Sunday, February 3, 2008

Remembering Wendy Wasserstein

If you had told me in, say, 2004, that Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein would all die within a twelve-month period, I would have said you were crazy. Sure, Miller was almost 90 years old, but Wilson was in his late 50s and Wasserstein was five years younger than that. However, that sad prediction turned out to be the truth. Wilson never got the chance to show us what he would do after he completed his impressive Century Cycle. Wasserstein's death deprived baby-boomer women of the playwright most devoted to chronicling their stories.

Wasserstein belongs to my mother's generation, but because there still aren't a lot of successful American female playwrights, I looked up to her too. It seems that no one ever had a bad thing to say about her, and I imagined that if I became a playwright, I might get to meet her, thank her, chat with her... So her death really saddened me. I wrote a paper that spring on The Heidi Chronicles, as a homage.

I meant to post this entry on January 30, the second anniversary of Wasserstein's death, but was too busy polishing up a play of my own. Though that's appropriate, too. It's even an instance of my life coming full circle. I just discovered an e-mail I wrote to my adviser two years ago, expressing my sadness about Wasserstein and my excitement to start researching a new play. My adviser wrote back:
I was also shocked to learn of Wendy Wasserstein's death, although I did know that she was seriously ill. Wendy delivered an address in the chapel at Vassar at one point, and it was a huge success. She was very honest and very funny. Sometimes I think the two things go together. And she was also, I think, a significant playwright. She knew what life is about and how to dramatize it. You should write your paper on The Heidi Chronicles. More importantly, however, you should keep writing plays yourself. Show Wendy's spirit the stuff Marissa is made of. Get inside Hallie Flanagan. She will bounce you around a bit, both intellectually and emotionally.
Of course, this "new play" turned into my senior thesis play--the one about Hallie Flanagan and the 1930s. But I doubt any of us knew that it would take me exactly two years to find the structure for this play--two years since I started researching it, two years since Wendy's death.

I'll admit sometimes I'm a little annoyed at Wasserstein's plays for their lack of "theatricality"--they do not use the stage in innovative ways, and her most famous play, The Heidi Chronicles, is episodic. I wouldn't really call the events of her plays "gripping," and even her celebrated wit makes you chuckle, not guffaw; nor does she pierce you with black humor. There's a very interesting article in The Boston Globe that relates to this--whether it's OK to criticize Wasserstein's work for its style and narrowness of scope, in light of all the good she did for female playwrights. I agree with a lot of what this article says.

Despite the baby-boomer focus of her plays, I do relate to Wasserstein's characters. This year, I've thought a lot about Uncommon Women and Others, because it concerns a group of girls in their senior year of college. One of my housemates is a driven pre-law student, just like the character of Kate; another is a funny, self-deprecating Jewish girl, like Holly.

My high school almost produced Uncommon Women my senior year, at my suggestion. Originally, our theater teacher planned to produce the all-female play Vital Signs, which is a collection of about 30 short monologues. I read it and found it boring, so my teacher challenged me to come up with something better. The next morning, I invaded his homeroom and thrust Uncommon Women under his nose. He agreed to produce it, and for the next few weeks we thought about the play, watched the TV version repeatedly, discussed the pop-culture references, etc.

At the time, I wanted to play Kate, Rita, or Leilah--and I can still see aspects of those three characters within me. Kate is my driven, determined side--the part of me that knows I am going to be a playwright and will let nothing stand in my way. Rita is the part of me that likes to make people laugh--the part of me that enjoys crazy costume parties and oddball theories and acting like a loopy drama major. And Leilah is my insecurities and neurosis and feeling like an eternal runner-up.

We ended up not producing Uncommon Women, because most of the females who auditioned were high-school freshmen, and it wouldn't be right to see them discuss sex and orgasms and menstruation. It still remains one of my favorite Wasserstein plays, perhaps because her characters are youngest and I can relate to them best, perhaps because it's less tied to seminal baby-boomer events than The Heidi Chronicles is, perhaps because it's one of the few plays I know that celebrates female friendship above all other relationships.

Indeed, Wasserstein said, she wrote Uncommon Women because she wanted to see an all-female curtain call on the stage of the stodgy old Yale School of Drama. That's what I love about her. That's what still inspires me.

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