Marsha Norman

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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

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[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

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[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,...

(This entire section contains 530 words.)

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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 her in various, involuntary ways. And Arlie leads up to Arlene and may, even destroyed, never quite let her go.

Still more ingenious, perhaps, than bringing on these two together is the author's strategy of not bringing on at all the heroine's evil and good angels: the cabdriver father who seduced and bullied Arlie (no wonder that the man she killed was a cabby), and the prison chaplain, who with the help of the Bible and some very shrewd psychology gave her a new self—was midwife to Arlie's rebirth as Arlene. It is right that extreme badness and goodness should not be shown, only talked about; like a stage in pitch darkness or a spotlight in our eyes, their presence would merely blind us. Instead, we see various men and women who, at different points, brought relative good or bad into the heroine's life, or lives; and who, as shades of gray, constitute proper subjects of dramatic inquiry.

Getting Out is such a good play that even if I gave away every plot twist and quoted large chunks of dialogue, you could still see it and be amazed; but … I merely hope that you will take my word for its remarkable insights, truthfulness, and untearful compassion. The only obvious help the author has had stems from two years of hospital work with severely disturbed children. But those were four- to ten-year-olds; to have extrapolated from them (even assuming that there were mothers and elder sisters) the next twenty years of Arlie-Arlene's life is an imaginative leap so fraught with percipience, so blessed with empathy, that one feels awe in its presence. (p. 152)

John Simon, "Free, Bright, and 31," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1984 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 11, No. 46, November 13, 1978, pp. 152, 155.

Walter Kerr

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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 suffer (for her, with her) all of the blows aimed at her as she takes a first step toward freedom. The guard who has so generously driven her from the "correctional facility" back to her home state is, in fact, on the make—violently so. The mother who has come to give the premises a fast wipe with a mop is actually there to tell her, bluntly and coarsely, that she can neither visit her family for a Sunday dinner nor see her own small son. The curly-headed, twitchy-fingered junkie who was once her lover and pimp arrives on the double—he's just escaped from his own prison—to lure her, or lambaste her, into resuming a profitable way of life. The only window she can look out of has bars on it: they are there to forestall thieves, but they are bars again. The bag of groceries she has so hopefully shopped for winds up scattered all over the still-filthy floor. Arlene cannot even get a lithograph of Jesus, the gift of a chaplain who has helped her, to hang straight on the wall.

I don't mean to be facetious about the girl's troubles, or to suggest that the play ever loses its earnestness. But too much is askew. The barrage of ills that assails the curiously passive Arlene is so unremitting (with the last-minute exception of a kindly, if thoroughly realistic, girl from upstairs) that we come to see some of them as gratuitous, some of them as repetitive. The pimp, for instance, appears in each of the play's two acts, slipping through the doorway on jittery feet to sneer, cajole, and, if necessary, attempt rape. But both scenes are the same scene, pursuing the same pattern of persuasion and threat. In time, we come to expect that all encounters will go badly; the badgering downhill structure becomes predictable, and leaves us restive.

Playwright Norman undoubtedly wants us to know just how rugged the straight and narrow can be; by her own rights, she's surely being honest. But honesty needn't rule out a degree of surprise, a pinch of variety, along the way. Shouldn't Arlene—with her so knowing background—anticipate the turn of events much more quickly than she does, and perhaps cope more inventively now and again? (p. 113)

Walter Kerr, "Variety Never Hurts," in The New York Times (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 3, 1979, pp. 112-13.∗

Gerald Weales

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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

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"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, "'Night, Mother" is not a message play about the choice to commit suicide. It's about contemporary life and what gives it—or fails to give it—value. We first get a sense of the Cates's existence before "'Night, Mother" begins…. [The set] is an all-American living room and kitchen, right out of a television sitcom: homey, appointed with the right appliances, conventionally tasteful. But, when … [the] cruelly bright lighting comes up, we see the house is colorless and dead—a pair of antiseptic model rooms, framed like a department-store window.

Miss Norman's dialogue maps the rest of the vacuum. When Thelma at first mistakes Jessie's preoccupation with guns for a fear of burglars, she says, "We don't have anything people would want." And we come to see that neither mother nor daughter do. Their lives are built on neighborhood gossip, ritualized familial obligations and housekeeping. Before tonight—when a gun is literally to their heads—they've never expressed their real feelings to one another or to anybody else. The more loneliness that is exposed the more we realize that the most horrifying aspect of "'Night, Mother" is not Jessie's decision to end her life but her mother's gradual awakening—and ours—to the inexorable logic of that decision.

The play would never work, never make that logic real, if Miss Norman for a second condescended to her characters by painting them as fools—or if she stuck in authorial speeches that commented on or judged their predicament. As she previously demonstrated in "Getting Out," Miss Norman is far too honest a writer to fall into those traps.

Jessie and Thelma are not caricatured as stupid yokels. They are not without wit. (p. 333)

There are pockets of humor—the mother even gets a laugh describing her daughter's youthful epileptic fits—and there is warmth.

But there is also the sight of … Thelma, a gabby "plain country woman," turning white and dumb with fear as she realizes that the daughter through whom she's lived by proxy is beyond her reach—"already gone," even though still alive. And there is the moment when the otherwise deliberate [Jessie] … turns away from her whimpering mother to wail defiantly, "I say no to hope."

Does "'Night, Mother" say no to hope? It's easy to feel that way after reeling from this play's crushing blow. But there can be hope if there is understanding, and it is Marsha Norman's profound achievement that she brings both understanding and dignity to forgotten and tragic American lives. (pp. 333-34)

Frank Rich, "Suicide Talk in "Night, Mother'," in The New York Times (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1983 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIV, No. 4, March 21-April 2, 1983, pp. 333-34).

John Simon

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'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 for human beings, which may not be much but is all there is.

The play combines the lucent objectivity of a case history with the sublime subjectivity of language, style, art; it does not wrest forced, factitious tears from you, and it scrupulously, fastidiously refrains from telling you what to think. The subjects are suicide, love, and the meaning of life—as huge as they come; but they are treated with the specificity of threading a needle or choosing the right breakfast for your needs. Humor and pathos pop up as naturally as wild flowers or fences by the roadside; there is devastating psychological accuracy and nothing seems contrived; and there is that bustle of minutely perceived existential details that bespeak the master. The imminent suicide, from force of habit, puts lotion on her hands after doing the dishes; the mother, told by her daughter to keep washing a dirty chocolate pan after the shot rings out from behind the locked door for as long as it takes for the police and relatives to arrive, tries to assert her independence by saying she'll just sit and wait—yet as she goes to the phone after the gunshot, she already clutches the pan.

Believers and atheists, Freudians and anti-Freudians, rationalists and idealists, Marxists and capitalists, parents and children—everyone will have his or her interpretation of 'night, Mother. I think I know what Miss Norman really meant by it, but so will you, and your meaning, I wager, will be different. Good! Perhaps even great…. Miss Norman may not provide answers, but anyone who can serve up questions so brilliantly—in language that is only slightly, but finally appositely and awesomely, heightened—has more than earned that right. (pp. 56-7)

John Simon, "Journeys into Night," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1984 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 16, No. 15, April 11, 1983, pp. 55-8.∗

Richard Gilman

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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 thirtyish daughter live here. The mother is silly, self-indulgent and totally reliant on her daughter in practical matters; the daughter is heavyset, slow-moving and morose. Early in the evening she informs her mother that she is going to kill herself that night…. From then on the play details the mother's frantic efforts to dissuade her daughter and the young woman's stolid insistence on carrying out her plan….

Up to this point the play is moderately interesting as a moral inquiry (do we have the right to kill ourselves?) and moderately effective as a tale of suspense. But then the women begin to talk about the past, the daughter's childhood in particular, and what emerges is commonplace and predictable. I don't mean their lives are commonplace and predictable—that's a given—but dramatically the play falls into domestic cliché. The mother confesses that she and her husband, the girl's father, had no love for each other and, in response to the daughter's lament, says, "How could I know you were so alone?"

Next we learn that the daughter suffers from epilepsy. She says it's in remission and isn't the reason she's killing herself, but the fact of the illness, and especially the fact that the mother for a long time hid the truth about it from her, enters our consciousness as a diminution of mystery. So too does the daughter's admission that her own husband left her partly because she refused to stop smoking.

The effect of these revelations is that the suicide becomes explicable on the one hand—epileptics, neglected children and abandoned wives have a hard time "coping"—and ludicrous on the other—if nicotine is more important than marriage, what can you expect? The play might have had a richness, a fertile strangeness of moral and philosophical substance, had the suicide been undertaken as a more or less free act; had Norman not offered as the executor of this fascinating, dreadful decision a character with so many troubles. When the shot sounded (from behind a bedroom door) I wasn't startled, dismayed or much moved; it was all sort of sad, sort of lugubrious.

Norman writes cleanly, with wry humor and no bathos…. But the only way I can account for the acclaim 'night, Mother's been getting, besides the hunger for "important," "affecting" dramas that gnaws at our educated theatergoers, is that this domestic tragedy doesn't succumb to the occupational disease of its genre: an "uplifting" or at least a consoling denouement. But what a negative virtue that is, and what a comment on our impoverished theater! Yes, the play's honest, yes it's sincere; but have we reached the point where we find such minimal virtues something to rave about?

Richard Gilman, in a review of "'night, Mother," in The Nation (copyright 1983 The Nation magazine; The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 236, No. 18, May 7, 1983, p. 586.

Stanley Kauffmann

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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, Mother addresses deeper themes [than Getting Out], is less flashy, and has a number of sharp lines; nonetheless it too is a device, a stunt, and not an authentic drama; and it fails at being even the drama that it claims to be.

The play seems to be about a woman in her thirties for whom life has lost savor and point and who decides to make a quick exit with one bullet: it seems to be a drama of the courage to face nullity, to recognize and reject it. Jessie is a plump, divorced country woman who lives with her widowed mother in the family home…. At the moment that the play begins, Jessie comes into the parlor-and-kitchen set carrying a beach towel and asks her mother whether there's a sheet of plastic around. The question is matter-of-fact, as is her question about where Daddy's gun is. She climbs to the attic, gets the pistol, and announces as she cleans it that she is going to kill herself. At the end of an hour and a half, by the clock on the wall crammed with doodads, she goes into the bedroom, locks the door, and does it. (The play could have used the same title as the last Norman work.)

After Jessie's calm announcement of intent, her mother, Thelma, goes through recurring stages of disbelief, fright, panic, near-petulance, near-acceptance, and dismay. Jessie just plows ahead through the last ninety minutes of her life, occasionally pierced by stabs of feeling, but mostly making careful preparations or informing Thelma of preparations already made, including much trivia about deliveries of groceries, milk, and candy.

The trivia are used as light background for the dark matters that are revealed. Jessie has been divorced by the husband she still loves; her teenage son is a thief and drug addict living on the loose; she has epilepsy, as her father had. She has had a year's remission of the illness, which apparently is meant to underscore that she is not committing suicide to escape it. Nor is she killing herself because of any other circumstance of her life that we learn about. Why, then, is she doing it? She is empty. She has been waiting for herself all these years, and "'I' never got here." Her life is so unvaryingly flavorless that, she says, death will only be like getting off a bus fifty blocks before the end of the line. She is quitting life fifty years before the end because she will be in the same "place" then as she is now.

Despite her mother's increasing terror, Jessie is obdurate. "You are my child!" cries Thelma. "No," Jessie replies, "I am what became of your child." At the last, a self-determined last, she tears herself from her mother's grasp, goes into the bedroom, locks the door so that Thelma can't be suspected of murdering her, and after a moment, shoots.

Ostensibly we have been watching the last moments of a present-day spiritual aristocrat, a woman who can look on life and death with a judicious eye and can choose courageously, a woman who recognizes desolation and declines to be humiliated by it even if her choice costs her life. But is that really what we have seen?

How can we accept Jessie's statements about herself: accept her condition of emancipated despair? If these things were true, what possible reason would she have to announce her decision, then put her mother through those ninety minutes? She says she is doing it to spare Thelma the pain of discovery after the event. Is this a rational way to spare another person pain: to subject her mother to these ninety minutes and leave her with a memory of them in addition to the suicide? Could a nobly philosophic, privately resolved Jessie really come in calmly with that blanket, calmly ask for a plastic sheet and a pistol, and calmly sit there cleaning the pistol in front of her mother? In reality, we are watching an act of vengeance. Jessie is not, as implied, our vicar in a Slough of Despond that possibly threatens us all. Jessie is a case. She is a woman haunted by an illness that may recur, a woman parted from the husband she loves because, she says, he asked her to choose between him and smoking! As for her relationship with her mother, Thelma says she got tired of watching Jessie and her father, whom Jessie loved, "going on and off like electric lights" because of their illness. This is the same Thelma who walked away from her husband's deathbed to watch Gunsmoke because he wouldn't talk to her.

Add up all these elements, and Jessie stands clear as a vengeful neurotic, not a tragic heroine. It's a truism that suicides are committed at someone, and this play, intentionally or not, dramatizes it. Jessie's last utterance, which is the title of the work, is the last twist of the knife. Instead of a woman quietly exalted by her ultra-rational choice and by her will to carry it out, we see a woman deceptively serene (as serenity often is), whose life has been made impossible by ill luck and warped values, whose buried hatred for her mother has italicized her despair, who is bent on suicide, and who comes in to torture her mother for ninety minutes before doing it. That grim, twisted Jessie is latent in the script, of course, or she couldn't be perceived; but Norman, deliberately or unwittingly, has chosen to present Jessie as a rustic female samurai who speaks implicitly to the residual nobility in us all.

Thelma, too, is contradictorily drawn. From Moment One she is almost a caricature of a self-centered old baby, with no more brain than she needs to make hot chocolate and watch TV. And what does this silly old woman do when she hears her daughter's suicide plan? She plunges into deterrent chat, in domestic light-comedy style. Instead of the hysteria we might expect from this dodo, instead of the screaming or fainting or struggle or even a transparent ruse to get the gun, she casts herself as a partner in a "clever" cat-and-mouse duet, as if she were accustomed to such crises and were competent to handle them. When she sees deterrence failing, she thinks more of the threat to herself than to Jessie, of the disturbance of her cozy life, and in childish pique she makes a mess—she throws pots on the floor. Thelma's actions result not from the complexity of a character, but from the traffic-management of a character by its author to make the play possible.

That is the pervasive flaw of the whole play: manipulation. To put it another way, if the play were true—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. Thus, though 'night, Mother is more subtle than Getting Out, it is at bottom equally a stunt, a contrivance, and the author's tyrannical governance of characters in order to flesh out a gimmicky framework: the suicide announcement at the start and the pistol shot at the finish.

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 the pity overarching both—has not been written. (pp. 47-8)

Stanley Kauffmann, "More Trick than Tragedy," in Saturday Review (© 1983 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 9, No. 10, September-October, 1983, pp. 47-8.


Norman, Marsha (Vol. 186)