February 2, 2006
Wasserstein Chronicled Modern Women
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, known for wry portrayals of strong, conflicted, contemporary women in prizewinning works such as "The Heidi Chronicles," died this week in New York.
While not always overtly Jewish, her characters still bore the mark of the playwright's traditional Jewish upbringing in New York.
Later in her life, the feminist writer became a Jewish mother, although perhaps not in the way her own Jewish mother pictured.
Wasserstein, 55, died Monday of lymphoma.
Wasserstein wrote "in ways that are profoundly Jewish," said Joyce Antler, professor of American Jewish history and women's studies at Brandeis University.
Her "ideas of show business came from the synagogue -- for her that sense of theater as a space for expressing these views was influenced by her Jewishness," Antler said.
Although her focus was on the American woman, not just the Jewish American woman, she expressed "the modern dilemma of American women with a Jewish accent, a Jewish sensibility," Antler said.
Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor in chief of Lilith Magazine, said, "She may be the only playwright of national stature to capture, moment by moment, the changing lives of women in the last part of the 20th century."
Her best-known work, "The Heidi Chronicles," won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1989. The play narrates the life of Heidi, a feminist art historian, over the span of a few decades, from a dance school in 1965 to her decision to adopt a child and become a single mother in 1989 -- a mirror to Wasserstein's own decision to have a baby by herself in 1999. Another work, "The Sisters Rosensweig," featured three middle-aged Jewish siblings who come together in London for a birthday party.
In that play, "she was able to have anger at aspects of Jewish family life and yet be appreciative," said Schneider, of both "the discomfort and warm pleasures of family life."
"Sisters" deals with "developing new identities out of Jewish expectations," Antler said.
One sister, who is secular, comes home, discusses with her siblings what it means to be Jewish and discovers her Jewish identity.
"And issues are raised and discussed in a Jewish communal way," Antler said.
Even in plays with less overtly Jewish themes, Wasserstein's work reflects the perspective of "a woman who bears demographic accents of a Jewish woman," Antler added.
The lead protagonist in her first play, "Uncommon Women and Others" in 1977, is Holly, a Jewish woman in the last year of an elite women's college similar to Mount Holyoke, Wasserstein's alma mater.
The play continues six years later when Holly and her friends reunite over lunch to compare life paths. Each one is simultaneously successful and lacking in her life -- the professionals are still seeking fulfilling relationships; one is happily married and pregnant but unemployed and unsure of whether she should have pursued a career.
The member of the group that has both a fulfilling marriage and career is unable to attend the gathering, having moved to Iraq -- the implication being that in order to achieve both these things, she had to make an extreme sacrifice.
Wasserstein's characters mostly aged with her, continuing to be strong, interesting and passionate, if conflicted, and generally "uncommon."
The playwright, who attended a yeshiva in Brooklyn as a child, "was extraordinary in her ability to be deeply honest in a kind of sidelong and ironic way in writing about her experience as a Jewish woman," Schneider said.
Wasserstein, who once said that her traditional parents allowed her to study at Yale's School of Drama in the hope that she'd find a doctor or lawyer to marry, celebrated "educated women dealing with professional ambition and societal expectations in terms of marriage and/or procreation," Schneider said.
In addition to about a dozen plays, Wasserstein's oeuvre included two collections of essays, "Bachelor Girls" and "Shiksa Goddess: or, How I Spent My Forties"; the non-fiction work "Sloth," a parody of a self-help book; and a forthcoming novel.
Her plays might have been loosely autobiographical, but her essays were frank discussions of events in her life, such as her decision to have a child on her own.
"She followed a path from career woman to being a Jewish mother," Antler said. And though she didn't follow the traditional route, "she is the voice of her generation as a proud Jewish mother."