Motherhood and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles

A mother holds her daughter, hoping that things will be a little better for her and other young women in the 21st century. This is the final moment of Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles currently on Broadway, directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring the versatile and talented Elisabeth Moss.

Throughout the play, we see the development of Heidi Holland, an art-historian passionate about ensuring that female as well as male artists are recognized and remembered. Art, to Heidi, should be a human rather than a primarily male endeavor. A keenly observant participant in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Heidi by the 1980s is living alone, stranded and saddened by the inherent contradictions of that movement.

Heidi Chronicles, The Music Box Theatre Cast List: Elisabeth Moss Jason Biggs Bryce Pinkham Tracee Chimo Ali Ahn Leighton Bryan Elise Kibler Andy Truschinski Production Credits: Pam MacKinnon (Direction) John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design) Jessica Pabst (Costume Design) Japhy Weideman (Lighting Design) Jill BC Du Boff (Sound Design) Peter Nigrini (Projection Design) Other Credits: Written by: Wendy Wasserstein
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

She is left onstage with her recently adopted baby. Scoop Rosenbaum, a former boyfriend on whom she had relied to “feel valuable” has recently exited. He had pompously referred to Heidi and himself as “a mother for the nineties and a hero for the nineties.” (Wasserstein said in a 1994 interview that Scoop was “a lot like” Bill Clinton.) Watching him go, Heidi tenderly picks up her daughter from her crib and proclaims: “A heroine for the twenty first!” Sitting down on a rocking chair, Heidi begins to sing softly “adding her own spirited high and low harmonies”:

Darling, you send me.

You send me.

Honest you do, honest you do,

honest you do.

Heidi is powerfully re-appropriating a song that Scoop sang to her when he was being particularly narrow-minded, mansplaining (a modern word I think Wasserstein would have appreciated) why he has married “blandish” Linda instead of Heidi:

Do I love her, as your nice friend asked me? She’s the best that I can do. Is she an A+ like you? No. But I don’t want to come home to an A+. A- maybe, but not A+. Baby…It’s either/or.

For some, Wasserstein’s choice to end the play with Heidi adopting a baby on her own seemed at best incongruous and at worst a betrayal of the feminist movement, implying that women could only truly be fulfilled through motherhood. However, these interpretations fail to acknowledge the nuance and honesty in Wasserstein’s portrayal of the inherently messy relationship between motherhood and gender equality. While Heidi has not spent the entire play showing typically “maternal” instincts or directly vocalizing a desire for children, she questions Scoop’s assumption that her decision to be a mother is her “10,” her defining life accomplishment, or all that she has been searching for:

“Why is my baby my ten, and your work your ten? [… ] I am not some empty vessel.”

However, in many ways, Heidi’s unhappiness, feeling “stranded,” as she expresses in a raw and powerful speech to her prep school class, is connected to her struggles with adulthood: what it means to have a family and how she can or should fight to create a world where any daughter of hers could thrive. In a consciousness-raising group, as a grad student, Heidi demands:

“I hope our daughters never feel like us.  I hope all our daughters feel so fucking worthwhile. Do you promise we can accomplish that much, Fran?  Huh?  Do you promise?  Do you promise?”

My generation is acutely aware of the often-fraught relationship between feminism and motherhood. While our own mothers made us feel that we were “fucking worthwhile,” they also allowed us to hope that we could have it all. Yet we saw in their everyday lives the compromises our mothers were forced to make by a society that undervalued motherhood. I feel doubly aware of this contradiction and dilemma of feminism because of my own mother’s experiences. Highly intelligent, with a keen sense of social injustice, she grew up alongside the women’s liberation movement, buying the first edition of Ms. magazine when she was 13. Dreaming of becoming a professor, or a world-traveling anthropologist, she also yearned to become a mother who could spend time raising her children. She articulated to me early on that these two desires: to be treated equally by society while at the same time embracing motherhood, ideally full time, should not be incompatible. Yet, frustratingly, in the world I was growing up in, they often were.

In order for parenthood (not simply motherhood) to be seen as valuable — for space and time and money to be invested in the endeavor the practical definitions of family have to expand. Heidi tells her oldest friend, the romantically unavailable but loyal Peter, that “our friends are our family.” This fluid definition highlights the direction in which the idea of family needs to change. Heidi tells Scoop that although she is a single-mother, she “wasn’t alone against the wilderness. Peter helped me”, and her female friends seem supportive of her decision.

It is important to mention that Heidi is incredibly privileged – living in a world where it is assumed children will go to the same private day schools, prep schools and elite colleges as their parents. Monica Bauer’s recent Huffington Post article is a helpful expression of the frustrations of seeing this privilege on stage. Wasserstein makes light of the ironies of this privilege and mines them for humor; one of Heidi’s friends has recently signed her unborn child up for “a cram course for the ERBs” the “SATs of nursery schools” and another acquaintance is in family therapy because her daughter didn’t get into Ethical Culture. Heidi will most likely be able to afford day care for her daughter, a luxury only granted to a small minority of American women; however one that is feasible for many families in the audience.

In 1996, during the welfare reform initiative, Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes A Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us emphasizing the importance of creating a society that shares in the joys and challenges of childrearing. The title of the book is attributed to an African proverb and was the subject of a delightful (but now shamefully out-of-print) 1994 picture book by Jane Cowen-Fletcher. These books are sharp reminders that parenthood should not be a solitary calling and that our society needs to take small steps towards creating an environment where child-rearing is valued and supported.

Judy Holland and I, both born in 1989, are the same age. Are the women of my generation “heroines for the 21st century”? I hope we can be. Do I feel “fucking worthwhile”? Yes. Many of Heidi’s and by extension Wasserstein’s dreams for my generation have been fulfilled. We have taken strides, but sometimes the distance we have traveled feels uncomfortable or contradictory; sometimes there are backlashes, and that is okay, as long as we acknowledge that we are not quite in a place where humanity matters more than gender. Heidi dreams of a day when her daughter meets Scoop’s son:

“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. And, yes, that does make me happy.”

I teared up when I heard Moss speak these lines. Mostly because I was so very glad to feel, at least in my own life, like I would be making Wasserstein happy. My boyfriend of over five years has never called me “baby” or set me an ultimatum of “either/or.” Like any relationship, marriage for me will be a compromise – but an equal one. Pragmatically, we both can’t be A+s all the time. Depending on the year we will need to negotiate who will be that A-. We will lean on each other. Will this be easy? Of course not. But many in my generation are at least starting out with the expectation that both partners in their marriages will support each other inside and outside the home. Harsh realities like the cost of childcare, lack of paid maternity leave and the rarity of paternity leave add hurdles. But as long as my generation is aware of these inequities and willing to fight for better opportunities for our own children, I (like Heidi) feel happy and hopeful.

Is The Heidi Chronicles dated? Yes, but it is a play that captures a particular generation of women and their hopes for future generations and therefore fascinating. Rarely does someone ask if O’Neill or Pinter is dated. Is it relevant? Certainly. We must continue to ask ourselves and work on answering the questions of gender equality and parenthood that Wasserstein grappled with. We can’t move effectively forward unless we know where we have been.

Although I encourage anyone (especially my generation) to see this play, I am not without a few reservations or criticisms of the current revival on Broadway. Compared to the original Broadway run, I was struck by the differences in how each production was marketed. The original poster and playbill shows Heidi’s face (played by Joan Allen) spotlighted in a sea of male New Yorkers; everyone else is in black and white and she is in color. The current production has taken a distinctively different route – one lined with hot pink lettering. The promotional photos, poster and playbill show Moss in a tight “body-con” (a pernicious word — no one should feel intentionally conscious of the shape of their body) red dress. She is flanked by Peter Patrone (played by the engaging and goofy Bryce Pinkham) and Scoop Rosenbaum (played relatively two-dimensionally by Jason Biggs), defining her primarily through her relationship with the play’s two supporting male characters. All three actors are dressed in modern dress — is this a marketing ploy to make us think the play is “modern”? It seems unlikely that the Heidi we see in Wasserstein’s play would voluntarily choose to wear such an outfit or have the confidence in it that Moss shows in these images.

If this is what is needed to bring in a younger audience, I am resigned but saddened by the choice. Do we still live in a world where in order to sell something (be it a Broadway show or toothpaste) women need to be sexualized? When will hot pink be considered just a color instead of convenient shorthand for “look this play is for spunky but sexy women”?

Additionally, this production does itself no favors by presenting the “consciousness raising group” scene as a “slice of history” used to send up with clichéd 1970s costumes, set and overplayed characters the stereotype of the angry “political woman” a phrase used by Hilton Als is his problematic collection of short reviews entitled “Showgirls: four plays about women” in a recent The New Yorker article. This is in contrast to the production photographs from 1989, where the characters in this scene are dressed in costumes that only hint at the 1970s. Unfortunately, because of these design choices this scene loses some of its poignancy – and could easily alienate many with its repetitive jokes about group hugs and affirming declarations of love. Yet it is during this scene that Wasserstein says the most about the ideals and hopes of the women’s liberation movement, as one of the leaders of the group tells Heidi:

FRAN: Heidi, every women in this room has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son, or her boss are much more important than her own. And the only way to turn that around is for us, right her, to try to make what we want, what we desire to be, as vital as it would undoubtedly be to any man. And then we can go out there and really make a difference!…Nothing’s going to change until we really start talking to each other.

Feminism today seems more diverse and inclusive than ever. We are talking to each other in more ways and over greater distances than ever before. Influential voices as varied as Caitlyn Moran, Roxanne Gay and Hillary Clinton are encouraging these dialogues. Young girls and boys are more likely to think of Emma Watson instead of Emmeline Pankhurst when they think of gender equality, but it is essential to understand and value the women that came before her – and revisit their dreams for us in order to fully create a society where women and motherhood are valued and can thrive.

Have things changed for women in the last 25 years? In large ways they have, but in smaller, nagging ways they have not. I do not feel at twenty-five great pressure from either society or my family to marry and have children – yet when I see photos of friends’ babies on social media, my heart aches and I momentarily want to shout out loud “I want one!” I do not feel the same pressure that Heidi felt in college to look a certain way, to put on makeup, or to put my hair in rollers. Yet deciding whether or not to shave my legs, spoken of humorously as a true sign of commitment to the women’s lib movement by Fran in the play, is still a decision that is difficult for most women and me. Waiting for the bus to the performance I saw that my leg hair — which I had let grow out this winter, with the encouragement of both my mother and my boyfriend and because I am lazy was poking though my sheer black tights. My reaction was one of disgust and embarrassment; we still don’t see celebrities or actresses walking around with visible body hair. Why not?

We have made progress but it has been a complicated process — this is how change happens in steps, in uncomfortable moments and difficult personal decisions.

In 1999, Wendy Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter. Wasserstein, supported by an extended network of friends her family, was 48 years old and her daughter was born three months premature. Writing in the New Yorker about the experience, Wasserstein describes a wonderful moment, echoing the last scene of The Heidi Chronicles, when she was finally able to hold her daughter:

I began to sing to her softly: “Picture yourself on a boat on a river where tangerine peaches meet marshmallow skies.” I knew that those weren’t the right lyrics, but they were close enough. I told my daughter I had named her Lucy because when she waved to me from the sonogram I thought of her as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, saying hello.

Wasserstein, who died in 2006 at the age of fifty-five, heartbreakingly never got to see her daughter become a young woman. But I hope Wasserstein (and by extension Heidi) would, like the best mothers, be both proud and critical of us, their daughters, urging us to “keep the faith” and continue to work towards a more equal world. In the published version of The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein writes in her stage directions that: “The final image of the play, as the audience exits, is a slide of HEIDI triumphantly holding Judy in front of a museum banner for a Georgia O’Keefe retrospective.” In this current Broadway production the image has been sadly (in my opinion) replaced by a selection of artwork by female artists, no image of Judy Holland and her mother; but I could name four of those “forgotten” female artists by sight: progress.

Alex Brinkman-Young

Alex Brinkman-Young

When not directing or taking in all-day productions of the more obscure Shakespeare histories, Alex is a Humanities teacher at Avenues: The World School in New York City. Educated on both sides of the Atlantic, with a BA from Barnard College and a Masters from Oxford University, Alex will be returning to the UK this summer to direct "Death Actually: a (nec)romantic comedy" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

When not directing or taking in all-day productions of the more obscure Shakespeare histories, Alex is a Humanities teacher at Avenues: The World School in New York City. Educated on both sides of the Atlantic, with a BA from Barnard College and a Masters from Oxford University, Alex will be returning to the UK this summer to direct "Death Actually: a (nec)romantic comedy" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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