Beth Henley 1952-
(Full name Elizabeth Becker Henley) American dramatist.
Beth Henley is a popular contemporary playwright. She is best known for her tragicomedies that depict female protagonists who struggle to define themselves outside of their relationships with their families and their relationships with men. Commentators praise Henley's strong regional voice and her humorous portrayal of small-town Southern life, prompting comparisons with other Southern playwrights, such as Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams.
The daughter of an attorney and an actress, Henley was born on May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi. Her childhood in Mississippi provides the background for a number of her works. In 1974 she received her B.F.A. from Southern Methodist University. Initially, Henley wanted to become an actress; discouraged by the lack of quality parts for Southern women, she turned to playwrighting. Henley's first play, Am I Blue (1973), was produced while a student. In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles and three years later her second play, Crimes of the Heart, was produced. In 1981 this play won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play. Following this nascent success, Henley has continued to write plays as well as screenplays, earning an Academy Award nomination for her adaptation of Crimes of the Heart in 1986.
One of the defining characteristics of Henley's plays is the struggle of women to satisfactorily define their roles in society independent of romantic and familial relationships. Henley's most successful 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. The story centers on the reunion of three sisters: Meg, just back from a failed attempt at a singing career in Hollywood; Lenny, single and desperate; and Babe, the youngest sister, who shot her husband because she “didn't like his looks.” Henley achieves the comic-absurdist mood of the play by employing a surface realism typical of more naturalistic works. The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980) is an insightful look at a small-town beauty pageant in Mississippi; in the process, it focuses on the obsession with youth and beauty found in American popular culture and its detrimental effects on women. Henley's Abundance (1989) chronicles the friendship of two pioneer women as they struggle with unhappy marriages and personal dissatisfaction.
Henley's plays have received mixed reviews throughout her career. After her early critical and commercial success with Crimes of the Heart, Henley's later work has failed to reach that same level of popularity. Critics often praise Henley's ability to blend the sympathetic and the absurd to create unique and eccentric characters. Her recurring small-town, Southern settings have led many commentators to compare her to other prominent Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor. Yet some reviewers consider her male characters underdeveloped and the maturation of her characters implausible. Moreover, Henley's use of black humor has been derided by some critics, as well as her use of metaphor, which has been deemed confusing and ineffective.