Beth Henley Biography


Beth Henley, born Elizabeth Hecker Henley, grew up in Mississippi. The daughter of an actress, Henley yearned to follow her mother’s career. One of four sisters, she attended Murrah High School in Jackson. She then went to Dallas to major in acting at Southern Methodist University (SMU), where she took her B.F.A. in 1974. While in Dallas, Henley began her acting career, performing at Theatre Three. She also acted and taught creative dramatics for children at The Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre.

She wrote her first play, a one-act work titled Am I Blue, while she was a student at SMU; it was produced at the university’s Margo Jones Theatre in 1973. Am I Blue was later staged in 1982 by New York’s Circle Repertory Company as part of a triple bill titled “Confluence.” The play was included in the volume Best Short Plays of 1983. In 1975 Henley moved to Urbana, Illinois, where she taught introductory acting at the University of Illinois and acted at the New Salem State Park theater. In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles, where she joined the professional acting company of the Great American People Show. In that same year she began her domestic partnership with actor and director Stephen Tobolowsky.

Henley’s career as a playwright blossomed when in 1978 she won first prize in the Great American Playwriting Contest for Crimes of the Heart, a play she had written while studying at an acting workshop in Burbank, California. In 1979, Crimes of the Heart was produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky. It won widespread acclaim and was commissioned for a Broadway production. Before the play opened in New York, Henley was awarded the 1980...

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Henley centers her dramatic statements on small numbers of people, usually members of the same family and more often than not the women of that family. Henley draws upon the culture she knew when growing up: small-town life in the southern United States. Her language is colorful, and her plays are characterized by violence and dark, grotesque humor in which husbands are shot by wives because they are annoyed with them or casual lovers pass on diseases. Food is a typical metaphor, and puns include the nickname Carnelle, short for Cornelia, denoting a promiscuous woman. Henley seeks to show that love and close companionship are the only real sources of human solace and redemption.


The second of four daughters, Elizabeth (Becker) Henley was born May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi. Her parents, Charles Boyce and Elizabeth Josephine Becker, were reared in the neighboring communities of Hazlehurst and Brookhaven, locales that Henley adopted for two of her plays. Henley’s father, an attorney, served in both houses of the Mississippi legislature. A shy child plagued with chronic attacks of asthma, Henley, often bedridden, entertained herself by reading play scripts that were in production at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, where her mother, an amateur actress, regularly performed.

Henley attended high school in Jackson. During her senior year, she took part in an acting workshop at the New Stage Theatre, an experience that influenced her decision to become an actress. Selecting drama as her major, Henley enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1970. While a sophomore, she wrote her first play as an assignment for a playwriting class. The play, a one-act comedy titled Am I Blue, was produced at the university under a pseudonym in her senior year. After graduation from Southern Methodist University in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Henley taught creative dramatics and acted for the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. She earned a livelihood at odd jobs as a waitress, file clerk, and photographer of children at a department store. In 1975, she received a teaching scholarship from the University of Illinois, where she taught acting classes while pursuing graduate studies in drama. In the summer of 1976, she acted in the Great American People Show, a historical pageant presented at the New Salem State Park.

Hoping to break into films as an actress, Henley moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1976. Failing to get auditions for parts, Henley turned to writing screenplays as a creative outlet, but without an agent to represent her, the studios would not read her scripts. Thinking that stage plays would have a better chance of getting performed, especially in small theaters, Henley began working on a comedy (set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi) about a crisis in the lives of three sisters. With production costs in mind, she deliberately limited the play to six characters and one indoor set. She finished Crimes of the Heart in 1978 and submitted it to several regional theaters without success, but Henley’s friend and fellow playwright Frederick Bailey had faith in the play. Without Henley’s knowledge, he entered Crimes of the Heart in the annual drama competition of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, where it was selected as a cowinner for 1977-1978. In February, 1979, the Actors Theatre produced the play as part of the company’s annual Festival of New American Plays. The play was an immediate success. After productions in...

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