Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother is a play about most people’s inability to communicate meaningfully, even when an obvious crisis requires it. Suicide is merely the catalyst that forces Jessie and Mama to talk with one another. It seems that Mama, at least at first, considers it a considerable sacrifice when she volunteers not to watch television that evening. It is no surprise, then, that the two women learn more about each other in less than two hours than they had in a lifetime of living together.
Jessie, and perhaps her mother as well, had never realized the degree to which the older woman had resented the special relationship of father and daughter. Yet, despite significant discoveries such as this one, neither woman experiences any great insight. Jessie never sees that her father’s withdrawals might have indicated a medical condition similar to her own. Mama remains childlike to the end; her wants are all sense-related and can be satisfied by eating a cupcake, watching television, or opening a trinket from the grab bag Jessie has left for her. There is no indication that Mama feels any guilt for Jessie’s death or that she will assume some new maturity. In this reversal of roles, the child, Jessie, becomes her mother’s guardian, but only long enough to make sure that all is in order. Jessie rises to a certain nobility, but its only lasting effect is self-destruction.
Some might consider that Norman suggests here that suicide is an acceptable alternative to living a life one considers intolerable, but Jessie’s view is not necessarily that of the playwright. Norman does not take an authorial point of view at all; she simply allows the women of her play to speak frankly. The result is that ’night, Mother is a tragedy only in the sense that its characters have missed a lifetime of opportunities to understand each other and reach only a limited mutual insight in Jessie’s final hours. Unlike characters in classical tragedy, neither realizes the full extent of her loss.