Marsha Norman 1947-
(Born Marsha Williams) American playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Norman's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 28.
Norman, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play 'night, Mother (1982), has emerged as one of the most prominent female American playwrights of the late twentieth century. Norman's dramatic works examine the lives of ordinary people, primarily women, in moments of personal crisis as they struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-actualization. Despite repeated themes of patriarchal privilege and subjugation of women, Norman's plays speak poignantly to the female experience, capturing moments of understanding, shared sisterhood, and love. Though few of her subsequent works have received the acclaim of 'night, Mother or her first play, Getting Out (1977), Norman has remained a dominant and prolific feminine presence in the field of American drama.
Norman was born on September 21, 1947, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Billie Lee and Bertha Mae Williams. She was raised in a strict, fundamentalist Christian household and primarily found companionship through her interests in reading and music. In 1969 she graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Agnes Scott College, a private women's college outside Atlanta, and later received a M.A. in teaching from the University of Louisville in 1971. While in graduate school, Norman taught emotionally disturbed teenagers at the Kentucky Central State Hospital. In 1972 Norman began teaching film classes for the Kentucky Arts Commission where she made movies with children, worked to bring artists into classrooms, and spent her summers studying in New York at the Center for Understanding Media. She married Michael Norman in 1974, though the couple later divorced. Norman began freelance writing full-time in 1976 as a contributing journalist for the Louisville Times. In addition to composing articles and reviews, she created a weekend children's supplement called “The Jelly Bean Journal.” Norman's playwriting career began after she was encouraged by Jon Jory, the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, to write a play for the theatre. Her debut effort, Getting Out, was named Best Play Produced in a Regional Theater during the 1977-78 season by the American Theater Critics Association. Getting Out also won the John Gassner New Playwright Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the first George Oppenheimer-Newsday Playwright Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that funded her playwright-in-residence position at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979 and 1980. In the wake of this success, Norman was additionally made playwright-in-residence of the Actors Theatre in Louisville. Getting Out remained Norman's most recognized work until the production of 'night, Mother, which received the Pulitzer, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination for best play, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Award, and the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award. In addition to her many stage plays, Norman has written librettos for several musical productions, including The Secret Garden (1990), based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for which she received the 1991 Tony Award for best book of a musical. She has also written several teleplays produced by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Lifetime, and Showtime, and a number of screenplays including the film adaptation of 'night, Mother, released in 1986.
Norman's first theatrical work, Getting Out, concerns a troubled woman, recently released from prison after serving an eight-year sentence for manslaughter, kidnapping, and robbery, who must create a new life for herself while facing her past. The central character is played as two roles, Arlie and Arlene, who appear on stage simultaneously as separate personifications of the protagonist's past and rehabilitated selves. While settling into her new apartment, Arlie/Arlene is visited by her former pimp Bennie, her fellow ex-convict Ruby, her mother, and a guard she befriended while in prison. At a crossroads in her life, Arlie/Arlene grapples with the impact of each of these people on her transition from her past as Arlie to her future as Arlene. Norman thus explores the various societal and familial factors that limit, constrict, and thwart the personal development of young women. Third and Oak (1978) consists of two one-act plays, The Laundromat and The Pool Hall, each centered around pairs of lonely individuals who are afraid to accept the painful truths of their lives. In The Laundromat, Norman creates two very dissimilar female characters who meet by chance at a local laundromat at 3 a.m. Both women carry considerable emotional baggage—the younger woman is married to an abusive, philandering husband, while the elder one is immersed in grief as a result of her husband's recent death. The Pool Hall also focuses on two troubled individuals—both African American men—a disc jockey known as Shooter and a pool hall owner named Willie. Both characters, confronting past and current misunderstandings and feelings of despair, unite by the play's end to confirm their friendship, love, and hope for the future. Norman shifted her thematic focus with The Holdup (1980) which examines the myths of the American frontier with a tale of two young brothers, Archie and Henry Tucker, in 1914 New Mexico. The brothers are visited by an aging gunfighter known as the Outlaw and a former dance hall girl, Lily, who reveal the gritty reality behind the folklore of the American West. Norman contrasts the conflicting values of science and religion in Traveler in the Dark (1984), in which Sam, a talented doctor, returns to his father's home to cope with the death of a longtime friend, who died after Sam misdiagnosed her condition.
Norman's best known work, 'night, Mother, opens with the line “I'm going to kill myself, Mama,” which sets the emotional tone for the rest of the play. Jessie Cates, a thirty-seven-year-old woman, who lives with her mother, Thelma, has decided to commit suicide. Over the course of the ninety-minute play, Jessie explains her reasons for wanting to end her life, while Thelma—who originally refuses to take her daughter seriously—attempts to cope with the increasingly desperate situation. Jessie cites a variety of reasons for her decision, including the loss of her job, the dissolution of her marriage, her discovery that her son is a thief, her fear of leaving home, and the overabundance of junk food and idle gossip in her life. In the final moments of the play, Jessie retreats into her bedroom where she presumably shoots herself with her father's revolver. Norman's only novel, The Fortune Teller (1987), tells the story of Fay Morgan, a modern-day clairvoyant who uses her psychic powers to help the police solve a crime involving the disappearance of twenty-seven children. Although Fay is successful in saving the children of strangers, she is unable to save her own teenage daughter from an ill-fated relationship. Norman's next drama, Sarah and Abraham (1988), features the play-within-a-play theatrical device, revolving around a theater troupe using improvisational acting techniques to stage a performance of the biblical story of Sarah and Abraham. The group consults a feminist scholar to help them reinterpret the legend and, during the course of the production, relationships between the actors begin reflecting the relationships in the ancient tale. Trudy Blue (1995) recounts the last days of an ailing romance novel author, Ginger, whose fictional heroine Trudy Blue functions as Ginger's alter ego. Alienated from her husband, children, and friends, Ginger struggles to reconcile her fantasies with the realities of her personal and family life. In 2003 Norman staged Last Dance, a play set in Southern France that examines the romantic entanglements of four middle-aged adults. Charlotte, a renowned novelist, is trying to end her relationship with her lover, Cab, by fixing him up with her goddaughter, Georgeanne. Meanwhile, Charlotte's old friend, Randall, sees this as his opportunity to finally win Charlotte's affection.
Despite her considerable dramatic output, Getting Out and 'night, Mother have remained Norman's greatest critical successes. Lynda Hart has observed that in Getting Out and 'night, Mother, “Norman creates a cast of women characters who have suffered similar restrictions and developed shared responses to oppressive environments, despite divergency in their socioeconomic conditions, their upbringing, their ages and their individual temperaments.” Reviewers have commended Norman's powerful and moving characterizations and her unflinching honesty in addressing taboo or uncomfortable subjects. Feminist scholars have reacted both positively and negatively to Norman's works, frequently debating her plays within the context of feminist psychoanalytic theory, feminist theories of spectatorship, and reception theory. Some have questioned whether Norman's overtly realist theatrical techniques reflect a legitimate approach to the presentation of feminist drama. Jeanie Forte has argued that, while 'night, Mother may be perceived as a feminist text by some, “the play ultimately reinscribes the dominant ideology in its realist form.” William S. Demastes has countered this assertion, declaring that the realism of 'night, Mother “challenges the dominating, patriarchally inspired order at what has become its most vulnerable point, its epistemological roots.” Much of the critical discussion surrounding 'night, Mother has revolved around the question of whether Jessie's suicide represents an act of self-determination or an expression of despair regarding women's options for escaping domestic confinement. Despite such disagreements, reviewers have acclaimed 'night, Mother—and the rest of Norman's oeuvre—for bringing such serious thematic concerns to mainstream audiences. The Holdup, for example, has been lauded for its deconstruction of patriarchal American Western folklore, with some critics viewing it as the feminist companion piece to Sam Shepard's True West. Norman's portrayal of the consciousness of a dying writer in Trudy Blue has garnered a mixed critical reception, attracting both favorable and unfavorable comparisons to Margaret Edson's Wit.