Henley has always been able to bring a sense of truth to the stage. This ability is, no doubt, enhanced by her background in acting, but she is also gifted with the ability to create dialogue that leaps forward as interesting, compelling, and at the same time, honest, everyday talk. Her view of life is comic, dark, and often violent, but beneath the bizarre situations in her plays is the commitment to life and to salvation obtained though deep love and companionship.
Henley is a very economical playwright in the sense that she is able to make her statements using a small number of characters interacting over a limited period of time, often just within a twenty-four hour period. Moreover, her use of space is frugal: Sometimes she uses a single room, with never more than one or two scene changes required (and those are usually at act breaks, not scene breaks). Finally, Henley’s total universe is minute. Most of her plays are set in small towns in the southern United States. Such economy makes it possible to bring power and tension to every scene because there is little need for constant exposition about where, when, and what is happening to whom.
It is the economy of time, place, and characters that allows Henley to create sufficient tension in her story to force out the hidden truths and extraordinary actions of ordinary, small-town people. The action of Crimes of the Heart, for example, takes place entirely in the kitchen of the home of the Magrath sisters in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. From the beginning, the gas oven is seen, and it is this device that brings the play to its resolution, as Babe attempts suicide by placing her head inside the oven.
The events of The Wake of Jamey Foster all occur in Marshael Foster’s home, where several areas are seen simultaneously: an area outside the house, the parlor, stairs and a landing, and Marshael’s bedroom. There is a change of scenery in The Miss Firecracker Contest, but that is accomplished between acts. Because of her economies, Henley is able to concentrate on three dominant themes: the complexity of desire even in the most ordinary people, the desperate need all humans have for love and companionship, and the redemptive power of any type of true love.
In Crimes of the Heart, for example, Meg, who has spent her life in casual sexual liaisons, finds happiness at last when her old boyfriend, Doc Porter, tells her he has always loved her. Even though he is married with children, Meg’s one final night with Doc Porter brings an end to her search for love and leaves her happy. Such happiness is not found by her sister Babe, who has been driven by social forces into a loveless marriage, one she tries to escape by shooting her husband. Babe’s older sister, Lenny, has long ago lost her love, Charlie. When Babe attempts to commit suicide, she is saved by Lenny and further uplifted when she becomes enamored of her young lawyer, who has found a way to keep her from prison.
The two, now happily-in-love sisters convince Lenny to call her old friend, Charlie, who indicates that he still has affection for Lenny. The play ends with the three sisters, redeemed by love and saved from loneliness by one another, singing a grand celebratory birthday song to Lenny in the glow of candlelight.
In Henley’s works, small-town people suffer from loneliness and lack of love just as do big-city people. All are capable of extreme grotesqueries. In one instance, a woman hangs her cat and herself so that she will not die alone. In more than one of Henley’s plays women engage in promiscuous sex in search of love and in order to escape loneliness. Indeed, the need to find loving companionship is what seems to bring all families, especially those of sisters, together in Henley’s works.
Interestingly, food plays an important role in love and companionship. Of course, food is a common social device in small southern towns, where visitors are immediately offered something to eat and drink. In Henley’s plays, food substitutes for companionship. The opening action of The Wake of Jamey Foster, for example, finds Marshael Foster biting off the ears of a large chocolate Easter bunny and chewing on them slowly as she reads a magazine. She is alone with only food for companionship. Sometimes this use of food to ease isolation becomes entirely dark and grotesque, as when one character drops a large slice of ham on a corpse and then picks it up and eats it. At other times, food is a comic metaphor as in the exclamation: “Oh Lord and butter.” Not infrequently, food is dark indication of malice or hate, as when the mistress of her dead husband sends Marshael a pie to be served at the wake; Marshael smashes the pie on the floor.
Names, or rather nicknames, are another means by which to seek and show affection and companionship. This playful use of monikers is especially prevalent among family members. In The Miss Firecracker Contest, Carnelle is often called Carnation by her sister, and Carnelle’s seamstress is called Popeye because of her unusually large eyes. In The Wake of Jamey Foster, Collard is affectionately referred to as Collard Greens, while the much disliked sister-in-law has her name shorted from Katherine to Katty.
Henley’s characters often commit the gravest of transgressions, but the author always treats these as comic grotesqueries, never as melodramatic sins. One husband dies while he is on a drunken binge with another woman. His death is caused not by some grand act; it occurs because he gets kicked in the head by a cow. In The Miss Firecracker Contest, the promiscuous lead character, aptly named Carnelle, transmits venereal disease to her lover, but he rejects treatment because he already has a fatal disease. Also, his love is great enough that he forgives Carnelle. Indeed, this is Henley’s point: Ordinary humans, capable of considerable misconduct, in the end will not be saved by some grand ideal or by deep religious faith. One survives, and even triumphs in small but real ways, through genuine human love and companionship.
Crimes of the Heart
First produced: 1979 (first published, 1982)
Type of work: Play
The three Magrath sisters gather at the family home to aid their sister, Babe, who has just shot her husband.
(The entire section is 2627 words.)