MARSHA NORMAN 1983
‘night, Mother, written in 1981, was Marsha Norman’s fifth play. The work received generally favorable reviews when it was first produced on stage in 1983. Among the numerous honors bestowed upon the play, it was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Critics have lauded the play for its emotional honesty and realistic dialogue, with much of the praise focused on the play’s unflinching depiction of a family—specifically a mother and daughter—in crisis. This lack of sentimentality and die play’s focus on the loneliness and emptiness of the two women’s lives are often cited by those praising ‘night, Mother. In contrast, those who did not like the play most often complain that it is drab and lacks any significant development in its two characters. While this was not intended as a condemnation of the play, dissenting critics also said that those reviewers who praised the play so lavishly were over-reacting to a dramatic work that was adequate but not great—let alone deserving of a Pulitzer. On balance, however, ‘night, Mother was well-received, by audiences and critics alike, for its realism and honesty.
When ‘night, Mother premiered in Canada in 1984 the notices were favorable. Although reviewers in the United States had not generally reviewed the play as feminist, Canadian critics did note that the work presented men only as peripheral characters in the women’s lives and that women were central to the play’s themes. Although the topic of ‘night, Mother is unhappiness that results in suicide, Norman manages to interject some macabre humor through sharp dialogue. Despite its impartial (even negative) stance toward suicide, ‘night, Mother nevertheless became a source of controversy due to its inclusion of that subject. The issue was intensified by the Pulitzer Prize going to the play. Yet Norman’s work is viewed by most as a depiction of a failed mother/daughter relationship, a chronical of the daughter’s deep unhappiness, and, ultimately, her inability to deal with her lot in life. In this sense the play is valued as both a gritty work of fiction and a cautionary tale that has bearing on real life.
The isolation and loneliness of life, topics of her play ‘night, Mother, are issues that are familiar to Marsha Norman, since they spring from her own childhood. Norman was born September 21, 1947, in Louisville, Kentucky. Her family chose to isolate Norman rather than expose her to ideas that challenged their own as religious fundamentalists. She received a B.A. from Agnes Scott College in Georgia in 1969, and a M.A. from the University of Louisville in 1971. Norman worked with gifted and emotionally disturbed children for two years at Kentucky State Hospital. She has been married three times and has two children.
By 1976 Norman was working full time as a writer contributing articles to a local newspaper. Her first play, Getting Out (1977) is based on a woman she knew while working at Kentucky State Hospital. In 1978 she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant that enabled her to work with the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville (ATL), an influential organization that produces the work of up and coming playwrights. Norman quickly followed with three more plays written during her association with ATL: Third and Oak: The Laundromat [and] The Pool Hall (1978), Circus Valentine (1979), and The Holdup (1980). From 1980 to 1981, she also served as a resident director with the company. She wrote ‘night Mother after moving to New York City with her second husband, theatrical producer Dann Byck.
Other plays that Norman has written include Traveler in the Dark (1984), Sarah and Abraham (1988), and D. Boone (1992). She has also written the book and lyrics for two musicals, the children’s production The Secret Garden (1991), and The Red Shoes (1993). In 1987 Norman published her first novel, The Fortune Teller. She also authored two teleplays, In Trouble at Fifteen (1980) and Face of a Stranger (1991). In 1986, she adapted her own work for the film version of ‘night, Mother, which was produced by Universal Pictures and starred Sissy Spacek.
Norman received the American Theatre Critics Association award for the best play produced in regional theatre in 1977-78 for Getting Out. That work also brought Norman the John Gassner New Playwrights Medallion, the Outer Critics Circle, and the George Oppenheimer-Newsday Award in 1979. Norman received a Pulitzer Prize for drama for ‘night, Mother in 1983; the play was also honored with the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a Tony Award nomination for best play, and the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award from the Dramatist Guild. She also received a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical in 1991 for The Secret Garden. In addition to her work on the film adaptation of ‘night, Mother, Norman has written several unproduced screenplays.
‘night, Mother takes place in the living room and kitchen in the rural home of mother Thelma Cates and her daughter, Jessie. The play follows real time as displayed on a clock on stage. The hour and a half length of the play matches exactly the hour and a half of dialogue and action between Thelma’s opening lines and her final call to Jessie’s brother to inform him of his sister’s death.
‘night, Mother opens with Jessie Cates asking her mother for a piece of plastic sheeting and for the location of her father’s gun. After Jessie finds the gun hidden away in an old shoe box in the attic, she begins cleaning the weapon. As she does, she calmly tells her mother that it is her intention to commit suicide later that evening. She accompanies this announcement with a stream of idle chatter that describes the ease with which she has purchased the ammunition and even had it delivered to their rural home. Thelma, is at first disbelieving. When she realizes that Jessie is serious, she attempts to dissuade her. Taking little note of her mother’s arguments, Jessie continues with her preparations for death. She cleans the refrigerator and instructs her mother on how to order groceries, how to use the washer and dryer, and when to put out the garbage. She tells Thelma that she has stopped delivery of the
daily paper, ordered her favorite candy for her, and arranged to continue the delivery of milk—although her mother prefers soda or orangeade. Jessie has even prepared a Christmas list of gift suggestions for her brother for the next several years.
To keep her mother busy and to create a semblance of order, Jessie asks her to make some hot chocolate for them—yet neither women drinks it because neither likes milk. The purpose in making die chocolate, clearly, was to distract her mother from the announcement Jessie has just made. While these activities are going on, Jessie keeps up a flow of gossip about her mother’s friends and her family. This gossip reveals to die audience that Jessie is in her thirties, divorced, unemployed, and that she hates her life. It also reveals that her mother’s closest friend will no longer visit her because Jessie’s presence makes her uncomfortable. The dialogue paints a picture of a mother who has assumed an air of helplessness so mat she can provide a purpose in life for her daughter. She can do the little things that Jessie does for her, obtaining her prescibtions and shopping, yet she allows her daughter to assume these chores.
Jessie sees herself as having no future. She is an epileptic who only leaves their rural house to go to the hospital after a seizure. She is divorced from a man she still loves, but the audience learns that when given the ultimatum of either continuing her smoking habit or quitting and staying with her husband, Jessie chose smoking. We learn from Thelma, however, that the husband, Cecil, was unfaithful, having had an affair with a neighbor’s daughter. Jessie’s son, Ricky, is a thief and a drug addict, and while Jessie’s mother thinks the boy will outgrow these tendencies, Jessie sees little hope. That lack of hope is the crux of this one act play. Jessie tells her mother that she is committing suicide because she sees no point in continuing with a life as empty as hers has become. She can visualize only another fifty years of the same emptiness and can see no point in continuing. Jessie uses the metaphor of a bus trip to describe the reason for killing herself. She states that it does not matter if you are fifty blocks from your stop when you get off because for her the stop will be the same right now as it will be in those fifty blocks/fifty years. Jessie’s is a life that, from her perspective, holds no promise and no future.
Jessie’s mother, Thelma, divulges family secrets in her attempt to stop Jessie’s planned suicide. She tells Jessie that her seizures are not the result of a fall from a horse but that she has had them from early childhood. Thelma also tells her daughter that the epilepsy is inherited and that her father also suffered from the disease. As Thelma reveals how empty her marriage was, the audience learns of Thelma’s jealousy of her daughter’s close relationship with her father. As her husband lay dying, Thelma left him to watch the western series Gunsmoke on television, since he refused to talk to her. Yet she asks Jessie what she and her father said to one another in those last moments just before he died. Thelma refused to share her husband’s last minutes and cannot understand why her daughter did not make the same choice.
Their interaction makes clear that Thelma and Jessie love one another, but, to Jessie, her mother’s love is not reason enough to continue living. Thelma pleads with Jessie; she cajoles her with stories, and offers to change their lives. The desperation of the mother is clear, as is her love for her daughter. In the last moments of the play, a desperate Thelma clings to her impassive daughter and is pushed aside as Jessie leaves the room with the muted farewell “‘night, Mother.” She goes and locks herself in her room. The play ends with the sound of a gunshot followed by Thelma’s grief-stricken call to her son.
Jessie is somewhere in her mid-thirties or early forties. She suffers from epilepsy, and this, combined with her perceived failure in relationships, provokes her decision to commit suicide. She views this act as the ultimate means of asserting control over her life. She has an ex-husband whom she still loves. Her marriage was precipitated by her mother—if not outright arranged—when Thelma hired Cecil to build a porch she did not need. Jessie has a son, Ricky, who is a petty thief and has problems with drugs. For most of her life Jessie’s epilepsy has made it impossible for her to work. As the play’s action begins, drugs seem to have brought the disease under control, yet Jessie is too frightened of the outside world to venture into it. She sees her life as empty, without purpose, and without a future; an existence that is utterly beyond her control to alter. Jessie has suffered several losses: the death of her father (perhaps the closest relationship in her life), the break-up of her marriage, an absent son whom she regards as a failure, and the death of her dog. Her combined depression and fear of interaction with people other than her mother has led her to believe that the future holds no hope of change or any increase in autonomy; Jessie feels that she is a puppet acting out a life over which she has no authorship.
Thelma is Jessie’s mother. She is a widow and has one other child, a son named Dawson who lives with his wife. In the course of the play, she reveals that she never loved Jessie’ s father and that they had little communication. She spends much of her time on needlework, and her creations clutter the family home. At first appearance she seems to be an elderly woman dependent on her daughter for many everyday necessities. It becomes clear through the course of the play, however, that she has allowed Jessie to take over these chores, not because she is incapable, but because she felt that Jessie needed a purpose.
At Jessie’s announcement that she intends to commit suicide, Thelma displays a series of emotions: disbelief, anger, fear, desperation, and, finally, a degree of acceptance. She loves her daughter and makes every attempt to talk her out of killing herself. Yet there are intimations throughout the play that many of Jessie’s problems may have been caused by Thelma’s behavior toward and treatment of her daughter.
See Thelma Cates
See Thelma Cates
Alienation and Loneliness
Alienation and loneliness are important themes in ‘night, Mother. Jessie has become totally isolated as a result of her epilepsy and her failed attempt at raising a family. Her mother hid the disease to protect Jessie, but in doing so, she also isolated the child from the world. She is so alone that the only way she can meet a man and marry is for her mother to hire him to so some construction work on the house. Jessie cannot work because of her disease and by the time her epilepsy is under control, she is too frightened and set in her ways to attempt life in the outside world. Jessie’s decision to kill herself results from the isolation and loneliness of her life.
- ‘night, Mother was adapted for film in 1986, with a screenplay by Norman and directed by Tom Moore. The film starred Sissy Spacek as Jessie and Anne Bancroft as Thelma. Although produced by Aaron Spelling, who is best known for melodramatic television series such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, the film is true to the content of Norman’s original text. Criticism has centered on Spacek and Bancroft as too glamorous to portray the simple, average women depicted in the play. The film received mixed reviews. It is available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
Jessie’s choice to kill herself is her attempt to take control of her life. In a small way she took control when she chose smoking instead of her husband, but that provided a bitter and hollow victory, since she still loved Cecil. Her epilepsy and her mother’s efforts to shelter her from any knowledge of her disease in some way deprived Jessie of the free will to make decisions about her disease and, more broadly, her life. Free will means assuming responsibility for an individual’s actions and an acceptance of the consequences; Jessie’s choice of suicide is her effort to assert control and act upon the free will that she feels has been absent from her life.
The theme of death—by definition the utter lack of life—lies at the center of ‘night, Mother. Preparation for her death is the reason for Jessie’s actions and the purpose behind the dialogue that carries the play’s action. It is her effort to provide closure that motivates Jessie to tell her mother of her pending suicide. The play is an hour and a half of preparation for the act of dying. The audience also sees and hears the emotions that are usually reserved for after the death of a loved one: the pain, the grief, the fear, the anger, and the reluctant acceptance.
The human condition is often identified as a component of the basic human need for survival. In ‘night, Mother, Thelma’s hour and a half effort to save her daughter’s life reveals much about the nature of the human condition. The audience is given a glimpse of the nature of the Cates’s lives, their pain and anguish and the barren quality of their existence as Thelma tries to find a reason to deter her daughter’s suicide. That Jessie can so easily dismiss her mother’s pleas and offers of help discloses that there is no single reason as to why she wants to die; in Jessie’s mind the overwhelming sensation is that there is no single reason for her to continue living.
An important issue for Jessie is her attempt to create an identity. She tells her mother that her brother calls her “Jess like he knows who he’s talking to.” She also says that her son Ricky is “as much like me as it’s possible for any human to be”; Jessie identifies them both as failures. She so identifies herself with her husband that when he decides to leave her she writes herself a note telling her what she knows he feels. Jessie’s identity is so tied up in the identities of those she loves—and she is too weary to attempt to assert a new identity in life—that she feels the only way to separate herself is through death.
Limitations and Opportunities
Jessie’s choice to die is a direct result of the lack of opportunity in her life. She can see no future and no change and thus no purpose in her continued existence. Her epilepsy and her life’s choices have resulted in an existence bound by limits and lost
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the issues surrounding the right to die. Jessie makes the choice to commit suicide but indicates that she makes this choice because she has no compelling reason to live. How does this reasoning fit the argument that proponents of an individual’s right to die present?
- In ‘night, Mother Jessie identifies herself in relationship to her father, husband, son, and especially her mother; she appears to have no identity of her own. Comment of Jessie’s struggle to create an identity separate from these family members. Is suicide the only means available to her?
- The emptiness of her life is an oppressive force for Jessie. Discuss the issue of alienation and isolation that defines Jessie’s life.
- Many critics have been divided in their reviews of ‘night, Mother. One reviewer actually noted that men seemed particularly unaffected and unsympathetic to Jessie’s plight. Are women more sympathetic? And do they identify with these two women because they, too, are familiar with the mother-daughter dynamics? Or is this a play that transcends gender stereotyping?
opportunities. Although her disease is now under control, a lifetime of limitations have conditioned Jessie to not look beyond the moment. Suicides are often characterized as individuals who cannot see that they have another choice. Jessie certainly fits this model.
Natural law is often described as the survival of the fittest (as Charles Darwin notes in his study of evolution The Origin of Species). It can be applied as simply an evolutionary term that accounts for the survival of one species over another. It is sometimes used to account for why one individual survives and another does not. Certainly there are applications to ‘night, Mother, since not all epileptics commit suicide (most lead normal lives that involve active socialization and work), nor do all women who are divorced or have failed personal relationships kill themselves. Jessie’s death can be described as keeping with the natural law of survival—it should be noted, however, that it is Jessie who feels the world holds no place for her, not vice versa. Were she willing to make the effort, it is clear that Jessie could function in and be a part of the world. The manner in which natural law plays a part in the play is wholly created in Jessie’s mind; part of her reasoning is that she is not strong enough—she has been condition to believe—that she is too weak to live.
Success and Failure
Success and failure are important themes in ‘night, Mother because they account for the reasons behind Jessie’s actions. Jessie chooses suicide to escape a life that is empty and which she sees as likely to remain empty. While she does not describe her life as a failure, it is clear from her failed marriage and her son’s behavior that she sees little reason to celebrate her life achievements as successes. She regards her life as a failure and even describes her inability to work as a failing. That she cares for her mother cannot be regarded as a success, since Jessie also recognizes that her mother allows Jessie to care for her as a means to keep her busy, not out of any actual need.
‘night, Mother occurs in real time. Jessie states her intention to commit suicide in the play’s opening moments. The remainder of the play focuses on Jessie’s preparations for death, her mother’s efforts to dissuade her, and an examination of the emptiness and isolation of Jessie’s life.
A major division in a drama. In classic Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans, as well as to Elizabethan playwrights such as William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. ‘night, Mother is a one act play. The exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe are combined in one act when Jessie reveals her intention to kill herself. The drama—and the elements of the traditional five acts—plays out during the next ninety minutes.
Analogy is a comparison of two things. Often something unfamiliar is explained by comparing it to something familiar. In ‘night, Mother Jessie uses the analogy of a bus trip for her future years as a means to explain why she is going to kill herself.
A character—by strict definition—is person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality and other traits that shape and define their personality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures (a New York City cab driver or a brisk, smart-aleck waitress) to more complex ones. “Characterization” is the process of creating a life—forging a person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who she will be and how she will behave in a given situation. For instance, Thelma is initially made to seem silly and helpless. As the action progresses, however, Thelma reveals that she is actually quite capable and rather man a doddering old woman, is a shrewd and calculating person.
Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. In ‘night, Mother dialogue assumes the role of debate. Jessie and her mother engage in a debate over whether she is justified in planning a suicide. One important feature of this play is that the dialogue is realistic. Mothers and daughters (and others in close, long-term relationships) do talk in a sort of conversational short-hand that evolves over a number of years. Jessie and Thelma engage in just this sort of dialogue, which enhances the reality of the action rather than interfering with it.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, a “drama” (like the “Drama” section of a video store) is something that explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. ‘night, Mother incorporates aspects of drama according to this definition, while also working in elements of tragedy.
Naturalism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is the application of scientific principles to literature. For instance, in nature behavior is determined by environmental pressures or internal factors, none of which can be controlled or even clearly understood. There is a clear cause and effect association: either the indifference of nature or biological determinism influence behavior. In either case, there is no human responsibility for the actions of the individual. European Naturalism emphasized biological determinism, while American Naturalism emphasized environmental influences. Jessie’s realization that she has inherited her father’s epilepsy is a component of naturalism.
This term refers to a pattern of events that make up a story. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they can sometimes be made of a series of episodes connected together (as director Quentin Tarantino did with his film Pulp Fiction, which strings a series of episodes into one larger plot). Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. The plot of ‘night, Mother revolves around Jessie’s preparations to commit suicide. But the themes are those of identity, death, choice, and loneliness.
Realism is a nineteenth century literary term that identifies an author’s attempt to portray characters, events, and settings in a realistic way. Simply put, realism is attention to detail, with description intended to be honest and frank at all levels; at its best, realism will provoke recognition in an audience. There is an emphasis on character, especially behavior. In ‘night, Mother, the dialogue between Thelma and Jessie is recognizable as real to the audience. These are events, people, and a home that, as Norman hopes, will be familiar to the audience. The living room and kitchen are similar to one found in most homes in America. Thelma is familiar to most women, and her fears of losing her daughter are universal.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for ‘night, Mother is an unnamed midwestern city. The action begins in the evening and concludes ninety minutes later; the one act takes place in the living room and kitchen of the Cates’s residence. Norman’s situation is created to be universal, so the time is relatively unimportant, and the location could be any town, the evening any evening. Norman states in her stage directions that she does not want either character identified by setting, dress, or regional accent. They are simply two women who could be anyone.
The three unities of dramatic structure include unity of time, place, and action. The unities are generally credited to the Greek playwright Aristotle, who defined them in his Poetics. The “unity of time” refers to all the action taking place within one twenty-four hour period. Since ‘night, Mother takes place during a ninety minute period without intermission, this play adheres to the unity of time. The “unity of place” limits the action to one location, in this case, the Cates’s living room and kitchen. The most important is the “unity of action.” The action should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In ‘night, Mother the action begins with Jessie’s announcement that she will commit suicide. The middle details her mother’s attempts to dissuade her and her preparations for death; the end is the shot that concludes the play. Thus ‘night, Mother adheres to all three unities.
Alienation, Isolation, and Anorexia
Although the United States had more than 228 million people in the early 1980s, Americans still largely defined themselves as human beings who were self-reliant and in control of their own destiny. The search for autonomy in a country where government has become so huge and intrusive is a concern for many people. But the question of autonomy is of particular interest to women who by the last half of the twentieth century were attempting in large numbers to assert themselves as individuals. One important issue for women occurred in the early 1980s, when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified. This sent a message to women that equality still remained an elusive factor in their lives. This is particularly evident in the increasing numbers of women who show symptoms of eating disorders. Women and young girls who suffer from anorexia or bulimia often cite the issue of control as a motivating factor in their eating patterns. In adopting anorexia as a means of control, women are often starving themselves to death. This is a passive means of suicide. A woman need not use a gun or another weapon such as pills; rather she can die through neglect. The intent is the same, but the means offers a long-term effort at assuming control. The correlation between anorexia and suicide is evident with Jessie. Much of ‘night, Mother focuses on food but only with regard to Jessie’s mother. Jessie does not consume the candy and junk food that permeates the Cates’s home. In fact, Jessie’s mother complains that Jessie never did like to eat. This line offers a clue that connects Jessie to other women trapped by anorexia: Jessie represents the image of a woman attempting to regain control.
Since women have historically been defined as property, first of their fathers and, later in life, of their husbands, it is perhaps understandable that modern women should seek a means to define themselves as free individuals. By the early 1980s, women smokers were out-numbering their male counterparts. This trend did not evolve out of any particular love for cigarettes. Instead women began smoking for a complex set of reasons. The image of success that is evoked by cigarette advertisers certainly played a role: women could share in the same successful world populated by men. But another reason may have been that smoking represents choice. A primary argument to emerge from the women’s struggle of the 1960s and 1970s was a woman’s right to choose. Whether that choice involved birth control, employment, or smoking mattered little. In fact for women, smoking became a right that was not legislated and was not dependent on men. When Jessie is asked to choose between her husband and smoking, she chooses smoking. Quite simply, smoking became a freedom of choice that Jessie found lacking in her life; it represented autonomy in her life. Given the choice between smoking, which she decided to do on her own, and staying with Cecil, whom she married as a result of her mother’s arrangments, Jessie opts for one of the few things she came to on her own.
Right to Die
If anything, the right to die has become an even larger issue in the fifteen years since Norman wrote ‘night, Mother. Technology and its ability to keep a body alive long after the brain ceases to function is an important impetus for those who claim the right to die. In 1981, the case of Karen Ann Quinlan was still recent news. Quinlan was a young woman who suffered major brain trauma. Although her brain was unable to monitor basic bodily fuctions such as breathing, life support machines kept her alive. Her family fought to have her life support withdrawn, arguing that Karen’s quality of life was negligible. This issue has persisted in the 1990s with the prominence of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist from Michigan who has assisted people in committing suicide if they are terminally ill or in chronic, unrelievable pain. Those who support right to death issues consistently state that it is a person’s choice to end their own life if they deem it devoid of value. While Jessie is not terminally ill or brain dead, the manner in which she percieves her situation—through a cloud of depression—is analogous to those seeking euthanasia (which means merciful death): she feels that her quality of life is negligible. Jessie chooses to die, not because she is ill or mentally deficient in some manner, but because she has the right to choose. Norman makes clear in her text that there is no primary reason for Jessie’s choice. But what she does offer is a woman who chooses to act rather than be acted upon: there is no reason for Jessie to die except that she chooses to do so. In her neutral description of Jessie, Norman is creating a woman who could be anyone. She is also forcing her audience to question the choice of who has a right to die. The play inevitably evokes that discussion, since Norman has set her play in an indeterminate time and place. Again, Jessie’s choice to commit suicide can be discussed within the larger issue of individual autonomy. Jessie could easily be lost as an individual. In deciding to die, she sets herself apart and creates an identity of her own.
‘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.
Metzger holds a Ph.D. and has a strong background in literature and drama education. In this essay she discusses issues of identity and autonomy.
A critical issue in ‘night, Mother is the relationship between Jessie and her mother, Thelma. It is evident in Jessie’s preparations for her suicide that she regards herself as her mother’s primary caretaker. Jessie is responsible for her mother’s diet, for the maintenance of the home, and for her mother’s health, or so her Thelma lets her believe. In assuming so much control over her mother, Jessie has reversed the mother-daughter relationship and has become a mother to her own mother. It is little wonder, then, that she cannot imagine an identity separate from her mother’s. In deciding that she will kill herself, Jessie is finally establishing an identity of her own and setting a boundary between them that her mother cannot cross. When Jessie announces her decision to kill herself at the end of the evening that she sets in motion a series of events that must end with her death; there is never any doubt that Jessie will die at the play’s conclusion because it is necessary for her to die to free herself. The choice she makes is one that only she can make; her mother has no say in the matter. Their dialogue establishes that this may have been the first significant decision Jessie has ever made independent of her mother.
Jessie has always been bound to her mother. She left her mother’s home to marry the man her mother selected for her, and, when that marriage failed, she returned home to her mother. And with the example of her parent’s unhappy and uncommunicative marriage before her, Jessie accepted that a retreat to her mother’s house was her only option. According to developmental psychology, adult maturation is partially achieved through a separation from parental figures, as a person acquires independence and the ability to make independent decisions. This maturation process has been lacking in Jessie’s life. She has been sheltered and protected, kept isolated in her mother’s home, and closeted with only her family to provide socialization. Consequently, a complete break from her family is the only option if Jessie is to become an individual; the tragedy of this play is that for Jessie suicide is the only avenue to this independence.
The isolation of an existence without friends and a lack of the socialization that accompanies the emotional and physical growth of most young women is an important feature of Jessie’s loneliness. The emptiness of her life is the primary reason she offers for her decision to kill herself. And it is the one argument her mother cannot combat. In the series of objections that Thelma raises regarding Jessie’s suicide, the closest she can come to dealing with her
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daughter’s loneliness is her suggestion of a dog to provide companionship.
Thelma recognizes and understands Jessie’s isolation. She has lived a long time with solitude. Any thought that her daughter would provide companionship evaporated when Jessie demonstrated mat she preferred the company of her silent father; but since Jessie, too, has a propensity for silence, it is unlikely that Jessie could ever have provided Thelma with a substantial form of companionship. Instead of conversation, Thelma has satisfied her social needs and combated her loneliness with needlepoint, junk food, and candy. But for Jessie, the craving for something more in her life cannot be satisfied with food or cross-stitching. Indeed, Thelma states that Jessie has never been interested in eating. She needs to fill an emptiness that food cannot satisfy. And like many people who commit suicide, Jessie Cates sees this as the only option left to her; it is the only way to cancel a life filled with hopelessness, helplessness, and emptiness.
In an essay in Modern Drama that examines Jessie’s need to establish her identity and autonomy, Jenny S. Spencer began by noting the different responses that men and women had to a performance of ‘night, Mother which she attended. She observed that men found the play predictable and without tension. They were not surprised by the suicide. But Spencer noted that the women with whom she spoke found the play realistic and disturbing. On some level, women can empathize and identify with both Jessie and Thelma. Spencer argued that when Jessie articulates her inability to change her life—“[I] cannot make it better, make it work. But I can stop it”—she is trying to establish some control over her life. This speech establishes the purpose motivating Jessie’s decision. It provides her with authority, with autonomy, with identity. Spencer maintains that Jessie’s suicide, “self-negating as it is, will specifically address that need to protect, to fix, to determine her identity.”
That Jessie lacks an identity is evident from the information given regarding her past. She identifies so strongly with the husband she has lost but still loves that, when he left her, she wrote a note to herself justifying his choice and signing his name. She explains this by saying that she knew how he felt. She excuses her son’s behavior by asserting that he is like her and thus doomed to failure. Jessie’s self is so a part of her husband and child that she cannot exist separately from them. Thelma further robs Jessie of an identity when she tells Jessie that she is just like her father. She is silent as he was silent, but more importantly, the source of
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is a novel that illuminates the heroines struggle to establish an identity separate from that of her father, husband, and son. Choice, free will, and suicide are important issues in this text.
- Tillie Olson’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing” (1961) is concerned with the relationship between a mother and daughter. Olson relates events common to all women and explores how those events can serve to trap mothers and daughters in a relationship not of their making.
- Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1982) depicts a mother and three daughters who struggle to create an identity that is not defined by their mother’s suicide. Henley’s play examines the other side of suicide—that of the child who must contend with guilt and unresolved questions when a parent chooses to kill herself.
- “To Room Nineteen,” Doris Lessing’s 1963 short story presents a woman who subordinates her identity to the needs and identities of her husband and children. Her choice to abandon her family by committing suicide can promote a compelling discussion about free choice that often focuses on gender.
- Carolyn Heilbrun’s text, Writing A Woman’s Life (1988) examines how women’s lives are written, how the events, decisions, and relationships that define women’s lives are told and presented to the public. This book provides the reader with an understanding of the struggle the writer must undertake to create a text. Individual chapters provide interesting insights into some of the most famous women writers of the last century and can help more advanced students develop an appreciation for the art of writing and perhaps instill a desire to write.
her disability, her epilepsy, is inherited from him; she has his disease. Even the epilepsy that she thought resulted from a fall from a horse is not her own. As she sees the situation, there is no part that is wholly hers. And, of course, she is also her mother. Jessie has become her mother, not only because she is now Thelma’s caretaker, but because daughters are always bound in some inexplicable way to their mothers.
As Jessie’s identity cannot be detached from her mother’s, Thelma’s cannot be isolated from Jessie’s. Thelma’s fear is the one that nags at all mothers: if my child dies, will I cease to be a mother? As Spencer observed: “Mama is engaged in the immediate struggle to save her child’s life, a struggle in which her own identity is equally at stake.” ‘night, Mother is not a play about suicide. It is a play, as Spencer wrote, “about mothers and daughters, about feminine identity and feminine autonomy.” The realism of Norman’s dialogue speaks to mothers and daughters who can immediately identify with the conflict and tensions that define the Cates’s lives. Consequently, women recognize themselves in the dialogue, whereas men see and hear little with which to identify.
As ‘night, Mother is played out on stage, the audience is made aware of the passing of time. The play is constructed in one act without intermission. The clocks on stage display real time. Although time is advancing, in many ways the clocks also serve as a kind of countdown. When time runs out, the shot will sound and Jessie will die somewhere off stage. The tension in the audience quickens during this period. As Mama’s arguments are met with resistance, the audience becomes aware that Jessie’s suicide is inevitable. Serving as counterbalance to this tension is Thelma’s almost growing, though unnerving, acceptance of Jessie’s decision. She does try a succession of arguments designed to change Jessie’s mind, but when they fail, the two begin a conversation about how Thelma should report the death, who she should call, and how she should behave at the funeral. The conversation assumes an even more macabre tone when Mama says, “I’ll talk about what I have on, that’s always good. And I’ll have some crochet work with me.” The matter-of-fact nature of this conversation indicates that Thelma also realizes the inevitability of Jessie’s loss and her attention turns to how to cope.
In an essay that examines Thelma’s reliance on oral gratification as a substitute for emotional involvement, Laura Morrow asserted in Studies in American Drama that “mama prefers surface to substance.” That is, Thelma uses immediate gratification—in her case candy and junk food—as a means to deny reality. Chatter serves much the same purpose. Mama cannot understand the silence of her husband and her daughter. She cannot understand that both use silence as a means of reflection. Mama, on the other hand, uses conversation in place of thought. It is simply easier for her to talk than to think. That Jessie recognizes these traits in her mother is evident in the preparations she makes before her death. Her immediate concern is with food. Jessie instructs her mother on how to order food and when to have it delivered. She orders a supply of her mother’s favorite junk food and candy. Jessie even anticipates that her mother won’t eat the foods that she needs and insists that the milkman continue to deliver milk—even if her mother objects. But Jessie is also aware of her mother’s other hunger, and so she suggests other people with whom Thelma can have conversations. Jessie’s brother Dawson and his wife can also provide company, but Mama rejects this because they only have Sanka (instant coffee). Once again, food takes priority in her life. And yet, it is clear to the audience that Thelma loves Jessie and that Jessie returns that love. The audience can only assume that their love for one another is not enough for Jessie to transcend a lifetime of disappointment and pain.
‘night, Mother is a profoundly disturbing play that forces its audience to confront the darker issues mat arise in some families. And although Norman conditions the audience to expect it, the offstage sound of the gunshot at the play’s end has a power and a shock all its own.
Source: Sheri Metzger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In this excerpt, Browder examines the relationship between the mother and daughter characters in ‘night, Mother, comparing them to traditional parent/child roles.
A frequent author on themes of personality and development, Browder is a clinical psychologist and program director specializing in women’s psychiatric treatment.
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Source: Sally Browder, “‘I Thought You Were Mine’: Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother,” in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 109–13.
In this review, Gilman admires the artistic merits of ‘night, Mother yet, in light of the play’s subject matter, questions the accolades bestowed upon Norman’s work.
Gilman is an American educator and critic whose works include The Making of Modern Drama (1974) and Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (1979).
The hyperbole machine is operating on Broadway again. Upon a modest two-character play with nothing flagrantly wrong with it—but not much to get excited about either—the reviewers have lavished nearly their whole stock of ecstatic adjectives, to which encomiums a Pulitzer Prize has just been added. Even before Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother reached New York City, Robert Brustein likened it to Long Day’s Journey Into Night.(That Brustein’s American Repertory Theater had given the play its premiere, in Boston, might have had something to do with that wild comparison.) Well, O’Neill’s best play and Norman’s do have something in common: they both bring us unpleasant news about the family.
The play takes place one evening in a house “way out on a country road” in the South. A middle-aged woman and her thirtyish daughter live here. The mother is silly, self-indulgent and totally reliant on her daughter in practical matters; the daughter is heavyset, slow-moving and morose. Early in the evening she informs her mother that she is going to kill herself that night. “I’m tired,” she says. “I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used.” From then on the play details the mother’s frantic efforts to dissuade her daughter and the young woman’s stolid insistence on carrying out her plan.
The mother makes absurd suggestions: the daughter could take up crocheting; they could get a dog, rearrange the furniture. The younger woman grimly makes her preparations, showing her mother where things are in the kitchen, telling her how to pay the bills and so on. As the mother begins to grasp her daughter’s seriousness, her arguments become the “reasonable” ones any civilized person would make, but the daughter beats them back, saying she wants to turn life off “like the radio when there’s nothing on I want to listen to.”
Up to this point the play is moderately interesting as a moral inquiry (do we have the right to kill ourselves?) and moderately effective as a tale of suspense. But then the women begin to talk about the past, the daughter’s childhood in particular, and what emerges is commonplace and predictable. I don’t mean their lives are commonplace and predictable—that’s a given—but dramatically the play falls into domestic cliche. The mother confesses that she and her husband, the girl’s father, had no love for each other and, in response to the daughter’s lament, says, “How could I know you were so alone?”
Next we learn that the daughter suffers from epilepsy. She says it’s in remission and isn’t the reason she’s killing herself, but the fact of the illness, and especially the fact that the mother for a long time hid the truth about it from her, enters our consciousness as a diminution of mystery. So too does the daughter’s admission that her own husband left her partly because she refused to stop smoking.
The effect of these revelations is that the suicide becomes explicable on the one hand—epileptics, neglected children and abandoned wives have a hard time “coping”—and ludicrous on the other—if nicotine is more important than marriage, what can you expect? The play might have had a richness, a fertile strangeness of moral and philosophical substance, had the suicide been undertaken as a more or less free act; had Norman not offered as the executor of this fascinating, dreadful decision a character with so many troubles. When the shot sounded (from behind a bedroom door) I wasn’t startled, dismayed or much moved; it was all sort of sad, sort of lugubrious.
Norman writes cleanly, with wry humor and no bathos. Kathy Bates as the daughter and Anne Pitoniak as the mother give finely shaded performances. But the only way I can account for the acclaim. ‘night, Mother’s been getting, besides the hunger for “important,” “affecting” dramas that gnaws at our educated theatergoers, is that this domestic tragedy doesn’t succumb to the occupational disease of its genre: an “uplifting” or at least a consoling denouement. But what a negative virtue that is, and what a comment on our impoverished theater! Yes, the play’s honest, yes it’s sincere; but have we reached the point where we find such minimal virtues something to rave about?
Source: Richard Gilman, review of ‘night, Mother in the Nation, Vol. 236, no. 18, May 7, 1983, p. 586.
Brown, Linda Ginter, Editor. Marsha Norman: A Casebook, Garland (New York), 1996.
This is a collection of essays that explore different aspects of Norman’s work. The collection includes essays on the Norman plays ‘night, Mother, Getting
“NORMAN WRITES CLEANLY, WITH WRY HUMOR AND NO BATHOS”
Out, Third and Oak, The Holdup, Traveler in the Dark, Sarah and Abraham, and The Secret Garden.
Burkman, Katherine H. “The Demeter Myth and Doubling in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Faileigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. p 254-63.
Burkman examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship in ‘night, Mother by comparing Jessie and Thelma to the mythic Demeter and Persephone.
DeMastes, William W. “Jessie and Thelma Revisited: Marsha Norman’s Conceptual Challenge in ‘night, Mother” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, no. 1, 1993, pp. 109-19.
DeMastes examines feminist criticism of Norman’s play and concludes that feminist who have condemned the play as subordinate to male constructs of realism should take another look at the play, which demonstrates that feminist writers can use realism to tell a woman’s story.
Hart, Lynda. “Doing Time: Hunger for Power in Marsha Norman’s Plays” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 25, no. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 67-79.
Hart examines how food and the hunger to escape a repressive and oppressive life are central to several of Norman’s plays. Among the plays she examines are ‘night, Mother and Getting Out.
Henry, William A. “Reinventing the Classic” in Time, February 7, 1983, pp. 85.
Henry offers a positive review of Norman’s play that commends the dialogue and the casting of Kathy Bates as Jessie.
Morrow, Laura. “Orality and Identity in ‘night, Mother and Crimes of the Heart” in Studies in American Drama Vol. 3, 1988, pp. 23-39.
Morrow examines the relationship between mothers and daughters and the search by daughters to create an identity separate from their mother’s. The author compares these two plays and concludes that food and orality are important devices for both Norman’s play and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.
Smith, Raynette Halvorsen. “’night, Mother and True West: Mirror Images of Violence and Gender” in Violence in Drama, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 277-89.
Smith claims that violence and gender stereotyping in both Norman’s play and Sam Shepard’s True West function to deconstruct gender myths of feminine masochism of which both Norman and Shepard have been accused.
Spencer, Jenny S. “Norman’s ‘night, Mother: Psycho-drama of Female Identity” in Modern Drama, Vol. 30, no. 3, September, 1987, pp. 364-75.
Spencer explores Jessie’s struggle to establish her own identity, one separate from her father, husband, son, and mother. Spencer concludes that Norman’s play is more about mothers and daughters and female autonomy than it is about suicide.
Wolfe, Irmgard H. “Marsha Norman” in American Playwrights since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood, 1989. p 339-48.
Wofle provides a production history, including excerpts from reviews of Norman’s plays. A bibliography is also included.
Gilman, Richard. “Review of ‘night, Mother” in the Nation May 7, 1983, pp. 585-86.
Kauffman, Stanley. “More Trick than Tragedy” in the Saturday Review, Vol. 9, no. 10, September-October, 1983, pp. 47-48.
Smith, Patricia Keeney. “Theatre of Extremity” in Canadian Forum, April, 1985, pp. 37-40.