The non-award of the Wendy Wasserstein Prize … and the non-award of the Nobel to Liu Xiaobo

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What would Wendy do?

The non-award this year of the Theatre Development Fund’s Wendy Wasserstein Prize for young women playwrights — the TDF considered no one up to snuff — has caused a great kerfuffle.  See New York’s Time Out here. She Writes reproduces the strident dialogue between Kamy Wicoff and TDF honcho David LeShay hereFeministing posts its reprise of the conflict here.  A Facebook petition is here.

The upshot:  The TDF is reconsidering.

The $25,000 award is named for Wendy Wasserstein, a popular playwright who died at age 55 from cancer — that’s a lot of money, and I yield to no one in understanding how hard a writer’s life is. I made my living as a free-lance journalist for a decade, and that when I was no longer young and also had a kid to support alone.  The award and recognition could make a big difference in a young playwright’s life.

Nonetheless, doesn’t an award have a right to determine its own criteria, however distressing that may be to the applicants? It’s always a punch in the face for a writer when a jury decides that no award was better than awarding you — especially if the criteria for judgment is bureaucratic, subjective, political, wrong-headed.  Still …

I have no doubt of the enormous gender bias in the theater world, and pretty much everywhere else. (Look at politics.  I’ll never forget the landmark misogyny of the 2008 elections, when the most accomplished woman ever to grace American politics was treated with truly ugly slurs, culminating in a major broadcast journalist called for her to be snuffed while the major feminist organizations were … silent.)

The Facebook page makes the strongest argument: “Your claim that ‘none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation’ sends a discouraging message to early career theatre artists at a time when these artists need more support than ever. The prize is not to support a production of the play, but the promise of the writer.” [italics mine]

Feministing‘s resorts to retro language, accusing the TDF of reproducing “hierarchies of privilege”  they meant to redress, though heaven knows its too true that “it’s often those who are already have many accolades who are likely to receive more of them.”  Wicoff resorts to a demanding tone and capital letters (“If you can’t figure out a way to give a prize to ONE WOMAN PLAYWRIGHT in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, YOU are the problem, not the applicants or the by-laws or whatever.”)

At the end of the Wicoff’s exchanges, she asks, “Anybody else feel a She Writes Prize coming on?”

Now there‘s an idea.

I understand that Wasserstein was a fabulous woman and a beloved friend to many.  But her plays always struck me as formulaic, built on TV models of short scenes and clincher lines, which were often blandly Gail Sheehy-esque:  “The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”  And sometimes not even true: “You’re the unfortunate contradiction in terms — a serious good person.”

In any case, the Time Out article hints that the award itself is having financial troubles, and may be discontinued:

But this apparent victory may be Pyrrhic. [Patrick] Healy’s article raised a detail that had not been a subject of general discussion earlier: that the Wasserstein Prize is a four-year project whose future funding is not assured. Toward the end of the piece is an ominous statement from Heidi Ettinger, a key figure in the establishment and funding of the prize: “This is the final year of the grant for the prize, and it will be up for reconsideration next year. All along, we have been changing and refining criteria to insure that the objectives of the prize honoring Wendy and her high standards were met. We have also managed to increase the amount of the award. As a funder, we must be able to insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”

Would any of the 19 young playwright applicants wish to accept the award now, under such a cloud?  In a minute.

***

No prize after all

Non-prizes have a long history.  In 2006, the Pulitzer board gave no prize in the drama category in spite of having three nominees from the drama jury. As recently as 2008, it gave no prize for editorial writing.  In 1953, 1964, 1965 and 1981 it gave no prize for music.  In 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, and 1977, it gave no award for fiction.  The Pulitzer board does not explain its sometime mysterious decisionmaking.

And it appears, in an unhappy development largely overlooked by the media, that there will be no Nobel peace prize this year for Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo.  The Associated Press notes: “Even Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi‘s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.”

The only precedent for the non-award is 1935, when the Nazi government forbade German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky to accept the award.  Imprisoned in a succession of concentration camps, Ossietzky had been hospitalized hospital for severe tuberculosis, but the Nazi government prevented him from leaving the country to accept the prize. Someone representing Ossietzky was allowed to receive the Nobel Prize money only.  On the books, it’s “no award” for 1935.


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