Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
Written in 1981, ’night, Mother was produced by Robert Brustein at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1982. The play later moved to the John Golden Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for ten months to mostly favorable reviews. In 1983, the play won a Pulitzer Prize and Marsha Norman was awarded the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given annually to a female playwright from an English-speaking country. The drama later played regional repertory theaters and has appeared widely in college anthologies of drama.
’night, Mother is a tightly crafted drama. Although it has the veneer of realism, there is a classical idealism about it. Norman wants to create real people, yet she divorces them from any set milieu. The house where the drama takes place should not show any character traits. It is neither messy nor quaint. The town is not to be associated with any regional locale or accent. The play holds to the classical unities. There are only two characters, fixed in one location. Narrative time is synchronized to performance time so that all the clocks on stage start at 8:15 p.m., or curtain time, and run throughout the performance. There are no breaks or intermissions. The drama, which moves swiftly and inevitably toward the climax, is based on the unraveling of past events.
Like Norman’s other plays, ’night, Mother treats the frustrations and trials of ordinary women who try to share their lives with each other. From one critical perspective, it is debatable how strong a feminist message the play embodies. The play depicts women’s lives as hopeless and futile. The two women in the drama undergo an emotional revelation, but little is done to change their lives. Much of what they do emphasizes the deadly routine of women’s lives, but little is done to effect a revolution. Many of the women’s problems surround their relations with absent men—fathers, husbands, and brothers. Suicide becomes a tragic gesture but leaves little option for social change.
On the other hand, the play is a powerful one about two women who have endured suffering and try desperately to communicate their pain to each other. Jessie is dependent on her mother even though she is her mother’s caretaker. Together the two women undergo an emotional sharing of their lives. In many ways, Jessie has relived her mother’s life. Both women married men who accepted them at first, then rejected them for not being someone else. Daddy married a plain country woman, then resented Mama for being one. Cecil wanted to change Jessie into an active, outgoing person. Both men escape from their wives. Daddy pretended to go fishing, and Cecil went to the shed with another woman. Neither woman could get her husband to communicate with her. Daddy died without speaking to Mama. Cecil simply left, and Jessie had to write his goodbye note. Both women have been hurt and are having difficulty communicating with their children. At the end, Jessie wants to share her life with her mother, but she wants her mother to let her go. Mama tries, but she has difficulty letting go.
’night, Mother is a powerful and gripping story of a mother and a daughter trying to communicate the pain in their lives, but it is more than a drama about mothers and daughters—it is a play about family that focuses on the psychological return of the daughter to her father through death. Jessie is her father’s daughter. She has inherited not only his epilepsy but also his solitude. Both are reclusive and solitary individuals who seek escape from the world of family and friends. Jessie makes a point of using her father’s gun to shoot herself. When she plans her funeral, she wants it to be like her father’s. Death to Jessie is quiet and peaceful, an escape to the protected world of the father.
Jessie, who has lost control over the events of her life, consciously seeks to control her destiny by ending her life. By reasserting her power to end her life, Jessie feels that she has found a permanent solution to her alienation and loss of identity. In suicide, she will not only choose what happens to her but will also courageously be able to say no to life and to the false promise that Mama holds out to her for a better future. All of Mama’s solutions are ways of getting through life and of passing time. Shopping, rearranging furniture, and learning to drive do not appeal to Jessie, who wants to take a determined action and make a positive statement with her death. Suicide and the right to commit suicide pose a powerful theme in the play. Despite Jessie’s protest, suicide is not so much a powerful existential choice, a way to say no to life, as much as it is an escape to a romantic womblike existence in which no more harm or hurt can come to her.