The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Essay by Phyllis Jane Rose

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
This section contains 3,051 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Phyllis Jane Rose

Critical Essay by Phyllis Jane Rose

SOURCE: "Dear Heidi: An Open Letter to Dr. Holland," in American Theatre, Vol. 6, No. 7, October, 1989, pp. 26-9, 114-16.

Rose was the founder of the Roses International Women's Theater and Softball Syndicate. In the excerpt below, written in the form of a letter dated 1 October 1989 to the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles, she accuses the play's eponymous heroine of complicitly participating in the oppression of women and challenges her to actively oppose the patriarchal ways of contemporary society.

                                           Oct. 1, 1989

                              South Adelaide, Australia

Dear Heidi,

I came to Australia to spend six months learning about women and the arts here. I arrived on the other side of the earth on April Fool's Day. I saw your Chronicles twice before I left the States, once at Playwrights Horizons and once on Broadway. I've been thinking about you ever since.

You haven't met me. I'm writing because you said you felt "stranded." I understand the feeling. I work in the theatre. Your field is art history. We both study images. We both work to create positive images of women.

Let me recount for you a dozen images I saw onstage in The Heidi Chronicles. Then you'll know if I missed something, and other readers will understand my references. The play's the thing. I don't presume that these snapshots are a substitute.


1. You're 40 years old, and somewhat shy behind a lectern in a Columbia University classroom. Pleasant and softly sardonic, you explicate slides of little-known paintings by women from centuries past. Lily Martin Spencer's 19th-century canvas We Both Must Fade reminds you of "one of those horrible high school dances," the kind where "you sort of want to dance, and you sort of want to go home, and you sort of don't know what you want. So you hang around, a fading rose in the exquisitely detailed dress, waiting to see what might happen."

2. You're 16, at a high school dance in Chicago. You're with your best friend Susan, who knows exactly what the boy/girl rules are and loves playing the game. You're both on the sidelines. When "ladies' choice" is announced, Susan gets herself a partner. You sit down and read Death Be Not Proud. Peter Patrone comes in. Impressed that you're reading, he initiates a B-movie cruise fantasy and asks you to marry him. "I covet my independence," you reply. "I want to know you all my life," he counters. "If we can't marry, let's be great friends." Peter teaches you to dance the hully-gully to "The Shoop Shoop Song."

3. You're 19, a student at Vassar, off the dance floor (again) at a Eugene McCarthy rally, when you're accosted by Scoop Rosenbaum, founder and editor of The Liberated Earth News. "You're obviously a liberal," Scoop challenges, "or you wouldn't be here." "I came with a friend," you dodge. Scoop one-ups you with his quick wit. "Lady, you better learn to stand up for yourself," he taunts, but when you do, he puts you down. You are intrigued with the challenge of beating Scoop at his own game. You accept his invitation to bed.

4. Now 21 and a student at Yale, you're visiting still-best-friend Susan, who's joined a feminist consciousness-raising group while attending law school. You tag along reluctantly and sit outside the circle: Jill, a recovering housewife; Becky, an abandoned adolescent; Fran, a passionate lesbian. Cajoled to speak, you tell them, "My interest is images of women from the Renaissance Madonna to the present." "A feminist interpretation?" Fran wonders. "Humanist," you specify. You talk about Scoop. "I allow him to make me feel valuable," you confess. "And the bottom line is I know that's wrong." Then, in a scene that hovers between ridicule and reverence, you join the circle and plead with the group, "Becky, I hope our daughters never feel like this. I hope all our daughters feel so fucking worthwhile. Do you promise we can accomplish that much, Fran?" At the end of the session, while the rest of you sing a campfire song in a circle, Fran puts on Aretha's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," full volume.

5. Now 25 and writing your dissertation, you're demonstrating outside the Art Institute of Chicago to demand equal representation for women artists. Peter Patrone arrives chanting, "No more master-penises!" You tell him Susan has become a "radical shepherdess/counselor." He tells you he's become a "liberal homosexual pediatrician." You don't want to hear it, but you do. When Peter's lover arrives, the three of you march off chanting, "Women in Art!"

6. You're 28, and attending Scoop's wedding to Lisa. Peter and Susan are there, but you're not feeling social. Finally alone with Scoop, you tell him, "I'm writing a book of essays on women and art…. It's sort of humorous. Well, sort of social observation. I mean, it's sort of a point of view." Is it Scoop's decisiveness that makes you so indecisive? "We're talking life choices," he reminds you. "I haven't made them yet," you object. "Yes you have," he contradicts, "or we'd be getting married today." The lights fade as you and Scoop slow-dance to Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." You do not close your eyes. You seem to be somewhere else.

7. You're 31, and arrive late for the shower for Scoop and Lisa's first baby. You and Peter had gone to the memorial rally for John Lennon in Central Park, where you saw Scoop philandering. Everyone keeps this secret from Lisa. Susan has just accepted a film production job in L.A., "targeting films for the 25-to-29-year-old female audience." Scoop's successful magazine Boomer has just done a cover story on Peter Patrone, "The Best Pediatrician in New York under Forty." Nobody's happy. "I like men," another woman confesses, "but they're not very nice." You all toast, "To John. And Ringo, and Paul, and George, forever!"

8. You're 33 and appearing on "Hello, New York," a TV show about baby-boomers in the '80s. April, the mediaditz host, introduces you as an "essayist, curator, feminist." You are seated between Peter and Scoop. They monopolize the show, even when the questions are directed at you. Afterwards, you're angry. "You're clutching your purse," Scoop observes. "I have valuables," you retort. "I'm very late." Tight-lipped, you leave.

9. You're 35, and meeting Susan and a colleague in a trendy New York restaurant. Susan is visiting from Hollywood to offer you a job as consultant for a new TV series about women in the arts. You're sad because this is a power lunch, not a chance to reconnect. "I'm not political anymore," Susan asserts. "I mean, equal rights is one thing, equal pay is one thing, but blaming everything on being a woman is just passé." Spotting movie stars across the room, Susan and friend rush off. They accept your "no" to the TV offer, but they don't hear you.

10. You're 37, and your keynote address to the "Women, Where Are We Going?" luncheon at the Plaza Hotel turns into an extemporaneous nervous breakdown. Out pours a flood of apologies—for your unhappiness, for feeling worthless, for feeling superior. "I feel stranded," you confess, in embarrassment and humiliation. "And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together."

11. You're 38 and you're moving. It's Christmas Eve, and you've brought all your records and books to donate to Peter's new AIDS ward for children (partially funded by Susan's new TV series about women and art). You've been offered a teaching position in the Midwest. "I've been sad for a long time," you tell Peter. "I don't want to be sad anymore." "Unfortunately, things are for real here," Peter counters, telling you about community violence against immune-deficient children and tallying up the number of friends' funerals he's had to go to. "A sadness like yours seems a luxury," he concludes. You reply, "I understand." And you stay, giving up the teaching job. The two of you reprise your B-movie cruise fantasy to "The Shoop Shoop Song."

12. You're 39, and you've bought an apartment. You're reading, alone, when Scoop appears, antic as always, to tell you that he's decided to sell Boomer and go into politics. Peter has helped you adopt a baby from Panama. You name her Judy, after A Date with Judy. Now your dream is in the future. If your daughter and Scoop's son ever get together, you muse, "He'll never tell her it's either/or, baby. And she'll never think she's worthless unless he lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better." Scoop calls you "a mother for the '90s." After he's gone, you awkwardly pick up Judy and say to her, "A heroine for the 21st." You rock her and croon Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," and we see the final slide: you holding Judy on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the banner for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition.


Since I've been in Australia, Heidi, The Heidi Chronicles (and your playwright, Wendy Wasserstein) have garnered numerous prestigious awards, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (awarded to "a woman who deserves recognition for having written a work of outstanding quality for English-speaking theatre"), the Dramatists Guild's Hull Warriner Award (presented annually by other dramatists to an "American play dealing with contemporary political, religious or social mores"), the Pulitzer Prize in drama (for "excellence") and the Tony award (for best play of the season).

You've also gathered raves from most mainstream critics, female and male: "An enlightening portrait of a generation" (Mel Gussow, The New York Times), "Not just a funny play, but a wise one" (Howard Kissel, The Daily News), "A wonderful and important play, gloriously well-written and staged" (Linda Winer, Newsday). On the other hand, Frank Lipsius did call you a "milquetoast" in The Financial Times, and Jacques le Sourd (Gannett Westchester Newspapers) thought the play could be called Memoirs of a Wallflower, which I understand, given your physical positioning at dances, your propensity to sidestep and dodge direct opinion, and your reliance on the qualifier "sort of."

Two thoughtful feminist critics were caustically critical. Alisa Solomon in The Village Voice found The Heidi Chronicles "an unbearably clever play," "just the kind of show Susan would love to produce. It assures us that [intelligent, educated women] are funny for the same traditional reasons women have always been funny: They hate their bodies, can't find a man, and don't believe in themselves."

In her review for Fresh Air on National Public Radio, Laurie Stone accused the playwright of "newspeak," of "trivializing" protest, of "purport[ing] to portray feminists" although Heidi "rejects the word feminist in favor of humanist—as if fighting for women's rights were a diminishment." In response to your implication that the women's movement has left you stranded, Stone asks, "Would anyone dare suggest that the Civil Rights Movement promised minorities too much and is therefore to blame for middle-aged disappointment black people may feel?"

Good question.

Heidi, I am writing to you because you said you feel stranded.

If I were able to paint an image of The Heidi Chronicles, the composition would target Peter and Scoop in the center. At the outer edges I'd wash a shadow circle of anonymous male suitors. You would be trapped between the inner and outer circles, "hanging around," "waiting to see what might happen." The image doesn't change at the end of the play. You simply carry Judy with you because, even with Judy, you're "waiting" for a future when Scoop's son and your daughter might meet, "And she'll never think she's worthless unless he lets her have it all." I don't understand that last sentence, Heidi, but whatever it means, a man is still at the center, still in control of a woman feeling all right about herself.

It is because of this image that I write to you, Heidi. You are stranded, but not where and by whom you think. You have cut yourself off from us. You have barricaded yourself in a closed circle with men and, as someone said at Scoop and Lisa's shower, "They're not very nice."

Peter is wrong. You sadness is not a "luxury." Your sadness speaks of the dis-ease of half the population on earth.

Do you know that in the history of western European dramatic literature—until the 1970s—there are no images of women confronting the world as whole and unique persons? Until the 1970s, there are no roles for women in which her behavior does not center around the actions of a man.

The absence from the stage of images of women acting on their own beliefs in truth, beauty or justice implies that women do not act in this way in the world. Or, if they do, it is not important enough to be dramatized. In your Chronicles, your struggle for women artists, your professed dedication to content over form, are secondary to your relationships with men. Your intelligence becomes wit in their presence. Your imagination settles for fantasy.

As you know, Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy is one of the oldest stories in the library of Western European drama. I want to retell you the story from a feminist (not a humanist) point of view.

In the first play, Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, who has sacrificed their 13-year-old daughter Iphegenia so the weather will clear and his navy can sail, sack Troy and reclaim Helen (his wife's sister and his brother's wife).

In the second play, Orestes, encouraged by Apollo and by his sister Electra, kills his mother to avenge his father's murder.

As the third play opens, The Furies, defenders of mothers and matriarchy ("dark," "ugly," "despicable"), are "hounding" Orestes, demanding he be punished for the most heinous of crimes: matricide. Apollo, Orestes' defense lawyer, calls Athena to judge whether The Furies are right. Athena asks 12 citizens to be the jury. If the vote is tied, Athena will cast the deciding vote.

When I was in school, the play was taught as a record of the birth of "civilized" democracy, as demonstrated in the appointment of the first citizen jury and in the victory of Persuasion (Athena) over Violence (The Furies). I used to teach the play this way myself.

The setting is Ares Hill, where the Amazons camped, built their fortresses and were defeated. Iphegenia's murder is never discussed. Apollo argues that killing the father is a much worse crime than killing the mother because "the mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts."

The men of the jury are deadlocked. Athena casts her vote with Orestes—against The Furies and against matriarchy—because, she says, "There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth. I am always for the male."

Athena then "persuades" The Furies to go underground where they are to renounce their anger, "sit on shining chairs before the hearth," become household goddesses, preside over marriages, and change their names to The Kindly Ones.

If this is the beginning of Western democracy, it is also the end of justice and self-determination for women. A gynocentric value system has been officially buried. Calling The Furies "The Kindly Ones" is a newspeak trick. The future is male-centered.

Men declared war on women centuries before Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia. Male institutions effectively silenced independent women in public places long before the male-identified Athena (played by a male actor) assured the chorus of Greek citizens (land-owning men, played by male actors) that "I am always for the male." Rights of matrilinear descent were dead even as Athena sent The Furies underground to renounce their anger.

Still influenced by the Greeks, traditional Western theatre continues to define and delimit the nature and value of women's roles. In opera and mainstream theatre, when there are roles for women (including Shakespeare), women die, go mad, are banished or get married. The classical definition of "comedy" is a play that ends in marriage, effectively sending the "virgin" (she who is not possessed) to the hearth and male dominion.

Twentieth-century American musical comedies are direct descendants of this tradition. They continue to tame the wildness out of women. Consider My Fair Lady. The Sound of Music, South Pacific. In each, a witty, energetic, independent, optimistic young woman saves a middle-aged man from despair. Then they get married.

Somehow, Heidi, you've gone to the hearth and male dominion all by yourself. As if you've made a new decision. As if, in Laurie Stone's words, "reaction is revolution." As if "surrendering independence is a measure of independence."

We cannot afford this complicity, Heidi. It matters—not only who paints the pictures and who writes the plays, but what the images are and who benefits from them.

The fact is, all art is political. It either supports the status quo or challenges it. Just as in Apollo's time, the status quo values what is white, male, heterosexual and capitalist. (Scoop gets another "A.") Art which supports the status quo is celebrated by establishment reviewers as "humanist" or "important" or "universal." Art which challenges status quo values is diminished as "feminist" or "special interest" or "political."

In the United States, between 1974 (when you were picketing the Art Institute of Chicago) and 1988 (when you adopted Judy), audiences of Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, poor people of both genders as well as women of all races and ages began to see positive images of themselves presented by cultural workers who looked like them and who experienced life in ways audience members recognized. "Nontraditional" audiences entered theatres, some for the first time, eager to have their struggles for self-definition and self-determination validated on the public stage….

All colonized peoples are fighting the same war, Heidi. "He Who Mounts," in Apollo's phrase, has colonized not only all women and children but all men of cultures and colors different from his own. He has colonized the earth itself. "The earth is our Mother," say indigenous peoples. But He Who Mounts has declared himself a single parent. Unless we continue to do battle, our mother the earth will die. Matricide will be global this time.

Your work, my work, our work can create images to empower out communities to prevent it. But we have to act. We cannot sort of … hang around … waiting to see what might happen. Especially when we feel stranded.

I fly back to the States today. Can we meet for coffee? Toast The Furies instead of The Beatles?

                                    Respectfully yours,

                                     Phyllis Jane Rose

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