Marsha Norman Norman, Marsha (Vol. 186) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Getting Out (play) 1977

*Third and Oak (play) 1978

Circus Valentine (play) 1979

The Holdup (play) 1980

In Trouble at Fifteen (screenplay) 1980

'night, Mother (play) 1982

Traveler in the Dark (play) 1984

'night, Mother (screenplay) 1986

The Fortune Teller (novel) 1987

Four Plays (plays) 1988

Sarah and Abraham (play) 1988

My Shadow (screenplay) 1989

The Secret Garden [adaptor; from the novel by Frances Hodgson...

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Lynda Hart (essay date spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hart, Lynda. “Doing Time: Hunger for Power in Marsha Norman's Plays.” Southern Quarterly 25, no. 3 (spring 1987): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Hart discusses the central theme of women's quest for freedom, control, and autonomy in Getting Out and 'night, Mother.]

Marsha Norman became a celebrity in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, even before she received the Pulitzer Prize for 'night, Mother (1983), the play that raised national expectations for this new woman's voice in the American theatre. Norman responded to the public acclaim with a metaphor that powerfully conveys the playwright's feeling of imprisonment: “I'm in a holding...

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Janice Mall (review date 21 June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mall, Janice. Review of Fortune Teller, by Marsha Norman. Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 June 1987): 4.

[In the following review, Mall comments that The Fortune Teller combines two disparate plotlines—“a wise, tender story of a woman's relationship with her daughter” and an ineffective police thriller.]

It is hard to see why this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright [Marsha Norman] ('night, Mother) put two plots in her first novel. There is a wise, tender story about the wrenching helplessness of a mother watching her grown child blithely struggle free and head for a fall. Then there's a kidnap thriller that might make a bad TV cop...

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Jenny S. Spencer (essay date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Jenny S. “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-Drama of Female Identity.” Modern Drama 30, no. 3 (September 1987): 364-75.

[In the following essay, Spencer contrasts the responses of male and female critics to 'night, Mother, asserting that the play foregrounds issues of female identity, feminine autonomy, and the mother-daughter relationships.]

By the time I saw a production of Norman's play 'night, Mother, it was a highly acclaimed Broadway success that had already won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.1 Like most of the audience, I knew the play ended with a suicide. But being armed against an indulgently emotional response...

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Patricia R. Schroeder (essay date March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schroeder, Patricia R. “Locked behind the Proscenium: Feminist Strategies in Getting Out and My Sister in This House.Modern Drama 32, no. 1 (March 1989): 104-14.

[In the following essay, Schroeder argues that both Getting Out and Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in This House utilize an imaginative combination of realist and experimental theatrical techniques as a vehicle for staging feminist issues.]

During the 1970s feminist drama emerged as a potent force in the theatre world. In 1978, Patti Gillespie counted some forty feminist theatres in the United States alone, a large enough group for her to proclaim feminist theatre “an...

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Jeanie Forte (essay date March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Forte, Jeanie. “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright—A Problem of Reception.” Modern Drama 32, no. 1 (March 1989): 115-27.

[In the following essay, Forte asserts that Norman's use of theatrical realism in 'night, Mother ultimately perpetuates dominant patriarchal ideology, despite its surface-level treatment of feminist concerns.]

The inquiry into what constitutes a feminist playwriting practice today necessarily involves the critic with the investigation of structures of realism and narrative, structures which are implicated in relation to patriarchal ideology. Concomitantly, the theatrical institution, with its accretions of cultural...

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Louis K. Greiff (essay date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greiff, Louis K. “Fathers, Daughters, and Spiritual Sisters: Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother and Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.Text and Performance Quarterly 9, no. 3 (July 1989): 224-28.

[In the following essay, Greiff compares Jessie Cates in 'night, Mother with Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie, noting the effect of mother-daughter relationships on both characters.]

As dramatic characters, Marsha Norman's Jessie Cates and Tennessee Williams's Laura Wingfield might seem unconnected, or even incompatible, yet they are sisters in disguise. A clue to the relationship presents itself in the similar...

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Leslie Kane (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kane, Leslie. “The Way Out, the Way In: Paths to Self in the Plays of Marsha Norman.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater, pp. 255-74. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Kane offers a critical reading of several of Norman's plays, drawing focus to Norman's recurrent themes of mother-daughter conflict, the struggle for personal autonomy, and the quest for a sense of self.]

… to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time, it is eternity's demand upon him.

Soren Kierkegaard1


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Gerald Weales (review date 23 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “A Long Way to Broadway.” Commonweal 117, no. 4 (23 February 1990): 117-18.

[In the following review, Weales compliments Traveler in the Dark as “an intriguing character study and a fascinating philosophical and theological debate.”]

Marsha Norman's Traveler in the Dark has been a long time making its way to New York. It was first performed at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 1984, and a year later, a new version—this version—opened at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles. It was published in Norman's first collection, Four Plays, in 1988. It finally arrived in Manhattan in mid-January when the York...

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Richard Wattenberg (essay date December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wattenberg, Richard. “Feminizing the Frontier Myth: Marsha Norman's The Holdup.Modern Drama 33, no. 4 (December 1990): 507-17.

[In the following essay, Wattenberg asserts that, through Norman's reimagining of traditional American initiation rites, The Holdup offers a new feminist perspective on the myth of the American frontier.]

Mainstream theatre in the United States has undergone a number of transformations in the past decade. Not the least is the acceptance of woman to the playwriting elite. Plays by Beth Henley, Marsha Norman, Tina Howe, and Wendy Wasserstein have all had successful Broadway runs, and Henley, Norman, and Wasserstein...

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Katherine H. Burkman (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burkman, Katherine H. “The Demeter Myth and Doubling in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, pp. 254-63. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Burkman analyzes the references to the classical myth of Demeter and Persephone in 'night, Mother, focusing on the play's motif of doubling.]

Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, ‘night, Mother, has been greeted by many critics as a major drama. Robert Brustein notes that the play is “chastely classical in its observance of the unities,” and he welcomes Norman as one...

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Stephanie Coen (essay date March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coen, Stephanie. “Marsha Norman's Triple Play.” American Theatre 8, no. 12 (March 1992): 22-7.

[In the following essay, Coen posits that Norman's body of work characterizes her as a feminist playwright whose dramas typically portray women struggling to gain control of their lives.]

Marsha Norman has spent the past two months shuttling among three states. In her native Kentucky, D. Boone, a new play she describes as “wildly romantic,” is in repertory at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of new American Plays through March 28. Sarah and Abraham, a deeply personal work that has been in gestation for five years, just completed a...

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Gerald Weales (review date 10 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Coming Apart.” Commonweal 119, no. 7 (10 April 1992): 18-19.

[In the following review, Weales discusses New York productions of Sarah and Abraham and Edward Albee's Marriage Play, arguing that Sarah and Abraham suffers from a weak script.]

Plays by Marsha Norman and Edward Albee, not yet performed in New York, have recently had premieres elsewhere along the Amtrak line—Norman's Sarah and Abraham at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Albee's Marriage Play at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Marriage Play, a co-production with the Alley Theatre in Houston, directed by the author, is the...

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William W. Demastes (essay date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Demastes, William W. “Jessie and Thelma Revisited: Marsha Norman's Conceptual Challenge in 'night, Mother.Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (March 1993): 109-19.

[In the following essay, Demastes explores how 'night, Mother addresses issues of universal relevance as well as issues specific to feminism.]

Mother, this is not enough. […]
Will you never have done … revolving it all?

(Beckett's Footfalls)1

It has been over a decade since Marsha Norman's play 'night, Mother was first produced (1981) and shortly after won the Pulitzer Prize...

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M. Joshua Karter (essay date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Karter, M. Joshua. “Back from the Nikitsky Gates Theater: Reflections on Cross-Cultural Concerns in the Staging of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother in Moscow.” Theatre Topics 4, no. 1 (March 1994): 75-88.

[In the following essay, Karter discusses the cross-cultural differences that were raised when he directed a production of Norman's 'night, Mother, translated into Russian, at a theater in Moscow.]

As the cast, our translator, and I sat around a small table in the mirrored reception hall of Moscow's Nikitsky Gates Theater, I smiled to myself, knowing that I'd now have to try to explain the cultural significance of Howard Johnson's restaurants....

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Janet Brown and Catherine Barnes Stevenson (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Janet, and Catherine Barnes Stevenson. “Fearlessly ‘Looking under the Bed’: Marsha Norman's Feminist Aesthetic in Getting Out and 'night, Mother.” In Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics, edited by Karen Laughlin and Catherine Schuler, pp. 182-99. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Brown and Stevenson argue that Getting Out and 'night, Mother foreground many “specifically feminist concerns” through the formal theatrical means of setting, plot, and character.]

Thirteen years ago, when feminist theory and “gynocritics”1 were in their infancy, Janet Brown, one...

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Scott Hinson (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hinson, Scott. “The ‘Other Funeral’: Narcissism and Symbolic Substitution in Marsha Norman's Traveler in the Dark.” In Marsha Norman: A Casebook, edited by Linda Ginter Brown, pp. 109-20. New York, N.Y.: Garland, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hinson draws on Freudian psychoanalytic theory to argue that the characters in Traveler in the Dark are portrayed with remarkable depth and psychological realism.]

Marsha Norman's Traveler in the Dark is frequently damned with faint praise. Critics write that her play is contrived and that action does not grow directly out of character or situation, but out of Norman's need to dramatize a...

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Lana A. Whited (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Whited, Lana A. “Suicide in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother.Southern Quarterly 36, no. 1 (fall 1997): 65-74.

[In the following essay, Whited examines the motif of suicide in 'night, Mother and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, noting that both plays present connecting with family and community as a alternative to isolation and suicide.]

I'm going to kill myself. The simple yet stunning statement is the point of attack for Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'night, Mother, and Jessie Cates's eventual suicide serves as the play's climax. Norman and fellow Pulitzer laureate...

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Tracy Simmons Bitonti (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bitonti, Tracy Simmons. “More than Noises Off: Marsha Norman's Offstage Characters.” In Shaw and Other Matters, edited by Susan Rusinko, pp. 166-79. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

[In the following essay, Bitonti discusses how Norman utilizes off-stage characters as a recurrent theatrical technique in her plays, arguing that these characters exert a strong influence on Norman's on-stage characters and plots.]

In a 1983 New York Times article, drama critic Mel Gussow celebrated the increasing numbers of new women dramatists emerging in a theater that had previously been “a male preserve.”1 Among the women gaining...

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Charles Isherwood (review date 6-12 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Trudy Blue, by Marsha Norman. Variety 377, no. 4 (6-12 December 1999): 94.

[In the following review, Isherwood asserts that a December 1999 production of Trudy Blue does not live up to the potential of the play's dramatic premise.]

Marsha Norman takes an alternately playful and somber trip through the mind of an ailing writer in Trudy Blue, a whimsical comedy-drama that will face unflattering comparisons to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, which also premiered in Gotham at the MCC Theater, and treated in similar style the story of a literary femme facing cancer. Although Trudy Blue is not of...

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Linda Ginter Brown (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Linda Ginter. “A Place at the Table: Hunger as Metaphor in Lillian Hellman's Days to Come and Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 177-95. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Brown explores how hunger is treated as a metaphor for the psychological needs of the characters in Lillian Hellman's Days to Come and Norman's 'night, Mother.]

Food is my drug of choice.

—Oprah Winfrey

One does not have to search far to find...

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Sally Burke (essay date 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burke, Sally. “Precursor and Protege: Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman.” In Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism, edited by Robert L. McDonald and Linda Rohrer Page, pp. 103-23. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Burke examines the influence of playwright Lillian Hellman on Norman's body of work.]

In October 1974, Israel Horowitz told of a conversation with Samuel Beckett during which Beckett expressed admiration for a line in Horowitz's new play, a line about something having occurred “in the space of a closing window.” Excited, Horowitz began to discuss the scene; then...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brantley, Ben. “Earthy Liaisons, Magnolia Scented.” New York Times (4 June 2003): E1.

Brantley notes the idyllic settings and characterizations in Last Dance, arguing that the play “is too much in love with the sound of its own fey poetry to probe seriously beneath the lyricism.”

Browder, Sally. “‘I Thought You Were Mine’: Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 109-13. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Browder draws on feminist psychoanalytic theory in a discussion of the...

(The entire section is 357 words.)