Wendy Wasserstein, In Memoriam

Wendy Wasserstein died today at 55 from lymphoma. The New York Times and other media outlets have reported the details of her life and death, to which I want to add just a few words of my own.

I haven’t always been a fan of Wasserstein’s work. In my book Presence and Desire, I devote a large part of one chapter to analyzing the conservative threads in her popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Heidi Chronicles. Although the play purports to be about contemporary U.S. feminism, I argued that in fact, it launched its bon mots at the expense of lesbians and a more radical critique of gender relations. Wasserstein’s heroine epitomized the generation that wanted “it all”–the job, the baby, the marriage, success on the dominant culture’s terms without too much strife or too much self-reflection. That Heidi, at the end of her play, was left with a baby and a good job but without a man (apparently like Wasserstein herself) seemed a paltry gesture of critique.

When I directed a summer theatre production of the play at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 80s, I took every opportunity to lampoon the comedy, stretching out its jokes with sight gags and other deconstructive critical commentary that I hoped would point up some of her liberal feminist excesses. I tried to use theatricality to suggest a more thorough-going critique of the play’s description of white women’s rush to marriage, children, family and away from more imaginative ways of imagining social relations.

But Wasserstein’s play proved surprisingly durable. Despite my attempts to engage it critically with bold visual choices and strong female performances (to counter what I saw as the ultimately cipher-like character of Heidi), Wasserstein’s comedy spoke through and her liberal critique won. You’ve got to admire a writer that tough.

And at this remove, in fact, I find that I do. Wasserstein was bound to take some hits, as one of the first women playwrights to succeed in the mainstream. Her subsequent plays, Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, Isn’t it Romantic, Old Money, and her most recent piece, Third, played either on or off Broadway, often with luminous casts filled with remarkable performers happy for the choice roles she wrote for women. Wasserstein was part of the inner circle of New York theatre, friends with powerful directors and other writers; her plays made money and were reproduced consistently at regional and community theatres.

Wasserstein never meant her writing to foment the feminist revolution. Her world was part and parcel of the one of which she wrote: the moneyed elite, women who in the 50s would have been constrained to their roles as family matriarchs, doling out love and dollars, who in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s–the years Wasserstein chronicled so deftly–had more and more perplexing choices that consumed them with the deep ambivalence that often roiled the clever surface of her plays.Uncommon Women and Others, her first play, which famously starred Glenn Close, Swoozie Kurtz, and Meryl Streep in its first production, remains on of the most trenchant dismemberings of the angst of early feminism for upper-class white women with new choices. The play deserves remounting, to see what it might have to offer these many decades after its first production.

Wasserstein’s humor contributed to feminist discourse in the theatre in numerous ways. Her plays are simply funny, and tweak the stereotype of feminists as humorless and strident. She wrote bright, comic plays with a twinge of sadness, melancholy that became more evident and more cutting as her career went on.

When The Heidi Chronicles was first produced on Broadway, I spoke with a few colleagues on a panel devoted to the play at one of our academic theatre conferences. The room was packed with people who’d seen or read the play, mostly feminists like me, furious with the way Wasserstein had represented our lives, determined to critique her elitism and her one-sidedness, her glib erasure of the real blood, sweat, and tears that formed the platform on which Heidi came eventually to dance with a baby in her arms. We were disappointed that she hadn’t told it all.

But I have to admit I will miss hearing what else she might have had to say. Who will fill her shoes, as a popular, commercially succesful woman playwright unafraid to at least address feminism by name, as well as by concept and conceit, courageous enough to look at women’s lives and insist thatthey be the universal to which other human beings can relate and aspire, empathize and identify? Many other women playwrights write as well or better than Wendy Wasserstein, with perhaps more nuance, more complexity, more daring forms and contents. But who will gain the power to tell some of our stories on Broadway, as she’s done so consistently all these years? Who will replace her as a public humorist, as someone to be counted on to laugh at our foibles as human beings from the perspective of women in a way that Broadway audiences can find accessible, as well as maybe provoking and just a little bit challenging?

If Wendy Wasserstein’s goal was to assimilate, she did it very well, and carved a path for women in the theatre that we have to be careful doesn’t close up after her. She’ll be missed.

The Feminist Spectator

3 thoughts on “Wendy Wasserstein, In Memoriam

  1. “Wasserstein’s humor contributed to feminist discourse in the theatre in numerous ways. Her plays are simply funny, and tweak the stereotype of feminists as humorless and strident.”

    Yes, I agree whole-heartedly with this.

    And if we have a Neil Simon, let us have a Wendy Wasserstein. Why must she “do it all” for us?

  2. I found myself in Wasserstein’s play even if I am a Chinese,never been abroad. Women who have high aspirations in China are regarded as freaks. Maybe I am not right, but I feel that Heidi has her own character. She behaves not according to the labeled feminist; she behaves like herself.

  3. Here’s the deal. Wendy Wasserstein’s play (“THIRD”) wowed me. We saw it last night in Vero Beach, FL. Wonderful cast, inspired acting, and tight production.

    But it was the Playwright’s superb take on the troubled Literature Professor, Laurie Jameson, which perhaps helped me understand a little more about some things that has come to vex me with regard to a friend of mine. This friend is about the same age and political bend as Laurie Jamson, and is a similarly gifted English educator. One who like Laurie, has been known to challenge her students in a way that ironically endears her and promotes an appreciation for her taciturn teaching tactics. Our friend is witty, gritty, and of course very smart.

    Like Laurie, our friend, who is really my wife’s long-time very close gal pal, currently harbors much of the same angst about life as Wasserstein’s cleverly-developed Professor Jameson character. While it is Jameson’s mission to open her high-caliber students’ minds, at a liberal somewhat pretentious Northeast institution of higher learning, this menopausal, hot-flashing fireball with her passion-filled lectures on the true meaning of King Lear comes to discover that her once-open heart, and mine have both begun to close.

    She intuitively understands on some level that a glib and happy student of hers is inexplicably vexing her with his content carefree attitude and goal to be a Professional Sports Agent. She seems to understand that there is more than meets the eye with this affable student, with whom she assumes that she disagrees wholeheartely with in every aspect of life’s views and purpose. Despite sensing this student (Woodson Bull III; hence the title “Third”) is not a sterotypical wisecracking preppy frat-boy jock, she goes out of her way to pigeon-hole him thusly, and disdain his presence at her precious university. And the happier he is, the unhappier it makes her.

    She treats him has the enemy, and as an example of all what is behind her discomfort with changing times. She strongly recommends to Third early on, that he leave Swathmore and find a more appropriate place to take up space.

    Third has perfectly logical reasons for hanging in right where he is, and appears up for all challenges his professors serve up. The more sense Third makes, the deeper Professor Jameson’s disdain grows.

    Wasserstein’s character eventually sorts things out for herself through fiery conversations with her analyst, her college-aged daughter, who ‘grew up without her permission’, her former comrade-in-arms femnist Professor who is battling life-threatening cancer, and her father whose senility is growing worse daily.

    Ultimately Professor Laurie Jameson has an epiphany in mid-lecture when she unexpectedly digresses to a personal story about the heydey of the feminist movement in the 70’s and an endearing memory which suddenly floods back to her regarding what her young-love husband had told her. Her now hollowly-loved husband once related to her that he marveled over her fire and her open heart. Suddenly Laurie Jameson realized she had beome the very type of pre-judging oppressor she railed against 30 years prior. And this conflict was the driving force behind her depression, which rages comically during her hot flashes, causing her to daydream about tearing her blouse off in public to cool down.

    More than just the possible insite I gained for one of my dear friends, the play spoke to me as well, challenging my own problems with judgementalism, and pre-judgements. I hate that aspect of my personality when it somehow worms back into my life. I hate it because I know it can be destructive at worst, and is petty and small at least. I try to avoid it. Occasionally, when friends move toward that troubled cauldron, I have been known to withdraw and find something constructive to do. Yet, sometimes there is an allure to that judgemental mindset that is hard to fend off, when alcohol is flowing and the conversation moves in that direction at a social gathering.

    But as the play “Third” so entertainly suggests, we must fend off our prejudices, lest we find ourselves becoming unhappy cynics, and guilty of what we so dislike about others; sometimes even our best friends.

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