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Why Wendy Wasserstein’s ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ is Still Relevant Today

Why Wendy Wasserstein's 'The Heidi Chronicles' is Still Relevant Today

Not 24 hours after producers announced that “The Heidi Chronicles” revival will close three months early on May 3rd (after only 80 performances), an article appeared in The New York
Times questioning what this premature closing meant for the play, playwright
Wendy Wasserstein’s legacy and feminism today. Many women weighed in, from
playwrights to journalists to professors, and the article ignited a discussion on
social media about the play’s relevance. But left out of the article and much of the ensuing conversations was historical context, which is just as importance as relevance in a
revival.

“The Heidi
Chronicles” was written in 1988 as a chronicle of feminism from
the ’60s to the late ’80s, and it’s a history that many people today either
don’t know or don’t find relevant. But the play portrays an important and, yes,
relevant moment in history: the feminist backlash of the ’80s, which is
chronicled in detail in Susan Faludi’s tome “Backlash.” In the ’80s, women who had made strides in the ’70s were told that feminism
was to blame for any and all problems they were having. As Faludi explains in her book,
the media sounded the alarms about women working and the effect that that would
have on their children (as if certain groups of women weren’t always economically compelled to work throughout American history). The backlash affected women of all races and classes.

Heidi’s big speech in Act II, in which she addresses
students at her alma mater, ends with the line: “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.” As Heidi’s friends from her former consciousness-raising rap group abandon her, she’s left questioning her choices
from the past decade and where women are going.

The issue is that the revival’s marketing did not put “The Heidi Chronicles” into historical
context, promoting instead the play’s relevance to today as if the women’s movement has been in a state of suspended animation. As the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning work began previews earlier this spring, the cast
struggled to answer the question of relevance in various articles and video
segments. In a Broadway.com
interview
, star Elisabeth Moss said that Heidi is “just like us and has
the same issues and the same problems and the same questions.” In a Theatermania
video
from the press event, Moss tried to relate to the idea of
“having it all,” finally settling on it meaning, “What does ‘having it all’
mean for me?”

The problem with this approach is that the play is often considered not-so-relevant to many women’s experience of feminism today. A Princeton professor quoted
in The New York Times article said
she teaches the play as a historical work. That may be a more accurate interpretation.
Feminism has changed greatly since the ’80s and now incorporates intersectionality, the idea that members of an oppressed group, in this case women, experience sexism differently from their peers depending on race, class and sexuality. Thus, the experiences and oppressions of a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman, who enjoys certain privileges that other women do not, cannot be taken as representative of all women. “The Heidi
Chronicles” was written before this wave of feminism, so the play ultimately feels like history to most contemporary audiences. 

But grumbling that the play feels dated with phrases like “having it all” is missing the point. As a second-wave feminist
text, “The Heidi Chronicles” gave voice
to many women who shared a particular experience that had not yet been
given widespread dramatization. “The
Heidi Chronicles” is also one of Wasserstein plays (among them “Uncommon Women and Others,” “Isn’t It Romantic” and “An American Daughter”) that deepens and extends this conversation,
examining various female characters at different stages of life and circumstances. Wasserstein’s was the lone female voice who addressed these issues on the stage on a regular basis.

What Wasserstein’s plays can do for women today is provide a
historical context for today’s feminism. How is 2015 different from 30 years ago? How is it the same? How far have we come? Where are we going?

Despite accusations of datedness, the play does remain powerful for many young women today. Sarah
Hiatt, a 27-year-old photographer and art student in Chicago, said, “I’m
grateful I got to see ‘The Heidi
Chronicles’ three times. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t
thought about a piece of it. I was raised in a church that told me my purpose
is to have children and support my husband in his choices. In the play we see Heidi
being presented with new ideas, new choices, and we get to see how she handles
them. As many around her change their priorities and ideals with the times,
Heidi holds on as a ‘highly informed spectator.’ It’s that aspect of the
character that I relate to — she is sad but hopeful. She keeps working towards
what she believes in and oftentimes is alone in that.”

New York City-based playwright and producer Emily
Comisar, 29, also saw this production three times. “Many of the conversations
that Heidi is having in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s are conversations that I’m having
today,” she said in an email. “Wanting to take an academic opportunity in
another city knowing my longtime boyfriend wouldn’t come with me, encountering
men who aren’t comfortable with high-achieving partners, being asked how it’s
possible that I’m ‘still single,’ and the implication that a man who’s single
at 40 has made a life choice while a woman who is single at 40 just wasn’t
wanted by anyone.”

It’s also important to note that women still are not
equal in leadership positions nor in pay. They are still interrupted and shut
out of conversations, as Heidi was in the second-act TV interview. As of
2012
, the Art Institute of Chicago, which is featured in the play, still has 90% male
artists showing in their Modern galleries and 82% in the Contemporary
galleries. 

With an understanding of the historical context, “The Heidi Chronicles” remains relevant by
reminding us that progress on these issues does not happen linearly. It’s not one step forward, one step forward, one step forward. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. Like Heidi, sometimes the best we can do as
women is to stay true to our own choices and fight for a future that is our own
making, whether that means daring to be a single parent in the family values-infused ’80s (not a “neat” ending to the play by any means, as one of The New York Times article interviewees noted)
or to not have children at all. We must also fight for all women to have the
means to make their own choices.

However we view Heidi, or Wasserstein, we should learn
from Heidi’s circumstances and have the courage to chronicle and share our own
experiences. If we don’t, we’ll all be left stranded.

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