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.