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The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

All the action of Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother takes place in a house which belongs to Thelma Cates, called “Mama” throughout the play by her daughter, Jessie Cates. Examples of Mama’s handiwork are everywhere: afghans, needlepoint pillows, a knitting basket overflowing with her latest work in progress. A television set faces the sofa, its screen away from the audience; the audience can assume that the set is almost always turned on. A wicker basket is full of large, thick, glossy “ladies’ magazines.” Filled candy dishes stand on all tables. Wall art is nondescript and includes framed examples of Mama’s needlepoint. The house is small and appears to be filled to capacity with possessions of this sort, all Mama’s. Overall, the effect is one of ordered clutter, displaying neither good nor bad taste and no marketable value. Nothing belongs to Jessie, though the younger woman also lives in the house.

Clocks are visible in the living room and in the open kitchen beyond it, their dials facing the audience and set at 8:15 p.m., approximating the real time at which the performance begins. A pull cord in the hall ceiling releases a ladder that leads to the attic. One closed bedroom door, facing the hallway, is visible to the audience at all times and is the entrance to Jessie’s room, whose interior the audience never sees, but which remains the center of dramatic tension throughout the play. Just before 10:00 p.m., still approximating the real time at which the play proceeds, Jessie will commit suicide in this room.

No act divisions, intervals, scene changes, or other lapses of time interrupt the tense mood. The audience feels the tension early in the play, when Jessie, asked by Mama why she is cleaning her father’s old revolver, offhandedly replies that she intends to kill herself. To this point, the conversation has seemed ordinary and even trivial, though it is immediately clear how different these women are. Mama’s greatest concerns are that she has run out of snowball cupcakes, Hershey bars, and possibly peanut brittle, that Jessie’s sudden foray into the attic will cause a mess, and that Jessie will not have replaced everything in time to give Mama her regular Saturday night manicure. Jessie, on the other hand, has her own preoccupations, including asking permission to use a beach towel which had been given to Mama by her daughter-in-law Loretta, locating a rubber or plastic sheet, asking if Mama has some extra plastic garbage bags, and cleaning her deceased father’s gun, which she has just retrieved from the attic. Strips of paper, evidently lists, stick out of the pockets of Jessie’s oversized black cardigan (perhaps her father’s), indicating that she has other things to do and intends to do them in an orderly way.

Even after Jessie makes her announcement, Mama does not seem unduly alarmed. She watches Jessie for a moment, weakly objects that the gun is broken, and reminds her that the bullets that go with it are fifteen years old. Jessie, however, has planned every detail relating to her suicide, in all likelihood more carefully than she has been able to plan any other event in her life. She expertly spins the chamber of the empty revolver, then pulls the trigger. The loud click that follows proves the gun works. Jessie also produces the new ammunition she had bought the week before. Jessie seems ironically amused that her brother Dawson, convinced by her story that she wanted the gun for protection against prowlers, had told her where she could purchase the bullets. She is also pleased that she can kill herself with her father’s gun and can do so at a time that will inconvenience the fewest people, and that with her use of the towel and sheeting, she will not cause a mess in Mama’s house.

Mama’s arguments against Jessie’s plan verge on pathetic humor. She objects that Jessie will miss and shoot off an ear, that she will do just enough damage to become a vegetable, that suicide is a sin and...

(The entire section is 6,191 words.)