Examining the Cultural Context of an American Playwright
The headline for Wendy Wasserstein’s 2006 New York Times obituary declared that “her plays spoke to a generation” and there’s no denying that at their best her works capture the flavor of specific moments in American culture. They also give voice to concerns common to many contemporary American women similar to Wasserstein: white, heterosexual, upper-class, educated at top private schools, and unsure of their roles in a fast-changing world.
This topical focus proved to be both a blessing and a curse: several of Wasserstein’s plays were popular and critical successes in their day but were so much of the moment that once the moment passed their faults became glaringly apparent.
While many critics have faulted Wasserstein for her reliance on topicality and brand- and name-dropping as substitutes for character and story development, Jan Balakian’s Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein embraces this aspect of her work. Balakian offers a reading of seven Wasserstein plays focused not so much on their artistic quality as on the way they encapsulated concerns of a particular subset of contemporary women, while also giving strong consideration to how Wasserstein’s works were influenced by her Jewish heritage.
The plays covered are Uncommon Women and Others (1977), Isn’t It Romantic (1983), The Heidi Chronicles (1988), The Sisters Rosenzweig (1991), An American Daughter (1997), Old Money (2000) and Third (2005). Balakian draws on archival research, interviews with Wasserstein and her contemporaries, and published materials such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, articles in Ms magazine and Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women to elucidate how the struggles and conflicts felt by Wasserstein’s characters mirror those felt by many women in contemporary American society.
The result is a book which is useful in understanding the context of Wasserstein’s plays and can function as a sourcebook for historical and cultural background but provides very little else. I’m not entirely convinced of the need for such a detailed compendium of information about recent American history (we’re not talking about Elizabethan England or classical Greece here) focused on the works of a less-than-major playwright. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that anyone seeing or reading An American Daughter could miss the parallels with the Zoë Baird case (and if they did, they could easily locate the information necessary to bring them up to speed).
On the other hand, I’ve heard rumors of college students unaware of the fact that the United States interned American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II so perhaps a book providing this kind of detailed information is needed. People from outside the US who are interested in Wasserstein’s works will also find it useful as an easy way to get up to speed on the cultural context of her writing.
Balakian includes reproductions and excerpts from relevant documents in her book and these often prove the most useful of all. For instance, many of us are familiar with the old saw about female college students being more focused on getting their MRS than their BA but reading the dating advice from the Mount Holyoke freshman handbook (Wasserstein matriculated there in 1967), reproduced in the chapter on Uncommon Women and Others really brings it home. Having this information doesn’t change my critical opinion of Wasserstein’s play but it does make me a bit more sympathetic toward both the playwright and her characters.
I’d feel happier about Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein if it came with an explanatory subtitle, perhaps “Their Social Context” or “Time Capsules of an Era” which would more clearly identify its scope. So much is implied in the title that is absent the book including consideration of the merits of the works and the literary and dramatic context in which Wasserstein was working. The book also feels at times like an information dump (do we really need photographs of John Lennon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush?) while ignoring obvious avenues of approach. For instance, many of Wasserstein’s characters are obsessed with the symbols of success (the sneering dismissal in The Heidi Chronicles of a character who didn’t attend an Ivy League university is a good example), an aspect of her work given little attention.
Finally, there are some disappointing throwaway remarks which are misleading particularly for people unfamiliar with the cultural climate of the years in question (and if you are familiar, you won’t need this book). Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart “dramatized the humorous side of gay life”? (The play’s focus is the marital and medical crises of four heterosexuals as well as their irrational fear of AIDS.) Caroline Kennedy’s withdrawal from consideration for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vacated senate seat was due to “private family matters” or a “political climate too hostile”? (In fact Kennedy had minimal qualifications for the position and was considered as a candidate primarily due to her surname.) But overall, Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein is a book which has its uses— although we’ll have to wait for someone else to give Wasserstein’s plays the full consideration they deserve.