Born 21 September 1947, Louisville, Kentucky
Daughter of Billie L. and Bertha Conley Williams; married Michael Norman, 1969 (divorced); Dann C. Byck, Jr., 1978 (divorced)
Marsha Norman is one of the first women to receive national acknowledgment as a playwright since Lillian Hellman and Lorraine Hansberry. With Beth Henley and Wendy Wasserstein, she has won the Pulitzer Prize and has "made successful inroads on a still very much male-dominated reserve."
The first of four children of an insurance salesman and a homemaker, Norman was raised in a fundamentalist home in Louisville. She received a B.A. in philosophy at Agnes Scott College (1969) and an M.A.T. at the University of Louisville (1971). Norman taught school in Kentucky and also worked with disturbed children in a state hospital. Her award-winning first play, Getting Out (1977), received national attention. It portrays the first days of freedom of a young woman, Arlene, in jail for murder; Norman has said the character of Arlie (Arlene's younger, unrehabilitated self) is based on a young woman she encountered while working in the hospital. The play explores Arlene/Arlie's relationship with her mother, a precursor relationship for those in Norman's later works.
Several subsequent plays failed to receive critical acclaim, although they ring changes on many themes important to Norman's work. Third and Oak (1978), consisting of one-acts, The Laundromat and The Pool Hall, involve characters coming to terms with various types of bereavement and loss, and with their debts to the people in their past and present. Richard Wattenburg describes The Holdup (produced 1980, published 1987) as a "feminist perspective on the frontier experience."
Although some critics describe The Holdup as a comedy, most of Norman's work is tragic or serious, punctuated by comic moments. Several critics have called 'Night, Mother (1982, published 1983), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film, an excellent example of Aristotelian tragedy. Norman told Irmgard Wolfe that she looks to classic Greek tragedies as playwriting models. 'Night, Mother, which portrays daughter Jessie's preparations and conversations with her mother, Thelma, on the night Jessie plans to commit suicide, is Norman's most complete exploration of mother-daughter relations. Norman is one of the first female dramatists to make relationships in women's lives and the social and economic constraints on middle-and lower-class women into appropriate matter for powerful plays.
Characters in several of Norman's plays wrestle with issues of religious faith and redemption. In Getting Out Arlene remembers the prison chaplain who told her that Arlie was the evil inside her, which could be banished for Arlene's salvation. In Traveler in the Dark (produced 1984, published 1988) Sam, a surgeon, struggles to come to terms with the death of a family friend his surgical talent could not save and with his fears that his son is being wooed away from the logical thinking Sam so values, by reading fairytales and by the influence of Sam's father, an evangelical preacher.
Frequently in Norman's plays women and men have conflicting expectations and understandings; their conversations are characterized by misunderstanding, manipulation, or hostility. In Traveler Sam and his wife, Glory, never connect. Even in 'Night, Mother, where there are no male characters onstage, the men in Thelma and Jessie's lives are remembered and discussed with a mixture of hurt, confusion, and contempt.
Although Norman is primarily known as a playwright, she has published a novel, The Fortune Teller (1987), and wrote the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1991). The Fortune Teller further explores mother-daughter relationships and the inescapability of human fate. Fay, the title character, has roots and a past similar to that of Thelma in 'Night, Mother. She undergoes a symbolically similar process of separation and loss, described by Fay as inescapable events on the turning wheel of fortune, while she reconciles herself to her daughter's adulthood and maturing sexuality. The novel deals more overtly with contemporary political themes, particularly abortion, than any of Norman's previous work; it also shows a more developed and intimate relationship between a female and a male character (Fay and her lover Arnie) than in any other of Norman's works.
Circus Valentine (1978). Merry Christmas (unpublished). "Ten Golden Rules for Playwrights," Writer (Sept. 1985). Sarah and Abraham (1991). Trudy Blue (1995). Collected Poems (1998).
Betsko, K., and R. Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987). Brater, E., ed., Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights (1989). Brown, L. G., ed., Marsha Norman: A Casebook (1996). Chen, L., "Violence in the Spotlight: Exploring the Violent and Violated Female Characters in Selected Plays of Marsha Norman and Maria Irene Fornés" (thesis, 1993). Crane, G. M., "Feminist Theatre and Feminist Theology" (thesis, 1995). Dolan, J., The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988). Foster, K., "Detangling the Web: Mother-Daughter Relationships in the Plays of Marsha Norman, Lillian Hellman, Tina Howe, and Ntozake Shange" (thesis, 1994). Friess, D. K., "The Shattering of Literary Families: A Lacanian Psychoanalysis of the Absent Male—Tennessee Williams, Marsha Norman, and Selected Poetry of Sylvia Plath" (thesis, 1998). Harriott, E., American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews (1988). Geraghty, D. M., "Gods and Strangers: Family Isolation in the Works of Marsha Norman" (thesis, 1999). Kilgore, E. S., ed., Landmarks of Contemporary Women's Drama (1992). Kintz, L., The Subject's Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama (1992). Magill, F. N., ed., Great Women Writers: The Lives and Works of 135 of the World's Most Important Women Writers, From Antiquity to the Present (1994). Raymond, M. G., "Chronicling Our Selves: Hermeneutical Consciousness in Four Plays by Marsha Norman, Caryl Churchill, and Wendy Wasserstein" (thesis, 1998). Redmond, J. ed., Drama,Sex, and Politics (1985). Redmond, J., Violence in Drama (1991). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Shannon, D. D., "Mothers and Daughters: The Quest for Psychological Wholeness in the Plays of Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman" (thesis, 1994). Shillington, J., "The Image of the 'Outsider' in Works by Marsha Norman" (thesis, 1992). Workman, J. A., "Marsha Norman's Ghosts: The Embodiment of the Past on Stage" (thesis, 1993).
American Playwrights Since 1945 (1980). American Women Dramatists of the Twentieth Century (1982). Contemporary Southern Writers: Series I (video, 1997). CA (1982). CD (1988). CLC (1984). CB (1984). DLBY (1984). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Writers Directory (1992-94).
Conf. of College Teachers of English Studies (Sept. 1989). Marsha Norman (video, 1995). Modern Drama (Sept. 1987, March 1989, Dec. 1990). Southern Quarterly (Spring 1987). Studies in American Drama (1988). Text and Performance Quarterly (July 1989). Theatre Journal (Oct. 1983). Western American Literature (Feb. 1989).
—KATHRYN MURPHY ANDERSON,
UPDATED BY NELSON RHODES