Date(s) - 05/01/2022
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‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman opened on Broadway in 1983, earning the Tony Award for Best Play and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play takes place in real time, with no intermission or breaks in the action, to depict the unrelenting emotional exchange between Thelma and her daughter, Jessie, after Jessie announces that she plans to commit suicide. As Jessie sets her affairs in order, Thelma tries unsuccessfully to stop Jessie’s plan from hurtling toward its conclusion. Norman employs conventions of naturalism, an avant-garde movement beginning in the late 19th century. In this theatrical style, artists endeavored to find truth by depicting realistic life for audiences to observe scientifically and thereby better understand the nature of cause and effect.
When the play premiered in the early 1980s, depression and suicide were poorly understood. Modern antidepressants didn’t come into use until later in the decade, and the stigma of mental illness presented—and continues to present—a barrier to open dialogue. The act of suicide is usually shocking and unexpected, leaving loved ones plagued by doubts, blame, and unanswered questions: Why did they do it? What didn’t I know? How could I have intervened? ’Night, Mother begins with Jessie’s announcement that she’s suicidal and then—through her interaction with her mother—attempts to break open those questions. The play presents a sophisticated portrayal of depression: not open despair and tearful emotion but a gray-washed listlessness and a quiet inability to feel pleasure.
Like most people who have never experienced suicidal depression, Thelma cannot comprehend how her daughter can desire death when her own instincts drive her to fight for survival. Suicide victims who intend to complete the act don’t usually give warning, and survivors often wonder what they might have done or said, if they’d had the opportunity, to convince the person to live. The play reveals a mother who has the rare chance to speak to her daughter in her last one and a half hours, knowing what Jessie intends to do but unable to change her daughter’s reality or lift her depression. In the end, Jessie’s untreated mental illness and her need for relief lead to suicide.