Beth Henley Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Is it justifiable to say that Beth Henley is a feminist writer?

Does Henley present a reasonable picture of family life? Does she exaggerate aspects of relationships?

Why is Henley considered a writer of the dark and grotesque?

What are the most humorous aspects of Henley’s writing?

What is the role of food and eating in Henley’s plays? How does food become a metaphor for aspects of conflict and love?

How does Henley depict relationships between sisters and between female friends?

What is the function of love in Henley’s plays?

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to her works for the stage, Beth Henley has written screenplays, including Nobody’s Fool (1986); True Stories (1986), in collaboration with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky; and the film versions of her plays Crimes of the Heart (1986), The Miss Firecracker Contest (1989), and Come West with Me (1998). She has also written the teleplays Survival Guides (1986) and Trying Times (1987), both with Budge Threlkeld.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Beth Henley is often compared to fiction writers Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor for her sympathetic portrayals of eccentric characters who lead deceptively simple lives in small southern communities. Her work has also been identified with the literary traditions of the grotesque and the absurd. Henley’s unique achievement, however, is the intermingling of absurdism and realism. Her plays realistically capture the southern vernacular and take place in authentic southern settings, yet they also exaggerate the recognizable and push the bizarre to extremes to reveal the underlying absurdity of the human condition. Henley’s characters are rooted in her southern heritage, but the meaning of their experiences is not limited to time and place. Loss and renewal, the vulnerability of loving, and the frail but indomitable human spirit are among her recurring themes. Henley delivers these serious concerns, however, through unpredictable characters, outrageously witty dialogue, and offbeat humor. It is her insistence on the value of laughter in the face of adversity that places her within the tragicomic tradition of modern dramatic literature. Another of Henley’s strengths is that she approaches her craft with a keen insight into what is stageworthy. This awareness, no doubt, is one of the reasons that her first full-length play, Crimes of the Heart, won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1981 with the distinction of being the first play to win the coveted award before appearing on Broadway. Crimes of the Heart also received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1981, and in the same year, Henley captured the prestigious George Oppenheimer/Newsday Playwriting Award. Experiments with style and theme during the 1990’s led Henley away from her Southern characters and settings, however, these plays, including Family Week, have not received critical or popular acclaim.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Chronicles Henley’s contribution to contemporary Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater in the United States. Henley discusses the creative process.

Fesmire, Julia A., ed. Beth Henley: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2002. Seven essays on Henley’s plays, one of which also discusses the film adaptations of her work.

Haedicke, Janet V. “‘A Population (and Theater) at Risk’: Battered Women in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (1993): 83-95. Contrasts the representations of domestic violence in two plays, concluding that Shepard’s play is politically feminist while Henley’s is epistemologically feminist.

Harbin, Billy J. “Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 81-94. Examines Henley’s plays through The Debutante Ball but gives Crimes of the Heart the most attention. Recurring themes concern “the disintegration of traditional ideas, such as the breakup of families, the quest for emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and the repressive social forces within a small southern community.”...

(The entire section is 594 words.)