Marsha Williams Norman was born on September 21, 1947, in Louisville, Kentucky. She was a solitary child, and she inevitably cites childhood loneliness as having led to writing as a profession. Her mother, a Fundamentalist Methodist, did not believe that the local children were “good enough,” and so Norman spent her childhood reading, practicing piano, and playing with “Bettering,” an imaginary friend, in her Audubon Park, Kentucky, home. A high school essay entitled “Why Do Good Men Suffer?” earned first prize in a local contest and was subsequently published in the Kentucky English Bulletin.
Norman’s earliest works, whimsical reviews and essays published in the 1970’s, appeared in local newspapers. Her most widely read pieces appeared in the Louisville Times starting in 1976 in “The Jelly Bean Journal,” a weekend children’s supplement that she created for that newspaper. It was only after Jory asked her to write a serious play that Norman recalled her counseling experiences with disturbed adolescents at Kentucky Central State Hospital (perhaps also the psychological imprisonment of her own childhood) and wrote Getting Out. This play was staged successfully by the Actors Theatre in 1977 and enjoyed Los Angeles and New York runs. Her most widely known play, ’night, Mother, has been translated into twenty-three languages and was produced as a film. Third and Oak achieved success in...
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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...
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