Beth Henley 1952
- Am I Blue (one-act play) 1982
- Crimes of the Heart 1982 (three-act
play); also a screenplay and winner of the Pulitzer
- The Wake of Jamey Foster
- The Miss Firecracker Contest 1985 (two-act
play); also a screenplay
- Control Freaks
- Nobody's Fool, screenplay, 1986
(movie starring Rosanna Arquette)
- The Lucky Spot 1987
- Abundance 1991
- The Debutante Ball 1991
- Beth Henley: Four Plays
- Monologues for Women 1992
- Collected Plays: Volume I, 1980-1989
- Collected Plays: Volume II, 1990-1999
- Family Week 2000
- Signature 2003
- Ruby McCullun ( current work-in-progress)
- True Stories (1986)
- Come West with Me (1998) (play Abundance)
- Impossible Marriage (premiered in New
York, fall, 1998)
- Family Week (2000)
- Ridiculous Fraud (2006)
Photo of Beth Henley by writer Noel
By Aimee Estill (SHS)
Beth Henley is a modern female Pulitzer prize-winning playwright
who creates, according to one critic, "Southern-accented" dramas
and preserves "regional voices on stage" (Lesniak 199). She
has written plays that capture Southern life and help preserve
Mississippi's rich literary culture.
Elizabeth Becker Henley, known to readers as Beth Henley, was
born May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi . Her parents
are Charles Boyce, an attorney, and Elizabeth Josephine Henley,
an actress (Lesniak 199). Beth Henley has three sisters (Myers,
Beth Henley attended Murrah High School in her hometown of
Jackson (Draper). After graduating from high school,
she went to Southern Methodist University where she received
a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (Lesniak 199). Beth was a member
of the acting ensemble while at Southern Methodist University.
She began her professional career as an actress and a playwright
at Theatre Three in Dallas,Texas. She taught creative dramatics
at the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. In 1975 Henley moved
to Urbana, Illinois, and taught beginning acting at the University
of Illinois. In 1976 Henley was also an actress at the Great
American People Show (Lesniak 199). She then moved to Los Angeles,
California, to live with actor/director Stephen Tobolowsky where
she began writing Crimes of the Heart
In 1978 Crimes of the Heart, (set in Hazlehurst,
Mississippi, and about three maladjusted sisters) won the Great
American Play Contest sponsored by the Actors Theatre in Louisville,
Kentucky. The play then won several more awards, including the
New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play
and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981. It
also received a Tony Award nomination for best play and an Academy
Award nomination for best adapted screenplay in 1986.
Henley has written many plays. Among them are "Am I Blue," a
one-act play written while at Southern Methodist University
in 1973 (Lesniak 199). The play was written to go with a another
one-act play, "The Bridgehead," which was written by Frederick
Bailey (Backstage 23). The Pulitzer Prize- winning
Crimes of the Heart, a three-act play, was first
shown in the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, on February
18, 1979. "The Miss Firecracker Contest," a two-act play, was
first produced in Los Angeles, California, in the spring of
1980. "The Wake of Jeremy Foster," a two-act play, was first
produced in 1982 (Lesniak 199). Once on Broadway, it closed
in twelve days (Backstage 23). "The Debutante
Ball" was produced in 1985. "The Lucky Spot" was first produced
at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts in 1986
(Lesniak 199). Henley wrote the screenplay for the 1986 movie
starring Rosanna Arquette. Some other plays written by Beth
Henley are "Abundance," which was written in 1990; "Control
Freaks," a play written in 1992 and set in Los Angeles; and
"Signature," which was written in 1990 but had its world premiere
in 1995. The play titled the L-Play is really
eight "mini-plays" in one that all start with the letter "L"
(Backstage 23). Crimes of the Heart
and "The Miss Firecracker Contest" have both been made into
movies (Shirley 57). True
Stories is an off-beat comedy. Byrne, lead singer
of the rock band the Talking Heads, is the director and also
co-wrote the script with playwright Beth Henley.
For her work, Henley has received many awards and honors; most
of the awards and honors were for her playCrimes of the
Heart. In 1978, Beth Henley was the co-winner of the
Great American Playwrighting Contest. She was nominated
for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award in 1979. As previously mentions,
Henley was awarded the New York Drama Circle Award for
the best new American play in 1981. In the same year, she won
the Guggenheim Award from Newsday, the
Pulitzer Prize for drama, and was nominated for the Antoinette
Perry (Tony) Award (Lesniak 199). Crimes of the Heart
was the first drama to receive the Pulitzer Prize before being
produced on Broadway, and Beth Henley was the first woman playwright
to receive the award in twenty-three years (Harbin 82). In 1986,
Henley also received an Academy Award nomination for the best-adapted
screenplay for Crimes of the Heart (Lesniak 199).
UPDATE 2008: In
1997 the comic drama,
The Debutante Ball was
published. It also is set in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and
begins on the morning of Teddy Parker's debutante ball, that
event in Southern culture known as a girl's "coming out." Impossible
Marriage debuted off-Broadway in 1998.The play
was written while Henley was pregnant and includes a pregnant
character. Henley has also written several television and movie
screenplays. She wrote Family Week
in 2000 and It Must Be Love (Surviving
Love), a television play, in 2004. Beth Henley is today still
living with her son Patrick in California. Her play
Ridiculous Fraud was written in 2006.
A Review of Crimes
of the Heart
by Aimee Estill (SHS)
Beth Henley's dramatic comedy Crimes of the Heart,
is a play which Harbin says reveals familial bonds, especially
among sisters (Harbin 86). It also incorporates the metaphoric
use of food (Harbin 85), homicidal and suicidal imagery (Shepard
96), and gives a lesson on how to deal with those "bad days"
("Crimes of the Heart," cotharc.html). It is also
the story of lost American ideals.
Crimes of the Heart is set in the MaGrath family
kitchen in present-day Hazlehurst, Mississippi; the MaGrath
kitchen is modeled after the kitchen of Beth Henley's grandmother
(Britt, Daily Leader). As the story opens, Lennie,
the oldest MaGrath sister is celebrating her birthday in solitude
(3). This lonely scene gives the first glimpse into Lennie's
character. One critic says that Lennie sees herself as a martyr;
she chooses to suffer alone (Harbin 83). Lennie is somewhat
of an old maid; the thirty-year- old does not have any "men"
, is "mousy" , and can not "evade the dominance of her grandparents"
(Harbin 17). Lennie has also been described as the "practical
caretaker of her sisters..." (Suter 1, meg.htm).
As the plot progresses, the other characters appear. Meg, the
middle MaGrath sister, is returning home because she has been
sent a telegram which partially describes the situation Babe,
the youngest sister, has gotten herself into. Meg has been described
as "the most complex character" in Crimes of the Heart.
She is the only character who tries to hide her problems and
fears. The middle MaGrath sister is also the "emotional caretaker"
of her sisters (Suter 1, meg.htm). As the emotional caretaker,
Meg lies to her grandfather about how her life is going just
to make him feel better . Meg is also the one who found her
mother when she committed suicide, which is probably the reason
she forces herself to confront pictures of rotting bodies and
crippled children. She tests her strength to endure this confrontation
of morbidity (Harbin 87). Babe is the youngest sister and the
only one who is married.
In my opinion, Babe is the MaGrath with the most problems.
Babe has an unhappy marriage and attempts to find love in a
fifteen-year-old black boy named Willie Jay. When her husband,
Zachery Botrelle, discovers them, Babe attempts to kill him
and is placed on trial for this attempted homicide. Barnette
Lloyd defends her. The title is thus derived from this situation.
However, it is also a crime not to follow your heart's desires.
Barnette has a "personal vendetta" with Babe's husband Zachery
and is "fond" of Babe so therefore he takes the trial personally;
Babe also finds herself falling in love with her lawyer. Then
Zachery decides to ship Babe off to an insane asylum. Babe can
not handle this discovery and sticks her head in the kitchen
oven. Meg walks in just in the nick of time and pulls Babe's
head out of the oven. Babe then realizes that she is not alone
in this troublesome situation (Suter 3, crimes.htm). The plot
contains many interesting twists, including sisterly secrets
and romance, which eventually lead to the MaGrath sisters joining
both "physically and spiritually" (Harbin 89), "if only for
one happy moment" (Suter 3, crimes.htm).
The theme of Crimes of the Heart is probably
best summarized with "... no matter how much your family may
irritate you, it is always a source of love and strength" (McDonnell
102). The MaGrath sisters--Lennie, Meg, and Babe--are "not-so-perfect
sisters who learn the value of each other from being thrown
into many difficult situations" (Suter 3, crimes.htm). Like
any family, they have their little squabbles and outbursts,
but they learn to appreciate each other. Lennie and Meg are
good examples of the theme at work. In the beginning of the
play Lennie is isolated, but she "... reaches... a communion
with others" by the end of the play. She finds strength and
love within her family. Meg "begins to retrieve her life" by
allowing an "inner grace," which is "responding to the needs
of others" to seep through. This complex character finds herself
when she starts giving love and strength to her family (Harbin
87). Crimes of the Heart is a perfect example
of a family discovering love and strength within itself.
Food is used metaphorically as an opiate for the "grievances
of the heart." Food is never served as a family meal, but ,
according to Harbin, eaten when one is feeling down. It is not
eaten for its nutritional value, but to make one feel better
(Harbin 85). For example, after Babe fails at her attempt to
murder her husband, she goes into the kitchen and makes some
lemonade The use of food as a metaphor is amplified by the setting:
grandfather's kitchen (Harbin 85). As the play progresses, the
MaGrath sisters find that food does not alleviate their pain
In Crimes of the Heart, Henley uses both suicidal
and homicidal imagery. Shepard 96). The MaGrath mother chose
to kill herself, and Babe is on trial for the attempted murder
of her husband, Zachery . The imagery is intensified by Meg's
obsession with death. Suicidal imagery and homicidal imagery
add to the mystery and serve to heighten interest in the plot.
There are diverse opinions on Crimes of the Heart.
Frank Rich, a New York Times theater critic, says
that Crimes of the Heart is "the most deserving
Pulitzer winner of recent years" (Britt, Daily Leader).
Another critic feels that the play is "a satisfying balance
of the humorous and the serious, and although the regional flavor
is strong, the feeling is universal" (Verongos, Clarion
Ledger). Another critic says that "Henley keeps intriguing
us with a delightfully wacky humor plus a series of little mysteries..."
(Lesniak 199). Although Crimes of the Heart has
received positive criticism from most critics, there are some
that would disagree. One critic believes that Beth Henley has
not "mastered the technique" of southern writers (Jackson, Hattiesburg
American); another critic feels that the play "has an
attention span of an idiot child" (Collions, Jackson Daily
News). Michael Fringold of the Village Voice says that
the play is "gossipful," and Leo Savage wrote in the New
Leader that Crimes of the Heart is "sick"
(Lesniak 199). In my opinion, Billy J. Harbin best sums the
play up best when he says "Henley's southern roots, ... regional
setting, and comic emphasis upon the peculiar in ordinary situations
led many critics to admire her whimsical imagination and to
underestimate the significant implications of her humor" (82-83).
In conclusion, Crimes of the Heart is a well-written,
intriguing play that has a few problems. First of all, the reader
must be mature enough to handle the adult content of some scenes.
The fact that Babe commits adultery, and with a teen, may offend
some. Profanity does exist in the play, which, to some extent,
adds to the verisimilitude of the characters, but can be offensive.
The play has an uplifting universal theme, but there may be
a few situations that the reader might find offensive. On the
whole, Crimes of the Heart is a good play. The
reader learns how the MaGraths deal with family dilemmas. It
is also a story of learning to find love and strength from within
one's family. In addition to teaching valuable lessons, the
play also holds the reader's interest and reads smoothly, quickly,
and easily. The ideas presented in Crimes of the Heart
are thought- provoking , yet provide the reader with humor
Beth Henley celebrates Family Week by Kathy Henderson
· Apr 11, 2000
Henley Teaches Playwriting Workshop at Millsaps by
and biography of Henley available on Ole Miss Writers page.
about Henley on movie site.
Abbot, Dorothy, ed. Mississippi Writer: Reflections on
Childhood and Youth. Vol 4: Drama. Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Beth Henley: Signature of a Non-Stop Playwright. Backstage.
May 24, 1995: 23.
Britt, Ann. Becker Family Night at John Golden Theater.
Daily Leader. Nov. 20, 1981.
Collions, William B. Henley's "Crimes of the Heart"
Shows Promise on Broadway." Jackson Daily News.
Nov. 6, 1981.
"Crimes of the Heart." http://www.2.fwi.com/~jenlcb/cotharc.html.
Draper, Norm. Henley Wins Prestigious Drama Award. Clarion-
Ledger Daily News. Dec. 31, 1978.
Harbin, Billy J. Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.
The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South.
Spring 1987: 81-94.
Hardin, Clay. CCP Host Real Killer in "Crimes."
Madison County Herald. Oct. 31, 1971.
Henley, Beth. Crimes of the Heart. New York,
New York: Penguin Group, 1986.
Jackson, Robyn. Crimes of the Pen: Henley's New Play Needs
Heart Transplant." Hattiesburg American.
Dec. 29, 1991.
Lesniak, James G., ed. Contemporary Authors.
Vol 32. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991. 58 vols.
McDonnell, Lisa J. Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha
Norman. The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts
in the South. Spring 1987: 95-104.
Myers, Leslie R. "Abundance" makes its way to stage in Jackson--at
last. Clarion Ledger. Feb. 23, 1992.
Shepard, Alan Clarke. Aborted Rage in Beth Henley's Women.
Modern Drama. March, 1993: 96.
Shirley, Aleda, et al. eds. Beth Henley. Mississippi
Writers: Directory and Literary Guide. University, MS:
The University of Mississippi, 1995. 57.
Suter, Jessica. "Crimes of the Heart." http://www.halycon.com.jesuter/crimes.htm.
____________. "Meg." http://www.halycon.com/jesuter/meg.htm.
Verongos, Helen. It's an exhilarating, exhausting trek from
Jackson to Broadway. Clarion Ledger. Oct. 25, 1979.
Walsh, Thomas. Roundabout Bows New Play Grants. Variety.
May 8, 1995: 69.