Monday, January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein, In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feminist Spectator