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Playwright Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55


One of America's leading playwrights passed away on Monday. Wendy Wasserstein lost her battle with lymphoma at age 55. The post-feminist icon was very much like the women she wrote about, such as Heidi Holland, the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles. As she approaches 35, Heidi discovers that she is unfulfilled in her relationships and career. She feels she has been let down or stranded by her generation, which has abandoned its youthful ideals for more traditional values.

Wasserstein, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in the 1970s, said she was inspired to write The Heidi Chronicles after observing the dearth of female roles she could identify with.

"I started going to the theater and I wasn't seeing any plays about women who I would remotely know," she recalled. "I saw good plays, I saw Speed the Plow with Madonna, but I just didn't know these people. And I thought, 'Better than getting angry, it's better to write.'" She said she was also feeling a personal unhappiness. "Having come of age in the late '60's, [with] this whole idea of change and this excitement that our world will be different - and in fact, I thought, 'This is not different at all. This is a generation that's talking about getting a second home, this is a [materialistic] generation.' So, that in a way, I thought, to figure out my own unhappiness, coupled with what had happened to the ideologies of those movements, I would start writing this play."

In one scene in The Heidi Chronicles, one of Heidi's friends tells her the she wants different things in life than he does,

"Self-fulfillment, self-determination, self-exaggeration." "That's exactly what you want!" she counters. He agrees, but adds "Then you would be competing with me. 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 the doors usually are."

Since her first play, Uncommon Women and Others produced in 1975, Wendy Wasserstein has been regarded as the voice of a generation of women who, even today, are caught between their needs to nurture a family and their desire to maintain an intellectual purpose in their lives. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein attended Mt. Holyoke and Smith Colleges in Massachusetts, where, she recalled, she was encouraged to write by her playwriting teacher, Len Berkman.

"He pretty much gave me confidence in my own voice and also in the notion that if you told stories honestly, and that so many stories about women had simply not been told, that if you try to tell them, that there's a whole world to open up," she said.

The Heidi Chronicles won the Tony award for Best Play and a Pulitzer prize in 1989, and was followed by the equally popular The Sisters Rosensweig in 1992; and, in 1997, An American Daughter. Wendy Wasserstein has also written screenplays for film and television, and books, including Shiksa Goddess, or How I Spent My Forties. It is a collection of essays written in response to her own 'to do' list.

"When I was turning 40, I remember I made this 'to do' list." She listed them with a laugh, "to lose weight, go to the gym, learn another language, get married, have a baby, be kinder to your friends, all the things you should learn. . . how to blow-dry your hair. And actually, by the time I turned 50, I did have a baby. And that is the final essay."

Wendy Wasserstein opened many doors for other artists. Her plays and TV movies were showcases for some of her generation's top actresses - Meryl Streep, Joan Allen, Christine Lahti, Madeline Kahn. And she founded a theater arts mentoring program for New York City high school students, called Open Doors. Critics, fans and friends agree that Wendy Wasserstein will be remembered as a keen observer of the human condition, a gifted writer, and a trail-blazing artist who contributed much more than plays to the American theater.

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