Marsha Norman Essay - Critical Essays


Marsha Noman has always maintained that it was precisely because she had no models that she came so late to drama. Nevertheless, it is clear from her studies at New York’s Center for Understanding Media that she is a serious student of the theater in addition to being one of its most important developing playwrights. Her style is taut and spare, like that of Samuel Beckett, though her settings and characters are realistic. Her plays often have small casts and deal with a single moment of overwhelming importance for the protagonist. The dramatic conflict centers on the recognition of this problem and its resolution. Though this does not seem very different from the pattern of classical drama, Norman’s plays focus on some difficulty that relates to the inner life of the protagonist. In consequence, her dramas depend greatly on dialogue rather than stage action, physical movement, or change of scene. They are often the cathartic conversations of ordinary people, given in simple language and without learned allusions but nevertheless profound, because they mirror the unexpressed thoughts of many individuals. Normally inarticulate, often nondescript protagonists find hidden strength and depth of feeling they had never before recognized in themselves, and they face their problems with determination. The solution is often a radical one. Though the outcome may be tragic, the central character is usually personally triumphant.

Norman deals easily with psychological questions, as in Getting Out, in which a young woman moves easily between Arlene, her present self, and Arlie, the girl who committed the murder that sent her to prison. In The Hold-up, about would-be cowboys at the beginning of the twentieth century in New Mexico, and Traveler in the Dark, about a brilliant surgeon unable to cope with the death of his closest coworker, Norman uses dialogue that is witty and eloquent by turns to provide a close psychological scrutiny of characters in pain. Throughout her work, Norman shows an interest in fundamental human relationships as fired in the crucible of both familial and generational conflict. All of her characters, in their own way, are struggling to survive, to find some inner strength to cope with the disabling emotions that their situations inevitably provoke. With similarities in both themes and technique, Norman’s work fits easily into the traditional canon of American drama that includes such playwrights as Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, to whom she is often compared.

Getting Out

Getting Out deals with the difficulties of Arlene Holsclaw, a newly released parolee who served an eight-year prison term for robbery, kidnapping, and manslaughter. Eight years have greatly changed her, but she must still come to terms with her past as well as face an uncertain future. Her past is first represented by Arlie, her younger and uncontrolled self, that part of her capable of committing the earlier crimes. Played by a second actress, Arlie literally invades Arlene’s shabby apartment on the first day of Arlene’s new freedom. Arlie is foulmouthed, crude, and defiant in contrast to Arlene’s attempt to be quiet, reserved, and self-confident. The alter ego declares that Arlene is not really free, that Arlene remains a prisoner to her younger self, and that this other part of her will surface again.

Though Arlene manages to quell Arlie, she is tormented by three other symbols of her past: a guard Arlene knew in prison who is concerned only with seducing her; her mother, who succeeds in revealing that she is domineering and selfish; and a former pimp who tries to enlist Arlene’s help in supporting his addiction. The drama’s tension mounts as Arlene, who could be destroyed at any moment, faces each of these temptations. She realizes that “getting out,” winning personal freedom, must be accomplished by oneself and that psychological prisons are the most difficult to escape. Norman always mentions in interviews the feelings of isolation and terror she had while writing the play, that Getting Out represented her own emotional release.

The play was much acclaimed in its 1977 Actors Theatre production in Louisville; it was voted best new play produced by a regional theater by the American Theatre Critics Association, and it was published in extract in The Best Plays of 1977-78 (1980), the first non-New York production ever so honored. Getting Out was given an...

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