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Beth Henley is a member of the new breed of American playwrights dedicated to preserving regional voices on the stage. Henley’s Mississippi upbringing provides the background for a host of Southern-accented plays, one of which, the black comedy Crimes of the Heart (1979), won her a Pulitzer Prize when she was twenty-nine.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Southern Upbringing
Elizabeth Becker Henley was born on May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, to Charles Boyle Henley, an attorney, and Elizabeth Josephine Becker Henley, an actress. Her Southern upbringing had a great influence on her writing. As she explains, ”in my house, people were more inclined to sit around the kitchen table and talk than to watch TV.” In addition, the South was experiencing a tense time in the 1950s and 1960s due to the civil rights movement, and the public debate inspired by this unrest surely worked its way into Henley’s dialogue. Though acting was Henley’s original career interest, she had written her first play and had it produced before receiving her BFA in 1974 from Southern Methodist University. Am I Blue, a one-act play, was staged in the fall of 1973 and was just the beginning of a varied writing career.
After undergraduate school, Henley undertook a year of graduate work and teaching at the University of Illinois at Champaign, in addition to participating in summer stock at New Salem State Park. Nevertheless, lacking confidence in her acting abilities and unsure as to whether she possessed the necessary qualities to be a writer, in 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles to be with director-actor Stephen Tobolowsky, with whom she still lives. Encouraged, however, by her S.M.U. friends, especially Tobolowsky and director Frederick Bailey, Henley soon turned again to writing.
Her first full-length attempt, Crimes of the Heart, was submitted by Bailey in the Great American Play Contest sponsored by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It won the contest and was produced there in 1979, before moving to Broadway in 1981. The work eventually won Henley a Pulitzer Prize, marking the first time in twenty-three years that a woman had won the prize for drama. Further recognition for the play included a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Award, and a Tony nomination.
A Life of Quiet Recognition
Following her first success, Henley continued to write. Four additional plays have been produced, though none has received the acclaim of Crimes of the Heart. Published in The Ten Best Plays of 1983-1984, The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980) had been staged in regional theaters before moving to the Manhattan Theatre Club and enjoying an extended run Off-Broadway. Several more plays have followed.
From Stage to Screen
Henley’s talent is not limited to play writing. For instance, she teamed up with Budge Threlkeld in 1985 to write the pilot of Survival Guides for PBS. The half-hour episode was directed by Jonathan Demme. Henley explained to Beverly Walker in American Film, ”It was my first collaboration. Budge wanted to help me out of a depression I’d lapsed into after my play [The Wake of Jamey Foster] had bombed on Broadway.” Appearing in this segment were David Byrne, front-man of the band Talking Heads, and Rosanna Arquette, both of whom Henley would work with again.
She helped write the screenplay for True Stories (1986), along with Tobolowsky and musician David Byrne, which depicts the day-to-day occurrences of Virgil, Texas. Byrne, the movie’s director and narrator, says that much of the script was inspired by articles found in grocery-store tabloids—accounts of incredible, yet supposedly ”true,” stories. Henley actually claims to have done very little, for as she explained in the Walker interview, ”I am very honored to have a credit, but all I really did was help David organize his ideas.”
In 1986 Henley worked on Crimes of the Heart, a film adaptation of her play. Starring Diane Keaton as Lenny, Jessica Lange as Meg, and Sissy Spacek as Babe, the movie was directed by Bruce Beresford. The cast— also including Tess Harper as Chick and Sam Shepard as Doc—strengthened the film and gave spark to the script.
The dry, honest comedy that was created in the play survived the transition to the screen, and, as a result, Crimes of the Heart was one of the most acclaimed films of the year, earning Henley an Oscar nomination for best screenplay adaptation.
… And Back to the Stage
After working for a while on films, Henley returned to playwriting; her most recent play is Ridiculous Fraud (2006). ”It is not often that a girl from Jackson, Mississippi, can accomplish so much in what might be called a ‘big city’ world of film and theatre,” declares Lucia Tarbox in a Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986 article on the playwright. ”However, Beth Henley has managed to succeed by bringing her southern small-town past with her. [Though she’s known both financial success and failure], she does not allow the negative to overcome that which is positive.” Quoting Henley, Tarbox concludes with the observation, ”Something I’m sure has to do with the South’s defeat in the Civil War, which is that you should never take yourself too seriously. You may be beaten and defeated, but your spirit cannot be conquered.”
Works in Literary Context
Strong and Strange Women
Henley’s plays focus on Southern women in settings where they often seek the support of other female characters. Male characters may be used to advance the plot but are generally not central to the story. In Crimes of the Heart, for example, three adult sisters, each with her own emotional scars, struggle with longstanding sibling conflicts while they react to a tragedy involving the youngest, who has murdered her husband. Despite the emotional gravity of the subject matter, the play generates near-constant laughter. Bizarre events and ideas establish a sort of black humor; for example, the women’s mother had committed suicide some years ago, hanging not only herself but also the family cat. The Miss Firecracker Contest is another example of Henley’s juxtaposition of pathos and comic absurdity. In this play, a young woman tries to win respect and success by entering a small-town beauty contest, showing her talent in a tap-dancing and baton-twirling rendition of ”The Star Spangled Banner.”
Dealing with Death
Death, disaster, and freakish accidents play a major role in all of Henley’s plays. However, Henley’s treatment of this recurring motif is often humorous. Most of her southern characters accept such events matter-of-factly, so that when Babe shoots her husband in Crimes of the Heart, or when Bess is kidnapped by the Indians in Abundance, or when orphan Carnelle in The Miss Firecracker Contest speaks nonchalantly about people dying—”It seems like people’ve been dying practically all my life, in one way or another”—it is never maudlin.
Works in Critical Context
As Richard Schickel wrote in a Time review:
[Henley’s territory] is really a country of the mind: one of Tennessee Williams’ provinces that has surrendered to a Chekhovian raiding party, perhaps. Her strength is a wild anecdotal inventiveness, but her people, lost in the ramshackle dreams and tumble-down ambitions with which she invests them, often seem to be metaphors waywardly adrift. They are blown this way and that by the gales of laughter they provoke, and they frequently fail to find a solid connection with clear and generally relevant meaning.
Crimes of the Heart
Despite the prestigious awards it received, Henley’s Crimes of the Heart drew mixed reviews from critics. Some found it profound and genuinely funny, while others felt that the author generated laughter by ridiculing the very characters she had created. Some critics have also complained that too much action takes place offstage and that the characters and events are simply not credible. Nevertheless, even reviewers who are critical of Henley’s play tend to find in it a redeeming quality. As Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times,” Crimes of the Heart is clearly the work of a gifted writer. And, unstable as I feel it to be, it does mean to arrive at an original blend of folkways, secret despairs, sudden fun.”
However, New Leader reviewer Leo Sauvage states, I find nothing enthralling in spending an evening with three badly adjusted, if not mentally retarded sisters, who are given free rein to exhibit their individual eccentricities.” And Michael Feingold of the Village Voice is openly critical both of the dramatic work and of its setting:
Perhaps the play supplies a kind of sordid nostalgia for Southerners who, behind the facade of their new double-knit suits and non-union factories, like to think they are still pea-pickin’, baccy-chewin’, inbreeding’, illiterate cretins at heart—Snopeses who have been taught, painstakingly, to sign their names and clip coupons. Or perhaps they still are exactly that, and the South is in desperate need of either cultural mercy missions from New York, or fire and brimstone from Heaven.
- ”Beth Henley (1952-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol, 23. Edited by Sharon R. Gunton and Jean C. Stine. Detroit: Gale, 1983, pp. 214-218.
- Brustein, Robert. Review of Abundance. New Republic (December 17, 1990): 28.
- Ebert, Roger. Review of Miss Firecracker. Chicago Sun-Times (April 28, 1989).
- Helbig, Jack. Review of Collected Plays, Volume I: 1980-1989 and Collected Plays, Volume II:1990-1999. Booklist (June 1, 2000): 1836.
- Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Crimes of the Heart. New Republic (February 2, 1987): 26.
- -. Review of Nobody’s Fool. New Republic (December 15, 1986): 22.
- –. Review of True Stories. New Republic (November 10, 1986): 26.
- Kendt, Rob. Review of Control Freaks. Back Stage (August 6, 1993): 8.
- Miller, Daryl H. Review of Tight Pants. Los Angeles Times (May 7, 2004).
- Scholem, Benjamin. Review of Impossible Marriage. Long Island Business News (November 6, 1998): 38.
- Travers, Peter. Review of Crimes of the Heart (movie). People (December 15, 1986): 12.
- Weinert, Laura. Review of Sisters of the Winter Madrigal. Back Stage West (July 19, 2001): 12.
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