By November 2, 2011 0 Comments Read More →

You Can’t Go Gentle into This Good ‘Night

What would you do if a loved one came to you and calmly declared that she was going to commit suicide later in the evening? It’s a horrifying scenario, and the simple premise for Marsha Norman’s 1983 play ‘Night, Mother.

The pair in question are a mother and daughter who live on a quiet country road. The mother is something of a shut in, a woman who despite having relatively good health lets her daughter take care of  her rather simple needs: buying groceries and household supplies and cooking simple food.

Daughter Jessie is in her 30s, an epileptic whose husband left her and whose son is a criminal. Despite a certain efficient skill in dealing with life– particularly since her medication has reduced the number of seizures she suffers and left her with a clear mind–she is obviously depressed and has no job, no skills,  no friends and no hope that life will get better. There’s a logic, albeit a very depressed logic, behind her decision, and she spends her last hours with her increasingly frantic mother, calmly defending her decision.

There’s a fair amount of gallows humor here, as Jessie spends most of her limited time trying to prepare her mother to resume the duties of daily life that she will be relinquishing. Mother Thelma, being the ditherer that she is, can’t help but explain the details of cocoa preparation to a woman who plans never to eat again. It’s a humor born from desperation, but it still helps to leaven the relentlessly bleak situation.

There’s a 1986 film, featuring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft which is relatively successful, although I would love to see a film featuring Kathy Bates, who originated the mother role on the stage.

Book groups will find much to discuss in this marvelous work: the disappointing behavior of the men in these women’s lives, the dysfunction of their relationship, the effects and nature of depression, and the extent of personal autonomy. Readers should enjoy debating what Thelma should do, and whether Jessie is in any way justified in her decision.

Because of the subject matter, this is a work that will be deeply rewarding for some groups, taboo for others. If you have members with serious depression issues or suicide in their family history, it might be best to stay away. It’s short enough that you might choose to temper the darkness by combining it with another one act play that is less harrowing.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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