Beth Henley Essay - Henley, Beth (Vol. 14)

Henley, Beth (Vol. 14)


Beth Henley 1952-

(Full name Elizabeth Becker Henley) American dramatist.

Beth Henley is a popular contemporary playwright. She is best known for her tragicomedies that depict female protagonists who struggle to define themselves outside of their relationships with their families and their relationships with men. Commentators praise Henley's strong regional voice and her humorous portrayal of small-town Southern life, prompting comparisons with other Southern playwrights, such as Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams.

Biographical Information

The daughter of an attorney and an actress, Henley was born on May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi. Her childhood in Mississippi provides the background for a number of her works. In 1974 she received her B.F.A. from Southern Methodist University. Initially, Henley wanted to become an actress; discouraged by the lack of quality parts for Southern women, she turned to playwrighting. Henley's first play, Am I Blue (1973), was produced while a student. In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles and three years later her second play, Crimes of the Heart, was produced. In 1981 this play won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play. Following this nascent success, Henley has continued to write plays as well as screenplays, earning an Academy Award nomination for her adaptation of Crimes of the Heart in 1986.

Major Works

One of the defining characteristics of Henley's plays is the struggle of women to satisfactorily define their roles in society independent of romantic and familial relationships. Henley's most successful play, Crimes of the Heart, has been compared to the works of Eudora Welty for its compassionate portrayal of a bizarre family dealing with the underlying horrors of small-town life. The story centers on the reunion of three sisters: Meg, just back from a failed attempt at a singing career in Hollywood; Lenny, single and desperate; and Babe, the youngest sister, who shot her husband because she “didn't like his looks.” Henley achieves the comic-absurdist mood of the play by employing a surface realism typical of more naturalistic works. The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980) is an insightful look at a small-town beauty pageant in Mississippi; in the process, it focuses on the obsession with youth and beauty found in American popular culture and its detrimental effects on women. Henley's Abundance (1989) chronicles the friendship of two pioneer women as they struggle with unhappy marriages and personal dissatisfaction.

Critical Reception

Henley's plays have received mixed reviews throughout her career. After her early critical and commercial success with Crimes of the Heart, Henley's later work has failed to reach that same level of popularity. Critics often praise Henley's ability to blend the sympathetic and the absurd to create unique and eccentric characters. Her recurring small-town, Southern settings have led many commentators to compare her to other prominent Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor. Yet some reviewers consider her male characters underdeveloped and the maturation of her characters implausible. Moreover, Henley's use of black humor has been derided by some critics, as well as her use of metaphor, which has been deemed confusing and ineffective.

Principal Works

Am I Blue? 1973

Crimes of the Heart 1979

The Miss Firecracker Contest 1980

The Wake of Jamey Foster 1982

The Debutante Ball 1985

The Lucky Spot 1987

Abundance 1989

Control Freaks 1992

Beth Henley: Four Plays 1994

Impossible Marriage 1998

The Moon Watcher 1983

Crimes of the Heart 1986

Nobody's Fool 1986

True Stories [with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky] 1986

Miss Firecracker 1989

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Karen Jaehne (essay date May-June 1989)

SOURCE: “Beth's Beauties,” in Film Comment, Vol. 25, No. 3, May-June, 1989, pp. 9-15.

[In the following essay, Jaehne critiques Miss Firecracker as a work that examines “how beauty affects who we are and who we wanna be.”]

In Miss Firecracker Mary Steenburgen clears her throat to deliver her keynote speech, “My Life as a Beauty.” She explains how she won her title, “Miss Firecracker,” (she's beautiful) and why she will always reign supreme (she's unassailably beautiful). The audiences in the theater and onscreen giggle uncomfortably, because we are supposed to have transcended Queen for a Day consciousness (sure, but being a beauty queen...

(The entire section is 3934 words.)

Janet V. Haedicke (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: “‘A Population [and Theater] at Risk’: Battered Women in Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Shepard's A Lie of the Mind,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, Haedicke compares the depiction of domestic violence in Shepard's A Lie of the Mind and Henley's Crimes of the Heart, asserting that Shepard's postmodernist drama “ignites a politics beyond Henley's modernist drama, which can kindle only kitchen fires.”]

“The weeping of women who are wives—what is more bitter?”1

Oft-castigated for its preponderance of family...

(The entire section is 5339 words.)

Alan Clarke Shepard (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: “Aborted Rage in Beth Henley's Women,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 96-108.

[In the following essay, Shepard explores the effects of the feminist movement on the female protagonists of Henley's plays, in particular examining the recurring images of homicide and suicide.]

Beth Henley's tragicomedies study the effects of the feminist movement upon a few, mostly proletarian women in rural Mississippi, who are more likely to read Glamour than Cixous and Clement's The Newly Born Woman.1 We are invited to sympathize with isolated heroines whose fantasies demonstrate the difficulty of conceiving female subjectivity...

(The entire section is 6066 words.)

Paul Rosefeldt (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Trapped in the Father's Dying World: Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters,” in The Absent Father in Modern Drama, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 75-82.

[In the following essay, Rosefeldt links Henley's Crimes of the Heart to the Chekhovian tradition, in particular to the drama The Three Sisters.]

Another play that focuses on the daughter's relationship to an absent father is Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. Crimes of the Heart is not a play about the daughter's withdrawal into the world of the father, but it is a play in which an absent father figure dominates the lives of three women. Both...

(The entire section is 3976 words.)

Criticism: Crimes Of The Heart

SOURCE: A review of Crimes of the Heart, in Booklist, Vol. 79, No. 21, July, 1983, p. 1383.

[In the following review of the published play, Parisi offers a laudatory assessment of Crimes of the Heart.]

No wonder this play [Crimes of the Heart] won the Pulitzer—it has just about everything: sex, manslaughter, suicide, cat-slaying (all discreetly offstage), and abundant humor and humanity (front and center). In the grand, grotesque tradition of Southern Gothic, Henley's hilarious examination of hearth and heartstrings suggests parallels with Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor. But such comparisons would be unfair, for Henley's distinct...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Criticism: Abundance

Variety (review date 10 May 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Abundance, in Variety, Vol. 335, No. 4, May 10, 1989, p. 120.

[In the following negative review, the critic asserts that Abundance “is dragged down by its lack of an idea of where it's going or what it intends to accomplish.”]

Story [of Abundance] begins in the Wyoming Territory as two women, fresh off the train, wait to meet their future husbands. They become friends, for lack of other acquaintances, and the play follows them through a somewhat stormy 25-year relationship.

The women end up in very different situations. One marries a man who brutalizes her and turns her life into poverty-ridden despair. The...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

John Simon (review date 12 November 1990)

SOURCE: “Yo, Kay,” in New York, Vol. 23, No. 44, November 12, 1990, pp. 92-3.

[In the following review, Simon offers a negative assessment of Abundance.]

As one watches with trepidation the talented Beth Henley making a fool of herself in Abundance, one tries to figure out what could have led the worthy author of Crimes of the Heart to this malfeasance of the mind. Such a crime against one's reputation (even lesser plays by Miss Henley used to show a passel of offbeat felicities) invites critical detective work.

Knowing only what I read in the papers about Miss Henley's private life, I can nevertheless speculate that Abundance...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

James S. Torrens (review date 8 December 1990)

SOURCE: “Trying Them Out Off Broadway,” in America, Vol. 163, No. 18, December 8, 1990, p. 453–54.

[In the following review, Torrens provides a positive assessment of Abundance.]

Abundance by Beth Henley, author of Crimes of the Heart, proves ample to the imagination, intriguing in its Victorian-homespun language (“We're to wed,”“I cherish rings,”“We'd drink plentiful”), and abundantly theatrical. Produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club and staged inventively by Ron Lagomarsino, its scene is set in an anti-heroic Wild West. Abundance beings with taped music of two fiddlers, one slightly dissonant with the other, to prepare us for a...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Criticism: Control Freaks

SOURCE: A review of Control Freaks, in Variety, Vol. 351, No. 13, August 9, 1993, p. 35.

[In the following mixed review, Jacobs maintains that Control Freaks “is often as darkly hilarious as it is startling.”]

Control Freaks is almost surely the first R-rated play to use the services of Flying by Foy. Beth Henley's latest comedy, a mixture of sexual perversity and serial acrobatics, is often as darkly hilarious as it is startling.

Henley falters in the final scenes, when she unwisely attempts to shift the mood radically and explain her characters' bizarre behavior. But the play contains wonderful writing, and the production...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Criticism: Beth Henley: Four Plays

SOURCE: A review of Four Plays, in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 3, May, 1994, p. 259–61.

[In the following review, the critic offers a laudatory review of the plays collected in Four Plays.]

Four Plays, by Beth Henley, is a collection of plays written since Crimes of the Heart (1981) and demonstrates that she may well be the best dramatist now writing in America. Chekhov has long been the inspiration for American dramatists and actors, but Henley develops his legacy in original directions of her own. In The Wake of Jamey Foster (1983) the bizarre decision of his white-trash mother to have an open-coffin wake in the living room of his...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Criticism: Impossible Marriage

SOURCE: “The Boys in the Sand,” in New York, Vol. 31, No. 41, October 26, 1998, pp. 82-3.

[In the following excerpt, Simon deems Impossible Marriage ditzy and uninteresting.]

The program for Beth Henley's Impossible Marriage says, “The play is in three parts and is performed without intermission.” “Three parts,” something you might say about the division of Gaul, is grandiose nonsense: This 90-minute scribble is in three scenes. But Henley's playwriting career is in three parts. The first was fey and sort of likable; the second flaky and fairly exasperating. Now we are in the third, which is bananas. Totally.


(The entire section is 620 words.)

Further Reading


Getz, Ricki R. Review of Crimes of the Heart. Kliatt 17, No. 3 (Spring 1983): 20.

Positive assessment of Crimes of the Heart.

Paulk, J. Sara. Review of The Debutante Ball. Library Journal 116, No. 17 (15 October 1991): 80.

Recommends the book version of Henley's play.

Tischler, N. Review of The Debutante Ball. Choice 29, No. 8 (April 1992): 1225.

Mixed assessment of The Debutante Ball.

Review of Abundance. Variety 341, No. 4 (5 November 1990): 84.

Mixed review of the play,...

(The entire section is 154 words.)