Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first play, is about attempted murder, suicide, attempted suicide, failure, insanity, seduction, interracial sex, sexual inhibition and frustration, blackmail, political corruption, personal vengeance, self-deception, death by stroke, death by lightning, and caticide.
This catalog of disasters suggests either pure farce or extravagant melodrama. In fact, Crimes of the Heart is neither, although it has elements of both. As in farce, the catastrophes come upon the characters so rapidly and bizarrely that one never quite takes them seriously; from the beginning, it is clear that the characters will eventually emerge from their difficulties more or less intact. Yet they are not the stick figures of the typical farce; they are believable, colorful, sympathetic—if slightly grotesque—human beings, to whose feelings, needs, and frustrations viewers can relate. For all of the play’s complicated and, at times, almost frenzied activity, Crimes of the Heart is basically about communication, courage, endurance, and, above all, love. As the title indicates, the real crimes in the play are not Babe’s shooting of her husband, or Meg’s “injuring” of Doc Porter, or mother’s murder of the family cat; the real crimes are the betrayal of self and the refusal to love which have long haunted the characters and which have been overshadowed by the more mundane crises of the moment.
Each of the MaGrath sisters has, in a different way, made a mess of her life. The oldest, Lenny, having remained at home to nurse their aged, chronically ill grandfather, has fallen under the domination of Chick Boyle, a bossy cousin. Emotionally inhibited and sexually frustrated, the almost virginal Lenny (she had “done it once”) looks forward to a similarly barren future. The adventurous middle sister, Meg, after a disastrous affair with a local boy which left him with a permanent limp (he remained with her during Hurricane Camille and was pinned under a falling roof), ran off to Hollywood to become a singer—only to fail and be committed to a mental hospital. The youngest sister, Babe, has married Zackery Botrelle, a prominent businessman and politician, but that, too, has turned out badly. It is Babe’s shooting of Botrelle in the stomach (“I aimed for his heart”), because “I didn’t like his looks,” that has forced this reunion on the sisters. Hovering over their personal failures is the enigmatic, frightening suicide of their mother. As Meg describes it, she hanged herself in the cellar after “a real bad day,” first hanging the family cat for company. The dramatic question of the play is, Will the sisters be able to get through their own “real bad day?”
They not only do so, but they more or less come to terms with their own failures and tentatively set new, more positive directions for themselves. Babe’s crisis and Meg’s failure stimulate Lenny to venture out of her shell. She finally stands up to Chick, kicking her out of the house, and then reestablishes contact with her “one time” boyfriend, who seems overjoyed to hear from her, and not at all distressed by the fact that Lenny’s “shrunken ovary” will make childbearing impossible.
Babe’s problems are more complex than Lenny’s and demand much more contrived solutions. While it is likely that Zackery’s treatment of her accounts for—perhaps even justifies—Babe’s assault on him, her situation is further complicated by her sexual involvement with a fifteen-year-old black youth (“I was so lonely . . . he was so, so good”), an affair unfortunately recorded on film by detectives working for her suspicious sister-in-law. Babe’s rescue comes at the hands of Barnette Lloyd, a young, Harvard-trained lawyer, who takes her case because “she sold me a pound cake at a bazaar once,” and because he has a “personal vendetta against Zackery Botrelle” (for reasons never stated). In the end, the lawyer manages to neutralize the evidence of Babe’s sexual adventures with proof of Botrelle’s political and financial corruption. Although Babe’s precise fate is left in suspense, it is clear that some kind of deal will be made to resolve and suppress the crisis with as little damage and publicity as possible.
Meg is the most interesting and complicated of the sisters. She has neither refused to...