Mississippi Writers and Musicians
MISSISSIPPI WRITERS: Beth Henley


Beth Henley 1952

Major Works

  • Am I Blue (one-act play) 1982
  • Crimes of the Heart 1982 (three-act play); also a screenplay and winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • The Wake of Jamey Foster 1983
  • 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 Heinemann/Methuen, 1992
  • Monologues for Women 1992
  • Collected Plays: Volume I, 1980-1989 2000
  • Collected Plays: Volume II, 1990-1999 2000
  • Family Week 2000
  • Signature 2003
  • Revelers
  • L-Play
  • 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 Polk

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Biography of Beth Henley
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, Clarion-Ledger).

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 (Walsh 69).

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.

Aimee Estill, SHSBeth 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 Nobody's Fool, 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.

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A Review of Crimes of the Heart
by Aimee Estill (SHS)Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley

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 and grief.

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 as well.

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Related Websites

Playwright Beth Henley celebrates Family Week by Kathy Henderson · Apr 11, 2000

Beth Henley Teaches Playwriting Workshop at Millsaps by Tara McLellan

Plays and biography of Henley available on Ole Miss Writers page.

Information about Henley on movie site.

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Bibliography

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.

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