Author of 'The Heidi Chronicles'
Wednesday 01 February 2006
Wendy Wasserstein, playwright: born New York 18 October 1950; (one daughter); died New York 30 January 2006.
The American playwright Wendy Wasserstein focused on contemporary women's lives and on the triumphs and struggles confronting the liberated woman of the late 20th century.
The play that made her famous, The Heidi Chronicles, won her both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and, though her work found less favour on the London stage, she was acknowledged as a key figure in putting the modern educated woman before the public - often a person refusing merely to accept her life, whatever its surface advantages. The New Yorker critic John Simon wrote of her play The Sisters Rosensweig,
Miss Wasserstein is surely one of our wittiest writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely trying to keep from drowning.
The youngest of five children, Wasserstein was born in 1950 into what she called "a nice, middle-class Jewish family". Her father was a textile executive and she was raised first in Brooklyn, then Manhattan. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and Yale University School of Drama: "My parents only let me go to drama school because it was Yale. They thought I'd marry a lawyer." Her first play, Uncommon Women and Others, started life as a graduate thesis.
She later told People magazine that after graduating she was turned down by law school and business school, briefly tried medical school, then tried to break into television before becoming a playwright. "I'm someone who's always wanted to become normal - it just never worked out." Swoosie Kurtz, who appeared with Glenn Close in the off-Broadway production of Uncommon Women and Others (1977), commented,
Wendy had a voice like no other, and a great sense of the absurd. She could take something that was sad or sombre in life, wrap her words around it and somehow make it light and not so disturbing.
The play, in which five articulate women remember in flashback their anxieties during their final college days six years earlier, was filmed for television a year later with Meryl Streep replacing Close. That version is now on DVD and makes fascinating viewing. In one scene, one woman urges another to join her on the town, where they will go to a bar alone and order Brandy Alexanders: "We'll be two uncommon women, mysterious, but proud" - adding, "It's debilitating constantly seeing your work in the terms of someone else." Its heroine's concluding lines doubtless echo the optimism of the young author:
I keep a list of options. Just from today's lunch, there's law, insurance, marry Leonard Woolf, have a baby, bird-watch in Bolivia. A myriad of openings.
Wasserstein was to conquer Broadway with The Heidi Chronicles (1989), which follows the initially insecure Heidi through 20 years from the late Sixties. Wasserstein wrote the play in London:
I had a crazy grant from the British-American Arts Association for $4,000, and I sat alone and wrote this in this little room in a place called the Nell Gwynn House.
Wasserstein was the first female playwright to win the Tony, and she had an equally big hit with The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), which she described as "your basic, well-made boulevard comedy". The late Madeline Kahn starred as the piquantly named Gorgeous, a part played by Maureen Lipman in London.
Other plays included An American Daughter (1997), which starred Kate Nelligan as a forceful politician whose career falls apart, Old Money (2000) and Isn't It Romantic (2001), in which a character makes a telling speech:
No matter how lonely you get, or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone.
Wasserstein also wrote books, essays, an opera and the screenplay for the film The Object of My Affection (1998). But she always returned to the theatre.
In 1999, at the age of 48, she had a daughter, Lucy Jane, but she refused (despite much Broadway rumour) to reveal who the father was. She told the reporter A.M. Homes,
I had my child so late because my focus and energy was on those plays. I couldn't do both. I would not have been able to do it until this age, and I don't even know if I can now.
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