Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein at her writing desk in 1985.
The Playbill cover from the original Broadway production of The Heidi Chronicles.
The Playbill cover from the original Broadway production of The Sisters Rosensweig.
Uncommon Women and Others Broadway Theatre Archive, VHS tape cover art.
Wendy Wasserstein was an important voice in theatre for more than three decades. Her plays spoke to a generation of smart, ambitious and often unsatisfied women whose roles in the world were rapidly changing. Her female characters are bold, compassionate, confused and trying to navigate their desire to “have it all”—a fulfilling career and a family.
Today, women still grapple with many of the same questions and struggles that Wasserstein’s characters dealt with in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so unpacking and examining her work for a new generation of women is important. As a millennial woman, I am grateful to pioneers like Wasserstein for her three dimensional and complicated female characters.
Wasserstein’s plays examine women’s experiences at different stages in life—and for a long time, she was the lone female voice that addressed these issues regularly on famous stages. Though her plays often deal with the elite, and today we have expanded and continue to expand the conversation to include all women, the works remain relevant as a means of chronicling an important moment in history. Today, Wasserstein’s plays can provide historical context and serve as a barometer for how we have and have not progressed nearly 40 years later.
Though she is known as a feminist writer and activist, her plays are not overtly feminist; they actually tend to question the movement. In her 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles, for which she won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, the character Heidi says she is not a feminist, but a humanist. Wasserstein’s characters are met with discrimination from all directions, but they are still uncomfortable with the feminist label.
Today, feminism is more common and expected of people, especially in theatre, but in the 1980s, women were hit with extreme backlash. They were told that the second wave of feminism of the ‘60s and ‘70s was to blame for all their problems. Women were told that working would have drastic effects on their children (even though many women had been compelled economically for decades to work).
Wasserstein’s plays often ask the question can women “have it all”? The Heidi Chronicles deals with this explicitly. Heidi is often told that her intellect is too intimidating for a man to want to be with her, a concept that, sadly, remains relevant today. In one important monologue, Heidi admits to being envious of other women. She sees in them other paths she could have taken and wonders if they judge her for her choices much as she judges them. Her frustration is evident when she says, “we're all concerned, intelligent, good women…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 that we were all in this together." Wasserstein gives voice to this emotional dilemma that many women found themselves in as their roles shifted and their purpose in society was questioned.
The Sisters Rosensweig (1989) has many moments of relevance. It deals with funny, interesting and driven women of different ages and experiences. It also deals with complicated, yet supportive friendships among women that are still too seldom seen in entertainment. The three sisters each represent a different facet of womanhood and feminism. My favorite moments in the play are when the sisters are sitting, drinking and laughing together. When Wasserstein was writing, this was bold and revolutionary—she was one of the only mainstream playwrights who was writing for and about women—women who were feisty, confident and flawed—and this play is a celebration of that.
In one of her early plays, Uncommon Women and Others (1977), a group of seniors at a women’s college try to figure out their place in a world that has instructed them to use their education only to find a suitable husband. They are much like young women today: they are funny and smart, they laugh and discuss relationships, sex and their place in the world. These are all conversations that 20-something women continue to have today. This type of story was unprecedented in the ‘70s and ‘80s, at least in mainstream media, and that makes it an important text written during a huge cultural transformation, not only with the women’s movement, but with every social movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which are all linked and ongoing today.
All of these plays continue to be funny and bold tributes to the perseverance and tenacity of women. Talking about relevance is important, but historical context is also essential when discussing Wasserstein’s plays. Feminism has changed greatly since the 1980s and it is important now to incorporate intersectionality—the idea that women experience oppression in varying degrees of intensity, depending on race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Treating these plays more like history plays may be the best way to present them to a modern audience. Wasserstein’s plays deal with equality and all of the frustration and friendships that come with that fight. Issues of equality are as relevant now as they were when Wasserstein was writing—in the “me too” era they have taken on even more meaning and importance. Reading her plays today, it seems that we have progressed in some ways, though many of the issues and conversations in her plays remain extremely relevant and should continue to be discussed and performed.
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