Marsha Norman

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Lynda Hart (essay date spring 1987)

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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 cell in an ancient Greek dungeon and the next morning, these priests are going to cut open the heart of a pigeon. What they find in this pigeon's heart will determine whether I'm crowned, whether I'm executed, or whether I can just walk back into the crowd unnoticed” (Mootz). In this metaphor, the artist is trapped and vulnerable while the audience and critics are elevated and controlling. Fame is confining, not liberating; and alternatives for the writer are limited to three extreme scenarios: glory, death or anonymity. In this article, entitled “Keeping Fame under Control,” Norman also expressed her desire to continue writing “without fear of either failure or success,” indicating her need to maintain a private, internal space within which she could create free of coercion or oppression. Following the immediate success of her first play, Getting Out (1977), and the more modest, but nonetheless significant, accolades that accompanied her second play, Third and Oak (1978), she experienced her first setback. Her third play, Circus Valentine (1978), was poorly received by the critics; and Norman was shocked and disappointed with the public's distaste for a play she considered a private success. Circus Valentine is a play about the risks and fears of an artist. “I wrote,” she said, “a wonderfully complex metaphor, but obviously, the public doesn't care a whole lot about metaphors” (Mootz). Rather than opting to “walk back into the crowd unnoticed,” Norman went on to write 'night, Mother, her most successful drama.

Norman elects to write about women whose impoverished lives contrast sharply with their author's rich, and often glamorous, existence. But Norman's working-class, religious fundamentalist background provides her with a history of shared community with these characters. “To make visible people that are rarely seen and never heard” is her professed goal (Stout 29). In the private spaces where we all have a need for self-expression and fulfillment, her ordinary women share with their advantaged creator the struggle for liberation from confinement. Of her first protagonist, Arlene, Norman told interviewer Amy Gross that she “was told in prison, if you just behave, if you just do your work and knit, everything will be alright.” Gross adds, “A woman doesn't have to go to prison to walk into that advice.” Then Norman recounts a favorite story about a spectator's response to Getting Out: “A man from Terminal Island (that's a big prison in California) came to the play and then wanted to know where I'd done my time. And I think that's a question for all of us about our lives. You know, where have we done our time? Because we have all done it.”

In her most well-received and widely-produced plays, 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. In both plays the main character experiences herself as a prisoner, and the...

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action of the play focuses on her efforts to escape the external, as well as internal, bonds that hold her. Norman uses the same technique in each play to explore the conflict; one woman who has passively integrated into a delimiting and oppressive society is pitted against another who wildly rebels, even at the risk of self-destruction, against the rigid system. This pairing of seemingly irreconcilable opposites is most vivid inGetting Out, where Arlie, the “screeching wildcat” and “the meanest bitch in town” haunts her older self, the tame and timid Arlene who, as the play opens, fearfully enters the world that has beaten her into submission. Arlie enacts the crucial episodes in her psychological history while we watch Arlene make the difficult adjustments on her first day out of prison. Arlie shows us a childhood of poverty, neglect and sexual abuse by an alcoholic father; in the present, Arlene's mother visits and the mother/daughter confrontation affirms the truth of Arlie's experience. Beginning with reformatory schools for girls and ending with the State Penitentiary, the institutions intended to reform Arlie instead perpetuated the abuses of her childhood. Sexual abuse—by her father, by her boyfriend, by the counselors and by the prison guards—is presented prominently as the overwhelming source of Arlie's victimization.

Norman shows us a girl who is stripped of power and control when she is very young, and her body is the means by which she is consistently violated. Her father's repeated sexual assaults, which the young Arlie painfully recollects, begin a pattern of rape that culminates in her boyfriend's co-optation of Arlie's body. Prostitution leads to forgery, to robbery, then to murder, a chain of events that removes Arlie from one prison to “reform” her in another. Arlene's mother expresses little concern about her daughter's other “crimes,” but selling her body is the ultimate act of degradation for this woman whose daughter fought to protect her mother's reputation from the charge of “whore.” Mother and daughter share guilt and shame for a husband and father whose violence victimized them both. Arlie, as a child, responds to her father's rape by inventing excuses for him and concealing her injuries. Her mother, a battered and abused wife, defends her husband as a “good man” and assumes responsibility for his actions.

Arlie, we must gather, learned something vital from this experience as a child and from her adolescent prostitution: that her body was a commodity to be bought, sold, manipulated and controlled, that it belonged to others and gave them a certain power over her. And certainly, she might have reasoned that if she could gain control over it herself, then she would have a powerful instrument at her command. “There's ways of … gettin outta bars …,” Arlie says as she sets herself afire with a packet of stolen matches (18). This image of a young woman burning her body in a desperate plea for release powerfully evokes the internalization of the destructive forces that oppress her outside the holding cell. Arlene, in fact, when she finally gets out, quickly discovers that there is little difference between the outside world and the prison. The bars on her tenement house apartment “to keep out burglars” are a constant reminder of her past as well as a visual symbol connecting her formal imprisonment with the barriers confronting her after her release.

To emphasize this point further, the set of Getting Out presents Arlie's prison cell juxtaposed with Arlene's apartment, a filthy one-room efficiency that belonged to Arlene's sister, a hooker. From this room Arlene confronts the world with only the barest necessities for survival, confirming Norman's objective to explore “how life functions at its most basic level” (Gross 256). Hunger, the most elemental of all motives and passions, operates as a complex metaphor in this play. The survival of the body precedes all other development, and the destitute Arlene finds herself once again confronted with the use of her body as a means of survival. Bennie, the prison guard who has given her a ride home, offers her a life of security in return for sexual favors. And Carl, Arlie's former boyfriend and pimp, attempts to lure Arlene onto the streets of New York where, as a prostitute, she can live in luxury. Both alternatives demand that Arlene relinquish control of her sexuality. Since food is even more fundamental than sexuality, Arlene considers these options, but her figurative starvation, a hunger for power, freedom and control, manifested in explicit details of the acquisition, preparation, consumption and rejection of food, takes precedence over the beguiling ease and false security these two men offer.

Having grown accustomed to “watching [her] eat [her] dinner for eight years” (14) in prison, Bennie wants payment from Arlene for the sticks of gum he gave Arlie to pacify and seduce her while she was helplessly confined. In the adjacent cell, Arlie throws her tray of food at the prison guard and ridicules the man whose job entails “bringing [her] dinner then wipin it off the walls” (15). In her solitary confinement, Arlie learned to gain attention by rejecting food and using it as a weapon to make the guards work harder. She also learned that being too thin made her less appealing to the guards' sexual appetites. Arlie is reduced to self-destructive manipulation of life's most elemental function, eating. “You hungry?” Bennie asks Arlene a few moments after they arrive. Accustomed to habitually rejecting food and aware of the sexual overtones in his offer, Arlene resists sharing “a nice little dinner” with Bennie. “You gotta eat, Arlene,” Bennie insists. “Says who?” she savagely rejoins, and he laughs at the familiarity of her response (19). In her questioning of this most basic of assumptions, Arlene demands control of her life—to receive or reject sustenance.

Arlene has not, however, lost her desire for food; on the contrary, when she is alone, she carefully counts out the dollar bills that are her own and relishes the thought of each item they will buy—bread, milk, eggs, pickle loaf, ketchup, onions and even a luxury, cookies. When Bennie returns, Arlene does eat the fried chicken he brings home; but as she feared, he wants use of her body for payment, and he comes within seconds of raping her when she refuses him. This critical scene, the consumption of the food followed by Bennie's attempted rape, brings forth clearly the issue central to Arlene's autonomy—sovereignty over her body. Norman makes the point again in a scene from the following day when Arlene returns from the grocery store and drops her bag of provisions on the dirty floor. She leaves the food lying mingled with the trash while she sits down to eat a piece of the packaged cold cuts. Into this scene comes her former boyfriend/pimp, Carl, who grabs Arlene's cookies from the messy heap and greedily devours them to satisfy his drug-induced cravings. Carl's violation of Arlene's precious store of food becomes a minor symbolic gesture serving to remind us of the use and abuse of her body. While Arlene weighs the benefits of going with Carl again to be a prostitute, Arlie enacts some fearful memories of life-threatening episodes in her history with Carl. When Bennie interrupts them and the men grow close to violence, Arlene attempts to control them with the only power she has. “I'm hungry,” (42) she announces, hoping to divert their attention away from aggression.

Arlene also uses interest in food to attempt a reconciliation with her mother, who immediately notices, after not seeing her daughter for eight years, that the prison food “didn't fatten [her] up none,” and adds, “shoulda beat you like your daddy said. Make you eat” (23). Later Arlene's mother recalls the day that she bought the bedspread which she offers her daughter as a “getting out” gift. She remembers craving peanut brittle and eating it all day when she was pregnant with Arlene. One day she followed the peanut brittle with a large bowl of chili and some jelly doughnuts, and, not surprisingly, vomited all over the old bedspread. “Lucky I didn't throw you up, Arlie girl,” she says (28). In the context of hunger as a metaphor for power and food as a tool for manipulation, the image of her pregnancy as undigestable food becomes a profound reminder of her mother's rejection.

Arlene's recollection of her mama's pot roast, little peeled potatoes and a ketchup squirter evokes painful memories for the mother, who evades Arlene's broad hints to be invited for Sunday dinner. By insisting, however, that her mother respond to her request, Arlene garners enough power to begin the process of nurturing herself. Her mother refuses to feed her, and she snatches the spread off Arlene's bed when she discovers Bennie's hat in the room. Convinced that her daughter is still turning tricks to survive, Arlene's mother leaves in a rage with no promise to return; she refuses even to allow her daughter to touch her. But Arlene does not give up on feeding herself. Instead she asks her mother what kind of meat to buy to make a pot roast.

Even as a child, Arlie learned to mistrust seduction with food. In one flashback, Arlie recalls an incident with the school principal who recommended her transfer to a “special school.” The principal tried to pacify Arlie with the promise of “peanut butter and chili” for lunch, but the rebellious girl hurled the offer back with the simple reply, “Ain't hungry” (27). Arlie and Arlene are survivors; they cling tenuously to life even as it holds out to them false nourishment. Society's institutions—the school, the family, the rehabilitation center and the prison—have all proven oppressive rather than redemptive. Finally Arlie finds religion through the prison chaplain, believing him when he tells her that God will find a way to destroy her “bad self.” She also believes him when he says that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” But when the chaplain is transferred to another prison, the angry and dispirited Arlie cannot wait for God to find a way to deliver her to this haven. She takes active control of her promised inheritance by attempting to kill the “bad self.” The instrument she uses is, appropriately, a fork, an emblem that reinforces the ironic transformation of life-sustaining tools to self-destructive weapons.

Norman's hunger imagery captures the elemental struggle for autonomy that her characters undergo; no metaphor could be more basic to convey the deprivation and determination of these women. The tension between rival selves, one nurturing, one destroying, is quite similar to the psychology of women with eating disorders. Kim Chernin describes these victims as engaged in a drama “in which that inner being one has hoped to dominate and control keeps struggling to return” (Obsession 190). In Chernin's analysis of the Ellen West case, a fictional name for a woman treated by the well-known existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, she describes a woman who has given up spiritual and intellectual quests under pressure from a rigid socio-sexual hierarchy that denies women full development as human beings. West's case is a particularly clear example of a woman's tendency towards reductive obsessions, often centering on food, when she is confined and restricted. Chernin's description of West's suppression of her wild and spirited self is apposite for Norman's Arlie/Arlene: “It is, in fact, impossible to cease yearning for a part of the self, impossible to drive it away. … whatever is driven from conscious experience continues to live a life of its own, transformed now perhaps, unrecognizable, sometimes pictured as a feminine figure of death, sometimes experienced as a terrible longing, a yearning, a hunger …” (190). Arlie continues to live after Arlene “kills” her, as her volatile presence onstage reminds us. Parts of her appear in Arlene in flashes—Arlie throws the tomato out the window of the car, and Arlie is very close to the surface when Bennie tries to rape Arlene. “Arlie coulda killed you” (47). Arlene's statement to Bennie when she finally struggles free is as much a threat as a reminder.

Part of the “getting out” process for women “doing time” necessitates an integration of multiple selves, past and present. Arlene must reconcile herself to Arlie, and she needs female nourishment and nurture to do so. Her most important rehabilitation occurs through her contact with Ruby, her upstairs neighbor and an “ex-con” like herself, who consoles her with the knowledge that “you can still love people that's gone” (75). Ruby allows Arlene to mourn the death of Arlie. Although her mother has failed to provide the support and nurturance that Arlene needs, Ruby offers her good advice, company, protection and comfort—again, gifts imaged through food. She even offers to put Arlene's food away for her but then recognizes the symbolic importance of Arlene's stocking her shelves alone. Before Ruby leaves, she invites Arlene upstairs to share one of her luxuries, raisin toast. Ruby's nurture heals; Norman ends her play with Arlie and Arlene joining voices in imitation of their mother's voice: “Arlie, what you doin' in there?” (79). Through shared memory and laughter Arlene is finally able to recognize Arlie and forgive herself. The line recalls her mother's warning voice to the child Arlie whose sister locked her in the closet as a childhood prank, but its implication for the process of “getting out” is univocal.

Feminist critics' paradigms of women's quests for autonomy offer models for Arlene's progress. Mary Daly, for example, describes the creation of a new consciousness as a process that begins with women who dare to confront non-being in the face of their own non-existence. Similarly, Carol Christ outlines the spiritual journey towards a supportive community which “takes a distinctive form in the fiction and poetry of women writers. It begins in an experience of nothingness. Women experience emptiness in their own lives—in self-hatred, in self-negation, and in being a victim” (13). For Daly and Christ, this first step in the process is followed by awakening and new-naming of experience, leading idealistically towards a new spirituality and affirmation through community. Arlene, we have seen, passes successfully through similar phases. Significantly, she renames herself, demanding that the world recognize her new beginning as Arlene. At the same time, however, she recognizes the value in preserving her past by forgiving herself and Arlie, who join forces in a pleasurable memory. Getting Out leaves an audience with the affirmation of a self-determined woman who is capable of struggling for independence with the support of a community that begins with Ruby. We know, as Norman's first play closes, that Arlene will put her food away and join Ruby upstairs for a game of old-maids and some raisin toast.

This promise of a future, an essential ending for a comedy, is absent for Norman's heroine in 'night, Mother. In 'night, Mother Norman's main character also hungers for freedom and autonomy; and like Arlene, Jessie rejects food and yearns for nurturance. Nevertheless, Jessie is a woman who ultimately says no to life, not as a desperate plea for help, but as a firm resolve. She is a woman in whom all desire is spent, not through satiation but through the clear understanding of her world's false nourishment.

As the play opens, Jessie has exhausted all the images that might have sustained her. Like Arlene, she has long awaited the arrival of a self to call her own; but she has forfeited all hope for its appearance. Jessie explains to her mother what her decision to commit suicide is about: “It's somebody I lost alright, it's my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will … I'm what was worth waiting for and I didn't make it. Me … who might have made a difference to me … I'm not going to show up, so there's no reason to stay” (76). Jessie is unable to envision the self-questing process beyond its initial stage, confrontation with non-being. Though she shares with Arlene and Arlie a fundamental directive to control and to execute her will through the manipulation of her body, she cannot find the requisite food. Jessie has “the strange little thought; well maybe not so strange,” she reconsiders, “that maybe if there was something [she] really liked, like maybe … rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast, or something, that might be enough” (77). “Rice pudding is good,” her desperate mother offers. But not for Jessie. Nevertheless, Jessie's last request from her mother is for food; the caramel apple she asks for never gets made, but her mother does make the hot chocolate her daughter desires. This last bit of sustenance that mother and daughter share is highly charged with symbolic meaning, as the pan that Thelma uses to warm the milk becomes the object that will occupy her after Jessie's death. When, in the final scene, Thelma goes to the telephone to call her son, Dawson, she picks up the hot-chocolate pan, grasping it tightly, “like her life depended on it” (89).

It is during the preparation of the hot chocolate that Norman reveals important details about Thelma and Jessie's relationship. Even with the knowledge of her daughter's imminent suicide, Mama cannot acknowledge her daughter as a separate adult. When Jessie asks for a chocolate treat, Mama replies, “You didn't eat a bit of supper.” Then when Jessie requests “no marshmallows,” Mama counters, “you have to have marshmallows. That's the old way, Jess. Two or three?” (39). In this most basic of ways, Mama is asserting her power and denying her daughter's initiative. The child's efforts to impose her own will upon the world and to manipulate her environment are directed towards food very early in the development of a separate self. What will be eaten and how it will be prepared are questions that often form the basis for mother/daughter struggles. The mother in Norman's play appears to win this quiet battle. But Jessie does not want these treats for themselves; rather, she uses them to make a point. Mama and Jessie agree that neither of them ever really liked hot chocolate, and they do not drink it after it's prepared. Mama doesn't even make the caramel apple, convinced that Jessie will not like it either. Jessie shows her mother that these ritual pleasures of her childhood were, in fact, hollow and unfulfilling. Mama's rage is apparent when she discovers this truth: “You never liked eating at all, did you? Any of it!” (53), Mama accuses her, as if her daughter's lack of appetite invalidates their whole history together. And, in a sense, it does; for it is in these two hours before her death that Jessie demands a reckoning. Her hunger for honest dialogue and truth about her past must be satisfied.

While mother and daughter have the confrontation that Jessie has needed for so long, this young woman spends her last hours stocking her mother's kitchen, filling candy dishes, arranging for grocery delivery, reminding her mother to drink her milk. Jessie is concerned with the exigencies of her mother's daily routine, but she has abandoned the illusion that her mother needs her for nurturance; thus she is deprived not only of her own sense of self, but also of the traditional expectation for women that may temporarily mitigate their sense of emptiness. Inadvertently, but honestly, Mama reinforces Jessie's feeling of uselessness when she tells her, “you don't have to take care of me.” Thelma tries to retract this statement, but her daughter knows that it is true and answers, “You've just been letting me do it so I'll have something to do, haven't you?” (32). We find out in the course of the evening that Jessie has ignored her own development by sacrificing herself to others—mother, father, husband and son. Finally, having confronted the emptiness of her existence and the absence of self-development, she wants some answers from the most fundamental of sources, her mother.

'night, Mother explores the question that Kim Chernin relentlessly pursues: “What subterranean connection exists … between food, mothers, and identity? (Hungry Self 98). In a woman's play we might expect images and actions that are drawn from the home, and particularly the kitchen, her traditional space. But Norman's settings are not casual choices, nor are her metaphors simply conventional female ones. Getting Out and 'night, Mother probe the complex interconnections among women's searches for autonomy, their hunger, both literal and figurative, and the problems that arise from mother/daughter bonding and separation. For Chernin, these concerns, issues and metaphors are central to an understanding of contemporary women's quest for freedom and power: “For food, after all, has defined female identity not only through the domestic routine of daily means. … It has defined more even than the history of mother/daughter relations and that early sorrow and disorder that began, for many of us, at the mother's breast. Dating back to our earliest impressions of life, recorded in the symbolic code of food imagery, the vanished story of female value and power returns to us again and again in our obsession with food. …” (197).

Elizabeth Stone has pointed out that “Arlene and Jessie quite literally want their mothers to feed them,” and that the mothers in each play are “appropriate to the emotional difficulties of her daughter—a way of suggesting that perhaps in Norman's view, the relationship between mother and daughter is crucial, and possibly predictive of how that daughter will experience herself, not only in relationship to her mother, but in relationship to the world” (59). Norman herself says that “the mother is the controller of the past that I am most informed about”; and she speaks of the “false promises” that are given to both mothers and daughters, the former that they would be rewarded for their sacrifices, the latter that life will be simple and comfortable if they follow some easy rules (Stone 59). These false promises are distorted perceptions of women's needs and desires. Mechanistically imposed and psychologically internalized, they are passed down from mother to daughter in a cycle that is painfully difficult to interrupt.

In these plays Norman painstakingly examines what Adrienne Rich has called “this cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused … the great unwritten story” (226). Jessie and Arlene share a struggle to separate themselves from their mother's images of them and a desire to transcend what their mothers have themselves become. This tension between identification and separation is a primary source of their hunger. The task of transforming themselves and transcending their backgrounds is presented with all of its dangerous difficulties. Both women focus self-destructively on their bodies, Arlene in an attempted suicide prompted by the rejection of her untamed spirit Arlie, Jessie in a successful suicide motivated by a profound emptiness, the consequence of a courageous confrontation with the absence of a self.

Janet Brown defines the feminist impulse in drama as “a rhetoric of confrontation,” between the agent and the unjust order, the socio-sexual hierarchy (75). Often she finds two forces in conflict, idealism and materialism. In a drama structured idealistically, the woman succeeds in a process towards autonomy either by spiritual transcendence or by sacrificing herself in an act of mortification for a new and more perfect order. If the force of materialism prevails, the agent is sacrificed to the existing order. In Brown's terms, Getting Out is an idealistic play. Arlene becomes a subject to herself when she tears up Carl's and Bennie's telephone numbers and takes an active role in her own nourishment. Her hunger is manageable; her anger is transformed into useful energy, and her power is germinating in the seeds of a community. 'night, Mother is a much more problematic play. Norman insists upon Jessie's heroism and presents her as a woman who has never before really made a choice. Her decision to kill herself is a move towards freedom and responsibility; but it is, of course, a final choice that leaves no apparent legacy for change.

Norman clearly admires the courage of both of her central characters. She says of Arlie that she “is pure fight, she's survival.” Thinking perhaps of Jessie, she states that the “human journey … doesn't have to work … but it has to be tried” (Gross 258). The central question for questing women, finally, is this: can we rejoice in and grow strong through our hunger, or must we become, ourselves, the world's repast?

Works Cited

Brown, Janet. Feminist Drama. London: Scarecrow, 1979.

Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity. New York: Times, 1985.

———. The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. New York: Harper, 1981.

Christ, Carol. Diving Deep and Surfacing. Boston: Beacon, 1980.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father. Boston: Beacon, 1973.

Gross, Amy. “Marsha Norman: Pulitzer-Prize Winner.” Vogue July 1983: 200-1, 256-8.

Mootz, William. “Marsha Norman: Keeping Fame under Control.” Louisville Courier-Journal 10 June 1979: H1.

Norman, Marsha. Getting Out. 1978. New York: Avon, 1979.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: Bantam, 1976.

Stone, Elizabeth. “Playwright Marsha Norman: An Optimist Writes about Suicide, Confinement, and Despair.” Ms. July 1983: 6-9.

Stout, Kate. “Marsha Norman: Writing for the ‘Least of Our Brethren.’” Saturday Review Sept.-Oct. 1983: 28-33.


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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.

Janice Mall (review date 21 June 1987)

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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 show.

At the center [of The Fortune Teller] is Fay Morgan, a psychic with remarkable clairvoyant powers, who has reared her daughter Lizzie on her earnings telling fortunes in their dingy apartment. She has launched Lizzie like a middle-class butterfly—piano lessons, dancing school, art camps, and so much motherly love that Fay has not thought of marrying Arnie, a police detective and her lover of years. But now Lizzie is 19 and a moth to the flame of a careless, beautiful young man, Paul, whom her mother recognizes as the Devil in the Tarot deck.

On the day Paul comes for her daughter, Fay is obliged to solve the kidnaping. Here one can't merely suspend disbelief. One has to throw it away with both hands: 27 small children are snatched from their parents in separate incidents in one evening at a fair, and no one has seen or heard a thing. An entire city police department works on this spectacular case at the beck and call of a psychic and one detective as Fay and Arnie pursue Fay's visions that reveal where children are hidden and that the kidnapers are a gang of crazed anti-abortionists. This tale lumbers on, gathering complexities like lint.

Norman has written a rarer novel with the more ordinary portion of the story.

All day and night between her duties in the crime case, Fay frantically tries to set her daughter straight and Fay and Arnie sustain each other. Fay has vivid, detailed visions of Lizzie's future—lost to her mother and irretrievably hurt by Paul. With care and skill, Norman presents a woman who has no better weapons than any mother who knows best and tries to tell it to a child who's ready to fly.

Equally well done are Fay and Arnie, whose love affair is long, passionate and kind. Norman has offered something unusual in recent fiction, a love that is comfortable.

Principal Works

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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 Burnett] (libretto) 1990

Face of a Stranger (screenplay) 1991

D. Boone (play) 1992; later retitled Loving Daniel Boone

The Red Shoes [adaptor, with Paul Stryker; from the 1948 film] (play) 1993

Lunch with Lynn (play) 1994

Trudy Blue (play) 1995

Collected Plays (plays) 1998

A Cooler Climate [adaptor; from the novel by Zena Collier] (screenplay) 1999

RCA (play) 1999

Sisters (play) 1999

The Audrey Hepburn Story (screenplay) 2000

Custody of the Heart [adaptor; from the novel by Barbara Delinsky] (screenplay) 2000

Last Dance (play) 2003

*Comprised of two one-act plays, The Laundromat and The Pool Hall.

†Includes Getting Out,Third and Oak,The Holdup, and Traveler in the Dark.

‡Includes Getting Out,Third and Oak,Circus Valentine,The Holdup,Traveler in the Dark,Sarah and Abraham, and Loving Daniel Boone.

Jenny S. Spencer (essay date September 1987)

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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 did not prevent me from having one. What I experienced as almost overwhelmingly painful, however, was viewed with utter indifference by the otherwise sensitive men in my company. The post-production discussion re-affirmed what I found to be a surprising difference between men's and women's responses to this play. Most of the discussion was among female viewers, who found the play intensely disturbing, realistic, and utterly riveting. Only a few men attended and fewer spoke at that session; several had left the performance early. It appeared that for most of them the play seemed too limited in focus, too predictable in effect to capture their interest completely. A subsequent survey of reviews revealed a similar disparity of reaction, although not entirely along lines of gender. John Simon and Frank Rich applauded Norman's ability to weave a shattering existential experience out of the most homely of materials.2 But Stanley Kauffman and Richard Gilman envied the “rapture” of others, finding Norman's play blatantly contrived on the one hand and utterly boring on the other. Gilman, in particular, captures the predominant male attitude I witnessed with this comment: “When the shot sounded, I wasn't startled, dismayed, or much moved; it was all ‘sort of’ sad, ‘sort of’ lugubrious.”3

Clearly the success of 'night, Mother rests on the peculiar power of the play in performance; it works for audiences, when it does work, on a number of levels—the naturalistic illusion so carefully maintained that the play, like unmediated experience itself, appears open to multiple interpretation. However, I would like to suggest the possibility that male and female audience members “read,” comprehend, and respond to the play in ways fundamentally different. While universal themes of death and desire, of human dignity and human pain, of hope and existential despair are accessible to all, these seem but “secondary elaborations” of the primary drama that women may cathartically experience in Norman's play. If we accept the psychoanalytic premise that given the specific pressures, complications, and resolutions offered the female child within the Oedipal situation, the process whereby men and women gain their sexual identity is not identical, then it stands to reason that a literary work in which such issues are represented should provide for the audience of each sex a different kind of experience. 'night, Mother provides an interesting case since it both self-consciously addresses a female audience and subconsciously works upon the female psyche in powerful ways, positioning male and female viewers differently in the process. Indeed, because of the way in which the text foregrounds issues of female identity and feminine autonomy, focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, and controls the narrative movement, the relatively detached position available (however tentatively) to male viewers simply cannot (without great risk) be taken up by women.

'night, Mother is not the first play by Norman to address women and issues which are potentially gender-specific. Getting Out (1977) is quite literally about identity crisis, and its theme of the split self is visually represented on a split stage that alternates between past and present versions of the same person. In this play, Arlene, a newly released prisoner, tentatively begins her new life on the “outside,” having apparently lost touch with the aggressively malicious juvenile delinquent she once was, with the Arlie who haunts her memory in compelling flashback sequences. Not only is the play's present and remembered violence sexual in nature, but in the process of “personality adjustment” that unfolds, physical abuse becomes a metaphor for the entire contradictory process of female socialization. As the play's title indicates, Getting Out addresses the female protagonist's specific hopes and the audience's more generalized desire to escape social entrapment; and yet the play's variety of enclosures suggests the ways in which feminine consciousness is constructed maimed, reconstructed, and finally validated in our society. Norman's next play, Third and Oak: The Laundromat (1979), concerns a late-night chance encounter between an older recent widow and a young unhappy wife. Defining themselves primarily in relation to absent men, their sole point of contact is through this shared “lack” they each come tentatively to acknowledge as unhealthy. Through their focus on women characters, both plays chart the possibilities (limited, but real) of female autonomy within the confines of a patriarchal society and find hope in the connections (also limited, but real) between women. In 'night, Mother, the problems of female identity are again foregrounded, but the vision of the feminine predicament is unmitigatingly tragic. Just how the text works to create an experience similar to cathartic psycho-drama for its female audience is the subject of this paper.

As I point out above, Norman goes to some length to maintain an illusion of reality for the audience. The play runs for ninety minutes without interruption on a single set, the actual running time marked by an on-stage clock visible to the audience. The set itself, a nondescript, suburban living-room, is to look lived-in and comfortable: “Under no circumstances,” Norman writes, “should the set and its dressing make a judgment about the intelligence or taste of Jessie and Mama.”4 Norman describes the focal point of the entire set as “a point of both threat and promise … an ordinary door that opens onto absolute nothingness” (p. 3). The bedroom door is, of course, the passageway for Jessica's final exit, and around this charged absence the struggle between Jessica and Mama takes place and is given meaning. The stage direction itself is worth noting, since Norman calls for lighting that makes the door disappear completely at times and draws the entire set into it at others. The fact that Jessie's departure is ultimately to another part of the house, while the living room itself is defined as an extension of the door's absolute nothingness, underscores our sense of physical entrapment and psychological impasse in the ensuing action. Most importantly, perhaps, the characters are to be perceived as actually living in this room: devoid of distancing accents, speaking in a familiar shorthand, they respond to each other in such apparently spontaneous and utterly ordinary patterns of mother-daughter conversation that the female audience may indeed feel a sense of déjà-vu. Given the revelation of Jessie's suicidal intention, however, such déjà-vu quickly gives way to an impression of the uncanny: according to Freud, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar … that which ought to have remained secret and hidden, and yet comes to light.”5 As we shall later see, it is in part the narrative's particular representation of repressed infantile complexes that produces the experience of the uncanny, out of action which might otherwise be perceived as relatively predictable.

Jessie's suicide, however predictable it may appear, is an extreme act—by definition abnormal. As a psychological case study of deviant behavior, however, 'night, Mother differs markedly from such plays as Equus or Agnes of God. Without institutional representatives to provide measures of deviation, without an analyst figure to focus questions and issues, without distancing devices of any kind, Norman invites her audience to identify directly with the characters on stage, and relying on our own inner resources, to share their experience in unmediated fashion. The subjective quality of the event is heightened by the absence of community; no social or political framework provides a broader perspective, and even the references to the world outside of Mama's living room are remarkably vague: “I read the paper,” Jessie says, “I don't like how things are. And they're not any better out there than they are in here” (p. 30). This is a psychological drama aimed directly at the psyche, the very antithesis of Brechtian theatre. Although the audience may be tempted to play analyst, the apparent transparence of the character's thought processes, the lack of “strangeness” in the action and the lack of a perspective from which to evaluate suggests that little analysis actually occurs. Rather, we are led to assume not only that everything spoken in this room is factually or psychologically true, but that somewhere between Mama's questions and conjectures and Jessie's denials and explanations, sufficient cause gets established. We do not leave the theatre asking why Jessie commits suicide.

Indeed, the conditions for Jessie's suicide are naturalistically plausible by clinical standards.6 We rather quickly discover, for example, that Jessie has suffered a series of personal losses: her father is dead; her husband has left her; her son, a petty criminal and drug addict, is permanently elsewhere. Even her dog, King, has been run over by a tractor. Not only depressed, she feels betrayed and abandoned. Or as she first explains: “I'm tired. I'm hurt. I'm sad. I feel used” (p. 28). Although presently in good health, Jessie's epilepsy has resulted in a lack of social experience and an increasing detachment from communal ties: her only “friends” are medical personnel, she can't get a job or keep the ones she's had, and she so unnerves her mother's best friend Agnes that the neighbor no longer visits. By the end of the play, we have learned of so many possible precipitating factors that despite Jessie's denials, they cannot be discounted. In fact, Jessie's denials become a kind of refrain, underscoring each cause as both necessary and insufficient.

Like that of most suicidal individuals, Jessie's emotional life is dominated by a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and overpowering loneliness—feelings she expresses less than halfway through the play when she responds to Mama's growing hysteria with the following lines:

I can't do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work. But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to. It's all I really have that belongs to me and I'm going to say what happens to it. And it's going to stop.

And I'm going to stop it. So. Let's just have a good time.

(p. 36)

The speech clearly indicates first, the connection between Jessie's decision and her desire to establish some personal authority, some autonomous sense of self, and second, the impossible, self-contradictory nature of that project. As an attempt to establish control of the situation it seems to work. Here Jessie sits for the first time in the play as Mama offers to make them hot chocolate and a candy apple, both trying to recover some loving, symbiotic moment from the past. But the temporary reversal in which Jessie sits and Mama serves, or more symbolically put, in which the daughter sees the mother as an extension of herself, is quickly shattered by Jessie's double realization that Mama's gesture is a “false” and selfishly motivated one, and that neither of them likes the taste of milk (p. 45).

For Jessie, the basic problem which suicide will solve is formulated in terms of an absence. Jessie lacks a firm sense of self from which to act. And her suicide, self-negating as it is, will specifically address that need to protect, to fix, to determine her identity.7 On one level, the action indicates her unwillingness to accept the feminine, passive position to which she has been assigned. Her suicide can be measured against the power of her brother which Mama so mindlessly accepts, of Dawson who “just calls me Jess like he knows who he's talking to …” (p. 23). Dawson's deliberate exclusion from this evening protects Jessie's already violated sense of privacy and thereby thwarts his only power over her. That her life will be taken with her father's gun is a detail Jessie finds unnecessary but particularly appropriate. This action, after all, is a highly symbolic one. In a final explanation of the reason for her decision, Jessie describes the problem by juxtaposing two moments of her life: the moment she reconstructs as the pre-self of an old baby picture, and the present, absent self.

That's what this is about. It's somebody I lost, all right, it's my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will. So, see, it doesn't much matter what else happens in the world or in this house, even. I'm what was worth waiting for and I didn't make it. Me … who might have made a difference to me … I'm not going to show up, so there's no reason to stay, except to keep you company, and that's … not reason enough because I'm not … very good company. (Pause) Am I.

(p. 76)8

Jessie's own analysis can be supported with additional evidence offered in less self-conscious moments. For example, Jessie refuses to distinguish between her own identity and her absolute failure of a son (“Ricky is as much like me as it's possible for any human to be” [p. 59]), just as she has so utterly identified with the husband who abandoned her that she wrote herself a note of explanation and signed his name (“I said I'd always love me, not Cecil. But that's how he felt … you don't pack your garbage when you move” [p. 61]).

According to Freud, suicide represents unconscious hostility directed toward an introjected, ambivalently-viewed love-object and as such, is the very symptom of an underdeveloped ego. In Jessie's conscious mind, however, the suicide that ends the play is a deliberate, fully reasoned action. She describes it as private, personal, her own, freely chosen, and rational. For the audience, that suicide does indeed secure her identity, establish her authority, and give meaning to the play. Moreover, Jessie's will seems irrevocable from the start: she has no desire to be saved, and as Mama occasionally recognizes, she is “already gone.” Ironically perhaps, it is the strength of Jessie's resolve, a rather unrealistic detail, that frees us to identify with and to accept Jessie's action in the play. While profoundly disturbing on one level, it is the inevitability of the conclusion that gives us, like Mama, time to mourn Jessie's loss, to work through the brutally ambivalent feelings that the play's action provokes, and to experience some aesthetic pleasure in the promise of cathartic resolution.9

While we do not leave the theatre asking why Jessie commits suicide, we should wonder why Jessie tells her mother, why she finds it necessary to carry out her intention in this particular way, and what the underlying significance of that action is. Keeping in mind that suicidal individuals are rarely aware of the unconscious dynamics that appear to be related to their actions, we need to come to terms with Jessie's potentially contradictory definition of the evening: “This is private … Just you and me” (p. 17). Here psychoanalytic thought offers at least two areas of possible consideration: 1) the understanding of suicide as symbolic murder, as unconscious anger toward the introjected, ambivalently-viewed love-object and 2) the various consequences for female ego-development that result from the fact that the mother is the original love-attachment, for which, as Freud noted, the father and eventual lovers are but the pale and variously inadequate substitutes.10 Indeed, it is Jessie's decision to play out the evening with her mother that gives 'night, Mother its particular emotional charge, that makes it more of a play about mothers and daughters, about feminine identity and female autonomy, than a play about suicide. As an action that inextricably unites the forces of idealizing love and irrational hostility, self-assertion and self-negation, sadism and masochism, separation and identity, suicide is but a representation in extreme form of the contradictory relationship mothers and daughters share in our present historical situation.11

Much important feminist scholarship has been devoted to the mother-daughter relationship, but Dorothy Dinnerstein describes the psychoanalytic dynamics as well as anyone. In The Mermaid and the Minotaur she explains how under current gender arrangements the mother must act as the central representative of that from which the self must be carved out, and further explains the consequences, for both sexes, of such a position:

So long as the first parent is a woman, then, woman [sic] will inevitably be pressed into the dual role of indispensable quasi-human supporter and deadly quasi-human enemy of the human self. She will be seen as naturally fit to nurture other people's individuality; as the born audience in whose awareness other people's subjective existence can be mirrored; as the being so peculiarly needed to confirm other people's worth, power, significance … At the same time she will also be seen as the one who will not let other people be, the one who beckons her loved ones back from selfhood, who wants to engulf, dissolve, drown, suffocate them as autonomous persons. …

[A woman's] first fight for some personal autonomy, fought against an authority so total that male authority seemed comfortingly limited by comparison, was in a sense fought against herself. It was fought against a parent of her own gender, a parent with whom she is apt to have remained passively identified, as a baby, longer and more deeply than a boy baby would, and with whom she is apt to have identified herself actively, as a small child, more fully than a little boy could. Separating the sense of oneself from the old sense of continuity with the mother is a problem for every child; but it is ordinarily a much harder problem for a daughter than for a son.12

The need for a daughter both to detach her love and yet to identify herself with the mother in order to acquire a “normal” gendered identity, and the need for a mother to support the child's project of autonomy despite mixed feelings regarding separation, is the drama that Jessie and Mama symbolically enact in the play. Mama is the image that Jessie must reject in order to gain an active and autonomous position in the world, and the image she must incorporate to be “normal.” Both are caught in an utterly contradictory, no-win situation.

Just as their symbolic situations are mirrored, so their roles in the play seem to merge and blend with a fluidity that suggests the absence of firm ego boundaries: superficially, at least, Jessie's language and actions express motherly care while Mama's responses are often spontaneously childlike. Yet their concern for each other is balanced by expressions of resentment, selfishness, and occasional cruelty on both sides. Jessie announces her intention to kill herself, for example, amid her equally important project of setting the house in order—an almost ritualistic “undoing” of the pain and disruption her act will eventually cause. Uncannily perceptive in her preparations, she seems to have provided for all Mama's future physical and emotional needs: from pre-ordering cases of snowballs, to writing out directions for various appliances, to mailing Dawson a list of future Christmas gifts for Mama. Jessie's housekeeping typifies mothering behavior in all its contradictory fullness. But a genuinely nurturing side is revealed in Jessie's quickness to relieve Mama's instinctive expressions of guilt and her anxiously expressed wish for Mama to understand her decision. Indeed, through both her actions and her words, we sense Jessie's sincere desire to make some connection with her mother as a separate, fully human being before she goes.

Watching the play, however, we can just as easily view the action as a finely-tuned, methodically planned torture, as a symbolic murder, as Jessie's vengeance upon the mother who not only is informed of a suicide which she cannot prevent, but whose very actions unwittingly reinforce her daughter's original decision. Indeed, what Jessie ultimately demands from her mother seems both infantile and impossible: not only complete control over the evening, but her mother's unqualified love, undivided attention, unmitigated support, and with it, at least passive collaboration in the suicide. One of the more painful moments of the play occurs with the following exchange:

Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie. You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger, without doing it to me. That's right! You might as well kill me as you, Jessie, it's the same thing. This has to do with me, Jessie.
Then what if it does! What if it has everything to do with you! What if you are all I have and you're not enough? What if I could take all the rest of it if only I didn't have you here? What if the only way I can get away from you for good is to kill myself? What if it is? I can still do it!

(p. 72)

Just as Jessie's action has provoked the debilitating guilt of the mother who cannot adequately separate herself from her children, so Mama manages here to provoke a response of infantile rage from her child. In perhaps the most direct form to be seen in the play, Jessie expresses anger at her mother for not being able to fulfill her insatiable demands (“you're not enough”), anger at feeling powerless to change her situation any other way (Freud would say, for making her a girl), anger for not providing her with an adequate sense of self, for controlling her life without giving it meaning. For women in the audience, it is anger that each of us has experienced, anger that is connected in the last instance to our more or less adequately resolved infantile complexes.

Just as Jessie represents our anxieties as children, so Mama represents the anxieties of parenthood, and specifically those associated with mothering. In an essay entitled “Maternal Thinking,” Sara Ruddick succinctly identifies the primary concerns of the maternal (a socially constructed category) as an interest in the preservation, the growth, and the social acceptability of her children: the three most basic tasks by which mothers are judged.13 Norman develops Mama's character around precisely these concerns, and as Mama gradually articulates the fears, motivations, and even resentments that lie behind both her past and present behavior, we find ourselves both accepting and understanding the very behavior by which Mama, as a mother, seems so miserably to fail. And yet Jessie's suicide is so strongly linked to a declaration of independence that it is impossible to blame Mama for her death. Indeed, through most of the play, Mama is engaged in the immediate struggle to save her child's life, a struggle in which her own identity is equally at stake. That struggle also re-enacts the guilt-ridden fantasy of anyone who has unexpectedly lost a loved one through suicide: to have another chance, to turn back time, and to know why. However feeble and pathetically comic her attempts may appear in the face of Jessie's resolution, Mama does act out in some form all the practical suggestions for the prevention of suicide: she listens, she attempts to provide alternatives, she offers transfusions of hope, she plays for time, she tries to involve others, she attempts to reduce the pain and to fill the frustrated needs, and she finally tries to block the exit.14 But these actions simply increase her sense of helplessness, underscore the situation's hopelessness, and reveal Mama to be as impotent and powerless to change the course of events as Jessie herself has been.

Near the end of the play, Mama again lashes out at her daughter's stubbornness, but her desperate statement rings undeniably true: “Well, nobody's going to be a bit surprised, sweetheart. This is just like you. … You know who they're going to feel sorry for? Me! How about that! Not you, me!” (p. 79). We pity Mama because as a woman she mirrors Jessie's own problems: of rejection and abandonment, of shame and self-doubt, of failure and lack of autonomy, of buried resentment and hostility. Despite differences in personality and coping patterns, the two characters share similar attitudes toward the meaninglessness of their lives, toward the demands of their husbands and children. (During the play, we find that Mama was jealous of Jessie's relationship with her father, that she found her own marriage a loveless duty, that however comically articulated, her feeling of inadequacy is as strongly felt as Jessie's own.) But while not happy, Mama at least seems passively resigned to her fate; and we tend to identify with her early in the play in a spontaneous, instinctive, and familiar way. In the face of Jessie's activity this evening, we share Mama's position, forced to watch the unrolling of events over which we have no control, denied access to the bedroom, and by extension to the depth and meaning of Jessie's malaise. While Jessie establishes the conditions necessary for the evening's events, it is through Mama's reactions and particular struggle that we experience the catharsis of the play. In fact, while the various elements of the play (language, character, and situation) are naturalistically depicted, the movement of the play—its underlying conflicts, its temporal quality, its suspense and resolution—are firmly based on structures of desire. We identify with Jessie not in her decision to die, but on the level of fantasy and desire, with the symbolic fulfillment suicide comes to represent when played out before the mother. On the other hand, by identifying with Mama we can vicariously encounter a terrifying experience involving utter loss (of both self and other) in a relatively safe context. Through the mother, the audience rehearses its own rage at being abandoned and its own fear of death; in the course of the evening, we ritually re-enact our attempts to control the inevitable, to understand the incomprehensible and to bring back the lost. And finally, through the mother's dawning comprehension of the need to accept her daughter's differences, and with it, a loss of self, we bind ourselves again to the very dynamics that underly the daughter's suicide.

Thus Jessie's suicide, measured against the conditions which deprive her life of meaning, can be viewed as active protest or passive resignation, as arbitrary decision or inevitable destiny, as coldly logical or neurotically irrational. In fact, they are both, and the “terror and pity” of the play depends on the studied ambivalence with which the audience is forced to view the action, an ambivalence based on the impossibility of satisfactorily separating, at almost any level, the daughter's fate from the mother's. To say that male viewers can identify with neither the characters of this play nor its central experience would be inaccurate; many obviously have. But I suggest that the play is potentially more terrifying for the female viewer because she must identify at one and the same time with both characters on the stage, and moreover, do so in a gender-specific manner. If we assume that the avenues open to male response are similar to the avenues available in “real life,” then more than a single possibility exists. Men may react to these characters as “human beings” rather than sexual objects and grant them as much subjective autonomy as men are willing and able to grant women in their own lives. But since the focus of the play is so sharply defined as “private,” outside history, and in the normal sphere of women's domination (the home and the family), it presents a relatively unthreatening and possibly uninteresting avenue to the female psyche. Perceiving themselves as relatively detached or capable of objectivity about such matters (women, home and family), men may more easily approach the problems addressed in the play in broadly thematic or symbolic terms: as emblematic of human existential problems involving freedom, determination, and morality; or as a “limited” play about women who are subconsciously denied the kind of individual autonomy that men take for granted. Finally, male response may be affected by the fact that neither woman, as depicted, offers herself as a viable substitute for men's own attachment to women; in other words, men are not bound to the action through structures of desire. In reviews of the play, Stanley Kauffman and Richard Gilman both describe Norman's characters in a negative manner, Kauffman calling the mother, for example, “a dodo” and “a silly old self-indulgent woman.” As a female heroine, Jessica may be too strong and rational to appeal to men's protective instincts and too unemotional, apathetic, sexless, depressed, and unattractive to appeal to male desire. Gilman describes her in three words: “heavyset, slow-moving and morose.” Norman goes to great lengths to portray Mama as anything but ideal and Jessica as anything but sexy; but for the female viewer, the characters' sexual identity is simply never in question. Using T. J. Scheff's definition of cathartic effect as “crying, laughing and other emotional processes that occur when an unresolved emotional distress is re-awakened in a properly distanced context,”15 one might suggest that Norman's 'night, Mother is aesthetically over-distanced for men (producing indifference) and aesthetically under-distanced for women (producing pain). Indeed, the power of the play for women rests not only on the ways in which Norman self-consciously addresses a female audience through subject matter, language, and situation. The text also presents a psycho-dynamically charged situation that symbolically mirrors the female viewer's own—a narrative movement at least partly generated from the desires, fantasies, resentments, and fears originally connected with the very process of gender acquisition.

Whether or not Norman's 'night, Mother is a “feminist” play is another question entirely, but one not easily avoided. Clearly about and for women, the play offers women for identification unmediated by the gaze of men. The play also focuses on complicated issues of gender and female subjectivity, but does so without sacrificing traditional or conventional sources of pleasure through (Oedipal) narrative, closure, the illusion of reality, emotional catharsis. Much of the play's political effect (the area most closely associated with a feminist practice) lies in the theatre event itself—how it is performed, what kind of discussion follows, what kind of reviews and critical commentary the play generates. If women were to see the actions and positions taken in the play as both recognizable and yet somehow untenable, then the play might offer the kind of dynamic contradiction that once brought to consciousness could generate radical change. In other words, this play allows women to perceive themselves as living in contradiction and to feel overwhelmingly uncomfortable about it. Norman herself, however, offers the audience no way of finally understanding that contradiction in social terms.

The danger, then, is that the play presents a mirror to reality in which women mis-recognize themselves in quite traditionally negative ways, the emotional catharsis serving a different therapeutic effect by reintegrating the spectator into her place within the dominant order, without challenging in any fundamental way the prevalent image of women in society—as those who reproduce, consume, and are consumed, who are powerless, inadequate, unworthy, and mutually destructive. After all, Jessie and Mama seem barely capable of handling the social dynamics of even their own limited lives. Norman's 'night, Mother can perhaps best be understood as a profoundly naturalistic play in both intention and effect. It offers its audience images of women closely connected to a lived reality—characters neither idealized nor heroic, but shaped and determined here by the limited set, the limited options, and the tragic misapprehension of both themselves and the broader social dynamics of their specific situation.


  1. This production was staged during the Humana Festival at Actor's Theatre, Louisville, Ky. in March of 1984.

  2. John Simon, “Journeys into Night,” New York Magazine, 11 April 1983, 55-8. See also Frank Rich, “Suicide Talk in 'night, Mother,The New York Times, 1 April 1983, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIV, No. 4 (March 21-April 2), 1983, 333-34.

  3. Richard Gilman, The Nation, 7 May 1983, 586. See also, Stanley Kauffman, “More Trick than Tragedy,” Saturday Review, 9 (Sept.-Oct.), 1983, 47-8.

  4. Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), p. 3. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” Studies in Parapsychology (New York, 1977), pp. 20, 28.

  6. For an overview of current literature on suicide and a definition based on clinical practice, see Edwin Shneidman, Definition of Suicide (New York, 1985). For Freud's analysis of the suicidal individual, see “Mourning and Melancholia,” General Psychological Theory (New York, 1963), pp. 164-179. Generalizations regarding the suicidal individual are based on Shneidman's study unless otherwise indicated.

  7. Indeed, when Mama first asks, “What do you want the gun for, Jess,” Jessie responds with a single word: “Protection” (p. 9).

  8. Mama's response, “(Knowing she must tell the truth) No. And neither am I” (p. 77), supports the claim made later in this paper that despite their different methods of coping, Jessie and Mama share feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness that stem from shared situations. At various points in the play, each character views herself as a frustrated daughter, an abandoned wife, a failed mother, or in this instance, a poor companion.

  9. For an interesting discussion of what is involved in the cathartic response, see T. J. Scheff, Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama (Berkeley, 1979). According to Scheff, advance knowledge of a distressful event mobilizes the emotions before the event actually occurs, when it is not yet overwhelming, so that an emotional discharge can take place. For this reason, the more familiar an audience with a play, the more effective the play may be in producing the desired cathartic response. In similar fashion, Jessie's announcement at the beginning of the play serves as the foreknowledge that mobilizes our emotions and gives particular weight to the dialogue that ensues.

  10. Sigmund Freud, “Female Sexuality (1931),” Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (New York, 1973), pp. 194-211. Freud's analysis of suicidal is found in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” cited above.

  11. I refer here to the predominantly white, middle-class family structures characteristic of Western capitalism. The qualification is important if one would avoid universalizing either Freud's theories or socially produced psychological structures.

  12. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York, 1976), pp. 111-112, 193. The following works are equally useful in their definition and exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic: Nancy Friday, My Mother, My Self: The Daughter's Search for Identity (New York, 1977) and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley, 1978). Much more might be said of the mother-daughter relationship that is applicable to Jessie and Mama, but my intention is simply to locate the dynamic involved between the two characters in a way that might clarify its female audience response. For this purpose, psychoanalysis, with its focus on the unconscious, language, and desire, is more useful than object-relations theory, which is more empirically descriptive.

  13. See Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” in Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Thorne et al. (New York, 1982), pp. 76-94.

  14. Shneidman, pp. 231-32

  15. Scheff, p. 13.

Patricia R. Schroeder (essay date March 1989)

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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 example of a grassroots movement seldom witnessed in the American theatre”.1 Just three years later, in 1981, Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins listed 112 American feminist theatres.2

Defining exactly what feminist drama is, however, has become an increasingly difficult problem, despite some recent landmark studies of the plays, playwrights, theatres, and issues involved. For a few commentators, content alone can be the central defining quality. Playwright Megan Terry, for instance, defines feminist drama as “anything that gives women confidence, shows them to themselves.”3 Karen Malpede, another noted playwright, agrees, claiming “Feminist theatre as I practice it is concerned with women surviving and creating new and human communities out of the wreckage of the past.”4 Janet Brown, whose rhetorical model emphasizes woman as the central “agent” of a feminist play, claims that “When woman's struggle for autonomy is a play's central rhetorical motive, that play can be considered a feminist drama.”5

Other students of the “phenomenon” (Gillespie's term) look more to structure and performance as the crucial defining elements of feminist drama. Helene Keyssar, for example, argues that feminist plays are based on “strategies of transformation” rather than on the traditional—in her view, traditionally male—recognition scene.6 And a large number of those exploring feminist drama focus exclusively on the experimental plays and productions of certain feminist theatres, whose ensemble strategies emerged (as Honor Moore has pointed out)7 from women's consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s. For these scholars, only those theatre groups that employ such avant-garde techniques as improvisation, collective scripting, non-hierarchical production companies, and non-linear dramatic from qualify as feminist.8

As this disagreement among scholars—and, indeed, among practitioners—of feminist drama shows, constructing an adequately broad yet still useful definition of feminist drama or feminist theatre is problematic. This difficulty is not surprising, given that (as many scholars have shown) women writers work simultaneously within two inherited traditions, the dominant male tradition and their own heretofore muted one.9 It is crucial, of course, for feminists to define exactly what that alternative female tradition comprises, as many of the drama scholars mentioned above have been doing.10 Yet in their enthusiasm to isolate what is unique about feminist drama, some scholars overlook or even reject the feminist possibilities inherent in more traditional dramatic forms. Even the astute Keyssar laments that certain predominantly realistic plays by women are not subversive enough in their dramaturgy.11 Such criticism often implies, when it does not state outright, that women's plays which are traditionally constructed and produced cannot be feminist and have somehow failed—especially if they are commercially successful.

This undervaluing of conventional dramatic presentation raises a host of questions, two of which I plan to explore here. First, cannot the more traditional dramatic forms also support feminist values by depicting the entrapment of female characters in an unyielding, traditional society? Second, are the more realistic plays (that is, plays which do not depend on collective scripting, avant-garde production, and non-linear action) necessarily as conventional as they appear? For while it is clear that experimental feminist theatres have opened up new and exciting possibilities for the stage, traditional dramatic form is a flexible instrument that can also respond to feminist concerns.

Both Marsha Norman in Getting Out and Wendy Kesselman in My Sister in This House demonstrate the potential power of formal realism when appropriated for feminist purposes.12 Both plays depend on formal realism and the picture-frame stage for their structure, using linearity and realistic detail to suggest the oppression of their female characters. Yet both plays combine this basic realism with experimental techniques (such as a divided protagonist, scenes presented out of sequence, and pantomime) to express the thwarted interior lives of the women they depict.13 By using an imaginative combination of realistic and experimental techniques, these playwrights portray women's condition of being locked into limited social roles and powerfully explore the consequences—both personal and social—of that confinement.

Marsha Norman's Getting Out depicts the twenty-four hours following Arlene Holsclaw's release from a state prison. Although Arlene is legally free as the play begins, she is still surrounded by systems of enclosure. The set, which is divided into two parts, makes this point clear. The central performing area represents a cheap apartment, with conventional (if tawdry) accoutrements—bed, chair, sink, etc.—and the usual imaginary fourth wall. Around this realistic set, however, Norman erects yet another playing area, a catwalk of stairs and prison cells that completely surrounds the apartment. This playing area is both literal and metaphorical: it is used to enact remembered scenes from Arlene's prison days, but it also visually illustrates the restrictions placed on Arlene in the world outside the prison. By constructing a prison-like, interior proscenium arch to parallel the exterior arch of the stage, Norman has visualized in a theatrical context Arlene's continuing imprisonment in limited and limiting social roles.

The metaphor of theatre as prison is extended in the opening speeches. Each of the two Acts begins with prison announcements, broadcast throughout the theatre by an unseen prison official. Because the house lights remain up during these announcements, the audience is included among the prisoners who listen and must comply with the instructions. We cannot sit comfortably in the darkness, watching as outsiders, but must share the prisoners' degrading lack of privacy and individuality.14

The content of the announcements suggests the many subtle ways that Arlene and her fellow inmates are restricted, even beyond the physical confinement represented by the boxed-in set. First the announcer lists a series of prohibitions: no library hours, no walking on the lawn, no using the picnic tables. Prison excludes freedom of choice. The announcer next reports that the prison exercise instructor, Mrs. Fischer, has given birth to a daughter. Her comment that Mrs. Fischer “thanks you for your cards and wants all her girls to know she had an eight-pound baby girl” reflects the prevailing paternalistic attitude towards the inmates, who are here equated linguistically with an infant. Then, after announcing three times that Frances Mills has a visitor, the broadcaster corrects herself: it is Frankie Hill, not Frances Mills, who has a visitor. This slip of the tongue reveals the loss of personal identity that accompanies the prisoners' loss of freedom.

Arlene's life outside the prison (at least, on this first day) remains uncomfortably like the life inside suggested by these announcements. When she wants to remove the burglar-proof bars that line her apartment window, she is told that “The landlord owns the building. You gotta do what he says or he'll throw you out …” (p. 9). When Carl, her former pimp, arrives to entice her back to work for him, he scoffs at her plan to work at a legitimate job and spend her free time playing cards and watching television; “Sounds just like the dayroom in the fucking joint,” he remarks (p. 55). And when her neighbor Ruby, also a former prisoner, explains that life as a dishwasher is at least life outside a prison, Arlene retorts:

Outside? Honey, I'll either be in this apartment or inside some kitchen sweatin over the sink. Outside's where you get to do what you want, not where you gotta do some shit job jus so's you can eat worse than you did in prison.

(p. 59)

It is no wonder that Arlene feels as trapped outside a prison as she did inside one: her apartment and her limited opportunities represent continued imprisonment, reflected visually in Norman's doubled proscenium arch.15

The chronological plot, familiar characters, and conventional dialogue of Arlene's day of release—all devices of traditional stage realism—also underscore her ongoing confinement. Each visitor to her apartment reminds Arlene of her history of oppression and of the present restrictions to her behavior. Benny, a former prison guard who has driven Arlene home, attempts to rape her, thereby recapitulating both her father's sexual abuse and the degrading voyeurism of the prison guards, who installed a two-way mirror in the inmates' shower. Carl, who accurately assesses Arlene's inability to earn a decent wage legally (“You come with me and you'll have money,” he tells her. “You stay here, you won't have shit” [p. 55]) recalls the economic powerlessness that first drove Arlene to crime. Her mother, appearing ostensibly to help Arlene get settled in her apartment, refuses to invite her home for Sunday dinner. Her explanation—“I still got two kids at home. Don't want no bad example” (p. 23)—illustrates clearly Arlene's rejection by her family and by traditional society at large. Just as the set emphasizes Arlene's continuing confinement, so the linear chain of the day's events suggests that her options are limited and that she will be forever imprisoned by others' expectations of her.

Within this realistic set and chronological plot, however, Norman has experimented with dramatic form in order to show Arlene's interior reality and the emotional effects of her lifetime of imprisonments. Most obvious is her creation of a separate, younger Arlene—the wild, incorrigible “Arlie”—who, as John Simon puts it, “rampages” through the prison scenes, in Arlene's memory, and on stage for the audience.16 At the simplest level, Arlie represents Arlene's past. Although Arlie's words and actions are relegated to the prison “surround” or are ignored by the characters who cannot see her in the apartment, she and Arlene both face the same sources of oppression, often suggested in parallel scenes of sexual, economic, or familial exploitation.

Arlie is more than an innovative expository device, however. Since she is played by a separate actor who often occupies the stage in conjunction with the actor playing Arlene, Arlie represents a split in Arlene, a fragmentation of personality that is the result of her oppression—what Rosemary Curb might call “a mirroring of multiple selves in imprisoning cells.”17 Arlie may well “rampage” in Arlene's memory, but Arlene has had to develop a socially acceptable demeanor to escape at least literal incarceration. Arlie's presence on stage illustrates the repercussions for oppressed women of living in a double society, partly inherited from a patriarchal tradition and partly of their own making. By experimenting with this divided protagonist, Norman dramatizes something expressed in feminist criticism:

For women, then, existing in the dominant system of meanings and values that structure society and culture may be a painful, or amusing, double dance, clicking in, clicking out—the divided consciousness.18

Moreover, the achronology of the play, that Arlie's appearances necessarily introduce, mirrors Arlene's memory rather than an externally verifiable sequence of events, moving Arlene to the subject position of the play. She becomes the producer of symbolic expression rather than the mere cultural construct that the play's realistic elements and the other characters demand she be.19 As a result of Arlie's “clicking in,” we understand the past events and external forces that drove Arlene to crime; we see the psychological effects of abuse, restricted opportunities, and imprisonment embodied in Arlene's double consciousness; and we share in Arlene's past and present struggle to maintain some of Arlie's courage while developing a mature, autonomous identity.

By the end of the play Arlene does emerge as a mature character. She is no longer divided; Arlie, who sat center stage in the opening scene of the play, has been banished to the prison catwalk of Arlene's memory, even though the play ends with Arlene (now center stage herself) reminiscing about her younger avatar. Arlene is finally able to accept the conditions of her life and control them when possible, as we see when she firmly rejects both Bennie and Carl. What has brought about this change in Arlene? Getting Out abounds in images of entrapment and offers no real chance for escape. Where has Arlene gathered her new strength?

The answer to this question is twofold. First, Arlene has seen the value of autonomy. Although she recognizes that she will not have extra money, fine friends, or the companionship of her family (even her son has been taken from her), she discovers that, on the “outside,” “when you make your two nickels, you can keep both of em” (p. 59). Second, she learns the importance of female bonding. Despite her initial rejection of her neighbor Ruby's overtures, Arlene comes to value the companionship and sympathy of a woman who, like her, has lived a lifetime of varied imprisonments, and who will not exploit or demean her as every other character in the play attempts to do. As the play ends, Arlene accepts Ruby's supportive friendship. With Ruby's help, Arlene resolves to exercise those few options open to her and make the most of her meager economic opportunities.

It is true, as Keyssar has pointed out, that a realistically constructed play can offer no solution or alternative to class- and gender-based hierarchies. Getting Out illustrates, however, that a flexible realism can depict the values encoded and disseminated by a patriarchal culture, assess the consequences of oppression by powerful cultural agents, and simultaneously support the alternative values—such as autonomy and female community—that feminism espouses.

Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in This House also uses an innovative combination of formal realism and experimental techniques to depict the harmful restricting of women's lives. In this play, based on the same true story that inspired Jean Genet's The Maids, the central characters are not literally imprisoned (as was Arlene Holsclaw), but the forces that entrap them are just as potent and even more pervasive, and the consequences—for them as well as for their society—are even more disastrous.

The central characters are sisters, Christine and Lea Lutton, who work as servants in the home of Madame Danzard and her daughter Isabelle. The four women could live together in harmony, and Kesselman uses a number of parallel scenes to establish the correspondences of taste, habit, and experience between them. Despite their similarities, however, the two sets of women inhabit different parts of the house, and the class distinction thereby preserved (and illustrated in the set) permanently segregates them. Like the set of Getting Out, that of My Sister in This House is a realistic representation of a divided world. One half of the stage depicts the elegant sitting/dining room of the Danzards; the other half, the kitchen where the Luttons work. Separating the two worlds is a staircase leading up to the tiny, unheated bedroom that Christine and Lea share. While their catwalk cell may not have the bars that Arlene's did, Christine and Lea are nonetheless imprisoned within its confines.

The basic plot, too, shares the fundamental realism of Getting Out. It comprises a linear sequence of causal events that lead inexorably to conflict between the two sets of characters, climax in the Luttons' murdering the Danzards, and resolution in Christine's death sentence and Lea's term in prison, where, metaphorically at least, she has always been.

Within this realistic set and plot movement Kesselman, like Norman, has experimented widely. In contrast to Norman's innovative techniques, however, which primarily illustrate the psychological effects of prisons and traps on Arlene, Kesselman's theatrical devices and deviations from realism reiterate the restrictions of gender and class under which the Lutton sisters suffer, and predict their ultimate inability to escape confinement. For although Christine and Lea, like Arlene and Ruby, create a shared life (in their lesbian relationship) and devise moments of autonomy (such as wearing an inappropriate pink sweater while working or having their picture taken by an expensive photographer), their day of release will never come.

Kesselman uses a number of visual symbols to suggest the Luttons' hopeless condition and to predict their inevitable rebellion. The pink sweater mentioned above, the lacy undergarments Christine sews for Lea, and Madame Danzard's white glove (used to detect undusted spots) are obvious examples. The most potent of these significant props, however, is the blanket that the Luttons' mother crocheted for the infant Lea. Maman, like Arlene's mother, is implicated in her daughters' oppression: she confined Christine in a dreaded local convent when she was a young child, despite the girl's repeated attempts to escape; she denied Christine her wish, years later, to remain at the convent and become a nun; and she put both girls to work as domestics as soon as they could earn money for her. At the beginning of the play, Maman's crocheted blanket functions as a security blanket for Lea, who is homesick, and as a source of resentment for Christine, who has never forgiven Maman for undermining all her personal choices and taking all her hard-earned money. After they break off relations with Maman, however, the sisters unravel the blanket, symbolically unravelling their ties to their evidently greedy and manipulative mother. Nonetheless, escape is still impossible. As the stage directions reveal:

As the blanket unravels faster and faster, they run around the room. They are constricted by the confines of the narrow room. They wind the wool around the bed, under the sink. They wind it around each other.

(p. 26)

Christine and Lea may feel that they have escaped their mother's domination, but the room in which she has placed them and the wool from her blanket keep them just as tightly locked in place as Maman herself ever did.

The most interesting of Kesselman's theatrical innovations is her extensive use of silence. Locked within the separate halves of the divided world they inhabit, the Luttons and Danzards never speak to each other until the final, climactic scene, the confrontation that leads to rage and murder. Their conversations remain strictly intrafamilial, alternating or even overlapping from within their separate realms. During the few scenes in which members of both families are on stage together (and not on opposite sides of the staircase), the Luttons always remain silent. Some scenes are therefore enacted entirely in pantomime, as Lea is silently ordered to pick up the seed pearls dropped by Isabelle, or Madame's dusty white glove speaks eloquently to the Luttons of their tiny domestic failures.

These scenes of total silence illustrate dramatically the inability of the two families to communicate with each other. The characters never know of the similarities among themselves (although Isabelle and Lea, both younger and less rigid than Madame and Christine, do silently share chocolates and hairbrushing, perhaps imagining the possibility of friendship). But the Danzards and the Luttons are in different social positions and do not, after all, share the same condition of voicelessness, as Kesselman dramatizes powerfully in scene 13. In this scene Madame and Isabelle direct Christine in altering Isabelle's dress without ever speaking to either servant. Although Christine continues to make the required adjustments throughout the scene, “Never, during any point in the scene, is a word addressed to Christine or Lea” (p. 47). In fact, Madame Danzard refers to the silent Christine as “she,” even in her presence, asserting firmly that the dress will be ready on Friday because “She hardly has anything to do” (p. 47). Despite Madame's repeated criticism of Christine's skillful alterations, the Lutton sisters must remain silent under her instructions, waiting until they are alone together to complain of Madame's increasing injustice. Their inability to speak in Madame's presence signifies their powerlessness in a world inexorably divided, and their frustration with their condition predicts the violence that will erupt when the women finally confront each other. For voiceless women imprisoned by an unjust society, antisocial actions become inevitable.

That the ability to speak is equated with power in this play is made quite clear by the two scenes enacted in front of the proscenium arch, outside the Danzards' prison-house: scene 9, in which the Luttons have their picture taken by a photographer, and scene 16, in which they are sentenced for the murders of the Danzards. Although they are outside the divided house in these scenes, the Luttons are still controlled by powerful social forces, represented by the disembodied male voices of the photographer, the medical examiner, and the judge. Although these male characters are never seen, their very voices restrict, define, and finally determine the fates of Christine and Lea.

This power of speech to define and control is only hinted at by the photographer, to whom the sisters, dressed alike, seem to be identical twins, as lacking in individuality as the inmates of the prison where Arlene was incarcerated (and, in fact, the male voice-overs in this play function similarly to the voice-over prison announcements with which Getting Out begins). By the end of the play the sisters, like Arlene, are literally imprisoned, and although the judge orders them to explain the murders, to speak in their own defense, the Luttons have learned well that to speak is futile in a world where their voices will never be heard. Christine's final speech is a cry to see her sister—a request which is, of course, denied. The play ends with the sisters standing “as if framed in a photograph,” that is, pictured as society has mandated they appear: silent.

Kesselman, however, has shown us another view of the Lutton sisters. By dramatizing the inescapable condition of servitude and oppression under which Christine and Lea suffered, Kesselman engages our sympathy for them, making their eventual murder of the Danzards even more appalling. The voice of the medical examiner describes the scene of the crime in “a flat, anonymous voice”:

… a single eye was found, intact, complete with the optic nerve. The eye had been torn out without the aid of an instrument. … On the ground were fragments of bone and teeth. … The walls and doors were covered with splashes of blood reaching a height of seven feet.

(p. 64)

With her innovative combination of realism and experimentation, Kesselman has dramatized the conditions that impelled these murders, making audible throughout the play “that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”20

Getting Out and My Sister in This House both demonstrate that a modified realism can be an appropriate and powerful vehicle for staging feminist issues. While traditional theatre still depends to a lamentable extent on male-dominated hierarchical structures for production and funding, the proscenium stage offers playwrights built-in opportunities for dramatizing the traditional systems of enclosure that restrict women. Michelene Wandor, defending the realism of her own feminist plays, has explained that “artistic movements which seek to represent the experiences of oppressed groups reach initially for a realistic and immediately recognizable clarity.”21 Perhaps this appropriation of the devices of realism will turn out to be only a small step in the history of feminist drama, but it is a step that should not be overlooked or undervalued. Depicting what is can help create what should be.

In fact, the variety of available theatrical forms is one of the strengths of the contemporary theatre, and feminists can and should take advantage of this variety. Eve Merriam recognized this fact when she described the generation of women playwrights that emerged with her in the 1960s and 70s; she said, “First you had to write an Arthur Miller play, then you had to write an absurd play. Now there is a new freedom—you can write empathetic women characters.”22 To deny women playwrights this freedom, to insist that their plays cannot be considered feminist unless they adhere to a particular ideological stance within feminism or that they take shape in a certain prescribed dramatic form, is to practice essentialism in its most insidious guise; such criticism only locks feminist playwrights into a new set of restrictions when our goal should be to empower them.

Feminist writers and scholars must, of course, continue to study, develop, and encourage their own separate tradition, in theatre as in all else. But an undeviating separatism of dramatic forms can only mean that fewer feminist concerns will be dramatised, fewer audiences will be reached, and feminist playwrights, like the women they often depict, may be left unheard, speaking softly to themselves at the margins of our culture.


  1. Patti P. Gillespie, “Feminist Theatre: A Rhetorical Phenomenon,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 64 (1978) 284-289: 284.

  2. Women in American Theatre, ed. Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins (New York, 1981), pp. 343-45.

  3. Megan Terry, interview with Dinah L. Leavitt, in Women in American Theatre, p. 288.

  4. Karen Malpede, quoted in Elizabeth J. Natalle, Feminist Theatre: A Study in Persuasion (Metuchen, NJ, 1985), p. 41.

  5. Janet Brown, Feminist Drama: Definition and Critical Analysis (Metuchen, NJ, 1979), p. 1.

  6. Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre (New York, 1985). Rosemary Curb shares Keyssar's view that when recognition scenes exist in feminist plays they are qualitatively different from those in traditional, man-centered plays. She says: “Recognition in woman-conscious drama does not unmask a personal flaw for which the individual character must make social restitution through personal suffering. Rather the necrophilia of patriarchy is unmasked.” See Rosemary K. Curb, “Re/cognition, Re/presentation, Re/creation in Woman-Conscious Drama: The Seer, The Seen, The Scene, The Obscene,” Theatre Journal, 37 (1985), 302-316: 308.

  7. Honor Moore, “Woman Alone, Women Together,” in Women in American Theatre, p. 185. Moore herself defines feminist drama more broadly than most students of feminist theatre troupes.

  8. See, for example, Phyllis Mael, “A Rainbow of Voices,” in Women in American Theatre, pp. 320-24; Karen Malpede, “Introduction” to Women in Theatre: Compassion and Hope (New York, 1983); Sylvia Virginia Horning Zastrow, “The Structure of Selected Plays By American Women Playwrights: 1920-1970,” unpublished dissertation, Northwestern University, 1975.

  9. See Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York, 1985), pp. 261-265; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “For the Etruscans,” in The New Feminist Criticism, pp. 271-91, and her Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington, 1985), esp. p. 33; and Judith Kegan Gardiner, “Gender, Values, and Lessing's Cats,” in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed. Shari Benstock (Bloomington, 1987), pp. 110-123.

  10. For a helpful recent attempt to define a woman's dramatic tradition, see Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York, 1988), esp. Chapters 1 and 2.

  11. See especially her Chapter 7, “Success and Its Limits.”

  12. Marsha Norman, Getting Out (New York, 1978); Wendy Kesselman, My Sister in This House (New York, 1982). References to the plays will be cited in the text by page number.

  13. In this way, they combine the two varieties of “woman-centered drama” that Rosemary Curb calls “Re/cognition” and “Re/presentation.”

  14. On this point I obviously disagree with Keyssar, who sees Norman's play as voyeuristic; see her Chapter 7.

    See also Timothy Murray, “Patriarchal Panopticism, or The Seduction of a Bad Joke: Getting Out in Theory,” Theatre Journal, 35 (1983), 376-88. Murray discusses in some detail the ways that the play encourages audience complicity with Arlie's behavior and values.

  15. Timothy Murray also discusses the implications of the prison for the theatricality of the play, concluding that “getting out” is not much different from “being in.”

  16. John Simon, Review of Getting Out, “Theater Chronicle: Kopit, Norman, and Shepard,” Hudson Review, 32 (1979) 77-88: 84.

  17. Curb, 308. Curb's comment does not explicitly refer to Norman's play but to one version of what she calls “woman-centered drama.”

  18. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “For the Etruscans,” in New Feminist Criticism, p. 285.

  19. This discussion of feminist dramatic semiotics is indebted to Case, pp. 115-22.

  20. George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York, 1977), p. 135.

  21. Michelene Wandor, “Introduction” to Strike While the Iron Is Hot (London, 1980), p. 11.

  22. Eve Merriam, quoted in The New Women's Theatre, ed. Honor Moore (New York, 1977), pp. xxix-xxx.

Further Reading

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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 mother-daughter relationship and the struggle for autonomy in 'night, Mother.

Cline, Gretchen. “The Impossibility of Getting Out: The Psychopolitics of the Family in Marsha Norman's Getting Out.” In Marsha Norman: A Casebook, edited by Linda Ginter Brown, pp. 3-25. New York, N.Y.: Garland, 1996.

Cline posits that Getting Out explores the complex psychological process of female socialization within a male-dominated society.

Cooperman, Robert. “‘I Don't Know What's Going to Happen in the Morning’: Visions of the Past, Present, and Future in The Holdup.” In Marsha Norman: A Casebook, edited by Linda Ginter Brown, pp. 95-107. New York, N.Y.: Garland, 1996.

Cooperman argues that The Holdup illustrates the impact of history and national mythology in shaping both the individual and the nation.

Simon, John. “Southern Comforts.” New York 36, no. 20 (16 June 2003): 102.

Simon assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Last Dance.

Smith, Raynette Halvorsen. “'night, Mother and True West: Mirror Images of Violence and Gender.” In Violence in Drama, edited by James Redmond, pp. 277-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Smith discusses the themes of violence and gender in 'night, Mother and Sam Shepard's True West, observing that both plays utilize violence as an agent of transformation.

Additional coverage of Norman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 41; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 28; Contemporary Southern Writers; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 266; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1984; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 8; Drama for Students, Vol. 2; Feminist Writers; and Literature Resource Center.

Jeanie Forte (essay date March 1989)

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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 convention and inscription of a dominant system of representation, operates to inhibit radicality (e.g. feminism) in service of the ideology which supports and informs its tradition. However, theories concerning realism and narrative must be called to account for the specific reception of a play text, must address historical particularity and, in the terms of feminist criticism, political efficacy. Playwriting, in an intricate and complex interweave with site, history, representation, and audience as well as conventions of realism, narrative, and stage practice, emerges as a crucial arena of exploration for contemporary feminism, providing insights into the politics of writing and the possible basis for a feminist theory of reception.

Recent debate in feminist criticism regarding playwriting has focussed on the question of whether a realist play could not also be a feminist play—for reasons having to do with the relationship between text and reader within a context of ideology. That is, realism (or, to use Catherine Belsey's term, classic realism)1 supports the dominant ideology by constructing the reader as a subject (or more correctly, an “individual”) within that ideology. It poses an apparently objective or distanced viewpoint from which both the narrator and the reader can assess the action and ultimate meaning of the text, a pose which makes the operations of ideology covert, since the illusion is created for the reader that he or she is the source of meaning or understanding, unfettered by structures of culture. Belsey's extended definition of classic realism clarifies this relationship:

Classic realism is characterized by “illusionism”, narrative which leads to “closure”, and a “hierarchy of discourses” which establishes the “truth” of the story. “Illusionism” is, I hope, self-explanatory. The other two defining characteristics of classic realism need some discussion. … Classic realist narrative, as Barthes demonstrates in S/Z, turns on the creation of enigma through the precipitation of disorder which throws into disarray the conventional cultural and signifying systems. Among the commonest sources of disorder at the level of plot … are murder, war, a journey or love. But the story moves inevitably towards closure which is also disclosure, the dissolution of enigma through the re-establishment of order, recognizable as a reinstatement or a development of the order which is understood to have preceded the events of the story itself.2

In light of this definition, it becomes evident that classic realism, always a reinscription of the dominant order, could not be useful for feminists interested in the subversion of a patriarchal social structure. Such an understanding of realism coincides with contemporary analyses of narrative which have emerged primarily from feminist film criticism. Laura Mulvey, in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” asserts that “[s]adism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and an end.”3 Teresa de Lauretis points out the implied reversibility of terms in Mulvey's statement, that “story demands sadism,” sadism thus seen as the causative factor for the movement of narrative.4 Her argument demonstrates the connection between realist narrative and the oppression of women by revealing Oedipal desire as narrative's motivating force. As de Lauretis notes, narrative is governed by an Oedipal logic because it operates within the system of exchange instituted by the incest prohibition, where Woman functions both as a sign (representation) and a value (object) for that exchange—this system now common knowledge among post-structuralists, as derived from Levi-Strauss. De Lauretis further elaborates: woman's role constitutes the fulfillment of the narrative promise (made, in the Freudian model, to the little boy), the reward at the end of the Oedipal journey; a representation which supports the male status of the mythical, culturally-constructed subject. As the reader's subjectivity is constructed through positionalities within narrative, so women are necessarily interpellated as object/objective/obstacle by the Oedipal desire governing narrative: this is its sadism, that narrative repeatedly and necessarily positions women in the oppressed subjectivity (which is not Subject, but Object) of femininity.5

If we take as a given the ideological project, the self-perpetuation of the dominant system, then we can see the place of literature (narrative) in subtly reinforcing the discourse of ideology, and the way in which the apparent unity, coherence and seamlessness of the classic realist text covertly subjects (and positions, in terms of subjectivity) the reader within that ideology. However, if a writer (or let's say a text) aims to reveal and/or subvert the dominant ideology, as a feminist writer/text might, strategies must be found within the realm of discourse, particularly vis à vis narrative, which can operate to deconstruct the imbedded ideology: in other words, which might construct the reading subject differently. In writing practice, then, a refusal to perpetuate the conventions of realism/narrative would presumably not only thwart the illusion of “real” life, but also would function to threaten the patriarchal ideology imbedded in “story”. A subversive text would not provide the detached viewpoint, the illusion of seamlessness, the narrative closure, but instead would open up the negotiation of meaning to contradictions, circularity, multiple viewpoints; for feminists, this would relate particularly to gender, but also to issues of class, race, age, sexuality, and the insistence on an alternative articulation of female subjectivity. Whether or not this subversion would give rise to politicized action on the part of the newly constructed reader is another matter for debate, which will be discussed later.

Within the specific context of playwriting and the theories outlined above, let us consider the operations of a well-known realist text and its relationship to a feminist agenda. In Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, thirty-seven-year-old Jessie informs her mother Thelma that she will kill herself that evening, after having organized the details of her mother's life and her own death. After much argument, during which time the mother attempts to change the daughter's mind, the suicide happens anyway; the mother is left alone on stage, and the audience leaves the theatre, some obviously in tears. Although touted by some critics as a feminist investigation of the hopelessness and degradation of women's lives in patriarchal society,6 the play ultimately reinscribes the dominant ideology in its realist form. It is indubitably a narrative built on enigmas and mysteries which are revealed gradually until the final scene of (dis)closure. It steadfastly maintains that illusion of reader-as-subject who shares with the absent narrator the position of knowingness and ultimate understanding; a coherent, unified text that renders up its pleasure in the satisfaction of catharsis, in the illusion of change without really changing anything. As Brecht noted, “The theatre as we know it [he calls it illusionism] shows the structure of society (represented on stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium).”7 Narrative closure reinstates the pre-existing order after instigating its temporary crisis. In what Roland Barthes would call a highly “readable” text,8 Jessie and her Mother are thus “known” fully; they are consumed characters, and the explanation for Jessie's suicide is perceived not within social relations (ideology) but in individual failure (or worse, as an heroic act, courageously ending a life that was indeed worthless).

In spite of the apparent inevitability of the ideological apparatus of classic realist narrative, can we identify a feminist writing practice that emulates realism but operates as a different discursive strategy, perhaps a pseudo-realism? One such play might be Terry Baum's and Carolyn Meyer's Dos Lesbos. Ostensibly dealing with the lives and struggles of two lesbians, Peg and Gracie, Dos Lesbos has realistic elements, but functions more like a revue, utilizing short sketches, parody, role-playing, songs and musical sound effects to present various aspects of American lesbian experience. Although on the surface it is very funny, there are also deadly serious moments, such as the scene when Peg describes having been spat on, or the scene after a disastrous dinner with Gracie's parents. In this fashion, Dos Lesbos acts as a consciousness-raising play—emulating a practice endemic to feminism in the seventies which emphasized the political implications of everything personal in women's experience. Its ribald humor also endears the audience to the characters, who are then able to communicate some of the not-so-humorous problems for lesbians to a sympathetic audience. More importantly for this discussion, the realistic elements serve to promote enough illusion of “real experience in the real world,” so that the audience can identify (in a manner to which it has been culturally conditioned) with Peg and Gracie as people who are just trying to achieve a measure of happiness—seeking decent jobs, loving relationships, family togetherness, etc. But there is also a sense in which the episodic structure, the songs and the transparency of the text conjure up what classic realism usually renders invisible, which is the society that isn't on stage—in this case, the dominant culture which has excluded lesbians from its texts, its stage practice. An audience is thus implicated, in a heightened consciousness, in Peg and Gracie's oppression, the play motivating the spectators to think about their culture's or their own heterosexism. The text apparently calls for a Brechtian sensibility, since it makes use of the very devices Brecht recommended for achieving critical distance, while simultaneously retaining sufficient “fable” for establishing a moment in history. However, I think there are other forces at play in the text which are crucial from a feminist standpoint, and which move the play beyond Brechtian considerations.

By transparency of the text, I mean that the apparent realist narrative has gaps or holes, both in between and even during individual scenes—the scenes free-float in a cultural condition, making visible the oppressive society in which Peg and Gracie must move when they are not in the scenes. Within the scenes, Gracie's ambivalence about her coming out and her feelings about sex, or Peg's refusal to “kill” her best friend Russell in a Utopian vision even though he is a man, give play to a multiplicity of discourses around and about lesbianism or being lesbian that refuse an authoritative position. Thus, in Barthesian terms, the text is more a “plural” text, wherein “no single discourse is privileged, and no consistent and coherent plot constrains the free play of the discourses.”9 Rather than distancing its readers (following Brecht), the text would draw us in, frustrating the kind of closure or catharsis experienced with 'night, Mother: the fabric of realistic elements have merely provided the framework for a different mode of perception.

In effect, the play masquerades as realism, which is wholly appropriate, since it is a play precisely about masquerade and rejecting masquerade—and, just as Gracie makes the decision to come out in the play, so the play itself begins to emerge from the patterns of classic realism and the ideology imbedded therein, pointing the way toward other discourses, other subjectivities. However, it's also important that it's an incomplete project, as if the text had one foot in and one foot out—Peg says at one point, “It's pretty tedious, this coming out business.” As Barthes notes, there is no such thing as a wholly plural text; but on a continuum of textual readability versus plurality, the terminology enables a crucial distinction between 'night, Mother and Dos Lesbos.

It is also significant that Gracie the writer is the one having difficulty coming out—as Peg notes several times, Gracie wants to turn everything into a story, wants to narrate it—for Gracie, it's painful that life will not bend into a coherent fiction. Similarly, she enjoys their sex best when she can turn it into a poem, and reveals that she still thinks of their relationship within a stereotypical heterosexual model—she can't stand to be possessed by a man, but she loves possessing women. But it is equally significant that the last scene of the play is in bed, the site of sexuality (as Peg says, culture defines homosexuals by who they sleep with), and that it ends with a kiss—Gracie finally physically declares her love relationship with Peg, and the play finally begins coming out, making the sexuality visceral, graphic.

In spite of its identifiable pseudo-realist strategies, it is undoubtedly true that many readers find Dos Lesbos somewhat palatable, even if the content disturbs them, precisely because of its relative readability, its quiescent realism. However, some critics argue that the play, rather than pointing the way out of classic realism, ends up falling backwards into it, thus nullifying its own attempts to demonstrate an authentically different practice, either in terms of sexuality or writing. If feminism is a struggle against oppression, then is it really possible for feminist playwrights to communicate the workings of oppressive ideology within realistic narrative from within? Is the structure so powerful and deeply ingrained that to allow virtually any realistic elements constitutes a capitulation to dominant ideology? If so, then realism must be abandoned altogether in the search for a subversive practice.

Adrienne Kennedy's plays of a Black American woman's struggle for identity in a hostile oppressive culture illustrate some of the problems as well as advantages of a totally non-realistic form. In The Owl Answers, the central character, a young Black woman named She Who Is Clara Passmore Who Is The Virgin Mary Who Is The Bastard Who Is The Owl, encounters other characters of multiple identities who include her Black mother, a Black stepfather Reverend and wife, her real white father who refuses to claim her as his child, Anne Boleyn, a Dead White Father, a White Bird, a Negro Man, Shakespeare, Chaucer and William the Conqueror. She Who Is (or Clara) travels ambiguously among scenes in a New York subway, the Tower of London, a Harlem hotel room, St. Peter's Cathedral, and her past, caught in a deadly struggle with herself and her culture. In this play of shifting subjectivities, a “terrain in flux,”10 there is no possibility of a fixed, stable identity, either for She or the reader; all the same, we follow the heroine (non-heroine, non-character) as she moves from place to place, person to person, in an effort to locate her identity. Note that the Owl traditionally asks “Who,” that is, a question of identity; and Clara is the Owl, seeking to discover who she is (She who is). The owl is also a solitary bird, a solo traveler, a lonely sound in the forest.11

Clara's attempt to construct her subjectivity is made doubly difficult by the fact that she is both female and black; both gender and race conspiring against her in a culture dominated by her opposites. She is powerless to alter these parameters of her search, and doomed to feel estranged from a heritage that she has been taught to desire but that she is prevented from claiming. Heritage in patriarchy is determined by lines of paternity,12 but Clara is only a bastard, just “the daughter of somebody who cooked for me.” The play conflates the death of her white father in Georgia with her dead father in London; to attend her white father's funeral would be to claim her white heritage, the one which she traces back to England in the literary and historical heritage of Shakespeare, Chaucer et al, but they know it is not her heritage and keep her from it, locking her up; ironically, they lock her up in the Tower of London, symbolically trapping her inside the very heritage which she desires but cannot have.

The Negro heritage described by the play also fails Clara in her search for subjectivity—inhabited as it is by frustrated and abused women who commit suicide, Negro men who are only interested in colonizing her body for their own desire, and a Reverend who is forever reading the Bible (symbol of another colonizing force—she identifies with the Virgin Mary who is indelibly white, her pleas to a white God are laughed at or ignored; religion cannot cure her, it rather enforces her bastard position). For Clara, the Negro world is the urban tawdriness and sub-ground hell of the subway, site of shameful seductions, where she is haunted by her desired white heritage, but from which there is no escape. As Herbert Blau notes, Kennedy's use of the term Negro is “archaic,” or “regressive,” as if the revolutions of the fifties and sixties (in language and ideology) never happened: “her experience is irredeemably Negro experience, the desire for assimilation.13 The entire play takes place within the psychic realm of the subway car as a recurrent symbol of the failed Black American experience. There is no escape from her blackness, her Mary-ness (as the bastard-adopted daughter of the Reverend and as the retrograde Virgin), even though she sees herself as Clara, who would Pass-more (Clara's adoptive surname is Passmore). Her face is described as pale, but she repeatedly opens her dress to reveal a blacker body—that is, her essential blackness, which is also culturally determined.14 She screams at her Dead Father and Mother, “You must know how it is to be filled with yearning.” At which they laugh.

At another point, She Who Is says she wants “love or something,” but doesn't know where it is to come from. The Mother asks, “Is it to come from out there?” poignantly implying that it can't; that Clara must find it within, must construct her love of self herself, handicapped by her subject position. Any physical love constitutes rape, since none of it expresses her desire to be “loved by her father,” that is, to have a heritage. She has in effect been doubly raped, by the Negro male and the White male, both of whom subjugate her desire to their own.

In Clara's case, the Oedipal narrative is absolutely oppressive, in that she is locked outside of it and within it, by virtue of her race/gender double-bind. The play's ambiguity and near incomprehensibility articulate the impossibility of identification with a narrative position, least of all one which might provide closure, or the fiction of a coherent self. Clara—who is not one character, or person, or subjectivity—instead traverses narrative, zig-zagging across various systems of signification, seeking herself in the gaps, the spaces of unnarrated silence wherein her persistently elusive subjectivity might be found.

On the Barthesian continuum, Kennedy's work is as “plural” as it gets—and, on the basis of the narrative theories promulgated earlier, would qualify as the most political of the three texts used here for illustration, from a feminist standpoint. But the question remains whether or not such texts ultimately make the reader aware of the operations of ideology; in other words, does the text implicate classic realist structure in the workings of an oppressive culture, by frustrating the audience's expectations vis à vis narrative? And to the degree which it does that, is it then a political text? Or, approaching the question of political viability from another angle, is it sufficiently political to offer an alternative to the complicity of dominant ideology and text found in classic realism and its Oedipal narrative? Can we assume solely on the basis of an intra-textual reading that a realist text will never engender a political response on the part of some or any readers? These questions illustrate the urgent need for a feminist theory of reception; as Tania Modleski recently noted, to retain its “political edge,” feminist criticism cannot afford to lose sight of the “important stakes of a feminist theory of the reader.”15

Furthermore, the search for a feminist theory of reception is arguably more complicated for drama, because of the numerous factors contributing to the “realization” of the text in performance, the “collaborators” (e.g. director, designers, performers, etc.) in the performance's “conception”, and the precise socio-historical context in which any given performance takes place. Feminist critics may well deem it virtually impossible to generalize any hypothetical response to a text when faced with such overwhelming variations in potential and real specific performed renderings of that same text. In the search for a “theatre-specific” feminist criticism, Elin Diamond has recently put forth an admirable theory of what she has named “gestic criticism,” through a thorough and innovative examination of possible intersections between feminist and Brechtian theories.16 Among many strong points in the article is Diamond's useful elaboration of the Brechtian gest for the feminist performer, particularly in terms of the way that Gestus creates a specific relationship with the spectator. By retaining her own historical subject position separate from the character and using gest to ‘read’ the social attitudes encoded in the play text, the feminist performer enforces an awareness in the spectator of her own temporality.17 “Through a triangular structure of actor/subject—character—spectator,” then, each position is historicized, and, in a refusal of the Oedipal construction of subjectivity, “no one side signifies authority, knowledge, or the law.”18 Promising as this is, Diamond's example is a textual one which assumes a certain stage realization as a feminist gest, which in turn depends upon the (female) spectator's agreement or acknowledgement. As Diamond notes, she is interested in locating those gestic moments which allow for the female spectator's viewing position, rescuing it from the trap of male gaze and perpetual otherness; but the gest seems to depend on “women reading as women,” on a predetermined response between and among women that would either: one, address and affirm their feminist knowledge of societal inequity and oppression; or, two, suddenly in that gestic moment, rattle/disturb their sensibilities sufficiently to politicize their perception. It also depends on the female spectator's recognition of female authorship—as Diamond says, it “would contextualize and reclaim the author.”19 While hinting at a presumed connection between women as women, this perhaps is the strongest move in Diamond's paper, about which more later. But learning that female spectators are in fact in the audience, can we assume that feminism, or even a readiness for feminism, is a condition of their consciousness? And if not, what performative measures are necessary to awaken that consciousness in political terms, and how do we measure it?

Norman's text may not be feminist or political in terms of its writing strategies, or in its naive conception of the self/subjectivity—even in performance, the structure and design elements of 'night, Mother perpetuate narrative closure, and Oedipal constructions of identity. However, as Jill Dolan describes in detail, it has proved problematic for most male critics, apparently because of its thematic focus on Mother/Daughter rather than on the traditional Father/Son.20 Especially on the occasion of its Pulitzer award, much debate was devoted to whether or not 'night, Mother met canonic measures of greatness, particularly that of “universality.” Jenny Spencer, while not claiming feminism for the play, observes that women audience members apparently experience 'night, Mother differently from men; that Norman's tragic vision of the problems of female identity proves cathartic for women, but not for men—men may sympathize, but not identify in the same way.21 While this observation bolsters the arguments that the play does not achieve “universality,” it also hints at another level of political function. As Modleski warns, feminist critics should not underestimate “the most crucial factor in men's traditional disregard and contempt for women's writings and women's modes of existence: the reality of male power.”22 This “fact of power” accounts for much of the lack of appreciation of women's texts—“until there is an appreciable change in the power structure, it is unlikely that women's fictional accounts of their lives in ‘the lying-in room, the parlor, the nursery, the kitchen, the laundry will have the force to induce masculine jouissance.”23 In this regard, 'night, Mother may be perceived as a feminist text, in that it challenges on some material level the reality of male power. Quite apart from its critical reception in the theatrical press, now that its Pulitzer-Prize status guarantees inclusion in classroom anthologies, the text often becomes a basic rallying point for female students who want to argue for the right to discuss women and women's experiences, presumably in a way they have not found possible or allowed elsewhere. Its readability, which thus grants it a certain provisional status within the dramatic canon, which would presumably reinscribe dominant ideology, is thus implicated in another, political operation which serves to undermine the power structure in a material way. While no gestic moments present themselves,24 the play (and the context of its reception) functions for many women as a kind of old Ms. “click,” an instant of immediate raised consciousness. Admittedly, not all female viewers of this play have the same response: I myself felt primarily anger at the play's limited and insular portrait of female (im)possibility, a perception shared by Dolan in her earlier, incisive review.25 But to the extent that any women might conceive their experience of the play in political terms, and that so many men perceive it as a threat, a feminist theory of reception must re-evaluate the work's impact as a feminist text.

By comparison, Dos Lesbos may depend entirely upon the performance, considering its audience, place of performance, and the performers. The original production was performed by the playwrights for a predominantly lesbian, all-woman audience. The butch-femme relationship of the performers, informing the character portrayals in an inherently gestic mode, operated to parodize both heterosexual pairings of the dominant culture and lesbian stereotypes as well, becoming far less realistic than in the reading. (There is nothing in the text to suggest a butch-femme component of the performance.) When performed for a predominantly heterosexual audience with more “straight”-forward acting, the characters tend to be perceived more within the framework of classic realism, and the performance text must rely on content rather than form to promote a politicized reception. Whether or not it functions for the heterosexual audience as a political instrument, indelibly altering their perceptions of lesbians, is un-measurable; as Dolan notes, “selling a lesbian text to mainstream spectators seems incongruous, but in the best of all possible worlds those spectators will come away from the performance thinking differently about their sexuality and gender assumptions.”26 In the case of Dos Lesbos, its incipient realism holds both promise and threat—the promise that it might indeed reach a more mainstream audience, but therein lies its threat of assimilation: Dolan says, “perhaps the context will prevail, and … obscure the meaning of what they see.”27 However, this concern raises the question of the articulation of subjectivity—is it possible, in a culture structured by compulsory heterosexuality, for the lesbian subject to be thoroughly assimilated? Dolan so eloquently argues the lesbian's special position in relation to representation, which, in terms of identity, must produce a condition of self-consciousness: it is this process by which, de Lauretis says, “one begins to know that and how the personal is political, that and how the subject is specifically and materially en-gendered in its social conditions and possibilities of existence.”28 The lesbian subject on stage in Dos Lesbos would therefore be radical in any venue—sustaining a tension between the personal and the political that refutes a coherent, unitary conception of identity and recasts it in a material, political context.

The crucial matter of authorship again presents itself—which seems regressive when trying to theorize reception, but not so … For feminism, the author can't be dead. Nancy Miller argues that the postmodernist obituary for the author “does not necessarily work for women and prematurely forecloses the question of identity for them.”29 The female subject, already historically in a different relation to Self than men, “decentred, ‘disoriginated,’ deinstitutionalized, etc.,” stands in a qualitatively different relationship to authorship and questions of authority.30 As Diamond notes, the “erasure from history” for women dramatists “has been so nearly complete,”31 that issues of authority in representation—who speaks about whom—may indeed figure largely in reception of a text. In the dialogue between spectator and performance text that feminism hopes to turn into a dialectic, the intensity of the relationship between writer and text—the personal connection, if you will—emerges as a crucial point of context. In the theatre, this would of necessity extend to the interpreters of the text, who must somehow share in the authentic exploration of female subjectivity. This is not to reinstate “author's intent” as a guiding principle of production; rather, it connotes for feminist theatre practice what I have been discussing for feminist theatre writing—an engagement with the issues and problems inherent in the commitment to a political agenda. As Bonnie Zimmerman notes in reference to an essay on images of the lesbian, “there is an important dialectic between how the lesbian articulates herself and how she is articulated and objectified by others.”32 Which is to say that context, or the specific terms of a performance and its reception, is the final arbiter of meaning, and its integrity is absolute.

Which brings us, finally, to Kennedy's text, the context of which is limited, under erasure, because it is almost never produced. As an unreadable text, it is only read, usually generating mass confusion and a loss-of-narrative despair among first-time readers. In this regard, it is a perfect teaching tool for discussing the problems of articulating subjectivity in relation to race and gender, as well as introducing contemporary notions of narrative from a feminist viewpoint. The reader is forced into an experience, albeit temporary, of Clara's confusion, and must attempt to negotiate, with her, an oppressive cultural terrain—in order to “make sense” of the play, she or he tries to construct a narrative, and the final glaring impossibility of that project foregrounds Clara's frustration—in fact, her “non-existence”.

But if the play is never performed, because of its difficulty, is it simply due to a repressive culture, hostile to Blacks and women as well as non-realist theatre? Or does the play, in its intense anti-realism, defeat its own, apparently subversive, agenda? Actually, I believe the play would become more “readable” in performance: Clara's embodiment and the realization of the production elements would lend signifying power to Kennedy's thoroughly visual images. Performance, operating in more than just the linguistic signifying system, would make Clara's plight felt viscerally, but would also provide visual connections for the images in a more comprehensible pattern. Reception of the performance text thus might outstrip the political impact of the dramatic text, allowing for a higher degree of visual readability. Unfortunately, Kennedy's text, like Clara, survives only marginally, in the gaps of Western theatre's master narrative.

I am not arguing that feminist playwrights should only write realism in order to be produced; rather, that the challenge for feminist dramatic criticism is one of empowerment, for women writers, performers and reader/spectators. This process must extend to all aspects of context within a cultural specificity. If we agree that the relationship to narrative in writing is a complex one of crucial political implications, then it is equally imperative to contextualize that relationship, to understand its questions for performance practice and observe its specific reception. Not an easy task, this imperative draws us again to a difficulty of long standing for feminism, that of defining (or not defining) the differentiated viewing subject, a definition whose nature, I feel, lies in the problematics of female subjectivity. Is it indeed premature (or better yet, wholly inappropriate) for feminists to assume a postmodernist version of subjectivity (and subsequently, the death of the author)? Modleski states that “feminists at this historical moment need to insist on the importance of real women as interpreters,”33 which includes author—actor—spectator. We thus cannot rely on theories of narrative, or of literary structures such as classic realism, which are purely textual, but must comprehend subjectivity and practice (writing and performance) within material conditions of power.


  1. Catherine Belsey, “Constructing the Subject, Deconstructing the Text,” Feminist Criticism & Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature & Culture, eds. Judith L. Newton and Deborah S. Rosenfelt (London, 1985).

  2. Belsey, p. 53.

  3. Screen, 16 (1975), 6-18: 14.

  4. See Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington, 1984).

  5. De Lauretis, Alice Doesn't, pp. 103-157.

  6. See, for example, Trudy Scott's review in Women & Performance, 1 (1983), 78.

  7. Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York, 1964), p. 189.

  8. Belsey, p. 55

  9. Ibid.

  10. See Herbert Blau, “The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy,” Modern Drama, 27 (1984), 520-539.

  11. In an interesting sidenote, Lilith—the Great Mother, who was suppressed and supplanted by the Great Father by the Hebrew tribes—was edited out of the Old Testament except for a passing reference to her as a screech owl in Isaiah (34:14). With her elimination from inscribed religion, the creative power of the Mother was effectively erased from historical memory. It is thus deeply ironic that Clara's totem is the owl—the last trace of the lost mother, the vestigial possibility of a matrilineal heritage. I am indebted to Katharine C. Gentile, graduate student at the University of Oregon, for this information.

  12. For a superb discussion of the justification of patrilineal heritage within the Oresteia, see Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York, 1988), Chapter One, “Traditional History: A Feminist Deconstruction.” Most pointedly, Athena exonerates Orestes from matricide with the explanation that the parent is “he who mounts,” thus relegating the mother to the position of nurse, a mere vehicle for birth. Athena is herself a motherless child, having been born from Zeus's forehead; as Case notes, how ironic indeed that she represents the birth of democracy.

  13. Blau, 531-532.

  14. The image of pale skin/black body also conjures the figure of the “buckra,” typically a mixed-blood person whose mother was Black and whose father was of European heritage. Clara is in one sense the original Buckra, the indelible evidence of cultural abandonment—she is the site of unassimilated difference; too light for one culture, too dark for the other, restrained from claiming her father's European heritage while her mother (uprooted from her own African heritage, divested of her past) represents no heritage at all. Hortense Spillers elaborates the significance of the buckra figure for Black American women's writing in a recent paper, “The Habit of Pathos,” delivered May, 1988, in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.

  15. Tania Modleski, “Feminism and the Power of Interpretation: Some Critical Readings,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington, 1986), p. 121.

  16. Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” The Drama Review, 32 (1988), 82-94.

  17. Diamond, 90.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, 1988), pp. 27-34.

  21. Jenny S. Spencer, “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-drama of Female Identity,” Modern Drama, 30 (1987), 364-375.

  22. Modleski, p. 123.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Although arguably, the play might be rife with such moments if subjected to a “gestic” analysis and performance.

  25. See Jill Dolan, “'night, Mother: Review,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 1 (1983), 78-79.

  26. Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, p. 120.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Teresa de Lauretis, “Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms and Contexts,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, p. 9.

  29. Nancy K. Miller, “Changing the Subject: Authorship, Writing, and the Reader,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, pp. 102-120.

  30. Miller, p. 106.

  31. Diamond, p. 90.

  32. Bonnie Zimmerman, “What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism,” Feminist Studies, 7 (1981), 459-475: 464.

  33. Modleski, p. 136.

Louis K. Greiff (essay date July 1989)

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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 circumstances of their lives. Both women are grown daughters who have returned to their mothers' homes, or who have never left, because of a significant physical handicap. Both have mothers, in Thelma Cates and Amanda Wingfield, all too alike in their capacity for manipulative love, compassionate dishonesty, and a stroke of matchmaking when all else fails. Despite the matchmaking, both daughters experience a similar absence of men or, more exactly, a desertion and disappearance of sons, lovers, fathers, and brothers alike. Although Tom Wingfield seems to be a more interesting brother than Dawson Cates, neither proves to be of much help to his family. One has departed, and the other is readying to depart, both more or less indifferent to their sisters' profound needs. As with brothers, so too with husbands, actual and potential. This parallel between Jessie and Laura is touching and ironic since Cecil and Jim O'Connor are indeed “the right men.” Thelma's and Amanda's matchmaking has been all too effective in providing (if not holding) the men their daughters really love.

The two nameless fathers in 'night, Mother and The Glass Menagerie present a more complex parallel than any of the other missing males. Jessie's father is dead, while Laura's has deserted the family, yet both absent men are strong forces in the plays, so as to verge on becoming characters in their own right. In The Glass Menagerie, the Wingfield father is tangibly commemorated by a series of symbolic objects: a larger-than-life portrait magically capable of illumination, a postcard containing only the words “Hello—Goodbye,” and the abandoned Victrola records that Laura, to her mother's displeasure, plays and plays again (Williams 23, 34). Through such symbols, this invisible father comes to represent the spirit's desire for freedom and escape—imagination's urge to say “Hello—Goodbye” to the compromises and limitations of daily life. When Tom Wingfield asks, rhetorically, “who in hell ever got himself out of … [a coffin] without removing one nail?” his father's photograph lights up (Williams 45). Tom and Laura have surely inherited this man's spiritual essence in that, for better or worse, they perpetuate his escapism, his discomfort with the ordinary, his hunger for something it does not provide.

It would be all-too-easy, and misleading, to portray the Cates father as this lively man's opposite number—a figure disappearing into his coffin rather than out of it. While this, of course, is literally true, the two disappearances amount to very much the same avoidance of and protest against life's inadequacies. What Thelma Cates says of her daughter Jessie also applies to her deceased husband—he has “already gone,” in spirit, well before his physical death completes his disappearance (Norman 78). In life a kind of red-neck Bartleby, he seems to personify not an opposite principle but a negative expression of the Wingfield need for undefined alternatives. He prefers not to be married to a woman whose lack of imagination has disappointed him profoundly. He prefers not to fish when he goes fishing but, instead, to escape into a state of peaceful and mysterious contemplation. While not overtly suicidal like Jessie, he finally prefers not to live, and not to speak either—at his last opportunity, ever, to do so.

Laura Wingfield's and Jessie Cates's families and life-situations are, indeed, alike. The parallel suggests a creative kinship between Tennessee Williams and Marsha Norman, who has publicly expressed her high regard for the earlier playwright and special affinity for his work.1 More important for reader and audience, the parallel provides a way of seeing the newer, less familiar, play in light of one that is established and known. To the point of this essay, it allows for exploration of the intricate sisterhood between Laura and Jessie, a relationship founded on their link with the absent father and response to the example his invisible spirit provides.

Laura and Jessie both prove to be faithful daughters who keep alive their fathers' memory. Although Laura never speaks of her father, she pays him silent yet meaningful tribute through a ritual of emulation. The Victrola records which give background music to Laura's fragile and beautiful world are her father's tangible legacy. That world itself affords the daughter a limited and temporary version of the father's disappearance into “long distances” (Williams 23). Within the squalid St. Louis apartment, it becomes an imaginative enclave where unicorns and virgins can sport for a time, and where the idealized image of Jim O'Connor, secretly nicknamed “Freckles,” can be celebrated and recelebrated in fantasy (Williams 104). For Laura this world provides an essential sanctuary, protecting her against reality's threat and allowing her, albeit briefly, to survive.

Jessie Cates is far more consciously and verbally involved with her father's memory than Laura, yet somehow she seems to lack any similar gift of protection from him or any similar capacity to re-enact his escape. Seen from this perspective, Jessie emerges as a version of Laura without imaginative coloration, thus exposed and vulnerable to the blows of the world. Far more vigorously than Laura, Jessie has attempted life grounded in reality and unmodified by dreams. Here she encountered only setback after ugly setback—a son gone bad, a husband simply gone, an illness kept under control at best. With no unicorns to guard her, with no access to Laura's alternative world, what wonder at the intensity of her despair?

Jessie Cates's dreamless vulnerability, if it can be this harshly described, is puzzling since she has been so close to her father, a man who retreated into himself most effectively as a means of escaping the unpleasant. We are given no hint that Laura Wingfield and her father were in any way as close, yet she appears to be his spiritual disciple. Jessie, according to her mother, loved her father “enough for both of us … followed him around … knew what he was thinking … had those quiet little conversations after supper every night,” all to no apparent effect on this heroine's capacity to dream and, thereby, to elude reality (Norman 46-47).

It is even possible to suggest that before his death Jessie's father sought for subtle ways to invite her into his world of silence and slow time—to awaken the dreamer in her, if an illogical metaphor may be allowed. In a gesture suggesting Kenneth Burke's idea of symbolic action, he repeatedly offered her the harvest of his fishing trips: not literal and ordinary fish, but unreal creatures crafted from pipe-cleaners—a menagerie of Jessie's own if only she were willing to accept it (Burke 58). Unfortunately, her reaction to these small but crucial offerings was to be pleased but not, finally, to respond to their intent. Her mother, Thelma, even more literal-minded than Jessie, would have liked nothing better than to throw the pipe-cleaner animals and people away.2

It seems appropriate to ask, at this juncture, whether an exact parallel between Laura Wingfield and Jessie Cates ever emerges. Thus far they appear more like opposite figures, sharing similar experiences and backgrounds but reacting to them with radical difference. While the opposition of Jessie and Laura, as realist and dreamer, controls the plays up to a point, it breaks down, finally, as both heroines experience major shifts in one another's direction. The result of these shifts, however, is not a convergence but, instead, a crossing of destinies—an “hour-glass” figure, as E. M. Forster describes it in Aspects of the Novel (150). Laura and Jessie confirm a complex sisterhood not by ending alike but by remaining opposites through an almost exact exchange of identities. By the close of The Glass Menagerie, Laura has been torn from her fantasy world to become a figure without imaginative protection, much the way Jessie has been throughout most of her life. Jim O'Connor's entrance at first seems to promise the realization of Laura's dreams, yet he ends instead by destroying them. Along with her unicorn, he shatters her idealized and treasured memory of himself as “Freckles” by presenting, in its place, the reality of a mediocre man engaged to someone else. After this disaster, Laura does attempt a return to her father's Victrola records, but it seems certain that her fantasy-world can never be rebuilt. When she blows out her candles, to end the play, the glow of her own imagination is extinguished, and the resulting darkness seems utterly permanent.

Where Laura is wrenched by force into reality, Jessie, on the last day of her life, effects a final and creative escape from its grasp. It might seem invalid, or at least controversial, to argue that Jessie's or anyone's suicide is a “creative” act; yet this must be allowed, I believe, if 'night, Mother and its heroine are to command long-term attention and respect. If not, Jessie falls far short of noble stature, and Marsha Norman's play achieves only pathos over a desperate woman's death.

In what sense, then, does Jessie Cates's suicide suggest imagination and sisterhood to Laura finally confirmed? It might be appropriate here to discuss Jessie's artful orchestration of her own death, although this is not what best reveals her achievement. More to the point, if we recall Jessie's father as the informing figure of imagination, surely her suicide can be understood as a permanent alliance with him in death and also as the deepest possible repetition of his rejection of the world. Capturing Laura's pose at the very last—then immediately perfecting it—Jessie discovers the one way to remain her father's spiritual daughter forever.

In fact, many of the carefully planned and crafted details of Jessie's suicide lead back, like a trail of clues, to her absent father. If she has no other choice, Jessie will use her ex-husband's pistol to take her life. She is certain, however, that the one fitting instrument of her death is “Daddy's gun” (Norman 7). Jessie virtually begins 'night, Mother in search of this weapon, explaining to Thelma that she intends to use it for “Protection” (Norman 9). She means protection from reality and life, a fact which her mother and the audience are not yet in a position to understand. Later in the play, Jessie also tells Thelma that her funeral service should be handled by the same “preacher who did Daddy's” (Norman 80). Perhaps the most intriguing of these clues is a metaphor Jessie uses to describe her imminent suicide and to equate her death, emphatically, with the imaginative essence of her father's life: “I want to hang a big sign around my neck, like Daddy's on the barn. GONE FISHING” (Norman 27).

Jessie's use of metaphor in 'night, Mother is itself a revealing subject, well beyond this single example. Her discourse and thought process have, in the main, been literal and pragmatic. She seems, however, to discover metaphor during the play, in the effort to justify her suicide and explain it as a meaningful human act: “I can't do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better,” she tells her mother, “But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to” (Norman 36). Just before this exchange, Jessie confronts Thelma with a similar and even more powerful figure:

Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it's hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don't get off is it's still fifty blocks from where you're going? Well, I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride fifty more years and get off then, it's the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I've had enough, it's my stop.

(Norman 33)

A less literal and more creative mode of speech is apparently born in Jessie as she closes with her own death. Such a gain in eloquence, however, may seem slight consolation in the face of what is about to happen. The utter negativity of suicide forms a barrier against any easy acceptance of its validity as a human action. The way through this barrier is again to recall that Jessie's father expressed his spirit purely in the negative. Jessie's suicide merely carries his method through to finality and permanence. If Jessie has very lately become her father's disciple, then father and daughter emerge, together, as unconscious yet faithful likenesses of Melville's Bartleby and even of Sophocles' Antigone. Like these literary ancestors, they find death much more attractive than imprisonment or death-in-life. All four choose “nothing,” in its perfect negativity, as far preferable to the shabby “something” the world has offered them.

Perhaps the most telling evidence that Jessie's suicide is a creative victory lies in the heroine's intensity, verging on exuberance, as the play nears its close. Such energy does not contradict the negation within Jessie's act. Her final gunshot, in fact, sounds like the word “No,” shouted loud in answer to Thelma and the world. Yet it is also a triumphant “No,” in that for once an action of Jessie's will not reflect clumsiness and probable failure but, instead, freedom, grace, and even a touch of mystery. Unlike Laura, who is lost from view in the dying of her own light, Jessie makes her final exit hinting at transcendence. Before the gunshot, “She vanishes,” in Marsha Norman's exact words, through a door which the author takes pains to describe as both an “entry” and a way out—also as “the point of all the action” of the play (3). The description of this exit/entrance occurs, appropriately, at the beginning rather than the end. It will serve, now, to close the present commentary and also, I believe, to confirm the strange tribute to the human spirit which lies at the heart of 'night, Mother and of dramatic literature in general:

One of the … bedrooms opens directly onto the hall, and its entry should be visible to everyone in the audience. It should be, in fact, the focal point of the entire set, and the lighting should make it disappear completely at times and draw the entire set into it at others. It is a point of both threat and promise. It is an ordinary door that opens onto absolute nothingness.

(Norman 3)


  1. During an appearance at Alfred University (April 8-9, 1986) Marsha Norman discussed her general sense of debt to Tennessee Williams, although without reference to specific parallels between his plays and her own.

  2. The present discussion of fathers and daughters in 'night, Mother and The Glass Menagerie seems to be approaching the borderline of a male-centered reading of the plays, one which could possibly be termed “patrocentric.” The truth, however, is that the invisible fathers in both plays do seem seriously identified with the informing (and potentially saving) principle of imagination. For a reading of 'night, Mother which provides a maternal counterbalance or antidote to my own stress on the absent father, see Jenny S. Spencer's “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psychodrama of Female Identity,” Modern Drama 30 (1987): 364-375. Spencer suggests that mother and daughter, not father and daughter, provide the informing relationship of the play.

This paper was presented in 1988 at the Comparative Drama Conference at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. New York: Random House, 1957.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955.

Norman, Marsha. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Leslie Kane (essay date 1989)

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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

As a writer, you go in to the theatre to search, and if you do your work you find something. Or at least you identify the path.

Marsha Norman, interviewed by Sherilyn Beard

A playwright of power and perception, Marsha Norman dramatizes the personal crises of ordinary people struggling to have a self and be a self. “What interests me is survival,” says Norman, “what it takes to survive. I find people very compelling who are at that moment of choice. Will they die or go on? If they go on, in what direction or for what purpose?” (Beard, p. 17). With honesty and compassion, Norman places her characters in critical situations where they are forced to make this decision. Be it a convicted murderer in Getting Out or a cancer surgeon in Traveler in the Dark, her characters are compelling, her focus on survival unwavering. The subject of survival and the seriousness, sensitivity, and eloquence of its presentation have prompted critics in America and abroad to draw parallels between this contemporary American playwright and Samuel Beckett. Certainly, her focus on helplessness, autonomy, and isolation, as well as the predominance of waiting and the simplicity of dialogue, setting, and structure, may remind us of the great Irish writer. Images of entrapment and sickness, the use of couples, humor—however bleak—to undercut and underscore pain are additional qualities we have come to associate with Beckett's work.

Tom Moore, the director of 'night, Mother and Traveler in the Dark, sees her greatest affinity, however, to Chekhov, and this analogy can certainly be supported by the realistic detail, progression in time, use of confessions, sonatalike structure, and the awareness of the pain of solitude apparent even in Norman's one-act plays (Moore, p. 2). And comparisons can be drawn between Harold Pinter's and Norman's uses of intrusion, memory, betrayal, and the unreliability of truth. Norman, like Pinter, employs two silences: one silence is the absence of speech with which we are familiar, while the other, a torrent of speech, is a desperate attempt to “keep ourselves to ourselves” (Pinter, p. 25).

Parallels also abound between Norman and Sam Shepard, especially in the raunchiness and explosiveness of dialogue, the sense of the dramatic, the desire to say the unsayable, the portrayal of ambivalent familial relationships, and the use of familiar household items for symbol and stage business. Ironically, the titles of Shepard's plays might well be those of Norman's: Buried Child,Curse of the Starving Class,A Lie of the Mind. And one can identify analogues in the plays of Lanford Wilson, whose Mound Builders,5th of July,Hot'l Baltimore, and Serenading Louie portray ruined expectations, failed relationships, the impact of the past on the present, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of communicating our deepest fears.

But none of these men focuses as sharply as Norman does on mothering nor offers as many portraits of mother and child. Although Norman does not want her drama labeled “women's theater,” Mel Gussow correctly observes that a primary theme of Norman's work, obvious in the title of her first play Getting Out, is the struggle of leave-taking, the severing of blood ties, marriage, and the past (p. 25). “There comes a moment,” explains the playwright, “when we have to release our parents from our expectations.” The ties that bind, stifle, and suffocate are many. From Norman's perspective “one of the problems for daughters and sons is that you come into life with an unpayable debt, the mortgage of all time” (Gussow, p. 39).

Such an emotionally charged comment invites questions about Norman's relationship with her own mother. While silent on that subject, the playwright speaks freely about growing up in a world of isolation and enforced good cheer. She was not permitted to play with other children nor watch television for fear that these influences might corrupt her. Recalling her disciplined fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Norman remembers: “My mother had a very serious code about what you could and could not say. You particularly could not say anything that was in the least angry or that had any conflict in it at all” (Stone, p. 57). Beyond her mother's hearing, however, the future playwright would say: “I'd like to say this.” In her work Norman powerfully and profoundly dramatizes “conversations people have, or would like to have, but don't for fear of what would happen if they did” (Brustein interview, pp. 1, 4). Getting Out,Third and Oak: The Laundromat,'night, Mother, and Traveler in the Dark reflect Norman's continuing concern with mother-child relationships, autonomy, and paths to self. Examined chronologically, these four plays manifest an impressive development of thought and technique.

Pressed by interviewers for influences on her drama, Norman cites several: her oppressive childhood, the plays of Sophocles, Plato's allegory of the cave, and her southern heritage. But Norman is the first to acknowledge that she had no intention of becoming a playwright, having neither role model nor encouragement. She attended a conservative Presbyterian school for women, Agnes Scott College, on a scholarship, majoring in philosophy, still one of her primary interests. While an undergraduate she worked as a volunteer in the pediatric burn unit of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, the first of several intimate exposures to life-and-death situations. Returning to Louisville after graduation, Norman worked with severely disturbed children at Central State Hospital. Both experiences deepened a sensitivity to pain already evident in the high school student who won her first literary prize for an essay entitled “Why Do Good Men Suffer.” Norman began her playwriting career in 1976 when she was commissioned by Jon Jory, producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, to write a play for the theater's festival of new plays. Getting Out, a hard-hitting, shocking drama about a convicted murderer, was a huge success. Subsequently produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Theatre de Lys in New York (where it ran for 237 performances), Getting Out was cited by the American Theatre Critics Association as an outstanding new play, won the George Oppenheimer Award, and earned the playwright the Outer Critics' Award for the best new playwright.

The central figure of Getting Out is in fact two characters: Arlene, a newly rehabilitated born-again Christian, and Arlie, her “unpredictable and incorrigible” younger self (p. 6). Largely based upon a severely disturbed girl at Central State Hospital, one the playwright remembers as “a kid who was so violent and vicious that people would get bruises when she walked in a room,” Arlie is Arlene's memory of herself (Gussow, p. 34). So out of touch are Arlie/Arlene that they appear to be different people. Getting Out gains intensity from a confined setting, a cell-like one-room apartment with bars on the windows, in which Arlene's emotional and physical entrapment are reflected through volatile conversations with her mother, her former pimp, Carl, a retired prison guard, Bennie, and Arlie—all of whom want something from her. The authenticity of the dialogue and the broad range of emotions add credibility to Arlene's struggle to be free of her prison walls and her past.

Destructive by nature, Arlie has been known to pee in her mother's shoes, make bologna and toothpaste sandwiches for her father, and fling a neighbor's pet frogs into the street just to see them go “SPLAT.” Relating this memorable event, Arlie recalls:

Some of em hit cars goin by but most of em jus got squashed, you know, runned over? It was great, seein how far we could throw em, over back of our backs an under our legs an God, it was really fun watchin em fly through the air … all over somebody's car window or somethin. … I never had so much fun in my whole life.

(p. 10)

Much of Arlie's life has been spent in reform and correctional institutions—Lakewood State Prison for forgery and prostitution and Pine Ridge Correctional Institute for the second-degree murder of a cabdriver in conjunction with a filling-station robbery. Her years of imprisonment have made her suspicious and guarded; her first hours of freedom are both tentative and terrifying, hopeful and disheartening. For Norman the issues of past, future, helplessness, and control are inextricably linked to how a person perceives herself. The relationship between mother and daughter is crucial and “predictive of how that daughter will experience herself, not only in relationship to her mother, but in relationship to the world” (Stone, p. 59). At the basis of that relationship is betrayal. Mothers in Norman's early plays provide neither protection nor guidance; they do not nourish with food or love. As early as her first play, Getting Out, the mother figure is an archetypal “bad” mother, cold and rejecting. On the day that Arlene is released from prison, her mother comes ostensibly to welcome her home—there has been no communication for eight years—but Arlene's attempts at reunion and reconciliation are rebuffed:

I didn't know if you'd come.
Ain't I always?
How are you? (Moves as if to hug her. Mother stands still, Arlene backs off.)
Bout the same. (Walking into room.)
I'm glad to see you.

(p. 18)

Neither looking at Arlene nor responding to her comment, the mother dispassionately replies, “You look tired.” Arlene has no doubt about her rejection.

While her mother appears generous by bringing Arlene colored towels, a teapot, and a bedspread to make the apartment more homey, her superficial warmth cools when the conversation turns to Joey, the son Arlene had to surrender while in prison. Anxious for news of him, Arlene is angry and hurt to learn that her mother has treated her young son as she has treated Arlene, with coldness and contempt. In retaliation for Arlene's criticism of her, Mother viciously attacks Arlene where she is most vulnerable: her appearance, her character, and her competence as a mother. Maliciously squashing Arlene's dream of having Joey live with her—as Arlie maliciously squashed the frogs—Mother wins this round of their ongoing battle with a spiteful quip: “Fat chance” (p. 21).

They join in making the bed, but the uneasy peace between them does not last for long. While energetically scrubbing the filthy apartment, Mother renews her attack. Hardened to her mother's criticism and desperately in need of her mother's kindness, Arlene does not rise to the challenge. Instead, she asks tentatively, “Maybe I could come out on Sunday for … you still make pot roast?” In the moment that it takes us to realize that an invitation home has not been forthcoming and that Arlene cannot even articulate and complete the request, Mother's curt response unequivocally communicates the rejection: “Sunday … is my day to clean house now” (p. 25). In that one word now Norman conveys how much the world has changed in Arlene's absence. Toting her cleaning agents, bug spray, and linens and scrubbing with great vigor, Mother metaphorically implies her desires to sanitize Arlene. But Arlie/Arlene is soiled beyond any whitewashing; certainly, she is not suitable to bring home while there are two children there she might contaminate.

Conflicting emotions of caring and betrayal erupt with Mother's discovery of Bennie's hat hidden under the bed. Screaming that she should not have come and that Arlene has not changed from the filthy “whore” she was, Mother furiously strips her bedspread from the bed, stuffs it into her basket, and heads for the door. Years of their relationship are telescoped in this moment. “Don't you touch me,” hisses Mother as Arlene struggles with the murderous Arlie within: “No! Don't you touch Mama, Arlie. … No, don't touch Mama, Arlie. Cause you might slit Mama's throat” (p. 30-31). Clearly, Arlene's ambivalent feelings for her mother do not stem from tonight's encounter but from years of betrayals and rejections, not the least of which is Mother's lack of intervention and protection when, as a child, Arlene was sexually assaulted by her own father. Rather than fully developed characters, men in Getting Out are symbols of abuse and authority. Her father, the school principal, the prison guard, Bennie, her pimp, Carl, and the cabdriver Arlie killed because he tried “to mess with” her collectively represent a threat to Arlene's survival and are responsible, at least in part, for her self-abusive behavior. Bennie, who has retired from Pine Ridge with the expectation of taking care of and moving in on Arlene, is a surrogate father. And if Arlene understands his motivations for driving her home from prison, setting up her apartment, running her a hot bath, and going out for fried chicken, she does not fully acknowledge his intentions until he grabs her and pins her on the bed. Sensing that she is trapped, Arlene (with Arlie turning on now) screams, “I'll kill you, you creep!” (p. 38). Despite her violent and powerful kicks, it is only by calling Bennie a rapist (which injures his pride and loosens his grip) that Arlene is able to break free.

But Arlene cannot break free of Carl so easily. His intrusion into her privacy and psychic space is far more insidious: he has been her pimp, with all the attendant implications of care and abuse that this implies. He is the reason she went to Lakewood Prison for forgery; he has fathered Joey. When Carl forces his way into Arlene's apartment, rummages in her purse and her trunk, the sexual imagery is subtle but intentional. Having made plans for them both, Carl once again threatens to overpower her:

… We be takin our feet to the New York streets. (As though she will be pleased.) No more fuckin' around with these jive-ass turkeys. We're going to the big city, baby. Get you some red shades and some red shorts an the john's be linin' up fore we hit town. Four tricks a night.

(p. 32)

Norman effectively counters Carl's inviting proposition with Arlie's memories of droolers slobbering all over her, crazy drunks, and “sickos” tying her to the bed. Invading her mind as he is invading her stash of groceries, Carl struggles to shake Arlene, his meal ticket, from her resolve to go straight. Speaking on a level that she clearly understands, Carl says, “You come with me an you'll have money. You stay here, you won't have shit” (p. 56). When rejected by reformed Arlene, Carl, like Bennie, tries to overpower her physically, literally and figuratively putting on the squeeze. Norman's message is unmistakable: women can be autonomous only when they are free from such intimidation.

In the concluding moments of Getting Out, Norman offers the possibility of hope to a struggling Arlene in the character of Ruby, a benevolent mother surrogate who is sharply contrasted with Arlene's own mother. An ex-con who lives in the same building and who scrapes out a respectable living as a cook, Ruby offers friendship and an example of behavior that may help Arlene find her own path to survival. Although Arlene is not yet ready to relinquish her illusions about freedom, Ruby gives her the advice that may pull her through this crisis: the sooner Arlene accepts how difficult it will be to be “outside,” the better off she will be. This confidence, the first of many confessions in Norman's plays, establishes trust between two women. Arlene returns the trust by confessing her most brutal act, the murder of Arlie in prison. Convinced that it was Arlie who was making her evil, Arlene repeatedly stabbed herself with a fork, crying: “Arlie is dead for what she done to me, Arlie is dead an it's God's will” (p. 61). While Arlene weeps for her lost self, Ruby rocks her like a baby, smoothes her hair, and rubs her back, giving Arlene the warmth she so desperately needs. Norman maintains that Arlene can only survive if she accepts the killer Arlie, accepts her past, and builds a future on that acceptance (Stone, p. 58). As the play concludes, the two women make plans to play cards together later that evening. There is little doubt the playwright is betting on Arlie/Arlene's survival.

Written in 1978 while Norman was playwright-in-residence at the Actors Theatre, Third and Oak: The Laundromat is a minimalist gem. Confined to one act, one hour, one setting, and two women, the play quietly exposes the personal crises of ordinary people. Relying heavily on two types of silence, a character who is reticent and one who is loquacious but has repressed emotions, Norman dramatizes the thematic concerns of her first play. But here the tone is softer, the symbolism of confinement less obvious, the mother-daughter relationship more subtly realized, and the humor more poignant and pervasive. In this play Norman demonstrates the same ear for dialogue authentic to social status and psychological state that characterized Getting Out. But by stripping away the “razzmatazz” (Norman's term) of Getting Out, the playwright delicately paints a more convincing portrait of emotional paralysis.

In Third and Oak two strangers meet by chance in the laundromat at the unusual hour of 3:00 A.M. Alberta, a refined woman, retired teacher, and recent widow, has planned the trip to the laundromat in the middle of the night to wash her dead husband's shirts in privacy. Deedee, a boisterous young woman, has run impetuously to the laundromat to escape the loneliness of her apartment. While waiting for the wash to finish and for a light to come on in Deedee's apartment (indicating the return of her profligate husband), Deedee and Alberta pass the time talking. A prominent clock underscores the passage of time.

The opening moments of the play are vaguely reminiscent of Edward Albee's Zoo Story, where a talkative stranger intrudes upon the privacy of another and forces conversation. In Third and Oak the crude and clumsy Deedee comically makes her presence known by backing into the laundromat, tripping over a wastebasket, and falling into her laundry as it spills out of her arms all around her. Reluctantly, Alberta initiates polite conversation, but excepts to avoid further communication by retreating into a magazine. While understanding Alberta's implicit message of rejection, Deedee nonetheless attempts to engage the older woman in conversation. After Alberta's initial coolness, their aimless conversation about doing the wash, the seven dwarfs, dead rabbits, late-night radio, and their respective marriages increasingly becomes more honest and intimate. Masterfully, Norman directs attention to the topic of infidelity that is gripping Deedee. Their mutual confessions—made credible because of the lateness of the hour, Deedee's childlike frankness, and her overwhelming need to talk—bring them closer to an awareness of their entrapment in lies: Deedee's that she can continue to deny her husband's infidelity and her loneliness, Alberta's that she can continue to deny the reality of her husband's death. Each woman helps the other face her crisis and find options for survival.

Repeating the paradigm employed in Getting Out, Norman provides us with two mothers: an indifferent, critical mother and a mother surrogate. Deedee depends on her mother—but the mother disappoints her, just as Deedee is a disappointment to her mother. “She don't ever say how she like seeing me,” Deedee tells Alberta, “but she holds back, you know.” Rationalizing their lack of communication, Deedee explains: “I mean, there's stuff you don't have to say when it's family,” but obviously she doesn't believe this herself (p. 7). Deedee's brief references to her mother implicitly convey all that she leaves unsaid. There is not much nurturing: her mother even charges her for soap. As anxious for her mother's approval as Arlene is for hers, Deedee confides in Alberta: “I wish Mom were more like you. … Smart. Nice to talk to” (p. 20). Norman believes that daughters have been betrayed by mothers with the false promise that they will find “a nice man” and that their lives will be “wonderful” (Stone, p. 59). Deedee has found a man, but he is in her words “a sonavabitch.” If Joe were home, she “wouldn't have to be here in this crappy laundromat washing fuckin' shirts in the middle of the night!” (p. 16). Dirty shirts in Third and Oak carry metaphoric and thematic importance. Joe's shirts, which earlier in the evening came tumbling out of her arms, continually remind Deedee of the “mess” her marriage is in. Joe is unfaithful. “Waitin' and waitin' in my nightgown,” she admits, “I grabbed up all these clothes, dirty or not, and got outta there so he wouldn't come in and find me cryin'. … Well, (Firmly). I wasn't cryin'” (p. 19). Deedee is a picture of pain and confusion. Married for only two years, she loves Joe and is sexually attracted to him; she is unwilling to admit to her mother or to herself her mistake in marrying him. As her anger at being his maid and whore swells and the agony of his indifference and unfaithfulness intensifies, Deedee wants to hurt Joe, just short of confronting him with the truth. She knows that if she asks how long it will be before he stops coming home at all:

… he'll say what do you mean don't come home at all and I'll have to tell him I know what you're doing, I know you're lying to me and going out on me and he'll say what are you gonna do about it. You want a divorce? And I don't want him to say that.

(p. 21)

Like Bennie and Carl in Getting Out, Joe abuses Deedee with the promise of caring and the threat of intimidation.

While Deedee may be able to analyze her options and speak rationally about her marital situation with Alberta, what she feels is not rational at all. With Deedee's hilarious, heartbreaking expression of pent-up animosity, Norman breaks the tension and freezes the moment: “I hope he gets his shirt caught in his zipper. I hope he wore socks with holes in 'em. I hope his Right Guard gives out. I hope his baseball cap falls in the toilet. I hope she kills him” (p. 22). Although Alberta is shocked, Deedee is not ashamed of her feelings. Norman allows her to verbalize the unsayable in her own vernacular; the outpouring of suppressed emotion releases her from the deception she has been living. But she is not yet prepared to take the next step toward survival. Alberta encourages her to use her anger to break free of pain, paralysis, and Joe; Deedee has yet to understand that she does not have to accept a marriage in which she settles for so little. Earlier in the evening Deedee was able to name only six of the seven dwarfs; she had completely forgotten the name of Happy.

Deedee proves to be a surprisingly attentive and compassionate listener. Touched by Deedee's courage, Alberta confesses that her husband died months ago; she has been unable to let go of Herb or face the future alone. Finally, she has relinquished his dirty shirts, although she still cannot wash the one he died in. Unlike Deedee, who sees Joe's shirts as a symbol of the dirty sex he soiled their marriage with, Alberta views Herb's dirty shirts as his only tangible remains. As Alberta relates the precise details of Herb's death, she embarrasses herself and Deedee with the astonishing admission: “I found our beachball when I was cleaning out our basement. I can't let the air out of it. It's his breath in there” (p. 24). Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theatre, calls this “matchless Marsha Norman.” The remark eloquently captures the essence of loss. Mel Gussow said you could hear a collective sigh from the audience (pp. 34-35). With an effective but nearly imperceptible reversal from the opening moments of the play, Norman concludes with a tableau: Alberta leaves Deedee alone in the laundromat drinking a Dr. Pepper and enjoying the pleasures of solitude, probably for the first time. The light has come on in her apartment, but Deedee is in no rush to go home.

The dramatic formula of two characters, an evening of painful confessions, confined space and time, symphonic structure, and pointed tableau that Norman has utilized in Third and Oak anticipates the design of 'night, Mother. Whereas Third and Oak offers Deedee and Alberta a way out of deception and a way in to self, 'night, Mother will consider the question of whether suicide is the way out or the way in.

After the success of Getting Out and Third and Oak, Norman's Circus Valentine was a dismal failure. Her subsequent plays were far more successful: The Holdup, a sympathetic look at the Old West and its collision with the twentieth century, was produced at the Circle Repertory Company in New York and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; 'night, Mother, her fifth play, premiered in December 1982 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the direction of Tom Moore. Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in drama, 'night, Mother relentlessly dramatizes Jessie Cates' attempts to rationalize her suicide and her mother, Thelma's, attempts to forestall it. A middle-aged epileptic living with her mother since her husband left her, Jessie has only recently gained an awareness of the extent of her unhappiness. Her decision reflects her need to control what her epilepsy so aptly symbolizes: life out of control. For several months Jessie has been planning what she terms “the other thing I'm trying” (p. 75). The private night of conversation we witness is a necessary prelude to suicide, bringing together and tearing apart a mother and daughter whose relationship has been more intimate in name than in fact. Building to an inevitable conclusion, 'night, Mother faces the issues of bonding, separation, and self with uncompromising honesty.

With a play stripped bare to one setting, one act, and two characters, Norman establishes familiarity by using a realistic set and colloquial speech—and then strips familiarity away. From the moment Jessie, efficiently collecting rubber sheets, towels, newspapers, and her father's gun, announces her intention to kill herself, Thelma, casually taking stock of dwindling Hershey bars and peanut brittle, encounters an unfamiliar, terrifying reality. The contrastive nature of the play is immediately apparent. Spare but lyrical dialogue is simultaneously trivial and profound, recognizable and bizarre, caring and hostile. The subject shifts from garbage pickup to jealousy, from extension cords to disappointing marriages, from Christmas lists to epileptic fits with unsettling authenticity. Language is used both as weapon and defense mechanism: what Jessie does not want to hear, she ignores; what Thelma hears, she attempts to rationalize. Paralleling Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, Jessie and Thelma are respectively reticent and communicative, kinetic and quiescent.

As their battle of wills and wits ensues, Jessie profits from the element of surprise, psychological advantage, and extensive preparation, but Thelma proves a formidable opponent. Armed with reason, ridicule, threats, bribes, diversionary tactics (including making cocoa which both hate), sheer will, and physical confrontation, Thelma struggles to gain control of the situation and of Jessie. Instead of the usual television programs and manicure, Jessie has planned an agenda for this evening; the momentum and timetable are hers. Although unprepared, Thelma attempts a number of responses to the unacceptable pronouncement that her daughter intends to commit suicide. At first Thelma considers calling her son, Dawson, to disarm Jessie. Then thinking Jessie ill, she considers calling the doctor or an ambulance. Increasingly frustrated by her ineffectiveness, Thelma ridicules her daughter's competence, as Arlene's mother did in Getting Out and Deedee's mother did in Third and Oak.

You'll miss. … You'll just wind up a vegetable. How would you like that? Shoot your ear off? … You'll cock the pistol and have a fit.

(p. 17)

Her ridicule elicits no response; in fact, confused by Jessie's control, Thelma wonders if Jessie isn't just frightening her. Jessie's laugh warns Thelma of her seriousness, and she tries another approach. “It's a sin,” she warns. “You'll go to hell” (p. 18). Again Jessie is undeterred. By the time Jessie loads the gun, Thelma, in stark contrast to Jessie, is hysterical. Her outburst would be funny but for the seriousness of the moment and the anxiety it reveals:

You can't use my towels. … And you can't use your father's gun, either. … And you can't do it in my house.

(p. 19)

With two clocks prominently displaying the passage of time, Thelma pleads for more time and more talk. Her efforts at playing psychiatrist, however, are unsuccessful; Jessie is interested in neither reevaluating her decision nor laying blame. Rather, she is committed to impressing upon Thelma that she is utterly without hope:

I'm just not having a very good time and I don't have any reason to think it'll get anything but worse. I am tired. I'm sad. I feel used.

(p. 28)

With humor and pathos Norman develops an intimacy and honesty never before shared. The night of conversation becomes one of confession as both women admit their failures and jealousies. As in Getting Out and Third and Oak, men have been sources of pain and disappointment. Thelma's husband was indifferent and Jessie's has deserted her. Jessie's brother, Dawson, is selfish and cruel and her son, Ricky, is a drug addict and petty thief. But it is Thelma's secrecy about Jessie's epilepsy that is the focus of this conversation. Jessie had been told that her first epileptic fit was the result of falling off a horse. In her efforts to protect Jessie and to deny her own shame and guilt, Thelma has not told anyone, not even Jessie's father, that she was born an epileptic. Thinking the epilepsy a punishment for not loving Jessie's father or wanting more children, Thelma concludes that “it has to be something I did … I don't know what I did, but I did it, I know” (pp. 71-72).

Thelma's confession evokes an anguished debate about bonding and separation, autonomy and control. Exasperated at the necessity of having to explain her need for separation to her mother after a long evening of explanations, Jessie explodes, “It doesn't have anything to do with you!” (p. 72). In her portrayal of the daughter's need to break free and the mother's to maintain connection, Norman poignantly conveys the agony of a mother unable to help her daughter or let her go. “Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie,” she insists. “You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger, without doing it to me” (p. 72).

Indeed, suggests Jenny Spencer, “what Jessie ultimately demands from her mother seems both infantile and impossible: not only complete control over the evening, but her mother's unqualified love, undivided attention, unmitigated support, and, with it, at least collaboration in the suicide” (Spencer, p. 370). But if Jessie's intent this evening had also been to spare Thelma further suffering, she is unprepared for her mother's tenacity, fear, and the sheer enormity of her guilt. Their harrowing conversation reveals that for Thelma the little she has sustains her; for Jessie the little she has indicates all that she does not have. And what she does not have is Jessie:

It's somebody I lost … it's my own self. Who never was. Or who tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will.

(p. 76)

Tearing herself away from Thelma's maternal and physical grip, Jessie slips away into the bedroom without the promised farewell kiss. Thelma's screams of protest and pain follow her; but literally cut off from Jessie she is powerless to stop her. Her body crumbles against the door as if she too had been shot, confirming her previous statement about mutually felt pain. The technique of a concluding shot is by no means unique: Ibsen used it in Hedda Gabler and Miller used it in Death of a Salesman. But Jessie is not interested in dying “beautifully” nor in leaving a life insurance payoff. What Jessie is interested in is having a say about her life, and she has decided to say no. In this “waiting” play we have been expecting and dreading this shot, yet like Thelma we are shocked by its reality and by Jessie's courage. Marsha Norman's compassion for the survivor and her sensitivity to the guilt she experiences is conveyed through Thelma's heart-wrenching apology: “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (p. 89). In an exquisitely prepared moment the bewildered, devastated mother, gripping a cocoa pot, mourns the daughter she could not save and never knew.

The cathartic power of 'night, Mother is tremendous. We are Thelma trying to understand, placate, compromise, escape guilt, rely on reason and logic, and deny death. And we are Jessie wanting freedom from suffering, fighting against vulnerability, affirming individual choice and dignity. “We identify with Jessie not in her decision to die, but on the level of fantasy and desire, with the symbolic fulfillment suicide comes to represent when played out before the mother” (Spencer, p. 372). “A great cleaning out of your pockets,” suggests the playwright, is what 'night, Mother is about (Christon, p. 1). In many ways 'night, Mother is the most Beckettian of Norman's plays. In his review of the London production, Benedict Nightingale observed that “one might defensibly see Jessie as a Beckett character who presses the logic of her predicament to a conclusion that her prototypes and counterparts inexplicably resist” (Nightingale, p. 38). Correspondences between this play and Waiting for Godot abound: the setting of one night in an isolated house on an isolated road; the use of the couple; absent characters made dramatically present; debilitating illness; conversation to pass the time while waiting; the subject of suicide; the issues of passivity, helplessness, and survival; the concluding tableau.

'night, Mother anticipates Traveler in the Dark, a play Norman concedes she could not have written earlier (“Playwright Marsha Norman,” p. 13). In this work, which premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in February 1984 under the direction of Tom Moore, the playwright turns her attention to a modern crisis of faith, a debate between science and religion. The central character, Sam, a world-famous cancer surgeon who has saved thousands of lives, operates on Mavis, his nurse and childhood sweetheart, and finds her riddled with cancer he failed to detect in time. Overcome by grief, shame, and disillusionment, Sam leaves Mavis dying, bolts from the hospital, and flees to his boyhood home convinced that his life is empty. Feeling abandoned and betrayed by everything he has believed in—medicine, the power of the intellect, and himself—Sam is unable to put his “rationality,” to use Norman's term, “against the face of death” (Christon, p. 1).

Traveler is beset by a number of weaknesses: the crisis seems too calculated; the dialogue is too often glib and unnatural; the wife and father are ill defined and one-dimensional; the reconciliation between father and son is artificial. Yet despite these problems, Norman has fashioned an intelligent play. She demonstrates her ability to extend insight into men that parallels her previously demonstrated insight into women (Henry, p. 101). Choosing a complex, eloquent character, a type she has previously avoided, Norman competently and convincingly portrays a man whose intellect cannot protect him from suffering. Since his mother's death, which occurred when Sam was twelve, he has rejected God and protected himself with a shield of logic. Mavis' imminent death triggers unresolved guilt concerning his mother's death; the shield shatters. As incapable of saving Mavis as Thelma was of saving Jessie, and similarly unprepared to cope with the death of a loved one, Sam, sick at heart, is thrust into a personal crisis. Norman elevates this play above the crisis of self explored in Getting Out,Third and Oak, and 'night, Mother to a higher philosophical plane. Traveler's subject may be traced to the playwright's personal experience. “I went through the same bitter rebellion Sam goes through in the play,” admits the playwright (Patriot Ledger, p. 13).

A logical progression from Jessie and Thelma's discussions on the quality of life and the reality of death, Traveler is a successor as well to Getting Out and Third and Oak. Norman employs a number of techniques used in the earlier plays: confined setting, focus on the moment of crisis, confession of secrets, bonding of mother and child, portraits of failed relationships, humor to underscore and mitigate pain, absent characters dramatically realized. Traveler varies a number of these elements. Instead of the “couple” developed in Third and Oak and 'night, Mother (and used initially in Getting Out in one-on-one conversations between Arlene and her mother, Arlene and Bennie, and Arlene and Carl), the play now considers several independent “couples.” There are two father-son relationships (Sam and his twelve-year-old son, Stephen, and Sam and his preacher father, Everett)2 and two mother-son relationships (Stephen and Glory, Sam's wife, and Sam and his dead mother). Glory is compared to Sam's mother, Sam and Glory's marriage to that of his parents, and Sam's guilt and sense of insufficiency at the time of his mother's death to his guilt and impotence at Mavis'. Finally, there are two Sams, a young one, Stephen, exactly the same age Sam was when his mother died, and Sam, a middle-aged, self-destructive atheist in search of himself.

Having developed wise and caring mother surrogates in Getting Out and Third and Oak, Norman presents for the first time loving and supportive wives who are warm, affectionate mothers. Glory is a “lovely woman who,” in Norman's words, “takes enormous pleasure in the smallest moments of her life” (act 1, p. 2). Her generosity and love are demonstrated by a freezer full of Fudgsicles awaiting Mavis, a bountiful picnic basket for the family, demonstrative affection for Stephen, and seemingly endless patience with Sam. Similarly, Sam's mother is remembered as a woman of warmth, humor, talent, and great patience. Everett fondly recalls that his wife would bake a batch of cookies, eat every one of them, and send the waxed paper to the intended recipient with the message that as soon as she went off her diet she would send another. And Sam remembers her as “the gingerbread lady” who had:

Curly red hair and shiny round eyes and a big checked apron. Fat pink fingers and a sweet vanilla smell and all the time in the world. Sing to you, dance with you, write your name on the top of a cake.

(act 1, p. 41)

As if in a time capsule, the memory of the twelve-year-old Sam, complete with smells, is precisely recovered.

Additionally, Norman departs in this play from the paradigm of situating the action within the confining space of the room, choosing instead the more expansive but equally metaphoric setting of an overgrown garden at Sam's boyhood home, whose crumbling wall is held together only by a large stone goose. It was in this garden that Sam spent his fondest moments with his mother, reading fairy tales, singing songs, and discovering “witches fingers, dragon teeth and fallen stars” (act 1, p. 18). Evoking memories of Sam's youth, the garden, whose thematic importance becomes increasingly apparent, provides a credible setting for a long evening of conversation, confrontation, and confession. While Sam hides from the others the reason for Mavis' absence, he anxiously waits for and dreads (as we did the shot in 'night, Mother) the hospital's call confirming Mavis' death.

Seated on the crumbling wall reading an ancient copy of Mother Goose, Stephen is fascinated by a magical world where frogs turn into princes, houses are built without walls, and all the king's horses and all the king's men can put shattered eggs together again. Since his mother's death, Sam has rejected belief in magical tales, bringing up his son protected from lies, loss, and fairy tales, both Christian and Grimm's. The scientist and cynic knows that nothing can save Mavis. In fact, Sam's profane and savagely witty parody of God and the Bible provides some of the most biting observations in the play. God, suggests Sam, sets life up: “We live through it and He writes it down. What we know as civilization … is just God gathering material for another book” (act 1, p. 42). For Sam fairy tales dredge up painful memories of sitting by his mother's bed working puzzles and reading fairy tales in a vain effort to save her. Bitterly, he recalls the death of “the gingerbread lady”: “We didn't call it dying. … we said God was missing her something awful and she just went on back where she belonged” (act 1, p. 41). Even now Sam is still haunted by what he perceives as his failure and still angry at the betrayal of a mother who left him with his father, who cared more for his flock than for Sam, and a God who took away his mother. “Our own version of the past,” observes Norman, “as we are haunted by it, as we are held back by it, or in some way defined by it—is our own to escape or make sense of, or to triumph over, or to carry with us” (Stone, p. 58). Helpless to save Mavis, a devoted mother surrogate, Sam is overwhelmed by his past, his guilt, and his betrayal. “I can't save lives,” mourns Sam:

they're lost from the start. I can give them another trip to the dentist, maybe, another summer of reruns, maybe a flat tire for a little excitement on the road. But it's my victory, not theirs. My work saves my life. Or used to. Oh boy. Day after day, I've been real proud of myself 'cause I won one more round. Right? Wrong. Death wins. Death always wins.

(act 2, p. 21)

Anguished by what he can neither control nor understand, Sam resolves to take Stephen and leave behind Glory, his work, and his past. Sam's marriage to Glory has been strikingly similar to that of his parents. While Glory has been supportive, loving, and patient, Sam has been devoted more to patients than to family. Sam knows he must separate from Glory if he is to survive. Their argument over custody of Stephen deteriorates into a Strindbergian battle, more characteristic of Edward Albee than Norman, and is one of several times in this play that the playwright loses her natural voice. Sam's tirades are so caustic and abusive that he risks the continued sympathy of the audience. But Sam is able to regain this sympathy with his confession of frustration and weakness. His poignant admission of disappointment in marriage, in love, and in himself dramatically anticipates the admission of Sam's secret concerning Mavis' cancer. Sam has kept this secret from Glory and the others because he has been unwilling to concretize the thought. If he admits to Glory that Mavis is dying, then in his mind he is once again responsible for the death of a loved one. Sam must be able to accept his past and the present crisis and move beyond it or, as Norman has suggested, he will be unable to go on.

Sam is a pivotal character in three relationships. Through him Norman can focus upon the self trying to be a self in the context of husband, father, and son. Recalling men in previous Norman plays, Sam is abusive; his relationships are self-serving. His intellect, sharp tongue, and wit are lethal weapons. In his relationship with Everett, or what has passed for a relationship, Sam has harbored anger for thirty years, making Everett pay for his incompetence as a father and weakness as a man. Now, faced with the imminent death of Mavis, he runs home to ask Everett to preach at the funeral:

A man I despise, will please commend the spirit of a woman I never knew, to the everlasting arms of a God for whom I have nothing but contempt.

(act 2, p. 21)

Sam claims he does not understand his hypocritical behavior. Indeed, if he admits that he understands his motivation, then he must admit that he needs Everett and does not despise him. In his role as father, Sam appears to be loving, but in fact he is so self-absorbed that he does not even know Stephen's birthday. Selfishly, Sam has taken away Stephen's youth and dreams and replaced them with his own. When Sam plans to take Stephen away as his companion in crisis, he thinks little about the pain Stephen will experience being ripped away from his mother. If he understands his motivation in this plan, he might also have to face the fact that Mavis' death, recalling that of his mother, has prompted him to deprive Stephen of a mother's love. It is, however, as a husband that Sam is most abusive: he sees in Glory's goodness and love an opportunity to absolve himself of his failures. Sam need not be unfaithful to a woman (as Joe and Cecil had been in Third and Oak and 'night, Mother); his work has been his mistress. Thinking himself superior in intellect and accomplishment, Sam's relationship with Glory is one of habit rather than affection.

But the male character Norman has created in this drama is far too complex to dismiss as abusive in the tradition of Arlene's pimp and Deedee's husband. Sam's abusive behavior gives him the opportunity to distance himself from others, a shield against further loss and hurt. Sam claims that he is a person he does not want to know. We know him, however, and we can identify with his confusion, impotence, and vulnerability. Sam's return to his boyhood home is as much a search for self as it is for what Norman calls “a point of light in a universal sky” (Christon, p. 1). He has spent all of his adult life rejecting the God of his preacher father; but faced with the arbitrary assignment of pain and the daily occurrence of meaningless death, Sam wants there to be a God. And he does not want God to be him. Having reached this point of self-awareness, Sam, like previous Norman characters, can free himself from self-flagellation and begin the process of renewal.

To provide an opportunity for Sam and his father to be alone, Norman dispatches Glory and Stephen off to the hospital. If we find the reconciliation between father and son too artificial and the circumstances too convenient to be credible, we do believe that Sam finds in Everett a caring, wise listener who comforts him in his grief, just as Ruby consoled Arlene in Getting Out. The playwright, in fact, has remarked that she was “surprised with the warmth” of the preacher, given her fundamentalist background and her own rebellion (“Playwright Marsha Norman,” p. 13). But Everett is indeed warm and is finally able to do for his own son what he does best: comfort the suffering. With the stark intensity Norman achieved in 'night, Mother, the conclusion of Traveler in the Dark is simultaneously anguished and affirmative. Everett's prayer, symbolically delivered from atop the garden wall where Sam, and before him Stephen, had been seated, is eloquent in its simplicity. “Help thou our unbelief,” he prays, as Sam, still very much in the throes of crisis, goes to Green River, a traveler in the dark hoping God will find him.

Criticism of Traveler in the Dark reflects a growing recognition of Norman's maturity. William Henry suggests that in “debating the issues of science and faith, love and self-knowledge, the rage to grow and the resistance to change,” Norman has stretched herself beyond what he sarcastically refers to as “cocoa and marshmallows” (Henry, p. 101). And Jack Kroll agrees that Norman seems to be “a natural lightning rod” for the crises that continue to assault our faith and hope (Kroll, p. 76). As Norman creates more harrowing crises, a keen sense for the dramatic continues to be refined. Marsha Norman admits to her own crisis of faith, but continues to be driven by the conviction that from darkness comes understanding. Quoting the poet Theodore Roethke, the playwright maintains: “‘You learn by going where you have to go!’” But with the honesty we have come to expect from her, she adds, “More and more it seems like a journey with detours” (Gussow, p. 38). If Norman, like the rest of us, keeps going on, a traveler in the dark, she appears nevertheless to have a clear view of the artistic road she intends to follow. It is to write about why women—and men—suffer.


  1. This quotation was chosen by Marsha Norman and the staff of the American Repertory Theatre to appear in the playbill for the premiere of 'night, Mother.

  2. This is an example of Norman's linking her plays: Everett has just returned from a funeral he has preached where Thelma Cates has been in attendance.


Christon, Lawrence. “Norman Follows Her Star.” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1985, sec. 4, p. 1.

Gussow, Mel. “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater.” New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1983, pp. 22+.

Henry, William A. “Blasted Garden.” Review of Traveler in the Dark, by Marsha Norman. Time, February 27, 1984, p. 101.

Kroll, Jack. “Modern Crisis of Faith.” Review of Traveler in the Dark, by Marsha Norman. Newsweek, February 27, 1984, p. 76.

Moore, Tom. “Tom Moore Collaborates again with Marsha Norman.” Interview with Dana Persky. A.R.T. News, February 1984, pp. 2+.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Or Not To Be.” Review of 'night, Mother, by Marsha Norman. Canadian Forum, April 1985, p. 38.

Norman, Marsha. “An Interview with Marsha Norman.” With Sherilyn Beard. Southern California Anthology. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1985.

———. Getting Out. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1978.

———. “Marsha Norman Discusses Playwriting with Robert Brustein.” A.R.T. News, February 1984, pp. 1+.

———. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

———. Third and Oak: The Laundromat. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1978.

———. Traveler in the Dark. Original typescript produced at American Repertory Theatre, 1983.

Pinter, Harold. “Between the Lines.” Sunday Times [London], March 4, 1962, p. 25.

“Playwright Marsha Norman—a Talent for Listening.” Patriot Ledger, February 7, 1984, pp. 13+.

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

Stone, Elizabeth. “Playwright Marsha Norman: An Optimist Writes about Suicide, Confinement and Despair.” Ms, July 12, 1983, pp. 56-59.

Gerald Weales (review date 23 February 1990)

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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 Theater Company mounted an effective production for a limited run. Reading the play, seeing the play, I find it difficult to guess why the delay. It is true that it lacks the dramatic force of Norman's earlier plays—Getting Out,'night, Mother—but it is an intriguing character study and a fascinating philosophical/theological debate. There's the rub, I suppose. New York theatergoers have no great taste for ideational confrontation, their intellectual perceptions having been dimmed by too much moving scenery.

The play is set in an abandoned garden—once a magic place, of sorts—not so neutral ground in the struggle between Sam, a doctor who believes in the human mind and the verifiable fact, and Everett, his father, a clergyman whose faith is intact even though he is not the fiery evangelist he once was. Those, at least, are opposing forces, although the struggle is really going on within Sam himself. The two men have met here because Sam, his wife, and son have come for a funeral, the burial of Sam's nurse, Everett's surrogate daughter, whom all Sam's surgical skills could not save. Mavis's death has triggered Sam's need to reexamine his life, but for most of the play his analysis is fake, his way of papering over the doubts that have undermined his assurance. In his usual arrogant way, he announces that he will leave Glory, his wife, turn his back finally on his father, and take his son to a safe place where he will not be infected by Everett's God, Glory's softness.

What Sam resents is not Everett's God, but the man himself. He remembers his father's treatment of his mother, his taking for granted that she would be there for him, a convenience—if a beloved one—that could be ignored while he did God's work. Sam remembers most of all how Everett used him and his grief after his mother's death to make an evangelistic point. Before the end of the play, however, Sam has learned that he has been as blind to Glory's devotion as his father was to his mother's, has never seen Mavis clearly—certainly not the illness that would kill her—and has misunderstood the son who chooses not to be the means to his reformation. Sam is schooled finally by pain, not by intellection, and he even reaches a spiritual revelation, if that is the correct phrase to describe his recognition of his own uncertainty. His mother, who hovers over the play as insistently as Mavis does, was the keeper of this garden with its strange statues, a lover of fantasy and fairy tales who marked her child. At the end, after the four characters are once again a family, the father recalls and Sam finishes the second verse of a nursery rhyme, a favorite of his mother: “As your bright and tiny spark / Guides the traveler in the dark / Though I know not what you are / Twinkle, twinkle little star.”

The weakness of the play, if we take it on a realistic level, is that we have to accept on faith—the playgoer's faith in the author—that Sam is a genius of the scalpel and Everett an inspired preacher. The strength of the play is that we are shown that the savior of souls and the savior of bodies are as alike as father and son. Each on his own quest rides unseeing over those closest to him and does not notice how his way is cleared of the annoying interruptions of daily life. When the man supersedes the doctor, the preacher, he can become the son, the husband, the father. As for the twinkling star, to each playgoer his own message. Whatever it is, it is an effective finish to Traveler in the Dark.

David Mamet's Squirrels has been around much longer than Traveler, and it still has not reached New York, although it is getting closer. The Philadelphia Festival Theatre of New Plays gave what they called the play's “professional premiere” (perhaps to protect the “New” in their name) as their first program in 1990. One of Mamet's first plays, Squirrels had been produced in 1974 by the St. Nicholas Theatre Company that Mamet and W. H. Macy were then running in Chicago. It is a funny play about the creative process—shifting encounters among an older writer, his young assistant, and a cleaning woman, who is also a writer. Macy, who directed the new production and played in the original, spoke briefly after the performance I saw. He suggested that it depicts a struggle between commercialism (the older writer) and imagination (the cleaning woman) for the artistic soul of the young man, and that the former wins since, at the end of the play, he is dictating to the young man at the typewriter while the cleaning woman, in a spot downstage, is improvising a new narrative. Heavy! Not only does the interpretation sit uneasily on the comedy, it is textually suspect because, while the two writers have appropriated one of the cleaning woman's stories, she is beginning to play with the squirrel plot that has haunted the older writer through much of the play. To be fair, Macy never said that this is Mamet's reading of his own play. Squirrels manages to touch cheerfully on writer's block, on how a writer's personality transforms material, and on the way everything—including other people's inventions—is fair game for the writer in need of a workable idea. After all, there are more squirrels in this play than the stuffed one on the writer's desk or the ones that keep turning up in his unfinished story; all three characters squirrel away material pilfered from the minds of the others—or from the wastebasket they share. Squirrels is hardly a statement on art and commerce. It is little more than a playful exercise of a young writer feeling his way through words.

Richard Wattenberg (essay date December 1990)

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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 have been honored with Pulitzer Prizes. These successes suggest the opening of the “establishment” to new and diverse voices. While some feminist critics view this “opening up” as a co-optation,1 it may indicate a shift in mainstream cultural attitudes. Whether or not such a shift has actually occurred is debatable; nevertheless, these new woman playwrights touch on themes close to the hearts of traditionalists. For instance, in The Holdup (1980-3), Marsha Norman confronts the frontier West—long the focus of a male-centered mythology. While admitting that this play was not a typical “Norman play,” that it has more fantasy than substance, and that it was not intended “to substantiate Western mythology” (all facts that might explain why some critics responded negatively to it), Norman also claimed that in The Holdup “there are serious things to be said about stories and how they operate on our minds.”2 Indeed, the structure of this play's “story” suggests a transformation of the frontier myth.

Certainly, Marsha Norman is not the first American playwright to question the traditional frontier myth. This myth, which attained its purest form at the end of the nineteenth century, has been challenged and revised by twentieth-century American male playwrights. To fully appreciate the change in approach that Norman's play represents, it will be useful to recall the way the frontier myth appeared in turn-of-the-century American drama and how it has recently been reformulated by an iconoclastic male playwright like Sam Shepard. Given this context, it will not only be possible to isolate the changes in the myth made by Marsha Norman in The Holdup but to evaluate the extent to which these changes suggest a new feminist perspective on the frontier experience.

The nineteenth-century version of the frontier myth was perhaps best expressed by Frederick Jackson Turner in essays like “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893). Central to Turner's thesis is the belief that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”3 This “area of free land” offered discontented Easterners a “gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier.”4 “In a word,” Turner wrote, “free lands meant free opportunities.”5 Luring Easterners or immigrants west, this frontier was the anvil on which the American democratic character received its distinctive form. More specifically, Turner described this frontier as “the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization. … The line of most rapid and effective Americanization.”6 Viewing “Americanization” as an interaction of Eastern pioneer and Western locale, he wrote: “… at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.”7 Having adapted to the frontier, the pioneer soon begins to tame it. Gradually he “transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe. … The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”8 In short, Turner viewed this distinctly American product in traditional Romantic terms whereby a decadent civilization is purified through contact with uncorrupted nature. In Turner's thinking, this process takes on the form of a synthesis or marriage of Eastern civilization and Western savagery.

A Turner-like perception of the interaction of East and West appears in the drama even before Turner began disseminating his famous thesis. Bartley Campbell's popular melodrama My Partner (1879) concludes with a marriage of Eastern heroine and Western frontier hero that bodes well for the play's fictitious community and, by suggestion, for the nation at large. In turn-of-the-century American plays like David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and William Vaughn Moody's The Great Divide (1906), a similar theme is developed. In Moody's play, for instance, the New Englander, Ruth, moves to Arizona where she confronts an untamed environment personified by the Westerner, Stephen Ghent. Ghent forcefully abducts Ruth in Act I but is eventually transformed by his love for her, and at the play's end he wins her love. Ruth embraces Ghent and the freedom of the West.9 In tracing the interaction of the “civilized” Ruth and the “savage” Stephen, Moody like Campbell employs traditional—if now out-dated—gender types10 to celebrate the “marriage” of Eastern “civilization” and Western “savagery.”

This optimistic interpretation of the frontier experience so characteristic of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century has been questioned in the mid and late twentieth century. The closing of the frontier took on especially ominous dimensions during the Depression of the thirties. General socio-economic hardship, “Dust Bowl” conditions on the Great Plains, and labor tensions in the Far West undermined the belief in the West as “a gate of escape.”11 Depression era doubts concerning the validity of the frontier myth appear in plays like Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (1934), John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), and William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1939).12 Challenging the frontier myth has continued to be a theme in post-Depression era plays as diverse as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur Kopit's Indians (1968), and Mark Medoff's When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? (1974). The questions posed in these plays have been fully developed by Sam Shepard in a number of his plays, most especially True West (1980).13

In Shepard's play the harmonious marriage of Eastern civilization and Western savagery has gone awry. Revolving around the interaction of the two brothers, Austin and Lee, the play is set in their mother's southern California, suburban house, which—with its various modern accoutrements and abundance of house plants—testifies to the successful taming of the Western frontier. Indeed, Mom's horror of the Alaskan wilderness, which she has just visited, and her apparent devotion to traditional values make her a perfect representative of modern civilization. Even as her family collapses around her, she clings to the vestiges or, perhaps more accurately, the clichés of family order; she futilely insists: “Don't shout in the house” (p. 73); “You boys shouldn't fight in the house. Go outside and fight” (p. 74); and “He won't kill you. He's your brother” (p. 75). Despite such efforts, the coherence of this nuclear family has long since been lost. The boys' father long ago fled this tame environment and now lives freely, if primitively, in the desert. The fact that he never appears in this play suggests that the “savage” frontiersman has been banished from mainstream, social life. The boys' mother and father may be contemporary versions of Moody's Ruth/civilization and Stephen/savagery, but here the hope of youthful marriage has become the cynicism of separation and divorce.

While neither son embodies the civilization or savagery principle as absolutely as Mom and the Old Man, each son is closely associated with one of the parents. Austin, an Ivy League educated writer living a settled family life in the Bay area, takes after the mother, and Lee, a reclusive, antisocial desert dweller, takes after the Old Man. During the course of the play, these two brothers, associated with very different value systems, explore each other's life style. Lee tries writing, and Austin tries to prove his frontier prowess by burglarizing his mother's neighborhood. Neither masters the other's way of life. Finally, they attempt to collaborate on a filmscript before going together into the desert. This plan also fails. The play climaxes with a violent wrestling match between Austin and Lee, and the play ends with the two brothers facing each other in a stand-off. Here, there is no possible resolution of the tension between savagery and civilization. Unlike Moody, who structured The Great Divide around the marriage of male savagery and female civilization, Shepard structures his play around an unbridgeable opposition of savagery and civilization. In so doing, he avoids the reassuring closure that Moody's play borrowed from the moralistic, melodramatic tradition. A joyful marriage of male and female intimating an optimistic American future gives way to an irreconcilable polarity of males suggesting the contradictory American present. Indeed, Austin and Lee, the off-spring of a “marriage” of civilization and savagery, represent a composite portrait of the late twentieth-century American character, torn apart by opposing impulses.

While Shepard's play implies that the American frontier experience may have been a curse and not a blessing, Marsha Norman's frontier play, The Holdup, which “officially premiered”14 three years after Shepard's True West, seems to represent an attempt to go beyond this kind of despair and cynicism. Ironically, Norman's play is structured around a group of characters that closely parallel the character types in Shepard's play. Set “in northern New Mexico” (p. 107) in 1914, The Holdup—like True West—includes characters from two generations. As in Shepard's play, the younger generation is represented by two brothers. Norman's pair of brothers work on a wheat-threshing crew and are presently camped in a cookshack “miles from nowhere” (p. 107). They are surprised when—in the middle of the night—two older people, Lily and the Outlaw, arrive separately to rendezvous in this isolated spot. While the two generations are not actually related by blood, Lily and the Outlaw function in Norman's play as Mom and the absent Old Man do in Shepard's play: they provide a context for the interaction of the two brothers. Moreover, Lily and the Outlaw embody values roughly similar to their counterparts. Lily, like Mom in Shepard's play, personifies “civilization,” and the Outlaw, like the Old Man, incarnates “savagery.”

Norman describes Lily as “a frontier beauty, a little past her prime” who “has graciously accepted the wisdom and perspective that have replaced her once startling appearance” (p. 107). A one-time “dance-hall favorite,” Lily now owns “the finest hotel east of Albuquerque” (p. 107). While not the stereotypical frontier woman as civilizing “schoolmarm,” she is linked to the tradition that produced that type. After all, Lily is associated with the education of the West: when her rich rancher husband died leaving her with a fortune, she built a school and named it for the deceased. Cutting herself off from her questionable past, she is now an upstanding member of her town—providing shelter for “fancy eastern folks” (p. 120) and representing the civilized domesticity that the Outlaw has always rejected.

Like Shepard's Old Man, the Outlaw represents a savagery that is no longer socially acceptable, but unlike the Old Man, the Outlaw does appear in this play. “A worn, grizzled desperado, now approaching fifty. … a wily survivor of the Hole-in-the-Wall era” (p. 107), the Outlaw claims to be Tom McCarty, who supposedly “taught Butch Cassidy to rob banks” and was “the best horse-handler in the business” (p. 126). Since a failed bank robbery in Delta, Colorado, twenty years earlier, the Outlaw has been on the run, hiding from the law and gunning down whoever challenges him. Now tired of running, he has returned for Lily, his sweetheart of twenty years before.

The contrast of civilization and savagery embodied by the older generation is repeated in the younger generation; however, removed from the original frontier, the brothers in Norman's play—like those in Shepard's play—represent a somewhat diluted version of this contrast. The younger brother, Archie, like Shepard's Austin, is closely associated with civilized ideals, but here those ideals have a more traditional caste than they did in Austin's case. Archie is devoted to mother, church, and education. Although he works as a wheat thresher, Norman describes him as one who “doesn't belong here. He's eager to find a way out but is held back by his mother and his age and his fear” (p. 107). It is Archie who is most shocked by the Outlaw who arrives suddenly out of the night, gun raised and threatening. Archie protests: “… we get a night off and you come up and shoot us. It's not fair. It's not civilized. We're a state now. It's 1914” (p. 112).

On the other hand, Archie's brother Henry feels liberated by the possibility of violence. Indeed, Archie is referring to Henry when he laments that a man is “supposed to use his brain, not his gun” (p. 114). In fact, Henry has been forced to stay at the cookshack while the rest of the wheat-threshing crew has gone to town because he drew his gun during a card game. Like Shepard's Lee, Henry is “mean and tough,” “foul-mouthed,” and “heavy-drinking” (p. 107). A bitter man, he resents his brother whom he holds responsible for his own failures. Henry complains:

My whole life I spent so you could go to school, so you could dream about airplanes, so you could go to church. I'm out there feedin' half-starved cattle and raisin' scrub crops, still workin' for Dad when I oughta be long gone all because you can't do nuthin' and never could. The most help you can ever be is just get out of my way, Archie. …

(p. 123)

While disdainfully referring to Archie as “somebody's aunt,” Henry looks forward to the day when he will be able to prove himself the heir to the frontier tradition.

Henry believes his chance has come when he finds out who the Outlaw really is. To prove his mettle to this idol from the past, he is willing to sacrifice his brother; however, as he roughly ties Archie up, the amazed Outlaw can only respond: “nobody I know ever tied up his brother” (p. 126). On the one hand, Henry is crueller than the Outlaw, but, on the other, Henry's claim to the savage way of life is a deceit. What he knows about old-time outlaw gangs, he knows from books not from experience. Ironically, the products of civilization, the various outlaw books that he has carried from home, only help to fuel Henry's “savage” impulses.

Although Norman's characters seem to mirror Shepard's, this play does not result in the same kind of “stand off” that concluded True West. Shepard may have turned the Romantic frontier myth presented in a play like The Great Divide upside down, but the resolution of True West is still dependent on the traditional Romantic categories: a feminine Eastern civilization and a masculine Western savagery. While Shepard's play presents the failure to reconcile these disparate elements as the source of a deep-rooted tension in the American character, Norman attempts to resolve that tension by eliminating one side of the equation. Rather than maintain a precarious balance between civilization and savagery, between Archie and Henry, Norman's focus gradually turns toward Archie alone. In this regard, Norman presents Western savage violence as a self-destructive delusion that can and must be transcended. While True West ends with the two brothers frozen in a stalemate, the first of two acts of The Holdup ends with Henry being killed by the Outlaw. Hoping for a moment of glory and despite the fact that—as Archie claims—he is an inept gunman, Henry challenges the Outlaw. Henry's worship of violence results in his death.

In the same vein, the “savage” Outlaw's commitment to violence has led him to a dead end. He has lived an unproductive life—especially when compared to Lily. All that he has to show for twenty years of running from the law is a satchel full of “old wanted pictures, newspaper articles, books about his friends, books with his name in them” (p. 127). Interestingly, these souvenirs suggest that the Outlaw is forced to depend on the artifacts of a recently arrived “civilization” to remind himself of the “savage” frontier West that is passing away. The futility of his situation is apparent from the start of the play when he is forced to shoot his horse, the foundation on which the old-time Westerner built his life.

Lily, on the other hand, has contributed to the socio-economic development of the West. Ten years after the Outlaw disappeared from her life, she took the rich rancher as a husband. After his death—killed by the Outlaw who returned just long enough to shoot him—Lily sold the ranch and opened the successful hotel that she still owns. In fact, Lily's success epitomizes a “civilization” that is somewhat different from the one embodied either by Ruth in Moody's play or Mom in Shepard's play. More than embodying passive attributes of “civilization,” she embodies the active process of civilization. In this regard, Lily manifests an initiative, a toughness, generally associated in frontier plays only with the “savage” male figure. Beginning as a dance-hall favorite, incarnating some of the baser—or, perhaps, “savage”—aspects of civilization,15 she has developed into a successful business woman and a community leader by means of a strength and a sense of responsibility that were hers from the start.

Lily's independence and the Outlaw's helplessness are demonstrated throughout the play—especially as Lily, with Archie's help, saves the Outlaw's life after he takes an overdose of morphine as a self-inflicted punishment for shooting Henry. Lily and Archie spend a good portion of Act II “walking” him back to life, but after physically saving him, they metaphorically murder his savage outlaw identity. Archie picks up the Outlaw's satchel, empties “… the newspaper articles, wanted posters and other bits of evidence of the Outlaw's exploits” (p. 154) that make up its content into the campfire, and speaks a final eulogy: “All the outlaws are dead” (p. 154). As the play ends the Outlaw is thus freed of his past. Now choosing to be called “Doc,” he will return to civilization under Lily's protective eye.

More significant to the play's structure than the resolution of Lily and the Outlaw's relationship is Archie's growth as a person. It is Archie who undergoes the most extreme transformation—evolving from a “mama's boy” to a self-sufficient human being. Indeed, the play's structure is less a reflection of the interaction of civilization and savagery than of Archie's coming of age. After having helped save the Outlaw's life, Archie is ecstatic: “I feel great! I never saved anybody's life before. The way I feel, I could thresh this whole field myself before they get back. … We did it! We saved his life!” (p. 148). Archie is proud of having been able to act positively during a moment of crisis. This celebratory mood climaxes with Archie and Lily's making love—a union or “marriage” unlike the kind of union or “marriage” of civilization and savagery presented in Moody's The Great Divide. This union—a celebration of Archie's newly born ability to take responsibility for his own life—epitomizes his willingness to embrace the realistic but civilized responsibilities embodied by Lily.16 Lily functions here less as Archie's lover than as his teacher—thus further emphasizing her connection to the tradition of the frontier woman as civilizing “schoolmarm.”

Moreover, in The Holdup, unlike Moody's play, the celebratory “marriage” does not provide the kind of closure or resolution offered by melodrama. Archie and Lily's relationship is temporary: at the play's end, Lily goes off with the Outlaw, and Archie goes off to an uncertain future. His fate is ambiguous. Archie has grown up and is now ready to take on the real responsibilities imposed by history. Heading eastward, he will join the army and fight in World War I—and yet he has no romantic illusions about this war. The old frontier myth which revolves around a climactic “marriage” of male/West/savagery with female/East/civilization gives way to a more realistic vision of the frontier experience as a growth-process pointing toward some nebulous future climax or resolution.

As a mode of structuring the frontier myth, the marriage rite is thus replaced by the puberty or initiation rite17—that is, in The Holdup, the frontier experience has become a rite of initiation during which the adolescent protagonist, perhaps representing an “adolescent” United States, learns to embrace an ambiguous historical destiny. Indeed, Joseph Campbell's discussion of “the traditional idea of initiation” seems relevant in this context:

The traditional idea of initiation combines an introduction of the candidate into the techniques, duties, and prerogatives of his vocation with a radical readjustment of his emotional relationship to the parental images. The mystagogue (father or father-substitute) is to entrust the symbols of office only to a son who has been effectually purged of all inappropriate infantile cathexes—for whom the just, impersonal exercise of the powers will not be rendered impossible by unconscious (or perhaps even conscious and rationalized) motives of self-aggrandizement, personal preference, or resentment. Ideally the invested one … is competent … now to enact himself the role of the initiator, the guide, the sun door, through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of “good” and “evil” to an experience of the majesty of cosmic law, purged of hope and fear, and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being.18

For Campbell such an initiation signifies the point when “the child outgrows the popular idyl of the mother breast and turns to face the world of specialized adult action” passing “into the sphere of the father—who becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task, and for his daughter, of the future husband.”19 In The Holdup, Archie is, of course, the novice and his initiator, the “father-substitute,” is—ironically—the mother figure, Lily. Like the spiritual guide described by Campbell, Lily leads Archie to a full understanding of adulthood. At the risk of suggesting incestual relations, it is important to recall that Lily even initiates him into the mysteries of sexual love. Ostensibly, Archie turns from his natural “mother's breast” to enter “the world of specialized adult action”—in this case, embodied by the new mother figure, Lily. At the play's end, it is, in fact, Lily who promises to sever Archie's tie to his natural mother:

… Do me a favor.
I owe you one.
Write to my mother. It's Olivia Tucker, Clovis. Tell her to take care of herself. Tell her—
—you did what you could. You'll write when you can.
Yeah. Thanks.

(p. 155)

Paralleling the passage from the natural mother's sphere to that of the “world mother” is another perhaps more significant progression. Archie turns not only from his natural mother's breast but also from the “inappropriate infantile cathexes” or delusions that are embodied by the Outlaw and that obsess Henry. Indeed, the context of an initiation rite provides a means of assimilating the play's darkest moment, Henry's death, into the overall action of the play. As Mircea Eliade has written, initiation rites “precisely because they bring about the neophyte's introduction into the realm of the sacred, imply death to the profane condition, that is, death to childhood.”20 Focusing on the role of “death” in initiation ceremonies, Eliade claims that “it is only in initiation that death is given a positive value.”21 If the two brothers in this play, like the two brothers in True West, represent two facets of a composite American character, then Henry's death becomes a necessary prelude to Archie's assumption of adult status and is therefore “positive.” Archie rises above infantile savage/male fantasies to assume a responsible role in the larger world. Norman thus reinterprets the traditional initiation rite. She reverses and redefines the categories delimiting the progression of the novice. Here, initiation is the gateway not from the mother's sphere to the father's, but from the father's sphere (the Outlaw) to the Mother's (Lily). Norman “feminizes” the traditional initiation rite and, consequently, escapes the danger of restructuring the male-centered frontier myth into a new male-centered initiation rite.

Inverting the traditional initiation rite, Norman presents a feminist version of the frontier myth that has general significance. Here, the frontier experience is the source of neither American uniqueness nor present day contradictions in American cultural life, but functions as a paradigm of a kind of maturation which was and remains relevant to American development. Other American women playwrights of the 1980s have written frontier plays taking a similar approach. In plays, like Going to See the Elephant (1982), created by Karen Hensel, Patti Johns, Elana Kent, Sylvia Meredith, Elizabeth Lloyd Shaw, and Laura Toffenetti,22 and Abundance (1989), by Beth Henley, the categories of civilization and savagery, as they appear in the traditional frontier myth, are shown to be too simplistic to provide insight into the frontier experience. In these plays as well as in a musical like Quilters (1984), by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, the frontier experience is viewed less as an end in itself than as a gateway to “an experience of the majesty of cosmic law.” Marsha Norman may or may not have paved the way for these other frontier plays, but she took steps toward reformulating the frontier myth, and her work along with that of these other playwrights may help to change the way in which the frontier Western past is viewed and (ab)used in the future.


  1. In this regard, see Jill Dolan's discussion of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother in the chapter “Feminism and the Canon: The Question of Universality” in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, 1988), pp. 19-40.

  2. Norman quoted in “In the Wake of Norman's Pulitzer,” Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1983, Calendar: p. 16.

  3. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in The Frontier in American History (Tucson, 1986), p. 1.

  4. Frederick Jackson Turner, “Contributions of the West to American Democracy” in The Frontier in American History, p. 259.

  5. Ibid., pp. 259-60.

  6. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” pp. 3-4.

  7. Ibid., p. 4.

  8. Idem.

  9. In this regard, see Jerry Pickering, “William Vaughn Moody: The Dramatist as Social Philosopher,” Modern Drama, 14 (1971), 93-103. Pickering discusses The Great Divide in terms of the early twentieth-century context defined by the writings of William James and Turner.

  10. In viewing the hero as the exponent of “savagery” and the heroine as the exponent of “civilization,” Moody adopts an out-dated traditional approach to gender distinctions. Such an approach is not unusual in nineteenth-century, frontier plays. In her dissertation, “Rhetorical, Dramatic, Theatrical and Social Contexts of Selected American Frontier Plays, 1871-1906” (University of Iowa, 1972), Rosemarie Bank refers to the fact that women in nineteenth-century frontier plays frequently function as “teachers of morality, basic education, and culture.” Interestingly, she writes that this role is “regarded as not only vital to the members of a given family but vital to society as well. Thus, possible dissatisfactions with the restrictive domestic pursuits of women is avoided by giving ‘women's work’ a serious, or seemingly serious, and even elevated position within the social hierarchy as a whole” (Bank, p. 191). Regarding the place of women in the frontier myth as “schoolmarms” and symbols of civilization, also see John Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1984), pp. 75-6.

  11. In this regard, see Robert G. Athearn, “‘The Dreaming is Finished’” in The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (Lawrence, Kansas, 1986), pp. 78-104.

  12. For a lengthy discussion of the way in which The Petrified Forest and The Time of Your Life treat the frontier myth, please see my essay “‘Old West’/New ‘West’: The New Frontier in Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (1934) and Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1939),” The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, 1,2 (1989), 17-33. The discussion of the development of the frontier myth in nineteenth-century drama presented here parallels a similar discussion in that paper.

  13. Several critics writing about Sam Shepard and True West have noted a connection between Shepard's work and Turner's theories. For instance, see Ron Mottram, Inner Landscapes: The Theatre of Sam Shepard (Columbia, Missouri, 1984), pp. 136-37, 147, and Lynda Hart, Sam Shepard's Metaphorical Stages (New York, 1987), pp. 97-99. Also see my essay “‘The Frontier Myth’ on Stage: From the Nineteenth Century to Sam Shepard's True West,Western American Literature, 24, 3 (1989), 225-41. All further references to True West (New York, 1981) will be cited in the text.

  14. Marsha Norman, The Holdup in Four Plays (New York, 1988), p. 107. All further references to this play will be cited in the text.

  15. Regarding this darker side of the frontier woman stereotype, see Cawelti, pp. 75-6.

  16. In this regard, it is worth noting that Rudolf Erben views Archie's coming of age as another manifestation of a general movement in this play: “… everybody comes of age just like the American West” [“The Western Holdup Play: the Pilgrimage Continues,” in Western American Literature, 23, 4 (1989), 319]. Erben is interested in this play not as a statement on the frontier western myth but as a statement on the socio-political development of the West.

  17. In referring to “myths” and “rites” in this discussion, I am assuming that the long-lasting debate over which came first is as irrelevant as Clyde Kluckhohn claimed when he wrote: “To a considerable degree, the whole question of the primacy of ceremonial or mythology is as meaningless as all questions of ‘the hen or the egg’ form. What is really important … is the intricate interdependence of myth (which is one form of ideology) with ritual and many other forms of behavior” [“Myths and Rituals: A General Theory,” reprinted in Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, ed. John B. Vickery (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1966), p. 37].

  18. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series 17 (Princeton, 1972), pp. 136-37.

  19. Ibid., p. 136.

  20. Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1958), p. 18.

  21. Ibid., p. 136.

  22. Going to See the Elephant is perhaps not as well known as the other plays mentioned here; however, it was very well-received in Los Angeles when it opened at Los Angeles Repertory Theatre in 1982, and it was listed as one of the “Other Outstanding New Plays Cited By American Theatre Critics Association Members” in The Best Plays of 1982-83, ed. Otis L. Guernsey Jr. (New York, 1983), pp. 62-3.

Katherine H. Burkman (essay date 1990)

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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 writing in “a great dramatic tradition” who, “young as she is, has the potential to preserve and revitalize it.”1 Another critic appreciates Norman's dissection of the “mythic relationship between mother and daughter”2 in the play. Escaping the weaknesses of melodrama, Norman offers a drama that not only leads up to the carefully planned suicide of Jessie Cates, for which Jessie prepares her mother, Thelma, during the play, but one that also leads to a quickened sense of life. Departing from an overt dramatization of a split self in an earlier drama, Getting Out (1977), in which the author explored the relationship between Arlene, newly released from prison, and her earlier, juvenile delinquent self, Arlie, Norman offers in 'night, Mother a dramatization of doubling between mother and daughter that leads to a character integration her earlier heroine sought in vain.

One way of approaching this drama is by looking at its banal surface in the context of the underlying mythic relationships of Demeter and Kore (Persephone), a relationship that offers clues to the mother-daughter relationship in the play. C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, in their exploration of the Mysteries of Eleusis in Essays on a Science of Mythology, suggest an essential oneness of the Demeter and Kore figures in mythology, a oneness that is actually threefold, also embracing the third mythological figure, Hecate. Commenting on the identification of mother and daughter, Jung writes, “Demeter and Kore, mother and daughter, extend the feminine consciousness both upwards and downwards. They add an ‘older and younger,’ ‘stronger and weaker’ dimension to it and widen out the narrowly limited conscious mind bound in space and time, giving it intimations of a greater and more comprehensive personality which has a share in the eternal course of things.”3 Much of the power of Norman's play emerges from a mythical identification of mother and daughter that leaves Thelma bereft of the daughter she thought she had possessed but ironically at one with that daughter from whom she has derived new strength and life. More cathartic than depressing, the play reveals a bond between mother and daughter and a mythical sense of their oneness that allows for what Kerényi, commenting on Jung's ideas, calls “being in death.4

Although Jessie seems like a very different protagonist in her quiet determination and lack of pretension, she is, in some ways, descended from such self-destructive and flamboyant heroines as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Strindberg's Miss Julie. Like Hedda and Miss Julie, Jessie is her father's daughter (like Hedda, Jessie kills herself with her father's pistol), and she has identified with his kind of withdrawal: “I want to hang a big sign around my neck, like Daddy's on the barn. GONE FISHING” (27),5 she explains to her mother. Like Hedda and Miss Julie, Jessie finds some measure of redemption in a suicide that is partly an escape from a world in which she lacks the strength to act with freedom or control; but her suicide also is a way of taking control by embracing a death that affords that freedom and fulfillment denied her in life.

What distinguishes Jessie from these former heroines is her reaching out to her mother in her last hours of life, recognizing her mother's greater appetite for life, arranging for the continued availability of the sweets her mother craves as a consolation for her empty existence but also offering her the more nourishing truths that may sustain her after her daughter's death. As she plays the role of mother to her mother, a role she has assumed after her husband has deserted her and she has moved into her mother's house, Jessie may be understood as both the Kore figure who feels used or raped and the Demeter figure who shares in that sense of loss and has lost the zest for life. As the drama progresses, however, we see not only the reversal of the Demeter-Kore role as daughter plays mother but also the common ground that binds the two, both in their shared sense of being used and in their deep feeling for each other. This kind of mutual participation in an archetype is that Jung suggests rescues the individual from isolation and restores her to wholeness.6 Only a sense of incipient wholeness allows Jessie's mother to accept her daughter's death, to allow her that freedom, and to understand her choice.

The major difference between Jessie Cates and her mother seems to be a question of appetite. As Jessie readies herself for suicide and attempts to prepare her mother for her life without her, the focus is on food. Mama opens the play with her assertion of appetite.

(Unwrapping the cupcake.) Jessie, it's the last snowball, sugar. Put it on the list, O.K.? And we're out of Hershey bars, and where's that peanut brittle? I think maybe Dawson's been in it again. I ought to put a big mirror on the refrigerator door. That'll keep him out of my treats, won't it? You hear me, honey? (Then more to herself) I hate it when the coconut falls off. Why does the coconut fall off?


Mama is concerned with not running out of the sweets that sustain and console her in what we soon learn is an arid existence. Significantly, she addresses her daughter as sugar and honey here as well as in subsequent exchanges.

Although Jessie assures her mother that she has ordered a “whole case” of snowballs, she is intent in the opening moments of the drama on preparing for her death by locating her father's gun and collecting enough old towels for the mess her death will make. There is nothing sweet about Jessie as she determines that “garbage bags would do if there's enough” (6). Later, when she tries to explain her failed marriage to her mother and why her husband has chosen to leave her behind, Jessie notes: “You don't pack your garbage when you move” (61). What Jessie has bought in a “feed store” her brother Dawson told her about is bullets, not food.

The question of appetite is at the heart of Mama's choice for life and Jessie's choice for death. When they discuss Jessie's son Ricky, who has become a thief, Mama looks on the bright side and sees Ricky's redemption in terms of food. Ricky, she suggests, may simply be going through a bad period, mixing with the wrong people. “He just needs some time, sugar. He'll get back in shoool or get a job or one day you'll get a call and he'll say he's sorry for all the trouble he's caused and invite you out for supper someplace dress-up” (11). Such a proposition has no value for Jessie, however, who says, “Those two rings he took were the last valuable things I had” (11), and she insists she would turn him in if she knew where he was. Jessie knows she could choose to live rather than to die, but she lacks the appetite for the choice. She tells her mother that she wondered after her decision at Christmas time to kill herself what might make it worth while staying alive and says, “It was maybe if there was something I really liked, like maybe if I really liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something, that might be enough” (77).

Appetite is also a major concern in the Demeter myth for both mother and daughter. When she learns of her daughter's rape by Hades, who has taken her to be queen of the Underworld, Demeter will neither eat nor drink. In the myth, however, the implications of this loss of appetite involve the fertility of the earth itself and the revolution of the seasons. As goddess of the corn, not only does Demeter refrain from eating; she also will not permit the crops to grow, depriving mankind as well as herself of food and the gods of their sacrifices. Only the restoration of her daughter will bring the return of spring. Persephone as Kore, the maiden, also refuses food in the Underworld, but her eating of pomegranate seeds just before her return to her mother ensures her marriage to Hades and her return for three months of each year to his abode.

Here the paradox of the myth may offer a clue to the paradox of the play. The pomegranate, although it ties the Persephone-Kore figure to the Underworld and thus to death, is associated with fertility and sexuality. Geoffrey Grigson describes the fruit as “enclosed by the enlarged calyx—a womb with an opening, a womb packed with seeds of translucent pink … The pomegranate, then, is the physical secrecy and portal of the feminine, whether for Aphrodite, or any related goddess of fertility and the sexual.”7 Not just a fruit of the Underworld, the pomegranate is one of Demeter's “fruits of the earth” as well, symbolizing marriage, in this case the marriage of Persephone and Hades for the winter of each year. The fruit is paradoxical in that it ties the daughter figure simultaneously to life on earth and to death in the Underworld—in other words, to life's cycle with its death and rebirth.

Although on one level the play deals with Mama as a Demeter figure trying to rescue her child from death, to talk her out of it, one senses as the play unfolds that on a deeper level it is about the reclamation of the mother from death, that it is about Thelma's rebirth. However, because there is a doubling of mother and daughter in the drama that is similar to its doubling in the myth, one senses at the end of the play a rebirth that combines mother and daughter as aspects of one entity.

Despite differences in Mama and Jessie's appetite for food and life and their different attitudes toward death, Mama fearing that which her daughter seeks to embrace, Norman establishes the similarity between mother and daughter early in the play. When Mama thinks Jessie is looking for her father's gun to protect them from thieves, she says, “We don't have anything anybody'd want, Jessie. I mean, I don't even want what we got, Jessie” (10). Jessie's “Neither do I,” of course, has a more ominous meaning because one senses that the “protection” she seeks with the gun is not from thieves but from life even before she announces her intention to commit suicide. Still, neither woman values what she has.

Mother and daughter also share the sense of violation that permeates the Demeter myth. Some versions of the myth depict Demeter as herself raped by Poseidon, lord of the sea, while searching for her violated and kidnapped daughter.8 In the play, mother and daughter feel violated by their respective husbands. Mama admits to Jessie that she didn't love her husband, who “wanted a plain country woman and that's what he married, and then he held it against me the rest of my life like I was supposed to change and surprise him somehow” (46). Although Jessie did love her husband, she expresses a similar feeling about their relationship, explaining to her mother that it was a “relief” when Cecil left. “I never was what he wanted to see, so it was better when he wasn't looking at me all the time” (61). As Jenny S. Spencer has noted, “Despite differences in personality and coping patterns, the two characters share similar attitudes toward the meaninglessness of their lives, toward the demands of their husbands and children.”9

Even concerning appetite, one comes to see that the differences between mother and daughter are less profound than they would appear. Rather than having a true appetite for life, Mama's appetite for sweets symbolizes her need for a slave for her death-in-life existence, a way of filling up an emptiness and of hiding from her fear of life and death. One begins to see that she, like Jessie, also is in death's grip.

Although Jessie has no particular fondness for any food, Mama has rejected almost all nourishing foods. In her state of agony over her daughter's announced suicide, she even rejects the proferred sweets that are her main source of consolation if not nourishment, and she insists that she will not cook if Jessie carries through with her plan. She wants her daughter to throw out all but one pan: “I'm not going to cook,” she explains, and adds, significantly, “I never liked it, anyway. I like candy. Wrapped in plastic or coming in sacks. And tuna. I like tuna. I'll eat tuna, thank you” (51).

Mama also informs Jessie that she doesn't like carrots, and after making cocoa at her daughter's request, she finds it as undrinkable, because of the milk, as her daughter does. “God, this milk in here” (45), Mama complains, and Jessie agrees; “I thought it was my memory that was bad, but it's not. It's the milk, all right” (45). When Mama tells Jessie she doesn't need to finish it, she might be talking about Jessie's life, which Jessie has decided not to finish.10 Perhaps it is this shared and symbolic distaste for milk that helps Mama finally to accept and understand Jessie's decision.

Jessie's preparations for her mother's welfare, however, involve milk. She has told the grocer to deliver “a quart a week no matter what you said” (54), she informs Mama, thus insisting on offering her mother the nourishment that she herself rejects, recognizing in her mother a life force that she lacks. Mama's old glasses, it also turns out, are “in an old Milk of Magnesia box” (56), further information she garners from her daughter that suggests Thelma's gaining insight during the play as well as the nourishment that such insight affords her.11 When she grasps the hot chocolate pan at the end of the play, holding “it tight like her life depended on it” (89), something Jessie has advised her to clean after hearing the shot, calling her son, and waiting for him to arrive, Thelma is doing what she said she would not and could not. She is finding a way to go on, a way pointed out to her by her daughter, who, by taking control of her life by killing herself, has also offered her mother a new sense of life and strength to live it.12 One shares Mama's feelings of devastation at the end of the play but also feels a sense of her impending renewal.

The seeds of that renewal, like the pomegranate seeds of the myth, involve a quickened sense of life through the gaining of a quickened sense of death; Mama must face that death which Jessie chooses; must, so to speak, taste it, if she is to achieve a reversal of her death-in-life existence and achieve that “being in death” that Kerényi suggests is at the center of the Demeter-Kore myth.13 Explaining her fear of death to her daughter, Mama describes death as “some killer on the loose, hiding out in the back yard just waiting for me to have my hands full someday and how am I supposed to protect myself anyhow when I don't know what he looks like and I don't know how he sounds coming up behind me like that or if it will hurt or take very long or what I don't get done before it happens” (77-78). Mama might be describing some modern version of Hades, waiting to pounce, violate her, and carry her off to the Underworld.

After this outburst, however, Mama confronts death in her own daughter, whom she now sees is beyond persuasion, “Who am I talking to? You're gone already, aren't you? I'm looking right through you!” (78). Only by coming to see her daughter as gone, unreclaimable, married to Hades, and by experiencing her daughter's acceptance of her own lostness and death can Mama undergo an integration with her daughter that is the only possible source of renewal at hand.

As she battles with Jessie over the impending suicide, partly blaming herself for urging Jessie to move in with her after her divorce, Mama senses in some profound way the doubling of herself and her daughter.

Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie. You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger, without doing it to me. That's right. You might as well kill me as you, Jessie, it's the same thing. This has to do with me, Jessie.


Here Mama is partly expressing her identification with Jessie as a part of herself—but as that part Jessie is also the antagonist, the killer. Otto Rank has discussed this aspect of doubling in which the double symbolizes death so that encountering one's double is a kind of encounter with one's own mortality. Although doubling, Rank explains, grows out of a narcissistic inability to love others and a fear of death, resisting exclusive self-love leads to the doubling and a projection of hate or fear onto the other self.14 Mama's slow acceptance of Jessie's decision to die is a movement toward acceptance of her own mortality. That this is a life-giving experience becomes clear as Thelma begins to accept the impending separation and hence the death of her dependency. Mama's expression of identification with Jessie—“This has to do with me Jessie” (72)—is partly an expression of dependency. Realizing Jessie's loneliness—“How could I know you were so alone?” (88), she begs, addressing the now locked door—her final words after she hears the shot display a moment of true recognition. “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (89).15 Mother and daughter merge as they separate, the death of one giving life to the other.

Similarly, it is only through an anticipated encounter with death, one that Jessie associates as a merging with her withdrawn father, a gentle and quiet Hades, that Jessie has been able to achieve the independence that she manages at last to pass on to her mother. When Thelma claims possession—“You are my child!”—Jessie explains that she is “what became of your child” (76). She has decided not “to stay” because she feels she has never shown up as a person and that she never will. Again, there is a paradoxical sense of identity here as Jessie, taking control and guiding her mother to acceptance, finally does seem to arrive as a person.

If Jessie were entirely calm as she approached her death, the play might lose some of the tension that comes from her vulnerability that lasts, despite her overall control, until the end; thus both Jessie and Mama experience growth during the play. Learning from her distraught and angry mother that the epilepsy she thought derived from a fall from a horse as an adult had been with her since childhood and was probably inherited from her father, who had similar seizures, Jessie feels that this knowledge was her right, that it was hers to know (70). She is hurt further to learn from her mother that her husband Cecil had another woman, the daughter of her mother's friend Agnes. Jessie's ability to digest these new hurts without loss of control is a measure of the sense of self she has achieved now that she has decided to protect herself from further hurt through death. Significantly, her seizures, which are like minor descents into the Underworld and represent a loss of control and self, have been brought under control by medication, and it has been more than a year since her last one. No longer overtaken by Hades and violated by him, she is choosing to consummate her union with him.

More information Jessie gains during the drama involves the somewhat comic Hecate figure, Agnes. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest account of the rape of Persephone, there is, according to Kerényi, a doubling not only of Demeter with Persephone but also with the moon goddess Hecate.16 Hearing the cries of the raped Persephone in her cave, Hecate meets Demeter and together, torches in hand, they seek knowledge of the lost child from the sun. Various versions of the myth, according to Kerényi, depict now Demeter, now Hecate seeking Persephone in the Underworld, these different versions suggesting an underlying unity between the goddesses.17 Because Hecate also is sometimes portrayed as queen of the Underworld, she may also be identified with Persephone. Despite her slight role in the myth, Kerényi suggests that Hecate may even be its primary goddess on some level.18 Whether one considers her in her depictions as three-headed like her dog Cerberus, or as having influence over either the three realms of heaven, earth, and sea, or heaven, earth, and the Underworld, she may be understood as one who encompasses the other two figures in the myth.

Agnes, who is only discussed by Jessie and Mama in the play, seems to have more of the crone and witchlike attributes that Hecate has developed over time. Surrounded by birds and living on okra, even in the winter, Agnes is described by Thelma as being “as crazy as they come … a lunatic” (42)—hence her lunar aspect or association with the moon. She does not help Thelma with Jessie, avoiding the house when Jessie is home because she associates Jessie with death and she fears that it is catching (43). But if her avoidance of Jessie seems to preclude her Hecate role on the mythic level of the play's action, her setting fire to her houses may be associated with Hecate as a torch bearer bringing light. Agnes's behavior is akin to Jessie's suicide and is applauded by mother and daughter, although they consider it “crazy.” Apparently Agnes has set eight fires already, waking up people so they won't be hurt and serving lemonade. Seeking to rationalize this behavior, Mama explains, “The houses they lived in, you knew they were going to fall down anyway, so why wait for it, is all I could ever make out about it. Agnes likes a feeling of accomplishment” (39). Jessie's “Good for her” (39) indicates her appreciation of Agnes deciding to terminate before termination date, a similar choice to her own, and when she expresses doubt that Agnes would burn down a house now since her dead husband could not build a new one, Mama also appreciates the act: “Be exciting, though, if she did. You never know” (40), is Mama's response.

Although Mama's picture of Agnes surrounded by birds, living on okra, and burning down houses may be an exaggeration, it has some of the festive quality that is associated not only with the torch-bearing Hecate but with Demeter in her role as goddess of the grain. One may liken the burning and rebuilding of houses to the dying and returning moon (Hecate) or the dying and returning corn (Demeter or Persephone). Kerényi reminds us that “Whether it is parched or baked as bread, death by fire is the fate of the grain. Nevertheless, every sort of grain is eternal.”19 In the Demeter myth, Demeter treats the child Demophoön with fire in an attempt to make him immortal, as though he were the grain.20 Jessie recognizes Agnes's value for her mother, and despite being hurt by what she learns of Agnes's fear of her, she suggests that her mother may like to live with Agnes after she is gone. Thelma, however, doubtless will be able to live alone. In the midst of telling Jessie about Agnes, Thelma insists that three marshmallows are the best way, the “old way” to have hot chocolate. She is imbibing not only Jessie's strength but Agnes's strength as well. She will be the primary goddess among the three in this drama.

Marsha Norman surely did not attempt to make 'night, Mother a modern version of the Demeter myth. The rhythms and resonance of that myth, however, give the play, despite its great sadness and sense of loss, its quickened sense of life. “Hades,” it has been noted, “is the god presiding over our descents, investing the darkness in our lives, our depressions, our anxieties, our emotional upheavals and our grief with the power to bring illumination and renewal.”21 Jessie embraces this god, and it is he that she introduces to her mother, who perhaps is able to see him more clearly through the image of Agnes's fires, a torch that burns to help one find what is lost. Mama learns from Jessie what it is that she used to whisper about after dinner with her withdrawn father—“His life, I guess,” Jessie reveals. “His corn. His boots. Us. Things. You know” (47). And now Mama does.


  1. Robert Brustein, “Don't Read This Review!,” New Republic, 2 May 1983, p. 25.

  2. Patricia Basworth, “Some Secret Worlds Revealed,” Working Woman 8 (October 1983): 204.

  3. C. G. Jung, “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore,” in C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 162.

  4. C. Kerényi, “Epilegomena: The Miracle of Eleusis,” in C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 182.

  5. Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). Subsequent references are cited parenthetically by page number.

  6. Jung, “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore,” p. 162.

  7. Geoffrey Grigson, The Goddess of Love: The Birth, Triumph, Death and Return of Aphrodite (New York: Stein and Day, 1977), p. 202.

  8. C. Kerényi, “Kore,” in C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 123.

  9. Jenny S. Spencer, “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-drama of Female Identity,” Modern Drama 30, no. 3 (September 1987): 371-72.

  10. This idea was suggested in an unpublished paper on 'night, Mother written by Linda Brown, 1986.

  11. Debbie McCormick, “The Use of Food in 'night, Mother,” unpublished paper, 1986.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Kerényi, “Epilegomena: The Miracle of Eleusis,” p. 182.

  14. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, ed. and trans. Harry Tucker, Jr. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971), pp. 71-73.

  15. Inexplicably, the otherwise sensitive film version of 'night, Mother leaves out this crucial line.

  16. Kerényi, “Kore,” pp. 110-11.

  17. Ibid., p. 110.

  18. Ibid., p. 113.

  19. Ibid., p. 116.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Arianna Stassinopoulis and Roloff Beny, The Gods of Greece (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983), p. 187.

Stephanie Coen (essay date March 1992)

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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 month-long run at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse. In New York, there have been meetings with her collaborators to plan road-tour changes in The Secret Garden, the Broadway show many said could not be made and would not succeed—for which Norman, in an auspicious musical-theatre debut that left critics baffled and audiences elated, authored the book and lyrics.

This confluence of productions, rare by almost any standard, is particularly so for a playwright whose career has progressed in fits and starts. Norman became an overnight sensation twice when Getting Out, her searing first play, debuted in Louisville in 1977 and then moved the following year to New York for a lengthy Off-Broadway run. An uncompromising drama abut a woman recently paroled from prison (and featuring her wild, violent younger self as an onstage character), Getting Out was justly acclaimed for the emotional impact of its spare, gritty language and frank presentation of sexual and psychological abuse.

The plays that followed—Circus Valentine,Third and Oak,The Holdup, all of which were developed or premiered at ATL—were by all accounts less successful artistically as well as commercially. Then, in 1982, Norman wrote 'night, Mother, which premiered that year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. before moving to Broadway in 1983. With one simple declarative statement (“I'm going to kill myself, Mama”), Norman plunged audiences into a ferocious battle over nothing less than the validity of the life itself. As a paradigm of Norman's writing at its best, however, the intermissionless two-character drama, recipient of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, covers a broader terrain: Before she can or will kill herself, the play's central character, a divorced, epileptic, no longer youthful woman named Jessie, must unlock the truth of her past.

Today Norman credits 'night, Mother with “helping to open up a national dialogue about forbidden issues”—suicide and, to a lesser extent, epilepsy. Indeed, if the play were written now, Jessie's decision to exert control over her life by choosing her right to die would undoubtedly be judged in the context of the “how to” suicide manual Final Exit, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who made headlines recently as a proponent of doctor-assisted suicide.

In 1983, though, it was Norman who made headlines, landing on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and being touted in the pages of Rolling Stone as one of the Great Faces of '83. And the play was embroiled in a controversy of another sort. At the juncture, feminists in the arts and literary worlds were caught in the glare of a media that prides itself on new discoveries (Mel Gussow's article in the Times, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theatre,” for instance, placed Norman alongside such contemporary writers as Beth Henley and Tina Howe, but failed to acknowledge the precedents or wider context of feminist theatre), as they simultaneously struggled with their own questions as to how to situate 'night, Mother within a still-developing feminist canon. Feminists found themselves divided on how to receive the play, with many assailing it for presenting suicide as an unhappy woman's only option and for examining her life in relation to absent men: husband, father, brother, son.

Norman's own feminism, however, is not defined by political positions, but by her attempts to illustrate in her dramas the specific choices, values and language relevant to women's lives. Asked by an interviewer several years ago if she considered herself a feminist writer, Norman replied, “If it's feminist to care about women's lives, yes, I'm a feminist writer. I don't have political points to make, although they are certainly made by the plays.” She clarified that position in another interview: Woman “can be, and indeed are, the central characters in their own lives.” Norman's plays, and in fact her career as a whole, reflect her emphatically stated desire to create valid and continuing models for feminism.

Understanding Norman's work in a feminist context is important not because she is a Woman Playwright or even a writer of Women's Literature (terms which Normans rejects as “little boxes” and which in the absence of a defining framework signify nothing), but because that context may provide a key to her authentic voice as a writer. While her output in the decade since 'night, Mother has been both continuous and prolific—encompassing theatre, film, television and a novel—the critical reception to many of her more recent efforts has been less than salutary. If, an Norman herself is not unwilling to suggest, her writing is sometimes viewed too narrowly as a reflection of her gender, it is precisely the tension between text, author and audience that has made Norman's stop-and-go career so interesting and so emblematic of the situation of women writers in the era of feminist backlash.

Norman, who admits to periods of despair but not bitterness over the course her career has taken, is equally inclined to rail against the critical establishment (“Critics have insisted on a very narrow, misinformed and delusioned view of what it is they're seeing. There is a tendency for the press to dramatize arts news for the sake of entertainment. Will they quit hating something because the last one was really good and that makes a good story?”) and to blame a system that she feels has abandoned her generation of writers.

“The obsessive quest for ‘the unknown writer’ has had a terrible effect on known writers of quality and great art,” she says. “There are a number of people who have been through a very bad eight years or so of seeing all our regional theatre friends turn away from us, thinking, ‘Hey, I won't be able to get another reporter here if I do another play by so-and-so, but if I do a new play by somebody nobody knows, the reporters will come.’ This courting of the press is a particular problem for people who have had some success, some recognition.

“Since I came to New York I have been searching for a home in a New York institutional theatre,” she continues, “and I have not found one. The doors have not been open to me. Fortunately I've had [ATL artistic director] Jon Jory. Jon has continued to commission a play every two or three years, which is why I continue to write them. That's the kind of loyalty that we all dream about; in my life it's real in the person of Jon Jory.”

Norman has her own prescription for the relationship between artists and institutions. “Regional theatres should have a playwright to whom they are committed, whose every work they do, regardless of what the artistic director believes to be the value of that particular work. If I write a play a year for 15 years, at least three or four of them are going to be good, maybe more.”

While Norman is fiercely outspoken in her views on institutional theatre, she also acknowledges a “naturally perverse personality” that provoked her to respond to the Woman Playwright classification with a series of pieces centering on men, most significantly her ill-received 1984 drama, Traveler in the Dark. “The labeling caused me to respond, “I'm more than that,’” she says with a laugh, “but the fact is that I don't really want to write about men.” As of last month, with three new works on stage simultaneously (Sarah and Abraham, written on commission for ATL's 1988 Humana Festival and presented there as a workshop, has its first full production at George Street), Norman seems refocused on her most essential concerns and poised at a crossroads in her playwright career.

Neither Sarah and Abraham nor D. Boone had begun rehearsals when Norman and I met, but it is clear that in both works Norman is speaking once again to and for the lives of women. While the plays have themes quite distinct from any feminist propagandizing—Norman describes Sarah and Abraham as being about “the disintegration of a marriage due to commercial factors” and D. Boone as an examination of “how to be heroic in the modern world”—both do position women as their central characters. It will be interesting to see if Norman achieves in these plays her own ambition to “bring women's literature in front of the public” and at the same time deepens the themes that characterize her body of work.

Motifs recur throughout Norman's plays like a Zeitgeist: the relationship between parent and child, usually mother and daughter; the inescapable encroachment of the past the present; and, perhaps most tellingly, the struggle between rationalism and faith. The plays encourage the possibility of religious faith, but with choice as an essential ingredient: Faith—like feminism—demands autonomy. Norman, at 44, does not accept received wisdom easily. It's fitting that, discussing her characters, she says, “These people have learned to believe,” as if belief without struggle were merely blind obedience and not to be trusted.

Norman grew up the eldest of four children in a strict fundamentalist household in which church attendance was mandatory, the Bible was read every day and a “Call to Prayer” coin box was prominently displayed above the clock radio in every bedroom. Opposed from childhood to instruction that demanded “a real didactic view of the religious experience,” she remembers “fighting and questioning religious every step of the way. Yet,” she continues, “when you fight something long enough, it becomes a center pole right in your life and you count on it to be there to fight with. I still puzzle about the Bible stories; they're like these old mantras.”

Sarah and Abraham covers thematic territory encompassing feminism, motherhood, religious faith and theatre. This “backstage comedy-drama” set in a rehearsal hall explores the parallels between a group of actors and the biblical characters they are portraying. Norman admits to a lifelong obsession with the biblical story, calling it “the kind of thing that if you were a monk you could sit at the top of a mountain and think about your whole life.” Yet virtually all that is known about Sarah, she is quick to point out, is that, unable to conceive and in keeping with biblical law, she gave her husband the slave Hagar in order that he might have a child; Sarah then became pregnant at a very old age, bearing Isaac and enabling the patriarchal line to continue.

In Norman's revisionist view of the story, Sarah's pregnancy and Abraham's assumption of the patriarchal role are turning points not only in the accepted codification of religious experience, but also in the lives of Kitty and Cliff, the married couple portraying Sarah and Abraham. For Norman, the play is an attempt to bring feminist history up to date by rewriting—and righting—Sarah's story, and at the same time an opportunity to use the development and subsequent success of the play-within-a-play as a metaphor for fame and commercial success.

Cliff's transition, for example, from a second-fiddle, struggling actor into a big star parallels Abraham's movement away from being “Sarah's helper” into the dominant patriarchal figure. “Throughout the play,” Norman explains, “we see Cliff struggle and begin to transform himself into this commercial being. It was really easy for me to talk about that moment when Abraham is sitting out in the desert and decides to become a trader instead of a farmer. This is the same thing that happens when actors wandering around the streets of New York decide to go to the coast for TV pilot season.”

Just as Norman turns the biblical story upside down by characterizing Abraham's journey as a “descent into the patriarchal state,” her portrayal of Sarah as a dominant force wholly independent of her obligations as wife and mother is in line with such revisionist texts as Harold Bloom's The Book of J (which posits that the Bible was written by a woman) and a stream of feminist readings of early religion that have appeared in recent years. “Once people began to worship the known—the sun instead of the moon, trade instead of crops and farming—then religion came into the male domain,” Norman argues, suggesting that Sarah's role as the High Priestess of the Mesopotamian Moon Cult was consequently written out of the accepted history and biblical texts that are known today.

The contemporary aspects of Sarah and Abraham, however, recall Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, in which the title character ends the play as a single parent of an adopted child—a twist of plot that drew fire from those who rejected what they saw as Wasserstein's doom-and-gloom vision of a career woman ending up alone and dependent on a child for happiness. In Norman's play, Kitty is a successful actor “at the top of what she has chosen for her career, [until] events and her own values conspire to strip her of that, and make her a mother. That, in the world's view,” Norman notes, “is often seen as a demotion.”

Positioning the career-versus-child conflict as a central component of the play, Norman sees in Sarah and Abraham her own attempt “to look at the forces that work on people by gender and through history.” And while Norman stresses that the play is as much as illustration of Abraham/Cliff's journey as any other character, it is women who are traditionally objectified by gender, and Sarah/Kitty who is defined by motherhood. Sarah and Abraham's parallel stories bring the past into direct correlation with the present, each reflecting against and commenting on the other, until those definitions are almost literally turned upside-down. Even Monica, the character who plays Hagar in the play-within-a-play, moves from representing “all the girls in the ads, the creations of commercial enterprises,” to become an actor demanding that her character grow—what Norman likens to the Doublemint twins suddenly stepping out of their advertisement to say, ‘Look, I can think.’

If Norman's characters throughout her work—from Arlene in Getting Out and Jessie in 'night, Mother through her current creations—share any quality, it is their insistence on gaining and retaining control over their own lives. D. Boone's central character, a disillusioned cleaning woman who works in a historical museum, leaps into the past to seek out romance and adventure with the legendary Daniel Boone. Mary Lennox, the orphaned heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel The Secret Garden, discovers her own strength through the regenerative powers of a healing garden.

Arguably Norman's richest and most deeply felt work to date, The Secret Garden culminates in an expression of pure, unassailable grief, a statement of promises unfulfilled and dreams denied. For its author, however, the show was an opportunity to bring to fruition a life-long fantasy of writing a musical, and she is currently collaborating with composer Jule Styne on an adaptation of The Red Shoes, and with scenic designer and producer Heidi Landesman on another classic and much-loved text that she would not name.

Meanwhile, with Sarah and Abraham's run at the George Street Playhouse at an end, Norman is hopeful that the play will have another life, possibly on a commercial stage. If and until it does, she will continue to stake out her own territory. “In my personal scheme,” she says, “I'm going to do musicals on Broadway, because I love them and people want to see them. Straight plays I will do in the regional theatres. And when I really want to reach 90 million people, then I will do TV.”

Gerald Weales (review date 10 April 1992)

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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 American premiere of a work first performed at Vienna's English Theatre in 1987. It is a long, one-act play in which Jack's announcement that he is leaving Gillian—delivered three times after repeated entrances—is the trigger for a two-character conversation about a marriage that for thirty years has survived infidelity, familiarity, and boredom.

In a note in the program Albee makes a point of disassociating Marriage Play from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in response to the people, whoever they are, who ask if Jack and Gillian are “like George and Martha.” Of course, they are not, and the differences are a lot more central to the two plays than are the cosmetic ones Albee mentions. George and Martha live in an identifiable context and share a marriage that is as fulfilling as it is destructive; even their imaginary child has more substance than the children of Jack and Gillian, who exist only in one line of the play. Jack and Gillian have no context except the playing space—a minimally furnished elegant white set by Derek McLane—and the marriage, about which we hear a great deal, is little more than a verbal construct. Jack and Gillian seem much closer to Tobias and Agnes in A Delicate Balance, but their “suburban home” is farther along the road away from the verisimilitude that shares space with the dramatic metaphor of Virginia Woolf than the more accurately labeled “suburban house” of Balance. Tobias and Agnes have relatives and neighbors and a sense of disease that makes their anguish less hermetic than the conversation pit of Marriage Play.

There are occasional echoes of Virginia Woolf in Marriage Play; Gillian's sad wife-sad husband speech recalls, to the marked disadvantage of the later play, Martha's repeated, “George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.” Jack and Gillian—particularly Gillian—tease the language, worrying over the correct word, the correct pronunciation, the correct sentence structure, as though style were all, but there is nothing in Marriage Play to equal the precision of Agnes's opening speech in A Delicate Balance.

I can imagine Albee grumpily wondering why I insist on talking about his other plays when I am ostensibly reviewing Marriage Play. So what do we have here? Two performers wander restlessly around the stage, approaching and withdrawing from one another, until their two characters settle on a sturdy coffee table and join hands. There are some funny lines, some brief rhetorical niceties, an occasional extended aria (Gillian's fiction about the artist who killed himself for love of her), and it is easy to listen to since Albee writes listenable lines. But it is essentially pedestrian and—in terms of plot and character—does not add up to much. Jack is a wimp, wimpily played by Tom Klunis; Shirley Knight's Gillian is much more forceful. She has a speech in which she catalogues her wifely duties which include comforting him when he needs it, and the final joining of hands may be seen as more of the same—her consoling him on the fact that his declaration of revolutionary escape is never more than empty words. A good bad marriage, barely sustained again, in the best Albee tradition? Perhaps, but he did name his characters Jack and Jill and the intended image may be of their forever falling down hill, the pail always waterless.

Sarah and Abraham is also about a marriage coming apart, but there is much more than that to the play. Too much, perhaps. It takes place in a regional theater, not quite the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which commissioned the play and first presented it in some form although the George Street production is billed as a world premiere. The fictional theater is an improvisational one in which the company, with the help of a biblical expert, is working-up the story of Sarah and Abraham, and in which the private lives of the performers echo those of the characters they play. Sarah, the sustaining presence in the theater, loses Abraham, her ambitious husband, to Hagar, a former company member come back from Hollywood success to play this role. The director is God, of course, and also the father of the child which Sarah chooses to have at the expense of a chance for success in New York. Although she is hardly as old as the barren Sarah was when she bloomed and gave birth to Isaac, the actress is presumably at a last-chance age. It is probably an unnecessary quibble to point out that an engagement in the regional-theater series at the Joyce, which is where they are booked, is not likely to ring bells in New York for this biblical folderol—judging by what we see of it—let alone make a star of Abraham.

Norman has a number of ideas afloat and afoot in Sarah and Abraham. The biblical story, as we get it here, defines Sarah as the power figure in the community, the priest of a matriarchal religion which is replaced by the traditional Hebrew one when Abraham—just a Jewish businessman until then—becomes a patriarch when he is willing to kill Isaac at God's command. Similarly, the actor, who has always been a minor figure alongside his wife, attains stature through the director's demands on him, and is presumably ready for the success in the big world that his wife foregoes. There are feminist overtones in the momentary alliance of Sarah and Hagar, or the performers who play them, against Abraham and God, or the actor and the director, but there is an antifeminist suggestion in the assumption that a woman is wisest to give up priestly power or theatrical fame to bear a child. Although the serious intentions of the play are obvious from the beginning, the play works best in the first act when the role-performer connections are largely comic. In the second act, the device becomes ponderous, Sarah and Abraham never achieving the transcendence that the play requires. That may have been partly the fault of the performers in the production I saw (Tovah Feldshuh and William Katt), but, despite my admiration for Norman as playwright, I suspect that the problem is in the script itself.

William W. Demastes (essay date March 1993)

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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 (1983). During those years, feminist critics have both praised it and attacked it as a discourse on the condition of women in (post)modern society, disagreeing among themselves on whether to applaud the play's positive virtues of presenting female entrapment in a male-centered ideology or to condemn the play's defeatist resolution of suicide in the face of that entrapment. Beyond this character-based debate has arisen the equally heavily debated, more general criticism that female/feminist playwrights who utilize the realist format are implicitly permitting the feminist message to be subordinated to a restrictively dominating, male-constructed mode of presentation. While some critics challenge this position and defend Norman against the charge, others have virtually dismissed her precisely because of her format choices.

Critics outside the feminist dialectic similarly have both lauded the play and condemned it, on a point that in several ways relates to the above. The central issue here involves the concept of universality. Stanley Kauffmann, for example, observed in his 1983 article/review “More Trick than Tragedy”:

If the hoopla about Marsha Norman's new play were credible, the current state of American drama would be better than it is. … Because the play has only two characters, is in one long act, and ends with a death, some commentators have called it classical and have invoked Aristotle. I envy their rapture; the play itself keeps me from sharing it.2

Invoking Aristotelian criteria in an effort to accord the play universal status, critics seem forever to seek safe, secure traditions in their efforts to “understand” new works of art. Though Kauffmann may or may not have a valid justification for disliking the play, he is certainly justified here in questioning other critics' invocations of Aristotle. The play's formal allegiance to Aristotelian principles, even regular assertions of the play's cathartic results, appear little more than well-intentioned, though misdirected, Procrustean efforts to find a “place” for 'night, Mother in the American dramatic canon.

Indeed, in all of the above cases, the question of canonicity seems to be central. Does 'night, Mother rise to a universal level sufficiently to grant it canon status? Which canon? Should the play qualify to enter into a new and growing feminist canon, especially given the concern that it betrays feminism by presenting defeated women and by using an ideologically repressive form of expression—realism? What is this universality we are seeking? Is it gender-specific, and if so, are mother-daughter relationships less “universal” (less consequential, somehow) than the father-son relationships that dominate the canon?

Jill Dolan3 has traced the efforts of the male-dominated American theatre industry to find reason to include the play in its canon. She accurately illustrates that in that effort the industry has found ways to see the play as essentially unthreatening to it or its ideology. It has found ways to disarm any potential feminist message and as a result has granted Marsha Norman “token” status by allowing her to be considered a good but—by its standards—not a great playwright. Dolan's cataloguing and analysis of myriad male reviews of the play impressively support her case, demonstrating how Norman has been neutralized, made safe to enter the male-dominated canon. In fact, the play's vulnerability to co-option by the dominant power structure is a primary reason Dolan rejects the play as possibly feminist, concluding that “Norman's play can be considered for canonical membership because Norman is still writing for male spectators under the guise of universality” (39).

Jeanie Forte4 has crystallized the more general concern that any play that adopts a realist format, such as Norman's has, cannot be genuinely feminist, observing that “classic realism, always a reinscription of the dominant order, could not be useful for feminists interested in the subversion of a patriarchal social structure” (116). However, because realist plays like 'night, Mother at least find an audience, whereas alternative women's texts rarely do, Forte concedes that at least “'night, Mother may be perceived as a feminist text, in that it challenges on some material level the reality of male power” (123).

While both Dolan and Forte accept that the play in part presents a challenge to the reality of male power, neither can accept Jessie's suicide as a viable challenge to that power. And rightly so, for the “heroic” gesture of defiance appears so obviously defeatist. In fact, this ultimate message of defeat that troubles Dolan and Forte is what they see as central to the male gaze's reassuring sense of comfort in the play—after all, if female defiance leads simply to female eradication, then the challenge is not really threatening to social order.

The fact of Jessie's suicide is just that—a fact—and the attendant response of it signifying defeat is unavoidable. So, too, is the fact that Norman utilizes realism, a form that signals suspicions of submission to a dominant hierarchy. Both facts, in turn, lead to the documented fact that male critics are reassured that the play's message is not rebelliously threatening. Though I don't pretend to have a resolution to the ambivalent—at best—feelings that many have toward the play, I would like to suggest a more benign reason why male critics could ascribe universal status and canon consideration for the play. It need not be a cowardly bow to pressure to include at least one woman among its pantheon or to consider Norman for such selection because she's “safe.” Though no critic (male or female) to date has hit on this point, I would like to suggest that it is possible to see the play as “universal” because it has universal relevance that transcends gender-specific considerations even as it speaks to gender-specific issues. In fact, the question of canonicity (and of which canon) is not a central concern of mine. I would simply like to suggest that Norman's play presents a heretofore unseen, legitimate challenge to dominant hierarchy. I leave for others to decide what canon criteria 'night, Mother might meet as a result of this alternate perspective.

The first point is that Norman's use of realism does not have to be seen as ideologically predicated but can be seen rather as a theatrical expedient. As Dolan and Forte admit, produce a realist play and audiences will come. Norman's strategy here is not all that different from, say, a contemporary like David Mamet's when he argues, “This is the way we perceive a play: with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. So when one wants to best utilize the theatre, one would try to structure a play in a way that is congruent with the way the mind perceives it.”5 Note that for Mamet this is the way we perceive a play and not necessarily the way we must perceive reality, though admittedly the threat of confusion/conflation exists. For Mamet, however, the choices of creating a well-made play and using a realist format are clearly choices of artifice more than reflections of actual order.6 While other choices, even for Mamet, may better reflect alternate visions of order/reality that a playwright may want to present, Forte herself asks when speaking of Adrienne Kennedy, “does the text implicate classic realist structure in the workings of an oppressive culture, by frustrating the audience's expectations vis-à-vis narrative?” (121). Kennedy's works frustrate narrative expectations and avoid realist practices, but is she successful at undermining these elements and their ideology by ignoring them? It may in fact be beneficial to start with the structure that one is attacking, providing a clear object to assault. Though Kennedy may in fact offer such an object in her work through other means, one pragmatic benefit derived from employing the realist form itself in this task is the one Mamet makes: without a realist frame, production is less likely, and without production/transmission, no message of any sort exists. This latter issue of “producibility” is the problem that, Forte concedes, exists in the case of Kennedy, and that presumably would exist in the cases of Norman and Mamet as well, had they not chosen to activate at least the artifice that is well-made realism.

The obvious question that follows here is how we can distinguish realism as artifice from the identical-looking classical realism and its attendant ideology of dominant order reinscription. In the case of Norman, as well as in the case of many playwrights who appear to have selected realism as artifice (Rabe, Mamet, and Shepard are among this list), most observers have not noted the difference, primarily because the indicators are not easy to locate. And in every case where this confusion occurs, problems have arisen concerning the “quality” of the playwright involved. Because for each playwright the indicators assume a variety of unique manifestations, it is difficult to articulate a “formula” for identification, and a case-by-case examination is generally necessary to reveal the manifestations that take on the critical appearance of dramatic flaws from a traditionalist's/classicist's perspective but that are in fact deconstructive signals from this new perspective. With this matter of perspective in mind, it is critical to re-examine Norman's work.

I quote brief lines above from Samuel Beckett's Footfalls to suggest several points that may loosen the soil in which the seeds of 'night, Mother criticism have been sown. Footfalls involves a failed mother/daughter relationship and a totally despairing daughter in virtually every manner that 'night, Mother does. The only “plot” deviation—an admittedly significant one—lies in the fact that the despairing daughter, May, continues her pacing and doesn't commit suicide as Jessie does. But May doesn't do anything else, either, certainly nothing positive or productive. It is clear, though, that the pair of women in Footfalls is similar to the pair in 'night, Mother, the daughters in each pair desiring but not finding means of personal redemption, the mothers choosing to avoid despair by accepting much less out of life. Beckett's play, however, is generally studied from an “existential” perspective with little commentary on how materialist social conditions lead to the women's situations, while 'night, Mother seems to be exclusively confronted by critics with little more than social considerations in mind at all.

There are several possible reasons for the focus on social conditions in 'night, Mother. Norman does not have the “absurdist/existential” reputation that Beckett does. Her socially defined, “real” milieu does not readily encourage intellectual abstraction in the way that Beckett's non-realistic, theatrical presentation does. Further, Norman is a woman, so one seems “naturally” to assume, as so many critics have verified, that she's probably writing about real women, while Beckett may be assumed to be writing about archetypes.

Is it possible to see Norman with the same (or similar) critical eyes that we see Beckett? Does use of realism require us to assume the play is planted in a social context, reacting only on a social plane? Can we look at the set of 'night, Mother (with its white-light intensity) in the same abstracted way that we look at the set of, say, Waiting for Godot? As Norman's stage directions indicate, and as Dolan confirms, Norman clearly intended the play to have a non-specified locale, reflecting neither regional nor particular economic limitations for the women (25). Dolan, however, summarizes the unfortunate fact that set design decisions and actor selection ignored Norman's wishes (on Broadway, the arbiter of decisions for subsequent productions) and chose to reflect regionally limited, economically restricted conditions (27). In these matters, however, we are speaking of productions rather than of the play; if we hold to Norman's prescriptions, we move one major step away from “kitchen drama” and perhaps one step toward Beckettian drama. Can there be such a thing as a post-Beckettian realism, a realism that is anti-realism, either in the sense of anti-“classic realism,” to use Forte's chosen term, or perhaps even in the sense of anti-“naturalism,” a specific permutation of this “classic realism”?

Dolan excerpts a particularly telling passage from a Gussow review which observes that Norman's “dark view of life comes not from a Samuel Beckett, but from an affable, determined and petite [emphasis Dolan's] young woman who looks more like a graduate student than a serious playwright wrestling with profound emotions” (qtd. in Dolan 38). Dolan rightly attacks Gussow for his sexist assessment of Norman's art based on her physical appearance (a strategy rarely applied to male playwrights), but Gussow's reductive assessment of Norman based on appearance may additionally be little more than a reflection of an even larger strata of viewers' reductive assessments of 'night, Mother, assessments based on its “domestic,” petite (e.g., “realist”) appearances rather than on what occurs beneath its surface. Further, while Gussow is of course literally accurate in stating that the play is not authored by Beckett, a Beckettian strain is clearly evident, and clearly evident once we look past the theatrical expedient of clothing the play in realist trappings. The final point, of course, almost needn't even be made: women, even affable, petite women, have minds capable of profound thoughts that transcend “kitchen” concerns. The simple, common-sense truth of this assertion needs no further explanation.

My suggestion here is that we strive to move beyond the traditional/classical visions of realism as reserved for social philosophy and social commentary, that we slip out of standard visions of what realism typically does and look at what (post-Beckettian) realism has actually done in this case. If, for Forte, realism is an obstruction to her appreciation of the play, for me her sense of it being an obstruction is itself the obstruction, for it restricts our vision into the heart of the play. Forte, of course, is not alone; in this matter, it seems, many opposing positions join in implicit agreement. I nonetheless accept the choice—even compromise—Norman made in order to get her play an audience. It is an expedient that Beckett, growing out of a European rather than American tradition, was not forced to submit to, at least not to the degree to which Americans have been forced.

This type of anti-realist realism responds to the several assumptions about the form itself that we have been discussing. While the assumptions are part of the specifically patriarchal/feminist discussion above, the discussion takes another fruitful direction when it moves into the domain of epistemology rather than sociology. Here the central assumption concludes that in order to write realist drama, one must utilize naturalist-based precepts of logical and psychological consistency, a rationalist progression that denies alternatives, insisting on singular, inevitable results and accepting a masculinized interpretation of “reality” as linearly explicable. This naturalist assumption is part of a larger frame that assumes existence itself is causally ordered and that the foundations of human knowledge itself must be causally predicated.

'night, Mother is essentially a realist play that challenges realist assumptions, that is, naturalist or “classic realist” assumptions. In fact, these assumptions find their general roots not so much in Zola as they do in Aristotelian philosophy and aesthetics itself. They are assumptions that have anchored Western dramatic and even most Western philosophical traditions for centuries. 'night, Mother's direct challenge to this causal system takes the form of a dialectic between the two generations of women in the play, the conservative, classically-minded mother, Thelma, and the “new”-thinking daughter, Jessie. Throughout the play's clash of generations, Norman argues not merely feminist stances invested in social critique but also broader philosophical conceptions that combine to create a debate on the nature of perception itself. If we look at the play as we look at a work by Beckett, that is, from a metaphysical perspective that takes into account issues of ontology and epistemology, then the play takes a whole new direction than previously assumed.

Norman's challenge to Aristotelian/classical visions of order parallels the contrasts Natalie Crohn Schmitt7 delineates when she sees Aristotelian order being replaced by the visions of John Cage in postmodern theatre. Shifting from Aristotle's biological model of nature, Cage has adopted a vision of nature based on twentieth-century physics. In place of causality and teleology, Cage sees the world structured by chance, indeterminacy, and ultimate, random purposelessness. Unity and order are replaced by unimpededness and interpenetration. Aristotle's strict, undeniably predictable vision of action and reaction (as well as Newton's classic physical model and the naturalist's co-option of both Aristotle and Newton) is vastly loosened into a Cagean/new-physical vision of an unpredictable indeterminacy that can at best secure a sense of “probable” behavior. 'night, Mother engages in a debate that pits the Aristotelian biological (and Newtonian physical) metaphor for human behavior against a postmodern, Cagean quantum physics metaphor.8

It is at this epistemological and ontological level that 'night, Mother operates at its most radical. It challenges the dominating, patriarchally inspired order at what has become its most vulnerable point, its epistemological roots. 'night, Mother essentially pits two positions on perception against each other, and a new order espoused by Jessie wins out in the play despite the urgings of an old, naturalist-based creed that Thelma adheres to and that has convinced some among its audiences but not Jessie herself. Thelma speaks from the old grounding of naturalist order, a classical perspective insisting—in Aristotelian/Newtonian terms—that every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction and is itself a reaction to prior action, or more specifically—according to Darwinian social scientists—that every human action can be traced to an environmental or genetic source/cause. Jessie, on the other hand, speaks from a position that challenges these pervasive concepts of predestination. Unwittingly challenging classical scientific assumptions of inevitably deducible, ordered action, Jessie has inadvertently become a proponent of the “new-science” vision of reality as revealed in quantum physics, which is itself a challenge to the classical, Aristotelian-derived order that is the source of naturalism, or “classic realism.”

As a metaphor, the world of quantum physics informs us of Jessie's own world view (and perhaps Norman's) in that scientific certainty (the goal of classical science and its artistic cousin, naturalism) is no longer possible, or is at best a mutually agreed upon monolithic fiction. Quantum mechanics insists that the most one can predict about existence is the probability of an event unfolding in a predictable, singular manner. So while the likely results of events can be reduced to a realm of probable results with relative confidence, there is no concrete, objective way to determine/presume particular actuality, as classical science previously aimed at doing. The best one can do is to see that, within certain parameters of probability, an agent is free to complete an event in any number of ways, a concept quantum physicists call “the uncertainty principle.” In contrast to naturalism, which follows the lead of classical science, the new science would insist that the certainties once posited by naturalism inaccurately reflect reality. The extent that 'night, Mother actually presents this new vision is the extent to which it (1) undermines the very ideological tenets of “classic” realism and (2) undermines the foundations of dominant, patriarchal order itself.

Following Jessie's action reveals the process described by this new vision of reality. The given set of parameters, as tightly drawn as humanly (scientifically) possible under this new formula of human understanding, would allow her the latitude to choose to live or die. Either choice could be calculated to be a probable choice. There is no inevitability, no determining factor that permits us to guarantee either outcome. Accepting suicide as one among several possible/probable choices seems the central issue of the play, at least on the level of metaphysical dialectic. Marsha Norman herself noted that the point of the play was not that Jessie “chooses to die” but that “she chooses to die.”9 According to the new science, and according to Jessie herself, freedom exists within a generally determined (and determinable) set of probable options.

The play's action reveals the above abstracted dialectic between old and new perception in the form of Thelma's struggle to convince Jessie not to commit suicide, continually asking “why” and finding arguments/reasons designed to instill hope in the future into her daughter. The daughter counters each argument, insisting that there is no single reason/cause for her decision, observing that she's just lost hope in the future. She's finally decided that after a lifetime of being told what to do (and doing it badly), the one action she can do without outside influence/interference is to commit suicide. The choice is made, but even after Jessie's continued explanation, it is a choice that still lacks a good “causal” justification from Thelma's perspective.

If, as naturalism argues, all human beings are products of their genes and their environment, then Thelma would be right in continually demanding reasons for Jessie's choice. In that linear perspective of existence, there must be a reason, or else Jessie is just insane. The list of possible causes is indeed lengthy. Jessie is an epileptic, though the attacks haven't occurred for some time now, and many of her personal failings stem from this often debilitating ailment. However, Jessie denies that epilepsy is a cause of her decision. She in fact insists that she's planned on this night exactly because she's been unafflicted for a good period of time. Her marriage has failed, and her son is a delinquent, but she says she's made private peace with these demons. Her life with mom is unproductive, a tedious routine, but she refuses to blame her mother or this “entrapped” lifestyle. She is tired of her brother and sister-in-law's invasion of her privacy, but that's not cause enough to die. She's even tired of events in Red China, yet one more level over which she has no control, but it's not enough for her to end her life over. Dolan has pointed out another of the critics' “reasons” for Jessie's suicide: Kathy Bates, the actress playing Jessie, is overweight, and that attribute has been added to Jessie's list of reasons despite the fact that weight plays no part in the text of the play (30). Jessie blames no event and no agent in her choice, insisting it's her free decision simply to stop the bus that is her life and get off.

Thelma, on the other hand, insists at different points that every one of the above factors is a cause, or even the cause for Jessie's decision. For many who don't accept that Jessie is making a free choice, Thelma's position is convincing. Each clue in the play is for them a reason.

Ironically, as critics attack naturalist dogma, many of them continue to judge from exactly the perspective they condemn. It is not possible that Norman is actually highlighting naturalist arguments not for us to accept them but in order to reveal their weaknesses/flaws? To give the debate credibility, Norman, of course, needed to present as strong a counter-case as possible: Thelma is indeed a strong opposition voice to Jessie's insistences. But either Thelma has grown in production and on paper as a too strong voice or audiences have chosen to side with Thelma as a result of empathy with her world view. If, as I believe, the latter matter of choosing to be naturalists is what we see in audiences and among critics, then it is the spectators—and Thelma—not Norman, who are entrapped by a safe naturalist creed and unwilling to consider new options. So those who attack the play are registering a predisposition to accept a creed called into question by contemporary science itself when they don't realize or can't accept that Jessie's decision could be free and unpreprogrammed. Several critics have even followed a direct line of naturalist “reasoning,” in the purest form, when they choose to look back and see Jessie's escapism as a result of her being of her father's seed, a man who “went fishing” every opportunity he had. But that is clearly not the line of reasoning Norman wishes us to follow, though we are apparently free to do so.

If the above reading/viewing of 'night, Mother succeeds at demonstrating Norman's serious challenge to dominant hierarchical thought, it does not resolve the concern that Jessie's suicide presents a negative—and unacceptable—resolution to the confrontation with dominant order that she has undertaken. Wishing for a sort of Hegelian resolution/synthesis to the above-described dialectic confrontation, critics obviously see the actual results as unsatisfactory.

There is, however, another way to view the play's outcome. What Norman has presented is not an Hegelian dialectic treatise but an Adornian negative dialectic resolution, a conclusion that presents Adorno's “principle of nonidentity” as solidly as Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers satisfactorily presents it for Forte. In contrast to her conclusion about 'night, Mother, Forte applauds Kennedy's non-narrative, anti-realist choices in The Owl Answers and even the matter of non-identity it presents. Norman presents a similar conclusion in this ultimately anti-utopian play, a conclusion of current failure that possibly paves the way for a utopian future. As Susan Buck-Morss observes, “[W]hereas Hegel saw negativity … as merely a moment in a larger process toward systematic completion, Adorno saw no possibility of an argument coming to rest in unequivocal synthesis.”10 Neither, apparently, does Jessie. What she wants, quite plainly, is a reality that does not exist and that very likely will not find dialectic resolution/synthesis in her lifetime, if resolution is even possible. Along with Jessie—and Norman as well—we see Adorno confess the obvious, that as Buck-Morss observes, “the utopian future could not be affirmatively defined” (89); however, Buck-Morss further observes that, according to Adorno, “the cognitive process which served that future could be” (90). Though her defeat is the result of a negative dialectical process that fails to present a prescriptive vision of the future, Jessie has served the future by presenting a cognitive process that will itself serve the future. Her death has not, ultimately, been a defeat.

My viewing of the play, I admit, was not a cathartic experience, as many women claimed it was for them. Perhaps the distance I took in arriving at the above conclusions is symptomatic of what Jenny Spencer11 has identified as a matter of gender-specific reception: men see the play differently from women. But I think that the perspective I'm suggesting at least in part explains why Norman's play can be well received by either gender. At different levels Norman's play confronts dominant institutions in ways that engage a number of perspectives.

What Norman has presented in this play has been validly viewed as a social drama. From this perspective, the feminist assault on the play as at least in part reinscribing dominant ideologies seems justified. On the other hand, if we move away from the social level and see the play utilizing a post-Beckettian realism that suggests a new scientific metaphor, then 'night, Mother offers its audience something quite different, an argument that subtly (a fact that may not please all) but clearly attacks dominant order and in the process asserts that it is ultimately unjustified to assault realism as a form that, without exception, embraces an inevitable, linearly naturalist dogma—either positively or negatively asserted.

In 'night, Mother, Norman has commissioned the realist form to present perhaps the most radical vision of experience in human history, one that denies understanding as centuries of inquiry have striven to formulate and perfect it. This assault seems exactly the kind of approach feminist thinkers are looking for. Other critics as well, those who attack realism as an outmoded form presenting outmoded thought, should likewise reconsider 'night, Mother. Perhaps work such as Norman's, suggesting a new foundation of understanding, may help us to create a yardstick (a feminist yardstick as well as others) whose assumptions are, finally, truly relevant to our age.


  1. Samuel Beckett, Footfalls, in Ends and Odds. Nine Dramatic Pieces (New York, 1976), 45, 48.

  2. Stanley Kauffmann, “More Trick than Tragedy,” Saturday Review (Sept./Oct. 1983), 47-48.

  3. All quotations by Jill Dolan are from her work, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, 1988). Page references will be cited in the text.

  4. All quotations by Jeanie Forte are from her work, “Realism Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright,” Modern Drama, 32 (1989), 115-27. Page references will be cited in the text.

  5. Matthew C. Roudané, “An Interview with David Mamet,” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, 1 (1986), 77.

  6. In Beyond Naturalism: A New Realism in American Theatre (Westport, CT, 1988), I have previously argued that Mamet, Norman and others have used realism in the manner just described, using the form in fact to overturn the assumptions commonly attributed to it.

  7. See Natalie Crohn Schmitt, Actors and Onlookers: Theater and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston, IL, 1990), 5-37.

  8. For a readable though challenging layman's explication of quantum mechanics, see J. C. Polkinghorne, The Quantum World (Princeton, 1985). Using Polkinghorne as a reference, I have suggested ways in which new science and postmodern drama collide in “Of Sciences and the Arts: From Influence to Interplay between Natural Philosophy and Drama,” Studies in the Literary Imagination, 24 (1991), 75-89. Of particular note in this field is David E. R. George's “Quantum Theatre—Potential Theatre: A New Paradigm?” New Theatre Quarterly, 18 (1989), 171-80.

  9. See Elizabeth Stone, “Playwright Marsha Norman: An Optimist Writes about Suicide, Confinement and Despair,” Ms. (July 1983), 58.

  10. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (New York, 1977), 63. Page references are hereafter cited in the text. I thank William Ryder, whose yet-unpublished applications of Adorno to the works of Pinter inspired my thoughts on Norman.

  11. See Jenny S. Spencer, “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-drama of Female Identity,” Modern Drama, 30 (1987), 364-75.

M. Joshua Karter (essay date March 1994)

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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. We were in the second day of the initial desk work on our production of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, and we had come upon one of those small but telling moments in the play. Thelma, while struggling to find reasons for Jessie to want to stay alive, proposes that they go to Ho Jo's: “I know you love that clam roll” (67). Jessie remains unmoved by the suggestion.

It was late November, 1991; and outside the theater, Moscovites were bracing for a winter which promised, but fortunately didn't deliver, mass starvation. Shelves in the state stores were already empty. My Russian friends had adopted a determined, philosophical attitude—along with a dark sense of humor—as they spent much of their waking hours in the quest for affordable food and other daily necessities. How, then, was I to describe what Howard Johnson's represented to Jessie and many audience members in America: a ubiquitous, homogenized cultural presence which promises that each visit will be identical to the last? This late November, in this city, fried clams sounded pretty good. Going out to eat in a restaurant, any restaurant, sounded even better. I knew that I'd have an even harder job explaining the concept of “junk food” when we needed to find adequate translations for the “snowballs” (5) and the myriad of other sugary, processed goodies which stuff Thelma's cupboards.

I was proceeding in large measure on the faith that intelligent Russian audiences would simply allow for cultural variables. Yet I was also aware of skewed views of American life, as variously expressed by my Russian friends. These views stemmed less from years of propaganda than from the Russians' recent exposure to American television, both prime time fare and MTV (one of the five channels available in Moscow almost exclusively runs music video), and from encounters with the new wave of American tourists. As my choices through the rehearsal process were repeatedly influenced by cross-cultural concerns, I became more ware of the delicate nature of staging even a seemingly straightforward, classically-structured American play in Moscow.

Here, then, is an account of a modest experiment in cross-cultural communication, involving questions from play selection to translation, production design, and rehearsal procedure. During rehearsals, these issues were continually clarified for Linda M. Glass—the American scenic designer—and for me by Galina Borisova and Vera Ulick, the two fine Russian actresses who comprised the cast. Once the play was open, I asked the Theater to survey the first few audiences to test their perceptions of the piece.

When Mark Rozovsky, the artistic director of the Nikitsky Gates, asked me to choose a contemporary American play to stage at his theater,1 accessibility to Russian audiences had been among the principal criteria for my selection. Most works I considered seemed too deeply rooted in either language or topical references. I considered some plays which addressed shared concerns, such as homophobia or environmental devastation, but while these problems are significantly worse in Russia than in America, they seemed to pale in the face of political upheaval and the imperatives of survival. I was told that Russians, who above all seemed to want to import musical theater from America, had little taste to confront these issues in the theater at the present time.

I reasoned that 'night, Mother would be a good choice. Certainly, the essence of the piece, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, is universal. In the past few years suicide has become a very significant problem in Russia. I hoped that they play's small cast and unit set would alleviate the logistical nightmare of trying to do just about anything in Moscow these days. While I was tempted to stage an avant-garde work or one which demonstrated an American approach to directorial experimentation, I felt that a more mainstream choice would better serve to test the cross-cultural waters. I was also enticed by the fact that this production would represent the Russian premiere2 of a major play which had already entered into the American theatrical canon. And, if I was looking to make a statement, I thought that despite the critical debate in America as to whether or not 'night, Mother is a feminist work,3 in Moscow merely to stage a text by a woman which focuses on a relationship between women would be significant. While Russia has a growing number of talented women playwrights such as Liudmilla Petrushevskaya and Nina Sidur, their voices are infrequently heard in the larger, institutional theaters; it is also a country where, as one friend told me, when it comes to doing anything to help women as they pursue their “second job” of shopping, childcare, and homemaking, “men don't have hands.”

As I initiated the project, one significant hesitation was my concern that the play would simply be too depressing for people already in despair over the new hardships in their lives. Again, I decided to trust the multi-dimensionality of the audience members. But my doubts on this score were renewed when we previewed the production at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Theater and Dance Department had invited the actresses for a residency to conduct master classes and rehearse the production. Here, a large part of the audience consisted of members of Hartford's Russian emigré community, who were eager to experience once again a play in their native language. Their comments during our post-performance discussions suggested that most were genuinely moved by the work. However, some felt the need to confront me: “How dare you bring such a sad play to Moscow! Don't you know what's going on over there now?” After these sessions, the actresses told me privately not to worry.

I was confident that Russian audiences could easily relate to much in the play, although I was concerned that the sociological factors which could foster this identification might also lead to some misinterpretation.4 In Russia, there is a generation and education gap between people of Jessie's age (late thirties or early forties) and those of her mother's (mid-sixties), i.e., between those who have not experienced World War II and those who have. Russian audiences would not see it as unusual for a woman of Thelma's age to be a widow, considering the numbers of men of her generation killed in the war. Jessie is a single mom, estranged from her husband; this is typical of her generation of Russian women. Given the extreme housing shortage, an unmarried daughter living at home with her mother is the norm for Russian society rather than an aberration. It is also increasingly common that a youth of Jessie's son's age would have a drug problem and be involved in petty crime. Thus, paradoxically, to Russians Jessie's life might look all too normal, while Americans would more easily understand that something has definitely gone off-course for her and that she has some claim to her feeling of hopelessness.

These potential misreadings defied directorial solutions. To compensate, there were other ways in which a Russian audience would identify with Jessie's sense of her life. Certainly, Russians are no strangers to disappointment and could relate to Jessie's pessimism. Above all, most Russians with whom I've had probing conversations have expressed that while the surface realities of their society may change, the rotten core of the system—be it the bureaucracy or a fundamental way of thinking—will endure. Thus, as Jessie responds to her mother's desperate flood of suggestions for reconstructing her life, many Russians believe that on a fundamental level conditions do not change.

There were a variety of other communication problems which did demand directorial attention. First, there were issues involved in reworking the initial translation of the text, and here, most of our solutions seemed inadequate. An example of a relatively unimportant instance was how to translate “okra” (40-41), an unknown vegetable in Moscow. Thelma tells Jessie that Agnes has a passion for okra, as a way of coloring her description of her friend and as a way to foster a lighter moment with her daughter. Our choice of “spinach” seemed a pale substitute. Other necessary reductions which we made seemed more serious: “Howard Johnson's” to “restaurant” and “snowballs” to “candy.”

We fared better with the challenge of trimming down the Russian text, where the translator had used ten words for every two or three in English. This Russian propensity for a literary style was completely at odds with Marsha Norman's precise rendering of a mother-daughter conversational shorthand. The actresses and I were forced to revise the translation extensively during our desk work. We succeeded in restoring the rhythms of the original, and the process had unexpected benefits: it proved to be a focused, concrete way for us to explore the script together; helped to foster their ownership of the work; and was a better means to break the ice between theater workers from different cultures with varying working methods than, say, lengthy theoretical explications of the text by me.

The dialogue indicates that Thelma spends a good part of a typical day watching television. And the TV is on throughout the first fifteen minutes of the play until Thelma, newly aware that it might be an annoyance to Jessie, turns it off. An American audience senses that not only does Jessie hate the incessant noise but that she is reacting to TV culture: a deadly, repetitive “vast wasteland.” In Russia, while some intellectuals bemoan its new dominance over the more traditional cultural medium—reading—television is seen as offering new possibilities: access to truthful political information and to Western programming. Even commercials, an innovation on Russian TV, are popular—I was amused that when one of the newer stations announced its evening's schedule, it proudly featured an uninterrupted half hour of advertisements. Our adjustment was simply to emphasize the noise, and we cranked the volume up.

The most serious problem was the danger of the Russian audience misinterpreting indicators of lifestyle and wealth. At a time when Russian cupboards of previously hoarded goods were being depleted, here was a play in which much food is eaten, discussed, and thrown out. Jessie has all of their groceries delivered from the store. Thelma's clothes washer and dryer are mentioned. Neither Thelma nor Jessie work, whereas in Russia (until very recently) every woman worked. All this might communicate a very privileged standard of living to a Russian. Our lighting designer, Sergei Lotzmanov, joked to me as Thelma pulled out a carton of orange juice during a technical rehearsal, “Gee, we've forgotten what that stuff is.” While I credited Russian audiences for understanding that personal perspectives on what makes life worth living run far deeper than economic status, I didn't want their sense of Jessie's and Thelma's material good fortune to color their empathy with the characters.

These concerns led to fundamental choices for set, costume, and properties design. In her notes to the play, Marsha Norman requests that nothing about the set or its dressing should lead the audience to “make a judgment about the intelligence or taste of Jessie and Thelma” (3). Motivated also by practical considerations of acquiring requisite properties, we toyed with the idea of setting the play in Russia. But it was quickly apparent that this was not an option if we wanted to preserve the integrity of the text. Not only would many specific references have to be changed, but we would be undermining both the driving force of the surface action of the play (Jessie's list of things she needs to take care of before her final goodbye with her mother) and our perception of her daily life which the list represents. Then, too, a choice to remove this work from its cultural context would also undercut the spirit of the Nikitsky Gates' initiative to bring over an American director to stage an American play.

Still, I was convinced that even should we be able to acquire the requisites for a realistic American kitchen and living room (the Theater had made plans to contact the American cultural attaché in Moscow for assistance), going this route might not be a good decision. Not only might authentic American furnishings lead to misinterpretation of privilege and lifestyle, but to an audience newly obsessed by Western consumer goods, they would potentially call too much attention to themselves and thus steal focus from the drama.

The question, then, was whether there was an appropriate way to create an abstract design for a play in which all of its details, including the working clocks which run throughout the performance, seemed to demand—and, indeed, received in all major productions of the play of which I am aware—a realistic treatment.5 In many ways, 'night, Mother is a props-driven, “kitchen sink” drama filled with routine activity. That Jessie loads her gun on this extraordinary night within the all-too-ordinary flow of dish washing, making cocoa, cleaning out the refrigerator, doing the wash, replacing a slipcover, filling candy containers, emptying ashtrays, and taking out the garbage is essential to understanding the work.

Linda Glass and I decided that the costumes and all of the hand properties—the dish drainer, pots and pans, clocks, magnets on the refrigerator, newspapers, laundry basket, milk and ketchup containers, and the like—needed to be the real American articles. These, along with the textual references and the television broadcasting an American sitcom in English, would fix the play firmly in the United States and thus invite the audience to make allowance for cultural differences. The sofa, chairs, ottoman, coffee and end tables, cupboard, and kitchen counter, while preserving their size and function, would be built of plywood and identically painted a warm gray, as would the floor. The gray paint for the important central door leading to Jessie's bedroom where the suicide takes place would be mixed a shade lighter so as to catch more light; this would give it the emphasis the playwright requested while preserving the monochromatic effect. The walls would be covered with a matching solid gray fabric, also used for the slipcover which Thelma and Jessie return to the sofa towards the end of the play. We intended for the furnishings in large measure to disappear so the eye would be drawn to the protagonists and the personal items with which they fill their home: photographs, Thelma's needlework, the ubiquitous candy, their cups and saucers, and the large wall clock. Thus it was the hand props, the set dressing, and Thelma's floral house dress which added color to the design.

While the warm gray provided the neutral background we desired for the actors and the properties, I was aware that it might be read as consciously symbolic. This would be unfortunate, for while this color might accurately express Jessie's outlook on life, any heavy-handed directorial statement seemed out of place. Although we decided to persevere with this decision, and while I was ultimately happy with our design choices, I had a twinge of doubt when the actress playing Jessie, Galina Borisova, first saw the well-constructed and painted set. She joked, “In America they'd say, ‘What a gray life’; here they'll think, ‘Wow, what wonderful stuff.’” (She also expressed concern that the properties might prove too great a temptation and be stolen.)

Another strategy to make the set less alienating to a Russian audience resulted from the “happy accident” of having to work within the constraints of the small stage at the Nikitsky Gates.6 The playing area—including the kitchen, living room, and hall—was approximately sixteen by twenty-two feet. Not only did this appear closer to the often claustrophobic size of Russian living spaces, but the constricted space complemented Jessie's sense of confinement. As a consequence, much of the blocking needed to be accomplished through small shifts of position rather than broad strokes. Small repositionings, such as Jessie moving from the arm of the sofa to the cushion next to her mother, became more powerful. My task of keeping the production visually alive and interesting through movement in these cramped quarters impressed me as parallel to Jessie's challenges in life.

I was somewhat apprehensive as I started rehearsals with the cast. I was aware of the problematic recent history of American directors working in Russian theaters, which began when the Pushkin Theater invited Mark Lamos of the Hartford Stage to Moscow to stage O'Neill's Desire under the Elms in early 1988. He confronted an over-emotional and unnatural acting style that he had difficulty taming (Katell 36). Russian actors have also gained a reputation for slow pacing, as they allow for every emotional moment to register. This would be deadly for 'night, Mother. And they have become accustomed to long rehearsal periods, sometimes extending a year or more. We would have less than four weeks.

Several factors gave me confidence, however. I had attended a considerable amount of theater in Moscow the previous year, including eight productions from the Nikitsky Gates repertory, and I had concluded that the problem of slow pacing was largely a myth. In fact, the norm was a rapid-fire delivery of text. Indeed, as we worked through final rehearsals into performance, I discovered that the actresses found a brisk pace with little prompting from me. There were only two instances where I had to give them a push. One was towards the end of the play, when Galina Borisova was prolonging her final farewell. I only had to suggest that she notice the time on the wall clock, and the tempo noticeably accelerated as she played her objective to commit suicide before a certain hour. The other was at the final moment of the play, when Thelma reacts to the shots behind the bedroom door then goes to the phone to call her son. Vera Ulick took forever with this moment, and she claimed—probably with justification—that there was nothing she could do to speed it up and remain truthful. I compensated by reducing her blocking to a direct cross to the phone.

I trusted that, apart from the true virtues of a lengthy exploration of character and text, the necessity for the typical long rehearsal periods resulted from both the demands of daily living in Moscow and the repertory system there. As a rule, actors are only able to rehearse for three or four hours a day. Rehearsals must conclude no later than 4:00 p.m. to allow them to prepare for 7:00 p.m. performances of other plays in the repertory. Rehearsals rarely begin before 1:00 p.m. so that all concerned can take care of their domestic responsibilities in an environment where shopping and other simple tasks are enormously time consuming. The residence at Trinity College allowed the actresses to devote complete focus to their work, and they reveled in their ability to do so. While they occasionally joked about the impossibility of our short time line, the process felt relatively relaxed for all of us.

As for unnaturalness and over-acting, it soon became apparent that this would not be a problem. Once I made it clear that I was looking for understatement wherever possible, the actresses seemed relieved, saying they were hoping for a chance to explore the subtleties of the mother-daughter relationship. In fact, they specifically demanded that I be “stern” in letting them know of any excesses. The more I worked with them, the more I became aware of their capacity for precise moment-to-moment work and of their fine training (Ulick at the Kiev Institute and Borisova at the Moscow Art Theater Studio).

Furthermore, I was not coming to the Nikitsky Gates as a stranger, as had most previous American directors to their Russian companies. I had spent considerable time at the theater, getting acquainted with the administrators and the artistic ensemble (although not with the two 'night, Mother actresses) over countless cups of tea, forging the warm friendships which are so integral to Russian professional relationships. I was aware of the painful economic difficulties the theater faced. There was much good will all around.

But there were difficulties, not all related to working across cultures. For example, Galina Borisova is a devout Catholic. Given her beliefs, she confessed a total inability to justify her character's suicide. In this instance, I was able to suggest a workable substitution. Knowing that she cherishes the oases of quiet tranquility she is able to find in her life, I reminded her how much Jessie hates noise and anticipates that her death will provide a welcomed silence. But elsewhere I found that I was not as helpful as I would have liked to have been in assisting the performers towards an idiosyncratic connection with their roles. This I attributed to cultural differences: I was simply less able to understand their lives and the experiences which shaped their personalities than I would have been with American colleagues.

A larger problem involved communication during rehearsals. I remember spending a frustrating hour trying to suggest to Vera Ulick that when Thelma understands that Jessie has made arrangements with the local markets on how to handle deliveries in the future, she again grasps Jessie's seriousness of purpose, and this might mark a new beat for her character. I became aware of the extent to which my rehearsal strategies involve subtle verbal suggestions and the small polite courtesies which foster a collegial, collaborative working relationship. My spoken Russian is somewhat limited, but my comprehension is good enough to know how few of the nuances of my use of language survived translation.

I found that I had to alter my style of directing. I spoke less and physically demonstrated more. I occasionally bowed to requests by the actresses to “show them how to do it,” a temptation I would have resisted with an English-speaking cast. When I used words, I found myself using my own clumsy Russian more, turning to the translator every so often to supply a word or expression beyond my vocabulary. An unexpected benefit was the actresses' genuine appreciation of my attempts to speak their language. As I felt less inhibited in speaking Russian, rehearsals became more playful, and humor flowed more easily in both directions. The actresses enjoyed teasing me about my pronunciation.

I, in turn, was amused by their attitude towards the text. Every so often, a line would simply disappear. For example, they argued that it was enough for Thelma to say that Ricky would sell Jessie's watch and unnecessary for her to add, “He'll buy dope with it” (85). The mention of drugs seemed irrelevant. I defended the line: it gave Jessie a chance to respond, “Well, then, I hope he gets some good dope with it, Mama” (85), an opportunity to express a hard-won equanimity of spirit. I attribute this inclination towards adjusting the script at will to current Russian theatrical practice which asserts the primacy of the director and the mise-en-scéne; thus the actresses were surprised by my desire to preserve the integrity of the text at every turn.

They were also initially disoriented by my non-autocratic style. As I repeatedly asked for their input and interpretations, I sensed that they doubted my competence. They were more accustomed to a director who would talk at length about his theories of character and motivation than to one who invited collaboration. During the first few rehearsals, they were impeccably polite but wary.

Again, I decided to adjust my style. I explained slightly more and elicited slightly less. I blocked the play much earlier in the rehearsal process than I usually do. Having a concrete physical score served to free their explorations rather than to inhibit them. They gained confidence in my abilities.

We were then able to return to the more improvisational rehearsals which in my work normally precede my staging decisions. Now, when I once again encouraged the actresses to influence the shape of the production, they began to spark within the collaborative process. Three or four mornings they even asked if I wouldn't mind letting them rehearse without me; in the afternoon they then presented me with new emotional and physical possibilities for moments with which we had been grappling. We then adjusted our initial blocking to accommodate the new discoveries.

On several occasions they expressed how satisfying the working relationship had been for them. I came to conclude that a more collaborative methodology, influenced by our experiments in collective creativity in the 1960's and 1970's, is something of value which we Americans can share with our Russian colleagues. In exchange, they offer years of meticulous training and both a spiritual and intellectual passion for the theater which we can admire and envy. (Hopefully, their level of professional virtuosity will endure in the years to come. Unfortunately, the whole system of actor training in Russia now is threatened by the new economic imperatives: training centers are being forced to admit students who can pay steep tuitions, and this will undermine the previous highly competitive system supported entirely by state subsidy.)

Especially to an American observer, audiences in Russia also seem to have a remarkable spiritual and intellectual passion for the theater, although this, too, may soon be diminished both by the recent access to truthful information through other media and by much higher ticket prices. Thus I was eager to discover how audiences would react to 'night, Mother, especially after the admonitions by the emigré community in Hartford.

The production we offered Russian audiences turned out to be significantly darker than the one on Broadway. Much of the humor which buoyed the New York performances—in large measure owing to Anne Pitoniak's masterful interpretation of the role of Thelma—was not present in our work. There were two reasons for this: First, much of the humor in the play is subtle, specific to American culture, and hard to translate. More important was the difference of where in the text we located a pivotal beat: the moment when Thelma truly understands the seriousness of Jessie's resolve to commit suicide. When I had an opportunity to ask Anne Pitoniak about this beat, she told me that, for her, it came rather late in the play. My cast and I placed the realization much earlier. From then on, Thelma needed to fight an unrelenting, strategic battle for her daughter's life. I concluded that with our more somber version, we had unwittingly created a more “Russian” interpretation of the play.

As I observed the audiences during the first few Moscow performances, I joked to myself about one of the virtues of this particular play: the clocks onstage spared the director from seeing restless spectators looking at their watches. In fact, I was moved by the unbroken concentration which the vast majority gave to the work. Their focused attention was striking, and there was not as much laughter as I had anticipated. They did find humor in a few unexpected places: for example, when Jessie tells her mother she has bought so much toilet paper that Mama won't need to shop for any until Thanksgiving (34). There were chuckles and admiring nods when Jessie pulled a drawstring trash bag out from under the sink when she went to take out the garbage.

While the overall response was very favorable, the survey of the Russian audiences revealed that, as in the United States, the play was most appreciated by and meaningful to women.7 On the whole, the audience had no doubt the play would be a success in Russia, especially with sophisticated spectators; of the less than ten percent who expressed skepticism, all were men. Even fewer found nothing with which to identify in the performance; again, all were men. The rest (men and women) claimed they had much in common with the characters: the same problems, sometimes “the same ideas in their heads.” Although women over forty said they felt more for the mother than the daughter, the female respondents were roughly evenly divided as to which character received their greater sympathy, and most empathized with both. Natasha Shatalova, who translated the surveys for me and also served as an interpreter for rehearsals in Moscow, concluded: “In general, men tried to analyze the play and to understand it logically, while the women were all for sympathy—this conclusion may seem banal, but that is the way it is.”

I was particularly relieved at the perceived understanding of the play. Wealth and lifestyle were not mentioned as issues, and while several spectators thought Jessie was selfish, none considered her spoiled. Only a very few considered the problems in the play, especially suicide, uniquely American. But when the audience was asked to identify the major theme of the play, none of the responses related specifically to the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Instead, they named themes of “loneliness,” “lack of understanding among people,” “the crisis of the family,” “selfishness,” and “cruelty and impossibility of life.”

When I asked my friend Irina Simakovskaya, who heads the literary department at the Nikitsky Gates, how she assessed the audience reaction to 'night, Mother, she simply ran her finger down her cheek. I, too, had noticed how much of the audience was in tears during the final thirty minutes of the performance. That this well-crafted, classically-structured play could produce its cathartic effect in another culture was no great surprise but, still, a welcome sign that it had survived the transplantation.


  1. My relationship with the Nikitsky Gates Theater began in the fall of 1990, when Rozovsky—along with his wife, Svetlana Sergienko, and two other members of his ensemble—were in residence at Trinity College to participate in a festival of contemporary Russian theater, which I organized with my colleague, Judy Dworin. Another Trinity colleague at that time, Leonardo Shapiro, had directed a production of Rozovsky's play, Kafka: Father and Son, which we wanted to feature at the festival. During his visit, Rozovsky was introduced to my work when he attended a student production I directed of Stars in the Morning Sky, a play by another contemporary Russian playwright, Alexander Galin. Since 1990, I have been in Moscow on five different occasions, twice to shepherd a summer program for American students, a joint effort between the Theater and Dance Department at Trinity and the Nikitsky Gates Theater.

  2. There had been a workshop performance of the play at the Moscow Art Theater. It was presented two or three times for a small audience, and then the project was abandoned.

  3. See Dolan 19-40, Forte, and Spencer.

  4. I am indebted to Michael Sacks, a Trinity College colleague in the Department of Sociology, who provided me with an analysis of 'night, Mother from the perspective of his studies of societies within the former Soviet Union.

  5. For a discussion of Heidi Landesman's design for sets and costumes for the 1983 American Repertory Theatre production which subsequently moved to Broadway, see Lieberman.

  6. The Nikitsky Gates runs two theaters, one in the center of the city with a small stage and one with a larger stage and hall towards the outskirts of town. The downtown space tends to draw a more sophisticated audience, and Mark Rozovsky, the artistic director, believed that this would be the more suitable venue for the production.

  7. For an analysis of gender based reactions to 'night, Mother in America, see Spencer.

Works Cited

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Research P, 1988.

Forte, Jeanie. “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright: A Problem of Perception.” Modern Drama 32 (1989): 115-27.

Katell, Andrew. “Russian Version of O'Neill Play Makes Debut under US Director.” The Boston Globe 25 March 1988: 36.

Lieberman, Susan. “'night, Mother.Theatre Crafts 19.5 (1985): 22, 46-48.

Norman, Marsha. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Spencer, Jenny S. “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-drama of Female Identity.” Modern Drama 30 (1987): 364-75.

Janet Brown and Catherine Barnes Stevenson (essay date 1995)

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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 of the authors of this article; tried to identify the essential characteristics of feminist drama. Using the rhetorical model of Kenneth Burke, she argued that a drama is feminist if it depicts a woman seeking autonomy in an unjust patriarchal society.2 Since then, feminist theory has matured and our sense of what makes a work “feminist” has grown more complex. Some recent theorists have struggled to identify the principles and practices at the core of feminist art, employing a dizzying variety of terms to characterize these: “a female aesthetic,”3 “feminist poetics,”4 “matriarchal aesthetic,”5 “women's poetics,”6 and “Penelope's aesthetic.”7 Others, like Jill Dolan, have challenged Annette Kolodny's notion of the “playful pluralism” of the feminist critical venture and insisted on the necessary link between feminist art and ideology, particularly a materialist ideology.8 Here we employ the phrase “feminist aesthetic” to refer to a philosophy of art that crystallizes the work of feminist theorists, scholars, and activists in the 1970s and 1980s. As we see it, such an aesthetic encompasses a range of insights that belong to the “feminist public sphere,” “a discursive space which defines itself in terms of a common identity, … the shared experience of gender-based oppression, [and which] can accommodate disparate and often conflicting ideological positions, because membership is conditioned not on the acceptance of a clearly delineated theoretical framework, but on a more general sense of commonality in the experience of oppression.”9 Our project is to examine two plays by the commercially successful Marsha Norman, the feminism of whose work has been the subject of considerable debate,10 in an attempt to illustrate the operation of a feminist aesthetic in popular drama.

In an interview published in 1987, Norman characterized herself as someone whose work reflects that cultural revolution known as the women's movement:

The appearance of significant women dramatists in significant numbers now is a real reflection of a change in women's attitudes toward themselves. It is a sudden understanding that they can be, and indeed are, the central characters in their own lives. … The notion of an active central character is required for the theatre. Not until enough women in society realized that did the voices to express it arrive.11

According to Norman, the female creator must accept her own power before she can create women characters who take active roles in their lives. Myra Jehlen, theorizing about the situation of women writers, makes a similar assertion. Before a woman can write seriously, she argues, the woman must first “assume herself,” by constructing “an enabling relationship” with language, because patriarchal language by its very nature silences the female.12 For Marsha Norman, women's speech seems to arise out of a consciousness—at once individual and collective—that alters the cultural context in which the artist can create and the work can be viewed.

In another interview, Norman suggests that, as they begin to find voices, women playwrights are breaking taboos about subject matter and beginning to expand the range of dramatic vision: “It's a time of great exploration of secret worlds, of worlds that have been kept very quiet.”13 Within these worlds, Norman finds distinctive and crucial values and attitudes that arise out of women's life experiences: “The things we as women know best have not been perceived to be of critical value to society.” Employing a domestic metaphor, Norman describes a point of view which has been “engendered” by women's life experiences:

As women, our historical role has been to clean up the mess. … We are not afraid to look under the bed, or to wash the sheets: we know that life is messy. We know that somebody has to clean it up. … This fearless “looking under the bed” is what you see in so many plays by women, and it's exciting. It says, “There is order to be brought from this chaos, and I will not stop until I have it.” The lessons of all those years of domestic training … show up in the writing of today in a very powerful way.14

Norman herself in writing Getting Out and 'night, Mother looks fearlessly “under the bed” at the totality of women's experiences. Silenced and oppressed by the patriarchy, her characters struggle both to articulate their needs and also to create meaning and order in their lives. The plays are neither ideologically political nor simply personal. Instead, each demonstrates the complexity of the interrelation of those spheres. Getting Out (1979) foregrounds political feminism but in a context of women's psychology and culture. In 'night, Mother (1983) the reverse is true: the economic and political situation of women in a patriarchy is a backdrop to the primary action, which is moral and psychological. In a real sense, then, each play crystallizes key feminist issues of its time. In the 1970s, feminist energy was directed at identifying and combatting sexism. But, as Jo Freeman observes: “A movement can begin by declaring its opposition to the status quo, but eventually, if it is to succeed, it has to propose an alternative.”15 In the 1980s, studies of women's culture, psychology, and moral development began to suggest ways of filling the “normative vacuum”16 created by the critiques of patriarchy.

Because it grows out of a set of feminist ideas, the aesthetic reified in Getting Out and 'night, Mother concerns itself more with meaning and effect than with form, style, or even subject. Feminist theorists such as Silvia Bovenschen have celebrated the fact that “no formal criteria for ‘feminist art’ can be definitely laid down,”17 and hence women artists are freed from a “calcified” debate over the existence of a uniquely feminine or female style. As Patricia R. Schroeder observes, to insist that “plays cannot be feminist unless they adhere to a particular ideological stance or that they take shape in a certain prescribed dramatic form, is to practice essentialism in its most insidious guise. …”18 Indeed, Marsha Norman has praised the freedom of contemporary women dramatists to write in any style on any subject: “Now we can write plays and not have them put in a little box labelled ‘women's theatre.’”19 The subject matter of Norman's two plays is not inherently feminist either. Getting Out depicts female juvenile delinquency, while 'night, Mother presents the suicide of an epileptic, middle-aged woman. One could easily imagine explicitly antifeminist plays on either subject. But in these works, feminist values dictate the meaning and effect that the playwright wants to achieve and thus lead her to shape action, character, and setting in particular ways.

In the two plays under discussion, Marsha Norman's feminist aesthetic manifests itself in the following ways:

  1. The Characters: In both plays the lives of silenced, marginalized women are brought to center stage.
  2. The Settings: These marginal women inhabit domestic interior settings, redolent of women's culture. The stage business of the plays consists largely of housekeeping activities.
  3. The Plot: The action of the plays consists of the protagonists' attempts to “rewrite the scripts” of their lives, drawing upon values, strengths, and moral categories that scholars like Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow have identified as characteristically “female” in Western industrial cultures.20

By celebrating these women in this kind of setting struggling to break into speech and to define new life paradigms for themselves and others, Norman is writing drama that foregrounds many specifically feminist concerns, as these have been defined over the past twenty years. So, for example, Gerda Lerner argues that the recognition of silenced and forgotten women is one of the hallmarks of contemporary feminist thought. In The Creation of Patriarchy, she traces women's absence from written history, their marginalization, back to history's earliest appearance in ancient Mesopotamia. In a significant analogy, Lerner compares recorded history to a play in which both men and women “act out their assigned roles. … Neither of them ‘contributes’ more or less to the whole. … But the stage set is conceived, painted, defined by men.”21

While Norman's women do inhabit domestic settings—the “proper sphere” for women—they have transformed these spaces and the rituals associated with them into the sources of comfort and personal power. Jane Marcus posits a women's poetic “with repetition and dailiness at the heart of it, with the teaching of other women the patient craft of one's cultural heritage as the object of it.”22 Both Getting Out and 'night, Mother reflect this female culture and poetic. Indeed, they mirror a female way of seeing, which Josephine Donovan calls “woman's epistemology.” According to her analysis, the shared experience of oppression or “otherness” and the consignment to the domestic sphere have produced a particular female consciousness and a special ethic “based on a fundamental respect for the contingent order, for the environmental context, for the concrete, everyday world.” This ethic is “nonimperialistic,” “life affirming,” and it “reverences the concrete details of life.”23

Just as these women redefine for themselves the meaning of domesticity, so they commit what Gerda Lerner calls the “worst of all sins” by assuming “the right to rewrite the script.”24 This power to invent a life of one's own was identified as the key problem of feminism as early as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. She observed that in an androcentric culture “humanity is male and man defined woman not in herself, but as relative to him.”25 More recently, Carolyn Heilbrun has argued that “women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives.”26 Yet women cannot assume an isolated autonomy in imitation of the patriarchal plot. Bell Hooks warns that “neither a feminism that focuses on woman as an autonomous human being worthy of personal freedom nor one that focuses on the attainment of equality of opportunity with men can rid society of sexism and male domination. Feminism is … necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels.”27

Such an ideology has until recently permeated the social sciences as well, representing the psychological and moral development of women as simply a deformed version of men's development. But Nancy Chodorow challenged the paradigm by mapping out a distinctly female psychology which arises from the girl child's primary relationship with a parent of the same sex. The resulting sense of merged personalities and communal responsibility, according to Carol Gilligan, has produced in females a moral calculus based on an “ethic of care” rather than an “ethic of justice.” Thus, to elucidate Norman's feminist aesthetic in Getting Out and 'night, Mother, we will identify, within the traditional categories of character, setting, and plot, the animating forces of women's speech, women's culture, women's scripting of their lives, and women's values.


In Getting Out, the central character is represented by two actresses, one playing Arlene, recently released from prison and settling into an apartment; one playing Arlie, her past self, imprisoned upstage for much of the action. This doubling of the protagonist is allied to a number of attempts in recent writing by women (both in drama and in fiction) to find a form to render the complexity of the female consciousness. Playwrights like Susan Griffin in Voices and Ntozake Shange in For Colored Girls depict groups of women who collectively constitute a self. Honor Moore finds this dramatic form, which she has dubbed the “choral play,” one of the hallmarks of contemporary female playwriting.28 Novelist Toni Morrison suggests that in a misogynistic society psychic wholeness is a difficult achievement for women; thus in Sula two women—each half a self—together serve as the novel's protagonist. Similarly, Arlie and Arlene are the dual protagonists of Getting Out.

Arlie is a delinquent—foul-mouthed, hostile, unskilled—an unwed mother, and finally a suicide survivor. Arlene is the reformed self who tries to behave according to socially acceptable codes of female conduct. As the play opens, Arlene arrives at her new apartment accompanied by her former guard and would-be lover, Bennie. Two parallel plots constitute the rising action: Arlene struggles to establish her new identity in the face of her mother's skepticism and the importuning of her former pimp, Carl; she plans to go straight so that she can gain custody of her son. At the same time Arlie struggles in flashbacks against a series of patriarchal institutions—family, school, prison—which abuse her, silence her, and label her a “bad girl.” As Arlie and Arlene occupy the stage simultaneously and engage in sometimes synchronous and sometimes diachronous dialogue, the audience is forced to question the gender stereotypes that lie behind notions of “good” and “bad” girls.

Arlie has been molested by her father and trapped by him in a terrified silence. In a flashback to childhood she screams: “No, Daddy! I didn't tell her nuthin'. I didn't! I didn't!”29 Consequently, her only mode of speaking is the curse, her mode of acting, the crime. Forbidden from articulating deep and traumatic feelings, Arlie feels that her words can't make an impact. So when the cab driver tries to touch her, Arlie screams at him but, lacking confidence in her speech, also grabs his gun and accidentally shoots him. The girl plagued by unspeakable feelings and antisocial actions becomes in the course of the play the woman who can verbalize her love for the earlier self she had tried to kill and who can aspire to make it in society. The plot of the play, which will be considered in detail later, traces Arlie/Arlene's path from silence to speech, from self-division to psychic wholeness. The climactic self-healing and self-unification take place with the help of Arlene's neighbor, Ruby (herself an ex-convict). “You can still love people that's gone,” she tenderly reminds the distraught Arlene as she rocks her like “a baby” (Getting Out, 62). Through the positive reinforcement that sisterhood can bring, the silenced, outcast self and the “model” prisoner finally unite and speak as one person—a delightfully exuberant and mischievous person at that. As we shall see when we discuss the plot of Getting Out, Arlie's empowerment takes place through a rejection of the restrictive life paradigms imposed on her by a sexist society.

Like Arlene, Jessie in 'night, Mother is a woman marginalized by society. She can't hold a job; she found a husband only through her mother's machinations and then lost him again. She is without beauty, talent, or popularity. Unlike Arlene, though, she has been less oppressed than simply overlooked by patriarchal society. She even appears to have colluded in this invisibility, rarely leaving the house and avoiding her brother Dawson and his family. She is closest to her mother, but seems to have lived on a surface level even with her until now. When she tells her mother, “You have no earthly idea how I feel,” Mama responds, “Well, how could I? You're real far back there, Jessie.”30

On the evening depicted in the play, Jessie breaks her silence in order to connect with and console Mama for her planned suicide, which ends the play. She evokes Mama's feelings for Jessie's father, now dead. For the first time she speaks honestly about her own feelings for her father, about her failed marriage to Cecil and about their delinquent son, Ricky. Her mother, exhilarated by this new level of intimacy, urges Jessie to live because “We could have more talks like tonight. … I'll pay more attention to you. Tell the truth when you ask me. Let you have your say.” But Jessie responds, “No, Mama! … THIS is how I have my say. This is how I say what I thought about it ALL and I say no. To Dawson and Loretta and the Red Chinese and epilepsy and Ricky and Cecil and you. And me. And hope. I say no!” ('night, Mother, 75). Paradoxically, Jessie's breakthrough into speech occurs as a prelude to her final silence.

All dramas “embody a society's understanding of the universe, for they are attempts to define the human situation and its relationship to the world.”31 Thus when the protagonist of a serious drama is, as in the plays examined here, a woman or women of low social and economic status without youth or unusual beauty, a new perception of the world is revealed to the audience. Simply by moving to center stage those who traditionally have been minor characters or off-stage altogether, a feminist drama teaches the audience, glorifying the women patriarchal society has defined as marginal.


In both plays, these marginal women are presented in domestic interior settings. Getting Out takes place in Arlene's new apartment, the first space she has ever been able to call her own. Much of the play's stage business involves her attempt to make a home by arranging possessions, cleaning, and shopping. Significantly, the domestic becomes the nexus of Arlene's relationship to the other characters: her mother visits to help her clean, and their only productive conversations revolve around cleaning and cooking. Bennie tries to help her settle in and buys her plants to hide the bars on the windows; Carl, on the other hand, breaks down her door, eats her food, and throws groceries on the floor. Finally Ruby offers her homespun advice on how to survive in this new life when pressures mount:

You kin always call in sick … stay home, send out for pizza an watch your Johnny Carson on TV … or git a bus way out Preston Street and go bowlin. …


(Anger building.) What am I gonna do? … What kind of life is that?
It's outside.

(Getting Out, 59)

Ruby here offers Arlene a chance to control where she goes and what she eats. In fact, Norman uses Arlene's changing attitude to the domestic sphere and to food as symbols of her movement toward self-respect. When Arlie was a child, food was a form of patriarchal control associated with violence and sex. As Mama reflects: “You always was too skinny. Shoulda beat you like your Daddy said. Make you eat” (Getting Out, 19). This is immediately followed by Arlie's revelation to the audience, but not to Mama, that Daddy molested and beat her. The prison guards are always trying to get Arlie to eat for what they describe as explicitly sexual motives: “Got us a two-way mirror in the shower room. … We sure do care if you go gettin too skinny” (Getting Out, 18). In prison the “good girls” obediently fatten themselves up. Arlie, however, resists violently, flinging her food at the wall. Even when she is beginning her new life, Arlene must face Bennie's insistence that she eat. Although she claims she isn't hungry, she complies, forcing down the chicken he has bought.

In act 2 Arlene's increasing commitment to a self-determined existence is suggested by the fact that she voluntarily shops for the food she likes and returns to her home to stock her shelves. At the play's end, Arlene has clearly resolved to make this new life work: “Slowly but with great determination, she picks up the [grocery] items one at a time and puts them away in the cabinet above the counter” (Getting Out, 64). For Arlene, such mundane details are the palpable signs of her new freedom and self-control; moreover, they symbolize the new domestic life she plans to establish with her son. Josephine Donovan postulates a separate woman's culture whose values include a respect for the contingent order and for the concrete world of everyday life. These values are “non-imperialistic, life-affirming, and holistic.”32 As Arlene tries to make a home for herself and her son at the play's end, she moves not into domestic confinement but into a sphere in which she can nurture her newly found psychic wholeness and commitment to life.

In 'night, Mother, the domestic environment shared by the mother and daughter not only externalizes the bond they share, it becomes the focal point of much of their activity on stage. Moreover, the question under debate, whether to live or die, is represented for both characters by the value they place on their material surroundings. The play begins with Mama searching the cabinets for a cupcake. Jessie spends much of the evening restocking her mother's supplies of candies, explaining how the washer works, and updating her mother on the procedure for ordering groceries: “And they won't deliver less than fifteen dollars worth. What I do is tell them what we need and tell them to add on cigarettes until it gets to fifteen dollars” ('night, Mother, 25). Just as Ruby offers Arlene the power to send out for pizza as a reason for living “straight,” so Mama tries to dissuade Jessie from suicide by suggesting: “You could work some puzzles or put in a garden or go to the store. Let's call a taxi and go to the A & P!” ('night, Mother, 34). To Mama, gardening, shopping for food, and eating represent reasons to live. But although Jessie understands her mother's pleasure, it is not a pleasure she can share.

Near the end of the play, Jessie tries one last time to explain why she wants to die: “… I would wonder, sometimes, what might keep me here, what might be worth staying for, and you know what it was? It was maybe if there was something I really liked, like maybe if I really liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something, that might be enough” ('night, Mother, 77). Unlike Arlene, who decides to put away the groceries and begin a new life, Jessie finds no pleasure in food, and thus no reason to live. Jessie and her mother agree that the meaning of life resides in domestic culture; but it is Jessie's inability to savor this meaning that makes her choose to end her life instead.


From its opening scene, Getting Out clearly criticizes the patriarchal ideology of domination which abuses and silences women while denying them access to the power to rewrite the script of their lives. Here the patriarchal script is represented visually and verbally by the prisons in which Arlie is incarcerated: first the linguistic prison created by her pimp; finally, the literal correctional institutions in which society incarcerates her. At four key moments, Marsha Norman visualizes the connection among all these forms of exploitation and imprisonment by placing Arlie/Arlene on the bed. As Arlie fearfully responds to her father's threats, the stage directions read: “Screaming, gets up from the bed, terrified” (Getting Out, 21). Similarly, after the rebellious Arlie has tried to set a fire in her prison cell, she is sedated, pinned to the bed, and roughly searched by a leering guard:

So where is it now. Got it up your pookie, I bet. Oh that'd be good. Doc comin' back an me with my fingers up your. …

(Getting Out, 15)

The prostitute Arlie was similarly victimized; as Arlene talks to Carl in the present, the memory of past indignities surfaces:

You always sendin me to them ol droolers …
You kin do two things, girl …
They slobberin all over me …
Breakin out and hookin.
They tyin me to the bed! …
(Now screaming, gets further away from him.) I could get killed working for you. Some sicko, some crazy drunk … (Goes off stage, guard puts her in the cell …).

(Getting Out, 33)

Even the reformed Arlene is still in a kind of prison: there are bars on her windows and she must fend off the unwanted help of her former guard who wants to take care of her in return for sexual favors. In the concluding moments of act 1, Arlene again finds herself pinned to the bed by a man who would use violence to get sex.

At the play's beginning, Arlene has been liberated physically but not psychologically. In jail Arlie was converted from defiance to compliance (she ate chocolate pudding and took up knitting) by the prison chaplain who came to talk and to listen when she was at a psychic low point in solitary confinement. But even he blames the victim for her own victimization. As Arlene later explains: he “said Arlie was my hateful self and she was hurtin me and God would find some way to take her away … and it was God's will so I could be the meek …” (Getting Out, 61). When the chaplain departs without saying goodbye, Arlene is so distraught that she tries to help God along by killing that “hateful self”:

they didn't hear nuthin but they come back out where I was an I'm standin there tellin em to come see … but there's all this blood all over my shirt an I got this fork I'm holdin real tight in my hand … an there's all these holes all over me where I been stabbin myself and I'm sayin Arlie is dead and it's God's will. … I didn't scream it, I was jus saying it over and over. …

(Getting Out, 61)

At the injunction of the patriarchy, using an implement symbolic of the patriarchy's control of women, and observing the code of silence, the tormented woman tries to kill that self born out of her struggle to survive in the dominant culture.

Clearly, Arlene's prison metamorphosis is not without its ironies. She has abandoned one repressive paradigm—the “bad girl”—for another—the “compliant ex-convict.” Her real progress toward self-scripting takes place in her apartment as she learns to use words not as weapons of assault but as descriptors of reality, particularly the reality of her emotions. Arlie had killed a cab driver for trying to touch her, but Arlene can use words to defend herself from Bennie's attempted rape. Arlene controls the situation by shocking Bennie into an awareness of what he is doing. Aware of the change in herself, she says: “I ain't Arlie … Arlie coulda killed you” (Getting Out, 39). It is no wonder then that the final reconciliation between Arlie and Arlene can take place only after Arlene has told her neighbor Ruby the story of her attempted destruction of her earlier self. Haltingly and painfully she confesses: “I didn't know what I … Arlie! (Grieving for this lost self.)” (Getting Out, 62). Significantly, that reuniting of Arlie, who was never allowed to tell her story, and Arlene, who has gradually learned the liberating power of her own speech, is dramatized as an act of story telling (about Arlie's mischievousness in the past). For the first time in the play both selves speak together, giving voice to the play's last line. Having overcome the silences and the self-alienation imposed by the patriarchy, the protagonist can finally begin to write the script of her life.

As Arlie metamorphoses into Arlene and then Arlene circles back to reclaim her lost self, she enacts not the linear, masculine path to maturity but a particularly female pattern of development. As Gilligan observes in her discussion of psychologist Jean Baker Miller's work: “Development does not displace the value of ongoing attachment.”33 A recent study of the female bildungsroman suggests that the protagonist's progress is often not linear but circular; her ultimate “development” is not achieved through absolute separation but through the achievement of “fusion, fluidity, mutuality, continuity, and lack of differentiation.”34 Morally, Arlie/Arlene's development parallels that observed by Gilligan in her study of women who were facing a decision about abortion. Gilligan discerned three phases: 1) an initial focus on caring for the self in order to assure survival; 2) the development of a sense of responsibility for others, manifested through self-sacrifice; 3) a broad perspective on the interconnection between the other and the self which dissolves the tension between selfishness and responsibility, and which Gilligan calls an “ethic of care.”35

Arlie lives in the first phase, struggling for survival. Arlene begins the play in phase two, having rejected that “selfish” and “hateful” self and having decided to live a socially acceptable life, despite the difficulty, for the sake of her son, Joey. As Arlene awakens to the complexity and the hardship of the path she has chosen, she has to vanquish the temptation to turn to men for help: her pimp offers luxurious living and easy money instead of a grimy apartment and a dishwashing job; Bennie offers protection and security. Resisting both of their appeals, Arlene learns to be self-reliant without reverting to the violent self-protectiveness of Arlie. Moreover, with Ruby's help she learns to love and accept her old self as the first step toward a new life. Arlene now not only sees her self as connected with Joey but with the humor, the energy, even the rebelliousness of Arlie. She ends the play on the verge of Gilligan's third phase, “inter connectedness.”

The repeated juxtaposition of Arlie and Arlene as they respond to similar situations or use similar words forces the audience to question the meaning of Arlene's reform and to understand what has been lost in the course of her resocialization. Before Arlene herself realizes it, the audience knows that she needs Arlie if she is going to face the future as a complete woman. Contemporary women's psychology argues that women face a particular struggle in defining the boundaries of the self, in negotiating between merging and separating. If that is so, the very structure of this play embodies that process of negotiating new boundaries for a healthier self. The form then extends the feminist implications of the action.

But if in Getting Out psychic health comes from extending the borders of the self, in 'night, Mother the protagonist must delineate those borders more precisely. The intensity of Jessie and Mama's interaction epitomizes the mother/daughter relationship described by Chodorow. “A girl continues a preoedipal relationship to her mother for a long time. … Mothers tend to experience their daughters as more like, and continuous with, themselves. Correspondingly, girls tend to remain part of the dyadic primary mother-child relationship itself. This means that a girl continues to experience herself as involved in issues of merging and separation, and in an attachment characterized by primary identification and the fusion of identification and object choice.”36

In Getting Out Norman physicalizes the self-division of the protagonist by employing two actresses to depict the temporally removed selves of Arlene and Arlie. In 'night, Mother the characters are literally different people, but they form so close a community that they seem nearly to be complementary sides of one female self. Throughout the play the women alternate patterns of motion and stasis, of engagement and disengagement. Jessie begins by bustling about the house, filling candy dishes and pill bottles, preparing for her imminent departure. But when she persuades her mother to make hot chocolate “the old way,” the stage directions note that “JESSIE, who has been in constant motion since the beginning, now seems content to sit” while her mother cooks ('night, Mother, 37). When the hot chocolate is finished, Jessie resumes her activities, emptying the garbage and refilling the honey jar, taking care of her mother as her mother presumably took care of her in childhood.

Mama is convinced that Jessie is still a part of her: “Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie.” She believes that she is responsible for Jessie's decision to die: “It has to be something I did.” Jessie strives to persuade her mother: “It doesn't have anything to do with you” ('night, Mother, 71-72). By the end of the play, she has succeeded. Mama greets Jessie's death with the words: “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. I thought you were mine” ('night, Mother, 89). Paradoxically, the very night that Mama achieves her greatest closeness to her daughter is the night that she must acknowledge their distinctness as adults.

In Getting Out, Arlene struggles against oppressive patriarchal institutions, graphically portrayed. In 'night, Mother the focus is narrower, almost microcosmic. Jessie's decision is an individual one, and indeed her struggle in the play is to claim her suicide not as a reflection on her mother or as an act of self-aggrandizement, but simply as her personal decision. Jessie wants to control the script. In their last moments together, Jessie and Mama rehearse Mama's role at the funeral. Mama wonders what she will say was Jessie's motive, since Jessie has asked her to keep this evening “private, yours and mine” ('night, Mother, 82). Finally Mama decides she will say, “It was something personal,” and Jessie agrees, “Good. That's good, Mama” ('night, Mother, 82).

In the background, however, lurk larger societal reasons for Jessie's decision. Although she seems to have been a competent housekeeper for her mother, Jessie reminds her, “You know I couldn't work. I can't do anything. I've never been around people my whole life except when I went to the hospital. … The kind of job I could get would make me feel worse” ('night, Mother, 35). Her lack of marketable skills, her preference for solitude, and the degraded and meaningless nature of most work in our society prohibit Jessie from using work as a way of making her life meaningful.

Women in a patriarchy are expected as well to create the scripts of their lives through their relationships with men. But Jessie's father, whom she loved but never understood, is now dead. Her husband has abandoned her. Her teenaged son stole her only valuable jewelry, two rings, before he disappeared. None of these specific problems, however, has led to her decision to end her life. Rather, she is dissatisfied with the sum of her life, with her self. She explains to her mother that she is not her child any more: “I am what became of your child. … It's somebody I lost, all right, it's my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. … So, see, it doesn't much matter what else happens in the world or in this house, even. I'm what was worth waiting for and I didn't make it” ('night, Mother, 76).

While Arlene is able to relocate her child-self and thus to survive, Jessie has no self and thus no future. As Norman explains, “Jessie thinks she cannot have any of the other things she wants from her life, so what she will have is control, and she will have the courage to take that control.”37 Jessie displays her courage by separating from her mother, and by dying. But although she is determined to die, Jessie is also determined to help her mother survive this blow as well as possible. In both plays, the protagonists seek autonomy in a context of connection with their families: Arlene for a future with her son, Jessie for her mother's future without her. Jessie stocks the pantry, cleans the closets, and even makes a list of Christmas presents for her brother to give her mother for the next ten years. Most importantly, she strives to explain her decision to her mother in order to alleviate the guilt her mother may feel. Mama pleads, “How can I get up every day knowing you had to kill yourself to make it stop hurting and I was here all the time and I never even saw it” ('night, Mother, 73). Jessie reassures her: “I only told you … so you wouldn't blame yourself. … I don't want you to save me. I just wanted you to know” ('night, Mother, 74).

“Knowing is the most profound kind of love, giving someone the gift of knowledge about yourself,” Norman comments.38 Although Dolan argues that “Jessie's death leaves no … legacy to her mother,39 we would argue on the contrary that Jessie's action in the play is to give her mother the gift of knowledge, of connection. By so doing, she frees her from guilt and responsibility. She exercises her own freedom of choice, but in a context of responsive concern for her mother. Gilligan describes the transition she has observed in women's moral development in similar terms: “Questioning the stoicism of self-denial and replacing the illusion of innocence with an awareness of choice, they struggled to grasp the essential notion of rights, that the interests of the self can be considered legitimate. … Then the notion of care expands from the paralyzing injunction not to hurt others to an injunction to act responsively toward self and others and thus to sustain connection.”40 Whereas Arlene only begins to understand an ethic of care at the end of Getting Out, Jessie begins from Gilligan's third phase. By honestly sharing her deepest feelings with her mother, Jessie has created a mature connection with her, replacing the childish bond of merged personalities. She defines herself as a separate but loving adult, demonstrating a distinctly female moral and psychological maturity.


Different, though often complementary in subject, style, and emphasis, Getting Out and 'night, Mother both embody a feminist aesthetic in drama. In each, the playwright “looks under the bed” by bringing to center stage silenced, marginalized women who spend a good bit of their time on stage performing “women's work,” cleaning, shopping, cooking. These women, however, resist their marginalization, transform lifelong silence into speech, and try to find a way to control their individual destinies while maintaining close bonds with others. Both plays are open-ended and affirmative; Norman herself describes 'night, Mother as “a play of nearly total triumph.”41 Each concludes with a woman on the verge of a new phase in her life: Arlene is trying to live within the law in order to establish a relationship with her son. Mama, on the other hand, is trying to live without her daughter's physical presence but within the nurturing physical environment that Jessie created as her legacy. In a variety of ways—only a few of which we have been able to discuss here—these plays extend and comment on each other.

Norman's commercial success and public recognition—'night, Mother won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983—have earned her contempt in some feminist circles where she is accused of “writing for male spectators under the guise of universality.”42 Viewed differently, her success illustrates the extent to which feminist values have permeated areas of popular theatre and the capacity of feminist writing to be “both popular and oppositional.”43 Her plays serve to further a feminist consciousness in mainstream American theatre from Broadway to college campuses and small local theatre groups. (In one year in the Hartford area alone, Getting Out was performed by a small, nonprofit theatre group and 'night, Mother by a university drama department.) Heide Göttner-Abendroth observes that patriarchal aesthetics divides art into two categories: “formalist, elitist, socially effective art on the one hand, and a popular, widespread but socially vilified and outcast art on the other.”44 She calls for a feminist art that can transcend this division and return art to its important social role. Norman's aesthetic in Getting Out and 'night, Mother produces drama that is both popular and socially effective, drama that crystallizes a range of feminist ideas and values, bringing these before large and diverse audiences.


  1. Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985).

  2. Janet Brown, Feminist Drama (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976).

  3. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “For the Etruscans,” in The New Feminist Criticism.

  4. Joanne Frye, Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women in the Novel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986).

  5. Heide Göttner-Abendroth, “Nine Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic,” trans. Harriet Anderson, in Feminist Aesthetics, ed. Gisela Ecker (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

  6. Josephine Donovan, “Toward a Women's Poetics,” in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed. Shari Benstock (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987).

  7. Jane Marcus, “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Towards a Feminist Aesthetic” in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship.

  8. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988) and Annette Kolodny, “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of Feminism,” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980).

  9. Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 166-67.

  10. See, for example, Dolan, Feminist Spectator, 19-40.

  11. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, ed. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987), 338.

  12. Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Signs 6 (1984): 582.

  13. Mel Gussow, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theatre,” New York Times Magazine, 1 May 1983, 40.

  14. Ibid., 339.

  15. Jo Freeman, Women: A Feminist Perspective (Palo Alto, California: Mayfield, 1984), 554.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Silvia Bovenschen, “Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?” trans. Beth Weckmueller, in Feminist Aesthetics, 48.

  18. Patricia R. Schroeder, “Locked Behind the Proscenium: Feminist Strategies in Getting Out and My Sister in This House,Modern Drama 32 (March 1989): 112.

  19. Gussow, “Women Playwrights,” 40.

  20. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1982) and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

  21. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 12-13.

  22. Marcus, “Still Practice,” 84-85.

  23. Donovan, “Woman's Poetics,” 173.

  24. Lerner, Creation of Patriarchy, 13.

  25. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), xviii.

  26. Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 7.

  27. Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), 24.

  28. Honor Moore, “Women Alone, Women Together” in Women in American Theatre, ed. Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins, 2d ed. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987), 188.

  29. Marsha Norman, Getting Out (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1978), 21. Subsequent references are given parenthetically by page number.

  30. Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 55. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically.

  31. Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre, 4th ed. (New York: Allyn and Bacon, 1982), 4.

  32. Donovan, “Woman's Poetics,” 173.

  33. Gilligan, Different Voice, 170.

  34. Marianne Hirsch, “The Spiritual Bildung: The Beautiful Soul as Paradigm,” in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983).

  35. Gilligan, Different Voice, 73-74.

  36. Chodorow, Reproduction, 166.

  37. Gussow, Women Playwrights, 39.

  38. Ibid, 40.

  39. Dolan, Feminist Spectator, 32.

  40. Gilligan, Different Voice, 149.

  41. Betsko and Koenig, Interviews, 339

  42. Dolan, Feminist Spectator, 39.

  43. Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, 181.

  44. Göttner-Abendroth, “Nine Principles,” 563.

Scott Hinson (essay date 1996)

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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 philosophical and theological debate.1 The most frequently cited criticism comes from Jack Kroll, who complains that “the action [in Traveler] seems whipped up under the lash of Norman's urgent need to dramatize a crisis of faith” (quoted in DLB Yearbook 311). Yet the same critics who damn her offer backhanded praise, suggesting that while Traveler “is beset by a number of weaknesses … Norman has fashioned an intelligent play” (Kane 268). Though Leslie Kane claims the resolution of Norman's play is difficult to swallow, she nonetheless observes that “the play seeks to debate science and faith, love and self-knowledge, the rage to grow and the resistance to change” (Kane 272; quoted in DLB 311). Though much of current criticism rightfully points out many of Traveler's weaknesses, it dismisses Norman's accomplishment too easily and fails to explore the depth and psychological realism with which Norman depicts her characters.

Marsha Norman's Traveler in the Dark presents stark truths about how human beings continue in the face of mystery and powerlessness. Traveler also explores how our sense of loss can transform us into “inhuman” monsters, willing to annihilate those around us in an effort to diffuse or escape the unbearable pain of living in the world. In part, this truth seems to return Norman to one of her earliest attempts at writing, a prizewinning high school essay, and one of the most persistent themes in her work: “Why Do Good Men Suffer?” Most important, however, Norman's greatest achievement in this play is the depiction of the psychology of the narcissist and the protagonist's struggle to come to terms with his grief and guilt over his dead mother.

On the surface, Traveler's tension resides in Sam's particularly modern crisis of faith: his existential loss of faith in God, science, and his own intellectual powers. After losing his mother as a child, Sam loses his Christian faith. Even after having preached soul-saving sermons, Sam feels God has betrayed him and he turns away from religion. His faith in God destroyed or lost, Sam has turned to science, medicine, and an unflagging faith in his “mind” to bolster him in the world (Traveler 176). However, despite his international reputation as a miracle-working surgeon, he is unable to save his long-time nurse and childhood sweetheart. Her death and his inability to save her destroy Sam's faith in medicine and himself: “I believed in everything. I even believed in you—or love, I guess. Didn't I? Yes. And in God, and fairy tales, and medicine and the power of my own mind and none of it works!” (197). Sam's confusion and pain are translated into vengeful attacks on his wife, whom he threatens to leave; his son, whom he swears he will take with him; and his father, who decides to follow Sam's career in the newspapers, but does not want to see him anymore.

Stripped of all faith, the anguish Sam experiences is quintessentially existential—faith cannot save him, since existence, according to Sam, is “absolute submission to accident, to the arbitrary assignment of unbearable pain, and the everyday occurrence of meaningless death” (198). The loss of his companion, nurse, and childhood sweetheart, whose funeral Sam has traveled home to attend, engenders in Sam a devastating and bitter existential emptiness. However, it is only when Sam realizes that he is driving away everyone who cares about him, and confronts his own isolation and powerlessness, that he can accept, on faith, the mystery and glory of life on the planet. “I have nothing for you,” Sam tells his twelve-year-old son, Stephen, yet what he hands him is a “nothing” that equalizes and binds, a “nothing” full of the mystery of life (201). Sam hands Stephen the geode that his mother had so loved and had refused to crack open, telling him “it's … your mystery now” (201). Sam's crisis of faith finds resolution in his acceptance of his human condition as a “traveler in the dark” (204).

However, as Sam's crisis of faith moves toward resolution, we learn that he is plagued by guilt, deeply narcissistic, and ensnared in a bitter Oedipal rivalry with his father. Freud's investigations into narcissism are useful for understanding Sam's complex pathology and the tension that gives depth and realism to Norman's travelers in the dark. Here I will examine the psychology underlying Norman's complex protagonist, his attempts to come to terms with the death of his mother, and his struggle to shape an illusion that will keep him alive.

Marsha Norman describes the play's protagonist, Sam, a world-famous surgeon, as “a brilliant loner … [and] preoccupied, impatient, and condescending” (161). However, Norman's description of Sam hardly prepares us for the Sam that we meet—a distant, arrogant, and selfish man with a penchant for psychologically torturing his wife, Glory, and his son, Stephen. Sam's devaluation of his wife and his insistence on treating his twelve-year-old son, Stephen, as an adult regardless of the damage it might do to him, appear at first to be the result of the grief he feels over the death of his long-time nurse and childhood sweetheart, Mavis. In fact, Sam exhibits many of the traits that Freud identified in the mourner, including “a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity” (125).

However, we soon learn that Sam is grieving as much for his mother as he is for Mavis. Moreover, it becomes apparent that Mavis' death triggers Sam's unresolved feelings over the death of his mother. Both Sam's nostalgia for his mother's memory and his bitterness toward her can be explained as elements of his grief. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud refers to the ambivalence that the bereaved feels toward the lost love object (127, 130-131). According to Freud, the love object is at once highly valued, yet, as the object cathexis and reality testing gradually take place, the object becomes devalued, and is eventually rejected as no longer belonging to reality (127).

At one point, Sam describes his mother using images taken wholly from fairy tales; she is, in Sam's memory, “the gingerbread lady,” with “curly red hair and shiny round eyes and big checked apron. Fat pink fingers, a sweet vanilla smell, and all the time in the world” (171). However, despite these rosy memories of her, Sam's bitterness toward his mother emerges in his interpretation of Humpty Dumpty, in which Sam is cast as Humpty Dumpty. In Sam's reading of the nursery rhyme, as Humpty Dumpty he is betrayed by his mother, falls off the wall, and cannot put himself back together again. When Stephen asks how Humpty Dumpty got on the wall, Sam replies, “His … mother … laid him there” (Norman's ellipses; 164). Further, Sam suggests that Humpty Dumpty's mother deceived him when she told him that he was a man: “She told him he was a man. See?” (164). In fact, Sam seems especially bitter because he feels that his mother led him to believe that he, too, was a man, and therefore worthy of her affection and attention. Her death is a betrayal in Sam's eyes and both metaphorically and literally deprives Sam of his mother's affection. Moreover, because her death led him to reject the fairy tales and magic he shared with her, it is his mother who sets him up for his current crisis of faith.

Sam's unresolved feelings of guilt and excessive grief border on psychosis. Sam is hardly aware that he is grieving for more than his friend, and this lack of awareness and unconscious grief suggest a more profound pathology. For example, he expresses extreme dissatisfaction with himself on a moral level that also suggests melancholia (“Mourning” 129). Freud writes that “the melancholiac displays something which is lacking in grief—an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. … In melancholia it is the ego itself [which becomes poor and empty]” (129). Moreover, according to Freud, the melancholiac represents himself as “worthless, incapable of any effort, and morally despicable” and extends his self-abasement back over the past (129-130). In melancholia, then, Sam's tremendous ego has a longer way to fall than most since he assumes the blame for the death of Mavis and his mother.

However, despite his grief, borderline melancholia, and his self-criticism, Sam persistently overestimates his own ego. According to Freud, the narcissist, like the infant, believes that “he is really to be the center and heart of creation, ‘His Majesty, the Baby’” (“Narcissism” 113-115). The narcissist directs libidinal energies onto the ego, choosing the self as love object rather than someone or something outside the self. Freud's theory of narcissism turns on the notion that human beings possess an inherent narcissism and that the choice to love something or someone other than oneself involves an object choice and a subsequent redirecting of one's libidinal energies away from the self and toward an outside object choice. Norman's infantile protagonist frequently displays traits characteristic of narcissism. Longing to be at the center of everything, when his mother died he acted “like it happened to me instead of her. I wouldn't eat. I broke things” (171). Similarly, when Mavis dies, he attempts to break up his marriage and destroy all illusions for his child, caring little for their feelings or how much he might hurt them (171). In addition, his reaction in both cases also suggests that he believes he should be beyond the touch of death.

Sam's narcissism also surfaces in frequent biblical allusions. For example, the comparisons between Sam and the arrogant, anthropologist-novelist God of his imagination; this is the God who, according to Sam, “sets it up, we live through it, and He writes it down. What we think of as life, Stephen, is just God gathering material for another book” (182). Sam had believed that his mother was his and is bitter when he learns that, according to his father, she belonged to God (182). Also, Sam projects his own arrogance and malevolence onto God when he describes him as “bored” and “lonely”: “He's lonely, Stephen. He sits and waits for someone to notice Him, and then, when they don't, or when they don't notice Him enough, well, He plays His little tricks. He gives His little tests” (182). It is Sam who is bored and lonely, Sam whose excessive grief screams for attention, and finally, it is Sam who “plays his little tricks” when he isn't noticed enough. Sam goes on to compare himself with Job, the sufferer who finally triumphs over God, showing God where he had sinned: “And in that moment, God found God, and it was man” (183). Similarly, when God failed Sam as a youth, Sam found Sam. Sam's analogies with God and Job belie his belief in himself as a “supreme being”.

Sam's overestimation of his ego can be seen in the allusions to fairy tales. In his version of the story of Sleeping Beauty, the king, according to Sam, “just forgot” about the evil thirteenth fairy—death—and when his kingdom awakens after a hundred-year-long sleep, “some prince is upstairs kissing his daughter” (170). This story and Sam's interpretation align Sam and the king. Like the king, Sam attributes his own carelessness and thoughtlessness to a bad memory and then to repression: “He forgot because he didn't want to remember!” (170). Fairy tales provide the text for Sam's interpretation of his marriage as well as his own fate. Sam borrows from the story of the frog and the prince, which he reinvents to describe his perceptions of his marriage: “The princess got old and the frog croaked” (166). Sam depicts the narcissistic child, “His Majesty the Baby,” who is not to be touched by “illness, death, renunciation of pleasure, restrictions on his own will” (“Narcissism” 115). His narcissism grows out of having been “abandoned” by his mother's death, and his response to being rejected a second time, this time by Mavis, is to behave just like a child. He wants to leave his wife, Glory, before she has a chance to reject and abandon him as his mother and Mavis have. Wanting a divorce, Sam believes that “it just doesn't make sense, this marriage. It never has. Ask your mother” (167).

In phrases evocative of Norman's Traveler, Freud suggests that the narcissist will “fulfill those dreams and wishes of his parents which they never carried out, to become a great man and a hero in his father's stead, or to marry a prince as a tardy compensation to the mother” (115). Sam perceives himself as having fulfilled the dream to save lives more fully than his father. As a surgeon, Sam is able to extend his patients' lives, even though, as he recognizes, he “can't save lives … Death always wins” (191).

Sam's arrogance and narcissism are also apparent in his attitudes toward those around him. He admits that he feels he is better than the other hometown folks (194). Moreover, a more appropriate choice for Sam's love object is Mavis, who embodies the intellect and self-confidence that Sam admires in himself; who is, in Sam's words, “as smart as they come” (194) and “someone exactly like me” (195). Similarly, Sam believes that he would have been good for Mavis as well, and that Mavis settled for a relationship with Sam's father since she couldn't have Sam. He is probably right, for, as Glory says, Mavis “worshiped” him (195). Finally, Sam's feelings of superiority are also apparent when Sam tells his father, Everett, that he “didn't deserve” or love his mother (191). The suggestion is, according to Sam's pathology, that Sam might have been better for her, that he might have provided her with a shining prince. Ultimately, Sam wants Everett to leave his “Mother's house,” to leave him there, alone with her garden, as if he alone is worthy of her (192).

Finally, as narcissist, Sam perceives himself as almighty and believes that he possesses, or should possess, the power to create or destroy his family: “I thought I could save Mavis. I thought I could protect you. I can't do any of those things. I don't know what I can do” (Norman's italics; 201). Glory finally calls Sam out on his desire to be almighty. When he suggests that he can “save them,” Glory responds with, “I don't need you to save me! … I've already got a God, Sam” (196). The realization that Sam is not all powerful, that he can be defeated by the powers of death, strikes a crushing blow to his ego.

In fact, Sam finds that death is the ultimate threat to his own ego (ego-ideal). Confronted by death and his inability to surmount it, Sam faces a crisis unlike any he has faced before. As he says, “Other people die, Glory—not me, not my family, not my friend” (197). Freud writes that “at the weakest point of all in the narcissistic pattern, the immortality of the ego, which is so relentlessly assailed by reality, security is achieved by fleeing to the child. Parental love, which is so touching and at bottom so childish, is nothing but parental narcissism born again, and, transformed though it be into object-love, it reveals its former character infallibly” (115). According to Freudian theory, then, the egoist and narcissist Sam retreats from death by transferring his own narcissism onto his child, Stephen, and what appears to be his only tenderness and unselfish emotion and attachment to Stephen is, in fact, Sam's own narcissism.

Sam's deplorable treatment of his family can be explained in part by the threat to his ego posed by his mother's death, yet this does little to explain the bitter rivalry between Sam and his father. To understand this rivalry, it is important to look more closely at their relationship and the Oedipal dynamics that shape it. For example, the death of Sam's mother is tied up with the loss of Mavis, as both were objects of Sam's affection. Yet Norman makes both women objects of Everett's affections as well. Sam's ambivalence toward his mother demonstrates that he has experienced her death as a rejection of him, and we might well expect that Mavis' death would be experienced similarly, though the play offers no direct evidence for such a reading. Nonetheless, he still struggles to overcome her loss and the sparks of the battle for her affection still fly between his father and himself. Sam's belief that he is better suited than Everett for both Mavis and his dead mother places him and his father in the position of rivals for their affection. According to Sam, if his mother hadn't died, he would have been the “biggest momma's boy you ever saw” (171). Also, Sam displays his jealousy and bitterness toward his father for not having loved his mother the way he should have. Sam tells Everett that he “didn't deserve her” or love her (191).

Similarly, Sam's father shared a special relationship with Mavis, one based on a respect for mystery and magic, a respect that Sam did not share. Indeed, he reveals that he is jealous of his father's close relationship with Mavis. When Glory states that Mavis loved Josie Barnett, Sam jealously retorts, “Mavis loved dad” (163). Sam's insistence on pointing out Mavis' love for his father belies an undue interest in her choice of love object. As Mavis stands in the position of symbolic substitute for his dead mother, these reminders of Mavis' love for Sam's father rekindle in him an Oedipal rivalry for the mother's affections. For example, Sam flatly denies that he and Mavis were involved—much to the chagrin of Sam's father, who in interesting Sam in Mavis sought to redirect his libidinal energies away from the mother. Even though Sam recants later, he tells Glory that he married her “to spite [his] father” (177).

Despite the tension between father and son, Sam seems trapped in a pre-Oedipal stage, in which he is less interested in battling with the father than in merging completely with the mother, in identifying with her completely, perhaps as a means of restoring his childhood image of himself. Glory refuses to allow him to wallow in total mother identification, although, in part, Sam's acceptance of nursery rhymes and “mystery,” restores to him his own narcissistic and childlike ego.

Tied to his struggles with the father, Sam's struggle in Traveler in the Dark is to reconstruct the chain of the symbolic substitutions for his lost mother, of which Mavis had been the most satisfying and suitable link. It is this vital chain of symbolic substitutions for the mother that Mavis' death shatters and that Sam attempts to put back together again. The occasion for Norman's play and for Sam's crisis is the death of his close friend and nurse, Mavis. Yet Sam spends very little time grieving for her. Sam's preoccupation with his mother appears in the frequent references to her, her things, and Sam's memories of her. Moreover, Norman devotes considerable energy to depicting her character, though she is not present. Sam's first words are a reference to his mother and her garden: “There she is. Mother.” (162). We learn as well that Sam had attempted to save his mother and failed, just as he had attempted, and failed, to save Mavis. Sam had begun to try to keep his mother alive symbolically even as he sat on her deathbed; according to Everett, “there was my little boy, Samuel, sitting on his dear mother's bed, and he didn't know she was dead, he was just sitting there, reading as loud as he could, as fast as he could, but he was shaking like a young tree in a driving rain” (192). We can believe that, just as Sam wants to “save” everyone in his life, he feels considerable responsibility for his mother's death. In fact, as Everett tells Stephen, “Your daddy is a doctor today because his mother died when he was so young” (183).

Finally, Sam's devotion to his mother is echoed in his double, Stephen, who, like Sam, is being shaped by his father into a mirror image of himself and who chooses to reject the father and cling to the mother. When Sam threatens to take Stephen away from his mother, Stephen reacts violently: “I'm living with Mom. … Don't call us! Don't come see us! … Don't come get your things!” (190). Thus, Sam's search in this play is not only for a way back to some kind of faith. Instead, he must also find some way to reconcile himself with the guilt he feels for his mother's death. He must symbolically erase her loss, of which Mavis' death is a reminder.

While Sam does not attend his friend's funeral, he presides over the “other funeral” in this play, the funeral for his mother. In order to absolve himself of the guilt he feels for her death, Sam must find an object that is suitable as a substitution for her. As a female friend completely devoted to him, Mavis resembles very closely the mother that Sam lost at such an early age. Like his mother, Mavis “worshiped him” and was always there for him (195-96). Because of the sexual element in their relationship, Glory is less well-suited as a substitute for Sam's original love object. Equally as likely, however, is that Glory occupied a position in the chain of substitutions primarily because of his sexual relationship with her. If so, his rejection of her is comparable to the ambivalence he displays toward the memory of his mother. However, because Sam seems more interested in merging with his mother, rather than possessing her sexually, either of the two women serves as a suitable substitute for her.

Faced with the destruction of his most satisfying substitution for his mother, Mavis, Sam returns home, only to begin resurrecting other symbolic substitutes for her. Just as Mavis has suggested to Glory that Sam's “illusions [concerning Glory] must be preserved,” Sam works throughout the play to restore his mother's garden and the illusion that he has not lost her (202). He devotes his energy to restoring his mother's garden, and thus his childhood relationship with her, as a means of absolving himself of his guilt for her death. He sweeps and cleans the wall wherein his toys and other symbols of his childhood are enshrined in an effort to create a suitable symbolic substitute for his missing mother. He cleans and replaces the stone rabbit, the loose stones, and the stone Mother Goose as a way of preserving his own illusions.

Like the fallen angel, Sam reaches his most poetic moment in his own “private hell” (198). Here he faces the harshness of the world stripped of illusions, the world without magic tricks or symbols: Only when we face the “everyday occurrence of meaningless death, Sam says, “can we believe that … love blazes across the black sky like a comet but never returns” (198). The restoration of the garden does help Sam to restore his mother symbolically; however, ultimately the geode discovered by Stephen provides Sam with the symbol that will restore the memory of his mother, which can no longer reside in Mavis. They discuss cutting open the geode, but Sam refuses, in contrast to his surgery on Mavis. Nonetheless, it was in cutting Mavis open, examining her more closely that Sam found “forgiveness”: “It was … (And suddenly, the words come from him the way “it” came from Mavis in that moment) it was forgiveness” (Norman's ellipsis; 202).

The close identification in Sam's mind between Mavis and his mother allows Sam to find forgiveness through Mavis for his mother's death as well. Moreover, the decision not to cut the geode open simultaneously allows Sam to reverse his decision to operate on Mavis and preserves the symbol of his mother. Sam is highly protective of the geode as an object (symbol) that, first, belonged to his mother and is closely associated with her, and second, is a symbol whose meaning must not be investigated. When Stephen suggests that they get the hammer to crack open the geode, Sam responds: “(Sudden alarm): No! (Then more quietly) Once you crack them … she didn't like to crack them” (201).

With the discovery of the geode, an apt symbol of the mother, Sam is able to admit his weaknesses, his human fallibility. With the restoration of the garden and the stone Mother Goose, and the preservation of the geode, Sam's mother is symbolically restored and his grief abates. Freud helps to explain Sam when he suggests that once the narcissist has been “partially freed from his repressions, we are frequently confronted by the unintended result that he withdraws from further treatment in order to choose a love object, hoping that life with the beloved person[s] will complete his recovery” (123). Sam is able, then, to redirect his feelings/energy toward things outside of himself, such as his wife, son, and father.

Again, as the surface conflicts in this play are fairly easily resolved, this essay seeks to focus on the play's underlying tensions. Traveler in the Dark is a play that presents itself as a philosophical and theological debate, yet it is driven by deeper psychological conflicts. Norman presents us with a portrait of a narcissistic character, searching desperately for symbols that will restore his beloved mother. Given Sam's pathology, Norman's resolution seems somehow too tidy and quick, and not entirely convincing. At times, it seems as if Norman is anticipating the magical restoration that takes place in The Secret Garden and neglects the magnitude of the crisis for the characters she has created in Traveler. Still, the realism with which Norman paints this subtle psychological portrait moves her play beyond the merely philosophical into a personal realm. If we do not see ourselves in Sam's philosophical debate, then certainly his deeper psychological dilemmas resonate for us on a personal level. Because Sam accepts that he will continue in the dark, his philosophical crisis is resolved. Similarly, Sam prefers to continue in the dark created by symbols of his mother, rather than face the truth of her death. Like Sam, if we look at all, we look only with reluctance into the dark through which we must travel.


  1. See Esther Harriot's American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, 142-147, and Leslie Kane's “The Way Out, the Way In: Paths to Self in the Plays of Marsha Norman,” in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater, pp. 268-273. Leslie Kane devotes considerable space to pointing out the deficiencies of Traveler in the Dark.

Works Cited

Bruccoli, Mary, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” In A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by John Rickman. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 124-140.

———. “On Narcissism.” In A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by John Rickman. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 104-123.

Harriot, Esther. American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.

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. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 268-273.

Norman, Marsha. Traveler in the Dark. In Four Plays: Marsha Norman. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. 161-204.

Lana A. Whited (essay date fall 1997)

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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 Beth Henley ended a long dry spell for women in the American theater: When Henley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for Crimes of the Heart, she was the first woman in twenty-five years to receive it; Norman's honor came only two years later.1 In light of their proximity, it is interesting that both plays explore the subject of suicide. In fact, this troubling topic probably accounts, at least in part, for the high level of public attention paid each play. But Henley and Norman explore suicide on a level much deeper than the merely titillating; both playwrights are clearly interested, in these and their other plays, in women's self-determination, and certainly no aspect of self-determination is more important than the basic decision of whether to continue one's life.

The suicides function very differently in 'night, Mother and Crimes of the Heart, structurally as well as thematically. From the very first lines, 'night, Mother funnels downward toward Jessie Cates's climactic gunshot, while the action of Crimes of the Heart might be viewed as the denouement to the suicide of Lenny, Meg, and Babe MaGrath's mother sixteen years before. While the MaGrath mother's suicide seems a capricious reaction to what her daughters term “a real bad day” (26), Jessie Cates's is a carefully considered, plotted response to what she might call “a real bad life.” While the survivors of both women gain insight from the suicides, it proves less beneficial for Thelma Cates, Jessie's mother, than for the MaGrath sisters. Although Marsha Norman insists that the reader view Jessie's suicide as a heroic act, perhaps the only truly independent act of her life, a reader has difficulty not seeing the act as profoundly selfish. Ultimately, Jessie's suicide separates her from her mother, terminating the possibility of further communication between the two, whereas years after their mother's death, the MaGrath sisters finally understand its point—that, together, they've “just got to find a way to get through these real bad days” (26).

The most obvious difference in the way suicide is used in the two plays is formal. The action of Crimes of the Heart begins sixteen years after Mrs. MaGrath's suicide, an act which casts a long shadow into the adulthood of her three daughters. Her daughters, either in pairs or as a group, discuss the suicide at least once in each of the three acts, still trying to puzzle out why she did it and, especially, why she hanged “that old yellow cat” along with her (26). Now that they are reunited to figure out what to do about the fact that youngest sister Babe has just gut-shot her small-town politico husband, they are interested in the family's tragedies, particularly those that have brought notoriety and press coverage. Thus, in Crimes of the Heart, Mrs. MaGrath's suicide is, at the outset, part of the play's explication.

'night, Mother, on the other hand, begins with Jessie Cates's preparing to shoot herself and ends with the actual gunshot. It might accurately be said that Jessie's act casts a long foreshadow, a period during which she and her mother communicate more honestly than they have before, their openness forced by the impending calamity. The implication is that Thelma Cates would have taken Jessie more seriously, as Flannery O'Connor might say, would have “been a good woman,” had Jessie threatened suicide every day of her life. Mrs. Cates, like the grandmother in O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is compelled by impending catastrophe to deal realistically with a world she usually approaches with jokes and chit-chat. Early in act 1, when Jessie announces her intention to commit suicide, Thelma's reaction is characterized by disbelief and humor:

I'm going to kill myself, Mama.
(Returning to the sofa) Very funny. Very funny.
I am.
You are not! Don't even say such a thing, Jessie.

Thelma concludes that “it must be time” for Jessie's medicine and admonishes her, “Don't make jokes, Jessie. I'm too old for jokes” (13-14). Her final plea to her daughter, “Jessie, child … Forgive me. I thought you were mine” (89), reveals a far deeper level of interaction, characterized by starkly realistic self-indictment. Thelma Cates's progress over the course of the play, aptly illustrated by these two speeches, parallels that of O'Connor's grandmother; both are capable of insight, but only when forced by an impending violent climax to see.

As might be expected, the dark cloud of Jessie's imminent suicide causes the tone of 'night, Mother to be considerably darker than that of Crimes of the Heart, in which the act of self-destruction is so far removed from the present action. The suicide in Henley's play is long over, and although the MaGrath sisters, Meg in particular, are still affected by their mother's act, their pain lacks the immediacy, the rawness, of Thelma Cates's. Thelma's is, simply, a fresher wound. This distance in Henley's play, combined with the fact that the MaGrath sisters' present situation is far more absurd than Jessie's, allows Henley's characters to joke more than Norman's. 'night, Mother is a funny play on a certain level, but essentially it is, as Lisa J. McDonnell says, “serious drama with comic overtones,” while Henley's is “comedy with serious dimensions” (95). McDonnell's observation that, largely owing to her training as an actress, Henley's play is more “theatrical” while that of Norman, who was a teacher before her success as a playwright, is more philosophical and “literary,” is on target here (95).

What is surprising, in light of the formal and tonal differences between the two plays, is the fact that they share a common theme: the notion that if you cannot build a community for yourself, if you cannot find someone to help you through your “real bad days,” you might end up swinging from a rope—or blowing your brains out.

Because the MaGrath sisters were children at the time of their mother's death (Lenny, the oldest, was fourteen), they understand little of her motivation. But what they do know—that their father left the family—suggests that the mother hanged herself primarily out of loneliness. As Babe explains, “I bet if Daddy hadn't of left us [Mama and that old cat]'d still be alive” (26). Left by her husband with three young girls, none of whom was really old enough to comfort her, Mrs. MaGrath apparently could not go on. She was not enough by herself, for herself. Her apparent rationale for hanging the cat reinforces the diagnosis of her disease as loneliness; as Babe finally figures out, “it wasn't what people were saying about her hating that cat. Fact is, she loved that cat. She needed him with her 'cause she felt so all alone” (100).

Babe is finally able to understand her mother's motives because she, too, has begun to feel the effects of loneliness. Tired of the preoccupation of her own husband, Zackery, with his political career, Babe has embarked on a sexual relationship with a fifteen-year-old African-American boy. Interestingly, Babe's involvement with Willie-Jay also concerns an animal, a stray dog whom he found and Babe adopted because, as Babe explains, she “felt something for [the dog]” (39-40). Babe explains to her sister Meg her decision to take the dog: “You see, I was alone by myself most of the time 'cause the senate was in session and Zackery was up in Jackson” (39). Her husband shot, her lover sent away on a north-bound bus, and her sisters preoccupied with their own problems, Babe feels sufficiently abandoned that she attempts to repeat her mother's final act.

In 'night, Mother, Jessie has become increasingly isolated from everyone, even her mother, with whom she shares the house. She has been deserted by not one but three men: her late father, whom she loved; her husband Cecil, who left her; and her son Ricky, who lives in a facility for juvenile delinquents. Ricky, Jessie explains to Thelma, is just like his mother, and his criminal behavior results from his isolation, which, like his mother's, is chosen: Jessie says that Ricky is “out there trying to get even. And he knows not to trust anybody and he got it straight from me” (60). During the course of their conversation, Jessie rejects every offer of community her mother offers. When Thelma suggests that Jessie discuss her problems with Dawson, Jessie's brother, Jessie replies, “I don't want anybody else over here. … If Dawson comes over, it'll make me feel stupid for not doing it ten years ago” (17). When her mother offers her own companionship as a reason to stay alive, Jessie snaps, “What if you are all I have and you're not enough? What if I could take all the rest of it if only I didn't have you here? What if the only way I can get away from you for good is to kill myself?” (72). And Jessie, unlike Babe, cannot be sustained by “man's best friend”; when Thelma offers, “We could get a new dog and keep him in the house,” Jessie simply pronounces, “No” (31-32). Not only does Jessie not attempt to avoid isolation, but she actively seeks it in her suicide wish: “Dead,” she says, “is everybody and everything I ever knew, gone. Dead is dead quiet” (18).

Three specific images in both plays reinforce the theme that a sense of community can keep us alive. The first of these images is the significance of food. In Crimes of the Heart, the MaGrath sisters eat nearly constantly. They drink Cokes and coffee and lemonade; they eat the box of “assorted cremes” which their cousin “Chick-the-Stick” Boyle has given Lenny for her thirtieth birthday; they share fresh pecans brought by Meg's former suitor, Doc Porter; and, in the final scene, they consume “huge pieces of [Lenny's birthday] cake” decorated with “a whole rose apiece” (105). Their predominant memory of their mother's funeral is the enormous banana splits bought for them afterward by “Old Granddaddy.” Indeed, the MaGrath sisters can even commune—or attempt to—with the enemy; just after Babe has shot Zackery (in the stomach, appropriately), she goes to the kitchen, makes a pitcher of lemonade, and offers Zackery, who lies on the rug, bleeding, “Zackery, I've made some lemonade. Can you use a glass? … You don't want it? Would you like a Coke instead?” (49). In light of the significance of food, that the play is set in the MaGrath kitchen is perfectly appropriate.

Lou Thompson argues in “Feeding the Hungry Heart: Food in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart” that the MaGrath sisters' appetites stand for their emptiness, and that they use food “to try to fill the void in the spirit—a hunger of the heart mistaken for hunger of the stomach” (100). The sisters' “constant and compulsive eating,” Thompson says, is the play's “predominant metaphor for [their] pathological withdrawal … as [they] eat to deaden their pain, to escape their feelings of isolation within the family and to allay their fears of further rejection and loneliness” (99). But Thompson's identification of the MaGraths' eating habits as representative of what is negative in their lives fails to take into account that eating is one of the few things the sisters all do together. It is, in fact, a communion, if a somewhat perverse one. The final scene mirrors the funeral memory, as the birthday cake and the banana splits serve as breakfast for the women on those occasions. They have come to an important realization about their mother's self-destruction; Meg has resolved her stand-off with Doc; attorney Barnette Lloyd has saved Babe from trial; and spinsterish Lenny has called up a former suitor and asked him for a date. The sisters share a sweet breakfast, on what is, quite literally, a new day for them.

In 'night, Mother, this sort of communion is not possible, even though food abounds in the Cates household. When the lights come up on Thelma in act 1, she is reaching for a cupcake. As the play goes on, we learn that, in preparation for her suicide, Jessie has arranged for her mama to have all the treats she likes delivered on a continuing basis. For example, she has arranged for the woman at the candy shop next to the grocery store to send fudge with the regular grocery delivery. Jessie also takes Thelma on a tour of the candy cabinet: “See where all this is? Red hots up front, sour balls and horehound mixed together in this one sack. New packages of toffee and licorice right in back there” (29).

But this food is all for Thelma. Jessie and her mother attempt communion, when Jessie thinks she might want a caramel apple and hot cocoa, but she rejects the cocoa after one sip, and her mother never finishes preparing the apple, rationalizing, “You won't like the apple, either. It'll be just like the cocoa” (53). That her appetite on this night is not altered by the tension of her plans is made apparent by her mother's questions: “You never liked eating at all, did you? Any of it! What have you been living on all these years, toothpaste?” Actually, Jessie appears to live on cigarettes, as tar and nicotine are about the only substances she consumes, and it is noteworthy that these substances hasten, rather than postpone, death.

A final significant aspect of the food imagery in 'night, Mother involves milk. This comes up in two scenes: first, when Jessie goes up to the attic looking for bullets, Thelma asks her to bring down an old milk can which she hopes to sell as an antique; second, after the cocoa episode, Thelma swears off milk (even though Jessie has ordered a quart a week indefinitely). The primary reason Jessie does not drink her cocoa, her mother says, is that she hates milk (45). Milk is, of course, the fluid which connects mother and child; Laura Morrow notes in “Orality and Identity in 'night, Mother and Crimes of the Heart” that Thelma's rejection of milk symbolizes “her dissatisfaction with motherhood” (26). It should be added that Thelma's and Jessie's mutual rejection of that substance suggests the breakdown of their mother-daughter relationship. The essential difference in the way food is used in both plays can be illustrated by two representative lines: Babe's eager, almost hopeful, “Would you like a cocola?” versus Thelma's resignation (not a question, despite the punctuation), “You never liked eating at all, did you?”

A second image which underscores the significance of community in both plays is the telephone. Although in 'night, Mother the phone keeps Thelma Cates in touch with her friend Agnes as well as with Dawson and his wife Loretta, all the telephone references to Jessie are negative. When Thelma threatens to call Dawson in hopes of preventing Jessie's suicide, Jessie offers a counter-threat: “if you call him, I'll just have to do it before he gets here” (16). When her mother suggests that Jessie should stay alive in case Ricky calls, Jessie replies, “It's not Ricky, Mama” (26). The degree of Jessie's ineptness at telephone communication is made clear by her comment that she once had a “telephone sales job and … didn't even make enough money to pay the phone bill” (35). Ultimately, the telephone is the vehicle by which Thelma will communicate the news of Jessie's death. From Jessie's perspective, this is its only positive purpose.

By contrast, the phone rings often in the MaGrath household, sometimes bringing good news, like the fact that “Zackery's liver has been saved” (24), and sometimes bad, such as that “Old Granddaddy's had himself another stroke” (75). Lenny and cousin Chick have a telephone tree for circulating important family news. Barnette Lloyd uses the phone to collect evidence which he will eventually use to blackmail Zackery and thus free Babe from charges; Lenny has used it to call Meg home from California, and she uses it to call her former suitor from Memphis. All of these calls have bearing on some character's future, and all except those about the grandfather are positive. For the MaGrath family, then, the telephone becomes a facilitator of their survival. The contrast between the lines “Why don't you just give him a call right now?” from Crimes and “If you call him, I'll just have to do it before he gets here” from 'night indicates two vastly different perceptions of the value of human communication.

A third image which, in both plays, illustrates the theme of connection versus isolation is the gun. Obviously, the gun in 'night, Mother is the instrument of Jessie's self-destruction. She is cleaning it at the beginning of the play and looking for the box of bullets. Ironically, though, the gun also represents the only real community Jessie has ever experienced, as it belonged to her father. Thelma tells us that after dinner each night, Jessie and her father sat around, having “quiet little conversations” (47) which, in their quietness, clearly excluded her. Mr. Cates appears to have talked to Jessie much more often than to her mother, and Jessie expresses a clear preference for the father. When she taunts, “You were just jealous because I'd rather talk to him than wash the dishes with you,” Thelma replies, “I was jealous because you'd rather talk to him than anything!” (48). It is appropriate, then, that the gun of Jessie's dead father becomes the instrument of her own death. She has Cecil's, she tells her mother, but she'd rather use her father's.

The gun in Crimes of the Heart is not used in a suicide because Babe holds it pointing outward rather than inward. This, ultimately, is the crucial difference between Babe and Jessie—Babe attempts to destroy the source of her unhappiness, whereas Jessie's unhappiness leads her to destroy herself. Babe explains to Meg that she contemplated suicide but at the crucial moment had a flash of insight:

I brought [the gun] up to my ear. That's right. I put it right inside my ear. Why, I was gonna shoot off my own head! That's what I was gonna do. Then I heard the back door slamming and suddenly, for some reason, I thought about Mama … how she'd hung herself. And here I was about ready to shoot myself. Then I realized—that's right, I realized how I didn't want to kill myself! And she—she probably didn't want to kill herself. She wanted to kill him, and I wanted to kill him, too. I wanted to kill Zackery, not myself. 'Cause I—I wanted to live!


Babe survives this suicide attempt only to go through another one, and this second attempt makes clear the crucial distinction in the way suicide is used in the two plays. After she finds out from Barnette Lloyd that Willie-Jay has been sent North, Babe moves a step away from her attorney. Her feeling of isolation is compounded by Chick's taunting her about a manslaughter charge and confinement in a mental institution. This, for Babe, is the greatest threat—the threat of separation from her family. She moves ghost-like through the final scene; Meg is preoccupied with getting Lenny's birthday cake, and Lenny is distracted by her phone call to Memphis. After Babe unsuccessfully attempts to hang herself upstairs, she wanders back into the kitchen (the rope still dangling from her neck), looks about for a knife with which to stab herself, and, not finding one, finally turns on the gas and sticks her head in the oven.

Significantly, Babe is rescued by her community, her sisters, who demand, “What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?” (99). Babe's answer, “Nothing,” which might appear to be a negation, is actually the ultimate affirmation. She is not committing suicide; she is doing “nothing.” She is prevented from killing herself because she has what her mother did not have; whereas her mother had only an old yellow tomcat for company, Babe has two sisters who care deeply about her happiness and an attorney with more than a professional interest. In Crimes of the Heart, family is ultimately everything—it keeps the MaGrath sisters bound even to cousin Chick-the-Stick.

Unlike Babe, Jessie cannot be rescued by her community, because she has none. Clearly, she has no support network outside her mother's house; she has no friends and no civic or social involvement. In “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psychodrama of Female Identity,” Jenny S. Spencer points out that the setting of the play seems almost a vacuum and that Jessie's comment about her newspaper-reading habits indicate an “out there-in here” attitude. Spencer says that the play's atmosphere “is heightened by the absence of community” (366). Jessie clearly functions in a narrow sphere; in fact, one of her arguments against calling Dawson is that her final act should be “private” (17). And even “in here”—in her own home—Jessie has been abandoned by a father, a husband, and a son. Her mother, the woman who gave her life, is ultimately unable to convince Jessie to keep it. Thelma's last statement to her daughter, “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. I thought you were mine,” echoes the grandmother's final line in the Flannery O'Connor story: “Why you're one of my babies! You're one of my own children!” (132). The grandmother forges a human connection between herself and the stranger who is about to take her life; Thelma Cates must finally admit the lack of any such connection between herself and the daughter who is about to take her own life. In 'night, Mother, family ultimately fails even mother and daughter and is revealed to be nothing more than a biological fact; Thelma herself articulates this principle, which she has learned through her own impotence: “Family is just accident, Jessie. It's nothing personal, hon. They don't even mean to be your family[;] they just are” (23). The locked bedroom door behind which Jessie shoots herself at the play's end is the final symbol of all that stands between Jessie and the rest of the world.

As Lisa J. McDonnell points out in “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman,” both playwrights

explore the pros and cons of family connections. … us[ing] family drama as a vehicle for their dramatic ideas. … Henley's plays maintain that no matter how much your family may irritate you, it is always a source of love and strength. … Norman tends to view family ties more suspiciously.


Because for a woman the family is almost always the primary community, any woman's decision to commit or not to commit suicide is, ultimately, also a statement about her perception of that community's value in her life. To continue to live is, then, to affirm one's life and relationship within the community. To commit suicide is to reject them, and to insist that we are fundamentally all alone.

But a reader must take care not to read Jessie's fate as too dark, for that is not Norman's intent; nor does she intend 'night, Mother to be read or viewed as a tragedy. Tragedy is, by definition, a work in which the protagonist loses his or her conflict. Jessie's plan from the beginning of the play is to kill herself, an act which she accomplishes with perhaps as much deliberation and forethought as possible in such a situation. Her goal is to do something which she fully controls, as she has not had control over people dying or leaving her or even, because she is epileptic, over her own body. She explains to Thelma,

I can't do anything … about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work. But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to. It's all I really have that belongs to me and I'm going to say what happens to it. And it's going to stop. And I'm going to stop it.


The reader must view Jessie's suicide as the ultimate act of self-determination, what Laura Morrow calls “a wholly voluntary, self-destructive activity over which she can exercise complete control” (29). Laurin R. Porter regards Jessie's act even more positively, calling it “the most creative thing she has ever done” (56). It may, of course, be difficult to see Jessie's suicide as so positive, particularly when it seems such a selfish act. Spencer argues that this more positive view has sometimes been easier for female theatergoers than males, particularly male reviewers, some of whom have regarded the play as “contrived” and “boring” (364). It is likely, as Spencer hints, that in a still somewhat patriarchal society, some men do not fully empathize with the questions of female autonomy which Norman's play examines. In an astute assessment of mother-daughter dynamics in Norman's play, Sally Browder contends that Jessie has struggled and failed to find in her life some meaning different from that which others might perceive in it. For women, Browder says, the mother creates primary interference in the search for meaning, and men neither share nor fully understand the struggle for autonomy which ensues: “the significance of the mother-daughter relationship in the daughter's sense of powerlessness is unique to women” (110). Jessie's identification with her more free-spirited father, who would go off alone for hours, and her contempt for her more domestic mother suggest a desire for more independence. When a woman is unable to forge a self separate from the self her mother urges on her, Browder says, she has only one remaining source of power—“the power to say no” (113). Realizing too late that she has never defined her life on her own terms and feeling that she would not be able to in the future even if she tried, Jessie opts for the latter source of power. Perhaps the way to reconcile the self-centeredness of Jessie's act with Norman's insistence that we see it as positive is to think of it as a kind of self-euthanasia: not the best alternative for Jessie, but the best way out of her pain.

Ultimately, both 'night, Mother and Crimes of the Heart are about how women who have been abandoned by others find or, in Jessie's case, do not find the strength to go on with their lives. Lenny, Meg, and Babe have been abandoned by their father and mother. Subsequently, Meg has abandoned Lenny, Babe, and Doc Porter to go off to California. Old Grandfather, on his deathbed, threatens another departure. Jessie's father has abandoned Thelma by his refusal to communicate with her, though he continued to live in their house until his death. At the play's end, Thelma has been abandoned by her own daughter. Jessie has been abandoned by everyone she has ever loved except her mother, who is “not enough” (72). But both playwrights leave the reader or viewer with something besides the image of abandonment. The tragedies of Old Granddaddy's illness and Babe's shooting of Zachary have brought the MaGrath sisters back together and strengthened their resolve that, together, they can “get through the real bad days.” Thelma Cates is not prostrate with grief before Jessie's bedroom door but on the phone to Dawson, enacting the script which Jessie has written for her. She clings to the hot chocolate pan which Jessie has told her to wash until help arrives. In the preparations to end her own life, Jessie has given her mother the means of continuing hers; they have reviewed what Thelma will say to Dawson, to the police, and to funeral home visitors. And Thelma, like the MaGrath sisters, has a community: Dawson, Loretta, and her friend Agnes, with whom she talks and visits regularly. Thus, the legacy of Jessie Cates and Mrs. MaGrath is survivors who find enough meaning in their lives to continue them, and who draw some of that meaning from loved ones who could not find it.


  1. Women who have won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama are Zona Gale, Miss Lulu Bett (1921); Susan Glaspell, Alison's House (1931); Zoe Adkins, The Old Maid (1935); Mary Chase, Harvey (1945); Frances Goodrich (with Albert Hackett), The Diary of Anne Frank (1956); Ketti Frings, Look Homeward, Angel (1956); Beth Henley, Crimes of the Heart (1981), Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother (1983); and Wendy Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles (1989).

Works Cited

Browder, Sally. “‘I Thought You Were Mine’: Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother.Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary Literature. Ed. Mickey Pearlman. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1989. 109-13.

Hart, Lynda. “Doing Time: Hunger for Power in Marsha Norman's Plays.” Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 67-79.

Henley, Beth. Crimes of the Heart. New York: Viking, 1981.

Kane, Leslie. “The Way Out, the Way In: Paths to Self in the Plays of Marsha Norman.” Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights. Ed. Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 255-74.

McDonnell, Lisa J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman.” Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 95-104.

Morrow, Laura. “Orality and Identity in 'night, Mother and Crimes of the Heart.Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 3 (1988): 23-39.

Norman, Marsha. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

O'Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find. 1955. Rpt. in Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1971. 117-33.

Porter, Laurin R. “Women Re-Conceived: Changing Perceptions of Women in Contemporary American Drama.” Conference of College Teachers of English Studies 54 (Sept. 1989): 53-59.

Spencer, Jenny S. “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-Drama of Female Identity.” Modern Drama 30 (Sept. 1987): 364-75.

Thompson, Lou. “Feeding the Hungry Heart: Food in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart.Southern Quarterly 30.2-3 (1992): 99-102.

Tracy Simmons Bitonti (essay date 1998)

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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 recognition for their playwriting talents were Beth Henley, Tina Howe, and, especially, Marsha Norman. Norman's drama career began in 1977 with Getting Out, and in 1983, she won a Pulitzer Prize for 'night, Mother. A 1988 volume, Four Plays, made more easily available not only Getting Out but also the two one acts that make up Third and Oak (1978); The Holdup (1980-83); and Traveler in the Dark (1984).2

Much of the critical attention to Norman's plays thus far has taken a feminist approach, since much of her work deals with women's experiences and concerns. A few scholars have focused on particular elements of Norman's dramatic technique. Lisa J. McDonnell compares and contrasts the work of Norman and Beth Henley, focusing on their most distinctive narrative methods.3

Leslie Kane traces “an impressive development of thought and technique” in Norman's plays, discussing hallmarks such as a confined setting, bonding of mother and child, and uses of humor. One element Kane touches on that could be explored further is Norman's use of “absent characters dramatically realized.”4 There have been many notable examples in theater history of characters who never appear, yet who influence a play's action—e.g., Captain Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts and Tom and Laura Wingfield's father in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. But there have been few playwrights who use this technique as consistently as does Norman.

The offstage character is an important device in drama because of the necessary economies of the stage. In fact, the main reason Norman's 1987 novel, The Fortune Teller, became a novel instead of a play was that Norman “realized that she would not have enough room onstage for all the characters.”5 In a novel there is more room for memory and flashback, and Norman could show scenes with characters such as protagonist Fay's ex-husband Ed, or Colleen Masters, a catalyst of the novel's action. The offstage character is a way to compensate for the lack of such room in drama. Esther Harriot has praised Norman's ability to make the most of the theater's limitations, pointing out her use of confined space, tight structure, and economy of language.6 Norman's uses of offstage characters are another element of this skill. The technique has another practical advantage: fewer onstage characters means fewer actors who must be paid, and production costs must be taken into consideration.

Offstage characters can serve the same kinds of functions that McDonnell attributes to the narrative technique of characters' storytelling: they can influence or reveal something about onstage characters or serve as foils, affect the plot, provide comic relief or moments of pathos, or reflect the play's themes (McDonnell, 96, 98). Norman incorporates each of these uses to varying degrees. The Holdup relies the least upon offstage characters, who are simply onstage character enhancers. In Getting Out and 'night, Mother, they are influences and foils, with touches of humor in the latter play. In Third and Oak and Traveler in the Dark, the offstage characters are the primary plot catalysts.

Norman was using this technique from the start of her career. Getting Out simultaneously depicts Arlene Holsclaw's efforts to adjust to life after prison and dramatizes the process that had led her there. Norman uses the experimental technique of having two actresses play the same character at different points in her career; on one part of the stage, Arlene struggles to establish her independence and maturity, while on another part of the stage, Arlie, her younger and wilder self, reenacts important scenes from her life. Although these scenes do feature a few of the people who influenced Arlie, such as a school principal and generic prison guards, some of the most important characters remain unseen.

One of these offstage characters is Arlie's father, who has sexually abused her. She lies to her mother (“Daddy didn't do nuthin' to me,” 16), indicates that abuse has occurred more than once (“don't touch it. It'll git well. It git well before,” 15), and screams in terror (“No, Daddy! I didn't tell her nuthin'. I didn't! I didn't!” 17). The school principal catches her with money, which Arlie claims she earned “doin' things” for her daddy (17), yet she is later enraged by (and beats up) a fellow juvenile hall inmate who accuses her of sleeping with her father for money (23). This combination of sex and money helped lead her into prostitution, and the combined negative sexual experiences most likely contributed to her worst crime: she shot a cab driver who apparently was sexually harassing her after she told him not to touch her.

The characterization of the offstage father is continued in Arlene's mother's denial of the abuse. She says, “He weren't a mean man, though, your daddy” (15), and remembers Arlie's “tellin' them lies about that campin' trip we took, sayin' your daddy made you watch while he an me … you know. I'd have killed you then if them social workers hadn't been watchin” (21). She tells Arlene that he claims to be dying and that he has not worked for six or seven years, making her drive the cab that supports them instead. She also recalls an incident in which little Arlie tried to kill her drunken father by bringing him a sandwich of bologna and toothpaste—and the stage directions indicate that for the first time Arlene is “finally enjoying a memory” (19), as she does at the end of the play remembering the time she was locked in the closet and peed in every one of her mother's shoes (56).

Another offstage character who is important in the development of Arlene's character is the prison chaplain. As Esther Harriot points out, he was the first person to call Arlie by her full name and to treat her as a human being, thus beginning the process of the transformation from Arlie to Arlene (Harriot, 131). Bennie, the former guard who has driven Arlene home to Kentucky in the hopes of continuing and advancing his voyeuristic relationship with her, is envious of the chaplain. Arlene quotes the chaplain, indicating his influence: “Animals is wild, not people. That's what he said.” Bennie responds, “Now what could that four-eyes chaplain know about wild?” (9). When she unpacks the picture of Jesus the chaplain had given her, Bennie snidely remarks, “He got it for free, I bet” (10). Bennie, like the other men in the play, wants to exploit Arlene sexually, whereas the chaplain had shown her nothing but kindness.

Arlie initially resists the chaplain's visit, but soon is anxiously inquiring whether it is his day to visit. She is later devastated when he is transferred. He gives her a Bible with her name “right in the front of it,” and her reading from it is an important part of her rehabilitation (46). Moreover, he had told her that Arlie was her evil self which God would take away so that she could be good. When he left, she became hysterical and stabbed herself repeatedly with a fork in an attempt to kill “Arlie” (53). This incident was the key to her transformation. Recalling it to her new friend, Ruby, helps Arlene to complete the process, to grieve for and finally recognize the lost part of herself (Harriot, 134).

A third key offstage character is Arlene's son, Joey, named for the yellow “Joey-bear” that was her security as a child. Arlie had wanted to be pregnant; she falsely told the doctor at a juvenile institution that she was, saying that “kids need somebody to bring 'em up right” (22). When she did become pregnant with Joey, she resisted institutional pressures to have an abortion. Pregnant Arlie's touching speech to her baby as she imagines him reveals both the defeatist attitude her experiences have given her and her desire to protect him:

Best thing you to be is stay a baby 'cause nobody beats up on babies or puts them. … (Much more quiet) that ain't true, baby. People is mean to babies, so you stay right here with me so nobody kin git you an make you cry an they lay one finger on you (Hostile) an I'll beat the screamin' shit right out of 'em. They even blow on you an I'll kill 'em.


Joey was the reason she had broken out: “I guess I just went crazy after [they took him away]. Thought if I could jus' git out an find him …” (30).

Arlene's main goal now that she is out of prison is to have Joey with her; she repeats this hope to her mother and to Carl, her former pimp. Her mother scoffs and does her best to puncture this hope. Arlene practically has to beg her mother for details of the glimpse that the latter had of Joey two years previously. When her mother callously says that Joey “got your stringy hair” (16), Arlene clings to this bit of information, returning to it in their conversation and transforming it when she later says to Bennie, “[Mother] says Joey's a real good-lookin' kid” (29).

Carl reacts to Arlene's hopes in a different way: he uses Joey as a tool for manipulation and emotional blackmail. He tries to persuade her to come to New York with him and take up prostitution again by telling her what she could give Joey:

If you was a kid, would you want your mom to git so dragged out washin' dishes she don't have no time for you an no money to spend on you? You come with me, you kin send him big orange bears an Sting-Ray bikes with his name wrote on the fenders. He'll like that. … Joey be tellin' all his friends 'bout his mom livin' up in New York City an bein' so rich an sendin' him stuff all the time.


Lisa McDonnell calls this “the strongest temptation of all,” indicating that Arlene's resistance to it helps her regain her dignity (McDonnell, 102). Although Joey never appears, his existence reveals something about the characters of Arlene, her mother, and Carl.

Whereas the male offstage characters all have some kind of influence on Arlie/Arlene, the females—Arlene's sisters, Candy and June—are foils for Arlene, representing alternative paths she could have chosen. Like the male characters, they also add to the depiction of onstage characters. Candy is the previous tenant of the dirty, cramped apartment Arlene is moving into. Her upstairs neighbor, Ruby, reveals that Candy left owing her needed money and that she was slovenly, using an empty can of Raid to hit the bugs. Arlene's mother says that Candy has been “screwin' since day one” (20), and Ruby confirms that Candy has returned to a pimp. Arlene responds angrily: “No, it ain't okay. Guys got their dirty fingernails all over her. Some pimp's out buyin' green pants while she … Goddamn her” (41). Arlene rejects this lifestyle, just as she has rejected the option represented by June, who is not only married to a jailbird and constantly pregnant like her mother but also a dope dealer.

Discussion of Candy and June also illustrates the callousness of Arlene's family's relationships. When Arlene first asks her mother where Candy is, her mother responds, “You got her place so what do you care? I got her outta my house so whatta I care?” (15). Esther Harriot points out that when Ruby says to Arlene, “Candy said you was in Arkansas,” and Arlene responds, “Alabama” (41), it is a good “illustration of her family's indifference,” because “all that Candy can remember of her sister's whereabouts is the first letter of the state” (Harriot, 134).

In Norman's next plays, the one-acts The Laundromat and The Pool Hall, which combine to form Third and Oak, the offstage characters are the main catalysts for the onstage action (or, more accurately, discussion). Two lonely women who define themselves in relation to their offstage husbands7 come together at a very late hour in The Laundromat. Deedee, a talkative young woman, is upset about her husband, Joe, who is cheating on her. Alberta's husband, Herb, is dead, and she is finally bringing herself to do the laundry he left behind. Through the women's conversation, their husbands are extensively characterized. Joe is lazy and has a cruel streak. Deedee says he does not laugh when she makes a joke but would if she tripped over the coffee table (61). Deedee also admits that “Joe hates black people. He says even when they're dancin' or playin' ball, they're thinkin' about killin'” (74); and this comes just after she has chastised Alberta for being prejudiced.

Herb, by contrast, appears as a gentle man. He called his wife “Bertie, my girl” and enjoyed watching her cook Thanksgiving dinners (although this made her nervous). He liked to garden and would fetch and wipe off a lawn chair so that Alberta could come out and watch him in the sunshine. He had a sense of humor, putting out an “Herb Garden” sign and joking, “Can't we wait until it's old enough to walk?” to Alberta's request to take out the garbage (78). Norman's wealth of vivid details makes these characters almost as interesting and “real” as the ones onstage.

Both of the men have a great deal of power over their wives. Joe does not want Deedee to work, so she has to hide the menial job she has taken. Joe is not ready for children, so Deedee cannot have any yet. Most importantly, Deedee is well aware that Joe is “mean and stupid” and that he is unfaithful, but she does not want a divorce (76-77). Even though Herb is dead, he influences Alberta: she tells Deedee, “I found our beachball when I cleaned out the basement. I can't let the air out of it. It's his breath in there” (79). She continues to match his black socks even though she realizes she no longer has to, and she has kept his clothes, even the shirt he died in. Although the source of Herb's continued power is love, unlike Joe's, both men have left their wives facing loneliness. Alberta is learning to deal with it—she is at least able to wash most of the laundry—and she encourages Deedee to do the same.

Two minor offstage characters are worth noting in this play. One is Deedee's mother—as Leslie Kane points out, “Repeating the paradigm employed in Getting Out [with Arlene's mother and Ruby], Norman provides us with two mothers: an indifferent, critical mother and a mother surrogate” (Kane, 262). Deedee usually takes her laundry to her mother's house: “She got matching Maytags. She buys giant-sized Cheer and we sit around and watch the soaps till the clothes come out” (61). But the detergent is the only “cheer” in the house; Deedee reports that her mother does not want to talk to Deedee, saying, “Just leave 'em, I'll do 'em” (61), because she does not believe Deedee is capable of setting the dryer heat properly. Deedee tells Alberta that her (Deedee's) mother is the last person she would talk to about her troubles, but Deedee can confide in Alberta.

The other minor offstage character is Alberta's Aunt Dora. Alberta tells Deedee that she has not cried since Aunt Dora's rabbit Puffer died. When he died, Aunt Dora admonished her not to cry: “He didn't mean to go and leave us all alone and he'd feel bad if he knew he made us so miserable” (75). Aunt Dora did not follow her own advice, eventually lapsing into silence and dying in a nursing home. Norman implies that Alberta will not follow in Aunt Dora's footsteps.

The Pool Hall also revolves around offstage characters. Like Deedee, Shooter Stevens, a black DJ, is in a troubled marriage. He has come to talk things out with Willie, the owner of the pool hall and the best friend of Shooter's father (the original Shooter Stevens, a pool hustler). Shooter's wife Sondra, his father-in-law George (his father's and Willie's other best friend), and his father not only are the catalysts for the discussion but also expand the characterizations of Shooter and Willie.

Shooter's marriage is one of the main topics of their conversations. He indicates his resentment of Sondra almost immediately. Informed by Willie that she has just called, Shooter replies, “Somebody did one helluva job teaching that girl to tell the time. Tells me the time to come home, tells me the time to eat, tells me the time to go to bed” (82). Shooter is even more angry about her spending habits. He tells Willie, “What she wants, my man, is everything there is. Sable coats, suede chairs, a Cuisinart and a cook to run it, trips to wherever-it-is Hong Kong, five-hundred-dollar shoes, and fourteen-carat gold fingernails” (86).

Furthermore, when Shooter bought himself a recliner, she gave it away because it did not match the rest of her furniture. Willie tries to defend her: “She's doin' what she can. Makin' you look good, and makin' your house look good. You quit work, she'll make poor look good. So you shut up about you have to work to pay her bills” (93). Because Shooter and Sondra are the children of his best friends, Willie is absolutely determined to help make their marriage work: “And you are going to stay married to her or you are going to have to answer to me. … And you are going to keep her happy or you are gonna stay outta my sight. You gonna grow up if it kills you” (86). His devotion is indicative of his character; he is also old-fashioned in his disapproval of Shooter's mild flirtation with Deedee. Stubborn and fierce, he repeatedly tells Shooter to go home, and he makes pointed references to “your wife.”

Willie also encourages them to have children, but this is another sore spot because Shooter wants children and Sondra does not. He tells Willie she has said, “I'm gonna blow up like a whale? Not this body, baby. Uh-uh, honey” (94), and she uses every form of birth control available. Willie shifts the responsibility back to Shooter, saying that if he would stay at home more, she might be more receptive. With an offstage character like Sondra, the question might arise as to how fair or accurate her depiction is because she is not there to speak for herself. There is only what the other characters say about her, yet Shooter's sincerity is convincing enough to give credibility to his description of her shallowness.

A final indication of Sondra's character is her reaction to another offstage character—her father, George. George's health is failing, and Shooter has bought him a motorized wheelchair. When Willie tells him how George appreciates it, Shooter replies, “Sondra said he wouldn't even know it was real leather, but I figured, what the hell, it's only money” (83). Although Willie admits she does call her father, she has been reluctant to visit George, saying he has been “smelling funny” (102). Shooter treats Sondra's father better than she does. Willie has similarly let George fill the jukebox with his favorite oldies, although George likes “real crap” like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Pat Boone (102).

Shooter's realization of Willie's kindness and love helps to bring them close together at the end of the act. But before their final embrace, they must come to terms with the third offstage character, Shooter's father. Shooter, whose real name is Gary Wayne, has been using his father's name, but Willie pointedly calls him G. W. Shooter tries to imitate his father's moves and speech habits, but he does not have the pool skills of his father. Shooter confides to Deedee how close his father, Willie, and George were: “I ever needed anything, lunch money, rubbers, anything, didn't matter which one I asked. Seemed like it all came out of the same pocket” (97). Willie repeatedly reminds Shooter that he paid the costs of Shooter's birth and that he took care of the arrangements after Shooter's father committed suicide. The suicide is another troubling topic for Shooter. He wants to know why his father killed himself and why he leaped from the salvage-yard side of the bridge rather than into the water. Willie explains that his father jumped because he knew he was losing his legendary pool skills and chose the junkyard side because he was a good swimmer and did not want to be able to back out (88-89). At last they reach some understanding of a man they both loved. When Willie and Shooter have finally said everything they need to say, they begin playing pool, reciting in unison one of Shooter's father's favorite expressions: “Give me a break” (103).

Although not as dependent on offstage characters as is Third and Oak, Norman's next play, The Holdup, still concludes some use of this technique. In The Holdup, set in 1914, the last legendary outlaw has come to a watering hole in New Mexico to meet his former sweetheart, Lily. They find a cookshack set up for a wheat-threshing crew and currently being guarded by the Tucker brothers, Henry and Archie. Henry is a mean, bitter man obsessed with outlaw legends, whereas Archie is an innocent seventeen-year-old. The Outlaw shoots Henry and tries to commit suicide with morphine but is saved by Archie and Lily. By the end of the play, the Outlaw and Lily will marry, and Archie is ready to face whatever adventures life can offer him. Richard Wattenberg has shown how Norman has transformed the “frontier myth”:

The old frontier myth which revolves around a climactic “marriage” of male/West/savagery with female/East/civilization gives way to a more realistic vision of the frontier experience as a growth-process pointing toward some nebulous future climax or resolution.8

The key action is Archie's initiation to adulthood, and one of the significant offstage influences is his dominating mother. He reveals that he has not signed up to participate in the budding war effort, because “Mother would kill me” (110), and Henry later snidely remarks, “Archie would shoot a good horse if Mother told him to” (115). But by the end of the play, he makes love to Lily on his mother's quilt, and Lily promises to write his good-byes to his mother (155). This change signals his passage to adulthood (Wattenberg, 514).

One offstage character, a rancher who had proposed to Lily, is a catalyst in Lily's development. The Outlaw rode across the country to shoot him, revealing the depth of the Outlaw's feeling for Lily. Shot by the jealous Outlaw, the rancher left his money to Lily, who built a school with his money and in his name, thus associating herself with the education of the West (Wattenberg, 510).

Two additional offstage characters—the Outlaw's brother and nephew, Bill and Fred—were killed in an attempted robbery after the Outlaw fled the scene. Henry tells the Outlaw what had happened, having read about it in one of the outlaw magazines in the barbershop. Henry delights in rubbing in the gory details of their deaths:

The shot blew Bill right out of the saddle, but Fred's body kept riding around till somebody plugged the horse in the belly. Damn strong horse though. Made it all the way to the post office hitching post where it finally fell down in a big mess of blood, squashed Fred's body underneath, flat as flat. And where were you?


Henry's meanness prepares the audience to accept the Outlaw's killing of him. The Outlaw's guilt over the deaths of Bill and Fred also make his character more sympathetic.

It is in Norman's best known play, 'night, Mother, however, that offstage characters gain even more prominence. This tense drama features only two people onstage as Jessie Cates seeks to rationalize her impending suicide to her mother Thelma (“Mama”). Their discussions bring to life several additional characters who have influenced their lives and contributed to Jessie's decision: Jessie's father, her brother Dawson and his wife Loretta, her son Ricky, her ex-husband Cecil, and Mama's friend Agnes Fletcher.

At the beginning of the play, Jessie is searching for her father's pistol. She has one of Cecil's but wants to use her father's, indicating the closeness of the relationship. Jessie knew her father loved her. He had made pipe cleaner creatures for her, and they had carried on private conversations of which Mama was jealous. In contrast, Jessie's father did not have much to say to Mama, even on his deathbed: “It was his last chance not to talk to me and he took full advantage of it.”9 Mama is finally able to admit that she did not love him, and Jessie desires this kind of honesty on this last night of her life. She wants answers, for herself and Mama. Jessie learns that her father also had suffered epileptic fits, as she does, giving Mama someone to blame besides herself (although she does that, too).

As Jessie searches for her father's pistol, she comments that Dawson had better not have it (8). Her resentment of him is obvious in her complaints: “He just calls me Jess like he knows who he's talking to” (23), but he does not know her. He buys her slippers that fit his wife's feet, not hers. That they have never been close is underscored when Jessie reports that after she asked him what kind of bullets she should buy (not telling him for what purpose), “He said we ought to talk like this more often” (15). She enjoys the joke of his unwitting participation and later enjoys the power she will have because he will follow the instructions she is leaving on what to buy Mama for Christmas.

Jessie feels Dawson does know things about her that she does not wish him to know. She is adamant about keeping him out of her last evening. She instructs Mama to let the police into her room first after she is dead, not Dawson, and also tells her not even to share any of the funeral food with Dawson and Loretta. As Jenny S. Spencer points out, “Dawson's deliberate exclusion from this evening protects Jessie's already violated sense of privacy and thereby thwarts his only power over her” (Spencer, 368). At least Jessie gives him credit for being able to take care of their mother. She keeps telling Mama to call Dawson to take care of problems—if she has a mouse, if the lights go out, if the police call to tell her Ricky has done something serious.

Jessie's son Ricky is another source of pain for her. He is becoming a serious juvenile delinquent. Jessie is completely honest, however pessimistic, in assuming what Ricky is capable of doing:

Those two rings he took were the last valuable things I had, so now he's started in on other people, door to door. I hope they put him away sometime. I'd turn him in myself if I knew where he was.


She later says it is “only a matter of time” before he kills someone (25) or is doing time: “five years for forgery, ten years for armed assault” (60). But she identifies with him:

We look out at the world and we see the same thing: Not Fair. And the only difference between us is Ricky's out there trying to get even. And he knows not to trust anybody and he got it straight from me. And he knows not to try to get work, and guess where he got that.


Throughout the play, whenever Jessie comments on Ricky, Mama springs to his defense, always expressing the hopes that he will change, find a job, marry, be “nice” again. This action reinforces Mama's blind optimism, her desire not to see the truth. But by the end of the play, when Jessie tells her that she is leaving Ricky her watch, Mama admits he will sell it to buy dope—she is finally on the road to understanding.

In seeking to understand Jessie's decision, Mama wants to know whether it is anyone's fault. One person to blame might be Cecil, Jessie's ex-husband. Cecil, a carpenter who builds things to last, could not make his marriage last, despite Jessie's love and her efforts to please him. Jessie does not blame him, saying that his departure was “a relief in a way. I never was what he wanted to see, so it was better when he wasn't looking at me all the time” (61). Not only does this comment reflect Jessie's intense need for privacy, but it also echoes Mama's earlier comment that she did not have anything Jessie's father wanted (46). Sally Browder has written that “women's lives are embedded in relationships,” and sometimes women determine their value in terms of what they have to offer others.10 Both Mama and Jessie feel they have been inadequate in their relationships with the offstage characters as well as each other (see also Spencer, 375).

Cecil is also part of Mama and Jessie's honesty, an essential element of the evening. Mama admits she maneuvered the relationship, and Jessie admits she wrote Cecil's good-bye note. Both finally acknowledge that he left because he was having an affair, not because he made Jessie choose between him and cigarettes, or because her fits made him sick, or because he simply did not know how to hold on (56-57).

The woman with whom Cecil has an affair is the daughter of the last significant offstage character—Mama's friend Agnes. In a segment that provides some comic relief, Mama exaggerates Agnes's eccentricities in an effort to entertain Jessie. She says that Agnes has “burned down every house she ever lived in,” even setting out chairs and serving lemonade once; that Agnes has a house full of birds; that Agnes eats okra twice a day (38-40). But Jessie finally wrings the truth from Mama and emphasizes that the truth is what she wants. She also needs to know why Agnes will no longer visit their house and is amused to learn that Agnes is afraid of her.

Mama informs Jessie of one of Agnes's sayings: “You gotta keep your life filled up.” Mama adds, “She says a lot of stupid things” (40), yet this is how Mama lives—keeping her life filled with candy, TV, and crocheting, as Norman herself points out.11 Mama also has friends like Agnes, and Jessie does not—a key difference between them. Jessie knows that Agnes will be there to comfort Mama after she is gone, helping with funeral details and perhaps even staying with her. Jessie had earlier suggested the possibility of Agnes's moving in, but Mama was quick to deny the friendship so Jessie could not use that thought to ease her conscience. Like the other offstage characters, Agnes serves multiple functions and is part of the complex patterns Norman skillfully weaves under the play's surface simplicity (Harriot, 142).

Norman's next play, Traveler in the Dark, also revolves around offstage characters. Brilliant surgeon Sam has returned home for the funeral of his devoted friend and nurse, Mavis, who died of cancer despite Sam's efforts to save her. Mavis's death forces Sam to come to terms with the other major crisis in his life—the death of his mother, Mary, when he was young. These two losses have caused a tremendous crisis of faith.

A minor offstage character is Sam's mother-in-law. She is rich and enjoys displaying her wealth. She is a snob (Glory, Sam's wife, has not brought “the right clothes” to suit her, [195]) and has a new “boy toy.” She serves mainly as a comic foil to Glory, who is warm and caring, but the bulk of the play belongs to Mary and Mavis.

Mary and Mavis are depicted almost as fully as the characters onstage. Sam remembers his mother's nurturing: she read him fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and would show him things “like dragons' teeth, witches' fingers and fallen stars.” He thinks of her in terms of sweets:

She was the gingerbread lady. Curly red hair and shiny round eyes and a big checked apron. Fat, pink fingers, a sweet vanilla smell, and all the time in the world. Sing to you, dance with you, write your name on the top of a cake.


Everett, Sam's preacher father, recalls his wife's humor. She would bake cookies for someone, eat them herself, and then send the wax paper she baked them on with a note to the recipient. Her homespun wisdom is seen in her comment that marriage

was like your favorite shirt. You could wear it day after day, and you could try to keep it clean, but sooner or later it was going to have to go in the wash. But as soon as it was clean, you could press it fresh, and put it back on, looking good as new.


Mavis also is made vivid by what the characters say and remember about her. In love with Sam, she was proud of his accomplishments and sent Everett clippings about Sam's successes. Despite her unrequited love, she could also be a good friend to Glory; she borrowed money from Everett so that Glory could have cosmetic surgery on her eyes. She had a cat named Peaches, to whom she made Everett talk on the phone. She was self-sacrificing at every opportunity, and Glory tells Sam that she died unafraid (198).

Mavis is a source of tension between Sam and Everett. Everett had wanted Sam to marry Mavis and resents the way Sam treated her, accusing Sam of taking everything Mavis had (179). Sam, in turn, resents his father for not paying attention to his mother: “You even loved Mavis more than Mother” (191). Mavis's death has caused Sam to confront not only his feelings about her and his mother but also those about Everett. Mavis's death also causes Sam to panic about his marriage, and he tells Glory he wants a divorce. By the end of the play, he realizes that this was only a knee-jerk response, made because he did not want to hurt Glory as he thinks he had hurt his mother and Mavis, or because he feared losing her, too (203).

His mother's death affected Sam as much as Mavis's did. Everett says Mary's death is the reason Sam became a doctor (183). It is also the reason he lost the faith that made him a child preacher, and he blames God as well as his father. He is angry at her, too, for leaving him. He expresses this by explaining to his son, Stephen, why Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall:

His … mother … laid him there. … She told him he was a man. See? She dressed him up in a little man's suit. He didn't know he could fall. He didn't know he could break. He didn't know he was an egg.


Mary's death taught Sam he could break. He later says he should have known Mavis would die, because his mother died (170). Mary's death started the process that Mavis's death completes. By the end of the play, he has worked through his guilt and pain until he understands that faith is like the geodes his mother collected but would never break open: “It was better for it to be safe than for you to know what it was, exactly” (201). Sam and Everett eventually reconcile their differences with each other, and Everett's speech about Mary at the end of the play could apply to Mavis as well:

I guess you can be a real big part of somebody else's world without ever understanding the first thing about it. Somebody can give you their life and you'll never know why. Never know what they wanted from you, or if they ever got it. Then when they die, well, knowing so little about these people makes it real hard to lose them.


This is the lesson Everett and Sam learn through the deaths of Mary and Mavis, and it is a key theme of Norman's—people learning to understand each other.

Everett and Sam join Arlie, Deedee and Alberta, Shooter and Willie, the Outlaw and Lily, and Jessie as complex characters who come to terms with themselves and whom Norman shapes by her use of offstage characters.


  1. Mel Gussow, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater,” New York Times Magazine (1 May 1983), 26.

  2. Marsha Norman, Four Plays (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988). All quotations from these four plays are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Lisa J. McDonnell, “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman,” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring 1987), 95-104.

  4. Leslie Kane, “The Way Out, the Way In: Paths to Self in the Plays of Marsha Norman,” Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 257, 268-269.

  5. Lori Miller, “Writing Was the Only Choice,” New York Times Book Review (24 May 1987), 10.

  6. Esther Harriot, American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988), 134.

  7. Jenny S. Spencer, “Norman's 'night, Mother: Psycho-Drama of Female Identity,” Modern Drama 30, no. 3 (1987), 365. See also C. W. E. Bigsby, Modern American Drama, 1945-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 316.

  8. Richard Wattenberg, “Feminizing the Frontier Myth: Marsha Norman's The Holdup,Modern Drama 33, no. 4 (December 1990), 513.

  9. Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 53. All further citations from this play are parenthetical within the text.

  10. Sally Browder, “‘I Thought You Were Mine’: Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother,” in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, ed. Mickey Pearlman (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 111.

  11. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koening, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987), 328.

Charles Isherwood (review date 6-12 December 1999)

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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 Wit's caliber (come to think of it, Wit isn't quite all it's cracked up to be, either), Norman's play riffs on an intriguing idea and has its poignant moments. It also boasts an almost embarrassingly accomplished cast. But it doesn't live up to the promise of its inventive concept, only catching dramatic fire in the final minutes.

The play is unfocused by definition: It takes place inside the head of the novelist Ginger (Polly Draper) as her mind replays or anticipates a series of incidents whose reality the audience can only glancingly gauge. Conversations and actions recur in contradictory ways, keeping the line between Ginger's nonstop fantasizing and the real world firmly blurred. It's an appealing premise. Who has not, on occasion, paused to wonder at the fabulous series of replayed conversations, dreamed encounters and surreal fears that circulate constantly through the active imagination?

In the opening moments, it seems Ginger has been given a tremendous reprieve: A possible lung cancer diagnosis has been downgraded to pneumonia. But her relief is short-lived. As she complains to her alter ego, the play's title character (Sarah Knowlton) and the protagonist of her novels, the brush with death has inspired Ginger to examine her dissatisfactions, which include a somewhat generically unhappy marriage and a snippy relationship with her teenage daughter.

Ginger's meandering journey through the byways of memory and imagination takes some broad comic turns in Michael Sexton's production. Not all of them are particularly rewarding. Much of the interplay between Ginger and Trudy, who talks back to her creator even as she is made to enact a chapter from a rather trite romance novel, is coy and preposterous. Particularly embarrassing is a scene in which Trudy arrives in tart attire to show Ginger how to turn on the musician she's idly thinking of having an affair with. Knowlton has trouble bringing dignity to this fuzzy conceit.

When it's revealed that Ginger is, in fact, dying of cancer, the play gains emotional texture as Draper's wry performance turns gravely tender. As Ginger awaits the final verdict, watching in agony as a doctor examines an X-ray, she speaks her reeling mind's frenzied thoughts with an onrushing sense of vertigo that's touching and terrifying. Here the play's premise finally bears vivid dramatic results, and they carry through to the play's end, as Ginger makes peace (or imagines it) with her husband and daughter, banishing the harrying Trudy to connect more deeply with the people in her life, rather than the phantom doubles she's more comfortable confronting.

But these resonant final minutes are preceded by an hour of wheel-spinning replays that simply aren't written with enough wit or revealing insight to justify the wait. Some talented actors are left with precious little to do: John Dossett is better as Ginger's tetchy spouse than as her would-be lover; Julia Mellvaine brings authentic angst to her portrait of a teenager in minor turmoil; Aasif Mandvi (of Sakina's Restaurant) is capable in a trio of small roles. Most surprising is the presence of The Life's terrific Pamela Isaacs in the negligible role of Ginger's agent Sue.

Mark Wendland's nifty set may also remind audiences of Wit, since its sliding screens are manipulated by the performers much in the manner of the hospital room curtains in that other play. It's a more artful piece of design, however, in the service of a lesser work.

For the record, both plays premiered in 1995, Wit at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif, and Trudy Blue at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky.

Linda Ginter Brown (essay date 2001)

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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 examples showcasing contemporary society's love affair with food. Store shelves contain abundant supplies for those with the wherewithal to purchase. Restaurants cater to clientele all along the economic spectrum. Bookstores report continually increasing cookbook sales even in shaky financial times. Television shows featuring cooking segments garner large audiences.

At the same time, more than ever before, health problems related to diet demand attention. Rising numbers of anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive overeaters struggle to survive their twisted relationship with the food necessary to sustain their existence. Women comprise the majority of this struggling population. These battles belie the real issue—the need to find a true self in the midst of a false society. The hunger that haunts these women is not of physiological origin. It does not connote any quest to appease what Maslow calls the most basic human need1, but rather a psychic one. Perched on the edge of the twenty-first century, women hunger to heal that “hole in the soul.” They fight not to fix their Oedipal crisis, as Freud posited, but rather to find their true selves. Fragmented and confused, they search for the missing piece. Like Humpty Dumpty, they have fallen from the wall and cannot put themselves together. Psychically, they long for a cohesive self.

Food metaphors depicted in women's writing reflect that psychic search. Both Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman use this “culinary approach” to foreground a number of their female characters' struggles with psychic issues. By examining their works, one can see how certain female characters use their relationships to food to symbolize the gnawing psychic hunger each experiences.

Reading Hellman's memoirs is tantamount to sitting at a banquet of culinary metaphors. Hellman's passion for food permeates many pages, starting with her childhood memories in New Orleans and ending with her last publication, Eating Together: Recollections and Recipes, a cookbook coauthored with Peter Feibleman and published after her death. In Unfinished Woman, she relates how she cleaned the crayfish for the delicious bisques her aunts would make and how she learned to kill a chicken without “any ladylike complaints” (13). Her reputation for hospitality is well known, along with marvelous parties at her home on Martha's Vineyard. Robert Brustein attributes her preoccupation with nourishment as “perhaps reflecting her blocked maternal instinct.”2 Even Marsha Norman, who interviewed Hellman shortly before she died, was invited to bring her husband and come back for dinner when Hellman was better able to cook. Her penchant for parties is well documented, for, unnurtured herself, Hellman sought to appease others' hunger. Her writings attest to that commitment.

Ironically, one of Hellman's weakest plays contains an abundance of food images. Days to Come, Hellman's second play, opened in December 1936 to generally negative reviews. Hellman's uneasy fears about the play turned to horror on opening night. Her inability to “stomach” the production manifested itself as she vomited in a side aisle near the back of the darkened theater. Audience response ranged from lackluster to outright disgust, with William Randolph Hearst leaving, with six friends, during the middle of the second act. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson condemned the play3, charging Hellman with laborious writing and confusing plots and counterplots. Robert Coleman, New York Daily Mirror critic,4 contended that Hellman used “staccato and stuffy dialogue.” Charles Dexter, writing in the Daily Worker,5 noted that Hellman sympathized with the worker's plight, but was unable “to get under the skin of her characters.”

This unsuccessful effort centers around the Rodman family, owners of a brush manufacturing company in Galion, Ohio, and foregrounds the inherent conflict between management and labor. Although company CEO Andrew Rodman abhors the thought, a team has been brought into break up a strike. Because Rodman has known the townspeople all his life, he believes reason will prevail. A weak and ineffectual man, he fails to see that his wife, Julie, is having an affair with family friend and lawyer Henry Ellicott. However, Ellicott “owns” more than just Rodman's wife. He has manipulated Rodman into borrowing funds to keep the company afloat, taking company shares as collateral.

Whalen, a union organizer, counsels company workers to refrain from fighting with Wilkie, the strike buster who arrives in town with two thugs, Mossie and Easter. Mossie kills Easter during a card game and plants the body at union headquarters to implicate Whalen. Julie, who hopes to initiate a “friendship” with Whalen, witnesses the plant, as she is at his office when it occurs. Whalen is jailed, and in the ensuing ruckus, a company worker's child is killed. Firth, the child's father, confronts Rodman at the family home. Wilkie is ordered to leave town.

During the entire episode, Cora Rodman, Andrew's maiden sister, worries about losing the company and how the strike will affect their family. Intensely jealous of Julie, she finally tells Andrew about his wife's lengthy affair with Henry Ellicott. After Ellicott leaves, Julie offers to leave or give Andrew a divorce, but he declines. As the curtain descends, he rather pitifully attests that they will live, “just as ‘half-people’ the rest of their lives—for days to come” (133).

While the political machinations of both management and labor obstensibly constitute the play's central action, the most interesting struggle, from a critical standpoint, focuses upon Cora Rodman, Andrew's spinster sister. While lamenting Hellman's ill-fated choice to include so many issues in one play, critics seldom mention Cora, whom Grenville Vernon called an “acidulous old maid.”6 Carl Rollyson, in his lengthy study Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy, terms Cora “a puzzle in the play” (95) and suggests that Cora is tormented by the same issues as the other characters—what the strike means and how management and labor can find a way to coexist (95). He rightly observes that “She does not know how to begin to live her own life” and “she exemplifies critic Joseph Wood Krutch's observation that Hellman is a ‘specialist in hate and frustration, a student of helpless rage’” (95). However, Cora's torment goes much deeper than the family's trouble with the strikers, and her ceaseless preoccupation with food and its preparation signals the reader that Hellman, once again, is presenting a fragmented self in search of cohesion. Cora's continual focus upon food symbolizes her struggle for personal power, an identity, and the need to fill the “gnawing psychic hunger” she experiences as part of the Rodman family structure. Clearly, getting to eat what she wants when she wants it metaphorically symbolizes filling a psychic void. In her work The Hungry Self, Kim Chernin quotes a client who relates, “There is no I … There's just an immense hole at the center. An emptiness. A terror. Not all the food in the world could fill it. But, I try” (20). Cora also tries. From act 1, scene 1 where she berates Hannah, the housekeeper, for cutting her piece of cake too small, until the last scene of the last act, where she takes a bite of toast and chides everyone for “getting too excited,” it is quite apparent that something is “eating” her.

That “something” is her response to the powerlessness she feels. More than anything, she desires a “place at the table,” to be part of some satisfying relationship, to be acknowledged as a person. No one, either in or out of the household, supports her emotionally. Consequently, her manipulative behavior reveals a desperate woman posturing for attention, begging to be heard, but mostly being ignored. Like numerous other female characters of Hellman's, such as Martha in The Children's Hour, or Anna and Carrie in Toys in the Attic, or Regina in The Little Foxes, Cora struggles to find some measure of personal power denied her in the patriarchal culture within which she must exist. Her relationship to food illuminates that struggle.

A thin, nervous woman of forty-two, she has never married but lives with her brother Andrew and his wife, Julie, in the house left by their parents, the founders of the Rodman family business. She snipes. She carps. She criticizes. Her behavior belies an unhappy soul, whether she harangues Hannah, telling her, “You didn't bring me enough butter on my tray this morning and I had a roll left over … there always seems to be something wrong with the breakfast tray” (79), or whether she tells Henry Ellicott, the family lawyer, “I shall eat as much as I please. Just as much as I please” (130). Cora fears being shortchanged. Like Beckett's Hamm in Endgame, she worries that supplies are running out. She fears that nothing can satisfy, that there will never be enough. Her nervous stomach mirrors her inward turmoil. Outwardly, she attempts to soothe herself with chocolate pepsin drops prescribed by her doctor—even medication meant to calm digestion needs a “sweet” coating. Cora cannot accept life “straight.” She must seek solace in food for she cannot face the truth of a meager existence. Even sleep escapes her, for, as she relates, “if a pin drops, it wakes me. I've always been like that” (81).

Interestingly, Cora has never married, nor has she “reproduced” herself through the birth of a child. Like her creator, she seeks nurturance from an Other who is missing from the picture. Although Hellman married Arthur Kober, the marriage was brief, and the child they conceived beforehand was aborted. Yet Hellman never stopped seeking nurturance, psychic food that would enable her to survive. Her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, her “idealized other,” assuaged some of that hunger, but as Rollyson rightly suggests, “Always, something was missing for Hellman” (8), and “she was—even later in life—the type of person who liked to dress elegantly for dinner and then complain about the ‘rat-fuck’ food she was eating” (35).

Perhaps Hellman's attempts to find satisfying food belie a deeper fear—of losing herself or reproducing herself. In her ground-breaking book, Bitter Milk, Madeline Grumet describes this fear when she describes childbirth as “the wrenching expulsion of the infant” that “physically recapitulates the terrors of coming apart, of losing a part of oneself” (10). Perhaps Cora, as well as her creator, fears reproducing herself. If her search for a “replacement umbilical cord” has thus far been unsuccessful, she risks being unable to nurture any mirror image she may reproduce.

A useful construct to more fully illuminate Cora's struggle for a cohesive self is time—whether past, present, or future. In the past, Cora's family unit was intact. Her biological mother was present, and the interloper, Julie, who marries her weak, ineffectual brother, had not yet intruded. Papa, who “knew how to run the company,” was alive and was certainly more effectual than his son, who has endangered the family fortune through his laissez-faire attitude. However, Andrew's climatic speeches at the play's end reveal the loathing and contempt he harbors toward Cora, as he tells his sister, “You hate me and I hated you from the day I was old enough to think about you,” (132). His uncharacteristic venomous outburst certainly suggests that Cora's childhood was less than ideal.

What Cora needs more than anything is a supportive relationship with a nurturing mother figure. If she can obtain this necessary connection, she stands a chance to become psychically whole. Without it, she risks continued fragmentation. As Chodorow notes, “a girl cannot and does not completely reject her mother in favor of men but continues her relationship of dependence upon and attachment to her” (53).

Hellman is strangely silent concerning the biological mother. No mention of her is made during the entire play, but a surrogate mother is present in the character of Hannah, the housekeeper. Arguably the play's strongest female character, Hannah bows to no one, not even Cora. Perceptive as well as powerful, she usurps pantry supplies to support the striking workers. Unlike Andrew Rodman, the company CEO. Hannah has a much more realistic view of the situation, realizing that a confrontation is coming. She notes, “I haven't lived in this house twenty years for nothing” (78). When Wilkie arrives with his mafioso thugs, she refuses to answer the door. Even Andrew acknowledges her role in the family's structure in the last scene, as he relates, “Hannah shares the secrets of all of us. That's why Cora can't get rid of her, isn't it, Cora?” (132).

Cora and Hannah's relationship centers upon food. In Cora's first speech, she asks Hannah, “Did you make something sweet?” to which Hannah accedes. “Chocolate cake. All over” (79). Characteristic of an adult's desire to reestablish a childhood memory, Cora seeks something sweet, not a vegetable or salad, which might be better for one's arteries, but something like “mama used to make.” Her food fixation leads her to inventory the food supply and her discovery that supplies are, indeed, low, sends her to Mossie and Easter for help in catching the responsible criminal. She concedes, “very funny things are happening here. Things are missing from the pantry. Or is that too unimportant work for you? … When I looked into the closet I was amazed to find at least eight or ten dollars worth of canned goods” (99).

As a surrogate mother figure. Hannah embodies what Melanie Klein referred to as a “good breast, bad breast” image7. Klein, in opposition to her mentor, Freud, focused upon an infant's preoedipal, rather than oedipal, development. Because the infant cannot distinguish between the mother and the breast during the earliest stages of development, the infant is inevitably frustrated and splits this “object” into a “good breast” and a “bad breast” in order to preserve it psychically. Hannah, as “keeper of the food supply,” controls Cora's physical nourishment. Moreover, when confronted about the thefts, she shows not one iota of remorse. Instead she insists, “I wish I could have taken more. People need it. Do what you want about it. Mr. Andrew” (100). Cora's concern that there be enough food available does not impress Hannah in the least.

Hannah's position as a surrogate mother figure only enrages Cora. She finds no sustenance in their relationship, nor does she have anyone else who can meet her needs. As Chodorow posits, “women, therefore, need primary relationships to women as well as men” (53). In this motherless world (for Hannah refuses to fulfill her potential as a nurturing mother), Cora is bereft. If the past precluded any basis upon which to build the underpinnings of emotional stability, the present presents little hope either. The sad reality is that Cora is pushed aside. Andrew's tired answer that he will not do anything about the theft further humiliates Cora and serves as a stunning example that Cora deserves no place at the family table. Her opinions and actions are of no consequence. Just as she has no say in corporate decisions affecting family business, she has no say in the day-to-day management of the household budget. This “bread and butter” is off limits. Indeed, Cora has no say in anything that occurs in the Rodman household. Because she feels so powerless, she lashes out at each combatant and then seeks solace in food. As Cherin suggests, an association exists between a woman's eating habits and her struggle for identity (xi); she maintains that a woman must return to her roots to find what keeps her developmentally weak, “the hunger knot in which identity, the mother-separation struggle, love, rage, food, and the female body are all entangled” (xiv). Cora fits Chernin's definition of a woman with an eating disorder, one who is “trying to fill an ill-defined ‘gnawing hunger’ whose real nature she cannot admit to herself” (24).

Even the murder of Wilkie's thug, Mossie, right in the Rodman home, cannot keep Cora from her appointed snack. In Cora's view, nothing can be done for a dead man, but hunger can be appeased. Loudly ringing the bell to summon Hannah, she insists, “My milk and fruit aren't upstairs. We can't help it if he got killed. Whatever we do now isn't going to do him any good. … You forgot it, didn't you?” (117). Hannah's cryptic reply that, “I didn't think you'd starve. … Funny, how you drink it. Just like you need it” (117), reveals not only Hannah's hard-hearted approach, but also Cora's overriding need for nurturance. To borrow a line from Arthur Miller's Linda Loman, “Attention must be paid.” In this case, Cora's starving self demands it. While the others gather to discuss the previous night's horrific events, she sends back the improperly made hot chocolate. Her curt reply to Ellicott's query as to whether she must have her breakfast in the library symbolizes her attempt to sustain structure in her powerless life, as she demands, “Mind your own business. I've had it here for thirty years. I shall continue” (130). Family and friends may manipulate her position, but Cora will not cave in so easily. If the hot chocolate will not soothe her psychic aches and pains, she will send it back to the kitchen until Hannah “gets it right.” Just like Jessie in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, Cora longs for the days when warm cocoa with Mama would take care of life's woes. The fact that those days are a fantasy is beside the point. One can try. One can demand one's place at the table as long as one's strength holds.

Cora's present sense of power is further diminished by her brother's wife, Julie. Before Julie married Andrew, Cora could function as the household's mistress. Her constant criticism of Julie's ability to coordinate household functions reveals her rage at being displaced. She loses no opportunity to illuminate Julie's incompetence, as evidenced by her remark to the man who comes to plant the trees. Cora notes, “I told him that you always did that. Forgetting about things” (82). She further establishes her fear at relinquishing her perceived place as mistress of the household when she deliberately snubs Julie's hoped-for paramour, Leo Whalen, the union organizer. Julie's immediate caustic attack as she demands. “Don't do that in my house again” (92), only enrages her more. Cora does not accept Julie's place in the Rodman household. She underscores the rage she feels as she shouts, “How dare you talk that way? So now it's your house? My father built it, but it's YOUR house now” (92). As long as Julie remains, Cora's place at the table remains in jeopardy.

Cora holds a losing hand in this game with her sister-in-law unless she plays her high card and reveals Julie's longstanding affair with the family lawyer, Henry Ellicott, as well as other clandestine liaisons. However, her decision to reveal Julie's extramarital liaison with Ellicott, causing Julie's fall from grace, backfires. Metaphorically speaking, Cora feels that if she can pull the chair out from under Julie, she can regain a place at the family table. Unfortunately, for her, the plan fails. Whether Andrew knew or did not know of his wife's deception is of no consequence to him now. In view of the fact that he bears responsibility for two murders, he has neither the energy nor the inclination to demand an explanation from Julie, even though Julie insists, “Let her say it. She's wanted to for a long time” (130). Andrew's lackluster reply, coupled with Julie's taunt, causes an emotional explosion that serves as a catalyst to bring the missing ingredient to the table—truth.

When Cora acknowledges that she has known about Julie's extramarital behavior for years, she pinpoint, the powerlessness his marriage has supposedly placed upon her. What has eaten away at Cora's insides is that Andrew has, unashamedly, squandered family money (half of which belongs to Cora), upon European trips, fashionable clothes, and a year's study in Paris for his wife. Cora resents that Andrew has had to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars, resulting in deep debt, to make Julie happy.

However, Cora's bare-bones approach to truth elicits no appreciation from Andrew—or anyone else. Her strategy falters, and, as a result, her future as a Rodman family member appears dubious, at best. Each one harbors resentment about her revelation, but Andrew's response epitomizes the seething hostility present, as he insists, “It wasn't your business. It isn't your business now” (131). Instead, he discloses the denial in which each one, as well as Henry, participates, noting “It was all there before. It can be said now” (132).

Sadly, Cora's response to the debilitating diatribes indicates no success on her part at assuaging the ill-defined “gnawing hunger” that eats away at her psyche. Her last speech, in which she mildly suggests, “Things went entirely too far. It comes from everybody getting too excited. Now you go to sleep and nothing will seem as bad when you wake up. People said a lot of things they didn't mean. A lot of things they didn't mean. I'm sure of that” (133), indicates her inability to accept the truth. Her final gesture, summarily chomping down on a bite of toast, signifies her continuing turn to food. Food denotes sustenance. It comforts. The hot chocolate like Mama used to make or the tea and toast she brought when you were ill conjure up a time—far removed—when needs were met, when hunger was fed. Cora's fixation on food represents an attempt to obtain the nurturing she never experiences in the Rodman family. Tragically, the food can never satisfy. It must be perfectly presented, and it must be in abundance. Supplies can never run out.

However, no abundance can ever appease the appetite within Cora. Hellman's characterization illustrates one way a woman may respond when confronted with the powerlessness of her life. As Chernin notes, these women are “filling the emptiness with food” (25). This preoccupation, for Cora, signifies the fear she feels when confronted with the obstacles before her—obstacles that leave her economically dependent as well as emotionally bereft. Cora wants what most women want—an identity that affords them some measure of power; a place at the table—but, just as other female characters in Hellman's works, she finds her chair missing. Like Lavinia in Another Part of the Forest, who escapes her confinement through fantasies that substitute for the reality she finds unbearable, or Regina, in Little Foxes, who responds to her powerlessness by, in effect, murder, so Cora escapes through food.

In this motherless world, Cora has no means of escape. She has no idealized other with whom she can bond. She will simply, as millions of her sisters throughout centuries, have to make the best of a brutal situation. In order to do so, she will continue to keep the food pantry, and the hostile Hannah, under surveillance. In this play, which William Wright terms “Hellman's most political play,” Cora's character has no power base from which to muster a fight. Instead, she continues to struggle in a hostile and stifling environment. No other choices exist. Like her creator, Cora must remain “an unfinished woman,” never finding the truth she needs to satisfy her appetite—the truth she needs to become psychically whole.

Like her literary progenitor, Marsha Norman also foregrounds food in her plays, particularly the two most successful, Getting Out and 'night, Mother. Both female protagonists search for sustenance and nurturance. Arlene, in Getting Out, longs to be invited for her mother's Sunday pot toast dinner, and even though her mother ultimately rejects her, Arlene finds a friend, Ruby, an upstairs neighbor, with whom to break bread. Jessie, in 'night, Mother, is not so fortunate. She can find no food that will satisfy, and even though her mother tries valiantly to stop her, she kills herself in order to gain control over her meager existence.

In this Pulitzer-Prize winning effort, Norman, true to her “calling” as a storyteller determined to give a voice to people not normally heard, presents the painful existence of Jessie Cates, a woman without hope—without a “self” for which she constantly hungers. Critics categorically raved about this ninety minutes of intermissionless, riveting theater. Brendan Gill, writing in the New Yorker, termed it “a very good play indeed,” and Louisville Times critic Dudley Saunders saw its Broadway opening at the Golden Theatre as “refreshingly clean, honest and straightforward.” Drama critic for the New York Times Mel Gussow, allowed that “the play stands out as one of the season's major dramatic events,” and described Norman as a powerful dramatist. Robert Brustein, writing in Who Needs Theatre, likened Norman's technique and effect to that of Chekhov and O'Neill, while noting that Norman's scene depicting the attempt to make hot chocolate “the old way” is her version of “J. D. Salinger's consecrated chicken soup” (66, 67).

Mother and daughter, Thelma and Jessie Cates, live isolated existences in a nondescript house on a lonely country road. Jessie, an unhappy overweight woman, about forty, suffers from epilepsy, but the “disease” that drives her to take her own life is far more insidious than this lifelong affliction. Jessie starves for a cohesive self, a sense of personal autonomy, which has thus far escaped her. Because she has no “appetite” for life, she opts for death.

However, although suicide is certainly a factor, this play is not about suicide. Indeed, those who see it merely as a “death watch,” instituted by a cruel daughter determined to “pay back” her mother for a lifetime of wrongs, err in their judgment. 'night, Mother is a play about mother and daughter relationships, about psychic hunger, about tragedy, but also about triumph. With the final gunshot, Jessie assumes control over her life, and during the play's action she and Thelma connect in a way they never could before. At the same time, she separates from her mother—a task she has heretofore been unable to accomplish—and Thelma learns to let her daughter go.

Hunger, and the need to appease it, form the play's central metaphor. Both women experience psychic hunger brought about by the helplessness women have historically experienced as part of a patriarchal culture that offers little hope for personal power. However, Marsha Norman's female characters differ from Lillian Hellman's. Unlike Cora Rodman in Days to Come, Jessie Cates does not hopelessly vegetate in a powerless position at the play's end. Ultimately, she gets what she wants—death—which releases her from the incredibly boring existence she would have experienced if she had opted to live. And actually, Mama also gets what she wants, too. She finally communicates in a powerful way never before possible. Some mothers live and die without ever communicating with their daughters at such a deep level.

The kitchen becomes a metaphor for the play's action. Traditionally, we tend to view the kitchen as the heart of the house, symbolizing mother, warmth, and nurturance. We break bread, which mother prepares, in the bosom of our family. We experience connection and relationships that sustain our survival in the outside world. The kitchen, usually smaller than the other rooms in the house, functions as a womb—a warm and safe place. Memory conjures up images of mother fixing breakfast for us before we trudge off to school and taking cookies from the oven upon our return.

Norman begins the play's action in the kitchen, where Thelma searches for the sugary snowballs she loves so well. The kitchen serves as a base from which to launch the battle to save the mother/daughter relationship. Here they will attempt to recapture what never existed through the cocoa-making ritual. The living room, as Jenny Spencer points out in Modern Drama, “underscores our sense of physical entrapment and psychological impasse in the ensuing action” (365). Their separation and Jessie's eventual stand for autonomy, however, are symbolized by Jessie's departure to the locked bedroom, which Thelma cannot penetrate.

Thelma, too, starves for fulfillment. Norman's first stage directions tell us that “Mama stretches to reach the cupcakes in a cabinet in the kitchen. She can't see them, but she can feel around for them, and she's eager to have one, so she's working pretty hard at it” (5). Finding only a partial package with the coconut fallen off symbolizes Mama's life. Although she has never heard of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, she most assuredly knows something's amiss. The “coconut is always falling off” for Mama, and this confrontation with her only daughter who is determined to kill herself will only confuse Mama more. Thelma loves candy; its sweetness temporarily satisfies, and she must see that the supply continues. The play's first speech solidifies this position, as she tells Jessie while unwrapping a cupcake:

Jessie, it's the last snowball, sugar. Put it on the list, O.K.? And we're out of Hershey bars, and where's that peanut brittle? I think maybe Dawson's been in it again. I ought to put a big mirror on the refrigerator door. That'll keep him out of my treats, won't it? You hear me, honey? (Then more to herself) I hate it when the coconut falls off. Why does the coconut fall off?


Isolated upon a country road and burdened with an epileptic daughter who never communicates, Thelma lives a meager existence. Candy, her little “treats,” become a crutch to help her survive. As Sally Browder notes in Mother Puzzles, Thelma, too, “has had her share of disappointments” (110). Rejected by a “silent” husband who refused to even talk to her upon his deathbed, Thelma endures her pyromaniac, okra-eating friend, Agnes, just to have someone who will talk to her. “Sweets … provide Mama with the sensual gratification, and the sense of fullness she failed to obtain from her marriage” (Morrow 24). Once again, Kim Chernin's patient probably focuses upon Thelma's pain best: “There is no I … There's just an immense hole at the center. An emptiness. A terror. Not all the food in the world could fill it. But, I try” (20).

Food functions as a complex metaphor here, and Thelma's psychic hunger begs for appeasement. Chernin's assessment crystallizes this “psychic gnawing” for all women, as she relates:

For food, after all, has defined female identity. … It has defined more even than the history of mother/daughter relations and that early sorrow and disorder that began, for many of us, at the mother's breast. Dating back to our earliest impressions of life, recorded in the symbolic code of food imagery, the vanquished story of female value and power returns to us again and again in our obsession with food. …


Rather than see Thelma as a “dodo” or a “caricature of a self-centered old baby” (Kauffman 48), we need to understand her position in the play as well as Jessie's. Because she views Jessie as an extension of herself, she finds herself upon the horns of a major maternal dilemma. Now that her “extension” has announced plans to blow her brains out with “Daddy's gun.” Thelma faces losing a part of her self, her daughter. At the same time, she also risks repudiation of her entire existence as a mother. As Chodorow asserts, a mother, “tends to experience boundary confusion with her daughter, and does not provide experiences of differentiating ego development for her daughter or encourage the breaking of her daughter's dependence” (59). Thelma valiantly tries to forestall the inevitable, to find something that tastes good to Jessie, but Jessie rejects all offers. However, as they attempt to work through the psychological baggage that underlies every mother and daughter relationship. Jessie mounts an all-out effort to connect and make her mother understand this shattering decision. Ninety minutes of anger and accusations finally give way to acceptance and understanding.

Indeed, Jessie hungers for understanding, but more importantly, control. She loves her mother, but, ultimately, she leaves her. Unlike her mother, Jessie cannot subsist on the likes of sugary snowballs, peanut brittle, and Hershey bars. She now knows that this present life will never provide the nurturance she needs to be a truly autonomous self. Her only hope is to separate from her mother and reunite with her father—in death. But before she goes, she “mothers” Mama by preparing her sweet supply. She also lists Christmas presents for Mama to give and explains directions for disposal of her body and funeral etiquette.

While some may think Jessie incredibly selfish for subjecting Thelma to such agonizing torture, the fact is that Jessie cares deeply for Thelma. Her carefully planned evening reflects a desperate attempt to explain why no food, not even rice pudding, can make such an isolated existence bearable, as Jessie suggests. “How would you know if I didn't say it? You want it to be a surprise?” (13). Jessie's refusal to allow Thelma to call Dawson, Jessie's brother, underscores the fact that what occurs, this night, in this house, is for mother and daughter alone. As Jessie notes, “If Dawson comes over, it'll make me feel stupid for not doing it ten years ago. … I only told you so I could explain it, so you wouldn't blame yourself, so you wouldn't feel bad. There wasn't anything you could say to change my mind. I didn't want you to save me. I just wanted you to know” (17, 74).

Jessie wants Thelma to know that a place at her mother's table has not satisfied the psychic hunger she endures. No option Thelma offers appeals to Jessie. Supplies have run out. However, as Jessie methodically lines up the bags of sour balls, red hots, and licorice, she makes one last attempt to answer her questions and to recreate a sense of safety that never really existed. As she tells Thelma, “We could go on fussing all night. I mean, I could ask you things I always wanted to know and you could make me some hot chocolate the old way” (36). She adds a caramel apple to her request, and Thelma, who allows that she “makes the best caramel apples in the world” (37), willingly accedes to Jessie's wishes. No request is too difficult for Thelma, who desperately wants Jessie to stay as she asserts, “It's no trouble, what trouble? You put it in the pan, and stir it up. All right. Fine. Caramel apple. Cocoa. O.K.” (37). Interestingly, this pan is the one Jessie instructs her to hold when she calls the police to report Jessie's death. Norman's stage directions tell us she grips the pan tightly “like her life depended on it” (89). As Lynda Hart notes, “Jessie's last request from her mother is for food. … This last bit of sustenance that mother and daughter share is highly charged with symbolic meaning as the pan Thelma uses to warm the milk becomes the object that will occupy her after Jessie's death” (76). However, Hart pinpoints the problems daughters have in separating from mothers when she suggests that Thelma's insistence that Jessie have three marshmallows in her cocoa reflects Thelma's attempt to retain maternal control over Jessie. As Hart asserts, “Even with the knowledge of her daughter's imminent suicide, Mama cannot acknowledge her daughter as a separate adult. … In this most basic of ways, Mama is asserting her power and denying her daughter's initiative” (76).

Mama wants to return to the “old way,” in which she retained control over her daughter. Now, the table is turned as Jessie asserts her autonomy through her refusal to eat even though she starves psychically. In this battle over what and how much to eat the two wills clash:

The child's efforts to impose her own will upon the world and to manipulate her environment are directed towards food very early in the development of a separate self. What will be eaten and how it will he prepared are questions that often form the basis of mother and daughter struggles.

(Hart 76)

Unfortunately, however, their attempted ritual to recover their symbiotic relationship ultimately fails, as both mother and daughter realize the cocoa cannot satisfy the deeper longing. Significantly, the milk makes it taste bad. As both mother and daughter concede that it is, indeed, the milk, both women, together, confront their unfulfilled lives. Their mutual dislike of milk is one of the few traits mother and daughter share (Morrow 24).

Mama's avowal that “It's a real waste of chocolate. You don't have to finish it” (45) comprises one of the most important lines in the play. This statement suggests, at least on some level, Jessie's decision to halt her psychic “forage for food”; it also provides a connection to the play's last line, “Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (89), where Thelma ultimately realizes that she and her daughter are not one, but two separate people.

While her dislike of milk reflects her rejection of the unadulterated and healthful, it also suggests “her dissatisfaction with motherhood which has proven no more rewarding than marriage” (Morrow 26). Now she faces coming to terms with a daughter's decision to reject the woman who bore her even though the men in her life, and not her mother, have abandoned her.

Thelma's rage at the realization that Jessie will never have an appetite for options her mother may offer erupts, as she complains. “I should've known not to make it. I knew you wouldn't like it. You never did like it” (45). Nothing Thelma can do will satisfy Jessie, and knowing that compels her to lash out in a tyrannical rage, threatening never to cook nor drink milk again. Her existence will be bolstered only by candy and tuna, and Jessie's maternal avowal that “You should drink milk” is met with a firm, “Not anymore. I'm not” (54). Moreover, she demands an accounting from the flesh and blood that has turned on her, as she insists, “Nothing I ever did was good enough for you and I want to know why” (55). Characteristically. Thelma assumes, as a mother, it must be her fault if her daughter refuses the food proffered. Thelma cannot accept that Jessie feels that “I cannot do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it” (36).

No one has really taken time to know Jessie on any level except a surface one. All the men in her life, including her beloved father, have fled. Indeed, Jessie's identification with him, the “big, old faded blue man in the chair” (47), is so strong she uses his gun to complete her mission. Jessie could talk to him, even if it was only about why “black socks are warmer than blue socks” (48). Like her father, Jessie is both an epileptic as well as an introvert. Her desire to rejoin him in death is reflected by her wish to “hang a sign around her neck. ‘Gone fishin,’ like her daddy's” (29). Jessie does not wish to stay around and chat forever. “Unlike Mama, Jessie accepts her father's introversion and complexity because she recognizes the necessary (and desirable) limitation of our ability to communicate with others” (Morrow 29). Jessie wants out, and she wants out tonight.

Although her father leaves her through death, Cecil, Jessie's husband, leaves because, as Jessie tells it, he “made her choose between him and smoking” (56). Interestingly, although Jessie may refuse food, she enjoys smoking—an oral fixation. To Jessie this addictive but non-nourishing habit signifies “the only thing I know that's always just what you think it's going to be. Just like it was the last time, right there when you want it and real quiet” (56). Jessie associates smoking “with power and self-determination … smoking offers Jessie a sense of predictability and control—if only negative control—over her destiny” (Morrow 29). Even this failed relationship reflects back upon Thelma because she is the one who engineered it in the first place. Afraid that Jessie would have a hard time “catching” a man, Thelma contracted with Cecil for a porch and ended up with a son-in-law who left her daughter for another woman. Like Cecil, Jessie's juvenile delinquent son Ricky also leaves her.

An incorrigible youngster, he steals, does drugs, and may commit murder in a matter of time. Jessie has given up any hope for Ricky, much as she has for herself. Still, she recognizes his shortcomings are hers too, as she notes, “Ricky is as much like me as it's possible for any human being to be. We even wear the same size pants. These are his, I think” (59). Likewise, she realizes her maternal failure with Ricky, as she tells Thelma, “You know who laid that floor. I did” (60), much as Thelma failed in building a proper foundation for her. Even so, Jessie reaches out to nurture Ricky through her decision to leave him her watch. When Thelma complains that he will just sell it Jessie admits she hopes he gets a good meal, and if he buys dope as Thelma threatens, she hopes “he gets some good dope with it, Mama. …” (85).

The other man in her life, her brother Dawson, offers her no familial sense of community. In Jessie's view, Dawson calls her Jess “just like he knows who he's talking to” (23), and he and his wife, Loretta, invade Jessie's privacy by opening the package containing her mail-order bra, the one with the “little rosebuds.” The grocery account bears Dawson's name even though Jessie orders the weekly food, and she is tired of dealing with her own brother, who gives her houseshoes every Christmas which never fit.

Aside from family relationships, Jessie has no standing in the community either. Isolated, out in the country, her life consists of day-to-day rituals such as changing shelf paper, washing floors, and coordinating grocery deliveries. She cannot hold a job, not the telephone sales job nor the one at the hospital gift shop where she made the people “real uncomfortable smiling at them the way I did” (35). The one satisfying job she liked, keeping her father's books, ended with his death. Jessie has had no real opportunity to practice socialization skills either, since she has never really been around people except in the hospital after a seizure. People avoid her. Even Thelma's okra-eating friend, Agnes, will not come to visit because she senses “Jessie's shook the hand of death and I can't take the chance it's catching. … I'll come up the driveway, but that's as far as I go” (43).

As Jessie sees it, her best bet is to leave this incredibly boring life. She has had enough of being subject to the convenience of other people's schedules and ideas of where her best interests lie. She has had enough of being at the mercy of possible epileptic seizures even though she has not had one in a year. On this particular night, she maintains perfect control. This control is reflected in her statement, “Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I've had enough, it's my stop. I've had enough” (33). Her search for a cohesive self has ended in failure, and Jessie knows it. As she explains to Thelma, “That's what this is about. It's somebody I lost, all right, it's my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came” (76). Jessie is a woman “in whom all desire is spent, not through satiation, but through the clear understanding of the world's false nourishment” (Hart 75). The only reason she remains is to make her mother understand why she had to make this radical decision. At the same time, she wishes to have her mother accept her as an autonomous adult and not the child she once was. “Through both her actions and her words, we sense Jessie's sincere desire to make some connections with her mother as a fully separate human being before she goes” (Spencer 366). Even though Thelma makes one last-ditch effort to assert her maternal power by proclaiming the inescapable eternal mother/daughter connection, as she insists, “Everything you have to do has to do with me, Jessie. You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger, without doing it to me” (72), Jessie retains the upper hand. In a poignant moment, Jessie reveals the enormity of her newly-found independence by insisting, “Then what if it does! … What if you are all I have and you're not enough? … What if the only way I can get away from you for good is to kill myself? … I can still do it” (72).

In this gripping speech, Jessie speaks for all daughters everywhere. Her outburst metaphorically reflects the anger we feel toward the woman who can never fulfill our fantasy of the perfect mother. Jessie wants her mother to feed her, but Thelma is unable to provide the necessary nurturance. Her failure incurs Jessie's wrath:

Jessie expresses anger at her mother for not being able to fulfill her insatiable demands (you're not enough), anger at feeling powerless to change her situation any other way … anger for not providing her with an adequate sense of self, for controlling her life without giving it meaning. For women in the audience, it is anger that each of us has experienced.

(Spencer 368)

Jessie's carefully orchestrated suicide finally separates her from her mother. She will not opt for a life of desperation like Thelma. Unlike her mother, she will not seek succor in sugary sweets, and if she cannot control her life, she will certainly control her death. She has waited until the time was right, for as she sees the situation. “I'm feeling as good as I ever felt in my life” (66). “She is convinced that suicide is the only authentic act available to her” (Keysser 165). With this courageous rebellion, Jessie repudiates the false self assigned to her by others. She becomes the director in her own life's drama; she establishes the boundaries between mother and daughter as she responds to Thelma's poignant plea, “You are my child!” with the firm revelation, “I am what became of your child” (76). The infant self that drooled on the sheet and felt its mother's hand tucking in the crib quilt never progressed to any sense of psychic wholeness, never acquired a true sense of self. In Jessie's view, “I'm not going to show up, so there's no reason to stay, except to keep you company, and that's … not reason enough …” (76). No cupboard held the requisite food needed to nourish Jessie's self. Nothing, not even cornflakes for breakfast, can keep her here.

As the play's action moves closer and closer to the bedroom door with each ticking of the clock, Thelma faces the awful moment of truth. Desperate and scared, she has summoned every conceivable argument to place before Jessie's metaphorical plate, only to have them pushed aside. She realizes her loss as she tells Jessie, “Who am I talking to? You're gone already, aren't you? I'm looking right through you!” (78). This statement by Thelma establishes her realization that Jessie has now smashed the mirror that bonds them together. Thelma, in looking at her daughter, no longer sees her own reflection. She sees a separate person. In an interesting anecdote, Madeline Grumet focuses upon this shattering truth in Bitter Milk, wherein she speaks of being surprised after childbirth as she looked in a mirror and saw her own reflection and not her child's (10). This cohesion, the “you are mine and I am yours” feeling, is so prevalent in mother/daughter relationships because of the way mothers view their daughters as extensions of themselves. The connection is so powerful that when they look at their daughters, they see themselves. This continuity is not present, as Chodorow attests, in mother/son relationships. Only by “smashing” that mirror can the daughter eventually own her reflection. As Sally Browder suggests, “Without some objective reference, some sense of oneself apart from others, one is totally at the mercy of others' experiences. One's sense of meaning is defined by others' choices. One's value is determined by how well one serves or provides for the needs of others” (111). In the end, Thelma realizes that she cannot possess Jessie, no matter how much she loves her. The action that began in the kitchen ends with Thelma screaming and pounding at Jessie's locked bedroom door. With her anguished confession, “Jessie, Jessie, child. … Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (89), she faces the fact that she finally must relinquish control. Even so, the symbiotic bond remains. The bullet that pierces Jessie's brain symbolically rips through Thelma as well. As critic Leslie Kane points out in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, Thelma's physical reaction to Jessie's shot—her body crumples against the door—confirms Thelma's previous statement about mutually felt pain (267).

Interestingly, in the film version, for which Norman wrote the screenplay, the last crucial line is omitted. According to Stanley Kauffman, through this omission Norman avoids suggesting the dramatic work that it could have been, because:

If the play were true—to Norman's characters as she wants us to think of them—it wouldn't exist. Either Jessie would shoot herself before it begins, or as soon as she discloses her plans, Thelma would collapse … Thelma's one impeccable line comes right after the shot. Against the locked bedroom door she sobs: “Forgive me. I thought you were mine.” The drama that really leads to that line—of a clawing Electra complex, of the mother's mirror-image hatreds, and of pity overarching both—has not yet been written.


Unfortunately, Kauffman misses the point here. Rather than improve the play, this omission weakens the important truth Thelma realizes while drinking the cocoa at the kitchen table—no mother can own her daughter. Ultimately, she must relinquish control no matter how much it hurts. That poignant realization constitutes the true drama of the play—not a “clawing Electra complex.”

Norman, however, offers a more pragmatic reason for the omission. In personal correspondence with me (through her agent, Jack Tantleff), Norman concedes:

I chose to omit the last line because that kind of line is only permissable in the theatre, where the line between the real & the imagined, the said & the unsaid is more blurred. The line, as a piece of poetry, does not belong in the realism of the film. … It was always my feeling that the line was what Thelma thought or felt at the moment. The only reason we hear it in the theatre, is because we are in the theatre.

Even so, whether or not Thelma only thinks or feels that she can no longer “own” Jessie, she still confronts that realization.

With the curtains descent, Thelma grips the cocoa pan tightly as she calls Dawson for help. Jessie's journey, which began in the kitchen and ended in her bedroom, is now complete. Nevertheless, both mother and daughter have connected in a way never before possible. They work through their mutual anger, digging through layers of guilt and remorse in order to salvage nuggets of truth. Each forgives the other. Jessie shows love for her mother by the acts she performs during these last two hours of her life. She prepares Thelma for the inevitable truth—that Jessie must assume autonomy regardless of personal cost. Thelma, through overwhelming grief, finally does let go. Both communicate on a level many mothers and daughters never experience.

Neither is really to blame for the personal realities that bring them to this place on this particular night. Thelma, like many mothers, can only offer what she has. As a participant in a patriarchal culture that places women in this no-win situation, she can hardly do more. Jessie, as a daughter, has to seek her true self—even if that quest ends in death. Both must seek their nurturance in the ways they know best. In this play, where hunger provides the controlling metaphor, Norman provides a tremendous sense of catharsis. However, she provides no answers to the contradictory lives mothers and daughters live as long as women remain the primary caretakers of children. She offers no solutions to unfulfilling lives due to societal constraints. She fails to challenge, as Jenny Spencer notes, “in any fundamental way the prevalent image of women in society—as those who reproduce, consume, and are consumed, who are powerless, inadequate, unworthy, and mutually destructive” (370).

Both Hellman and Norman, through these two plays, create representations of women working to fill that psychic hunger experienced when faced with the limited options for self-determination present in patriarchal society. Hellman's character, Cora Rodman, remains powerless, still striving at the plays end to control her psychic food supply through manipulation of family members. Norman's character, Jessie Cares, assumes control of her life and chooses death rather than face an unfulfilled life like her mother's. Even though Jessie chooses death, she triumphs because she, alone, decides what constitutes her proper nourishment.


  1. I am referring here to Maslow's “Twelve Steps to Self-Actualization,” where he gives the basic hierarchy of human needs; hunger is the most basic.

  2. See Robert Brustein's “Lillian Hellman: Epilogue to Anger,” in Who Needs Theatre: Dramatic Opinions, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York. 1987.

  3. Brooks Atkinson, “The Play,” New York Times (December 16, 1936), 35.

  4. Robert Coleman, Review of Days to Come,New York Daily Mirror (December 16, 1936), 19.

  5. Charles Dexter, “Strikes and Strikebreakers Viewed by Lillian Hellman,” Daily Worker (December 18, 1936), 7.

  6. See Grenville Vernon's review, “The Play and Screen: Days to Come,” in Commonweal, 25 (January 1, 1937), 276. Vernon focuses on Hellman's unfortunate attempt to make the play more than just a “melodrama with a purpose.”

  7. For a cogent discussion of Melanie Klein's work, I suggest the reader consult Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein (New York: Basic Books, 1974) by Hannah Segal. This work is a compilation of several lectures given at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis in London by Segal illustrated by her clinical experiences. In Chapter 3, “The Paranoid-Schizoid Position.” Segal more fully explains Klein's view of how the infant splits the mother's breast.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Play.” New York Times (December 2, 1934): 10:1.

Brustein, Robert. “Lillian Hellman: Epilogue to Anger.” In Who Needs Theatre. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, & Identity. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

———. Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1989.

Coleman, Robert. “Review of Days to Come.New York Daily Mirror, 4. 1936.

Dexter, Charles. “Strikes and Strikebreakers.” Daily Worker, 7, 1936.

Grumet, Madeline. Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching. Amherst. U of Massachusetts P, 1988.

Hellman, Lillian. The Collected Plays. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969.

———. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969.

Murray, Edward J. Motivation and Emotion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Norman, Marsha. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Segeal, Hannah. Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Vernon, Grenville. “The Play and the Screen: Days to Come.Commonweal, 25 (January 1, 1937): 276.

Sally Burke (essay date 2002)

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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 came the flash in which he realized—and said—“Oh, hell, I got it from you.” To which Beckett replied, “That's alright. Mine was a door, and I got it from Dante” (Horowitz “Address”). Apparently such an admission from the younger male artist and such amiability on the elder's part are rare. Rarer still, at least until recently, were such exchanges between older and younger female playwrights, women having had far less access to the stage and to publishing their dramas than did their male counterparts, and thus fewer opportunities to establish a women's canon. Gender discrepancies in opportunity still predominate, but as the precursor-protégé relationship between Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman illustrates, female artists in such relationships seem more akin to Beckett and Horowitz and less like the males described by Harold Bloom who wish to annihilate their predecessors.

When Bloom articulated the “anxiety of influence” as an Oedipal battle between a “strong Poet” and his “precursor,” feminist critics realized that this male struggle did not apply to the woman writer, nor, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, could “Bloom's male-oriented theory of the ‘anxiety of influence’ … be simply reversed or inverted in order to account for the situation of the woman writer” whose “precursors [were] almost exclusively male, and therefore significantly different from her” (48). The younger male poet, feeling overwhelmed and threatened by the originality of his poet predecessors, responds with a poem of his own as defense, or as Bloom said, “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem” (94). The female writer, meanwhile, undergoes an “Anxiety of Authorship—a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor,’ the act of writing will isolate and destroy her” (Gilbert and Gubar 49). Like Gilbert and Gubar, Joan Feit Diehl, Lillian Faderman, Louise Bernikow, and Annette Kolodny remark the inadequacy of Bloom's model for the woman writer. Kolodny, for example, points to the lack of a woman's canon—or to the failure of women's writing to become canonical—as meaning that “again and again, each woman who took up the pen had to confront anew her bleak premonition that both as writers and as readers, women too easily became isolated islands of symbolic significance, available only to, and decipherable only to, one another” (54).

The absence of women, as readers and writers, from Bloom's theory underscores the need to explore the woman's tradition. In Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, Elaine Showalter presents a crucial question: “Does a ‘muted’ culture have a literature of its own, or must it always revise the conventions of the dominant [culture]?” (6). Using as analogy the quilt whose pattern name—Sister's Choice—provides her title, Showalter suggests that rather than the revising and repetition which have been the bases of men's writing, “piecing and patchwork” provide “[b]oth theme and form” in women's writing and have “become metaphors for a Female Aesthetic, for sisterhood, and for a poetics of feminist survival” (146). In sum, these critics all suggest that to overcome the “anxiety of authorship,” the “woman writer must actively [seek] a female precursor who … proves by example that a revolt against patriarchal literary authority is possible” (Gilbert and Gubar 49).

Marsha Norman, as she has acknowledged in numerous interviews and essays, found her precursor in Lillian Hellman. Norman began reading Hellman's plays in high school; more than twenty years later, in the summer of 1983, she met the frail, nearly blind Hellman who was attended by nurses around the clock. A year later, Hellman was dead. In the introduction to her transcription of their conversation that day, “Articles of Faith: A Conversation with Lillian Hellman,” Norman wrote: “Quite simply, I owe her a great debt” (10); in the conversation itself, she told Hellman, “I was a kid who didn't really know it was possible to write for a living. I grew up in a religious fundamentalist family in Kentucky and my mother hoped I would work for the airlines for a few years and then marry a doctor. But all through high school there were teachers who put your plays in my hands” (11). The ensuing conversation touches upon the subjects of love, faith, and morality, and ends with Norman reminding Hellman of a statement in the introduction to Chekhov's letters in which the elder writer noted that “all great art requires a kind of spiritual violence” (15). Norman, stating her “desire to protect” the older playwright and, one assumes, to refrain from doing “her privacy” any violence (10), makes no further comment about the impact the meeting had upon her. Later, in writing of this meeting for the New York Times, Norman acknowledges that Hellman's “voice was the one that carried all the way to Kentucky, where I lived”; she adds, “Writers like Lillian Hellman, who are willing to share their lives as well as their work make it possible for those who come after them to survive.” Calling herself Hellman's “admirer and debtor,” (“Lillian Hellman's Gift to a Young Playwright” H7), Norman also describes Hellman as “[t]his wonderful, looming model, this great, vibrant, feisty, swearing lady who had managed to make a life in [the theater]” (Harriot 156).

Most obviously, of course, Hellman and Norman share a Southern heritage. Born in New Orleans, Hellman spent the first six years of her life there. Even after moving to New York, the family returned to New Orleans each year for six months, which they spent with Hellman's two unmarried aunts. In An Unfinished Woman, Hellman writes of being bored by school; she preferred to retreat to a perch in a tree from which she observed the world below and read what she chose (20-21). Norman, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, also reports being solitary as a child. Forbidden to play with the neighborhood children whom her mother considered inferior, Norman, like her precursor, spent much time reading. She remained in the South for college, becoming a scholarship student at Agnes Scott College, a Presbyterian liberal arts institution for women in Decatur, Georgia. After earning her bachelor's degree in philosophy, she took a master's degree in education at the University of Louisville.

In Pentimento, Hellman reveals her lasting tie to the South, stating that “there's nothing like the look of Southern land, or there's no way for me to get over thinking so. It's home for me still” (94). Like Hellman, who sets dramas in Washington, D.C.; Bowden, Alabama; a Louisiana town on the Gulf of Mexico; and New Orleans, Norman utilizes her native South in her settings. Getting Out takes place in both a women's prison in Alabama and Arlene's apartment in Louisville. While the playwright specifies no city as the setting of Third and Oak, there once was a laundromat in Louisville at the location named in the title. Norman also confesses that, in preparing to write Loving Daniel Boone, she “sat down and made a list of the things [she] loved best about Kentucky. It was a silly list including things like Mammoth Cave, Shaker Lemon pie, spoonbread, country ham, the Paris Pike, and the whole town of Harrodsburg” (Loving 332). At times this protégé departs markedly from her precursor. For example, in The Autumn Garden, Hellman utilizes the specifically Southern Gothic locale of the Tuckerman house on the Gulf of Mexico to pursue the universality inherent in the wasted life of Constance Tuckerman, who devotes her life to memories of loving Nick Denery and thus remains unmarried, and that of General Benjamin Griggs, who discovers that he has “frittered [him]self away” (542). Norman tracks the same issue by locating 'night, Mother in “a relatively new house built way out on a country road” (3). The locale in which Jessie determines to make the wasted life of the “somebody [she] lost … [her] own self” (76) count for something remains unspecified. Indeed, in the notes on the characters, set, and setting preceding the drama's text, Norman insists that the set “should simply indicate that [Jessie and Thelma] are very specific real people who happen to live in a particular part of the country” (3). She also rules out “[h]eavy accents” (3). Yet, to those familiar with the Norman canon, Southern threads are visible in this drama, also.

A deep-seated connection to the South also manifests itself in both playwrights as they carry on the Southern tradition of creating grotesque characters. Of course, non-Southern writers have also created eccentric personages, but when one contemplates the gallery of grotesques created by Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams, for example, one almost wishes to grant copyright on such characters to Southern writers. Hellman's “pig-face cute” (360) Laurette Sincee in Another Part of the Forest makes the pig-calling noise “Squee” (365), speaks of being taught to love music by an uncle who “had a little drum” (365), leading Marcus Hubbard to remark, “Sincee's uncle played Mozart on a little drum. Have you ever heard of that, Miss Bagtry?” (365). Laurette also admits that her “business” is “fancy whoring” (361). Rose Griggs of Hellman's The Autumn Garden, who wears clothes “that [are] much too young for her” (465), speaks in non sequiturs, and has only a slight grip on reality, typifies the faded Southern belle. One might say of her what Jacob H. Adler does of Tennessee Williams's Alma Winemiller, that is, Rose is “beyond question southern” in such traits as “the living of life as though it were a work of fiction, [and her] insulation from the world” (352). Among Norman's grotesques are the offstage Josie Barrett of Traveler in the Dark, the good-hearted “joke” (163) who, Sam fears, might ruin Mavis's funeral with a misguided attempt at singing (163), and Agnes Fletcher, Mama's friend in 'night, Mother, who has a “house full of birds” (40), “wears … [several] whistles around her neck” (40), and has “burned down every house she ever lived in. Eight fires, and she's due for a new one any day now” (38). Clearly, both playwrights mine the vein of the Southern grotesque.

Interestingly—but perhaps not surprising, considering the patriarchal heritage of these Southern women—strong, successful men influenced the careers of both playwrights, especially in the subject matter of each woman's first play. Hellman's lover, Dashiell Hammett, creator of the Thin Man mystery series, suggested to her that the chapter “Closed Doors; or The Great Drumsheugh Case” in William Roughead's Bad Companions would make a good drama (Wright 73). Moved from Scotland to the fictional Lancet, Massachusetts, the story became The Children's Hour. In 1971, Norman met Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and began her long affiliation with that institution, serving as its playwright-in-residence in 1978-79 and, over the ensuing years, contributing many dramas to its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. (Louisville was an early center of drama in the South, where, as William S. Ward reports in A Literary History of Kentucky, “as early as 1808 there had been amateur performances and by 1814 a ‘season’ of plays” [108]). Initially, Jory suggested that Norman write a docudrama about busing, which had just begun affecting Louisville (Stone 57). When she decided against it, he recommended she write about a time when she was “physically frightened” (Norman, “Introduction” 2). Recalling a teenager she had observed while serving as a hospital volunteer, Norman created Arlie/Arlene, the dual protagonist of Getting Out.

Hammett also suggested that Hellman center a drama around a male protagonist, telling her, “There's this man. Other people, people who say they love him, want him to make good, be rich. So he does it for them and finds they don't like him that way, so he fucks it up, and comes out worse than before. Think about it” (Pentimento 206). Hellman reports that after writing an act and a half she discovered, “I can write about men, but I can't write a play that centers on a man. I've got to tear it up, make it about the women around him, his sisters, his bride, her mother and—” (Pentimento 206). She transmuted Hammett's idea into Toys in the Attic, a drama set in Hellman's native New Orleans that centers on the middle-aged and unmarried Berniers sisters, Anna and Carrie, who dote on their brother, Julian, and attempt to exercise control over his business life and his marriage.

Unlike her precursor, Norman created several male protagonists, among them the adolescent Archie Tucker in The Holdup, Shooter in Third and Oak: The Pool Hall,1 and Sam of Traveler in the Dark; however, she does portray her male protagonists as strongly influenced by the women around them. Lily, the ex-whore turned innkeeper of The Holdup, initiates Archie sexually (150), encourages his dream of becoming an aviator (150), and pronounces a blessing upon him: “Goodness and mercy … follow you all the days of your life” (156). Sam, overwhelmed as a child by the Imaginary, grows up to become a staunch disciple of the Symbolic, and a world-famous surgeon. In declaring his allegiance to the rule of phallogocentrism, Sam must flee both parents. He finds his preacher father's theology, which includes a vision of Sam's dead mother in heaven “singing and flying around” (172), as much a fairy tale as the story of Sleeping Beauty read to him by his mother, who would greet him after school each day with “milk … and a pile of things she'd found in the ground … like dragons' teeth, witches' fingers and fallen stars” (171). Norman locates Sam's mirror stage of development in the shiny crystals held within the geodes he once collected. Figuratively seeing himself, Sam rejects the feminine principle located both in his mother's fairy tales and nursery rhymes and in his father's Bible. He insists, “I don't, in fact, believe in anything. It has taken me my whole life, Dad, but I have finally arrived. I am free of faith” (192) Yet, contrary to his claim, Sam cannot live without faith, here portrayed by his allegorically named wife Glory. Initially Sam thinks he wishes to leave her; by the end of the drama they reconcile and he makes a leap of faith, acknowledging in the words of his mother's nursery rhyme that though he “knows not what you are,” the brightly twinkling little star truly does “[g]uide the traveler in the dark” (204). Thus, though her protagonist proclaims allegiance to the male symbolic, Norman depicts him finally as relying on the female imaginative.

As late as 1984, the younger playwright had never seen any Hellman play performed. In fact, she showed a preference for Hellman's memoirs, calling them “the most compelling [story] she wrote” (“Lillian Hellman's Gift” H1); Norman also told Esther Harriot that she based her admiration for Hellman more on her predecessor's craft and sense of style than on her subjects (156). Still, Norman, wittingly or unwittingly, does piecing and patchwork in her precursor's fabric bag, as she adopts, adapts, and further develops Hellman's subjects and, in some instances, even echoes her language.

Like Hellman's work, many of Norman's plays center on the family, delving into the forces that unite as well as those that divide. The family drama, a staple of the American stage, is far from being the exclusive province of Southern playwrights. Yet, viewed through the prism of Southern drama, Richard Poirier's claim that the South fosters “intense familial … relationships” (x) compels agreement. Both Hellman and Norman scrutinize the parent-child relationship. Hellman's cold, withdrawn, or failed mothers such as Regina Hubbard Giddens in The Little Foxes and Lavinia Hubbard in Another Part of the Forest resurface in Norman's dramas. A thrall to greed to such an extent that avarice might be said to be her identity in The Little Foxes, Regina Giddens distances herself from her daughter. Norman repeats this distancing in Getting Out, where it arises from a willed blindness. When she visits her newly paroled daughter, Mrs. Holsclaw clearly resists Arlene's embrace; Arlene “moves as if to hug her. Mother stands still [and] Arlene backs off” (15). Furthermore, she ignores Arlene's initial “request” (22) to be invited to Sunday dinner and, after they argue about Bennie, the guard who has driven Arlene home, Mrs. Holsclaw, variously described in the stage directions as “cold, fierce, [and] furious” (26), rages, “You're hinting at coming to my house for pot roast just like nothin ever happened, an all the time you're hidin a goddam guard under your bed” (26). When Arlene asks whether she'll visit again, her mother responds, “You ain't got no need for me” (27). As she moves to leave, Arlene rushes toward her, only to be repelled by the words, “Don't you touch me” (27). She exits, leaving Arlene “stunned and hurt” (27), and echoing her line: “No! Don't you touch Mama, Arlie” (27). With this scene of estrangement, the mother disappears from the drama. While Arlene may be stunned by the rejection, the audience is not. The earlier flashback which details the aftermath of Arlie's being raped by her father explains Mrs. Holsclaw's attitude—for to embrace her daughter she would have to open her eyes to the sexual violence her husband inflicted upon Arlie and see what was truly hiding in her own bed all those years ago.

Incest in drama is as ancient as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and as current as Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize—winner How I Learned to Drive. In her introduction to Southern Quarterly's special issue on Southern women playwrights, Milly S. Barranger notes that these women have brought to the Southern theater “enactment of such taboos as incest” (7). She adds: “Southern writers know that human beings are fallible; they are, therefore, more tolerant as observers and recorders of human foibles. Out of this understanding that human beings are not perfectible comes a tolerance for the unusual, the bizarre, even the perverse. Hence the playwright's depiction of suicide, miscegenation, violence, incestuous relations, grotesque characters and whole families takes place within a local literary tradition one hundred and fifty years old” (8).

Exploring one of these taboo subjects in Getting Out, Norman illustrates the effect of incest on mother-daughter as well as father-daughter relationships. Here, too, Hellman's influence seems to pertain. In The Little Foxes, Oscar points out to Ben and Regina that “our grandmother and grandfather were first cousins” (151). In the later Another Part of the Forest, the closeness between Regina Hubbard and her father, Marcus, carries the scent of his incestuous desire, a desire which Regina seeks to manipulate to gain her own ends. The father and daughter call each other “darling” (333) and “honey” (334), and Marcus indulges his daughter's appetite for sumptuous clothing, allowing her to spend three hundred dollars for one fur piece alone. (Hellman sets her drama in 1880; in 1893, “$700 was a comfortable, if modest annual income” [“Late Nineteenth Century” 8]). Regina's brother, Ben, extrapolating from Marcus's desire to have Regina to himself, forecasts an evening fifty years in the future when: “Papa'll still be living, and he'll interrupt us, the way he does even now; he'll call from upstairs to have you come and put him to bed. And you'll get up to go, wondering how the years went by—(Sharply) Because, as you say, he's most devoted to you, and he's going to keep you right here with him, all his long life” (341).

Ben also points out the fact that “Papa didn't just get mad about you and Horace Giddens. Papa got mad about you and any man, or any place that ain't near him” (342); later Ben underscores the anticipated vehemence of Marcus's reaction to Regina's plan to marry John Bagtry by saying, “I'm taking a vacation the day he finds out about your marriage plans” (358). Indeed, Marcus exhibits jealous anger when he discovers that Regina has invited John to the Hubbard home (368); later, when he learns of her affair, he rages, “How could you let him touch you? When did it happen? How could you—Answer me” (379). As he breaks down, Regina continues to manipulate his desire:

(Softly, comes to him). All right, Papa. That's all true and I know it. And I'm in love with him, and I want to marry him. (He puts his hands over his face) Now don't take on so. It just won't do. You let me go away, as we planned. I'll get married. After a while we'll come home and we'll live right here—
Are you crazy? Do you think I'd stay in this house with you and—
Otherwise, I'll go away. I say I will, and you know I will. I'm not frightened to go. But if I go that way I won't ever see you again. And you don't want that. My way we can be together. You'll get used to it and John won't worry us. There'll always be you and me—(Puts her hand on his shoulder) You must have known I'd marry someday, Papa. Why, I've never seen you cry before. It'll be just like going for a little visit, and before you know it I'll be home again, and it will all be over. You know? Maybe next year, or the year after, you and I'll make that trip to Greece, just the two of us. (Smiles) Now it's all settled. Kiss me good night, darling.


Meanwhile, Regina's mother, Lavinia Hubbard, consumed by her own desire to atone for what she sees as the sin of marrying Marcus, has no time for her daughter and seems not to notice the abnormal relationship between her daughter and her husband. Finally, in her last original drama, Toys in the Attic, Hellman returns to the topic of incest. Anna Berniers tells her sister Carrie that soon their brother Julian will become aware of Carrie's desire for him: “You lusted and it showed. He doesn't know he saw it, but he did see it, and someday he'll know what he saw. (With great violence) You know the way that happens? You understand something, and don't know that you do, and forget about it. But one night years ago I woke up and knew what I had seen in you, had always seen. It will happen that way with him. It has begun” (737).

In Norman's Getting Out, predecessor Hellman's intimations of incest grow into the repeated incestuous rapes of Arlie, who denies the assaults with the words, “Daddy didn't do nuthin [sic] to me” (16). Mrs. Holsclaw, to preserve her marriage, wishes to accept the lie and, like some real-life incest victims, Arlie further obliges by protecting the criminal perpetrator, claiming, “Was … (Quickly) my bike. My bike hurt me. The seat bumped me” (15), thus enabling her mother to ignore the child's bleeding body.

Arlie's later behavior also mirrors that of real-life incest victims; she runs away to join her pimp lover, Carl, and works as a prostitute, a not infrequent occurrence, as Ellen Westerlund points out in Women's Sexuality after Childhood Incest (13). As Judith Lewis Herman notes in Father-Daughter Incest, the fall into prostitution, whether the daughter literally becomes a prostitute or not, occurs along with the incest, for: “The father, in effect, forces the daughter to pay with her body for affection and care which should be freely given. In doing so, he destroys the protective bond between parent and child and initiates his daughter into prostitution. This is the reality of incest from the point of view of the victim” (4).

Most tellingly, in prison, Arlene rejects, then symbolically slays, her younger self Arlie, the child within who suffered the sexual assaults. By doing so, Arlene exhibits the behavior that Ellen Bass and Laura Davis report in survivors of childhood incest in The Courage to Heal, “Many survivors have a difficult time with the concept of the child within. … Too often women blame her, hate her, or ignore her completely. Survivors hate themselves for having been small, for having needed affection, for having ‘let themselves’ be abused” (111). Victims, add Bass and Davis, “feel split, caught in a real schism. There is the ‘you’ that's out in the ‘real’ world, and then there's the child inside who is still a frightened victim” (111). In Getting Out, Norman's dual protagonist, prior to her partial reintegration at the drama's end, offers a stunning portrait of a psyche split by incestuous rape and experiencing all of the emotions of hate, fear, and revenge prompted by her father's violation of her.

As noted above, in Another Part of the Forest, Hellman's twenty-year-old Regina is quite conscious of and thus able both to manipulate and deflect her father's desires. Marcus willingly indulges his daughter's appetite for expensive clothes as the price of her company—and his fantasies. Mr. Holsclaw is never seen onstage, but Norman makes it clear that he bribes the vulnerable, prepubescent Arlie to remain silent about his attacks on her, the price he pays being the few “crumpled dollars” Arlie tells the school principal she has earned by “[d]oin things … [f]or my daddy” (18).

The onstage relationship between Hellman's Regina and Marcus Hubbard also reverberates in Norman's later drama 'night, Mother, in the deigetic relationship between Jessie and her father. Just as Marcus prefers Regina's company to that of his wife, Lavinia, Mr. Cates would rather spend his time in nonverbal communication or quiet whispering with his daughter than in uncomfortable silence with his wife. The silent and near silent modes of communication between father and daughter effectively shut the mother out of the relationship. As Thelma remarks,

Agnes gets more talk out of her birds than I got from the two of you. He could've had that GONE FISHING sign around his neck in that chair. I saw him stare off at the water. I saw him look at the weather rolling in. I got where I could practically see the boat myself. But you, you knew what he was thinking about and you're going to tell me.
I don't know, Mama! His life, I guess. His corn. His boots. Us. Things. You know.
No. I don't know, Jessie! You had those quiet little conversations after supper every night. What were you whispering about?
We weren't whispering, you were just across the room.
What did you talk about?
We talked about why black socks are warmer than blue socks. Is that something to go tell Mother? You were just jealous because I'd rather talk to him than wash the dishes with you.
I was jealous because you'd rather talk to him than anything!


Norman further illuminates the closeness of father and daughter through Jessie's epilepsy, a disease not often inherited. Mama tells Jessie, “I think your daddy had fits, too. I think he sat in his chair and had little fits” (62); later Mama explains that both Jessie and her father experienced absence seizures, which mimic daydreaming or “thinking spells” (62) as Mama calls them: “Oh, that was some swell time, sitting here with the two of you turning off and on like light bulbs, some nights” (69). The playwright displays an obvious clinical knowledge of the disease, knowing that seizures can intensify with age (69), that both victims and their families experience shame and other emotional problems (70), and that many drugs used to treat epilepsy have undesirable side effects—Dilantin, for example, can cause the swelling of the gums that Jessie once suffered (66). Although Mama insists at one point that “[y]our daddy gave you these fits, Jessie. He passed it down to you like your green eyes and your straight hair. It's not my fault” (68), she also appears unable to discount a mother-child connection. Finally, she assumes blame—“It has to be something I did” (71)—and when Jessie insists, “It's just a sickness, not a curse,” accepts culpability not for the epilepsy but for “this killing yourself” (72).

In the father-child relationship, Norman intimates subliminal sexual desire, perhaps played out in Jessie's choosing a phallic symbol of her father—his gun—as her means of committing suicide. In childhood, Jessie develops such a strong attachment to her father that she cannot later resolve it in favor of her relationship to her husband. Discussing her choice of weapon, she tells Mama, “I had Cecil's [gun] all ready in there, just in case I couldn't find this one, but I'd rather use Daddy's” (14). In the film version of 'night, Mother (1986), on the night of her suicide, Jessie places her father's picture on her bedside nightstand, but removes it saying, “That wouldn't be right.” She then puts it on her mother's bureau, but decides “That's not right, either” and places the photograph on a sideboard in the living room. Thus Norman reveals in her screenplay that the sexual overtones of the father-daughter relationship in the play remained on her mind.

Despite her daughter's obvious preference for her dead father, Thelma Cates does not turn away. In fact, unlike Getting Out's Mrs. Holsclaw, she wishes to embrace her daughter, but despite her desire, she cannot beguile her child into continuing to live. For although Jessie promises Thelma that she will “do whatever you want before I go” (34), ultimately Jessie rejects the embrace meant to hold her within this life. When, just prior to Jessie's suicide, Thelma grabs her daughter, Jessie “[t]akes her hands away” and says, “Let go of me, Mama” (87). To some extent, this scene is prefigured at the end of Hellman's The Little Foxes when Regina tells Alexandra that she will not make her stay. The daughter replies, “You couldn't, Mama, because I want to leave here. As I've never wanted anything in my life before” (199). Both Hellman's Alexandra and Norman's Jessie, in their moves to, free themselves of their mothers, act in a manner that contradicts the Freudian theory that a woman, lacking a penis and thus not impelled by castration anxiety, experiences a lesser need to resolve her pre-Oedipal attachment to her mother.

Interestingly, surrogate mothers may succeed where biological mothers fail. In The Little Foxes, Hellman provides a surrogate mother for Regina's daughter Alexandra in the person of Addie, the black servant to whom Zan looks for guidance. While Regina accuses Addie of babying Zan, the dying Horace turns to Addie in seeking protection for his daughter. Here Hellman perpetuates the myth of the all-loving, self-sacrificing “Black Mammy” found in the work of many Southern writers, most notably, perhaps, in Faulkner. Horace asks Addie to take Zan away from the foxes' influence and she hesitates for only a second before responding, “Yes, sir. I promise” (184). Hellman repeats the sacrificing of the black woman's life to the needs or desires of the white woman in Another Part of the Forest when Lavinia assumes that the patient, motherly Coralee, her black caretaker, will accompany her on the return to Lavinia's childhood home. In Getting Out, Ruby, Arlene's upstairs neighbor, plays the surrogate. (Ruby's race is not designated; she could be played by an actor of any race. On the other hand, in using the name Ruby, a Southern writer like Norman may have had a black woman in mind as her mother surrogate, thus providing another echo of Hellman's dramas.)2 After revealing how she attempted to exorcize Arlie by repeatedly stabbing herself, Arlene breaks down and falls into Ruby's lap. Ruby tells her, “You can still love people that's gone” and “hold[s] her tenderly, rocking as with a baby” (61). Norman underscores the surrogate mother's success through the partial reintegration of personality in the drama's final scene when Arlie and Arlene, each spotlighted,

(say together, both standing as Mama did, one hand on her hip) Arlie, what you doin in there?
(Still smiling and remembering, stage dark except for one light on her face) Aw shoot. (Light dims on her fond smile as Arlie laughs once more).


Hellman herself seems to have found a black surrogate mother in Sophronia Mason, the woman who was “her wet nurse and her guide through childhood and the pain of early adolescence” (Poirier x). She also might have experienced a surrogate mother-daughter relationship in the time she spent with her aunts Jenny and Hannah in their New Orleans boarding house. They surely serve as the models for the Berniers sisters—one of whom bears the name Hannah in an early draft of the drama (Falk 90)—who mother their brother Julian in Toys in the Attic. In The Little Foxes, Regina's daughter Alexandra deals with her less-than-adequate biological mother by deciding to leave home. When confronted with an unfeeling mother, Deedee in Norman's Third and Oak chooses to become a surrogate daughter. Indeed, she literally forces the older widow, Alberta, who, according to the stage directions “[w]ants Deedee to vanish” (63), to pay attention to her. Norman underlines Deedee's symbolic adopting of Alberta by giving both characters the same last name, a fact that leads Deedee to exclaim, “Hey! We might be related” (64). Later, the initially reticent Alberta admits her own childlessness while also responding “Oh yes” when Deedee asks, “Didn't you want some?” (66). She then becomes Deedee's mother for the moment, instructing her about such disparate topics as bullfighting, doing laundry, and dealing with marital infidelity. When Shooter appears, he mistakes Alberta for Deedee's biological mother (71), again underscoring the connection between the two women. (Of course, his mistake also says something about the male assumption that a biological relationship accounts for every instance of an older and a younger woman associating with each other.) In contrast to Deedee's biological mother, who seems never to enjoy seeing her daughter and “do[es]n't say two words while [she's] there” (76), Alberta offers Deedee counsel and a parting kiss, and one sees that, for a moment at least, the younger woman, by becoming Alberta's surrogate daughter, has had her fantasy mother, one who is “Smart. Nice to talk to” (75).

Most Southern playwrights comment on race relations in their dramas. Hellman and Norman are no exceptions. In Another Part of the Forest, Hellman's Oscar defends his riding with the Klan by saying, “I'm a southerner. And when I see an old carpetbagger or upstart nigger, why, I feel like taking revenge” (343). Hellman clearly detests this bigotry and makes it a hallmark of others of her foolish or villainous characters. Ben Hubbard frequently uses the word “nigger” and Carrie Berniers professes astonishment that “Julian d[oes]n't mind” that Mrs. Warkins is “part nigger” (Toys 742). In Third and Oak, Norman presents Shooter as being a person of some prominence to Deedee, who seems thrilled to meet the disc jockey who is “the Number One Night Owl!” (70). Yet once he leaves the laundromat, she speculates that he “[c]oulda been a murderer, or a robber or a rapist” (73). When Alberta objects to the sexual innuendo that took place between the two, Deedee calls her “prejudiced” (73), adding:

If that was a white DJ comin' in here, you'd still be talking to him, I bet. Seein' if he knew your “old” favorites.
If you don't want to know what I think, you can stop talking to me.
What you think is what's wrong with the world. People don't trust each other just because they're some other color from them.
And who was it said he could be a murderer? That was you, Deedee.
Would you have said that if he'd been white?


Race relations continue to be problematic. Deedee, despite what she sees as her devotion to the cause of equality, ponders accepting Shooter's invitation to the pool hall as a means of hurting her husband, Joe. She feels that finding her with Shooter “Might just serve [Joe] right though. Come in and see me drinkin' beer and playin' pool with Willie and Shooter. Joe hates black people. He says even when they're dancin' or playin' ball, they're thinkin' about killin'. Yeah, that would teach him to run out on me. A little dose of his own medicine. Watch him gag on it” (74). Alberta, resuming the role of surrogate mother, counsels her to make something productive of her anger by going home, not by attempting to use Shooter as a pawn.

Often, the biological mothers created by both playwrights try to be or to do everything for their daughters. In Toys in the Attic, Albertine3 Prine arranges Lily's marriage to Julian Berniers, just as Thelma by, in Jessie's words, “flirt[ing Cecil] out here” (57-58), arranges her daughter's marriage in 'night, Mother. Interestingly, each mother takes part in an exchange historically transacted, as Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, by men; however, such an exchange is no more benign in female hands. Women who are treated as chattel have little opportunity to develop a sense of worth. Even when mother love precipitates the exchange, the traffic yields bitter fruit: in Hellman's Toys in the Attic, Lily's fear of losing Julian results in his being savagely beaten, and in Norman's 'night, Mother, Cecil divorces Jessie.

Hellman's and Norman's onstage mothers also make the all-too-common mistake of identifying with their daughters to the extent of viewing them as extensions of themselves. In The Little Foxes, Hellman's Regina promises Alexandra that she shall have “all the things I wanted. I'll make the world for you the way I wanted it to be for me” (198). Following Jessie's suicide in 'night, Mother, Norman's Thelma cries, “Jessie, Jessie, child. … Forgive me … I thought you were mine” (89). Here the work of Nancy Chodorow offers illumination. As Chodorow notes about the mother-daughter relationship in The Reproduction of Mothering, “Mothers tend to experience their daughters as more like, and continuous with, themselves” (166). Linda Kintz goes so far as to suggest we read Thelma's line as “I thought you were me” (229). Mama's words certainly bear out Kintz's claim; earlier in the drama Thelma insists, “Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie. You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger without doing it to me. That's right! You might as well kill me as you, Jessie, it's the same thing” (72). However, such identification, interference, and possessiveness can lead only to problems, especially in reference to separation. Chodorow finds that, “Mother-daughter relationships in which the mother has no other adult support or meaningful work … produce ambivalent attachment and inability to separate in daughters” (213). The pain thus engendered is evident in 'night, Mother; as Jessie screams, “What if I could take all the rest of it if only I didn't have you here? What if the only way I can get away from you for good is to kill myself? What if it is? I can still do it” (72), her suicide, read symbolically, enacts a desperation-driven breaking of the mother-daughter bond.

Chodorow also points out that “the mother-child relationship recreates an even more basic relational constellation” than that of mother-father-child, because in the former “[t]he exclusive symbiotic mother-child relationship of a mother's own infancy reappears, a relationship which all people who have been mothered want basically to recreate” (201). Through Arlene in Getting Out, Norman presents compelling images of the frustration of this desire. When the authorities take away the child she bears in prison, Arlene goes “crazy” (33), escapes, and kills the cab driver who attempts to assault her (30). Given an extended sentence, Arlene, longing for her infant, creates a pathetic substitute from a pillow (33). After singing to this surrogate child, she asks what he will be when he grows up, but her tone turns bitter when she remembers her own childhood. She tells the infant Joey: “Best thing you to be is stay a baby cause nobody beats up on babies or puts them … (Much more quiet) That ain't true. People is mean to babies, so you stay right here with me so nobody kin get you an make you cry an they lay one finger on you (Hostile) an I'll beat the screamin shit right out of em. They blow on you and I'll kill em” (33). Although Arlene later speaks of regaining custody of Joey, Mrs. Holsclaw disrupts her daughter's narrative, cutting off her protest of “But I'm his …” (17), thus refusing to let the daughter acknowledge her own motherhood. To Arlene's plan of Joey coming to live with her, the mother responds, “Fat chance” (17). Not only does she attempt to dash Arlene's dream, she claims that her daughter “never really got attached to [Joey] anyway” (17) and forecasts that she'd be an inadequate mother because “[k]ids need rules to go by an he'll get them over there [in his foster home]” (17), but not—she implies—from an ex-convict like Arlene.

In the later 'night, Mother, Jessie Cates, commenting on one of her own baby pictures, repeats Arlene's claim about infancy as an idyllic stage, but without adding any bitter revelations about child abuse. Jessie's infantile desire to be taken care of by an all-powerful (m)other provides insight into the failure of her relationship with her son, Ricky, who has progressed from stealing Jessie's possessions to “start[ing] in on other people, door to door” (11). If the mother-child relationship is crucial to a child's development, Jessie's own failure to mature may be central to Ricky's anti-social behavior. Admitting that she holds no hope of getting through to her son (25), Jessie refuses to join Mama in daydreams about Ricky getting a job, getting married, or “bring[ing] her grand-babies over” (74). But she does willingly own her influence on him: “I see it in his face. I hear it when he talks. We look out at the world and we see the same thing: Not Fair. And the only difference between us is Ricky's out there trying to get even. And he knows not to trust anybody and he got it straight from me. And he knows not to try to get work, and guess where he got that. He walks around like there's loose boards in the floor, and you know who laid that floor, I did” (60). Ultimately, Norman's parent-child relationships, like those of her predecessor, range from troubled to criminal in desire, if not in fact.

Each playwright also represents patriarchy, a hallmark of Southern culture, in the form of a controlling older brother. Hellman's Ben Hubbard cajoles, threatens, and dominates Regina in both Hubbard family dramas. In 'night, Mother, Jessie's brother, Dawson, never appears onstage, but it is he whose name is on their charge accounts, who knows the intimate details of their lives, and who manages their finances (53). Both dramatists also mention clothing to characterize certain aspects of the brother-sister relationships. To remind Ben that she is her father's favorite, Regina flaunts her expensive wardrobe. In 'night, Mother, Jessie cringes to remember that, when her mail-order bra was misdelivered to Dawson's house, he opened the package and “saw the little rosebuds on it” (24). To Jessie, his act seems that of an all-seeing patriarch, perhaps not unrelated to the ultimate patriarch, God the Father. Yet, unlike Ben, who asserts his control at the end of Another Part of the Forest, Dawson controls Jessie only until her final night, for the bullet she fires says “No” to Dawson as much as to life itself (75).

Finally, Hellman's influence is strikingly audible in the dialogue of 'night, Mother. In one instance, Jessie tells Mama that she might have decided to live “if there was something I really liked, like maybe if I really liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something, that might be enough” (77). This line probably has its genesis in Hellman's first drama, The Children's Hour, in which Joe promises to take both Martha and his fiancée, Karen, to Vienna for “good coffee cake” (57). Martha, not long before she commits suicide, replies, “A big coffee cake with lots of raisins, it would be nice to like something again” (57).

A second echoic instance occurs when Thelma asserts ownership over her daughter, telling Jessie, “You are my child!” (76). Jessie responds: “I am what became of your child. I found an old baby picture of me. And it was somebody else, not me. It was somebody pink and fat who never heard of sick or lonely, somebody who cried and got fed, and reached up and got held and kicked but didn't hurt anybody, and slept whenever she wanted to, just by closing her eyes. Somebody who mainly just laid there and laughed at the colors waving around over her head and … felt your hand pulling my quilt back up over me” (76). Here Jessie speaks of the comfort and nourishment found in being loved. In Hellman's Toys in the Attic, Lily tells Albertine that early in her marriage to Julian, “I was beloved, Mama, and I flourished” (719). Later, when Lily asks where she would go should Julian cease to want her, Albertine replies, “You will come home to me. You are my child” (748, emphasis added). Norman's echo of the earlier Hellman play is obvious and, of course, Jessie comes home to Mama when Cecil no longer wants her. (Also obvious is the childishness of these women, found in Jessie's nostalgic desire to be taken care of and Lily's childish mentality.)

Jessie's sense of estrangement from her earlier infant-self may be the product of the overprotectiveness that led Thelma to such acts as concealing Jessie's epilepsy even from her (69) and wooing Cecil for Jessie because she thought her daughter should be married (57-58). Jessie's reference to the quilt, which can function for the infant as both a comfort and a restraint, emphasizes this possibility. Mama acknowledges that had Jessie not moved in with her after divorcing Cecil, the daughter would have “[h]ad a life to lead. Had [her] own things around [her]” (27). But Jessie does move in, leading to her experiencing herself as a split consciousness: an adult woman and mother of Ricky in her own right, yet a child again in her mother's house. Unable to reconcile the two, she now appears to long for the comfortable, preconscious life of the infant. On the other hand, in Getting Out, Arlene's unstable identity arises from experiencing too little mother love and from her mother's failure to protect her. Later in life, she attempts to ignore the schism within by renaming herself:

So, you're calling yourself Arlene, now?
Don't want your girlie name no more?
Somethin like that.


Again, Hellman's work offers a possible key, this time to a character's inability to recognize or accept the self she has repressed. In The Children's Hour, just prior to committing suicide, Martha confesses to Karen, “I have loved you the way they said4 (62). She then adds:

I don't know how. I don't know why. … maybe because I wanted you; maybe I wanted you all along; maybe I couldn't call it by a name; maybe it's been there ever since I first knew you—

it's all mixed up. There's something in you, and you don't know it and you don't do anything about it. Suddenly a child gets bored and lies—and there you are, seeing it for the first time. … I didn't even know.


Hurt, confused, unable to accept the lesbian self she only now begins to perceive, Martha shoots herself. Her choice of weapon leads back to Norman's Jessie, with a twist. Jessie claims she wants to die to preclude the possibility of losing the control that she feels she has achieved over her life. For the first time, her epilepsy is under control; she is “feeling as good as [she] ever felt in [her] life” (66). When Mama asks what is wrong with her, Jessie responds, “Not a thing. Feel fine”; she adds that she “[w]aited until [she] felt good enough, in fact” (14). Furthermore, when Mama protests that Jessie doesn't have to kill herself, Jessie illustrates her feeling of elation at gaining such self-determination by saying, “No, I don't. That's what I like about it” (27). Restrained in the past by her roles as dependent child and wife, and hampered by her illness, Jessie now exults in being able to decide what she will do, in controlling her own destiny. If she cannot change her life, cannot make it better, she can, she asserts, “stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to. It's all I really have that belongs to me and I'm going to say what happens to it. And it's going to stop. And I'm going to stop it” (36). Yet Jessie experiences a profound sense of dissociation from self, signaled in her speech about the picture of herself as an infant. Is the control she thinks she exercises a chimera? She is as alienated from herself as are the early Arlene in Getting Out and Hellman's Martha, and the character's response in each case, albeit symbolically in Arlene's slaying of Arlie, is death.

In suggesting that Hellman's memoirs, craft, and style influenced her more than did the elder playwright's dramatic subjects and characters, Norman overlooks the homage to Hellman evident in her own dramas. When one examines Norman's plot points, character relationships, and even her dialogue, it seems obvious that the Hellman dramas put into Norman's hands by her high school teachers impressed the fledgling playwright at least as much as did the memoirs. In a review of 'night, Mother, Robert Brustein comments that “in the way it exhumes buried family secrets, exposes the symbiotic links among parents and children, and alternates between bitter recriminations and expressions of love, 'night, Mother is a compressed, more economical version of A Long Day's Journey into Night” (67). Being male, Brustein might well think first of a male precursor, but one could easily substitute Hellman's dramas, particularly the Hubbard plays, for O'Neill's drama. For, as Showalter remarks in Sister's Choice:

Surely one element which unites us and which permeates our literature and our criticism is the yearning for community and continuity, for the bonds of even an unequal sisterhood. To a striking degree, American women writers have rejected the Oedipal metaphors of murderous “originality” set out as literary paradigms in Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence; the patricidal struggle defined by Bloom and exemplified in the careers of male American writers, has no matricidal equivalent, no echo of denial, parody, exile. Instead, Alice Walker proclaims, “each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer's story.”


Rather than the “anxiety of authorship” produced in earlier women writers by male precursors, an assurance of authenticity now arises when a woman writer finds her female precursor and thus her own place in the line of succession. In an article Norman identified as “a simple tribute to the power of her voice to carry down the dark road, the strength of the example she never meant to set, and the generosity she unwittingly showed to another girl, who, like Lillian Hellman, ‘stepped too early into solitude’” (“Lillian Hellman's Gift” H7), the younger woman acknowledges herself as in her precursor's debt. As she told Elizabeth Stone, Norman found her place in the theater thanks to Hellman and may now repay the debt as a precursor for today's twelve-year-old girl wishing to write for the theater, to whom she says, “There is a place for you in American theater. Now come get it!” (59).5


  1. The Pool Hall is act 2 of Third and Oak. The acts have been published and performed separately, but Norman notes that she “prefer[s] that the two acts be seen together. Rather like the right foot following the left” (Third and Oak 60).

  2. When questioned about Ruby's race at Methodist College's Twelfth Southern Writers' Symposium in March 1996, Norman replied that she had not “consciously” written Ruby as a black woman, but is “thrilled when [the role] is cast that way.” She added that Whoopi Goldberg once played Ruby. (I presented an earlier version of this paper at that conference.)

  3. Yet another Hellman-to-Norman echo occurs in the names Albertine (Toys in the Attic) and Alberta (Third and Oak).

  4. Hellman does not attribute Martha's lesbianism to inadequate mothering. She may have intuited that lesbianism, seen as sexual “inversion” in her era, had a genetic basis.

  5. I thank Linda Rohrer Paige for suggesting that I look into the subjects of both surrogate daughters and the divided self, particularly as Martha represents that self in The Children's Hour.

Works Cited

Adler, Jacob H. “The Rose and the Fox: Notes on the Southern Drama.” South: Modern Southern Literature in Its Cultural Setting. Ed. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Robert D. Jacobs. 1961. Westport: Greenwood, 1976. 349-75.

Barranger, Milly S. “Southern Playwrights: A Perspective on Women Writers.” Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 5-9.

Bass, Ellen and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal. New York: Harper, 1988.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Brustein, Robert. “Don't Read This Review!” Who Needs Theatre: Dramatic Opinions. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1987. 64-67.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U California P, 1979.

Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Ungar, 1978.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Harriot, Esther. “Interview with Marsha Norman.” American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988. 148-63.

Hellman, Lillian. Another Part of the Forest.The Collected Plays. Boston: Little, 1972. 325-403.

———. The Autumn Garden.Collected Plays. 461-545.

———. The Children's Hour.Collected Plays. 1-69.

———. The Little Foxes.Collected Plays. 131-200.

———. Pentimento. Boston: Little, 1973.

———. Toys in the Attic.Collected Plays. 681-751.

———. An Unfinished Woman.Three. Boston: Little, 1979. 13-305.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Horowitz, Israel. “Address.” Dedication of the Robert Will Theatre. U of Rhode Island, Kingston. 5 October 1974.

Kintz, Linda. The Subject's Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1992.

Kolodny, Annette. “A Map for Rereading.” The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 46-62.

“Late Nineteenth Century, 1865-1910.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Eds. Paul Lauter et al. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton. 3-34.

Norman, Marsha. “Articles of Faith: A Conversation with Lillian Hellman.” American Theatre May 1984: 10-15.

———. Getting Out. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

———. The Holdup.Marsha Norman: Four Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. 159-204.

———. “Introduction.” Marsha Norman: Collected Plays. Lyme, NH: Smith, 1998. 2-3.

———. “Lillian Hellman's Gift to a Young Playwright.” New York Times 26 August 1984. H1+.

———. Loving Daniel Boone.Marsha Norman: Collected Plays. 331-91.

———. 'night, Mother. New York: Hill, 1983.

———. Third and Oak.Marsha Norman: Four Plays. 59-103.

———. Traveler in the Dark.Marsha Norman: Four Plays. 161-204.

Poirier, Richard. “Introduction.” Three. vii-xxv.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Stone, Elizabeth. “Playwright Marsha Norman: An Optimist Writes about Suicide, Confinement and Despair.” Ms. July 1983: 56-59.

Ward, William S. A Literary History of Kentucky. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1988.

Westerlund, Elaine. Women's Sexuality after Childhood Incest. New York: Norton, 1992.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Ballantine, 1986.


Norman, Marsha


Norman, Marsha (Vol. 28)