Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1061
One of the most important American women playwrights to emerge after the experimental decade of the 1970’s, Marsha Norman made her mark on the theater with her first play, Getting Out, and won the Pulitzer Prize in drama only six years later with ’night, Mother, her fifth play.
Born Marsha Williams, the eldest child of the strictly fundamentalist believers Bertha and Billie Williams of Louisville, Kentucky, the future playwright attended local schools before studying philosophy at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Returning to Louisville after her graduation in 1969, she married Michael Norman, who had been her English teacher; they would eventually divorce. Marsha Norman entered graduate school at the University of Louisville. During the next few years, she earned her M.A., worked with disturbed children at Kentucky Central State Hospital, taught gifted adolescents at the Brown School, and contributed book reviews and articles to the Louisville Times.
In 1976, while working on a new project for young people, Norman met with Jon Jory, the artistic director of the famed Louisville Actors Theatre. Jory encouraged her to try to write a play about a painful subject, and what resulted was Getting Out, first produced at the Actors Theatre and honored by the American Theatre Critics Association as the best play produced in regional theater in the 1977-1978 season. The play moved from Louisville to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and to an Off-Broadway theater in New York, and critics called it “a triumph of the season,” “a superb first play,” and “frighteningly true”; Norman was hailed as “an impressive addition to the list of good young American playwrights.” Three more plays—Third and Oak, Circus Valentine, and The Hold-up—followed, as did playwright-in-residence grants, first with the Actors Theatre and then with the Mark Taper Forum. The three plays did not receive the raves of Getting Out (in fact, Circus Valentine was a critical failure), but ’night, Mother, written after Norman and her second husband, the theatrical producer Dann Byck, moved to New York, was a resounding success. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1983, ’night, Mother firmly established Norman as an important new American playwright.
“I always write about the same thing,” Norman has commented, “people having the nerve to go on.” Her plays are not about the heroic or the daring; rather, they chronicle the lives of ordinary people (“those folks you wouldn’t even notice in life”) thrown into extraordinary circumstances, forced to make difficult decisions, confronted by impossible choices. She depicts people who, knowing they are powerless to change the big picture, nevertheless attempt to control some aspect of their lives.
Arlene in Getting Out does not, on the surface, appear to have any real choices: She can return to prostitution, a trade that provides her with nice clothes, a comfortable apartment, decent food—as well as being under the control of a pimp and facing the very real possibility of prison—or she can go to work as a dishwasher and keep her freedom while enduring long hours of hard work and a shabby flat in the slums. Complicating matters is the choice to be made between two identities: Arlie, the angry victim of parental abuse and poverty, the truculent, rebellious personality who courts trouble, and Arlene, the model parolee, the frightened young woman who wants to go straight but has no job skills, no family, no friends, no prospects. Both personalities appear on stage, played by two different actresses, heightening the importance and difficulty of Arlene’s struggle with herself and her background. In the end she makes the “right” choice: a life of poverty and hard work, but a life she controls, and a life in which she is allowed to keep everything she earns.
Jessie chooses suicide as her best alternative in ’night, Mother. Stricken with epilepsy, abandoned by her husband, plagued by a delinquent son, unable to hold a job because of her medication, and forced by circumstance to live with her mother, Jessie sees her decision as a positive act that will free her from a life that has become intolerable. “Maybe if there was something I really liked, like maybe if I liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something, that might be enough,” she says of her attempts to find a reason to go on living. Heightening the extraordinary nature of Jessie’s decision is Norman’s depiction of Jessie and her mother as perfectly ordinary people living in a house recognizable to many as the house next door. Jessie is no heroine; she is simply an Everywoman driven by the events of her life to a desperate action that would frighten most ordinary people. In a sense, she does have the nerve to persist—and end an existence that gives her no hope. For Jessie, suicide is a step forward, evidence that she is at last taking control of her life.
In the 1990’s, Norman moved on to new projects, among them writing adaptations for the stage. Her stage version of The Secret Garden, which was presented in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1989 and produced on Broadway two years later, was awarded a Tony Award for the book and lyrics. In 1993, the Actors Theatre produced Norman’s D. Boone, based on Norman’s lifelong interest in the frontiersman, as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Norman also adapted the 1948 film Red Shoes for theater, though that did not meet with such favorable attention when it first appeared in New York in 1993. Trudy Blue, first produced in 1995 and then Off-Broadway in 1999, was inspired by a real-life incident. Norman became very ill after the production of Red Shoes and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She reexamined her life in the weeks that passed before it was found that the doctor had examined the wrong test results. In 1998, Norman participated in a theater project at the University of Toronto called Love’s Fire. It consisted of eight plays by eight contemporary playwrights, each inspired by one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Norman’s contribution, titled 140 from the sonnet she chose, concerns betrayal and infidelity.
Norman’s work earned her a secure place in the American theater. As the popularity of her plays and adaptations proves, these plays fulfill one of Norman’s stated goals: “to make visible people that are rarely seen and never heard.”