Beth Henley completed Crimes of the Heart, her tragic comedy about three sisters surviving crisis after crisis in a small Mississippi town, in 1978. She submitted it to several regional theatres for consideration without success. Unknown to her, however, a friend had entered it in the well-known Great American Play Contest of the Actors' Theatre of Louisville. The play was chosen as co-winner for 1977-78 and performed in February, 1979, at the company's annual festival of New American Plays. The production was extremely well-received, and the play was picked up by numerous regional theatres for their 1979-81 seasons.
At the end of 1980, Crimes of the Heart was produced off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club for a limited, sold-out, engagement of thirty-two performances. By the time the play transferred to Broadway in November, 1981, Crimes of the Heart had received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Henley was the first woman to win the Pulitzer for Drama in twenty-three years, and her play was the first ever to win before opening on Broadway. Crimes of the Heart went on to garner the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play, a Gugenheim Award, and a Tony nomination. The tremendously successful Broadway production ran for 535 performances, spawning regional productions in London, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston. The success of the play—and especially the prestige of the Pulitzer award—assured Henley's place among the elite of the American theatre for years to come. As Henley herself put it, with typically wry humor, ' 'winning the Pulitzer Prize means I'll never have to work in a dog-food factory again" (Haller 44).
Often compared to the work of other "Southern Gothic'' writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, Henley's play is widely appreciated for its compassionate look at good country people whose lives have gone wrong. Henley explores the pain of life by piling up tragedies on her characters in a manner some critics have found excessive, but she does so with a dark and penetrating sense of humor which audiences—as the play's success has demonstrated—found to be a fresh perspective in the American theatre.