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Tea and Crumpets With Playwright

By Vineeta Vijayaraghavan

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein exudes a fuzzy warmness that belies an ambitious and successful career in the theater. Her play Uncommon Women and Others, starring Jill Eikenberry, Swoosie Kurtz, and Glenn Close, was produced off-Broadway when she was 27. She received half a dozen awards for The Heidi Chronicles five years ago, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award (the first ever given to a woman dramatist without a male collaborator). Her latest, The Sisters Rosensweig, which received an Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony nomination on Broadway, opens in Boston today. In a conversation with The Harvard Crimson yesterday, she waxed ebullient about her life and work.

Q Uncommon Women and Others is focused around a college reunion at Mt. Holyoke. Have you gone to your Mt. Holyoke reunion, what was it like?

a Well, I gave a commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke three years ago. It was amazing, it was one of those moments where you see your life flashing in front of you. I was never a very good student so my giving a commencement speech seemed very odd to me. So I geared my entire speech to all the "C" students because I figured those who do well have enough people talking to them, but I wanted to talk to those who were not singled out.

I find my women friends from Mt. Holyoke to be very interesting people, I don't know if it has to do with who went to women's colleges at that time. Recently, I had dinner at the White House and I met Hillary Clinton and I thought, "There's a woman who went to Wellesley in the late 1960s, I get it." There's an earnestness, a sense of sympatico, a generation who sort of defines how you see things.

Q: What did you talk to Hillary Clinton about?

A: Well, about Jane Alexander, who was in Sisters, who now has that [National Endowment for the Arts] job. And [Hillary Clinton] asked me about writing plays, what it was like. I did actually [have fun at the White House], I have no idea why I was invited.

Q: In The Heidi Chronicles, the characters uniformly decry the Reagan years, the intellectual malaise in Washington. Will Clinton and Gore affect your future characters' pessimism about government?

A: Well, when Clinton was elected, you really wished them well. You wanted it to really work for them. It's much harder to want something to work than to be cynical, it's much easier to have an opinion if it's negative.

Q: You mean it's easier to editorialize in theater if you're against something?

A: In general it is, you always sound much smarter, and if you're a humorist, you can always find something. It's harder, in some ways it makes me feel grown up because it's not like, "Oh there are those grownups in the White House and when we get there it'll be better." Now it's us. It's scary in a way. You can see where we [our generation] is just like everybody else.

Q: I've read that there was the possibility of going to business school in your past?

A: Yes, I got into Columbia Business School, I think some madman accepted me. When I got out of college, I went to New York, and I took writing classes, with Israel Horovitz and Joe Heller, and my family had me under a lot of pressure to go to business school, so I applied to Columbia Business School and I applied to Yale Drama School. I think I had like 400's on the business boards, and I had Joe Heller recommend me. So it was really weird.

Q: Was it a question of a secure future, self-sufficiency, especially as a woman?

A: It was never for the sake of career. It's almost going back to a '60s mindset, to do something you really care about, something you really want to do. It's almost like a non-alienation-of-labor way, very sort of flower child, but I truly think that way. It was also heavily feminist, so that you wouldn't wake up at 40 with two kids in Scarsdale and not be able to go back to work.

Q: You wrote Uncommon Women at Yale. Was it received well?

A: Uncommon Women was my thesis. [It was not received] especially well. There was one, my play-wrighting teacher, now I think he makes [a killing] writing for the soap opera "Santa Barbara." He was a smart man, I liked him, and he liked it a lot.

Q: Did you feel like people at Yale were pushing you to do more avant-garde, more experimental work than you were interested in?

A: When I went there, it was hardly a place for women playwrights, or women directors, or women teachers. My [thesis] wasn't taken seriously because one, it wasn't avant-garde, and two, it didn't have "serious issues" in it, and in my mind, I thought, well, I think women's lives are serious. If you're writing about the foibles of upper middle class women, it's not important, and dealing with it in a humorous way exacerbates it.

Q: Do you think Heidi would need to be adapted to be successful in foreign countries?

A: Well I don't know, you find out where your plays have been successful, it's fascinating. I've never had a play done in England for whatever reason. My plays have done very well in Australia. Heidi's done well in Germany--I kept thinking Heidi did well in Germany because people thought it's Heidi the mountain girl--and they've done okay in Japan. Sisters Rosensweig might be done in England next year...I saw Isn't It Romantic? in Japan and the woman who played Janie Blumberg was the star in [an all-female] theater where the producer told me that all the women are virgins. I have no idea. I don't know how he knew either. The woman who was in my play--not only was it the first time she'd played an American or a Jew, it was the first time she'd ever played a woman. Also women in Japan over 25 are called "Christmas cakes," so she told me, "I am Janie Blumberg."

Q: Do you worry about anti-Semitic reactions to your plays abroad, or an unwillingness to identify with your Jewish characters?

A: I worry about people saying, "It's too Jewish," or "It won't work outside of New York," and I always think, "I think people have sisters outside of New York." I'm not sure but I've heard rumors. I think that's partially why I've always tried my plays out in Seattle, at least the last two--because I know I'm going to come up against that, so I might as well deal with that. People say "The Heidi Chronicles, oh, it's too New York a play." And I think, "Actually, it's about someone from the Midwest, and it's about someone who isn't Jewish."

Q: Did you make a point of creating a protagonist who wasn't Jewish for Heidi?

A: It was deliberate. Because I didn't want people to say, "That's Wendy, and she's cranky." As a writer I was interested in writing Scoop, the man, as the Jewish one.

Q: Do you feel like the men in that play were your best-developed male characters to date?

A: I find those men really interesting. I think Bill Clinton is a lot like Scoop Rosenbaum. I think they have a lot in common. What was interesting was writing the gay doctor because in a way I was scared, because a lot of my male friends are gay. And I was very scared of doing it, I wanted to do right by them.

Q: Robert Brustein has criticized commercial theater for letting the audience leave feeling "warm and wise," and he puts Sisters Rosensweig in that category. Are you uncomfortable with that criticism?

A: I think you write the kind of play you can write. I wouldn't want to write a play that calls attention to itself. It's not me, and I resist the temptation to do it, to say, "I know how to do these things, too." What's wonderful about Broadway right now is who's being commercial: A woman who's written a play about three women over 40 with a 54-year-old star and a guy who's written a "gay fantasia." It's terrific, it's just that there should be more. There should be ten or twenty, if more theaters could stay open and ticket prices were less. But this country, it's very interesting: I mean the thought that "Philadelphia" is the number-one movie or that Tony [Kushner] has had a remarkable success.

Q: What do you think of David Dinkins' predictions that this may become a city where people can't afford to live but whose strength will become bringing people in for cultural consumption?

A: Well, I interviewed Joe Papp years and years ago and he was worried about it, he said, "You know, when I started working here, a person could graduate college and afford to come to New York and take a junky job till they could work in the theater." He was concerned that people wouldn't come because it was too expensive, that they would go off to Seattle or someplace else that was more conducive to a life in the arts. And I thought, that's true, even when I got out of Yale, I moved to New York, and had a cheap apartment, and I was the delivery girl for the O'Neill Foundation and wrote my plays and had my plays done at Playwrights Horizons, and you could live that kind of a life. The kind of life one would have heard of in the '30s and the '50s, and it scares me now that you can't have that kind of life. I worry about New York in that way, that it won't attract the new generation, your generation.

Q: Are you very careful about who you give rights to perform your plays to?

A: Yes, you do at first. Certainly, the Rosensweigs has not been performed outside of this tour, as yet. But you know that sometime in this play's [future], somebody's going to be playing Gorgeous as a nightmare, it'll be a new cause for anti-Semitism in our time; it could be just hideous.

Q: What was it like being on "Letterman" last month?

A: I really, really like him. I've been on a few times before. It's funny when you're on a show like that, you feel like you know somebody but you realize, "I have basically spent 12 minutes with this man." I think he's a very, very smart man. I was on his show during the Gulf War. The first night it was canceled, and the second night, when they were bombing Tel Aviv, I got this call that said "come" and I kind of felt, "Well I believe in comedy and if this is what's happening, if this is [when] the world blows up, I might as well be on the David Letterman show." So, off I went to the Letterman show and, during the break, he was talking to me, and he said, "You know it's very hard on a night like this to figure out what note to hit." You don't want to do anything hilarious because it's not respectful but simultaneously it's a comedy show. And he put on a brilliant show.

Q: When you were at Mt. Holyoke, women's history was first introduced into the curricula--did that seem momentous?

A: I thought it explained everything. It was like the world totally opened up. I remember when I took that class my senior year, and we read the Feminine Mystique, Germaine Greer, Kate Millet, and suddenly everything made sense, that's it, there you go. And I just thought, this is all unfair, this is deeply unfair.

Q: Did you worry about meeting your parent's expectations?

A: Oh my God, oh my God, yes. I was like lost [those two years in New York], I didn't know what was going to happen to me, that's why I applied to school, I thought I've got to get out of this, I've got to pull myself together. Yes, I was terrified. When I went to Holyoke, there was the saying, "Smith to bed, Holyoke to wed." And I did have a Yale boyfriend, who was my high school boyfriend, and a part of me just thought, I should do all these things I don't really want to do, but if you do them, then you're fine, and no one will [worry] about you. I really thought, go to business school, move to Chicago, go become Mary Tyler Moore in the Mary Tyler Moore show and they won't worry about you either. I was always someone who had one foot in both places, half of me was the nice girl from Mt. Holyoke. But, for someone like me, probably one of the reasons why I thought I have a voice and I had this need to put all these girls on stage comes from that time. I'm sure of it.

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