Marsha Norman Norman, Marsha (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marsha Norman 1947–

American dramatist and scriptwriter.

Norman's plays express a bleak view of society and human nature. Her characters are people who experience loneliness and despair. Getting Out (1978), her first play, brought Norman instant acclaim as a writer of intelligence and honesty. This work explores the psychological changes in a woman just released from prison. Two actresses, onstage at the same time, tell Arlene's story before and after her imprisonment. Although some critics feel this technique is merely a gimmick, Norman is usually praised for the directness of her theme and the authenticity of her dialogue.

Norman's recent play 'night, Mother won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play follows the emotions and reactions of a mother and daughter from the time the daughter announces her imminent suicide until she commits the act ninety minutes later. To some critics, Norman dignifies Jessie's decision by portraying her as a woman who refuses to continue a life which has become meaningless. However, to other critics, most prominently Stanley Kauffmann, Jessie seems a neurotic, vengeful daughter who makes her announcement only to torture her mother. The play is characteristic of Norman's work in its gruelling emotions and unsparing confrontation of a painful subject.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105.)

Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Getting Out] is a post-prison drama: we watch Arlene … make her shattered way back into the real world while Arlie …, Arlene's former self, is present on stage in a series of linked flashbacks. Norman is intent on describing a world that is a permanent prison and a prisoner who is not rehabilitated but gutted.

This script is weighted down with intelligence. Arlie is presented as a thoroughly dangerous and unpleasant person whose response to a brutalizing childhood is brutality; the description is one that understands both the individual and social antecedents of personality. The chaplain who is credited by Arlene with changing her life is, it turns out, the man responsible for the gravest brutality done to her, while the auxiliary characters who slowly pull the story out on stage are all a step, but only a step, away from stock. If the flashback technique seems arch at times (mention of Johnny Cash in the apartment leads to flashback of guard singing Johnny Cash songs in jail) it is descriptive of the memory process Norman wants to portray. Getting Out is a pretty well-made play which manages to avoid both the sentimental and the sententious.

I also found [the production] … rather boring. There's no exhilaration in sheer verbal power, no joy about creating a work for the stage. W. H. Auden described being approached by two kinds of aspiring writers: those who wanted to write because they felt they had something to say, and those who loved to play with words. The former he sent packing. The latter, he thought, might stand a chance. I suspect Norman wrote Getting Out because she thought she had something to say. It's a tame work, a respectable play which takes few chances. Since writing Getting Out, Norman has produced two more scripts: I'd like to see them. They should tell us whether or not Marsha Norman has learned how to play in the theatre as well as how to write a play. (p. 129)

Terry Curtis Fox, "Early Work" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author, copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol XXIII, No. 43, November 6, 1978. pp. 127, 129.∗

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Getting Out] is a spiny, realistic play about not exactly pre-possessing people, but it is written with such a brisk, fresh, penetrating touch that sordid, brooding things take on the glow of honesty, humanity, very nearly poetry. These disturbed or at least disheveled people—some ex-convicts, and some whose lives have been interwoven with those of criminals—have intelligence, wit, and pride. They are not sentimentalized, however; not easily reformed, and perhaps never redeemed. But they are brutally, sadly, and sometimes thrillingly real, full of little surprises that play havoc with our expectations, yet, on reflection, prove devastatingly believable and, therefore, right.

The story unfurls parallelly in the past and present, with the heroine as a young girl, Arlie, going from bad to worse while, elsewhere on the stage, she is Arlene, a young woman returning after a long stretch in the penitentiary (for holdup with homicide) to her shabby Louisville apartment. Displaying the woman's past and present selves more or less simultaneously (sometimes one or the other fades temporarily out of the picture) is not mere cleverness: The two avatars of the same person, Before and After, communicate with each other through memory or through speaking to a third person, such as their mother, at the same stage time but in different chronological times. Arlene thinks that she has killed the wicked Arlie in herself but still communes with...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I first saw Marsha Norman's technically accomplished and vigorously acted "Getting Out" …, I left the theater irritated with myself for having, in the end, become irritated by the play. Surely my discontent was unreasonable in the face of all that was admirable here. The author had elected to show us two facets of a girl's personality … by letting [two actresses] share the same stage space, with their paths crossing often enough, and intimately enough, for one to pause to light the other's cigarette. The younger, thrashing willfully about in baseball cap and sneakers, roamed the stage fitfully, now hugging the bedclothes of her childhood home in Kentucky, now tilting a chair and rocking in sassy rhythm as she gave a psychiatrist short shrift, now setting fire to the cell in which she'd landed after the fatal shooting of a gas station attendant.

The older, insisting that she was no longer the rebellious and immature Arlie but a reformed Arlene bent on a responsible new life, spent her first day on parole adrift in a grimy apartment, clutching at her own forlorn elbows, starting in fright at the first knock on the door. The psychological interplay between Arlie and Arlene was ingeniously sustained, the overlapping of past and present virtually musical in its counterpoint. (pp. 112-13)

Now that the play [has resurfaced] …, I think I begin to see why I balk. The evening's virtues remain virtues….

But here's the problem. Sympathetic as we are to a girl who's recovered from a ramshackled childhood and summoned up the shaky strength to go it alone, we're still not prepared to...

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Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marsha Norman is not the ordinary beginning playwright. Most talented neophytes display either a passionate concern about their subjects or an imaginative flair for theater. Getting Out may not be quite the masterpiece that this … lead suggests, but it scores well on both content and form. It is a substantial work and a moving one….

[The] play sounds like a case study, which in one sense it is. In presentation, however, it is much more than that. In the dramatic present, we watch Arlene, docile and uncertain after years of doing what she was told to do, finding and turning to positive use some of the spirit which her earlier self (Arlie) used with such horrifying results. At the same time, often in the same acting space, we see Arlie, strutting, tough, unregenerate and, finally, broken. There are parallel scenes—Arlie's last long speech in solitary, Arlene's hysterical outburst which leads to her monologue on how she tried to kill the Arlie in her. Finally, there is the shared speech in which Arlie, caught at an earlier, happier moment of rebellion, begins a reminiscence in which, finally, Arlene speaks lines with her, laughs with her, indicates dramatically that what was best in Arlie—her vitality, her drive—has not been killed, cannot be killed if Arlene is to survive.

When I read the script last year, I was impressed by what it was attempting to do, but there was no way to be certain that the theatrical intricacies on the page could be successfully realized on stage. They are….

Some of the secondary characters—the mother, the pimp—come close to caricature…. Some of the Arlie scenes are little more than exposition, presenting biographical information that is unnecessary since Arlie's speeches and Arlene's confrontations tell us all we need to know about the character. Despite these shortcomings, Getting Out is an effective theater piece which has a genuine concern for the traps of both heredity and environment and a wicked way of suggesting the ambiguities of its title. If Marsha Norman's more recent plays … have as much force and intelligence as Getting Out, she is an impressive addition to the list of good young American playwrights. (p. 559)

Gerald Weales, "'Getting Out': A New American Playwright," in Commonweal (copyright © 1979 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVI, No. 18, October 12, 1979, pp. 559-60.

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"We've got a good life here," says Thelma Cates to her daughter, Jessie, in Marsha Norman's new play, "'Night, Mother." Many would agree. Thelma, who is a widow, and Jessie, who is divorced, live together in a spick-and-span house on a country road somewhere in the New South. There are no money problems. Nights are spent in such relaxed pursuits as crocheting and watching television.

But on the particular, ordinary Saturday night that we meet Thelma … and Jessie …, we learn that the good life may not be so good after all. As the daughter prepares to perform her weekly ritual of giving her mother a manicure, she says calmly, almost as a throwaway line, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama." And, over the next 90 minutes, Mama—and the rest of us—must face the fact that Jessie is not kidding….

["'Night, Mother"] is a shattering evening, but it looks like simplicity itself. A totally realistic play, set in real time counted by onstage clocks, it shows us what happens after Jessie makes her announcement. What happens, unsurprisingly, is that the first skeptical and then terrified mother tries to cajole and talk her child out of suicide. "People don't really kill themselves," argues Thelma, "unless they're retarded or deranged."

But Jessie isn't deranged—she's never felt better in her life—and that's why "'Night, Mother" is more complex than it looks, more harrowing than even its plot suggests. Miss Norman's play is simple only in the way that an Edward Hopper painting is simple. As she perfectly captures the intimate details of two individual, ordinary women, this playwright locates the emptiness that fills too many ordinary homes on too many faceless streets in the vast country we live in now….

Although it is likely to kindle many debates about the subject,...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'night, Mother [is] honest, uncompromising, lucid, penetrating, well-written, dramatic, and as unmanipulatively moving as we expected from the author of the remarkable Getting Out. Though there are many laughs, I cannot tell you that the play isn't, as the popular parlance has it, "depressing." But I can tell you that it gleams with wisdom, reeks of observed and comprehended reality. That it is something to feel, think, and talk about; that it will force you to examine and re-examine new and old beliefs, fresh and stale convictions. That it will relentlessly confront you with your own and other people's humanity; that it will do what only the profoundest things—philosophy, religion, and art—can do...

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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The hyperbole machine is operating on Broadway again. Upon a modest two-character play with nothing flagrantly wrong with it—but not much to get excited about either—the reviewers have lavished nearly their whole stock of ecstatic adjectives, to which encomiums a Pulitzer Prize has just been added. Even before Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother reached New York City, Robert Brustein likened it to Long Day's Journey Into Night [see excerpt above]…. Well, O'Neill's best play and Norman's do have something in common: they both bring us unpleasant news about the family.

The play takes place one evening in a house "way out on a country road" in the South. A middle-aged woman and her...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the hoopla about Marsha Norman's new play ['night, Mother] 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. 'night, Mother is certainly better written and constructed than Norman's last New York production, Getting Out, but like that earlier play, the new one is fundamentally a stunt. Moreover, I think it has been misconstrued by most who have written about it, and apparently by the author herself. (p. 47)

Inarguably 'night,...

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