'night, Mother

Review by Bill Johnson

A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling. `night, Mother by Marsha Norman is a brilliant play.

This review explores its structure.

Briefly, `night, Mother is a play one act with two characters on the stage, Jessie Cates, late thirties to early forties, who lives with her mother, Thelma. The play opens with Jessie asking her mother where a particular gun is kept. She finds it with Thelma's help. As she cleans the gun, she quietly announces she's going to be killing herself at the end of the evening. Jessie's announcement sets off a fierce struggle between mother and daughter, with Thelma using every strategy she can conceive of to talk Jessie out of her plan. Thelma becomes so desperate, she even resorts to telling Jessie the truth about a number of issues that have affected her life.

This play is brilliant in every way, characters, dialogue, pacing. The reason I've included it in this work book is because it illustrates a central facet about the nature of what creates drama in a story: the anticipation of an outcome for a dramatic issue. In this case, that means that Thelma, and the story's audience, learns early on of Jessie's plans. And because of learning Jessie's plans, both Thelma and the story's audience are thrust deep into the heart of this story's story question:

Will Jessie really kill herself, or can Thelma find a way to stop her?

What's at stake in this story is made chillingly clear:

Jessie's going to kill herself. Can Thelma talk her out of it?

Of all the many issues that bedevil the inexperienced writer, one of the more damaging is the myth that one creates drama by withholding information and revealing it piecemeal. In reality, one creates drama by setting up a situation with an outcome in doubt and then resolving that issue in a fulfilling way. The territory that 'night, Mother explores is that the more reasons Thelma tries to grasp to convince Jessie not to kill herself, the more she reaffirms Jessie's belief that her life is useless and it's simply better to end her suffering with a clear mind.

By setting up her story question so concretely, the author uses the situation to compel Thelma into what is for her completely unexplored territory: her own heart. What follows will be a review of the play's structure that makes concrete this journey that Thelma takes to a dark, bitter illumination.

`night, Mother

The play opens on what appears to be a typical Saturday night for Jessie and Thelma. Thelma finds the last snowball -- some junk food -- in the fridge, Jessie asks some black plastic bags. It's on their schedule that Jessie will give Thelma a manicure. Then on page 7 (Noonday Press edition of the play), Jessie asks,

"Where's Daddy's gun?"

Life for Jessie and Thelma is such a dull routine, Thelma doesn't even pause to consider the request odd. She evens helps Jessie figure out where the gun is kept. It's not until page 9 that Thelma asks,

"What do you want the gun for, Jess?"

"Protection," answers Jessie.

Story note, with the introduction of Jessie's question about the location of the gun, the author begins setting the hook for her story question.

Thelma at first considers that she and Jessie have nothing to steal, and what was valuable was stolen by Jessie's son, Ricky.


"I mean, I don't even want what we got, Jessie."

Story note, this conversation about what Jessie might be seeking protection from provides an entry point into

other characters in her life, principally Ricky at the


Jessie begins cleaning the gun, and by page 12, the stage directions set out that Thelma is now concerned about it.


"The gun is for me."


"Well, you can have it if you want. When I die, you'll get it anyway."


"I'm going to kill myself, Mama."

Story note, the "hook" of this story has just been set.

At first Thelma upbraids Jessie for her bad "joke," but Jessie patiently insists she's serious. Thelma then insists the gun won't work, the bullets are fifteen years old. Jessie tells her that Dawson, her brother, told her where to buy new bullets. As Jessie describes Dawson's enthusiasm to tell her about bullets, the author has found another avenue to introduce a major, if unseen character, Dawson. Thelma threatens to call Dawson, to have him come and take the gun away. This leads Jessie to insist that if Thelma makes the call, she'll kill herself before Dawson can get there, and she and Thelma won't have that last evening alone together.


"I'm through talking, Mama. You're it. No more."

Thelma responds that the likelihood is that Jessie will only shoot off her ear and turn herself into a vegetable. This is an important exchange, because it sets the story on a course of exploring the emotional terrain of both Jessie's life and her life with her mother. And from the moment Jessie made her pronouncement about her impending suicide, everything about the terrain now stands in bold relief.

Thelma continues trying to find something that will give her leverage over Jessie, that Jessie can't use her towels when she kills herself, etc. She then switches tactics, to try and find out why Jessie wants to kill herself. This continues the story's exploration of Jessie's life and her relationship with her mother. All of this minutia is given dramatic weight because of Jessie's promise. Finally Jessie says,

"And I can't do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work. But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to."

Story note, this is brilliant dialogue, spare, evocative, tightly written. It cuts through to the heart of Jessie's reasons for wanting to die.

In the next series of exchanges, it comes out why a friend of Thelma's refuses to come into her house, because she's seen the death in Jessie's eyes. This is a deeper step into the author using what's at stake for Jessie -- her life or death -- to explore the reality of Jessie's life. For probably the first time ever in their relationship, Thelma begins to speak a deeper truth to Jessie.

This sets up Jessie asking whether her mother ever loved her father. Again, Thelma speaks a truth she's never voiced before. It leads up to a revelation that Thelma suspected that Jessie's father also suffered from the seizures that have plagued Jessie's life. The secrets Thelma has kept hidden spill out in a torrent. That Jessie's father never really went fishing, he's just go sit by a lake in his car. Thelma even starts to get into this new mood, by threatening to not cook again, or do other things. It comes out that Jessie has mentioned Thelma's friend as a way to introduce the friend living with Thelma when Jessie is gone.

In the case of her life with Jessie, this has meant creating an almost impenetrable surface of meaningless chat that only Jessie's impending death has been able to breach.

Next, Jessie and Thelma talk about Jessie's ex-husband, who Thelma conspired to introduce to Jessie. During the marriage, Jessie fell off a horse, and the accident was thought to have led to her seizure disorder. But one of the truths that has come out was that Jessie began having seizures as a child, but Thelma covered it up. It was something she didn't want to think about, so she found a way to simply go on.


"I don't like things to think about. I like things to go on."

As Jessie talks about her former husband, another area of her life comes into stark relief. Again, the author has found a way to use Jessie's impending death to give each revelation about her life a jewel-like quality of clarity.

When it comes out that because of her medication Jessie can now think more clearly, Thelma jumps on that as a reason to live. But for Jessie, the medication had another effect,

"If I'd ever had a year like this, to think straight and all, before now, I'd be gone already."

As the time nears when the "night" will be over, in desperation Thelma tries to find some way to forestall Jessie,

"I didn't tell you things or I married you off to the wrong man or I took you in and let your life get away from you or all of it put together."

But as that final moment of Jessie's life draws near, Thelma becomes calm and pliant. She simply accepts that Jessie will end her life. She repeats back to Jessie her suggestions about what Thelma should say to the people who come to Jessie's funeral.

Jessie goes into her room to do the deed. Thelma collapses and cries out,

"Jessie, child.... Forgive me. (pause) I thought you were mine."

The gunshot answers with a sound like "no."

Thelma, following Jessie's instructions, goes to the phone and calls the home of her son and asks to speak to Dawson.

This is a profoundly moving play. The principle that I want to point out one last time is that it develops its drama not from hiding what's at stake -- Jessie's impending death -- but by setting it out in a way that the storyteller develops drama around the outcome of the question:

Will Jessie kill herself?

It is the nature of drama that one can only have a story if there's a visible, concrete cause to what sets the story into motion. By using words like "visible" and "concrete" I don't mean blunt or obviously. `night, Mother is an example of where something blunt and obvious -- Jessie's impending death -- can give dramatic meaning to mundane events, making some cocoa, eating a caramel apple. The storyteller who fails to set up the issue at the core of their story in a way that it connects with their audience risks assembling words and images that create characters and events to no particular dramatic purpose.

By making what's at stake in a story clear and direct, the storyteller frees themselves to begin the real task that faces every storyteller:

Bringing their audience fully into and involved with the world their characters inhabit and seek to shape.

`night, Mother is a great piece of storytelling and a fine example of the art of storytelling.

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