Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1837
Wendy Wasserstein 1950-2006
American playwright, essayist, librettist, children's writer, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Wasserstein's career through 2001. See also Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 32) and Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 90).
Best known as the author of the award-winning play The Heidi Chronicles (1988), Wasserstein is...
(The entire section contains 62709 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Wendy Wasserstein 1950-2006
American playwright, essayist, librettist, children's writer, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Wasserstein's career through 2001. See also Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 32) and Wendy Wasserstein Criticism (Volume 90).
Best known as the author of the award-winning play The Heidi Chronicles (1988), Wasserstein is regarded as one of the most recognizable female voices of the American postwar generation. Ranging from Any Woman Can't (1973), Uncommon Women and Others (1975), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and An American Daughter (1997), Wasserstein's plays concern well-educated women who came of age during the rise of feminism in the late 1960s and who strive to balance the demands of professional careers with their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Noted for their comedic story lines, complex characters, and witty dialogue, Wasserstein's works explore the difficulties many women face when choosing between marriage and a career and the feelings of anguish, confusion, and liberation associated with that decision. Furthermore, critics have credited Wasserstein with influencing the direction of American drama by greatly expanding women's roles in modern theater and by offering significant alternatives to the happy endings of conventional comedies.
Born on October 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein is the youngest daughter of Morris and Lola, a successful textile manufacturer and a dancer. Wasserstein first encountered the theater as a child, performing in school plays. In 1962 her family moved to Manhattan where Wasserstein regularly attended Broadway matinees. While enrolled in a private academy, the Calhoun School, Wasserstein studied dance with June Taylor, whose professional troupe often danced on The Jackie Gleason Show. After graduating from high school, she attended Mount Holyoke College. During her junior year, Wasserstein became seriously involved with theater for the first time after taking a drama course and acting in several plays. In 1971 Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke with a B.A. in history. She then returned to New York City and enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at City College of the City University of New York, studying under playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller. Wasserstein earned a M.A. in 1973, the same year her first professional drama, Any Woman Can't, was produced by Playwrights Horizons, a small experimental theater group that proved influential in establishing her career. In 1973 Wasserstein was accepted to the Yale University School of Drama, where she studied with such noted playwrights and actors as Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. Under the tutelage of renowned American drama critic Robert Brustein, Wasserstein wrote the one-act plays Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (1974), which comments on the social maneuvering that occurs at college parties, and When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth (1975), which mocks beauty pageants. In 1975 Wasserstein staged the one-act play Uncommon Women and Others, which originated from her master's thesis—she graduated Yale with a master of fine arts degree in 1976. The next year, Wasserstein revised Uncommon Women as a two-act drama, which attracted widespread critical acclaim and received national attention as part of the Public Broadcasting Service's televised series Theatre in America in 1978. Throughout the 1980s, Wasserstein nurtured her growing theatrical reputation with such plays as Isn't It Romantic (1981), Tender Offer (1983), and Miami (1986), culminating with the production of The Heidi Chronicles. Wasserstein's most popular show to date, The Heidi Chronicles, has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Tony Award for best play, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Since 1990, Wasserstein has also published several prose works, such as the essay collections Bachelor Girls (1990) and Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties (2001) and the children's book Pamela's First Musical (1996).
Often informed by her own life experiences and typically imbued with humor, Wasserstein's dramas examine the conflict that many women of the postwar “Baby Boom” generation have experienced between their newfound spirit of feminist independence and the traditional values of marriage and motherhood. In addition, her works have evolved from the broad mockery that characterizes her earliest productions to more subtle character studies that mark her later efforts. Her first professional drama, Any Woman Can't, is a bitter farce about a woman's efforts to dance her way to success in a male-dominated environment. Set in the early 1970s at a reunion six years after their college graduation, Uncommon Women and Others focuses on five Mount Holyoke alumnae. The women are all approaching the age of thirty and range in personalities from a traditional wife to an ambitious career-woman to a radical feminist. As they trade quips about men and sex, they also speculate about their futures with a mixture of hope and apprehension since none of the women have decided what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The play contrasts the carefree optimism of their college years with their present sense of confusion and disappointment, illustrating the uncertainty such women experienced after feminism swept college campuses in the 1960s with promises of new opportunities but with few assurances. Similar to Uncommon Women in many respects, Isn't it Romantic follows the lives of Janie and Harriet, two upper-middle-class single women who search for professional and romantic fulfillment in New York City while resisting the urgings of their respective mothers to marry. Consisting of several short scenes and abundant comic one-liners, the play explores the complexities behind how women make important lifestyle choices. The play concludes with Janie's pointed refusal to move in with her boyfriend after she learns that Harriet plans to marry a man whom she does not love. Despite its lack of dramatic action, the serious one-act drama Tender Offer subtly conveys the emotions that led to a rift in the relationship between an absent father and his rebellious, aggressive daughter, focusing on the necessity of empathy for effective communication to occur. In 1986 Wasserstein experimented with the musical comedy genre in Miami, which recounts a teenage boy's experiences while on vacation with his parents in the late 1950s.
Explicitly focusing on the consequences of feminism, The Heidi Chronicles examines the social and intellectual development of an unmarried art historian named Heidi Holland who finds that her successful, independent life has left her alienated from both men and women alike. Told through a series of flashbacks spanning from 1965 through 1989, the play relates Heidi's personal and professional experiences of the student activism of the late 1960s, the feminist consciousness-raising of the early 1970s, and the tough-minded careerism of the 1980s. Central to Heidi's development are her relationships with two men and a group of women who first introduced her to feminist ideals. As the play progresses, Heidi's peers adopt the materialism that they once denounced, filling the idealistic Heidi with feelings of disillusionment and isolation. At an alumnae luncheon at a private school for girls, Heidi delivers a long monologue, in which she confesses her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with contemporary women, explaining that “I thought that the whole point was we were all in this together.” In the play's conclusion, Heidi finds happiness and fulfillment as the single mother of a newly adopted daughter. Reminiscent of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, The Sisters Rosensweig presents a drawing-room comedy that centers on three conspicuously different middle-aged sisters. The siblings have gathered in London where the twice-divorced Sara is celebrating her birthday with her two younger sisters, Pfeni and Gorgeous. As the party progresses, the women reveal their secret yearnings and emotional dilemmas concerning their professional ambitions, love interests, and identities as Jewish women. The play concludes when Sara realizes that real love is possible despite abandoning hope of ever finding it in her life. A satire on the manners and mores of Washington, D.C., An American Daughter indicts the state of contemporary American politics and the role of the media in determining political outcomes. The play concerns Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, a feminist physician who is nominated for the post of U.S. Surgeon General. However, her confirmation becomes problematic after the media reports that she forgot to participate in jury duty years earlier. Hughes is ultimately forced to withdraw from the position due to objections from political pundits, ranging from a crusty Southern senator to a closeted homosexual conservative. Wasserstein has also composed several shorter one-act comedies—including The Man in a Case (1986) and Waiting for Philip Glass (1998)—as well as the libretto for The Festival of Regrets (1999), a one-act opera that was part of the collaborative musical triptych Central Park at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Despite being known primarily as a playwright, Wasserstein has additionally developed a reputation as a skilled and insightful essayist. Comprising of humorous essays that originally appeared in New York Woman magazine, Bachelor Girls blends social commentary with autobiographical accounts of the trials of being a single, Jewish woman living in New York City. Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties collects essays originally published in the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times Magazine, which expand on several of the themes presented in Bachelor Girls and continue Wasserstein's satiric commentary on single life, celebrity, and popular culture. In 1997 Wasserstein released her first children's book, Pamela's First Musical. The story follows a young girl, escorted by her eccentric aunt, as she travels to her first Broadway show as a present for her ninth birthday.
Critics have often praised Wasserstein's plays for their acute social observations and perceptive insights on the consequences of feminism. While the humor that informs the majority of her work has attracted considerable attention, several commentators have debated its ultimate purpose. Some reviewers have complained that the liberal use of wisecracks undercuts the thematic gravity of her plays, but others have countered that the humor and witty dialogue serve to balance the more serious material of her comedies. Although many have observed her potential as a playwright from the beginning of her career, most critics have acknowledged that The Heidi Chronicles remains as Wasserstein's most accomplished work. Despite the play's overwhelmingly positive critical reception upon its premiere, the overall reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed. Some reviewers have commented that the flat, passive characterization of the titular role undermines the significance of the play's feminist themes, while others have pointed out that the implausibility of the ending also contradicts its feminist premise. Other detractors have also found the play too dependent on situational humor and have questioned the emotional appeal of such popular social issues as homosexuality, AIDS, and single motherhood. In addition, feminist scholars have debated the degree of reality reflected by the play, conceding that it raises issues important to women but also observing that it never fully addresses the significance of those concerns. Scholarship has also investigated the significance of Jewish identity in Wasserstein's major works by analyzing her oeuvre's contributions to the Jewish-American community. Among Wasserstein's later works, The Sisters Rosensweig has often been singled out as her technically strongest and most hopeful play to date, particularly as it shows strong, intelligent, middle-aged women whose lives still hold professional and romantic possibilities.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 171
Any Woman Can't (play) 1973
Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (play) 1974
Uncommon Women and Others (play) 1975; revised and enlarged two-act, 1977
When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth [with Christopher Durang] (play) 1975
The Sorrows of Gin [adapted from the short story by John Cheever] (screenplay) 1979
Isn't It Romantic (play) 1981; revised, 1983
Tender Offer (play) 1983
The Man in a Case [adaptor; from the short story by Anton Chekhov] (play) 1986
Miami (libretto) 1986
The Heidi Chronicles (play) 1988
Bachelor Girls (essays) 1990
The Sisters Rosensweig (play) 1992
*Pamela's First Musical [illustrations by Andrew Jackness] (juvenilia) 1996
An American Daughter (play) 1997
The Object of My Affection [adaptor; from the novel by Stephen McCauley] (screenplay) 1998
Waiting for Philip Glass (play) 1998
†The Festival of Regrets (libretto) 1999
‡Seven One-Act Plays (plays) 1999
Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties (essays) 2001
*Wasserstein wrote the libretto for the musical stage adaptation in 2002.
†First produced as one of three one-act operas titled Central Park in 1999.
‡Includes Bette and Me, Boy Meets Girl, The Man in a Case, Medea [co-authored with Christopher Durang], Tender Offer, Waiting for Philip Glass, and Workout.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5944
SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy, and Esther Cohen. “Uncommon Woman: An Interview with Wendy Wasserstein.” Women's Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 257-70.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in August 1987, Wasserstein discusses the impetus behind her career, the inspirations for her comedy, the importance of humor in her dramas, and the gendered differences of her critical reception and popular appeal.]
Challenged by my esteemed editor to write a printable article on women writers and humor in theatre (try to imagine a scene from The Front Page, only in an Indian restaurant—“Esther, get me that article, and pass the poori!”), I decided that I had nothing to say that one such writer couldn't say for herself. Thus, with the lure of a bottle of Diet Coke and the promise of being quoted in an academic journal, Wendy Wasserstein agreed to be interviewed for this article. I met Wendy, the noted playwright, author of Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic and Miami, and a contributing editor to New York Woman, while working as a stage manager on Isn't It Romantic, and I knew her to be a witty, straightforward and eminently quotable woman. Eager to hear her views on humor, in both her work and her life, I met with Wendy on a sweltering afternoon in August, 1987.
[Cohen]: I guess my first question is, when did you decide you liked to write? When did writing become something that you liked to do?
[Wasserstein]: I remember as a child thinking that my family was very funny. I think this was because my mother was somewhat eccentric. And I do remember watching shows like Make Room for Daddy and thinking that those kids were pretty boring. And I actually thought, like Rusty Hammer and Angela Cartwright, they are such good kids, and I thought “no one's family is really like this.” And actually I thought our family was far more entertaining than that. So I think partially from that, though I didn't really write those things.
I wrote in high school. I went to school in New York City at Calhoun, and I figured out that one of the ways I could get out of gym was if I wrote something called the Mother-Daughter Fashion Show. I know very little about fashion, but they used to have this Mother-Daughter Fashion Show once a year at the Plaza Hotel, and you got to leave school to go to the fashion show. But if you wrote it you didn't have to go to gym for like two or three weeks, it was fantastic. So, I started writing those.
So you were always an observer of people—watching your family, watching your friends.
Yeah, I think so. I think that's true.
What did you write in these fashion shows?
I don't know. I remember writing some song to “King of the Road” about “Miss Misunderstood.” I don't know what I wrote.
So did you write in college?
Uh huh. I went to Holyoke and one of my best friends told me—I was taking a course to go become a Congressional intern, and I used to read the Congressional Digest at the Holyoke library and fall asleep, I just couldn't do it—and then she said to me “Well why don't you come to Smith and take playwriting with me, and then we could shop.” So she said the magic word and the duck came down, and I said “Yes, I'll go shop.” So we went up to Smith and I had a wonderful teacher. I started writing plays for him, really. And that's how that all happened. But I grew up going to the theatre and I used to dance, I used to go to dancing school at the June Taylor School of the Dance. It was never somewhat intellectual theatre, never had that sort of bent.
But was it always funny, was it always comedy?
Yeah, it always was sort of comic. It's kind of interesting. I think what happened to me, the real bend in the road for me, was that after my senior year in college I went to California with some friends of mine to Long Beach State to a summer dance program, which is really crazy of me to have done, and we had odd jobs. I mean one of my friends worked at a Union 76 station, and I had some job in some sweet shop. It was crazy. But I had thought that I would maybe stay in California and try to write television. And instead, I hated California so much—I think it was because I couldn't drive; I just loathed it—that I came home back to New York and applied to drama school. And I think I'd be a very different writer, very different person, if I had stayed in California.
Do you think living in New York itself has affected the kind of writing you do?
Yes I think so. Because when I dream or think, I think in terms of the rhythm of theatrical comedy. It's not—I mean it's certain kinds of theatrical comedy because it's what you're around. I mean as a kid I used to go to those Neil Simon plays. By the time I got to drama school, those Albert Innaurato/Chris Durang plays. So it depends, what comes into your brain.
Do you find, as you're writing, that your humor comes more out of the situation that you're writing about, or are the characters themselves funny?
Sometimes the characters are funny. I mean, sometimes I like to do bright colors, and then they can be quite funny. Sometimes, you know—I haven't learned to use a computer, so I still type, and it's such a pain in the neck—sometimes I just retype scenes and start putting in things. I couldn't believe it—I'm writing a play right now about twenty years of peoples' lives, and this girl is telling this boy how unhappy she is, and for some reason I started writing Yasser Arafat jokes. For no reason. Because it's so boring retyping this stupid thing. But, you know sometimes it's funny to see. I think for myself, I'm slightly shy actually, and sometimes it's fun for me to write some character that's larger than life. That would say things I would never say but I know they're funny. And I like to do that a lot. And I also think, to get further into humor and women, that a lot of comedy is a deflection. If you look at Isn't It Romantic, Janie Blumberg is always funny, so as not to say what she feels. And so, I think you use it—you use it to get a laugh, but you use it deliberately too. I mean, the best is when you use it deliberately.
Do you think that your women characters are more prone to doing it that way—using their humor as a deflection?
Sometimes, yes, the women use it more as a defense, I think.
Do you think that—among your friends, people you know—do women use their humor in different ways than the men do?
Yes, I think they do. I think sometimes, men sometimes top each other. Women don't do that. Women know how to lay back and have a good time, you know, and the gossip is great. Great!
The best. The best.
The best! Exactly! I mean, that's delightful. Nothing could be better. And I love it when it's people you absolutely don't know, whom I don't know a thing about. I mean, people call here and tell me about John Updike's personal life. I don't know him!
But you know more about him than he does.
I'm sure I know more about him than he would ever know about me! But I think that that—so that's kind of different too. And I don't mean it in a bitchy way, it's just different. It's kind of like sitting around.
I think that—certainly in my relationships with my women friends—life is just funny between us, and we share those sort of humorous moments. We're not always telling each other jokes.
No, and I don't even know how to tell a joke. But, you know, if you come home from a bad date, or something's happened, you know, and you've been fired—you know, you've just lost your job to some 21 year old girl who's blond and can't do anything, but the boss … You know that if you go home and tell your story to somebody, you will make it funny. And it will release the pain from you of whatever it is. Because you can't take that nonsense seriously.
Do you try to incorporate that way of reacting to people in your plays? In Uncommon Women I thought the characters really reacted naturally to each other, and in Isn't It Romantic they had real relationships, and that humor sort of showed.
It's a little different than the one I'm doing now, but I think that's part of them, it's part of the relationship. People who are funny—I mean, one of my very best friends ever is Chris Durang, and there's nothing like a conversation with Christopher, because he's so funny! He's just wonderful. And when he's funny, he's hilarious. Just hilarious. And that's a wonderful thing. I mean, that's like a riff, almost. It's a great comfort. So, it's hard. But there are different kinds of humors, too. I don't like mean humor very much. I find nastiness is difficult for me, a little bit.
In the plays that you've written, do you think of them as being “women's” plays or written from a “women's” perspective? Or are they more written from your perspective?
I guess it's from my perspective, although sometimes I do think those stories have to be told. And if they're not, if I don't tell them, I mean someone else will tell them, that's for sure. But sometimes I look at these girls and I think I want to put them on the stage. I used to have great pleasure when I would see the audiences come to Isn't It Romantic sometimes. Like you'd see five women together going out, and I thought that's great. There should be something for them. There really should be. And I think the thing is the women I write about are kind of middle class, upper middle class people, who have good jobs and they're good looking, and there's no problem. I mean, they're not Philip Barry people, but they're not sort of working class. So they're not the people one would tend to dramatize. Because there's nothing tragic there. And there's nothing romantic there. So I think that's why they're interesting to write about.
Because you can relate to them.
Because you can relate to them. It's like someone you knew in college. And I think that to make those people theatrical is interesting. I hope.
How do you choose what to write about?
It depends. I think that writing a play is such a long and arduous task that it has to be something you care about pretty much, that's going to interest you longer than twenty pages. They're long, plays, they're like 90 pages, and it's a lot of typing!
And you have to live with them while they're running, too, for two years or …
Yeah, you do, so I think it's got to be something that interests you enough. There are different things that interest you in different times. The play I'm writing right now is very personal. I have an idea for a musical after this that's based on a 19th century American play, just because I'd like to lose myself in something that's foreign to me.
It depends on where you're at at that particular moment. You haven't just written plays. You've written articles and TV screenplays. Is it different writing for the different media?
Very different. Sure it is. It's like one time I adapted a Cheever story for television that was called The Sorrows of Gin, and the climax was the child realized the adult world was tattered like a piece of burlap. Well, you can't, like in a play, have the kid pick up the burlap and say “Gee Dad, tattered like the adult world.” I mean, what you do is bring the camera in on the kid. Just like in a play you can't have people drive along—you know, you can't do it. Television is a closeup medium. You go in for the face, and they don't have to talk. I just wrote a TV movie that's going to be done in the fall about Teri Garr learning to drive, because I just learned to drive.
And you always pictured yourself as being Teri Garr.
Exactly, exactly. We're very similar. But anyway, at the end—she's this terrible driver, terrible terrible driver, and she finally passes her test by dressing up as Catherine Bach in The Dukes of Hazzard. When she passes her test, she's like the millionth person in her town to pass the test. There's this high school band that comes out and starts playing The Little Old Lady from Pasadena, because she passed, I mean it's crazy. But see, you could never do that on the stage. I mean, there's no way you could go to Playwrights Horizons and say “And now I'd like a high school band.”
On an Equity salary.
What's nice about plays is they're about words, and they can get long, and they can be your feelings, and I think that's wonderful. It's very joyous.
How about writing for a nonperformance medium? Like articles. Do you have a different emotional reaction to writing those than to writing something that's being performed?
I've been writing some for a magazine called New York Woman recently. And it's fun. It's different though. You know what it is? I remember as a kid someone once told me that I had to learn to postpone gratification. And the thing about magazine things is it gets published pretty quickly. I mean, a play you can write and two years from then maybe you'll work it out. And I think magazine, because it's a shorter form, you can get—like I just wrote an article about manicures. I'd never write a play, a two hour play about manicures unless, you could do it quite artistically I guess with dancing fingers and stuff.
And Tommy Tune …
And Tommy Tune, right, right. So that was fun to do for the magazine. I mean, I like that, I find it a release. You know why? Because I think of myself as a playwright, so I hold that very important to me. And when something's that important to you, you get scared of it. Whereas magazine writing doesn't scare me that much, because what's the worst they'll say? Wendy, you're not a magazine writer. And I'll say, that's right. But actually, I've enjoyed this magazine writing.
Does your humor translate the same way in each of these different media?
It depends. I mean, the magazine I wrote for sent me off to meet Philipe de Montebello at the Met. It was pretty funny. But in these magazine things I always use “I”, first person, and there's a persona that I elect to use. You know, there's an “I” that's always talking about how I wish I wore leather miniskirts and I hate pantyhose and things like that. I don't do that so much in the plays. I mean, what's fun about plays is you can divide yourself into a lot of characters and hide yourself in different places.
But you really consider yourself a playwright. That's really what you enjoy.
I think so. Yeah, I mean I hope so.
Even though you're not on the stage, do you enjoy that audience feedback?
I do. I mean, when it works, it's great. When a production goes wrong, it is hell. It's really hell, it's so painful. That's the other thing. I mean, so you write an article and people don't like it. Or you write an article and they never call you again and they don't publish it. It's not the same pain, it's really not. From the word go, from the no actors are available to the director doesn't show up, to the show doesn't work and no one's laughing, to you pick up some terrible review—I mean, all of that is devastating. It's just terrible. It's enough to give you a sense of humor. I mean, it's really awful! I'm writing this play here and I can't even think about all that stuff. It's just too awful.
Well, it's such a process.
It's a real process. And you don't know what's going to happen. You just don't know.
It's true, it's not just your input that will make it in the end. There are so many other factors and people involved.
Is that intimidating, that there are so many other people who influence?
When it works, like with Gerry Gutierrez [director of] Isn't It Romantic, it's fantastic. Because, there you were giving birth to something alone in your room and then you've got a partner. And when that happens, it's great, because they … I mean, I'm not a director, I have no sense of visuals, nothing! I'll do anything to tell a joke. There's this story about Isn't It Romantic. There was something about, there was some joke about three hundred running Hasidic Jews, or something, that Gerry Gutierrez kept telling me to cut because I should stay on the through line of the play. And I cut things like someone's mother being the last white woman to shop at Klein's—jokes like that. And I kept cutting them. But the running Hasidic Jews I really didn't want to cut. And so finally, I lit a cigarette and I turned to Gerry and I said “do you know, Gerry, it's not just the joke. It's the zeitgeist of the play. When the hubris of the character …” I don't know what the hell I was talking about. All I wanted to do was keep my joke. So I thought if I can talk to this man in the most high-faluting terms I can possibly pull out … I was talking about anecnorisises of the audience, I didn't know what I was saying. But I just wanted to keep my joke. But I think that, when you have someone with you who's on the same line as you are, and can take you further, that's a thrill. If you're an artist, you want someone to challenge you, and extend you. But you can also simultaneously have somebody who cripples you. And that's hard, it's so painful. It's just terrible.
Is it the same in film?
I think film is different, because film—I think the pain is up front. Just cutting the deal is painful. And then you know it's a director's medium. And it belongs to the producer. Unless you're going to direct your film or produce it, it's not the same thing. It's not your baby, it's their's. You're like a hired hand. You know, they can hire six different writers to do one of these things.
Do you consider yourself funny?
I can't tell a joke. And I am shy. I mean I can go to a meal and not say anything. I have that unique capability of, if I'm scared of someone, I won't say anything. But sometimes I can be funny. I can be funny with a girlfriend. I can be very sarcastic. So yes, I have that ability to make people laugh, I always have. I know how to make friends and get on with people because I could be funny. Not funny in like stick my tongue out with food on it, but sort of funny in a nonthreatening, likable way.
Were you always funny? Were you funny as a child, do you think?
I think I was, yeah. Or pleasing, in a way. There's a line about Janie in Isn't It Romantic. I think Harriet says “That's the thing about Janie, she's not threatening to anybody. That's her gift.” I think that's somewhat similar with me.
You said your family was funny. How were they funny?
Well, my mother's very eccentric. She's like the woman in Isn't It Romantic. Her name is Lola, she goes to dancing classes six hours a day, she's—I won't say her age—but she's a very eccentric woman. She's very lively, very colorful. She's quite amusing, actually.
Did you have to compete with that as a child?
She's kind of an Auntie Mame figure. I think as a child you think it's very colorful. Then when you get sort of shy, you know, when you get to sixth grade and everyone's mother is showing up in a suit, and they've got a station wagon, and your mother pulls in with a Carmen Miranda hat, you've got to think, “Oh God.” I think that's a little difficult.
You've said before that you have humor with your friends and that a friend like Chris Durang is very funny. Do you think Chris is the funniest person you know? Who do you think is?
He's a pretty funny guy. Yeah. Actually, he might be the funniest person I know. Although you can meet Chris, you know you can have dinner with Chris and he can decide not to talk, too. So you know, you can have a lovely meal with both of us and we could both not talk. But actually I do think he's very funny. You know who's terrible funny too? Paul Rudnick. He wrote a novel called Social Disease. He's a dear friend of mine, and he is hilarious. The other day I was chatting up a friend and she was telling us about some man who was reading Boswell's Life of Johnson, and Paul Rudnick said “Of Don Johnson?” Which I thought was so funny. Terribly funny. He's quite witty. I mean, Christopher is so brilliant and imaginative that he just gets, you know, large, it's just wonderful. Yes, I would say they were the funniest people I knew.
I know Chris and he is brilliant and imaginative. But he's also sly.
Yes, he's very sly. He's witty. I mean, I don't like sort of locker room jockey humor. I've absolutely no interest in it. And I don't like sort of sex jokes either. Actually, because I don't get them.
Would you say humor is important in your relationship with people?
Yeah, very. Very. I think it's sort of how I get by. I giggle a little too much. But yes I think so, because one it makes one entertaining, two it deflects, and also it's a way of commenting on things. So yeah, I think it's very important to me.
It's a point of view on life.
It is a point of view. It really is. And it sort of pricks a hole in things, too, keeps things in line. And then also it helps you deal with things which are overwhelmingly tragic, which are undealable with. I mean the bad things are just horrendous. They're not funny at all, so you might as well make fun of everything else.
When you're writing, whether you're writing a screenplay or a play or an article, do you think about the audience that it's aimed for?
I don't think about the audience. You do think of the rhythm of the things and people laughing. You don't think about the audience per se. I mean, sometimes you think about, you don't want to—I don't like to be offensive, really. I know some people don't mind that at all.
In fact, aim for it.
Aim for it, right. But it depends. No, I don't mind offending peoples', you know, moral grounds. Fuck 'em. But you wouldn't want to write a character as offensive that you didn't want to be offensive. That's what I meant. But do I think about the audience that it's for? Not really. Not really. Sometimes.
Does it sometimes surprise you who ends up being the audience for your play? Or the reader?
Yes. I just saw Isn't It Romantic in Tokyo. You know, that's a play that I can't get done in London, no one has wanted to do it. But for some reason that show really worked in Japan. So, yes, that's a shocker.
Why do you think that was? Did they relate to the family-ness of it?
I think they related to the family-ness of it, and also, in Japan a woman who's over 25 who isn't married is known as a wedding cake after Christmas. Actually it was very interesting because this play worked almost as a political play. So that was quite interesting. But in terms of, one is always shocked who likes their plays and who doesn't. The person that you think will most like your play doesn't like it, and then someone else will like it. It's usually some maniac, some mass murderer; David Berkowitz will say “oh you're my favourite playwright.”
Have you gotten reactions from your plays that surprised you? Interpretations that blew you over?
Sometimes, or you see a bad production that doesn't make any sense.
Do you have a specific emotional reaction to your plays? I mean, do you feel differently about Uncommon Women say, than Isn't It Romantic?
Yes you do. Well, yeah you do. Because you're so close to them that you do. I … It's funny, I have a real love I think for Uncommon Women. I really, I find it very dear. I think because whoever wrote it really cared a lot. There's a lot of raw emotion there. That monologue of Holly's is very raw, and dear. I admire Isn't It Romantic because it's better crafted. It's very clean, that play. Sometimes I thought that people didn't take that play as seriously as I would have liked them to. Because I thought there were very serious things being slyly discussed there. That's what was interesting about Japan. The director told me that he did my play because he was a revolutionary. That's like saying you did Barefoot in the Park because you're a revolutionary. But I found that very moving. I wrote this musical Miami that's not finished that I have to finish. And because it went through a difficult workshop production, I have a difficult relationship with it. So it all depends. What's nice about writing a new play is we don't know each other that well yet. So you do have different feelings about things.
This is a question I wanted to ask you. Do you think the 1980's are funny?
No. I was just writing about them. I really don't like the 1980's very much. I don't. It's all sort of retro-'50 or retro-'60. You know what it is? It's commenting. Or as Gerry Gutierrez would say, indicating. I do think they're funny. I mean Ronald Reagan and “I can't remember” is hilarious. I mean, someone must do something with that. What, you can't remember? I mean things like that are outrageous. So, a man can't become president because he slept with a model, but you can start your own CIA and become a hero? That's nuts!
But maybe not inherently amusing.
But not amusing. No, I don't find it funny. Do you find it funny?
Well, I asked this only because a friend of mine and I were discussing political humor the other day. And saying how it seemed the 1980's were ripe for political humor, except that it was all so awful that the humor is sort of different. It's not like '60's humor.
It's true. You know what's sort of funny? When I was in London, all these people said to me, “How come you people don't write anything about the government? I mean, about Ronald Reagan. Why are there no plays about this? I mean, look at him.” And in some ways, Mrs. Thatcher is funnier. Because she's so fucking dour and has no sense of humor that you want to lance her right away. I mean you just look at her and you want her to put her panty hose on her head. I mean she's just, she's horrible. Ronald Reagan is slightly different.
Well, George Carlin once said “If a stupid person goes senile, how can you tell the difference?” Your plays are not topical humor plays, but some of your pieces obviously in newspapers must treat topical matters. How do you approach that differently than in a play?
Well it's different with a play because the newspaper thing gets published right away so you can reflect off of the topicality of it. In a play I try to go more through the character of it. If I'm writing now about Reagan it would be as filtered through the characters who lived through that period. Uncommon Women is in a way about feminism. It's just as filtered through the people who were participating in it at that time.
Do you find that women have a different reaction to your writing than men?
Sometimes. It can go either way. They can either take me more seriously and see what's there, and have connection to it, or—you know, everybody has an opinion, and you know the opinion of “well, we know all of this already, and we've moved beyond this.” So you get a little bit of that too. You know, one time I was at a bar in Westport, Connecticut, waiting for the train, which was late, and some little girl with brown curly hair and glasses, and looked sort of sad, came up to me and recognized me, and said she loved my play, and I thought “she is the saddest girl in the room. Of course she loves my plays! Anywhere you go, you look for the saddest girl with the brown curly hair and they're the ones who like my play!” I thought, “I bet Beth Henley gets like good looking blonde girls, nice and thin, coming up to her and saying they liked her play. They don't have those sad eyes.”
Do you think that men always get it when they see your pieces?
I think sometimes they do. I think sometimes they don't. I mean, sometimes they might think they're trivial, I think. But no, I don't think that much, really. I don't think so. I hope not.
Do you think that, when you say trivial, do you think that smaller things are more important to women?
No, but I also don't think that women write plays like “Fuck you, fuck me, fuck you, fuck you, fuck the duck, fuck the dog, fuck a this, fuck a that. Goodbye.” I mean you don't, that's not how you hear it. And if that's what's good and taut, well then, I don't write good or taut. You know, I think there's room for everything. Because there are women who can write like that, too. I don't, but there are people who do, and do it well, and do it brilliantly. I mean, Caryl Churchill's new play is wonderful. It's a tough piece of work, you know. But it's, it's good.
Do you find it's a small community of women writers? Or is it just a small community of known women writers?
I think maybe known. It's funny, I was on the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] panel the other year, playwriting panel, and we gave grants. I think the grants went to 60٪ women writers. I think there are more and more women writers. Definitely more and more. And wonderful writers, too. And when you think about Marsha Norman and Beth Henley, all those people, they're terrific.
Do you think it's hard for women to get started? To get funding, to get …
You know what's hard? It's hard to keep one's confidence. It's hard to keep yourself in the middle, not to be a nice girl and not to be a tough girl, you know, but somehow to be yourself. That's hard. And as soon as you start playacting in your writing or in your life, there's trouble, a little bit. Especially in your writing. Because what works is going to be whatever's honest to you. So I think in that way, yes, there's somewhat of a problem. But, I mean, I think the most important thing is that decent women write and get those plays out. I think that's very important.
But you see more women now, I mean, nobody goes into shock when a Marsha Norman play is done.
No. I don't think any play does not get done because [it's by] a woman. I mean, I'm a product of the O'Neill and Playwrights Horizons, Yale Drama School; these aren't specifically women's institutions. When you write plays and you're a woman writer, you get these questions like, are you a feminist? She's a dear writer. She's a tough writer. You don't get this stuff when you're a man.
He's just a writer.
He's a writer, right, it's not he's tough, he's dear, he's a feminist, she's a sweetie. I mean, what is this? You know? She's got balls? The men, they all have balls. They don't have this problem! So, I mean, that's sort of, that's hard.
Is it hard to take emotionally?
Yeah, I think that is hard, a little bit. Yeah, I do.
You say you're not a joke teller, but do you have a favorite joke?
I don't. I can't tell a joke. I can't, I don't know any jokes. I forget them. People tell me them and I can't remember. I can't remember topical jokes like Chernobyl jokes about Chicken Kiev, I can't remember them. I just don't. I don't know how to write one, or tell one. There was even a joke character, I mean a comedian in Miami and I had a hard time telling his jokes. Because the comedy for me comes out of character. If I had to write, not somebody who's a comedian but someone, if it came out of their character, I could do that. But that's different jokes. And I always think whoever makes up those jokes that get spread around so quickly must be terribly bright.
What makes you laugh?
I don't know. Rubber chickens. It depends, there's a variety of things. I think when Ricky Ricardo shows up and Lucy has a baby and he's dressed in his voodoo outfit for the Club Tropicana—I think that is so funny. I have a bit of a whimsical sense of humor. I like puncturing things, though. I think that that's quite funny. And verbal play, too, I think is very funny. I don't like slapstick very much. But I think other people do, I just don't care for it very much. Although some things I think are very funny. I know there's a Woody Allen movie, is it Take the Money and Run where his parents are both wearing Groucho glasses? That's very funny. Very funny. You know why? Sometimes funny things are almost like the fantasy, and then it comes real.
It's sort of like trying to find the fine line between the completely absurd and the everyday.
That's right, that's right. Or seeing it. Seeing the completely absurd in the everyday.
It's sort of the description of my life.
Yes, it's true. Mine too. So, Esther … ?
So darling. Well thank you, darling, very much.
Oh, darling, a pleasure.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Prize Problems: Chronicles & Cocktail Hour.” Commonweal 116, no. 9 (5 May 1989): 279-80.
[In the following review, Weales highlights the weaknesses of The Heidi Chronicles, examining the effects of its protagonist's flat characterization on the whole play.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepherded by the Seattle Rep's Daniel Sullivan, it moved to a well-received off-Broadway debut and then to Broadway; it has now been blessed by the Pulitzer Prize committee. It is a typical American-theater success story of the 1980s, but I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for its triumphant journey.
The Heidi of the title is an art historian, a presumably intelligent and sensitive woman who moves from 1965 to 1989, picking her way through the ideational thickets of those years, only to find that the goal of her generation, to become an independent woman in a male world, brings emptiness with it. The audience follows Heidi's progress in brief scenes that teeter on the edge of broad satire and sometimes, as in the consciousness-raising meeting, fall over completely. Heidi remains pretty much the same throughout the fifteen years—concerned, but a little cold, a little distant, her involvement tinged with self-irony. On her stroll down memory lane, she is accompanied by the two men closest to her—a homosexual doctor who remains her best friend (and incidentally provides an excuse to bring in AIDS as an item in Wasserstein's cultural catalogue) and a fast-talking charmer, sometimes her lover, an intellectual conman who plays the main chance and persists in confusing the fashionable with the significant. Heidi's oldest woman friend, the only other important character in the play, is a Wasserstein joke, a chameleon who becomes whatever the moment requires: a ditsy sexpot, a jargonesque feminist, a member of an ecological commune, a power-lunch paragon in the entertainment business.
The chief weakness of the play is that it has no dramatic center. Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as little more than a foil for the more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots. Joan Allen is one of the finest reactors among American performers (consider last year's Tony-winning performance in Burn This), but however fascinating it is to watch Allen work, Heidi remains flaccid. We are supposed to understand the distress within the character, which surfaces primarily in runs of nervousness and in one unlikely overt moment in which she turns a speech at an alumnae gathering into a high whine of generational regret. At the end of the play, she has adopted a child and the suggestion is that she has found a certain solidity as a single mother, but nothing in the play or the character makes motherhood look like anything but an occasion for Heidi's next disappointment. The ending is as arbitrary as that of Wasserstein's earlier hit, Isn't It Romantic, in which the heroine decides for no very clear reason not to marry the man she loves; perhaps she had been to see My Brilliant Career at her local moviehouse.
If Heidi as activist and Heidi as unrealized lover are a bit difficult to accept in her Chronicles, Heidi as art historian is impossible. She is supposed to be an expert on female artists, correcting the sexual imbalance in the history of art, and we see her in lectures at the beginning of each act. Her manner is oddly frothy, her disclosure decorated with what I think of as wee academic jokies. The wee academic jokie, of which there are far too many on campuses, is not funny if it sounds as though it were written into the lecture, if it is taken out of the classroom context, if it makes the speaker sound as though she were apologizing for her subject matter. So it is with all of Heidi's jokies. Her lectures diminish the whole enterprise of rethinking the female presence in art. In part, that is a product of the unanchored Heidi described in the paragraph above. In part, it grows out of the play's tendency to trivialize the genuine concerns of women in particular, radicals in general, by emphasizing the fashionable patina on social change. As a comic writer, Wasserstein can see what is ludicrous in the convoluted social history of the last fifteen years. On the serious side, The Heidi Chronicles is one of those gee-it-didn't-turn-out-the-way-we-expected plays, another offspring of The Big Chill.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1091
SOURCE: Davy, Kate. Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 42, no. 1 (March 1990): 107-08.
[In the following review, Davy assesses the critical and commercial success of The Heidi Chronicles within the context of contemporary feminist concerns.]
The Heidi Chronicles is a rare play for Broadway. Written by a woman, its central character is an unmarried professional woman. It won the Pulitzer, Tony, N.Y. Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Hull-Warriner, and Susan Smith Blackburn awards. Ostensibly a triumph for women, Heidi is instead a problematic example of how the male-dominated production system of commercial theater maintains its control over women, in this case with the complicity of a woman playwright.
Heidi follows a single woman through three decades, from high school in the 1960s and feminist activities in the 1970s to a career as an art historian who rediscovers “lost” women painters and chooses to become a single mother in the 1980s. Like Wasserstein's previous plays, Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and Isn't It Romantic (1983), Heidi is topical and episodic, placing a few serious, poignant moments within a comic form.
Joan Allen brought her intelligent and vulnerable presence to the character as the first Heidi in the Broadway production. Having described herself as a “highly informed spectator,” Heidi appears in the prologues of both acts showing slides to her college classes and commenting on the women artists who made the paintings. But Heidi is also a nearly silent spectator in her own life. In almost every scene her major action is watching the activities of the other characters on or offstage. She has relatively little dialogue in these scenes. In one, she begins to speak during a TV talk show, only to be literally interrupted by the two men in her life, who are seated on either side of her. The only time Heidi has a substantial speaking role is in monologues during the two slide-show prologues and during Act II, scene 4, in which Heidi speaks to women from her old high school. This speech, which comes at the climactic point of the play, is one in which Heidi departs from her prepared lecture text to question her life and the feminist movement. She says, “I feel stranded” and “I thought the point was we were all in this together.” The point is that Wasserstein portrays Heidi's women friends as trivial and her men friends as serious and has Heidi blame the women's movement for that situation.
Wasserstein keeps women at a spectatorial distance in this play and focuses most of Heidi's attention on her two male friends, love-interest Scoop and gay pediatrician Peter. The two scenes in which groups of women appear together, consciousness raising in Ann Arbor in 1970 and a baby shower in New York a decade later (played by the same three actresses), are near caricatures of group female behavior. The play shows that the women she knows do not form part of Heidi's support network while the men do. Her disappointment with women is made to seem “natural,” given these women, rather than part of a larger pattern in which women are taught that they are “stranded” from each other and can only rely on men for support.
The final two scenes of the play show Heidi working out her primary relationships, first with Peter, then with Scoop. Neither man is a satisfactory life partner for her, however, and the final moment of the play shows Heidi singing the same song to her daughter that she danced to at the end of Act I with Scoop. The closure of the play is based on her substitution of one bond for another: mother for lover. Her work and women friends are absent. No wonder the play has been received less than enthusiastically by many feminists.
To some, mainly liberal feminists, the play's acceptance into the mainstream is a source of pride and represents a step forward for all women playwrights. But for materialist feminists, who look at its circumstances of production and reception, the price for attaining that status is far too high. The very factors that allowed this play to achieve its privileged position are the same factors that prevent plays with more threatening messages to cross the line into the canon. To reach this point of visibility, a play must have a commercial production in New York City. Given the power structure of this mode of production, any message that threatens to disrupt male privilege will not succeed. Heidi does not unsettle men. It not only reassures them, it gives them all the best lines.
The difficulties of forming satisfactory relationships with men, of balancing personal life and career, and of having children are real issues in women's lives and are all too rarely dealt with in any manner on the stage. Although there is a limit to how much the play can be blamed for what it is not, it is valid to consider the effects of the way some of its most problematic actions are carried out onstage. Some women may identify with Heidi, but others chafe at the entire representational frame the play places around her. The realism it employs makes invisible the real difficulties a woman in Heidi's position encounters, such as the costs of the transactions in the play. The adoption of a baby, at the conclusion of the play, would have financial costs that are never addressed. Heidi's decision to stay in New York because of Peter's need for her is shown as a simple, emotional decision, with no relevance to her career or economic implications. The trouble with this play is that although it raises issues, Wasserstein undercuts serious consideration through facile supporting female characters, sitcom humor, and a passive heroine who forms an absence at the center of the play.
The biggest danger to women posed by the play is its future influence. As Heidi enters the canon of plays that are widely produced, it will be published, anthologized, criticized, and taught as a prime example of the work of a woman playwright. It would have additional influence as a film; one can even imagine it as a television series. Scenes from the play will echo through audition halls for decades to come. The “I thought we were all in this together” monologue will be memorized and repeated, enacted and absorbed by thousands of aspiring young actresses. In this way the play will become part of the system that oppresses women and so highly rewards their creative expressions when they aid in its purposes.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8876
SOURCE: Keyssar, Helene. “Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends.” Modern Drama 34, no. 1 (March 1991): 88-106.
[In the following essay, Keyssar contrasts the semiotic differences between The Heidi Chronicles and Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends, refuting the contention by philosopher-critic Mikhail Bakhtin that all dramatic literature is “monologic” by demonstrating the confluence between Bakhtinian criticism and contemporary feminist thought.]
I first came to know the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin in the mid-seventies.1 Increasingly hailed as one of the most daring and profound philosopher-critics of the twentieth century, Bakhtin was difficult to read but easy to admire.2 Indeed, as striking as has been the growing interest in Bakhtin's ideas has been the range of people whose interest he has aroused—feminists and nonfeminists, Marxists and anti-Marxists, modernists and postmodernists, social scientists, linguists, psychologists, literary critics and philosophers. Few seemed to notice that they were in strange company. The only people blatantly missing in the crowd were others like me—drama critics and practitioners of theatre.
From the start, however, my interest in Bakhtin's ideas was troubled or, in Bakhtin's own terms, multi-voiced. Like several other contemporary critics, most notably Wayne Booth,3 I had found both a confluence and antagonism between some key aspects of feminist thought and some key elements of Bakhtin's ideas. At the same time, and in part because of the commonalities with contemporary feminist approaches, almost everything Bakhtin had to say about language and representations sharply illuminates my ways of thinking about drama, the cultural realm to which I was and remain particularly attached as both a critic and director; indeed, even the odd names of Bakhtin's key concepts—dialogism, polyphony, heteroglossia, carnivalization, hybridization—seemed to me not just applicable to drama but centered in the most elemental attributes of dramatic forms.
As I have previously argued, following J. L. Styan's lead,4 meaning is made in the theatre by the interaction and, to use Bakhtin's term, the interanimation of two or more forms of communication (or semiotic systems). The performed drama is understood as simultaneously entire unto itself and part of the whole culture; the cultural material from which the drama is created is repeatedly mediated and revised as it interacts with the playwright, the performers, and, finally, the audience. The continuous recreation of meaning, what Bakhtin calls the heteroglossia of communication, is the basic condition and phenomenon of theatre. This condition is not only inherently present in any dramatic performance but is represented in the interaction of human voices or consciousnesses on stage. The natural condition of drama is thus that of dialogism, the quality that Bakhtin argued throughout his life was key to the deprivileging of absolute, authoritarian discourses.5
Yet, Bakhtin not only ignored drama in most of his writings, in explicit favor of the dialogic or polyphonous novel, but in one of his most important works, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, he explicitly denounced dramatic literature, assaulting it with his unique curse: drama was monologic. The passage in which Bakhtin pronounces this malediction is uncharacteristically straightforward, and, because it sets the ground for what I have come to think of as the central issues relevant to the roles of drama in society, it merits quoting in full:
Literature of recent times knows only the dramatic dialogue and to some extent the philosophical dialogue weakened into a mere form of exposition, a pedagogical device. And, in any case, the dramatic dialogue in drama and the dramatized dialogue in the narrative forms are always encased in a firm and stable monologic framework. In drama, of course, this monologic framework does not find direct verbal expression, but precisely in drama is it especially monolithic. The rejoinders in drama do not rip apart the represented world, do not make it multi-leveled; on the contrary if they are to be authentically dramatic, these rejoinders necessitate the utmost monolithic unity of that world. In drama the world must be made from a single piece. Any weakening of this monolithic quality leads to a weakening of dramatic effect. The characters come together dialogically in the unified field of vision of author, director, and audience, against the clearly defined background of a single-tiered world. The whole concept of a dramatic action as that which resolves all dialogic oppositions, is purely monologic. A true multiplicity of levels would destroy drama, because dramatic action, relying as it does upon the unity of the world, could not link those levels together or resolve them. In drama, it is impossible to combine several integral fields of vision in a unity that encompasses and stands above them all, because the structure of drama offers no support for such a unity.6
For all of us who have seen drama in performance, and certainly for anyone who has ever participated in the making of a dramatic production, several of these claims seem immediately counter-intuitive: after all, the dialogue is the action in theatre, and any action on stage is refracted (to use another Bakhtinian term) through the diverse points of view of writers, actors, designers and spectators. Nonetheless, while there are several immediately available points of contestation in Bakhtin's argument, this is serious stuff, too informed by widely held convictions about drama to be easily dismissed as the ramblings of an eccentric Russian who might, perhaps, be overly taken with the novel because of the glories of its Russian instances. What Bakhtin demands is no less than that we rethink what it means to accept a still-prevalent Aristotelian understanding of drama, and, then, that we query both the accuracy and the virtues—politically, socially, aesthetically—of the Aristotelian model.
To respond to this challenge, we must return first to those Aristotelian premises to which Bakhtin points. The most obvious of these come under the rubric of the famous unities, usually taught as those of action, place and time, but in The Poetics subsumed within the more basic concept of the Unity of Plot.7 Aristotle's emphasis is on the avoidance of the episodic—of that which is neither probable nor necessary to the essential structural elements of Peripeteia and Anagnorisis (reversal of fortune and discovery)—and on the importance of “an action that is complete in itself.”8 Bakhtin does not contest these attributes; he reaffirms them throughout the passage cited above, most notably in the assertion that “in drama the world must be made from a single piece.” In Aristotle's elaboration of his concept of Unity of Plot, he notes that it is a mistake to equate Unity of Plot with focus on one character; that would not suffice to create strong dramatic effect: “An affinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity.” Aristotle's advice to the playwright is therefore to eliminate all incidents, and, by implication, all thoughts, experiences, actions of a character, that might “disjoin and dislocate the whole.”9 Bakhtin echoes this claim, too, in his assertion that “the rejoinders in a dramatic dialogue do not rip apart the represented world”; at least that is a requirement for Bakhtin of that which is “authentically dramatic.”
Bakhtin's argument, then, is not with the traditional prescription or modeling of drama, but with what he takes to be necessary and essential to the medium itself. Drama can only be fully itself, as Bakhtin understands its parameters, if it “resolves all dialogic oppositions,” if it avoids “a true multiplicity of levels.” Further, as Aristotle argues, drama must have a clear beginning, middle and end. The various qualities of the polyphonic novel that Bakhtin celebrates throughout his writings—dialogism, unfinalizability, linguistic diversity, the persistence of “loopholes” of meaning—are all, from both Bakhtin's and Aristotle's perspectives, inimical to drama as a cultural form.
This leads me to two clusters of questions. First, is this depiction and definition of drama, now two thousand years old, accurate, sufficient and necessary? And, second, what are the social and political implications of the monologic attributes of drama? Put in the most extreme terms, if drama is monologic is it a hazard to the complexities necessary for decent human life? Furthermore, as Bakhtin implies, if drama is, in an essential way, monologic, but deceives us by an appearance of dialogism, is it especially dangerous to human society because it catches us unawares and deceives us? No definitive answer to these questions is possible within the confines of an essay; nonetheless, the only way to begin to address them is to call before us an array of dramatic texts. I do so with the intent both to provoke others to argument and to delineate the kind of ground and thinking to which these questions point. That I begin with a classical text is a reflection of my conviction that many of the limits as well as the possibilities of modern drama are rooted in ancient conceptions of drama and theatre.
Sophocles' Oedipus is the most obvious text with which to begin, both because it is to that drama that Aristotle turns when he wishes to provide a model of excellence in drama and because it continues to be regarded as the paradigmatic Greek tragedy.10 Not only is the Oedipus structured on the perfect instantiations of Peripeteia and Anagnorisis, but the change from one state of things to its opposite and the “discovery” or change from ignorance to knowledge are themselves conjoined to effect the ideal Unity of Plot to which, according to Aristotle, all playwrights should aspire. In addition, “improbabilities” are kept outside the tragedy in Oedipus; the Chorus functions “as one of the actors,” thus as “an integral part of the whole”; and the diction of the dialogue exemplifies a mastery of metaphor that “implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”11
I have no difficulty imagining Bakhtin taking each of these attributes, with their emphases on integration and unity, including and perhaps especially the understanding of metaphor as a perception of similarity in dissimilarities, as evidence for the monologic framework of Oedipus. Nor can I find solid grounds on which to contest this position. Peter Euben's discussion of Oedipus in his recent The Tragedy of Political Theory complicates our understanding of the monology of Oedipus, arguing that the play “indicates the limits of one-sidedness,” that it “‘speaks’ in the ‘voice’ of Oedipus and of Teiresias.”12 Euben contrasts his reading of Oedipus to that of René Girard in Violence and the Sacred: “Girard writes about ‘the violent elimination of differences between the antagonists, their total identity …,’ whereas I want to maintain the distinctiveness within the identity.”13 But while Euben presents a convincing case for the doubleness of meanings as well as of character voices in Oedipus, he also concludes that, in the end, the “self-blinding [of Oedipus] not only unites Oedipus with Teiresias, it also unites him with the god who he recognizes has been his unseen companion throughout his life.”14 I would add that, while I concur with Euben that the key agons of Oedipus “deepen” rather than solve the problems of the play, there is not only the plot solution of Thebes's problem with the plague, but also resolution for the spectator in the blinding light of knowledge at which both Oedipus and the Chorus arrive. The agons or what Bakhtin calls the “rejoinders” in the dramatic dialogue of Oedipus threaten to rip apart the represented world, but in the end, and what this play is about, is that they do not rip the world apart. Oedipus is exiled from Thebes; neither the city nor the play can hold within it the difference that Oedipus represents.
When we turn forward in time to other key moments in the history of Western drama, we find persistent recurrences both of this threat of polyphony in drama and of resistance to it. That this threat seldom triumphs, however, should not blind us to the significant fact of its presence. In at least several of the ancient Greek tragedies, for example, the world on stage is never fully unified within one omniscient field of vision, and drama appears to function, as Jean-Pierre Vernant argues, precisely by presenting a “dichotomy [dédoublement] of the chorus and the protagonists, the two types of language, the play between the community which officially represents the City as a magistracy, and a professional actor who is the incarnation of a hero from another age. …” It does so, Vernant continues, in order “both to call the City into question within a well-defined context, and also … to call into question a certain image of man, and I would even say to indicate a change in man.”15
This seems to me mostly accurate, and, therefore, an important challenge to Bakhtin's position on drama, but Vernant's claims in the end undermine their own position by blurring or refusing a distinction between “calling into question a certain image of man” and “indicating a change in man.” As I have argued in several previous writings,16 most Western dramas, pivoted on the recognition scene, are formally and ideologically conservative: they represent as heroic a process by which a character (or characters) comes to know himself (and, occasionally, herself) by unraveling and confronting his own history. In the moment of recognition, both the character on stage and the spectator acknowledge the “truth,” a stable, fixed form of meaning whose unveiling is the primary act of traditional theatre. This type of discovery, of who a person “really” is, dominates Western dramaturgical strategies from the Greeks to the present: think not only of Oedipus, but of King Lear, of Ibsen's Rosmersholm, Pirandello's Henry IV, Hellman's The Little Foxes, Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Miller's Death of a Salesman. In each of these instances, and innumerable others, a change in a character is indicated, and it is the specific change that Aristotle had called for—from ignorance to knowledge. This kind of change may, for both the characters on stage and the spectator, call into question the particular image of this particular character, but it does not necessarily call into question “a certain image of man.”
Some years ago, in my own early work, I contended (unknowingly concurring with Bakhtin's position) that the kind of change represented in recognition scenes was not only sufficient but definitive of drama: subsequently, however, informed especially by Afro-American drama and by feminist drama, I have moved to an increasingly strong conviction that drama offers another possibility, that of presenting and urging the transformation of persons and our images of each other. This latter form of change requires not that we remove or have removed disguises that conceal us from our “true” selves, but that we imagine men and women in a continual process of becoming other. In this form of drama, recognition scenes are either subordinate to transformation scenes or are counter-productive; it is becoming other, not finding oneself, that is the crux of the drama; the performance of transformation of persons, not the revelation of a core identity, focuses the drama.
Earlier in this piece I indicated my agreement with Bakhtin that drama has tended to embrace monology, but qualified Bakhtin's essentialist argument by suggesting that there are significant instances in which variant voices threaten to animate the text and performance of particular plays. I would make the same argument about transformational elements in traditional drama, and want, further, to suggest that often, and perhaps inevitably, transformational strategies go hand in hand with the dialogic imagination. I now want to pursue this further with the claim that the most distinctive quality of one type, call it a genre, of modern drama is its rejection of monologism and the patriarchical authority of the drama in performance. This genre of modern drama attempts to create a dramatic discourse that celebrates rather than annihilates or exiles difference.
Bakhtin does not have much more to say about dramatic literature written since the mid-nineteenth century (the approximate point at which I would mark the beginnings of modern drama) than he does about classical drama. The single piece that he devotes to dramatic literature, “Preface to Volume 11: the Dramas,”17 is concerned entirely with Tolstoy's plays, which Bakhtin divides into two groups: the “carelessly constructed,” “insignificant” dramas written by Tolstoy during his happy, life-affirming early period, before his “crisis,” and the plays written after this crisis, which Bakhtin further divides into the “folk dramas” and the dramas of withdrawal. Although Bakhtin concedes that Tolstoy's best-known drama, The Power of Darkness, “in many respects deserves the epithet ‘peasant drama’”: and is, conceptually, a mystery play (and thus formally, if not profoundly, dialogic), his discussion of Tolstoy's dramas, including The Power of Darkness, serves simultaneously to extend and confirm his dissatisfaction with both Tolstoy and drama. The “Preface” does, however, contribute to our understanding of Bakhtin's resistance to drama, while also suggesting that there is a dramatic realm, that of “folk drama,” that might merit Bakhtin's—and our—interest and respect.
Ironically defending Tolstoy's own dramaturgical failures, Bakhtin clarifies his own resistance to drama with the claim that, because dramatic form “must satisfy the demands of stageability, [it] is the most difficult form to free from convention.” He then proceeds, however, to turn the assault on Tolstoy, claiming that a key to Tolstoy's difficulties in writing dramatic works during his early period was Tolstoy's insistence on the transcendent and emphatic role of the authorial voice. Tolstoy, the writer of novels and short stories, aspired, according to Bakhtin, to “complete freedom and autonomy” of the authorial voice. Without any hint that we might find this disconcerting, given Bakhtin's consistent disavowal of drama and celebration of prose fiction as the terrain where dialogism is possible (although certainly not inevitable, as the case of Tolstoy demonstrates through Bakhtin's criticism), Bakhtin suggests that this authorial self-assurance and certainty were far more difficult to achieve in drama than in the novel.
The hint or clue to the way out of this apparent maze occurs in Bakhtin's references to the “almost” folk drama, The Power of Darkness. Tolstoy intended this play to be performed in the show-booths as folk theatre, a form of theatre of which Bakhtin appears to approve. But the intention that this work be a folk drama is not fulfilled, by Bakhtin's analysis, because “the deeply individualized peasant language is no more than an immobile, unchanging background and dramatically dead shell for the internal spiritual deed of the hero.” Since all of Bakhtin's comments on Tolstoy's dramas attend to the failures in these works, I can only infer what an authentic folk drama, according to Bakhtin, would be like.18 It would reflect the “real-life torrent of contradictory class evolution,” “the objective contradictions of reality itself,” and would be mobile, dynamic and unfinalized.
To infer that such a drama is imaginable does seem to contradict Bakhtin's claims that I cited at the beginning of this piece. It is possible that Bakhtin only sets up the idea of “folk drama” as a foil for his critique of Tolstoy's plays; with the exception of his reference in the discussion of Tolstoy's dramas to mystery plays, Bakhtin does not cite any examples of “folk dramas” that fulfill the criteria that Tolstoy fails to meet. We could also greet this apparent contradiction as consistent with numerous other apparent contradictions, modifications, variations in Bakhtin's writings—inconsistencies that other commentators on Bakhtin have variously addressed as reflections of particular and varying contexts in which Bakhtin was writing, as changes in Bakhtin's thinking, or as ironic confirmations of the double-voicedness in the theorist himself.19
I will not attempt to choose among these alternatives; my guess is that they all contribute to what may or may not be a “problem” in Bakhtin's writings and our own critical endeavors. What I do want to do in moving towards a temporary stopping point (but not a conclusion) to my own reflections on these matters is to follow Bakhtin's example of a critical approach to the novel by contrasting two contemporary works that I believe suggest the difference between what a dialogic and a monologic drama might look like in our own society.
Let me begin this endgame by restating that I believe there are a number of modern dramas that are arguably dialogic. My own, admittedly incomplete and contestable, list would begin with Büchner's Woyzeck (a play well worth consideration as a Bakhtinian folk drama), and would include from the corpus of works usually judged to be major modern dramas Jarry's Ubu Roi, much of Chekhov, all of Beckett's dramas, most of Brecht's dramas, Pinter's The Homecoming, and several of Handke's plays. My list of dialogic dramas would be heavily weighted, however, by selections from black American drama and feminist drama. It is in these works, as I have discussed in several recent articles, that we find the most deliberate and conscientious assertions of polyphony, of refusals to finalize or assert dominant ideologies, of resistances to patriarchical authority and to a unified field of vision. That many of these works are American seems to be not coincidental; the doubleness of the consciousness of most Americans, including and perhaps especially the doubleness of being black and American and the bilingual experience of American culture, is constitutive of the American experience. Similarly (but therefore expansively), as both Wayne Booth and I have urged, despite the overt sexism in the major texts that Bakhtin celebrates, there is a striking confluence between the attention to the construction of multi-voicedness and hybrydization in much of contemporary feminist writing and in Bakhtin's criticism.
Among the most striking examples of what I might call a feminist/Bakhtinian world view in modern dramas are Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and boogie woogie landscapes, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Cloud Nine and A Mouthful of Birds, Megan Terry's Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones, Jones-Baraka's Dutchman, and Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers. In each of these works, the spectacle and dialogue of theatre mediate but do not resolve differences; the essential strategy of these plays is to bring together diverse discourses in such a way that they interanimate each other and avoid an overarching authorial point of view. We can best understand this exceptional receptivity to dialogism by turning to the social and political contexts of these works. As Bakhtin implies about folk drama, the voices we hear in many black American dramas and feminist dramas are the voices of marginal folk, voices that are both in conflict with dominant ideological positions and resistant among themselves to the reductions of uniformity.
That this is not the case in all feminist drama, despite the contiguity between feminism and dialogism, and that Bakhtin's concerns about drama remain potent despite persistent attempts by men as well as women, white people as well as people of color, to challenge the conventions of traditional drama, becomes evident if we compare two ostensible feminist works from contemporary literature: Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends and The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein.
The Heidi Chronicles was first workshopped in April 1988 by the Seattle Repertory Theatre; on 12 December 1988 it opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York City; three months later, it transferred to the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, where it quickly became one of the major hits of the season. Awards have poured down upon the play and its author: in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play of the season, The Heidi Chronicles won the Susan Smith Blackburn prize (a prize specifically meant to recognize outstanding work by women playwrights) and the Dramatists Guild Hull Warriner award which selects “the best American play dealing with contemporary political, religious or social mores.” While my experience as a spectator is that audiences take the play lightly—they laugh, giggle and chat briefly after the performance about their own experiences growing up from the sixties to the eighties, experiences that the play recalls—both the wealth of awards and the passionately mixed reviews it provoked suggest that The Heidi Chronicles commands serious attention.
Working with the same kinds of characters she has created in previous dramas (Uncommon Women and Others; Isn't It Romantic), Wasserstein takes us along for the ride on a twenty-five year journey from adolescence to adulthood of two men and a woman, all bright, upper-middle-class people who begin to come to consciousness in the mid-sixties. (Heidi's friend, Susan, also makes the journey, but she is always a foil or adjunct to the affairs of the central three characters.) Heidi, who becomes an art historian, is ostensibly the protagonist of the drama (she appears in each of the play's eleven scenes and two prologues), although she is often dominated, dramatically and politically, by the two men in her life: Peter Patrone, a caring, intelligent man who becomes “a liberal homosexual pediatrician”;20 and Scoop Rosenbaum, already an aggressive entrepreneur at nineteen who rises to become editor of Boomer magazine.
In a series of eleven “anecdotes,” these characters repeatedly re-encounter each other, at each instance addressing the vicissitudes of their own lives in the context of the changing values and mores of their society. None of these three main characters ever changes, but the play does build towards and away from two quasi-recognition scenes. In the first of these (Act Two, Scene 4), Heidi loses control of the keynote address she is delivering to a luncheon gathering at the Plaza Hotel and rambles towards a conclusion in which she confesses to the audience that she is “just not happy,” that she feels “stranded” and disillusioned because she thought that the whole point of the women's movement “was that we were all in this together” (p. 62). In the next scene, Heidi visits Peter at a children's hospital ward on Christmas Eve, and Peter reveals that he, the most prominent pediatrician in New York City, is living in an increasingly narrow world because so many of his friends are dying of AIDS. He confesses to Heidi that he is hurt because she does not understand him and is not authentically there for him as a friend. She immediately responds that she could “become someone else next year” (p. 67). The two briefly transcend their differences and embrace, but if there is recognition of self or other here, some traditional movement from ignorance to knowledge, the moment is explicitly presented as transitory and private. Heidi's offer to “become someone else” is not a step towards a transformation of self but more like a proposal to wear a different dress tomorrow. Heidi neither knows what it means to “become someone else” nor does she know what kind of person she would will herself to become. Her offer to “become someone else next year” would be a good laugh line—even, perhaps, a parody of a dramatic transformation—were it not uttered in the context of Peter's suffering.
Gender—its roles and consciousnesses—provides the thematic thread that links the episodes in the twenty-five-year time line of The Heidi Chronicles. Since there is neither beauty in the language nor surprise in the events or characters of this play, I can only surmise that it is the topical interest in gender issues that has called forth so much critical attention, both positive and negative. Those who praised The Heidi Chronicles found it to be “enlightening” (Mel Gussow, The New York Times), “wise” (Howard Kissel, The Daily News), and “important” (Linda Winer, Newsday) in its depiction of feminism and feminists, and of men's and women's relations to each other. Negative commentary on the play, most thoroughly and bitingly presented in a long piece by Phyllis Jane Rose in American Theatre, also focused on gender issues. “The absence from the stage of images of women acting on their own beliefs in truth, beauty or justice implies that women do not act in this way in the world,” writes Rose in her letter to Heidi. “Or, if they do,” Rose continues, “it is not important enough to be dramatized. In your Chronicles, your struggle for women artists, your professed dedication to content over form, are secondary to your relationships with men. Your intelligence becomes wit in their presence. Your imagination settles for fantasy.”21
The Heidi Chronicles is all that, or worse than, Rose contends. And here Bakhtin comes to my aid in understanding why I find this drama—and its mostly celebratory public reception—so disturbing. It is precisely because this drama does not represent the heteroglossia of the world, precisely because it is aggressively monologic, self-contained, a seemingly perfect picture without loopholes of a particular historic moment that is so pleasing to some and distressing to others. Heidi does an adequate job of recuperating women artists, but even when she speaks of her subjects it is in the monologic discourse of professional academia. On the one occasion—a television talk show—where Heidi is explicitly positioned to speak her own different voice, she is silenced by the voices of two men, Scoop and Peter, her old friends who also appear on the show. Afterwards she is angry, but even in her anger we are given no sense of what her own voice might sound like. And if we are meant to see this scene as a dramatization of difference as absence, as an assault on patriarchical monology, such a vision is quickly undercut by the subsequent scene, a meeting among Heidi and her women friends, where the women's talk and ideologies are indistinguishable from that of Scoop and Peter. Heidi only briefly finds an alternative voice during her rambling speech at the women's luncheon, and that utterance is inaccessible because it is framed as the self-pitying ramblings of a woman in the process of a nervous breakdown.
The characters in The Heidi Chronicles neither acknowledge each other as other—indeed, their persistent attempt is to be like each other—nor do they, to use once more a Bakhtinian term, “interanimate” each other. The world they comprise is coherent, consistent and stable, despite superficial changes from involvement in leftish politics and the women's movement to a kind of mushy humanism. Reaction is not revolution, as Rose urges, quoting Laurie Stone,22 and the world of The Heidi Chronicles is adamantly one of reaction, not revolution or change. When we meet Heidi for the last time, with her newly-adopted baby, she is “waiting” for something, perhaps for a new world and new generation in which her baby daughter's voice will be different and will be heard. Her world is not provocatively open, unfinalized; Heidi and her baby are just sitting there rocking, bathed in the nostalgia of an old fifties song. As my twelve-year-old daughter commented immediately after seeing the production, the play could have ended at any of several of its last few scenes. Had it done so, it would not have made any difference—to those on stage or in the audience.
In “Discourse in the Novel,” an essay that is central to Bakhtin's reflections, Bakhtin urges that this “verbal-ideological decentering will occur only when a national culture loses its sealed-off and self-sufficient character, when it becomes conscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages.”23 In its refusal of such a “decentering,” The Heidi Chronicles reveals a national culture that remains “sealed-off,” “authoritarian,” “rigid” and unconscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages. And it does so to a dangerous degree. There is no place in the world of this drama for the voices of women and men who can speak the discourses of feminism; there is no room in this drama for the poor, the marginalized, the inarticulate, for those who are not successes in the terms of the eighties, for those who wish to transform and not react. If this is what drama today is at its best, then it is less than that which Bakhtin claimed it to be initially.
This is, however, not all there is within the realm of contemporary drama. Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends, first performed in May 1977 by the New York Theatre Strategy, and produced in numerous regional theaters throughout the eighties, offers a distinctly different way of thinking about both drama and its relations to gender. The play has received slow and steady respect from producers, audiences and critics, but has never received the loud public applause that greeted The Heidi Chronicles (or, notably, a comparably monologic prize-winning drama, Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother). Only recently, a production at my university was hesitantly supported, and the sounds of unease and perplexity in the small audience of mostly men at a dress rehearsal confirmed the difficulties Fefu and Her Friends continues to pose for even sophisticated spectators.
Initially, Fefu and Her Friends conforms to the conventions of traditional theatre. A small group of women come together for a reunion meeting to rehearse a series of presentations for a public event. The play preserves the unities of time, place and action: all events occur during one day, in one house, among a group of people who form a temporary community. From the start, however, the differences among the women's voices are striking, as are their abilities to re-accentuate each other's lives and the meanings of each other's utterances. Fefu opens the play, declaring to no one in particular, “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are.” “What?” Cindy asks. “Yup,” Fefu responds.24 Often, one or another of the women does not understand each other, but what one says to another changes the other before our eyes.
Central among these women are Fefu, the hostess in whose house the gathering occurs, and Julia, a friend of several of the women, including Fefu. Julia, for most of the play, is confined to a wheel-chair, the result of a bizarre accident in which a hunter shot a deer, and, after falling as if shot herself, Julia found herself to be paralyzed. Julia and Fefu are the most complex and perplexing of the characters, but each of the other women assembled has her own specific voice, her own desires and differences. In a 1985 interview with Scott Cummings, Fornes described her relationship to these characters in the context of a change in style in her work: “The style of Fefu dealt more with characters as real persons rather than voices that are the expression of the mind of the play.” She goes on to say that instead of writing in a “linear manner” she “would write a scene and see what came out and then I would write another as if I were practicing calligraphy.”25 This absence of “voices that are the expression of the mind of the play” (emphasis mine) and the concomitant resistance to linearity point to precisely those attributes that Bakhtin uncovers in the heteroglossia of the novel.
It is not just, however, in the autonomy and multiple fields of vision of the characters that I find the dialogic imagination at work in Fornes's drama. The second act of Fefu and Her Friends elaborates the differences among the voices of the women but also removes them and us to separate spaces. During Part II, four different scenes occur simultaneously in four different spaces—the lawn, the study, the bedroom, and the kitchen. The audience is divided into four groups, each of which is guided to a different space where one or more of the women is speaking. After a scene is completed, the audience moves to the next space, and the scene that has just occurred in that space is repeated until all members of the audience have viewed all four scenes. The remarkable achievement of this device is to move the spectator from his or her single, unified perspective without, as Bakhtin worried, destroying theatre itself by removing the footlights. Fornes has created a dramatic correlative for the multiple points-of-view narrations of the modern novel of the parallel montages of film.
My experience as an audience member for several different productions of Fefu and Her Friends is that the audience is disconcerted, not only by being moved from our stable and familiar positions, but by our proximity to each other and to the characters; we are in their spaces but not of them. Their world remains separate from ours, and there is nothing we can do to make a difference in their world. We are thus not in the distracting position of the kind of interactive theatre that emerged in the sixties, where the divisions between the world of the stage and the world of the theatre were wholly destroyed and where I did not know to whom I was talking—an actor or a character.26 Instead, in each viewing of each scene of Fefu our position as audience members is re-accentuated and our relationship to the characters is re-mediated. My experience is similar to that of my reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury; each character's telling of the tale re-mediates my relationship to all of the characters and their various meanings.
The most difficult and disturbing scene in Part II of Fefu and Her Friends is that in which we witness Julia, lying on a mattress on the floor so that we must look down upon her, speaking what the other characters refer to as her “hallucinations.” The setting itself is a hybrid place, a mixture of cultural artifacts that do not normally belong together: “There are dry leaves on the floor although the time is not fall,” the stage directions indicate (p. 23). Julia speaks of “they”: they who clubbed her, tore out her eyes, took away her voice. Then her pronoun changes to “he”: “He said that women's entrails are heavier than anything on earth and to see a woman running creates a disparate and incongruous image in the mind. It's anti-aesthetic” (pp. 23-24).
Julia's hallucination is the discourse of an other, a male other, ventriloquated by Julia.27 That this is a specifically and ominously gendered discourse we hear in an emission from Julia's lips that she calls a prayer:
The human being is of the masculine gender. The human being is a boy as a child and grown up he is a man. Everything on earth is for the human being, which is a man. To nourish him. … Women are Evil.—Woman is not a human being. She is: 1.—A mystery. 2.—Another species. 3.—As yet undefined. 4.—Unpredictable; therefore wicked and gentle and evil and good which is evil. …
In the midst of these hallucinations, Julia has cried out of concern for Fefu, whom the other voices appear to be telling her they will have to kill. What “they” want from Fefu is her light. Julia has become aware of herself as one among other cultures, but she also fears that that “other” culture has good reason to dominate, control and destroy her own different voice. It is not anything that Julia has done or had done to her that makes her speak so strangely or that causes her paralysis. She is no more or less mad, no more or less paralyzed, than Hamlet. She is the figure whom Nietzsche presents in The Birth of Tragedy, the figure for whom Shakespeare's Hamlet stands as the paradigm, the one who experiences nausea in his own knowledge and in that knowledge cannot move. Like Hamlet, Julia is paralyzed from too much knowledge, and she fears that Fefu is approaching the same state. Julia is always conscious of death; death is constantly present, and it is only because “[s]omething rescues us from death every moment of our lives” (p. 35) that she remains alive. But Julia is also threatened by the knowledge that “they” who control insist that “the human being is of the masculine gender,” and she suffers because she can neither believe nor resist that dictum. Those whom she calls the “judges” have told her that once she believes the prayer that denigrates women, she will be well. They tell her that all women have come to believe the prayer.
Until the last moment of the play, Fefu and Her Friends is a dialogic drama, and is, more precisely in Bakhtin's terms, “an intentional novelistic hybrid.” In “an intentional novelistic hybrid” differing points of view on the world collide within one cultural form; “the novelistic hybrid is an artistically organized system for bringing different languages in contact with one another.”28 The world that Fornes has created in Fefu is one in which not only Julia and Fefu herself but each of the women struggles with her own voice and brings into the conversation the diverse historical elements of her own linguistic consciousness. Emma, the incomparable performer, pontificates in the inflated rhetoric of a long passage from “The Science of Educational Dramatics” by Emma Sheridan Fry (pp. 31-32); Paula weeps her contempt for “those who, having everything a person can ask for, make such a mess of it” (p. 38). Her American “plain style” tale of her own early envy of the rich might be heard as sentimental in another context, but here, as one utterance in an authentic conversation, it interanimates the whole of the drama.
To deliberately sustain this heteroglossia is dangerous, however; it is dangerous to the living of daily life and to drama itself. In the end, Fefu can no longer bear the multiple voices in her head. She goes outdoors and shoots a rabbit; indoors, blood appears on Julia's forehead, and Julia dies. The women surround Julia in a protective circle and the lights fade. Few in the audience agree on what this ending “means.” Somewhat earlier in the play, yet another of the women, Christina, when asked if she liked Fefu, said she did but that Fefu confused her. “Her mind,” Christina says, “is adventurous. I don't know if there is dishonesty in that. But in adventure there is taking chances and risks, and then one has to, somehow, have less regard or respect for things as they are. That is, regard for a kind of convention, I suppose” (p. 22).
In Fornes's play Fefu kills Julia and reconstructs the circle of monology only in the end and only as a last, desperate effort to ward off the threat to her own stability of consciousness. Other modern plays have ended similarly. Lula kills Clay at the end of Baraka's Dutchman because he has broken the conventions of his servile pseudo-discourse, the white middle-class discourse of the New York subway that still demands (even if it is now losing) its dominance. At the end of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp's lips move, but there is no sound: “Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.”29 Only the tape runs on in silence.
Beckett, perhaps not unlike Bakhtin, foresees, proclaims, the end of drama. Why? Because there are not two words, two different utterances to speak? Because if you kill the conventions you kill the form? Bakhtin proclaims the dialogic novel to be different, to transcend other forms because, for him, as re-articulated by Michael Holquist, “Other genres are constituted by a set of formal features for fixing language that pre-exist any specific utterance within the genre.” In contrast, Holquist argues, “‘novel’ is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system.”30 Should we, then, give the name “novel” to Fefu and Her Friends or Dutchman or Krapp's Last Tape because they reveal the “artificial constraints” of the system we call drama, reveal and disrupt those constraints?
Bakhtin would likely respond that these and other instances that you and I might cite of dialogic dramas are evidence that we are in an era “when the novel becomes the dominant genre.” At such a time “[a]ll literature is then caught up in the process of ‘becoming,’ and in a special kind of ‘generic criticism.’ … In an era when the novel reigns supreme, almost all the remaining genres are to a greater or lesser extent ‘novelized’: drama (for example Ibsen, Hauptmann, the whole of Naturalist drama), epic poetry. … Those genres that stubbornly preserve their old canonic nature begin to appear stylized.” “What are the salient features of this novelization of other genres suggested by us above?” Bakhtin asks. “They become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the ‘novelistic’ layers of literary language, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally—this is the most important thing—the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic open-endedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present).”31
The carnival spirit, the artistic representation of heteroglossia, is evident in modern drama, but if this is a sign of good living in the theatre, which I would take it to be, it is at best a weak sign struggling for acknowledgment. As The Heidi Chronicles attests, even in a world where the discourses of patriarchy and the discourses of feminism must encounter each other, they need not re-accentuate the other. The reason they do not is not a matter simply of formal attributes of a genre. Despite Bakhtin's claims about the rigid conventions of drama and their inherent resistance to polyphony, it is, paradoxically, central to Bakhtin's own theorizing that literary genres do not transform themselves from within nor do individual authors and readers simply decide to write and read dialogically. As we well know, our own new technologies of communication offer decidedly alternative paths: one which would include and subsume into dominant Western patriarchical culture the diversity of voices that inhabit the earth; another that would break the seal and authoritarian self-sufficiency of its character and take on the adventure of speech diversity.
There is ample evidence that we live, more each day, not in a “novelized, polyphonic” society but in what Raymond Williams once called a dramatized society, a world whose most succinct image is that of the self-enclosed living room in which every utterance completes a monologue. Our inclination has been to embrace and proliferate certain of the conventions of drama, to teach the foreign character who enters the stage for the first time the decorum of the given, wholly contained space which is the only space in which he can act.
This is not the only option, however, for ourselves or our drama. When we approach drama in this way, we forget what Bakhtin also forgot in his initial pronouncements—that is, that while drama may press always towards a single field of vision, it is also the cultural space that most readily locates the viewer/reader outside, separate from an other. Drama, especially in its contemporary, televised form, may lure us to see and shape others as identical to ourselves, but that is not what its best work is ever about. In my own work over the last ten years, I have tried to recall drama's ability to enable us to acknowledge the otherness of others. With colleagues in the United States and the Soviet Union, I have tried to do this by creating a new kind of stage, a stage that literally exists simultaneously in two cultures in a form of drama that has come to be called a “space bridge.” When a space bridge occurs, two groups of people from two distinctly different cultures come together using satellite technologies for a conversation, nothing more or less but exactly that activity that Bakhtin locates as the essential site of dialogism (and which must be also the primary site of drama). In this context, we attempt what Bakhtin once urged: “We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us new aspects and new semantic depths.”32 Most often these “space bridges” have been failures in any conventional terms of dramatic value: they have no clear beginning, middle or end, they lack a Unity of Plot, there are loopholes and misunderstandings and unresolved collisions. They are resisted and monologized by most American producers who demand total control of the event and who attempt to substitute the conventional drama of dispute for authentic dialogue. They are but whispers from the dialogic imagination, neither first words nor last words about novels or dramas, but words towards a genre in search of a name—and an audience.
M. M. Bakhtin's first book to be translated into English was Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA, 1968). In 1975 my colleague, Neal Bruss, brought this and other Bakhtin texts to the attention of an Amherst reading group of which I was a member. Included in the texts we read, in addition to Iswolsky's translation of Rabelais, were unpublished translations of portions of the four essays originally published in Moscow in 1975 as Voprosy literatury i estetiki and subsequently published as The Dialogic Imagination, trs. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin, 1981); and translations of two works whose authorship remains a matter of dispute: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and Freudianism: A Critique, both of which are variously attributed to V. N. Voloshinov or M. M. Bakhtin or both.
Lest this seem to be an overstatement or an idiosyncratic judgment, I call attention to the “Introduction” to M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, tr. Vern. W. McGee, edd. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, 1986), pp. ix-x. Holquist supports claims to Bakhtin's eminence with quotes from Todorov that hail Bakhtin as “the most important Soviet thinker in the human sciences and the greatest theoretician of literature in the twentieth century.” Holquist also notes that the executive director of MLA in 1985 located Bakhtin among a pantheon of thinkers that included Karl Marx, Freud, Levi-Strauss, Derrida and Barthes.
Wayne C. Booth, “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism,” in Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work, ed. Gary Saul Morson (Chicago, 1986), pp. 145-176.
J. L. Styan, Elements of Drama (Cambridge, 1960).
See Helene Keyssar, “Hauntings: Gender and Drama in Contemporary English Theatre,” Englisch Amerikanische Studien, 8 (December 1986), 449-468, esp. 456-457.
Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, 1984), p. 17.
See Tracy B. Strong, The Idea of Political Theory (Notre Dame, 1990), pp. 45-46.
Aristotle, Poetics, tr. Ingram Bywater, in Rhetoric and Poetics (New York, 1954), Ch. 7, pp. 233-234.
Ibid., Ch. 8, p. 234.
See J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory (Princeton, 1990), p. 100.
On Peripeteia and Discovery, see Poetics, Ch. 11, pp. 236-237; on avoidance of “improbabilities,” Ch. 15, p. 243; on the Chorus, Ch. 18, p. 248; and on Diction and Metaphor, Ch. 22, p. 255.
Euben, p. 108.
Ibid., fn. 4, p. 97.
Ibid., p. 125.
Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation,” in The Structuralist Controversy, edd. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, 1972), p. 284.
Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre (London, 1984; New York, 1985), pp. xiii, xiv; see also “Hauntings: Gender and Drama in Contemporary English Theatre.”
Bakhtin, “Preface to Volume 11: The Dramas,” in Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, edd. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson (Evanston, IL, 1989), pp. 227-236.
See my “Theodore Dreiser's Dramas: American Folk Drama and Its Limits,” in Theatre Journal, 33 (October 1981), 365-376, for a detailed discussion of modern folk drama. My comments on Dreiser's interest in the grotesque are especially relevant to Bakhtin's interests in carnival and folk theatre.
See Rethinking Bakhtin and Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work, both cited above, as well as the various lengthy introductions to Bakhtin's works for some examples of these explanations of contradictions or complexities in Bakhtin. Also see David Lodge, After Bakhtin (London, 1990).
Wendy Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles (New York, 1990), p. 28. All further page references will be cited in the text.
Phyllis Jane Rose, “Dear Heidi: An Open Letter to Dr. Holland,” in American Theatre (October 1989), p. 29. The encomia from Gussow, Kissel and Winer are all cited by Rose (p. 29).
Ibid., p. 114.
Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, p. 370.
Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends, in Wordplays : New American Drama, edd. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (New York, 1980), p. 7. All further page references will be cited in the text.
Scott Cummings, “Seeing with Clarity: The Visions of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Theater, 17 (Winter 1985), 53.
See Helene Keyssar, “I Love You. Who Are You? The Strategy of Drama in Recognition Scenes,” PMLA, 92 (March 1977), 297-306, for a fuller discussion of the significance of acknowledgment of otherness in theatre. While I hold to the position I argue in this piece concerning the theatre's special ability to allow the spectator an intensification of the recognition of others as others, my more recent work, including this current essay, calls into question the claim I made in 1977 that the recognition scene clarifies the freedom of the audience.
See Michael Holquist, “The Politics of Representation,” in Allegory and Representation: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979-80, ed. Stephen J. Greenblatt (Baltimore, 1981), pp. 162-183, for this specialized use of “ventriloquation,” a term I and others have come to use frequently as if it were one of Bakhtin's own terms.
Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 360, 361.
Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape, in Krapp's Last Tape and Embers (London, 1965), p. 20.
Michael Holquist, “Introduction,” The Dialogic Imagination, p. xxix.
Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 5-7.
Bakhtin, “Response to a Question from Novy Mir,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9519
SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy, and The Playwright's Art. “Wendy Wasserstein.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 257-76. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on October 9, 1991, Wasserstein discusses her early career and the implications of her success, aspects of her writing process, the influence and role of women in contemporary theatre, and the critical and popular reception of her plays, particularly The Heidi Chronicles, both in the United States and abroad.]
Wendy Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the Yale School of Drama, she is the author of Any Woman Can't (1973), Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (1974), When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth (with Christopher Durang; 1975), Uncommon Women and Others (1977), Isn't It Romantic (1981), Tender Offer (1983), The Man in a Case (adapted from a Chekhov story; 1986), Miami (1986), The Heidi Chronicles (1988), and The Sisters Rosensweig (1992). The Heidi Chronicles received the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Award; and The Sisters Rosensweig was awarded the Outer Critics Circle Award. She adapted John Cheever's story “The Sorrows of Gin” for the PBS Great Performances series. Her book of essays, Bachelor Girls, was published in 1990. In 1993 she received the William Inge Award. This interview took place on October 9, 1991.
[Interviewer]: If you think back to your home life and your upbringing, what are the things that sort of pulled you to the theatre?
[Wasserstein]: Gosh, I think a lot of it has to do with my mother, Lola, who's a dancer. I grew up taking dancing classes at the June Taylor School of the Dance. They were the dancers on the old Jackie Gleason Show. I've often said that my two theatrical mentors were June Taylor and Bob Brustein! I grew up with chorus girls, and it was show biz. My parents took me to Broadway matinees. I love theatres; I love being inside theatres. There's a certain calm to me before the storm. I love plays and the immediacy of them. My grandfather wrote Yiddish plays, and my mother sort of has a theatricality to her. People named Lola who dance often do! She's quite a funny woman actually.
It's interesting about people's parents. My dad owned a textile factory; supposedly he invented velveteen. All I remember was was that there was a color called Wendy Blue that was a discontinued line. I remember at Playwrights Horizons people always said that the signature of a Playwrights Horizons play through all those years was sort of bright urban comedies, sometimes Ivy League, and I think actually they're wrong. The signature is, all the flats in those plays are black velveteen from Wasserstein Ribbons! Even Stephen Sondheim or Alfred Uhry, they all had the black velveteen! I remember when I would go down to The Heidi Chronicles to check on the play, it reminded me very much of my father going to his factory. We were both in production, and that interested me. I think it's also interesting thinking in terms of who's creative in the world; it broadens your idea of who's creative. I remember when I was in college I always thought I couldn't grow up to be an artist or in the theatre because women in the theatre wore black and had Pre-Raphaelite hair, the silver earrings, the shawl, the cheekbones, and the Fred Braun sandals, and I was never one of those people. I think knowing that about the velveteen and my father sort of changes that a little bit.
Why do you write comedies? Do you think that's just the way you think? Are they comedies?
I think they are serious plays that are funny. I'm a very unpretentious person, and I can't say that something is right or wrong. Comedy allows you to see either side of the issue, and it also makes it more pleasant to be in the theatre, I think.
You once said that you thought comedy covered up the pain. Is that it?
Very much so. I think that you can go deeper being funny. I think that we have a limited vocabulary in terms of comedy. A lot of us think that comedy has to be farce, and I don't think that's true. I think that if you're writing character, comedy is humane.
Do you have a lot of pain to cover up?
Probably. But it's not mine, it's the characters', and I think they do.
In one of the essays in Bachelor Girls you said something about your therapist wanting you to think sometimes a little more seriously and to try to come to terms with things rather than covering them up in your life with comedy. Do you feel you're doing that in your plays?
I think the idea that something that's serious is not funny is ridiculous!
Or something that's funny not being serious either?
Yes, exactly. If you look at Chris Durang's plays, at the darkness of the vision, that's what makes them funny.
Do you think that the humor in your plays might ever cause people to underestimate what's really going on?
I thought that with Isn't It Romantic, which I thought was a far more commercial idea for a play than The Heidi Chronicles. You don't think, “I'm going to write a play about a feminist art historian who becomes sad, and it's going to become Barefoot in the Park.” Isn't It Romantic is more in the shape of a boulevard comedy, but it has serious things in it. A girl says in it, “I make choices based on an idea that doesn't exist anymore,” and that's interesting to me. Isn't it Woody Allen who says that if you write comedy you sit at the children's table, and if you write tragedy you sit at the adults’ table? There's something sort of flippant and easy about comedy. It's the hardest thing in the world; it's much harder. If you write a play which you think is funny and nobody's laughing—I've had that experience when I've been at previews of my own plays and I'm a lone voice in the wilderness going ha-ha-ha and nobody else is laughing—it is awful. It is truly awful. What's really scary is that, if you're comedically agile and suddenly you believe that you're a serious playwright, sometimes you can lose your comic voice. My favorite playwright is Chekhov, and I'm always taken with the fact that The Cherry Orchard is called a comedy.
Has success spoiled you?
Has it changed you?
Well, in a sense. I remember, when I won the Pulitzer, Marsha Norman called me up and said, “It's like a rock,” and she was right. On days when I beat myself up or look at my new play and think it's not good, it's not this, it's not that, I think, “Just take it easy, Wendy, it's okay.” In that way, the success of the previous plays helps.
Has success freed you artistically? Is it easier or harder?
Every single play that you write comes along with the burden of when you're writing it, what the story is. When I was writing Isn't It Romantic, my second play. I talked to people about the burden of a second play. I think every single one has its own little story behind it.
How did you get your first play produced off-Broadway?
Actually, how my first play got done is very funny. When I got out of Mount Holyoke, I took writing classes at City College with Joseph Heller and Israel Horovitz, and I also had a job at the Board of Education taking inventory. It was a really good job. They sent me from place to place with a measuring stick, but what they didn't realize was that one Steelcase desk has the same measurements as another. Anyway, what happened was, I wrote a play called Any Woman Can't in Israel Horovitz's class, which happily none of you will ever see again. It was about a girl from Smith College who comes to New York and makes an unfortunate marriage. My mother, Lola, was walking down the street, and she ran into this woman Louise Roberts, who used to be the receptionist at the June Taylor School of the Dance, and Louise said to Lola, “What's Wendy doing?” Lola started hyperventilating and said, “Wendy, I don't know. She's not a lawyer, she's not married to a lawyer, she's crazy, and she's writing plays. I don't know.” I think Louise, really just to calm this woman down, said, “I work at a new dancing school, and it's across the hall from a new theatre called Playwrights Horizons, so why don't you give me Wendy's play and I'll give it to them.” And that's how my first play was read in 1973! It's true, and I've been associated with Playwrights ever since. This was even before André came to Playwrights; this is when Bob Moss ran the theatre. That's how that got done.
Then I went to the Yale School of Drama and, with Uncommon Women, I sent it out to twelve theatres. My favorite was when it got returned to me postage due from one theatre; that was nice. I sent it back to Playwrights Horizons; they had remembered me, and we did a reading of it, and then I rewrote the play from a one-act to a two-act form and submitted it to the O'Neill, and it was done that following summer at the O'Neill. I think the thing about playwriting is that the theatre world is small and you don't have to know Mike Nichols or whoever to become part of it. Your mother runs into the old receptionist from the June Taylor School of the Dance. I think you don't have to know the artistic director of the theatre; that's not how things really happen. I always advise playwrights that if someone wants to do a reading of your play; let your play be read, because you never know. It's as my mother says, “You never know who you're going to meet.” She's right.
Is it more difficult or easier for you to be produced now?
In some ways if you have been produced and well received, you sit there and you think, “Oh, this poor play, they're going to kill it.” You worry about what you're doing next in a way. I think what I'm good at is writing plays; as I said before, I love being inside theatres. I remember when Heidi was running I used to come to the theatre quite a bit just to hang out. But I don't know any playwright, really, who just writes plays now. Plays take a long time to write; they take a while to put on. Who knows if you got the right production, who knows if it will get good reviews; there's a lot of things going on. And filmwriting is interesting, television writing is interesting. They're different crafts from playwriting, but still I believe that ideas disseminate from plays. I think talking to different playwrights, you would have different answers about this.
Do you feel that you have less control with films?
You have much less control, because when you write a movie you are an employee. When you write a play you own it, so whenever The Heidi Chronicles is done in perpetuity it is my play with words by Wendy. If you're hired to write a movie, they can hire and fire you thirty-seven times. If I had sold The Heidi Chronicles to a movie studio as opposed to independent producers, and they decided they didn't like my script, they would have the right to fire me and take me off the project and say, “Why is this woman an art historian? Why doesn't she become a pilot? Days of Thunder did really well; why doesn't she become a race-car driver?”
Do your ideas of the plays ever change on the basis of seeing them done differently?
Not once it's finished. I think that you become so attached to plays that ultimately you have to withdraw and let them out into the universe.
What terrifies you?
Not being able to write. Not writing well. Knowing that the writing isn't as good as I want it to be, or thinking that I didn't take good enough care of my play. Or if someday I didn't care about it as much as I know you need to care about it; that would terrify me. Not writing plays would terrify me.
What about your process as a writer? Do you keep a journal; do you work on several scripts concurrently; do you rewrite a lot as you go along, or after you've worked on something?
My process is an arduous one; I always think I should become more efficient. I don't even work on a word processor. I'm driving a Model T. What I do is write in notebooks. I try not to write in my apartment, because the phone rings all the time, and if the phone wasn't ringing I'd make phone calls or I'd be at the refrigerator. So I go to the library and I write longhand in a college bound notebook, and then what I do is type it up on a typewriter. Revisions take quite a long time, and then I get it out to a typist. Plays tend to take me around nine months to write. I'm not as prolific as I would like to be; I always make mental notes to myself to become more prolific. But they end up with the same notes that say “Exercise more” and all of that stuff; they go to the same place. I'm just finishing a new play, and I had the idea for it in 1987 when I was finishing The Heidi Chronicles, but I never got around to it until last January. My plays tend to be semiautobiographical or come out of something that's irking me, and it's got to irk me long enough for me to commit to spend all that time alone writing and turn it into a play.
Once that first draft is there, what happens for you? How do you use the rehearsal process in terms of rewrites?
The first thing is getting that first draft out of my house and giving it to someone to read, because I'm somebody who could pick at the play endlessly, and no one would ever see it. When I was at the Yale Drama School, they taught us about this woman Hrotsvit of Gandersheim who was supposedly the first woman playwright; she was an eighth-century canonist, and she wrote over seven hundred plays that were never produced. She was called a closet dramatist. I'm someone who could become a closet dramatist, only I wouldn't have seven hundred plays; I'd have five plays that nobody ever saw that were rewritten twenty-seven times. So I have to make the leap of getting it out of my apartment and giving it to someone to read. I'm very lucky because I've had a home at a wonderful theatre called Playwrights Horizons, in New York, and I've worked with the same producer, André Bishop, for a long time now, over ten years or so. Actually, they did my first play in 1973, so it's longer than that. I know I can give the play to André. And I have a very good relationship with Dan Sullivan, who runs the Seattle Rep and directed The Heidi Chronicles; I'm going to give my new play to him. It's pretty much getting the play out of the house to somebody to look at.
Then the next thing for me—and this is pretty true for most playwrights—is putting together a reading of the play, getting some actors together and just hearing the play out loud, because plays are written to be heard. I remember the first reading of The Heidi Chronicles was in some ways the best that play ever was, because it was when the play was born and it was very exciting to me. But you have to be very careful, because you can't really judge a play by a reading, because nobody has to do anything. I remember a friend of mine, Peter Parnell, wrote a play called The Rise of Daniel Rocket in which a character flies, so when you have a reading and you have actors sitting onstage and the stage manager says, “He flies,” it sounds great, but basically you have to make this happen. I remember the same thing was true in The Heidi Chronicles; there's a scene in front of the Chicago Art Institute and, when I wrote it, it was out in front of the Chicago Art Institute in the rain. That's fine when someone reads this, but I remember Dan Sullivan said to me, “Well, how do you think we are going to do this in an off-Broadway theatre?” I said, “That's your problem.” So there's that. You have an initial reading and you get a sense of your play.
I'll give you the history of what I did with Heidi. After that reading we did it as a workshop in Seattle with a two-week rehearsal and a three-day production period, and again it was really about the play. It's always been about the text; it's never been about “Boy, if we really fixed this up we can get it to Cher” or “If I fix this up, maybe it's a Broadway baby.” That's never occurred to me either. It's always been, let's make this text as good as I can make it, and I want to tell the story; I want to tell it as well as I can. That's really what the workshop period in Seattle was about. And then I had another reading in New York, and then we went into production. My plays get revised quite a bit. I think it's because I don't write from an outline; I just start writing, I just start letting those characters talk, which again may be very different for different playwrights. I know that some playwrights have every scene on a different notecard, and they know exactly where everything's going. I'm in a state of “whoopee”; I just want to see what's going to happen to them.
Would you say, thinking of The Heidi Chronicles specifically, that that play changed substantially from that first read-through to the final product as it was seen in New York and around the country?
That's interesting, because the structure of that play stayed the same. What happened was that a half an hour was cut out of the play; it was just too long. The speech that she gave at the Art Institute, for instance, the speech that she gives to the women's group, used to go on for eight pages; she just went on and on and on until the play became an hour on this woman—but I had a good time writing it. So in that way it changed, but the structure didn't change that much.
I'm wondering what you think about the concept of a female aesthetic and how you might relate to that.
Boy, it's hard about female aesthetics. I remember when I was at college at Mount Holyoke and we were taking a course—it was the first actual feminism course given at Mount Holyoke—and we were reading about sexual politics and Freud and studying inner space and outer space and all of that stuff, and I just thought, “I hate this.” I think that, being a writer who has come of age as a woman, you have had a different language, you have had a different experience. My plays are generally about women talking to each other. The sense of action is perhaps different than if I had come of age as a male playwright. Women are very good talkers. I remember when I first wrote Uncommon Women, which is a play about a reunion of Mount Holyoke graduates, I was a student at Yale and we were studying a lot of Jacobean drama. To me, basically, it was men kissing the skulls of women and then dropping dead from the poison, and I thought to myself, “Gee, this is really not familiar to me. It's not within my realm of experience.” Simultaneously, there were all these posters for Deliverance around New Haven. I thought to myself, “I'd really like to write the flip side of Deliverance.” I worked backwards and thought, “I want to see an all-female curtain call in the basement of the Yale School of Drama.” It came from that. So in a way I do and I don't believe there's a feminine aesthetic.
Is it true that the new play that you are currently working on has a different structure?
All my plays have episodic structures; they all break down into around eight scenes. For me they're fun to write because basically I know that within ten pages I'm out of this scene—so I'm not stuck there. In some ways you can move the action forward in that way, and also in a way you can make the action and the storytelling elliptical. I'm not that good at storytelling. I remember that, when I was at Yale, Richard Gilman was the playwriting teacher, and we'd bring in our plays, and he'd always say afterwards, “Well, I like the language.” I've always thought that if I kept the language bright enough and the comedy bright enough no one could tell nothing's happened! One good way is to keep changing scenes. I'm also somebody who grew up watching a lot of television. It's interesting, because most playwrights are trying to break form and create new forms, but I'm trying to write a traditional living room play because I wanted to see if I could get these people on and off, and it's very hard to do. They have to say, “Oh, excuse me, I think the phone is ringing” or “Oh, I think I'll make some coffee now,” and you try to think of the most ingenious ways you can devise for people to say good-bye or hello. At least when you write episodic plays you just cut to the next scene. A lot of my episodic scenes always end in singing and dancing!
There is a real craftsmanship to your language, and that's usually true in comedy.
What you try to do, especially with comedy, is not write the underneath. If you're going to have somebody say, “I'm so lonely,” you're going to punch it right at the moment, maybe at the funniest moment in the play. I always thought the best comic moment in The Heidi Chronicles was the saddest—when Heidi brings all of her belongings to the AIDS unit and Peter goes through her books, looks at Janson's history of art and Salvador Dali, and says, “Thank you, we don't have any of these.” I always thought that allowed me the possibility to become even sadder, so the precision of that moment would upset me if it wasn't there. Sometimes I do look at playwriting very much like a craft and see myself first as an artist and then as a craftsperson, especially building comedy, I think.
Do you think, since The Heidi Chronicles deals with this, that the contemporary woman can have a successful ongoing relationship with a man and a successful and engrossing career simultaneously?
Okay, next question!
I don't know. I mean it takes one to know one, I guess.
There's a lot of talk about either/or and not wanting it to be either/or, but yet there doesn't seem to be any alternative that shows a positive ongoing relationship between a man and a woman.
I know that; it's interesting, because I thought about that even writing my new play. I thought, “God, these women are really out there; there's nothing sort of normal going on here!” I think it is possible, but I think you get into trouble when you think there is a paradigm or something for having a happy life. I think different people are able to do different things. Some people are incredibly well-organized, some people are not; some people are very fortunate to have met a wonderful and loving mate, some people are less fortunate. Some people have extremely fulfilling careers; some people don't find that. But I think where you get into trouble is saying, “I must have all of this and if I haven't had all of this I've done badly.” That's a mistake, I think.
In regard to the feminist movement (thinking about that wonderful speech that used to be a half an hour and now is shorter in The Heidi Chronicles), do you feel that women are standing alone, sort of stranded? Do you feel that feminism is an idea that failed, or is it still with us?
God, there was a picture in the New York Times today of those eight congresswomen walking into the Senate to protest the handling of Anita Hill's accusations, and I found myself very moved by it. There was something about seeing those women together. I think with women, God knows, that it's still a real issue. It's interesting when you deal with younger women and they say, “Oh, are you the f word, feminist?” and it's a bad thing to be. I'll go to panels and say that I am, that I can't imagine not being; how could you say, “Oh, I don't believe in the rights of women”? I'll never forget after The Heidi Chronicles I went out to dinner with a friend and his girlfriend who was first in her class at Radcliffe. She was a twenty-six-year-old girl who now is at the Columbia Business School. She went out with me and my roommate from Mount Holyoke, who were both forty, and her soon-to-be husband. She said to me, “Well, I loved your play, Wendy. It was so funny and good, but I have one question. What was the problem?” And I sort of thought, “Well, gee, we must have done good work if you don't think there's any problem anymore.” But then again, maybe there's a big problem and it's still out there.
The f word seems to be one of the most highly charged words in our language these days.
It's very charged. I know The Heidi Chronicles was a controversial play among many feminists. It was a play where some people thought I had sold out, because she had a baby at the end and I was saying that all women must have babies—run out and adopt a Panamanian tonight! I know that this happened, but from my point of view, what's political is that this play exists. What's political is that we can talk about this play that's about us—like it, don't like it; it's there, it exists, and that's the forward motion. When Uncommon Women was first done and got better reviews than The Heidi Chronicles, it ran for two and a half weeks at the Marymount Theatre in 1978 because commercial producers felt (and this was a play with Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry, Swoosie Kurtz) an all-women's play could not be commercial. So that's how much things have changed in ten years.
Could you talk a little bit about what Heidi's choice meant to you?
The Heidi Chronicles ends with Heidi adopting a baby alone. In my mind, when I was writing the play, that was always the end of the play. I remember that when I was coming to the end of the play I had called my agent, and she told me that an actress friend of mine had recently adopted a baby, and I thought, “That's right, that's what this is about.” I would have changed the ending if it had been done in larger spaces before Broadway, much as August Wilson's plays are done, because I might have ended the play with her lecturing to fill the space, to bookend it. She would have still adopted the baby, but the final image might have been her lecturing. But I didn't have the time to go and do that. I always thought that I wouldn't change her; that was the right choice for Heidi, for her as a person. I know it was quite controversial. I talked at Cornell last year, and these two women art historians I met lit into me for forty-five minutes. Even as I explained it, they just stood there and said, “No, no, you're wrong. No, no.” I can see where it would be controversial, and I could even see where me as an audience person, if I hadn't written that play, me as somebody who would identify with that generation in Heidi, could have seen that play and could have said, “Give me a break! Adopt a baby from Panama? No thank you.” I could have gotten angry at it too. But as the playwright, and as someone who was logging that journey, to me it was the right journey for her. My new play is romantically uplifting; it's about the possibility of that anyway.
Do you think that because you are a woman playwright people expect you to speak for women in a way that a male playwright doesn't have to deal with?
Absolutely, and also because I deal with feminist topics. Yes, you're always asked, “Are you a feminist, and how does this affect your work?” It would be nice if someone asked a man, “What are your feelings about women?” I guess they don't have to have them; I don't know. But it really would be an interesting thing to ask, because I'm asked both about men and women. “Why aren't there better men in The Heidi Chronicles?” I thought, “Why am I in charge of this? Ask David Mamet.”
Do you think it's easier for women to be produced in general?
I think it's opened up. I've been on a lot of grant committees and stuff, and I think many more plays by women are being produced and many more women are writing plays. I think the atmosphere is much better.
Do you see the audience for plays getting smaller and more refined and more particularized over the years, or do you think theatre is always sort of struggling on the edge but always there?
I think you always have to look at theatre from the widest possible notion. You have to look at it in America as a national art form. You certainly can't just look at Broadway; look at Washington. Look at the Arena Stage; look at the Kennedy Center; look at the smaller theatres. That's a wide variety. For the people who write dialogue of a certain kind, there's nothing like writing for the theatre; there's nothing like sitting through a preview when you're there with the director and the set designer, and it's a collaboration, and you're going to fix it. I think that for audiences, too, live theatre communicates in a particular way. It's quite interesting from my point of view that Murphy Brown is now pregnant and having a child alone. That's interesting because that's like The Heidi Chronicles three years ago. I think there are things you can do in theatre that you can't do anyplace else. And also, theatre is the voice of an individual writer. Movies are really a director's medium. Television is about producing; it's about manufacturing, though very well, and there is certainly, God knows, beautifully written television. But in terms of just the voice of a writer, that is most dominant in the theatre, I think.
Have you ever wanted to direct, or to direct one of your own plays?
I really wouldn't be a very good director. I like the collaboration. Oddly enough, I've choreographed. I choreographed a rock musical version of Das Rheingold in a theatre that burned down. There was a theatre in New York called the Mercer Arts Theatre, and we were doing this play. Meatloaf was in it, and one day I came to rehearsal and the building had fallen down! I thought it was because of the musical version of Das Rheingold. I'm not very visually oriented. I really do respect actors. I think there is a real process, and when you've written a play and the actor says, “Well, what do you want here?” you just want to answer, “Oh, it's just funny; be funny.” As a director, it's more complicated.
Are there favorite actors that you have?
There's one actress, Alma Cuervo, who's been in every play of mine. She was at Yale when I was at Yale, and she was in Uncommon Women; she made the phone call to the doctor. She played Janie in Isn't It Romantic, and she recently was in The Heidi Chronicles. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a part for her in my new play, which makes me worry about it. But certainly one uses the same people. I adore Swoosie Kurtz; I think she's great; I'd do anything with Swoosie. When we did the first reading of Heidi, a lot of the women who were in it were people who had been in Uncommon Women. You tend to turn to the same people in a way. I love Joan Allen and Peter Freedman; I think they're just great.
Is there a kind of dialogue and an understanding, a vocabulary, that develops that you want to share with them?
Absolutely. Particularly when you're writing a comedy, because you want the people who trust your work and know that what's funny comes from the character as opposed to what comes from being, quote, funny. I'll never forget when I went to see a production of Uncommon Women in Chicago, and the director had directed the actors every time something was funny to wink, and it was like everybody had this astigmatism. It was just terrible and I thought, “Why don't you trust the material, why is everybody winking here?” So you want people who know what works, who know that the writer has really thought about this carefully.
Is there something that is killing the theatre? What are the forces that you think are most destructive today?
It's very hard to make a living in the theatre. It's very hard to be an artist in America, frankly. I remember I won a Guggenheim when it was time to rewrite Isn't It Romantic, and I was so happy. It gave me such a sense of self, a feeling of “do this.” And I remember that it was for eighteen thousand dollars, which was to me in 1984 an amount of money; but you think about how much a first-year lawyer at a reputable law firm makes.
And you had an advanced degree and were like a doctor.
Yeah, I think it's very hard, and I think, in terms of theatre, not only is it hard for actors to make a living but it's hard for everybody. It's hard for playwrights. You try casting a play during pilot season, and it's very hard to find an actor. In London, the television and theatre industry are all in the same city; here, people begin to choose between New York and Los Angeles, and at some point thirty-five-year-old people with children or whatever need to decide. I was watching the television show Sisters the other night, and there was Swoosie and there was David Dukes. These are great stage actors, not just good, so one has to think about that.
A lot of people, obviously, have uneasy relationships with critics in the theatre, and certainly there have been a lot of discussions about the relationship of the press to theatre. What do you feel about the critic's role in theatre today?
It's very difficult, because on a scale from one to ten on a play that you've written, you always care ten. As soon as you care nine, you're out of the ballpark; and even if you care ten, that doesn't mean you're in the ballpark, that just means you can get your heart broken even worse. So on the night the critics come, you see all these people coming to your play to judge it or have an opinion, and it's very scary. I think it is part of the process of putting on a play. What always interests me is that when I speak at colleges they always ask about critics, and I always think critics are part of a process. Plays take a long time: you have to sit through a month of auditions to put on a play, you have to sit through five days of technical rehearsal. Critics come on one night, the reviews come out, and I wish that people understood that more; but it is how opinion on the play is disseminated. What happens is, often one wants plays to have a life so that audiences can have an opinion on them, too. What's scary about the critical process is that it is often new plays that are the most vulnerable to critics. If a Neil Simon play doesn't get particularly good notices, it's probably produced by a management that can pour enough money into it. People know the playwright, the play will have a life. It will hurt his feelings. I'm sure, but the play will have a life. With a new play by a young playwright that nobody knows about, it opens at an off-Broadway theatre in New York, and one doesn't know if that play's going to be done again or what's going to happen to that playwright.
Unfortunately, what seems to be happening in cities around the country is that one critical voice is taking the most powerful position.
The Heidi Chronicles didn't get particularly good notices when it went on tour around the country, but because the play came in with all of those awards and I went on Hello St. Paul and Midday Boston, we were able to sell the play, I believe in getting audiences to come and see plays.
Because your work is often autobiographical, do reviews affect it?
It's hard. Sometimes you don't read them. If you know that they are bad and it's for no other purpose than to hurt your feelings, why would you read them? So it depends. If it's going to concern the life of your play, then you must read them. If everybody says the same thing and these are intelligent people who have come to your play, then something's not getting across; so I think that's important. But it's hard. Of course it hurts your feelings, it has to.
What's the worst thing that you can think of happening to you in the theatre?
We talked about this earlier. It would be if I stopped writing plays. I would just be deeply disappointed in myself. I wrote a musical called Miami that didn't work out. We did it upstairs at Playwrights Horizons, and I cared every bit as much about Miami as about The Heidi Chronicles, but it didn't work. I believe plays have lives of their own and they have their own stories, and this play was just something where everything went wrong. When Miami didn't work, I had my niece come over and put everything related to Miami in the closet. I just put it away and only now am I beginning to deal with it a little bit; it's very painful, very painful.
When something like that happens to you in your process, do you think someday you'll take it out of the closet and fix it, or is it over and on to the next project?
I'm thinking of fixing that now or doing something with it. I think sometimes it's over and sometimes it's not. If you see the right place for it, there might be something.
In musicals, often a song keeps getting shifted from show to show before it finds a home. Do you ever feel something that didn't work in one play might be in the next one?
All the time. When we were doing Isn't It Romantic with Gerald Gutierrez, who's a wonderful director, he had me cut various lines because in fact Isn't It Romantic was too funny. You couldn't get to the character. There was one line that Janie said, when a man said to her, “You're clutching your purse.” She said, “I have valuables.” Gerry said, “You have to cut this line.” And I said to him, “Gerry, this is important to the zeitgeist of the play and the hubris of the character.” And he said, “What are you bullshitting about? You won't cut your joke.” And I said, “Well, that's right.” So we cut the joke. That joke is in The Heidi Chronicles, and I'll never forget when Gerry came to see the play and there was this howl when he heard the joke. You never throw away a good joke. Hold onto it for years to come.
When you are writing, do you imagine an audience? Do you feel the play is one half of a dialogue you're having with an audience and, if that's true, who is the other half?
Sometimes I'll listen to music that I associate with the play; or I imagine moments of the play, and that makes me laugh actually. I don't know if I imagine the audience; that would make me nervous. I imagine the play itself and the production but, with my plays, I'm someone who sort of hangs around ladies’ rooms for word of mouth all the time. That's one of the problems with becoming well known; suddenly they know who's loitering in the ladies’ room. So you get, “I think it's wonderful. Would you like to meet my nephew?” And I'm thinking, “No, I don't. I just want to hear what you have to say about my play.” But it's very interesting to see who comes to your plays, too.
Do you find that it's harder now, again because of the success, just to find the quiet time and space to work?
Sure, a little bit. For someone who likes to escape writing, there are many more ways to escape, and you can say they're important. It's not like I'm off with a girl friend; I'm doing something serious and good, but what I'm really not at is my desk. So there's that, too.
Do you think a Jewish identity and a Jewish cultural up-bringing inform your art in any way?
Oh, very much so. My work extremely so, in terms of humor very much so, and in terms of a pathos, too, I think. It's interesting writing about Jewish subject matter as well. Miami was very much about Jews; it was about Miami Beach in 1959. There's a woman in it named Kitty Katz, and her boyfriend is named Murray Murray, and someone took me out after they saw the show and they said, “Wendy, can't you make this about Irish people? This isn't good for the Jews.” I thought it would have to be worse when Kitty Katz comes out as an Irish woman! But it was an insight into what Philip Roth goes through. There is a part of me that thinks The Heidi Chronicles was taken more seriously because it was about a Gentile girl from Chicago. It wasn't about Wendy with the hips from New York, even if Wendy with the hips from New York had the same emotional life. It's a cynical point of view, but I partially believe that to be true. It was also interesting for me in The Heidi Chronicles to write Scoop Rosenbaum: I got to be the smart Jewish boy who tormented me all my life. I thought, “Now I get to be you,” and it was fabulous; it was like revenge of the nerds. My new play is very much about being Jewish.
Do you find, going around the country to different cities that have different population makeups, that audiences react to your work differently?
Well, I saw Isn't It Romantic in Tokyo, and it's the most Jewish of all my plays. It's about me and my mother basically, and it opens with this woman in a tie-dyed leotard singing “Sunrise, Sunset” to her daughter, asking her when she's going to get married. There I was in Tokyo, and this Japanese woman came out singing “Sunrise, Sunset” in Japanese, and I thought to myself, “That's my mother; good God, how weird!” It was really strange, but the play got the same laughs in Tokyo as it did in New York. Japanese audiences are not vociferous and what's interesting about them also is that they are 80 percent female. Women go to the theatre a lot, and a single woman in Tokyo over twenty-five is known as “a Christmas cake after Christmas.” What played there was the emotional values of the play and the mother and daughter.
Do people in your life who know that your work is autobiographical react in ways that are different from the rest of us when they see themselves onstage?
Well, my mother came to the opening of Isn't It Romantic and said, “Wendy, where did you get those shoes?” Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Oddly enough, in some ways The Heidi Chronicles is my least autobiographical play. In that play I'm more like the gay pediatrician in terms of his humor and in terms of his way of dealing with the world, except that I'm not him either. It is my coming of age, and my times, but the people in it have the least to do with me. But I was at the women's group where they screamed to me, “Either you shave your legs or you don't!” I remember that distinctly.
You've been writing a series of essays for various magazines, and the personal nature of those causes you to get a lot of interesting mail. Do you find that people sort of want you to be what they want you to be? How do you respond to that?
When you write with a personal voice, you become immediately accessible so that people assume that they know you. Bachelor Girls has a lot in it about my mother and my brother and a bad affair and all of that. It's interesting for a playwright to use that “I” persona, because you can't have it onstage; it's got to become somebody else. In a way that's sort of fun, but on the other hand, people really do assume a familiarity with you, and they come up and talk to me in a way I don't think they do with other playwrights. I recently have lost some weight, and a stranger came up to me on the street and said, “Wendy, you've lost four hundred pounds!” I just thought, “Who are you? Why are you talking this way to me? I mean, nobody does this to August Wilson. I'm sure you wouldn't dare. Who does this to Marsha Norman?” I get these people; they're my special friends. In a way it's very nice because you feel a community, you feel in touch. There's this one essay, which I think is the best one in there, called “Jean Harlow's Wedding Night”; it's about growing up being funny, what that is, dealing with a bad personal experience and becoming compulsively funny to cover up the upset. That's been interesting because I walk down the street and women come up to me and say, “That happened to me.” That is nice, except then you feel sad because you think, “Gee, in some ways I wish that it had only happened to me.”
Do you get a lot of requests from young playwrights about how to get started? Do you try to help them, and how?
I do. I've taught at Columbia and at NYU, and I work a lot with a group called the Young Playwrights Festival. We just had our tenth anniversary in New York; we do new plays by playwrights under eighteen. It's a national competition, and we get over a thousand plays. I think that's very important, to do that and to keep the life of the theatre alive. Also, I think a young woman or a young man believes they can become a playwright because you became a playwright; it becomes a possibility. For some reason, I go to girls’ schools. I've spoken at every girls’ school in New York. I'm the only person who flew from the Golan Heights to give the commencement speech at the Chapin School; I think that that was a first. I think it's very important because you basically look at someone and you say, “Gee, this isn't a person in black with the fur and the earrings; this is an accessible person and this is her job; this is what she does. If she was able to express herself in this way, then I can do that, too.” I think that's great, really good, because Wendy never came to my school when I was in high school.
There actually weren't very many Wendys to do that back then.
Is there anyone that you would say has been a really powerful influence on you and your work, other than your family? Another artist, another writer?
I'm very influenced by my colleagues. I met Chris Durang when I was at the Yale Drama School, and he's been a great friend of mine. It's the closeness that you have to somebody who is also writing. Those sorts of friendships with people in the theatre—Peter Parnell I feel that way about, too—are very supportive at difficult times. I look at Betty Comden, who was in my play Isn't It Romantic, and now she's just won the Kennedy Center Honors, and I think, “When Betty was doing this in the fifties, it can't have been easy to have been Betty.” I look at her and I think, “There is a woman of great gift and dignity.” And André Bishop at Playwrights Horizons has been important for what he's given me and what he's given to other theatre writers too. And the directors I've worked with: Dan, and Gerry Gutierrez, Steven Rubin.
How involved are you with the director during the rehearsal process?
The most important thing, actually, is working with the director, with someone you share a vision with, because if you sit down for an initial conversation and you're not on the same wavelength, it's not going to change. It's not going to get better, it can only go downhill from there. I tend to go to rehearsals just because I like to hear the play and I like to work during the rehearsal process. Any comments that I have I speak through the director, and he or she then speaks to the company. What I like about plays is that you can be around; when you write movies, you're not there at all, it's not up to you. The process of plays is, it begins with the writer, and then goes to the director, the director gives it to the actors, and the actors give it back to the audience, and ultimately it's about stage management. But it's very important to have a good relationship with the director.
When you're writing a play, how much of the world of the play beyond the words do you see? Do you know what your characters look like, where they go when they leave the stage, what the surroundings are like?
Oh, gosh, they do start filling up my life. I wrote The Heidi Chronicles in London on a grant, and I remember it was a happy time. I was living in this horrible studio apartment with turned-over flowerpots for the decor. It was a place called the Nell Gwynn House or something. It was really awful. I had this grant for “midcareer stimulation.” I didn't know what that was, but I was very happy. I remember writing the wedding scene at the Pierre in London, and I had never even been to a wedding at the Pierre, but I'd heard that it was the nicest place for a Jewish girl to get married. You can see why I've never been there! But there was something wonderful about being in that studio in London and imagining the Pierre and having for company Scoop and Heidi and Peter. I loved it. So in that way the characters do become real sometimes during the period that I'm writing them; I sort of merge with them in a way. That's both good and bad. Some nights I would see The Heidi Chronicles and be very moved by it and think, “I'm still that woman. I still feel stranded, too.” And then some nights, she'd say, “Oh, I feel stranded,” and I'd think, “Oh, just shut up and be happy. Stop whining.” The characters become quite real to me, and I enjoy them. The plays become fun when they stop being autobiography. The characters who are the larger colors become more fun to me. I loved Kitty Katz because, in a sense, that someone like me who's somewhat demure got to be Kitty Katz for a while is great. Swoosie Kurtz in Uncommon Women, the girl who says “I tasted my menstrual blood”: that was great fun because I knew I'd never have to get up and say it. But it was fun to do.
What do you think about improvisation as a technique, not as an acting technique, but for you as a playwright? Do you ever like to see actors in character improvising and use that, or do you find that gets in the way?
Not really, no. I think in some ways, especially with comedy, actually I should loosen up, but I find the work tends to be very precise. It works for certain reasons, so I'm not that interested in that, really.
Can you tell us a little more about your new play?
It's hard to talk about the new play because I always think that if you talk too much about these things you don't know what will happen. The leads in the play are in their forties and fifties, so that the style is different. The writing is slightly different; it's more acerbic than my other plays, it's not as warm. I guess the model for it is more of a Chekhovian piece. I think it's an interesting play. It's not really done at the moment, but I'm happy to have written it, so I'll see.
How important to your development was your time at Yale Drama School?
For me it was very important. I wasn't happy when I was there. I was very unhappy because drama school's a very hard thing. You're there for three years, and then you don't know what's going to become of you. It's not as if you get out of Yale and there's an ad in the Times that says, “Playwright wanted: ＄80,000 a year plus benefits.” Plus you know it's very competitive; you have no idea if you're going to make a living, you have no idea if you're talented. So it was very hard for me, but looking back, for me it was very good that I went, because it made me feel one part of a community, meeting Chris Durang and Alma Cuervo and Ted Tally and all of those people and coming of age with them. Also, it made me take myself seriously as a theatre person, which was important to me because otherwise I maybe probably wouldn't have.
You've done a lot of travelling and talked to people all over the world. Do you have a sense that playwrights are regarded differently abroad from the way they are here, or is it pretty much the same?
That's interesting. In England, people will go to the new Tom Stoppard play, they'll go to the new Stephen Poliakoff play, and it's not like a hit-or-miss thing: “Boy, he wrote a bomb; we don't care about him.” I wish that was more true here. I wish it was less of “Is it a hit or is it a miss?” Theatre writing is a long career. You want a life in the theatre. You don't want: “Oh boy, she had one hit, let's dump her” or “Oh boy, she's a hit machine.” What you want is for an artist to evolve. Even a career like Neil Simon's is a very successful career, but he is somebody who keeps writing plays.
Do you see a lot of young playwrights now who quit just for that reason—because there isn't such a market?
Well, there is such an alternative in television and film and who that reaches. Many more people will be talking about Murphy Brown and that baby than The Heidi Chronicles and that baby.
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SOURCE: Raksin, Alex. Review of The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 May 1993): 6.
[In the following review, Raksin focuses on the relationship between the plot and the characterizations of the protagonists in The Sisters Rosensweig, underscoring the play's central theme.]
One reason Wendy Wasserstein's characters are so compelling is that they have been invented by such a half-breed: a feminist playwright who can't seem to ignore the enticing call of the comfy Jewish suburban family. You can hear this call in the play that won her the Pulitzer Prize, The Heidi Chronicles, which ended happily when the heroine adopts a baby to raise on her own. And you can feel it intimately in the relationship at the center of [The Sisters Rosensweig]. Sara, a 54-year-old British financier with “the biggest balls at the Hong Kong/Shanghai bank,” “no longer sees the necessity for romance” until she meets Merv, a 58-year-old furrier (“Shhh! Please, synthetic animal covering,” he tells progressive clients). Vintage Wasserstein, their courtship is one of passion thinly concealed by pugnaciousness. Sara: “How many support groups did you join when Roslyn died? I'm sorry that was cruel.” Merv: “No, but it was in surprisingly bad taste. I joined two.” Sara: “And what did you learn about yourself?” Merv: “That I couldn't write poetry.”
Just as marriage seems inevitable, though, Wasserstein steers the romance askew by having Sara limit their relationship to a friendship. Cynics will say that Wasserstein—remembering how prominent feminists upbraided her for suggesting in The Heidi Chronicles that a woman needs a baby to be happy—is simply going against the natural emotional drift of her play in order to be PC. But the plot diversion is actually central to Wasserstein's message, which is that nesting must be counterbalanced by questing. Not coincidentally, this is similar to the message of Chekov's The Three Sisters. But the success of Wasserstein's characters at heeding it is all the more remarkable because their bi-coastal, bisexual lives are infinitely more disorienting than those in Tsarist Russia.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Gnice Gnew Tribute.” Spectator 273, no. 8667 (20 August 1994): 37.
[In the following review, Morley notes the realism of the characters and setting of The Sisters Rosensweig but criticizes the play's lack of dramatic action and the predictability of its conclusion.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig is that rarity, a new play still on Broadway after more than two years. It is also now at Greenwich in a new production by Michael Blakemore with an all-local cast who point up the failings of the drama while celebrating its commercial viability.
This is Chekhov for the matinée matrons: three sisters, all American, forgather in London to celebrate a family birthday and check on each other's professional, marital, medical and sexual fortunes. There's the responsible one who's gone into banking (Janet Suzman), the daffy one who has become a minor radio agony aunt (Maureen Lipman) and the ambitious one who had to foresake reporting for travel journalism when the troubles got too close (Lynda Bellingham). All are delineated with all the care of a writer who has been to dramatist's classes and knows just when simply to tug the heartstrings and when to start tying them in little knots.
The whole sorority have secret agonies. One of them is twice divorced, another has a husband who has forsaken her for Raymond Chandler fantasies, and the third falls in love with gays, or at least with one curiously obnoxious gay British stage director.
It is not that Wasserstein's characters are unreal, or that her London setting is in any way implausible: if anything, we have too much here of the real thing. Conversations which can be heard over most up-market West London dinner parties are pursued to their relentlessly banal conclusions; every time the doorbell rings you hope somebody more interesting will drop by, and each time someone still less interesting does.
It is true this is a conversation piece, and I was not expecting a body to tumble out of the sofa. But a play two hours long needs to be about something. I have a terrible feeling that what we are meant to be watching is the sisters bonding; but watching people bond is like watching the paint dry: it takes a while, and at the end what has happened is what you always thought would happen.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016
SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Past Imperfect.” New Leader 77, no. 11 (7 November 1994): 22-3.
[In the following excerpt, Kanfer reviews a revival of Uncommon Women and Others, situating his assessment in light of Wasserstein's accomplishments since the play's original premiere.]
Wendy Wasserstein has yet to become a Nobel Laureate. But she has been given just about every other honor: the Pulitzer Prize, plus the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Circle awards. All these kudos lead to two possible conclusions: Either Wasserstein is one of the most original and brilliant talents of our age, or contemporary theatrical standards are so debased that a sitcom writer can be elevated to superstar status. The latter seems more accurate to me.
In her two big hits, The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, the playwright created a new, self-mocking feminist. Audiences fell hard; Wasserstein found herself acclaimed as Broadway's mistress of comic aperçus and off-the-wall allusions. An exchange in Heidi is typical:
Are you writing?
A little. “Women and Art.” “Women and Madness.” “Women and Bran.” The usual.
I just broke up with my boyfriend. He's fabulous. He's 56, he's still married, and he doesn't want to start another family. And I at least want to keep my options open. I tell you, Heidi, it's rough. Every other woman I know is either pregnant or just miscarried. Honestly, I've been to more fertility lunches.
I'm planning to start my family at 60. I hear there's a hormone in Brazil.
Wasserstein's next smash tried to evoke the existential atmosphere of Chekhov's Three Sisters. She tells us in her Introduction to the printed text of Rosensweig: “One of my favorite people in this play confesses … ‘You don't know what it's like to have absolutely no idea who you are!’ Despite their maturity, most of the characters in the play are struggling with who they are.”
Actually, who they are is comediennes, like almost all of the playwright's women. No matter how sober her intent, Wasserstein the philosopher is continually undone by Wasserstein the gagmeister. Here is one of the sisters, a part-time broadcaster and full-time yenta, discussing an author of self-help books with her older sister's suitor:
I've heard of Pearlstein. Didn't he write I Learned Everything but Handwriting in the First Grade?
Try Learning to Love Again, Learning to Live Again. Only 26 months on every bestseller list.
Of course. He was recently indicted.
Rabbi Pearlstein is a great man. His accountant is evil.
Given the extravagant critical welcome and the outlandish box-office success of these plays, it was inevitable that someone would want to revive Wasserstein's early work. That was the first mistake. The second was assuming that a 17-year-old drama, Uncommon Women and Others, would remain fresh. The errors are understandable. Uncommon Women sounds promising enough, with its cast of eight lively undergraduates at an unnamed college for women. The time is the early '70s. Although shock waves of feminism are reverberating in its classrooms, the college sticks by its tradition of Gracious Living, a rite of Earl Grey, finger sandwiches and gossip. An elderly gorgon, Mrs. Plumm (Rosemary Murphy) enforces decorum: “I can't permit you to come to tea in pants. It's not fair to the other girls.”
Even in Wasserstein's salad days she had an eye for the revealing detail. Susie (Robin Morse) advises a catatonic freshman (Danielle Ferland). “If you have any questions or you just want to talk about psychology, knock on my door. It has the Snoopy calendar on it. I got the calendar as a present from Kenny at Harvard. I used to date Wharton, but that was before I knew what I wanted.” An entire character resides in those words. Unfortunately, Susie hangs around for the rest of the evening spouting similar lines, all of them fatuous.
Few of her colleagues have greater appeal. Holly (Julie Dretzin), the requisite Jewish girl, is supposed to be a poignant outsider. Instead she comes on like a standup performer at the Improv, and one half expects an exposed brick wall to materialize at her back: “Whenever I see a boy with a yarmulke, I think he has a diaphragm on his head. I shouldn't have said that. I'll be struck down by a burning bush.”
The others are as carefully varied as a bomber crew in a World War II movie. Kate (Stephanie Roth) is a careerist already on the prowl for a corner office. Leilah (Joan Buddenhagen) is a budding anthropologist with her eyes on the sarcophagi—and the men—of the Middle East. Samantha (Mary McCann) is, in the words of her creator, “like a Shetland cable-knit sweater, a classic.” Muffet (Haviland Morris) is given to arch soliloquies: “This class isn't half bad. We read all the basics: the womb-penis inner-and-outer-space nonsense, The Feminine Mystique, Sexual Politics, Mabel Dodge's diary. … Do you think women will lose their relevancy in five years? Like Car 54, Where Are You?” Rita (Jessica Lundy) is the wild one, waving the books of Germaine Greer and igniting verbal grenades in the dorms: “We need to talk about masturbation.” All this is punctuated by announcements from an unseen Voice (Forrest Sawyer) ironically declaiming from the college catalog: “Just like the pot of honey that kept renewing itself, an educated woman's capacity for giving is not exhausted, but stimulated, by demands.”
Despite Carole Rothman's crisp direction, these personalities never mesh. Wasserstein had exceptional fortune in 1977; her cast included Swoosie Kurtz, Jill Eikenberry, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep. At the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village the luck has run out. With the single exception of the Rabelaisian Lundy, the actresses are depressing when they should be comic, and unintentionally funny when the playwright means them to be moving. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes seem wittier than the dialogue, and Heidi Landesman's set is more convincing than the people it surrounds. At 44, Wasserstein has plenty of time to write plays commensurate with her reputation. To that day, even her detractors can look forward. As this production shows, only her most uncritical fans should look backward.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
SOURCE: Donahue, Richard. “Opening Night.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 17 (22 April 1996): 31.
[In the following essay, Donahue details the circumstances surrounding the publication of Pamela's First Musical, summarizing the book's storyline and Wasserstein's expectations.]
Meryl Streep proclaims it “a hit,” Carol Channing says it's “funny and adorable,” and it made Glenn Close “laugh out loud.” The newest smash from Broadway or Hollywood, perhaps? Not exactly. It's Pamela's First Musical, a picture book in which a girl goes to the theater for the first time and with which a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist makes her debut in the world of children's literature.
The text for this May release from Hyperion is the work of Wendy Wasserstein, author of such acclaimed Broadway fare as The Sisters Rosensweig (which won the 1993 Outer Critics Circle Award) and The Heidi Chronicles—winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wasserstein's appropriately histrionic picture book story is matched scene for scene by the show-bizzy artwork of scenic designer Andrew Jackness—also making his children's book debut.
The narrative, which is, in Wasserstein's words, “a musical within a story,” concerns a girl who is taken to a Broadway show as a ninth birthday treat by her glamorous Aunt Louise, who drives a red sports coupe and whose favorite phrase is “oooooooh, dahling.” The pair lunch before the matinee at the celebrated—though recently defunct—Russian Tea Room, and then whisk off to the Great White Way for an extravaganza that playfully incorporates elements from an array of Broadway tuners.
According to Wasserstein, the book sprang from an idea that she and fellow Yale Drama School student Jackness came up with “about 10 years ago. Andy and I grew up in New York, and we both went into the theater from seeing musicals.” Wasserstein admits that the hopeful collaborators “sent around a proposal,” and somewhat proudly notes that one of their rejections came from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her years as a Doubleday editor.
Like many deals concluded over a meal, a serendipitous dinner furnished the impetus for Pamela. “I went to a dinner party at a friend's house,” Wasserstein says, “and the friend's sister had just married Michael Linton, who had recently taken over Hyperion. He asked if I had any children's books, and I said, ‘Well, there's this idea …’” Though a comparative stranger to the publishing process, Wasserstein was delighted with the experience. “Sometimes what's good about doing things that you have no idea about is that you don't say, ‘Oh, they're doing it wrong.’ You go in and say, ‘Oh, I'm so happy you're doing it!’” She adds with a chuckle, “They even treated us like we knew what we were doing.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF WRITING
The writing itself, of course, was hardly a new experience, though Wasserstein observed distinct differences from her dramatic endeavors. “It's a very spare kind of writing,” she says of creating the book's text. “You write it all out, then strip it down to its bones.” She even observes that, true to her story-line, “Writing [the picture book] was like writing a musical, in that all the big moments go to the drawings—just as a show's big moments go into the songs.”
Not surprisingly, the book draws from Wasserstein's own family experiences: Pamela, in fact, is her own niece. “She's now a senior in high school; when I first had this idea, she was eight years old!” Asked if she then is Louise, Wasserstein replies with a flourish, “Well, you know, the aunt!” She explains, “I think the people who sometimes influence you are often an aunt, an uncle, or someone like that who has the time and perhaps a seemingly more glamorous life outside the immediate family.” Unlike Pamela, however, Wasserstein was regularly taken to Broadway matinees not by an aunt, but by her mother. The youngster got off to a truly inspirational start, since “Wendy's First Musical” was the legendary My Fair Lady. She comes by her theatrical inclinations in other familial ways, too: her grandfather wrote Yiddish plays, and her mother was a dancer.
Wasserstein says she hopes that Pamela will inspire kids to see plays—“plays wherever they are.” It doesn't have to be New York, she's quick to add: “Talk to any playwright; talk to Terrence McNally [another Pulitzer Prize-winner], and he'll tell you about the first play he saw in Corpus Christi, Texas.” Another reason for promoting the live theater experience, she says, is the current state of public arts funding. “Arts in the schools aren't being taught any more—kids don't even do plays in school.” She becomes particularly impassioned about such issues as the recent NEA cuts. “You have to give an excuse for why you need arts funding. Sometimes just lifting the soul is reason enough.”
She also hopes that the book will serve as a sort of empowerment for youngsters, “to see themselves as the person who can create this sort of thing.” Indeed, Wasserstein herself seems empowered by her new career. “Andy and I want to do Pamela's First Ballet, and maybe she could go to the opera, too.” And under the imaginative guidance of Aunt Louise, who knows how far Pamela might venture?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1259
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Pamela's First Musical, by Wendy Wasserstein. Booklist 92, nos. 19-20 (1 June 1996): 1732.
[In the following review, Cooper evaluates Pamela's First Musical, observing that children's-book publishers often sacrifice literary quality for corporate profits.]
Anyone can write a children's book. At least, that's what lots of people think, particularly celebrities and, worse, authors who have made their names by writing adult books. Do they believe writing kids’ books is an easy way to make money? Or that kids’ books are just so gosh darn easy to write?
They're wrong, of course, and most of them prove it by what they produce stories that are insipid, directed at the wrong audience, or lazily written; sometimes all of the above. Occasionally, adult writers prove they can make it in the children's field (Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich come to mind), but it doesn't happen very often. Among the many luminaries who have written undistinguished children's books are Ken Follett, Chaim Potok, Fran Lebowitz, the Duchess of York, and, most recently, Jimmy Carter, who used as inspiration a bedtime story he made up for his children. Daughter Amy did the illustrations, bringing this phenomenon into the second generation.
This spring's publishing season has offered particularly fertile ground for books by celebrity authors. Garrison Keillor, Marianne Williamson, and Wendy Wasserstein have all authored new children's books. None of them is particularly successful.
Garrison Keillor, that homespun Lake Woebegon guy, thought it would be funny to write a poem about The Old Man Who Loved Cheese. It does get off to a bouncy start “There was an old man named Wallace P. Flynn / Who lived in a house in the trees— / You could smell him for several miles downwind / because of his fondness for cheese.” So far, so good. Thirty-two long pages later, this stinky cheese man has been deserted by his family, boycotted by his neighbors, assaulted by the police, and carted off to a jail, all the while encumbered by rhymes like, “The smell became so fetid and rank / The mailman brought an oxygen tank.” This is one joke writ large, and although kids like repetition, not even five-year-olds are going to want to hear this much about cheese. At least illustrator Wilsdorf has the artwork right. The cartoon-style pictures are a whirl of activity that capture the humor of the initial premise.
Marianne Williamson's book couldn't be more different Williamson is a lecturer and interpreter of the Christian/New Age philosophy found in a tome called A Course in Miracles. In her best-selling book. A Return to Love (1991), she is focused, bitingly funny, and a keen observer of the human condition. So why, when she writes a book for children does she think the proper tone is sentimental and syrupy sweet? The “story” itself is virtually formless. Emma and her mother talk about God. God is love; God is inside you. An angel visits Emma, and when a boy at school is mean to her, she asks the angel to make him nice; the next day, he is. The book is not helped much by undistinguished artwork executed in sherbert shades, highlighted with a golden glow. Conversing with children about God is a wonderful idea, but children respond to reality more than to aphorisms. The usually insightful Williamson is talking down to her audience because she doesn't know how to write for it.
But perhaps the author with the most hubris this spring season is playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Clearly, Wasserstein only thinks she wants to write for children; in both style and content, she is appealing to adults. The premise [of Pamela's First Musical]: Pamela will be spending her tenth birthday with her fashion-designer aunt, attending her first Broadway musical. But before the curtain goes up, there will be lunch at the Russian Tea Room, where Aunt Pamela knows everyone who is anyone. What follows is a long, drawn-out re-creation of a musical that has elements of Carousel, A Chorus Line, and Miss Saigon. Afterward, Pamela and Aunt Louise go backstage, where she knows everyone. Let's set aside the question of how many children will relate to the idea of going to a Broadway musical. After all, books do take us outside our own experience (though if this were a real play, a theatergoer might be tempted to leave at intermission). Unlike Williamson, who talks down, Wasserstein talks over the heads of her listeners, winking continuously at the adults who are reading the story. During the intermission, one theatergoer cattily notes that the leading lady, Mary Ethel Bernadette (get it?), “is no ingenue.” A theater marquee proclaims “Kathleen Battle-weary in Woman in Denial”; and then there's a page full of praise to theatrical designers (Andrew Jackness, who illustrated the book in a swirling, effervescent fashion, is a theatrical designer).
Perhaps the most offensive part of the book isn't between the covers. The back of the jacket offers blurbs from Angela Lansbury, Glenn Close, and Carol Channing, among others. Universally, these experts on children's literature adored the book. Well, maybe Kevin Kline didn't. His comment, “I read it from cover to cover,” might be referring only to the book's 32-page length. Let's not kid ourselves. Library patrons are not really the intended audience for this book. It's aimed at bookstores, and therein lies the raison d'etre of these books: to be purchased by adults—adults who don't know much about kids’ books but who will recognize the name Jimmy Carter when they see it.
The problem is, in these days of limited corporate resources, there is only so much money, and so much publicity, to go around. If Wasserstein is getting a huge advance, or Keillor grabs the lion's share of the publicity budget, there will be less, much less, for the talented writers and illustrators of books that children would actually like to read. This phenomenon is not unique to the world of children's books, of course. That's why loan Collins is a novelist, and Howard Stern one of the top 10 nonfiction writers in America. Adults, however, can choose what they wish to purchase and read. Youngsters, especially preschoolers, usually have that selection made for them.
In this profit-mad world, the children's-book industry is under the same pressure as every other business to deliver big sales. Left to their own devices, many children's publishers and editors might take a pass on the Wassersteins and the Williamsons. Certainly, children's-book professionals recognize what celebrity “authors” almost never do: the richness and sophistication of children's books written by people who know their craft. But children's-book publishers have a big problem a corporate structure hollering, “Gimme.”
What can librarians do? Well, we may not be bookstores, but we do buy plenty of books. If a book by a celebrity or adult author works, fine. But just because publishing houses want to dazzle us with big-name authors doesn't mean we can't look these books over carefully, wearing sunglasses. Make no mistake, this isn't another version of the old quality-versus-popularity debate, which is a kids’ issue and as old as Nancy Drew. This is a quality-versus-name-recognition issue, and the stakes are sales, not what kids want to read. There's nothing we can do about the display of a celebrity's latest children's book beckoning from the bookstore aisles, but we don't have to put that book in the stacks. If no one else is going to say it, librarians should: investing in children's books by big names may be better for bottom lines, but it's certainly a poor investment in the literary lives of the nation's children.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130
SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Fiasco on the Potomac.” New Leader 80, no. 6 (7 April 1997): 22-3.
[In the following negative review, Kanfer examines the characters and plot of An American Daughter, pronouncing the play's central conceit as “false.”]
Given the headlines, it becomes increasingly difficult to view Hillary Rodham Clinton as a dupe. Unless, of course, you live in Barbra Streisand's part of Hollywood, where the First Lady has become a classic feminist icon: Woman as Victim. Or you happen to stop by the Cort Theater, where Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter is being performed.
The story begins merrily enough in the opulent, ultra-civilized Georgetown home of the Abrahmsons. The President has just nominated the lady of the house, Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kate Nelligan), for the post of Surgeon General. Should Congress approve—and she looks like a shoo-in—the appointment will cap a remarkable career. A lineal descendant of General Ulysses Grant and the daughter of Senator Alan Hughes (Hal Holbrook), Lyssa has been married to the same loving guy for many years, is the mother of bright and eager twins, lives in the best part of Washington, has done important work investigating and curing women's diseases, and recently headed a prominent hospital. Even though Time named her as one of the country's 50 most influential women, she is a truly distinguished individual.
What's wrong with this picture? Well for one thing, Lyssa's husband, sociology professor Walter Abrahmson (Peter Riegert), has been feeling irrelevant lately. No one talks about his achievements; then again, he hasn't published anything significant for a long time. As Walter jogs downhill toward a midlife crisis, who should appear but his former student, the comely Quincy Quince (Elizabeth Marvel)? Now a journalist, she has dropped by to grill the candidate, and to display a sinuous young body to the prof. For another thing, Lyssa's best friend, Dr. Judith B. Kaufman (Lynne Thigpen), is a carrier of depression, infecting everyone who listens to her. An African-American convert to Judaism, the divorcée complains about the “shvartzas” roaming around Washington, bitches about the clock refusing to stand still for her (masochistically, she listens to the “I-can't-believe-I'm-middle-aged-and-the-culture-isn't-about-me-anymore” rock station), and wails that now, in her 40s, she finds it impossible to conceive a child by laboratory methods.
But this is only the beginning. Onto the scene comes major trouble in the person of TV reporter Timber Tucker (Cotter Smith). During his routine interview with Lyssa, another friend of the family stops by. He is the fractious gay conservative Morrow McCarthy (Bruce Norris), and in the course of the afternoon he lets slip a lethal secret. Some years back Lyssa was served with a notice for jury duty. She lost the paper—either accidentally or deliberately—and never showed up in court. On camera that evening Tucker tells the world that the prospective Surgeon General, sworn to uphold the law of the land, flouted it by ignoring her civic duty. Is this the sort of person we want in the Cabinet?
Predictably, all hell breaks loose along the Potomac. Lyssa only compounds the problem by playing down her privileged background, speaking of her late mother as the kind of simple midwestern homebody whose idea of service was making icebox cakes. This is regarded as a put-down by every female in flyover country, and pretty soon the doctor's approval ratings look like something that Socks dragged in. (Catching her off guard at a local grocery, the New York Post heads its story, “DOCTOR ICEBOX” SHOPS.) Overnight this blissful home is turned into Heartbreak House, where a marriage and an appointment are in danger of their lives.
To rescue both, Lyssa agrees to one final interview. She begins politely, the smile sweet, the coiffure as carefully arranged as the bowl of flowers on the coffee table. But Lyssa cannot stop articulating her party line: The country needs a feminist as Surgeon General—A disproportionate amount is being spent on prostate cancer research, and nowhere near enough on breast and uterine cancer. As she heats up, passion overwhelms discretion and her situation deteriorates before our eyes. If the contrite Walter is ultimately able to keep Lyssa, the spineless President is not.
Wasserstein knows how to tell a joke, as she amply demonstrated in The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig. What she has never been able to do (pace the Pulitzer Prize committee who gave Heidi its Theater Prize) is write a play without a sitcom soul. An American Daughter contains plenty of wry remarks and a few characters with resonance. The others are about as convincing as the seconding speeches at a political convention. In addition, the playwright has seen fit to put in little references to her friends—thus Charlie Rose's name is heavily dropped, the voices of Michael Kinsley and Susan Stamberg are used to announce several news items, and—in the unkindest cut of all—Timber Tucker is meant to be a reference to Forrest Sawyer, the ABC anchor.
Wasserstein has let it be known that the play was inspired by the “Nannygate” cases of Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood. Maybe. But the lady in the title role is made up and tricked out as a ringer for the First Lady, complete with blonde tresses and a variety of discreet power outfits. With a few exceptions—the estimable Nelligan; Thigpen, who has the timing of a Philharmonic musician; and Smith, who seems believable when he says, “I never unwind”—the cast consists of animated cartoons (Marvel flounces like an elongated Betty Boop, and as a spin doctor Peter Benson is Casper the Friendly Ghost in Permapress). Or props with legs: Reigert is flaccid in a flaccid part, Norris is bitchy without being funny (that the reptilian Morrow could be Lyssa's intimate says volumes about the woman's discernment), and Hal Holbrook has Senatorial hair without Senatorial authority.
But a sharper ensemble would have made little difference. Daniel Sullivan's crisp direction and the best efforts of set designer John Lee Beatty and costumier Jane Greenwood cannot hide an essential fact: Wasserstein has little to say, and that little is false. The notion that a strong woman cannot survive in the male-dominated corridors of power is given the lie every day by Madeleine Albright and Janet Reno. As for the playwright's brand of feminism, it is at all times synonymous with self-indulgence. I find nothing enchanting about single motherhood, for example, and the failure of Dr. Kaufman's plan to get herself impregnated by syringe should be applauded, not lamented. According to press reports, Wasserstein has good news. “The next thing I want to write,” she says, “is a romantic farce.” Splendid; just as long as it doesn't take place inside the Beltway, where many noble ambitions have come a cropper—political, journalistic, and now, theatrical.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075
SOURCE: Barnett, Claudia. Review of An American Daughter, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 49, no. 4 (December 1997): 520-21.
[In the following review, Barnett appraises the cultural significance of An American Daughter, contrasting its feminist perspective with that of The Heidi Chronicles.]
Wendy Wasserstein's earlier protagonists would consider Lyssa Dent Hughes [in An American Daughter] “pretty fucking amazing” and would say she “has it all.” Compared to Heidi Holland, Janie Blumberg, and even Sara Goode, she knows what she wants. Wife, mother, and doctor, she has been nominated as Surgeon General of the United States. Confident and assured, she talks about health issues on national television. But she follows the rules she has learned from her father, a senator, not realizing that a different code applies to women—that she must play not only political candidate, but also “American daughter,” a role in which competence must be matched by femininity. Her downfall occurs when, in an interview in act 1, she admits she never served on a jury and, more damaging, refers to her deceased mother as “an ordinary Indiana housewife who made icebox cakes and pimento cheese canapés.” Indiana housewives picket, public opinion drops, and Lyssa is forced to withdraw her candidacy.
Kate Nelligan portrays Lyssa with a great sense of calm, even during the storm, exuding a self-confidence that accounts for her character's lack of popularity. Wearing tunics and leggings, her straight hair a practical length, she seems always at ease. Lyssa's perfection would be boring if not for two incidents in the first act of the play. In the first, she finds her husband Walter kissing “neo-feminist” commentator Quincy Quince in their living room after the interview brunch and forces him to take Quincy home; in the second, when her friend Judith arrives drenched, following the same brunch, and announces she has tried to drown herself, Lyssa accuses her of self absorption. Instead of stereotypical jealousy and sympathy, she offers a practicality that forces Walter and Judith to grow up. In the second act, she momentarily succumbs to the advice of her father's spin doctor with a follow-up interview orchestrated to appease the offended housewives. When she glides down the staircase wearing a slate-blue suit with matching headband, she looks exactly like Hillary Rodham Clinton—which is no accident.
The cast of characters includes both recognizable types and unexpected combinations of types: a gay, pro-life conservative; an African American Jewish friend unable to conceive a child (played by Lynne Thigpen, who, between her comic timing and her character's acid wit, effectively steals the show); an elderly statesman father, a direct descendant of Ulysses S. Grant; and, of course, a husband threatened by his wife's success. Peter Riegert's Walter Hughes slouches and shuffles through his mid-life crisis, listening to the greatest hits of the Beach Boys, fantasizing about a girl from high school, suggesting sex with Lyssa in the Volvo. Lyssa accommodates his pathos, pretending to be that girl and leading him out to their car, suggesting that having it all actually means having to take care of it all. Meanwhile her father's seemingly mousy wife, Charlotte, stands by her man and smiles when he calls her “Chubby.” In the first act, she repeatedly asks for “fizzy water.” In the second act, when the men are offstage, she reveals her claws and threatens Lyssa, who has become a liability to her father's career. If Lyssa were a man, she would have a wife like Charlotte and she would be Surgeon General.
If Lyssa were a man, this play might be set in an office or a restaurant, but this woman's drama takes place in the home. John Lee Beatty's set comprises a lavish yet comfortable living room. A front door, glass doors to the garden, entryways to the dining room and the study, and even a staircase ironically offer no exit for Lyssa, who never leaves her home. Instead, her oppressions enter through these portals, including Judith and Quincy who let themselves in through the open glass doors. Judith comically yet pointedly utters warnings against uninvited guests—the worst of whom enter formally, through the front door. Lyssa's children are positioned upstairs, their disembodied voices keeping her apprised of her dips in popularity. Her world closes in on her as the play progresses. The television crew in act 2 rearranges her furniture and adds a bouquet of flowers to her coffee table, making the room seem suddenly stifling. At this point, Lyssa looks as gawky as a tomboy at her first dance, dressed in her mother's idea of good taste, her clothing and her home on loan from an imaginary stranger. After Lyssa gives up the race, she reclaims her territory, leaving the play with a bittersweet conclusion: Lyssa, for the first time, ascends the stairs to mother her sons.
Echoes of The Heidi Chronicles reverberate throughout An American Daughter. Quincy Quince is a more obnoxious version of Heidi's Denise, the twenty-something success story who suggests that the previous generation of feminists has made “mistakes.” The long-legged, scantily clad Quincy, played with simplicity and audacity by Elizabeth Marvel, announces that she will write two more books and bear children before entering public life; on behalf of her generation, she glibly thanks Lyssa for her “efforts,” going on to explain: “We, on the other hand, want to come home to a warm penis.” While Lyssa is no Heidi, she is exactly what many of us wanted Heidi to be: someone who stands up for herself. When Heidi is interviewed on television with two male friends, she cannot get a word in edgewise. When Lyssa is sandwiched between her father and husband for the follow-up interview and the reporter asks the men all the questions, however, Lyssa interrupts and takes over—and then even her headband cannot help her.
An American Daughter is ultimately disappointing, oddly enough because Lyssa is not Heidi. Wasserstein has given us what we want in a woman, but not in a dramatic character, and Nelligan is charming yet static in the role. Lyssa's conflicts are external and her personal struggles—even her husband's infidelity—are mitigated; her two surprising choices in the first half of the play are not enough to sustain our interest through two acts. During the second interview, she articulates every nuance of her position, making it unnecessary for her audience to ponder the character or the issues. We are told what to think and we agree—a little too easily.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8449
SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “Wendy Wasserstein and the Crisis of (Jewish) Identity.” In Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers, edited by Jay L. Halio and Ben Siegel, pp. 226-46. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Whitfield investigates the thematic significance of Jewish identity in Wasserstein's major plays, comparing the verisimilitude of their autobiographical dimension with the collective experience of Jewish-Americans.]
Born in Brooklyn on 18 October 1950, Wendy Wasserstein has drawn on features of her family life to inspire all four of her major plays. She was the youngest of four children, including two other daughters—one of whom became a high executive at Citicorp, while another married a doctor and raised three children. “She did the best,” the “bachelor girl” playwright once sardonically announced,1 in comparing the siblings whose lives would be transmuted into The Sisters Rosensweig (1992). The Wassersteins themselves were very solidly and successfully middle class—“a sort of traditional family, eccentric but traditional,” the playwright later recalled. Morris was a successful textile manufacturer; and among the fabrics that he patented was velveteen, which Holly Kaplan's father has invented, according to Uncommon Women and Others (177). In Isn't It Romantic (1983), Janie Blumberg's father manufactures stationery. Wendy Wasserstein's bohemian and liberated mother, Lola, was a devotee of theater and of dance classes, which Tasha Blumberg, the aerobically inclined mother in Isn't It Romantic, continues to take.2
When Wendy was twelve, the family moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, reinforcing the expectations of high academic and professional achievement with the presumptions of a future combining maternity and domesticity. Beginning at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, she hit the ground running, and already by the second grade, she realized that she was funny: “I was good company … an elementary school Falstaff.” She graduated from the Calhoun School and went on to major in history, class of 1971, at Mount Holyoke College. (The eponymous protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles  becomes an art historian.) Wasserstein got a master's degree in creative writing at City University of New York in 1973 (studying with playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller) and then studied at the Yale School of Drama, from which she received a Master of Fine Arts in 1976. Drawing on her undergraduate experience, she had submitted a thesis play at Yale, a one-act acorn that would grow into the Obie-winning oak entitled Uncommon Women and Others.3 Moving back to New York City, which is where the two young women in Isn't It Romantic inaugurate a similar stage in their lives, Wasserstein was soon recognized as among the most sparkling playwrights of her generation.
Luck did not hurt: when Uncommon Women was elevated to the Public Broadcasting System's Great Performances series a year after opening at the Marymount Manhattan Theatre, her Yale classmate Meryl Streep played Leilah, replacing another soon-to-be legendary actress, Glenn Close. Talent mattered too: Wasserstein's first play won the Village Voice Off-Broadway Award;4 her third to be staged won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Antoinette Perry (or Tony) Award, plus honors from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk—just about everything but the Heisman Trophy. The Heidi Chronicles was also her first to prove Broadway-bound. And when The Sisters Rosensweig opened there, the character of Sara Goode was played by Jane Alexander, whom President Clinton soon appointed to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Though Wasserstein's total output has not been huge (and has inspired little extensive scholarly criticism), she merits attention for another reason besides the recognition and acclaim that her gifts have elicited. Perhaps more than in the work of any major American dramatist of this century (even including Clifford Odets, for example), the vicissitudes of Jewish identity should be included among the primary themes of Wendy Wasserstein's work.
Its ethnicity is not emphatic. The author herself has not advanced a communal agenda, nor does she insist that her dramaturgy be used for Jewish purposes. She has not assigned herself the responsibility of speaking for the Jewish people—or even necessarily to it. The first noteworthy Jewish American leader, Mordecai Manuel Noah, also happened to be a playwright, yet his melodramas were not overtly placed in the service of Jewish interests and were even barren of Jewish characters.5 Although Wasserstein may not have Jewish audiences (or critics) primarily in mind and does not wish to be judged primarily as a Jewish playwright, neither is she Lillian Hellman, whose plays betray no obvious signs of Jewish origins, idiom, or purposes. Wasserstein is also a product of the Zeitgeist. Born five years after Bess Myerson of the Sholom Aleichem Cooperatives Houses of the Bronx had become Miss America, Wasserstein is heir to the legitimation of ethnicity—including Jewish ethnicity. Born five years before Will Herberg's Protestant Catholic Jew (1955) inflated his own Judaism to tripartite status as one of the nation's three presumptive if unofficial faiths, she grew up in an era of frictionless integration into American society, in which its Jews did not feel in galut.
Unlike the bleak desperation that animates the Berger family during the Great Depression in Odets' Awake and Sing! (1935), unlike the rapacity that motivates the Hubbards in the ruined, post-Reconstruction South of Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939), Wasserstein's Jews need not worry where the next meal is coming from or how best to stay ahead in an ambience haunted by the experience and the fear of poverty. In the Group Theatre of the 1930s, the edgy characters played by Jules Garfinkle (a.k.a. John Garfield) faced the problem of how to make money. For Larry “the Liquidator” Garfinkle (called Larry Garfield in the movie version of Jerry Sterner's 1989 play, Other People's Money), the problem was how to make his money make money. The trajectory is thus sharply upward, from the working-class Bergers to the lower-middle-class Lomans in Death of a Salesman (1949) to the sisters Rosensweig, whose roles in life range from an international banker based in London to an international travel writer living in exotic Asia to a leader of the Temple Beth El women's auxiliary. Its Sisterhood may not be powerful, but at least it is based in posh Newton, Massachusetts. Theatrical history thus reflects the gravity-defying upward mobility of American Jewry. It is almost too good to be true that the only brother to the sisters Wasserstein became a Master of the Universe, using other people's money to specialize in leveraged buyouts. In 1988 Bruce Wasserstein was an architect of the ＄25 billion RJR-Nabisco merger that capped the buccaneering, let's-make-a-deal capitalism of the Reagan era.6 No wonder his sister's characters, who have attended the best schools and have inherited the comforts of young urban professionals, come out ahead of the progeny of the Bergers and the Lomans.
The accident of birth also made Wasserstein the beneficiary of enhanced sensitivity to the female condition and to the injustices of gender. “I can't understand not being a feminist,” she admits,7 having turned thirteen when Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published and “the problem with no name” specified. If the perplexities of peoplehood do not spring to mind when considering the thrust of Wasserstein's work, that is because, though multifarious identities need not be incompatible, she writes far more directly as a woman than as a Jew. The perspective that her plays offer is feminist (and not Judaic); and in them feminist speeches are given even to men like the faux furrier Mervyn Kant, who punctures the cliché that Jews Do Not Drink: “I think it's a myth made up by our mothers to persuade innocent women that Jewish men make superior husbands. In other words, it's worth it to put up with my crankiness, my hypochondria, my opinions on world problems, because I don't drink.”8 Some evidence suggests that Heidi Holland herself is not Jewish, and the contemporary challenge that she faces would be familiar to virtually any young professional American woman thrown off balance when the rules of engagement keep shifting.
Though the social problem that Isn't It Romantic addresses is defined with a New York Jewish accent, Janie is not exactly looking (in theater critic Carolyn Clay's pun) for Mr. Good Bar Mitzvah. The protagonist is deft at playing back the mixed messages that Tasha Blumberg, who has already inhaled the air of emancipation even as she was raising Janie, has communicated to her daughter. “Mother, think about it,” Janie announces. “Did you teach me to marry a nice Jewish doctor and make chicken for him? You order up breakfast from a Greek coffee shop every morning. Did you teach me to go to law school and wear gray suits at a job that I sort of like every day from nine to eight? You run out of here in leg warmers and tank tops to dancing school. Did you teach me to compromise and lie to the man I live with and say I love you when I wasn't sure? You live with your partner; you walk Dad to work every morning.”9 It is hard not to detect here a note of envy for an earlier generation that at its luckiest managed to combine intimacy with security and to reconcile expanded vocational and avocational possibilities with conventional middle-class comforts.
The plays of Wendy Wasserstein are populated with Jews but are even more frequently filled with women. Her oeuvre has constituted, according to one critic, “comedies of feminine survival that explore the ambiguous effectiveness of the women's movement during the past quarter of a century. Using the pattern of her own life as a paradigm, she has dramatized with a sharply satiric wit the problematic intersection of the individual experience and the collective feminist ideology that would explain and transform it.”10 Though the special burden of expectation for women to marry is a recurrent theme in Wasserstein's work, an even more special burden that is placed upon Jewish women privileges marriage within the faith. World Jewry is not even a blip on the demographic screen, no bigger than the margin of statistical error in the Chinese census;11 and continuity requires philoprogenitiveness and endogamy, values that are not quintessential either to the ideology of feminism or to the pleasures of romantic love. The pressure comes from parents who do not want their own child to be aharon ha-aharonim (the last of the last), a terminal Jew; and that anxiety is erratically conveyed, with mixed and uncertain results.
Thus Holly Kaplan phones (or pretends to phone) a young Jewish physician in Minneapolis, but fears to establish such a connection even as she seeks it. thus Janie Blumberg is comically fixed up with a Russian cab driver. And isn't it romantic that Heidi Holland, though probably not Jewish (but not specified as a gentile either), cannot escape from the clutches of Scoop Rosenbaum, even at the raucous Jewish wedding that ratifies his compromising decision to marry someone else. In the controversial climax to the play, Heidi has adopted a daughter and become a single mother. Thus Gorgeous Teitelbaum wishes that her sister's loneliness might be cured, and tells Tess Goode, her niece: “I always said to mother, if only Sara would meet a furrier or a dentist.” The fifty-four year-old Sara is permitted to wonder whether her one-night-stand gentleman caller merits a longer commitment. “You're just like all the other men I went to high school with,” she tells Merv Kant. “You're smart, you're a good provider, you read The Times every day, you started running at fifty to recapture your youth, you worry a little too much about your health, you thought about having affairs, but you never actually did it, and now that she's departed, your late wife, Roslyn, is a saint.”12 Men like him and Scoop Rosenbaum and perhaps even the unseen and unheard Doctor Mark Silverstein have the right business and professional credentials to embody success and security. But they also threaten the autonomy and egalitarianism that a feminist vision encourages and an expanding economy sanctions.
The ideology of the women's movement can collide with the dictates of patriarchal Judaism. Though Wasserstein's writing betrays no awareness of such tension, not even her most militant sisters would confuse a conclave of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism with the boys-will-be-boys raunchiness of a Tailhook convention. Religious faith and ritual have nevertheless become diminished in the observably Jewish but unobservant families that are dissected in Wasserstein's satire. Few can be classified among the “good ga davened,” whom Holly Kaplan, the lone Jew among the femmes savantes at Mount Holyoke, defines as “those who davened or prayed right. Girls who good ga davened did well. They marry doctors and go to Bermuda for Memorial Day weekends. These girls are also doctors but they only work part-time because of their three musically inclined children, and weekly brownstone restorations.” It is akin to “a ‘did well’ list published annually, in New York, Winnetka, and Beverly Hills, and distributed on High Holy Days. …”13 Upward mobility and a securely middle-class status have become so central to the ethos of American Jewry that even a far less savvy undergraduate than Holly cannot fail to notice.
Of course anti-Semitism has not entirely evaporated; when the uncommon women play conjugal games with one another, Samantha Stewart realizes that she cannot “marry” Holly because back home “there would be a problem at the club.” But secularism has narrowed the gap between Jew and gentile. Holly would never concur with an earlier Jew, a Venetian who declines an invitation to dine with Bassanio: “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you … but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (The Merchant of Venice 1.3). Secularism is also powered by the sexual revolution. Filling a diaphragm with Orthocreme, Holly announces: “Now … whenever I see a boy with a yarmulke, I think he has a diaphragm on his head. I shouldn't have said that. I'll be struck down by a burning bush.”14
Wanting to connect (by telephone) with Dr. Mark Silverstein, whom she had met at the Fogg Museum the previous summer, Holly reveals through her monologue her insecurity, her smarts, her uncertainties, her taste in culture, and her yearning for both interdependence and intimacy, as well as her need to forge her own future. In 1978, six years after graduating, Holly is unmarried, her life in limbo. “I haven't made any specific choices,” she tells her college friends. “My parents used to call me three times a week at seven A.M. to ask me, ‘Are you thin, are you married to a root-canal man, are you a root-canal man?’ And I'd hang up and wonder how much longer I was going to be in ‘transition.’” She may still be unattached because of the historical factors beyond her control. To find the right (Jewish) man has become dicey. Jet planes had already made Miami no harder to visit than the Catskills, narrowing the distinctive sites for dating and mating, as Kutsher's came to be considered a last resort.15 Reluctant to compromise, Holly may have to remain single. Refusing to compromise, her creator forfeited a chance to bring Uncommon Women and Others to Broadway. One producer considered the play “too wistful” and proposed a revised ending: “When everyone asks Holly, ‘What's new with you?’ she should pull out a diamond ring and say, ‘Guess what? I'm going to marry Dr. Mark Silverstein.’” The playwright herself thought: “Well, she'd have to have a lobotomy, and I'd have to have a lobotomy too.”16
The focus of Wasserstein's next play is the third of the inalienable rights that Jefferson had enumerated: the pursuit of happiness. Its possible incompatibility with Jewish continuity is a variation on the major theme of Isn't It Romantic—the only one of Wasserstein's four major plays in which parents appear. Janie Blumberg knows she can please them by making them grandparents. But she cannot tell them, “Here are your naches”—at least not yet. How Simon Blumberg and especially his wife scheme to kvell and seek to ensure bliss for (and through) the children (especially the daughter, who has moved from Brookline to Manhattan) gives their relationship the tone of an adversary proceeding, a family feud l'dor vador (from generation to generation). Tasha Blumberg advises Janie to “always look nice when you throw out the garbage: you never know who you might meet,”17 and serenades her with a prenuptial “Sunrise, Sunset” (from Fiddler on the Roof). But on the common ground of cultural pluralism and status seeking, religion is no barrier to friendship or romance. Contemporary mores even encourage a certain philo-Semitism, as when Janie's friend Harriet (Hattie) Cornwall studies the Oxford Companion to Jewish Life and her mother, Lillian, tells Tasha that both of them “deserve a little naches.” Intermarriage has ceased to be a fear and has become a fact. (Guess who's coming to the seder?) The Blumbergs' son, Ben, has married a Nebraskan named Chris (whom the parents call “Christ”). Cynthia Peterson, known to the audience only as a voice (Meryl Streep's in the Broadway production) on Janie's answering machine, feels so lonely that she wonders—intertextually—whether she “should have married Mark Silverstein in college.”18
The task of reconciling the ideal of female independence with a yearning for intimacy and maternity is borne by the twenty-eight-year-old protagonist. Here is how Janie ponders her options: “I resent having to pay the phone bill, be nice to the super, find meaningful work, fall in love, get hurt. … [But] I could marry the pervert who's staring at us. No. That's not a solution. I could always move back to Brookline. Get another master's in something useful like Women's Pottery. Do a little freelance writing. Oh, God, it's exhausting.” One option is Dr. (again!) Marty Sterline, né Murray Schlimovitz, a kidney specialist with a love of Jewish cuisine. His restaurateur father has prospered in part by hustling popovers in television commercials. The “toastmaster general for the United Jewish Appeal,” Sterling père risks losing that status because the commercials promote free shrimp at the salad bar. Although such lapses and foibles make the Jewish community a tempting target for satire, the playwright does not mock the comfort that Marty himself derives from ahavat yisrael, or solidarity with the Jewish people. “I worked on a kibbutz the second time I dropped out of medical school,” he tells Janie. “Israel's very important to me. In fact, I have to decide next month if I want to open my practice here in New York or in Tel Aviv.” He worries about assimilation (of which the indices are “intermarriage, Ivy League colleges, the New York Review of Books”); and he believes “Jewish families should have at least three children.”19
But does Janie want what Marty offers? Does she love him? He is nice enough to be appealing. But his very attractiveness also seems to foreclose the future, to narrow her options, to block her freedom of choice. As with some of the uncommon graduating seniors, Janie sees tracking as a threat to be avoided, a conventionally bourgeois life as something to be dreaded. “He's decided to open his practice here next month,” she tells Hattie, “and he's invited me to his parents' house for Chanukah. … [Maybe] I'll marry Marty. Whatever happened to Janie Blumberg? She did so well; she married Marty the doctor. They're giving away popovers in Paramus.” Marty upholds traditional ways, preferring to live in the parts of Brooklyn “where people have real values. My father never sees those people anymore, the alta kakas in Brooklyn. … I miss them. … My father thought my brother was crazy when he named his son Shlomo. … And my father will think I'm crazy when we move to Brooklyn.” Janie, who admires the true grit of Israelis, is not sure about leaving Manhattan but characteristically deflects (or defers) conflict with a quip: “I like the alta kakas in Brooklyn too. I always thought Herman Wouk should write a novel, Young Kafka. I don't know.”20
She still resists facing a destiny that is signed, sealed, and delivered, the sort of finality that can be predicted in the headline with which the Sunday Times will certify their wedding: “Daughter of Pioneer in Interpretive Dance Marries Popover Boy.” That destiny entails too many expectations to fulfill; and, using a joke to escape a yoke, she telephones her mother: “This morning I got married, lost twenty pounds, and became a lawyer.” Yet the dramatist plays fair and allows Marty the dignity of decent ambitions. He too wants “a home, a family, something my father had so easily and I can't seem to get started on.” He has also “wanted something special [as well]. Just a little. Maybe not as special as you turned out to be, but just a little. Janie, I don't want to marry anyone like my sister-in-law.” Though Janie can imagine a wedding at the Plaza Hotel, where “baby Shlomo could carry the ring in one of my father's gold-seal envelopes,” it wouldn't be right. As for her own “settling down,” “there's nothing wrong with that life, but it just isn't mine right now.”21
A sympathetic and sprightly romantic comedy about young people just starting out in Manhattan, combined with the daughter's mother very much on the scene and a possibly amorous foreigner, sounds a little like Barefoot in the Park (1963). Isn't It Romantic is indeed indebted to Neil Simon. Attorney Paul Bratter's announcement that he had won his first case, but that—because the court awarded his client only six cents—his law firm would henceforth give him “all the cases that come in for a dime or under,” is akin to Janie's pride in getting to write the letter B on Sesame Street: “If they like this, they'll hire me full-time. In charge of consonants.” The troubling part of Wasserstein's dialogue is not that it is unamusing but that it is, which is how Janie ends a confrontation with presumably feminist Harriet about the importance of autonomy, even if it means the pursuit of loneliness (“I'm not going to turn someone into the answer for me”). Janie and her creator deflate rising dramatic tension into the denouement of self-deprecating humor to ward off an invasion of privacy. Humor for the playwright herself has “always been just a way to get by,” she has confessed, “a way to be likable yet to remain removed.”22 After a while, however, serious audiences have the right to expect more and harsher truths to be uncovered.
Even Neil Simon slowed down the pace of his wit and revealed unsuspected depths of pathos and loss in his autobiographical trilogy of the 1980s (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound). Wasserstein's most recent play lightly mocks such artistic growth when Geoffrey Duncan, the British director, boasts to Pfeni Rosensweig: “If not for me, you'd still think that Uncle Vanya was a Neil Simon play about his pathetic uncle in the Bronx.”23 Witticisms are ultimately no substitute for wisdom; they are no more than a local anesthetic, as Wasserstein herself is the first to acknowledge. “Although I am proud of the last scene in Isn't It Romantic” and its declaration of independence from parents and men, she told an interviewer that “the play doesn't deal with the pain of that subject. The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain. It is a way to cope with it.” The perky wit of the protagonist “gives her the ability to distance herself from situations,”24 a locale that is the opposite of the vortex of the tragic hero. But to keep creating such characters is to remain with the junior varsity.
A considerable segment of Wasserstein's audience nevertheless expects her to entertain and implicitly keeps issuing gag orders, imperatives that ought to be resisted for the sake of her own growth as an artist. She did become more serious in her next and most ambitious work, The Heidi Chronicles, without forsaking her flair for snap-crackle-and-pop dialogue and satiric observation. The quarter of a century that the play spans ends in desolation, with the loss of friends, the stretching of bonds to the breaking point, and the plague of AIDS raging outside. Above all the play is a chronicle of abandonment. Sisterhood is powerful—but not enough to resist infection by the culture of narcissism—and the conclusion that the plucky and sensitive protagonist draws from this failure is justly famous: “I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together.”25 To be sure, Heidi Holland would not have concurred with the 1853 claim of Henry James, Sr., that “the ‘Woman's Movement,’ as it is called, does not … presage any directly valuable results,” nor with his reasons (since the second sex is the male's “inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect and his inferior in physical strength”).26 But Heidi is at least vaguely aware that no meaningful substitute has been found for the cohesiveness of earlier generations of families, and until she adopts the infant Judy, her isolation may reflect the almost 25 percent of U.S. households now consisting of one person (up from only 8 percent in 1940).27
Nuclear families remain standard, however. They persist, get reconstituted and—when given up for dead—play possum. Even the extended family has become reconstituted in a way with the invention of joint custody, “in which two formerly married people share in raising their children. Your basic extended family today,” Delia Ephron adds, “includes your ex-husband or -wife, your ex's new mate, your new mate, possibly your new mate's ex, and any new mate that your new mate's ex has acquired. It consists entirely of people who are not related by blood, many of whom can't stand each other.”28 Families divide too, and other loyalties are articulated. The first edition of Betty Friedan's classic was dedicated to her husband “and to our children—Daniel, Jonathan, and Emily.” After a divorce, a new 1974 edition of The Feminine Mystique was dedicated to “all the new women, and the new men.” Some of those men were indeed new: by 1986 even Superman was becoming “more vulnerable” and “more open about his feelings,” according to a vice president of DC Comics.29 But a gendered community like the company of women envisioned in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) is an unrealized utopia. Nor does Heidi have the option of recreating the “loveless intimacy” of the Brownsville neighborhood that in 1951 Alfred Kazin could at least summon from his memory: “We had always to be together: believers and nonbelievers, we were a people; I was of that people. … We had all of us lived together so long that we would not have known how to separate even if we had wanted to. The most terrible word was aleyn, alone.”30 He could still recall the ethics of the fathers, still savor the cooking of the mothers. But “Brunzvil” had its obvious limitations, only one of which was its diminution of women.
The corrective that feminism was designed to represent is scrutinized in The Heidi Chronicles, which shows how that ideology can clash with the feminine mystique. Such tension had earlier surfaced in Uncommon Women and Others. “I suppose this isn't a very impressive sentiment,” Muffet Di Nicola asserts shortly before her graduation, “but I would really like to meet my prince. Even a few princes. And I wouldn't give up being a person. I'd still remember all the Art History dates. I just don't know why suddenly I'm supposed to know what I want to do.” In The Heidi Chronicles Scoop Rosenbaum is no prince. Having played lacrosse at Exeter before entering Princeton, he is a cad and an attorney, a trendy leftish journalist in the 1960s, a trendy publisher of the fluffy Boomer in the 1980s, a Jew and “a charismatic creep” with no redeeming value. Heidi is irresistibly drawn to him. As in Wasserstein's earlier plays, the female protagonist anticipates a future that she needs to elude. At thirty-five, Scoop predicts, Heidi will be “picking your daughter up from Ethical Culture School to escort her to cello class before dinner with Dad, the noted psychiatrist and Miró poster collector.”31 Evasive action will prove successful; her daughter will presumably be raised without Dad.
Although praiseworthy as Wasserstein's most important critique of the effects and limitations of feminism, The Heidi Chronicles is the least illuminating on the topic of the Jewish condition in the United States—largely because the central character is almost certainly not Jewish. (Wasserstein spurned an offer to make the Hollywood film version a vehicle for Goldie Hawn, who is Jewish, but hardly stereotypically so.32) When Scoop weds Lisa Friedlander of Memphis, he conjectures that his friend Heidi and her friend Dr. Peter Patrone are romantically involved: “Makes sense. Lisa marries a nice Jewish lawyer, Heidi marries a warm Italian pediatrician. It's all interchangeable, isn't it?” Yet Scoop's preference for Lisa over Heidi is not, he insists, because “she's Jewish” but because, Heidi counters, “she's blandish.” Peter's homosexuality torpedoes not only Scoop's speculation, however; the model future that (Jewish) parental expectation has formed is also made risible. Told that Peter is living with an anesthesiologist and gardens with him during the summers in Bucks County, Scoop replies: “A handsome doctor and a country house. Peter's living my mother's dream come true!”33
The centrality of Jewish identity to her fourth play, however, comes out when the bisexual Geoffrey Duncan tells Pfeni Rosensweig: “You really don't understand what it is to have absolutely no idea who you are!”34 An identity crisis can be tiring, but as a theme in American Jewish drama, identity was not yet tiresome. In the plays of Elmer Rice or Sidney Kingsley or Lillian Hellman, it rarely if ever came up. Wasserstein makes the faulty transmission of Yiddishkeit central, however, while hugging the shore of gender that she finds most congenial. The five uncommon women have been reduced to three and have become middle-aged as well. Two of them are single, but all are Jewish. By making them not just a trio of white chicks sittin' around talkin' but actual sisters, the playwright has injected Anton Chekhov into the Jewish family constellation.
If Wasserstein's previous work consisted mostly of episodes, of sketches woven together as much by chronological order as by action, with her fourth play emerged the formal satisfactions of structure, honoring the “unities of time, place, and action.”35 Perhaps as directly from Chekhov as from any other influence, Wasserstein learned to mix detachment with sympathy, objectification with wry feeling. The distinction between the cosmic and the comic is, after all, a matter of spacing—and, at least on stage, of pacing. (Or consider the virtuosity of film star Amy Irving, who had played Masha in The Three Sisters in Williamstown in 1987, and then played Heidi Holland in Los Angeles three year later.) In The Sisters Rosensweig the author's nimble wit is intact; her particular version of Moscow does not believe in tears. One might even be tempted to report that in this work Chekhov meets Neil Simon—except that they had already been formally introduced: Simon had already paid homage on Broadway to the Russian master in The Good Doctor in (1973), and Chekhov himself was no slouch in extracting mellow laughter from the stupendous folly of human behavior. (If the reputation that his plays enjoy is of unsparing gloom, the performances and the translations may be accountable.36) The three American Jewish sisters may not pine away and suffer unbearably from ennui. Indeed, from Newton to Nepal, their lives throb with excitement. But the sisters are not exactly fulfilled either, and feelings of disappointment and frustration are among the promises that the structure of human existence never fails to keep. Moscow is not mecca (and Mecca certainly is not), but disenchantment and misplaced dreams are familiar to the sisters Rosensweig.
They are, in the playwright's categorization, “a practicing Jew, a wandering Jew, and a self-loathing Jew.”37 They are also a gloss on the poet Randall Jarrell's line: “The ways we miss our lives are life.”38 In the closing scene of the play, seventeen-year-old Tess Goode asks Sara: “Mother, if I've never really been Jewish, and I'm not actually American anymore, and I'm not English or European, then who am I?” It is a question that goes beyond the special status of the expatriate adolescent, that taps into the peculiar history of the modern Jew—the “rootless cosmopolitan,” the extraterritorial, “the wandering Jew” (as Pfeni calls herself).39 Identity can be altered in a nation that spawned such protean Midwesterners as Jay Gatsby, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, and Judy Chicago; by bestowing new patronymics upon themselves, they tested the possibilities of self-invention. But Jewish identity itself is too impalpable and too demanding to be easily transmitted, and the institutions that have been built to foster and sustain it The Sisters Rosensweig treats ambivalently, as objects of respect as well as of satire. Merv Kant, for example, has been monitoring Eastern European anti-Semitism on behalf of the American Jewish Congress; his allegiances are taken seriously. At least they are not undercut by any of the other characters. But what should audiences make of Gorgeous Teitelbaum? Endowed with the silliest given name, she matches a stereotype so completely that even Merv falls for it: “So you're the sister who did everything right. You married the attorney, you had the children, you moved to the suburbs.”40 Yet she is not to be scorned: members of synagogues like Beth El—and its organizations like the Sisterhood—have kept Judaism alive for yet another generation.
That responsibility is hardly shared by thoroughly modern Sara, who wonders: why light Sabbath candles when there is electricity? Disdaining the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”), she orders Pfeni to “blow out the god-damned candle” that Gorgeous has lit and sanctified with the Hebrew blessing.41 Yet Sara offers no substitute, no alternative gesture that might convey the beauty of Judaism to her own daughter. The international banker whose birthday has drawn the sisters from American and from Asia is deracinated. In London she herself may have rubbed against some genteel bigotry, embodied in Nicholas Pym. Jews in Britain, as the South African writer Dan Jacobson once put it, felt as though a room in the house had been given to them; but they were treated like boarders rather than members of the family.42 Sara is even more adrift. She is alienated from her country, her family, and her faith: “I'm an old and bitter woman.” Though she has twice appeared on the cover of Fortune, “I'm a cold, bitter woman who's turned her back on her family, her religion, and her country! And I held so much in. … Isn't that the way the old assimilated story goes?”43 The play offers no clues, however, to account for the psychic sources of such utter self-denial.44 Her sensibility is hardly exceptional. But for well over a generation, American society was in some ways moving in the opposite direction—exalting ethnic diversity and the rediscovery of roots, and harboring the most pious Christians (other than the Irish) in the Western World.
Sara has propelled herself furiously away from the parochialism of the Jews and the rituals of their faith. Twice divorced and homeless, she cannot return home. Her ties to her people are very tenuous. But they are not completely forfeited. Significantly, they reach only backwards into the past, as when Sara and Merv discover common ground—the spa resort named Ciechocinek, “the Palm Beach of Poland.” There she had gone to provide financial expertise; there his own grandparents had vacationed. And now, “fifty years after the lucky few had escaped with false passports, Esther Malchah's granddaughter Sara was deciding how to put bread on the tables of those who had so blithely driven them all away.”45 (Aharon Appelfeld's 1980 allegory of doomed, assimilated Middle European Jews, Badenheim 1939, has them coming to a resort town.) Sandra Meyer, to whom the play is dedicated, told an interviewer: “That Polish resort town in The Sisters Rosensweig is really where my grandparents had their villa, with tennis courts and their own pastry chef. They were very sophisticated and had a lot of money.” Lola Wasserstein's father—and Wendy's grandfather—had escaped from Poland. While serving as a high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, Simon Schleifer wrote some Yiddish plays. But it would be both reductive and idle to speculate that the sisters Rosensweig represent the playwright herself in triplicate, or that she has created Pfeni as a surrogate, though she is the youngest of the three sisters and the only writer among them. That is also true of Wendy Wasserstein. But the peripatetic Pfeni is an invention.46
With her charming but gentile companion, she is also unaffiliated with institutions that might keep her (or indeed her generation) from being terminal Jews. When Geoffrey, flushed with excitement, imagines their future kids as so dynamic “they'll be running Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before age seven,” Pfeni asks: “But will they be Jewish children?” Geoffrey rebuts with an eccentric case for remaining within the fold: “They'll have to be if they're going to run M.G.M.” Forty-year-old Pfeni's biological clock is ticking away like Captain Hook's crocodile (the playwright herself was named for Peter Pan's Wendy), but the British theater director is probably not going to succeed as a “closet heterosexual.”47
Pfenie is an advocacy journalist, endowed with a passion for social justice, a champion of the rights of women in Tajikistan. Yet she realizes that such concerns may preempt other forms of self-expression: “Somewhere I need the hardship of the Afghan women and the Kurdish suffering to fill up my life for me.”48 Devoid of any interest in the welfare of her own people, Pfeni is a paler version of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote to a fellow Jew from a prison cell in 1917: “What do you want with the special Jewish sorrows? To me, the poor victims of rubber plantations of Putumayo, [and] the negroes in Africa … in the Kalahari desert … are equally near. … I have no special corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel at home in the whole world.”49 Such generous feelings the world did not reciprocate. Having ignored a wake-up call like the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, Luxemburg would be murdered by right-wing thugs in 1919, and could scarcely have foreseen that, little more than two decades later, genocidal killers would not spare her own Jewish community of Zamosc.50 In Pfeni's capacity to empathize with other groups (but not with her fellow Jews), she is a descendant of Rosa Luxemburg.
Compared to Sara and Pfeni, the defense can therefore make out a pretty good case for Gorgeous. It is not an airtight case: she is flaky, garrulous, and materialistic. Nor are her ambitions noble: The Dr. Gorgeous Show might expand from a radio call-in into a cable-TV talk show (“talking has always come easily to me”). Challenged to reveal the provenance of that professional prefix of “Dr.,” she replies with another question: “You've heard of Dr. Pepper?” With her “funsy” vocabulary, Filene's shopping bag, and thrill at wearing a Chanel suit instead of a knockoff, she does invite ridicule—as well as the urge to shut her up with a “Say goodnight, Gracie.” But Gorgeous does get briefly beneath her shallowness, even if—rather implausibly—she voices the Chekhovian hope “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?” Gorgeous also gets to deliver one of the play's very few searing lines: “How did our nice Jewish mother do such a lousy job on us?”51 None of the Rosensweigs has an answer or a comeback, nor is it obvious that their mother did muck up their lives. And to whom, in any case, should Rita Rosensweig be compared? To Tennessee Williams' Amanda Wingfield or Eugene O'Neill's Mary Tyrone or, for that matter, Mother Courage?
More than an ethnic caricature, less than a full-scale figure of pathos, Gorgeous exemplifies and complicates Wasserstein's difficulty in finding the right tone for “my most serious work.” Exploring such phenomena as “identity, self-loathing, and possibility for intimacy and love when it seems no longer possible or, sadder yet, no longer necessary,” she and her director were startled when the first preview audience soon became “convulsed with laughter.”52 Yet she is not the first Jewish writer to have trouble knowing which characters are cockamamie and which are not, what comes across as funny and what does not, what tastes as sweet as haroset or as bitter as maror. When Kafka read aloud to a few friends the first chapter of The Trial, they laughed; and the presumably mordant author himself “laughed so much,” his first biographer reports, “there were moments when he couldn't read any further.”53 While writing Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller claimed that he “laughed more … than I have ever done, when alone, in my life.” When he read one scene to his (first) wife, she wept; the playwright considered it “hilarious.”54 Joseph Heller professed to have been unaware that “Catch-22 was a funny book until I heard someone laugh while reading it.”55 Such short-circuited artistic aims may stem from the condition of post-Emancipation Jewry in the Diaspora, which has been so fraught with uncertainty and absurdity. “A kingdom of priests and a holy people” had to make room for the sisters' father, Maury Rosensweig (a manufacturer of “Kiddie Togs”), and for a leader in the field of “synthetic animal protective covering” like Mervyn Kant. Marginality has encouraged the exercise of irony and a sense of the ridiculous as well as anguish, and wit became, like the violin, mostly a Jewish instrument. Satire was a way of getting even, as well as a protective device.
Wasserstein's flair for wisecracks is so dazzling that it has raised doubts about her significance for the American theater. “I had hoped, after The Heidi Chronicles, that my very gifted former student was shaking her witticism habit,” Robert Brustein wrote. “The Sisters Rosensweig has a lot of charm, but it is a regression. … By its own internal measure, which is to be likable, The Sisters Rosensweig is a success. People will be entertained and will leave the theatre feeling warm and wise, which are the requisites of a commercial hit.”56 Yet an earlier Jewish female playwright like Lillian Hellman had also produced Broadway hits and has elicited considerably more scholarly attention and critical accolades. The U.S. Geological Survey even named a crater on Venus for her. What Hellman lacked in the power to amuse she compensated for with political commitment, of which Wasserstein seems bereft.57 (In the spring of 1995, however, she did accompany Joanne Woodward and Melanie Griffith on a Literary Network-sponsored lobbying visit to Capitol Hill. In an effort to save the National Endowment for the Arts, they met with dozens of legislators.58 Perhaps the charm and ebullience that Wasserstein's plays exude make them seem frivolous; too much brio can spike critical interest. She has declined to set herself up as a maven in a heartless world. Because her deftness at comedy dwarfs her other gifts, scholars are compelled to seat her below the salt, next to others who entertain more than they enlighten.
Here a useful comparison might be with David Mamet, who paid his own tribute to Chekhov with a version of Uncle Vanya (1989) and whose high-testosterone dramas often depict Jews and other shell-shocked veterans of the wars between the sexes. (He is undoubtedly the only dues-paying member of both the Dramatists Guild and the United Steelworkers of America.) Though Mamet has also recently attempted to record the costs that assimilation has imposed, his style is, of course, quite different from Wasserstein's. Staccato and elliptical, his dialogue can be obscene enough to make even the Wife of Bath blush. The usually male characters have trouble stating precisely what they mean—and these corrupt, cynical low-lifes are mean. By contrast, Wasserstein's mostly female characters tend to be articulate, brilliant, classy, vulnerable, gentle and genteel,59 as they try to approximate the ideal of “gracious living” that her play shows Mount Holyoke to have fostered. Her characters are warm, while Mamet's perspective—and language—are scalding. In contrast to the savagery that he exposes beneath the veneer of civilized life, Wasserstein portrays “very nice girls” who, according to Tasha Blumberg, “deserve a little naches.”60 What is missing in Wasserstein's work, and keeps it too close to merely clever entertainment, is menace—the spooky, subterranean impulses that threaten to tear apart the skein of everyday existence. Sophisticated audiences need to ruminate over more than lively repartee, tossed back and forth by characters fearful of the truth-telling that comes from introspection and confrontation. Serious audiences need to hear more often a little night music.
To Wasserstein's four major plays to date, attention must nevertheless be paid. She cannot be expected to rip apart the barbarism of selling Chicago real estate (or the ambiguities of leveraged buyouts), but she has drawn astutely on what she does know. Indeed, the distantly autobiographical aspects of her work constitute its strength and give its details verisimilitude: she knows that Gorgeous would not buy a gift for her sister at Filene's Basement.61 Wasserstein knows how her characters behave and—since repartee enables them to skirt the truth—how her characters talk. (Contrast the guffaws that should punctuate a reading of Herman Wouk's use of a hokum hillbilly accent in Youngblood Hawke: “Ah should be hung fo' mah cramm against the English language in rahtin' that book. … An can raht better than that. Ah'm rahtin' betta raht now.”62) Wasserstein's satiric powers have been cultivated enough to fulfill the promise that Rita Altabel makes in Uncommon Women: “When we're forty, we'll be incredible.”63 And however inadvertently, her plays also constitute an entree into the subculture of American Jewry. Barely a teenager when Thomas B. Morgan's reverberant article, “The Vanishing American Jew” (1964), was published in Look Magazine, she has lived through a period of even more accelerating assimilation.64 The signs are unmistakable: low birth rates, ever-higher intermarriage rates, declining affiliations with institutions that have served Diaspora communities for centuries. It is not easy to be sanguine about a viable future for this most ancient and adaptable of peoples. Yet the American Jew has not vanished (though Look Magazine itself did), and his—and her—fate can be traced in the dramaturgy of Wendy Wasserstein.
Quoted in Leslie Bennetts, “An Uncommon Dramatist Prepares Her New Work,” New York Times, 24 May 1981, 2.5.
Quoted in Iska Alter, “Wendy Wasserstein (1950-),” in Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, ed. Ann R. Shapiro et al. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 449; Wendy Wasserstein, “My Mother, Then and NOW,” in her Bachelor Girls (New York: Knopf, 1990), 15-22.
Wasserstein, “Jean Harlow's Wedding Night,” in Bachelor Girls, 184; “Wendy Wasserstein,” in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, ed. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 425, 429.
Anita Gates, “Today Most Are in Their 40's, and Pretty Amazing,” New York Times, 16 October 1994, 2.5; Nancy Backes, “Wasserstein, Wendy,” in Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989), 902.
Jonathan D. Sarna, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981), 6-7, 12, 47-50.
Stephen J. Whitfield, “Stages of Capitalism: The Business of American Jewish Dramatists,” Jewish History 8, nos. 1-2 (1994): 312, 315, 316-18; Wasserstein, “Big Brother,” in Bachelor Girls, 83-84.
Quoted in Bennetts, “An Uncommon Dramatist,” 1.
Wendy Wasserstein, The Sisters Rosensweig (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 27.
Wendy Wasserstein, Isn't It Romantic, in The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 149-50.
Alter, “Wendy Wasserstein,” 449.
Milton Himmelfarb, The Jews of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 135.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 53, 74.
Wasserstein, Uncommon Women and Others, in Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 62.
Ibid., 33, 39.
Ibid., 61-63, 71; William Novak, “Are Good Jewish Men a Vanishing Breed”, in Jewish Possibilities: The Best of Moment Magazine, ed. Leonard Fein (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1987), 60-66; Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 139-43.
Quoted in “Wendy Wasserstein,” Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, 426.
Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 85, 148.
Ibid., 143, 152.
Ibid., 82, 97.
Ibid., 103-4, 110.
Ibid., 120, 124, 138-39, 148.
Neil Simon, Barefoot in the Park, in The Comedy of Neil Simon (New York: Equinox, 1973), 147; Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 143-45, and “Jean Harlow's Wedding Night,” in Bachelor Girls, 184.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 17.
Quoted in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, 420, 425.
Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles, in Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 232.
Quoted in Alfred Habegger, The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 339-40.
Robert Wright, “The Evolution of Despair,” Time Magazine, 28 August 1995, 53.
Delia Ephron, Funny Sauce (New York: Viking, 1986), ix.
“But Can He Cook?” New York Times, 15 June 1986, 4.9.
Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 44, 60.
Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 25, 170, 181, 174.
Carolyn Clay, “The Wendy Chronicles,” Boston Phoenix, 1 March 1991, 3.11.
Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 196, 202, 245.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 88.
Wasserstein, Preface to ibid., ix.
John Bush Jones, “‘You Are What You Are’: Jewish Identity in Recent American Drama,” syllabus of Brandeis University National Women's Committee (Waltham, Mass. ), 41-42.
Quoted in “Wasserstein's World,” Reform Judaism 21 (Summer 1993): 45.
Randall Jarrell, “A Girl in a Library” (1951), in The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 18.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 103, 106.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 30.
Ibid., 12, 36-38.
Cited in Calvin Trillin, “Drawing the Line,” New Yorker, 12 December 1994, 56.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 81.
Jones, “‘You Are What You Are,’” 44.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 79-80; see Howard Kissel, “The Banker, the Writer, and the Yenta,” Reform Judaism 21 (Summer 1993): 44-45.
Phoebe Hoban, “The Family Wasserstein,” New York, 4 January 1993, 35; Judith Miller, “The Secret Wendy Wasserstein,” New York Times, 18 October 1992, 2.8.
Backes, “Wasserstein, Wendy,” 901; Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 65, 68.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 77.
Quoted in J. L. Talmon, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 217.
Wasserstein, Sisters Rosensweig, 30, 31, 94, 96.
Ibid., ix, x.
Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (New York: Schocken, 1963), 50, 76-77, 133, 178.
Arthur Miller, “The ‘Salesman’ Has a Birthday” (1950), in Death of a Salesman, ed. Gerald Weales (New York: Viking, 1967), 148.
“Playboy Interview: Joseph Heller,” Playboy 20 (June 1975): 73.
Robert Brustein, Dumbocracy in America: Studies in the Theatre of Guilt, 1987-1994 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1994), 162.
David Richards, “Wendy Wasserstein's School of Life,” New York Times, 1 November 1992, 2.5.
“LitNet's Advocacy Highlights,” Literary Network News, August 1995, 2.
Backes, “Wasserstein, Wendy,” 903.
Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 119.
Joan Kron, “All-Consuming Art,” New York Times, 6 December 1992, 2.12.
Herman Wouk, Youngblood Hawke (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962), 203, 270.
Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, 12.
Thomas B. Morgan, “The Vanishing American Jew,” Look 28 (5 May 1964): 42-46.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8715
SOURCE: Balakian, Jan. “Wendy Wasserstein: A Feminist Voice from the Seventies to the Present.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, edited by Brenda Murphy, pp. 213-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Balakian traces the evolution of Wasserstein's feminist dramaturgy from Uncommon Women and Others through An American Daughter, highlighting the cultural confusion regarding contemporary women's roles that informs the characterizations of each play's respective protagonists.]
As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, and later in New York, Wendy Wasserstein experienced the conspicuous double standards between boys and girls that ignited her feminist instincts. While her brother received Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels—a travel guide to spectacular places around the world—for his Bar Mitzvah, she was reading Eloise and Madeline. And, to instill a sense of feminine etiquette in her daughter, her mother sent her to the Helena Rubinstein Charm School. Moreover, to make her well rounded, she enrolled her in the June Taylor School of Dance. If that were not bad enough, when Wendy showed up everyday in the same work shirt at the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the headmistress would call her mother to tell her that she should get dressed up and wear pink (Bennetts, “An Uncommon Dramatist,” 5). Indeed, she has always felt angry about the importance placed on women's appearance.
The marginalization of women also became apparent to her in the television shows she was watching as a girl in the fifties. Her favorite television show, Bachelor Father, depicting a debonair, suave small screen “Cary Grant,” convinced her that she would “rather wear a dinner jacket than perform the routine housewife duties of Mrs. Danny Thomas, Mrs. Father Know Best, or especially June Cleaver.” She felt compelled to find a female counterpart for the bachelor father, “a woman who possessed all the vitality of a Broadway musical, whose charms would beguile even Helena Rubinstein, and who never closed herself off from the possibility of adventure” (Wasserstein, Bachelor Girls, 6). Consequently, she became fascinated by Doris Day films, films about bright, self-motivated, charming, willful women, who approached life with guts and gusto.
The role of women became even more problematic for her at Mount Holyoke in the seventies. First they told young women to graduate and marry lawyers, then to become lawyers, but then women turned around and started having families. “They changed the rules in the middle of the game, and what you get is both confusion and liberation. You realize that you're free to make your own choice of whatever works for you” (Bennetts, “An Uncommon Dramatist,” 5). While Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, the writings of Kate Millet, and Germaine Greer revolutionized the sensibilities of the class of’69 by shattering the conventional notions of being a mother and wife, Mount Holyoke forced these same women to wear hostess gowns and engage in the ritual of tea hour and milk and crackers in the evening while other college campuses were the sites of virulent anti-war protests. When she entered college, women were being “pinned,” a ritual whereby men would give their dates a pin to wear as an emblem of their commitment, suggesting a possible engagement, but by the time she graduated, no one would be caught dead with a pin. Yet, they were afraid to say that they would become professional women (Rothstein, “After the Revolution,” 28). On the one hand, the class of’69 was shouting “Suburbia Screw,” but on the other, they later bore secret pain and loss about not having a family (Wasserstein, Bachelor Girls, 145). Wasserstein has astutely observed a self-recrimination that women feel for not having become a certain kind of woman because they pursued independent lives (Bachelor Girls, 148). Coming of age in the sixties, she recollects a feeling of solidarity, “a sense of we were going to change things. The whole sense of the women's movement was that it [would] change women's expectations of themselves, both externally and internally. Eventually that ‘have-it-all’ optimism imploded”; women began judging themselves harshly if they did not have a family and a wonderful job by the time they were forty (O'Connor, “Wendy Chronicles,” 2).
Consequently, Wasserstein's plays dramatize women caught between these two conflicting sets of values and struggling to define themselves in a “post-feminist” America that still suffers from the backlash of sexism, of homophobia, and of traditional values. Isn't It Romantic and The Heidi Chronicles both reflect the problem of being told how to live one's life in the face of constantly changing values. Indeed, all of her plays reflect the fact that she came of age in the midst of the women's liberation movement, during which she attended feminist consciousness-raising meetings, where feminists asserted that “you either shave your legs or you don't” (Bachelor Girls, 17). These feminist meetings shaped the way she saw the world, assuring her that she did not have to marry a doctor and live in suburbia. It gave her the courage to become a playwright despite her perception that “there were no women playwrights when I was a girl” (Ouderkirk, “Human Connections,” 10). “I never knew that you could legitimately go into the theater” (Clippings, Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, A12). The fifties in which Wasserstein grew up was a world of How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Betty Grable brings home to Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe an oil man she met in the fur department of Bergdorf's (Bachelor Girls, 165). Paradoxically, she longs for the fifties when things were simpler for women. Still, she turned her back on the fifties woman, but not without some sacrifice in her personal life. Indeed, Geoffrey in The Sisters Rosensweig addresses this dilemma, which is at once feminist and comes with the territory of being an artist: “We must work even harder to create the best art, the best theater, the best bloody book we can … and the rest, the children, the country kitchen, the domestic bliss, we leave to others who will have different regrets” (The Sisters Rosensweig, 84).
Wasserstein's talent as a playwright resides in her ability to make personal conflict political and comedic as she chronicles baby-boomer history. A social historian, she tracks social change in a generation both cynical and hopeful, self-aware and confused. Her women characters have a metaphysical angst as they try to figure out how to live their lives in the face of so many options. Emotionally insecure, they are torn between conventional romantic expectations and career goals (Rosen, Theatre Week, 17). Helen Gurley Brown, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Judy Blume, Susan Isaacs, and Marlo Thomas flocked to the early run of The Heidi Chronicles because it crystallized their experiences as women (Maychick, “Heidi,” 51). And it is no accident that Wendy Wasserstein is Hillary Clinton's favorite playwright (Clippings, London Observer, 5). Both she and Hillary come from a transitional time in America, when women were just beginning to gain their liberation. Wasserstein remarks, “if Hillary had graduated a few years later, she might not have thought she had to marry the guy who was going to become the president. She could have said, ‘I want to be a senator’” (Balakian, “Interviews,” 67). She grapples with the post-women's movement question, “where do we go from here” (Garfield, “Wendy Chronicles,” 52). Although she is a social chronicler, who is consistently interested in the traps of being a well-educated woman, her worldview is also profoundly existential: “Most of the things my friends want in their lives will eventually come to pass through hard work, perseverance, privilege. Our lives are not totally random. We make commitments; we cause things to happen” (Bachelor Girls, 145).
If there was confusion about women's roles at Mount Holyoke, there was also a conspicuous voicelessness of women at the Yale School of Drama in 1973. As a student of playwriting, Wasserstein studied no plays by women, nor did she meet one woman director. In fact, at the first reading of Uncommon Women at Yale, a male student remarked to Wasserstein that he did not know if he could “get into” her play because “it was about women.” Wasserstein thought, “well I had gotten into Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia, so why don't you try this on for size” (Sweet, “Making It Specific,” n.p.). Reading a lot of Jacobean dramas where men would kiss the lips of women, and then drop dead because of the poison, she thought, “this doesn't represent anyone I possibly know. I felt left out” (Isenberg, “Writing,” 90). She also recalled that the plays that her parents took her to see either had few girls in them, or they depicted “dumb girls in slips.” “There was nobody I could grow up to be” (Isenberg, “Writing,” 90). Equally disturbed by Hollywood's negative and stereotypical representation of women, Wasserstein was determined to prove that a woman need not be insane, desperate, or crazy in order to be stageworthy. “Three middle-aged women on a stage who are accomplished and successful and not caricatures in our culture is still a surprise. And that's why I wanted to write this play” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 382).
Although the women's movement helped to liberate women, Wasserstein continues to see the problems of sexism in contemporary America, where she says “the pressure is still on the woman to somehow make it all work” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 384). She observes that to be a woman in the nineties demands “enormous resilience, energy, strength, and self-reliance” (Papazian, “Everywoman,” 23). Moreover, she cannot understand why successful men in their forties are considered desirable, while successful women in their forties are deemed threatening. “Who made that up?” she asks. “Why are women's problems considered secondary to men's?” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 384). Indeed, the crisis of The Heidi Chronicles is a uniquely female crisis. She remarks sardonically, “Baby boomer women are now content buying condos alone at the beach, having artificial insemination, going to Tom Cruise movies on Friday nights with women friends. Bachelor Girls under thirty enjoy temporary happiness with older, wiser, wealthier men, or with much younger tennis stars” (Bachelor Girls, 55). Furthermore, she is concerned that Elizabeth Dole, Tipper Gore, and other “new” political wives, who have acquiesced to taking a back seat to their husbands’ careers, in contrast to Geraldine Ferraro, are setting a bad example to the new generation of women. “Women haven't come a long way if the ultimate privilege is being a first-class support system” (Bachelor Girls, 13). She recalls that her former boyfriend left her because she was spending more time with the production of Isn't It Romantic at Playwrights Horizons than with him (O'Connor, “Wendy Chronicles,” 2). And she resents the fact that corporate America “depends on forty well-groomed women who maintain twenty-three inch waist lines and up to the minute invitation lists” (Bachelor Girls, 128). Finally, she is convinced that the “mommy track” is not equal to men's career tracks (Ouderkirk, “Human Connections,” 10). Wasserstein, however, resists being labeled a feminist playwright because she insists that good playwriting is about character, rather than about a political philosophy, that feminism is really humanism. In fact, her plays are all character-driven, rather than driven by plot.
Uncommon Women and Others (1977) explores the lives of five twenty-seven-year-old women who meet in 1978 at a New York restaurant and then travel back six years to their senior year at Mount Holyoke, where they perform the ritual of “gracious living”—a formal tea hour—discuss their future careers, men, sex, marriage, and the fact that society is patriarchal. Privileged, well-educated women struggle to make decisions that will enable them to be fulfilled socially and professionally in a patriarchal world. Having failed to reach such contentment in the present, in a Chekhovian refrain they look forward to a time when they will be “pretty amazing,” though the age when they will attain their success moves farther and farther into the future. Serving as a segue to these flashbacks, the college president, represented by a man's voice, which, in the last scene, fades into a woman's, proclaims the ideals of the college: producing women with personal dignity, intelligence, competence, flexibility, maturity, responsibility, gaiety, femininity, a capacity for giving, stimulated by demands, intellectual curiosity, diligence, adventure, a conception of the good life, and the spirit of systematic disinterested inquiry. The woman's voice, however, recognizes the overwhelming obstacles to achievement and the limited set of options that women still encounter, despite progress in women's rights. Indeed, their elite education at Mount Holyoke has not prepared them for the complexities of the world outside their college dorms. As in all of Wasserstein's work, her female characters preoccupy themselves with “having it all.” In effect, the play grapples with defining feminism. The action and conflict of the play consist of young women expressing their confusion about their lives. And for this reason alone, Uncommon Women was a landmark; it was the first time that contemporary women's issues were staged with seriousness Off-Broadway and then on public television. Wasserstein moved us from a literary tradition of men's locker rooms to the inside of a woman's dormitory. When asked whether she thinks Uncommon Women is a feminist play, Wasserstein responds, “the point of my play is that there is no ‘wrong choice.’ All you have to do is find what works for you” (Sturgeon, “Phoenix,” n.p.).
Uncommon Women establishes the feminist concerns that Wasserstein continues to probe in each of her later plays. In addition, the strength of her writing derives from her characters’ humorous discussions of sex, sexism, relationships, and careers. The play cleverly satirizes the dated traditions of all women's colleges, a world of “gracious living,” peanut-butter-and-marshmallow-fluff study breaks, and elves. With references to lesbian rock bands, birth-control pills, the Cambodia strike, Judy Collins, James Taylor, the Beatles, EST, Bette Davis movies, the Dave Clark Five, and Ms. magazine, Uncommon Women and Others is a wistful social documentary about the confusion and aspirations of well-educated women in the late sixties and seventies.
Like Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic (1983) explores upper-middle class, expensively educated, single women, but Janie and Harriet are six years older than their counterparts in Uncommon Women, and they are not simply sitting around a dorm room, talking about the future. They are out in the world, searching for love and professional fulfillment in Manhattan. According to Wasserstein, the play grapples with women being told how to live their lives, with the rules changing every six months (Gold, “Wendy,” 30). The answering machine becomes a theatrical device, the icon of the eighties by which characters communicate their most intimate concerns. While Janie is the daughter of neurotic, overprotective Jewish parents, who desperately want her to get married, Harriet is the daughter of a professional, WASP mother, Lillian, who encourages her to pursue her career more than a marriage. Janie meets Marty Sterling, a Jewish doctor with a specialization in kidneys, doing his residency at Mount Sinai, who wants to marry Janie and move to Brooklyn. She feels suffocated by him, however, because he never consults her about moving, and views her as his future wife, rather than as an individual with her own aspirations. Janie takes a part-time job at Sesame Street, while Harriet, a Harvard MBA, gets promoted at the Colgate-Palmolive Company. Harriet first has an affair with her boss's boss, and then dumps him for her head-hunter, Joe Stine, whom she marries. Janie feels abandoned and betrayed by her best friend, who always vowed the importance of independence and considered herself Janie's “family.” While Janie and Harriet are negotiating their relationships with men and with each other, we hear the recorded phone messages of Meryl Streep's desperate voice as Cynthia, Janie's old friend, blurting into the phone her rejection by the Upper West Side male population. With wit Wasserstein again probes serious issues: the complexity of relationships and marriage, the price of independence, the turbulence of growing up and finding one's identity, the question of whether women can have it all, the dynamics between mothers and daughters, the Jewish sensibility, and the problem of sexism in the early eighties.
The strength of Isn't It Romantic derives from its humorous and astute dramatization of feminist growing pains. Wasserstein has cleverly decided to have Harriet and Marty first meet in a class at Harvard called “Twentieth-Century Problems,” because these characters’ lives are frustrated, not romantic. Contrary to Erica Munk's criticism that the play fails as a social play (Munk, Village Voice, 109), in fact it gives us more than a glimmer of the world outside by looking so astutely at the world inside—at the complex conflicts between mothers and daughters, between men and women, between women and within women, between what America tells women they should want, and what they need in order to feel fulfilled, between being American and being Jewish. As we watch Wasserstein's women make and break relationships, we are looking at America in transition, from a time when women lived vicariously through their husbands, to a time when they began asserting their own identities and negotiating the demands of their professions and their families. For Wasserstein's characters, growing up is painful and turbulent, and when Janie and Harriet confront each other in their climactic scenes, their anguish surfaces. Her writing is strongest when she pits two strong women against each other, who debate the pros and cons of marriage and independence. These are not the cartoon characters that critics often accuse her of writing. Instead, they are full of paradox, and when they finally disclose their values, they find out that best friends are not exactly the people they thought they were. Furthermore, she creates poignant moments, such as the ones toward the end when Janie refuses the mink coat her parents bring her because it is not true to her identity, when she tells them that she cannot compromise and marry someone she does not love, when her parents tell her they wish she wanted to see them, and she responds, “all you have to do is trust me a little bit” (150). For all of its light-hearted humor, Isn't It Romantic is a serious play about a young woman who learns to trust herself and to live alone rather than please others.
More political than Isn't it Romantic, The Heidi Chronicles (1988) explores the wistful character of Heidi Holland, a witty, unmarried art history professor at Columbia University, approaching middle age and becoming disillusioned with the collapse of the idealism that shaped the sixties. Spanning twenty-three years, the play begins with Heidi's slide lecture in which she affirms the neglect of women artists, and then it skates back to a 1965 Chicago high school dance where she meets several lifelong friends who inspired her interest in the women's movement. At college, Heidi and her friends become ardent feminists and radicals, and we see them at a 1968 Eugene McCarthy rally in New Hampshire, a 1970 Ann Arbor consciousness-raising session when Heidi is a Yale graduate student, and a 1974 protest for women artists at the Chicago Art Museum.
Heidi's friends become swept away by the materialism and narcissism of the Reagan eighties, leading the vacuous lives they once denounced. Heidi, however, remains adamantly committed to the ideals of feminism and feels stranded. At her high school alumni luncheon, the climax of the play, she delivers a long, impromptu confession concerning her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with her peers. “I thought the point was we were all in this together” (232), she exclaims. By the end of the play in 1988, however, Heidi feels a little less alone and depressed in her New York apartment, having adopted a daughter as a single parent. She hopes that her daughter will feel the confidence and dignity that were the aims of the women's movement. In effect, the play subtly parallels aspects of the original Heidi novel by Joanna Spyri, in which Heidi learns while traveling and then “uses what she knows” (236).
Many feminist critics assaulted the play by insisting that it is not really a feminist play because Heidi “sells out” in the end by adopting a baby. They argued that “this unmotivated conclusion compromised Heidi's antecedent values,” and that the true cause of her depression was her manlessness. In fact, when the play was being considered for film production in Hollywood, LA producers said, “we just have trouble with the main character, the second act and the ending” (Berson, “Women,” 14). Wasserstein, however, retorts that Heidi adopts a baby because that choice is consistent with her character: “How can they say, ‘we find the choice in your life politically incorrect. Give your baby back.’ I thought feminism was turning against itself. She is a woman who wants a baby. It takes enormous courage to do what she does” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 389). But beyond this particular complaint, critics argued that in general The Heidi Chronicles was perfect for a middle-class Broadway audience because it was not really subversive (Hodgson, “Heidi,” 605-06). It evades serious feminist issues because it never raises the question of abortion or of women's rights in a real context (Robins, “Betrayals,” 10), and that Wasserstein's choice to depict her protagonist as an art historian undermines Heidi's validity because her profession has little effect on anyone's life (Robins, “Betrayals,” 10). The Village Voice critic similarly charged that Heidi assures us that intelligent, educated women are funny for the same traditional reasons women have always been funny: they hate their bodies, cannot find a man, and do not believe in themselves. Moreover, National Public Radio's Laurie Stone objected that Heidi rejects the word “feminist” in favor of “humanist,” as if fighting for women's rights were diminishing (Rosen, Theatre Week, 17). Furthermore, Iska Alter argues that at the end, when mother and child are photographed in a slide, Heidi holding daughter Judy in front of a museum banner for a Georgia O'Keefe retrospective, we are left with an image of triumph, not necessarily its reality or realization, because Georgia O'Keefe consistently acted against the feminine grain and the feminist expectation (Alter, “Wendy,” 7). While it is clear that the play is not radically feminist (even Heidi regrets that she never torched lingerie), it is a mistake to read the ending so literally. Heidi and her daughter become icons for a future generation of women who will have a stronger sense of self in a more equal society. Carol Rosen assesses the play more accurately when she says that The Heidi Chronicles catapulted Wasserstein into another league; she could no longer be dismissed as early Neil Simon in drag because beneath her clever banter she confronts the anguish of women caught in the dilemma between love and work (Rosen, Theatre Week, 17).
These negative critics overlook the bold and epic project that Wasserstein undertakes in The Heidi Chronicles. This was the first Broadway play to grapple with the collapse of the feminist movement during two decades of change. The play grew out of Wasserstein's strong feminist sentiments: “I wrote this play because I had this image of a woman standing up at a women's meeting saying, ‘I've never been so unhappy in my life…’ The more angry it made me that these feelings weren't being expressed, the more anger I put into that play” (Shapiro, “Chronicler,” 90). A “mordant comedy of manners” (Gold, “Wendy,” 30), the play exposes the marginalization of women artists, egregious sexism, women's loss of identity, the collapse of marriage as a sacred contract, the difficulty that women face in negotiating between fulfilling professional and personal lives, and the lost idealism of early feminism.
The play may also be considered feminist in a structural and aesthetic sense. Feminist critics like Rachel DuPlessis, who argue that the female, literary aesthetic, written from a position of marginality, attempts to overturn dominant forms of knowing, and is therefore non-hierarchic, non-linear, and multiclimactic, could claim that the flashbacks that rocket us back and forth from the sixties to the eighties in The Heidi Chronicles are part of a feminine aesthetic. And, as Iska Alter notes, these devices continually pull the action back into the past, producing the ironic gaps between promise and realization, hope and disillusion that the events of the play announce (Alter, “Wendy,” 7). Mimi Kramer has pointed out that the “moving-snapshot style of theatre is most often used to chronicle disillusionments and disappointments” (Kramer, “Portrait,” 19).
When asked to define feminism, Wasserstein says that she cannot understand why gender imposes limitations on people's lives. “Who said that men who are forty-eight and successful are extremely desirable, and women who are forty-eight and successful are scary, threatening, and sad? … WHY? Who made that up?” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 391). If what the larger women's movement seeks is a transformation of the structures of a primarily male power which now order our society,1 then The Heidi Chronicles is in some ways a feminist play. Heidi's adoption of a baby certainly subverts the traditional family structure because she remains a single woman supporting herself as a professional. Perhaps Wasserstein's comedy is an intrinsic part of her female aesthetic. As she has said, “for me humor has always been a way to be likable but removed” (Shapiro, “Chronicler,” 90). This is the same kind of distance that she associates with the female sensibility. Her humor “eases the way” for us to take a hard look at the problems of a sexist society and to recognize the fact that women's liberation still has a long way to go. By dramatizing the dissolution of the feminist movement, The Heidi Chronicles moved Wasserstein to the ranks of the serious social critics.
In her next play, Wasserstein moves from post-feminist America to 1989 London at the moment of the Soviet coup. The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) dramatizes the disparate lives of three sisters, Sara, Pfeni, and Gorgeous, as they congregate to celebrate Sara's fifty-fourth birthday. The oldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced three times, recovering from a hysterectomy, is a successful banker in a Hong Kong bank. She has moved to London to efface her Jewish identity by acquiring a phony British accent and a protective English last name from her second ex-husband, and naming her daughter Tess, after Thomas Hardy's novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. WASPier than a WASP, Sara relishes the openly repressed nature of English society. At first she is a cold woman, who resists falling in love again, until she meets Merv Kant, a Jew from Brooklyn and a world leader in synthetic animal protective covering. After a night with the furrier, Sara reembraces the Jewish identity that she had sublimated. Wasserstein wanted to write a play about two people who actually get together in the end, in contrast to her earlier plays in which her female protagonists remain alone. In short, the play affirms the possibility of love for middle-aged women. And, unlike the men in Uncommon Women and Others, and Isn't It Romantic, the men in this play are positive forces, with the exception of Nick Pym, Sara's English male friend, whom everyone accuses of being a Nazi, Sara leaves him for Merv.
Sara's daughter, Tess, is doing a biography of her mother's early years for her school summer project. Her exploration of her family history provides a context for each character's quest for their identity. While Tess longs to return to her Connecticut home, she plans to go to Lithuania to support the Lithuanian independence movement with her working-class boyfriend, Tom Valiunus. Sara adamantly opposes Tess’ relationship and her journey. In the end, Tess decides not to go to Lithuania, not because of her mother, but because she ultimately does not feel sincerely connected to the Lithuanian movement.
While Sara is a self-loathing Jew, her youngest sister, Gorgeous, is an unabashedly practicing Jew, a yenta, who encourages Sara to fall in love again. She is in London not just for her sister's birthday, but because she is leading the Temple Beth El sisterhood on a trip to see the Crown Jewels. Married to an attorney, who, she later reveals, has lost his job and is writing mystery novels in the basement, she seems to have the most conventional life of the sisters, a mother of four, who lives in Newton, Massachusetts. But Gorgeous has an unusual career. A kind of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, she has a call-in radio show where people discuss their love lives. Her humor dominates the play.
Pfeni, the middle sister, is a forty-year-old journalist, dating a bisexual theatre director, Geoffrey, who leaves her because he misses men. The wandering Jew, Pfeni has renounced her political writing for travel writing because she feels that she is exploiting the people whose problems she records, and because her career does not meet her deceased mother's expectations. As Howard Kissel puts it, she has “secularized her Jewish idealism in radical journalism” (“Family Circus”). Sara helps her understand that she has turned her back on her true calling.
Although the three sisters are from the same place, they lead vastly different lives. In effect, the play is about the journey that each woman takes to discover herself: at the end, Sara discovers love again and acknowledges her Jewish roots, proclaiming, “My name is Sara Rosensweig.” Gorgeous takes responsibility for her life and cashes in her Chanel suit in order to send her son to college. Pfeni returns to political journalism. Tess discovers that she does not have to go to Lithuania to find out who she is. Thus, the larger political backdrop of Eastern Europe's democratization parallels the evolving autonomy and liberation of each woman.
Wasserstein's sisters, who yearn to find their “Moscow,” their place in the world, overtly echo Chekhov's Three Sisters. Wasserstein acknowledges her debt to Chekhov:
Like Chekhov, I wanted to write a play dealing in time, obsessing about time. I wanted to write something about the end of the century when everything was breaking up. Setting it at the time of the Russian coup was important because there was great hopefulness then, before things fell apart. I also wanted to write about [the fact that] time has passed and you're not going to be all those persons you might have been; you have a history, you've chosen a road, and yes, you did know what you were doing.
(Darling, “Wendy Generation,” 12)
The play is also Chekhovian in the way it balances comedy and melancholy. While examining serious questions about identity, family, relationships, the democratization of Eastern Europe, the American recession, the plight of homelessness in London, bisexuality, and the predicament of women in mid-life, the play still manages to sustain a comic tone.
Wasserstein set out to write a play in which, for once, her female protagonist would not remain alone, but would connect with a man, “especially in a culture that tries to deny the possibility of love to women over thirty-five” (Darling, “Wendy Generation,” 12). She also wanted to place women of dignity on stage. In an interview Wasserstein has said, “the fact is, three middle-aged women on a stage who are accomplished and successful and not caricatures in our culture is still a surprise. And that's why I wanted to write this play” (Balakian, “Conversation,” 382). The play questions whether all women should want to marry. It also asks whether women's issues should be ghettoized.
The Sisters Rosensweig is Wasserstein's most skillfully written play to date. Even though it is a quintessentially New York play, full of New York and Jewish references, it grabbed audiences outside New York because it tells a well-structured story about three sisters who revel in telling stories. Unlike her previous plays, this one is a one-set, non-episodic play, complete with the unities of time, place, action, and with two stock characters who represent the polarities of English society: an upper-class snob, Nick Pym, and a young, working-class radical, Tom Valiunus. Its brilliance lies in its balance of humor and the serious issues of identity, self-hatred, and the possibility of romance and love when it seems no longer possible, or, sadder yet, no longer necessary. Wasserstein felt strongly about creating a role for a woman over forty who falls in love with a nice man at first sight. This is a play of possibilities, not just in terms of a middle-aged love, but in its exploration of characters who discover who they are. The Sisters Rosensweig is a Broadway play of the sort Wasserstein saw as a girl in New York, one that makes us laugh a little, sigh a little, and go home feeling that despite life's confusion and pain, things will somehow work out.
Nevertheless, Wasserstein is fully aware that life does not work out for all women. In 1994, riveted by the harassment experienced by Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier, Kimba Wood, Hillary Clinton, and later by the media hype surrounding Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Franklin, “Time,” 64), Wasserstein headed to Washington DC to do research for the most overtly political work of her career, a play about a woman in politics, An American Daughter. The Zoe Baird debacle was foremost in her mind. Baird, a corporate lawyer, nominated to be Attorney General, was forced to withdraw after it was learned that she and her husband had hired illegal aliens as domestic help. To Wasserstein, this excuse for denial of high office insulted all women of ambition and reminded her that “ingrained prejudices about women's roles die hard” (Marks, “Outsider,” 5). Moreover, the play also reflects her troubled awareness that women still hold only about 10 percent of the seats in Congress, and that politicians and journalists view issues like child care and sexual harassment as being “women's issues” rather than everyone's concern. “There's a danger in that kind of thinking,” says Wasserstein (Marks, “Outsider,” 5). Part political satire, part morality tale, An American Daughter (1996) not only takes a hard look at the media's destruction of the woman nominee for Surgeon General, but it also dramatizes the predicament of two different kinds of women coming to mid-life and having regrets, as well as the new generation of feminists.
In addition to examining Wasserstein's concern about sexism, in this play she scrutinizes the problems with liberalism for the first time. In fact, she had long wanted to compose a play about the liberal establishment (Marks, “Outsider,” 10), and, with President Clinton in office, the moment seemed right. She turned to her friend and former editor of The New Republic, Michael Kinsley, to check the play for accuracy. An American Daughter was also a first in another sense; this was the first of Wasserstein's plays to go directly to Broadway without an initial Off-Broadway run.
The play takes place in 1994 at the Georgetown home of Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kate Nelligan), the great-granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant. Lyssa Hughes is an idealistic, liberal doctor in her early forties who has just been nominated as Surgeon General by a Democratic president. She seems to have it all—a prominent sociologist for a husband, a comfortable Georgetown home with two children, and a medical career. On the other hand, her best friend, Dr. Judith Kaufman (Tony award-winning Lynne Thigpen), a black, Jewish oncologist, is desperately trying to conceive a child. Divorced from a gay, Jewish psychiatrist whose new partner is a florist-opera singer-doctor, and profoundly depressed about not having children, she tries to drown herself in the Potomac. But Lyssa's life does not turn out much more auspiciously. Her gay, politically conservative friend, Morrow, reveals to the media that she failed to respond to a jury notice, and thereby destroys her prospect for becoming Surgeon General. Moreover, her husband, Walter Abrahmson (Peter Riegert), a professor of sociology and author of an influential book on liberalism called Towards a Lesser Elite, cheats on her with his former student, the flashy, superficial feminist, Quincy Quince (Elizabeth Marvel). A Naomi Woolf-second-generation feminist, she has written a best-seller, The Prisoner of Gender. Timber Tucker (Cotter Smith), the journalist reminiscent of Forrest Sawyer, interviews Lyssa so ruthlessly that he forces her to withdraw her nomination for Surgeon General. Not even the spin doctor, Senator Hughes’ assistant, who is called in to coach Lyssa about how to present herself before the media, Billy Robbins (Peter Benson), can salvage her career. Lyssa's father, the famous Republican senator from Indiana, Alan Hughes, based on the former Wyoming senator, Alan Simpson (Hal Holbrook), wishes that he could have prevented his daughter from withdrawing her nomination, but she tells him about her decision only after she has decided to withdraw. The senator's socialite fourth wife, Charlotte “Chubby” Hughes (Penny Fuller), represents the generation of women before the feminist movement. In the end, both Lyssa Dent Hughes and Judith Kaufman have failed to achieve their aspirations. Nevertheless, Lyssa refuses to accept defeat and pronounces the words of her great-grandfather, Ulysses S. Grant, to his daughter, as she walks up the stairs to see her children, “our task is to rise and continue” (An American Daughter, 105).
The play concerns itself most centrally with the problems that accompany being a successful, intelligent, powerful woman in the public arena. Dr. Judith Kaufman is convinced that “a woman's life is all about boundaries,” that “women don't have heads, necks, or throats” (6), and she affirms that if Lyssa were a man, her failure to do jury duty would be a non-issue, an oversight. Quincy Quince, who believes that “sweet women are trapped by their own hostility” (5), has written The Prisoner of Gender, referring to it as “sexism made simple” (5). Quincy is convinced that Dr. Hughes is a prisoner of her gender. Because she assumed so many obligations, she overlooked her public obligation of responding to her jury notice. “The best intentions in females often become the seeds of their own destruction,” she explains. Still, she acknowledges that women have come a long way: “women in the twenties and thirties were [only] able to excel in show business, cosmetology, and aviation” (4). Believing that women have transcended the need for women mentors in the nineties, she has no problem with the fact that her academic mentor is a male professor, Walter. Without realizing it, however, she, too, is a prisoner of gender in her drive to “have it all.” Having two books to write, wanting to start her family before she focuses on her public life, concerned about restoring women's sexual identity, she plans to write another book called Venus Raging. “Sex for Lyssa's generation became just something else to be good at … We, on the other hand, want to come home to a warm penis” (35). Quincy, however, does not represent a hopeful future for the new generation of feminists. Only concerned with her fame, and lacking ethics, she has an affair with Lyssa's husband, her former professor. When Lyssa withdraws her nomination, she glibly remarks, “she's still gotten a lot of heat out of it” (81). Further, this nineties “feminist” is hardly articulate, using “like” before nearly every phrase she speaks.
Once again, then, Wasserstein explores the price that women pay when they try to “have it all.” Dr. Judith Kaufman prefers “the reliable variables of science” to the precariousness of public life, and Lyssa's experience with a muck-raking media drives her to conclude that she “does not know what really smart means anymore” and that “the Lyssa Dent Hughes generation is still twisting in the wind” (96).
Consequently, the play asks where a woman should go to find a role model. Lyssa has no such model in her family because she lost her mother at an early age. Her father asserts that Amy Fisher should have been her role model, instead of Eleanor Roosevelt and Florence Nightingale.2 Lyssa wishes her father could console her the way he did when she was a little girl: “I'd give anything for you to show up and say, ‘everything's going to be fine. Here's an awful red coat’” (102). Her father is powerless to help her in the face of social forces that destroy her. Dr. Kaufman also wants contemporary women role models on whom she can rely. The only noteworthies, however, were Mamie Eisenhower, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Lena Horne.3 But since she knew she wanted to be a scientist, only Marie Curie came close to her aspirations. Therefore, she had to invent herself.
While Lyssa is trying to bring feminism into the twenty-first century, Walter suggests that maybe feminism “should cease and desist in the twentieth century, like Soviet communism or the rotary dial” (41). Indeed, the spin doctor seems to verify this idea when he coaches Lyssa to emphasize her family values and her midwestern humility as opposed to her liberal, eastern, elitist political views. Lyssa is keenly aware that she has to play the role that the public demands, but she also insists on being true to herself: “I'm a senator's daughter, so I can put [the headband] on and I can take it off … I won't be hung out to dry … even if I have to wear a headband, bake cookies, or sing lullabies to do it” (83). When Lyssa takes off her headband, she takes off the pretense of being someone other than who she is.
Yet, her inability to be someone other than herself ultimately prevents her from assuming the position of Surgeon General. As director Dan Sullivan says, “the question that Lyssa confronts turns 1960s idealism on its head: can an ethical, progressive person enter public life without having to betray her values? … to be a politician, everyone has to turn into someone else.” From a feminist point of view, however, the play is about women as outsiders (Marks, “Outsider,” 5).
Charlotte, Lyssa's stepmother, represents the sensibility of women before the women's movement. For her, being a feminist means managing the Southampton Golf Club and being the first to host the Dinah Shore Classic. Similarly, Lyssa describes her mother as an ordinary Indiana housewife, who “took pride in her icebox cakes and cheese pimento canapes” (45). And when American women hear her describe her mother in this fashion, they feel assaulted and diminished. Lyssa represents the generation between her mother and Quincy, whom, Walter says, that Quincy must think of as “one of those seventies good girls who came to prominence in the nineties and schedules half an hour a day for spontaneity” (41).
Dr. Judith Kaufman represents the other polarity of the nineties woman, the one that gravitates to the conventional role of women, despite her accomplishment as a physician. She regrets the fact that she can neither “make life or stop death” (99), that she has let her life pass without having children. Her failed quest for fertility coincides with Lyssa's withdrawal from her nomination. Accordingly, the play is set during the festival of regrets. Their only consolation, then, is their friendship and moving on “with the second part of [their] lives.”
The play An American Daughter makes clear that women's liberation has a long way to go. Not only does Lyssa know that classic rock is “very paternal,” and represents the female body in misogynistic ways, but she is on a crusade to educate the public about women's health care and advocates reproductive rights. Indeed, a woman's vulnerability is most clearly evident in the health problems that are unique to women. Dr. Judith Kaufman is an oncologist, specializing in women's breast cancer. Rather than working together, however, women compete against each other, obstructing larger, political progress for women. For instance, the female public opinion is running against Lyssa Dent Hughes four to one, in part because she is successful, attractive, and has two great kids. Further, American women find her condescending and elitist. After watching her on television, her children tell her that the public thinks that their mother is “what's wrong with America” (71). As Walter says, “in the heartland that means you're one prissy privileged, ungrateful to her mother, conniving bitch” (64). For this reason, Lyssa's stepmother cautions her to protect her family and marriage because jealous or disappointed people will destroy her. She knows that trying to impress the public will ruin Lyssa's life, so she advises her to find a way “to move forward gracefully” (68).
America betrays both women. Not only can women not count on other women to support them, but they also cannot rely on their close friends. Morrow, the conservative gay man, who is supposed to be a close family friend, reveals the fact that Lyssa failed to do jury duty, claiming “I forgot they were people I know and like” (78). The journalist is equally pernicious. His interview with Lyssa consists of brutal questions about whether she resented her mother, whether she is too perfect for the American public, whether she likes her father's fourth wife. Further, he pits Lyssa against her father. The talk show becomes the nineties vehicle for betrayal. Lyssa retorts that her answers to these questions have nothing to do with her potential competence as Surgeon General. American women, she boldly asserts, should instead concern themselves with retaining their reproductive rights, with the fact that breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer research are grossly underfunded compared to prostate cancer, and with teenage drug addiction and pregnancy. After the televised interview, Timber tells Lyssa, “I tried to warn you” (94), but his remark merely reinforces his unethical behavior. Thus, the play dramatizes the power of the media to ruin lives, and the voices of the media at the doorway infiltrate the living room each time the senator enters.
As much as the play attacks sexism, it assaults liberalism. Judith points out that Morrow and the brightest minds misguidedly believe that “sexual preference is the reason for all personal and societal happiness” (26). Gay awareness, however, will not solve all social problems. “There won't be a national health insurance or decent schools because of where you choose to place your penis” (26). Moreover, she complains that AIDS receives more attention than women's cancer. Wasserstein makes a bold dramatic decision in having her gay character destroy her protagonist's career. Morrow has converted to the far right “because of the inconsistency of the left.” He is convinced that “left-wing rage for selective privilege or self-righteous entitlement” (27) is far more insidious than his conversion to the right. Indeed, he attributes Lyssa's oversight of her jury notice to her liberal sense of entitlement; she was too busy with her professional and political duties to fulfill her civic ones. Morrow, however, is more concerned about his immediate well-being than with the larger social direction of America, just as the media is.
If social forces betray Lyssa Dent Hughes, feminists might also argue that the play betrays radical feminist values by espousing rather traditional values for women. After all, Lyssa's father tells her that she read too many books about Eleanor Roosevelt and Florence Nightingale when she should have found more sensible heroines like Arianna Huffington4 and Amy Fisher. While Lyssa tells Dr. Kaufman that “all lives don't have to be about children” (11), she nevertheless confesses that her “greatest privilege is my family” (90). Her stepmother also advises her to protect her family and marriage before her career, and she confides to her husband, “I never intended for our lives to become about me” (71). It is also curious that Lyssa's two children are boys rather than girls. At the end we hear them yelling for Mom, as if to say, “Mom, where are you??!” as if suggesting that Lyssa's ultimate responsibility, like the fate of many professional mothers, lies with her children.
Critics accurately point out that, in An American Daughter, Wasserstein is “one of the few American playwrights since S. N. Behrman to create a commercial comedy of manners with moral and social heft” (Brantiey, “Hostile Glare,” C14-16). A New York Magazine critic wrote that “Wasserstein valiantly juggles several genres: drawing-room comedy, comedy of manners, political satire, a social problem play, and a domestic infidelity drama” (April 28, 1997, 102-03). Some critics, however, claimed that the play does not know where it is going, despite Wasserstein's ear for dialogue and sense of craft. On the contrary, the play's direction is quite clear: the media destroy the career of a dedicated public servant, not because of her qualifications, but because of a minor oversight. As Wasserstein says, “what happens to women, sometimes, is blatantly unfair” (Balakian, “Interviews,” 70). The play is about the sadness of a generation in a personal and a political sense. It probes questions about women's identity and self-determination. Well into their forties, the characters in An American Daughter have found that being amazing has its own disappointments. Whereas her earlier plays had to do with women in the process of making choices, now her characters find themselves in predicaments as a result of the choices they have made. But whatever their obstacles and disappointments, they persevere. Finally, Wasserstein insists on the American quality of the Lyssa Dent Hughes predicament. A descendant of Ulysses S. Grant, whose family is “American and has been for generations” (103), Lyssa should have inherited the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, she is a prisoner of her gender. In a choral moment, her father the senator says, “there's one idea of America out there right now I just can't grab onto … It's certainly not our most illuminating or honest hour” (101).
Each of Wasserstein's plays, then, wistfully explores the predicament of well-educated women trying to have it all—fulfilled personal and professional lives—within a sexist society. She is convinced that “the issues of women would not be taken care of unless women take care of them” (Balakian, “Interviews,” 66). The plays reflect her stinging awareness that girls are taught to be nice, to make things work for people, at the expense of themselves. And they all have a distinctly New York, Jewish flavor. Moreover, with the exception of Lyssa Dent Hughes in An American Daughter, her characters never experience cataclysmic tragedies, but rather a Chekhovian, middle-class combination of melancholic sadness, moments of regrets, and moments of comedy. They affirm that there are possibilities in life, along with great sadnesses. Uncommon Women and Others attempts to define feminism as it dramatizes the confusion and aspirations of women graduating from college. In effect, it conveys that the women's movement has really not been successful. Isn't It Romantic explores the complexity of relationships, the price of independence, the difficulty of finding one's identity, and being Jewish in New York. The Heidi Chronicles grapples with the collapse of the feminist movement during two decades of change, while The Sisters Rosensweig comes to terms with being Jewish and with the possibility of love for a middle aged woman in the context of the Russian coup. Her darkest and most searing play to date, An American Daughter, reveals the harassment experienced by women in politics, while also attacking liberalism. Thus, in each play, Wasserstein is a kind of sociologist, probing the psyche of “serious, good” American women (Balakian, “Interviews,” 70), who have questions about their identity and self-determination, in a society that continues to impose double standards on them. However tortured her characters are, their humor sustains them.
See Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Reading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts.”
Amy Fisher (1974-) was sentenced to prison for first degree assault against Mary-Jo Buttafuoco. She allegedly had an affair with Buttafuoco's husband. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) began her own political work in support of her husband, the future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1921, the year he was stricken with polio. A humanitarian and social worker, she served as one of the first delegates to the United Nations, and was one of the most influential and beloved first ladies in American history. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was an English nurse, the founder of modern nursing.
Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979) was the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. White gloves were so integral to her public image as first lady that they became emblematic of a lady-like female middle-class ideal in the 1950s. Dorothy Kilgallen (1913-65) was a journalist and television personality in the fifties. In 1936 she had challenged and beaten Nellie Bly's biggest stunt, breaking the record of Jules Verne's hero in Around the World in Eighty Days. Lena Horne (1917-) is a singer and actress. In 1943, she became the first black performer to have a long-term contract with a major movie studio.
Arianna Huffington is a well-known author, lecturer, and broadcaster. Her books include The Female Woman, on the feminist movement, biographies of Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso, works on Greek mythology, and on the intersection of politics and culture. She also wrote The Fourth Instinct, on the longing for meaning in a secular world. She is a frequent guest on national television and speaks often on culture and politics. A Senior Fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, she chairs its Center for Effective Compassion.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
SOURCE: Shengold, David. Review of The Festival of Regrets, by Wendy Wasserstein. Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 126-28.
[In the following review, Shengold comments on the humor of The Festival of Regrets—which was first performed as part of a production of three one-act operas titled Central Park—noting the comic effect of the interplay between the libretto and the musical score.]
Since moving to the intimate, comfortable, and technically outstanding Alice Busch Theatre in 1987, Glimmerglass Opera has maintained an increasingly high musical standard while offering some of the most theatrically innovative and satisfying opera productions in the country. Festival rehearsal conditions and the presence of a strong Young American Artists program predispose Glimmerglass to adventuresome programming in both baroque and contemporary directions. The 1999 festival centered on the world premiere of a triptych of works co-commissioned with the New York City Opera (NYCO) and WNET/Great Performances. Central Park proved a true pièce d'occasion. If hardly compositionally distinguished or a lasting contribution to the repertory, these three short operas emerged in Mark Lamos's dynamic production as a stimulating evening of theatre and a cannily calibrated celebration of the company's strengths as it achieves synergy with City Opera.
Indeed, the very nature of the project bespeaks sophisticated marketing savvy. The vast publicity afforded the trilogy inevitably centered on the three librettists, not only accomplished and celebrated playwrights but virtual iconic embodiments of the three demographically key elements of Glimmerglass and NYCO's core audience: affluent Jewish New York Times true believers, upper class WASPs, and well-heeled gay white men. Rarely since the court entertainments of the seventeenth century can opera have been so conceptually flattering to its intended audience. Most of the characters and events depicted onstage reflect, to a degree rare in opera, the ostensible concerns and semiotic vocabulary of the theatre's patrons.
Although the production incorporated some sexually ambiguous looks and two apprentice artists of color in minor roles, the scripted vision of Central Park is a Giulianian utopia of unalloyed straightness and whiteness in which Greek Americans figure as the (relative) Ethnic Other. Only in class terms does the picture vary slightly: in Strawberry Fields A. R. Gurney's starring dowager and graduate student briefly argue over a bench with what must be termed “an uppity proletarian,” and Terence McNally puts a homeless mother at the center of The Food of Love. However, in so doing he dangerously yielded the solipsistically inclined diva Lauren Flanigan the opportunity to undercut any intended social criticism. The casting throughout the evening, however, was uniformly strong. Lamos has shown consistently at Glimmerglass his talent for fashioning believable onstage communities and deploying the company's talented apprentice singers to great advantage. Michael Yeargen's stark but strongly achieved set, with potted trees and a video monitor displaying the unpeopled landscapes of Vaux and Olmstead's great urban creation, deftly underlined the irony of creating this portrait of Manhattan's heart amidst the lushly manicured rural comfort of Cooperstown.
Wendy Wasserstein and Deborah Drattel's The Festival of Regrets served as an ice-breaker for an audience tensely anticipating an encounter with contemporary opera. Within minutes, references underlying Wasserstein's boulevard humor flooded the stage (to Brearley, Starbucks, Prufrock, and the like), convulsing many spectators. The author disarmingly observed at a festival symposium that the line, “I'm a senior at Dalton,” would not draw laughter in a play but sounds funny in the context of operatic music. Indeed, her modestly bittersweet interplay of archetypical characters helps distract from the limited charms of Drattel's percussive score, here quite lacking in the rhythmic snap and daring abandon of the klezmer music to which it often draws critical comparison. The awkward musical prosody caused particular vocal problems for Flanigan, who nevertheless gave a comically brilliant physical performance. The most effective blend of music and text came (aptly) in the moving ensemble in which the leads cast their regrets upon the waters (here the orchestra pit). The final coupling-off of characters, however, stretched credulity.
Credulity stretched further in Gurney's nakedly sentimental tale of a sweetly daft Old Lady in furs mistaking a park bench for her subscription seat at the Old Met. With the help of a young male figure out of Tennessee Williams, the piece sinks into perhaps the most sanitized image of parental death since Cocoon. The sensibility throughout seems drawn from the 1980s, with caricatured heartless yuppie offspring, references to a “stereo,” and teenagers making pilgrimages to honor John Lennon. Michael Torke's music, unflatteringly set for his protagonist, rarely rises above syrupy arioso; the exception, once again, is a clever concerted ensemble in which the lovely Margaret Lloyd as the uncaring Daughter shines musically even while twittering about her “fitting at Bergdorf's.” And yet Strawberry Fields works. Drenched in autumnal light supplied by Robert Wierzel (Glimmerglass lights brilliantly), the power of identification, coupled with the easy charm of Jeffrey Lentz and a radiantly engaging central performance by Joyce Castle, palpably drew the audience in. Castle scored the triumph of the evening.
One feels gratitude to McNally for introducing, if only in a fairly resistible Marian allegory, some serious urban issues (homelessness, police brutality, evaporating support for social justice). The times of day flashed on the television monitor added to the sense of urgency in Robert Beaser's effective score, the most musically sophisticated of the three as well as the most attentive to word values. The Food of Love presents intriguing images for the inequities and contradictions inherent in New York life—zoo animals regularly fed, but not homeless children. Again, the ensemble cast performed small miracles of sharp characterization. But an element of self-regard in both the libretto and the leading performance loosened the demand that Lamos's imagistically rich staging and Stewart Robertson's tautly responsive orchestra made on the audience's sympathy.
Central Park played in the vastly larger space of the New York State Theatre during its November City Opera four-performance run. The company might well schedule more performances, as the new operas have attracted considerable buzz in the city whose many-textured life they celebrate. Fortunately, the PBS broadcast taped at Glimmerglass will present to millions a compelling introduction to this questing and often dazzling company.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
SOURCE: Review of Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties, by Wendy Wasserstein. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 17 (23 April 2001): 60.
[In the following review, the critic praises the “pedestrian” themes of Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties but finds the collection repetitive and stale except for the last two essays.]
Noted playwright Wasserstein offers up 35 essays [in Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties], most of which have appeared over the years in such publications as the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Allure and the New York Times Magazine. Now in her late 40s, the humorist tackles topics such as dieting, the theater, her late cat, Manhattan real estate and Thanksgiving. She also trains her eye on public figures such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis. The book falls prey, however, to the usual dangers of such collections: repetition (The Heidi Chronicles, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is mentioned countless times) and staleness (e.g., the Clinton-Dole debates are one essay's backdrop, and an observation that Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow “really, really love each other” undermines the opening of another). Here, we meet a single woman who, despite the trappings of success and fame, is dealing with pedestrian issues and anxieties. While these brief anecdotes tap familiar humor wells and sometimes wax sentimental, readers are duly rewarded by the final two longer essays: one deals with the breast cancer of Wasserstein's sister and the other with Wasserstein's pregnancy at age 48. Both pieces are moving, written with notable humor and heartbreaking poignancy, as when she describes her premature newborn daughter, just out of intensive care: “Lucy Jane was almost weightless. Her tiny legs dangled like a doll's. Her diaper was the size of a cigarette pack. I opened my sweater and put her inside. Her face was smaller than an apple.” Wasserstein, once described as a Neil Simon for the feminist set, may at times alienate male readers, not through bashing (the men who appear are essentially likable) but rather through their exclusion from the emotional lens. Wasserstein writes for a certain audience. And for the most part, they should not be disappointed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9710
SOURCE: Chirico, Miriam M. “Female Laughter and Comic Possibilities: Uncommon Women and Others.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 339-59. New York: Routledge, 2001.
[In the following essay, Chirico examines the traditional comic structure, characters, and spirit of Uncommon Women and Others, arguing that the formal features of comedy suit the play's feminist perspective on women's place in patriarchal society.]
But when I grew weary or disgruntled—I too, like Emily Dickinson, tired of the world and sometimes found it lacking—the gentler joys of tea, sherry, and conversation with women friends—and I've made many good ones here—have always been for me a genuine pleasure.
It was all hypothetical.
For Wendy Wasserstein, comedy is a way of concretizing hypothetical scenarios: “Sometimes funny things are almost like the fantasy, and then it comes real” (Interview 1988, 270). Her comedy Uncommon Women and Others puts this theory into practice by inviting the audience into the all-female world of Mount Holyoke College to witness a group of women create and define themselves in the wake of the feminist movement. Written originally as a one-act play for her Master's thesis at Yale School of Drama in 1975, Uncommon Women grew out of Wasserstein's desire to see an all-women's curtain call at the end of a performance. Uncommon Women, constructed as a series of vignettes, develops out of the collective flashback of a group of five college friends in a restaurant in 1978 to their senior year in college, six years earlier. While the vignettes connect loosely into a narrative, they are mainly episodic, exploring the different personalities of these women, their enjoyment of or irritation with each other, and their means of making (or evading) decisions at critical points in their lives. Wasserstein's play shows the confusion these women experience during a turbulent period of the early 1970s, when the feminist movement offered new opportunities and roles to women, oftentimes without the reassurance necessary to make these decisions (Interview 1987, 420). Nothing changes in these characters' lives during the course of the play except that they graduate by the end, but it is the “emotional action”—a quality which is so much a part of Chekhov's dramatic design—that guides the play (Interview 1987, 430).
As social critique, the genre of comedy is often overlooked by women playwrights, either for its lack of authorial weight or inability to treat serious issues, a bias which originates with Aristotle's dismissal of comedy in the Poetics. Wasserstein's plays are often criticized for their lack of serious subject matter in comparison to other female playwrights such as Marsha Norman and Beth Henley. Benedict Nightingale, writing about Isn't It Romantic, criticizes Wasserstein's humor as “too strong, too infectious” (14), making it difficult to take her characters seriously and preventing Wasserstein from probing beneath the surface of the play to explore the pain more rigorously. John Simon also voices the concern that the playwright and the characters are too young to have had any meaningful experiences in their lives upon which they can reflect, although he seems to ignore the “coming-of-age” paradigm considered crucial in the developmental literature of young men. However, Wasserstein draws on a long tradition of comedy to reify her all-woman space, specifically comedy's emphasis on surmounting obstacles, creating community, and discovering alternative solutions.
Wasserstein's own theoretical reasoning of humor within her plays is that it permits women to disclose painful incidents while simultaneously deflecting that pain, and to discuss distressing events or feelings without naming them directly. “You are there [in the moment], and you are not there,” she explains, adding, “You don't share equally about every topic” (Interview 1987, 425). The dialogue that results is a kind of layered conversation, where the humorous, spoken remarks at the surface belie the pain underneath, creating a subtext to almost every conversation that the audience senses on a nonverbal level (Interview 1987, 425). Holly's speech near the end of act 2 of Uncommon Women, for example, demonstrates this kind of subtext in which she expresses the fears she has for her future. Calling Dr. Mark Silverstein on the telephone, a man she has only met once at the Fogg Museum, she launches into a free-associative diatribe about her life and her friends at college. At one point in the rather one-sided conversation she admits that she giggles a lot and is too cynical: “I had my sarcastic summer when I was sixteen and somehow it exponentially progressed. Leilah—she's my nice friend who's merging with Margaret Mead—says sarcasm is a defense. Well, I couldn't very well call you up and tell you to move me to Minneapolis and let's have babies, could I?” she asks, hinting at the worries underlying her entire monologue. Through her jokes about being in a Salinger story and girls who “good-ga-davened” (prayed correctly) and thus married doctors, she exposes her fears that her life will not satisfy her mother's expectations for her, nor her own, although she is “having trouble remembering what [she] want[s]” (63). Through her use of humor, she reveals her desires and fears while simultaneously distancing herself from the present moment, as if to say, “this is me and not me”—a device which Wasserstein uses with all her characters.
While this example demonstrates how Wasserstein's humor works at the immediate, personal level, it does not illustrate how the genre of comedy supports and frames the play as a whole and permits a serious treatment of feminism. The fact that Wasserstein approaches a “woman-conscious drama” through a comic lens enables her to examine the feminist issues with hopefulness and vitality within a communal setting. While tragedy deals with change and development over time and usually focuses on the individual, comedy leans toward the episodic and the momentary with an emphasis on relationships between people. Through an examination of the play's traditional comic structure, comic characters, and comic spirit, I argue that Wasserstein's comedic form provides an ideal medium to examine feminist issues because it reinforces the female space and stems the patriarchal tides that constantly threaten to undermine the women's world.
STRUCTURE OF COMEDY
The play's temporal structure is a flashback from 1978 to 1972, when the women are seniors at college. This shift in time from the mature, present moment of their adult lives to the period of youthful irresponsibility which defined their college years reflects a pattern traditionally found in comedy. M. M. Bakhtin defines this as the period of “carnival” where normal behavior and rules are reversed. Northrop Frye and C. L. Barber both witness this structure in Shakespeare's comedies, Frye depicting it as the ternary movement from the everyday to holiday and back (171) and Barber comparing it to a “Saturnalian” pattern. This period of holiday is often marked by licentious behavior and subversive temperament. The medieval and Elizabethan customs of mocking religious practices permitted a type of release from a rulebound society, a release which was beneficial for the expulsion of “aberrant impulse and thought” (Barber 13). Within a designated frame of time, unruly, drunken, and ludic behavior was encouraged, as participants desecrated the sacred elements in the church and participated in sacrilegious acts, ruined holy statues, broke traditions, and deviated from everyday protocol. Nor was this behavior merely a release from the strictures of decorum and political life; the participants returned to the quotidian space with a better understanding of the status quo and hierarchical forces that held it in place. Just as Demetrius's experience of the world is altered when he returns from the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream and says, “Methinks I see things with parted eye, / When everything seems double” (4.1 188-9), the dreamlike memories of their college days in an all-women's environment infiltrate the women's present view of the world and shape how they see reality.
This classic comedic shift into the holiday mode that the flashback initiates should not be overlooked; the transition into the fantastical “green world” of their college days permits Wasserstein to demonstrate exactly how the hypothetical space of the all-female world has shaped the characters' adult identities in the “present” moment of 1978. Even though their college experience was real to them at one point in time, the scenes unfolding before the audience are fantasy, and like fantasy, allow the characters to propose situations, to play, and to imagine. Wasserstein's comic frame in this play introduces this gesture of playful abandon not just for comic relief but as a means of exploring and understanding the patriarchal rules underlying society. This move back in time to college—to the “holiday world”—is what permits revelry and licenses nonsense, what allows the women to propose various possibilities and to revel in an “artificial” world away from the rules of patriarchal relationships. As the women in the play overturn gender stereotypes and poke fun at sexual limitation, they participate in a similar form of carnival, of mocking the status quo momentarily only to return to it with a better understanding of who they are as women and how they define their new roles.1 For example, Rita's strong belief in reversing the power dynamics of sexual intimacy enables her to put feminism immediately into practice: she relates having left “Johnny Cabot lying there after [she'd] had an orgasm and he hadn't,” or choosing to spend time with Clark who is a wonderful lover, even though he is a homosexual, explaining, “He's creative. I've had enough of those macho types” (34). Rita, always the “Lord [or Lady] of Misrule,” also mischievously proposes that men should be forced to menstruate, that they “should be forced to answer phones on a white Naugahyde receptionist's chair with a cotton lollipop stuck up their crotch” (37).2 While the image is farcical, what Rita deduces from this hypothetical suggestion succinctly reveals how men gain power over women's bodies through their construction of weakness as biologically linked. As she notes:
The only problem with menstruation for men is that some sensitive schmuck would write about it for the Village Voice and he would become the new expert on women's inner life. Dr. David Ruben, taking time out to menstruate over the July Fourth weekend, has concluded that “women are so much closer to the universe because they menstruate, and therefore they seek out lemon-freshened borax, hair spray, and other womb-related items.”
What Rita stumbles upon in her hypothetical scenario is that men, if able to menstruate, would privilege the process as something valuable and natural, rather than unmentionable. She also demonstrates how men shape the ways in which women experience their bodies, as in believing that menstruation leads to an immediate desire for borax. Her hypothesis is skin to the kind of “truth-in-foolery” that the figure of the feel or clown offers in comedies, such as Lear's feel who constantly reminds Lear of his error through his puns and paradoxical riddles. Through her parodic proposal, she is able to comically point out truths which underlie patriarchal control, namely that a woman's ability to lead or to work is not affected by menstruating but rather by society's attitude towards menstruation—an attitude that would quickly change if men menstruated.
By placing her characters in a single-sex environment, Wasserstein situates the action in an alternate reality that both critiques the dominant society and offers diverse possibilities. A single-sex education provides women with the space and environment to develop intellectually and emotionally away from the oftentimes oppressive presence of men. Proponents of all-women's education argue that the presence of women in positions of leadership while at college provides models for their experience in the world after they graduate. They believe that altering young women's views of what women are capable of doing will lead them to expect and demand that women fulfill positions of leadership even after college—that the vision of an altered reality leads to the creation of a different world. Wasserstein uses the comic genre to explore this implicit directive behind an all-woman's college because comedy permits such self-fashioning and experimentation with identity by its speculative and hypothetical nature. Through its practice of inversion and its departure from the “everyday” into “holiday,” comedy explores the sense of “what if?” as it probes the possibilities of an alternative world where women have as much power as men and allows the women to try on those roles. George Santayana discusses how this hypothetical mode occurs most readily in the realm of comedy in his essay “The Comic Mask.” He praises the advantage of the comic form for providing the exploration of potential and possibilities:
Perhaps the time has come to suspend those exhortations, and to encourage us to be sometimes a little lively, and see if we can invent something worth saying or doing. We should then be living in the spirit of comedy, and the world would grow young. Every occasion would don its comic mask, and make its bold grimace at the world for a moment. We should be constantly original without effort and without shame, somewhat as we are in dreams, and consistent only in sincerity; and we should gloriously emphasize all the poses we fell into, without seeking to prolong them.
The all-women's environment that the women inhabit in the “dream mode” is equivalent to this space that Santayana proposes, permitting the women to try out specific roles through their spontaneous playacting and improvisational games. Their uninhibited poses and grimaces appear as the women test their own “uncommon potential” and their friends' wit. They playfully define a society without men as a positive one, as when Kate depicts her ideal society as an all-woman community, where everyone participates in child care and men visit only on the weekends. While this separatist community sounds remarkably similar to her experience at college, she insists that her plan is different because it “doesn't get boring,” since each weekend the men are different and interesting people—“Arabian millionaires, poets, lumberjacks. Not corporate lawyers, or MBAs” (38). In her hypothetical scenario, Kate foresees a society that does not rely on men for economic, governmental, or parental reasons, but only for sexual needs, and in fact willingly excludes them. Holly similarly reveals her own idealistic scenario of being “divorced and living with two children on Central Park West” (38), highlighting the absence rather than presence of men in her life. At this point of the evening, Rita proposes the marriage game.
Reassured by Rita that this is “a nice game for nice girls,” each woman chooses a friend who would make a good wife and gives reasons for her choice: Rita selects Samantha, for example, because she is “the perfect woman,” while Kate picks Carter because she is more imaginative than she is. This scene of homosocial bonding allows the women to reverse society's dictates on marriage if only temporarily, a gesture reaffirming the women's desire to stay together. The game expands Kate's previous notion of an all-women's society and encourages the women to indicate the very qualities about one another that they admire and love. While Kate is quick to denounce the game as frivolous, protesting “It was all hypothetical” (42) when Carter discovers Kate's choice to marry her, this game goes beyond mere play by demonstrating the possibility at least of choosing a life partner of the same sex rather than unquestioningly following society's view of marriage as strictly a heterosexual union. Arguing precisely against this premise that women are innately heterosexual, Adrienne Rich demonstrates in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” how this belief ultimately undermines or harms any kind of female support of one another or any kind of female relationship as lesser value than marital union to a man. These women use their “game” to weaken the institution of heterosexual construction of marriage and to grant them a greater appreciation of their own intimacy; as Susan Carlson notes, “Its direct substitutions of female-female marriage for the traditional male-female kind must be read as a challenge to a world and comedy that expect otherwise” (570).
As Shakespeare completes his comic dramas with multiple marriages and a dance, Wasserstein uses the dance as a means of unifying this group of women. Rita, moving the women's game back to a “safe” heterosexual level by announcing that they should celebrate the fact “that none of our marriage proposals have been reciprocated” (41), suggests that they dance—the typical comic convention of a society righting itself. However, this dance subverts the usual convention. Dance, as an activity rooted in the body, has traditionally conveyed heterosexual union in performance, from ballets to ballroom dances, to Hollywood musicals, to folk dances. Wasserstein adopts this classical idiom and reverses it to show these women physically enjoying one another's presence and bodies; they compliment Kate on her dancing and encourage Samantha's grotesque imitation of her fiancé's dance moves. The marriage game, coming at a culminating moment at the end of act 1, represents a lesbian continuum in Rich's sense of the word, not necessarily sexual intimacy, but rather as a woman-identified experience—any form of intense and intimate relationships among women. The placement of this dance at the end of act 1 rather than at the end of the play as in traditional dramas can be read several ways. Susan Carlson sees this placement as indicative of Wasserstein's avoidance of comedy's easy endings; knowing that the play could not realistically end with a glib gesture of a dance, “she indulged her dreams and her characters' dreams of togetherness in this wish-fulfilling pseudo-ending” of act 1 (570). However, I read this dance as one of many signifying moments of union that occur throughout the play, such as the circular grouping in the restaurant or the group hug at the play's end. This dance permeates the drama's structure; rather than the traditional unifying gesture at the play's end as a goal to be reached, the placement of dance suggests that the group's sense of togetherness is a constant force. Just this one scene introduces three female spaces in three different representational modes: the narrated suggestion of Kate's all-women community, the dramatized proposals of marriage, and the communal dance which usurps a heterosexual ritual and challenges it. This dance represents feminism powerfully and immediately, more so than any theory would; Kate invokes Germaine Greer's name, in fact, asking, “Do you think Germaine Greet remembers the night she danced with her best friends in a women's dormitory at Cambridge?” to which Rita responds, “No. She was probably into dating and makeup” (41), dismissing theory in favor of female friendship.
Thus the holiday moment of the collective flashback allows the women to move back in time to a place where they played with possibilities of identity and of visions for their world, freeing them from the constrained attitudes of their adult lives. The audience, witnessing their lives at college, is privy to how this space of potentialities shaped their adult identities as independent and “uncommon” women. Wasserstein does not rely merely on comedy's structure, however, to explore feminist issues; she utilizes specific, comic character types that possess certain functions within the comic tradition, chiefly the Lord of Misrule, the scapegoat, and the benevolent grandfather.
Comedy, known primarily for its extravagant characters that are exaggerations of human idiosyncrasies and foibles, provokes our laughter as we perceive ourselves or others in the mimicry, as in the case of Molière's Tartuffe or Shakespeare's Falstaff. These caricatures appear in Uncommon Women in the guise of Susie Friend and Carter. “Susie Friend was a device,” Wasserstein explains. “If you see Uncommon Women as a spectrum of women: on one end, there's Susie Friend, and on the other, there's Carter, the intellectual. … Lots of women I know have grown up with Susie Friends. Now that's a woman's story! There have always been these little organizers in women's colleges. Of course, now they're organizing banks!” (Interview 1987, 422-3). She uses these two women as shorthand devices for stock character types with whom women can readily identify from their own experiences, as figures who represent certain distinctive traits—the officious, ingratiating organizer, or the ethereal, eccentric intellectual—and who add a comic and realistic texture to the play. But in addition to these rapidly drawn Stereotypes, Wasserstein uses characters typical to comedy, characters not defined by their personalities but rather by their function in advancing the comic plot. Frye discusses “typical characters of comedy” in his essay “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” but he is quick to stipulate that he does not intend “to reduce lifelike characters to stock types.” Rather he explains that characterization depends on what function the character fulfills within the comic plot, either by acting as an obstacle to the protagonist's happiness or providing the solution to a problem. He therefore defines the scapegoat and the benevolent grandfather figures by their purpose within the comic structure. He mentions the scapegoat in his discussion of comedy's scenario: “Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character” (165), while the grandfather is a type of eiron figure, or self-deprecator.3
The Lord of Misrule is the person chosen in medieval carnival practice to lead the festivities and incite the rebellious behavior. Rita, described in the list of characters as having walked with the Yale Crew Team through the Yale Cross Campus Library wearing cowbells on her dress, serves as the primum mobile of mischief for this group of women. She stirs up unknown emotions and reveals the unexpected, ultimately forcing her friends to view their world differently. Paying more than lip service to feminist ideas, she applies the theories pragmatically. She informs Leilah and Holly that the “entire society is based on cocks,” citing the New York Times, Walter Cronkite, and shopping malls as examples, concluding that the reason she feels alienated is “'cause I came into the world without a penis” (34). Not only has she has made Rorschach tests with her menstrual blood to summon back the ghost of Edvard Munch, but she also announces to her friends in one scene that she has tasted her own menstrual blood because Germaine Greer has designated this “the test of the truly liberated woman” (37). She derides authority and tells the new student Carter that their housemother, Mrs. Plumm, has syphilis. As the instigator of disobedience and the spirit of chaos incarnate, Rita alternatively shocks and delights her friends as she invites them to join her in her exuberant overthrow of sexual limitations. Thriving on smutty comments and bawdy topics, Rita leads the women into conversations that are sexual in nature, requesting they discuss such topics as masturbation. Smut is usually the domain of men, as Sigmund Freud notes in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. He writes that “smut was originally directed towards women and may be equated with attempts at seduction” (97) because it forces the listener to imagine the particular body part mentioned and to become sexually aroused as a consequence. Thus Rita, reveling in a locker-room discourse usually identified with men, claims power by reversing the gender identification associated with bawdy humor. The joke is now on those members in the audience who believe women to be demure creatures hesitant to make ribald comments, let alone think about sex.
In one of the first scenes in which Rita appears, she stands up in front of the group to do a lewd impersonation of Susie Friend, the exasperating super-achiever:
Hi, I'm Susie Friend. I love finger sandwiches, Earl Grey, and Cambridge. I'm a psychology major, head of freshmen in North Stimson Hall, and I wax my legs. I'd let a Harvard man, especially from the business school or law school, violate my body for three hours; Princeton, for two hours and fifty minutes, because you have to take a bus and a train to get there; Yale, for two hours and forty-five minutes, because my dad went there and it makes me feel guilty; Dartmouth, for two hours and thirty minutes because it takes them time to warm up; Columbia, I just don't know, because of the radical politics and the neighborhood. I learned that in psychology. Now, if I could have a Wellesley girl, or Mrs. Plumm, that would be different.
Through this preposterous litany, Rita not only mocks Susie Friend's time-management attitude towards sexual intercourse, but she also derides the Ivy League for its long history of excluding women.4 Rita's list of Ivy League colleges with Susie Friend's supposed sexual responses reveals the hypocrisy of a system which deems only men educated at prestigious, Ivy League schools as worthy of marriage, a system which perpetuates a snobbery among the educated elite of this country and implicates the women, such as Susie Friend, in this attitude as well. More importantly, through this monologue cum stand-up routine, Rita creates an audience about her and brings the women together through the act of watching and listening to her. For as much as clowning figures disrupt the social order, they also unite disparate individuals. Remarking on their ability to create and guide an audience in Hopi Clay, Hopi Ceremony, Seymour Koenig attests to clowns' ability to “constantly work to include, interest, and amuse the spectators” (quoted in Babcock 120). Rita's impulse to draw attention to herself creates a focal point around which the group of women congregates and coalesces.
Rita's sense of jest enables her to retain her individuality and belief in her capabilities, and she provides a role model for her friends. She describes an interview with a publishing house in New York to edit beauty hints for women. At the end of a “delightful” interview, when asked by her “delighted” interviewer whether she had experience with a Xerox machine, Rita snappily responded, “Yes. And I've tasted my menstrual blood” (60), clearly ruining the interview but showing her remarkable spirit and rebellious attitude towards a regimented world. Taking her lead from Germaine Greer, albeit out of context, she voices a fundamental belief of feminism, not that a woman should not take a secretarial position, but that she should not live “down” to expectations—no matter whose. But more than a feminist stance, her laughter frees her from the oppressive forces working to quell her individuality. Nancy Wilson Ross, in The World of Zen, quotes a Zen student saying “When we laugh we are free of all the oppression of our personality, or that of others” (quoted in Babcock 116), justifying the gesture which underlies Rita's dalliance with authority.
On the other side from this iconoclastic “Lord of Misrule” stands the scapegoat figure, the character who prevents everyone's fun and who must be eliminated. Kate and Leilah's competition with one another demonstrates another way in which women relate, although not necessarily a positive one. Kate's best friend for the first three years of college, Leilah has recently grown distant from Kate, does not appear at tea, and spends all her time in her room. She avoids Kate because Kate's successes diminish her own sense of self-worth. Instead she hovers at the periphery of the circle of women as a dark, shadowy character who is unable to join in the festivities. Wasserstein touches on the forbidden topic of female competition since competition's emphasis on power and domination flies in the face of sisterhood and solidarity and is ultimately “a way of measuring accomplishment that is utterly patriarchal in its conception” (Rosenblum 175). Competition implies that one person's success means another's failure, which is a belief antithetical of feminism's tenets of collaboration and nurturance of one another's goals. Furthermore, because women have traditionally competed for men, one would suppose in an all-women's environment this competition would disappear, and yet the male judgmental eye is closer than would be expected; Muffet tries to reassure Leilah of her worth by quoting her boyfriend: “Pink Pants says you're prettier than Katie” (49). Leilah's father, too, congratulates Leilah on her choice of Kate as a friend, which encourages Leilah's desire to be like Kate in order to please her father. Likewise, an academic setting based on a patriarchal system of awards and acceptance to graduate schools instills in these women the competitive drive associated with male behavior, encouraging them to compare themselves to others in order to increase their own sense of worth; as Kate reassuringly tells Leilah: “Just think, you could be Muffet, or Samantha, or, God forbid, Rita. What are they going to do with their lives? At least you and I aren't limited” (31).
Wasserstein, with unflinching honesty, explores their friendship by examining how the patriarchal gaze disrupts and threatens same-sex relationships. Leilah's sense of inferiority begins on their trip to Greece when their two male companions fall in love with Kate, and continues as the philosophy department selects Kate for Phi Beta Kappa but not her. She candidly reveals to Muffet how she feels about Kate:
Sometimes when I'm in the library studying, I look up and count me Katies and the Leilahs. They're always together. And they seem a very similar species. But if you observe a while longer, the Katies seem kind of magical, and the Leilahs are highly competent. And they're usually such good friends—really the best. But I find myself secretly hoping that when we leave here, Katie and I will just naturally stop speaking. There's just something … Begins to cry. It's not Katie's fault! Sometimes I wonder if it's normal for one twenty-year-old woman to be so constantly aware of another woman.
The two have grown so close in their friendship that they are even viewed as a pair by others, like the other “Katies and Leilahs” she sees in the library, causing Leilah to view herself not as a separate entity but always in relation to Kate, because of the comparison that she believes occurs when others see the two of them; “I just want to get out of here so I'm not with people who know me in terms of her,” she remarks (49). Her last line, “Sometimes I wonder if it's normal for one twenty-year-old woman to be so constantly aware of another woman” (49), hints at a homoerotic desire for Katie, suggesting a kind of prior intimacy between the two women that occurs in a lesbian-identified relationship. Leilah's description of her friendship with Katie as “always together” and “very similar species” indicates a union or a sense of oneness between people that is usually associated with a sexual relationship. In her essay “The Shattering of an Illusion: The Problem of Competition in Lesbian Relationships” (1985), Joyce P. Lindenbaun examines the particular nature of competitiveness within lesbian relationships, which can be applied to Kate and Leilah's friendship. Lindenbaun draws on Nancy Chodorow's premise that sexual relationships between women reproduce the primal intimacy between mother and daughter. Lindenbaun discovered in her psychiatric work that lesbian couples who are initially attracted to one another by the very qualities they would each like to exhibit actually imagine they possess these qualities during the illusionary phase of merging. However, Leilah's realization that Kate possesses talents she does not have—achieving Phi Beta Kappa, attracting the men in Greece—makes her experience a “felt difference” between the two of them which causes “a deep sense of abandonment and, depending on the pathological extent of the merger, a perceived loss of self” (Lindenbaun 200)—the very loss of self that Leilah experiences in relation to Kate.5 Whether we read the relationship as repressed homoeroticism or not, the situation attests to the competitive force driving these women apart initiated by the patriarchal gaze, one that disturbs the same-sex community these women have formed.
As the malcontent figure who troubles the consciousness of this group of women, Leilah presents a dark tone to the festive atmosphere. Susie remarks to Kate, “I notice your nice friend Leilah never comes to dinner anymore” (19). Wasserstein resolves the problem through the use of a character device typically associated with comedy: scapegoating. Comedy naturally inclines toward inclusion of as many people as possible in the final grouping: “[T]he blocking characters are more often reconciled or converted than simply repudiated. Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character, but exposure and disgrace make for pathos, or even tragedy” (Frye 165). Wasserstein does not reconcile Kate and Leilah; to reconcile them would only diminish the poignancy of Leilah's distress and undermine the original intensity of their friendship. Instead, Wasserstein makes Leilah the scapegoat figure, not through any group act of exclusion, but rather by having her ostracize herself from her group of friends and book a flight to Iraq the day after graduation. Not only does she not join the women at their reunion in the restaurant, but she has married an Iraqi journalist-archeologist, given up her citizenship, and converted to Islam (68). Leilah's act of removing herself from a liberated society full of opportunities for women to one of complete repression hints of self-immolation, as she struggles to escape from Kate and the competitive society by selecting a culture far removed from choices and opportunities and the inevitable judgmental system that results. Using Leilah as a dark, gloomy feature on the periphery of this close group of women allows Wasserstein to acknowledge the malevolence often underlying female friendships and also to retain a comic ending through the ritual of “scapegoating” a character.6
Lastly, Frye's figure of the benevolent grandfather “who overrules the action set up by the blocking humor and so links the first and third pans” (171) and “begins the action of the play by withdrawing from it, and ends the play by returning” (174) bears a resemblance to Mrs. Plumm, the loving and slightly eccentric college housemother of the women. Frye depicts a figure who is present at the initial stage of society before the status quo is disturbed, who observes the Saturnalian society that comes into being, and then aids the leading characters to solve their problems so that the stable, harmonious world moves back into place. Mrs. Plumm, though not physically present at the restaurant at the play's beginning, is called into being by the collective memory of the women and, as she recites a poem by Emily Dickinson (an early student at the college), provides a conduit for the characters to move back into their past lives. She resides quietly among them as a chaperone, giving advice, serving tea and sherry, and listening to their plans. Mrs. Plumm is also a contradictory figure for she represents a previous generation's values and reminds them of the traditional behavior for women even while she encourages their liberated career choices. For example, she admonishes Holly to take her feet off the furniture and to wear skirts to tea so their house does not develop a “reputation” (18) and she encourages Gracious Living, a regular event at which women elegantly dine by candlelight, in order to perpetuate good manners and hostess skills. But even while she affirms traditional proper behavior for women, she constantly talks about her dear friend Dr. Ada Grudder who organized a theater at the Christian Medical College in Nagpur, India. She speaks fondly of their friendship as bird-watching enthusiasts while at college together, and of how they bought rifles, set up a firing-range, and re-enacted the Franco-Prussian War. Mrs. Plumm exhibits the traits that the college was founded upon: she maintains traditions that foster community among women and exemplifies a pioneering spirit as she leaves the women to travel to Bolivia for its “ornithological variety” (67). Mrs. Plumm provides the balance between two periods, the figure who conveys the traditional wisdom of experience yet who still points out alternative directions. True to her role as benevolent grandmother, she serves the graduation tea at the end of the play, supporting each woman's choice of plans after graduation, and leading the women from the holiday moment back to the present, returning them to the everyday world. Not only is her function intrinsic to the comic plot, but her quirky spirit and kindliness permeate the comedy; we laugh at her because she reminds us of an antiquated grandmother, but we admire her pluck and her optimistic belief in the young women. This indefinable mixture of eccentricity and promise—the Life Force according to George Bernard Shaw—moves us the most in the world of comedy and consists of the belief that even against great odds the characters will triumph. Wasserstein, without resolving the feminist issues she raises, uses the spirit of comedy to reassure us of her characters' flexibility and tenacity in a changing world.
SPIRIT OF COMEDY
The action of comedy, as Frye notes, is one of surmounting obstacles placed in the hero's way, usually by a domineering father who sets certain laws, while the tone of comedy is subversive, propelled and conditioned by a desire to break them. The rules in this play are not set by the parents but rather by the patriarchy, Rita's entire “society based on cocks” (34), and the subversive force these women wield comes from their new-found wisdom in feminism, from role models such as Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, and Rosie the Riveter, as well as from their own wit and sense of humor for which they applaud one another.7 But the women in this play face two central obstacles: first, the prominence of men, and second, the need to define new roles for themselves.
The influence of patriarchal rules and the prioritization of men in this environment seems a curious obstacle considering that the play occurs in an all-women's college, but Wasserstein presents female characters who have been made to view their lives with respect to male counterparts. Men, though physically absent from the play, infiltrate this world as the ‘male long-distance callers’ who periodically interrupt conversations, or in the guise of Professor Chip Knowles, whose book on female sexuality prescribes their knowledge of their own bodies, or during the Father-Daughter Weekend festivities that raise some innuendoes (“Hi, Daddy!” Samantha yells exuberantly to the “fathers” seated in the audience. “Hi, Mr. Stewart,” Rita follows, with a wink ). Even though these women are in a private environment separated from the masculine world, the male gaze penetrates this space, and as much as an all-women's education prioritizes the experience of women in their private domain, it is ultimately defined by the absence of men. Holly voices this prioritization of men most specifically when she talks about her friends on the telephone to Dr. Mark Silverstein: “Sometimes I think I'm happiest walking with my best. Katie always says she's my best, … Often I think I want a date or a relationship to be over so I can talk about it to Kate or Rita. I guess women are just not as scary as men and therefore they don't count as much” (63). She instantly recants, but it remains an honest statement of how female relationships are valued. Because Holly has experienced such easy intimacy among her female friends, she assumes that intimacy between women cannot be worth as much as with men. Yet comedy provides a means for these characters to cleverly diminish the importance of men and to validate their own sex in turn.
The song these women sing at the Father-Daughter Tea offers a prime example of the kinds of mixed messages the women receive. This song, handed down by generation upon generation of Mount Holyoke women, reinforces certain beliefs of gender relations and expectations of women. The song “We're Saving Ourselves for Yale” amusingly relates tales of women who hold onto their virginity long enough to catch a Yale graduate to marry. That this song is performed in front of a crowd of fathers reinforces the economic system of marriage as the daughters “promise” their fathers not to let themselves be sold off “cheaply” but to “hold out” for the Ivy league man:
For thirty years and then some We've been showing men some Tricks that make their motors fail.
And though we've all had our squeezes From lots of Ph.D.ses We're saving ourselves for Yale.
After the song ends, Mrs. Plumm gives her curiously mixed story about her strong friendship with Ada Grudder and her marriage to Hoyt Plumm, relating how she was the “dutiful daughter” and married at her father's wishes. As the benevolent grandmother figure, she relates her past predicament and decision to these women in her care, emphasizing the significance of her relationship with a woman as well as the importance of obeying her father. She implies that even though they continue the College's father-daughter traditions, their world offers them different choices than hers did. And these college seniors have certainly found ways of undercutting the song's meaning. Their subversive interventions, such as Rita's whispered “These women should have been in therapy,” or Carter's ironic pronouncement at the end of the song, “I knew we had a purpose,” both serve to illustrate their parodic treatment of the song's beliefs. As their individual spoken voices rise in counterpuntal opposition to the harmonious singing voices, they acknowledge the message society perpetuates and alter this message to their own liking.
As this scene clearly demonstrates, even while the women are urged to pursue “uncommon” careers after college, the traditional choice of marriage still resounds clearly within the halls of the college, especially when one of the women, Samantha, announces that she is getting married. Her friends, disappointed and jealous, do not know how to react; as Carlson mentions, “The others envy her not because she can so easily choose an established role, but because she can fit into it: they could not” (570). More importantly, her marriage is an outside threat to their community; it reminds them that they will no longer have the security and intimacy of their female world after graduation.
Rita attempts to dispel her anxiety over losing Samantha through a typical comic gesture of mimicry. She approaches Samantha in her room after the announcement, impersonating a man in a denim jacket and cap, and says, “Hey, man, wanna go out and cruise for pussy?” (52). Since language is the means by which we create a particular reality, especially in the theater, Rita's adoption of masculine-identified language modifies the reality of the situation; she interpolates Samantha as male and demands that Samantha acknowledge her as a man in turn—a man desirous of female bodies. Samantha catches on to the game but avoids the heavily sexual topics that Rita encourages; Samantha prefers being “the corporate type” she says, and suggests going out “to buy Lacoste shirts and the State of Maine,” (52) but Rita brings the conversation back to aggressive sexual baiting. She picks up a bag of nuts and says, “Nice nuts you got there” and “I'll give you a vasectomy if you give me one” (53).
While the imitation of men introduces a comic convention into the play, it also indicates the cause of Rita's anxiety. On one level, mimicry provides a person with the means of mastering that which frightens her; behavioral theory argues that people tend to imitate and mock those forces that disturb them the most, and that deeply rooted fears are at the basis of such imitations. Thus Rita's play-acting a man and encouraging Samantha to do the same is ultimately an indication of Rita's anxiety over Samantha's choice to marry and be in an intimate relationship with a man. Rita, as noted earlier, is sexually involved with a gay man and constantly defines her “ideal husband” as Leonard Woolf because he allowed his wife the creative freedom to write. She fears being stifled by a man in a relationship and is distressed by Samantha's choice to marry. However, following this analogy, if Rita identifies with Virginia Woolf, she would also have the freedom to love other women—a desire which can be inferred from the aggressive nature of her behavior in this scene. When Samantha becomes anxious and threatens to leave the room, Rita drops her masculine role to tell Samantha how much she admires her and that she wants to be her because she is the “ideal woman.” In light of Rita's earlier choice to marry Samantha during the marriage game, this statement hints at Rita's desire of intimacy from Samantha and her fear of losing her. Thus Rita's wish to engage her in sexual dialogue, the slight punches on the arm, and the manner in which Rita grabs Samantha from behind and wrestles her momentarily all touch on the homoerotic undertones of this scene.8 Only through her initial comic impersonation is Rita able to create a space where she can convey her affection towards Samantha (“I do want to be you” ) and express to Samantha her sense of loss. Samantha, responding to Rita's fears at some level, spontaneously creates a poem about Rita, in which she expresses her fondness and diffuses her anxiety over her own abandonment of their all-female world. With her poem, she moves Rita from the masculine role of aggressor, one who “talks of cocks and Aries blocks,” back to the stereotypical notion of femininity as charming and kind, “I know secretly she's very sweeta” (55), diffusing her worries as well as her sexual aggression.
The spirit of comedy, as Susanne Langer points out, comes from the behavior of the individual facing obstacles and adopting to change in a tumultuous world (68-69). It is the energy to rise above malignant forces and the resiliency to accept change without losing a sense of identity. Rita, in the preceding example, adjusts to her friend's marriage by asking for reassurance of their intimacy. On a larger scale, however, all of these women must face the overwhelming vertigo of defining themselves within a society in flux as the roles for women shift from traditional homemaker to pioneer, where fulfilling expectations means not only being successful, wealthy, and married with children but being exceptional and “uncommon.” These demanding ideals penetrate their consciousness through the male voice-over which initiates each vignette. This voice—supposedly the college bulletin being read aloud—intones the benefits of an all-women's education, setting the tone for each of these scenes and delineating the function of an all-women's college.9 He mentions that the College contributes to society women “whose intellectual quality is high, and whose responsibility to others is exceptional.” The hyperbolic adjectives he uses denote the pressures that these women face as professionals, wives, and mothers, but he still promises that they are prepared to meet any and all challenges “without loss of gaiety, charm, or femininity” (7). This disembodied voice seems superior and distant from the action, as he acknowledges that educated women sometimes fail to view themselves as successes because their talents are so diffuse, but he encouragingly and ingratiatingly concludes, “Just like the pot of honey that kept renewing itself, an educated woman's capacity for giving is not exhausted, but stimulated, by demands” (23). The convention of the voice-over suggests that the women do not hear the voice, but rather have absorbed its message through other means, as when Muffet reads the course catalogue out loud to herself in scene 4. However, these women challenge the voice through their actions as each scene grows more and more mocking and their very actions eschew his directives.
Carter provides one of the first examples of this defiance in scene 5, where she ironically mimes modern dance movements to the Man's Voice. He intones how Mary Lyon commanded her early students to “Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do” (27) and relates how these 25,000 alumnae blazed new trails for women in different professions, fields, and different parts of the world. While Carter originally begins by physically parodying the voice's directions, “marching” along with the “pioneers,” the impressive litany of women's accomplishments ultimately frustrates her with its high expectations of the College's young women.10 Carter, as a freshman, is new to this atmosphere of high achievement and tries to mock the demands that the “Voice” has decreed, but sits down at the end, exhausted. The older group of students, however, fares better.
These upper-class women have internalized the voice to some extent, but their communal activities show their ability to follow their internal voices and support one another's choices. At the beginning of act 2, scene 2, the Man's Voice boasts that “employers of graduates of the college seem to be looking for a readiness to work hard at learning unfamiliar techniques” (47), but the onstage action shows Muffet “putting on makeup” (47). The oxymoronic juxtaposition between women's ability to learn unfamiliar skills and the sight of Muffet performing a highly iconic gesture of femininity is comic. More than a slight at women's cosmetic predilection, however, this action serves as a direct refusal to acquiesce to the male authorial voice. Further, the private act of putting on makeup denotes a relaxed space in which Muffet and Leilah can interact intimately in a way that most women cannot in a public sphere. The scene immediately following again satirizes the Man's Voice; as he extols a liberal arts education for exposing students to “a wide range of opportunities—that is to say, uncertainties” (50), the lights reveal the group of women attacking large jars of peanut butter and spreading the Fluff on crackers with great gusto. Finally, in scene 6, the male voice insists that “The college places at its center the content of human learning and the spirit of systematic disinterested inquiry” (57). The scene focuses on the women's debate over whether or not they have experienced penis envy, which is admittedly a method of inquiry, but neither disinterested, when it becomes a personal question, nor systematic, when Holly's reply is “I remember having tonsillitis” (57). Again, the questions are of their own choosing, the topics of their own design, and their personal lives and values lie at the center of their conversations.
By the play's end the Man's Voice is superseded by a Woman's Voice who admits that women still have not attained all the goals and recognition they have hoped for because “society has trained women from childhood to accept a limited set of options and restricted levels of aspirations” (68). Her voice does not blithely depict the road for female pioneers as a surmountable and an exciting challenge, as he has, but demonstrates an awareness of the fears that women face. This reasonable voice leads the women back to the present moment in the restaurant, where they admit their worries of being judged by one another about their chosen career paths. Their insecurity and uncertainty comes across clearly, but what sustains them and blesses them at the end of the play is their ability to share this uncertainty through their laughter. Rita closes the play with a phrase she has been repeating throughout the play, “When we're thirty [or thirty-five, or forty] we're going to be amazing”—a comic device which Wasserstein borrows from Chekhov's Three Sisters (Interview 1996, 382)11 in which the sisters always imagine they will return to Moscow some day. The phrase is funny in its unincremental repetition12 but we also laugh at Rita and with her—at her ability to adjust the deadline to accommodate for their current circumstances and with her steadfast belief in their uncommon talents.
The spirit of comedy comes as much from the performance as from the script—the lewd faces, the accompanying ironic gestures to the songs, the communal dance ending act 1, and Rita's impersonation of Susie Friend. Wasserstein describes this sensation that occurred during the rehearsals for Uncommon Women: “There was something special between the actresses and me. I can remember being in the dressing room with Swoosie Kurtz and Jill Eikenberry and Alma Cuervo, and Anna Levine, Glenn Close, and Ellen Parker and there was the sense of embracing, a sense of all starting out together … again, that feeling of community. And I would say I feel it more at the laughter than at the applause” (Interview 1987, 429). She speaks here of the indefinable quality of renewal that comes not only from a successful opening performance but rather from the collaborative efforts of these women and the laughter that echoes this communal spirit. For comedy, as Langer reminds us, more than offering solutions to a predicament, heightens the vital feeling: “The conflict with the world whereby a living being maintains its own complex organic unity is a delightful encounter” (82). As spectators we have a secure emotional realization that the uncommon women before us will continue to strive and grow because of their laughter and wit. “Laughing at something is the first sign of a higher psychic life,” Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil, and Wasserstein fully relies on this sense of the comic spirit to draw the spectators into the triumphs of her characters in performance. “The comedy itself is a spirit,” she remarks. “It's not an application form, a resumé, it's life. This life spirit creates a current, a buoyancy which, getting back to drama, is very important. It's important to reach the essence of that spirit in what you create” (Interview 1987, 421).
It seems Wasserstein wanted to create an unreal world by the play's complete lack of any references to contemporary politics. For instance, she remarks how originally the play had some pieces in it which were highly political, such as Susie Friend's organizing a strike for Mark Rudd when he came to visit Mount Holyoke College, but she eliminated these scenes because she was concerned that this would open up discussions on the Vietnam War rather than permitting the women's voices to be heard (Interview 1987, 426).
I am borrowing Wylie Sypher's term of the “Lord of Misrule” from his essay “The Meanings of Comedy.”
The other characters being the alazon (impostor), buffoon, and churl (172).
Princeton and Yale admitted women in 1969, Amherst admitted them in 1976, and Columbia held out until 1983, partly due to Barnard College's association with the school.
I thank Professor Gayle Austin of Georgia State University for pointing out the book Competition: A Feminist Taboo? as well as for suggesting that the relationship between Kate and Leilah could be read as repressed homoerotic desire.
For the 1994 revival of Uncommon Women and Others at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York, Wasserstein updated the ending, changing Leilah's outcome from a “subjugated Iraqi wife” to an Oxford don (Feingold 97), a choice that weakens the scapegoating device.
Wasserstein prioritizes humor from the very start of the play. Her opening descriptions of each character illustrate this, from Kate who “always walks with direction … [so] it's fun to make her stop and laugh” (4), to Samantha, “a closet wit, or she wouldn't have made the friends she did in college” (5), to Holly Kaplan, the figure who most resembles Wasserstein and who uses her wit on those people who intimidate her (5).
The staging of these gestures occurred in Theater Emory's production of Uncommon Women and Others in October 1996, directed by Rosemary Newcott. In the filmed version of the play televised for PBS Great Performances Series in May, 1978, this scene takes place in the women's locker room where Rita makes lewd gestures at women changing their clothes while Samantha joins her antics. The homoerotic tension is decidedly nonexistent; Rita appears more distressed about not being an “ideal” women like Samantha, who chooses to marry and fulfill her role as wife.
While the identity of the voice is never specified, the copyright credits show that Wasserstein took these clips from the Mount Holyoke College Bulletin 1966/67, and from Richard Glenn Gettell's inaugural address as president of Mount Holyoke College in 1957.
The backdrop for Theater Emory's 1996 production showed faces of famous women staring out at the audience and staring down on these young women, both inspiring them as their role models and beckoning them not to let down the cause of sisterhood.
Wasserstein sees Chekhov as having influenced her work, in this line especially, but also in the ways she is fascinated by examining “moments in people's lives when they could turn to the right or turn to the left, or why they don't turn at all” (Interview 1996, 382).
Northrop Frye discusses this “principle of unicremental repetition” in his essay, “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy.”
Babcock, Barbara A. “Arrange Me into Disorder: Fragments and Reflections on Ritual Clowning.” In John J. MacAloon. Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968.
Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1959.
Carlson, Susan L. “Comic Textures and Female Communities 1937 and 1977: Clare Boothe and Wendy Wasserstein.” Modern Drama 27.4 (1984): 564-573.
Feingold, Michael. “Gender Is the Night.” Review of Uncommon Women, Lucille Lortel Theater, New York. Village Voice 8 Nov. 1994: 97.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. London: The Hogarth Press, 1960.
Frye, Northrop. “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957. 163-186.
Koenig, Seymour. Hopi Clay, Hopi Ceremony: An Exhibition of Hopi Art, New York: Katonah, 1976.
Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner's, 1953.
Lindenbaun, Joyce P. “The Shattering of an Illusion: The Problem of Competition in Lesbian Relationships.” Competition: A Feminist Taboo? Eds. Valerie Miner and Helen E. Longino. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1987. 195-208.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Vintage, 1966.
Nightingale, Benedict. “There Really Is a World beyond ‘Diaper Drama.’” Review of Isn't It Romantic, Playwrights Horizons, New York. The New York Times 1 Jan 1984, sec. 2: 14.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5.4 (1980): 631-660.
Rosenblum, Barbara and Sandra Butler. “Dialogue, Dialectic, and Dissent.” Competition: A Feminist Taboo? Eds. Valerie Miner and Helen E. Longino. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1987. 171-176.
Santayana, George. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies. New York: Scribner's, 1922.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Simon, John. “The Group.” Review of Uncommon Women, Phoenix Theater, New York. New York 12 Dec. 1977: 103-104.
Sypher, Wylie. “The Meanings of Comedy.” In Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.
Uncommon Women and Others. Theater Emory, Atlanta, Georgia. October 1996. Dir. Rosemary Newcott.
Wasserstein, Wendy. Interview with Jan Balakian. Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights. Eds. Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996. 379-391.
———. Interview with Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Eds. Betsko and Koenig. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. 418-431.
———. Interview with Esther Cohen. “Uncommon Woman: An Interview with Wendy Wasserstein.” Women's Studies 15 (1988): 257-270.
———. Uncommon Women and Others. The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 1-72.
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Evans, Greg. Review of An American Daughter, by Wendy Wasserstein. Variety 366, no. 11 (14 April 1997): 100.
Evans assesses the strengths and weaknesses of An American Daughter.
Hornby, Richard. Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Hudson Review 42, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 464-65.
Hornby offers a negative assessment of The Heidi Chronicles.
Isherwood, Charles. Review of The Festival of Regrets, by Wendy Wasserstein. Variety 377, no. 2 (22-28 November 1999): 93.
Isherwood appreciates the humor of The Festival of Regrets but concedes that the play “is a somewhat grating exercise in in-joking.”
King, Robert L. Review of The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Massachusetts Review 31, nos. 1-2 (spring 1990): 273-86.
King complains that Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles does not live up to the promise of its prologue.
Additional coverage of Wasserstein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 121, 129; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53, 75; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 32, 59, 90; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Drama for Students, Vols. 5, 17; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Something about the Author, Vol. 94.