As Heidi’s generation demanded, she became an independent woman in a male-dominated world. Yet this success seems hollow to Heidi near the end of the play. She hoped that feminism would provide solidarity with her fellow women and offer signifi- cance in society, but her reality has proven this false. Her women friends have bought into superficial happiness and material success: Susan Johnston changes identities frequently, going from an idealistic law student to a feminist to a Hollywood power broker; she ultimately becomes disenchanted with the feminist cause and insensitive to her friend’s problems. Heidi also has little luck with men, sustaining no real lasting relationships...

(This entire section contains 1019 words.)

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and ultimately having her life choices shaped by them. Only in her decision to adopt a child does Heidi achieve an independent success.

From the play’s male perspective, Scoop and Peter are successful in a more traditional sense. Scoop has a long-term marriage, two children, a promising career as a lawyer and later as a publisher. The magazine he starts is wildly prosperous. Though by the end Peter finds many of his friends dying, he is a highly regarded pediatrician in New York City who has successful relationships with men. Because society is male-dominated, the standards by which these men are judged are far less strict than those applied to women. To exemplify themselves, women in Wasserstein’s world (as well as the real world) must often work twice as hard as men.

Identity One primary theme that Heidi is concerned with is the search for her own identity. In the first two scenes of the play, she is young, sixteen- and nineteen-years-old, but she is sure of her intellect and her belief in women’s causes. Her allegiance to feminism is illustrated in the women’s consciousness- raising group scene. Heidi commits to other women, promoting their equality in art and in life.

Yet this identity undergoes rigorous tests, such as Scoop’s wedding reception, during which he tells Heidi that he could not have married her because she would have wanted to be his equal. His statement is a harbinger for future disappointment in her life. Throughout the second act, she finds herself out of step with other women, at a baby shower, at the gym, and even at a friendly lunch gathering. Her friend Susan reflects these changes. Susan begins as a feminist lawyer but ultimately renounces her ideals. Near the end of the second act, Heidi decides to go to Minnesota to reinvent herself, but Peter convinces her to stay because he needs her near. Until she chooses motherhood, Heidi’s identity is pushed and pulled by those around her.

Coming of AgeThe Heidi Chronicles shows the evolution of its title character, depicting her awkward teen years through her adult life. The backdrop is the mid- 1960s to the late-1980s, when the United States underwent profound political and social changes such as the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism, and the threat of the AIDS virus. As she matures, Heidi finds herself caught up in the politics of the moment, first in the Eugene McCarthy for President movement (‘‘clean for Eugene’’), then the burgeoning feminist movement. While the latter gives her an identity and purpose—Heidi protests the lack of women artists exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute—it is not everything she expected. When Heidi realizes how out of step she is with other women—a feeling personified by Susan—and unexpectedly announces it to a roomful of fellow alumnae from her high school, she has accepted her reality. Near the play’s conclusion, she decides to move to Minnesota but ends up staying in New York City and adopting a child. While the other events in her life have shaped her maturity, it is her individual decision to care for another life, the choice of motherhood, that ultimately reflects her coming of age.

Friendship Almost every relationship depicted in The Heidi Chronicles is a friendship. Friendships sustain each of the major characters. Heidi’s closest friendships are with two men, Peter and Scoop, who, for a time, also functions as her lover. While Susan is a close friend in the first act—she takes Heidi to the Eugene McCarthy party and the women’s consciousnessraising group—her defection to traditional society and values alienates Heidi. Women’s solidarity is supposed to be the point, in Heidi’s mind, and this betrayal upsets Heidi’s sense of the world.

Heidi’s friendship with Scoop is also troubled. Scoop flirts with her at the McCarthy party, while simultaneously undermining her beliefs; he reveals his belief that women exist for the pleasure of men, not as intellectual equals. When they are sexually involved, she puts aside everything to see him. Heidi and Scoop’s breaking point comes at his wedding, when he admits he could not marry her because she would compete with him. After that, they remain friends but are no longer close. In the last scene, he reflects on this fact and is jealous of the closeness that she and Peter share.

Peter and Heidi are friends from the first scene. Though they bicker—and he frequently trivializes her concerns—they are devoted to and respect each other. Heidi stays in New York City for him in the second-to-the-last scene, instead of moving to Minnesota as she had planned. While Peter and Scoop are similar characters, the large distinction is Peter’s homosexuality, which allows his friendship with Heidi to function on a level removed from the sexual tensions that exist between her and Scoop. Peter also accepts Heidi as a complete person and a relative equal, status that Scoop’s worldview prohibits him from bestowing.