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Playwright Wendy  Wasserstein: Female Voice of Her Generation - 2002-07-06

One of America's leading playwrights visited the Voice of America to see a staged reading of her 1989 Pulitzer prize-winning play. 'The Heidi Chronicles,' by Wendy Wasserstein, is the latest production by L.A. Theater Works, an organization dedicated to producing new and classic American plays for radio broadcast and audio recordings.

"This painting always reminds me of me at one of those horrible high school dances. 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."

In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi Holland is an art historian whose life is recorded from her college years in the 1960s to the 1980s when she is at the brink of middle age. Like so many people who came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, Heidi embraces the new rules of her generation, when women are told they can "have it all" that is, make the choice of whether or not to get married; have children; make money; or even change the world. As she approaches 35, Heidi discovers that she is unfulfilled in her relationships and career, and feels she has been let down or "stranded" by her generation, who have abandoned their youthful ideals for more traditional values. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in the 1970s, says she was inspired to write The Heidi Chronicles after observing that there were no female roles being written that she could identify with.

"I started going to the theater and I wasn't seeing any plays about women who I would remotely know. I saw good plays, I saw Speed the Plow with Madonna, but I just didn't know these people," she says. "And I thought, 'Better than getting angry, it's better to write.' And also I was feeling in myself a personal unhappiness, having come of age in the late '60s, that 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 an avaricious generation," she continued. "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."

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. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ms. Wasserstein was one of three sisters born to their mother, a Broadway dancer, and father, a fabric manufacturer. It was at Smith College in Massachusetts that Wendy Wasserstein was encouraged to write by her playwriting teacher.

"I had a wonderful playwriting teacher named Len Berkman, who still teaches at Smith. And 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 says.

DI:"So now it's my fault"
OP:"Sure it is. You want other things in life than I do."
DI:"Oh,really, like what?"
OP:"Self-fulfillment, self-determination, self-exaggeration. . . ."
DI: "That's exactly what you want!"
OP:"Right! 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."

After The Heidi Chronicles won the Tony award for Best Play and a Pulitzer prize in 1989, it was followed by the equally popular The Sisters Rosensweig in 1992; and, in 1997, An American Daughter. Wendy Wasserstein has also written books, and screenplays for film and television. Upon hearing the L.A. Theater Works production of The Heidi Chronicles, Ms. Wasserstein says she was struck by how little has changed for American women in terms of their struggle to balance home and career. She cited the new, controversial book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children.

"That book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, all about girls who hit thirty should think about having children before they're thirty and they should live 'intentional' lives you know, I thought, this is that stuff that was around during that 'having it all' period," she says. "That hasn't changed at all. And you find, just thinking about those young women and being thirty years old, that's not very liberating at all. I still believe that 'having it all' is just one way to make a checklist for everything you've done wrong in your life."

Wendy Wasserstein's latest work is a book of essays entitled 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 forty, I remember I made this 'to do' list: 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," she said. "And actually by the time I turned fifty, I did have a baby. And that is the final essay."

Today, at 52-years-old, Wendy Wasserstein lives in New York City with her three-year-old daughter, Lucy. She is also writing the libretto for the upcoming Broadway musical, An American in Paris, based on the 1951 George Gershwin film musical of the same name. In April of 2003, Ms. Wasserstein will be back in Washington , when Arena Stage presents the Washington premier of her 1997 play, An American Daughter.