’night Mother by Marsha Norman is a thought provoking play. The entire drama is contained in the single act of the mother (Mama) and daughter (Jessie) talking. The subject of their conversation surrounds the casual yet sudden announcement by Jessie that she is going to end her life. One of the hallmarks of good theatre is depth of characterization. In ‘night Mother we find rich psychological profiles of the two main characters. The play also excels in another measure, namely, its minimalism. Just through a single day’s conversation between a mother and a daughter, the playwright is able to paint a rich persona and emotional tapestries of the main characters. By articulating the psychological motivations for their thoughts and actions, Marsha Norman is able to showcase the characters’ depth. Norman’s plays, including ‘Night Mother, feature recurring motifs. Some prominent motifs are:
“the relationship between parent and child, usually mother and daughter; the inescapable encroachment of the past the present; and, perhaps most tellingly, the struggle between rationalism and faith. The plays encourage the possibility of religious faith, but with choice as an essential ingredient: Faith — like feminism — demands autonomy.” (Coen, 1992, p.22)
In ‘Night Mother, we see all of these motifs at work. There are also references to Christianity and Jesus Christ, but the author keeps them at the periphery of the main narrative. Likewise, monologues are employed to capture the character and personality of the speaker. In ‘night Mother monologues serve as key devices for improving the theatrical and dramatic effect of the play. Through this device, we learn how, Jessie, despite her drastic resolution to end her life, is actually trying to gain control over her life. This is a reflection of how things outside her circle of influence have straddled on her will, autonomy and dignity. (The Christian Science Monitor, 2004, p.15)
Through the exposition of the particular life circumstances of Jessie and her mother, Marsha Norman is treating universal human concerns. For example, one of the main reasons why Jessie decides to end her life is the deep sense of loneliness and helplessness she experiences frequently. She makes it clear to her mother that her company doesn’t alleviate her loneliness even a little. Jessie’s physical ailment in the form of epilepsy has led to a restricted lifestyle and limited job opportunities. These in turn have created numerous frustrations for her, which have led to frequent bouts of depression and suicidal ideation. But Jessie’s is not an unusual case in modern society. In America today, tens of millions of psychiatric prescriptions get written each year. People go through a high degree of stress in their workplaces. The work-life balance is often skewered in favour of the former. The institutions of family and marriage are falling apart gradually. In such a society, people increasing feel alienated, confused and desperate. When health complications like that faced by Jessie are added to the mix, life does appear hopeless and bleak. What Martha Norman seems to be suggesting is that Jessie’s life is a symbol of a broader social fact. In this vein, ‘Night Mother is a poignant dissection into modern human condition.
Through the past and present lives of Jessie and her mother, a ‘bi-regional’ perspective is evidenced in the play. The bi-regional perspective in ‘Night, Mother is found in the
“philosophical intersection of Midwest and South, though the regional poles are never identified as such or specifically grounded in either history or tradition. ‘night, Mother enacts a more existential impasse that never gets resolved. In order to understand the fascinating bi-regionality of this award-winning play, we must position its characters, themes, and world-views in the context of two distinct American sub-cultures. ‘night, Mother showcases a stark conflict between world views, both “epistemological and ontological,” grounded in disparate geographic traditions.” (Radavich, 2011, p.116)
For example, Jessie and her mother espouse very different social perspectives which are rooted in regional sensibilities. This abrasion of the Midwest with the South produces interesting dramatic outcomes as they play directly against one another. Indeed, ‘Night, Mother has this conflict at its core, though the author doesn’t dwell on cultural differences. Instead, the focus is more on the personal differences the characters’ regional backgrounds lend them. Interestingly, “this seemingly unconscious juxtaposition may result in large measure from Louisville’s [where the play is set] own double-sided perspective as a geographical melding of Midwest and South.” (Radavich, 2011, p.115)
The manner of construction of dialogues and monologues help dramatize this conflict. For instance, Jessie’s announcement to her mother about her impending suicide is concluded with the remark “I can’t say it any better” (28). This suggests her perceived inadequacy with language. The descriptions of her mother and father are consistent with the literary and cultural traditions of the American Midwest. For example, her late father is remembered as “Big old faded blue man in the chair” who liked to spend time thinking about “His corn. His boots.”. (47) Her mother, on the other hand, is a typical Southern housewife, in that she is very chatty and curious. Her mother is also one who is indirect and tactful, a quality symbolized by her love of all things sweet tasting.
It is fair to claim that ‘Night Mother is deeply concerned with the human condition on account of it “helping to open up a national dialogue about forbidden issues”. (The Christian Science Monitor, 2004, p.15) Two of these key issues are suicide and to a lesser extent epilepsy. In fact, if the play were written now,
“Jessie’s decision to exert control over her life by choosing her right to die would undoubtedly be judged in the context of the “how to” suicide manual Final Exit, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who made headlines recently as a proponent of doctor-assisted suicide.” (Coen, 1992, p.22)
Finally, while admitting the several positive features of the play, most important of which being its psychological probity and concern for the human condition, one of its flaws should be pointed as well. For example, feminists received the play somewhat ambiguously, with many uncomfortable with the easy choice of suicide as a solution to women’s problems. This, feminists perceived as a rather tame response, especially in the backdrop of the absence of supportive male characters for Jessie. For example, she is divorced from her husband, estranged from her brother; her father is dead and her son is delinquent. (Coen, 1992, p.23)
“Answering the Unanswerable.” The Christian Science Monitor 5 Nov. 2004: 15.
Coen, Stephanie. “Marsha Norman’s Triple Play.” American Theatre Mar. 1992: 22+.
Radavich, David. “Marsha Norman’s Bi-Regional Vision in “Night, Mother.” The Mississippi Quarterly 64.1-2 (2011): 115+.