Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting

November 23, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

The problem with writing plays is that everyone has an opinion. And you don’t want those opinions. What would my mother say: Oh, it’s nice Wendy, and I notice the mother is dead? I really didn’t want any of them to see it until the opening, but my sister Sandy kept saying she wanted to come, so finally I said, You can come but you can’t call me tomorrow and make any comments, because if you call me and don’t say anything, I’ll know you think it’s bad. So no comment, either way. She saw it and sent me flowers the next day. They came with a note that said, No Commitment. I realized that either the florist had made this Freudian slip or he was the florist to some Upper West Side bachelor who regularly sends out “no commitment” flowers.

When I was in second grade, I made up a play that I was in; I told my mother that I was in this play and the lie got larger and larger. Finally, arbitrarily, I said my play is on tomorrow, and she got me a velvet dress and made my hair in ringlets, and off I went to school. And she came to school and there was no play. She covered for me and said, I must be confused; it must be another one of my children. Then she came home and told me I was a fibber. She must have yelled at me because to this day I have trouble with fibbing

When I see the play, I feel I’m seeing a Broadway play in 1958, or what I wish those plays had been. I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this but where are the girls? The Sisters Rosensweig  is like those plays—the curtain goes up and there’s one set, and the play is well-made, you know, beginning, middle, and end. It takes place over a weekend, the stars get applause, the stars get exit applause, they each tell their stories, it arcs in the second act, all of that. It was much harder to write than any of my other plays.

In a way, The Sisters Rosensweig seems a combination of Isn’t It Romantic and Uncommon Women. But those other plays are episodic and this was a deliberate decision not to be episodic. Also, I decided not to write another play about my generation. Even though it has autobiographical materials, the focus of the play is not me. I wanted to do all those things and also evoke a fondness for plays that I love, including Chekhov.

A friend of mine was dating a rabbi, so I went to speak at his temple. We were talking about Jewish women and self-image, and I said that I never thought of myself as undesirable or unattractive, frankly, until I turned twelve and began watching these movies in which none of the men ever fell in love with anybody who looked remotely like me. No one was ever Jewish, no one was hardly ever brunette. I never thought of that before, but in retrospect it really makes me angry.

Women who are a bit older can believe in something and also see it ironically. And younger women who once thought that to be a feminist you had to be antimarriage, have no sense of humor, and have hairy legs, are changing . . . . Feminism has affected me more in my writing than in a specifically political way. Sitting down to write a play that has three parts for women over forty, I think, is political.

For a woman to be heroic she doesn’t have to save the planet. My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy, and I have always thought, No, you don’t understand: this is in fact a political act. The Sisters Rosensweig had the largest advance in Broadway history, therefore nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it’s about women.

It’s interesting that the two most successful straight plays the year Sisters Rosensweig came out were mine and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a play about three women over forty and an epic about a gay fantasia. Even five years before, that wouldn’t have happened.

My plays are my art and not just self-revelation. Creating a well-made play means you have to round the edges so they fit into the form. Also, the plays are deliberately comedic. Humor masks a lot of anger, and it’s a means of breaking up others’ pretenses and of not being pretentious yourself.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the first of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part two will post next Wednesday.)