Four years after her death, American playwright Wendy Wasserstein finds herself in the media once again. This week, the New York Times reported a controversy surrounding the Wendy Wasserstein Prize for playwriting, a $25,000 prize awarded by the Theater Development Fund to an emerging, female playwright. The committee cited a lack of worthy entrees and announced a decision to suspend this year’s award. Amidst a storm of protests, petitions, and public outcry, caused the executive director of the Theater Development Fund, Victoria Baily, to reverse the decision in order to give renewed consideration to the 19 applicants. The issue raised by this unusual situation illuminates the still precarious position of female playwrights in American theater. It also brings renewed attention to the life and art of a woman who broke gender boundaries on stage and off and left an enduring artistic and cultural legacy.
The youngest of four children born in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein developed an interest in the performing arts from a young age. Her grandfather, a Polish immigrant wrote plays and her mother was an enthusiast of dance and theater, enrolling Wendy in the renowned June Taylor School of Dance. As an adolescent, Wasserstein discovered her talents for writing skits and short plays, mostly to keep her out of gym class, which carried over into her college education as a history major at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Following a summer playwriting course Wasserstein attended at Smith, she graduated and enrolled in a creative writing program at City University of New York, which led to her enrollment in the Yale School of Drama where she honed her artistic voice.
Wasserstein’s experiences working on an art form notoriously exclusionary where it comes to female contributions impacted the content and scope of her work. Her first play of note, “Uncommon Women and Others,” written in 1977 and later staged at New York’s Phoenix Theater with actresses Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, and Jill Eikenberry in leading roles, introduced many of the themes that would come to dominate Wasserstein’s later work. The play revolves around five women, reconnecting at a luncheon in New York. Wasserstein flashes back on the friends’ younger lives as naive, excited, and confused undergraduates at Mount Holyoke. The play discloses the tension between the young women’s personal, cultural, and political ideals as modern women and their efforts to understand and navigate a patriarchal reality. “Uncommon Women and Others” entered on the stage during a time of great marginalization for women in theater and of great confusion about feminism in the social sphere. Wasserstein was one of the first women living in this contradictory moment to give perspective and importance to women’s experiences, struggles, and resourcefulness.
Through the early-1980s Wasserstein continued to write and stage her plays, which maintained narrative threads about gender, culture, and feminist politics, while also exploring her relationship to her Jewish identity. In 1989 Wasserstein produced her most influential, prolific, and ground-breaking work, “The Heidi Chronicles.” “The Heidi Chronicles” move to Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre where it ran for 622 performances, going on to win the Drama Desk Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Tony Award for Best Play, and a Pulitzer Prize. The character, Heidi Holland, a single, middle-aged art history professor teaching at Columbia University. Told through a series of episodic flashbacks and narratives, “The Heidi Chronicles” is a dramatic comedy that takes central issue with Heidi’s disillusionment as a former young woman of the 1960s and 1970s, grappling with the erosion of social and political values in the Reagan-era of materialism, consumerism, and political conservatism. Coming of age at the apex of second-wave feminism where women were revising cultural and political mores between men and women, Heidi must come to terms with the choices of her friends to abandon their progressive views in favor of conservative tracks of marriage and family and her own ambivalence about her choices to eschew established conventions. In one scene Heidi states: “We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. “The Heidi Chronicles” not only changed women’s status in theater, it also changed the way the public viewed the American history of gender equality.
Wasserstein’s subsequent plays, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” (1992), “American Daughter,” (1997), “Old Money,” (2002), and “Third,” (2005), maintained a thru line of Wasserstein’s core issues about identity, feminism, and American politics. “The Sisters Rosensweig” represents Wasserstein’s most comprehensive examination of her Jewish heritage and what it means to negotiate a Jewish identity in America. “An American Daughter” was written in response to what Wasserstein viewed as the unfair treatment of women in public office, specifically the sexism and marginalization, which in many ways persists. Wasserstein’s final play, “Third,” returns her and her audience to academia. Set in an anonymous New England college, the plot follows a female professor whose beliefs and ideas are fundamentally challenged and altered by an unnerving encounter with a male student accused of plagiarism. In many ways “Third” updates and speaks to the life of Heidi Holland, suspended in the turbulent uncertainty of 1989.
In 2006, the life and career of Wasserstein became tragically shortened when the gifted artist passed away from complications due to Lymphoma. In addition to her stage work, Wasserstein wrote numerous essays and short works for The New Yorker and wrote the screenplay for the 1998 romantic comedy, “Object of My Affection” starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Wasserstein’s contributions extend beyond the theater; she found a way to instigate important and difficult conversations while also insuring that women’s artistic voices would be heard, valued, and supported. And she did these things with intelligence, strength, and above all, wit.