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Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein by Jan Balakian (review)

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 194-196 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0016

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Feminist scholars do not easily embrace Wendy Wasserstein's plays. Written about wealthy, educated, heterosexual women living on the Upper East Side, her commercially successful plays smack of a conservative culture while doing little to interrogate the sexist power differential holding such culture in place. Wasserstein's is not the edgy theatre of feminist playwrights Megan Terry, Caryl Churchill, or Maria Irene Fornes, who used experimental techniques to critique stereotypes and normative ideology. That her characters associated their confusion with the increased opportunities feminism offered, sometimes speaking cynically of feminism without being aware of their own positions of privilege, irked many feminist scholars. The Heidi Chronicles in particular sparked a significant debate: Helene Keyssar, for example, found the narrow perspective of the play's frame disturbing, and Jill Dolan disparaged Wasserstein's liberal feminism as flawed.

In Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein, Jan Balakian does not address the contentious position Wasserstein holds among feminist writers; rather, she sidesteps the criticism altogether by acknowledging that Wasserstein never claimed an identity as a feminist playwright. Instead, her plays reveal the historical, social, and political forces that have shaped women's identities in America since the liberation movement of the late 1960s. Balakian's book is not so much an argument as it is a well-researched reading of each of Wasserstein's seven plays; as such, it makes the case for contextualizing the personal issues of the characters within the political and economic setting of each period. Through this reminder that the personal is also political, Balakian proves that Wasserstein's ability to keep women's issues at the front and center of mainstream American theatre was itself a successful and significant feminist gesture.

No one would teach John Osborne's Look Back in Anger without situating the play in the leftist political climate and class animosity prevalent in 1950s England, yet few critical studies place Wasserstein's works within the political milieu that engendered them. By assembling the various cultural allusions within the plays and painstakingly researching the college handbooks, newspaper and magazine articles, television shows, commencement speeches, and song lyrics to which the characters refer, Balakian paints the ideologically charged landscape against which Wasserstein's female characters define themselves. Acting similar to a sociologist, Balakian examines the plays as cultural artifacts, studying how these flawed but realistic characters respond to their vexed environment by the choices they make and the challenges they overcome. In other words, each play acts as a barometer of feminist politics.

With each chapter, Balakian demonstrates how Wasserstein's plays are a "snap-shot" of their time. Her detailed historical reading of Uncommon Women (1977), set in 1967-71, shows a moment in time when women shifted from identifying with the conventional roles of their mothers to envisioning themselves as equal to men in careers and life choices. From today's vantage point the play strikes many as a quaint "period piece," but Balakian emphasizes the too easily forgotten personal turmoil these women experienced graduating into such a transitory world. As she cites an article from Ms. magazine advising how couples should split everything equally, or mentions Gloria Steinem hypothesizing if men could menstruate, or provides the lyrics from the Holyoke song in which women promise to "save" themselves for Yale alum, or quotes a 1968 commencement speech that advises putting careers on hold to raise a family, Balakian illuminates the conflicting pressures these characters responded to, endowing their anxiety with gravity. Throughout Wasserstein's plays, women are enjoined to be exemplary, "uncommon" women, while simultaneously reminded that their choices could leave them feeling lonely, exhausted, and unfulfilled.

The book delineates each play against the historical backdrop of its time: The Sisters Rosensweig against the collapse of the Soviet Union or An American Daughter as an allegory of the retracted nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general. Balakian adroitly incorporates reading material from each period or itemizes key milestones and upheavals of the feminist movement. Her reading of Isn't It Romantic, a play about two young women searching for romantic and professional fulfillment, historicizes the women's concerns by pointing to particular referents of 1982-83: the Census Bureau's tabulation of unmarried people...

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