Marsha Norman 1947-
(Born Marsha Williams.) See also Marsha Norman Literary Criticism (Volume 28) and Marsha Norman Literary Criticism (Volume 186).
From the success of her 1979 stage writing debut, Getting Out, and her 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'night, Mother, to her continued success as a playwright, screen-writer, and novelist, Marsh Norman has established herself as an honest and intelligent writer with a powerful message about ordinary people confronting extraordinary circumstances. "I always write about the same thing: people having the nerve to go on," she once commented. "The people I care about are those folks you wouldn't even notice in life—two women in a laundromat late at night as you drive by, a thin woman in an ugly scarf standing over the luncheon meat at the grocery, a tiny gray lady buying a bick sack of chocolate covered raisins and a carton of Kools. Someday I'd love to write a piece about people who can talk. The problem is I know so few of them."
Norman was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of four children of Billie and Bertha Williams. Her parents were strict fundamentalists and kept Norman away from other children; in response to this isolation Norman turned to books and music. At Durrett High School in Louisville she was active on the newspaper and yearbook staffs and won first prize in a writing contest. She then attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, graduating in 1969. Two years later she receive a master's degree in teaching from the University of Louisville. During this time she taught emotionally disturbed teenagers at Kentucky Central State Hospital, and in 1973 she took a position at the Brown School for gifted children. By 1976 Norman turned to writing full time, contributing articles and reviews for the Louisville Times and creating a children's weekend supplement to the newspaper. Around mis time she met Jon Jory, the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, who encouraged her to write a play. The result, Getting Out, was based on a young woman Norman had known at Kentucky Central State Hospital. The play won a number of awards and was voted the best new play produced in regional theater by the American Theater Critics Association. Norman was subsequently named playwright-in-residence at Actors Theatre, where she wrote her next three plays, Third and Oak, Circus Valentine, and The Holdup. None had the success mat Getting Out had enjoyed. Her fifth play, 'night, Mother, however, was a great success and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, as well as numerous other awards. The play was adapted to film in 1986. Norman's musical, The Secret Garden, earned an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and a Drama Desk Award for best book of a musical in 1991. Norman has also written a novel, The Fortune Teller, and a number of screenplays and teleplays.
A drama about a woman released from prison after an eight year sentence and a lifetime of trouble, Getting Out concentrates on the psychological changes she undergoes as she is transformed from a hate-filled child named Arlie into the rehabilitated woman Arlene. To contrast the two sides of her protagonist's personality Norman uses two actresses on the stage simultaneously. In the course of the work Arlene must make the hard choice between returning to her former trade, prostitution, by which she could earn a comfortable living, or to continue her job washing dishes, which barely provides subsistence wages. 'night, Mother also concerns a woman who confronts a difficult choice; in this work Jessie Cates informs her mother, Thelma, that she intends to kill herself. Her reasons are numerous: she is an overweight, plain woman who is afraid to go outside. She spends most of her time indoors caring for her self-indulgent, inept Mama, gossiping about the neighbors, and eating junk food. Her husband deserted her because she wouldn't quit smoking, and her son is a petty thief. She was recently fired from her job in a hospital gift shop. In short, she neither enjoys nor controls her life and wants to end it. The rest of the play, Norman has stated, "is the fight of their lives. We all know people who killed themselves. These suicides leave us hurt and desperate to talk about it and understand."
Norman took the theater world by storm with her play-writing debut, Getting Out. Gerald Weales proclaimed Norman "an impressive addition to the list of good young American playwrights," and John Simon lauded the play as "brutally, sadly, sometimes thrillingly real." Simon judged the use of two actresses as Arlie-Arlene a "brilliant dramatic strategem" artfully executed by Norman. Stanley Kauffmann, however, was dismissive of the play, describing it as "one more Girls in the Big House story" and characterizing Norman's use of two actresses as a "stale theatrical device." Kauffmann was equally negative in his appraisal of 'night, Mother. He found the play to be "a device, a stunt, and not an authentic drama." Robert Brustein, to the contrary, asserted that the play "proceeds with the relentless force of a juggernaut, displaying not a single moment of artifice or contrivance or self-consciousness," and most reviewers concurred with this assessment. Brendan Gill asserted that in 'night, Mother Norman "dispenses with the usual artifices of plot; there are no un-looked-for surprises, there is only the fact that a woman of intelligence, energy, and good will is going to end her life, and with reason." John Simon perhaps best summarized the favorable responses to the play when he maintained that it is "honest, uncompromising, lucid, penetrating, well-written, dramatic, and as unmanipulatively moving as we expected from the author of the remarkable Getting Out."