Crimes of the Heart

by Beth Henley

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Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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Like Beth Henley’s other work, Crimes of the Heart is full of compassion and fondness for small-town Americans with all of their idiosyncracies, foibles, and endearing qualities. She has been compared to Flannery O’Connor for her ability to create ridiculous characters without ridiculing them and to Eudora Welty for her compassionate portrayal of common folks with psychological peculiarities. Beth Henley has—with her first play—earned a well-deserved place among the major Southern writers. Like many of the works of O’Connor and Welty and a host of other writers from the South, Crimes of the Heart belongs to the genre of Southern Gothic which deals with the little horrors of placid small-town life, with the domestic violence and psychological abuse that often lurk just beneath the placid surface and the pleasant conversations.

Awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1981, Crimes of the Heart has also had its share of detractors who have criticized Henley for overloading the play with gag lines, for creating jokes that have “no organic connection and no deep roots,” for merely inventing unconnected incongruities. Nevertheless, audiences have delighted in the play, as have many critics who, while acknowledging its shortcomings, praise it for its “loving and teasing look back at deep-southern small-town life,” for its “daffy complexity of plot that old pros like Kaufman and Hart would have envied,” for being “a play that really does Broadway justice.”

Easily the best of Beth Henley’s plays, Crimes of the Heart shares many features with the others: a wacky comic extravagance, a sense of sunny horror and exhilarating craziness, a cast of eccentrics and misfits, a focus on the small everyday crimes people commit, and the hope that maybe—just maybe—things might get better. Her one-act play Am I Blue (pr. 1973) is a cartoonish portrayal of a conversation between two insecure teenagers who meet in the French Quarter. Both are victims of their parents “crimes”: Ashbe’s father is an ex-alcoholic whose phone call during the play reveals that he has started drinking again; John’s father has forced him to go to college, join a fraternity, and major in business. Much stranger and more “criminal” than the teenagers’ parents or the various MaGraths are the family members in The Wake of Jamey Foster (pr., pb. 1982). Jamey Foster’s widow is burying him in the cheapest coffin she can find because he once accused her of preventing his dreams from coming true, and because he has been living with a very young woman who has had the gall to send the widow a blueberry pie for the wake. Other family members are guilty of unkind remarks and insults, of refusing to help relatives and friends, of adultery, shoplifting, and murdering a brood of Easter chicks. One has even confessed with pride of seducing a priest. At the funeral the main point of contention is who will ride in the big white limousine.

The Miss Firecracker Contest (pr. 1980) features a pair of ugly sisters, a heroine who finishes fifth of five in a beauty contest, a character who makes costumes for frogs, a man whose first job was scraping dead animals off the road. Sisters hate brothers, cousins compete with cousins, mothers prefer one child over another. In all of the Henley plays, character flaws and emotional handicaps are underscored and paralleled by the predominance of animal and disease imagery and by frequent references to bodily injury and physical deformity. Characteristically, however, most of the plays offer some hope for the families depicted; by the end of each play family differences have...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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been overcome or put aside temporarily and relationships have been affirmed. Interestingly enough, each of the full-length plays is in some way connected with an occasion for celebration—Lenny’s birthday, Holy Week, the Fourth of July, and a beauty contest.

With her screenplays for Crimes of the Heart (1986) and Nobody’s Fool (1986), Beth Henley has been exploring a new genre, but her focus remains the same: the little cruelties that people perpetrate on those they love, the festering insecurities and jealousies that lurk beneath well-bred exteriors, and the unifying power of love.

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