Today I am haunted by yesterday and the tragic death of Playwright Wendy Wasserstein. She died of lymphoma at the age of 55. Her sister died of breast cancer at 60. Wendy, unmarried, left behind a six-year-old daughter named Lucy Jane who was born three months premature and weighed 1-pound, 12-ounces at birth.
The cruel gossip about Wendy that dogged her all her life — behind her back and in front of her face — was that she was too fat and too ugly to find a man to marry her.
Wendy would try to laugh off her never-ending search for a man and she wrote award winning plays about the joy and yearning of relationships but she never found married success in her private life.
She refused to settle for a man who loved her money and power but not her.
Wendy was so desperate to have a family some believe she spent over $130,000 on fertility treatments and Pergonal to get pregnant. Some in the medical community believe Pergonal can cause cancer.
What must have gone through her mind when she realized her dream of having a daughter to only have her new family crushed by her own death a few years later and she was forced to leave behind a legacy of interesting plays, a Pulitzer Prize and a motherless child she was determined to bring to life?
Wendy was Dr. Howard Stein’s student at the Yale School of Drama. I met her many times over the last 20 years and she was always packed with life and a perpetual smile.
Aristotle wrote about the Cathartic effect of Tragic plays for theatre audiences in the delivery of Pity and Fear. Pity in that, like poor King Oedipus, he was born guilty and no one deserves a life doomed to destroy a family from the moment of life.
Fear was the knowledge that, like King Oedipus, we could share the same unwitting fate.
Dr. Stein took Aristotle’s Pity and Fear argument one step further: “Fear isn’t strong enough. It’s Pity and TERROR,” Dr. Stein would yell at us during class, “TERROR! The TERROR of realizing your life and all its decisions are doomed before they are decided in your mind or slipped from your lips. It’s Pity and TERROR that the Tragedy unpeeling on stage could somehow become your life.”
I am haunted by Wendy Wasserstein’s death because, like King Oedipus before her, the theoretical terror of a predestined life was visited upon her along with the uncertain destiny that the sins of the dying mother may be visited upon the surviving daughter.
What must it have been like to be Wendy and to learn everything she fought so hard to win would be ripped from her just as she was finally able to enjoy the fruits of her labor and her love?
It must have been terrifying.
Is there anything more unexpected and unwanted than a body turning against its life?
I wonder if Wendy wondered about King Oedipus who, the Oracle predicted, was born to kill his father and marry his mother and then somehow connect in her brilliant mind how the medication she took as an unwed mother to get pregnant might have prematurely ended her life?
Did she see the Tragic irony that the price of her daughter’s life was the killing of her own?
Wendy refused to identify the father of her daughter and was fond of saying, “Lucy will never want for fathers.”
Let’s hope the Terror of Wendy’s life will not haunt Lucy Jane as her death haunts those who knew her and loved her.
Let’s hope Lucy Jane can somehow be set free from the chains of a family history that tragically predestines its women to suffering in Terror while those around them can offer nothing more than Pity in search of an inconsolable Catharsis.