I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Wendy Wasserstein has been among our chief theatrical witnesses, capturing the essential elements of contemporary women’s lives, infusing them with a decidedly female sensibility and returning them to us as theater. Beginning with Uncommon Women and moving through The Heidi Chronicles, which won a Pulitzer Prize and the first Tony Award given to a female playwright, continuing with The Sisters Rosensweig and An American Daughter and now Old Money, her plays have articulated our passions, friendships, attachments, and losses. Wasserstein’s women are aware, very aware of what they have, what they’re missing and what they want. They are women who think they should be content with what they have and are frustrated because they are not—they want more. A writer writes to make sense out of things, to put order to experience; Wendy Wasserstein does all that and more—she writes to illuminate, to clarify, to ask questions and to entertain. We sat down to talk about writing and also about life—about how things have changed over time. In person Wendy Wasserstein is everything you imagine: smart, funny, serious, a good listener, and a wonderful storyteller.
A.M. Homes I was reading your plays and thinking about how good you are at craft. Do you map things out before you begin writing?
Wendy Wasserstein I don’t actually map things out—I have friends who do—what I do is many drafts of the play. Old Money went through six drafts. I write from character so it begins with people talking, which is why I like writing plays. But then I cut it back to make it work. All the plays are different in structure: The Heidi Chronicles is episodic, and The Sisters Rosensweigis your basic well-made boulevard comedy, whereas Old Money goes back and forth in time, more like a dance. It’s all specifically done, mostly through cutting and shaping, but that’s not preplanned.
AH Old Money has a lot of interwoven elements. When you were writing could you envision how it was going to play—what would come forward and what would recede?
WW You write plays to hear them and then, given who the actors are and what happens, different characters emerge. Different actors, especially in something like this play, will become dominant or not. In your heart you know what you’re trying to do. I am interested in multiple themes and multiple stories… . When you see a play on its feet it’s very different than what you hear in a reading, and I often forget that. But they do change, especially if I’m trying to write something that’s comedic with a serious intention. A play like Old Money could go in many different directions.
AH In Old Money I hoped for exploration of the themes related to old and new money—and class, in particular. In the end I felt that the message was that among those with money, old and new money, not much has changed. But in reality things do seem different, money seems all the more important lately. What are your thoughts on this?
WW In Old Money the character Flinty McGee talks about how 100 years ago the richest men in America were on the social register but now “cash has merged with class.” She concludes, “we have been in an asset-based meritocracy.” For good or bad, I think that’s currently very true.
AH I’m interested in the balance between the comic and the serious—how one talks about serious ideas and creates work that appeals to a wide audience.
WW I was standing in the audience at Old Money and someone came up to me and said, “I had a really bad day today, this better be fun.”
AH People don’t want theater to be upsetting.
WW It fluctuates between I wanna be entertained, or I wanna impress my friends that I’ve been to this difficult play.
AH But there are not a lot of new difficult plays. You think?
WW I don’t know. It depends where you’re looking, just in New York or all over the country. I think there are. It’s really hard to put on a play, but there are difficult and interesting plays being written.
AH Who is writing them?
WW Established writers like Christopher Durang, Marsha Norman, Tony Kushner, John Guare, and August Wilson continue to write important plays. Jon Robin Baitz. But there are younger writers, Jenny Lynn Bader is a wonderful writer. There are a lot of people coming out of Julliard, where I sometimes fill in for Christopher [Durang] and Marsha [Norman]. Plays where a writer has the ability to get out into society and say, Look, here’s what’s happening now. You have that ability because you’re not going to go to 36 meetings with 37 executives who are telling you, We can’t sell it. Whether the play will reach a large audience or be critically accepted, that’s another question.
AH I remember about ten years ago a lot of younger playwrights bailed for TV.
WW Talking to you makes me think of Harry Kondoleon, who just had a successful revival of one of his plays. I wish Harry had been here for it. He was this wonderful writer, a real writer—you know, lyrical, funny, bright. But yes, young people who have that comedic gift tend to go directly to television now.
AH It brought the level of TV up, but the level of theater came down.
WW In terms of those writers finding an individual voice, I would say that TV hurts them because they’re writing in teams. Some of my more talented students from ten years ago at NYU are now executive producers; they’re wonderful writers, but …
AH But they’re not writing their own stuff.
WW No, but they have very nice houses. I once went to a wedding and sat with two people who were the writer/producers of very successful television shows. They were 30 years old. And they were telling me that they were only in television until they could make enough money to afford to write their novels. They were unbelievably pretentious. And all I could think about was Harry Kondoleon in his tiny apartment writing his plays and his novel, and I thought, How much money do you need? I mean, I think television is wonderful, I would write a series.
AH Would you?
WW Yeah, television lends itself more to playwriting talents than film.
AH A complete change of subject: your generation has become the generation in power, how does that shift one’s sense of the world?
WW When I was young there were grown-up people who scared me. I’d walk into a room and be shy or overwhelmed. Silly, because as you get older the people you might be shy of are suddenly younger than you. That’s overwhelming for a generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30. And I also think, How did my generation shape the country, shape the arts … . What is the legacy? That’s a very odd thing. When the husband in An American Daughter says, “we’re smart people, we deserve to have gotten everything the smart people get,” you know that he is a truly unhappy man. The idea that somebody else is having your life. It’s a big idea. It’s not tragic but it’s like a parasite that will eat you up. It’s horrible.
AH Very common. You see another generation right on your back.
WW In my case, two or three. I’ve always been interested in people who radically change their lives.
AH Me too. I don’t know how the hell they do it.
WW I have some friends who recently tried to do it. They’ve had three lives. They’re married to one person, and then they change their life entirely.
AH I admire them on the one hand, for being able to make that incredible leap. On the other hand, those people terrify me. I’m always thinking I want to do something else—run a company or something. I love business, I’m completely fascinated by it.
WW You know, my dad was a ribbon manufacturer who invented a form of flocking with wires and ribbons. And I think of my father—a very creative man, an inventor, and myself as very similar, we have both been in production. My parents only let me go to drama school because it was Yale. They thought I’d marry a lawyer. They didn’t know what I was doing. But you were asking me about business. One of the reasons I write things other than plays—I’ve written movies, opera, essays; I might turn The Sisters Rosensweig into a series if it works—is because it’s interesting working in different fields, the business aspect of it is different, the people are different, they’re different worlds. I come back to the theater because it’s how I think and because it is intimate, it is still this small collaboration. And it’s still, for the writer, the most individual platform and frankly one that respects the writer the most.
AH It’s much more human compared to those other worlds, it is a small world. I’ve always loved theater because it’s real, it’s live, you go and you watch an actor inhabiting another person, becoming a character.
WW Yeah, that’s wonderful. After The Heidi Chronicles there was a Christmas party—all these people in the basement of the Plymouth Theater—and I thought, I sat alone and wrote this in a room in London. I had a crazy grant from the British-American Arts Association for four thousand bucks and I lived in this little room at a place called the Nell Gwynn House and now there are a hundred people here, wonderful people.
AH That’s the part I like—you go off by yourself to make this thing and then you populate it with people. Speaking of population growth, you have a child now. Why so late in life?
WW I had my child so late because my focus and energy was on those plays. I couldn’t do both. I would not have been able to do it until this age, and I don’t even know if I can now.
AH What made you able to try it now?
WW I hit 40 and at a certain point it’s time whether you’re ready or not. The Heidi Chronicleshad a certain success, and that I would continue playwriting seemed in place. Also, my sister died three years ago, she was ill for eight years, and when you’re suddenly dealing with life and death, those emotions … . For me, everything was about the play, everything was about work. And happily so. Really happily so. And I’m still happy with that. But having the child had to do with my sister Sandra, and me turning 40, and thinking about life.
AH I wonder if that is just what happens, the natural life cycle, the biological clock.
WW I don’t think it’s the cycle, it’s individual lives. Maybe it’s had to do with living the writer’s life, which is very much about me and my work and anticipating that as an entire life—a fine and legitimate life.
AH How is it different now?
WW There are different obligations. I can’t believe there’s someone growing up in the room next to me. I’m the youngest child from a big Jewish family. But as an adult I’m someone who has lived alone until I was 48, and suddenly there’s my daughter Lucy. I’m very lucky I have this writing to go to and I’m very lucky I have this child. My life has changed completely. I’m someone who really couldn’t wait to be on an airplane.
AH Can you still do that?
WW Well, I have an office where I go and work. I don’t have a phone there and it’s very quiet. But, I really like being with Lucy. I can’t believe she’s here. I don’t even know how this happened. If you think it’s weird to look at a novel and think, I don’t know how I sat still and wrote that, when you’re looking at a child, you think, I really don’t know how I did this.
AH Do you feel that motherhood influenced your work? Are the ideas that interest you shifting?
WW I began writing Old Money before I was pregnant and I finished the first draft knowing I was pregnant. The play goes back and forth in time and into the future and it does deal with life and death. You know some people seem to think that the essay I wrote about my daughter in The New Yorker is one of the better things I’ve written.
My daughter’s beautiful. That’s the thing—it’s not just about you, it’s about them and about your relationship with them, and your relationship with your own mother … . I think, How long has this been going on?
AH What do you want for your daughter that you didn’t have for yourself?
WW My daughter’s life is so different than mine because I had my siblings. My older sister, this corporate pioneer, took very good care of me, and my brother Bruce was always very influential in my life. My mother’s name is Lola and she’s a dancer, she still wears leather pants; my mother’s a Broadway classic. Also, the worlds that are open to my daughter are very different than the worlds that were open to me.
AH Do you feel that they really are open?
WW It’s not enough. But the numbers have changed. There were huge changes in the ’70s. In terms of mental and professional fulfillment, the numbers are better. But are they good enough? Absolutely not. Not in business or in the government. If you look at film, who’s directing, who’s running things—they’ll pull out Oprah or Rosie but it’s not enough. We’re not who’s controlling the money in this country.
AH What are your thoughts on single-sex education—do we still need all-girls schools? Would you send your daughter to one?
WW I am still a big proponent of all-girl education. Both for self-esteem and because of the basic respect for the intelligence and friendship of other women. As far as my daughter is concerned, yes I would encourage her, but ultimately it’s her choice.
AH What are the things that you feel are going to be the issues in America in the next few years?
WW Because I’m a writer, the question of the NEA and its funding of the arts. There is a fear of individual voices. People don’t want to hear things that need to be said. And the whole thing about family values. What are real ethics? What is real character? You begin to see a lack of it, and a lack of real thinking. It’s almost like the society’s been shellacked. Whereas this country’s legacy was based on a deep understanding of individual freedom. It’s very sad, but that’s what’s at stake here. And I worry about a woman’s right to choose and John Ashcroft’s belief that it is his God-given right to choose for us.
AH What do you think about political correctness?
WW It’s scary both ways, on the Left and on the Right. Either way, it’s saying there’s a correct way to think and if you don’t think this way, you’re lacking. You’re not allowed to attack the establishment anymore, and one should be able to. There’s a lack of leadership. Like an artist, a great leader says, I see this, we’re going there. And that’s not there. It’s scary. I was just thinking about the feminists of the late sixties, early seventies because I started college in ’67 at Mount Holyoke. I took the first women’s history class there and those ideas changed my life, I mean truly changed my life.
AH What do you worry about?
WW My daughter, preschools, my hair. The whole idea of what makes up character and what is real character and what are real ethics. You teach your children not to lie, yet this society seems to lie with finesse. What is kindness? I just want to see a society where there is individual expression, where that continues. I worry about the future of this country, where you always have to be the best. Who the hell cares?
AH Let’s get back to your plays. Do you think of ideas or characters first?
WW It depends. In The Heidi Chronicles, it was the idea of an idea that failed. I was a history major so ideas have always interested me. The Sisters Rosensweig was the three sisters, and my sister’s illness came back during the writing of that play so maybe somewhere I was anticipating something. Old Money also came from an idea.
AH How would you describe that idea?
WW I was at a dinner party where people were literally talking about how much a man was worth and I thought, Worthiness is now all about money. It just seems so much about “where’s mine?” It’s not even covered, but so overt that children can even tell you how big a movie grossed over the weekend. So I think it came from that.
AH Is there a danger in working so close to both autobiography and history? Being so close to what is intimately known can make it harder to go as deep as one might want to. I think of surgeons not operating on family members, etcetera. Does that ever concern you?
WW Yes, I’ve had a childhood memoir due for around ten years now and I find myself unable to touch it. Mostly because I don’t even know if I could reach that kind of depth.
AH Do you think writers have a moral or social obligation to address things that are happening in the culture?
WW I think so, yes. You have the platform to do so—you might as well. That’s a wonderful thing, if someone will actually listen.
AH There are some wonderful lines in Old Money: “You have to not care.” I was curious to have your thoughts on that, because it’s incredibly true. Everything that actually matters the most to you, you achieve greater success in it if you can actually let go, if you don’t care about it. That’s torture.
WW It is torture. But it’s a way of releasing. There are certain things you can teach yourself not to think about. Certainly not to care about not being invited to a party.
AH What does the work mean to you? I’ll ask that in translation: what is it to be a writer?
WW It’s very specific. I am a playwright, and I have the ability to see my work come alive. I’m lucky enough that I can walk into a room and there’s John Cullum and Madeline Kahn. I will always have Madeline Kahn. She was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. So my plays come alive. It’s what I taught myself to do and I can sit alone in a room and make things up, and then I can sit in a rehearsal room and hear it, talk to others, and fix it. What was interesting about this play is that the musical director, Lewis Flynn, and the play’s director, Mark Brokaw, are both younger than I am. Although Tom Lynch, who did the sets, and I went to school together at Yale. But there’s a shared aesthetic among the generations.
AH Is it enough to document the culture we’re living in, or do you feel you need to do something more, to transcend the world being explored and provide a comment?
WW If you accurately document the culture you’re living in, I think you transcend it. Look at Chekhov and turn-of-the-century Russia.
AH If you had to say, This is what I really want, what would that be?
WW It’s funny, you were asking about what it’s like when you’re the generation that’s in power, but it’s more about what is it like when you’ve been doing something for half of your life. My first play, Uncommon Women, was done when I was 27. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I was the first woman to win a Tony Award for a new play. Suddenly you can look back at a career, at what the changes were, and you look at other people’s lives, and what it’s like having a long-term writing life and you wonder what that will be like and will you still do it. You’re looking at it from your self.
AH So what’s that look like? Tell me more.
WW What you asked earlier: Is it still as good, Is it not as good? What do you want it to be? What are you trying for it to be? Why do you still write for the theater—is it just something that you know how to do? What was good about this? I like being in rehearsal, I like that process, and I’ve always said I want to keep writing plays, I want to get better at it. There’s that thing about wanting to be alone, wanting to work, and also wanting to figure out what you’re thinking about because you’ve written it. Like most writers, I am a very private person. Which is odd when you’re sort of a public figure.
AH It’s that funny dichotomy, where the work is the public thing. My novel The End of Alicewas banned in Europe. I had to go on the BBC and explain myself to England. The dissonance between the questions they were asking and the intellectual and artistic impulse to write that book was an unbridgeable gap.
WW Who you are and what the writing is, they are disparate.
AH I just want to be normal, it’s the thing that matters most to me. People say to me, “I’ve read your books, you must be really wild,” and I think, If you only knew.
WW I know, I know. People who saw The Sisters Rosensweig would say, “Oh, I know you now.” And I would think, You don’t know me.
—A.M. Homes is the author of five books, most recently, Music for Torching. She is currently at work on a book about California.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee