Pulitzer-Winning Playwright Wendy Wasserstein Dies

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein died Monday of lymphoma. She was 55 years old. In plays such as The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosenzweig, Wasserstein explored the lives of modern women.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein died today of lymphoma. She was 55 years old. In such plays as The Heidi Chronicles, she explored the lives of modern women. NPR's Lynn Neary has this appreciation.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Wendy Wasserstein's parents often took her to Broadway shows when she was a child. But as she explained to an audience at the Folger's Shakespeare Theater in 1997, her parents never expected these outings would lead to a lifetime in the theater.

Ms. WENDY WASSERSTEIN (Playwright): When I came of age in Brooklyn, my mother never said to me, Wendy darling please grow up to be a not-for-profit theater writer.

NEARY: And indeed Wasserstein did not fall for the theater life without some hesitation. She considered careers in law and business. But eventually Wasserstein decided to attend the Yale Drama School. Once she turned that corner, she never looked back. As she told NPR's Liane Hansen in a 1996 interview, the theater always gave her a thrill, especially in those magic moments before the curtain rises for the first time. Ms. WASSERTEIN: That's my favorite time, when it gets dark and then there's the overture, and then there's that anticipation, and you know you're in a theater. You know you're there with this group of people and your eyes stop wandering to the ceiling. Yeah, I find that thrilling.

NEARY: Wasserstein's plays, beginning with Uncommon Women and Others, were often biographical with humor and insight. She explored the role of feminism in the lives of contemporary women. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks says that's what she'll be remembered for.

Mr. PETER MARKS (Washington Post Theater Critic): Who was a female playwright in this country before Wendy Wasserstein? Who was dealing with these from the perspective of a woman. There were, there were people who, you know, certainly like Marsha Norman writing plays. But, but really Wendy was the first one to sort of galvanize, I think, a theater audience with women's issues.

NEARY: Uncommon Women and Others, which began as a one-act play at Yale Drama School, told the story of eight women, all graduates of Mount Holyoke as they confronted the realities of coming of age in the feminist era. New York Newsday theater critic Linda Winer first saw the play in Chicago in 1978.

Ms. LINDA WINER (Newsday Theater Critic): And it was the first time that I had ever seen people on the stage who could have been friends of mine. Not to say this made it a better play, or a worse play. All I'm saying is that I never before had seen a play that considered the stories of our lives theatrical material. And I was stunned and embarrassed to not have noticed it all those years, that basically women stories were being told by men.

NEARY: Wasserstein's play, the Heidi Chronicles won a Pulitzer Prize and a 1989 Tony Award. It is the story of Heidi Holland, a successful art historian who looks back on her life and wonders if she has made all the right choices. In this scene, Heidi, who calls herself Susan at this point, examines her sometimes contentious relations with men. In this case, an arrogant guy named Scoop Rosenbaum.

(Sound bite of the play)

SCOOP ROSENBAUM: I have to meet Paul Newman.

HEIDI HOLLAND: Oh please tell him Susan says hi.

SCOOP ROSENBAUM: You don't believe I have to meet Paul Newman.

HEIDI HOLLAND: I'm sure you do.

SCOOP ROSENBAUM: Why don't you go drinking with us? We can rap over a few brews.

HEIDI HOLLAND: I'm sorry I can't.

SCOOP ROSENBAUM: Why not?

HEIDI HOLLAND: I just can't.

SCOOP ROSENBAUM: Susan, Susan, Susan let me get this straight. You would rather drive back to Pickipsie with five virgins in a Volkswagen discussing Norman Mailer and birth control on dangerous frozen roads than go drinking? Paul Newman and Scoop Rosenbaum?

NEARY: Wasserstein takes her character from the political activism of the sixties to the growth of the women's movement in the 1970s, to the disillusionment of the eighties. It is the story of many women viewed through one life. In a 1989 NPR interview, Wasserstein said she wanted to look at feminism through Heidi's eyes.

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: I was very interested in just writing a history or a continuum of following one person who got involved with the women's movement and, what, what effects a social movement would have on someone's personal choices in a way, and friendship. I just thought it would be an interesting thing to do. And I like large canvases. I like lots of characters, lots of sets. You know, bring on the elephants. Whatever. I find that interesting.

NEARY: Wasserstein continued to explore the lives of contemporary women in plays such as the Sisters Rosenzweig and American Daughter. And her latest play, Third. Peter Marks says her later works were not as successful as The Heidi Chronicles but he says one thing that never failed Wasserstein was her sense of humor.

Mr. Marks: Even in the plays that were not successful, there were great lines. She always had a funny witty way of looking at the world, and her perspective was always extremely, there was an acerbic side to it. You know, she had an angry side to her and it came out in the comedy.

NEARY: Wasserstein used her penetrating humor to explore her own life and thus the lives of a generation of women. Linda Winer.

Ms. WINER: I had a feeling of sense of continuity with her work and a sense that she was observing life as we were living it. And I'm finding it just very, very difficult to process the idea that there aren't going to be anymore Wendy Wasserstein plays.

NEARY: Six years ago, Wendy Wasserstein followed her heart one more time and gave birth to a little girl. Her daughter Lucy survives her. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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