The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Review by Gayle Austin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
This section contains 1,139 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gayle Austin

Critical Review by Gayle Austin

SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 107-08.

In the following review, Austin discusses characterization in The Heidi Chronicles and feminist reaction to the play. She notes that although the play has been lauded by some feminists for its focus on women, others argue that the work portrays women in traditional roles and has the potential to "become part of the system that oppresses women and so highly rewards their creative expressions when they aid in its purposes."

The Heidi Chronicles is a rare play for Broadway. Written by a woman, its central character is an unmarried professional woman. It won the Pulitzer, Tony, N.Y. Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Hull-Warriner, and Susan Smith Blackburn awards. Ostensibly a triumph for women, Heidi is instead a problematic example of how the male-dominated production system of commercial theater maintains its control over women, in this case with the complicity of a woman playwright.

Heidi follows a single woman through three decades, from high school in the 1960s and feminist activities in the 1970s to a career as an art historian who rediscovers "lost" women painters and chooses to become a single mother in the 1980s. Like Wasserstein's previous plays, Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and Isn't It Romantic (1983), Heidi is topical and episodic, placing a few serious, poignant moments within a comic form.

Joan Allen brought her intelligent and vulnerable presence to the character as the first Heidi in the Broadway production. Having described herself as a "highly informed spectator," Heidi appears in the prologues of both acts showing slides to her college classes and commenting on the women artists who made the paintings. But Heidi is also a nearly silent spectator in her own life. In almost every scene her major action is watching the activities of the other characters on or offstage. She has relatively little dialogue in these scenes. In one, she begins to speak during a TV talk show, only to be literally interrupted by the two men in her life, who are seated on either side of her. The only time Heidi has a substantial speaking role is in monologues during the two slide-show prologues and during Act II, scene 4, in which Heidi speaks to women from her old high school. This speech, which comes at the climatic point of the play, is one in which Heidi departs from her prepared lecture text to question her life and the feminist movement. She says, "I feel stranded" and "I thought the point was we were all in this together." The point is that Wasserstein portrays Heidi's women friends as trivial and her men friends as serious and has Heidi blame the women's movement for that situation.

Wasserstein keeps women at a spectatorial distance in this play and focuses most of Heidi's attention on her two male friends, love-interest Scoop and gay pediatrician Peter. The two scenes in which groups of women appear together, consciousness raising in Ann Arbor in 1970 and a baby shower in New York a decade later (played by the same three actresses), are near caricatures of group female behavior. The play shows that the women she knows do not form part of Heidi's support network while the men do. Her disappointment with women is made to seem "natural," given these women, rather than part of a larger pattern in which women are taught that they are "stranded" from each other and can only rely on men for support.

The final two scenes of the play show Heidi working out her primary relationships, first with Peter, then with Scoop. Neither man is a satisfactory life partner for her, however, and the final moment of the play shows Heidi singing the same song to her daughter that she danced to at the end of Act I with Scoop. The closure of the play is based on her substitution of one bond for another: mother for lover. Her work and women friends are absent. No wonder the play has been received less than enthusiastically by many feminists.

To some, mainly liberal feminists, the play's acceptance into the mainstream is a source of pride and represents a step forward for all women playwrights. But for materialist feminists, who look at its circumstances of production and reception, the price for attaining that status is far too high. The very factors that allowed this play to achieve its privileged position are the same factors that prevent plays with more threatening messages to cross the line into the canon. To reach this point of visibility, a play must have a commercial production in New York City. Given the power structure of this mode of production, any message that threatens to disrupt male privilege will not succeed. Heidi does not unsettle men. It not only reassures them, it gives them all the best lines.

The difficulties of forming satisfactory relationships with men, of balancing personal life and career, and of having children are real issues in women's lives and are all too rarely dealt with in any manner on the stage. Although there is a limit to how much the play can be blamed for what it is not, it is valid to consider the effects of the way some of its most problematic actions are carried out onstage. Some women may identify with Heidi, but others chafe at the entire representational frame the play places around her. The realism it employs makes invisible the real difficulties a woman in Heidi's position encounters, such as the costs of the transactions in the play. The adoption of a baby, at the conclusion of the play, would have financial costs that are never addressed. Heidi's decision to stay in New York because of Peter's need for her is shown as a simple, emotional decision, with no relevance to her career or economic implications. The trouble with this play is that although it raises issues, Wasserstein undercuts serious consideration through facile supporting female characters, sit-com humor, and a passive heroine who forms an absence at the center of the play.

The biggest danger to women posed by the play is its future influence. As Heidi enters the canon of plays that are widely produced, it will be published, anthologized, criticized, and taught as a prime example of the work of a woman playwright. It would have additional influence as a film; one can even imagine it as a television series. Scenes from the play will echo through audition halls for decades to come. The "I thought we were all in this together" monologue will be memorized and repeated, enacted and absorbed by thousands of aspiring young actresses. In this way the play will become part of the system that oppresses women and so highly rewards their creative expressions when they aid in its purposes.

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This section contains 1,139 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gayle Austin
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