An aging mother and her plump divorced daughter, Jessie, have finished tidying up after dinner as the curtain rises on ‘Night, Mother. Then Jessie calmly announces that she’s about to go into her room and shoot herself with her late daddy’s gun. Her life, she feels, has lost its potential. For the next 90 intermissionless minutes, Mama wages a losing battle to convince her otherwise.
‘Night, Mother’s success on musical-dominated Broadway surprises playwright Marsha Norman, 35. “I thought no one would ever want to see it,” she says. But last month Norman won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and crowds have been flocking to the theater. Yet even the Pulitzer seems less gratifying to Norman than the satisfaction she feels in watching audiences “coming to terms” with the play.
That takes some doing. Many believe the play endorses suicide, though Norman disagrees. “It is merely the business of the person who commits it,” she says. “Suicide for Jessie is not an act of cowardice, giving up or despair. It is her answer to the problem of her life, what she feels will fix it.”
Such strong and somber views are surprising when uttered by a petite, neatly coiffed housewife who collects quilts, knits when nervous, and writes on a computer. “I have never been on the point of committing suicide,” says Norman, “but I have thought about it. To think about it is to think about life as a possession to do with as you see fit.”
Born the eldest of four children to a fundamentalist family in Louisville, Ky., she grew up cautious about expressing her own more liberal views. She took refuge in books and essay writing. In 1965 she entered Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. but, having no writer role models, majored in philosophy, a subject she still pursues.
Her desire to write increased with her life experiences. While in college she signed on as a volunteer in the pediatric burn unit of Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital and after graduation worked with mentally disturbed children at Kentucky’s Central State Hospital. She also wrote a column for children in the Louisville Times. “People were always hiring me to do things I did not know how to do.”
In 1977 Jon Jory, head of Louisville’s prestigious Actors Theatre, invited her to try playwriting (Beth Henley, 1981’s Pulitzer Prize winner for Crimes of the Heart, started there too). The first stab for Norman was Getting Out—based on the true account of a young woman she knew at Central State who later went to federal prison for murder. The play became an off-Broadway smash in 1979 and launched her career.
In the meantime she had divorced Michael Norman, her English teacher husband of four and a half years, in 1974, and met Louisville department store scion Dan Byck, now 46. Byck decided to leave the family business and become a producer. “It was something I’d wanted to do for years,” he says. He and Marsha wed in 1978 and three years later, midway through her writing of ‘Night, Mother, moved to New York, where he produced her play.
Marsha says that marriage to a playwright “calls for understanding”—the characters in her plays become “houseguests.” Dan can take comfort that her new play, Shakers, a musical, will lighten the mood. Norman says she’s now letting go of the house-guests from ‘Night, Mother. “The play can make its own way in the world.”