The Heidi Chronicles
The Heidi Chronicles
WENDY WASSERSTEIN 1988
Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles is her best-known play. It was first produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, December 11, 1988, running for three sold-out months, before moving to the Plymouth Theater on Broadway on March 9, 1989. The play averaged 90% full houses during its run and, in 1989, garnered numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as the Antoinette Perry (Tony) and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play. Other honors include the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Dramatists Guild’s Hull-Warriner Award, and the Susan Smith Blackburn Award for women playwrights.
Following its debut, critical reaction to The Heidi Chronicles was mixed. Many praised Wasserstein for her unflinching portrayal of the Baby Boom generation’s coming of age. Heidi is a character typical of many women born in the post-World War II era: she is intelligent, well-educated, and attempting to make it in a society dominated by men. While many critics admired the events Wasserstein depicts, some faulted her for undermining the play’s serious issues with sitcom humor, half-baked characters like the indecisive Susan Johnston, and a contrived ending.
Many feminists also found fault with The Heidi Chronicles. While some were happy that a play with strong feminist themes was a mainstream success, they were displeased with Wasserstein’s negative comments (primarily through the voices of her male characters) on the woman’s movement. The title character Heidi is often a mute observer, dominated by her two male friends, Scoop and Peter. Feminists believed that Wasserstein blames the women’s movement for the fact that women are trivial and men more serious.
Despite such complaints, The Heidi Chronicles is largely seen as a success in the subgenre of feminist theatre. The play distinguished Wasserstein as a significant dramatic voice of the Baby Boom generation. Political/gender issues aside, most critics and viewers found the play to be entertaining and few could deny Wasserstein’s facility with comedic dialogue. Moreover, many women did relate to Heidi’s search for her own identity and the anguish she suffers as a woman in modern society.
Wendy Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 18, 1950. Her parents were Jewish immigrants who came to America from Central Europe as children. Her father, Morris, was a prosperous textile manufacturer. Her mother, Lola, was a homemaker and a nonprofessional dancer. To compete for attention in her large family Wasserstein developed a sharp, unique sense of humor that would later become a hallmark of her writing. Her mother, described by the playwright as a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure, introduced her to the theater as a child, and Wasserstein recognized the dramatic genre as an outlet for her creativity. While her colorful family served as inspiration for many of her plays, especially The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) Wasserstein also felt she could never meet their high expectations. When the family moved to Manhattan, the thirteen-year-old Wasserstein experienced feelings of alienation at school as well.
Wasserstein pursued higher education at Mount Holyoke College, taking her first playwriting class at nearby Smith College. Though her instructor encouraged her gifts, she still searched for an identity. Wasserstein’s talents are widely thought to have come of age in the late-1960s, when she discovered the women’s movement, a key aspect of The Heidi Chronicles (1988) and a concept that has informed all of her work.
Following her graduation in 1971, Wasserstein moved back to New York City. There, she earned an
M.A. from the City College of New York, studying under such literary notables as playwright Israel Horovitz (The Indian Wants the Bronx) and novelist Joseph Heller (Catch-22) . Still uncertain of what course to take in life, Wasserstein applied to both the Yale School of Drama and the Columbia Business School. After being accepted by both, Wasserstein decided to go to Yale. Though she initially felt isolated and lost as the only woman among a dozen men in the program, Wasserstein eventually came to recognize her own place and the unique manner in which she could theatrically give voice to women’s issues.
At Yale, Wasserstein studied the plays of Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya) . She was impressed with the Russian playwright’s balance between sympathy and ridicule for his characters. Inspired by Chekhov, Wasserstein modeled several of her early plays on his style. Other great playwrights she studied, however, offered stereotypical women, female characters greatly removed from Wasserstein and her peers. At Yale, Wasserstein began work on the one-act Uncommon Women and Others (1975), a comedic social commentary based on her experiences at Mount Holyoke. The play received significant praise when a revised and enlarged (Wasserstein expanded the original text to a two-act) version of the play was produced Off-Broadway in 1977.
During the 1980s Wasserstein worked to establish herself as a professional playwright, achieving moderate success. In 1988, she wrote The Heidi Chronicles, a work that is generally considered a high water mark and one of her most challenging plays. The play was first produced in a workshop at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1988 and subsequently premiered Off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizon that same year. The Heidi Chronicles debuted on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater in 1989 and received numerous awards and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, a Drama Desk Award, and the Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Award for best play of the year.
While The Heidi Chronicles cemented Wasserstein’s dramatic reputation, she has had continued success with plays such as The Sisters Rosensweig and 1997’s An American Daughter. She also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Stephen McCauley’s novel The Object of My Affection, starring Jennifer Aniston. Like Heidi Holland in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein has considered adopting a child as a single parent.
Act I, prologue
The Heidi Chronicles opens in a lecture hall at Columbia University in 1989. Heidi Holland, a forty-year-old art history professor, delivers a lecture on three women artists, Sofonisba Anguissola, Clara Peeters, and Lilly Martin Spencer. She points out that while these women were either highly regarded in their time and/or extremely talented, they are virtually unknown today.
Act I, scene 1
The year is 1965, the setting a high school in Chicago. Sixteen-year-old Heidi attends a dance with her friend Susan Johnston. When the scene begins, Heidi and Susan look out at the dance floor singing along to “The Shoop Shoop Song.” A boy, Chris Boxer, asks Heidi to dance, but she declines, telling him she doesn’t want to leave her friend. When a ladies’ choice dance is called, Susan hikes up her skirt and runs out on the floor to ask a boy she likes to dance, leaving Heidi alone. Heidi sits down and pulls out a book, Death Not Be Proud. A boy named Peter Patrone approaches her, complimenting her with “You look so bored you must be bright.” They talk, and Peter teaches her a dance.
Act I, scene 2
It is now 1968, and Heidi attends a dance in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the volunteers and supporters of presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. Heidi lingers near the food table and is approached by Scoop Rosenbaum. Scoop is overbearing, cutting down her every opinion. Heidi tries to evade him by saying her name is Susan Johnston, until he points out that she is wearing a nametag. Scoop tries to impress her with his intelligence, his work as a journalist, and his well-read opinions. Although he is derogatory toward her, he admits that he wants to have sex with Heidi. At the end of the scene, they passionately kiss.
Act I, scene 3
This scene takes place in 1970 in a church basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jill, a forty-year-old mother of four and Fran, a thirty-year-old lesbian feminist, lead a women’s consciousness-raising group. Among the attendees are Becky, a seventeen-year-old abandoned by her parents and living with an abusive boyfriend, Heidi, and Susan. Susan is now a law student, while Heidi attends graduate school at Yale. The group is concerned with empowering themselves. As they sit in a circle and talk, Heidi tries to not make waves by keeping her opinions and feelings to herself. Heidi finds herself drawn into their dialogue, and she talks about her relationship with Scoop. She reveals that she drops everything to see him, realizing that she lets him define how she feels about herself. The scene ends with the group singing a camp song.
Act I, scene 4
Heidi and Debbie, a new friend, protest the lack of women artists included in exhibits at the Chicago Art Institute in 1974. They plan to march on the curator’s office. Peter enters and chants sarcastically, making fun of the protestors. Debbie leaves to look for other supporters. Peter, now doing his medical internship, chides Heidi for not visiting him while she is in Chicago. The two friends share their sexual secrets: Heidi stills sees Scoop but only to sleep with him; Peter reveals is he is homosexual. Their discussion is interrupted by Debbie, who will not let Peter accompany them inside to talk to the curator. Debbie goes ahead, and Heidi and Peter eventually go in together.
Act I, scene 5
It is 1977, and Heidi, Peter, Susan, and Molly attend Scoop’s wedding to Lisa Friedlander at the Pierre Hotel. Having abandoned her law career and a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship, Susan now lives with a women’s collective in Montana, and Molly is a friend from there. Scoop and Heidi discuss their lives. Heidi reveals that she is seeing an editor. Scoop says that he is going to give up practicing law to start a magazine called Boomer. Scoop also explains that he could not have married Heidi because she would have been competing with him. However, he says that he still loves her. The scene closes with them dancing to “You Send Me.”
Act II, prologue
A return to the same lecture hall from the first act’s prologue. Heidi lectures on Lilla Cabot Perry and compares her to Lily Martin Spencer. Heidi points out that the women in both artists’ paintings are separate from the situations in which they are depicted: outsiders in their own pictures.
Act II, scene 1
Heidi attends a baby shower for Lisa in 1980. Susan is also present as well as Lisa’s sister Denise. Susan has been attending business school in New York and announces that she has just accepted a vice president position at a Hollywood production company.
Heidi has just returned from England, where she almost married, to accept a position as an art historian at Columbia. Before coming to the shower, she had been in Central Park, mourning the death of John Lennon. When Lisa leaves the room for a moment, Heidi tells the others about seeing Scoop with another woman there; he told Lisa he was at a conference in Princeton.
Denise works as a production assistant on a show called Hello New York, and invites Heidi to appear on the show to talk about her book about women and art, And the Light Floods in from the Left.
Act II, scene 2
Two years later, in 1982, Heidi appears on the show with Scoop and Peter, who is now an immensely successful pediatrician. Before the taping, Denise instructs them on the topics—ranging from turning forty to sex and relationships. April Lambert, the host, is extremely perky, and while she directs questions to Heidi, Peter and Scoop continually interrupt with their own opinions before she can get more than a few words in. After the taping, Heidi fumes. Scoop uses the opportunity to invite April to lunch because her husband owns a significant chunk of Manhattan real estate.
Act II, scene 3
Heidi meets Susan for lunch at a trendy New York restaurant in 1984. Heidi and Susan talk a bit about Heidi’s life—she was dating a lawyer for a while. Heidi reveals she called Susan to talk, but Susan turns the lunch into a business meeting.
Denise joins them because she now works as a story editor for Susan. Susan and Denise want to develop a television show about single women in the art world in Houston, and they want to hire Heidi as a consultant. In the course of the conversation, Susan disavows her feminist political past. Heidi grows uncomfortable throughout the lunch, and tells Susan she cannot help them.
Act II, scene 4
Heidi addresses a high school alumnae luncheon at the Plaza Hotel in 1986. Heidi tells the audience she is doing her speech off the cuff. The topic was supposed to be “Women, Where Are We Going?,” but Heidi talks about something that happened to her the day before. After teaching, she went to an exercise class and found herself totally out of sync with the other women in the locker room. Their concerns did not relate to hers yet she found herself envying them. Just when she was about to leave the locker room, she tripped and fell into the group of other women. She imagined what they must think of her, and she told the exercise instructor she could not go to class because she was too unhappy. Referring to the women’s movement, she tells the audience: “I thought we were all in this together.” Shaken and clearly disturbed, she quickly exits the stage.
Act II, scene 5
It is nearly midnight, Christmas Eve, 1987. Heidi shows up at a hospital children’s ward carrying boxes of donations. Peter cannot believe she has showed up out of the blue with such gifts. He tells her he does not want to hear about her problems. She tells him that she’s moving to Minnesota tomorrow and has come to say good-bye. He becomes angry because many of his friends are dying of AIDS, and he regards her unhappiness as trivial and a “luxury.” He tells her that he feels his life growing smaller. She decides to stay for him.
Act II, scene 6
Heidi has just moved into a new, still empty apartment. It is 1989. Scoop enters, and tells her that he just sold his magazine. He expresses anxiety towards his uncertain future. Heidi tells him that she is not always going lend a sympathetic ear to his troubles; she has her own life to lead. After discussing their past, Scoop reveals that he knows about her adopting an infant from Panama. Heidi has named the baby Judy. Scoop gives Heidi a silver spoon for the baby. Heidi brings her out. After Scoop leaves, Heidi sings “You Send Me” to her. The last image of the play is a photo of Heidi and the baby in front of a banner announcing a retrospective of Georgia O’Keefe, a significant female artist.
Denise is Lisa’s sister. She works as a production assistant on a show called Hello, New York. Susan Johnston hires her as her assistant when she becomes a Hollywood executive.
Lisa Freidlander marries Scoop Rosenbaum and works as an illustrator of children’s books. She accepts the role of housewife and mother to Scoop’s children. She is always cheery and sweet, despite the fact that her husband is cheating on her. She and Scoop have two children, Maggie and Pierre.
Heidi is the woman around whom The Heidi Chronicles is constructed. Over the course of the play, episodes of Heidi’s life are depicted, from the 1960s to the 1980s, from ages 16 to 40. As an adult, she is an art historian; it is through a series of art lectures that her story unfolds. Two of her lectures describe overlooked female artists who remained on the periphery of the art world, artists whose works are notable for their observational nature.
Like the artists she describes, Heidi is often a spectator in her own world. As the play advances chronologically, she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her role in the world. She also becomes disenchanted with the women’s movement, the men in her life, and her own quest for happiness; she laments her lack of identity. Despite attaining independence and professional distinction she finds her life empty. At the end of the play, she hopes to find fulfillment when she adopts a baby from Panama.
Huron Street Ann Arbor Women’s Consciousness-raising Rap Group
This women’s group includes Jill, a housewife with four children; Fran, a lesbian physicist friend of Susan’s; and Becky Groves, a seventeen-year-old high school student who live with an abusive boyfriend. The group is influential in Heidi’s emergence as a feminist.
Susan is Heidi’s best female friend. She changes careers and political leanings as the times dictate. She goes to law school only to quit a Supreme Court clerkship to move to a woman’s collective in Montana. She then goes to business school, ostensibly for the collective, but, upon graduation, is offered a job in Hollywood as an executive for a new production company that wants to target a young, female audience. She rationalizes that she is taking the job for the good of all women, so that someone who isn’t sensitive to women’s issues won’t take the job. Yet she turns into a stereotypical dealmaker, bent on greed and power. She turns a lunch in which Heidi wants to talk about personal matters into a business deal.
April hosts Hello, New York, the show on which Peter, Scoop, and Heidi appear to talk about their generation. She is married to an important real estate magnet, David Lambert, with whom Scoop wants to do business.
Peter is one of Heidi’s best friends, a caustic cynic. He meets her at a high school dance and is impressed by her boredom. Over the course of the play, Peter reveals to Heidi that he is homosexual. Following college, he becomes a successful pediatrician living in New York City. When Heidi complains about her unhappiness, he tells her that he is tired of his friends dying of AIDS and that her boredom and discontent are luxuries. When she announces her intentions to leave New York City, Peter talks Heidi into to staying for him.
Scoop Rosenbaum is another friend of Heidi’s and her former lover. They first meet at a political fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy. From the beginning, he is arrogant, glib, and self-assured, though not without charm. He is Heidi’s intellectual equal. He has a habit of grading or assigning points to everything, from cookies to songs to experiences.
Scoop works primarily as a journalist, starting his own newspaper after dropping out of Princeton. He briefly becomes a lawyer before starting a magazine targeted at Baby Boomers titled Boomer. Scoop marries Lisa, who he knows will stay home, have his children, and be a devoted wife—he cheats on her while she is pregnant. Though she is essentially his soul mate, he does not marry Heidi because she would compete with and challenge him.
Success and Failure
Underlying much of the tension of The Heidi Chronicles is how success differs for men and women. Though it is known from the prologue of the first act that Heidi has a successful career as an art historian, the play focuses more on her success as a feminist and autonomous person; unlike the male characters, career success for Heidi does not equal a fulfilled life.
As Heidi’s generation demanded, she became an independent woman in a male-dominated world. Yet this success seems hollow to Heidi near the end of the play. She hoped that feminism would provide solidarity with her fellow women and offer significance in society, but her reality has proven this false. Her women friends have bought into superficial happiness and material success: Susan Johnston changes identities frequently, going from an idealistic law student to a feminist to a Hollywood power broker; she ultimately becomes disenchanted with the feminist cause and insensitive to her friend’s problems. Heidi also has little luck with men, sustaining no real lasting relationships and ultimately having her life choices shaped by them. Only in her decision to adopt a child does Heidi achieve an independent success.
- The Heidi Chronicles was adapted into a television movie for Turner Television Network (TNT) in 1995. The production stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Heidi, Peter Reigert as Scoop, and Tom Hulce as Peter.
From the play’s male perspective, Scoop and Peter are successful in a more traditional sense. Scoop has a long-term marriage, two children, a promising career as a lawyer and later as a publisher. The magazine he starts is wildly prosperous. Though by the end Peter finds many of his friends dying, he is a highly regarded pediatrician in New York City who has successful relationships with men. Because society is male-dominated, the standards by which these men are judged are far less strict than those applied to women. To exemplify themselves, women in Wasserstein’s world (as well as the real world) must often work twice as hard as men.
One primary theme that Heidi is concerned with is the search for her own identity. In the first two scenes of the play, she is young, sixteen- and nineteen-years-old, but she is sure of her intellect and her belief in women’s causes. Her allegiance to feminism is illustrated in the women’s consciousness-raising group scene. Heidi commits to other women, promoting their equality in art and in life.
Yet this identity undergoes rigorous tests, such as Scoop’s wedding reception, during which he tells Heidi that he could not have married her because she would have wanted to be his equal. His statement is a harbinger for future disappointment in her life. Throughout the second act, she finds herself out of step with other women, at a baby shower, at the gym, and even at a friendly lunch gathering. Her friend Susan reflects these changes. Susan begins as a feminist lawyer but ultimately renounces her ideals. Near the end of the second act, Heidi decides
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the paintings that Wasserstein mentions in The Heidi Chronicles. Discuss the parallels between them and the events depicted in the play.
- What is the role of feminism and other women in Heidi’s life? Are her male friends ultimately more important? Is The Heidi Chronicles truly a feminist play?
- Compare and contrast The Heidi Chronicles and The Big Chill, a movie about the same generation. Do both groups of characters share similar problems and concerns?
- In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi says “Have you ever noticed that what makes you a person keeps you from being a person?” What do you think Wasserstein meant by this comment?
to go to Minnesota to reinvent herself, but Peter convinces her to stay because he needs her near. Until she chooses motherhood, Heidi’s identity is pushed and pulled by those around her.
Coming of Age
The Heidi Chronicles shows the evolution of its title character, depicting her awkward teen years through her adult life. The backdrop is the mid-1960s to the late-1980s, when the United States underwent profound political and social changes such as the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism, and the threat of the AIDS virus. As she matures, Heidi finds herself caught up in the politics of the moment, first in the Eugene McCarthy for President movement (“clean for Eugene”), then the burgeoning feminist movement. While the latter gives her an identity and purpose—Heidi protests the lack of women artists exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute—it is not everything she expected. When Heidi realizes how out of step she is with other women—a feeling personified by Susan—and unexpectedly announces it to a roomful of fellow alumnae from her high school, she has accepted her reality. Near the play’s conclusion, she decides to move to Minnesota but ends up staying in New York City and adopting a child. While the other events in her life have shaped her maturity, it is her individual decision to care for another life, the choice of motherhood, that ultimately reflects her coming of age.
Almost every relationship depicted in The Heidi Chronicles is a friendship. Friendships sustain each of the major characters. Heidi’s closest friendships are with two men, Peter and Scoop, who, for a time, also functions as her lover. While Susan is a close friend in the first act—she takes Heidi to the Eugene McCarthy party and the women’s consciousness-raising group—her defection to traditional society and values alienates Heidi. Women’s solidarity is supposed to be the point, in Heidi’s mind, and this betrayal upsets Heidi’s sense of the world.
Heidi’s friendship with Scoop is also troubled. Scoop flirts with her at the McCarthy party, while simultaneously undermining her beliefs; he reveals his belief that women exist for the pleasure of men, not as intellectual equals. When they are sexually involved, she puts aside everything to see him. Heidi and Scoop’s breaking point comes at his wedding, when he admits he could not marry her because she would compete with him. After that, they remain friends but are no longer close. In the last scene, he reflects on this fact and is jealous of the closeness that she and Peter share.
Peter and Heidi are friends from the first scene. Though they bicker—and he frequently trivializes her concerns—they are devoted to and respect each other. Heidi stays in New York City for him in the second-to-the-last scene, instead of moving to Minnesota as she had planned. While Peter and Scoop are similar characters, the large distinction is Peter’s homosexuality, which allows his friendship with Heidi to function on a level removed from the sexual tensions that exist between her and Scoop. Peter also accepts Heidi as a complete person and a relative equal, status that Scoop’s worldview prohibits him from bestowing.
The Heidi Chronicles is a comedic drama that spans the years 1965 to 1989 and employs numerous locations for its setting. The play is framed by two scenes that open each of the acts. These are set in the present in a lecture hall at New York City’s Columbia University where Heidi teaches. While these scenes frame and define the action, the main body of the play is told through a series of flashbacks that span Heidi’s adult life.
In Act I, locales include a high school dance at Miss Crane’s School in Chicago in 1965; a party for Eugene McCarthy in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1968; a church basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the women’s group meets, in 1970; outside of the Chicago Art Institute in 1974; and the anteroom to the Pierre Hotel in New York City where Scoop has married Lisa Friedlander in 1977.
Act II takes place entirely in New York City. The first scene occurs in Scoop and Lisa’s apartment in 1980. The next scene shifts to 1982 and a television studio where the show Hello, New York is taped. Susan, Denise, and Heidi have lunch in a trendy restaurant in 1984, and two years later, Heidi gives an address to a luncheon at the Plaza Hotel. Heidi visits Peter in the children’s ward at a hospital in 1987. The final scene takes place in Heidi’s new, unfurnished apartment in 1989.
By spreading the play across some twenty-five years, Wasserstein is able to illustrate the development of her protagonist. The time span and the often shifting locations lend the play an epic feel that recalls such classic works as Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the exploits of a heroic character are charted over a great period of time. While The Heidi Chronicles is not a narrative on the scale of Homer’s work, it is presented as a sort of epic for modern women. By taking Heidi through several eras and social/political movements, Wasserstein attempts to illustrate the life of a typical late-twentieth century woman.
Point of View and Narrative Structure
The Heidi Chronicles is told from the point of view of Heidi Holland, primarily in episodic flashback. In three scenes, Heidi directly addresses the audience with monologues: a prologue opens each act while in Act II, scene 4, Heidi addresses a group at a luncheon. In the rest of the play, Heidi is present in every scene, primarily reacting to the characters and events around her. Such a technique enables Wasserstein to direct the audiences’ attention to what is occurring in Heidi’s life. By showing the various struggles and triumphs from the point of view of her lead character, Wasserstein is able to show the audience what a feminist might go through in attempting to build an independent life.
Symbolism and Imagery
Wasserstein uses symbolism in several ways in The Heidi Chronicles. She frequently uses popular songs to link scenes, emphasizing their symbolic meaning. For example, the tone for the women’s group scene is set by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” a song about a woman demanding better, equal treatment from her man. Heidi admits her relationship with Scoop is not good for her, and she, in fact, deserves respect. The women’s solidarity is solidified when they sing a campfire song together. To emphasize the point, the scene closes with a reprise of “Respect.”
At the end of Act I, Heidi dances with Scoop to the romantic song “You Send Me,” which speaks of a love that elevates a person, taking them above the trivial concerns of the world. In this context the song is bittersweet. Scoop and Heidi still love each other, but they know they cannot have a lasting relationship. At the end of Act II, Heidi’s life changes again when she adopts a daughter and moves into a new apartment. She rocks her daughter, singing “You Send Me” to her. In this scene, the song represents Heidi’s love for her new baby; the song now symbolizes a much purer love, one that is based in nurture rather than romance.
More literal symbolism is found in the art Heidi describes in the lecture scenes. The women artists she discusses are ignored by much of the mainstream art world. Heidi sees their value, describing two works in particular, Lilla Cabot Perry’s “Lady in Evening Dress” and Lily Martin Spencer’s “We Both Must Fade.” Heidi sees that the women in both paintings are spectators in their own pictures, helping others ease in. Heidi’s life is similarly spent reacting to others and aiding them. This comes to a head in the television interview scene, when Heidi sits crunched between Peter and Scoop, unable to speak more than a few words. Her thoughts are never complete but merely give the men a point from which to expound on their own opinions.
The art symbolism also extends to Lisa, Scoop’s wife. She is an under-appreciated artist like the women Heidi discusses, an award-winning illustrator of children’s books. Only Peter recognizes the value of her art because he is a pediatrician and his patients like it. Scoop approves of his wife’s career because she does not compete with him—in fact, he chooses to think of it as more of a hobby than a career.
As the 1980s came to a close, conservative forces remained in control of the White House and other aspects of American society. Republican George Bush assumed the presidential office in 1989, following eight years of conservative rule under President Ronald Reagan. The largely conservative U.S. Supreme Court upheld state restrictions on access to abortions. Though this ruling did not overturn Roe v. Wade, the case which legalized abortion in America, the ruling was seen as a victory for pro-life activists. Another victory came when President Bush vetoed a bill that would allow the federally-funded Medicaid to pay for abortions for women who were victims of rape or incest.
It seemed that the pro-life movement, often regarded as the antithesis to the women’s movement, was gaining in power and prestige because of these important political victories. Still, the women’s movement, which was primarily pro-choice, did not take this assault on what they regarded as a woman’s fundamental right without a fight. They also demonstrated and supported political candidates that were pro-choice. One of the largest rallies they held was in Washington, D.C., in 1989, when approximately 600,000 women marched on the Capitol.
Despite such activity, feminism and the women’s movement was on the decline in the late-1980s. After the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed addition to the Constitution that would have barred discrimination based on sex, was defeated in 1982, feminism lost much of its former power. Many felt that what remained of the women’s movement was out of touch with the lives of most women in the United States.
Instead of having it all—something the female characters in The Heidi Chronicles discuss—an article in the Harvard Business Review claimed that women in managerial positions have two choices: career and family (also known as the mommy track) or career-primary. Some women claimed that raising children and staying at home were legitimate career choices. The number of single parents also rose throughout the 1980s. Wasserstein seems to endorse these choices when Heidi adopts a child at the end of the play. Many women still worked while raising a family, however, and day care became an important issue.
Art in America
Of the major art exhibits that opened in 1989, none were centered around female painters. This inequality is central to Heidi’s career as an art historian. The arts came under fire, in part because of controversy over an exhibit, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), of work by Robert Mappelthorpe, whose photography was thought by many conservatives to be pornographic. Legislation was proposed in Congress to prevent funding of “obscene” art by the federally-funded NEA.
Health Crises and the Rise of AIDS
The number of AIDS cases was on the rise in 1989, and only one drug, AZT (zidovudine or retrovir), was approved for treatment of the disease in the United States. There was no cure or vaccine. While knowledge about the disease increased, nearly 2.5 million people in the Western Hemisphere (approximately 1 to 1.5 million Americans) became infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. AZT was also being used, somewhat successfully, to delay development of full-blown AIDS in people with few or no symptoms of the disease. Many of Peter’s friends died of this disease, and the overwhelming grief associated with the constant lost affects him deeply in the play’s later scenes.
Critical reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed since its debut in 1988. Many feminists critics applauded the fact that a play about women and women’s issues was such a smashing success. The depiction of a modern woman living an anxiety-filled life was a concept with which many women identified. But some such critics believed this success came at a price, complaining that Heidi and the other female characters are not as well-rounded as they could be. Heidi merely reacts to what is going on around her, while the male characters tend to dominate the action. Gerald Weales wrote in Commonweal that “Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as a little more than a foil for the
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1989: There are many unknowns about the AIDS disease, its causes and cures. The number of deaths from AIDS is on the rise.
Today: The number of deaths from AIDS has stabilized. Much is known about the disease and there are a number of drugs to treat symptoms of AIDS on the market. While there is still no cure, these new treatments have proven to retard or halt the disease’s progress and thus prolong and improve victims’ lives.
- 1989: George Bush enters the White House, following the two-term reign of Ronald Reagan, insuring twelve years of Republican rule in America. The Democratic control of Congress makes for considerable gridlock in the legislative process.
Today: Democrats control the White House, in the form of two-term President Bill Clinton. The Republicans now control Congress and partisan politics still make for lethargic policymaking.
- 1989: The Women’s Movement is on the decline in the United States as many find the goals and ideals of feminism out of step with their reality.
Today: In a post-feminist society, women’s organizations regroup to address concerns of many women. The National Council of Women’s Organizations (representing 6 million women) draft potential legislation for the National Women’s Equality Act, calling for the end of sex discrimination, in 1998. The threat of losing abortion rights has also galvanized many women (and men) into political action.
- 1989: Pro-life activists win important political victories in restricting access to abortion.
Today: President Clinton refuses to sign legislation banning partial-birth abortions, a controversial procedure whose abolition is a cornerstone of the pro-life movement.
more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots.”
Many critics debated the strength of the characters in The Heidi Chronicles, with criticism focusing on the fact that they are at once complex and oversimplified. They have a self-depreciating sense of humor and are aware of their faults, yet can question others. Some critics felt that Heidi is too self-aware and unbelievable. Other critics disliked the way Heidi’s friend Susan is little more than a recurring punchline, an indecisive wanderer who drifts toward whatever trend is in vogue at the time. A feminist critic, Gayle Austin writing in Theatre Journal, stated: “Wasserstein portrays Heidi’s women friends as trivial and her men friends as serious and has Heidi blame the women’s movement for that situation.” Indeed, Wasserstein’s chiding of the women’s movement is not always appreciated, especially by feminist critics. Still, Moira Hodgson in the Nation, commented, “The most moving insight comes when Heidi, who feels betrayed by the women’s movement, says, ‘I was a true believer who didn’t understand it was just a phase.’”
Wasserstein often plays such differences for their humor, which many regard as her strong point. But some critics argued that her humor in The Heidi Chronicles can be ill-timed and is not up to the standards of her previous work. They believed that her humor weakens the potency of the timely topics she addresses. While Robert Brustein, writing in the New Republic, said, “Wasserstein has a wry, self-deprecating humor that helps her avoid self-righteousness without losing her sting,” later in his review he stated “Their [the characters’] weakness for wisecracks makes them seem shallower than intended and undercuts the seriousness of the work.”
Another facet of the play that was received with mixed praise are the scenes in which Heidi directly addresses the audience, lecturing about lost women artists. Several reviewers pointed out that Heidi’s unprofessional behavior, especially her titters and
jokes, perform a disservice to the message. They argued that Wasserstein makes fun of such lectures when their point is highly relevant to her play.
The construction of the play itself also came under critical fire. Some critics believed that the episodic nature of the plot weakens the impact of The Heidi Chronicles. Some also argued that the ending seems contrived and does not fit with the tone of the rest of the play. Feminist critics, especially, saw Wasserstein’s conclusion as a cop-out rather than true closure because Heidi’s adoption of a baby girl seems to replace all her other relationships, especially with women. Still, Cathleen McGuigan in Newseek wrote: “Wasserstein sometimes can’t balance savagery and heart, but her satire is never empty; she has a strong point to make about lost values.”
In this essay, Petrusso discusses the weakness of the female characters and the dominant role of the male characters in Wasserstein’s play; this unbalanced power structure is reflective of traditional views of male/female roles in society.
Despite its reputation as a feminist play, the male characters and their values dominate The Heidi Chronicles. In a review of the original Broadway production, Cathleen McGuigan said in Newsweek:“The men in Heidi’s life are more interesting [than her female friends].” Another critic, Gayle Austin from the Theatre Journal called Heidi passive and claimed the play “gives them [men] all the best lines.” Many of Heidi’s choices are made for and defined by men. Indeed, her role in many scenes is limited to a reactive one; she responds to the sentiments of her male counterparts. Save Heidi, the women in the play are reduced to stereotypes: aggressive businesswomen, single-minded feminists, doting wife and mother. They are often regarded as the weakest part of the play.
The problem with the female characters is embodied in Susan, Heidi’s best female friend. Susan has no real depth, none of the heart and self-awareness that Scoop and Peter frequently display. Wasserstein emphasizes Susan’s shallowness by having her change careers and attitudes with the trends of the times. She goes from being a law
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Eastern Standard is a play by Richard Greenberg written in 1989. The play concerns several professionals living in the 1980s and finding their Yuppie lives meaningless. One character, a writer, suffers from AIDS.
- Isn’t It Romantic, written by Wasserstein in 1984. Like The Heidi Chronicles, it employs an episodic structure and music to set the tone of the play. The plot centers around two women and the choices they make for personal fulfillment.
- In the Company of Woman: Voices from the Women’s Movement (1998), edited by Bonnie Watkins and Nina Rothchild, is a collection of essays. They tell the stories of eighty-three women and their experiences in the women’s movement from the 1960s to the present.
- The AIDS Crisis: A Documentary (1998), edited by Douglas Feldman and Julia Wang Miller, is a comprehensive study charting the history of the disease.
- The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, published by The Guerilla Girls (a group of women artists). This book is a feminist history of art and includes many women artists.
student to a feminist collective member to a business school grad working as a power-hungry Hollywood executive. In her last appearance on stage, Susan even states: “By now I’ve been so many people, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t care.”
Susan also shows disregard for the well-being of her fellow woman in two key scenes. In Act One, scene one, the teenaged Heidi and Susan attend a high school dance. Susan abandons Heidi to dance with a boy who can twist and smoke at the same time (a superficial attraction that reveals much about Susan’s attractions later in life). This occurs after Heidi has refused to dance with a boy because she didn’t want Susan to feel left out. In Act Two, scene three, when Heidi invites Susan to lunch to talk about personal matters, Susan, in her Hollywood dealmaker persona, turns the friendly get-together into a business meeting and tries to convince Heidi to help her with the development of a television series. She pitches it as a project that will benefit Heidi, but it is clear that Susan cares little for her friend’s well-being; her intentions are only for her own success.
In Heidi’s climactic monologue, Act Two, scene four, Heidi sighs, “I thought the point was that we were all in this together,” the “we” meaning women. This is clearly not the case with Susan and Heidi’s relationship. Even Heidi’s own support of other women is, at times, questionable. When Heidi and her colleague Debbie stage a protest outside of the Chicago Art Institute lamenting the lack of women artists, Heidi abandons Debbie to be with Peter. Debbie says, “God, I despise manipulative men.” Peter can’t resist responding, “Me, too.” He should know. Both Peter and Scoop undermine Heidi’s relationships with women—and her feminist allegiances—from the first scene of The Heidi Chronicles.
As the primary male characters in Wassersteins’s play, Peter Patrone and Scoop Rosenbaum are portrayed as opposite sides of the same coin. Peter is a gay pediatrician with a ready wit. He practices a traditional, hallowed profession, which gives him a certain status in society. Scoop also has a pithy sense of humor and makes commonly accepted choices. He is a lawyer and a journalist. He marries well, expecting his wife to have a career that is not as important as his so that she can rear their children (Lisa’s career as an illustrator of children’s books is portrayed as more of a hobby than an occupation; she is primarily Scoop’s wife and the mother of his children). These male characters are shown to have lives beyond their careers, they are not ruled by
trends. In contrast, Susan is nowhere near as well-rounded as either man. But there are similarities in the way these three characters respond to Heidi’s needs. While both Scoop and Peter can be supportive, they, like Susan, show little regard for Heidi and her choices.
Peter regularly insults Heidi’s female friends. Heidi meets Peter at the same high school dance that she attended with Susan. After Susan leaves her, Heidi pulls out a book and begins to read. Peter approaches Heidi, complimenting her by saying: “You look so bored you must be very bright.” Peter proceeds to cut down Susan, sarcastically calling her an “unfortunate wench.” He then teaches Heidi a dance. Heidi learns something from him, not another woman. A few scenes later, during the protest, Peter also insults Debbie’s name and her feminist attitude. Such comments, while presented as humor, undermine Heidi’s relationships with women, they erode her respect for feminist ideals. Peter can be an equal opportunity prig, however. He also insults Scoop and his overbearing personality.
Peter also makes Heidi feel guilty in a number of scenes. In the protest scene, Peter berates her for not calling him while she was in Chicago. He happens across her because he is meeting someone. But when she tries to express what she is feeling, Peter turns the tables and says that she made him feel guilty about his homosexuality. In the second to the last scene of the play, Heidi visits Peter at his hospital ward late at night on Christmas. She has been, unsuccessfully, trying to reach Peter all week. She intends to say goodbye to him and move to Minnesota the next day. But Peter dismisses her problems and the unhappiness that has prompted her decision to relocate, calling her “insane.” When the discussion is about Peter—especially the overwhelming emotional pain he feels as many of his friends die of AIDS—Heidi is supportive. Having turned the focus from Heidi to himself, Peter convinces her she is a bad friend for leaving him in his hour of need. Heidi decides to stay in New York for Peter, saying “I could become someone else next year.” For the most part, however, her feelings are of little interest to Peter.
While he is in many ways her soul mate, Scoop is even more manipulative of Heidi and repeatedly illustrates his insensitivity to her needs—and those of all women. While Peter does show his support for Heidi at key moments (at Scoop’s wedding reception, for example), Scoop is too self-absorbed to notice when he is hurting her. Scoop tells Heidi at one point: “Why should you like me? I’m arrogant and difficult. But I’m very smart. So you’ll put up with me.” And she does. Like Peter, Scoop insults Susan. At the time of the wedding reception, Susan is living in a women’s collective in Montana after abandoning a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship. Of this choice, Scoop says: “She could have been brilliant,” implying that an allegiance to the women’s collective somehow diminishes Susan’s intelligence. Heidi defends her friend, who is standing right there, but Scoop gets away with it. When Susan walks away, he further ridicules her beliefs, calling her “a fanatic” and “crazy.”
In comparison to Scoop’s treatment of Heidi, however, Susan gets off relatively easy; Scoop continually undermines Heidi’s sense of herself. At their initial meeting, a dance for college students working for the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, Scoop questions everything Heidi does or says in a manner that makes him seem intelligent and reduces her to a stereotypical woman with little social merit. Heidi tries to be polite, asking him questions about himself. He responds with “Did they teach you at Vassar to ask so many inane questions in order to keep the conversation going?” He scorns her career choice of art historian as “suburban.”
Scoop’s final affront, the one that rings throughout the play, is a condemnation of Heidi’s feminist ideals. He dismissively tells her: “You’ll be one of those true believers who didn’t understand it was all just a phase.” In Wasserstein’s world, a female character like Susan is never this insightful about herself or another woman. At the end of the scene, Scoop admits he is trying to “go to bed” with Heidi. Heidi allows him to passionately kiss her before he leaves, and they eventually become romantically involved.
Scoop eventually marries Lisa because she fits his ideals for wife and mother. Still, he manipulates Heidi’s emotions at his own wedding reception, telling her he couldn’t marry her because of her ambition and her need to be an equal partner in a marriage. While Scoop talks about his own unhappiness to Heidi, he chooses not to be his wife’s partner for her first dance at their wedding. Scoop wreaks havoc on these two women’s lives, then has the impudence to ask Heidi “Why did you let me do this?,” implying that Heidi somehow is responsible for his decision.
Wasserstein allows men to have a measure of control over Heidi’s life and emotions. Scoop goes on to be right about the women of Heidi’s generation—especially Heidi, telling her, “you ‘quality time’ girls are going to be one generation of disappointed women. Interesting, exemplary, even sexy, but basically unhappy.” Scoop does attempt a halfhearted apology by the end of the wedding scene, however.
Heidi stands up to Scoop in the last scene, after she has adopted her baby. Scoop continues to ridicule her, calling her “prissy” but then says she’s important to him. He is in turmoil because he has sold his magazine and is uncertain about his future; he looks to Heidi for comfort and assurance. Heidi tells him, “Don’t look at me with those doe eyes and tell me how spoiled you are. Next thing I know, you’ll tell me how you never meant to hurt me.” This is a small victory and an encouraging show of independence. It is noteworthy that Heidi’s new resolve occurs following her adoption of a child, a life-changing choice.
The depth of male dominance in The Heidi Chronicles is exemplified by the two scenes in which no men appear. In the women’s consciousness raising group in Ann Arbor, Heidi admits she will drop everything just to be with her then-boyfriend, Scoop. She does not say that he drops everything to see her, but she admits he is really only attentive when she tries to leave him. Heidi calls him “a creep,” qualifying her insult by adding: “But he’s a charismatic creep.” Though the women bond over her breakthrough, it only emphasizes the relative importance of the men in The Heidi Chronicles. The same thing happens during Lisa’s baby shower scene. Much of the conversation revolves around Scoop, Peter, and other men. Lisa believes her husband is at a conference in New Jersey. But Heidi has seen him in Central Park with another, younger woman who works at his magazine.
Heidi makes only two significant choices for herself in the course of The Heidi Chronicles: her career choice and adopting the baby. Nearly every other action is influenced by or dictated to her by the other characters. And, almost always, these other characters are Scoop and Peter. To say that The Heidi Chronicles is a feminist play is incorrect. While Heidi has a career, Heidi becomes exactly what traditional (male-dominated) society defines as the ultimate female role: a mother.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
In this mixed review of The Heidi Chronicles, Weales praises the performances but complains that the play “has no dramatic center” in its title character. He criticizes Wasserstein forproviding a protagonist who is little more than a foil for the supporting characters.
Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepher ded by the Seattle Rep’s Daniel Sullivan, it moved to a well-received off-Broadway debut and then to Broadway; it has now been blessed by the Pulitzer Prize committee. It is a typical American-theater success story of the 1980s, but I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for its triumphant journey.
The Heidi of the title is an art historian, a presumably intelligent and sensitive woman who moves from 1965 to 1989, picking her way through the ideational thickets of those years, only to find that the goal of her generation, to become an independent woman in a male world, brings emptiness with it. The audience follows Heidi’s progress in brief scenes that teeter on the edge of broad satire and sometimes, as in the consciousness-raising meeting, fall over completely. Heidi remains pretty much the same throughout the fifteen years—concerned, but a little cold, a little distant, her involvement tinged with self-irony. On her stroll down memory lane, she is accompanied by the two men closest to her—a homosexual doctor who remains her best friend (and incidentally provides an excuse to bring in AIDS as an item in Wasserstein’s cultural catalogue) and a fast-talking charmer, sometimes her lover, an intellectual conman who plays the main chance and persists in confusing the fashionable with the significant. Heidi’s oldest woman friend, the only other important character in the play, is a Wasserstein joke, a chameleon who becomes whatever the moment requires: a ditsy sexpot, a jargonesque feminist, a member of an ecological commune, a power-lunch paragon in the entertainment business.
The chief weakness of the play is that it has no dramatic center. Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as little more than a foil for the more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots. Joan Allen is one of the finest reactors among American performers (consider last year’s Tony-winning performance in Burn This), but however fascinating it is to watch Allen work, Heidi remains flaccid. We are supposed to understand the distress within the character, which surfaces primarily in runs of nervousness and in one unlikely overt moment in which she turns a speech at an alumnae gathering into a high whine of generational regret. At the end of the play, she has adopted a child and the suggestion is that she has found a certain solidity as a single mother, but nothing in the play or the character makes motherhood look like anything but an occasion for Heidi’s next disappointment. The ending is as arbitrary as that of Wasserstein’s earlier hit, Isn‘t It Romantic, in which the heroine decides for no very clear reason not to marry the man she loves; perhaps she had been to see My Brilliant Career at her local moviehouse.
If Heidi as activist and Heidi as unrealized lover are a bit difficult to accept in her Chronicles, Heidi as art historian is impossible. She is supposes to be an expert on female artists, correcting the sexual imbalance in the history of art, and we see her in lectures at the beginning of each act. Her manner is oddly frothy, her disclosure decorated with what I think of as wee academic jokies. The wee academic jokie, of which there are far too many on campuses, is not funny if it sounds as though it were written into the lecture, if it is taken out of the classroom context, if it makes the speaker sound as though she were apologizing for her subject matter. So it is with all of Heidi’s jokies. Her lectures diminish the whole enterprise of rethinking the female presence in art. In part, that is a product of the unanchored Heidi described in the paragraph above. In part, it grows out of the play’s tendency to trivialize the genuine concerns of women in particular, radicals in general, by emphasizing the fashionable patina on social change. As a comic writer, Wasserstein can see what is ludicrous in the convoluted social history of the last fifteen years. On the serious side, The Heidi Chronicles is one of those gee-it-didn’t-turn-out-the-way-we-expected plays, another offspring of The Big Chill.
Source: Gerald Weales, “Prize Problems” in Commonweal, Vol. CXVI, no. 9, May 5, 1989, pp. 279–80.
In this review of The Heidi Chronicles ’s Broadway debut, Simon finds that the play is more effective than it had been in its previous, Off-Broadway setting. While he still has complaints about certain aspects of the plot—notably the title character’s unconvincing career—he finds the production to have considerable merit.
Having been less enthusiastic than other critics about Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles Off Broadway, I hasten to point out that, reversing the pattern, it looks and plays better on. Thomas Lynch has skillfully adapted his tongue-in-cheek scenery, Pat Collins has made her good lighting even more evocative, and the bigger space allows more room for the play’s grand ambition to portray two decades of change in our society. A school dance looks more like a school dance, a pediatrics ward is more up to the old pediatrics, etc. And it’s nice to bask in oversized slide projections in the hall where Heidi Holland—Wendy Wasserstein transmuted into a feminist art historian—lectures on women in art, even if the splendid Joan Allen mispronounces Sofonisba Anguissola as no art historian should.
The play chronicles Heidi’s progress from a frightened but fast-quipping wallflower at a 1965 Chicago high-school dance, through becoming a timid onlooker at a New Hampshire Eugene McCarthy rally (1968), to being a Yale grad student in fine arts visiting a friend in Ann Arbor and shyly observing her consciousness-raising group in session (1970), then to a women-in-art protest march on the Chicago Art Institute (1974), and so on through thirteen scenes—all the way to 1989, when Heidi moves into a commodious New York apartment and adopts a baby girl. Cautiously, she does not name her Sofonisba, Artemisia, or even Angelica, after one of her beloved women artists.
Here the first problem surfaces: the inconsistencies in Heidi’s character. In contrast to her feminist and postfeminist friends, Heidi remains an almost Candide-like innocent, despite one of the sharpest and fastest tongues this side of the Pecos. When she lectures, however, her humor changes from vertiginous epigrams to patronizing down-home jokiness. Further, she seems to have an ample and diversified offstage sex life with one editor or another, yet is involved on stage with only a couple of unlikely men throughout.
There is Scoop Rosenbaum, a dazzling opportunist who goes from liberal journalism to putting out Boomer, the slickest of slickly upward-mobile magazines, and thence (as I understand it) into politics. Heidi has an off-and-on affair with him, but he wenches around and finally marries an intellectual 6 (instead of her 10)—a wealthy young woman who becomes a leading book illustrator, which is not bad for a 6. And there is Peter Patrone, as
“HEIDI IS SO MUTED IN HER BEHAVIOR THAT SHE SERVES AS LITTLE MORE THAN A FOIL FOR THE MORE ANIMATED CHARACTERS—A KIND OF WALL ON WHICH WASSERSTEIN CAN HANG HER SNAPSHOTS”
cynically scintillating at repartee as Scoop; he, however, becomes an earnest and distinguished young pediatrician. We follow him, a homosexual, through a number of liaisons with men; as far as I can tell, he never sleeps with Heidi. But she is, for obscure reasons, enormously important to him as, in the end, we see him bitterly grappling with AIDS among both his special friends and his child patients.
Now, there are in life beautiful women who have weird problems with men, and witty women who are nevertheless shy; but to make them credible on stage takes a heap more than we are accorded here. When Miss W. had herself portrayed on stage by the portly, ethnic Alma Cuervo, she automatically spoke a good part of the truth; belief boggles at the elegant, glamorous Joan Allen in that role. Equally hard to take are the smart-aleck rapid-fire epigrams from almost everyone; this fits into the unrealistic, stylized milieus of Wilde, Coward, and Orton, but clashes with W.W.’s naturalistic ambience. Finally, the play is a mite too much of a survey course in women’s studies; or, to put it bluntly, a check, or even laundry, list. All the same, it is clever and funny and sometimes even wise, and there is, under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, good acting from all, and much more than that from the subtly complex Miss Allen, the trenchantly ebullient Peter Friedman and Boyd Gaines, and the especially cherishable Joanne Camp.
Source: John Simon, review of The Heidi Chronicles in New York, Vol. 22, no. 13, March 27, 1989, pp. 66–67.
Characterizing The Heidi Chronicles as Wasserstein’s “best work to date,” Kramer offers a
positive review of the play’s Off-Broadway debut. Praising the playwright for avoiding moralizing in her work, the critic assesses that “Wasserstein’s portrait of womanhood always remains complex.”
At the emotional turning point of “The Heidi Chronicles,” Wendy Wasserstein’s manless heroine Heidi Holland (Joan Allen), an essayist and art-history professor, is supposed to deliver a speech at the Plaza Hotel. The occasion for the speech is an alumnae luncheon, the topic “Women, Where Are We Going?” We’ve seen Heidi speak in public before—in the classroom sequences that, prologuelike, begin each act—and we’ve grown familiar with the mock girls’-school bonhomie she exhibits toward the women painters who constitute her particular area of expertise. Ordinarily, the public Dr. Holland is a model of wry composure. On this occasion, however, instead of giving a speech (she hasn’t prepared one) Wasserstein’s heroine gets up and extemporizes. She begins by sketching a fictional portrait of herself as an “exemplary” New Woman, whose busy and full life—complete with ideal husband and children—would excuse her showing up speechless at a luncheon where she herself was the featured event. Then, in an apparent non sequitur, she tells a story about going to the health club and being too much affected by the other women in the locker room to go through with the exercise class she had planned to attend. Wasserstein never makes the connection between the two halves of the speech; she leaves it to us to infer that Dr. Holland was “too sad” to produce a speech for the Miss Crain’s School luncheon, just as she had been “too sad to exercise” that day. Moreover, the cause of Heidi’s depression—her manlessness—is never alluded to. Instead, Wasserstein duplicates that feeling in us by having Heidi describe the women in the locker room: two girls discussing “the reading program at Marymount nursery school”; a woman her mother’s age complaining about her daughter-in-law; another older woman “extolling the virtues of brown rice and women’s fiction.” She imagines the young mothers thinking that women like her “chose the wrong road”: “‘A pity they made such a mistake, that empty generation.’ Well, I really don’t want to be feeling this way about all of them. . . . 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.”
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Source: Mimi Kramer, “Portrait of a Lady” in the New Yorker, December 26, 1988, pp. 81–82.
Austin, Gayle. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in Theatre Journal, March 1990, pp. 107-08.
Brustein, Robert. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in the New Republic, April 17, 1989, pp. 32-35.
Hodgson, Moira. Review of The Heidi Chronicles in the Nation, May 1, 1989, pp. 605-06.
McGuigan, Catherine. “The Uncommon Wasserstein Goes to Broadway” in Newsweek, March 29, 1989, pp. 76-77.
Wasserstein, Wendy. The Heidi Chronicles in The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990, pp. 155-249.
Ciociola, Gail. Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices, and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998.
This book discusses several of Wasserstein’s plays in depth, including The Heidi Chronicles. Ciociola often relies on a feminist perspective.
Franklin, Nancy. “The Time of Her Life” in the New Yorker, April 14, 1997, pp. 63-71.
This article discusses Wasserstein’s life and background, as well as the subjects that inform her plays.
Keyssar, Helene. “Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends” in Modern Drama, March 1991, p. 88.
This academic article discusses The Heidi Chronicles in terms of the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, a philosopher-critic.
Shapio, Walter. “Chronicler of Frayed Feminism” in Time, March 27, 1989, pp. 90-93.
This article discusses Wasserstein’s background, family, and career.
“Wendy Wasserstein: The Art of Theater XIII” in Paris Review, Spring, 1997, pp. 164-88.
The article provides a brief overview of Wasserstein’s life and an in-depth interview with the playwright. She discusses her career, inspirations, and plays.