Critical Overview

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

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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."

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" according to Billy J. Harbin in the Southern Quarterly. In particular, critics have been interested in comparing Henley to Norman, another southern woman who won the Pulitzer for Drama (for her play 'night, Mother). Gussow wrote that among the numerous women finding success as playwrights "the most dissimilar may be Marsha Norman and Beth Henley." Lisa J. McDonnell picked up this theme several years later in an issue of the Southern Quarterly, agreeing that there are important differences between the two playwrights, but exploring them in much more depth than Gussow was able to do in his article. At the same time, however, McDonnell observed many important similarities, including "their remarkable gift for storytelling, their use of family drama as a framework, their sensitive delineation of character and relationships, their employment of bizarre Gothic humor and their use of the southern vernacular to demonstrate the poetic lyricism of the commonplace."

The failure of Henley's play The Wake of Jamey Foster on Broadway, and the mixed success of her later plays, would seem to lend some credence to John Simon's fear that Henley might never again be able to match the success of Crimes of the Heart. While many journalistic critics have been especially hard on Henley's later work, she remains an important figure in the contemporary American theatre. The many published interviews of Henley suggests that she attempts not to take negative reviews to heart: in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, she observed with humor that "H. L. Mencken said that asking a playwright what he thinks of critics is like asking a lamppost what he thinks of a dog." Crimes of the Heart, meanwhile, has passed into the canon of great American plays, proven by the work of literary critics to be rich and complex enough to support a variety of analytical interpretations. Writing in the Southern Quarterly, Nancy Hargrove, for example, examined Henley's vision of human experience in several of her plays, finding it' 'essentially a tragicomic one, revealing ... the duality of the universe which inflicts pain and suffering on man but occasionally allows a moment of joy or grace.''

Billy Harbin, writing in the Southern Quarterly, placed Henley's work in the context of different waves of feminism since the 1960s, exploring the importance of family relationships in her plays. While the family is often portrayed by Henley as simply another source of pain, Harbin felt that Crimes of the Heart differs from her other plays in that a "faith in the human spirit... can be glimpsed through the sisters' remarkable endurance of suffering and their eventual move toward familial trust and unity." Henley's later characters, according to Harbin,' 'possess little potential for change," limiting Henley's ' 'success in finding fresh explorations of [her] ideas." With this nuanced view, Harbin nevertheless conforms to the prevailing critical view that Henley has yet to match either the dramatic complexity or the theatrical success of Crimes of the Heart. Lou Thompson, in the Southern Quarterly, similarly found a sense of unity at the end of the Crimes of the Heart but traced its development from of the dominant imagery of food in the play. While the characters eat compulsively throughout, foraging in an attempt ' 'to fill the void in the spirit—a hunger of the heart mistaken for hunger of the stomach," the sisters share Lenny's birthday cake at the end of the play ' 'to celebrate their new lives.''

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