Marsha Norman | BOMB Magazine

by April Gornik

When I first met Marsha Norman—Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, that is—I was delighted to find her not only accessible but also to be a playful person with a fabulous sense of humor. I had not seen her play ’Night Mother, when it had its hugely successful run, but subsequently read it and found it very troubling and provocative. I saw Trudy Blue in its first incarnation at the Actors Studio Free Theater in November 1998 and was captivated. It’s about a woman who receives a misdiagnosis of a fatal illness and how she copes with it, but told from an extremely internal vantage point, in which one isn’t quite sure where she ends and the people around her begin. Trudy Blue involves her friends, husband, lover, children, and her struggle to reach them and reach out to them at the moment of crisis, but it’s also about her life as a writer, and a person of imagination. How she as an artist differs from and is the same as herself as a friend, wife, mother. In a sense, Trudy suffers from a personal misdiagnosis of herself as well as the medical misdiagnosis. The play was extensively rewritten before I saw it again this past December at MCC Theatre, and I was astonished at how it had been honed into a single day in a life, but containing the weight of an entire life’s revelation. It moved me as much as anything I’ve ever seen.

Marsha is a great writer and a treasured friend. We had this conversation about Trudy Blue just before New Year’s Eve.

April Gornik People ask, after having seen Trudy Blue, whether the misdiagnosis in it is factual. Are you sick of explaining this?

Marsha Norman No. It was five years ago, I was in New Orleans and thought I was going to die of consumption.

AG It was only five years ago?

MN Yes. I came back to New York and went to my doctor who said, “This doesn’t look good but let’s get a chest X-ray.” So I did. And immediately upon my arrival home the phone rang; it was my doctor, “You need to get back in here because we have some decisions to make. How about in an hour?”

AG Oh my God! Your heart must have been just pounding.

MN I got an MRI first. It’s like someone banging on a garbage can for an hour. It was a paralyzing experience. I’m terribly claustrophobic anyway. They tell you not to open your eyes because if you did you’d realize that it feels like you’re being buried alive. I tried every mantra, every song, to keep myself from going crazy, and actually had some interesting understandings while I was in there. I thought, They’re scared and this doesn’t look good. Is there anything that I would actually miss if it turns out that I’m dead here? And there were only two things I wanted to know the outcome of—two things, in my whole, complicated life.

AG You knew this in the space of time that you were in the MRI machine—a blink in the life of a life.

MN It went right to the terror, the truth of the whole situation. It was no longer death as a fantasy or death as this dream escape. I’ve written about death before. In ’Night Mother, Jesse says, “It’s exactly what I want. It’s dark and quiet.” All through my writing death has served as the place where no one can get you, nobody can call. It’s also a fantasy about not having to finish everything. Death allows you to make a lateral move—you just get out of the game.

AG A lateral move into a parallel universe.

MN Exactly. Escaping that final judgment that we make as we get older—if you’re lucky enough to get old—whether you lived your life well. Somehow an early death is appealing in a silly, fantasy life.

AG It’s a youthful notion; death can hold those special displaced spirits. The fantasies that we’ve all had about Jim Morrison’s early death—”I’ll show them, I’ll do what I want”—as if death were about that.

MN That decline among artists in particular. In the MRI machine I was struck by this understanding that there really were only two things I wanted to know the outcome of: what my son, Angus, would look like as a man—these are reasons not to die—and what would happen to the Madeline project, which was a movie script I was working on at the time and from which I was subsequently fired. So this leaves me with one decent curiosity about the future. I thought, There’s something wrong here, regardless of how sick I turn out to be. I am not attached enough to my life, I am not living in a way I have respect for.

AG So you hit bottom really fast and saw the light at the top really fast. You realized you needed to reprioritize.

MN Exactly. When I got back to my doctor’s office he said, “Now Marsha”—this is the exact line that’s in the play—”We don’t want you to worry. We’ve had other patients who’ve had this kind of cancer. They’ve had surgery and two years later they’re still alive.” At that point I went into this frozen panic of fear and horror. He sent me out of the office with all kinds of Valium, painkillers.

AG When something like this happens you should immediately be assigned a spiritual guide. You shouldn’t have to carry that stuff alone.

MN I could have called people. It’s one of the things I’ve wondered about and that actual moment is in the play. What is that impulse to crawl off and die all by yourself? I wouldn’t do it that way again. It was punishing.

Anyway, I went down the street to get a CAT scan and the pulmonary surgeon said to me, “I see what they’re talking about, but I don’t think it’s cancer, I think it’s pneumonia.”

AG Wow. Did you let a tiny ray of hope penetrate?

MN I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t like his office; the nurse’s uniform was dirty. Who do you believe, your trusted family doctor or this man who’s working out of a broom closet at the top of Lenox Hill?

AG If you can be tricked once you can be tricked twice.

MN And he said, “Regardless of what happens, you have young children to raise, you have had your last cigarette.”

AG Also in the play.

MN Also in the play. A lot of my feelings were fueled by this: anybody who is dumb enough to smoke is going to die from it, eventually. I always knew that I shouldn’t smoke but I loved it better than anything. Anyway, I had my last cigarette at the corner of 77th and Lexington, threw away the pack, took a couple of Valium and some painkillers and went home and proceeded to learn a lot of very surprising things about my life. It became clear that my marriage was not something I could count on and that my work wasn’t going to make me feel better about how I had lived. It was a frightening time. There were three weeks where I had to wait for the antibiotics to work before I could have a biopsy. I didn’t know if I was dying or not. Three weeks later, having realized that my work was not something I had respect for and my marriage wasn’t anything I could stay in, I went back and learned that I was in fact going to live. I was fine.

Polly Draper and Julia McIlvaine in MCC Theater’s production of Trudy Blue. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Polly Draper and Julia McIlvaine in MCC Theater’s production of Trudy Blue. Photo by Joan Marcus.

AG So why aren’t I happy?

MN Yeah. I felt as if I’d been the victim of a terrorist attack, as if someone had held a gun to my head for three weeks. It was the beginning of a serious exploration: how I really wanted to be living, what kind of work I wanted to do, how I wanted to relate to the people I was with and what I was willing to do to get there.It turns out that I had to tear my life up even more to feel honest and affectionate toward it. The things in my life are now there out of hope and love and genuine good cheer and promise. They are things, the people, the work that I really believe in.

AG That’s what Trudy Blue is about, among other things, living your life not in your head. You not only had revelations and reprioritized everything accordingly, you not only really looked at reality rather than just a convenient view of it, you also made this leap by writing a great play. That’s the extraordinary extra that most people would not have been able to do.

MN Originally, the play was just a narrative account—the horror of a misdiagnosis. What happened the summer after I recovered from pneumonia was that I met a woman who had exactly the same experience except that hers was backwards. They told her it was pneumonia; three weeks later, she wasn’t better and it turned out to be lung cancer. When I met her, she was looking at another year, maybe, of life. So I felt the near miss for myself, and I felt her courage—that she could tell me her story, somebody who had seen the other side. And she told it without any bitterness or terror. My work has always come out of an intense moment of contact with somebody, not necessarily somebody I know well but with whom I have a sudden identification, a sudden knowing. Usually they are people right up at the edge of experience, for instance the place where you either die or you go on. This cliff where there’s no backing down.

AG Did this also happen writing ’Night Mother?

MN Same story. And Getting Out, an older play of mine about a woman who’d just gotten out of prison. And it happens more often than I write about.

AG Do you see a mirror reflection of yourself, something that you recognize in reverse? Or do you think it’s simply an observation? In my work I recognize something, it looks profoundly familiar in not necessarily a familiar-looking way, but it has a resonance that feels like recognition.

MN You mean in that painting of yours that I really love so much, the yellow trees?

AG I feel that I suddenly recognize the place.

MN As if you have been there?

AG As if something about me was reflected in it. I can’t put my finger on it, but I paint it to figure out what it feels like and to see if it’s true, or to make it true. There’s always that level of artifice.

MN That’s true for writing, too. I write to find out what it feels like. And in this particular regard, to write the story from the point of view of the person who got the death sentence.

AG What floors me about Trudy Blue is that moment when you understood that you had to reprioritize. When you realized you weren’t living in your life, you were living in your idea of your life, not hearing what was really said, not seeing who was really there.

MN I have always been aware that there was one person I talked to in my mind more or less constantly, the judge who always ruled in my favor.

I’ve also been aware of this not so favorable nagging voice, this judging voice that echoes people I have known—not just my mother, but all those people who found me wanting. I carry those people in my head as well, and they operate independently.

AG Your internalized mother. Your internalized husband. Your internalized children.

MN Right. Lots of times I sit in a room and have a conversation with the person. They don’t have to be absent for this to go on. I actually carry on imaginary conversations with people across a dinner table working out how it might go: I say this, he says that; no wait, back up, I say this, he says that and then he adds this and then I go into the kitchen again and come back while he says. . .

AG It’s a preamble to actually participating in something, a mental preamble that goes on ad infinitum. My fundamental urge in doing this is to never, ever lose control. I’m thinking about how I want to say one simple thing rather than doing it, rather than trusting myself to say it and trusting the other person to be there and hear it. It’s about this endless imagination and willful disregard of someone else’s presence, because I’m not even there in my own self in a weird way. I recognized that so profoundly in your play. I’ve never, ever seen anyone make that real in a work of art. We’ve talked about this idea of how fantasy, which is part of our art, can mess up our lives. Just as your dialogue with your art can mess up your art if you try to outsmart it and outguess it before you even do it.

MN There’s a level of second guessing to this conversation inside our minds. . .the line in Trudy Blue where she says, “The chariot of the mind is drawn by wild horses. These horses have to be tamed.” After I got sick, I began to study meditation and practice it, and I became aware moment to moment what my mind was doing. Actually doing meditation is pretty scary. You see these things. It’s an entry to another way of conducting your mental life. That was what I needed to do. It turns out I had lots of friends and lots of good work. It’s just that I wasn’t able to see them or talk to them or even do the good work because I was in these interior conversations all the time.

AG Your mind was so noisy.

MN When people talked to me I wasn’t listening to what they were really saying. I would hear what I thought they said or what they probably meant. I was listening on so many under levels.

AG I know exactly what you mean. This is my big defense against the world and the way that I isolate myself. It’s one of those things you forgive yourself for and move on and hopefully access what you have around you, which could lead to real joy. I keep thinking about personal redemption—it’s the subject of a lot of work that’s out now, in the film Magnolia, and in Trudy Blue. What’s astonishing about Trudy Blue is watching this person have a moment of profound personal redemption where the world suddenly opens up. The doors of her life are blown open and she’s in the world. It’s the most moving thing to see.

MN I so appreciate your understanding of the play. I was concerned that Trudy Blue would be seen as the alter ego or other odd things that she isn’t. It took me a long time to get who she is clear in the play. She’s the person you are speaking to when you talk to yourself.

 

MCC Theater’s production of Marsha Norman’s Trudy Blue, directed by Michael Sexton. Photo by Joan Marcus.
MCC Theater’s production of Marsha Norman’s Trudy Blue, directed by Michael Sexton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

AG After this latest production, Mike Nichols said he was shocked that you, a playwright, could have rewritten the play into such a concise, amazing and improved form. According to him this never happens. What did it feel like to hear him say that?

MN It was a remarkable comment, because in teaching, I tell people you can’t work on a play longer than two years. And then here I am, having worked on something for five years. What tends to happen as people revise plays is that they get bad advice, and obscure things that were clear, and do over-obvious things that were fine—mess them up in a tragic way. The audience needs to be clear about what’s up on the stage. Often the playwright is the last person that can know how to make that happen because the play is already perfectly clear to them. But I always knew that it was going to take me awhile to get Trudy Blue’s various aspects down. Early on, I found the story of that day; the presence of the clown doctors, family and the friends. It took awhile to free the play from its narrative bindings and actually create the effect that it’s taking place in a moment. That’s what I wanted, that moment of insight, clarity and truth that changes everything.

AG You put the audience through quite a bit of pain getting there. It’s a “sentimental education” in the true sense—I heard that title in high school a million times, and thought, What the hell does that mean?

MN One is being continuously loaded down with things in life. All these things are in formation and experienced in the play and then suddenly in that one moment all that stuff is taken away. And what you feel is that original lightness you had at the beginning of life, an unburdened state.

The play has to take that painful journey to get to this place where she isn’t having any moments of imagination or flights of fancy. She’s just sitting there in a peaceful presence with her daughter. She’s having a conversation with her husband that is halting but present: she hears him, he hears her.

AG It turns from pain to poignancy, an absolute reversal. I know the actors were worried whether people would laugh at the funny parts—but there’s a point at which you are so gripped by the play that even though you recognize something’s funny, you don’t necessarily acknowledge it with laughter; you’re rapt, you feel you must not miss anything because everything feels very critical.

MN In theater you can’t let the audience wander off. You can’t let them think, What am I doing here? When is this going to be over?

AG I understand Trudy Blue is going to be the great, new original American play on the Broadway stage.

MN The producers are hoping to do a Broadway move, as a way of saying, We have to preserve places on Broadway for plays.

AG There are hardly any American plays running on Broadway now. That’s crazy. I have such a different impression of American theater from your talking about teaching at Juilliard; I think that there’s this burgeoning group of really talented playwrights.

MN There are—struggling to get out. Of course, Off-Broadway and Off-off-Broadway are filled with American plays.

AG But it’s insane they don’t make it to the larger theaters.

MN And in an era when the Tonys celebrate the best of American theater, for Off-Broadway plays to be excluded is also outrageous.

AG Everyone bemoans the dearth of serious American plays on Broadway, and yet serious English plays are imported from London. What the hell is that about?

MN It’s about a real cowardice on the part of the critics, I think. A reluctance to champion American writers. For what reason, I don’t know. One of the things we lack in the American theater is a group of devoted critics who actually like the theater. Christopher Hampton, a theatrical genius of the first order, said that at least in England playwrights are allowed to have their careers. If Tom Stoppard writes a play that nobody likes, everybody goes to see it anyway because people know that it’s the plays that don’t work where you really learn about the craft, where the playwright is really working on something.

AG It’s the same in the art world; you give it the transition nod and vote of support and look forward to whatever is going to happen next.

MN Television does such a great job with social issues, with personal family drama, the kinds of things that were the mainstay of a certain segment of theater writers; Arthur Miller, for example.

AG You think that’s leeched some of the. . .

MN Take a play like ’Night Mother. People didn’t talk about suicide until ’Night Mother came along and made it okay to do so. ’Night Mother and the plays of the ’80s opened, and then television picked it up and it took off. Those things are actually better done on television. In fact, doing it for the theater at this point you risk being compared to television. If they say a play is a piece of TV they mean that it’s small and in a very confined frame and doesn’t have the scope, relevance or impact that you expect from the theater. What we look for in the theater are the things that only theater can do, not what TV and film can do better. So I was happy that Trudy Blue became structurally adventurous.

AG Night Mother and Trudy Blue are extremely different. What links them is that they’re both about people who are leaving rather than the person being left. Have you thought about that?

MN Ginger in Trudy Blue has the life that Jesse in ’Night Mother wants, this big outside life; Ginger’s very much in the world and surrounded by people. I felt with ’Night Mother that Jesse’s decision to commit suicide was quite brave. She finally decided that she could decide what to do with her life. She says, “My life is all I have that really belongs to me and I’m going to say what happens to it.” Now, it would have been fine with me if she had decided to go to beauty school or get a real estate license. It probably wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer Prize, but it would have been fine. The point was not to kill herself; the point was to take charge.

AG It’s ironic. It looks like self-annihilation and it’s actually self-activation, as it were.

MN For people who understand that, great; the ones who don’t will have another experience with it.

AG Which is the seat of its power. It’s not an easy play; it has a multiplicity of meanings.

MN Your paintings don’t come with instructions. You can’t say, Here’s how to perceive this.

AG Here’s my line: Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation. ’Night Mother and its subject of suicide is permeable, with lots of interpretations, and its greatness is in its difficulty. That’s equally true with Trudy Blue. The trajectory from ’Night Mother to Trudy Blue interests me.

MN It’s that instant, that moment of, What’s it going to be? I’m such a deliberator in life, such a waffler. When I see people with this fierce commitment, this knowledge of this is it, I’m really drawn to them. That’s exactly what I’m looking at in both plays, that moment of sureness. It’s a moment of great peace and arrival; it’s a discovery metaphor. You step onto the shore of a new land with the knowledge that there’s no going back. Ginger arrives at a place where she can simply talk quietly with her child and with her husband about the moment, about the things that are happening right then. She talks with her daughter about how to recover from a failed science project and she talks with her husband about how she has two months to live. I like hearing that sentence Ginger says to her daughter at the end of the play, “It was a good project, and you learned a lot even if the mice died.”

AG I love that line. It’s such a killer.

MN If I get to the end of my life and I can feel that it’s been a good project and I learned a lot then I will be very happy. It’s my personal view that the things we learn don’t leave the earth, don’t leave the species. Whatever we learn doesn’t die with us. It stays.

AG Trudy Blue is very moving, it resonates and keeps going. Art, in the most wonderful way imaginable, is still just a catalyst. Maybe that was part of your initial horror in the MRI machine, thinking that it’s not what you’re doing as a playwright that’s the most important thing. Why arrange everything hierarchically? You were talking about someone being at a decisive point. I don’t have an Eastern philosophical terminology for this, but for me it has to do with being open to the moment, being in the place that you’re both in mentally and physically; the beautiful, empirical, fragile world with its tendency to die and rot and decay.

MN And change. Eastern philosophies are filled with simply being—really hearing, really looking—and understanding that there’s no separateness. The boundaries are purely arbitrary and are there between people out of fear. Trudy says, “You’re not like other people,” and Ginger says, “That’s not true. You keep telling me that but that’s not true. I’m not different from them. I’m afraid of them.” Ginger understands that she is virtually the same as her husband, her daughter, her mother, her friends—all the voices, they’re all her. We go to great lengths to avoid knowing about this commonness, and yet when we actually run into it we are faced with the degree to which we are exactly the other. We are not just like other people; we actually are them. And it’s such a relief.

AG It means that you don’t have to be special. God, what a relief to be away from that fucking burden: “I’m important because I’m special.” How many of us, especially artists, labor under that banner as a worth-making illusion? It’s such a plague. It means you take success and fame and everything coming from the outside seriously.

If that’s not a way of stopping up your inner self. . .

MN I was reluctant to give up that sense of specialness and yet to do so is absolutely necessary.

AG Your “special” aloneness is not your friend; it’s just aloneness. It seems to me a very popular problem with many talented people.

MN It’s not only a real loss; it’s a real error. It’s the wrong path. When I was first studying Buddhism and meditation, I would do these exercises. One was to walk down the street and see people and say, That’s me. As if there were a mirror and each person was my reflection. It’s a staggering thing to do.

AG My inclination has always been to say, That’s not me. To compare myself with that person and make an imaginary little struggle that I must win. I learned an expression from an AA friend recently: all comparison is a form of suicide.

MN The diligent practice of that exercise is to not constantly draw a line between yourself and your experience, you and your world and the people in it. The Buddhist teachings in particular are really valuable.

AG The Western tendency is to measure insecurity.

MN It’s an economic model that went too far. Competition is not a good thing on a personal level. And any comparison is going to ultimately trigger a competitive instinct, at least in this culture. I was going to say awhile ago that in our culture silence for women is a cultural trait. And that silence does not breed quiet minds; it breeds inner dialogue, inner talk, inner voices. And then the hothouse effect takes place.

These things grow and change and morph and take on their own lives rather than the real voices. There are cultural aspects to this.

AG Trudy Blue goes to the inner and strategic underpinnings of what holds someone back from functioning as a whole person.

MN How does it feel to be locked up in a mind of a particular nature? And how do I get out of there? An odd preoccupation, this need for escape and freedom. And yet there’s a constantly changing understanding of what the jail actually is. Where are the bars? Is that door actually locked? By whom?

AG By the end of Trudy Blue you realize that you’re the willing participant, not the victim, which is incredibly liberating. You go back and forth, it’s like real life. Is that part of it not being narrative?

MN Exactly. A narrative usually has to be like a court case where the audience is the jury and as they watch things happen, they decide what has been the truth. Narrative walks a line toward the final moment when the audience goes, Send them to the lock-up, or let that person go free. Trudy Blue doesn’t have that kind of moment. The audience isn’t asked to decide anything about Trudy Blue, the audience is simply in this experience up really close, watching.

AG How is that going to work in a bigger theater?

MN I don’t have any idea. Michael [Sexton] and Mark [Wendlen] will figure it out. They won’t go the route of the lavish Broadway set. But the challenge for a director and scenic designer is that there is no time for scenery, sets, furniture, to be moved in and out.

Because the play operates at mental speed. She thinks of the room; the stuff is there instantly. She sees herself in a restaurant; there it is. It doesn’t have to get there.

AG It’s an amazingly spare set.

MN Five chairs, a table. The restaurant table becomes everything. The table is really where the set begins.

AG I love that kind of theater, I get to pretend. It’s by far the most fun. Getting to pretend with actors on stage is one of the most psychologically charged, dreamlike events. Certainly, when you’re in the dark watching a movie and you’re watching events transpire, that’s a kind of dreaming. But theater is more like lucid dreaming because you have the physicality of it at the same time. You’re seeing and experiencing the space with the actors. You’re watching them move through your mental space, it has a different vividness.

MN The actors’ bodies affect the audience.

AG Film doesn’t generate its own heat; it’s already there and it’s cool. But theater has this heat that actors generate. I think of the marks that remain after I’ve been painting a painting for a long time. The accumulated marks generate their own kind of active response. It’s very subliminal and quite different from a photograph or a reproduction that’s flattened out and cold. They are representative of different experiences.

MN The paint itself is a holding place for memories and impressions and history.

AG I think so.

MN Both cultural and personal.

AG Everyone is being so visually bombarded with electronic and reproducible imagery that they no longer have an acute sensitivity to material itself, which is so much a part of being. This is what we’ve been talking about; without the physicality it just doesn’t have the charge.

MN Are there challenges of this nature that you’re working on now?

AG Well, always, yes. How about you?

MN When I look at paintings of yours, particularly the ones of the trees, I can see what temperature it is there. In the water paintings, I get an idea of what season it is. It’s about the quality of the light. It’s a kind of memory, but not necessarily a memory of anything that happened.

AG There’s this moving through things. I’ve made this place and it’s like architecture where light and shadow guide and repel you. Each painting has metaphysical references.

MN It’s a response to the question, Where am I? What am I doing here?

AG That, in a nutshell, is what they’re all about. They’re places that make you ask questions.

MN I feel that we are all working toward one goal, which is the documenting of what it has felt like to be alive in our time. And that we all write the parts of it that we see. You can’t possibly do the whole thing so you just do your little part and trust that the assortment of you is great enough to pretty much cover it.