Identity as a Function of Age

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

What fuels the The Sisters Rosensweig thematically is the issue of identity as it is expressed in or explored by all of Wendy Wasserstein’s characters. The play is rich in its representation of women struggling to define themselves against the backdrop of conventional social roles as a function of their age. In this respect, the work affords its female audience either a look forward or a look backward, or it invites them to dip a toe or two into the pool of present social values surrounding them, in selfreflection, in personal introspection, or in selfaffirmation.

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Pfeni’s sense of identity is a bit ambiguous at forty. In conversation, Pfeni is obsessed with her bisexual director boyfriend, insisting that a life with him would define her own life, giving it the meaning and substance she is seeking. ‘‘I love you Geoffrey. I’m not going to travel anymore. I want to stay with you,’’ declares Pfeni. She is building a defense for her present life, without even realizing it. She responds adversely to the idea of children and, on a subconscious level, of marriage, stating, ‘‘Geoffrey, I’m already 40.’’ It is in this statement that Pfeni fails to hear herself. In this way, Wasserstein comments on the idea of identity from a mid-life, feminine perspective. For most women, forty is a time for either looking back with trepidation or looking forward with a sense of hope and security about the future and one’s place in the universe. Pfeni is at a spiritual crossroads, and in her obsession with Geoffrey she succumbs to the temptation to ‘‘look back,’’ without realizing that the need for self-expression as a journalist supersedes any desires for domestic bliss.

Identity is a function not only of age but also of any one character’s ability to hear his or her own voice. In the case of Pfeni, she expresses feelings of insecurity and self-doubt to Geoffrey concerning the nature of their relationship. Pfeni discusses the nature of Geoffrey’s bisexuality to confirm his unwavering commitment to her, but she is missing the bigger picture with respect to her own dreams and desires. Geoffrey makes promises to Pfeni. Anticipating her need for commitment, he tells her that if marriage will console her, he will marry her. But Pfeni’s agenda, on a deeper level, is not dependent on the status of the relationship. Geoffrey’s convictions are met with protest. The ‘‘truth’’ about Pfeni is all in the ‘‘hearing.’’ She protests the idea on the basis of her Jewish heritage, asking if the children will be Jewish. An affirmative from Geoffrey leads to yet another protest on the basis of age.

In her depiction of Pfeni, Wasserstein is also coming from a personal place. The author shares in an interview that before turning forty she became depressed. Making lists of things she had to do before forty, she drove herself crazy. After turning forty, she stopped focusing on the list and, ultimately, was much happier. For Wasserstein at least, Rosen looks back at women’s roles in the 1950s, moving forward then to develop a chronicle of those people, places, and events that have shaped the lives of American women today. with middle age comes the sense that youth is no longer a physical condition but merely a state of mind. For women, age brings an end to fertility, another limiting factor in terms of personal choice. Values change, and time becomes more important. The author’s point is that there is a mental empowerment that must take place before true contentment is realized. In consideration of Wasserstein’s own personal feelings regarding age, the empowerment involves a mere shift in perspective. Therefore, identity for Wasserstein, and by extension her character Pfeni, hinges on self-acceptance, rather than on potential or on a preoccupation with what could be. By the play’s end, Pfeni comes full circle in her convictions. She announces she is returning to Tajikistan to finish her book. The ingredients for her decision, she confides in Gorgeous, are the choices she has made. She shares that her unexplored writing potential and her involvement with an emotionally unavailable bisexual have been subconscious positives for her. In making these choices, she has set limits on both her marriage and her career.

Tess, too, is at a crossroads in her young life. Her sense of identity is also a function of her pubescent angst. As a teenager, Tess is pushing out against invisible boundaries to discover her convictions and, in those convictions, to express her individuality. Throughout the play, Tess remains vocal about the Lithuanian resistance. Her passion for the movement, however, is more or less dictated by a need to assert herself as an individual. Tess gets into a scuffle with her mother, and she responds to Sara’s criticism of the Lithuanian resistance and of her boyfriend, Tom, with criticism of her own: ‘‘Tom comes from a perfectly balanced and normal family which is something you’ve never managed to maintain despite being on the cover of Fortune twice.’’ Her response to Sara is quite rebellious. In a conversation with Nicholas Pym, her convictions become suspect—when Nicholas Pym asks Tess to explain her interest in the Baltics, Tom fills in the blanks, responding that his family has been personally affected. Tom speaks for Tess, but she never seems to speak of her own personal motivations for joining the resistance. As the play comes full-circle, so does Tess’s level of awareness. She tells her mother that she has told Tom to go on to Vilnius without her, upon the realization that she felt ‘‘apart’’ in some way from Tom’s convictions. Specifically, it is her experience at the rally that is a point of personal discovery for her. She asks Pfeni, ‘‘are we people who will always be watching and never belong?’’

For Tess, an attachment to Tom and to the Lithuanian resistance movement attracts her in her search for identity. Tom’s personal convictions draw Tess to him precisely because she longs to harbor some convictions of her own. The teenage years, for many, symbolize a time of great transition. Desirous of adult respect and autonomy, Tess is attempting to pull away from Sara’s values and opinions in an effort to discover and forge her own. This is not a comfortable process. Tess has initially been given a set of values by her parents, which, ultimately, may not match her own. As she begins to test things, to embark on the process of self-discovery, she moves from a point of comfort to one of confusion in an effort to define herself.

Sara doesn’t always respect Tess through this confusing time, and thus the conflict between mother and daughter intensifies. Wasserstein is careful to point this process out in a conversation between Sara and Pfeni. Worried that her daughter is determined to pursue a life that runs completely counter to her own, Sara implores her sister to speak with Tess. Pfeni defends Tess, recognizing the necessity for her niece’s acts of defiance, telling Sara, ‘‘that’s exactly what we set out to do because of our mother.’’ Indeed, this idea is affirmed in her daughter’s own words. Tess speaks of opting to stay behind on the trip to Vilnius, telling her mother that she made the decision for herself rather than for Sara. ‘‘You have your own life,’’ says Tess.

Linda Rohrer Paige, in Wendy Wasserstein: Overview, asserts that Wasserstein’s work often ‘‘highlights female community and friendship, even amidst the tension ignited by woman’s trying to ‘fit in’ to prescribed social roles, yet simultaneously, attempting to ‘define herself.’’’ Certainly, this idea is evident in the author’s portrayal of both Pfeni and niece Tess. Pfeni is responding to prescribed social roles in her pursuit of Geoffrey and a life of domestic bliss. Tess, on the other hand, is reacting to the social roles imposed on her by her mother, in an attempt to break away from them in order to achieve a sense of autonomy. Ultimately, it is their communion with each other—sister to sister, aunt to niece, mother to daughter—that transforms the women of the Rosensweig family, helping them to see and to define themselves.

Paige also asserts that the appeal of the Wasserstein’s plays for feminists (as exemplified by The Heidi Chronicles) is in an identification with the protagonist’s struggle for change and search for her own identity. Adds Paige, ‘‘At times, self effacing, but at other times, powerful and wise beyond her years. . . . Her struggle is, in many ways, our own.’’ Women breaking through socially imposed boundaries of age, of gender, and of ethnicity to define themselves—this is the touchstone for Wasserstein’s work. In The Sisters Rosensweig, the issue of age figures prominently. The beauty of the work is the personal growth continuum represented by generations of Jewish-American women who, on some level, are responding to ambiguous social cues and their own passions to define themselves. As confusing and daunting a process as it may seem, there is one consistent message that Wasserstein imparts to a female audience: ‘‘you are smart enough, and brave enough, and certainly beautiful enough to find your place in the world.’’

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on The Sisters Rosensweig, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Notion of Forging an Identity

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Throughout her career, playwright Wendy Wasserstein has focused relentlessly on the issue of a woman’s right to own her independence, strength, and integrity in what is essentially a ‘‘man’s world.’’ In seeking this independence, her characters—and the characters in The Sisters Rosensweig are no exception—often undergo some kind of transformation, either a change of circumstance or a change of mind. In The Sisters Rosensweig, Wasserstein’s women do both: in bringing together three Jewish- American sisters in the physical setting of Queen Anne’s Gate in London, Wasserstein allows the mundane event of a birthday party to force the women to examine the familial bonds that have both drawn the sisters together and repelled them from one another. In coming together, and in being forced to speak truthfully of their feelings about one another and their past, each sister faces an emotional epiphany.

Wasserstein uses her characters to span the generational gaps of various women from one Jewish- American family from Brooklyn, New York. The play opens with the daughter (Tess) of one of the three sisters (Sara), listening to an old recording of her mother’s ivy league college a cappella singing troupe. Immediately, Wasserstein establishes that her characters are upper-crust, thus supposedly dispensing with the themes of poverty or economic strife and honing in on the emotional lives of the women. Pfeni, the middle Rosensweig sister, arrives from traveling in Bombay. She brings with her, in one of the many shopping bags she carries in lieu of real suitcases, a present for Tess, which is a statue of Shiva the destroyer, an Indian god said to ‘‘destroy all evil and bring you hope, rebirth, and a lifetime guarantee that under no circumstances will you grow up to be like me.’’ Pfeni’s self-deprecating manner introduces self-doubt and a picture of a smart, well-traveled writer who is grappling with her place in the world. In fact, the use of the profession of international writer is particularly clever on Wasserstein’s part. She has created a woman who travels the world in search of an elusive sense of self, who never pauses for long enough to examine her personal needs and desires, nor to assess whether those needs are being met. For the previous four years, Pfeni has dated Geoffrey, a bisexual and world-renowned British stage director, never seeing him for more than a few days or weeks at a time, never allowing herself to settle down long enough to investigate her deeper feelings. When Geoffrey tells her that he wants to date men again, she hardly reacts, but when he says ‘‘I miss men,’’ she rather coldly replies, ‘‘It’s all right, Geoffrey. So do I.’’ It is not until she confides in her sisters that Geoffrey has left her that she breaks down. Back in the arms of her family, Pfeni is able to examine her life and realize the loss, not just of her lover, but of the years she has spent closed off from her dreams. Tying herself to Geoffrey had been typical of the way Pfeni consistently attached herself to mismatched goals—or rather, how she avoided diving in to the very things she most craved, out of trepidation and fear of failure. Pfeni stayed in a dead-end relationship to avoid true intimacy with a man, just as she spent years skirting around the book she is writing about the women in Tajikistan, to avoid the pain of experiencing their plight. As a travel writer, she can justify a flighty existence, to a point. When discussing Tess’s intention of going to witness the Lithuanian revolution, Sara questions Pfeni as to why Pfeni stopped writing about revolutionary causes and settled into being a travel writer. Pfeni tells Sara, ‘‘Somewhere I need the hardship of the Afghan women and the Kurdish suffering to fill up my life for me. And if I’m that empty, then I might as well continue to wander to the best hotels, restaurants, and poori stands.’’ But, Sara does not accept Pfeni’s self-deprecating excuse, and says to her:

Pfeni, real compassion is genuinely rarer than any correct agenda. I’m a pretty good banker, but it’s not a passion. You, on the other hand, have a true calling, and the sad and surprisingly weak thing is you’re actively trying to avoid it. I think you care too much and you’re looking for excuses not to.

Hearing her sister’s frank words, Pfeni takes Sara’s hand and tells her, ‘‘[t]here is no one I rely on in life more than you.’’ Sara quickly pulls away, and the moment evaporates, but not before Pfeni can appreciate herself through her sister’s eyes. After Geoffrey leaves her, Pfeni decides to return to her passions and tells her sisters as she is leaving Sara’s house to return to Tajikistan:

Well, Gorgeous, if you only write ‘‘Bombay by Night’’ and you make sure to fall in love with men who can never really love you back, one morning you wake up at forty in your big sister’s house, and where you should be seems sort of clear.

Sara, the oldest sister, speaks earnestly to Pfeni, and in fact, speaks forthrightly to everyone in the play except herself. Twice divorced, Sara is convinced of her future as a solitary woman—she is mistrustful of men, in part as a result of two failed marriages and of being a female executive in the misogynistic world of international finance. Thus, when Mervyn Kant arrives as an unexpected dinner guest and subsequently as an unexpected love interest, Sara is automatically closed off to his advances. In the simplest, most obvious way, and with the help of Sara’s sisters, Merv opens Sara’s life to the possibility of love. Using an almost rote character— the Jewish New Yorker with a heart of gold— Wasserstein rekindles the heartstrings of a woman who had renounced the very idea of love. It is a lovely gesture on Wasserstein’s part, to have culled a stereotype from the topography of stock characters and imbued him with a wistful air that rings true. Merv serves as a foil to Sara: he is all heart, worn on an unbuttoned sleeve, while Sara is a deflection of love.

Just as she has soured on love, each character in the play introduces sweet offerings of love, and of acceptance and honor, to her. It is not clearly spelled out why all of the other characters are so willing to look beyond her cold exterior and attempt to reach Sara’s hidden warmth, but clues in the dialogue are interspersed throughout the play. She seems to speak truthfully about issues that the others skirt. Gorgeous, the youngest of the Rosensweig sisters, saunters into Sara’s home, dressed to the hilt in fake Chanel and overdone accessories, speaking in as glib and gilded a tone as her clothing. When Gorgeous says, ‘‘Some of the most interesting men I know in Newton, Massachusetts are furriers,’’ and then is unable to substantiate her statement, she balks when Sara pokes fun at her. In response, Sara says, ‘‘I am asking you to be specific. I am asking you to take responsibility for whatever it is you babble about. Life is serious business, Gorgeous. Life isn’t funny.’’ Ironically, if anyone of the sister’s lives is not funny, it is Gorgeous’s life. Her husband has been unemployed for two years, and she is living in an estranged, and strained, arrangement with him. While he stays up all night every night attempting to write detective novels, Gorgeous must find a way to make ends meet. Gorgeous, unready or unwilling to share these facts, threatens to leave and stay with friends rather than deal with the strained relationship with her sister, and Merv and Sara together quell Gorgeous’s anger. It is a foreshadowing of Merv’s ability to relate to Sara that becomes more pronounced as the play progresses. Interestingly, however, it is Sara who finally prods herself out of her dark disposition toward love—a subtle statement by Wasserstein that, ultimately, it is up to the individual woman to choose to face her fears, rather than sidestepping them. Sara spends the day after her birthday waiting for Merv to call her, despite the fact that she told him to leave and that she was not interested. The evening before she calls, Sara and her sisters have congregated, and after Pfeni and Gorgeous loudly encourage Sara to call Merv, Gorgeous says that she wishes that ‘‘each of us can say at some point that we had a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness! Do you think that’s possible, Sara?’’ Sara, without the usual sarcasm or defenses, answers, ‘‘[b]rief. But a moment or two.’’ It is possible—love is possible, and even if only fleetingly, Sara has opened the door to happiness.

Wasserstein’s theme of sisterhood and family ties is not new—female writers in the past hundred years have written vociferously on the topic, in fact. What differentiates Wasserstein’s storytelling from the rest of the tales of female self-discovery that poured onto the stage in the latter half of the twentieth century is that she drives her story from a specifically religious building block. The characters of Gorgeous and Tess provide a framework for the theme of how religion plays an integral part in each woman’s search for meaning in their lives. Gorgeous, the youngest of the sisters, and Tess, Sara’s daughter, ground the play in the theme of religious journeys. Gorgeous has retained all of the ritual of her Jewish upbringing, and she is steadfast in adhering to its tenets; however, beyond the surface, it is not clear that she understands her reasons for her faith. Thus, while she has never strayed from her Judaic upbringing, blindly modeling the life her mother led, she has also never quite owned up to glaring faults in a life she tries to portray to the outside world as easy and complete. Tess, Sara’s daughter, is the foil to Gorgeous’s on-the-surface complacency. Tess is full of resolve to make a difference in the world, but also full of questions about her place in that same world. She is constantly asking the philosophical questions that frame all of the women’s lives. At one point, she asks, ‘‘Aunt Pfeni, are we people who will always be watching and never belong?’’ And to her mother, she asks, ‘‘Mother, if I’ve never really been Jewish, and I’m not actually American anymore, and I’m not EngT lish or European, then who am I?’’ Gorgeous and Tess come from opposite planes of introspection: Tess is an avid intellectual who directly seeks the answers to her questions about her faith and her place, and Gorgeous just as avidly seeks to avoid confronting those same questions. In the familial embrace of Sara and Pfeni, each of the women, while not necessarily finding answers to her questions, at least finds comfort in the realization that in their journeys, they are not alone. When Gorgeous breaks the heel of an expensive pair of shoes she has just purchased, Sara tries to call Gorgeous’s husband and tell him to replace the shoes. Not until this moment is Gorgeous forced to admit to her sisters that her husband is unemployed and has been for two years; that her love life has fizzled; and that she is, under all of her baubles and sweater sets, deeply unhappy. But, the act of admitting her unhappiness allows her a release—free from the weight of keeping up appearances, she gains a newfound willpower, as well as a closeness with her sisters that had not been previously possible. It is a quite breakthrough, tenable and lasting. What she has lost in pride, she has gained in compassion.

The Sisters Rosensweig is perhaps Wasserstein’s most adamant construction of what it means to be a woman in the twentieth century. Her characters exhibit the post-Industrial Revolution woman’s freedom to travel, to work in any field she chooses, and to have both a family and a career. Yet, along with all of these accomplishments comes the crashing realization that, while achieving these hard-won goals, a woman’s identity becomes an all the more fiercely guarded prize. Wasserstein seems to be asking, ‘‘Who am I if I am not my mother? How do I forge my future when my past teaches me no lessons for this future?’’ Ultimately, the answers to these questions come round to the realization that whatever path a woman takes or does not take, and whatever choices she makes or events happen in her life, she is the product of her heritage. Whether her life takes her to Tajikistan, or London, or Newton, Massachusetts, family remains the basin of memory, the origin of spiritual understanding, and the crux to the understanding of the world one builds for oneself.

Source: Allison Leigh DeFrees, Critical Essay on The Sisters Rosensweig, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Best So Far

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

The Sisters Rosensweig is Wendy Wasserstein’s most accomplished play to date. It is throughcomposed, with no obtrusive narrator haranguing us. Its central, but not hypertrophic, character is the eldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced from her second husband. An expatriate in London, she is celebrating her fifty-fourth birthday, for which her younger sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum has flown in from Boston, where she dispenses personal advice over the airwaves. From farthest India, the youngest sister, Pfeni Rosensweig, has jetted in; now a travel writer, she is shirking her mission, a study of the lives of women in Tajikistan. Equitably, all three sisters end up sharing center stage, both literally and figuratively.

Gorgeous, who, we are told, is happily married with four children, is group leader of the Temple Beth-El sisterhood of Newton, Massachusetts, on a visit to London; Pfeni is here to touch base with her lover, the famous stage director Geoffrey Duncan, whom she has converted to heterosexuality and may soon be marrying. Here, too, is a friend of Geoffrey’s, the New York faux furrier and genuine mensch Mervyn Kant. Rounding out the cast are Tess, Sara’s precocious teenager; Tom Valiunus, Tess’s dopey but good-natured punker boyfriend, with whom she is planning a political-protest trip to his ancestral Lithuania; and Nicholas Pym, a British banker, stuffed shirt, and suitor to Sara.

This is the stuff of Anglo-American comedy, more specifically Anglo-Jewish-American drawing- room comedy, in which some related but diverse mores and some diverse but trying-to-become- related people are playing off one another. Sara, a banker herself, is high-powered, smart, and sex-starved. Pfeni and the ebullient but labile heterosexual Geoffrey are having difficulties. And the ostensibly contented Gorgeous is there to stick her bobbed but nosy nose into everybody’s business.

A seasoned theatergoer may well guess several plot developments, though there are also a few surprises. But plot is far less important than character and dialogue, both of which Miss Wasserstein does handsomely and humorously. She is surely one of our wittiest one-liner writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely and resonantly trying to keep from drowning. And she is able to orchestrate the interaction of her disparate characters into a complex, convincing polyphony. There may be a touch of the arbitrary here and there; mostly, however, the play flows, entertains, and liberally dispenses unpompous wisdom about ourselves.

Particularly pleasing is that Sisters manages to be both of its time, 1991, and of all time, unless human nature changes radically, which for these 5,000 years it hasn’t. The three Rosensweig sisters are by no means unworthy descendants of a famed earlier sisterly trio, to whom an occasional quotation in the text alludes. If I have any problem with the play, it is that several of its characters have a propensity for bursting into song and dance at the slightest, or even no, provocation. In a straight play, this can be as unsettling as long spoken passages in a musical.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘The Best So Far,’’ in New York, Vol. 25, No. 43, November 2, 1992, pp. 100–1.

The Clever Laugh

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There’s a fine borderline between entertaining an audience and ingratiating oneself with it. In her new play The Sisters Rosensweig Wendy Wasserstein violates that border. Wasserstein, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Heidi Chronicles, has dealt deftly with the thorny ironies of the young feminist middle class. But in her new play she settles for—ironies of the young feminist middle class. But in her new play she settles for—no, insists on—the clever laugh, the situation that charms rather than challenges. The play deals with three Jewish-American sisters celebrating the 54th birthday of the eldest, Sara, in London, where she’s become a big-shot banker. Sara (Jane Alexander) has been on the cover of Fortune, but her emotional life is in a spiritual safe-deposit box. Pfeni (Frances McDormand) is a travel writer who restlessly ricochets between the world’s flash points. Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a housewife who’s embarked on a radio career as Dr. Gorgeous, a kind of non- Teutonic Dr. Ruth. Consider the possibilities.

Wasserstein considers them, evokes them and then gaily abandons them with gags and banter that use her undoubted comedic gifts to evade rather than confront. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the American recession, the plight of the homeless, the question of Jewish identity, the problem of bisexuality—all these are embodied in specific situa- tions, and all are disposed of with a winsome superficiality that would look one-dimensional in sitcom land.

Mervyn Kane (Robert Klein), a faux furrier who falls for Sara, speaks of the anti-Semitism he’s encountered in his travels. So? So nothing, there’s no follow-through—Wasserstein can’t wait to get to a party scene where she dispenses shopworn gossip about hanky-panky between Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. Pfeni’s improbable affair with a bisexual English director ends even more improbably when he informs her that a lecture he gave to a women’s club made him realize that ‘‘I miss men.’’ Wasserstein even commits the mortal sin of betraying her own characters. In a cheap-laugh scene, she has Tess (Julie Dretzin), Sara’s idealistic daughter, give up her ‘‘revolutionary’’ zeal, putting on the Bergdorfian baubles of her aunt Gorgeous.

Such japery demeans the work of this gifted writer. In her collection of essays, Bachelors Girls, she confesses that ‘‘being funny for me [has] always been just a way to get by, a way to be likable yet to remain removed.’’ Director Daniel Sullivan and a notable cast can’t conquer the play’s final effect of likability smothering substance. Wasserstein’s most appealing character is Merv the furrier, played with fine wit and heart by comic Robert Klein. It’s nice to see a feminist writer show her pivotal female character saved by a real mensch.

Source: Jack Kroll, ‘‘You Gotta Have Heart,’’ in Newsweek, Vol. CXX, No. 18, November 2, 1992, p. 104.

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Critical Overview