Marsha Norman Norman, Marsha - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Getting Out 1977

*The Laundromat 1978

*The Pool Hall 1978

Circus Valentine 1979

The Holdup 1980

'night, Mother 1982

Traveler in the Dark 1984

Sarah and Abraham 1988

The Secret Garden [adaptor; from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett; music by Lucy Simon] 1991

D. Boone 1992

The Red Shoes [adaptor, with Paul Stryker; from the 1948 film; music by Jule Styne] 1993


It's the Willingness (teleplay) 1978

In Trouble at Fifteen (teleplay) 1980

'night, Mother (screenplay) 1986

The Fortune Teller (novel) 1987

Face of a Stranger (teleplay) 1991

*These two plays were produced together as Third and Oak.

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Interview with Norman (1987)

SOURCE: "Marsha Norman," in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, by David Savran, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 178-192.

[In the following conversation, which was held on 9 July 1987 at Norman's home in New York City, Norman discusses her approach to playwriting.]

[Savran]: What got you interested in theatre? And what particularly drew you to playwriting?

[Norman]: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where television was forbidden and, though radios weren't actually forbidden, they just weren't there. And movies were taboo. So I lived in a world of books, which was wonderful. Mother, quite simply, did not know the dangers of books because she didn't read. So inadvertently she put me in touch with the most dangerous things of all. As well as theatre. She did believe in sending in the four dollars so that I could go to every elementary school event there was. There was a lot of children's theatre in Louisville. Also both groups that would later unite to become Actors Theatre of Louisville were founded when I was in the seventh grade or so. So I saw first-rate professional work. I can remember going up this little dark stairway with a light bulb hanging down and seeing Glass Menagerie in a tiny theatre. It's really critical for theatre writers to see theatre as young as possible.

Then in college I happened into a hotbed of theatrical activity in Atlanta, with Pocket Theatre and Theatre Atlanta. The Met was even still stopping when I was there in school. I always felt more alive in the theatre, more in contact with other people like me. I always felt that I belonged there, that it was something I could do. I even had the perverse feeling occasionally of knowing that I could do better than what was on the stage.

I remember seeing really violent early work of Peter Shaffer, things like Royal Hunt of the Sun, and also J.B., Macbird, pieces that have a wild-haired theatricality. They were the ones that really moved me. Particularly those about people in search of unseeable parts of themselves. I realize now that it's no accident that Getting Out is about an attempted reconciliation between an earlier, violent self and a current passive, withdrawn self. It seemed to me that the theatre was the place to examine that isolation which was the primary quality of my life. It was mine not only by birth and early childhood, but it's something that I have sought to maintain, not in an arrogant way, but because it seems that I belong off by myself.

I never considered writing a viable possibility and always imagined that I'd have to work for a living. So when I graduated from college, I went to work in a mental hospital, and after that, for the state arts commission. Ultimately, I got involved with a children's newspaper and children's TV in Louisville, where there was this extraordinary theatre. So I had virtually twenty years of training in the theatre before I ever started to write. You can really see it when writers' work is part of a continuing dialogue. It's really a shame that the audience is no longer in touch with that dialogue.

You mean with the past, with a tradition?

Yes. They haven't a clue. You can't write out of a tradition that the audience knows—unless you write TV plays.

When did you first get involved with Actors Theatre of Louisville?

I was writing full-time and Jon Jory called me in and offered to commission a play from me. I was to go around with a tape recorder and interview people in the community about busing and then we'd put it all together in some kind of show. I got home and thought, "How can I turn him down? I've always wanted to write a play, and here's somebody offering to pay me five thousand dollars to write one." But I didn't want to write about busing. So I went back and said, "I really thank you but, no, that's not what I want to write about." Jon and I proceeded to have three lunches at which he went over, fairly quickly and in an entertaining fashion, the unbreakable rules of the theatre. The last discussion we had was about good subjects for plays. Jon urged me to go back and try to find some moment when I had been frightened physically, in real danger.

Right away I thought of Arlie, this kid I had known at Central State Hospital ten years before, a kid who terrified everybody, who had absolutely no sense of consequence. She could not be coerced into anything because she was not afraid of what you would do to her. And she was thirteen. I had kept up with her in the years since then and knew that she was in federal prison serving time for murder, after a somewhat notorious career in the Kentucky penal system. So I decided to write about her and immediately thought, "I don't want to write about murders, or about what she did." I knew the one thing she had always counted on was that she could run away. I wondered what would happen to somebody like that when she was put in a place where she could not run away, could not get out. What then? I told Jon and he said, "Great, why don't you write ten pages?" I did and he said, "Oh well, it does appear that you can write dialogue. You just write dialogue like mad. Why don't you finish this." Jon went to Switzerland for the summer and when he came back in August the play was finished. In September Getting Out won the Great American Play Contest and in November it was on stage and the rest, as they say, is history.

That was exactly ten years ago, so it's not been an awfully long time. I wrote Third and Oak almost immediately after that, and then Circus Valentine. Then ensued one of those great theatrical fights—Jon and I didn't speak for four or five years—followed by a wonderful theatrical reconciliation. Now we're fast friends. I'm writing another play for Jon.

Would you describe the style so identified with Actors Theatre of Louisville that you helped forge as a kind of lyrical realism?

I don't think it's so lyrical. That's what Circle Rep does, or Lanford Wilson. There's a much grittier, much harder edge to the realism of Louisville and I think that's why it's come to an end. We've seen the last of the trailer-park plays. I did not write any of them, but that's where the work that I started ended up, with people hitting each other over the head with frying pans in trailers. It turned into ultimate confinement and domestic violence, so bizarre and brutal that audiences just said no thanks.

Jon has been particularly sensitive—because of my influence, I think—to strong women characters. That's a really important contribution; on the whole the American theatre, dominated by men, does not perceive women fighting for their lives as a central issue.

Structurally, your plays are very traditional.

Wildly traditional. I'm a purist about structure. Plays are like plane rides. You buy the ticket and you have to get where the ticket takes you. Or else you've been had. In plays you have eight minutes at the beginning in which to let the audience know what's at stake, who this is about and when they can go home. I think audiences get real nervous if you don't do that. And then you have to take them where you said you were going. Plays are pieces of machinery in that way, ski-lifts—you get in, and you want to go straight to the top and get out and look at the view. You don't want to be caught halfway, dangling in the air, and realize where you are. The theatre is a world of illusion. You cannot break that illusion by being dull, by taking side trips, by diverting the audience's attention.

I really believe that plays can only be about one person. I've tried and lots of other people have tried to break this rule and make plays about two people or about groups. The audience will subvert this every time. Consider if The Big Chill were a play. It purports to be about a group, but as you watch, you're desperate to find one person to hang on to, to hook up with. Two hours is the kind of time that you can devote to one person who, for the moment, represents you, on some level.

How do you feel about Chekhov then? His strategy is quite different.

People talk about Masha in Three Sisters; it's about her, as far as everybody is concerned.

What about Tennessee Williams? Has his work had a big impact on you?

There's that power of southern writers' work, not only on the world, but on each other. We share the notion that you cannot escape your family. You can't escape where you were born, who you were born to and what you've inherited. This is a southern version of fate [laughs]. I think that northern, urban writers have the notion—a quite legitimate one—that you can sort of make up the past as you go along, you can find new family. Southern writers know better than this. Your family's going to hunt you down. Just when you think you've gotten away, you'll get a call and one of them will have done something so unconscionably loony that you have to go and straighten it out. And once you're there, you will find that you're hopelessly mired in this and that everybody looks at you and knows exactly who you are. Whatever you have done since you left does not matter to them. Our writing is absolutely linked to this problem of how do you change when the perceptions of the people around you don't change. How do you know who you are when you are made up of these people that you despise? How do you move at all with all these people hanging onto you?

So you see family and the past as a situation you can't get out of?

It's worth trying. But I don't think family's really escapable.

Not many of your characters get away. But Archie in The Holdup does.

He's wonderful. I just love him. There's a possibility of a production of that play this year. It's very strange, the work of mine that's primarily funny has not been received well at all. It's so clear to me that the press is saying. "We want you to be the Lillian Hellman of your generation. We want you to write intense family drama and always be well dressed." It's just absurd. Even 'night, Mother, which is intense family drama, is wildly funny and nobody ever talks about that. Traveler in the Dark is about a very smart man who comes upon a day when his intelligence is not enough. This is a pretty funny situation. Suddenly he has to figure out what else will work. It's like being on a picnic with a bottle of wine and no corkscrew.

I'm sorry, but it's really very pleasant to laugh. It's one of the primary methods of dealing with pain. These plays are not simple entertainments. I despise the American critical community right now, particularly for the entrapment of contemporary writers. There is a smug, superior attitude on the part of critics and they have no sense of humor—there's not a funny one in the bunch. The only saving grace is that nobody is going to remember who they are.

So all the rest of us have to do [laughs], is to stay alive long enough to get our work written.

Finally I think I'm old enough to defy everyone and say, "If I feel like writing another comedy, I'm going to." The comedies are no less difficult to write and infinitely more difficult to produce and yet it's a real pleasure to stand in the back of the theatre and hear an audience just convulsed. Laughter is rare in the world. People mainly sit in front of their televisions and listen to laughter without ever joining in.

Are you conscious of working in a different mode when you're writing a comedy?

No, it's a question of how weighty the issue is. Archie, the center of The Holdup, is not threatening to kill himself, he's simply threatening to grow up. It's a simple matter of what is at stake.

Although there's a murder in The Holdup.

Of course there is. It's just the excuse for a very funny funeral. I love that funeral.

It's also a step in Archie's liberation.

The Holdup was such an important play for me to write because it was the first play in which I contained the action. In mat way, it was a technical exercise. These people are going camping and we're drawing a circle around them and nobody can get in or out, and what happens happens because of who these people are. There aren't any doors to open or phones to ring. It's no accident that 'night, Mother came next because once you learn how to do it, you can set a play in the middle of the living room and tell the set designer not to put the doors in. You can have a telephone and explain why it's not ringing—it's Saturday night—and everybody in the audience buys it, world-wide. The critics don't understand that when they attack a play like The Holdup, what is at stake, in effect, is 'night, Mother.

How do you begin a play? With an outline, a character, a line of dialogue?

There are two beginnings. There's the beginning of the thinking, when you know that you have something that will make a play. And then there's the beginning of the actual writing. The beginning of the thinking—I think of it as the moment when there's an amazing conjunction of form and content. You've been thinking about someone you remember from a long time ago and you can't figure out why you keep thinking about this person. Suddenly at dinner parties you're telling stories about this person. And you hear yourself doing this because, if you're a writer, you're also observing yourself. You become aware that this person has arrived for consideration, so the content's basically there. But if you can get the story told at dinner, you should not write a play.

What you need is a form that will contain that story. With Getting Out, for example, I knew I wanted to write about this woman who'd just gotten out of prison, but I realized that it's not enough just to write about her, you have to know who she was. Well, as soon as you say that sentence, you have the form: put the other person on stage. So you have this amazingly stable little triangle with the two of them and the point of reconciliation. This thing will stand up forever. The same thing is true in 'night, Mother—you have Mama and Jessie and the door behind them. The piece I'm working on now has six people in it but three have exactly that kind of relationship. There is an amazing feeling dealing with a triangle, which people have known for thousands and thousands of years. The trouble with contemporary life is that people don't take advantage of ancient principles that have continued to be true. Pythagorean, that's what it is.

With 'night, Mother I knew I wanted to tell the story of this woman who kills herself, but I didn't have any idea how. At the time, in '81, there were a number of other plays on the subject. But I kept saying that these plays—particularly Whose Life Is It Anyway?—are tantrums. I wanted to put somebody in the room with this woman, somebody who cares deeply, wildly, madly, who will fight this person to the death to save her own life. This is a gladiator contest where the point is to keep the other person alive. And once I had that, I had all these parallels—gladiators and world heavyweight boxing championships—and I understood immediately how this has to work. You have to have a closed ring, nobody can get out or in, you can have only two people.

I knew going into 'night, Mother that it was going to be the most treacherous act of my writing life. So I went to the world of music. I was in a mad Glenn Gould state at the time—I've spent my life at the piano. Okay, I thought, what if I do a little sonata form, a three-act play with no intermission? You can actually feel the moment when the orchestra stops and the conductor raises his hands and Jessie says, "You talked to Agnes today," and the second movement starts. The second movement ends when Jessie goes in to get the box of presents, Mama just having said, "Don't leave me, Jessie." The actors would come on stage knowing, "We don't have to go all the way to the end. We just have to get to the Agnes section." And then you start in on Agnes and think, "Great, I'll just get to 'Don't leave me, Jessie,' then I can take a breath"—this is from Mama's point of view—"and get down and wash the floor." And then all they have to do is go to the end. 'Night, Mother would be undoable if it weren't for that. People would fall out of it all the time. But they don't. So I think that if you don't have structure, you might as well not have anything to put in it. If you don't have the book-shelves, you don't have the books.

I have a great trick during that period of thinking about the play. I say, "I'm not writing until I absolutely have to, till I can no longer contain it." I build up the piece in a pressure cooker, as it were. All that time I'm writing myself notes in the form of questions. What did Daddy do? How long ago did he die? Where did he die? What did he ever do for Jessie? Those kinds of questions. Curiously enough, you'll find that just from asking the questions, you'll get all the answers during the next weeks. It's internal research into the lives of these people. From those questions will come lines of dialogue—you begin to hear the voicing, what they can talk about, what they think is funny. The first line of dialogue I wrote for 'night, Mother was Jessie's line, "We got any old towels?" As soon as I wrote it down, I understood that it was a ritual piece, that Jessie was coming in to celebrate this requiem mass, that she has these stacks of towels: here are the witnesses, the house-hold objects. She comes in as though she is the altar boy.

I wait until I cannot avoid it anymore and by that time, I already know what the beginning is, because of all this scribbling down. Then it's really very easy. I keep two kinds of notebooks, one that has structure and information in it and the other that has my own thoughts—"Can we really have this? What about that? What would happen if this?" I have a wonderful piece of paper upstairs that says, "Have I written something that anybody will want to see? Have I written something that will last? Have I written something that will humiliate me?" This comes from a pretty grim moment in the writing of 'night, Mother. I thought, "What is this that I've written?" Humiliation is easily a possibility.

Do you usually attend rehearsals for first productions?

I usually go although I find it difficult and don't enjoy it at all. I go more or less out of self-protection. I'm beginning to think it would be ideal to have the first production done by people you really trusted but who were far away. You'd simply get on a plane and go see it. Then there would be an awful lot you would know immediately. One of the problems with the current style of play development is that writers get too...

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Jenny S. Spencer (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Marsha Norman's She-tragedies," in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contmeporary Women's Theatre, edited by Lynda Hart, The University of Michigan Press, 1989, pp. 147-65.

[In the essay below, Spencer examines issues related to "feminine identity and female autonomy" in Getting Out, The Laundromat, and 'night, Mother.]

In the prologue to the The Fair Penitent (1703), Nicholas Rowe promises "A melancholy tale of private woes: / No Princes here lost Royalty Bemoan, But you shall meet with sorrows like your own" (I.156). The play is the first of Rowe's she-tragedies, a...

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Getting Out

(Drama Criticism)


John Simon (review date 13 November 1978)

SOURCE: "Free, Bright, and 31," in New York Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 46, 13 November 1978, pp. 152, 155.

[In the following highly favorable review of the first New York run, Simon declares that the characters in Getting Out are "brutally, sadly, and sometimes thrillingly real. "]

The Phoenix Theater started its twenty-fifth season with Getting Out, the first play of Marsha Norman, a 31-year-old Louisville playwright. It is a spiny, realistic play about not exactly prepossessing people, but it is written with such a brisk, fresh, penetrating...

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'Night, Mother

(Drama Criticism)



Frank Rich (review date 1 April 1983)

SOURCE: "Suicide Talk in 'Night, Mother, " The New York Times, 1 April 1983, p. C3.

['Night, Mother premiered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a production by the American Repertory Theater in December 1982. The following March it opened in New York at the John Golden Theater. In the review below of the New York production, Rich asserts that 'night, mother "is not a message play about the choice to commit suicide. It's about contemporary life and what gives it—or fails to give it—value. "]

"We've got a good life here,"...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Betsko, Kathleen, and Koenig, Rachel. "Marsha Norman." In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, pp. 324-42. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Interview in which Norman discusses a wide range of topics, from the success of 'night, Mother to women's roles in society.

Harriott, Esther. "Interview with Marsha Norman." In American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, pp. 148-63. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1988.

Conversation in which Norman talks about her life and development as a writer.



(The entire section is 662 words.)