I wanted to like The Heidi Chronicles, now playing on Broadway. One of my favorite actors, Elisabeth Moss, is starring as the conflicted feminist who goes from teen angst to middle-aged motherhood in the late Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning script. I read the script when I started seriously studying playwriting in 2004, and found a lot to love. So much wit! So much heart! But when I saw the current incarnation of Heidi, something was wrong. I wanted to think carefully about why I was not only unmoved, but somehow also angered by it.
It's not because I'm too young to get the story. I went to college in 1974, just a decade after the fictional Heidi and the real Wendy. It's not because I never felt the sting of sexism; I found myself often the first woman doing this or that from the 1970s through the 1980s. The first woman to serve as an elected officer of the John Hay Society for Foreign Affairs at Brown University, I quit when I I was asked to redecorate the office. As the first woman member of my National Guard unit, I was routinely faced with sexual harassment. As a young professor, I was often mistaken for the department secretary.
So why did this production make me not just disappointed, but upset? I had forgotten just how privileged Heidi Holland is. I had forgotten how much talk in the play is centered around social class in a way that unintentionally makes audience members feel inadequate if they didn't go to an Ivy, or don't know how fabulous the deserts are at a horrendously expensive Manhattan restaurant. Every time a woman talks about anyone in this play, there is the question "Where did they go to school?" The air is thick with privilege, but nobody on stage seems to know this. The assumption is made, over and over again, that where one went to college is an obvious concern. Everybody except for the members of a feminist support group in one scene, is casually rich, and doing important or fascinating work that they enjoy. The play assumes the audience is full of people just like those on the stage. The only touching moment for me in the entire play was when Heidi decided to do one unselfish thing, and stay in New York to help her gay friend Peter in the middle of the AIDS crisis. But Heidi doesn't help by turning all her energies towards fighting AIDS. She just doesn't leave one terrific fulfilling job in New York to take another terrific, fulfilling job in another city.
Heidi goes to great schools without ever worrying about the cost, or paying back a loan. She gets great jobs where she gets to talk about her passion for women's art, and doesn't have to slog along at low-paying work to get there. When she wants to adopt a baby, she doesn't agonize over long waiting lists, or not being able to afford child care once her baby arrives. The biggest problem Heidi has in the play is getting a man who will treat her like an equal to marry her.
There's a famous monologue where Heidi is giving a speech to an assemblage of alumna at her fancy, expensive prep school. This devolves into whining about the fact that today's young women are not all about being particularly friendly to poor Heidi. Sadly, they have their own concerns. They don't pay attention to her in her (probably expensive) gym's locker room. As this monologue went on and on, and Elisabeth Moss, a lovely actor, was doing her best to make this into more than just a whiny rant, I felt sorrier for the actress than I ever did for the character of Heidi Holland.
This is supposed to be a great feminist play. But what does Heidi want? She wants to get married and have babies but also be an art historian. She wants to "have it all." Only we don't see her struggle to get, or keep, a career. We only see her struggle to find a man. And her character's journey ends, not when she writes that ground-breaking book about women in art, but when she gets a baby to raise. Really? That's feminism?
The Heidi Chronicles struck a nerve when it was first produced, in 1988. But this production made me realize that Heidi Holland's problems are problems of a particular social class. These are problems of the one percent. They seem trivial compared to the problems of middle class women, not to mention working class women. There are plays that open us up to universal truths, and there are plays whose focus is too narrow. I wanted Heidi Holland to speak for me, but she doesn't. She doesn't speak for anyone I know.
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