Marsha Norman has spent the past two months shuttling among three states. In her native Kentucky, D. Boone, a new play she describes as “wildly romantic,” is in repertory at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays through March 28. Sarah and Abraham, a deeply personal work that has been in gestation for five years, just completed a month-long run at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. In New York, there have been meetings with her collaborators to plan road-tour changes in The Secret Garden, the Broadway show many said could not be made and would not succeed—for which Norman, in an auspicious musical-theatre debut that left critics baffled and audiences elated, authored the book and lyrics.
This confluence of productions, rare by almost any standard, is particularly so for a playwright whose career has progressed in fits and starts. Norman became an overnight sensation twice when Getting Out, her searing first play, debuted in Louisville in 1977 and then moved the following year to New York for a lengthy Off-Broadway run. An uncompromising drama abut a woman recently parole from prison (and featuring her wild, violent younger self as an onstage character), Getting Out was justly acclaimed for the emotional impact of its spare, gritty language and frank presentation of sexual and psychological abuse.
The plays that followed—Circle Valentine, Third and Oak, The Holdup, all of which were developed or premiered at ATL—were by all accounts less successful artistically as well as commercially. Then, in 1982, Norman wrote ’night, Mother, which premiered that year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. before moving to Broadway in 1983. With one simple declarative statement (“I’m going to kill myself, Mama”), Norman plunged audiences into a ferocious battle over nothing less than the validity of the life itself. As a paradigm of Norman’s writing at its best, however, the intermissionless two-character drama, recipient of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, covers a broader terrain: Before she can or will kill herself, the play’s central character, a divorced, epileptic, no longer youthful woman named Jessie, must unlock the truth of her past.
Today Norman credits ’night, Mother with “helping to open up a national dialogue about forbidden issues”—suicide and, to a lesser extent, epilepsy. Indeed, 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.
In 1983, though, it was Norman who made headlines, landing on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and being touted in the pages of Rolling Stone as one of the Great Faces of ’83. And the play was embroiled in a controversy of another sort. At the juncture, feminists in the arts and literary worlds were caught in the glare of a media that prides itself on new discoveries (Mel Gussow’s article in the Times, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theatre,” for instance, placed Norman alongside such contemporary writers as Beth Henley and Tina Howe, but failed to acknowledge the precedents or wider context of feminist theatre), as they simultaneously struggled with their own questions as to how to situate ’night, Mother within a still-developing feminist canon. Feminists found themselves divided on how to receive the play, with many assailing it for presenting suicide as an unhappy woman’s only option and for examining her life in relation to absent men: husband, father, brother, son.
Norman’s own feminism, however, is not defined by political positions, but by her attempts to illustrate in her dramas the specific choices, values and language relevant to women’s lives. Asked by an interviewer several years ago if she considered herself a feminist writer, Norman replied, “If it’s feminist to care about women’s lives, yes, I’m a feminist writer. I don’t have political points to make, although they are certainly made by the plays.” She clarified that position in another interview: Woman “can be, and indeed are, the central characters in their own lives.” Norman’s plays, and in fact her career as a whole, reflect her emphatically stated desire to create valid and continuing models for feminism.
Understanding Norman’s work in a feminist context is important not because she is a Woman Playwright or even a writer of Women’s Literature (terms which Normans rejects as “little boxes” and which in the absence of a defining framework signify nothing), but because that context may provide a key to her authentic voice as a writer. While her output in the decade since ’night, Mother has been both continuous and prolific—encompassing theatre, film, television and a novel—the critical reception to many of her more recent efforts has been less than salutary. If, as Norman herself is not unwilling to suggest, her writing is sometimes viewed too narrowly as a reflection of her gender, it is precisely the tension between text, author and audience that has made Norman’s stop-and-go career so interesting and so emblematic of the situation of women writers in the era of feminist backlash.
Norman, who admits to periods of despair but not bitterness over the course her career has taken, is equally inclined to rail against the critical establishment (“Critics have insisted on a very narrow, misinformed and delusioned view of what it is they’re seeing. There is a tendency for the press to dramatize arts news for the sake of entertainment. Will they quit hating something because the last one was really good and that makes a good story?”) and to blame a system that she feels has abandoned her generation of writers.
“The obsessive quest for ‘the unknown writer’ has had a terrible effect on known writers of quality and great art,” she says. “There are a number of people who have been through a very bad eight years or so of seeing all our regional theatre friends turn away from us, thinking, ‘Hey, I won’t be able to get another reporter here if I do another play by so-and-so, but if I do a new play by somebody nobody knows, the reporters will come.’ This courting of the press is a particular problem for people who have had some success, some recognition.
“Since I came to New York I have been searching for a home in a New York institutional theatre,” she continues, “and I have not found one. The doors have not been open to me. Fortunately I’ve had [ATL artistic director] Jon Jory. Jon has continued to commission a play every two or three years, which is why I continue to write them. That’s the kind of loyalty that we all dream about; in my life it’s real in the person of Jon Jory.”
Norman has her own prescription for the relationship between artists and institutions. “Regional theatres should have a playwright to whom they are committed, whose every work they do, regardless of what the artistic director believes to be the value of that particular work. If I write a play a year for 15 years, at least three or four of them are going to be good, maybe more.”
While Norman is fiercely outspoken in her views on institutional theatre, she also acknowledges a “naturally perverse personality” that provoked her to respond to the Woman Playwright classification with a series of pieces centering on men, most significantly her ill-received 1984 drama, Traveler in in the Dark. “The labeling caused me to respond, ‘I’m more than that,'” she says with a laugh, “but the fact is that I don’t really want to write about men.” As of last month, with three new works on stage simultaneously (Sarah and Abraham, written on commission for ATL’s 1988 Humana Festival and presented there as a workshop, has its first full production at George Street), Norman seems refocused on her most essential concerns and poised at a crossroads in her playwright career.
Neither Sarah and Abraham nor D. Boone had begun rehearsals when Norman and I met, but it is clear that in both works Norman is speaking once again to and for the lives of women. While the plays have themes quite distinct from any feminist propagandizing—Norman describes Sarah and Abraham as being about “the disintegration of a marriage due to commercial factors” and D. Boone as an examination of “how to be heroic in the modern world”—both do position women as their central characters. It will be interesting to see if Norman achieves in these plays her own ambition to “bring women’s literature in front of the public” and at the same time deepens the themes that characterize her body of work.
Motifs recur throughout Norman’s plays like a Zeitgeist: 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. Norman, at 44, does not accept received wisdom easily. It’s fitting that, discussing her characters, she says, “These people have learned to believe,” as if belief without struggle were merely blind obedience and not to be trusted.
Norman grew up the eldest of four children in a strict fundamentalist household in which church attendance was mandatory, the Bible was read every day and a “Call to Prayer” coin box was prominently displayed above the clock radio in every bedroom. Opposed from childhood to instruction that demanded “a real didactic view of the religious experience,” she remembers “fighting and questioning religion every step of the way. Yet,” she continues, “when you fight something long enough, it becomes a center pole right in your life and you count on it to be there to fight with. I still puzzle about the Bible stories; they’re like these old mantras.”
Sarah and Abraham covers thematic territory encompassing feminism, motherhood, religious faith and theatre. This “backstage comedy-drama” set in a rehearsal hall explores the parallels between a group of actors and the biblical characters they are portraying. Norman admits to a lifelong obsession with the biblical story, calling it “the kind of thing that if you were a monk you could sit at the top of a mountain and think about your whole life.” Yet virtually all that is known about Sarah, she is quick to point out, is that, unable to conceive and in keeping with biblical law, she gave her husband the slave Hagar in order that he might have a child; Sarah then became pregnant at a very old age, bearing Isaac and enabling the patriarchal line to continue.
In Norman’s revisionist view of the story, Sarah’s pregnancy and Abraham’s assumption of the patriarchal role are turning points not only in the accepted codification of religious experience, but also in the lives of Kitty and Cliff, the married couple portraying Sarah and Abraham. For Norman, the play is an attempt to bring feminist history up to date by rewriting—and righting—Sarah’s story, and at the same time an opportunity to use the development and subsequent success of the play-within-a-play as a metaphor for fame and commercial success.
Cliff’s transition, for example, from a second-fiddle, struggling actor into a big star parallels Abraham’s movement away from being “Sarah’s helper” into the dominant patriarchal figure. “Throughout the play,” Norman explains, “we see Cliff struggle and begin to transform himself into this commercial being. It was really easy for me to talk about that moment when Abraham is sitting out in the desert and decides to become a trader instead of a farmer. This is the same thing that happens when actors wandering around the streets of New York decide to go to the coast for TV pilot season.”
Just as Norman turns the biblical story upside down by characterizing Abraham’s journey as a “descent into the patriarchal state,” her portrayal of Sarah as a dominant force wholly independent of her obligations as wife and mother is in line with such revisionist texts as Harold Bloom’s The Book of J (which posits that the Bible was written by a woman) and a stream of feminist readings of early religion that have appeared in recent years. “Once people began to worship the known—the sun instead of the moon, trade instead of crops and farming—then religion came into the male domain,” Norman argues, suggesting that Sarah’s role as the High Priestess of the Mesopotamian Moon Cult was consequently written out of the accepted history and biblical texts that are known today.
The contemporary aspects of Sarah and Abraham, however, recall Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, in which the title character ends the play as a single parent of an adopted child—a twist of plot that drew fire from those who rejected what they saw as Wasserstein’s doom-and-gloom vision of a career woman ending up alone and dependent on a child for happiness. In Norman’s play, Kitty is a successful actor “at the top of what she has chosen for her career, [until] events and her own values conspire to strip her of that, and make her a mother. That, in the world’s view,” Norman notes, “is often seen as a demotion.”
Positioning the career-versus-child conflict as a central component of the play, Norman sees in Sarah and Abraham her own attempt “to look at the forces that work on people by gender and through history.” And while Norman stresses that the play is as much as illustration of Abraham/Cliff’s journey as any other character, it is women who are traditionally objectified by gender, and Sarah/Kitty who is defined by motherhood. Sarah and Abraham‘s parallel stories bring the past into direct correlation with the present, each reflecting against and commenting on the other, until those definitions are almost literally turned upside-down. Even Monica, the character who plays Hagar in the play-within-a-play, moves from representing “all the girls in the ads, the creations of commercial enterprises,” to become an actor demanding that her character grow—what Norman likens to the Doublemint twins suddenly stepping out of their advertisement to say, “Look, I can think.”
If Norman’s characters throughout her work—from Arlene in Getting Out and Jessie in ’night, Mother through her current creations—share any quality, it is their insistence on gaining and retaining control over their own lives. D. Boone‘s central character, a disillusioned cleaning woman who works in a historical museum, leaps into the past to seek out romance and adventure with the legendary Daniel Boone. Mary Lennox, the orphaned heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden, discovers her own strength through the regenerative powers of a healing garden.
Arguably Norman’s richest and most deeply felt work to date, The Secret Garden culminates in an expression of pure, unassailable grief, a statement of promises unfulfilled and dreams denied. for its author, however, the show was an opportunity to bring to fruition a life-long fantasy of writing a musical, and she is currently collaborating with composer Jule Styne on an adaptation of The Red Shoes, and with scenic designer and producer Heidi Landesman on another classic and much-loved text that she would not name.
Meanwhile, with Sarah and Abraham‘s run at the George Street Playhouse at an end, Norman is hopeful that the play will have another life, possibly on a commercial stage. If and until it does, she will continue to stake out her own territory. “In my personal scheme,” she says, “I’m going to do musicals on Broadway, because I love them and people want to see them. Straight plays I will do in the regional theatres. And when I really want to reach 90 million people, then I will do TV.”
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