A Story is a Promise


Book cover of Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

The Heidi Chronicles

Developing Complex Characters Who Grow and Change


by Bill Johnson

A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein is a witty, insightful, poignant piece of work. Where normally I review a work to explore its structure as an aid to help writers study the craft of storytelling, I review this script understanding that it takes a certain kind of education and cultural awareness to fully appreciate this script. Never-the-less, it is an example of fine writing and wit. And it demonstrates how to write a play of ideas.

The Review

Prologue -- 1989

As the title of the play suggests, it is a chronicle of the life of Heidi, who opens the play as a lecturer speaking about the almost ignored role of women painters prior to the 20th century. While Heidi speaks about the question of resurrecting women ignored by a male dominated and filtered recreation of history, Wasserstein skillfully and playfully sets up a question about Heidi's personal life. In a sly way, her topic sets up what will be the story question of this play,

What must Heidi do to become the main character in a chronicle about her life as a woman coming of age between 1965 and 1985?

The last line of the prologue,

"And you sort of want to dance, and you sort of want to go home, and you sort of don't know what you want. So you hang around, a fading rose in an exquisitely detailed dress, waiting to see what might happen," leads into Scene One of the play.

Scene One -- 1965

Scene one opens with sixteen year old Heidi and Susan, her friend, at a school dance. Heidi apparently thinks she and Susan are there to enjoy themselves, but it quickly becomes clear that Susan is on the prowl for a man and doesn't want Heidi to be an obstacle.

Story note, while the scene is played for humor, it has a serious undercurrent about how Susan distances herself from Heidi to attract a man. This speaks again to the story's core dramatic issue that was framed as an issue in the prologue, how did it come about that women were marginalized in life? The answer is offered, in part, in Susan's lines to Heidi.

Susan,

"You know, as your best friend, I must tell you frankly that you're going to get really messed up unless you learn to take men seriously."

As Susan goes off to meet a young man, Heidi meets Peter. They engage in some spirited word play that builds to Peter,

"Will you marry me."

Heidi,

"I covet my independence."

Peter,

"If we can't marry, let's be great friends."

The scene ends with Heidi and Peter dancing together. They are clearly two kindred souls.

In a playful, engaging, witty, nuanced way, this scene advances the story along both its story line and its plot line. While the story of The Heidi Chronicles is about how women have become disenfranchised and what they are doing about it, its plot is a dramatic acting out of this issue. By showing how Susan treats Heidi to attract a man, Wasserstein advances her story along its story line with a deft, light touch; while the events of her plot, the introduction of Susan and Heidi at the dance, Heidi's meeting Peter, sets in motion events that resonate through the rest of the play.

Scene Two -- 1968

Scene two opens a few years later with Heidi at a dance held as part of Eugene McCarthy's run for the democratic nomination in 1968. As soon as she comes on the scene, Scoop Rosenbaum comes over to meet her. Scoop is described as "intense and charismatic" and that's an apt description of his dialogue. Scoop has a habit of assigning a letter grade to everything. Within moments of meeting Heidi he tells her,

"You know, you have a hell of an inferiority complex."

Defending herself from Scoop's aggressiveness, Heidi later muses,

"Actually, I was wondering what mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters."

Story note, Heidi speaks here to the issue that a man like Scoop seems to be a normal outcome for a particular type of male: aggressive, determined, opinionated, self-promoting from every pore and because of that successful.

Heidi responds to Scoop,

"I'm interested in the individual expression of the human soul. Content over form."

Story note, wonderful dialogue, since Scoop is so clearly a wild manifestation of form over content.

Scoop continues to pursue Heidi, saying,

"Heidi, you don't understand. You're the one this is all going to affect. You're the one whose life this will all change significantly. Has to. You're a very serious person. In fact, you're the unfortunate contradiction in terms--a serious good person. And I envy you that."

This is another example of dialogue that, on the surface is funny and clever, and beneath the surface speaks directly to the story's core issue, how men manage to create an agenda for a woman's life just through force of form over content.

Scoop finally gets to the point of why he approached Heidi, he asks her to have sex with him. Scoop turns to go and pauses to see if Heidi will go with him. She does. He "clenches his fist in success."

In these first two scenes we meet the kind of man Heidi is attracted to intellectually, Peter, and the man she finds charismatic, Scoop. Both scenes are crisp, to the point, and poignant. Each scene both advances the story while presenting new facets of who Heidi is and how she responds to her world and its choices.

Scene Three -- 1970

Scene three opens two years later with Heidi and Susan attending a women's consciousness raising group. Wasserstein finds and acts out dramatically only those scenes from Heidi's life that illustrate Heidi' search for the meaning of her life. In some plays this is done by creating a compressed, moment to moment recreation of the story, i.e., 'night, Mother. Here, Wasserstein creates those scenes that best act out the dramatic advance of her story along its story line.

In the women's consciousness group Heidi comes across Jill and Fran, two women who are determined to aggressively pursue defining themselves as women. Fran demands of Heidi,

"Do you support my choice?"

Heidi,

"I'm just visiting."

Becky, a 17 year old girl at her first group meeting, points out that Fran has a way of yelling to get her point across that makes her sound like Bobby, Becky's boyfriend who spends his time "angry or stoned." When Jill, Susan and Fran all offer womanly assistance to Becky to help free her from Bobby, the moment becomes a group hug minus Heidi. When Heidi defends her right to make her own decisions and keep them private, Fran rejoins with,

"Heidi, every woman in this room has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son, or her boss are much more important than her own."

It then comes out that Heidi is seeing Scoop, but it's an odd relationship that revolves around Scoop's needs and agenda.

Susan,

"The point is that Heidi will drop anything--work, a date, even a chance to see me--just to be around this creep."

Heidi, a few lines later,

"When I need him, he's aloof. But if I decide to get better and leave him, he's unbelievably attentive."

Becky,

"Your asshole sounds just like my asshole."

Heidi,

"But you see, Becky, the problem isn't really him. The problem is me. I could have made a better choice. ... And the bottom line is, I know that's wrong. You either shave your legs or you don't."

This sets the group up for an emotional exchange and some singing of lines from Respect sung by Aretha Franklin.

By having Heidi enter this scene with an attitude that puts her at odds with Fran and Jill, Wasserstein gives the scene and its outcome a dramatic temperature that it would have lacked otherwise.

Story note, by showing how a woman can be affected by both the expectations of men and other women, Wasserstein creates a story that "rings" true. And by creating a story that continues to advance dramatically along its story line via Heidi's reactions to the events and characters who manifest the story's plot, Wasserstein creates a dramatically "moving" story about Heidi's search for her identity as a woman.

Scene Four -- 1974

Scene four opens four years later outside the Chicago Art Institute. Heidi is leading a protest with her friend Debbie against the Institute having an art show of Napoleonic art that excludes women artists, but very few people are bothering to come to the protest. Then, Peter Patrone shows up, the young man Heidi met in the play's first scene. He suggests that if Heidi changed her name to "Heidigwyth" she would have more gravity. Heidi, it turns out, has skipped on an opportunity to meet Peter, an intern, to instead lead the protest.

Story note, Wasserstein is now bringing characters together in a way that highlights where Heidi is in her life and her on-going struggle about defining herself.

Peter has sought out Heidi in part to tell her, "Heidi, I don't play on your team."

This is Peter's way of leading into the subject that he is gay. It also comes out that Susan has become a sheepherder at a radical women's health and legal collective in Montana. While all this is humorous, it still speaks directly to the story's deeper theme of people finding their way in life. While the story focuses on Heidi, every character in the story is "ripe" dramatically, with their own issues and questions of identity to resolve.

Scene Five -- 1977

Scene five advances to 1977 and the marriage of Scoop to Lisa. Peter sums up the ambivalence of the moment when he facetiously says to Heidi,

"Do you, Scoop Rosenbaum, take Lisa Friedlander to be your bride?" "Well, I feel ambivalent about her. But I am blocked emotionally, and she went to good schools, comes from a very good family, and is not particularly threatening. So, yeah, I do. Anyway, it's time for me to get married."

Story note, Wasserstein again begins a scene at another dramatic point in not just Heidi's life, but her friends. For example, there is no earlier scene to introduce Lisa because that would serve no dramatic purpose in the story. Her issues are presented as the scene progresses.

The exchanges continue and it comes out that for Scoop marriage is more a rite of passage than an affair of the heart. Scoop gets it out of Heidi that she's in a sort of relationship with someone. But that is happening off-stage. The primary people in Heidi's life who are acting out this story are all in the scene, Susan, Peter and Scoop.

Story note, Wasserstein always has on stage those characters necessary to act out her story. It's a subtle point, but it's very, very well done in this play. If a character or issue isn't germane to a story, its appearance can be confusing to the story's audience.

It comes out that Peter, even though he's gay, desires to marry Heidi. Again, it's the writer taking the story into deeper waters.

Scoop, his usual irritating self, begins to interrogate Heidi about her life. It both brings out information about where Heidi "is," and, by putting Heidi and Scoop in opposition as she resists Scoop's questions, it heats up the temperature of the scene.

Scoop tells Heidi,

"But I couldn't dangle you anymore. And that's why I got married."

Heidi,

0 "So. So now it's all my fault."

Scoop,

"Sure it is. You want other things in life than I do."

Heidi,

"Really, like what?"

Scoop,

"Self-fulfillment. Self determination. Self-exaggeration."

Heidi,

"That's exactly what you want."

Scoop,

"Right. Then you'd be competing with me."

Lovely, zinging dialogue. Wasserstein never misses a beat in this script.

The exchange ends with Scoop dancing with Heidi who cries while the song, "You Send Me" plays, and the lyrics,

"Darling, you send me

Honest you do

Honest you do."

Lights fade out as they slow dance.

By the end of this act Heidi's choices now have a poignancy and resonance they lacked when she was younger. Choices now have a permanence, a life partner of ten years, children, a home. Heidi's tears are like a soul call of a woman still searching for something that eludes her. The author has taken us on quite a journey with Heidi and the chronicles of her life to the close of Act One.

By ending on this note of Heidi's need for something more in life, and implying the question, will she find what she seeks? the story's audience is naturally drawn back from the intermission.


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The full review of The Heidi Chronicles can now be downloaded from Smashwords for .99 as a PDF, Kindle, or html. The review is part of a collection that includes reviews of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Iceman Cometh, and Death of a Salesman.

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