Wendy Wasserstein? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: We are told that people should live up to expectations. Yet, the chronically underestimated are implicitly told to live down to expectations. A graduation speaker once told an audience to do something remarkable and to refuse to live down to expectations. Would you please help me to trace this guidance?
Quote Investigator: U.S. playwright Wendy Wasserstein received a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her 1988 drama “The Heidi Chronicles”. She delivered the commencement address at her alma mater Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1990 offering graduating students the following encouragement. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Take all the goodness, honesty, intelligence, toughness, and wit that you have learned here and don’t compromise them. So much has been written about the women of the nineties. My response is the women of the nineties have yet to make their mark. Go out there and do something remarkable. Don’t live down to expectations. The women of the nineties are you.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The phrase “live down to expectations” has been circulating for many years. Here is an example from 1905: 2
Mayors go wrong when they find they are distrusted, for men live down to expectations as they live up to opportunities.
Wendy Wasserstein used the phrase “live down to expectations” more than a decade before her graduation speech at Mount Holyoke College. Her early play “Uncommon Women and Others” premiered Off-Broadway in 1977. A manuscript of the work with a copyright date of 1978 included a section presenting sketches of the characters. The brief profile of Rita Altabel stated the following: 3
Rita had cowbells on her dress. In 1976 she wasn’t sure if the C.I.A. had put L.S.D. into all polyester shirts. But she knew it was only safe to wear cotton. Rita refuses to live down to expectations. She shouldn’t worry about it. Her imagination would never let her.
In 1990 Wasserstein employed the quotation while speaking to the graduating class of her alma mater as mentioned previously.
In 1991 Wasserstein delivered a commencement address at a private high school for women, and she employed one sentence of the two sentence quotation: 4
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein challenged the 71 graduating seniors at Miss Porter’s School to tell their own stories as women of the 1990s.
“The curtain is going up and the action begins,” Wasserstein said. “Go out there and do something remarkable.”
The 1999 book “Contemporary American Playwrights” by Christopher Bigsby included a section about Wendy Wasserstein which discussed her play “Uncommon Women and Others”. Bigsby mentioned the character sketches appearing at the beginning of the published text: 5
Hence, we are told of Rita Altabel that when she ‘walked through the Yale Cross Campus Library with the Yale Crew Team’ she ‘had cowbells on her dress’, that she ‘refuses to live down to expectations’ but ‘shouldn’t worry about it’ because her ‘imagination would never let her down’.
In 2007 “The Palm Beach Post” published a profile of a high school valedictorian and reported that she used a quotation in her speech to fellow graduates: 6
Helfman has high expectations for herself as she sets out for Boston, and she delivered a quote to that effect during her valedictory speech May 25 at Jensen Beach High School.
Quoting the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, she said: “Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.”
The two sentences above were reversed when compared to Wasserstein’s 1990 address. It is possible that the playwright used this re-ordering in a speech that QI has not yet located. Alternatively, the quotation evolved over time as it was retransmitted.
In conclusion, Wendy Wasserstein should receive credit for the words she spoke in her 1990 commencement speech.
Image Notes: Mountaineer silhouetted against sky with the sun and stars from cocoparisienne at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy mentioned the attribution to Wasserstein. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations.)
- Website: Alumnae Association Mount Holyoke College, Section title: Alumnae Speakers at Commencement, Article title: Wendy Wasserstein ’71, Commencement in 1990, Date on website: December 19, 2016, Website description: Information from the Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College, an academic institution for women in South Hadley, Massachusetts. (Accessed alumnae.mtholyoke.edu on December 13, 2019) link ↩
- 1905 December 9, The Summary, Volume 33, The Problem of Crime by Charles M. Skinner (in The Universalist Leader), Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Published by and for the Inmates of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1978, Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein, Section: Characters, Quote Page 8, Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1991 June 4, The Hartford Courant, Graduating seniors urged to do something remarkable by Karen Wagner (Courant Staff Writer), Quote Page D3, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1999, Contemporary American Playwrights, Edited by Christopher Bigsby, Section: Wendy Wasserstein, Quote Page 335, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2007 June 13, The Palm Beach Post, Section: Neighborhood Post, Parents, ‘intrinsic’ motivation propel teen to top of her Jensen High class by Eve Samples (Palm Beach Post Staff Writer), Quote Page 6, Column 2 and 3, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩