Beth Henley Henley, Beth - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beth Henley 1952–

American dramatist.

Henley is a native of Mississippi. Her first play, Crimes of the Heart, has been compared to the works of Eudora Welty for its compassionate portrayal of a bizarre family dealing with the underlying horrors of small-town life. Henley achieves the comic-absurdist mood of Crimes by employing a surface realism typical of more naturalistic works. Atypically, her play was awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award although it had not yet been presented on Broadway.

Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Crimes of the Heart] is a very insubstantial piece of work, an almost mechanical comedy which would be perfectly in place in NormanLearLand. It is also very special. In the long tradition of American commercial writing, Henley has provided a vehicle—but it is not one for a star. Instead, Crimes of the Heart is a vehicle for an ensemble.

Perhaps more than any other play (except the reprehensible Vanities), Crimes of the Heart speaks to the current state of the regional theatre movement. This is a subscriber piece: it is fast, funny, and in three traditional acts. Henley's tale of three southern sisters—one repressed, one irrepressible, one suffering from being smack in the middle—has about it a non-judgmental air which hovers between sublime acceptance and massive amorality. The most charming of the women has just shot her husband and is in danger of killing herself; a reaction, we are barely told, to small-town life. The repressed sister is given full sympathy (with an option to come out of her shell), while the middle sister is allowed to be sexually reunited with the high-school sweetheart she inadvertently crippled in order to absolve her of any guilt and provide him with a romantic, extramarital fling. These are all people who live with their hearts, but despite the havoc this causes, what we see is a stage without pain. Subscribers can leave the theatre feeling they have seen something daring (a necessity for regional theatres, which cannot quite feed its audience brand-name Broadway fare) without having faced any substantial challenge.

At the same time, Henley has provided parts which have the range and consistency for three bravura performances, each one neatly (and quite equitably) balanced against the other.

Terry Curtis Fox, "The Acting's the Thing" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © Terry Curtis Fox 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, January 7-13, 1981, p. 71.

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Crimes of the Heart"] is a comedy of private disasters among three sisters in Hazlehurst, Mississippi…. The sisters—walking wounded, who are in tears at one moment and giggling and hugging at the next, ordering birthday cake and making lemonade—are very much of the South, of Mississippi, and Eudora Welty has prepared us for them. Lenny, for example, has already started to bristle and take offense, and, were it not for the happy circumstances of the story (her sisters urge her to get in touch with an old beau whom she sent away because she knew she could never have children; he, it turns out, doesn't want children), could herself have ended up living at the P.O.

The story is the least of it anyway. In scene after scene, the sisters reveal themselves and their emotions and their wavering desperation, and amid all the fooling some very serious matters are brought up and resolved without ever disturbing the feverish comedic tone of the action. Miss Henley, a newcomer to New York, is a talented and original dramatist; her script starts slowly, but once it is launched it stays aloft…. This kind of play (loose-knit, precise, and free) and this kind of acting (first-rate by any standard) are what Off Broadway is all about.

Edith Oliver, "Off Broadway: 'Crimes of the Heart'," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 47, January 12, 1981, p. 81.

Scot Haller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Henley's [Crimes of the Heart] has elicited comparisons with the works of such distinguished Southern writers as Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, in part because she writes with wit and compassion about good country people gone wrong or whacko. Crimes of the Heart is set in the small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, five years after Hurricane Camille, and it chronicles two dizzying days in the down-home, upended lives of the MaGrath sisters. (pp. 40, 42)

Although Crimes of the Heart is structured as a six-character, three-act, one-set comedy, Henley's accomplishment is not the resurrection of the traditional well-made play but rather the ransacking of it. She has chosen the family drama as her framework—the play takes place entirely in the MaGrath kitchen—but she has populated the household with bizarre characters. In effect, she has mated the conventions of the naturalistic play with the unconventional protagonists of absurdist comedy. It is this unlikely dramatic alliance, plus her vivid Southern vernacular, that supplies Henley's idiosyncratic voice.

In fact, the physical modesty of her play belies the bounty of plot, peculiarity, and comedy within it. Like Flannery O'Connor, Henley creates ridiculous characters but doesn't ridicule them. Like Lanford Wilson, she examines ordinary people with extraordinary compassion. Treating the eccentricities of her characters with empathy, she manages to render strange turns of events not only believable but affecting. (p. 42)

Scot Haller, "Her First Play, Her First Pulitzer Prize," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 11, November, 1981, pp. 40, 42, 44.

Don Nelsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Crimes of the Heart"] is overlong, occasionally cliched and annoyingly frivolous at moments, but Henley keeps intriguing us with a delightfully wacky humor plus a series of little mysteries played out by characters we can never dismiss as superficial on a set that absorbs us into their lives.

Even the frivolity makes a point. There is enough hugging and squealing and jumping about among the MaGraths to recall with dismay a host of sorority films; but these frolics do reveal an immaturity which is almost crippling: Lenny, the eldest, plain. Jane frumpy, haunted by enormous self-doubt; Meg, a failed, pill-popping singer-swinger scared stiff of being "weak"; and Babe, whose very name signals her stage of development.

Meg has returned from Hollywood, where she suffered a breakdown, at Lenny's urgent request. Babe has shot her husband, a lawyer-politician who has apparently done all those things we expect of our politicians: He has lied, cheated, swindled and ruined other careers. We don't at first know why Babe has shot him. She tells her sisters and a nosy neighbor only that she couldn't stand his face.

But gradual leaks in unguarded moments alert us to family woes which plague these women. Babe reveals that her husband wasn't the only man in her life. Did this precipitate the shooting? The sisters' mother had hanged herself along with the family cat years before. Why? Did it inspire in Meg such an aversion to "weakness" that she has inadvertently cut herself off from real human contact and love? Lenny once had a boyfriend in Memphis but left him quickly. Did that start a life pattern for her?

Henley reveals these with enviable dramatic and comic control. Each revelation propounds other questions and draws us further into the sisters' predicament. She displays a sure eye for the details that make up most of our lives and whose true significance are revealed only in their cumulative effect….

"Crimes of the Heart" is a play that really does Broadway justice. It is the best work to reach there since "The Fifth of July."

Don Nelsen, "'Crimes' Is Heartwarming," in Daily News, New York (© 1981, New York News, Inc.), November 5, 1981 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXII, No. 17, November 2, 1981, p. 139).

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Crimes of the Heart"] is loaded and perhaps overloaded with quirky, casually outrageous, Mississippi-Gothic misbehavior. As I watched the three MaGrath sisters reassemble for the 30th birthday of one and for the impending death of the grandfather who'd long cared for them, I found myself often grinning at what might have been gruesome, sometimes cocking my head sharply to catch a rueful inflection before it turned into a comic one, and always, always admiring the actresses involved. I also found myself, rather too often and in spite of everything, disbelieving—simply and flatly disbelieving. Since this is scarcely the prevailing opinion, I'd best be specific.

Take a case in point. [Babe is] … the only one of the three who's married, and at the moment she's most decidedly stealing the limelight from the aging birthday girl, [Lenny],… and from [Meg],… the pop singer who didn't make it and wound up in a mental institution over Christmas. [Babe] … not only has a husband, she's shot him….

Where my doubting psyche draws the line is a few seconds [along in Babe's narrative of her crime]. Having refreshed herself with lemonade, she bethought herself of her husband, lying conscious on the floor in the blood flowing from his open wound. "Zach," she called out, "I've made lemonade, do you want a glass?" I submit that we've now pressed the offbeat a beat too far, that we've chased a notion past Carson McCullers...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Crimes of the Heart] could have been written as drama, farce, absurdist comedy, or that particularly southern genre, the winsome horror story. It does indeed partake a little of each, but is chiefly a piece of heightened realism—heightened not into symbolism or expressionism or whatever realism usually gets heightened into, but into a concentrate.

The play is an essence, the essence of provincial living, with everything from a father who ran off and a mother who hanged herself and her cat to an invalid grandfather and a shrunken ovary that combine to cause emotional blockage, from guilt feelings based on too much popularity to defiance caused by not enough brains, visited on one or...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though ["Crimes of the Heart"] is Miss Henley's first play, it has a daffy complexity of plot that old pros like Kaufman and Hart would have envied, and it marches at a pace that keeps us from ever questioning the degree of clever manipulation that we are being made subject to. We laugh almost from the first moment of the play to the last, and the curious fact of the matter is that what we laugh at is a succession of misfortunes inflicted upon people who lack the capacity to avoid them. It's evident that Miss Henley, who was born and raised in Mississippi, has sat at the feet of several of our most admired Southern writers, especially Eudora Welty, and her rueful comedy is all the richer for the high quality of its antecedents. Southern writers are masters of the art of exaggeration, of the tall tale that consists of a piling up of improbable incidents. Northern writers appear to have inherited a Puritan disinclination to tell whoppers; Southern writers tell little else.

The time of "Crimes of the Heart" is the nineteen-sixties, the place is the little town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and the lives that Miss Henley invites us to observe are those of the three MaGrath sisters…. It is typical of Miss Henley's uncanny artfulness that when the girls learn that their grandfather has just suffered a possibly fatal stroke they burst out into silly, unstoppable giggles, and it strikes us as the most natural thing in the world for them to do so. (pp. 182-83)

Brendan Gill, "Backstage," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 39, November 16, 1981, pp. 182-83.∗

Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart has, to my surprise, sickened me instead of boring me. I had expected a piece of southern-fried kitsch that would tickle and lull its audience into peaceful satisfaction. Henley's cuckoo-bird talent, instead, mixes comedy and pathos in quickly alternating doses, like uppers and downers for an extended high, a trick that irritates me even in Chekhov, who at his best managed to fuse the two: All the disparate bits, in a play like Three Sisters, turn out on closer examination to be linked in theme and image.

Not so the three sisters of Henley's Hazelhurst, Mississippi: The playwright's pity and mockery are aimed at them in laser-gun bursts, arbitrary and unnerving, that have no organic connection and no deep roots. The play gives the impression of gossiping about its characters rather than presenting them, and the playwright's voice, though both individual and skillful, is the voice of a small-town southern spinster yattering away on the phone, oozing pretended sympathy and real malice for her unfortunate subjects, and never at any point coming close to the truth of their lives.

The single most amazing thing about Crimes of the Heart, perhaps, is its popularity in the South…. Northerners might perhaps be a little embarrassed at this good-ole-gal Tobacco-Road-with-shoes-on picture of Southern women as endless founts of backbiting, promiscuity, and shotgun-wielding dimwittedness.

Perhaps the play supplies a kind of sordid nostalgia for Southerners who, behind the facade of their new double-knit suits and non-union textile factories, like to think they are still peapickin', baccy-chawin', inbreedin', illiterate cretins at heart—Snopeses who have been taught, painstakingly, to sign their names and clip coupons. Or perhaps they still are exactly that, and the South is in desperate need of either cultural mercy missions from New York, or fire and brimstone from Heaven. (p. 106)

Michael Feingold, "Dry Roll" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 47, November 18-24, 1981, pp. 104, 106.∗

Leo Sauvage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The critics' virtually unanimous decision has been confirmed at the box office: Crimes of the Heart is the first comedy hit of the 1981–'82 season. Neither the long lines … nor the awards and prizes being showered upon the show, however, have changed my negative feelings about it…. I certainly wouldn't mind eating fried chicken in this friendly kitchen in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. But not with the company Beth Henley has provided. I find nothing enthralling in spending an evening with three badly adjusted, if not mentally retarded sisters, who are given free rein to exhibit their individual eccentricities. The actresses' competence does not overcome the unpleasantness of the roles they have to play....

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The success of [Crimes of the Heart] is, to some extent, a victory over this production. Henley is a Mississippian who writes about small-town life in her home state, and this has been taken as an almost arbitrary injunction to treat her play like one more slice off a standard Southern loaf. In point of fact, Henley is a quietly tenacious pursuer of horror, a writer shaken into pitch-black comedy by the buried terrors in the superficially smooth, tabby-cat lives she has seen. The trouble with the tone of this production … is that, for too long a time, it leads you to expect one more hyperdetailed, gabby decline into hominy-grits entropy. The play has figuratively to fight its way through the opening half hour...

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Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The only question [in Am I Blue, a one-act by Beth Henley,] is whether the familiar comedy of a jabbering eccentric girl and a neurotically square older boy will be transfigured by any flash of wild poetry, and Ms. Henley is no verbal magician, though her proficiency at churning out arbitrarily absurd gags is enough for the many, here as in Crimes of the Heart. The few will recall that essay in which Tennessee Williams defines Southern writing as the shrill demonstrativeness of a little girl playing dress-up, and will wonder no less at his foresight than at his vindictive accuracy. (pp. 101, 103)

Michael Feingold, "Israel in Greece" (reprinted by permission of...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Am I Blue"] is a comedy and comes equipped with a good bit of manic energy. Looked at in perspective, and taken for the collegiate exercise it is, the broad, buzzing, bittersweet piece makes its announcement plain as plain can be: Miss Henley is talented, Miss Henley is going to become a playwright. Indeed, the shape of the near-cartoon and the shifts from gaudy extravagance to sobering sentiment are in surprisingly firm hands. If I'd only managed to believe that Miss Henley's dwarflike girl and gangling boy would actually spend an entire evening (not to say night) together, I'd be happy to do several backflips for you. I didn't exactly believe. I kept thinking that fellow would have the good sense to git...

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