Analysis of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles

I know The Heidi Chronicles was a controversial play among many feminists. It was a play where some people thought I had sold out, because she had a baby at the end and I was saying that all women must have babies—run out and adopt a Panamanian tonight! I know that this happened, but from my point of view, what’s political is that this play exists. What’s political is that we can talk about this play that’s about us—like it, don’t like it; it’s there, it exists, and that’s the forward motion.

—Wendy Wasserstein,
The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists

Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles is an insightful tour of 25 years in the life cycle of the baby boom generation. It is more, however, than a time capsule. Wasserstein succeeded in making stage worthy the perspectives of college-educated women who came of age in the late 1960s as feminism was beginning to redefine and reshape gender assumptions. She drew both comedy and pathos from these women’s attempts to reconcile the demands of professional careers with their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Prior to Wasserstein plays had neither treated these issues nor created her brand of serious comedy. “Serious issues and serious people can be quite funny,” Wasserstein once stated. Before the feminist movement most women onstage, as in life, were cast solely in a supporting role. “In Wendy’s plays women saw themselves portrayed in a way they hadn’t been onstage before—wittily, intelligently, and seriously at the same time,” André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater has observed. “We take that for granted now, but it was not the case 25 years ago. She was a real pioneer.” An acute observer of the zeitgeist and the psychic and emotional dilemmas it created, Wasserstein brought women’s intellectual and emotional development to center stage, while finding humor and compassion in the knottiest problems of gender and identity. With The Heidi Chronicles she became the first woman ever to win a Tony Award for best play. It also received the Pulitzer Prize and the award for best new play from the New York Drama Critics Circle. Heidi Holland, its protagonist, is the prototype for all the Carrie Bradshaws and Bridget Joneses who would follow in novels, films, and plays. The Heidi Chronicles is both the defining play of Wasserstein’s art and for the generation it celebrates and criticizes.

The Heidi Chronicles and all of Wasserstein’s work, as she has freely admit-ted, draw on aspects of her own life. “My plays tend to be autobiographical or come out of something that’s irking me,” she explained, “and it’s got to irk me long enough for me to commit to spend all that time writing and then turn it into a play.” Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn in 1950. Her father was a prosperous textile manufacturer and the inventor of velveteen; her mother was an amateur dancer. Named for the character in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Wasserstein attended theater regularly, although she also was struck by the something missing in the Broadway plays she saw. “I remember going to them and thinking,” she recalled, “I really like this, but where are the girls?” Although fascinated by the theater Wasserstein did not begin to write for it until, while attending Mount Holyoke College, she was persuaded by a friend to enroll in a writing class at nearby Smith College so they could take advantage of shopping possibilities in Northampton, Massachusetts. Wasserstein has credited the professor, Leonard Berkman, as “the first person who made me feel confident with my own voice.” After graduating in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Wasserstein became one of the first students in a new creative writing program at City College of the City University of New York that featured small classes with distinguished writers. Wasserstein studied with novelist Joseph Heller and playwright Israel Horovitz before receiving her master’s degree in 1973. Her first produced work was her the-sis, a play called Any Woman Can’t. Unsure about her next step Wasserstein applied to both Columbia University’s business school and the Yale School of Drama. Accepted by both, she opted for Yale, where she earned her master of fine arts degree in 1976.


Her first widely known play, Uncommon Women and Others (1977), grew from a one-act play she wrote at Yale. Involving a group of Mount Holyoke students who consider their relationships with men and their futures, it deals with the impact of the arrival of feminism on college campuses in the late 1960s and its dual legacy of liberation and guilt. Empowered, the women in Wasserstein’s play are both torn between their career ambitions and expectations as wives and mother. As one of the characters pointedly summarizes their dilemma,

God knows there is no security in marriage. You give up your anatomy, economic self-support, spontaneous creativity, and a helluva lot of energy trying to convert a male half-person into a whole person who will eventually stop draining you, so you can do your own work. And the alternative—hopping onto the corporate or professional ladder is just as self-destructive. If you spend your life proving yourself, then you just become a man.

Wasserstein’s following play, Isn’t It Romantic (1981), grew out of her realization that many woman of her generation as they approached 30 were suddenly desperate for marriage at any cost. “Biological time bombs were going off all over Manhattan,” she reported. “It was like, it’s not wild and passionate, but it’s time.” In a series of short scenes the play perceptively explores how and why women choose a husband, a career, or a lifestyle.

Analysis of Wendy Wasserstein’s Plays

The Heidi Chronicles, her next major work, took shape in Wasserstein’s mind from the image of a contemporary woman confessing her sense of frustration and unhappiness to an assembly of other women. The speaker became Dr. Heidi Holland, an art history professor, who finds herself adrift and isolated despite her generations’ social gains and her successful, independent life. Wasserstein tells Heidi’s story—how she got to her present dilemma—in a series of flashbacks from the late 1960s through the 1980s. The play opens in a lecture hall at Columbia in 1989 as the 40-year-old Heidi delivers a lecture on three accomplished women artists from the past—Sofonisba Anguissola, Clara Peeters, and Lilly Martin Spencer—who are virtually unknown today. An example of Spencer’s works reminds Heidi of “One of those horrible high-school dances. And 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 an exquisitely detailed dress, waiting to see what might happen.” Establishing a connection between artists and lecturer and the cost to women of achievement, the action flashes back to a high school dance in 1965 where the 16-year-old Heidi, paired with her best friend Susan Johnston, negotiates the complex gender dynamics of the “mixer.” As Susan pursues a boy who can twist and smoke at the same time, Heidi retreats to read her copy of Death Be Not Proud and meets Peter Patrone. Observing, “You look so bored you must be bright,” Peter, the second of the three recurring characters who serve as foils to Heidi, succeeds in getting Heidi out on the dance floor. The next scene is a 1968 Eugene McCarthy party for campaign volunteers in New Hampshire where Heidi, now a committed social activist, meets the supremely self-confident, already world-weary, radical journalist Scoop Rosenbaum, who sizes up the idealistic Heidi as “one of those true believers who didn’t understand it was just a phase.” Despite being irritated at Scoop’s assaults on her convictions Heidi becomes his lover.

The next scene takes place in 1970 during a women’s consciousness-raising session in a church basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Heidi is visiting the ever-adaptable Susan, who has now embraced feminism. The other attendees are Fran, a 30-year-old lesbian, and 17-year-old Becky, who is living with her abusive boyfriend. Initially aloof and withdrawn, Heidi is drawn into their dialogue of empowerment and manages her own feminist epiphany about her relationship with Scoop. “The problem is me,” she confesses. “I could make a better choice. I have an old friend, Peter, who I know would be a much better choice. But I keep allowing this guy to account for so much of what I think of myself. I allow him to make me feel valuable. And the bottom line is, I know what’s wrong.” In the next scene, set during a protest at the Chicago Art Institute in 1974 over the paucity of women artists represented, Peter, a medical intern, reveals that he is homosexual, while Heidi confesses that she is not involved with Scoop anymore. “I just like sleeping with him,” Heidi explains. Scoop eventually marries, and the following scene takes place at his wedding reception in 1977 where he explains to Heidi his decision to marry someone less accomplished and demanding than Heidi:

Let’s say we married and I asked you to devote the, say next ten years of your life to me. To making me a home and a family and a life so secure that I could with some confidence go out into the world each day and attempt to get an “A.” You’d say “No.” You’d say “Why can’t we be partners? Why can’t we both go out into the world and get an “A?” And you’d be absolutely valid and correct.

He goes on to explain that his bride, Lisa, is not an “A+” like Heidi, “But I don’t want to come home to an ‘A+,’ ‘A-’ maybe, but not ‘A+.’” Scoop goes on to predict an unhappy life for Heidi because she expects too much from it. “If you aim for six and get six,” he says, “everything will work out nicely. But if you aim for ten in all things and get six, you’re going to be very disappointed. And, unfortunately, that’s why you ‘quality time’ girls are going to be one generation of disappointed women. Interesting, exemplary, even sexy, but basically unhappy. The ones who open doors usually are.”

Act 2 confirms Scoop’s prediction. As the “Greed Is Good” 1980s descend, the generation that believed that it would change the world are shown changed by it, and the solidarity among women and their challenge to traditional gender roles recede in the face of increasing conformity and divisive competition to “have it all.” The first scene, following another excerpt from Heidi’s art lecture at Columbia in 1989, takes place in 1980 at a baby shower for Scoop’s wife, Lisa, in the aftermath of the news of John Lennon’s death and the symbolic end of the 1960s. Since Lisa and Scoop’s wedding Heidi has lived for a number of years in Europe where she has left a man she was planning to marry to accept her position at Columbia. Scoop has gone from the Liberated Earth News to running the successful lifestyle magazine Boomer. Susan has taken a job as an executive of a television production company that “wanted someone with a feminist and business background. Targeting films for the twenty-five to twenty-nine-year-old female audience.” Peter is being touted as “The Best Pediatrician in New York Under Forty.”

In the next scene Heidi, Scoop, and Peter are reunited in a television panel discussion on the baby boom generation. Both men misrepresent them-selves—Scoop, who is a womanizer, as the quintessential family man and Peter by dodging the truth about his homosexuality—while they shamelessly talk over Heidi and prevent her from discussing the issues that matter to her. The scene suggests that males continue to control the dialogue. Two years later, in 1984, Heidi has lunch with Susan at a trendy New York restaurant where her friend is too busy networking to engage seriously with the crucial issue that is troubling Heidi: “Susie, do you ever think that what makes you a person is also what keeps you from being a person?” Susan responds, “I’m sorry, honey, but you’re too deep for me. By now I’ve been so many people, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t care.” Asked to serve as a consultant on a situation comedy that Susan is developing exploring professional women in their 30s who “don’t want to make the same mistakes we did,” Heidi replies: “I don’t think we made such big mistakes. And I don’t want to see three gals on the town who do.” For Susan feminism is a passé trend. As in the play’s opening scene Susan’s adaptability leads to success, while, increasingly, Heidi’s high-minded principles leave her isolated and out-of-step.

The thematic core of the play is the next scene in which Heidi is the featured speaker at a luncheon for alumna of Miss Crain’s School. Asked to address the topic “Women: Where Are We Going,” she first offers a self-portrait as a woman who has it all—fulfilling career, marriage, and children—before denying any resemblance. Instead she compares herself to other women at an exercise class who seem to be competing with one another in a display of accomplishments and who make her feel inadequate and unhappy. “I don’t blame the ladies in the locker room for how I feel,” she concludes. “I don’t blame any of us. We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. [Pause] It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together.” The emotional core of the play occurs in the next scene, set on Christmas Eve 1987, as Heidi has come to tell Peter good-bye after having accepted a teaching position in the Midwest. She explains that she is leaving because she has no reason to stay, no life in New York because she has no love interest there. Peter is upset that Heidi in abandoning the emotional connections and kinship she has had with him, which is even more important to him now as a gay man in the age of AIDS. With so much death around him, Heidi’s angst seems trivial in comparison. His accusation finds its target, and Heidi agrees to postpone becoming someone else and accept the consequences of her decisions.

A year later Scoop visits Heidi in her new apartment with the news that his settling for a life that is only a six has not worked. He has decided to sell his magazine, enter politics, and go for a 10 inspired in part by his desire not to be remembered by his children “as basically a lazy man and a philanderer” who had “a nose for Connecticut real estate,” and by the news that Heidi has adopted a baby. Both, by their choices, affirm a better future. “Scoop, there’s a chance, just a milli-notion,” Heidi asserts, “that Pierre Rosenbaum and Judy Holland will meet on a plane over Chicago. . . . And 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. And, yes, that does make me happy.” The play closes with Heidi rocking her baby and singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”

Although the play closes on a note of liberation for both men and women, Heidi’s finding fulfillment in a traditional role as mother and investing her future in her child drew strong criticism from feminists. The playwright responded by saying that Heidi was “a woman who wants a baby. I think it takes enormous courage to do what she does.” Wasserstein herself would later follow Heidi’s example into single motherhood by giving birth to a daughter at the age of 48. Professionally, several plays followed The Heidi Chronicles, including The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), An American Daughter (1997), Old Money (2002), and Third (2005). She also published essays in Bachelor Girls (1990) and Shiksa Goddess; or, How I Spent My Forties (2001). A first novel, Elements of Style, was published following her death in January 2006. All share elements that made The Heidi Chronicles such an effective drama: a perceptive sense of the forces of generation, family, and past that form identity and the serious comedy of those who settle and those who search.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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