The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Essay by Helene Keyssar

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
This section contains 1,550 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Helene Keyssar

SOURCE: "Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: 'The Heidi Chronicles' and 'Fefu and Her Friends'," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 88-106.

In the following excerpt, Keyssar expresses her disappointment with the tremendous success of The Heidi Chronicles. She contends that, according to Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of meaningful theater, in which drama is "simultaneously entire unto itself and part of the whole culture," The Heidi Chronicles is "aggressively monologic" and "self-contained," thus alienating large segments of society.

The Heidi Chronicles was first workshopped in April 1988 by the Seattle Repertory Theatre; on 12 December 1988 it opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York City; three months later, it transferred to the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, where it quickly became one of the major hits of the season. Awards have poured down upon the play and its author: in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play of the season, The Heidi Chronicles won the Susan Smith Blackburn prize (a prize specifically meant to recognize outstanding work by women playwrights) and the Dramatists Guild Hull Warriner award which selects "the best American play dealing with contemporary political, religious or social mores." While my experience as a spectator is that audiences take the play lightly—they laugh, giggle and chat briefly after the performance about their own experiences growing up from the sixties to the eighties, experiences that the play recalls—both the wealth of awards and the passionately mixed reviews it provoked suggest that The Heidi Chronicles commands serious attention.

Working with the same kinds of characters she has created in previous dramas (Uncommon Women and Others; Isn't It Romantic), Wasserstein takes us along for the ride on a twenty-five year journey from adolescence to adulthood of two men and a woman, all bright, upper-middle-class people who begin to come to consciousness in the mid-sixties. (Heidi's friend, Susan, also makes the journey, but she is always a foil or adjunct to the affairs of the central three characters.) Heidi, who becomes an art historian, is ostensibly the protagonist of the drama (she appears in each of the play's eleven scenes and two prologues), although she is often dominated, dramatically and politically, by the two men in her life: Peter Patrone, a caring, intelligent man who becomes "a liberal homosexual pediatrician"; and Scoop Rosenbaum, already an aggressive entrepreneur at nineteen who rises to become editor of Boomer magazine.

In a series of eleven "anecdotes," these characters repeatedly re-encounter each other, at each instance addressing the vicissitudes of their own lives in the context of the changing values and mores of their society. None of these three main characters ever changes, but the play does build towards and away from two quasi-recognition scenes. In the first of these (Act Two, Scene 4), Heidi loses control of the keynote address she is delivering to a luncheon gathering at the Plaza Hotel and rambles towards a conclusion in which she confesses to the audience that she is "just not happy," that she feels "stranded" and disillusioned because she thought that the whole point of the women's movement "was that we were all in this together." In the next scene, Heidi visits Peter at a children's hospital ward on Christmas Eve, and Peter reveals that he, the most prominent pediatrician in New York City, is living in an increasingly narrow world because so many of his friends are dying of AIDS. He confesses to Heidi that he is hurt because she does not understand him and is not authentically there for him as a friend. She immediately responds that she could "become someone else next year." The two briefly transcend their differences and embrace, but if there is recognition of self or other here, some traditional movement from ignorance to knowledge, the moment is explicitly presented as transitory and private. Heidi's offer to "become someone else" is not a step towards a transformation of self but more like a proposal to wear a different dress tomorrow. Heidi neither knows what it means to "become someone else" nor does she know what kind of person she would will herself to become. Her offer to "become someone else next year" would be a good laugh line—even, perhaps, a parody of a dramatic transformation—were it not uttered in the context of Peter's suffering.

Gender—its roles and consciousnesses—provides the thematic thread that links the episodes in the twenty-five-year time line of The Heidi Chronicles. Since there is neither beauty in the language nor surprise in the events or characters of this play, I can only surmise that it is the topical interest in gender issues that has called forth so much critical attention, both positive and negative. Those who praised The Heidi Chronicles found it to be "enlightening" (Mel Gussow, The New York Times), "wise" (Howard Kissel, The Daily News), and "important" (Linda Winer, Newsday) in its depiction of feminism and feminists, and of men's and women's relations to each other. Negative commentary on the play, most thoroughly and bitingly presented in a long piece by Phyllis Jane Rose in American Theatre [October 1989], also focused on gender issues. "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," writes Rose in her letter to Heidi. "Or, if they do," Rose continues, "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."

The Heidi Chronicles is all that, or worse than, Rose contends. And here [Mikhail] Bakhtin comes to my aid in understanding why I find this drama—and its mostly celebratory public reception—so disturbing. It is precisely because this drama does not re-present the heteroglossia of the world, precisely because it is aggressively monologic, self-contained, a seemingly perfect picture without loop-holes of a particular historic moment that is so pleasing to some and distressing to others. Heidi does an adequate job of recuperating women artists, but even when she speaks of her subjects it is in the monologic discourse of professional academia. On the one occasion—a television talk show—where Heidi is explicitly positioned to speak her own different voice, she is silenced by the voices of two men, Scoop and Peter, her old friends who also appear on the show. Afterwards she is angry, but even in her anger we are given no sense of what her own voice might sound like. And if we are meant to see this scene as a dramatization of difference as absence, as an assault on patriarchical monology, such a vision is quickly undercut by the subsequent scene, a meeting among Heidi and her women friends, where the women's talk and ideologies are indistinguishable from that of Scoop and Peter. Heidi only briefly finds an alternative voice during her rambling speech at the women's luncheon, and that utterance is inaccessible because it is framed as the self-pitying ramblings of a woman in the process of a nervous breakdown.

The characters in The Heidi Chronicles neither acknowledge each other as other—indeed, their persistent attempt is to be like each other—nor do they, to use once more a Bakhtinian term, "interanimate" each other. The world they comprise is coherent, consistent and stable, despite superficial changes from involvement in leftish politics and the women's movement to a kind of mushy humanism. Reaction is not revolution, as Rose urges, quoting Laurie Stone, and the world of The Heidi Chronicles is adamantly one of reaction, not revolution or change. When we meet Heidi for the last time, with her newly-adopted baby, she is "waiting" for something, perhaps for a new world and new generation in which her baby daughter's voice will be different and will be heard. Her world is not provocatively open, unfinalized; Heidi and her baby are just sitting there rocking, bathed in the nostalgia of an old fifties song. As my twelve-year-old daughter commented immediately after seeing the production, the play could have ended at any of several of its last few scenes. Had it done so, it would not have made any difference—to those on stage or in the audience.

In "Discourse in the Novel," an essay that is central to Bakhtin's reflections, Bakhtin urges that this "verbalideological decentering will occur only when a national culture loses its sealed-off and self-sufficient character, when it becomes conscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages" [The Dialogic Imagination]. In its refusal of such a "decentering," The Heidi Chronicles reveals a national culture that remains "sealed-off," "authoritarian," "rigid" and unconscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages. And it does so to a dangerous degree. There is no place in the world of this drama for the voices of women and men who can speak the discourses of feminism; there is no room in this drama for the poor, the marginalized, the inarticulate, for those who are not successes in the terms of the eighties, for those who wish to transform and not react. If this is what drama today is at its best, then it is less than that which Bakhtin claimed it to be initially.

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This section contains 1,550 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Helene Keyssar
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