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."