Are modern day American women happy? Are their lives more fulfilling than that of women who lived before the Equal Rights Amendment? Have the expectations of stereotypical gender roles faded away? Is society still dominated by a patriarchal "boy's club"?
Wendy Wasserstein considers these questions in her Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Heidi Chronicles. Although it was written over twenty years ago, this drama still mirrors the emotional trials many of us (women and men) experience as we try to figure out the big question: What should we do with our lives?
A Male-centric Disclaimer:
First of all, before this review continues, I should disclose some personal information. I'm a guy. A forty year old male. If I were the subject of analysis in a women's studies class, I might be labeled simply as part of the ruling class in a male-biased society.
Hopefully, as I critique this play, I won't present myself as obnoxiously as the self-confident, self-loving male characters in The Heidi Chronicles. (But I probably will.)
The strongest, most appealing aspect of the play is its heroine, a complex character who is emotionally fragile yet resilient. As an audience we watch her make choices which we know will lead to heart ache (such as falling in love with the wrong guy), but we also witness Heidi learning from her mistakes; ultimately she proves that she can have both a successful career and a family life.
Some of the themes are worthy of literary analysis (for any of you English majors looking for a essay topic). In particular, the play defines feminists of the 70s as hard-working activists, who are willing to forgo gender expectations to improve women's status in society. In contrast, the younger generation of women (the ones who are in their twenties during the 1980s) are portrayed as more consumer-minded. This perception is demonstrated when Heidi's friends want to develop a sitcom in which women Heidi's age are "very unhappy. Unfulfilled, frightened of growing old alone." In contrast, the younger generation "want to get married in their twenties, have their first baby by thirty, and make a pot of money." This perception of disparity between the generations leads to a powerful monologue delivered by Heidi in Scene Four, Act Two. She laments, "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. I thought the point was that we were all in this together." It's a heart-felt pleas for a sense of community Wasserstein (and many other feminist authors) that failed to come into fruition after the dawn of the ERA.
As you will discover in more detail if you read the plot outline below, Heidi falls in love with a man named Scoop Rosenbaum. The man is a jerk, plain and simple. And the fact that Heidi spends decades carrying a torch for this loser drains away some of my sympathy for her character. Fortunately, one of her friends, Peter, snaps her out of it when he asks her to contrast her misery with the more devastating problems going on around them. (Peter has recently lost many friends due to AIDS). It's a much needed wake-up call.
Plot Summary of The Heidi Chronicles:
The play begins in 1989 with a lecture presented by Heidi Holland, a brilliant, often lonely art historian whose work focuses on developing a stronger awareness of female painters, getting their work exhibited in otherwise male-centric museums.
Then the play transitions to the past, and the audience meets the 1965 version of Heidi, an awkward wall flower at a high school dance. She meets Peter, a larger than life young man who will become her best friend (and who will eventually thwart her romantic intentions by coming of out the closet).
Flash forward to college, 1968, Heidi meets Scoop Rosenbaum, an attractive, arrogant editor of a left-wing newspaper who wins her heart (and her virginity) after a ten minute conversation.
The years go by. Heidi bonds with her girlfriends in women's groups. She crafts a thriving career as an art historian and professor. Her love life, however, is in shambles. Her romantic feelings for her gay friend Peter are unrequited for obvious reasons. And, for reasons I find hard to fathom, Heidi can't give up on that philandering Scoop, even though he never commits to her and marries a woman whom he does not love passionately. Heidi wants the men she cannot have, and anyone else she dates seems to bore her.
Heidi also desires the experience of motherhood. This yearning becomes all the more painful when she attends the baby shower of Mrs. Scoop Rosenbaum. Yet, Heidi is ultimately empowered enough to find her own path without a husband.
(Spoiler alert: Peter becomes a sperm donor and Heidi has a baby by the end of the end of the play. Fulfillment accomplished -- without a husband!)
Although a bit dated, The Heidi Chronicles still remains an important reminder of the tough choices we all make when we try to chase not just one but a whole handful of dreams.
Wasserstein explores some of the same themes (women's rights, political activism, women who love gay men) in her comical family drama: The Sisters Rosenweig. She also wrote a book called Sloth, a parody of those over-enthusiastic self-help books.