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Critical Essay by Wendy Wasserstein
SOURCE: "Winner Take All," in Bachelor Girls, 1990. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 193-97.
In the essay below, Wasserstein discusses her reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles.
I dreamed I accepted the Tony Award wearing a CAMP EUGENE O'NEILL sweatshirt. It was an odd dream for two reasons. First, because my friend William Ivey Long, the costume designer, had made me a dress for the occasion; and, second, because until 1989 the only thing I'd ever won was a babka cake at a bakery on Whalley Avenue in New Haven.
My world view has always been from the vantage point of the slighted. I am the underachiever who convinces herself that it's a source of pride not to make the honor roll. Still, for the rest of my life I will remember the name of all those people who did. I am a walking Where Are They Now column. I'm perpetually curious as to what happened to all those supposed prodigies who were singled out while I and my coterie of far more interesting malcontents passed on.
As a child, on the eve of any school evaluation, I would inform my parents which of my teachers "hated me." In retrospect, it seems doubtful that I was offensive enough to evoke my teacher's animosity, but I certainly wasn't diligent enough in my schoolwork to earn their admiration, either. So, having fashioned a life based on anticipated exclusion—my date left with the blond; they gave the prize to the boy; the woman in the Anne Klein suit and the legs got the job—it came as a genuine surprise, a shock, when, for the first time ever, the winner was me.
On a gray March afternoon, I'm sitting in my bed, looking at my typewriter and thinking about how my life hasn't changed significantly since I was sixteen. I'm working up to a frothy, self-recriminating how-have-I-gone-wrong when the phone rings. On days when I'm building up to substantial negativity, I usually don't pick up the receiver but instead just listen as the messages are recorded. This time, though, the voice belongs to Marc Thibodeau, the press agent for my play The Heidi Chronicles, and I like him, so I pick up.
"Wendy, you just won the Pulitzer Prize."
And you, Mr. Thibodeau, are the king of Rumania.
"It's a rumor, Marc. It's just a rumor!" I begin hyperventilating. I am a woman in her thirties wearing a quilted bathrobe, half working, half lying in bed in a room cluttered with assorted stuffed animals. I am not a Pulitzer Prize winner. Edward Albee is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Mr. Thibodeau informs me that I should call a reporter from the Associated Press. Also, I must call my mother. I begin to dial gingerly. It's possible I am having delusions of grandeur. It's possible I might shortly be calling the Times as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Michael Kuchwara, the AP reporter, accepts my call, however, and validates the story. Suddenly I remember sitting in our living room with my mother and watching an episode of the TV series The Millionaire. I recall how my mother knocked on the television screen to encourage a delivery to our Brooklyn address. "Mother," I want now to shout, "Michael Anthony called me. John Beresford Tipton is giving me the Pulitzer Prize!"
Immediately, everything changes. The phone rings with the constancy of the American Stock Exchange. Flowers and champagne arrive in competitive quantities. (Since that day I have, in fact, become an expert on the comparative floral arrangements of Surroundings, Twigs, and the Sutton East Gardens.) My doormen are more than taken aback by the flow of deliveries to my apartment. One of them asks me when I'm getting married; another expresses amazement that so many of my friends have remembered my birthday. Eventually, my sister telephones to say that not only has my mother called my aunts to inform them that I've won the Nobel Prize, but my cousins have already begun asking when I'm going to Stockholm.
I will never forget that day. Although I consider myself a professional malcontent, I can't deny at least this one experience of pure, unadulterated happiness. I take a cab to the theater to see the cast of my play, and the whole process of creating the production flashes in front of me. I remember rewriting scenes between bites of cheeseburger as I sat alone at a coffee shop on Forty-second Street. There's something soothing about such inauspicious beginnings. If I concentrate on the coffee shop, I convince myself, I will not be overwhelmed by what is happening to me.
Joan Allen, our leading lady, suggests that I come onstage at the end of the performance. I tell her it's impossible, I'm much too shy. I've never taken a curtain call. I want an Act One experience. I want to be watching from the back of the theater.
At intermission, however, I find myself in the lobby face to face with Edward Albee. We know each other from the Dramatists Guild and have friends in common. He embraces me and asks me whether I'll be taking a curtain call. I shake my head. I giggle. Edward then tells me to be a person, to take off my coat and seize the moment.
Walking out onto the stage at the Plymouth Theater I become a character in someone else's script. A part of me imagines that I'm Carol Channing—I want to enter with my arm stretched to the ceiling, shouting, "Dolly will never go away again!" Another part of me has no idea what to do onstage while the audience is applauding. I begin to kiss every actor in my play. As long as I'm moving, I won't have to speak or, heaven forbid, cursty. That night the audience gives us a standing ovation.
Nineteen eighty-nine was my favorite year so far. Perhaps it is all attributable to the astral plane, Libra in orbit, or Maggie Smith's inability to open as scheduled in Lettice & Lovage (which freed the Plymouth Theater for The Heidi Chronicles). For whatever reason, I spent the greater part of the spring of 1989 winning awards, as if to counteract on a massive front any remnants of ironic negativity. At the Outer Critics Circle Awards, my escort, the actress Caroline Aaron, whispered to me toward the end of the evening, "Wendy, it's just you and Baryshnikov left." Frankly, I would never have suspected that the two of us might be on a double bill.
Of course, there's also the down side. Will anything this wonderful ever happen to me again? How many people are now going to hate me? Where do I take all these things to be framed? Is it gauche to put them up on the walls in my apartment? What happens if Werner Kulovitz at Barbara Matera's, a theatrical costume shop, has stopped importing that feather-light apparatus to "lift and separate" when I need my next formal? And the nagging "Can I ever do it again?"
I haven't actually counted the awards, but I'm sure that if I did I could psych myself into some new form of anxiety over them. In the past I've given my parents every diploma or certificate I've received for them to display in their den. But this time I've been selfish—the awards are still resting in a corner of my study. Some days I ignore them in a concerted effort to get back to my life and work, to return to the point of view of the slighted. But, truthfully, there are times when I wander in and take a surreptitious peek at that corner. Nothing is quite as gratifying as recognition for work one is truly proud of.
As for next year, I will be very hurt if I don't win the Heisman Trophy.
This section contains 1,295 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)