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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Freudian father-daughter attachment and incipient maternal jealousy are merely background elements in ’night, Mother. These issues are suggested in the conversation of the two women, by the long black sweater Jessie wears, as specified in the stage directions, and by Jessie’s determination to consider her late father’s gun her own and to use it in her suicide. Much more important are the elements of time and time lost, represented by clocks on stage set at real time, with dials visible to the audience.

The dramatic effect of the clocks is twofold: to establish reality of action proceeding at a time approximate to that of an evening performance and to provide unity of action, according to the Aristotelian definition, without lapses or intervals. The audience knows that Jessie intends to commit suicide shortly before 10:00 p.m., and the clocks remain throughout the performance as reminders of urgency and finality. Whenever the conversation strays to trivial matters, such as how to order groceries or operate the washing machine, the audience, reminded by the clocks, silently regrets the wasted minutes. More subtly, the clocks recall the wasted moments in the women’s lives, the lack of meaningful time spent together, and the loss of those they have loved: Mr. Cates, Cecil, Ricky, and possibly even Dawson and Loretta.

Marsha Norman’s stage directions specify that both scene and characters show no discernible identification with a particular region. The house needs only to be isolated, in order to prevent outside interference with Jessie’s plan. The characters should have no accents or mannerisms; they should be without characteristics or speech patterns that would tie them to a given social class. One notices, in this connection, the astonishing simplicity of vocabulary and dialogue. Words are rarely longer than four syllables, and sentences almost never extend beyond ten words. These devices create an anonymity that suggests that the problems of Jessie and Mama are those of many contemporary Americans. They also allow these plain people to exhibit a simple purity of spirit.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


House. Typical ranch house built at the end of a country road. No name is given to a town here, but the rather isolated nature of the house is important, as it symbolizes the lonely life that Jessie lives in it. In contrast to Jessie, her mother is happily ensconced in her cozy living room. It is filled with nice products of her needlework that are all pleasantly attractive. Since Jessie is ill with epilepsy, she seldom leaves her house, in which she is increasingly becoming a prisoner as she ages.

On the land abutting the house, Jessie’s father had once had a farm, described as existing almost totally independent of the house. The realm of the farm belonged to the father almost exclusively, just as the realm of the house belonged to the mother.

Small house

Small house. House that Jessie’s husband, a carpenter, built for her in earlier years. It was a small and cozy house, in which she seems to have been happy.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The entire drama of ’night, Mother is a conversation between mother and daughter which begins about 8:15 on a Saturday evening. There is no intermission. Clocks are visible onstage in the kitchen and the living room and run throughout the play; Jessie, her mother, and the audience are clearly aware of the time passing moment by moment, and during one tense moment Jessie winds the small clock on the table. The house is relatively new and is on a country road. Jessie spends the evening preparing for her suicide and attempting to explain her reason for shooting herself to her mother.

Mama has never understood Jessie, and her comment following the fatal shot indicates that at the end of the play she still does not realize that Jessie is a mature woman with a mind and a will of her own. She says, “Jessie, Jessie, child . . . Forgive me. I thought you were mine.” In taking her own life, Jessie has at last asserted her own individuality, declared her independence, and taken over her own existence.

Mama has never realized that Jessie has always been so alone and so lonely. She has also been under the impression that she simply “allows” Jessie to think that she is taking care of her to give Jessie an excuse to share her house; Mama now comes to the painful realization that she is truly dependent on Jessie. In a sense, the drama centers on Mama’s changing sense of herself, shifting perceptions of reality, and growing realization that Jessie means what she says about her life and her death; as the evening progresses, Mama attempts to think of “reasons” for Jessie to live as she comes to terms with the reality that she will surely die.

When the play opens, Jessie is busily making preparations to shoot herself. She then breaks the news to her mother that she intends to bid her goodnight for the last time in a couple of hours. She briskly answers her mother’s questions and responds to her mother’s objections. Then she begins her own explanation of why she plans to end her...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

It is very difficult to face the possibility that there are women who have as little self-respect or reason to live as Jessie has, yet there are many lonely women who have no control over their lives or their bodies and who seem to have lost even the desire to assert themselves. The play causes one to ask whether suicide is valid in such situations. When Thelma points out to Jessie that suicide is a sin, Jessie immediately replies that, in a sense, Jesus committed suicide. Neither woman appears to have any real spiritual dimension; their concern with the funeral is social rather than religious—Jessie wants to help Thelma keep up appearances because she knows that this is important to her mother.

The play powerfully affirms how essential it is to value conventional rituals and to take pleasure in small things—even trivial things. The weekly manicure that Jessie usually gives to Thelma is the only thing they seem to share and to enjoy together. Jessie says that she has been looking forward to holding hands with her mother one last time. On this last Saturday evening, the manicure is pushed aside and overlooked; when Thelma says she is ready, Jessie says that it is now too late. They have waited too long to see the value in this shared activity.

The fact that Thelma does value seemingly insignificant and small pleasures (traditionally feminine ones) such as her cupcakes and candy treats, her weekly crossword puzzle, and her knitting, and that she looks forward to birthdays and visits from Dawson becomes her salvation. She will be able to go on and take care of herself because she sees meaning in what Jessie considers meaningless. The play compels the reader to take a serious look at the meaning and significance of small pleasures and to realize that they are the stuff from which existence is made.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Alienation, Isolation, and Anorexia
Although the United States had more than 228 million people in the early 1980s, Americans...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

'night, Mother occurs in real time. Jessie states her intention to commit suicide in the play's opening moments. The remainder of the...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the issues surrounding the right to die, Jessie makes the choice to commit suicide but indicates that she makes this choice because...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

'night, Mother was adapted for film in 1986, with a screenplay by Norman and directed by Tom Moore. The film starred Sissy Spacek as...

(The entire section is 93 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) is a novel that illuminates the heroines struggle to establish an identity separate from that of...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brown, Linda Ginter, Editor Marsha Norman: A Casebook, Garland (New York), 1996.
This is a...

(The entire section is 516 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: William Morrow, 1987.

Browder, Sally. “ ‘I Thought You Were Mine’: Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. This article looks at Jessie’s reliance on her mother, Thelma’s reliance on her daughter, and what impact these relationships have on the self-concept of each woman.

Burkman, Katherine H. “The Demeter Myth and Doubling in Marsha Norman’s ’night,...

(The entire section is 612 words.)