The Sisters Rosensweig

by Wendy Wasserstein

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313

Introduction The period of the 1980s to the early 1990s forms the backdrop for much of The Sisters Rosensweig. The fall of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the cold war, and its dissolution, with its fragmentation of the country into sovereign independent states, literally redrew the map of Europe. The end of the cold war also exposed the truths about the devastating impact of a nation scrambling to keep up with the technology of a superpower on a third-world budget, and that of great environmental destruction. Ronald Reagan, hero of the cold war, was in the meantime implementing economic policy, which, although presented as an economic stimulus plan for the United States, would prove to line the pockets of a select, wealthy few, while many Americans faced unemployment, or worse, homelessness.

The Collapse of the Soviet Regime Tess is quick to point out that ‘‘it’s just like my mother to have a dinner party on the night the Soviet Union is falling apart.’’ The irony of this statement is found in the events leading up to the demise of the system itself. The Soviet collapse was the result of a stagnant economy and an apathetic work force uninspired in the absence of competitive forces driving a capitalistic economy. Others offer the belief that pressure exerted by Reagan, particularly in the escalation of his ‘‘Star Wars,’’ or satellite weapons system, provided the push needed to destroy the Soviet economy.

Whatever the cause, there were definite contributing factors on Soviet soil. Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of the government fell apart when the demands of its citizenry for democratic capitalist reform became too great to ignore. In 1987, perhaps the greatest symbol of the Soviet regime, the Wall, was torn down after a stirring speech given by Ronald Reagan commanding Gorbachev to dismantle it.

Reorganization of the Soviet Union ‘‘Lithuania has a culture and people independent of the Soviets,’’ states Tom in defense of the Lithuanian resistance movement. His sentiments reflect a time of great change in Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Most of this change was in fact precipitated by the liberal policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev’s renouncement of the Brezhnev Doctrine was perhaps one of the more radical changes to be instituted as a result of his policy of liberal reform. The doctrine was the brainchild of Leonid Brezhnev, who was president of the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1982. It essentially allowed for the USSR to exercise military intervention at will in the Warsaw Pact nations and therefore prevented the possibility of rebellion. As a direct result of Gorbachev’s decision, however, these once-dissolved Soviet Republics declared themselves independent nations, with only nine of fifteen in agreement with Gorbachev’s new union treaty.

Members of the KGB, army conservatives, and stragglers of the old regime were not keen on negotiation with the re-established republics, subsequently placing Gorbachev and his family under house arrest. As tanks rolled through the streets of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin and his followers, sympathetic to the plight of the leader, barricaded themselves in the Parliament building of the Russian Republic. Construction workers, in a show of support, erected barricades around the building as Soviet citizens by the thousands began to encircle it, hands clasped together to form a human chain. As the human chain grew in depth, the Moscow militia, in a show of sympathy, distributed gas masks to the crowd. In fact, several army units involved in the coup, including those manning tanks, abandoned their efforts, and the coup was over in just a few days. Gorbachev was released and returned to Moscow.

The Republics...

(This entire section contains 1313 words.)

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by and large voted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They instead claimed they were part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Despite their new identity, these states would continue to be referred to as being part of the former Soviet Union. The problem with their newfound independence ran deeper than identity—the Soviet system was abandoned with essentially nothing to replace it and was expected to participate in a free-market economy.

The Environmental Aftermath of Soviet Occupation It was not only the new Republics which suffered; several environmental disasters with widespread consequence can also be attributed to the failing Soviet economy. The artificial economic system could no longer sustain the latest technology, particularly evident in the events of Chernobyl. Engineers were experimenting with reactor number four on April 26, 1986, when a miscalculation was said to have been made. This caused an atomic chain reaction that spiraled out of control and became the catalyst for a power surge responsible for an explosion of radioactive steam, followed by a chemical explosion.

Gorbachev was not forthcoming about the disaster immediately, instead informing the public of the scope of the event several days later. In all, thirty-one people were killed in the blast and an additional five hundred were injured. The area was evacuated within a nineteen-mile radius. In addition, Europeans were concerned about contamination of food and water supplies from airborne radioactive materials. Many Europeans still lived on contaminated soil, and in the 1990s, incidents of cancer and other conditions skyrocketed. The government chose to maintain the system instead of considering alternative power sources and, amazingly, despite reports of several additional accidents, the facility was kept open.

Reaganomics Events occurring in the United States at the time are equally relevant to the play, as is particularly revealed in Sara’s comments regarding her former residence. She shares that ‘‘in many ways America is a brilliant country. But it’s becoming as class-driven a society as this one.’’ The divisiveness of the classes in America had everything to do with the trend in the economy. During the Reagan years, David Stockman, director of the OMB, or Office of Conservative Management and Budget, had come up with a fiscal plan. Supply-side economics called on the government to stimulate the economy by the deregulation of commerce and industry and by cutting taxes. Stockman felt that the production of goods and services would create a demand for them.

In other words, the more goods and services created, the more people would buy. By cutting taxes and easing up on industry regulations, businesses would then be able to ‘‘beef-up’’ production. President Reagan adopted the plan, but in consideration of the budget he also cut government spending. It was called ‘‘trickle down’’ economics by some—the idea that relieving the tax burden on the rich would encourage investment by the rich and that this investment would ‘‘trickle down’’ and thus impact the less-well-off in the form of jobs. Further, Reagan felt that increased investment meant more taxable income generating more revenue. George Bush found the notion absurd, calling Reagan’s plan for financial reform ‘‘voodoo economics.’’ In the end, tax cuts did not benefit middle- and lowerincome individuals but, instead, helped an elite few of the extremely wealthy in the form of profitable business deals. Companies merged or were dismantled and sold at a profit to the stockholders, resulting in even fewer jobs and higher unemployment.

The New Homeless ‘‘I have an idea to do this year’s homeless benefit at the National as sort of a story theater. I want to hear their brilliant voices,’’ says Geoffrey. His idea is to use actual homeless people to effectively capture their stories. In the United States, at least, there certainly would be no shortage of potential participants. As a result of Reagan’s policies, many people found themselves in the position of being underemployed, if not unemployed, just one paycheck away from financial ruin, unable to invest in their futures. Suddenly large numbers of homeless were visible on city streets. Alan Axelrod, in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 20th Century History, says that during this time ‘‘‘homeless people’ became a ubiquitous euphemism for those formerly described as indigent, derelicts, or bums’’ and called them the ‘‘walking wounded of Reaganomics.’’

Literary Style

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Point of View The events of the play are told from the third person, independent of any one character’s perspective. At no time does a character address the audience or offer any special insight into his or her motivations or actions. Instead, the audience is able to draw conclusions about the characters by observing them in dialogue with various other characters. The dynamic nature of such interactions gives breadth and depth to these individuals and helps the audience to better understand their motivations. In Sara’s case, she chooses to share with Merv that her husband ‘‘is on his fifth wife,’’ adding, ‘‘My first I’ve lost track of and personally I doubt there will be a third,’’ giving him a glimpse of the bitterness she feels for men, and for love. As Merv presses her to open up, Sara responds, ‘‘You know what really irritates me in life, Merv? When men like you tell women to take it easy because somewhere they believe that all women are innately hysterics.’’ The audience can infer, without Sara actually stating such, that her issues with men run deep, thus explaining her desire to push Merv away.

Structure The play closely follows the traditional unities, the principles of dramatic structure based on rules regarding action, time, and place. The play does stick to a single plot, that of the reunion of the Rosensweig women and the transformative power of their reunion to change the course of their own lives. The play has a succinct beginning, middle, and end, documenting the journey they take together to come to some significant realizations as women. The main action is limited to the day of Sara’s birthday celebration; the setting, to Sara’s flat in Queen Anne’s Gate.

Stereotypes All of the characters created by the author are representations of understood ‘‘types’’ of individuals. In the play, for example, all of the sisters in the Rosensweig family are succinct stereotypes. Pfeni is described as a shopping-bag-toting, eccentric forty-year-old world traveler and journalist. Gorgeous, on the other hand, is the somewhat bubbleheaded, upper-middle-class, self-appointed new age guru and modern housewife, the sister who ‘‘did everything right,’’ whereas Sara is the intelligent, thick-skinned, ‘‘hot-shot Jewish lady banker’’ who has made the cover of Forbes magazine twice. The use of stereotypes is effective for several reasons. First, the variety of characters illuminates the struggles of women from various perspectives. This is an effective approach—the women represent not one voice, but many. Second, by using such stereotypes, Wasserstein is able to break through the social veneer separating one from the next, by adding surprising personal dimension to any one character, as expressed in dialogue. For example, Sara may seem to be the hardened business professional, but in a conversation with Merv, she shares that her seemingly impenetrable heart is a defense mechanism developed out of fear, in reaction to the loss and disappointment she feels after two failed marriages.

Zeitgeist The play represents ‘‘the spirit of the time,’’ the moral and intellectual trends of the late 1980s. Characters engage in deeply thoughtful, intellectual discussions about contemporary issues of the time— the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian resistance, the efficacy of the top educational institutions in the United States, and the like. For example, when prompted to share what Sara has heard about the United States, she tells Merv that it is a ‘‘society in transition.’’ She expounds even further, stating that the evolving transactional U.S. economy is ‘‘exacerbated by a growing disenfranchised class, decaying inner cities, and a bankrupt education system.’’ Her comments mirror the effects of Reaganomics on the social and economic life of many Americans.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 20th Century American History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 377–422.

Ciociola, Gail, Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998.

Cohen, Esther, ‘‘An Interview,’’ in Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1998, pp. 257–70.

Kramer, Michael, ‘‘Beyond Ambivalence: (Re)imagining Jewish American Culture; Or, ‘‘Isn’t That the Way the Old Assimilated Story Goes?’’ in American Jewish History, Vol. 88, Issue 3, 2000, pp. 407–15.

Lochte, Dick, ‘‘The Sisters Rosensweig: Play Review,’’ in Los Angeles Times, Vol. 39, September 1994, pp. 140–41.

Paige, Linda Rohrer, ‘‘Wasserstein, Wendy,’’ in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.

Wasserstein, Wendy, The Sisters Rosensweig, Dramatists’ Play Service, 1993.

Further Reading Barnett, Claudia, ed., Wendy Wasserstein: A Casebook, Casebooks on Modern Dramatists series, Garland, 1998. This casebook contains discussions of the author’s works in consideration of Jewish storytelling, feminism, comedy, and so forth. The author is also compared to playwright Anton Chekhov and others to provide context and understanding for her works.

Ciociola, Gail, Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998. A scholarly study of Wasserstein’s works, this book also provides helpful explanations of current feminist terminology to set up Ciociola’s textual analysis and in-depth character study.

Homes, A. M., ‘‘Wasserstein, Wendy,’’ in Bomb, H. W. Wilson Company, Spring 2001. In this interview with the playwright, Homes and Wasserstein discuss such topics as the concept of political correctness, a writer’s social and moral obligations, and the influence of motherhood on the author’s work.

Johnson, Haynes, Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years, Doubleday, 1991. Johnson’s work paints a harsh portrait of America during the Reagan years by recounting the nation’s economic and political fall in the 1980s.


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Suggested Readings

Finn, William. “Sister Act.” Vogue, September, 1992, 360.

Hoban, Phoebe. The Family Wasserstein. New York 26 (January 4, 1993): 32-37.

Shapiro, Walter. “Chronicler of Frayed Feminism.” Time, March 27, 1989, 90-92.


Critical Essays


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