Crimes of the Heart Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Drama)

Beth Henley

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Like Beth Henley’s other work, Crimes of the Heart is full of compassion and fondness for small-town Americans with all of their idiosyncracies, foibles, and endearing qualities. She has been compared to Flannery O’Connor for her ability to create ridiculous characters without ridiculing them and to Eudora Welty for her compassionate portrayal of common folks with psychological peculiarities. Beth Henley has—with her first play—earned a well-deserved place among the major Southern writers. Like many of the works of O’Connor and Welty and a host of other writers from the South, Crimes of the Heart belongs to the genre of Southern Gothic which deals with the little horrors of placid small-town life, with the domestic violence and psychological abuse that often lurk just beneath the placid surface and the pleasant conversations.

Awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1981, Crimes of the Heart has also had its share of detractors who have criticized Henley for overloading the play with gag lines, for creating jokes that have “no organic connection and no deep roots,” for merely inventing unconnected incongruities. Nevertheless, audiences have delighted in the play, as have many critics who, while acknowledging its shortcomings, praise it for its “loving and teasing look back at deep-southern small-town life,” for its “daffy complexity of plot that old pros like Kaufman and Hart would have envied,” for being “a play that really does Broadway justice.”

Easily the best of Beth Henley’s plays, Crimes of the Heart shares many features with the others: a wacky comic extravagance, a...

(The entire section is 700 words.)