why the finale of 'girls' recreated the ending of the 1988 play 'the heidi chronicles'

The Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein served as a strong inspiration for Lena Dunham’s last season of ‘Girls.’

by Rory Satran
18 April 2017, 10:15pm

In the final scene of Wendy Wasserstein's zeitgeisty 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles, its single, feminist heroine rocked her newborn baby at home, complete at last, softly singing Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." That ending will feel extremely familiar to those who watched this week's zeitgeisty Girls finale, "Latching," which closed on Hannah Horvath's beatific face as she breastfed her new son Grover. The scenes, taking place in fictions nearly 30 years apart, are perfect echoes of one another.

Still from The Heidi Chronicles

The original production of The Heidi Chronicles starred Joan Allen as a Baby Boomer Everywoman whose coming-of-age was set against the sea changes of the second half of 20th-century America. By the end of the story, Heidi was a successful art historian with a gay best friend, who adopted a baby on her own amidst the competitive yuppie-ness of 80s New York. She was a prototype for the kind of empowered, yet still sensitive woman that would become a cliché in shows like Will and Grace and Sex and the City. These post-women's lib fictions showed women grappling with life achievements like Tetris blocks, trying to fit everything in: Man, Friends, Career, Family, Money. Much of the hilarity of Girls resulted from the premise that its characters didn't grapple with this dilemma so much as assume that it would all work out, because women like Heidi had done the heavy lifting.

Mel Gussow's review of the play from 88 read, "She simply wants to be Heidi, but the closest she can come to self-definition is ambivalence, empathizing with the Heffalump in 'Winnie-the-Pooh.'" Replace "Heidi" with "Hannah" and that's a pretty good encapsulation of the bumpy road to self-realization that Lena Dunham has outlined on the show over the past six years.

But for all of their similarities, Heidi was far more directed than Hannah. For Wasserstein, ending her semi-autobiographical play with a birth was a strong assertion of female independence, and the beginning of a matriarchy. (Wasserstein herself had a child late in life, with an unknown father.) When Lena Dunham recreates this scene three decades later, there's a random quality that feels true to Hannah's path. Rather than consciously deciding to start a family on her own, Hannah bumbled into motherhood much as she bumbled into a professorship teaching about "the internet." For six years, Girls has explored the ambivalence that comes with the wealth of choices that Wasserstein's generation made possible.

When the play was revived on Broadway in 2015 starring Elisabeth Moss, Dunham was all about it. "Wendy Wasserstein's play is in the DNA of so many writers, so many women, and her legend inspires Girls greatly," she wrote on Instagram. The play's DNA was an integral part of her vision for the final season of Girls. As she told EW, "Wendy Wasserstein became a massive influence for me. The Heidi Chronicles was one of the first examples to me of a woman who was telling her story in an incredibly personal and specific way. I like that she reimagined what the rules would be for a woman like that."

Not everyone was as enchanted by the revival as Dunham was. The show closed quickly, playing to "half-empty theaters" in its final days. In a fascinating look at how the play's feminist themes had aged, The New York Times quoted Wasserstein scholar Jill Dolan as saying, "It represents a moment in feminism that has passed." According to Dolan, "The question 'Can we have it all?' is just not the main question that American feminism is asking right now."

But one thing has remained constant in the 30 years since Heidi: stories about imperfect women doggedly pursuing their dreams are still criticized for being self-indulgent and self-absorbed. Audiences have confused both Wasserstein and Dunham with their entitled-seeming characters, in part because these authors felt entitled enough to write them at all. Upon Heidi's release, Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post, "[...]Wasserstein's self-absorbed characters take the Me Generation so seriously that every walk across the road becomes a passage in autobiography[…]" As for Hannah Horvath, thousands of words have been written debating whether she is the most selfish TV character of all time. The ending of both stories acts as a farewell to that navel gazing. The message is neatly conveyed: when you have a kid you're less selfish. 

As a narrative device, it's elegant. Reality is messier. As Alice Miller wrote about so sensationally in The Drama of the Gifted Child, narcissism doesn't end with childbirth. The pop psychology version is that needy moms can force their kids into enabling their self-obsession… forever. But the fate of Heidi and Hannah's children is left open-ended.

Wendy Wasserstein and Lena Dunham, generations apart, both closed out their opuses about strong New York women with visions of maternal sublimation. The Heidi Chronicles (and Wasserstein herself), presents an inspiring picture of independence and autonomy. While Hannah's version is more accidental, it's her way of cobbling together a life of meaning. I disagree with Jill Dolan that the question of having it all is outdated. As Hannah says in Season 2, "I want what everyone wants. I want all the things. I just want to be happy." And that's not a feminist issue; it's an everyone issue.


Text Rory Satran
Photography Todd Cole
i-D No. 322, The Wise-Up Issue, Winter 2012

lena dunham
the heidi chronicles
wendy wasserstein