“The things we as women know best,” Norman has explained, “have not been perceived to be of critical value to society.” The mother-daughter relationship is a “perfect example of that.” At the play’s outset, the middle-aged Jessie announces to her mother, Thelma, that she is going to kill herself. Norman has described the ninety minutes that follow as “the fight of their lives.” Thelma exhorts, cajoles, and pleads with Jessie to abandon her plan. Jessie remains implacable. She feels trapped in the house she and Thelma share. Her husband has abandoned her; her son is a delinquent. She blames her epileptic fits for her failings as a wife and mother and for her inability to hold a job. She also blames the epilepsy—considered emblematic by critics of the plight as a woman in society—for rendering her unconscious and out of control, to be handled and observed by others.
Jessie has not felt in charge of her life, but she takes charge of her death. At the play’s opening, she is collecting old pillows and towels to minimize the mess when she shoots herself. Such meticulousness indicates Jessie’s need for control, and is ironic in view of the violence of the act she is planning.
Not until Norman heard an audience laugh at its dark humor during a reading of the play did she have confidence of its acceptance. Her husband at the time, Dann Byck, Jr., produced ’night, Mother for its Broadway run, the personal nature of the project causing Norman to want to keep it in the family. The play won four Tony nominations, including best play, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1983. A film version, scripted by Norman, appeared in 1986.
Critical discussion has focused on the issue of suicide in the play, but its feminism has also been debated. Some feminists condemn ’night, Mother for perpetuating the stereotype of the self-destructive woman. Others praise it for highlighting the struggle of women like Thelma to relinquish their hold on adult children. “We all lose our children,” Norman, a mother of two, has remarked: “You think for a lifetime they belong to you, but they are only on loan.” Regarding the violence in the play, Norman has commented that women “are not afraid to look under the bed, or to wash the sheets; we know that life is messy.”