Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181

Beth Henley did not initially have success finding a theatre willing to produce Crimes of the Heart, until the play's acceptance by the Actors' Theatre of Louisville. From that point onward, however, the public and critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. Few playwrights achieve such popular success, especially for their first full-length play: a Pulitzer Prize, a Broadway run of more than five hundred performances, a New York Drama Critics Award for best play, a one million dollar Hollywood contract for the screen rights. John Simon's tone is representative of many of the early reviews: writing in the New York Times of the off-Broadway production he stated that Crimes of the Heart "restores one's faith in our theatre." Simon was, however, wary of being too hopeful about Henley's future success, expressing the fear ' 'that this clearly autobiographical play may be stocked with the riches of youthful memories that many playwrights cannot duplicate in subsequent works."

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Reviews of the play on Broadway were also predominantly enthusiastic. Stanley Kauffmann, writing in the Saturday Review, found fault with the production itself but found Henley's play powerfully moving. ' "The play has to fight its way through the opening half hour or so of this production before it lets the author establish what she is getting at— that, under this molasses meandering, there is madness, stark madness.'' While Kauffmann did identify some perceived faults in Henley's technique, he stated that overall, "she has struck a rich, if not inexhaustible, dramatic lode." Similarly, Richard Corliss, writing in Time magazine, emphasized that Henley's play, with its comedic view of the tragic and grotesque, is deceptively simple: ' 'By the end of the evening, caricatures have been fleshed into characters, jokes into down-home truths, domestic atrocities into strategies for staying alive."

Not all the Broadway reviews, however, were positive. Walter Kerr of the New York Times felt that Henley had simply gone too far in her attempts to wring humor out of the tragic, falling into "a beginner's habit of never letting well enough alone, of taking a perfectly genuine bit of observation and doubling and tripling it until it's compounded itself into parody." Throughout the evening, Kerr recalled, ' 'I also found myself, rather too often and in spite of everything, disbelieving—simply and flatly disbelieving." In making his criticism, however, Kerr observed that "this is scarcely the prevailing opinion'' on Henley's play. Michael Feingold of the Village Voice, meanwhile, was far more vitriolic, stating that the play ' 'gives the impression of gossiping about its characters rather than presenting them... never at any point coming close to the truth of their lives." Feingold's opinion, that the "tinny effect of Crimes of the Heart is happily mitigated, in the current production, by Melvin Bernhardt's staging" and by the "magical performances" of the cast, is thus diametrically opposed to Kauffmann, who praised the play but criticized the production.

Given Henley's virtually unprecedented success as a young, first-time playwright, and the gap of twenty-three years since another woman had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the concerns of critics was to place Henley in the context of other women writing for the stage in the early 1980s. Mel Gussow did so famously in his article ' 'Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theatre'' m the New York Times Sunday Magazine , in which he discussed Henley, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Wendy Kesselman, Jane Martin, Emily Mann, and other influential female playwrights. While Gussow's article marked an important transition in the contemporary American theatre, it has been widely rebutted, found by many to be "more notable for its omissions than its conclusions"...

(The entire section contains 1181 words.)

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