Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Birthday: “The struggle to be considered a grown-up begins, I believe, shortly after birth.”


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Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006)
Playwright, author

Her work “mixed postfeminism and Broadway spark. Her plays and essays were steeped in the challenges of ‘I want it all’ womanhood while crackling with one-liners worthy of Moss Hart,” Michael Coveney wrote when Wendy Wasserstein died ten years ago. Only 55, she was a major force in American theater for three decades, and a singular voice in her generation.

Wasserstein mined her life like few writers since Thomas Wolfe. Her mother, a Polish refugee her daughter described as an Auntie Mame figure (she was noted for over-the-top couture and ordering Thanksgiving dinner from a deli), was recast as the mother in any number of Wasserstein’s eleven plays (“No matter how successful I become as a playwright, my mother would be thrilled to hear me tell her that I'd just lost twenty pounds, gotten married and become a lawyer”).

As Coveney noted in her Guardian obituary,

At 40, Wasserstein made a To Do list of things left over from when she turned 30: lose weight, improve friendships, fall in love, decide about a baby. Friendship was her specialty; love and losing weight more elusive. The baby finally arrived when, having tried fertility treatment, artificial insemination, even surrogacy, she gave birth to a daughter in 1999 and set up home as a single mother in her light-filled apartment on Central Park West, Manhattan. Of course, she wrote about the experience.

...She had been at Yale Drama School with a group (under the tutelage of the critic Robert Brustein) including Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, playwrights Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato, future Broadway mogul Rocco Landesman and critic Frank Rich. Whereas John Guare wrote about six degrees of separation, "Wasserstein's world," said the New Yorker's Nancy Franklin, was "ruled by a kind of celebrity mathematics; she seems connected to everybody who is anybody by a mere two degrees."

Many of her male friends, gay or unattached, she dubbed her "husbands" - including Andre Bishop, who presented her work at Playwrights Horizon, the off-Broadway forcing house, and the Lincoln Centre; and the directors Gerald Guttierez and Nicholas Hytner. After an invitation to the White House, she became Hillary Clinton's favorite dramatist. "For people like Hillary and me," she said, "the 'appearing strong' side of our lives is complicated because we come from a transitional time. That's why she fascinates me."

Today we have Hillary Clinton running for president, and the same issues on the table, as Wasserstein foresaw:

I thought I would write something that would make some people uncomfortable. . . . What intrigued me, I think, was the idea of women of my own generation who were successful, intelligent, coming to power and suddenly in the public arena. I started to think about what they are allowed and what they are not allowed.

At Yale she wrote a musical called When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth; a year after graduating, she opened Uncommon Women & Others off Broadway. She said she wrote it “in the hopes of seeing an all-female curtain call in the basement of the Yale School of Drama. A man in the audience stood up during a post-show discussion and announced, ‘I can't get into this, it's all about girls.’ I thought to myself, ‘Well, I've been getting into Hamlet and Laurence of Arabia my whole life, so you better start trying.’”

She won a Guggenheim Fellowship at 33.

Wasserstein struck gold a decade later: in 1989, The Heidi Chronicles scooped up The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Tony, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and ran forever. She was everywhere, television, radio (her plays seemed ready-made for NPR and PBS, though they translated less well on London's West End stages), the college lecture circuit (more than one wag noted, justly, that while Kevin Bacon may be connected to the world in six degrees, Wasserstein could do it in two).

The Sisters Rosensweig, launched in 1992, didn’t win the awards, but was a solid commercial hit, with the biggest advance sales for a nonmusical play to that time.

Her later plays fared less well, faulted by critics for baggy plots and surplus characters, as if Wasserstein somehow had, at once, too much, and too little, to say.

Despite her persona as a rumpled, zaftig, ever-single observer of life’s parade (“Sloth is the fastest-growing lifestyle movement in the world, and that's because it is completely doable. If you embrace sloth, it's the last thing you'll ever have to do again...I don't much like to think that being a bachelor girl limits how you see the world. On the other hand, I know it certainly limits how the world sees you”), she worked till the end, felled by lymphoma before the end of her first year teaching at Cornell. Her sudden death shocked the public and left a gaping void in the New York arts scene.

“A play is a piece of art," Wasserstein said. "And art comes from somebody with an urgency. I think that what's great about theater is you still have the possibility of one writer and one director saying: 'We see the world this way. Here's a point of view. And we're going to throw it out there, and we're not going to do it because we've taken 47 market polls on what the audience wants. We're doing this because this is how we see it.' Theatre isn't prefabricated. It isn't that watered-down stuff. Theatre is about words and craft and a point of view. You miss that in life now.
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