Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein by Jan Balakian

The works of Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein encapsulated the concerns of a generation of American women.

Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein

Publisher: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
Length: 400 pages
Author: Jan Balakian
Price: $19.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-01

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.