Wendy Wasserstein American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2600

Wasserstein ventured into playwriting partially because she felt that there was more comedy in her life than on the television situation comedies she saw as a girl. Primarily, though, she began writing plays because she believed that the women in the plays she saw were stereotypes that did not reflect...

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Wasserstein ventured into playwriting partially because she felt that there was more comedy in her life than on the television situation comedies she saw as a girl. Primarily, though, she began writing plays because she believed that the women in the plays she saw were stereotypes that did not reflect the women that she knew. She set out to write meaningful comedies about women; Wasserstein’s plays thus deal primarily with the relationships among intelligent, educated, and often highly successful women who are trying to come to terms with both their own identities and society’s expectations. In Uncommon Women, and Others, all the women characters are graduates of Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college for the academically superior. Harriet in Isn’t It Romantic is an up-and-coming executive with an M.B.A. from Harvard University, and the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles is an art professor with a degree from Yale. Wasserstein deals with exceptional women.

Wasserstein’s exceptional heroines are asked to live up to new expectations for women, but the pressure to be exemplary has left them confused and uncertain about their identities. Much of modern drama focuses on characters who have lost their sense of purpose and cannot figure out who they are or where they belong. Wasserstein works out this theme by exploring the lives of troubled women who are trying to discover what they want in the age of women’s liberation. Both Holly in Uncommon Women, and Others and Janie in Isn’t It Romantic wish that they were somebody else. Susan in The Heidi Chronicles has been so many different people that she does not know who she is anymore.

Outside forces bear down on Wasserstein’s heroines as they try to sort out their many choices. They are often torn between their inner yearnings and the many models that are given them by society. Janie and Heidi, like most of Wasserstein’s women, are deciding if they want to “have it all” (a husband, children, a career, an active social and community life)—and whether having it all will even make them happy.

Wasserstein’s characters are haunted by a sense of loneliness and alienation. In a world of many options, they often do not want to choose, or they become self-absorbed, always questioning their choices. Janie is afraid of living alone, but she feels that she must be true to herself and must not marry a man out of sheer desperation. Heidi, who has fulfilled her potential as a historian of women’s art, feels stranded and adopts a child.

The characters in Wasserstein’s plays, like those in most modern dramas, are waiting for life to change and for someone or something to transform their worlds. At a party, Holly says she has two months for something to happen before she goes out in the world; six years later, however, she is still exploring her options. Desperate not to find herself living alone like her mother, Harriet marries the first man who comes along, hoping that he will change her life. Often, fulfillment seems to lie in a distant future. In college, Rita says that she will be amazing by the age of thirty. As time passes and she has still accomplished nothing, she keeps pushing the age of success back. Heidi can see hope only in her daughter’s future somewhere in the twenty-first century.

Although Wasserstein deals with the characteristic themes of modern drama, her plays do not display the harsh violence and crude realities of a world gone mad, as many contemporary dramas do. Instead, she creates nostalgic memory plays and romantic comedies focusing on rapidly changing events in which both society and individuals are in a permanent state of transition. Though inwardly confused, her characters are always witty and literate. To break the tension, they play games and act out roles. Frequently, they create romantic fantasies. For example, Heidi and Peter act out a melodramatic romance scene at their first meeting, and Mervyn in The Sisters Rosensweig fictionalizes a romantic night of lovemaking out of his past. In Wasserstein’s plays, the pain and loneliness of life is broken up by harmless fantasies, and intense emotional confessions are followed by singing and dancing, often to corny romantic and nostalgic music.

Wasserstein’s plays are built on episodic scenes that have a cinematic quality. Often she used framing devices, beginning her dramas in the present and then flashing back to the past, thus juxtaposing present realities with past expectations. Her plots depend less on strong central conflicts than on impressionistic glimpses of characters sorting out their lives. Her dialogue is full of one-liners, witty comebacks, and clever put-downs. Although she employed stereotyped characters, she gave them a sense of believability. Her comedy is often charged with a sense of feeling that either masks the pain that the characters are feeling or helps them to celebrate a moment of joy. Often, tense moments that can turn into nasty confrontations are broken up by humorous lines.

Wasserstein’s satire of modern life may be brittle, but it is rarely caustic. Like her favorite playwright, Chekhov, Wasserstein tried to skirt a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Her Chekhovian characters—wacky, neurotic, but thoroughly human—are lost in their self-reflective worlds, entangled in hopeless relationships, reminiscing about past events, and looking forward to some vague future. As a playwright, Wasserstein was committed without being preachy, serious in her view of the world but comic in her expression of it.

Uncommon Women, and Others

First produced: 1975, one act; 1977, two acts (first published, 1978)

Type of work: Play

Amid the social changes of the 1970’s, a group of young women express their confusion about their goals in life.

Uncommon Women, and Others traces the choices and frustrations of a group of young women attending an exclusive women’s college in the early 1970’s, a time of social change in which the traditional family expectations for young women were giving way to new possibilities. The women are confused by the options open to them after graduation. The play depends less on plot than on character groupings. The characters form a spectrum of women, with Susie on one end of the spectrum and Carter on the other. Susie is a cheerleader and organizer who, without reflecting on life, bounces through a world of elegant teas, steady boyfriends, and career plans. Carter, on the other hand, is a withdrawn woman who lives solely in the world of the imagination.

Between these two peripheral characters are the five main characters, who are confused about their purposes and goals in life. On one side of the group is Kate, who wants to be a lawyer but feels that such a career choice will compel her to accept a lifetime of boring routines. On the other side is Samantha, a child/woman who will settle for marriage to a man whom she can encourage and stand behind. In the middle is the attractive Muffet, who does not know whether to wait for her prince or to strike out on her own. Balancing Kate and Samantha are two women who do not know what they want. The raunchy Rita does not want to live through a man, nor does she want the business world to transform her into the duplicate of a power-hungry man. The self-conscious Holly, pressured by her parents to lose weight and marry well, keeps postponing her choices.

The drama opens on a reunion of the five women and then flashes back six years to their senior year in college. This device allows for a contrast between the women’s present conditions and their past expectations. A man’s voice representing the male-dominated world spouts ambiguous clichés about the responsibilities of educated women; at the same time, scenes of the women’s college gatherings, ranging from formal teas to late-night chats, are depicted onstage. These scenes are punctuated by three rambling and confused monologues delivered by Muffet, Kate, and Holly.

The contrasts in the play’s structure are heightened by the contrast among the women and their lives. Samantha is celebrating the birthday of a stuffed animal, while Holly is putting cream into a diaphragm. The women sip sherry and fold their napkins at formal gatherings, then go off and discuss masturbation and the possibilities of male menstruation. These contrasts are further reflected in the women’s inner turmoil. Sometimes they are self-assured; at other times, one woman wishes she were like another. These contrasting moods are captured in the play’s tone, which balances sensitive moments with sharp comic exchanges.

Although they have seen the frilly world of feminine charm classes come to an end, the women are still baffled six years out of college. Holly is still collecting options that range from having a baby to becoming a birdwatcher, and Rita is waiting until she is forty-five to achieve success. Uncommon Women, and Others brings to the stage a series of sympathetic and ingratiating young characters, a community of women who can share their emotions, express their insecurities, and play out their fantasies together as they march off into an uncertain future.

The Heidi Chronicles

First produced: 1988 (first published, 1988)

Type of work: Play

A middle-aged art professor relives the hope and disillusionment of the women’s movement.

Wasserstein was inspired to write The Heidi Chronicles by the image she had of a woman telling a group of other women how unhappy she feels. The play arose partially out of Wasserstein’s anger that the search for personal fulfillment had led to the abandonment both of shared ideals and of a mutual acceptance of different lifestyles. At a crucial moment in the play, Heidi Holland delivers a speech to her prep school alumnae, telling them that she feels stranded.

The Heidi Chronicles, however, is not an argumentative play; it is a nostalgic journey through one woman’s life. The play opens with Heidi’s lecture on women’s art. Heidi discusses a picture that symbolizes the brevity of youth and life. The picture reminds Heidi of a young girl at a high school dance who does not know whether to leave or stay and who simply waits for something to happen. In act 2, Heidi, still lecturing, notes that the detached woman in the painting is a spectator, not a participant. Surrounded by flashbacks, these two scenes in the present highlight the play’s major themes: the passing away of youthful idealism and the isolating of an outsider who feels increasingly alienated in a changing world.

Heidi’s position as an outsider structures almost every scene in the play. The flashbacks begin at a high-school dance in 1965, with Heidi sitting on the side until she meets Peter, who says that if they cannot marry they will still be friends for life. While clinging to the food table at a political gathering, she meets the charismatic Scoop and goes off with him. Later, she accompanies her friend Susan to a women’s group. She tries to remain an observer, but she confesses her inability to detach herself from Scoop. As the years flash by, Scoop goes from revolutionary to trendsetter, marrying a woman who cannot compete with him and his career. Susan moves from being a caretaker in a women’s commune to working as a fast-talking television producer; her sharing sessions with other women turn into hurried executive lunches.

The play closes with an intermingling of the past and present. The play began with Heidi’s meeting with Peter, followed several years later by her meeting with Scoop. The last two scenes follow the same pattern, as the sad and confused Heidi reenacts the two romantic meetings of her youth. The play opens on a nostalgic view of the past and ends with a view of a distant future in which Heidi’s adopted daughter will not feel stranded and inferior.

The Heidi Chronicles provides a comic yet wistful view of the passing of a generation. It is a play about the search for identity, the vanishing of ideals, and the effects of isolation and loneliness. It is also a dreamlike play filled with songs of a bygone era, recurring images, and relived moments. Wasserstein was always aware of the history of her generation, a generation caught in the sweep of social change but forever on a journey toward self-discovery.

The Sisters Rosensweig

First produced: 1992 (first published, 1993)

Type of work: Play

Three Jewish American sisters examine their lives and explore their future options during a birthday weekend in London.

The Sisters Rosensweig is something of a departure from Wasserstein’s earlier dramas. The play takes place in one locale during a single weekend in 1991, at a time when the Soviet Union is dissolving. The action is more limited than in Wasserstein’s earlier work; the play, though, is still a series of mixed-up encounters that are held together less by a tight plot than by a series of counterbalancing interactions.

The play follows the structure of Chekhov’s famous play Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters, 1920). Like Chekhov’s play, it begins with the birthday party of one of the sisters, in this case the fifty-four-year-old Sara Goode. As in Three Sisters, the birthday gifts given are eccentric or inappropriate. Both plays take place not long after the death of a parent who has set goals for the sisters’ lives—the father in Chekhov’s play and the mother in Wasserstein’s. Like Chekhov’s play, moreover, Wasserstein’s drama is built on a series of arrivals and departures, fanciful monologues, rambling retrospectives, unlikely relationships gone awry, and absurd mishaps occurring at moments of tension. The play captures the Chekhovian view of a society on the brink of change and depicts a group of insecure people who are desperately trying to find a moment of happiness in a world that is falling down around them. Like Chekhov’s plays, The Sisters Rosensweig mixes comedy with a feeling of sadness and a promise of hope that lies somewhere in the future. Like Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, moreover, the play ends with a mother anticipating a brighter future for her daughter.

The characters in the play are eccentric but believable. Sara Goode, an American Jew living in London, is an executive officer with the European division of a Hong Kong bank. She has one romantic night with Mervyn Kant, a widower who has made his fortune in synthetic furs while retaining his Jewish roots. Pfeni Rosensweig, an international journalist who has set aside her work on the plight of oppressed women to write travelogues, accepts a marriage proposal from Geoffrey Duncan, a flamboyant, bisexual theater director who leaves her for a man. The third sister, Gorgeous Teitelbaum, a forty-six-year-old housewife who has become an amateur psychiatrist on a radio talk show, is taking a group of women from her temple on a tour to see England’s crown jewels. Pfeni has seen a relationship slip away, and Gorgeous has to go home to her unemployed husband, who writes mysteries in their basement.

Although the play is set against the backdrop of social and political upheaval, the larger social world is kept at a distance. Characters struggle with their identities, examine their life choices, and try to seize a moment of happiness. After the social activism they saw in The Heidi Chronicles, some critics were disappointed that Wasserstein had moved toward traditional drawing-room comedy. The Sisters Rosensweig, however, is consistent with her other plays. It is less a play about issues than a play about people.

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Wendy Wasserstein Drama Analysis