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Wendy Wasserstein 1950–
American playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Wasserstein's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 59.
Wasserstein is best known for The Heidi Chronicles (1988), winner of several prizes including a Tony...
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- Critical Essays
Wendy Wasserstein 1950–
American playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Wasserstein's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 59.
Wasserstein is best known for The Heidi Chronicles (1988), winner of several prizes including a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her plays tend to be humorous and typically concern well-educated women who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s and who must choose between professional careers and the traditional roles of wife and mother.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein and her family moved to Manhattan in 1962, where she attended private schools. Her interest in the theater began as a child when she was chosen to perform in school plays; later, she turned to playwriting when she discovered that she could be excused from physical education classes by writing musicals for her school's annual mother-daughter fashion show. After graduating from high school, Wasserstein attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a private school for women. Wasserstein did not become seriously involved with the theater until her junior year when she took a drama course and acted in several plays. Graduating in 1971, Wasserstein eventually returned to New York City and attended City College, studying creative writing under playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller before earning her M.A. in 1973. That same year, Any Woman Can't (1973), a bitter farce about a woman who tries to secure independence in a male-dominated world, became her first play to be produced professionally. Wasserstein applied to two prestigious graduate programs—Columbia Business School and Yale University School of Drama—was accepted by both, and opted for Yale, where she eventually earned an M.F.A. in 1976. At Yale she received direction from renowned American drama critic Robert Brustein, and met classmates Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, and Meryl Streep, all of whom, like Wasserstein, would successfully establish themselves in the theater and the motion picture industry.
Noted for their simple story lines, complex characters, and witty dialogue, Wasserstein's plays explore how and why women choose marriage, a career, or a particular way of life, and the feelings of anguish, confusion, and libera-tion associated with such decisions. Her Uncommon Women and Others (1975) focuses on five women approaching their thirties who reunite six years after graduating from Mount Holyoke College. Contrasting the carefree optimism of the characters' college years with their present confusion and disappointment, the play depicts the majority of them as still undecided about what they want to do with their lives. In her next play, Isn't It Romantic (1981), Wasserstein concentrates on two women in their thirties—Janie Blumberg, an intelligent and slightly overweight Jewish writer, and her friend Harriet, a beautiful and sophisticated WASP business executive who marries a man she does not love—and their relationships with their mothers. Similar to Uncommon Women in many respects, Isn't It Romantic focuses on intergenerational conflict, the institution of marriage, and the notion that some women marry simply because it is expected of them. In The Heidi Chronicles Wasserstein sharpened her dramatic focus on feminist concerns by examining the social and intellectual development of a single character, an unmarried art historian named Heidi Holland. The play spans approximately 25 years, relating events from Heidi's personal life and professional career. Central to Heidi's development are her relationships with two men and her friendship with a group of women who inspire her involvement with the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, however, many of her peers have adopted the materialism that they once denounced; consequently, Heidi, who has maintained her commitment to feminist principles, is left disillusioned and feeling isolated. At an alumnae luncheon, which some critics consider the climax of the play, Heidi delivers a long monologue, confessing her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with contemporary women, explaining, "I thought that the whole point was we were all in this together." Nonetheless, the play ends on an optimistic note with Heidi finding fulfillment as the single parent of a newly adopted daughter. Centering on three conspicuously different middle-aged sisters who share similarities with Wasserstein and her own siblings, The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) examines the complicated process of balancing a professional career with romantic relationships. Some reviewers have suggested, however, that this play's most significant theme concerns Jewish identity and the problem of assimilation with mainstream culture.
While Wasserstein has achieved some success as an essayist and a screenwriter, she is primarily known as one of America's most popular playwrights. Commentators have lauded Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others for its uncompromising wit and focus on women's issues. Although some reviewers have argued that its episodic structure obscures narrative perspective and dramatic focus, others have found that its plot is far less important than its characters and dialogue, which have been praised as both original and amusing. Commentators generally faulted early versions of Isn't It Romantic for its heavy reliance on wisecracks and one-liners; they argued that while such devices provide some genuinely humorous moments, they detract from the somber issues presented in the work. Wasserstein, however, has defended the play's humor, noting that her protagonist uses it as a form of self-defense. The revised version of Isn't It Romantic, which was first staged in 1983, was praised for containing sharper characterizations and a clearer focus on mother-daughter relationships. Despite its numerous awards, overall critical reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed. Although some reviewers considered aspects of the play unmotivated and implausible, many found Wasserstein's portrait of Heidi's generation poignant and well-observed. Linda Winer asserted: "[The Heidi Chronicles] is a wonderful and important play. Smart, compassionate, witty, courageous, this one not only dares to ask the hard questions … but asks them with humor, exquisite clarity and great fullness of heart." William A. Henry III, however, has argued that the "play is more documentary than drama, evoking fictionally all the right times and places but rarely attaining much thorny particularity about the people who inhabit them." Still other commentators have faulted Heidi as an uninteresting character, and many, such as Gayle Austin, have argued that the work provides a disservice to women and the cause of feminism: "The trouble with this play is that although it raises issues, Wasserstein undercuts serious consideration through facile supporting female characters, sit-com humor, and a passive heroine who forms an absence at the center of the play." Although John Simon has suggested that The Sisters Rosensweig is technically Wasserstein's best play to date, most commentators have found it too dependent on situational humor and the contemporaneity of such emotionally-charged social issues as homosexuality, AIDS, and single motherhood. Nevertheless, Wasserstein continues to be recognized for her acute social observations, witty one-liners, and perceptive insights into contemporary society. Furthermore, she has been credited with influencing the direction of American drama by greatly expanding women's roles and by offering significant alternatives to the conventional happy endings of dramatic comedy.
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Any Woman Can't (drama) 1973
Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (drama) 1974
Uncommon Women and Others: A Play about Five Women Graduates of a Seven Sisters College Six Years Later (drama) 1975; revised version, 1977
When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth [with Christopher Durang] (drama) 1975
Uncommon Women and Others (screenplay) 1978
The Sorrows of Gin [adaptor; from the short story "The Sorrows of Gin" by John Cheever] (screenplay) 1979
Isn't It Romantic (drama) 1981; revised version, 1983
Tender Offer (drama) 1983
The Man in a Case [adaptor; from the short story "The Man in a Case" by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1986
Miami (musical) 1986
∗The Heidi Chronicles (drama) 1988
Bachelor Girls (essays) 1990
The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays (dramas) 1990
The Sisters Rosensweig (drama) 1992
∗The Heidi Chronicles was adapted for and aired on cable television in 1995.
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SOURCE: A review of Uncommon Women and Others, in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 42, December 5, 1977, p. 115.
[Oliver began her career as an actress, television writer, and producer, and joined the New Yorker in 1948, where she became the off-Broadway theater critic in 1961. In the following review, she lauds Uncommon Women and Others for its well-drawn characterizations and humor but suggests that there is an "underlying sadness" in the play as the women "try to cope with the times and with what is expected of them."]
Uncommon Women and Others, Wendy Wasserstein's funny, ironic, and affectionate comedy … is about five seniors—close friends—at Mount Holyoke College, and about their prissy housemother; a deadpan, silent freshman; a former friend who has more or less left the clique; and a square type who combines cheerful rhymed chatter about elves and Piglet with practical arrangements for fixing other girls up with Yale men for weekends. That these satellites—the "Others" of the title—may indeed be more uncommon than the women of the constellation is just one of many jokes in this refreshing show. It opens with a prologue set in a restaurant, where the five heroines meet for the first time since their graduation, six years earlier, and where, amid hugs and shrieks and kisses, each of them reports on her activities up to now. Under the laughter there is in almost every instance a feeling of bewilderment and disappointment over the world outside college, which promised so much, and with their own dreams, which seem to have stalled. "When we are forty, we will be incredible," says Swoosie Kurtz, as Rita—the bold one, the ringleader, the buccaneer. (During their undergraduate years, the age of incredibility was first twenty-five and then thirty.) But so far none of them has children, only two are married, and only one has taken the first steps into a career. For some reason I've forgotten, they clink glasses and sing a song that has a special meaning for them, and then we are back in college and in the dormitory, where (except for an epilogue, also set in the restaurant) all the action takes place.
The action is a collage of small scenes (there is no play, or, if there is one, I couldn't find it), and many of them are preceded by the voice of a man making a speech about the attributes of a liberal-arts college and the uncommon women it produces; the pompous voice-overs punctuate the show and give it much of its ironic point. In the episodes, the girls appear in twos and threes, and sometimes all together, to talk of men and sex and men's colleges and ambitions, as girls have always done, but these girls live in the new time of the Liberated Woman, and there are allusions to Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir, to Ms. and "A Room of One's Own" and "The Group." These are their touchstones. In spite of their bluntness and candor in talking about their feelings and, above all, about sex, there is some confusion and underlying sadness as they try to cope with the times and with what is expected of them. Miss Wasserstein is always aware of these feelings, yet they never impede her wonderful, original comedy. It is the girls and the games they play and their conversations that make the show, and every moment is theatrical. "We are all allowed one dominant characteristic," somebody says. That is not entirely true. The characters are never allowed to become types, and, for all their funny talk and behavior, they are sympathetically drawn.
The acting, under Steven Robman's direction, is in every instance as right and satisfying as the script, and it more than makes up for any dramatic lapses. Miss Kurtz has never been funnier or more in command as she presides over many of the games and conversations, and never more touching as she lets us see her confidence beginning to crack at the end. Jill Eikenberry gives a sensitive performance as a Phi Beta worried about getting into law school, and even more worried about the sort of woman she may turn into if she does. Ann McDonough plays a girl who falls in love with one man, is content to marry him and take care of him, and is delighted to announce her pregnancy to her friends at the end. Josephine Nichols is the housemother, who is given to small talk and recitations of Emily Dickinson's poems (as the girls mimic her behind her back), but who reveals, in one speech, a remarkable streak of independence in her past, and some quite unorthodox behavior. Alma Cuervo is a Jewish girl at her most appealing when she finally gets up the courage to make a long-distance call (which comes to nothing) to a young doctor whom she met for one moment in the Fogg Museum. Anna Levine is the freshman, oblivious of all the chatter, whose ambition is to "get Wittgenstein on film," and who crams for her typing exam to the Hallelujah Chorus—very funny character, very funny acting. The others, just as good, are Ellen Parker, Cynthia Herman, and Glenn Close. Miss Wasserstein is an uncommon young woman if ever there was one. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are exceptionally witty, too.
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SOURCE: "The Group," in New York Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 50, December 12, 1977, p. 103.
[A distinguished American drama and film critic, Simon is the author of Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963–1973 (1976) and Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964–1974 (1976). Here, he contends that Uncommon Women and Others is well-written and enjoyable but adds that the subject matter of the play is too familiar to be especially interesting.]
Uncommon Women begins with five Holyoke alumnae meeting in a restaurant six years after graduation. They comment on their respective development or nondevelopment, reminisce about absent friends and foes, and are presently transported back into their college days, only to return to the present at play's end. The prologue-play-epilogue construction is highly conventional, and, indeed, there is nothing uncommon about Uncommon Women and Others. In fact, Miss Wasserstein's problem is a very common one among young playwrights writing memory plays about themselves and friends when younger yet: Nothing much has happened to them, and what has is far from unusual. Still, it matters to them, and they cannot see why it should not be equally fascinating to the rest of the world. But it isn't. When older authors, with more experience and greater perspective, look back at their pasts, they can find purposeful structures along with universal significance that would have eluded their less mature and distanced selves.
Miss Wasserstein has a chortlingly mischievous sense of outer and inner dialogue, of what these collegians said or merely thought; and she observes her characters, one of whom must be herself, with a nice blend of sympathy and unsentimentality. But there is no shape, no sense of direction, no purpose here, except recording something for memory's sake, which is all too private a pursuit. These girls, giggling, straining, wisecracking, or brazening their way through college and the last remnants of their childhood, are recognizable and likable creatures, but, give or take a bit, we know them already too well—even their existential surprises hold little dramatic surprise for us.
Yet the dialogue is brisk and sassy, the characters are mettlesome, giddy, and richly absurd. Only Susie Friend, the goody-goody one, and Carter, the weirdo, are exaggerated—though this may be more the director's doing than the author's; the others ring true, individually and together, but no larger, collective truth emerges. There is also a certain fuzziness about period: Anachronisms pop up here and there. What is greatly to Wasserstein's credit, however, is that Mrs. Plumm, the housemother, does not come out as a caricature: While kidding her, the playwright does not rob her of her humanity. And Josephine Nichols plays her to perfection, funnily but not ludicrously.
Almost all the acting is a joy. Mind you, most of these characters do not require immense imaginative leaps by their interpreters; still, how often do we not see actors unable to play even closer roles? Swoosie Kurtz is marvelous as the comic hedonist, an oversexed hellion not without the pathos of oversexed hellions. Her quizzical inflections and out-of-left-field timing are a delight. Jill Eikenberry, as the stunner and overachiever who is basically insecure, is superb. It is not easy to embody smoothly contrary extremes, but Miss Eikenberry, one of our loveliest and most gifted actresses, does it with a tremulous, humorless assiduity that is just right and obviously requires a great deal of humor and intelligence to achieve.
Everybody else is good, too, though I was especially pleased with Ellen Parker and Ann McDonough, both of them new to me, and both very able to infuse considerable refinement into parts that lent themselves to obviousness. Would that Steven Robman had directed with a slightly more acute sense of pacing, but no matter: The fun, though small-scale, was genuine.
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SOURCE: A review of Uncommon Women and Others, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 225, No. 1, December 17, 1977, pp. 667-68.
[Highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for The Nation, Clurman was an important contributor to the development of the modern American theater. In 1931, with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, he founded the Innovative Group Theater, which served as an arena for the works of new playwrights and as an experimental workshop for actors. Strasberg and Clurman introduced the Stanislavsky method of acting—most commonly referred to as "Method" acting—to the American stage. Based on the dramatic principles of Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, the method seeks truthful characterization through the conveyance of the actor's personal emotional experiences in similar situations. In the review below, Clurman offers a mixed assessment of Uncommon Women and Others.]
Perhaps the most suitable reviewer for Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others would be a young woman who went to college in the early 1970s. This play by a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama is sympathetically entertaining and if we take her at her word, authentic. I cannot be sure as to the authenticity, but if we grant it that merit, it is also revealing.
The play deals with a group of students (whose average age is 21) at Mt. Holyoke. As with most of the plays by younger writers, there is more description of a condition than development of a situation: there is no "story." Rita (Swoosie Kurtz) is eccentric, possibly promiscuous, and given to bold sexual allusion and confession. Samantha (Ann McDonough) is a virgin who looks forward to marriage and offspring, a state of mind which Rita envies. Holly (Alma Cuervo), imaginative, witty, in her eagerness for love makes playful long-distance advances to men she has casually met.
After graduation, Muffet (Ellen Parker), who years for a hero and perfect mate, will regretfully find employment in an insurance office. Kate (Jill Eikenberry), who has had more lovers than Rita and remains cold withal, will become a lawyer. Leilah (Glenn Close) is interested in anthropology and goes off to Iran where she marries a native. Carter (Anna Levine), the freshman who falls in with the group, appears semi-catatonic, serves as an "ear" to several others. She aims to master typing. Mrs. Plumm (Josephine Nichols), as general supervisor, reads Emily Dickinson at parents'-day meetings; she seems wholly unaware of the intimate life and thoughts of her "girls."
Except for the uncommunicative Carter, all these students are extraordinarily and brightly articulate. They have a special gift for epigrammatic (frequently funny) sallies in sophisticated slang. What they talk about for the most part in sweeping vocabulary of four-letter specificity is sex. The keynote and the pathos of the play are in Rita's farewell as her friends on graduation take leave of one another: "When we're 30 we'll all be fucking amazing." She bethinks herself and repeats the phrase, each time advancing the term of their amazing future to 35, 40 and 45. It is a realization of deep insecurity she shares with all the others as they are about to face the world beyond the campus.
The "girls" have studied Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Wallace Stevens: in short, their college curriculum has been thoroughly "serious." But none of this education seems to have rubbed off on them. There is no talk at all about social affairs, art, literature, theatre, politics. Except for the aforementioned anthropologist, there is no sign of a belief in, or commitment to, anything. Is this typical or true? If it is, let us look to it or woe betide us all!
The cast in the main is wonderfully attractive and talented. Still I had the impression that, though the actors were all giving excellent performances, I did not always believe in them as persons. This may be due to the expert but rather too meticulous direction. Actors who are too thoroughly controlled by a director tend to lose the freedom which fosters individuality, spontaneity, truth.
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SOURCE: "'Tis the Reason …" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 52, December 27, 1983, pp. 109-10.
[Munk is an American editor and critic. Below, she likens Wasserstein's revised version of Isn't It Romantic to popular television drama, suggesting that the play's characterizations are weak and its plot lacks real dramatic conflict, but adds that the acting in Isn't It Romantic is excellent.]
Peculiar as it may seem, live theater for the upper middle class is tending more and more to become a replica of the TV drama that same class creates to pacify the rest of us: punchy little scenes moving from living room to bedroom to office; neat little characterizations relying heavily on racial and cultural type, psychologized plots about mild generational conflict and not too passionate romance, powdered saccharine slowly sifting over everything at the end, and never a glimmer of the world outside.
TV writers know that their prime function is to fill time between one commercial and the next; what Wendy Wasserstein—who seems talented, serious, and surely perhaps alas, not cynical—thinks she's doing is to entertain us very, very lightly with the theme of women's self-determination. The commercials are there, however, selling upper middle-class reconciliation.
In Isn't It Romantic Janie, a would-be writer, tries to declare some independence from her mother, Tasha (father is marginally in tow), by getting her own apartment, taking a part-time job writing for Sesame Street, and refusing to move in with the young doctor she loves. Janie's story is paralleled by her friend Harriet, who rebels against her super-executive mother, Lillian, by getting married. Tasha wants Janie to settle down with a "nice" (meaning wealthy) man, so she refuses; Lillian wants Harriet to concentrate on work (meaning corporate success), so she doesn't. Both mothers take their daughters' rebellions with grace, after a brief moment's grousing; so we have a happy ending on the status quo, with opening positions merely reversed.
The parallels and oppositions, not to mention much of the humor, are shaped by one fact alone: Janie's Jewish, Harriet's WASP. So of course Janie is warm, disorganized, and has fat thighs, and Harriet is tall, thin, and put together, while Tasha is vulgar, meddlesome, and lovable, and Lillian is elegant, straightforward, and cool. Because everyone's rich, however, the entire gamut of Jewish-intellectual-radical stereotypes is left out. And because this is a TV play at heart, both Judaism and Protestantism are stripped of all religious and ethical meanings. Believe me, they're missed.
The first act sets the story up in a series of jokes; a few are wonderfully wicked about bourgeois feminism (Janie gets a rejection message on her phone machine: "Our readers feel you haven't experienced enough woman's pain to stimulate our market"), others are eccentrically and delightfully local (like the one about the Four Brothers restaurants), and most of the rest, as mentioned, are about Jewishness. The only portrait unblunted by affection, however, is the figure of Paul Stuart, Harriet's married lover, who—like Lillian and Harriet herself, I guess it's a Protestant trait—keeps saying, "Everything in life's a negotiation," and acting unbelievably, hilariously swinish. The others, however exaggerated, are too nice for satire, too human for farce, too thin for comedy.
The second act gets more and more sentimental and conciliatory, as if Wasserstein had "satire is what closes on Saturday" engraved on her heart, and "politics is what closes on Friday" engraved on her brain. Banal dialogues—"I want it all," "You have to set priorities"—increasingly edge up on the funny parts, emotions emerge palely from the mouths of cartoons, and the fact that there's nothing there becomes the only notable presence.
Too bad, because the cast is terrific. Cristine Rose's Janie is earnest, rowdy, and—horrid overused word—vulnerable; I'd believe in her as a writer, if she'd been given the chance to play one. Lisa Banes, more mannered, has a less believable transition to make, but manages. Betty Comden is so spiffy as mother Tasha that the point of Janie's rebellion almost disappears—it's clear she'll never lose her mother's love, so what's the danger? And Jo Henderson takes a part that might be a comic version of Marlene in Top Girls and makes it so sympathetic, though rational, that Harriet's rebellion also loses point. Chip Zien exactly captures the simultaneous niceness and suffocating patronizing of Janie's lover ("The Jewish family should always have three children"). But Jerry Lanning's Paul, boorish, twitchy, arrogant, and blissfully unaware, gets the acting honors, perhaps because he's the one character Wasserstein felt no compunction about.
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SOURCE: "Wendy, the Wayward Wasserstein," in The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 1984, p. 30.
[In the following article, Gold profiles Wasserstein's life and career up to the production of Isn't It Romantic.]
One Wasserstein arranges mergers and acquisitions for First Boston. Another runs the communications division of American Express. The third is married to a doctor. And the youngest—well, the youngest Wasserstein writes plays.
However aberrant her behavior may seem in the context of her family, Wendy Wasserstein appears perfectly normal to the people who concoct lists of promising young American playwrights. Her first play, Uncommon Women and Others, has had more than 1,000 productions on college campuses across the country and has reached an even larger audience on public television. Her second, Isn't It Romantic, is currently a hit off-Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons.
But like the other Wassersteins, who, she says, had originally hoped she'd "marry a lawyer, live in Scarsdale and do plays at the community center," Ms. Wasserstein sees the peculiarity of her situation. "Who," she asks with sincere amazement, "goes out into the world to become a playwright?"
This particular one was born in Brooklyn, in 1950, to a textile manufacturer—"My father invented velveteen," she says—and his wife—"a mother and a dancer"—who'd come here from Poland. Raised on the profits from velveteen amid that trio of overachieving siblings, Ms. Wasserstein has turned, in her plays, to the problems of bright, well-educated young women with a wealth of options and no way of deciding among them. "Sometimes," she says, "I write to kind of figure out what I'm thinking."
In Uncommon Women, Ms. Wasserstein explored with uncommon humor the perplexities of a group of Mount Holyoke students six years after graduation. When the play was produced in New York, in 1977, she was herself six years out of Holyoke, and the play was very much a reflection of her own state of mind at the time. "I was very confused. I just didn't know what I wanted, and it didn't seem to me that my friends knew, either."
Isn't It Romantic, she says, sprang initially from her strong emotions when she learned that a friend of hers was getting married. And, indeed, it's about two women approaching 30 without husbands, and the various ways in which they deal with that crucial fact. But after several rewrites, Ms. Wasserstein explains, the play grew to include a more generalized reaction "to being told how to live your life, with the dictum changing every six months."
Although her plays are unquestionably comedies, Ms. Wasserstein takes their concerns quite seriously. "In a large sense," she says, "Isn't It Romantic is a political play. It deals with life choices for women-that's political to me. I don't think you can bring people into the theater by doing it didactically…. You don't have to have a woman riding a tractor, or an alcoholic prostitute, or someone who's mad as hell. And I wouldn't want to sit at the typewriter writing that. But sometimes I think that comedy is written by the most serious people: You take it so seriously that you have to put a pin in it."
With her mop of tousled black hair and calculatedly casual dress, Ms. Wasserstein looks only half serious. In fact, she resembles one of the uncommon women she describes in her first play: "Hair disheveled, yet well cut. She wears expensive clothes that don't quite match,… because she doesn't want to try too hard. That would be too embarrassing." The same kind of non-nonchalance is evident as she fills you in on her background.
She began writing plays, she says, at prep school, "because I figured out that you could get out of gym if you wrote the mother-daughter fashion show." Of such stuff come promising young playwrights!
At college, she majored in Intellectual History. ("Don't be impressed," she laughs—she laughs a lot; "it means you don't have to memorize the dates.") And one summer, on her way to becoming a congressional intern, she was sidetracked by a friend, who said, "Why don't you take playwriting with me at Smith? And then afterwards we can shop!"
The shopping may or may not have worked out. But the playwriting course was a turning point. "I realized you could seriously grow up to be a playwright," says Ms. Wasserstein. Still, when she graduated she was in the same fix as so many of her characters: She didn't know what to do. She applied to several law schools, but was rejected, so she returned to New York and took odd jobs and writing courses at City College, with playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller.
After two years, she felt the time had come to get serious. So she applied to the Columbia Business School and the Yale Drama School. "I got into both," she says, "and I decided to take the risk of trying something I really wanted to do." It was at Yale that she wrote the first version of Uncommon Women. She did more work on it when it was selected for production at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, in 1976. And in the fall of 1977, she watched it open—and close—in New York.
Although it ran for only 2 1/2 weeks, the play did put Ms. Wasserstein on that list of up-and-comers. So she got a little TV work and a little film work. On the money she earned from those, she wrote a first draft of Isn't It Romantic. She was able to rewrite it, and get started on a musical, because of a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. And with Isn't It Romantic ensconced at Playwrights Horizons for a comfortable run, she may earn enough money to finish her musical.
She seems philosophical about her precarious financial situation—"It goes up and down a lot," she shrugs. And she doesn't seem to mind that her name isn't in lights on a big Broadway marquee. What she does seem to resent is that she and her colleagues, like her Yale classmates Albert Innaurato and Christopher Durang, are still ranked among the "promising" by those list makers.
"There has to be a new generation of popular playwrights," she says. "The people who go to see Bernard Slade and Neil Simon—they'd like our plays. We're not Bohemians, with bongo drums and guitars and smoke. We're writers, and we write for audiences. And we do good work."
Even her parents, Ms. Wasserstein says, have grudgingly come around to that opinion. And if her mother still responds occasionally to the query "How's Wendy?" with a mournful "Wendy! Wendy's not a lawyer. Wendy's not married to a lawyer. Wendy's writing plays!" Ms. Wasserstein needn't worry—she can always find a spot for the line in her next one.
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SOURCE: "Are Parents Looking Better on Stage?" in The New York Times, February 26, 1984, pp. 7, 36.
[Kerr is an American playwright, director, and highly respected drama critic for the New York Times who was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Criticism. A conservative critic whose likes and dislikes have often coincided with those of Broadway audiences, Kerr strongly believes that good theater is popular theater. In the following review, Kerr lauds the revised version of Isn't It Romantic for its improved characterizations.]
The older and younger generations are still having at it, but I think I detect a shift in the wind towards fairness. Even a scrupulous fairness. Am I wrong?
Take a look at Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic, which you will want to do anyway since it's an altogether delightful business. Miss Wasserstein started out, several years ago, to write a funny but not exactly evenhanded little comedy about two independent young women, Janie and Harriet, who were hard and fast chums pursuing rather different goals. Harriet wanted to be as independent as her mother and Janie wanted to be independent of her mother. That's for starters.
When the play was first done at the Phoenix in 1981, the youngers were pretty solidly there. We felt we knew Janie first shot out of the box. Janie, now played by Cristine Rose, is a sort of conscientious mess, I mean a mess on principle. She announces, before too many words have snapped by, that she looks like an extra in Potemkin. If I disagree with that, it is only because the extras in Potemkin look as though they belong to the clothes they are wearing whereas Janie seems not even to have been introduced to hers. She seems to have borrowed them outright from that Dutch boy whose image used to appear on cans of paint (perhaps it still does, I haven't painted anything lately). I am, of course, thinking of a used can of paint. And Janie is thinking of more than her outfit when she tells us "I have fat thighs and I want very badly to be someone else without going through the effort of actually changing myself into someone else."
Janie does have certain psychological and emotional problems. For instance, she doesn't want to be nice, and that's difficult. In fact, when she falls in love with a young Jewish doctor who seems to be wearing a nest of robins in his hair, and possibly in his beard, she runs right into a kind of incompatibility of nicenesses. As she ruefully says, looking deeply into his soul and ditching him forever in the same moment of crisis, "I'm so sweet, I never say what I want, and you're so sweet, you always get what you want." (Chip Zien, who plays the doctor and who does not get the girl he wants, is both touching and helplessly macho in the same bittersweet leavetaking.)
This leaves Janie alone in her new apartment, trying to become herself—whoever that may be—while friend Harriet romps off into an affair with her boss's boss, to be followed by a proper marriage and children and career and oh, everything a young woman could wish for and fail to manage. (Harriet is blithely, twittily played by Lisa Banes, and author Wasserstein has even given the boss's boss, Jerry Lanning, a defiant speech of his own: Really a howl of pain over the male's inability to know what's expected of him now that he's been turned into a wife.)
Alone in her apartment—and never alone because her mother is on the doorstep by 7 A.M. daily, cartons of coffee in hand—Janie works out the things she resents, the job she might aim for, the absurdities of the world as it is presently constituted. She is given to strong opinions: "Jean Harris's mistake was stopping with Hy, she should have taken care of all of them—Dr. Atkins, Dr. Pritikin, the nut in Beverly Hills who says it's good to live on papaya." She harbors resentments, too: "I resent having to pay the phone bill, be nice to the super, find meaningful work, fall in love, get hurt, all of it I resent deeply."
There is nothing, however, she resents so deeply as that mother, who is by this time not only at the door but through it. The mother—Jewish, doting, undefatigable—simply cannot grasp her chick's endless flight from an overflowing love. "My daughter," she complains, "thinks I call her in the morning to check up on her—yesterday she answered the phone and said 'Hello, Mother, this morning I got married, lost 20 pounds and became a lawyer.'"
In short, Janie knows just what is expected of her and is determined to evade it. And, between Janie and Harriet, playwright Wasserstein has quite tidily accounted for the upcoming generation, witty and only occasionally woebegone as it is. That particular accounting, however, was nearly complete in the play as it originally stood. Where matters had been enormously improved is in her handling of the less-than-golden oldies, the two mothers. In the original form of the piece, as I remember it, Janie's mother was straight off the ethnic stockpile while Harriet's was as chilly and brittle as the icicles we've been stamping off the garage gutters these past weeks. The two weren't really real enough to engage in a fair contest with their offspring.
That's been changed. I saw Betty Comden play Janie's maternal nemesis, every-ready with a guiding push ("Just a little one"). And Miss Comden was no joke. She was funny, all right. Funny when demonstrating a time-step that didn't exactly make her the neighborhood Pavlova, but established her credentials as a "modern woman," practically an artiste. Funnier still explaining how Richard Nixon "did all right for himself." (You'll have to see the show to pick up the payoff; my lips are sealed.)
But in the reworked version at Playwrights Horizons, we were instantly aware of a decidedly complicated woman behind Miss Comden's worried, ravishing smile. This woman, now in the hands of actress Marge Kolitsky, is solidly present in the text itself. She has antennae of her own, picks up more than the morning gossip or rumors circulated by park bench. She hears Janie and a whole generation, hears them when she's not even there, hears them in ways that hurt. "You know what's sad?" she asks abruptly. "Not sad like a child is ill or something. But a little sad to me. My daughter never thinks I call because I miss her."
She is also able, once again abruptly, to speak up for herself firmly, betraying only a trace of uncertainty—no more than a twist of lemon, say—as she comes to a coda. She has told Janie boldly that she isn't dependent upon her, doesn't need her to fill up her life: "I'm an independent woman, a person in my own right." The spunk is of course gratifying to all of us. What is moving is a swift turn to her husband, the barest hint of alarm, as she asks without pause: "Am I right, Simon?" A new dimension unfolds as we watch, catching us quite off guard.
With Jo Henderson, as the poised and canny executive Harriet's mother has become, the attack must be different though the ultimate vitamin-enriched effect is much the same. (Daughter Harriet is an executive now, too, which means that she and her mother can only communicate through secretaries. Of course, their secretaries can arrange for them to meet for lunch once in a while.) Miss Henderson is efficient, but not hard; her bleached repose is almost soothing; she has grown content with authority and no longer feels the need to be wary.
An immaculate presence at a restaurant table that is no doubt permanently hers, she doesn't in the least mind speaking openly and without regret on the choices she's had to make. Confronted, quite a while back, with a husband, an infant and a job, she swiftly recognized that she could not manage all three: "The first thing that had to go was pleasing my husband because he was a grownup and could take care of himself." Plain and clear as that.
Nor, in her unemotional slyboots way, is she willing to take the rap for the child who might have missed her: "Harriet, you can't blame everything on me—I wasn't home enough for you to blame everything on me." Miss Henderson has a knack for winning contests either way, yet there isn't a trace of caricature in the writing or in the relaxed, even friendly, performing. We don't wind up thinking her heartless; she goes away with what might be called our blessing, and without begging for it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1730
SOURCE: "Comic Textures and Female Communities 1937 and 1977: Clare Boothe and Wendy Wasserstein," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, December, 1984, pp. 564-73.
[In the following excerpt, Carlson asserts that Wasserstein's innovative treatment of female roles in Uncommon Women and Others has contributed to the advancement of dramatic comedy, not only by diffusing old prejudices against women, but also by addressing serious issues without detracting from the play's overall humor and wit.]
Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 comedy Uncommon Women and Others mirrors [Clare] Boothe's [1937 comedy The Women] in its all-female world and picaresque plot; and it borrows the earlier play's superstructure of five main characters playing out social roles against a backdrop of clearly typed characters. But the crucial difference is that Wasserstein shows how a comedy full of women no longer needs to be a bitter dead end.
As her subtitle documents, Wasserstein's text is "A Play About Five Women Graduates of a Seven Sisters College Six Years Later." While it begins and ends "Six Years Later" with the five women gathered at a restaurant for lunch, most of the action is a replay of scenes during the characters' senior year at Mount Holyoke. There is no plot. Instead of events and suspense, Wasserstein gives her characters time and peer audiences. As they drift in and out of the play's seventeen episodes, the five main characters set their own paces and create a dramatic forum in which they can leisurely, continually mold, test, and retest their lives and those of their friends. Wasserstein may have discarded the comic plotting that confined Boothe, even in her loosely plotted play, but the later dramatist has not discarded comedy. In a new mode, she presents the same comic search for a resolution, for the comfort of a happy ending.
Sometimes boldly, sometimes fearfully, the five Mount Holyoke seniors relentlessly confront their futures. Kate, a Phi Beta Kappa who loves trashy novels, collects men, and is headed for law school, is the other women's image of success, their Katharine Hepburn. Although she is well on her way to becoming the successful career woman already typed by her friends, Kate has doubts about the "role" she has chosen for herself. She fears becoming "a cold efficient lady in a grey business suit" and laments, "I don't want my life to simply fall into place." "Six Years Later," Kate is still fighting against the constraints of her role as the career woman; she realizes that she has sacrificed as much as she has gained, but she remains admirable in her constant, honest battle within and against a role which isolates her.
Kate's bold insecurity is matched by Rita's willful perverseness. A mouthy, playfully radical feminist preoccupied with tasting her menstrual blood and lecturing her friends on the dangers of a society "based on cocks," Rita refreshes the spirits of the others while restlessly searching for the experiences and feelings that will make her feel whole. Her constant, soon haunting refrain is to proclaim how amazing this group of women will be at ages twenty-five or thirty or forty-five—or somewhere down the road. Pressing achievement conveniently always just out of reach in the future, Rita squares her hope with her disappointments. With her unabating hatred of roles, Rita has not let society pigeonhole her, but she has not yet found a way to fashion a world without the old pigeonholes.
Muffet's and Holly's searches for their futures are less frenetic than either Kate's or Rita's. They wander in and out of Wasserstein's scenes, trying—in their more subdued ways—to fashion their lives somehow out of the old roles which remain the only ones they know and the undefined new ones no one else can describe for them. Wishing for the direction of a Kate or a Rita, Holly slips and slides between the despair and elation of growing up. Her long-distance telephone conversation "to" a man she has only casually met in a museum is touching evidence of her need for a man and her confusion over her preference for the comforting presence of Rita or Kate. Muffet confesses a similar need for men, and like Holly fears planning for the future as much as meeting it.
Holly and Muffet are openly insecure about a future they cannot seem to pattern for themselves; Kate and Rita are much less secure than they know they seem. Yet all four consciously confront a world in which women's roles have become ambiguous and confusing. Unlike theirs, Samantha's position recalls Boothe's simpler, albeit harsher female world. Like Boothe's women, Sam opts for a very traditional marriage, one in which she can dedicate herself to her husband, Robert. She feels no shame about giving herself to her husband and, in fact, radiates self-confidence and contentment that the others all envy. Sam chooses life akin to the values and conditions Boothe traced in The Women, but hers promises happiness that life in The Women could not. Because she consciously chooses a traditional marriage as one of many options open to her, Sam has the potential of being happy as a satellite in Robert's world. The others envy her not because she can so easily choose an established role, but because she can fit into it: they could not. Wasserstein does not make the mistake of preaching that "new" types like Rita and Kate are any more acceptable than "old" types like Sam; she simply provides a context where all such roles coexist and can be studied, challenged, accepted, altered, or dropped.
Wasserstein's expansive plot, her concentration on characters and roles, and her weaving of texture are not unique. Any number of comic playwrights (and many great ones) have preceded her with such mixtures, yet usually without her success in transforming comedy's women. Although in time Wasserstein's transformations will come to seem a matter of degree and not radical alterations, the still significant difference between Wasserstein and predecessors like Boothe is consciousness. Wasserstein is aware that comedy's built-in easy answers to women's problems are deceptive and dangerous; she is aware that comic conventions in and of themselves pressure characters into a limited number of roles. And for now, her ability to translate this awareness to a comic practice that focuses on characters (not roles) and allows these characters to create unified female communities must be viewed as significant. For in creating her community, Wasserstein diffuses comic prejudice against female friendship. Sifting through her treasure chest of Mount Holyoke scenes and characters, Wasserstein allows real female friendships to develop, friendships that have been rare in comedy. Freed from the requirement that they bond only with men (and produce the traditional happy ending), Wasserstein's women can choose to bond with each other.
In the final scene of Act I, Rita—coordinating the others as usual—asks them which one woman they would marry if they could, if women married women. A joyous communal dance grows out of the touching, honest exchange that follows and is our cue that Act I is over. While there are many other direct comments on female friendships in the play, none surpasses this marriage scene in its creation of believable, lasting relationships. Its direct substitution of female-female marriage for the traditional male-female kind must be read as a challenge to a world and comedy that expect otherwise. It is almost as if Wasserstein knew her play could not end this way, so she indulged her dreams and her characters' dreams of togetherness in this wish-fulfilling pseudo-ending. She provides enough evidence elsewhere that her female community is no utopia, for this group of women has its tensions and defections along with its Bacchic idylls.
Wasserstein deals directly with the fragility of such happy communes by creating two very distinct communities in the play. We focus on the five women who will meet again six years later in the restaurant frame of the play—Kate, Rita, Holly, Muffet, and Sam. Yet in our peripheral vision other students remain—Susie Friend, Carter, and Leilah—who are set off not only by their absence from the reunion, but also by the one-dimensional nature of their roles in the Mount Holyoke community. These misshapen shadows of outsiders and failed friendships keep Wasserstein's play from deteriorating into a facile celebration of sorority. Like the hairdressers, the cooks and the attendants in The Women, who offered a background chorus of roles, these three outsiders put a damper on the soaring aspirations of the "uncommon women" by stubbornly reminding them of a world that is still not all that different from Boothe's.
The closing of Uncommon Women and Others is Wasserstein's final statement about these women's roles, as well as her final transformation of comedy. Because the playwright wants it this way, there is no end, only a stopping point. The indeterminateness of her ending is indicated both by the age of Wasserstein's matured women—still only twenty-seven—and by the constant transition they have learned, for better or worse, to accept in their lives. The stopping point of the end is marked as a pause also by Sam's announcement that "Robert and I are having a baby." Sam's announcement is not intended as a parody of the traditional ending of comedy with marriage and the implicit future promise of babies; her solid, lovable character ensures that we respond to her news as warmly as the other women do. Moreover, in Sam's announcement, Wasserstein does not simply embrace the comfortable comic ending which returns the world to an established social order. By making Sam's future as a mother only one part of an otherwise diffuse ending, Wasserstein extracts the joy and assurance of the traditional comic ending without the encumbrance of comedy's predictable return to the status quo. In other words, Wasserstein protects against the reactionary power of the traditional comic ending by setting Sam's future in the context of four other, much less defined futures. All five women, like Wasserstein, know that the happy endings promised in comedy are illusive, but that comedy's joy is not. In this they are uncommon.
Forming her characters as a social unit in a comedy of textures, Wasserstein demonstrates how the delicate relations of women to social roles may be best studied, may be only studied, in an altered comic form. Boothe's comedy about women generated bitterness, complaints, and brittle laughter; Wasserstein's comedy about women nurtures faith, concern, and warm, easy laughter. Community.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6197
SOURCE: An interview in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 418-31.
[Below, Wasserstein discusses the characters, language, and humor of her Uncommon Women and Others and Isn't It Romantic as well as her views about being a woman playwright and the future of American theater in general.]
[Interviewer]: Your plays are very funny. Will you talk a little about comedic writing in general, and then specifically about women's comedy?
[Wasserstein]: Well, there's always that old Woody Allen joke: When you write comedy you sit at the children's table, and when you write tragedy you sit at the adult table. But I'm not sure that's true. It's very satisfying for me to hear the audience laugh. The audience is alive, it's there. What's interesting about my plays is that they are comedies, but they are also somewhat wistful. They're not happy, nor are they farces, which is odd because I've been given offers to write sit-coms for television, and I don't think I'd be good at it. There's an undercurrent in my work.
Christopher Durang is a very dear friend, and a brilliant writer. We've collaborated on a film [When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth] and it's interesting how our voices merge at a point. Mine tends to be more warm, and his is more startling. There's a give and take, but I'm still interested in that warmth. Collaboration is also a matter of stretching oneself, trying to get out into other forms. Chris talks about moving toward more warmth, and I find myself moving toward something darker. When we wrote the movie, we met every day, and wrote the whole script on one notepad. The writing became one voice. It was very interesting.
Do you think it is more natural for you to write "warm"?
I wouldn't say that. It's hard, talking about a female aesthetic. Best put, I once heard Marsha Norman say that women writing plays had secrets they wanted to tell. When I wrote Uncommon Women and Others, I wanted to write an all-woman play. Now given that, what am I going to write? My characters rafting down the Colorado River? It just happens that the men I've known have not gone to girls' schools for eight years. They have not had the pleasure of a course on "Gracious Living." They also did not grow up—and hopefully this has changed—with having to hear "Be a sweet girl, be a good girl." That's different nowadays. I was writing Uncommon Women from an experience I had. I don't know if that gets down to an aesthetic. When you're talking about an aesthetic, you're also talking about language.
How would you describe your stage language?
The people in my plays talk circularly. They do not talk directly. I don't know if that's women or that's Wendy. It's probably Wendy. But Wendy is a woman writer, and Uncommon Women comes from a woman's experience. It's about women sitting around talking. It's reflective. I do agree with Marsha Norman in that I think there are stories to tell that haven't been told. But you're not only telling them for women, hopefully.
You said that in working on Isn't It Romantic you were interested in the ways in which your characters became trapped by their own humor.
Janie Blumberg, the main character, is totally trapped by her own sense of humor. Some people seeing the first version of the play thought it was composed of very witty one-liners, but I felt it was how Janie talks. Janie is a character who has a problem expressing her feelings and she desperately wants to be liked.
Is Janie's humor a way of protecting herself?
It's a protection, but it's a vulnerability as well. I think that may be very female. Janie in Isn't It Romantic tells joke, joke, joke and then finally explodes. Finally, she discovers her own strength. And furthermore, there is a strength in being comedic. It's a way of getting on in the world, of taking the heat out of things. Humor is a life force.
It seemed that many of the critics missed the irony of Isn't It Romantic in its original production.
Women playwrights fall into a trap because the audience goes in expecting a "woman's play," with a feminist sensibility. Nobody goes into a man's play and thinks, "I want a man's point of view on this." They don't expect to discover the male playwright's political feeling about the sexes. That is never asked of men. For example, when Janie in Isn't It Romantic doesn't marry the doctor, it's not because she's a grand feminist, or because she loves her career, or wants to ride off on a tractor. He isn't right for her. As a playwright, first and foremost you must be true to your characters. It's the character's motivation; not me speaking for womankind. Even Uncommon Women doesn't say, "This is what I feel about women." Basically what it's saying is "I'm very confused." The characters are confused; they're also dear and kind and funny. The play asks: "Why are they so confused?" I want to show you their confusion. But it's not saying I have any answers. And what it's really not saying is "Fuck you."
Didn't you once say that Isn't It Romantic is about being funny?
Janie Blumberg's humor gives her the ability to distance herself from situations. But she simultaneously endears herself to people by being amusing. The play is about her difficulty in communicating. She's so verbal, and yet she can't talk. It's a play about speech—about the ability to speak and not to speak at the same time, which comes from the pressure women are under to be a good girl, a smart girl, and a warm girl, simultaneously.
Is Isn't It Romantic about the price of being a good, smart, warm and funny girl?
Yes, I think so.
Is Janie willing to pay the price?
Janie is strong, but she doesn't know it. Maybe she secretly knows she's strong and is frightened by it. It's not going to be easy for Janie, but she is able to move from feeling and that's interesting. In fact, that's character. Janie is stronger than her friend Harriet who has all the externals…. Harriet could be a cover on Savvy magazine. The girl who "has it all." You know, the person who gets up at eight o'clock in the morning, spends twenty minutes with her daughter and ten minutes with her husband, then they jog together, she drives to work, comes home to her wonderful life, studies French in the bathtub, and still has time to cry three minutes a day in front of the mirror.
What's troublesome, from my point of view, about the Women's Movement is that there are more check marks to earn nowadays. More pressure. What's really liberating is developing from the inside out. Having the confidence to go from your gut for whatever it is you want. Janie is able to do that.
The character of Janie's mother in Isn't It Romantic runs around saying, "I like life, life, life." She's a bit of a crackpot, but she does have a spirit. The comedy itself is a spirit. It's not an application form, a resume, 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. That, to me, is heroic.
In the Phoenix production of Isn't It Romantic most of the critics were upset by the fact that in the end, Janie rejected the nice Jewish doctor as a husband.
If the Jewish doctor had been a creep, and Janie decided not to marry him, the play would be a feminist statement: Good for her, see how strong she is. I wanted to write a nice man. And the play's not about the fact that she doesn't marry. I don't feel one way or another about marriage per se, though I'd like to get married one of these days….
The doctor isn't really perfect, is he?
He's not perfect at all! He tells her he wants to make alternate plans, he calls her "monkey," he buys an apartment without telling her. If these are people's ideals, after the play they should see a marriage counselor. And Janie's not scared. He is a Jewish doctor, he is darling and funny and dear, but Janie has a right to her decisions. She has a right, even if that means she's going to be alone. Even if she's wrong in her choice. Even if she's going to sit in her apartment and cry every night, if that's what she wants to do….
Since the emergence of women's issues, men's behavior has been under close scrutiny. You seem to have taken an ironic swipe at the "new male" in drawing your character, Paul Stuart [from Isn't It Romantic], whose behavior is old hat—despite his liberated rhetoric.
Things have gotten very confusing. It's true that men can exploit the new rhetoric. My character Paul Stuart is very smart when he says that when he got married, women didn't know they could have careers. He says, "Now you girls have careers and you want a wife." He's pretty much figured things out. The fact that he still gets to have a wife is interesting….
Your plays bear the message that women can't "have it all." Helen Gurley Brown says that women can have it all, if only they learn the right strategies.
I've never been one for strategies, really. Because I can't make one for myself. What should you do? Take colored index cards for everything you want, put them on a bulletin board: baby on the pink card, job on the blue? I never understood how those things work. I know there are women who have careers and babies. They work very hard. More credit to them. But the whole notion of "having it all" is ridiculous. It's a ridiculous phrase. Who's determining what "it all" is? Helen Gurley Brown? That's not fair. No man has had the pressure during the past ten years of having a different article come out every two weeks dictating how he should live his life. It changes every two weeks!
There isn't any formula for happiness. The very basic expectations of being a "good girl," a "nice girl," and a "kind girl" are still being put upon us. This is confusing because there's nothing wrong with wanting to be kind, unless it hurts you, or keeps you from doing what you want to do.
Who is responsible for this malaise? The media? The theater? The government?
I don't know. You do want to work and have children and be gorgeous. But until there's a dictum for men that says, "Have it all," it's not fair for women to feel they should. Even with all the media talk about the "new father" and "time-sharing" I've yet to see the male "have it all" article come out.
As far back as Uncommon Women you seemed to have an awareness of the way the "new male" was absorbing the liberated woman's language. Rita says, "The only problem with menstruation for men is that some sensitive schmuck could write about it for the Village Voice and become the new expert on women's inner life."
I guess to be fair, things have changed….
Doesn't it sometimes seem things have regressed?
Well, I went back to Mt. Holyoke in 1979 to see a production of Uncommon Women. I asked some of the students there what they thought about the play. One of them said, "Well, we think it's a nice period piece." I said, "Who do you think I am, Sheridan?" I mean, I had been studying there only eight years before! Then the women told me that unlike my characters, they knew what they wanted: to go to business school, or earn Ph.D.s or get married. I did think to myself, "This is becoming like Amherst College during the fifties." What's so great about that?
Can we go back to the critics for a moment? Not many of them were kind about your rather broad character, Susie Friend, the cheerful organizer in Uncommon Women. Shakespeare was allowed a few clowns, why not Wendy Wasserstein?
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 in banks!
Is it okay for her to be a little less than three-dimensional because she is a peripheral character?
Susie Friend was a device. 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. That's all.
You've said that the character of Tasha Blumberg in Isn't It Romantic was close to your mother in some ways.
Well, she is and she isn't. When you base a character on someone in real life, you are always condensing, as well as trying to keep the tone consistent. Tasha is not totally like my mother. Although my mother is a danseur! There is also an assumption that every mother you write is your own mother. That's not necessarily true. You have different things to say about a mother-daughter relationship at different times of life and in different kinds of plays.
You've also said that it was easier for you to write the character Lillian, Harriet's mother, in Isn't It Romantic than Tasha Blumberg. Why is that?
Harriet's mother is an intriguing character. She was a more interesting woman to write because, of all the women in Isn't It Romantic, she is the most modern.
Some of the critics saw Lillian as bitter. Do you agree?
Lillian is not hard or bitter. She is not Faye Dunaway in Network. But she's tough. In terms of comedy, she was fun to write because her sense of humor is very different from the other characters I have written. She has a little inflection, she's very wry and dry, and that was good for me because sometimes all of my characters have similar senses of humor. Lillian knows of the world and her own life. She has made her choices and has come to terms with them. In her life, there was not room for a man. She could not "have it all." She did pay a price and what's tragic is that her daughter is now going to pay another price.
What is the price for Lillian?
Lillian had a bad marriage with a selfish man. Maybe with a more understanding man, she would have been fine. Who knows what the problem was? But in her life, she could not work it out. It wasn't worth it to her. Lillian is not a romantic. Lillian is fair. She is modern because she faces herself. What she has to say is honorable: "You tell me who has to leave the office when the kid bumps his head or slips on a milk carton." If she has to go home, time and time again, then why should she be with a man anyway? From Lillian's point of view, there is no reason to have two babies, your husband and your child. What's interesting is that Lillian, in her own way, is also a "good girl." She is not doing anything wrong. She is very American. A good mother, a hard worker …
Be more specific as to what was more difficult about writing Tasha Blumberg, the character most nearly like your own mother.
I'll tell you why she was harder to write than Lillian. I've always thought that Uncommon Women was me split into nine parts, in terms of characters. But the truth is, what was always the hardest in Uncommon Women was writing Holly, who, autobiographically, is closest to me, though there are parts of me in all of the characters. That play is twofold. First, it's play about Holly and Rita, which examines the fact that the Women's Movement has had answers for the Kates of the world (she becomes a lawyer), or the Samanthas (she gets married). But for the creative people, a movement can't provide answers. There isn't a specific space for them to move into. Holly was the hardest to write because I thought, "That's Wendy," or people will think, "THAT'S WENDY! There's the hips, there she is." And I also didn't want to self-congratulatize when drawing that character. So I find it difficult to write autobiographical characters. There aren't good guys and there aren't villains in my plays. If I were to say there's a problem with my writing, it's typified by the line in Uncommon Women when one character says, "Sometimes it's difficult having sympathy with everyone's point of view." I have been accused of being too generous to the other, less autobiographical characters in my plays, but in fact, it is hardest for me to be generous to the character that is closest to me.
You feel you have to humble yourself?
Yes. I think so. When someone said to me, "You're a playwright, why use a confused persona to represent yourself in a play? You know what you're doing. Why shouldn't the character?" I said, "I'm a playwright because I don't know everything. Because I am trying to figure things out." You do divide yourself up when you are writing. Marty Sterling, the doctor in Isn't It Romantic has the sweetest speech about marriage. Why doesn't Janie have that speech?
So Tasha Blumberg was harder to write than Lillian because she was more autobiographical?
Tasha is closer to my mother, that is true. I find my mother very funny. My mother dances six hours a day. She's, as she says, twenty-one plus, and she has not gone to Mt. Holyoke, but she is very sharp. Sometimes I find her humor funnier than my own. I saw my mother on the street the other day. I was in a taxi, and I stopped. She jumped in and said, "Oh, it's so wonderful to have children, honey. It's so wonderful to see you and I only hope that by the time you have children, you take a fertility pill and have five." Then she looked at me and said, "And that's going into the play, isn't it?" I thought, there is no way I could write anything as good as that. And she knew it. I haven't finished with my mother yet. That is the truth of all this.
Will you write about it someday?
Maybe it's where my writing is going. I don't know. Although I am proud of the last scene in Isn't It Romantic, 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. A way of staying "up." It's a privacy. You are there, and you are not there. You don't share equally about every topic. That's the truth of language, the truth of dialogue. If you did, you wouldn't be writing language, you wouldn't be writing what you are hearing, how people really talk….
So humor creates subtext?
Yes and it is also part of the delight of writing itself. When you come up with a good line, you make yourself laugh, right there at the typewriter. It gives you pleasure.
I want to say that the other reason Lillian was easier to write than Tasha was that Lillian was someone on my mind. She is contemporary. She's an image that is closer to, if not me, then me ten years from now. She reflects a conflict that I think about a lot. Men and children. Having children alone, and whether or not that's possible. Tasha Blumberg—forget my mother—is from another world, a different time, which is harder to capture. Lillian is closer to my world. I have considered writing plays about the young Tasha at Radio City, the dancer. And at one point in Isn't It Romantic, Janie gets up and starts to tap dance. There is an image of a person alone, who dances. Janie's mother is a dancer, and that is the gift from mother to daughter.
You studied dramatic writing at Yale. Were there other women in the playwriting program?
Susan Nanons was there, Sharon Stockard-Martin, Grace McKeaney … they are all very talented women. But no, the playwriting program was not overflowing with women.
Did you take a lot of flak for writing Uncommon Women, a play with an all-female cast?
I made the decision to write a play with all women after seeing all that Jacobean drama, where a man kisses the poisoned lips of a woman's skull and drops dead. I though, "I can't identify with this." I wanted to write a play where all the women were alive at the curtain call. And I had seen my friend, Alma Cuervo, whom I love dearly, have to play the pig-woman in Bartholomew Fair, a panda in General Gorgeous … I thought, What's going on?
Were people shocked by Uncommon Women?
Well, the play was not in as good a shape as it is now. I do remember someone who saw the Yale production saying that I was a "subset" of Christopher Durang. Chris came to my defense and said, "When I write my play about an all woman's college, you can call me." It was shocking to me.
You said in an interview that the point of view at Yale was that "the pain in the world is a man's pain."
Though women are often said to write "small tragedies," they are our tragedies, and therefore large, and therefore legitimate. They deserve a stage.
Why didn't Uncommon Women, with all of its success, move to Broadway?
We had one offer, which is an interesting story. The producer told me that at the end of the play things should be different. He said the play was too wistful. He thought, that at the end, 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." I thought, "Well, she'd have to have a lobotomy, and I'd have to have a lobotomy too." So the play never went to Broadway. It does stick in my craw because Uncommon Women is a very good play and it had such an amazing cast. But sometimes you've opened a door, and when you go to the next work, people listen. Don't I sound old and wise? The play should have moved to Broadway!
Is Uncommon Women a political play?
It's political because it is a matter of saying, "You must hear this." You can hear it in an entertaining fashion, and you can hear it from real people, but you must know and examine the problems these women face. It all comes from the time I was in college, which was a time of great fervor. There used to be pieces in that play that were very political. The most political part was when Mark Rudd came to Mt. Holyoke. In that version, Susie Friend had a strike speech and even organized a strike for Mark Rudd.
Why did you take that out?
Well, I took it out because I thought that it would open the play up to all the questions of Vietnam, and that's another play. I really wanted to do something so that women's voices could be heard. I'm happy I did that. I can remember the 1969 Cambodia strike. Simultaneously, Amherst College was accepting women for the first time. There were twenty-three women and twelve hundred men. That was a glorious experience. I didn't go to the dining hall for two weeks. I was scared to death! The first night I was there, the men were rating us! I remember going to the student-faculty meeting and saying, "You have to let us stay here." The speaker seemed to think this was a very selfish issue. He said, "We have Kent State, we have Cambodia … what's the big deal about a little girl wanting to stay at Amherst College?" I thought, "This is one of the most important things happening in terms of long-range changes for women." In fact, Amherst College went coed two years later. That's just an isolated incident. I do think that that whole period has not yet been resolved. Maybe things are regressing. I try to find answers to these issues through my plays.
Your character Leilah in Uncommon Women, says, "Sometimes I think I just need to live in a less competitive culture." How do you think that relates to being an artist in America?
When I was at Yale, I was frightened to death. I remember years later telling Christopher Durang that I felt like I was going from platform to platform, trying to catch the train to Moscow. I went from platform six to platform seven and I kept missing the train. I had no idea what I was doing at drama school. Everyone else I knew was going to law school or marrying lawyers, except for my immediate friends, who seemed as cuckoo as me. I really couldn't explain my feelings to anyone. If you tell someone you are a playwright, they say, "So what do you do for a living?" Or, if you're a successful playwright, they say, "Gee, isn't that glamorous?" You think, "Yeah, it's real exciting. I sit in a room alone every day and I write. Thrilling!" Either way, you are in an odd spot. It doesn't place you in the margins, but you are not in the mainstream of society. It certainly doesn't make for a secure life. But it does at least make for a life of doing what you want to do. I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
You seem to make a plea for community in your work….
Yes. Or at least, a plea to establish your own kind of family. Maybe my family is Chris Durang and Ted Talley and André Bishop. It could well be, but again, that's pretty marginal. You can't go to weddings and say "My family is Chris Durang, and Ted Talley and André Bishop…."
Would you tell us something about Playwrights Horizons?
I am very lucky because that theater is my home, and it has made a tremendous difference to me, having someplace that I know I can work out of. I've had a long association with the people there. Life is competitive, but Playwrights Horizons is not. It is a community, and that has always been very important to me.
What happens when you are in rehearsal with a play? Are you able to maintain sufficient artistic control over your work?
It depends on the production and on the play. I was there through everything with Uncommon Women. I was at the [Eugene] O'Neill [National Playwrights Conference], the Phoenix Theatre, and when they did the television production for PBS. I had a good relationship with the director, Steve Robman.
You felt your intentions were given enough attention?
Yes. But subsequently, I have seen productions of Uncommon Women around the country and I can't tell you the sort of horrifying things I've seen. It's unbelievable.
How do you react to a bad production?
It depends on whether you've been involved in the actual production. Sometimes you just go to see the play. That's taught me that there is a point at which you have to let a play go. It was hard for me to let Uncommon Women go because it had such a short run in New York. I like to be able to go to a theater for more than a two-and-a-half-week run.
You don't experience anger in rehearsal? You've never had to fight for your intentions?
Well, yes, sure I have. Rehearsal is a very important time to learn not to be such a good girl. I think you have to learn to speak up, because the point is, it's your play, and you do know something about it. It is very important to pick the right director. That is step one. And you can't be a good girl about picking a director either. You can't pick somebody just so everyone will like you. You have to pick someone you respect and who will be right for the play.
Have you ever worked with a woman director?
Susan Dietz directed Uncommon Women in California.
Did you feel she brought any special insights to the work?
I did like the production a lot. I don't know how to answer that question because I was assigned Steve Robman at the O'Neill and he stayed with the production throughout. It wasn't a conscious choice for a male director or against a female director. It is very important that there be more women directors, and that more women directors are encouraged, which goes all the way back to the question of how many women directing students there are at Yale. I do think what you want is a good director.
What did you mean, earlier, when you spoke of "letting go" of the play?
I told Chris the other night that I've had the sensation, with both Uncommon Women and Isn't It Romantic of waiting for the play to embrace me. I keep waiting for the play to give back what I've given. And it cannot happen. You can get depressed. Because if you're a good writer, you're generous and you give it everything and people laugh and applaud—but still, the play is inanimate. It cannot reach out and embrace you. That's hard to come to terms with. You can follow a play around the country waiting for that to happen. But it can't—and finally, you have to separate from it and just send it out.
Is the closest you can get to that embrace hearing the spontaneous laughter from the audience?
Maybe. But during Uncommon Women, there was something special among those 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.
Why did you decide to study playwriting at Yale instead of attending Columbia Business School, where you had also been accepted?
You know, I even sent Columbia a deposit! When I graduated from Mt. Holyoke I came to New York and took writing courses at City College. I studied with Israel Horovitz and Joseph Heller. While studying playwriting with Israel, I had my first play done at Playwrights Horizons—this was back when it was at the YMCA on Fifty-second Street. I applied to both programs because I felt "I've got to make a living." I was living at home at the time. I thought I'd go to business school, then get a job in Chicago and everything would be fine. But when I got into Yale School of Drama, I thought, "Playwriting is something I really want to do. It's worth a shot." But it was hard. It took me a long time to take myself seriously. I mean, it still takes me a long time to take myself seriously….
Did Durang and Talley have difficulty taking themselves seriously?
I don't know. I don't think they thought something was wrong with them because they weren't in law school or married to a lawyer. I thought something was wrong with me. I thought I was a Ford Pinto. Now, I've gotten used to it. I'm used to living a life of eighty percent security.
Does a Guggenheim Fellowship help with that feeling of eighty percent security?
Yes. That was the best thing since Uncommon Women. It is a certified "We believe in you." I have a funny story about that. In October, my father said, "So what are you doing?" I said, "Applying for a Guggenheim." He said, "What's that?" I told him it was a foundation that gives artists money to finish their work. Then he said, "No daughter of mine's going on welfare!" I'm the only person whose parents are going to disinherit her for winning a Guggenheim!
Did you see Uncommon Women as a "non-play," as some of the reviewers did?
Uncommon Women is not a conventionally structured play. On a simple level, it moves through the seasons of the year. I do not see that play as presentational. It's like an odd sort of documentary. I am more interested in content than form. Uncommon Women is episodic. I don't know what actually happens in that play … they graduate.
Quite a lot happens….
But it is an emotional action. And I tend to go on big canvases. My favorite authors are Russian: Tolstoy, Chekhov … the whole idea of presenting a social life and a personal life interests me. I also love Ibsen.
There's much reference recently to "The new woman playwright"—Mel Gussow's article in The New York Times Magazine [May 1, 1983], for example. Is it really that women are newcomers to playwriting, or is it the attention that's new?
I think it's the attention that's new. I do think there are women who open doors, like Marsha Norman. I don't know if her play 'night, Mother could have won a Pulitzer Prize twenty years ago. So maybe there is a little more attention nowadays. But at the same time, when I saw that article, I thought, "Where is Corinne Jacker?" And that article also brings up the whole issue of whether women playwrights are a separate category. We are all playwrights. I think that is very important. But for now, any minority group must be labeled. Our idea of a playwright is a white male—then all the others are separated into subsets: black playwrights, gay playwrights, women playwrights, and so on. The point is, we are all in it together. But I listen to my plays, and as I hear them, I distance myself, and I still think, "A woman wrote this."
Are female playwrights becoming less political than they were in the sixties and seventies?
It depends on what you see as political. Politics on the largest level is from each according to their ability. Nine girls taking a curtain call can be seen as political. It's important in terms of feeling legitimate. So is the fact that men can come to my plays and laugh, and that some girl from New Jersey comes to the play and says, "This is my story." And if my story can reach her, maybe she can tell her story. That is very important. Comedy does not segregate the political.
Do you feel that British women playwrights are more likely to be overt in their politics?
That could be true. It could have to do with being brought up in a society where feminism has been connected to broader political issues. Maybe feminism has taken a different shape there. Caryl Churchill is a wonderful playwright. Her Top Girls was great. The way she took the larger political scope and then looked at the personal was fantastic.
Can you give us a summation?
It is very important that women keep writing plays for many reasons. The theater is the home of the individual voice—at least in dramatic form. It is not in movies or television. I think the work of women in America is evolving. For myself, I am trying to work on structure, on comedy, and on being able to create a feeling of community. That can only happen in the theater.
Are you optimistic about the state of American theater?
Oddly enough, I am. Because you do not write by committee in theater. The way that artists are discriminated against does have an effect on your pocketbook. Getting a Guggenheim helped this year, but you know, I am not making millions. The Guggenheim is not the money you would make as a first-year lawyer. That's how our society works. It makes you feel marginal. But, as somebody who believes in the individual voice, I still believe in the theater and what can happen there. I believe in comedy, in its spirit, and in its ability to lift people off the ground. I also think there are stories to tell, and as a woman writer, I want to tell those stories, to work out those conflicts. I want to take these conflicts from the political down to the personal. And the personal level, to me, is somewhat comedic. I hope to write a play that is going to be a history of the Women's Movement, which is a serious thing to take on. I want to write about someone who went through it and how it affected them personally—I want to explore the reverberations. Because I want to understand, and sometimes I understand better by writing….
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
SOURCE: "East Side Stories," in Vogue, Vol. 179, No. 3, March, 1989, p. 266B.
[In the following unfavorable review, Carter characterizes The Heidi Chronicles, as "Off-Broadway lite" and reminiscent of television sitcoms.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles and Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard are both comedic attempts to humanize the anxieties and dreams of bloodless yuppie existence. Drenched in soppy good intention, both plays have moved from venturesome Off Broadway, where they didn't really belong, to the commercial houses of Broadway, where they do…. In The Heidi Chronicles [Wasserstein] exhumes an old but promising device—picking up the lives of characters at dramatic junctures over a prolonged period—only to cruelly effect a sort of dramatic euthanasia on it. Central to this theme are the character and career of Heidi Holland, played by Joan Allen.
Heidi's life is sketched out in eleven vignettes over the course of some twenty-three years. Along the way we are introduced to the two men in her life, Scoop Rosenbaum, a cocky, too-smart magazine editor played by Peter Friedman (who, in the course of researching his role, spent some time with me; he must have learned the cockiness elsewhere), and Peter Patrone, an awkward but acid-tongued gay pediatrician played by Boyd Gaines. It would be fun and delightfully voyeuristic to drop in on Heidi's life like this, if she weren't so unconnected with what is going on around her. Heidi, alas, is profoundly uninteresting, a lifeless, moody dishrag. Against all evidence to the contrary, everyone nevertheless seems to be mad about her.
Heidi's world is a catalog of baby-boomer clichés. Sensitive men become homosexuals. Independent women become lesbians. Heterosexuals marry but are unhappy. Homosexuals get AIDS. Former radicals become TV producers. Sixties anarchists become eighties capitalists. One young woman, sketched as a mid-1980s, on-the-go professional, is dressed, get this: in a boxy business suit, with a white shirt, floppy red bow tie, and white running shoes and socks. This is social satire on a par with television's Who's the Boss?
You feel like you've seen it all before. And if you grew up in front of the television set, chances are you have. This is Off-Broadway lite, theater written for couch potatoes in the Esperanto of cocooning—sitcom language. At one point in The Heidi Chronicles, one character informs another that they have "charisma. [Beat.] I hate charisma!" A decade before, Lou Grant told Mary Richards: "You have spunk, Mary. [Beat.] I hate spunk." Scoop Rosenbaum (devilishly clever, nicknaming a magazine editor "Scoop"), just married, and having difficulty getting out the word wife, says, "My waa … waaa … [slaps his face] wife!" Ted Baxter similarly stumbled over the word "marr … marrr … marriage" when he proposed to Georgette. Oh, but The Heidi Chronicles brings back such memories. Really, intermission felt more like a station break.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, Autumn, 1989, pp. 464-65.
[An educator, critic, and nonfiction writer, Hornby teaches and writes about drama. In the following, he offers a negative assessment of The Heidi Chronicles.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles is a lifeless, vulgar play, rendered all the more irritating by the many awards that this non-playwright has won simply because she is a woman, writing on fashionable issues. Wasserstein does not even begin to know how to construct a play. Her characters are automatons, set in motion as targets for crude ridicule; her plots are aimless; her ideas are trite; her dialogue is pretentiously witless.
Heidi, originally performed at Playwrights Horizons, was transferred to Broadway last March in a surprisingly lavish production, starring the superb Joan Allen in a role well beneath her talent. In thirteen scenes, the play takes its title character from 1965 until today, purporting to depict the problems of an intelligent, single woman in contemporary society. Heidi encounters two men in her youth: A bright boy she first meets at a prep school dance, who eventually becomes a pediatrician, and who turns out to be a homosexual; and a smart-ass womanizer she meets at a McCarthy-for-President rally, who becomes a successful magazine publisher. She becomes the long-term friend of the former, despite his mercurial temperament, and the long-term lover of the latter, despite his many affairs and even his marriage to another woman. She takes a doctorate in art history; dabbles in feminism; becomes a professor; and finally, in 1989, when it is clear that she will probably never marry, she adopts a baby.
Joan Allen, tall, intelligent, beautiful, and charming, was marvelous last year as the dancer in Lanford Wilson's Burn This. That character became involved in a destructive sexual relationship similar to those in Heidi, but she was also articulate and energetic. This character does give two art history lectures in the play that are interesting and humorous in a low-key way, but when speaking with other characters she mostly hems and haws, and an extemporary talk to her finishing school alumnae degenerates into free-associative drivel. Heidi is so passive that she seems to be going through life in a daze. I could never understand why she doesn't tell the stereotypical folk who seem forever to be nagging her—the radical lesbian, the inane TV hostess, the Jewish American Princess, plus Heidi's two loudmouth boyfriends—simply to go to hell. Nor could I understand why a woman as attractive as Joan Allen should be limited to a homosexual and a compulsive philanderer when it comes to men.
The tacked-on, upbeat ending where Heidi adopts a baby (a girl, of course) also seemed implausible, a dea ex machina intended to demonstrated that a woman can find happiness and fulfillment without a husband. Thousands of American couples would like to know how a single, fortyish woman managed quickly to adopt a healthy white infant who, we are told, is intelligent and beautiful. In terms of the drama, moreover, I'd like to know how a character who has so far seemed totally unassertive suddenly found the courage and drive to adopt a child. It takes a lot of time and effort; you don't just pick them up at Bloomingdale's.
I liked Thomas Lynch's set designs early in the play, when he achieved a wide range of locales with simple means—a few hanging streamers to suggest the prep school dance, the bottom half of a huge museum banner to suggest the front of the Art Institute of Chicago. As the scenes progressed, however, the settings became ever more elaborate and mechanized, with revolving periaktoi (three-sided prisms) and sliding floor panels shifting walls and furniture about, until the stage floor seemed as cluttered and busy as a railway station. The growing ponderousness was a visual synecdoche for the play itself, which might have been a simple, unpretentious treatment of a young woman's life, but which turned into a cumbrous morality play about Everywoman in the Eighties.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3076
SOURCE: "Dear Heidi: An Open Letter to Dr. Holland," in American Theatre, Vol. 6, No. 7, October, 1989, pp. 26-9, 114-16.
[Rose was the founder of the Roses International Women's Theater and Softball Syndicate. In the excerpt below, written in the form of a letter dated 1 October 1989 to the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles, she accuses the play's eponymous heroine of complicitly participating in the oppression of women and challenges her to actively oppose the patriarchal ways of contemporary society.]
Oct. 1, 1989
South Adelaide, Australia
I came to Australia to spend six months learning about women and the arts here. I arrived on the other side of the earth on April Fool's Day. I saw your Chronicles twice before I left the States, once at Playwrights Horizons and once on Broadway. I've been thinking about you ever since.
You haven't met me. I'm writing because you said you felt "stranded." I understand the feeling. I work in the theatre. Your field is art history. We both study images. We both work to create positive images of women.
Let me recount for you a dozen images I saw onstage in The Heidi Chronicles. Then you'll know if I missed something, and other readers will understand my references. The play's the thing. I don't presume that these snapshots are a substitute.
1. You're 40 years old, and somewhat shy behind a lectern in a Columbia University classroom. Pleasant and softly sardonic, you explicate slides of little-known paintings by women from centuries past. Lily Martin Spencer's 19th-century canvas We Both Must Fade reminds you of "one of those horrible high school dances," the kind where "you sort of want to dance, and you sort of want to go home, and you sort of don't know what you want. So you hang around, a fading rose in the exquisitely detailed dress, waiting to see what might happen."
2. You're 16, at a high school dance in Chicago. You're with your best friend Susan, who knows exactly what the boy/girl rules are and loves playing the game. You're both on the sidelines. When "ladies' choice" is announced, Susan gets herself a partner. You sit down and read Death Be Not Proud. Peter Patrone comes in. Impressed that you're reading, he initiates a B-movie cruise fantasy and asks you to marry him. "I covet my independence," you reply. "I want to know you all my life," he counters. "If we can't marry, let's be great friends." Peter teaches you to dance the hully-gully to "The Shoop Shoop Song."
3. You're 19, a student at Vassar, off the dance floor (again) at a Eugene McCarthy rally, when you're accosted by Scoop Rosenbaum, founder and editor of The Liberated Earth News. "You're obviously a liberal," Scoop challenges, "or you wouldn't be here." "I came with a friend," you dodge. Scoop one-ups you with his quick wit. "Lady, you better learn to stand up for yourself," he taunts, but when you do, he puts you down. You are intrigued with the challenge of beating Scoop at his own game. You accept his invitation to bed.
4. Now 21 and a student at Yale, you're visiting still-best-friend Susan, who's joined a feminist consciousness-raising group while attending law school. You tag along reluctantly and sit outside the circle: Jill, a recovering housewife; Becky, an abandoned adolescent; Fran, a passionate lesbian. Cajoled to speak, you tell them, "My interest is images of women from the Renaissance Madonna to the present." "A feminist interpretation?" Fran wonders. "Humanist," you specify. You talk about Scoop. "I allow him to make me feel valuable," you confess. "And the bottom line is I know that's wrong." Then, in a scene that hovers between ridicule and reverence, you join the circle and plead with the group, "Becky, I hope our daughters never feel like this. I hope all our daughters feel so fucking worthwhile. Do you promise we can accomplish that much, Fran?" At the end of the session, while the rest of you sing a campfire song in a circle, Fran puts on Aretha's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," full volume.
5. Now 25 and writing your dissertation, you're demonstrating outside the Art Institute of Chicago to demand equal representation for women artists. Peter Patrone arrives chanting, "No more master-penises!" You tell him Susan has become a "radical shepherdess/counselor." He tells you he's become a "liberal homosexual pediatrician." You don't want to hear it, but you do. When Peter's lover arrives, the three of you march off chanting, "Women in Art!"
6. You're 28, and attending Scoop's wedding to Lisa. Peter and Susan are there, but you're not feeling social. Finally alone with Scoop, you tell him, "I'm writing a book of essays on women and art…. It's sort of humorous. Well, sort of social observation. I mean, it's sort of a point of view." Is it Scoop's decisiveness that makes you so indecisive? "We're talking life choices," he reminds you. "I haven't made them yet," you object. "Yes you have," he contradicts, "or we'd be getting married today." The lights fade as you and Scoop slow-dance to Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." You do not close your eyes. You seem to be somewhere else.
7. You're 31, and arrive late for the shower for Scoop and Lisa's first baby. You and Peter had gone to the memorial rally for John Lennon in Central Park, where you saw Scoop philandering. Everyone keeps this secret from Lisa. Susan has just accepted a film production job in L.A., "targeting films for the 25-to-29-year-old female audience." Scoop's successful magazine Boomer has just done a cover story on Peter Patrone, "The Best Pediatrician in New York under Forty." Nobody's happy. "I like men," another woman confesses, "but they're not very nice." You all toast, "To John. And Ringo, and Paul, and George, forever!"
8. You're 33 and appearing on "Hello, New York," a TV show about baby-boomers in the '80s. April, the mediaditz host, introduces you as an "essayist, curator, feminist." You are seated between Peter and Scoop. They monopolize the show, even when the questions are directed at you. Afterwards, you're angry. "You're clutching your purse," Scoop observes. "I have valuables," you retort. "I'm very late." Tight-lipped, you leave.
9. You're 35, and meeting Susan and a colleague in a trendy New York restaurant. Susan is visiting from Hollywood to offer you a job as consultant for a new TV series about women in the arts. You're sad because this is a power lunch, not a chance to reconnect. "I'm not political anymore," Susan asserts. "I mean, equal rights is one thing, equal pay is one thing, but blaming everything on being a woman is just passé." Spotting movie stars across the room, Susan and friend rush off. They accept your "no" to the TV offer, but they don't hear you.
10. You're 37, and your keynote address to the "Women, Where Are We Going?" luncheon at the Plaza Hotel turns into an extemporaneous nervous breakdown. Out pours a flood of apologies—for your unhappiness, for feeling worthless, for feeling superior. "I feel stranded," you confess, in embarrassment and humiliation. "And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together."
11. You're 38 and you're moving. It's Christmas Eve, and you've brought all your records and books to donate to Peter's new AIDS ward for children (partially funded by Susan's new TV series about women and art). You've been offered a teaching position in the Midwest. "I've been sad for a long time," you tell Peter. "I don't want to be sad anymore." "Unfortunately, things are for real here," Peter counters, telling you about community violence against immune-deficient children and tallying up the number of friends' funerals he's had to go to. "A sadness like yours seems a luxury," he concludes. You reply, "I understand." And you stay, giving up the teaching job. The two of you reprise your B-movie cruise fantasy to "The Shoop Shoop Song."
12. You're 39, and you've bought an apartment. You're reading, alone, when Scoop appears, antic as always, to tell you that he's decided to sell Boomer and go into politics. Peter has helped you adopt a baby from Panama. You name her Judy, after A Date with Judy. Now your dream is in the future. If your daughter and Scoop's son ever get together, you muse, "He'll never tell her it's either/or, baby. And she'll never think she's worthless unless he lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better." Scoop calls you "a mother for the '90s." After he's gone, you awkwardly pick up Judy and say to her, "A heroine for the 21st." You rock her and croon Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," and we see the final slide: you holding Judy on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the banner for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition.
Since I've been in Australia, Heidi, The Heidi Chronicles (and your playwright, Wendy Wasserstein) have garnered numerous prestigious awards, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (awarded to "a woman who deserves recognition for having written a work of outstanding quality for English-speaking theatre"), the Dramatists Guild's Hull Warriner Award (presented annually by other dramatists to an "American play dealing with contemporary political, religious or social mores"), the Pulitzer Prize in drama (for "excellence") and the Tony award (for best play of the season).
You've also gathered raves from most mainstream critics, female and male: "An enlightening portrait of a generation" (Mel Gussow, The New York Times), "Not just a funny play, but a wise one" (Howard Kissel, The Daily News), "A wonderful and important play, gloriously well-written and staged" (Linda Winer, Newsday). On the other hand, Frank Lipsius did call you a "milquetoast" in The Financial Times, and Jacques le Sourd (Gannett Westchester Newspapers) thought the play could be called Memoirs of a Wallflower, which I understand, given your physical positioning at dances, your propensity to sidestep and dodge direct opinion, and your reliance on the qualifier "sort of."
Two thoughtful feminist critics were caustically critical. Alisa Solomon in The Village Voice found The Heidi Chronicles "an unbearably clever play," "just the kind of show Susan would love to produce. It assures us that [intelligent, educated women] are funny for the same traditional reasons women have always been funny: They hate their bodies, can't find a man, and don't believe in themselves."
In her review for Fresh Air on National Public Radio, Laurie Stone accused the playwright of "newspeak," of "trivializing" protest, of "purport[ing] to portray feminists" although Heidi "rejects the word feminist in favor of humanist—as if fighting for women's rights were a diminishment." In response to your implication that the women's movement has left you stranded, Stone asks, "Would anyone dare suggest that the Civil Rights Movement promised minorities too much and is therefore to blame for middle-aged disappointment black people may feel?"
Heidi, I am writing to you because you said you feel stranded.
If I were able to paint an image of The Heidi Chronicles, the composition would target Peter and Scoop in the center. At the outer edges I'd wash a shadow circle of anonymous male suitors. You would be trapped between the inner and outer circles, "hanging around," "waiting to see what might happen." The image doesn't change at the end of the play. You simply carry Judy with you because, even with Judy, you're "waiting" for a future when Scoop's son and your daughter might meet, "And she'll never think she's worthless unless he lets her have it all." I don't understand that last sentence, Heidi, but whatever it means, a man is still at the center, still in control of a woman feeling all right about herself.
It is because of this image that I write to you, Heidi. You are stranded, but not where and by whom you think. You have cut yourself off from us. You have barricaded yourself in a closed circle with men and, as someone said at Scoop and Lisa's shower, "They're not very nice."
Peter is wrong. You sadness is not a "luxury." Your sadness speaks of the dis-ease of half the population on earth.
Do you know that in the history of western European dramatic literature—until the 1970s—there are no images of women confronting the world as whole and unique persons? Until the 1970s, there are no roles for women in which her behavior does not center around the actions of a man.
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. Or, if they do, 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.
As you know, Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy is one of the oldest stories in the library of Western European drama. I want to retell you the story from a feminist (not a humanist) point of view.
In the first play, Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, who has sacrificed their 13-year-old daughter Iphegenia so the weather will clear and his navy can sail, sack Troy and reclaim Helen (his wife's sister and his brother's wife).
In the second play, Orestes, encouraged by Apollo and by his sister Electra, kills his mother to avenge his father's murder.
As the third play opens, The Furies, defenders of mothers and matriarchy ("dark," "ugly," "despicable"), are "hounding" Orestes, demanding he be punished for the most heinous of crimes: matricide. Apollo, Orestes' defense lawyer, calls Athena to judge whether The Furies are right. Athena asks 12 citizens to be the jury. If the vote is tied, Athena will cast the deciding vote.
When I was in school, the play was taught as a record of the birth of "civilized" democracy, as demonstrated in the appointment of the first citizen jury and in the victory of Persuasion (Athena) over Violence (The Furies). I used to teach the play this way myself.
The setting is Ares Hill, where the Amazons camped, built their fortresses and were defeated. Iphegenia's murder is never discussed. Apollo argues that killing the father is a much worse crime than killing the mother because "the mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts."
The men of the jury are deadlocked. Athena casts her vote with Orestes—against The Furies and against matriarchy—because, she says, "There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth. I am always for the male."
Athena then "persuades" The Furies to go underground where they are to renounce their anger, "sit on shining chairs before the hearth," become household goddesses, preside over marriages, and change their names to The Kindly Ones.
If this is the beginning of Western democracy, it is also the end of justice and self-determination for women. A gynocentric value system has been officially buried. Calling The Furies "The Kindly Ones" is a newspeak trick. The future is male-centered.
Men declared war on women centuries before Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia. Male institutions effectively silenced independent women in public places long before the male-identified Athena (played by a male actor) assured the chorus of Greek citizens (land-owning men, played by male actors) that "I am always for the male." Rights of matrilinear descent were dead even as Athena sent The Furies underground to renounce their anger.
Still influenced by the Greeks, traditional Western theatre continues to define and delimit the nature and value of women's roles. In opera and mainstream theatre, when there are roles for women (including Shakespeare), women die, go mad, are banished or get married. The classical definition of "comedy" is a play that ends in marriage, effectively sending the "virgin" (she who is not possessed) to the hearth and male dominion.
Twentieth-century American musical comedies are direct descendants of this tradition. They continue to tame the wildness out of women. Consider My Fair Lady. The Sound of Music, South Pacific. In each, a witty, energetic, independent, optimistic young woman saves a middle-aged man from despair. Then they get married.
Somehow, Heidi, you've gone to the hearth and male dominion all by yourself. As if you've made a new decision. As if, in Laurie Stone's words, "reaction is revolution." As if "surrendering independence is a measure of independence."
We cannot afford this complicity, Heidi. It matters—not only who paints the pictures and who writes the plays, but what the images are and who benefits from them.
The fact is, all art is political. It either supports the status quo or challenges it. Just as in Apollo's time, the status quo values what is white, male, heterosexual and capitalist. (Scoop gets another "A.") Art which supports the status quo is celebrated by establishment reviewers as "humanist" or "important" or "universal." Art which challenges status quo values is diminished as "feminist" or "special interest" or "political."
In the United States, between 1974 (when you were picketing the Art Institute of Chicago) and 1988 (when you adopted Judy), audiences of Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, poor people of both genders as well as women of all races and ages began to see positive images of themselves presented by cultural workers who looked like them and who experienced life in ways audience members recognized. "Nontraditional" audiences entered theatres, some for the first time, eager to have their struggles for self-definition and self-determination validated on the public stage….
All colonized peoples are fighting the same war, Heidi. "He Who Mounts," in Apollo's phrase, has colonized not only all women and children but all men of cultures and colors different from his own. He has colonized the earth itself. "The earth is our Mother," say indigenous peoples. But He Who Mounts has declared himself a single parent. Unless we continue to do battle, our mother the earth will die. Matricide will be global this time.
Your work, my work, our work can create images to empower out communities to prevent it. But we have to act. We cannot sort of … hang around … waiting to see what might happen. Especially when we feel stranded.
I fly back to the States today. Can we meet for coffee? Toast The Furies instead of The Beatles?
Phyllis Jane Rose
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
SOURCE: "The Wendy Chronicles," in Harper's Bazaar, Vol. 123, No. 3339, March, 1990, pp. 154, 162.
[In the following review, Black offers praise for Bachelor Girls.]
"I think one of the reasons I took up writing is my need to make order out of disorder … that and this problem I have of remembering everything that has ever happened and been said to me," says playwright Wendy Wasserstein, settling down with a cup of coffee in her cluttered apartment to discuss her new book of essays Bachelor Girls, due out next month. "You know, I might have made my mother truly happy and become a lawyer if a friend of mine at Mt. Holyoke college hadn't suggested we take playwriting over at Smith … the reason being that there was much better shopping in Northampton than in South Hadley."
It is a telling comment for the 39-year-old writer. In her plays, characters often struggle between traditional values and the goals they have set for themselves. Though the conflicts are serious, both for the characters and their creator, Wasserstein's instinct is to employ her considerable sense of irony to help gain perspective.
One essay that typifies her indefatigable wit and depth is entitled "Jean Harlow's Wedding Night." It concerns the author's recollection of flying to Paris to meet a man she loves. The affair proves to be a disaster and Wasserstein's reaction when the man tells her that he has fallen for another woman is to battle rejection with humor and anecdote. Though her ex-lover's indifference moves her to tears, she ends her sobbing in the Jardin des Tuileries by walking to the Jeu de Paume to see a Degas exhibit. "I even hummed a little Cole Porter on the way. I am, after all, a resourceful person, and I love Paris in the springtime."
Wasserstein, a product of Brooklyn and Manhattan's Upper East Side, fondly remembers her childhood filled with dance lessons at the June Taylor School followed by Broadway matinees. Her mother Lola, "a perpetual dance student even at age 70," has figured prominently in her life and art. Not only was she the inspiration for the archetypal Jewish mother in her second play Isn't It Romantic, but is also at the core of the struggle that gives her daughter's work such resonance. "No matter how successful I become as a playwright," says Wasserstein, "my mother would still be thrilled to hear me tell her I'd just lost 20 pounds, gotten married and become a lawyer."
In her three major plays to date, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic and The Heidi Chronicles—winner of both a 1989 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award—the characters must all address the changing roles of women in the last two decades: career or family, feminism or June Cleaver's values. It is a dilemma best summed up by a character in The Heidi Chronicles who says, "Either you shave your legs or you don't."
Bachelor Girls illustrates familiar themes. As a contributing editor to New York Woman, Wasserstein wrote these pieces for her column for more immediate gratification "since it usually takes at least two years to get a play onstage … if ever." She also admits that the essay form allows her to develop some of the ideas she employs on the stage. "I like plays because they are live, and no matter how funny something is, if the audience doesn't laugh, then it doesn't work," she says. "But there are no characters to hide behind in the essays. They are much tougher to write in some ways because of their directness."
Indeed, Wasserstein draws on personal experience in all of the pieces in this collection. True to her claim of "remembering everything," she connects moments of her youth to those of her adulthood. In "A Phone of Her Own," she recollects wonderfully those pivotal "phone" conversations in a young girl's life: from the world-shaking calls of pre-adolescence when grownups have the nerve to make a youngster hang up after only an hour, to the heart-stopping LDs (long distance) on the college dormitory pay phone, to its hated position in the adult world when every ring brings yet another unwanted intrusion.
To her credit, however, the punch in these essays is delivered by more than bittersweet memories and pointed one-liners. Behind the "know-what-I-mean" posturings are Wasserstein's studies of her generation's convolutions through the '60s, '70s and '80s, her musings about women who have traded in NOW values for Volvos and kiddie car seats.
Though labels such as "important writer of her generation" often arouse suspicions, Wasserstein may actually deserve the mantle. She is not only attuned to her peers but also to women of any generation. "I was lecturing recently at a college and I met these young women who told me they had it all planned out: family, profession, political affiliations, everything," she recalls. "But there seemed to be a problem with that, too. Being so reasonable about life at 19, weren't they missing out on a certain passion?"
There are sketches in Bachelor Girls that will cause audible laughter; in fact, comparisons to Woody Allen are not entirely fatuous. There is a decidedly regional flavor to Wasserstein's humor and the mercurial shifts in perspective from superiority to inferiority are best expressed in essays like "Perfect Women Who are Bearable," in which she categorizes chimp-ologist Jane Goodall as "bearable." ("It would be helpful to talk with Jane about where to meet available men.") Finally, there is the pathos present throughout all of Wasserstein's work. Yes, she is a witty writer, but she never fails to show that comedy is serious business, a perspective earned by sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes tough encounters with life.
"I am always interested in exploring the ideas behind the experiences with my own tortured adolescence, my Aunt Florence's son's bar mitzvah or my mother's eccentricity. Of course, every time I would finish one of these essays and send it off to my editor," she laughs, "I would immediately call her up and scream, 'Wait a minute, you can't print that!'"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 107-08.
[In the following review, Austin discusses characterization in The Heidi Chronicles and feminist reaction to the play. She notes that although the play has been lauded by some feminists for its focus on women, others argue that the work portrays women in traditional roles and has the potential to "become part of the system that oppresses women and so highly rewards their creative expressions when they aid in its purposes."]
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 climatic 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, sit-com 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: 141
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, in Library Journal, Vol. 115, No. 8, May 1, 1990, p. 89.
[In the following review, Luddy favorably assesses The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays.]
Wasserstein has made the cultural territory of the American experience since the 1960s her own. She is its most articulate theatrical chronicler. This collection of her recent work, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, traces that experience through three decades of changing styles, mores, life objectives, and intellectual challenges. She examines her characters and their times with great good humor, complexity, depth of feeling, and a firm refusal to accept trite and easy images. She writes the truth about people and their lives without blinking. She teaches us all what it was like to live through a period of great turmoil and confusion.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, in Booklist, Vol. 86, No. 19, June 1, 1990, p. 1872.
[In the following review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, Olson compares Wasserstein's plays to the work of Mary McCarthy and Philip Barry.]
[Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays contains the] 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner and two earlier comic dramas by, if you will, the Baby Boomers' Mary McCarthy. Less acerbic and intellectual, more sentimental and emotional, Wasserstein has the same ambition McCarthy exercised in The Group. She tries to limn a stratum of society consisting for her as for McCarthy of her fellow matriculants of the elite "Seven Sisters" colleges. In Uncommon Women and Others (1977), she actually apes The Group, setting the formative college experiences of a circle of women within the framing device of a reunion. Similarly, The Heidi Chronicles (1988) sandwiches 25 years of its art historian heroine's development, especially her relations with the man who loves her and the other man she loves, between slices of a lecture on women artists. The middle play, Isn't It Romantic? (1983), concerns two young businesswomen's struggles to live up to and give up on their parents' expectations. The focal character in all three is habitually undecided and standoffish but arrives at some self-understanding by the final curtain. All three read more somberly than they play, much like the dramas of Philip Barry (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story), whose peer Wasserstein certainly is.
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SOURCE: A review of Bachelor Girls, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 44-5. [In the following positive review, the critic discusses the humor and satire of the essays contained in Bachelor Girls.]
This collection of essays [Bachelor Girls] by Tony Award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein includes enjoyable, funny reading as well as satirical social commentary that is short and gossipy enough to keep even the most skeptical reader interested.
Wasserstein's view of the world includes everything from the stark and serious, such as her anxiety-ridden trip to Rumania—to the satirical, such as in her article "The Sleeping Beauty Syndrome: The New Agony of Single Men" a riotous takeoff on the horrible clamor that was created in the media during the mid-'80s regarding single women and their reduced chances of finding husbands. She's turned this around, saying, "Forty-year-old men are more likely to have a Pan Am 747 land on their head (than get married)!"
Other witty pieces include some personal ones about a relative's Bar Mitzvah, a humorous/serious tribute to the author's mother, Lola, and a wonderful trip Wasserstein took to Japan to view a Japanese version of her play, Isn't It Romantic. One unforgettable scene in her essay "Winner Take All" shows her sitting at her typewriter in her bathrobe, feeling incredibly sorry for herself when the phone rings and she's informed that she's just won a Pulitzer Prize for her play, The Heidi Chronicles.
Wasserstein also writes about women—she scathingly criticizes such things as fashion, private girls' schools, the shaving of legs and the manicuring of nails, and, of course, dieting, of which Wasserstein laments, "weight is the bane of my existence."
Two of the funniest essays in the book include "Perfect Women Who Are Bearable," in which Wasserstein gives us alternative lists of famous women who she either can't stand or who she admires—and "The World's Worst Boyfriends," a list that includes Rasputin. (It also includes Mel Gibson, but only because "he's a happily married family man. The impossible dream.")
A lot of Wasserstein's charm stems from her Brooklyn background, and she loves to talk about New York in general, comparing it to much more hideous places such as Los Angeles (she's uncomfortable on the West Coast.) Her chatty use of language reminds one of the hysterically funny cut-up in the girls' dorm (which she apparently once was), and her use of the term Bachelor Girl (she's unmarried and 40—God! Such a stigma!) throughout the book is her way of avenging those who are disdainful of or embarrassed for the unmarried (yet successful) woman. Readers familiar with Wasserstein through her essays on her plays will easily understand and enjoy this book. New readers will be entertained and, at the same time, pick up some clever insights.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1309
SOURCE: "Winner Take All," in Bachelor Girls, 1990. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 193-97.
[In the essay below, Wasserstein discusses her reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles.]
I dreamed I accepted the Tony Award wearing a CAMP EUGENE O'NEILL sweatshirt. It was an odd dream for two reasons. First, because my friend William Ivey Long, the costume designer, had made me a dress for the occasion; and, second, because until 1989 the only thing I'd ever won was a babka cake at a bakery on Whalley Avenue in New Haven.
My world view has always been from the vantage point of the slighted. I am the underachiever who convinces herself that it's a source of pride not to make the honor roll. Still, for the rest of my life I will remember the name of all those people who did. I am a walking Where Are They Now column. I'm perpetually curious as to what happened to all those supposed prodigies who were singled out while I and my coterie of far more interesting malcontents passed on.
As a child, on the eve of any school evaluation, I would inform my parents which of my teachers "hated me." In retrospect, it seems doubtful that I was offensive enough to evoke my teacher's animosity, but I certainly wasn't diligent enough in my schoolwork to earn their admiration, either. So, having fashioned a life based on anticipated exclusion—my date left with the blond; they gave the prize to the boy; the woman in the Anne Klein suit and the legs got the job—it came as a genuine surprise, a shock, when, for the first time ever, the winner was me.
On a gray March afternoon, I'm sitting in my bed, looking at my typewriter and thinking about how my life hasn't changed significantly since I was sixteen. I'm working up to a frothy, self-recriminating how-have-I-gone-wrong when the phone rings. On days when I'm building up to substantial negativity, I usually don't pick up the receiver but instead just listen as the messages are recorded. This time, though, the voice belongs to Marc Thibodeau, the press agent for my play The Heidi Chronicles, and I like him, so I pick up.
"Wendy, you just won the Pulitzer Prize."
And you, Mr. Thibodeau, are the king of Rumania.
"It's a rumor, Marc. It's just a rumor!" I begin hyperventilating. I am a woman in her thirties wearing a quilted bathrobe, half working, half lying in bed in a room cluttered with assorted stuffed animals. I am not a Pulitzer Prize winner. Edward Albee is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Mr. Thibodeau informs me that I should call a reporter from the Associated Press. Also, I must call my mother. I begin to dial gingerly. It's possible I am having delusions of grandeur. It's possible I might shortly be calling the Times as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Michael Kuchwara, the AP reporter, accepts my call, however, and validates the story. Suddenly I remember sitting in our living room with my mother and watching an episode of the TV series The Millionaire. I recall how my mother knocked on the television screen to encourage a delivery to our Brooklyn address. "Mother," I want now to shout, "Michael Anthony called me. John Beresford Tipton is giving me the Pulitzer Prize!"
Immediately, everything changes. The phone rings with the constancy of the American Stock Exchange. Flowers and champagne arrive in competitive quantities. (Since that day I have, in fact, become an expert on the comparative floral arrangements of Surroundings, Twigs, and the Sutton East Gardens.) My doormen are more than taken aback by the flow of deliveries to my apartment. One of them asks me when I'm getting married; another expresses amazement that so many of my friends have remembered my birthday. Eventually, my sister telephones to say that not only has my mother called my aunts to inform them that I've won the Nobel Prize, but my cousins have already begun asking when I'm going to Stockholm.
I will never forget that day. Although I consider myself a professional malcontent, I can't deny at least this one experience of pure, unadulterated happiness. I take a cab to the theater to see the cast of my play, and the whole process of creating the production flashes in front of me. I remember rewriting scenes between bites of cheeseburger as I sat alone at a coffee shop on Forty-second Street. There's something soothing about such inauspicious beginnings. If I concentrate on the coffee shop, I convince myself, I will not be overwhelmed by what is happening to me.
Joan Allen, our leading lady, suggests that I come onstage at the end of the performance. I tell her it's impossible, I'm much too shy. I've never taken a curtain call. I want an Act One experience. I want to be watching from the back of the theater.
At intermission, however, I find myself in the lobby face to face with Edward Albee. We know each other from the Dramatists Guild and have friends in common. He embraces me and asks me whether I'll be taking a curtain call. I shake my head. I giggle. Edward then tells me to be a person, to take off my coat and seize the moment.
Walking out onto the stage at the Plymouth Theater I become a character in someone else's script. A part of me imagines that I'm Carol Channing—I want to enter with my arm stretched to the ceiling, shouting, "Dolly will never go away again!" Another part of me has no idea what to do onstage while the audience is applauding. I begin to kiss every actor in my play. As long as I'm moving, I won't have to speak or, heaven forbid, cursty. That night the audience gives us a standing ovation.
Nineteen eighty-nine was my favorite year so far. Perhaps it is all attributable to the astral plane, Libra in orbit, or Maggie Smith's inability to open as scheduled in Lettice & Lovage (which freed the Plymouth Theater for The Heidi Chronicles). For whatever reason, I spent the greater part of the spring of 1989 winning awards, as if to counteract on a massive front any remnants of ironic negativity. At the Outer Critics Circle Awards, my escort, the actress Caroline Aaron, whispered to me toward the end of the evening, "Wendy, it's just you and Baryshnikov left." Frankly, I would never have suspected that the two of us might be on a double bill.
Of course, there's also the down side. Will anything this wonderful ever happen to me again? How many people are now going to hate me? Where do I take all these things to be framed? Is it gauche to put them up on the walls in my apartment? What happens if Werner Kulovitz at Barbara Matera's, a theatrical costume shop, has stopped importing that feather-light apparatus to "lift and separate" when I need my next formal? And the nagging "Can I ever do it again?"
I haven't actually counted the awards, but I'm sure that if I did I could psych myself into some new form of anxiety over them. In the past I've given my parents every diploma or certificate I've received for them to display in their den. But this time I've been selfish—the awards are still resting in a corner of my study. Some days I ignore them in a concerted effort to get back to my life and work, to return to the point of view of the slighted. But, truthfully, there are times when I wander in and take a surreptitious peek at that corner. Nothing is quite as gratifying as recognition for work one is truly proud of.
As for next year, I will be very hurt if I don't win the Heisman Trophy.
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SOURCE: "Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: 'The Heidi Chronicles' and 'Fefu and Her Friends'," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 88-106.
[In the following excerpt, Keyssar expresses her disappointment with the tremendous success of The Heidi Chronicles. She contends that, according to Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of meaningful theater, in which drama is "simultaneously entire unto itself and part of the whole culture," The Heidi Chronicles is "aggressively monologic" and "self-contained," thus alienating large segments of society.]
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"; 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." 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." 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 [October 1989], 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."
The Heidi Chronicles is all that, or worse than, Rose contends. And here [Mikhail] 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 re-present the heteroglossia of the world, precisely because it is aggressively monologic, self-contained, a seemingly perfect picture without loop-holes 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, 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 "verbalideological 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" [The Dialogic Imagination]. 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.
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SOURCE: A review of Bachelor Girls, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, p. 10.
[In the following, Solomon offers praise for Bachelor Girls.]
In [the comic collection of essays entitled Bachelor Girls,] originally published in New York Woman, the author of The Heidi Chronicles reflects on the problems of being an intelligent female and less than gorgeous in contemporary America. Numerous writers, from Erma Bombeck to Cathy Guisewite (of the comic strip "Cathy"), have exploited the humorous potential of these topics, but Wasserstein writes with unusual perception and wit. She acknowledges her predilection for junk food, recalling the day she discovered she belonged to the biological class of "cupcakivores," but she balances that confession with a touching description of the mixed emotions she experienced when she won the Pulitzer Prize. The result is a satisfying and very funny blend of self-deprecation, pride and bemusement.
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SOURCE: "The Best So Far," in New York Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 43, November 2, 1992, pp. 100-01.
[In the following review, Simon praises The Sisters Rosensweig for its convincing characters and humorous dialogue, asserting that the work is Wasserstein's best to date.]
The Sisters Rosensweig is Wendy Wasserstein's most accomplished play to date. It is through-composed, with no obtrusive narrator haranguing us. Its central, but not hypertrophic, character is the eldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced from her second husband. An expatriate in London, she is celebrating her fifty-fourth birthday, for which her younger sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum has flown in from Boston, where she dispenses personal advice over the airwaves. From farthest India, the youngest sister, Pfeni Rosensweig, has jetted in; now a travel writer, she is shirking her mission, a study of the lives of women in Tajikistan. Equitably, all three sisters end up sharing center stage, both literally and figuratively.
Gorgeous, who, we are told, is happily married with four children, is group leader of the Temple Beth-El sisterhood of Newton, Massachusetts, on a visit to London; Pfeni is here to touch base with her lover, the famous stage director Geoffrey Duncan, whom she has converted to heterosexuality and may soon be marrying. Here, too, is a friend of Geoffrey's, the New York faux furrier and genuine mensch Mervyn Kant. Rounding out the cast are Tess, Sara's precocious teenager; Tom Valiunus, Tess's dopey but good-natured punker boyfriend, with whom she is planning a political-protest trip to his ancestral Lithuania; and Nicholas Pym, a British banker, stuffed shirt, and suitor to Sara.
This is the stuff of Anglo-American comedy, more specifically Anglo-Jewish-American drawing room comedy, in which some related but diverse mores and some diverse but trying-to-become-related people are playing off one another. Sara, a banker herself, is high-powered, smart, and sex-starved. Pfeni and the ebullient but labile heterosexual Geoffrey are having difficulties. And the ostensibly contented Gorgeous is there to stick her bobbed but nosy nose into everybody's business.
A seasoned theatergoer may well guess several plot developments, though there are also a few surprises. But plot is far less important than character and dialogue, both of which Miss Wasserstein does handsomely and humorously. She is surely one of our wittiest one-liner writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely and resonantly trying to keep from drowning. And she is able to orchestrate the interaction of her disparate characters into a complex, convincing polyphony. There may be a touch of the arbitrary here and there; mostly, however, the play flows, entertains, and liberally dispenses unpompous wisdom about ourselves.
Particularly pleasing is that Sisters manages to be both of its time, 1991, and of all time, unless human nature changes radically, which for these 5,000 years it hasn't. The three Rosensweig sisters are by no means unworthy descendants of a famed earlier sisterly trio, to whom an occasional quotation in the text alludes. If I have any problem with the play, it is that several of its characters have a propensity for bursting into song and dance at the slightest, or even no, provocation. In a straight play, this can be as unsettling as long spoken passages in a musical.
It is to the skilled cast's credit that every last drop of humor is extracted easefully, even as the no-less-germane modulations into seriousness are achieved with gearshifts a Lexus or Infiniti might envy. Jane Alexander's Sara is one of the most memorable of this stylish actress's creations; here is perfect timing backed up with the subtlest changes of intonation and incomparable facial play. Without effort or undue emphasis, Miss Alexander's diaphanous face reveals the playground of ideas and battle-ground of emotions; it is as if the countenance itself had repartee, soliloquies, and tirades at its wordless disposal.
Madeline Kahn, as Gorgeous, is once again her special blend of philosopher and fool, shrewd observer and egocentric, outrageous jokester and wistful waif—a ditsy Diotima whom none could improve on. Frances McDormand is saddled with the autobiographical character whom most playwrights either overwrite or, as in this case, slightly underwrite. But she does Pfeni gamely and touchingly, opposite John Vickery's dazzlingly campy and exquisitely English-theatrical Geoffrey. Robert Klein's Mervyn is all we expect from this sovereign clown: exuberantly wisecracking, irrepressibly amorous, impudently ingratiating. And Patrick Fitzgerald's affably preposterous Tom has no lack of assurance and authenticity.
I am less taken with Julie Dretzin's Tess and, especially, Rex Robbins's Nicholas, but they do not gum up the works. Daniel Sullivan's direction is as painterly as it is musicianly: everything in the right place and tempo. John Lee Beatty's set is devilishly right, and Pat Collins's lighting and Jane Greenwood's costumes collude with it cunningly. You will not be bored here.
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SOURCE: "Chez Rosensweig," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 37, November 2, 1992, p. 105.
[In the following review, Oliver offers praise for The Sisters Rosensweig.]
Admirers of Wendy Wasserstein (fan club may be more like it) will be relieved to know that she is as romantic as ever, and that her head is in the right place, too, while her tongue remains safely in her cheek. I use the word "romantic" because her new play, The Sisters Rosensweig, at the Mitzi Newhouse, is more in tune with her Isn't It Romantic, of some years ago, than with the recent Heidi Chronicles. The Sisters Rosensweig takes place in the elegant London sitting room of Sara Goode, née Rosensweig, a twice-divorced American Jew who is the European director of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. (It's interesting to note that the small stage of the Mitzi can, under the right auspices, seem as spacious and lavish as any in town; in this instance, the auspices are John Lee Beatty's, and the exquisite lighting is by Pat Collins.) The occasion that launches the action is the celebration of Sara's fifty-fourth birthday, and her two younger—but not much younger—sisters are coming to her house to celebrate. They are Pfeni, a free-lance travel writer, and Gorgeous, a wife and mother who is about to embark on a personal-advice TV program but at the moment is shepherding a group of Jewish ladies on a pilgrimage to the Crown Jewels. (She bears a more than incidental resemblance, by the way, to Dr. Ruth.) We begin with Pfeni's arrival: Sara asks her to "talk to" her rebellious daughter, who plans to leave for Lithuania with her left-wing working-class boyfriend as soon as the party is over. Then Pfeni's beau, a bright bisexual director, brimming with high spirits and bitchy anecdotes, arrives; he, in turn, has invited an associate of his from America. The associate is a hearty, noisy Jewish manufacturer of fake fur who, once established as a guest, refuses to budge, determined to crash this family occasion. He is also determined to woo and win Sara, who, although her career is moving successfully along, feels she has come to a personal stop.
The funny incidents and the funny lines fly by, so quickly that one is almost unaware that a story is being told, and the laughter is all but continuous until Pfeni's beau confesses that he misses men ("So do I," she says), and their inevitable breakup leaves her disheartened. By the end of the play, Sara, having secretly crept up to bed with the brash visiting American—"How was it?" asks each of her sisters the morning after—realizes that many emotional possibilities are still open. Nothing is over—not even life with daughter. Pfeni pulls herself together, and cheerfully lights out for foreign parts, ready to resume her career; and dear Gorgeous, having been presented with a pink outfit from Chanel by her grateful ladies, decides to cash it in and go home to that TV program and her husband and children. The mood is warm and gemütlich but never foolish. Jean Kerr once described a kind of play that gave her a pain as "an Irish aren't-we-adorable?" The Sisters Rosensweig is not a Jewish "aren't-we-adorable?" There isn't a sentimental key in Wendy Wasserstein's typewriter.
The performance, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, is superb. Jane Alexander is remarkable as Sara Goode; Frances McDormand and Madeline Kahn are Pfeni and Gorgeous. Robert Klein, a one-man explosion of sex and mirth, is the visiting American furrier; John Vickery is a blithe spirit if ever there was one; Patrick Fitzgerald is almost irresistible as the boyfriend, his words lightly tinged with brogue; Rex Robbins is an upper-class diplomat invited for the festivities; and Julie Dretzin, making her theatre debut, is Sara's daughter. (Welcome!) The casting is fine throughout and, in the case of Miss Alexander, inspired. Who would have thought the lady to have had so much comedy in her?
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SOURCE: "You Gotta Have Heart," in Newsweek, Vol. CXX, No. 18, November 2, 1992, p. 104.
[In the following review of The Sisters Rosensweig, which premiered at New York's Lincoln Center under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, Kroll maintains that Wasserstein's female characters are poorly developed and that the play's humor, while entertaining, evades rather than confronts serious issues.]
There's a fine borderline between entertaining an audience and ingratiating oneself with it. In her new play The Sisters Rosensweig Wendy Wasserstein violates that border. Wasserstein, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Heidi Chronicles, has dealt deftly with the thorny ironies of the young feminist middle class. But in her new play she settles for—no, insists on—the clever laugh, the situation that charms rather than challenges. The play deals with three Jewish-American sisters celebrating the 54th birthday of the eldest, Sara, in London, where she's become a big-shot banker. Sara (Jane Alexander) has been on the cover of Fortune, but her emotional life is in a spiritual safe-deposit box. Pfeni (Frances McDormand) is a travel writer who restlessly ricochets between the world's flash points. Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a housewife who's embarked on a radio career as Dr. Gorgeous, a kind of non-Teutonic Dr. Ruth. Consider the possibilities.
Wasserstein considers them, evokes them and then gaily abandons them with gags and banter that use her undoubted comedic gifts to evade rather than confront. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the American recession, the plight of the homeless, the question of Jewish identity, the problem of bisexuality—all these are embodied in specific situations, and all are disposed of with a winsome superficiality that would look one-dimensional in sitcom land.
Mervyn Kane (Robert Klein), a faux furrier who falls for Sara, speaks of the anti-Semitism he's encountered in his travels. So? So nothing, there's no follow-through—Wasserstein can't wait to get to a party scene where she dispenses shop-worn gossip about hanky-panky between Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. Pfeni's improbable affair with a bisexual English director ends even more improbably when he informs her that a lecture he gave to a women's club made him realize that "I miss men." Wasserstein even commits the mortal sin of betraying her own characters. In a cheap-laugh scene, she has Tess (Julie Dretzin), Sara's idealistic daughter, give up her "revolutionary" zeal, putting on the Bergdorfian baubles of her aunt Gorgeous.
Such japery demeans the work of this gifted writer. In her collection of essays, Bachelor Girls, she confesses that "being funny for me [has] always been just a way to get by, a way to be likable yet to remain removed." Director Daniel Sullivan and a notable cast can't conquer the play's final effect of likability smothering substance. Wasserstein's most appealing character is Merv the furrier, played with fine with and heart by comic Robert Klein. It's nice to see a feminist writer show her pivotal female character saved by a real mensch.
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SOURCE: "The Editorial Plan," in The New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 24, December 7, 1992, pp. 33-4.
[A highly respected American drama critic, Brustein was formerly Wasserstein's teacher. He is noted for his controversial views regarding the theater and for his commitment to quality. In the following review, he finds Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig endearing but considers the work a regression to her earlier plays.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, newly opened at Lincoln Center, has quickly been announced for Broadway, where it should have opened in the first place. It is the female equivalent of Conversations with My Father, Neil Simon for the college set, a sit-com Three Sisters, already destined for Critics Circle Awards and anthologies like Best American Plays of the Year. My heart sank a little when the witty one-liners began popping ("Multiple divorce is a splendid thing, you get so many names to choose from"; "Love is love, gender is merely spare parts"). I had hoped, after The Heidi Chronicles, that my very gifted former student was shaking her witticism habit. The Sisters Rosensweig has a lot of charm, but it is a regression. I guess it's hard, in the precarious circus of American theater, to give up your trapeze.
Wasserstein's wit is not cruel, which makes her play at the same time endearing and somewhat toothless. Her technique is to create a character who looks at first like a stereotype, then to show the more complicated workings of the human heart. One can't help liking the person who creates this kind of material, even when it seems thin and predictable, so by its own internal measure, which is to be likable, The Sisters Rosensweig is a success. People will be entertained and will leave the theater feeling warm and wise, which are the requisites of a commercial hit.
The play is primarily about Jewish identity. Three sisters gather together in London to celebrate the eldest's fifty-fourth birthday. Sara (Jane Alexander) is a haughty, love-less banker who, scorning her religious background, is now seeing a vaguely anti-Semitic Englishman. Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a New England housewife from West Newton, currently "schlepping the sisterhood around London." Pfeni (Frances McDormand), the youngest, is an activist journalist in love with a bisexual English stage director. Of these only Gorgeous is remotely satisfied with her sexual lot. The main action concerns Sara's reluctant attraction to a shamelessly Jewish furrier named Mervyn from Roslyn (Robert Klein) who prefers to call her Sadie. Although Pfeni's stage director eventually decides he prefers men, Sara gets to sleep with Mervyn ("That furrier has some very special skills—just call it fun fur"). And the character who once called herself "a cold bitter woman who has turned her back on her family, her religion, and her country" finally gets to acknowledge her Jewish roots.
The director, Daniel Sullivan, has mismatched three actresses who really don't seem like sisters, which makes the simulated Moscow Art Theater poses appear even more artificial. But the performances are creditable enough—in the case of Kahn even wonderful. Edgy, nervous, and slightly hysterical, with a voice that slides into bat shrieks, she invariably finds both the comedy and the poignancy in a character who could easily have become a suburban housefrau caricature. I found Alexander's Sara, though womanly, a trifle too coiffed, but so is the role. And his colorful character tempted John Vickery's English stage director into too much show-biz rodomontade. Klein's Mervyn, on the other hand, was a congenial loud mouth, a good-natured version of Alan King. But, oh, Wendy Wasserstein, after you've picked up all your awards, won't you throw away your safety net?
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SOURCE: "The Trivial, the Traumatic, the Truly Bad," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, April 5-19, 1993, pp. 22-3.
[Kanfer is an educator, critic, editor, novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer who has written for television. In the following excerpt, he discusses the weaknesses of The Sisters Rosensweig, noting its focus on Jewish identity and assimilation, and its allusions to Anton Chekhov's 1901 Tri sestry (Three Sisters).]
Sisterhood is powerful. Take Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Wendy Wasserstein did. The playwright transported a trio of siblings from imperial Russia to present-day England, gave their yearnings a feelgood spin, and diluted them with gags. Result: a demand for tickets so great that The Sisters Rosensweig recently moved from a modest space in Lincoln Center to the full-sized Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Happily, Jane Alexander is still in the role of Sara, a fast-track international banker. To celebrate her 54th birthday, Sara's two younger siblings arrive simultaneously at her sumptuous London house. Pfeni, née Penny (Christine Estabrook), is a travel writer; Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a tornado in the guise of a housewife, mother of four, and host of a Boston call-in radio program.
At first, all three women seem busy and fulfilled. But as the play develops, each turns out to be as needy as a poster child. Divorced twice, Sara has assumed a gloss of English hauteur. Men find her threatening, and stay away in herds. In reaction to the ice-cold Sara, her teenage daughter Tess (Julie Dretzin) has fallen passionately in love with an unkempt prole, Tom (Patrick Fitzgerald). The two spend their hours driving Sara up the rose-patterned walls, demonstrating for Lithuanian independence and dining exclusively on "primary color food." Pfeni keeps on the move because she cannot set down physical or emotional roots. The one man in her life, Geoffrey (John Vickery), is a self-absorbed bisexual director. "Love is love," he declares. "Gender is merely spare parts." Gorgeous boasts about her multiplaned life, but in many ways she is the saddest of the siblings, stuck with an unresponsive—and unemployed—husband, deriving her satisfaction from nonstop chatter and constant changes of wardrobe.
Into this hothouse world comes Mervyn (Robert Klein), a middle-aged American merchant who stops by for a moment, and stays for dinner. Mervyn appears to be a Bronx Babbitt; then, as the evening progresses, he reveals an intellectual bent and a natural irony. ("My daughter teaches semiotics. That means she screens Hiroshima Mon Amour once a week.") He is the first man in years to evince an interest in Sara. Will she succumb to his advances? Is Yitzchak Rabin Jewish? Of course she will. The more important question is: Are the Rosensweigs Jewish? That is not so certain.
Identity is Wasserstein's subtext, and from time to time she considers the price of assimilation as well as the many ways of being an expatriate from one's spiritual home. When Gorgeous insists on lighting Sabbath candles, Sara, who has been fleeing her origins since adolescence, takes it as a personal affront. When Pfeni becomes obsessed with the travails of the Kurds, she recovers the social conscience of her late mother—a conscience rekindled in Tess. At such moments Sisters edges toward a real theme. But 90 per cent of the evening is concerned with situation comedy. Some of it is sharply observed ("What a pleasure," says Sara, "to live in a country where our feelings are openly repressed"). Much of it is as cheap as Gorgeous' junk jewelry. The New England yenta hears Mervyn talking about Metternich and the Concert of Europe. "What concert?" she yaps. "I must have missed that one on the tour." Jackie Mason has turned down better material.
In the playwright's uncertain hands, events rarely happen organically; they occur because she wants them to occur. Vickery, for example, is a skilled and energetic performer, but all he offers here is a collage of eccentricities and one-liners. Nothing he says or does suggests that he would be attractive to any woman, and his farewell to Pfeni ("I miss men") is as unsurprising as her reply ("So do I"). Similarly, young Tess ceaselessly tells her family how committed she is to the Cause; she and Tom plan to fly off to Vilnius. Toward the end of Act Two she announces that she isn't going after all. At a London rally, she suddenly felt like "an outsider" and decided to stay home. The real reason Tess didn't go is much simpler. Wasserstein needed her to make a very debatable point about Jews being on the periphery of world events.
Given this shallow, brittle work, several actors perform miracles. Alexander, under the bright direction of Daniel Sullivan, lends Sisters an intelligence and flair that are not in the script. Kahn and Klein, both experienced comedians, are alternately poignant and show-stopping hilarious. The rest of the cast varies between slick and competent, abetted by John Lee Beatty's sumptuous set and Jane Greenwood's witty costumes.
It may seem unfair to compare Wasserstein with Chekhov—who could stand against the Master? But she invites the comparison: One of the sisters even quotes Masha's famous line about yearning for Moscow. And in the Playbill, the American makes a point of bringing the Russian onstage: "I've always been a big fan of Chekhov," recalls Wasserstein, "so I thought the idea of three sisters would be a novel one for a play." It was novel, back in 1901. Today it requires something more. A big fan creates a lot of breeze, but very little fresh air.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323
SOURCE: A review of The Sisters Rosensweig, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1993, p. 6.
[In the following review, Raskin offers a mixed assessment of The Sisters Rosensweig.]
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 this play. 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: 623
SOURCE: "English Versus American Acting," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 365-71.
[In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses characterization in The Sisters Rosensweig.]
Wendy Wasserstein's new play, The Sisters Rosensweig, like her earlier Heidi Chronicles, is a pseudo-feminist piece that will no doubt eventually be performed in every college theatre in the country. The three eponymous sisters at first give the impression of being independent women, but soon reveal a predilection for inadequate men, who nonetheless manage to dominate their lives.
The oldest sister, Sara, heads an international bank. The second, amusingly named "Gorgeous," is the wife of a corporate lawyer from Newton, Massachusetts, and a radio personality herself. The youngest is Pfeni, a globe-trotting journalist. As the play begins, all three gather in London for Sara's fifty-fourth birthday. Sara, who has been married three times, in the course of the play has a one-night affair with a furrier who talks like a second-rate Jewish comic. Gorgeous reveals that her corporate lawyer husband is actually unemployed and playing at being a film noir detective, supported by her income as a radio purveyor of advice. Pfeni breaks up with the man in her life, a homosexual stage director. Sara's daughter, Tess, breaks up with her young man, an Irishman dedicated to the unlikely cause of Latvian independence.
Thus the four women, for all their supposed liberation, are defined by their relationship with men. Sara is supposed to be a big-time banker, but we see her spending no time at all on what in real life would be an all-consuming profession; in the course of the play she cooks a meal, sleeps with a man, and chats with her sisters and daughter, all traditional female activities. Gorgeous' radio work, though lucrative, is revealed to be utterly bogus; her principal obsession is elegant clothing. Pfeni, like the title character in The Heidi Chronicles, is hooked on a male homosexual, who leaves her because he misses men. If this is supposed to be a feminist play, I would hate to see one in which Wasserstein was being traditionalist!
The Broadway production of The Sisters Rosensweig succeeded because of superlative performances by two of the three leads. (If nothing else, Wasserstein can attract fine actresses.) Jane Alexander, who in real life is WASP to the core, played the role of Sara with a perfect balance of Jewishness and elegance, strongly mixed with intelligence and humor. Nevertheless, Madeline Kahn, the funniest American actress since Fannie Brice, managed to surpass her. Her Jewish inflections, perfect comic timing, and boundless energy made her performance a joy. At one point, the furrier brings Gorgeous the genuine Chanel suit she has always dreamed of wearing; Kahn's reaction with surprise, delight, and near-sexual ecstasy was worth the price of admission.
As Pfeni, Christine Estabrook was the weakest of the three sisters, but part of the problem was in the writing; for a hot-shot international journalist, Pfeni seems surprisingly staid and passive. John Vickery brought energy and charm to the role of the gay director; the rest of the cast were unremarkable. Daniel Sullivan directed with pace and subtlety; Jane Greenwood's costumes were, as usual, superb, as was John Lee Beatty's elegant setting, a Queen Anne style living room, bright and diverse, with beautiful white flowered wallpaper. One of Beatty's great strengths as a designer is his ability to suggest a world beyond what we see. Here, his gracefully angled setting, with its many levels and areas, not only made for lovely, constantly changing stage pictures, but led us imaginatively to the remainder of the sumptuous townhouse, and the genteel quarter of London in which it is situated. Finally, Pat Collins' lighting … perfectly suggested the cool, misty, shifting light of soggy London.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311
SOURCE: A review of The Sisters Rosensweig, in The Observer, August 14, 1994, p. 11.
[In the following review, Coveney offers a mixed assessment of a London production of The Sisters Rosensweig, but praises Wasserstein for her "clever mix of emotional comedy and old-fashioned Broadway wise-cracking."]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig is a well-wrought comedy about growing older without sex and learning to live with your family. Some folks around me were not sure about 'schtupping' but they soon caught on; we've all seen She Schtups to Conquer, after all, and that's how Sara Goode (Janet Suzman) proceeds with her fake furrier (Larry Lamb), 'the furrier who came to dinner.'
As an American comedy set in London, the play's jaundiced squint at Jewish displacement in middle-class life was always deliberate: the idea of withering roots and values is absorbed in a comfortable, creamy Holland Park apartment, enticingly well designed by Lez Brotherston. And Suzman's tense and throatily intoned Sara is easily the match of Jane Alexander's in New York; Sara, the twice-divorced European head of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, celebrates her 54th birthday in September 1991 and provides a gloriously irrelevant social flashpoint while Russia crumbles and Lithuania declares its independence.
Wasserstein's confection, with its nods towards Chekhov, Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, is a clever mix of emotional comedy and old-fashioned Broadway wisecracking. Lynda Bellingham is fine as the younger, journalist sister. But Maureen Lipman spoils a winning performance as the daffy sibling by coarse clowning. On Broadway, when Madeline Khan tried on her surprise gift of a pink Chanel suit, she was both touching and hilarious as she inquired, 'Do I look like Catherine Denoove?' Ms Lipman crashes around with a lampshade on her head and asks, without the slightest hope of a positive reply, 'Do I look like Audrey Hepburn?' Michael Blakemore's direction is otherwise impeccable.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 158
Corliss, Richard. "Broadway's Big Endearment." Time 122, No. 27 (26 December 1983): 80.
Favorably assesses Isn't It Romantic, noting that although Wasserstein writes about Jews and "WASPs," she does so without "a tincture of sitcom condescension, finding poignant similarities in perpendicular lives."
Hoban, Phoebe. "The Family Wasserstein." New York 26, No. 1 (4 January 1993): 32-7.
Feature article profiling Wasserstein, her parents, and siblings, noting her family's influence on her work.
Ruling, Karl G. "The Heidi Chronicles: A Production Casebook." TCI 27, No. 3 (March 1993): 40-3.
Discusses various productions of The Heidi Chronicles, focusing, in particular, on set designs and budgets.
"The More Decade." Harper's Bazaar 117, No. 3268 (June 1984): 146-47, 180.
Relates Wasserstein's thoughts on success, aging, independence, and motherhood. Comments from journalist Diane Sawyer, film critic Janet Maslin, and photographer Annie Leibovitz are also included.