Marissa Skudlarek continues the Marissa Skudlarek Chronicles.
The current Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles will be closing this weekend after 80 performances. After the show announced its plans to close, The New York Times published an article analyzing why it might have flopped so badly. Much of the article discusses whether this play about a Baby Boomer woman speaks to women of younger generations, particularly those in “the lively world of online feminism.” (The fact that younger women just plain don’t pay attention to Broadway plays as much as older ones do only merits a parenthetical. Look, I’m doing it again!) Overall, the article implies that whether or not you like The Heidi Chronicles is a matter of whether or not you agree with its feminist politics – though with the added twist that, in the 21st century, many self-proclaimed feminists have trouble with the play’s message.
Well, I could have told you as much. In college, I did a research paper on people’s reactions to The Heidi Chronicles, and made that same argument. My professor had asked everyone to pick a 20th-century play, find as many reviews of different productions as we could, and then write a paper discussing how the performance tradition and/or the critical reception of that play had changed over time. I elected to do my project on The Heidi Chronicles. It was early in 2006, Wendy Wasserstein had just died, and I wanted to write about her play as a way of honoring her. My research showed that, while the play was pretty universally praised in its first Broadway production in 1988 (it also won the Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize), more recent productions had had more mixed reviews, and the reviewers’ political beliefs always seemed to color their reactions to the play.
I’ll come out and say it: I’ve never seen a production of The Heidi Chronicles, but I’ve read it several times, and I do like it. Even though I know I supposedly “shouldn’t” like it because of the way it represents a very second-wave, elitist, white, bourgeois liberal feminism that it is my generation’s duty to move beyond. (Besides, like Heidi, I am a bourgeois white liberal woman who went to Vassar. To completely abjure those parts of me would be self-loathing.) At the same time, though, I totally get it when, say, a queer black working-class feminist says “You’re telling me I should like The Heidi Chronicles because it’s one of the most acclaimed and successful feminist plays in the canon, but I’m sorry, it doesn’t speak to me.”
And that’s what I really want to talk about in this column: what happens when you feel like you’re “supposed” to like a play for political reasons, but you actually don’t like it? And the inverse: what happens when you really enjoy a play that nonetheless has some elements that you know are politically iffy?
I consider myself a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that I love every show that promotes a feminist message. I get offended when people suggest that I “should” love a certain show because I generally agree with its politics. Politics is not and has never been why I go to the theater. On the occasions when I do like a show for feminist reasons, it’s typically because the show features complex and fascinating and intelligently written female characters, not because it strives to make an Important Political Statement About the Female Condition.
Let me give you two examples of plays I saw in 2014 where my opinion of the play’s politics did not match my opinion of its artistry. First, The House That Will Not Stand at Berkeley Rep. I really thought I was going to like this play: it had a majority-female cast and explored a fascinating but little-known piece of American history. In telling the story of free women of color in New Orleans, it showed the plight of women in a patriarchal society and their attempts to find freedom, power, and dignity. But I hated the play. I thought it was silly and melodramatic and overheated, and while set in the early 1800s, some of the characters behaved in unbelievably 21st-century ways. The leading actress gave such a mannered performance, and the writing was so overwrought, that, halfway through the show, I decided that I would much prefer to see it performed by drag queens. And then I felt like a terrible feminist.
Then, a few months after that, I saw Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: it is written for three men and one woman. The woman (unlike the men) has to play multiple small parts, and all of her roles feel like afterthoughts. Her character was billed in the playbill as “The Eternal Feminine,” which I thought was just plain icky — putting women on a pedestal can be a form of misogyny, you know. And yet, despite all those caveats, I really liked the show. The writing was clever and entertaining. It dealt with some philosophical and ethical matters (the main conflict in the play is between Martin Luther and Dr. Faustus, professors at Wittenberg University) but it was not explicitly political in the 21st-century sense of “political theater.” And again, I felt like a terrible feminist. What was I doing, preferring this elitist, smarty-pants, Stoppard-lite comedy about three dead white men, to a politically conscious, highly emotional drama about women of color?
But I think I’m just going to have to go on being a terrible (read: complex, and not doctrinaire) feminist. Reducing a play to its political message means that you ignore the thousands of hours of craft and artistry that it took to create the play, in favor of promoting a one-sentence slogan or moral or tagline. I don’t want anyone to treat my plays that way, so the least I can do is accord that same respect to the plays of others.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She feels like most of the feminists she knows often worry that they are terrible feminists. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.