Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

'night, Mother was first produced in January of 1983, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This first production received favorable reviews with many of the reviewers focusing on the honesty of the relationship between mother and daughter. William Henry, who commented on Norman's realistic dialogue in his Time ...

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'night, Mother was first produced in January of 1983, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This first production received favorable reviews with many of the reviewers focusing on the honesty of the relationship between mother and daughter. William Henry, who commented on Norman's realistic dialogue in his Time review, referred to the characters' speech as "spare, suspenseful, and entirely honest." Henry continued, praising Norman's script as "miraculously free of melodrama." However, the critic credited the performance of Kathy Bates as Jessie, whose "deceptive calm gives the play its force," with elevating the production above the ordinary. Other critics also praised the cast which included Bates and Anna Pitoniak as Thelma. As further proof of the play's success, Norman was awarded the first Susan Smith Blackburn prize, which is given annually to a woman playwright, in January, 1983.

Two months later, 'night, Mother opened on Broadway with the same cast. Again the reviews were mostly favorable, but a few critics did wonder what merited all the fuss. Although many reviwers continued to praise the play's realistic depiction, detractors of the play based their disfavor on the argument that the play was so realistic as to be ordinary. In his review for the Nation, Richard Gilman stated that 'night, Mother has nothing wrong with it, but that there is "not much to get excited about either." Gilman refers to Thelma as "silly, self-indulgent and totally reliant on her daughter in practical matters"; he describes Jessie as "heavy-set, slow-moving and morose." (Gilman imposed Bates's reality on to the character of Jessie who is meant only as a representative type; Norman neither describes nor alludes to Jessie's weight in the play; rather she states in her stage direction that Jessie is "pale and vaguely unsteady physically.") Gilman did state that he found the play "interesting as a moral inquiry'' into the right to die issue but that the dialogue off-sets this point with conversation that is commonplace and predictable. For other critics the play is a manipulation of the audience. For example, Stanley Kauffman, writing for the Saturday Review, claimed that Jessie's statement regarding her intention to kill herself is purely an act of vengeance and that the ninety minutes spent in preparation are intended as torture. Instead of a heroine, Jessie becomes a "vengeful neurotic." That the audience sympathizes, cares about these characters, or despairs for them is, in Kauffman's view, a manipulation of the audience by Norman. However, the dissenters were in the minority. Most critics and the public favored the play enough that it had a ten month run on Broadway. As a further endorsement, 'night, Mother was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer prize for drama.

In April 1984, the play opened off-Broadway still with the original cast. The play has since been produced by touring companies and in regional theatres across the United States. Although American critics had not labeled 'night, Mother as feminist, Patricia Keeney Smith, in her review of the Canadian production (which opened in October, 1984) did note that the play was "a story of women, full of valour, irony and liberating laughter."

When 'night, Mother was eventually adapted for film, Norman wrote the screenplay. The film received mixed reviews from several of the same critics repeating their earlier reviews of the theatrical production. And although Norman had emphasized in her stage directions that the women were indistinguishable from any other women, much of the criticism of the film focused on the two actresses playing Jessie and Thelma, Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft, respectively. Critics either embraced the two as ideal for the parts or rejected them as the worst possible choices. The film was a commercial success, but that may have been in large part due the marketability of its stars.

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