The Sisters Rosensweig
The Sisters RosensweigINTRODUCTION
The Sisters Rosensweig, Wendy Wasserstein's play about the transformative power of love, of sisterhood, and of life, was directed by Daniel Sullivan at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York City, opening in October 1992. Currently available in print, it was published in 1992 by the Dramatists Play Service in New York. The play is held together by the richly woven dialogue of three Jewish-American sisters pushing against the boundaries of their own lives in order to define themselves. Consequently, they do come to a point of resolution in their struggles, sometimes raising their voices in protest to be heard, at other times speaking softly in an attempt to hear themselves. Despite the absence of any action, the sisters manage to transform both themselves and their lives in the course of one evening. Another significant feature of the work is its ability to capture and make real several social and political issues that gave shape to the late part of the 1980s—the fall of the Soviet Union, Reaganomics, and the plight of the homeless, to name a few. In fact, the events discussed in the work are merely a reflection of what Wasserstein experienced in her own travels, first in eastern Europe, before the fall of the Soviet Union, and in Poland, in a town where she could see no evidence of her Jewish ancestry. It was her goal not only to raise certain political and social questions but also to illuminate her Jewish heritage, using her work as her vehicle. The play was admired by critics for its humor and insight, and it managed to earn the playwright both an Outer Critics Circle Award and an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination for best play in 1993.
Wendy Wasserstein is recognized not only for the celebration of women in her feminist plays but also for the celebration of her Jewish heritage. She was born on October 8, 1950, in Brooklyn, New York. Wasserstein initially attended the Calhoun School to study dance with Judy Taylor and spent considerable time at Broadway matinees. Her playwriting began in the years she attended Mt. Holyoke College, where she earned a bachelor of arts in history in 1971. During this time, a friend managed to convince Wasserstein to take a playwriting course at Smith College. She was so taken with the genre that, upon graduation from Holyoke, she studied creative writing at City College of the City University of New York, where she received her master of arts.
In an interview with Esther Cohen in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, she shares her recollections on when she really began writing. Wasserstein remembers writing something called the Mother-Daughter Fashion Show in high school, to get out of gym: "I know very little about fashion, but they used to have this Mother-Daughter Fashion Show … and you got to leave school to go." According to Wasserstein, "if you wrote it you didn't have to go to gym class for like two or three weeks. It was fantastic. So I started writing those."
Wasserstein developed an intense love for playwriting, her love for the genre eventually taking her to Yale. She developed a passion for Russian literature and immersed herself in it. In consequence, a certain Russian style is evident in her writing, particularly reflecting the works of Anton Chekov, whose influence appears in many of her works. The rumblings of Chekov's Three Sisters in the background, for example, subtly influence The Sisters Rosensweig.
The situational comedies she writes maintain a certain reserve, in keeping with her former studies. The action of her plays is limited, yet the characters go through tremendous life changes. In Tender Offer, for example, a family reaches a new level of mutual understanding through communication. Wasserstein's greatest achievement was The Heidi Chronicles, a work that earned her a Pulitzer in 1989. It is a feminist documentary, of sorts, tracing the life of one woman for over twenty-five years as she moves through the 1960s to the 1990s in her search for identity. Further awards include the Tony Award for best play, League of American Theaters and Producers, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, all in 1989 for The Heidi Chronicles; and an Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony Award nomination for best play, 1993, for The Sisters Rosensweig.
Act 1 marks the beginning of the Rosensweig sisters' family reunion in London. "Blame it on Jesse, Jesse the Sikh," explains Pfeni, the forty-something, eccentric world traveler, of her tardiness. Tess shares with Pfeni that she is listening to her mother's college singing group as part of a school summer project. The project requires Tess to write a biography on her mother's "early years." Says Tess of the project, "It's pretentious. I can't wait to leave London and go back home to school."
When Pfeni asks her niece why she has not asked her mother if she can return to the United States, Tess replies that her mother is "the only American who is convinced that Harvard and Yale are second-rate institutions," stating that "she [Sara] won't even discuss it." Tess confides that Sara worries she will become like Pfeni, an emotionally defensive woman, who compulsively travels to avoid her fear of commitment.
"I just don't know what you have in common with someone who dreams of selling radio parts," declares Sara to Tess. Tess argues that "Tom comes from a perfectly balanced and normal family," something her mother has "never managed to maintain," and that Tom is desirable company compared to Sara's dinner guest, "the socially acceptable, racist, sexist, and more than likely anti-Semitic Nicholas Pym." Dismayed by the sense of determination Tess demonstrates to create a life in opposition to hers, Sara concedes by quietly extending an invitation to her daughter's boyfriend. Pfeni points out that Tess is no different from either Sara or herself, in that, as justified as Sara was in her act of rebellion, "so maybe is Tessie."
Both Merv and Geoffrey plan to meet up with a "homeless delegation" to discuss the possibility of putting on a homeless benefit at the National as "a sort of story theatre." When Geoffrey leaves Merv behind to meet up with the group at the Savoy Hotel, Pfeni also exits to find Tom and Tessie, and Merv settles into a conversation with Sara. They exchange personal histories, Merv pointing out to Sara that she's "the first Jewish woman I've met to work in a Hong Kong bank." Sara corrects Merv's assertion, stating that she is "the first woman to run a Hong Kong bank, Mr. Kant." Merv acknowledges her intention to avoid any reference to ethnicity by pointing out that his name "used to be Kantlowitz" and asks her if she would prefer him to leave.
Despite initial attempts to hide her discomfort, Sara challenges Merv's increasing interest in her, particularly when he announces that Geoffrey has invited him to Sara's birthday/dinner party. When she asks Merv just how intimate he is with Geoffrey, Merv coolly responds that he met Geoffrey when he was a show biz and novelty furrier and has maintained a friendship with him since. In an attempt to exclude Merv and "scare [him] away," Sara takes yet another tack, mentioning the intimacy of the occasion and the less-than-kosher dish she is serving. Merv continues to talk, even after Sara has moved into the kitchen, commenting on her book collection and her musical tastes, impervious to her subtle manipulations.
"It's just like my mother to have a dinner party on the night the Soviet Union is falling apart," remarks Tess. This statement becomes a pivotal point of the dinner conversation, as Tess attempts to goad Nicholas Pym, Sara's dinner guest, into a discussion of the Lithuanian resistance. Whereas Nick is apt to dismiss the convictions of both Tess and Tom, Merv is quick to point out that the Lithuanian city was home to sixty-five thousand Jews. When Merv asserts that anti-Semitism has formed the core component for European nationalism, Nick responds in protest, but Sara surprisingly has no opinion. "I thought Tessie was Jewish," interjects Tom. Sara again sidesteps the issue by replying, "She is. But Mr. Kant is really talking about families in Russia and Eastern Europe who are unable to practice their religion."
Merv continues to press the topic of ethnicity on Sara after the guests have departed that evening. A discussion of cooking provides the perfect segue for Merv, who asks her if her mother is Jewish. Sara responds coolly, "for a supposedly intelligent man
you have a persistently narrow perspective." Merv has unwittingly pressed several buttons as a result of his inquiries. The interest he shows in Sara triggers her, and she begins to cry suddenly after asking him to "just go home." Vulnerable once more, Sara once again recoils from Merv's advances by telling him she is not his type. "You weren't a nice Jewish girl," says Merv, and again Sara notes that Merv "always comes back to that," that is, her heritage.
It's 6:12 a.m., and Pfeni, who has just emerged from her apartment, takes a moment to dance playfully with Geoffrey. Geoffrey then informs her that he is taking his former male lover to the country. This sparks jealousy in Pfeni. Geoffrey exclaims, "What is it you want angel, that you're not getting? Do you want to get married?" Pfeni sidesteps ideas of children and matrimony by telling Geoffrey to get dressed. Geoffrey then takes his lover to task on a book project she has failed to complete. He calls the friends he's lost "too many lights that never had their chance to glow and burn out overnight." Taking a different tack, he concludes that children, country homes, and domestic bliss are better left to others. Geoffrey informs her that, as artists, "Pfeni, you and I can't idle time."
Both he and Pfeni are intercepted by Gorgeous just before Geoffrey excuses himself to dress for his breakfast meeting with Gorgeous's group of ladies. He is subjected to a grilling from Gorgeous, who is interested in his intentions with Pfeni, before making his exit. Pfeni criticizes her sister for the obvious intrusion into her personal life. Gorgeous hints at possible infidelities in her sister's relationship. She inquires if Pfeni's lover is still interested in men, before making some observations of her own. She tells her sister that "eccentric women in their forties" aren't interesting to men and that, in "wandering around the world at forty," Pfeni is wandering herself "right out of the marketplace." Of Geoffrey, she remarks, "I know you can't judge a book by its cover, sweetsie, you're at the wrong library altogether."
Sara cannot escape a prying Gorgeous. As the family surfaces for breakfast, she is the only member willing to mention Sara's amorous night with Merv. Sara again dances around any questions until Tess speaks up, saying, "Mother you slept with that furrier last night. Everyone here knows that." Gorgeous seizes the opportunity to sway Sara into settling down with a nice man. Sara then attacks Gorgeous, claiming she is in no need of mothering. Further, Sara goes as far as to say the mind of her sister is cluttered with nonsense; Gorgeous responds and, clearly hurt and defensive, decides to exit. Tess indicates to Tom that it is also time for them to leave: "Let's go, Tom. Just because it's not important to her [Sara] to have any passion in her life doesn't mean we can't."
Sara turns to Pfeni to remark that "maybe Gorgeous is the smartest one of us all." She pleads with her sister to speak with Tessie. She further shares that it frightens her how much Tess is like Pfeni. "How can I tell Tessie not to go to Vilnius," replies Pfeni. "In some crazy way I wished I could be there." Sara expresses how sad she is to see Pfeni avoid her true calling as a journalist. Pfeni takes her sister's hand and tells Sara she relies on her input the most, expressing her deep gratitude for her sister's insights. "Pfeni, don't and I won't," answers Sara, pulling away from a moment of intimacy between siblings.
She pulls away from Merv as well. "I've never met anyone like you, Sara. You're warm and cold all at the same time," says Merv, perplexed by her reaction after their night together. He pours his heart out to Sara, telling her she is a beautiful, remarkable woman. Merv tells her he wishes to know her better and would like to spend more time with her in the company of his own children. A war with words ensues between the two, Sara sidestepping Merv's intimations that they enter into a relationship. Defeated, Merv concedes to Sara's argument and leaves.
Later in the day, Pfeni's attempts at work are interrupted by Geoffrey's return. He appears to Pfeni to be highly agitated in their conversation, and she questions his "manic" mood. Despite claiming to love and care for Pfeni deeply, he admits to missing men. Geoffrey then attempts to smooth over the sudden break with Pfeni. He defends his actions based on his instinctive personality, stating simply, "Today this is who I am. I have another choice. I miss men," to which Pfeni tartly replies, "it's alright Geoffrey. I do too."
Geoffrey has just left with his lover when a rain-soaked Gorgeous arrives. When Sara stops Gorgeous to ask her what has happened to her shoe, Gorgeous explodes in anger. "Thanks to both of you," Gorgeous says to her sisters, "this has not been an especially enjoyable trip for me. I've spent two days schlepping around London with the sisterhood and two nights having my own sisters tell me everything I do is wrong." Sara finally hits a nerve with Gorgeous by suggesting she call her husband to buy a replacement pair of shoes. Consequently, both Sara and Pfeni are shocked to find out that their Harvard-educated brother-in-law has not worked as an attorney in two years.
As their emotional walls begin to come down, tensions dissolve amongst the sisters. Gorgeous learns that Geoffrey has left Pfeni for his former male lover and that Sara was "big and mean and nasty" enough to chase Merv away and any chances for a relationship. "Aren't you supposed to be on the road to Vilnius?" asks Pfeni of her niece early Sunday morning. Tess says that after a night of handholding and singing Lithuanian folk songs she realized the resistance movement had no personal meaning for her and asks, "Aunt Pfeni, are we people who will always be watching and never belong?"
Pfeni says that waking up at forty in her big sister's house cleared her own head; she now knows she must return to Tajikistan to continue her work. Moments later, when the doorbell rings, both Gorgeous and Pfeni are delighted to discover Merv, responding to a call from Sara instructing him to pick up his shirt. He presents Gorgeous with a box, left on the doorstep by one of her "ladies." Gorgeous exclaims, "It's the real thing! A genuine Chanel suit! And a purse! And earrings! And even shoes! They got me the shoes!"
Pfeni also makes her departure, and Tess excuses herself with a wink to Sara, telling Merv she will get his shirt. Sara confides to Merv that she called him because she "can't seem to come up with a good answer for what's wrong with [him]." Merv points out the difficulty both he and Sara have had consummating a relationship and then remarks, "but difficult can be engaging. Even surprising." Accepting the Shiva from Sara, Merv leaves, but not before reminding Sara that she has his shirt, evidence of his future return.
Tess shares with Sara that she has decided, independent of Sara's wishes, to tell Tom to go to Vilnius without her. She also tells Sara that she must find a life independent of Sara's life, saying, "I don't even know what mine is." Sara tells Tess how much her daughter resembles her own mother, Rita, in spirit, assuring Tess, "you are smart enough, and brave enough, and certainly beautiful enough to find your place in the world." The scene then closes as Tess interviews her mother for her paper.
Geoffrey Duncan is an attractive forty-year-old man, an "internationally renowned director and bisexual," and the love interest of Pfeni. He is also a business associate and friend of Merv, with whom he is organizing and recruiting the homeless to perform in a story-theater benefit. True to his theatrical roots, Geoffrey often bursts out in song and is observed dancing in his turquoise underwear in Sara's kitchen at six in the morning. A performer as well as a clown, at Sara's birthday celebration he kneels in front of her, announcing that he has been "dispatched twelve days on horseback" by her sisters to impart their birthday wishes for her.
Geoffrey met Pfeni at a ballet performance shortly after his male companion/lover leaves him for a chorus boy from Cats. In fact, Geoffrey gave Pfeni a stage name, stating, "if not for me, you'd still be plain and simple Penny Rosensweig." His affections for Pfeni, and his intentions for the relationship, zigzag as much as their on-again/off-again romance. Geoffrey swears he's faithful to Pfeni; however, in one moment, he's assuring Pfeni they'll be married soon and in another, he shuns the idea of domesticity for both Pfeni and himself for the sake of the arts.
Geoffrey is not at all reticent concerning his sexual orientation, admitting to Pfeni at one point that he is a "closet heterosexual." On the pervasiveness of homosexuality, he exclaims, "if those tights could talk! Why do you think that band of merry men was quite so merry!" In the end, it is Geoffrey's preference for men that leads to a break with Pfeni and, in turn, becomes a catalyst for Pfeni to find herself as a journalist.
Sara Goode, the eldest of the three Rosensweig sisters and the mother to Tess, is an expatriate from the East Coast living in London who has left her Jewish-American past behind her. She is a woman of unusual character and intelligence. She not only is the first woman to be put in charge of the Hong Kong/Shanghai Bank, Europe, but has also made the cover of Fortune magazine twice. Of the Rosensweig trio, she is clearly in a position of great influence as the eldest sister, at one point even labeled by Gorgeous as the family "shtarker," Yiddish for someone who takes charge. Pfeni also shows equal deference for her sister's opinion by telling Sara, "there is no one I rely on in life more than you. There is no one I am more grateful to than you."
Where Tess is concerned, although an openly great admirer of her daughter, Sara is critical of her daughter's choices, particularly in men. When Pfeni, in a show of support for Tess's participation in the Lithuanian resistance, recommends places in Vilnius that she believes both Tess and Tom will enjoy, Sara responds sarcastically, "That way, Tessie, when they send the tanks in, you and Tom can take in a quick hamburger and a show." Sara demonstrates an equally cool distaste for Tom by ridiculing him publicly, based on his seeming lack of personal depth. She tells Tess, "I just don't know what you have in common with someone who dreams of selling radio parts."
According to Tess, Sara actively discourages passion in her life. This assertion is particularly evident in her interaction with Merv, a furrier and friend of Geoffrey's, who inadvertently becomes a dinner guest at Sara's fifty-fourth birthday party. Sara openly shares with Merv that she prides herself on being threatening to men, subsequently making every effort to discourage him from making any advances. In one instance, when Merv gets too close after the party by asking Sarah if she wishes "to connect" to another person, she deflects the question with insult and sarcasm. "How many support groups did you join when Roslyn died?" quips Sara, immediately apologetic for demonstrating such cruelty.
During her conversations with Merv, Sara shares that she has been divorced twice and is openly bitter because of it. She has, on occasion, gone so far as to characterize herself as being an "old and bitter woman." But with Merv, Sara also demonstrates an equally vulnerable side by crying in front of him. Their relationship and the reunion of the Rosensweig sisters serve to open Sara's heart once more, to her past, and to the possibility of romance.
Named for Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess Goode is a teenage idealist who finds life in London and her education at Westminster to be pretentious, and she longs for life in the States and, in her efforts to define herself, protests her mother Sara's encroachment into her personal life. The defiance she feels for her mother is evident in the opening scene of the play, when she says with marked disdain and a show of defiance that she intends to be a hairdresser.
The struggle Tess has with her mother is indicative of teenage rebellion. Her boyfriend does not meet with Sara's approval—nor does her choice to join the Lithuanian resistance. Tess also struggles to contain her own passions in situations in which both she and her mother share strong philosophical differences. In the case of Nicholas Pym, for example, she is exceedingly harsh in criticizing her mother's choice of dinner guests. Responding to her mother's distaste for Tom, she says she will tell her boyfriend "he's not invited to dinner here tonight with the socially acceptable, racist, sexist, and more than likely anti-Semitic Nicholas Pym." Further, she personally attacks her mother's dinner guest on the basis of these values.
Tess comes full circle by the end of the play, successfully asserting a place in her mother's life. She represents another generation of Rosensweig women embarking on the path of self-discovery. On some level, by watching Tess, the sisters also recognize in themselves that the rebellion against their own mother is no longer a luxury for them.
"I was a show biz and novelty furrier. Now I am the world leader in synthetic animal protective covering." A business associate and friend of Geoffrey's, fifty-eight-year-old Mervyn Kant, or Merv (also more affectionately known as Murf the Smurf, or Sir Murf), is a quick-witted, fashionable Jewish-American professional residing at the Savoy Hotel over Charing Cross station in London. Like Geoffrey, he is prone to playfully breaking out in song. At the same time, he demonstrates a deeply serious devotion to his Jewish roots, in his travels to Budapest with the American-Jewish Congress or to Ireland to have lunch with the Rabbi of Dublin.
Merv's strongest qualities, perhaps born of life experience, hinge on his sense of courtesy. He shows a genuine interest in others and is often respectful to a fault. He decidedly demonstrates patience and tolerance in his encounters with Gorgeous, who endlessly prattles on to him when they are initially introdced, and is unaffected when she insists on calling him Merlin, even after she has taken the time to ask Merv his name. Sensitive and supportive, Merv also acknowledges Tess's passion for the Baltics by offering her facts about Vilnius related to her own Jewish heritage.
From the outset of the play, it is clear that Merv has more than a passing romantic interest in Sara. As the play progresses, Merv proves to be the one person, apart from Sara's sisters, who is able to chip away at Sara's chilly exterior to uncover her softer, more passionate side, by sharing intimate details regarding his own personal life. In one instance, Merv inspires a discussion on their intertwining past lives in New York and strikes a chord with Sara by calling her "Sadie," an endearing pet name Sara's own grandfather reserved for her. Finally, he encourages Sara, repeatedly insisting that she is capable and worthy of love, regardless of what she may think and feel to the contrary. In the end, when Sara off-handedly mentions that life with her may be difficult, Merv responds, "there are real possibilities in life, even for left over meat and cabbage," like him and Sara.
"The racist, sexist, and more than likely anti-Semitic Nicholas Pym" is a high-society Englishman and elitist on Sara's birthday party guest list. He is quick-witted and glib, speaking with a natural, off-handed ease that betrays a lack of sincerity. Making idle dinner conversation, Nicholas proves to be insensitive to the point of being extremely offensive. In a conversation with Tess and Tom, for example, he responds to the notion of Lithuanian culture and people wanting to be independent of the Soviets, stating, "So does Kentucky. Think of Colonel Sanders and all his yummy little chicken pieces."
Nick is a foil to Merv, a character whose personal qualities contrast strongly with Merv's, his haughty, elitist attitude clashing loudly with Merv's jocular good nature. At one point, Merv challenges Nick, and the two get into a bit of a disagreement over the influence of European anti-Semitism. Tess favors Merv as a suitor for Sara, suggesting to her mother that Nick is "one of those weirdo English bankers who takes sixteen-year-old models to dinner" and afterward returns home, "puts panty hose over his head and dances to Parsifal," a Wagner opera.
Pfeni Rosensweig is a forty-year-old eccentric journalist and shopping-bag-toting world traveler who has "dropped in" from Bombay, India, to attend Sara's birthday party. Absorbed in her work, Pfeni is truly gifted, famous enough that one of her books has been assigned to Tess for her next semester at Westminster. She has no permanent emotional ties, other than to her sisters Sara and Gorgeous, and visibly struggles with intimacy issues and her own sense of identity. Says Tess of her favorite aunt, "My mother says you compulsively travel because you have a fear of commitment and when you do stay in one place you become emotional and defensive just like me."
Pfeni is trying to come to terms with the rather unconventional niche she has chosen to carve out for herself by fixating on a future with Geoffrey. She chooses to half-heartedly pursue a future with a wishy-washy bisexual director with whom she has been in a long-distance relationship for years. Her insecurities about herself and her life drive Pfeni to pursue a more permanent connection with her lover. In the end, her failed relationship with Geoffrey becomes a source of great strength. Pfeni embraces her talent as a gifted journalist after realizing that world travel and a career are what she has desired on a subconscious level from the beginning.
She is also a defender of her young niece Tess, whose defiance and desires mirror Pfeni's at a very young age. Sara not only finds a source of support in Pfeni but, through her sister, also recognizes that Tess's defiance of her mother is natural and in keeping with both Sara and her sisters' desires when they were teens.
Dramatic, flamboyant, chatty Gorgeous Teitlebaum is the Rosensweig sister most consumed with being part of the status quo; her life is driven by appearances. She demonstrates this side of herself with Merv, for example, referring to her sisters as "such funsy people." She is a self-proclaimed newage diva—a radio talk-show host acting as a pseudo-psychologist to the ills of American pop-culture. According to Gorgeous, she is much more than a cliché—"I am what they call a middle-aged success story. And I am having a ball." Based on this, she often acts as a yenta [meddler] in her attempts to advise her sisters on marriage, as well as the self-appointed psychologist for the family. She is also the keeper of Jewish religious traditions. Says Gorgeous, "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," ignoring Sara when she interjects or protests, and continues to pray over candles.
Gorgeous is not intellectually sharp in the way that her sisters are. She is often injudicious, speaking without concern for the facts, much to the consternation of her sister Sara. She is also terribly self-absorbed in her prattlings with Merv, whom she continues to call Merlin even after he has corrected her. But it is her appearance that Gorgeous hides behind to mask her vulnerability. Gorgeous, despite Sara's impressions, is more thoughtful than she seems, if not preoccupied in her shouldering of family financial burdens. Her unbridled enthusiasm and the image she projects of someone who cannot easily be rattled prove to surprise her sisters when she gives them the news that her husband's career is in shambles. As a result, her family sees a completely different side of Gorgeous and, taking a lesson from her, each sister realizes her own shortsightedness.
Tom Valiunus is Tess's blue-collar boyfriend who is as passionate about the Lithuanian resistance as he is insistent on eating primary-colored foods. Tom's greatest ambition involves opening a radio supply store of his own. He is as seemingly impervious to the conflict between Tess and her mother as he is to Sara's dislike for him. Although Tom's heart is in the right place, he is not so bright, and his clumsy interjections become a source of comic relief in the work. When he and Tess walk in on Gorgeous's Sabbath prayers, for example, Tom asks of Sara and Gorgeous, "are you having a séance? … I love Stonehenge." In another, when Merv asks Tess what goes with European nationalism, Tom clumsily replies, "American movies and CNN?" Dating Tom represents another form of rebellion by Tess. He is also a foil to Tess, illuminating her great intellect as a teenager by being, himself, both thick-headed and dull.
Identity and Self
The struggle many of the characters experience in grappling with their own identities—whether it be as a Jewish American (Sara), as an adolescent (Tess), or as a bisexual (Geoffrey)—proves to be the chief focus of the play. In their interactions with each other, the characters are able to rediscover and ultimately transform themselves spiritually.
Pfeni, for example, struggles to deny who she is as a writer. She continues to insist on a life with Geoffrey on one level but betrays her true desires on another. When Pfeni pushes for a commitment, Geoffrey suggests that perhaps they should consider marrying. Pfeni is quick to respond with several questions, including how they expect to have children when she is "already forty." The answer lies in her untimely break with Geoffrey, which, instead of being a devastating occasion personally, proves to push her back in the right direction professionally, and she returns to Tajikistan to write. Says Pfeni of her own decision, "if … you make sure to fall in love with men who can never really love you back, one morning you wake up in your big sister's house and where you should be seems sort of clear."
Memory and Reminiscence
The process of recalling the past plays a pivotal role in the development of Merv and Sara's relationship. In the case of Sara, it is a catalyst for change. Merv recounts the past in an effort to break through Sara's icy exterior, and eventually he does so by evoking memories or images of her youth. Thus Merv is able to steadily chip away at her bitterness, proving to Sara that she, as much as he, still has a chance of reconnecting with someone in a meaningful way. Sara, in turn, is able to embrace a more youthful, spirited self, which has been overshadowed by bitter disappointment.
After Sara's evening of celebration, an intimate moment alone with Merv sparks memories of the past for both of them. Merv reminds Sara of her beauty, sparking her to respond. Sara tells Merv that, although he cannot hope for a relationship with her, he has encouraged her to succumb to her youthful, carefree passion. Sara expresses this wish in her desire to relive the past in a night of lovemaking, longing to be Merv's "Sonia Kirshenblatt at the Brighton Beach Baths."
Heritage and Ancestry
The idea of heritage is explored on many levels by several characters. Some emphatically defend their culture. Lithuania's struggle for independence is much more than a "pet" cause for Tom. His passion for the Baltics originates with his nationality. Tom's reason for joining the Lithuanian resistance is obvious. He states simply, "my dad is from Lithuania. And me uncles and me aunts still live there." The attraction Tess has to Tom is fostered by such convictions. At the play's conclusion, it becomes clear that Tess is drawn to him because of his loyalty to his ancestry and his sense of heritage, aspects of self that she is actively seeking. Ponders Tess, "if I've never really been Jewish, and I'm not actually American anymore, and I'm not English or European, then who am I?"
Merv deeply values his own heritage, as demonstrated in his participation in and travels with the American Jewish Confederacy. In a show of support for Tess and Tom, he acknowledges, "before the Holocaust, Vilnius was home to about 65,000 Jews." This comment fuels a somewhat heated debate concerning anti-Semitism in Europe. Merv aptly demonstrates that the passion he feels for his heritage comes from as deep a place as does perhaps Tom's participation in the Lithuanian resistance.
The attraction Merv feels for Sara is also bound up in the idea of her Jewishness, as it relates to his own. When he looks into Sara's eyes, he sees the spirit of his mother's family. "When I look into your eyes," he tells Sara, "I see those women's strength and their intelligence." Because of this he confides to her, "to me you are the most beautiful and most remarkable woman."
Intellectuals and Intellectualism
The characters of the play pride themselves, and each other, on their intellectual prowess. Members of the Rosensweig family are as apt to discuss at the breakfast table the efficacy of the American educational system as they would a day at work— and often do. In this way, Wasserstein creates strong, powerful female characters who are able not only to stand up for themselves but also, in doing so, to prove they are as capable of rising to mental challenges as are their male counterparts, if not more so.
Certainly this ability is well demonstrated at Sara's birthday celebration, where even Tess, Sara's sixteen-year-old daughter, aptly demonstrates her knowledge of modern history. Wasserstein is careful to highlight Tess's ability by juxtaposing the teens Tess and Tom. Whereas Tess can quickly and correctly respond to Merv's questions, Tom's contribution to a discussion on the Concert of Europe and the issue of anti-Semitism is completely flat, apart from providing some comic relief. When Merv asks Tess to explain what goes hand in hand with European Nationalism, Tom offers, "American movies and CNN?"
Appearances and Reality
The outward aspects of many of the characters' lives do not always gel with the perceptions of those around them. Assumptions between characters lead to misunderstandings in the form of gross misperceptions. An exercise of judgment based on outward appearance often leads to comments that are simply inappropriate, if not just rude or hurtful. More importantly, in such gross misperceptions the audience is able to see, as well as to appreciate, that depth and complexity of character can be surprisingly elusive even to the most perceptive individual.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Critics overwhelmingly acknowledge Wasserstein's great contribution to feminist thought as a playwright. In consideration of the feminist movement, study one of the author's plays, and comment on the work as it relates to historical developments in the movement. Do Wasserstein's characters resemble their contemporaries today? Describe the differences and similarities.
- Thematically, Wasserstein's plays explore the issue of Jewish identity in society. Study the current crisis in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis. How do aspects of Israel's struggle mirror those of the characters in the author's work?
- The Holocaust had a devastating effect on the Jews of Poland. The author, having traveled to the area, was startled to see no familiar Jewish faces in a town once inhabited by her people. Investigate the impact of the Holocaust in Poland on its Jewish citizenry.
- Environmental issues like Chernobyl loomed large in the 1980s, and the effects of a third-world economy on what was considered a superpower took its toll on the Soviet Union. Examine environmental problems in Europe today. How have they changed since the 1980s?
- Memories bring Merv and Sara closer together. In their mutual sharing, they discover they have common pasts, besides sharing a common ancestry. Write about the power of reminiscence in the play. Would Merv and Sara have made a connection without a similar past? What does this say/not say about Sara's sense of identity?
A good example of this is both Sara and Pfeni's impression of Gorgeous. For a large portion of the play, Gorgeous sells herself as the happy-go-lucky, somewhat bubble-headed, babbling housewife who "has it all." Her sisters, Sara in particular, chastise her for her artifice, her new-age mentality, and her airy intellect. To them, Gorgeous lacks dimension, but neither sister is prepared for the truth behind their baby sister's façade. Gorgeous quickly turns the tables in a show of strength and character when she commands her sister to "put the phone down" when Sara decides to call Henry to ask him to buy her sister another pair of shoes. Sara has a difficult time accepting that her sister's spouse, the Harvard-educated lawyer, is unemployed, insisting not only that he should be employed but also that employment for someone like him is inevitable. When she tells Gorgeous "maybe I know someone" who can get him a position, Gorgeous snaps, "you don't know anybody. Henry isn't even looking for a job. He's writing mysteries in the basement."
Point of View
The events of the play are told from the third person, independent of any one character's perspective. At no time does a character address the audience or offer any special insight into his or her motivations or actions. Instead, the audience is able to draw conclusions about the characters by observing them in dialogue with various other characters. The dynamic nature of such interactions gives breadth and depth to these individuals and helps the audience to better understand their motivations. In Sara's case, she chooses to share with Merv that her husband "is on his fifth wife," adding, "My first I've lost track of and personally I doubt there will be a third," giving him a glimpse of the bitterness she feels for men, and for love. As Merv presses her to open up, Sara responds, "You know what really irritates me in life, Merv? When men like you tell women to take it easy because somewhere they believe that all women are innately hysterics." The audience can infer, without Sara actually stating such, that her issues with men run deep, thus explaining her desire to push Merv away.
The play closely follows the traditional unities, the principles of dramatic structure based on rules regarding action, time, and place. The play does stick to a single plot, that of the reunion of the Rosensweig women and the transformative power of their reunion to change the course of their own lives. The play has a succinct beginning, middle, and end, documenting the journey they take together to come to some significant realizations as women. The main action is limited to the day of Sara's birthday celebration; the setting, to Sara's flat in Queen Anne's Gate.
All of the characters created by the author are representations of understood "types" of individuals. In the play, for example, all of the sisters in the Rosensweig family are succinct stereotypes. Pfeni is described as a shopping-bag-toting, eccentric forty-year-old world traveler and journalist. Gorgeous, on the other hand, is the somewhat bubble-headed, upper-middle-class, self-appointed new age guru and modern housewife, the sister who "did everything right," whereas Sara is the intelligent, thick-skinned, "hot-shot Jewish lady banker" who has made the cover of Forbes magazine twice. The use of stereotypes is effective for several reasons. First, the variety of characters illuminates the struggles of women from various perspectives. This is an effective approach—the women represent not one voice, but many. Second, by using such stereotypes, Wasserstein is able to break through the social veneer separating one from the next, by adding surprising personal dimension to any one character, as expressed in dialogue. For example, Sara may seem to be the hardened business professional, but in a conversation with Merv, she shares that her seemingly impenetrable heart is a defense mechanism developed out of fear, in reaction to the loss and disappointment she feels after two failed marriages.
The play represents "the spirit of the time," the moral and intellectual trends of the late 1980s. Characters engage in deeply thoughtful, intellectual discussions about contemporary issues of the time— the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian resistance, the efficacy of the top educational institutions in the United States, and the like. For example, when prompted to share what Sara has heard about the United States, she tells Merv that it is a "society in transition." She expounds even further, stating that the evolving transactional U.S. economy is "exacerbated by a growing disenfranchised class, decaying inner cities, and a bankrupt education system." Her comments mirror the effects of Reaganomics on the social and economic life of many Americans.
The period of the 1980s to the early 1990s forms the backdrop for much of The SistersRosensweig. The fall of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the cold war, and its dissolution, with its fragmentation of the country into sovereign independent states, literally redrew the map of Europe. The end of the cold war also exposed the truths about the devastating impact of a nation scrambling to keep up with the technology of a superpower on a third-world budget, and that of great environmental destruction. Ronald Reagan, hero of the cold war, was in the meantime implementing economic policy, which, although presented as an economic stimulus plan for the United States, would prove to line the pockets of a select, wealthy few, while many Americans faced unemployment, or worse, homelessness.
The Collapse of the Soviet Regime
Tess is quick to point out that "it's just like my mother to have a dinner party on the night the Soviet Union is falling apart." The irony of this statement is found in the events leading up to the demise of the system itself. The Soviet collapse was the result of a stagnant economy and an apathetic work force uninspired in the absence of competitive forces driving a capitalistic economy. Others offer the belief that pressure exerted by Reagan, particularly in the escalation of his "Star Wars," or satellite weapons system, provided the push needed to destroy the Soviet economy.
Whatever the cause, there were definite contributing factors on Soviet soil. Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization of the government fell apart when the demands of its citizenry for democratic capitalist reform became too great to ignore. In 1987, perhaps the greatest symbol of the Soviet regime, the Wall, was torn down after a stirring speech given by Ronald Reagan commanding Gorbachev to dismantle it.
Reorganization of the Soviet Union
"Lithuania has a culture and people independent of the Soviets," states Tom in defense of the Lithuanian resistance movement. His sentiments reflect a time of great change in Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Most of this change was in fact precipitated by the liberal policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev's renouncement of the Brezhnev Doctrine was perhaps one of the more radical changes to be instituted as a result of his policy of liberal reform. The doctrine was the brainchild of Leonid Brezhnev, who was president of the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1982. It essentially allowed for the USSR to exercise military intervention at will in the Warsaw Pact nations and therefore prevented the possibility of rebellion. As a direct result of Gorbachev's decision, however, these once-dissolved Soviet Republics declared themselves independent nations, with only nine of fifteen in agreement with Gorbachev's new union treaty.
Members of the KGB, army conservatives, and stragglers of the old regime were not keen on negotiation with the re-established republics, subsequently placing Gorbachev and his family under house arrest. As tanks rolled through the streets of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin and his followers, sympathetic to the plight of the leader, barricaded themselves in the Parliament building of the Russian Republic. Construction workers, in a show of support, erected barricades around the building as Soviet citizens by the thousands began to encircle it, hands clasped together to form a human chain. As the human chain grew in depth, the Moscow militia, in a show of sympathy, distributed gas masks to the crowd. In fact, several army units involved in the coup, including those manning tanks, abandoned their efforts, and the coup was over in just a few days. Gorbachev was released and returned to Moscow.
The Republics by and large voted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They instead claimed they were part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Despite their new identity, these states would continue to be referred to as being part of the former Soviet Union. The problem with their newfound independence ran deeper than identity—the Soviet system was abandoned with essentially nothing to replace it and was expected to participate in a free-market economy.
The Environmental Aftermath of Soviet Occupation
It was not only the new Republics which suffered; several environmental disasters with widespread consequence can also be attributed to the failing Soviet economy. The artificial economic system could no longer sustain the latest technology, particularly evident in the events of Chernobyl. Engineers were experimenting with reactor number four on April 26, 1986, when a miscalculation was said to have been made. This caused an atomic chain reaction that spiraled out of control and became the catalyst for a power surge responsible for an explosion of radioactive steam, followed by a chemical explosion.
Gorbachev was not forthcoming about the disaster immediately, instead informing the public of the scope of the event several days later. In all, thirty-one people were killed in the blast and an additional five hundred were injured. The area was evacuated within a nineteen-mile radius. In addition, Europeans were concerned about contamination of food and water supplies from airborne radioactive materials. Many Europeans still lived on contaminated soil, and in the 1990s, incidents of cancer and other conditions skyrocketed. The government chose to maintain the system instead of considering alternative power sources and, amazingly, despite reports of several additional accidents, the facility was kept open.
Events occurring in the United States at the time are equally relevant to the play, as is particularly revealed in Sara's comments regarding her former residence. She shares that "in many ways America is a brilliant country. But it's becoming as class-driven a society as this one." The divisiveness of the classes in America had everything to do with the trend in the economy. During the Reagan years, David Stockman, director of the OMB, or Office of Conservative Management and Budget, had come up with a fiscal plan. Supply-side economics called on the government to stimulate the economy by the deregulation of commerce and industry and by cutting taxes. Stockman felt that the production of goods and services would create a demand for them. In other words, the more goods and services created, the more people would buy. By cutting taxes and easing up on industry regulations, businesses would then be able to "beef-up" production. President Reagan adopted the plan, but in consideration of the budget he also cut government spending.
It was called "trickle down" economics by some—the idea that relieving the tax burden on the rich would encourage investment by the rich and that this investment would "trickle down" and thus impact the less-well-off in the form of jobs. Further, Reagan felt that increased investment meant more taxable income generating more revenue. George Bush found the notion absurd, calling Reagan's plan for financial reform "voodoo economics." In the end, tax cuts did not benefit middle- and lower-income individuals but, instead, helped an elite few of the extremely wealthy in the form of profitable business deals. Companies merged or were dismantled and sold at a profit to the stockholders, resulting in even fewer jobs and higher unemployment.
The New Homeless
"I have an idea to do this year's homeless benefit at the National as sort of a story theater. I want to hear their brilliant voices," says Geoffrey. His idea is to use actual homeless people to effectively capture their stories. In the United States, at least, there certainly would be no shortage of potential participants. As a result of Reagan's policies, many people found themselves in the position of being underemployed, if not unemployed, just one paycheck away from financial ruin, unable to invest in their futures. Suddenly large numbers of homeless were visible on city streets. Alan Axelrod, in The Complete Idiot's Guide to 20th Century History, says that during this time "'homeless people' became a ubiquitous euphemism for those formerly described as indigent, derelicts, or bums" and called them the "walking wounded of Reaganomics."
According to many critics, The Sisters Rosensweig has a feminist appeal in its portrayal of generations of Rosensweig women that is undeniable. This idea is in keeping with the bulk of Wendy Wasserstein's plays, which are consistently described as being treatises on women and their attempts to fit accepted social roles while at the same time maintaining a sense of self-identity. She is, at times, recognized and even appreciated for her typecasting of predictable characters, which work in tandem to speak to a more encompassing feminist perspective. Other critics, however, have seen this stereotyping as a reason for less-than-engaging story lines and a lack of action.
However predictable Wasserstein's characters are, they manage to be equally colorful. Critics have delighted in the lively, entertaining Rosensweig bunch. Their diversity brings a lot to their often intellectually engaging conversations, stimulated by the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as does their supreme sense of wit. Again, however, Dick Lochte, in his review of the play in the Los Angeles Times, draws attention to the predictability factor in the work. Lochte states, "Though most of these supporting characters get their fair share of witty dialogue, there is something just a bit too predictable about everything they do."
Finally, she has been praised for her depiction of the Jewish culture as it is realized in her characters. Wasserstein, in Michael P. Kramer's Beyond Ambivalence: (Re)imagining Jewish AmericanCulture; or, "Isn't that the Way the Old Assimilated Story Goes?," comments on the complexity Wasserstein takes on in the work's consideration of ethnic assimilation, explaining, "Wasserstein carefully casts Sara's declaration of Tess's independence from Jewish guilt and ambivalence as an affirmation of her daughter's Jewishness."
Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. She has taught English literature in addition to English as a second language overseas. In this essay, Kryhoski considers the issue of identity as a function of age.
What fuels the The Sisters Rosensweig thematically is the issue of identity as it is expressed in or explored by all of Wendy Wasserstein's characters. The play is rich in its representation of women struggling to define themselves against the backdrop of conventional social roles as a function of their age. In this respect, the work affords its female audience either a look forward or a look backward, or it invites them to dip a toe or two into the pool of present social values surrounding them, in self-reflection, in personal introspection, or in self-affirmation.
Pfeni's sense of identity is a bit ambiguous at forty. In conversation, Pfeni is obsessed with her bisexual director boyfriend, insisting that a life with him would define her own life, giving it the meaning and substance she is seeking. "I love you Geoffrey. I'm not going to travel anymore. I want to stay with you," declares Pfeni. She is building a defense for her present life, without even realizing it. She responds adversely to the idea of children and, on a subconscious level, of marriage, stating, "Geoffrey, I'm already 40." It is in this statement that Pfeni fails to hear herself. In this way, Wasserstein comments on the idea of identity from a mid-life, feminine perspective. For most women, forty is a time for either looking back with trepidation or looking forward with a sense of hope and security about the future and one's place in the universe. Pfeni is at a spiritual crossroads, and in her obsession with Geoffrey she succumbs to the temptation to "look back," without realizing that the need for self-expression as a journalist supersedes any desires for domestic bliss.
Identity is a function not only of age but also of any one character's ability to hear his or her own voice. In the case of Pfeni, she expresses feelings of insecurity and self-doubt to Geoffrey concerning the nature of their relationship. Pfeni discusses the nature of Geoffrey's bisexuality to confirm his unwavering commitment to her, but she is missing the bigger picture with respect to her own dreams and desires. Geoffrey makes promises to Pfeni. Anticipating her need for commitment, he tells her that if marriage will console her, he will marry her. But Pfeni's agenda, on a deeper level, is not dependent on the status of the relationship. Geoffrey's convictions are met with protest. The "truth" about Pfeni is all in the "hearing." She protests the idea on the basis of her Jewish heritage, asking if the children will be Jewish. An affirmative from Geoffrey leads to yet another protest on the basis of age.
In her depiction of Pfeni, Wasserstein is also coming from a personal place. The author shares in an interview that before turning forty she became depressed. Making lists of things she had to do before forty, she drove herself crazy. After turning forty, she stopped focusing on the list and, ultimately, was much happier. For Wasserstein at least, with middle age comes the sense that youth is no longer a physical condition but merely a state of mind. For women, age brings an end to fertility, another limiting factor in terms of personal choice. Values change, and time becomes more important. The author's point is that there is a mental empowerment that must take place before true contentment is realized. In consideration of Wasserstein's own personal feelings regarding age, the empowerment involves a mere shift in perspective. Therefore, identity for Wasserstein, and by extension her character Pfeni, hinges on self-acceptance, rather than on potential or on a preoccupation with what could be. By the play's end, Pfeni comes full circle in her convictions. She announces she is returning to Tajikistan to finish her book. The ingredients for her decision, she confides in Gorgeous, are the choices she has made. She shares that her unexplored writing potential and her involvement with an emotionally unavailable bisexual have been subconscious positives for her. In making these choices, she has set limits on both her marriage and her career.
Tess, too, is at a crossroads in her young life. Her sense of identity is also a function of her pubescent angst. As a teenager, Tess is pushing out against invisible boundaries to discover her convictions and, in those convictions, to express her individuality. Throughout the play, Tess remains vocal about the Lithuanian resistance. Her passion for the movement, however, is more or less dictated by a need to assert herself as an individual. Tess gets into a scuffle with her mother, and she responds to Sara's criticism of the Lithuanian resistance and of her boyfriend, Tom, with criticism of her own: "Tom comes from a perfectly balanced and normal family which is something you've never managed to maintain despite being on the cover of Fortune twice." Her response to Sara is quite rebellious.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), by Rebecca Wells, accounts for the Ya-Yas, a circle of women whose activities seem to center on Siddalee's mother, Vivi. This is a book about female friendship, love, and the power of forgiveness as expressed in the memoirs of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
- Schindler's List (1982), by Thomas Keneally, recalls the story of Oscar Schindler, a Jewish businessman and wartime profiteer who, during World War II, saved more Jews from the gas chamber than did any other individual. The book is a great source for understanding the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and its impact on the Jews of Poland.
- The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays (1991), by Wendy Wasserstein, is a collection of three of Wasserstein's plays: Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Heidi Chronicles. These plays are further examples of the author's feminist works.
- The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (2000), by Ruth Rosen, is a contemporary history of the Women's Movement in the United States, beginning in the 1960s with the advent of The Feminine Mystique. Rosen looks back at women's roles in the 1950s, moving forward then to develop a chronicle of those people, places, and events that have shaped the lives of American women today.
In a conversation with Nicholas Pym, her convictions become suspect—when Nicholas Pym asks Tess to explain her interest in the Baltics, Tom fills in the blanks, responding that his family has been personally affected. Tom speaks for Tess, but she never seems to speak of her own personal motivations for joining the resistance. As the play comes full-circle, so does Tess's level of awareness. She tells her mother that she has told Tom to go on to Vilnius without her, upon the realization that she felt "apart" in some way from Tom's convictions. Specifically, it is her experience at the rally that is a point of personal discovery for her. She asks Pfeni, "are we people who will always be watching and never belong?"
For Tess, an attachment to Tom and to the Lithuanian resistance movement attracts her in her search for identity. Tom's personal convictions draw Tess to him precisely because she longs to harbor some convictions of her own. The teenage years, for many, symbolize a time of great transition. Desirous of adult respect and autonomy, Tess is attempting to pull away from Sara's values and opinions in an effort to discover and forge her own. This is not a comfortable process. Tess has initially been given a set of values by her parents, which, ultimately, may not match her own. As she begins to test things, to embark on the process of self-discovery, she moves from a point of comfort to one of confusion in an effort to define herself.
Sara doesn't always respect Tess through this confusing time, and thus the conflict between mother and daughter intensifies. Wasserstein is careful to point this process out in a conversation between Sara and Pfeni. Worried that her daughter is determined to pursue a life that runs completely counter to her own, Sara implores her sister to speak with Tess. Pfeni defends Tess, recognizing the necessity for her niece's acts of defiance, telling Sara, "that's exactly what we set out to do because of our mother." Indeed, this idea is affirmed in her daughter's own words. Tess speaks of opting to stay behind on the trip to Vilnius, telling her mother that she made the decision for herself rather than for Sara. "You have your own life," says Tess.
Linda Rohrer Paige, in Wendy Wasserstein: Overview, asserts that Wasserstein's work often "highlights female community and friendship, even amidst the tension ignited by woman's trying to 'fit in' to prescribed social roles, yet simultaneously, attempting to 'define herself."' Certainly, this idea is evident in the author's portrayal of both Pfeni and niece Tess. Pfeni is responding to prescribed social roles in her pursuit of Geoffrey and a life of domestic bliss. Tess, on the other hand, is reacting to the social roles imposed on her by her mother, in an attempt to break away from them in order to achieve a sense of autonomy. Ultimately, it is their communion with each other—sister to sister, aunt to niece, mother to daughter—that transforms the women of the Rosensweig family, helping them to see and to define themselves.
Paige also asserts that the appeal of the Wasserstein's plays for feminists (as exemplified by The Heidi Chronicles) is in an identification with the protagonist's struggle for change and search for her own identity. Adds Paige, "At times, self effacing, but at other times, powerful and wise beyond her years…. Her struggle is, in many ways, our own." Women breaking through socially imposed boundaries of age, of gender, and of ethnicity to define themselves—this is the touchstone for Wasserstein's work. In The Sisters Rosensweig, the issue of age figures prominently. The beauty of the work is the personal growth continuum represented by generations of Jewish-American women who, on some level, are responding to ambiguous social cues and their own passions to define themselves. As confusing and daunting a process as it may seem, there is one consistent message that Wasserstein imparts to a female audience: "you are smart enough, and brave enough, and certainly beautiful enough to find your place in the world."
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on The Sisters Rosensweig, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Allison Leigh DeFrees
DeFrees has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Virginia as well as a law degree from the University of Texas, and she is a published writer and an editor. In the following essay, DeFrees discusses the notion of forging an identity within the inevitable confines of family relationship.
Throughout her career, playwright Wendy Wasserstein has focused relentlessly on the issue of a woman's right to own her independence, strength, and integrity in what is essentially a "man's world." In seeking this independence, her characters—and the characters in The Sisters Rosensweig are no exception—often undergo some kind of transformation, either a change of circumstance or a change of mind. In The Sisters Rosensweig, Wasserstein's women do both: in bringing together three Jewish-American sisters in the physical setting of Queen Anne's Gate in London, Wasserstein allows the mundane event of a birthday party to force the women to examine the familial bonds that have both drawn the sisters together and repelled them from one another. In coming together, and in being forced to speak truthfully of their feelings about one another and their past, each sister faces an emotional epiphany.
Wasserstein uses her characters to span the generational gaps of various women from one Jewish-American family from Brooklyn, New York. The play opens with the daughter (Tess) of one of the three sisters (Sara), listening to an old recording of her mother's ivy league college a cappella singing troupe. Immediately, Wasserstein establishes that her characters are upper-crust, thus supposedly dispensing with the themes of poverty or economic strife and honing in on the emotional lives of the women. Pfeni, the middle Rosensweig sister, arrives from traveling in Bombay. She brings with her, in one of the many shopping bags she carries in lieu of real suitcases, a present for Tess, which is a statue of Shiva the destroyer, an Indian god said to "destroy all evil and bring you hope, rebirth, and a lifetime guarantee that under no circumstances will you grow up to be like me." Pfeni's self-deprecating manner introduces self-doubt and a picture of a smart, well-traveled writer who is grappling with her place in the world. In fact, the use of the profession of international writer is particularly clever on Wasserstein's part. She has created a woman who travels the world in search of an elusive sense of self, who never pauses for long enough to examine her personal needs and desires, nor to assess whether those needs are being met. For the previous four years, Pfeni has dated Geoffrey, a bisexual and world-renowned British stage director, never seeing him for more than a few days or weeks at a time, never allowing herself to settle down long enough to investigate her deeper feelings. When Geoffrey tells her that he wants to date men again, she hardly reacts, but when he says "I miss men," she rather coldly replies, "It's all right, Geoffrey. So do I." It is not until she confides in her sisters that Geoffrey has left her that she breaks down. Back in the arms of her family, Pfeni is able to examine her life and realize the loss, not just of her lover, but of the years she has spent closed off from her dreams. Tying herself to Geoffrey had been typical of the way Pfeni consistently attached herself to mismatched goals—or rather, how she avoided diving in to the very things she most craved, out of trepidation and fear of failure. Pfeni stayed in a dead-end relationship to avoid true intimacy with a man, just as she spent years skirting around the book she is writing about the women in Tajikistan, to avoid the pain of experiencing their plight. As a travel writer, she can justify a flighty existence, to a point. When discussing Tess's intention of going to witness the Lithuanian revolution, Sara questions Pfeni as to why Pfeni stopped writing about revolutionary causes and settled into being a travel writer. Pfeni tells Sara, "Somewhere I need the hardship of the Afghan women and the Kurdish suffering to fill up my life for me. And if I'm that empty, then I might as well continue to wander to the best hotels, restaurants, and poori stands." But, Sara does not accept Pfeni's self-deprecating excuse, and says to her:
Pfeni, real compassion is genuinely rarer than any correct agenda. I'm a pretty good banker, but it's not a passion. You, on the other hand, have a true calling, and the sad and surprisingly weak thing is you're actively trying to avoid it. I think you care too much and you're looking for excuses not to.
Hearing her sister's frank words, Pfeni takes Sara's hand and tells her, "[t]here is no one I rely on in life more than you." Sara quickly pulls away, and the moment evaporates, but not before Pfeni can appreciate herself through her sister's eyes. After Geoffrey leaves her, Pfeni decides to return to her passions and tells her sisters as she is leaving Sara's house to return to Tajikistan:
Well, Gorgeous, if you only write "Bombay by Night" and you make sure to fall in love with men who can never really love you back, one morning you wake up at forty in your big sister's house, and where you should be seems sort of clear.
Sara, the oldest sister, speaks earnestly to Pfeni, and in fact, speaks forthrightly to everyone in the play except herself. Twice divorced, Sara is convinced of her future as a solitary woman—she is mistrustful of men, in part as a result of two failed marriages and of being a female executive in the misogynistic world of international finance. Thus, when Mervyn Kant arrives as an unexpected dinner guest and subsequently as an unexpected love interest, Sara is automatically closed off to his advances. In the simplest, most obvious way, and with the help of Sara's sisters, Merv opens Sara's life to the possibility of love. Using an almost rote character— the Jewish New Yorker with a heart of gold— Wasserstein rekindles the heartstrings of a woman who had renounced the very idea of love. It is a lovely gesture on Wasserstein's part, to have culled a stereotype from the topography of stock characters and imbued him with a wistful air that rings true. Merv serves as a foil to Sara: he is all heart, worn on an unbuttoned sleeve, while Sara is a deflection of love.
Just as she has soured on love, each character in the play introduces sweet offerings of love, and of acceptance and honor, to her. It is not clearly spelled out why all of the other characters are so willing to look beyond her cold exterior and attempt to reach Sara's hidden warmth, but clues in the dialogue are interspersed throughout the play. She seems to speak truthfully about issues that the others skirt. Gorgeous, the youngest of the Rosensweig sisters, saunters into Sara's home, dressed to the hilt in fake Chanel and overdone accessories, speaking in as glib and gilded a tone as her clothing. When Gorgeous says, "Some of the most interesting men I know in Newton, Massachusetts are furriers," and then is unable to substantiate her statement, she balks when Sara pokes fun at her. In response, Sara says, "I am asking you to be specific. I am asking you to take responsibility for whatever it is you babble about. Life is serious business, Gorgeous. Life isn't funny." Ironically, if anyone of the sister's lives is not funny, it is Gorgeous's life. Her husband has been unemployed for two years, and she is living in an estranged, and strained, arrangement with him. While he stays up all night every night attempting to write detective novels, Gorgeous must find a way to make ends meet. Gorgeous, unready or unwilling to share these facts, threatens to leave and stay with friends rather than deal with the strained relationship with her sister, and Merv and Sara together quell Gorgeous's anger. It is a foreshadowing of Merv's ability to relate to Sara that becomes more pronounced as the play progresses. Interestingly, however, it is Sara who finally prods herself out of her dark disposition toward love—a subtle statement by Wasserstein that, ultimately, it is up to the individual woman to choose to face her fears, rather than sidestepping them. Sara spends the day after her birthday waiting for Merv to call her, despite the fact that she told him to leave and that she was not interested. The evening before she calls, Sara and her sisters have congregated, and after Pfeni and Gorgeous loudly encourage Sara to call Merv, Gorgeous says that she wishes that "each of us can say at some point that we had a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness! Do you think that's possible, Sara?" Sara, without the usual sarcasm or defenses, answers, "[b]rief. But a moment or two." It is possible—love is possible, and even if only fleetingly, Sara has opened the door to happiness.
Wasserstein's theme of sisterhood and family ties is not new—female writers in the past hundred years have written vociferously on the topic, in fact. What differentiates Wasserstein's storytelling from the rest of the tales of female self-discovery that poured onto the stage in the latter half of the twentieth century is that she drives her story from a specifically religious building block. The characters of Gorgeous and Tess provide a framework for the theme of how religion plays an integral part in each woman's search for meaning in their lives. Gorgeous, the youngest of the sisters, and Tess, Sara's daughter, ground the play in the theme of religious journeys. Gorgeous has retained all of the ritual of her Jewish upbringing, and she is steadfast in adhering to its tenets; however, beyond the surface, it is not clear that she understands her reasons for her faith. Thus, while she has never strayed from her Judaic upbringing, blindly modeling the life her mother led, she has also never quite owned up to glaring faults in a life she tries to portray to the outside world as easy and complete. Tess, Sara's daughter, is the foil to Gorgeous's on-the-surface complacency. Tess is full of resolve to make a difference in the world, but also full of questions about her place in that same world. She is constantly asking the philosophical questions that frame all of the women's lives. At one point, she asks, "Aunt Pfeni, are we people who will always be watching and never belong?" And to her mother, she asks, "Mother, if I've never really been Jewish, and I'm not actually American anymore, and I'm not English or European, then who am I?" Gorgeous and Tess come from opposite planes of introspection: Tess is an avid intellectual who directly seeks the answers to her questions about her faith and her place, and Gorgeous just as avidly seeks to avoid confronting those same questions. In the familial embrace of Sara and Pfeni, each of the women, while not necessarily finding answers to her questions, at least finds comfort in the realization that in their journeys, they are not alone. When Gorgeous breaks the heel of an expensive pair of shoes she has just purchased, Sara tries to call Gorgeous's husband and tell him to replace the shoes. Not until this moment is Gorgeous forced to admit to her sisters that her husband is unemployed and has been for two years; that her love life has fizzled; and that she is, under all of her baubles and sweater sets, deeply unhappy. But, the act of admitting her unhappiness allows her a release—free from the weight of keeping up appearances, she gains a newfound willpower, as well as a closeness with her sisters that had not been previously possible. It is a quite breakthrough, tenable and lasting. What she has lost in pride, she has gained in compassion.
The Sisters Rosensweig is perhaps Wasserstein's most adamant construction of what it means to be a woman in the twentieth century. Her characters exhibit the post-Industrial Revolution woman's freedom to travel, to work in any field she chooses, and to have both a family and a career. Yet, along with all of these accomplishments comes the crashing realization that, while achieving these hard-won goals, a woman's identity becomes an all the more fiercely guarded prize. Wasserstein seems to be asking, "Who am I if I am not my mother? How do I forge my future when my past teaches me no lessons for this future?" Ultimately, the answers to these questions come round to the realization that whatever path a woman takes or does not take, and whatever choices she makes or events happen in her life, she is the product of her heritage. Whether her life takes her to Tajikistan, or London, or Newton, Massachusetts, family remains the basin of memory, the origin of spiritual understanding, and the crux to the understanding of the world one builds for oneself.
Source: Allison Leigh DeFrees, Critical Essay on The Sisters Rosensweig, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In the following review, Simon commends The Sisters Rosensweig for being "both of its time … and of all time."
The Sisters Rosensweig is Wendy Wasserstein's most accomplished play to date. It is through-composed, with no obtrusive narrator haranguing us. Its central, but not hypertrophic, character is the eldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced from her second husband. An expatriate in London, she is celebrating her fifty-fourth birthday, for which her younger sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum has flown in from Boston, where she dispenses personal advice over the airwaves. From farthest India, the youngest sister, Pfeni Rosensweig, has jetted in; now a travel writer, she is shirking her mission, a study of the lives of women in Tajikistan. Equitably, all three sisters end up sharing center stage, both literally and figuratively.
Gorgeous, who, we are told, is happily married with four children, is group leader of the Temple Beth-El sisterhood of Newton, Massachusetts, on a visit to London; Pfeni is here to touch base with her lover, the famous stage director Geoffrey Duncan, whom she has converted to heterosexuality and may soon be marrying. Here, too, is a friend of Geoffrey's, the New York faux furrier and genuine mensch Mervyn Kant. Rounding out the cast are Tess, Sara's precocious teenager; Tom Valiunus, Tess's dopey but good-natured punker boyfriend, with whom she is planning a political-protest trip to his ancestral Lithuania; and Nicholas Pym, a British banker, stuffed shirt, and suitor to Sara.
This is the stuff of Anglo-American comedy, more specifically Anglo-Jewish-American drawing-room comedy, in which some related but diverse mores and some diverse but trying-to-be-come-related people are playing off one another. Sara, a banker herself, is high-powered, smart, and sex-starved. Pfeni and the ebullient but labile heterosexual Geoffrey are having difficulties. And the ostensibly contented Gorgeous is there to stick her bobbed but nosy nose into everybody's business.
A seasoned theatergoer may well guess several plot developments, though there are also a few surprises. But plot is far less important than character and dialogue, both of which Miss Wasserstein does handsomely and humorously. She is surely one of our wittiest one-liner writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely and resonantly trying to keep from drowning. And she is able to orchestrate the interaction of her disparate characters into a complex, convincing polyphony. There may be a touch of the arbitrary here and there; mostly, however, the play flows, entertains, and liberally dispenses unpompous wisdom about ourselves.
Particularly pleasing is that Sisters manages to be both of its time, 1991, and of all time, unless human nature changes radically, which for these 5,000 years it hasn't. The three Rosensweig sisters are by no means unworthy descendants of a famed earlier sisterly trio, to whom an occasional quotation in the text alludes. If I have any problem with the play, it is that several of its characters have a propensity for bursting into song and dance at the slightest, or even no, provocation. In a straight play, this can be as unsettling as long spoken passages in a musical.
Source: John Simon, "The Best So Far," in New York, Vol. 25, No. 43, November 2, 1992, pp. 100–1.
Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot's Guide to 20th Century American History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 377–422.
Ciociola, Gail, Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998.
Cohen, Esther, "An Interview," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1998, pp. 257–70.
Kramer, Michael, "Beyond Ambivalence: (Re)imagining Jewish American Culture; Or, "Isn't That the Way the Old Assimilated Story Goes?" in American Jewish History, Vol. 88, Issue 3, 2000, pp. 407–15.
Lochte, Dick, "The Sisters Rosensweig: Play Review," in Los Angeles Times, Vol. 39, September 1994, pp. 140–41.
Paige, Linda Rohrer, "Wasserstein, Wendy," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.
Wasserstein, Wendy, The Sisters Rosensweig, Dramatists' Play Service, 1993.
Barnett, Claudia, ed., Wendy Wasserstein: A Casebook, Casebooks on Modern Dramatists series, Garland, 1998.
This casebook contains discussions of the author's works in consideration of Jewish storytelling, feminism, comedy, and so forth. The author is also compared to playwright Anton Chekhov and others to provide context and understanding for her works.
Ciociola, Gail, Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries, McFarland, 1998.
A scholarly study of Wasserstein's works, this book also provides helpful explanations of current feminist terminology to set up Ciociola's textual analysis and in-depth character study.
Homes, A. M., "Wasserstein, Wendy," in Bomb, H. W. Wilson Company, Spring 2001.
In this interview with the playwright, Homes and Wasserstein discuss such topics as the concept of political correctness, a writer's social and moral obligations, and the influence of motherhood on the author's work.
Johnson, Haynes, Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years, Doubleday, 1991.
Johnson's work paints a harsh portrait of America during the Reagan years by recounting the nation's economic and political fall in the 1980s.