48 pages 1 hour read

Wendy Wasserstein

The Heidi Chronicles

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1988

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Summary and Study Guide


Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Heidi Chronicles first opened Off-Broadway with Playwrights Horizons in 1988, transferring to Broadway for a successful run in 1989. The play follows Heidi Holland from the ages of 16 to 40 as she explores her desires for her own life, inspired by the liberation of feminism, but tempered by gendered expectations in a patriarchal society. Critics celebrated the play for introducing feminism into mainstream theater.

Wasserstein wrote 11 plays, and The Heidi Chronicles is her most well-known work, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, all in 1989. Although Wasserstein died of lymphoma in 2006 at age 55, she remains a significant voice in American theater, particularly for her ability to speak to the experience of being a woman throughout the changing ethos of the women’s liberation movement and its evolution in the subsequent decades. In 1995, The Heidi Chronicles was adapted into a television movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis. A 2015 Broadway revival of the play starred Elisabeth Moss.

This guide references the version of the text titled The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays, published in 1991 by Vintage Books.

Plot Summary

Heidi is a scholar and professor of art history who studies representations of women in portraiture, particularly in paintings by women artists. The play is Heidi’s self-portrait, which she displays for interpretation by both the audience and the other characters in the play.

In the Act I Prologue, set in 1989, Heidi delivers an art history lecture at Columbia University about women artists who have been left out of the canon. In the next scene, it’s 1965, and 16-year-old Heidi and her best friend, Susan Johnston, attend a school dance. Heidi meets a student named Peter Patrone there, and they bond immediately. In 1968, as a college student, Heidi meets Scoop Rosenbaum at a canvassing event during Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President. Condescending but charismatic, Scoop persuades Heidi to have sex with him. In 1970, Susan, now a law student, takes Heidi, who is in graduate school at Yale, to a women’s consciousness-raising group. Heidi is tentative but joins in, recognizing that she has allowed her on-again-off-again relationship with Scoop to define her. In 1974, Heidi and her friend Debbie protest the minimal representation of women artists at the Chicago Art Institute. Peter, now a medical intern, comes to see her, and he comes out as gay. In 1977, Heidi, attends Scoop’s wedding to a woman named Lisa. Scoop admits to Heidi that he will always love her, but he married a woman he knew wouldn’t try to outshine him professionally. They kiss and then dance together.

The Act II Prologue (1989) returns to Heidi’s classroom at Columbia, where she lectures about artist Lilla Cabot Perry. Shifting to 1980, Scoop’s wife, Lisa, is pregnant, and Heidi and Susan attend her baby shower. Susan shares the news that she has accepted a job in LA as the vice president of a new film production company. Heidi recently returned from writing her book in England—where she nearly got married—to take a job at Columbia. When Lisa leaves the room, the women reveal that Scoop is having an affair. Lisa’s little sister, Denise, works for a television show, and the host is interested in interviewing Heidi about her book. In 1982, Heidi finally appears on the popular show, which is hosted by April Lambert, along with Scoop, who runs a successful magazine, and Peter, who is a prominent pediatrician. Both men keep interrupting Heidi, so she can barely get a word in. In 1984, Heidi meets Susan for lunch at a trendy restaurant. Heidi wants to have a deep conversation about their lives as women, but Susan, now a speed-talking television executive, has invited Denise, whom she recently hired as her assistant, to pitch the idea that Heidi come and help them on a television show about three women artists. Uncomfortably, Heidi declines.

In 1986, Heidi addresses the alumni association for her former high school on the subject “Women, Where Are We Going?”. She concludes that she is simply alone and unhappy, in addition to being disappointed because feminism was supposed to mean working together, not becoming isolated. On Christmas Eve, 1987, after deciding to move to Minnesota, Heidi takes boxes of donations to the pediatric AIDS ward that Peter opened with funding from Susan. Peter, who has lost many friends to AIDS, is hurt that Heidi would throw their friendship away and leave him, too. Heidi decides not to move away. In 1989, Scoop finds Heidi in her new apartment. He has sold his magazine for a massive profit, although Heidi is the first person he’s told. Heidi says that she adopted a child, whom she named Judy. Scoop already knows this and presents his gift of a silver baby spoon. He asks if she is happy, and she decides that it makes her happy to think of her daughter growing up to meet someone like Scoop’s son and not having to be told that she can have only one type of life. Scoop mentions that he might run for Congress. After he leaves, Heidi sings and dances with her baby.