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.