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Analysis of Wendy Wasserstein’s Plays

Wendy Wasserstein (October 18, 1950 – January 30, 2006) has been hailed as the foremost theatrical chronicler of the lives of women of her generation. Her plays, steeped in her unique brand of humor, are moving, sometimes wrenching explorations of women’s struggle for identity and fulfillment in a world of rapidly shifting social, sexual, and political mores. Most often against the backdrop of the burgeoning feminist movement, her characters navigate through obstacle courses of expectations—those of their parents, their lovers, their siblings, their friends, and, ultimately, themselves. They seek answers to fundamental questions: how to find meaning in life and how to strike a balance between the need to connect and the need to be true to oneself. Wasserstein’s works, which deftly pair wit and pathos, satire and sensitivity, have garnered numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony (Antoinette Perry) Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

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Wendy Wasserstein’s plays are, for the most part, extremely consistent in their emphasis on character, their lack of classical structure, and their use of humor to explore or accompany serious, often poignant themes. Throughout her career, Wasserstein’s central concern has been the role of women—particularly white, upper-middleclass, educated women—in contemporary society. Though her plays are suffused with uproarious humor, her typical characters are individuals engaged in a struggle to carve out an identity and a place for themselves in a society that has left them feeling, at worst, stranded and desolate and, at best, disillusioned. This is not to say that Wasserstein’s worldview is bleak. Rather, the note of slightly skewed optimism with which she characteristically ends her works, along with her prevailing wit, lends them an air of levity and exuberance that often transcends her sober themes.

These themes—loneliness, isolation, and a profound desire for meaning in life—are examined by Wasserstein chiefly through character. One of the playwright’s great strengths is her ability to poke fun at her characters without subjecting them to ridicule or scorn.Her women and men, with all their faults and foibles, are warmly and affectionately rendered. They engage their audience’s empathy as they make their way through the mazes of their lives, trying to connect and to be of consequence in the world.

Wasserstein is a unique and important voice in contemporary American theater. As a woman writing plays about women, she has been a groundbreaker, though never self-consciously so. Despite her often thin plot lines, she finds and captures the drama inherent in the day-to-day choices confronting the women of her generation. As a humorist, too, Wasserstein is unquestionably a virtuoso. Her ability to see the absurdity of even her own most deeply held convictions, and to hold them deeply nevertheless, is perhaps the most engaging and distinctive of her writing’s many strengths.

Wasserstein is best known for her four full-length, professional plays, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic, The Heidi Chronicles, and The Sisters Rosensweig. The first three plays have in common their episodic structure and non-plot-driven narrative. In each of the three, scenes unfold to reveal aspects of character.

Uncommon Women and Others

Uncommon Women and Others begins with five former college friends assessing their lives as they reunite six years after graduation. The body of the play is a flashback to their earlier life together at a small women’s college under the often conflicting influences of the school’s traditional “feminine” rituals and etiquette and the iconoclasm of the blossoming women’s movement. In each of the two time frames, events are largely contexts for discussions in which Wasserstein’s women use one another as sounding boards, each one testing and weighing her hopes, fears, expectations, and achievements against those of her friends.

Isn’t It Romantic

Similarly, in Isn’t It Romantic, two former college friends, Janie Blumberg, a freelance writer, and Harriet Cornwall, a corporate M.B.A., move through their postcollege lives, weighing marriage and children against independence and the life choices of their mothers against their own. The play climaxes at the point where the two women diverge: Harriet, who has formerly decried marriage, accepts a suitor’s proposal out of fear of being alone, and Janie chooses to remain unattached and to seek happiness within herself.

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The Heidi Chronicles

The Heidi Chronicles, though more far-reaching in scope, is also a character-driven play. Here, Wasserstein narrows her focus to one woman, Heidi Holland, but through her reflects the changing social and political mores of more than two decades. From the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s, Heidi, like Wasserstein’s earlier characters, struggles to find her identity. Moving through settings ranging from women’s consciousness-raising meetings and protests to power lunches in trendy restaurants and Yuppie baby showers, Wasserstein’s Heidi functions as, in her words, a “highly-informed spectator” who never quite seems to be in step with the prescribed order of the day. In a pivotal scene, Heidi, now an art-history professor, delivers a luncheon lecture entitled “Women, Where Are We Going?” Her speech, which disintegrates into a seeming nervous breakdown, ends with Heidi confessing that she feels “stranded”: “And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded,” she concludes, “I thought the whole point was that we were in this together.”

Isolation and loneliness and, contrastingly, friendship and family are themes that run throughout these three earlier plays. Heidi’s wish, expressed in that luncheon speech, is for the kind of solidarity that exists among the women in Uncommon Women and Others, who, while constantly comparing their lives, are not competitive in the sense of putting one another down. On the contrary, they are fervent in their praise and support of one another, a family unto themselves. Janie and Harriet, in Isn’t It Romantic, share a relationship that is much the same until something comes between them, Harriet’s decision to marry a man she hardly knows because he makes her feel “like [she has] a family.” Heidi, on the other hand, at the point when she makes her speech, has no close women friends. Presumably, they are all off having babies or careers. Her decision, at the play’s end, to adopt a Panamanian baby girl, thereby creating a family of her own, is much akin to Janie Blumberg’s decision finally to unpack her crates in her empty apartment at the end of Isn’t It Romantic and make a home for herself.

This desire on the part of Wasserstein’s characters for a family and a place to belong has at its root the desire for self-affirmation. It is evident in the refrain that echoes throughout Uncommon Women and Others, “When we’re twenty-five [thirty, forty, fortyfive], we’re going to be incredible,” as well as in Janie Blumberg’s invocation, “I am,” borrowed from her mother, Tasha. Though failures by the standards of some, Janie, Heidi, and the others can be seen as heroic in their resilience and in the tenacity with which they cling to their ideals—however divergent from the reality at hand.

Wasserstein’s tendency to create characters who resist change can exasperate audiences, as her critics have noted. The women, in particular, who people her plays are often, like Janie with her unpacked crates of furniture, in a state of suspension, waiting for life to begin. In Uncommon Women and Others, there is a constant look toward the future for self-substantiation, as there is, to some extent, in Heidi’s persistent state of unhappiness. Still, Heidi does ultimately make a choice—to adopt a baby, a step toward the process of growing up, another of Wasserstein’s recurrent themes.

One ofWasserstein’s greatest gifts is her ability to find and depict the ironies of life. This is evident in each of the three plays’ bittersweet final images: the “uncommon women,” their arms wrapped around one another, repeating their by now slightly sardonic refrain; Janie, tap-dancing alone in her empty apartment; and Heidi, singing to her new daughter “You Send Me,” the song to which she had previously danced with her old flame, Scoop, at his wedding reception. These images are pureWasserstein. In the face of disappointment, even the disillusionment, of life, her characters manifest a triumph of the spirit and a strength from within that ultimately prevails.

Eleanor Reissa, Amy Aquino and Betsy Brandt in South Coast Reper

​Eleanor Reissa, Amy Aquino and Betsy Brandt in South Coast Repertory’s 201​​8 ​production of ​The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein.

The Sisters Rosensweig

Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig is a departure from her earlier plays in a number of ways. Most overt among these differences are the play’s international setting (the action takes place in Queen Anne’s Gate, London) and its concern with global issues and events. Also of note is the playwright’s uncharacteristic use, here, of classical, nonepisodic structure, maintaining unity of time and place: in this case, several days’ events in the sitting room of Sara Goode, the play’s main character and the eldest of the three sisters for whom the play is named.

Sara shares many of the characteristics of Wasserstein’s earlier protagonists—that is, her gender (female), ethnic group ( Jewish), social class (upper-middle to upper class), and intelligence quotient (uncommonly high). She is, however, considerably older than her forerunners. The Sisters Rosensweig centers on the celebration of Sara’s fifty-fourth birthday. This is significant in that Sara, a hugely successful international banker who has been married and divorced several times, does not share the struggle for self-identity carried out by such Wasserstein heroines as Heidi Holland and Janie Blumberg. With a lucrative, challenging career (noteworthily, in a male-dominated field) and a daughter she loves, Sara has achieved, to some degree, the “meaning” in her life that those earlier characters found lacking and sought.

As the play progresses, however, it is revealed that Sara, despite her self-confidence and seeming self-sufficiency, shares with Heidi, Janie, and the others a deep need to connect—to find, create, or reclaim a family. As she fends off and at last gives in to a persistent suitor, Merv Kant, a fake-fur dealer, and plays hostess to her two sisters (Pfeni Rosensweig, a sociopolitical journalist turned travel writer, and “Dr.” Gorgeous Teitelbaum, who hosts a radio call-in show), Sara manages, at last, to peel back the layers of defense and reserve that have seen her through two divorces and the rigors of her profession and to rediscover the joys of sisterhood and the revitalizing power of romantic love.

It is not Sara alone who serves Wasserstein in her exploration of her characteristic themes of loneliness, isolation, and the search for true happiness. Pfeni, forty years old, the play’s most seemingly autobiographical character, a writer who has been temporarily diverted from her true calling, has been likewise diverted from pursuing “what any normal woman wants” by remaining in a relationship with Geoffrey, a former homosexual. Jilted and distraught over the havoc that acquired immunedeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has played with the lives of his friends, Geoffrey has wooed and won Pfeni, only to leave her in the end to follow his own true nature. Pfeni’s ceaseless “wandering” as well as her self-confessed need to write about the hardships of others to fill the emptiness in her own life is much akin to Heidi Holland’s position as a “highly informed spectator,” waiting for her own life to begin.

The Sisters Rosensweig harks back to Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic in its concerns with the profound role that both mothers and Judaism play in shaping women’s lives. Here, Sara rejects, and attempts to cast off, the influences of both. An atheist expatriate in London, she has reinvented her life, purging all memories of her Jewish New York upbringing and her deceased mother’s expectations as firmly as she has embraced the habits and speech patterns of her adopted home. Sara’s eventual acquiescence to Merv, a New York Jew, along with the rekindling of her emotional attachment to her sisters, represents, at the play’s end, an acceptance and embracing of the past that she has worked so hard to put behind her.

Like all Wasserstein’s works, The Sisters Rosensweig presents characters whose spirit triumphs over their daily heartaches and heartbreaks. While they long to escape the tangled webs of their lives (“If I could only get to Moscow!” Pfeni laments, in one of the play’s several nods to Anton Chekhov’s Tri sestry, pr., pb. 1901, rev. pb. 1904; Three Sisters, 1920), they manage to find within themselves and in one another sufficient strength not only to endure but also to prevail.

As in Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic, and The Heidi Chronicles, there is a scene in The Sisters Rosensweig in which women join together to share a toast, affirming and celebrating their sisterhood and themselves. Be they biological sisters, sorority sisters, or sisters of the world, Wasserstein has made sisters her province. With The Sisters Rosensweig, she adds three more portraits to her ever-growing gallery of uncommon women, painted, as always, with insight, wit, and compassion.

Principal drama
Any Woman Can’t, pr. 1973; Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz, pr. 1974; When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, pr. 1975 (with Christopher Durang); Uncommon Women and Others, pr. 1975 (one act), pr. 1977 (two acts), pb. 1978; Isn’t It Romantic, pr. 1981, revised pr. 1983, pb. 1984; Tender Offer, pr. 1983, pb. 2000 (one act); The Man in a Case, pr., pb. 1986 (one act; adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story); Miami, pr. 1986 (musical); The Heidi Chronicles, pr., pb. 1988; The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, pb. 1990; The Sisters Rosensweig, pr. 1992, pb. 1993; An American Daughter, pr. 1997, pb. 1998; Waiting for Philip Glass, pr., pb. 1998 (inspired by William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94); The Festival of Regrets, pr. 1999 (libretto); Old Money, pr. 2000, pb. 2002; Seven One- Act Plays, pb. 2000.

Other major works
Nonfiction: Bachelor Girls, 1990; Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties, 2001.
Screenplay: The Object of My Affection, 1998 (adaptation of Stephen McCauley’s novel). teleplays: The Sorrows of Gin, 1979 (from the story by John Cheever); “Drive,” She Said, 1984; The Heidi Chronicles, 1995 (adaptation of her play); An American Daughter, 2000 (adaptation of her play).
Children’s literature: Pamela’s First Musical, 1996.

Bibliography
Bennetts, Leslie. “An Uncommon Dramatist Prepares Her New Work.” The New York Times, May 24, 1981,p. C1.
Berman, Janice. “The Heidi Paradox.” Newsday, December 22, 1988.
Nightingale, Benedict. “There Really Is a World Beyond ‘Diaper Drama.’” The New York Times, January 1, 1984, p. C2.
Rose, Phyllis Jane. “Dear Heidi—An Open Letter to Dr. Holland.” American Theatre 6 (October, 1989): 26.
Shapiro, Walter. “Chronicler of Frayed Feminism.” Time, March 27, 1989, 90-92.
Wallace, Carol. “A Kvetch for Our Time,” Sunday News Magazine, August 19, 1984, 10.

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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