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In 1989, Wendy Wasserstein became the first woman playwright to win a Tony; that same year she also collected the Pulitzer Prize and the award for best new play from the New York Drama Critics Circle. These accolades for The Heidi Chronicles, a play that traces the confusions of a female art historian from the 1960s through the 1980s, suggest that Wasserstein had achieved her goal of writing drama that invites audiences to care about women s lives and dilemmas. Wasserstein frequently identified herself as a member of the generation on the cusp of the women s movement; even though she is gone, her work continues to communicate and analyze the confusion that has accompanied this enormous cultural transition.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wasserstein was born on October 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Morris W. Wasserstein, was a successful textile manufacturer, who invented velveteen. Her mother, Lola, was a dancer. Wasserstein attended the exclusive Calhoun School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and studied dancing with June Taylor, whose troupe appeared regularly on the popular comedic variety program The Jackie Gleason Show. She also spent many Saturday afternoons at Broadway matinees. Although she loved plays much of her life, the notion of writing them did not occur to her until a friend convinced her to take Leonard Berkman’s play-writing course at the neighboring Smith College during her junior year at Mount Holyoke College. She enjoyed the course so much that she later studied creative writing at the City College of the City University of New York with Joseph Heller and Israel Horovitz, receiving her M.A. in creative writing in 1973. The play she wrote as her thesis, Any Woman Can’t (1973), was produced off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons. She then moved on to the Yale Drama School, receiving her M.F.A. in 1976.
Her first acclaimed play, Uncommon Women and Others (1975), was initially written as a one-act play at Yale; the revised, expanded version appeared in 1977, six years after Wasserstein s graduation from Mount Holyoke. The play opens with a 1978 six-year reunion of women who had graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1972; one of the central characters, Holly Kaplan, is autobiographically based. Shortly after the reunion begins, the play shifts back to the women s final year at Mount Holyoke, setting out their histories.
The play seems a summation of what Wasserstein learned during the first six years after she graduated from Mount Holyoke. Uncertain about what career to pursue, even after receiving her M.A. and having Any Woman Can’t produced, she had applied to Columbia Business School and Yale Drama School and was accepted at both. She followed her heart to Yale. When a classmate complained that he could not get interested in the females populating the one-act version of Uncommon Women and Others, she wrote that as a student, his remark helped Wasserstein realize how essential it was for her to write plays about women. The critics generally praised Uncommon Women and Others for its humor and compassion. It received a Village Voice Off-Broadway Award, as well as the Joseph Jefferson and the Boston Critics awards. A year after it appeared off-Broadway it was telecast by PBS.
Bringing Feminism to the Stage
Wasserstein’s play Isn’t It Romantic? (1983) focuses on the relationship between two women trying to make satisfying lives from the new options available to them courtesy of the women’s movement. Critics did not like the first version of Isn’t It Romantic?, and Wasserstein responded to their complaints about its diffusion by continuing to work on the play. Critics praised the revised production first staged in 1983.
Her play The Heidi Chronicles (1988) returns to familiar Wasserstein terrain: the issue of how women deal with the new options precipitated by the women’s movement. Once again, the central character must choose between pursuing her own needs and desires and having a successful relationship with a man. At the end of the play, Heidi makes a choice that seems to make her happy. She adopts a child, names her Judy, and hopes that the girl will enjoy a world relatively free of the limits that have restrained Heidi’s life. The critics praised The Heidi Chronicles, and it won several awards, most notably, the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for best play.
Bachelors and Sisters
In 1990 Wasserstein’s book Bachelor Girls appeared; it collects essays that had first appeared in periodicals between 1984 and 1990 and that cover a range of topics, including manicures, Geraldine Ferraro, and Wasserstein’s deeply disappointing rendezvous with her banker boyfriend in springtime Paris. According to Wasserstein’s introduction to The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), her next play, she had to struggle to get the right balance between humor and seriousness. The setting for The Sisters Rosensweigis Sara Rosensweig Goode’s London home. The eldest sister, Sara, has worked hard to transcend her beginnings, transforming herself from a Brooklyn Jewish girl to a passionate Anglophile who will not allow her daughter to attend Harvard or Yale because she sees them as ”floundering their way to being second rate.” During two days, the four women characters in this play help each other discover a clearer sense of direction.
Wasserstein next wrote a children’s book, Pamela’s First Musical (1996), about a young girl whose glamorous Aunt Louise takes her to a Broadway show. After this, Wasserstein returned to handling more difficult issues in her play An American Daughter (1997). While The Sisters Rosensweig shows the private and family lives of three successful, middle-aged women moving forward, An American Daughter argues that when accomplished women attempt to shape the world outside of their living rooms, they run into tall, thick walls, usually put there by a sexism so deeply entrenched that it resists conscious decision and good intentions.
Wasserstein reported in the preface to An American Daughter that she had other, more personal encounters with female limits just before writing this play. Her sister, Sandra, developed breast cancer, which soon killed her, and Wasserstein spent years trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child.
The Lights Dim on Broadway
Wasserstein’s next project, the script for the 1998 movie The Object of My Affection, took more than ten years. She attributes the long struggle to get her rewrite of Stephen McCauley’s novel produced to studio executives’ reservations about a movie focusing on a relationship between a gay romantic leading man and a pregnant straight woman. The following year, Wasserstein would finally have a family of her own. In 1999, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Lucy after the Beatles song ”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” As overjoyed as Wasserstein was to finally have a child, her pregnancy was a difficult one, and the writer chronicled this period in her essay collection Shiksa Goddess (Or How I Spent My Forties) (2001).
In December 2005, Wasserstein was hospitalized as a result of lymphoma cancer, an illness she had been intent on keeping private. One month later, Wasserstein died at the age of fifty-five. The following night, the lights on Broadway were dimmed in remembrance of the woman who’d brought so much life to it.
Works in Literary Context
The feminist movement developed over the course of the twentieth century with the intent of providing women with all the civil, human, personal, and legal rights afforded to men in the United States and Britain. The feminist movement was integral in winning women the right to vote in the late 1910s, the legalization of abortion in 1973, and numerous workplace rights, such as maternity leave, protection against sexual harassment, and equal pay. In the early 1970s, feminism birthed a movement in theater that often relied on emotional shock and experimentation to deliver its message. Wasserstein’s earliest work, including Any Woman Can’t and Uncommon Women and Others, are products of the feminist theatrical movement. Issues related to women and their place in a not entirely equal world remained one of the key themes in her later work as well.
The Regional Theater Movement
During the 1930s, professional theatrical companies were limited to New York. Touring theatrical companies did exist, but they did not provide the kind of polished productions one expected to see in Manhattan’s famed theater district of Broadway. The stage director, Margo Jones, wanted her work to reach as wide an audience as possible, and she also took issue with the gaudy commercialization of Broadway. So Jones, along with playwrights like Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (co-writers of the classic play Inherit the Wind, 1955), began promoting the development of theaters outside of New York. Jones’s own Theater ’47 in Dallas, Texas, became the first regional theater, and her work inspired the Ford Foundation to finally offer grants to theaters outside of New York. Today there are regional theaters all over the country, and the movement continues to be championed by theater directors and playwrights such as Wasserstein, who remained a vocal advocate of the regional theater movement until her death in 2006.
Works in Critical Context
The Heidi Chronicles
Some critics complained that the wit in the The Heidi Chronicles prevented the play from saying anything profound. Gayle Austin of the Theater Journal writes that ”although it raises serious 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.” Austin ties these flaws to a judgment made by many critics that the play is not revolutionary enough: ”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.” Other critics believed that her work has too strong a political dimension. For instance, a critic for The Hudson Review argues that ” 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.” Other reviewers were far more complimentary, such as Mel Gussow of The New York Times, who declares the play an ”enlightening portrait of [Wasserstein’s] generation.” Furthermore, Gus-sow praises the play’s humor, a facet of the piece that irked other critics: ”Ms. Wasserstein has always been a clever writer of comedy. This time she has been exceedingly watchful about not settling for easy laughter, and the result is a more penetrating play.”
The Sisters Rosensweig
Critics generally admired The Sisters Rosensweig, seeing in it that synthesis of humor and insight Wasserstein has sought throughout her career. John Simon, writing for New York magazine, reports, ”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, resonantly trying to keep from drowning.” But some critics persisted in measuring Wasserstein’s work against their own standards for feminism, as did Richard Hornby of The Hudson Review, who judges the play ”pseudo-feminist” because the women in the play allow men control over their lives.
- Barnett, Claudia, ed. Wendy Wasserstein: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1999.
- Austin, Gayle. ”Review of The Heidi Chronicles?’ Theater Journal (March 1990).
- Becker, Becky. ”The Theme of Mothering in Selected Dramas.” American Drama 6 (Spring 1997): 43-57.
- Gussow, Mel. ”A Modern-Day Heffalump in Search of Herself.” The New York Times (December 12, 1988).
- –. ”A review of The Heidi Chronicles?’ The Hudson Review (Autumn 1989).
- Hornby, Richard. ”English Versus American Acting.” The Hudson Review (Summer 1993): 365-371.
- Mandl, Bette. ”Feminism, Post feminism, and The Heidi Chronicles?’ Studies in Humanities 17 (December 1990): 120-128
- Rose, Phyllis. ”An Open Letter to Dr. Holland.” American Theatre 6 (October 1989): 26-29, 114-117.
- Simon, John. ”The Best So Far.” New York 25, No. 43 (November 2, 1992): 100-101.
- gov. Wendy Wasserstein, Articulator of the Modern Woman, Dead at 55. Retrieved December 13, 2008, from http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2006/January/20060130182 221JMreldnaB0.5604364.html. Last updated January 30, 2006.
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