Beth Henley Henley, Beth (Vol. 6) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Beth Henley 1952-

(Full name Elizabeth Becker Henley.)

Henley is noted for her comic yet sympathetic depictions of small-town life in the southern United States. Her best-known work is the black comedy Crimes of the Heart, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981. In this and her other plays, Henley combines improbable plots and grotesque situations with sensitive, complex character portraits. For her depictions of Southern life, she has often been compared to such acclaimed writers as Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor.


Henley was born in Jackson, Mississippi, to Charles Boyle Henley, an attorney, and Elizabeth Josephine Becker Henley, an actress. Her mother regularly performed at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, and as a senior in high school, Henley participated in an acting workshop there. Initially intending to become an actress herself, Henley studied drama at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. During this time, she wrote the one-act play "Am I Blue?" which was staged in 1973. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974, Henley studied and taught for a year as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Champaign and acted in summer stock productions. In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles with her friend, director-actor Stephen Tobolowsky. Shortly thereafter Henley began her career as a playwright. Her first full-length play was Crimes of the Heart, completed in 1978, which won the Great American Play Contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Award, and a Tony nomination, as well as the Pulitzer Prize.


Crimes of the Heart is set in a small town in Mississippi and centers on three eccentric sisters who come together in the home of the youngest, Babe, after she has shot her husband because, as Babe puts it, "I didn't like his looks." The other sisters include Meg, a would-be singer who has failed in Hollywood, and Lenny, single and desperately lonely at age thirty. Through their conversations and conflicts, the nature of the sisters' relationships and past lives are revealed. Although none have achieved the popular or critical success of Crimes of the Heart, Henley has written several other plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest and Abundance. The former work concerns Camelie Scott, a woman who views entering a local beauty pageant as a opportunity to overcome her dubious reputation. Abundance centers on two mail-order brides and the clash between their dreams and the reality of their lives in the Wyoming Territory of the 1860s.


Henley's reputation was established with Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. Many reviewers have admired the witty dialogue in Henley's plays and the smooth nonchalance of the characters' colloquial speech. In a review of Crimes of the Heart, John Simon praised the dialogue, noting that it is "always in character … , always furthering our understanding while sharpening our curiosity, always doing something to make us laugh, get lumps in the throat, care." Other critics, such as Nancy Hargrove, have investigated Henley's treatment of serious themes beneath the surface humor of her plays, noting a concern with death, strange accidents, and disasters. William W. Demastes has seen Henley's fusion of the comic and the serious as a distinctly absurdist perspective on the world, while Billy J. Harbin has interpreted the world of Henley's plays as one of "estrangement, spiritual longing and grostequerie, made all the more remarkable by the calm acceptance of the bizarre as perfectly ordinary."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


"Am I Blue?" 1973

Crimes of the Heart 1979

The Miss Firecracker Contest 1980

The Wake of Jamey Foster 1982

The Debutante Ball 1985

The Lucky Spot 1987

Abundance 1989

Control Freaks 1992


The Moon Watcher 1983

True Stories [with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky] 1986

Crimes of the Heart 1987

Nobody's Fool 1987

Miss Firecracker 1990

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Beth Henley with John Griffin Jones (interview date 1981)

SOURCE: Interview with Beth Henley, in Mississippi Writers Talking, by John Griffin Jones, University Press of Mississippi, 1982, pp. 169-90.

[In the following conversation, Henley discusses her development as a playwright and her views of her craft.]

This interview was conducted about a month before Beth won the Pulitzer Prize for her play, Crimes of the Heart. At the time of our meeting, the play had been accepted for the 1981 Broadway season, having just completed a successful five-week run off-Broadway in December 1980 and January 1981. Our mothers are friends of long standing, and it was through their combined efforts that I secured the scripts of Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, and then was able to interview Beth during one of her brief visits to her childhood home in Jackson. At twenty-eight, she was not inured to the interview process. She sat in a high-backed chair with one leg under her and spoke in an open and unself-conscious way. On the Monday night in April when we got the news that Beth had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize there was great excitement and rejoicing in our home.

[Jones]: This is John Jones with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and I'm about to interview Beth Henley. We are at Beth's mother's house. This is where you grew up?

[Henley]: Well, after the fourth grade I moved here.

Right. It's a house on Avondale in Jackson, Mississippi. Today is Tuesday, March 10, 1981. As I told you before we cut the tape recorder on, Beth, I just wanted to get some basic biographical data first, if you could tell me something about your early life, when and where you were born, your schooling and things like that.

I was born in Jackson on May 8, 1952. I went to St. Andrew's Day School for the first through the third grade, and then I went to Duling Elementary School, and then I went to Bailey Junior High School.

Did you?

Yes, did you go there?


I went to Murrah. That's all in Mississippi. Then I went to S.M.U. in Dallas for four years. Then I did one year of graduate work at the University of Illinois.

In what?

In acting.

Theatre arts, yes. Did you act all through high school? Were you in the Murrah players, or whatever?

No. I wasn't even in the Thespians. I'm surprised. When I look back now, most of my friends were in the Thespians, but I never was.

When did you get interested in it?

Well, I did some plays at New Stage. I went to a class that they had there. I can't remember if I was actually in a play there. Yes, I was. Oh, gosh. What's that one I did with John Maxwell?

[Geno]: I can't remember.

[Henley]: Stop The World.

Let me mention this: With Beth and me are Chrissy Wilson from the Department, and C. C. Geno, Beth's sister. You did this play when you were in college?

[Henley]: In high school.

[Geno]: And you were in Summer and Smoke when you were little.

[Henley]: Right. I did Summer and Smoke when I was in the fifth grade.

We'll talk more about that. Are your family roots in Hazlehurst and Brookhaven, the settings of Crimes of the Heart and Miss Firecracker?

Right. My mother's family is from Brookhaven and my father's family is from Hazlehurst.

I see. You still have family there now?

Yes, in both places. My grandmother still lives in Hazle-hurst, and some of my cousins and an uncle, my father's brother and his wife. And then in Brookhaven, my mother's mother and some great-uncles and aunts and cousins, and an uncle lives there.

That's interesting. And you would visit there a lot when you were growing up, spend summers there and things?

We'd go down there a lot on the weekends, go down for the holidays.

So you went to S.M.U. for four years?


I have some newspaper clippings written about you, and in those articles I read that that was where you took your first playwriting course.


Your last year?

No, it was my second year.

I'm interested to get you to describe by what process you finally decided to sit down and write. Had you been thinking about it your whole life?

No. I wanted to write, I think, when I was in junior high school, but then I started reading books and I said, "No way. I could never write." It was just too hard. I wasn't even that hot in English, in grammar and spelling and stuff. Then I took a playwriting course just like you take theatre history or lighting design. It was something I thought would be fun. You had to write a play to pass, so I wrote that play.

What play?

"Am I Blue" is the name of it. It's a one-act.

And that was your first try?

Well, in the sixth grade I wrote a play that we tried to produce. Other than that, I was in a creative writing course in junior high school, and I remember having to read my story in front of the class. I said, "But I'm not finished," and they said, "Ah, go on and read it anyway, 'cause nobody's written anything anyway." So I got up to read and I was about half-way finished and it wasn't sounding like I wanted it to sound like. I smashed it up and threw it in the trash and ran out of the class crying. Like I thought I was really going to get in trouble, but the teacher felt so sorry for me she didn't say anything.

So that was your first production.

Yes, in that creative writing class.

Was "Am I Blue" ever staged?

Yes. My senior year—I'd written it my sophomore year—my senior year they were doing Rick Bailey's play called Badlands at the time, I think he's changed it to The Bridge-head, and they needed a companion piece to go on the bill with it. Jill Peters was a director there, and she was looking through all the old one-acts that had been written and she found mine. She said, "This is the most together play I've come across, so why don't we do it?" So I did a few rewrites on it and they did it to fill out the evening.

Hm. Have you ever or have you yet tried prose or poetry? Is playwriting your only creative concern?

No, I haven't tried them yet. I don't know if I could do them. I used to write some poetry when I was a freshman. We'd all sit down and see who could write the grossest poetry, weird poems. But that's all I did. I did that when I was a freshman. I still don't have good grammar for putting like a whole novel or whole story together. I can just write dialogue.

Do you think that's something you'd like to try? Certainly you have the ear and the eye.

To write like a novel or something?

To write prose.

I might try that. It would be a relief because once you finished it and somebody published it you wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. With a play that's where your problems just begin.

Yes. Tell me, after "Am I Blue" came, Crimes of the Heart was your next one?

Well, I wrote the book for a musical my first year after I was out of S.M.U. A friend of mine who's a really talented musician wanted to write a musical, and said, "I really like that play you wrote, so why don't you write the book for this?" So I said okay. I was working at horrible jobs all the next year after I graduated. So I wrote the book for the musical at that time, and the students did it right before I left for Illinois. It was fun because I had never been around musicians that much. It was a 1940s musical called Parade. It was a real exciting thing to do.

What is the book?

The book. That's just the dialogue. There's a composer and a lyricist. Somebody writes the music, somebody writes the lyrics to the music, and I wrote the lines the people actually say in between the songs.

Oh, yes. Tell me something about the genesis of Crimes of the Heart.

Okay. I was out in Los Angeles, I was trying to act. It was so hard trying to get a job out there. I had an acting agent, but she'd never call you up and I'd sit at home all day long. She was reduced to working at the Broadway Department Store and making calls on her lunch hour. I was working with a group of actors out there, among them Rick Bailey the playwright, and I thought I'd just write a play with parts for people around our age and we can do it as a showcase out there. I thought I may as well do something while I was sitting out there. I'd written a screenplay when I first got out there, so I was kind of in the habit of writing.

What happened to the screenplay?

The screenplay is called The Moonwatcher. It takes place in Illinois, which is from when I worked there, and it's about a girl who's kind of at a crisis in her life. She's been jilted by the boy that she's in love with. She's going to have his baby but he marries somebody else and she has to give up her baby. Now she's all confused. Now, just before I left Los Angeles to go to Dallas, there was a lady who'd read the screenplay and she really liked it and is interested in it, so I'm glad it didn't just die. I thought it was kind of dead. I don't know if anything will happen to it.

What's the difference in writing a screenplay and writing a play?

I don't know. That screenplay was really just one of those gifts, you know, just came to me image after image. It seems it was a lot easier to write than any play I ever wrote because you can just say something very quickly and very vividly and move on to something else. I really enjoyed writing it, but it's just so impossible. For two years after I wrote that I couldn't get anybody to read it, much less consider producing it—you know, millions of dollars. With a play you can feasibly do it on your own. At the time that was a consideration. I wanted something that could be done.

What years are we talking about when you were in L.A. and looking for work?

Okay. I left Illinois the fall of 1976 and moved to Los Angeles. Let's see. My play, Crimes of the Heart, wasn't done in Louisville until 1979, so that's that many years of destitution.

Goodness. What were you doing out there during this time, besides writing?

Working at temporary jobs that I hated, trying to avoid work.

Did you ever get any work as an actress?

No, I didn't, come to think of it. I worked in a workshop, but I never got any work.

Out there with some people that you knew from S.M. U. or from Illinois?

Yes, some people from Texas, some people who were at S.M.U. ahead of me were out there.

When did you—I'm asking too many chronological questions. It's like a history test. We'll talk about the other in a minute. When did you decide to sit down and write Crimes of the Heart?

Let's see. I wrote that in seventy … Daddy died in 1978. That was right before I finished it. I wrote it in 1978.

How long did it take you?

It only took me three months to write the first draft. I had to do a lot of rewrites on it, a rewrite every production. I had to do one rewrite before it went to Louisville, and then one during rehearsals at Louisville, and then for all the other productions I've worked on it.

Were these full-fledged rewrites or just cutting?

Henley: Just mainly cutting. Like the major cut I've done is cut Uncle Watson out. I don't know if you have a script with Uncle Watson in it. I had to cut him out for the New York production. That's just like a page and a half really. But, no, the characters have remained the same. The end is what I've had to work on. It's really pretty much intact. I've added some and subtracted some.

Did it hurt your feelings when they asked you to cut your play?

No. I was overly eager at first, because I was so happy to be having it done. I was just a slave to trying to please them. I was just the opposite. Now I'm not so much.

Now you have your own opinions about it.


Will you tell me why you sat down and wrote it, what inspired you?

You mean the idea?

Well, yes.

[Henley]: I kind of had two different ideas. One was based on my grandfather, my father's father, had gotten lost in the woods in Hazlehurst. They called up. I didn't go home. I was in Dallas at the time. For three days he was lost in the woods. They had picnic tables out there, and helicopters. In the Copiah County paper they had like, "Thirty foot snake found in the search for W. S. Henley!" And they had paratroopers …

[Geno]: The National Guard.

[Henley]: The National Guard. The governor came down. It was just a huge deal. People were out on horseback, people were out on foot.

[Geno]: The Coca-Cola people came in their trucks and advertised free cokes.

[Henley]: Did you go down there?

[Geno]: Yes.

[Henley]: Anyway, my grandfather was just walking through the woods, and according to him was never lost. He knew where he was: Copiah County. He found this little shack. He got to this little shack, and these people brought him into town and they got to a gas station where some people were saying. "They're gonna find that old man, but he'll be dead." And he said, "No they are not! Here I am alive!" So he returned alive after three days. So I thought that would be a good idea for a play: a family crisis bringing everybody back home. It was too close or something, anyway I couldn't get a lead on writing a play about my grandfather getting lost in the woods. I had that idea: a family and everybody gets back home. Also I heard this story about Walter Cronkite was sitting up on the front porch of these rich people's house in the South, and this little black kid came up and said he wanted ice cream, and the man came down and socked him in the face and said, "Don't you ever come around to this front door again." That made such an impression on him. I thought, "God, I'd like to kill somebody for just being cruel like that to some innocent person." So that kind of gave me the idea of Zackery beating up on Willie Jay. I thought it would be interesting to write about a character who tries to kill somebody, but you'd be in their corner rather than in against them. So I kind of combined those two ideas. I guess that's what started it.

You said you were hesitant to write about your grandfather being lost in the woods in Copiah County because it is too close to you. My question is how much of your writing is bits and pieces of what you have heard, your memory, and how much is imagination?

I don't know if I could say a percentage.


But some of the things I might not have heard from my family but have heard from other people in Texas or even in New York that I transposed down to the South, to Mississippi; or even in Los Angeles because that's where I live now. But a lot of them are from stories I've really heard, more in Miss Firecracker than Crimes of the Heart. I totally made that up about being hung with the cat. I never knew anyone who would shoot their husband because they didn't like their looks, and then go fix lemonade. I made all that up. I don't really.

I know that's kind of a nebulous question. Chrissy and I were talking about that on the way over here. Are there things as a writer that you won't touch, that are too close? Do you feel that as a writer you are able to deal with any emotion of anybody, you can use any family history, that everything is open to you because you're an artist? Or are you shy about talking about certain things?

I think I would prefer to disguise certain tilings, you know, instead of … I've put some things in my plays and I wondered how people would react. Usually they don't even remember saying them or doing them or something like that. For some reason I don't like to get too factual, because it's too confining. It's easier for me to deal with that area of fiction where you're not stifled by having to...

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Billy J. Harbin (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 81-94.

[In the following essay, Harbin examines five of Henley's plays, focusing on the "themes related to the disintegration of traditional ideals, such as the breakup of families, the quest for emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and the repressive social forces within a small southern community. "]

There emerged out of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s a new feminine consciousness with such fervent intellectual leaders as Betty Friedan, Pam Allen, Shulamith Firestone and Vivian...

(The entire section is 5092 words.)

Crimes Of The Heart

(Drama Criticism)


John Simon (review date 12 January 1981)

SOURCE: "Sisterhood is Beautiful," in New York Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 2, 12 January 1981, pp. 42, 44-6.

[Crimes of the Heart was first produced in 1979 at the Actors Theater of Louisville. It was then presented at several regional theaters before being staged off-Broad-way at the Manhattan Theater Club in late 1980 and on Broadway a year later at the John Golden Theater. Simon's enthusiastic review of the off-Broadway production, reprinted below, was an influential early assessment of the play.]

From time to time a play comes along that restores one's...

(The entire section is 10385 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Betsko, Kathleen and Koenig, Rachel. "Beth Henley." In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, pp. 211-22. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Conversation in which Henley discusses the creative process, winning the Pulitzer Prize, politics, and feminist issues.


Gagen, Jean. "'Most Resembling Unlikeness, and Most Unlike Resemblance': Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Chekhov's Three Sisters." Studies in American Drama 4 (1989): 119-28.

Examines some parallels and differences between Henley's and Chekhov's plays, including structure,...

(The entire section is 779 words.)